Grendel squirms in Beowulf’s grip, words double up (ll.755-766)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Beowulf through Grendel’s Experience
Doubling Words
Closing

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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Abstract

Grendel feels the same sort of terror he’s inflicted on the Danes every night for the past twelve years as Beowulf strengthens his grip and hold on the monster’s arm.

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Translation

“In his mind [Grendel] was eager to escape, wished he could to the darkness flee,
to seek and join his devil kin; further life for him was not there,
only one like none other he had ever encountered in all his days.
The goodly kin of Hygelac was mindful then
of his evening boast, he stood sternly upright
and secured his grip; his fingers were bursting;
the beast was bounding to get out, the man stepped toward the monster.
That creature intended, whenever he might do so,
to flee to the fen-hollow; he could feel his fingers
loosening under the foe’s grip; it was a terrible journey
that the horrible fiend took to Heorot.”
(Beowulf ll.755-766)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Beowulf through Grendel’s Experience

My biggest question from this week’s passage is why is there so much focus on Grendel?

As an early medieval text, you’d expect that the monster wouldn’t get so much coverage. And yet. There it is. So what’s the deal?

Well, just how much attention does Grendel get?

Grendel’s perspective opens the section and runs for three lines before we get Beowulf’s perspective also for three lines. Then it’s back to Grendel for the remaining six lines of the passage. So, out of a total of twelve lines, nine explain Grendel’s mental state. That’s considerable.

Well, it could be because the poet/scribe is trying to create something more intimate than Beowulf’s earlier stories of prowess. Rather than focusing exclusively on the hero’s handily defeating the monster as Beowulf had done in his boasting tales, we’re given something more of what the monster’s going through. This shift in perspective definitely makes the fight more interesting — especially if you consider it a clash between good and evil.

It’s also possible that the poet/scribe wanted to really get across just how powerful Beowulf is in an indirect way. And what better way to do that than to show just how terrified Grendel is as Beowulf not only fights back but actually matches and then overpowers the creature?

I think this approach is very effective since we’re given a concrete sense of Grendel’s terror in how frequently he thinks of escape, the rhythm of which really gets across his panic. In these, he first wishes he could flee to the darkness (ll.755), he’s met someone unlike any other past opponent (ll.757), he tries to escape and backs away (ll.761), he wishes he could escape back to the fen (ll.764), and then — then — he regrets having come (ll.766). Grendel, the terror of Heorot, who has made a massacre of anyone staying overnight in the hall for the last twelve years, regrets coming to Heorot — a place that he might as well be ruler of since he has its creator and its people in thrall through his terror.

The mention of Grendel’s regretting having come also sounds like a bit of the classic Anglo-Saxon understatement. As a little narrative insert from the poet it sounds like the same sort of dry wit that’s current in English comedy today. “It sure was terrible for Grendel to come to Heorot tonight” is nothing but comical in the light of the foreshadowing of Beowulf’s victory over him through the mention of god’s favour, of Beowulf’s own boasting, of fate decreeing that no more should die by Grendel, and now by the utter terror Grendel feels as he is overpowered by the Geat before him. At this point the listeners to the poem were no doubt excited by the conflict and the fight, but a few of them probably popped wry smiles as line 766 was cracked off.

Nonetheless, the weirdest thing about the focus on Grendel in this passage is that it makes Beowulf seem, even if for just a few lines, so much less of a character than he is.

In the three lines where we get Beowulf’s perspective, he isn’t thinking of much aside from his evening boast, and then he just acts. So we have this figure who becomes a force of nature. Perhaps those three lines and the sort of perspective and mindset they convey — one of steely conviction — is a poetic expression of the action of wyrd, of fate, coming to pass.

Of course, giving so much of Grendel’s perspective might also be because the poet already knew (and maybe the listeners, too) that Beowulf would give his own version of events some 1200 lines later, when he was back in Geatland.

Variety’s always been important in fiction and poetry.

Why do you think we’re given such a look into Grendel’s mind as Beowulf tightens his hold and throws the creature into a panic?

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Doubling Words

This week’s compounds are a bit of a return to those of earlier passages. They’re still somewhat straightforward, but there’s an element of doubling to them instead of just their being plain combinations.

Take for example “hinfus” (l.755). It’s a word that combines “hin” (a form of “heonon” meaning “hence,” “from here,” “away,” or “from now”) with “fus” (“striving forward,” “eager for,” “ready for,” “inclined to,” “willing,” “prompt;” “expectant,” “brave,” “noble;” “ready to depart,” or “dying”).

