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Grendel comes slinking over to Heorot, but Beowulf wakes and waits.
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“The truth is shown,
that mighty god rules humankind
always. In the deepest night
came slinking the wanderer in shadow; the warriors slept,
when they should have been holding that hall,
all but one. It was known of many people,
that they might not, as long as the Measurer allowed it not,
be brought beneath shadow by the sin-stained,
but that one woke with wrath in enmity
pledged enraged battle to the creature.”
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Beowulf’s waking and Grendel’s shadows
Well, although the first two lines and a bit are more suited to last week’s passage (they’re a reiteration of the idea of god’s power), they go well with this week’s too. Why? Well, because it reminds the audience that god is there and so such an ungodly thing as the Danes losing out on their hero entirely won’t happen.
In a way, I wonder if this reference to god’s power is here at all less for reiteration and more to solidify the frightening aspects of Grendel. For an enemy that humanity can’t deal with on its own must be truly terrifying. And Danes and Geats and Anglo-Saxons alike surely didn’t think so little of themselves that they needed god for every thing.
But I’m getting away from the passage. Aside from the opening sentence, the rest of this week’s passage is about Grendel’s approach and Beowulf’s being awake.
Though just how is he awake?
Last week, I got the sense that Beowulf bedded down with the rest of his thanes. So he had his bedroll down or whatever and had settled into rest before the narrator cut away to the machinations of god. But here we’re told that everyone in the hall (who was supposed to be guarding it, by the way) were asleep except for Beowulf.
So was Beowulf cunning enough to realize that he could catch Grendel by surprise if he pretended to sleep as the others did? Or was he actually asleep for a time and then stirred before Grendel arrived thanks to some sort of divine intervention?
Considering Beowulf’s fixation on the fight, I find myself leaning more towards his being woken up through god’s touch. So, in truth, all the Geats had fallen asleep, including Beowulf, and his happening to stir to wakefulness is the miracle that saved them all (well, as we’ll see in a few weeks, almost all). Thus, this is where the might of god (as the narrator describes it) is shown.
Truth be told, I like the idea that Beowulf’s waking is an act of god because it seems somehow apt that the great boaster (still in his late teens, likely) is still susceptible to sleep.
Such a reading is supported by the flow of the narration, as it moves from describing Beowulf’s pre-bed vow to the Geats settling into bed to god’s role in what’s to come to Grendel’s approach to Beowulf’s waking with a curse and a pledge of violence on his tongue. It’s like god woke Beowulf but he’s nonetheless grumpy when he first gets up, so Grendel’s not just his enemy, but likely the first thing he sees and turns his freshly woken rage to.
Anyway, the other thing that I think is of note in this passage is Grendel’s characterization. This kind of gets into the second section’s territory since it has to do with words, but bear with me.
In two instances Grendel is associated with shadows:
1) Lines 703-704: “Com on wanre niht/scriðan sceadugenga.” (“In the deepest night/came slinking the wanderer in shadow”)
2) Line 707 “…se scynscaþa under sceadu bregdan.” (“…be brought beneath shadow by the sin-stained.”)
Add to this his being sin-stained (“scynscaþa” (l.707)).
The references to shadow alone paint a picture of Grendel as this being who lives more in darkness than in light. It makes him a very mysterious figure to modern readers, but keeping in mind the way that Anglo-Saxons categorized colours (that brighter is better, brightness is the defining quality of colour), Grendel must have been a terrifying force utterly opposed to all lightness, merry-making, and friendship. That sounds kind of bad to us, but to a society where those were essential for the physical survival of individuals, relationships and social networks, such a creature could be compared to a sentient computer virus.
What’s more, Grendel’s being related to shadows makes him diametrically opposed to light, since shadows are very much light’s opposite. The fact that light makes shadows also yields something, but I think that just ties back to Grendel’s being the kin of Cain and “sin-stained.”
What really strikes me about the way Grendel’s described, though, is that those three words all have an “s” sound in them.
Shadows can be very fleeting, they shift and move as their light does. And what could be more fleeting than the letter that you sound by simply exhaling through closed teeth? The sound brings to mind steam from a kettle, smoke from a fire, or the sound of water racing down a river. All of which are fleeting and ever-shifting. That sound also gives Grendel a very slinky sort of feel, that he’s a creature that skitters about. A word that even in Modern English has disgusting connotations.
