Desperate Danes, Poetic License (ll.146b-163) [Old English]

More feuding, less sin
Grendel kin

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Grendel’s rule over Heorot becomes news of the world, and the Danes’ plight becomes well known.

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&nbsp”It was so for some time,
Twelve winters of anger the friends of Scyld suffered,
each became accustomed to such hardship,
rougher sorrow; because of that they became speakers,
sons of the age, knowledge of them was unhidden,
those troubled deeds of old, that Grendel lashed
out against Hrothgar for a long time, the hateful
monster’s way, years full of failures and feuding,
a perpetual siege. That kin would not treat
with any man of the Danes for even the shortest time,
deadly evil from afar, as few did hope,
nor were there any who believed that his
hand could be stayed with a bright death price;
the fierce enemy was, after all, the pursuer,
a dark death shadow over the veterans and youths,
those who tarried and planned, night upon night
he held the misty moors, men never knew
whither the fiendish monster rapidly went.”
(Beowulf ll.146b-163)

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Old English:


Modern English:


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More feuding, less sin

Once more we’re faced with the classic phrase: “fyrene ond fæhðe ” (l.153). However, I took a bit of a liberty in its translation. Rather than go with a usual English word for “fyrene” like “transgression,” or “sin,” I went with “failure.” This word rings true here because the phrase is used as a blanket term for the Danes’ relationship with Grendel over the twelve years of his terror. Pairing “failure” and “feud” reflects this relationship pretty much perfectly.


Because those twelve years are definitely twelve years of fueding. The Danes and Grendel exchange blows (though in a rather one sided way) because of some initial offense for all twelve of those winters. At the same time, the Danes attempt to end this feud in the ways that they’re used to doing so. Ways such as trying to parlay with him (l.154-155), and paying “a bright death price” (“beorhtre bote” (l.158)). Why Grendel should be paid off with a “death price” remains unanswered, though it implies that the Danes may have killed one of his at some earlier point. Or, it could be a sign that the Danes were simply trying everything and anything.

Of course, none of the tactics that the Danes under Hrothgar try succeed. So, in their feud with Grendel, they fail.

The Danes fail to understand what it is that has turned Grendel on them, and, maybe, they fail to understand that Grendel isn’t just monstrous in appearance, but also in his nature. Grendel can’t be dealt with in the same way that some other human clan or group could be dealt with.

Thus, translating “fyrene and faedthe” as “failure and feuding” describes perfectly the Danes experience over their terrible twelve years. The phrase also gels well with the idea of a “perpetual siege” (“singale sæce” (l.154)), since both are terribly one sided conflicts in one way or another. Plus, it alliterates much more smoothly than “sin and feuding” or “transgression and hostility.”

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Grendel kin

Getting back to the Danes’ trying to pay Grendel off to end the feud, the latter half of this extract suggests that there’s a bit more to this attempt. Particularly in line 159, where Grendel is called “the pursuer” (“ehtende” (the past tense of the verb “ehtan” (“to pursue”), but I have translated it as a noun)).

Referring to Grendel in such a way suggests that the payment the Danes tried to make to him wasn’t so much to repay Grendel for some past wrong they had done to him. Instead, it seems that the Danes are trying to pay Grendel to stop him from killing their own. How exactly this is supposed to work doesn’t make clear sense. After all, it’s a bit too much of an appeal to whatever humanity Grendel may share with the Danes. It’s enough to give you a strong sense that Grendel’s not just monstrous because of his appearance and actions, but because he is completely outside of the usual civil way that people in Beowulf‘s world interact.

The Danes’ trying to pay Grendel to stop his killings could also be because of a misunderstanding on their part. However, I don’t think that’s entirely the case. The poet’s reference to Grendel as “that kin” (“sibbe” (l.154)) implies that he was regarded as some distant relation of the Danes. Maybe this is a nod back to the scop’s noting that the monsters are the kin of Cain. From there, the Danes could surmise that Grendel, a monster, is related to Cain, the son of Adam, the father of humanity, and thus (distantly) related to them.

On a more meta level, the reference to monsters being the kin of Cain and the poet’s referring to Grendel as “the kin” here could be the Beowulf poet/scribe’s own commentary on the power and influence of stories (or the gullibility of people in the past). Perhaps Grendel has no relation to the Dane’s whatsoever, and they are only trying all that they are and loosely referring to him as “kin” because the scop’s history of the world told them such was so.

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Next week, we’ll hear more about Grendel’s attacks and the Danes’ responses.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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1 thought on “Desperate Danes, Poetic License (ll.146b-163) [Old English]

  1. Pingback: Grendel the grim and greedy (ll.138-146a) [Old English] | A Blogger's Beowulf

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