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Hrothgar prefaces his relation of the terror of Grendel’s attacks with a brief summary.
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It grieves me at heart to tell,
to any man, what affliction Grendel has wrought
on me and and Heorot amidst his hostile designs,
those spiteful attacks; by these is my hall troop,
my band of warriors, made thin; wyrd swept them
into Grendel’s terror. God easily may
put an end to the deeds of that fell-destroyer!
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Why preface the massacre?
This short passage is what Hrothgar uses as a preface to the retelling of Grendel’s attacks. In it he summarizes what he’s about to say next. But why?
Beowulf already knows about Grendel and the terror that he’s wreaked upon Heorot and the Danes. So why does Hrothgar feel the need to preface the relation of the same?
Maybe it’s because this is a first hand account of the story, and as such its details will be more vivid than those in news that has been blown afar by sailor and wanderer alike.
Maybe it’s not supposed to be taken in the same way as the modern newscasters’ “Now, we must warn viewers that some people may find some of the images in the following report graphic.”
Maybe, instead, it’s supposed to get Beowulf and his crew into the right mindset to hear the story of Grendel’s attacks.
In short, it’s meant to give context rather than to scare or warn.
Giving such a relation context makes fine sense. But I can’t help but think that there’s something more at work here.
Hrothgar’s old fashioned formality is certainly a factor. Someone like Beowulf would probably just rush right into the story and not really establish much beforehand.
Yet, such a formal system of expression seems strange given that Hrothgar’s just confessed openly to Beowulf that he’s not as great a man as his brother was. Normally someone in his position wouldn’t just come out and admit something like that, I think.
So perhaps that was something of a slip on his part, emotionally wrought as he’d been made by meeting Ecgtheow’s son and at last having a hero in whom he firmly believes.
If Hrothgar’s admission of weakness to Beowulf was a slip, then this little preface could well be his way of recovering himself and his manner.
After all, the poet wouldn’t want to waste time with lines about how Hrothgar’s look drooped and then slowly, like a trumpet vine, climbed and bloomed, ready to dispense the sweet nectar of the situation. Instead, the poet/scribe would be better off simply including this shift back to formality in the man’s dialogue. This poem thing has to keep a vigorous pace, right?
One other thing makes me think that this preface is more about context than being a warning.
Within the passage, Hrothgar makes a reference to the power of wyrd (kind of like fate, but beyond any notion of destiny) sweeping away his men (ll.477-478) and he also makes reference to god, whom he believes can put an end to Grendel all together (ll.478-479). This shows a man in transition on the spiritual level, since the concept of “wyrd” predates that of the Christian god among Anglo-Saxons. Hrothgar still holds to the old idea of wyrd while also investing hope in this new “god” figure. That is, so long as the “god” of line 478 is the Christian god and not just some vague reference to Odin or the Norse gods in general.
It’s also curious to note that wyrd and god appear in Hrothgar’s preface in the reverse order that they appear in Beowulf’s earlier speech. Pinning any real meaning on this kind of structure isn’t really worth the effort, since it could just be coincidence. But, Hrothgar’s repetition of these two things could relate to his hope that god will, without any real struggle, choose Beowulf to win. Hrothgar’s ending his preface with “God easily may/put an end to the deeds of that fell-destroyer” (“God eaþe mæg/þone dolsceaðan dæda getwæfan.”(ll.478-479)) definitely suggests this.
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A terrible jester
Brief as this passage is there is one word in particular that I want to break down. This word is “dolsceaða” (l.479). As a compound it means “fell destroyer.”
Broken into its constituent parts, though, we’re left with “dol” (meaning “foolish,” “silly;” “presumptuous;” and “folly”) and “sceaða” (meaning “injurious person,” “criminal,” “thief,” “assassin;” “warrior,” “atagonist,” “fiend,” “devil,” and “injury”).
At first glance a combination of a word for things like “foolish,” “presumptuous,” etc. with one for “criminal,” “thief,” “fiend” probably seems strange. How exactly can someone be a “foolish fiend”?
Within the context of Anglo-Saxon society, though, the reason that these two words combine to mean “fell destroyer” becomes clear.
As we saw in last week’s post, Ecgtheow started a feud with the Wulfings when he killed one of them. Along with the feud, Ecgtheow was also exiled from his people. And in Anglo-Saxon culture exile is a fate worse than death.
Death is final. Exile is an ongoing punishment in which the exiled was cut off from their community. Since Anglo-Saxons relied on their community for physical and emotional well being, such separation would leave one leading a solitary, vulnerable life. In exile, a person would cease being a Geat or a Dane and become simply an exile.
Therefore, killing indiscriminately as Grendel does would be foolish. Anyone who carried out such action would definitely be considered as grave a thing as a “fell destroyer” because they would be acting outside of all societal norms. What’s more, such a person would certainly be exiled and would gather all the rage of the slain’s kith and kin would be directed squarely at you. Gathering together so much hatred would surely, and rightly, be seen as a thing of folly.
Thus, combining the word for foolish and the word for criminal to create a third word meaning “fell destroyer” makes perfect sense. Applying it to Grendel makes even more, since his killing is indeed foolishly criminal.
Yet, you could argue that such is his nature as the kin of Cain. So Grendel’s actions aren’t so much mad or foolish as they are natural. He’s killing without any sort of sense of “feud” or “exile.” That’s really only if you take the monster’s perspective, though. From within the Danes and Geats’ frame of reference, in which feuds are a legal means for reparations, Grendel’s actions are indeed insane, those of a “fell destroyer.”
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Next week, Hrothgar goes into gory detail in his telling of Grendel’s visits to Heorot.
You can find the next part of Beowulf here.