So why then, maybe you’re wondering, is he named “Grendel”? There’s not an “s” in sight in that name.
I think that, though he’s very much a creature who flits and slinks as shadows do and who dwells in them (possibly controls them?), he is called Grendel because that is his signature feature. He grinds things, destroying them, dragging them down to the insubstantiality of a shadow, reducing them to dust and powder.
It’s possible that this process would extend beyond people’s personal bodies to their reputations, their names. After all, none of the warriors who came before Beowulf to challenge Grendel are named. And why should they be?
What do you think Grendel looks like? Something like a troll? Or more of a misshapen person?
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More on Grendel, a bit on righteous wrath
Let’s start this section off with a little more about Grendel and how he’s portrayed here.
On line 709 Grendel is referred to as “geþinges” (meaning “creature,” or, more generally, “thing”).
I think that within the context of this passage, using a word that boils down to “thing” (even if it can mean “creature”) suggests that Grendel is a being of little sentience. He’s denied any sort of personality or any sort of reasoning faculty.
Just as the Anglo-Saxons probably likely believed it to be madness to try to reason with a bear, it’s pretty clear that Grendel can’t be reasoned with. This goes far to promoting his image as a being who has no other purpose than to destroy and spread fear and terror. I also think it plays into the shadow imagery that he’s so strongly associated with here.
For, going back to the Anglo-Saxon classification of colour being dependent on light/brightness, a shadow would be considered near the bottom in the kingdom of colours. Just as the phrase “deepest night” is used here to indicate the darkest, deepest part of the night (literally “wanre niht,” the “dullest night” (l.702)). So Grendel’s being associated with shadows and referred to as a thing really makes it clear that he’s a being of sheer evil and not to be pitied in the least, nor empathized with, nor really regarded at all as anything other than a monster.
I think this portrayal is here to either help forward Beowulf as god’s champion (or simply as a great warrior), or because Grendel, at one point, was something more.
It’s easy to say that Grendel represents old pagan practices that don’t work because they aren’t true (remember the bit about the Danes praying to their idols for help back on lines 175-180? completely ineffectual) and Beowulf is the bringer of the new light, of the word of god through Christ and all that. But I don’t think that’s quite right.
I think that the writer or transcriber of the poem was well aware of what Grendel was and wanted to downplay it to an incredible degree. Why? Perhaps to put what he represented into a bad light.
But really, does it matter what Grendel is? He’s so generic in his being a personification of the lowest sort of evil that he could be whatever bugbear a society who took up this poem wanted him to be.
At the emergence of Christianity as an evangelical faith, Grendel could be old religions; today he could simply be terror itself. This is what makes poems like Beowulf so transcendent. Not that they’re so open to interpretation that they can mean anything but because they’re drawn in just the right strokes to give such poems layers of meaning — some of which aren’t apparent until someone reads them hundreds, even thousands of years after they’re written.
The other word that I think is interesting is “anda.” This is a word with several meanings: “grudge,” “enmity,” “envy,” “anger,” “vexation;” “zeal;” “injury,” “mischief,” “fear,” or “horror.”
What’s curious about this word is that it, like many other words, suggests a connection between concepts that we don’t often credit to medieval societies. It combines the idea of grudges and anger with that of horror and fear. In short, it’s a word that suggests that the Anglo-Saxons were aware of the idea that we hate what we fear.
In this passage in particular this is intensified, since it’s used for Grendel in the bit about Beowulf’s waking in wrath against him. So much for being the big brave hero — it seems that part of Beowulf’s might may well be in his extreme fear. Though maybe this is more than intentional if Beowulf has any sort of explicit religious aspect to it.
It could be that the poem’s suggesting that fear tempered by faith, channelled through it (as Beowulf’s seems to be channelled through his faith that god will determine the victor in his various fights) creates strength in a person. Though, in this case, that strength seems to come from an extreme, faith-fuelled hatred or bigotry.
Well. Timeless poems aren’t without problems.
What do you make of Beowulf’s wrathful anger? Is it righteous? Is it an example of misguided faith?
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Next week, Grendel arrives at the hall and revels in what he finds there.
You can find the next part of Beowulf here.