How Grendel contrasts with Heorot, and an exalted humbling (ll.710-719)

Grendel and Heorot contrasted
Cliffs as lids, and an exalted humbling

Beowulf, Grendel, Old English, Anglo-Saxon

An illustration of Grendel by J.R. Skelton from Stories of Beowulf. Grendel is described as “Very terrible to look upon.”Stories of beowulf grendel” by J. R. Skelton – Marshall, Henrietta Elizabeth (1908) Stories of Beowulf, T.C. & E.C. Jack. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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Grendel and Heorot are described as Grendel makes his way towards it.

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“Then came from the moor under misty cliff
Grendel bounding, he bore god’s ire,
meant the sinner against humankind
some to ensnare in that humbled hall.
Raging beneath the heavens, he headed to that wine hall,
the gold hall best known to men,
shimmering with ornaments. That was not the first time
that he the home of Hrothgar sought out.
Never had he in earlier days nor afterwards
found a thane so hard in the hall.”
(Beowulf ll.710-719)

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Old English:


Modern English:


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Grendel and Heorot contrasted

This week’s passage is at odds with last week’s. Not in that it’s written in a completely different style or anything like that, but because it takes the emphasis on Grendel’s appearance and shifts it onto his intent.

However, this passage does include some description of Heorot itself that sets up a contrast between it and its attacker.

Last week, Grendel was described as a being who moves in the shadows, who slinks around. As a result, I think the Anglo-Saxons imagined Grendel as the antithesis of brightness.

Now, it only gets about a line and a half of description here, as opposed to the three we had for Grendel last week. But in those one and a half lines, Heorot is described, quite simply, as “shimmering with ornaments” (“fættum fahne” (l.716)). It is also referred to as a “gold hall” literally, since “goldsele” translates handily from Old English to Modern English with little change (l.715). So Heorot, in very short order, is clearly made out to be the pinnacle of colour, of brightness.

Perhaps that’s why it’s given so little description here. I mean, it could just be that way because the poet has already described the hall on earlier occasions, but I think that what’s happening here goes beyond being mere shorthand by which the poet intends to remind people that Heorot is bright and shiny.

I think that this description is less lingered on than that of Grendel because the hall’s brightness makes itself apparent. Just how the eye worked wasn’t likely to have entirely worked out when Beowulf was being set down in writing, but the Anglo-Saxons would definitely have been aware of how the eye’s drawn to light. Thus, they probably had some sense that bright things are immediately bright while dull things are dull over time.

In other words, I think that Heorot is being characterized here as a flash to Grendel’s dull wall. The former is so bright it overcomes you, while the latter is so not bright that you can stare at it for hours.

So why set up this contrast? I think it’s to show how diametrically opposed Grendel is to the Danes. He’s there to steal them because they are his opposite, not only in the eyes of god or whatever, but simply in how they are perceived.

Or, if you like, the Anglo-Saxons may have had some concept of darkness swallowing light as much as light creating darkness. It’s possible that this idea may also have come in with Christianity, since the metaphor of darkness eating light sounds like something that any zealous missionary would bust out to frame Christianity as the underdog in a perpetual struggle not between the forces of nature or great heroes, but between the Anglo-Saxon’s two poles of perception: darkness and light.

One other thing that struck me about this passage, though it’s less thought out, is the line “he bore god’s ire” (“godes yrre bær” (l.711)).

This one is pretty easily a reference to Grendel bearing the mark of Cain and all of that, but it also ties neatly into an idea that I brought up in my entry two weeks ago.

What if, if Beowulf is god’s champion or god’s representative on earth in some way, Grendel’s bearing god’s ire isn’t just some poetic phrasing, but is actually a reference to his being marked for death by Beowulf? After all, if Beowulf’s stories and oaths are true, he seems very much to be the worker of that wrath. It’d be a neat bit of foreshadowing, I think

One other thing about Heorot as it’s described here.

In line 713 the poet notes that the hall itself is “humbled” (“hean”). Given Heorot’s glory and grandeur in its description here, this seems odd. But I think that it’s the poet/scribe tying off the contrast that I’ve noted. I think that it’s their way of saying that Heorot wasn’t just deteriorating because it was so often empty since Grendel started attacking, but it was actually losing its lustre because it had fallen under the shadow that is Grendel.

On the one hand this might sound like a simple reading of the contrast of light and dark and the notion that the darkness is overpowering the light. But think about it for a second. Grendel’s not just dimming brightness or being shadow incarnate — he is taking the lustre from the brightest thing of all: gold.

How can any one — Geat, Dane, or even god — stand up to that? Grendel is a darkness so powerful that it is stripping away the characteristic property of an object.

What do you make of the contrast between Heorot and Grendel that seems to be set up in this passage?

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Cliffs as lids and an exalted humbling

Okay, so there’s not much to write about when it comes to words that stand out in this week’s passage.

I’m actually starting to wonder if there’s some sort of pattern to watch for in these stretches where the poet is describing physical things.

For the most part, it’s these descriptive, geographical parts of the poem (as far as I can tell, and from memory) that contain the straightforward compounds — those compound words that, even when defined as separate words and then recombined, mean simply what they’d mean paired up otherwise.

For example, “mist-hloþum” sounds like it could be something really badass — maybe about the way that Grendel moves or his villainous intent. But, taken together these words just mean “misty cliff.” Apart they mean “mist, misty” (mist) and “cliff, precipice, slop, hillside, hill” (hlið). So, again, “misty cliff.”

Now, Old English would be far more straightforward if each word only had one meaning. But, because spelling was far from being standardized, some Old English words have various spellings, which makes Old English dictionaries networks of meaning.

For instance, in the Clark Hall and Meritt dictionary entry for “hlið” there’s a note that redirects you to “hlid,” a word that can mean “lid, covering, door,gate, opening” — basically a word with the sense of there being an opening that is also covered.

Now this definition of “hlið” could combine with mist to a similar effect.

If you think of the mist as enveloping a space, then the cliff jutting out from it is a covering for what would otherwise be open: the hole in the mist.

But that doesn’t open much up aside from a discussion of Anglo-Saxon metaphysics and their take on the nature of holes and openings. A topic that I know nothing about.

So instead let’s turn away from compounds and write about the word “hean.” As mentioned above, it’s used in this passage to describe Heorot.

Now, what’s neat about this word’s use here is that it’s not just a matter of its being another weird word with two, practically opposite meanings. As it appears here either of its meanings could work without any sort of linguistic stretching.

So, here’s how the word appears in the passage: “…in sele þam hean” (713).

And here’s what the word “hean” can mean: “lowly,” “despised,” “poor,” “man,” “bar,” and “abject” or “raise,” “exalt,” and “extol”

So, in that context, since the poet’s talking about Heorot, he could be praising it. It could be the “exalted hall.” Or it could be a reference to the hall’s current, fallen state: “that humbled hall.” I’ve chosen the latter because I think it best fits the situation and were it supposed to be “exalted hall,” I think that “hean” would be “hiēhst,” the superlative form of the Old English word for “high.”

Though I have to say that it’s fairly clever of the poet to use this word. Not just because it fits in with the alliterative line but because I think it is supposed to carry both meanings simultaneously. It was indeed the most exalted of halls but it is now humbled.

What do you think of the idea that simple compound words generally refer to geographical features?

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Next week, Grendel arrives at Heorot and peeks in on his prey.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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1 thought on “How Grendel contrasts with Heorot, and an exalted humbling (ll.710-719)

  1. Pingback: Beowulf wrathfully awakens and Grendel as shadow skulker (ll.700b-709) | A Blogger's Beowulf

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