Grendel exposed! (ll.189-201) [Old English]

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Old time telephone
Punishment personified
Closing

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Abstract

Word of Grendel reaches the Geats.

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Translation

So they brooded upon the troubles of that time,
none of the wise could put them upon the right
way; that strife was too steep, loatheful and longlasting,
that which had befallen the people,
that fierce severe punishment, wreaker of night-destruction.
One of his thanes heard of this while home with Hygelac,
one good amidst the Geats, he heard tell of Grendel’s deeds;
he was humanities’ mightiest in strength
in the days of this life,
regal and great. He was given command of a ship
and well-directed; he spoke, saying he would seek
the troubled king across the swan’s way,
that famous ruler, to show that he was the man they needed.
(Beowulf ll.189-201)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Old time telephone

For the first time here, we get a kind of report on Grendel’s activities. That is, we’re told once again about Grendel’s doings with the Danes, but in a quick summary. Also, this summary is in a different voice, one that’s more removed from the scene than that previously used to describe the terror that is Grendel. Of course, this distant voice is just perfect, since that’s likely how contemporary news would have been after travelling hundreds of miles.

What’s also interesting about this reportage is that it ossifies the Danes as a troubled group. Again, this is all too appropriate. By the time the news had reached as far as it would, the situation – if truly terrible – would probably be quite well-ensconced.

Unfortunately, the poet/transcriber doesn’t seem to be interested in the dimension of time here, nor is there any mention of how distant the Geats are from the Danes. We’re not told how long it takes the Geats to hear about the Danes’ plea. We’re only told that one among them is intrigued by the whole thing and seeks to make a name for himself.

Nonetheless, I can’t help but get the impression that the Geats are among the last to hear about the Danes’ plight. I can’t quite say why, save that the Geats’ being last to receive word and the group from which the Danes’ hero comes works well for narrative purposes.

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Punishment personified

Old English is full of curious compound words.

You can find such a word lurking in line 193: “nyðwracu.” Now, so joined, the word means “severe punishment.” But, taken separately, “nyðwracu” is made up of “nyð,” which means “strife,” and “wracu,” meaning “vengeance,” “punishment,” or “cruelty.” The jump to “severe punishment” when the two are combined thus becomes clear.

For, when each word is looked at, we get a sense of some severe form of vengeance – a vengeance that’s not just contained in a single act, but that is more long-lasting and spreading. It’s the sort of vengeance that comes in the form of a series of calamities. Because the word describes an act of vengeance, that is, a reaction to something that’s gone before, the idea of punishment can enter into it and we get “severe punishment.”

Once again, what we’re left wondering, though, is just what is it that the Danes are being punished for?

Since, in a grammatical sense, Grendel isn’t described as one who is bringing “severe punishment,” it’s not that he’s some greater figure’s agent. Instead, on line 193, the word is used in the sense of a pronoun for Grendel, personifying him as this severe punishment by means of synecdoche. In personifying Grendel as the punishment, rather than merely its agent, the poet answers our wondering. Grendel is then made into a symbol of severe punishment, retribution, vengeance – maybe even the furious heart of every feud – itself. He has no purpose but to cause incredible strife.

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Closing

Next week, we’ll hear about the Geats’ preparations and their shoving off into the sea.

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