On the surface these two words seem to combine to create one word that just means “eager to get away” (if you switch them around they become another straightforward construction — their current order could just be the result of word compounding convention). But if we interpret “hin” as “hienan” (“to fell,” “prostrate,” “overcome,” “weaken,” “crush,” “afflict,” “injure,” “oppress,” “abase,” “humble,” “insult,” “accuse,” or “condemn”) instead of “heonon” as we did above, then the combination means that Grendel is eager to be overcome, perhaps a more moralistic take on evil inevitably being overcome by good — just as shadows are dispersed by light, so evil seeks to be squashed by the hammer of judgement.

Or, even with its original definition of “heonon,” “hinfus” could mean “ready to depart hence” which seems like a very genteel way of expressing Grendel’s frantic desire to escape from his opponent’s hold.

“Fenhop” (l.764) is a similarly basic combination in some ways, but it could have deep connotations.

“Fen” means “mud,” “mire,” “dirt;” “marsh,” “moor,” “fen,” or “the fen country” and “hop” means “enclosed land in a marsh” or possibly “privet” (a kind of shrub used to enclose property). Simply enough, these two combine to mean a marked off area of marsh. But that suggests that Grendel isn’t so unsophisticated; he may live in the marsh, but he has a nice bit of property there. You could even take the implication of Grendel having some sort of marsh house as a kind of play on Heorot. The two words do have a kind of feminine rhyme. This sort of thinking does make it seem like Grendel lives in a mud and muck made parody of Heorot. Although that makes Grendel a little more bizarro Hrothgar than is necessary, I think.

And then there’s “hearm-scaþa” (l.766), which means pretty much what you’d expect.

“Hearm” is the Old English root of our word “harm” and shares meanings with it across the board (though the Old English “hearm” is so generalized as to also mean “malignant,” “evil,” and “vile”) and “scaþa” means “injurious person,” “criminal,” “thief,” “assassin;” “warrior,” “antagonist,” “fiend,” “devil,” or “injury.” So there’s not a whole lot of room for interpretation, though this is another instance of doubling, as with “hinfus.”

The effect of the doubling with “hinfus” and “hearm-scaþa” is an intensifying one. As intensified words, they’re perfectly placed in this passage. Grendel’s eagerness to get away is no secret and his place as the terror of Heorot is magnified as he struggles in Beowulf’s grip; it’s as if all of his twelve years of sinning against humanity are coming back to him in this one hold, this singular grip.

The conventional way to add emphasis in Old English is to double a word. For example, if you wanted to express an extreme repulsion to doing something you would be understood perfectly if you said “there’s no no way I’m doing that!” Do you think this meaning of doubling words (even negative words) to intensify their meaning is clearer than the Modern English convention of adding an adverb to intensify the same sort of statement (like “there is absolutely no way I’ll do that!”)?

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Closing

Next week the fight continues as the poet makes a lengthy aside about Heorot itself.

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Beowulf and Grendel’s brawl begins (ll.739-754)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
On Feet and Hands
Going Against the Group
Closing

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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Abstract

Beowulf watches as Grendel seizes one of the Geats. Then Grendel goes for Beowulf and things get real.

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Translation

“That fierce foe gave no thought to yielding,
but he swiftly seized at his first chance
a sleeping warrior, slit through him heedlessly,
bit through bone-locks, drank blood from the veins,
swallowed sinful morsels; soon he had
consumed all of that one,
feet and hands. Forward and near he stepped,
as his hand grazed against the strong-hearted
warrior at rest — the fiend’s fingers reached
for him; he hastily took the arm
and sat up to strengthen his hold.
Soon that master of the wicked deed found one
like none he’d ever met in all the earth,
no other in any region of the world
had so great a hand grip; at heart he grew
panicked in spirit, feared he might never break free.”
(Beowulf ll.739-754)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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On Feet and Hands

This week’s passage is pretty straightforward. Beowulf looks on as Grendel devours one of his fellow Geats (at least, I think it’s safe to guess that it’s a fellow Geat), and then Grendel goes for him.

But the creature is surprised by Beowulf’s counter attack.

From the way the poet describes it, Beowulf’s counter seems to be some sort of arm hold, maybe even an arm bar. It definitely sounds like a classic grappling move at any rate. Although the description is minimal, I can see Beowulf grabbing Grendel’s arm and then using it to leverage himself to a seated position while also strengthening his grip on that arm.

But that’s all part of the straightforward nature of this passage. It’s as if the poet wrote it to be streamlined so that the combat that’s beginning would start smoothly — as smoothly as if it were being played out in front of his listeners.

Really, though, the element mentioned in this week’s passage that grabs me most is the brief, subordinate clause modifying “soon he had/consumed all of that one” (“sona hæfde/unlyfigendes eal gefeormod” (ll.743-744)): “feet and hands” (“fet ond folma” (l.745)).

This is a weird thing to point out, I think.

On one of those hands, it could just be that the poet/scribe is playing on the use of “bottom” as a term for the human butt and so the logical top are the hands and feet as they’re forced together in a kind of mid-air folded position. So Grendel eats his victims butt first, going from the bottom up.

On the other of those now devoured hands, the phrase “feet and hands” could be a metonymy for the whole person. That is, in the Anglo-Saxon mind, a person’s feet and hands were representatives of the whole person.

If you think about it, this might not be too far fetched if you apply it only to the person’s body. That is, if you read “feet and hands” as a metonymy for the body alone. This becomes clear if you look at the feet as being necessary to carry the body around (remember, most mead halls at this time wouldn’t be wheelchair accessible — nor would there even be wheelchairs) and view the hands as being necessary for the body to act on the world around it and to feed itself to perpetuate its motion and its action.

In that sense, saying that Grendel devoured the man “feet and hands” expresses how completely Grendel devoured the man. Though maybe his body alone, implying that his soul or spirit was still somehow untouched. Which I suppose makes sense since an evil figure like Grendel devouring a soul seems like it would be a transformative metaphor for the corruption of that soul. The Geat who was sleeping so deeply as to be devoured might not have been perfect, but it’s safe to say that he wasn’t corrupt either.

Or, the explicit mention of “feet and hands” could just be a phrase added for emphasis. Losing their hands and feet was probably a terrible fear among early medieval peoples because it meant you could not act and might be considered a burden on your community or family. So noting that the hands and feet had been devoured would probably cement the vileness of Grendel in listeners’ minds.

Or it could have to do with Anglo-Saxons not eating the hoofs of animals like deer or the paws of creatures like rabbits. Grendel’s doing so thus marks him as disgusting other.

Why do you think the poet mentions the devoured warrior’s hands and feet? What’s your fan theory?
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Going Against the Group

Just as this week’s opening lines of the Beowulf/Grendel fight are straightforward and clear cut, so too is much of the language used. I guess those two kind of go hand in hand.

There are two compounds that are kind of neat, though. So here we go.

First up is “unwearnum.” This word is a combination of the negating prefix “un” and the word “wearnum,” meaning “reluctance,” “repugnance,” “refusal,” “denial,” or “resistance,” “reproaches,” or “abuse.” How these two elements combine to make the word “heedlessly” is pretty clear since the negation of the core meaning of “wearnum,” “reluctance,” suggests an adverb meaning “without any reluctance,” or “having no feeling against the action.”

But, this is Old English, so varying spellings invariably enter the picture. In this case, the word “wearn” could be spelled “worn.”

If spelled as “worn,” then the compound (so long as the two can still compound) could mean the negation of a “large “amount,” “number,” “troop,” “company,” “multitude,” “crowd,” or “progeny.”

In a fairly loose way, the negation of something like a large group could give you a similar meaning to the original “unwearnum” since doing something heedlessly or without reluctance seems like it’d be an act that violates a taboo. And really, what’s a taboo if no something that a group has a strong negative feeling (like reluctance or repugnance) towards?

Using such a word, whichever of the roots you use (“wearn” or “worn”), to describe Grendel’s actions is really well suited. After all, Grendel is framed as this lonely creature living on the absolute fringe of society, and so it makes perfect sense that he act against that society’s firmly held beliefs.

The other compound word of note this week is “syn-snaedum.” It’s a combination of “syn” (meaning “sin”) and “snaedum” (meaning “handle of a scythe,” “detached area of woodland,” “piece,” “morsel,” “slice,” or “portion of food”) — perfect for describing the raw flesh of a human being.

Though, the more geographical meaning of “snaedum” make for an interesting variation, or metaphor even: In breaking in and destroying Danes (and now Geats), Grendel is making large swaths of land sinful in so far as he is keeping humanity, biblically appointed stewards of creation, from being able to rein nature in. Though that reading is quite a stretch, even by the standards of an English major.

Actually, the poet’s use of this word (aside from alliterative reasons) hearkens back to last week’s idea of Grendel’s visits being profane masses or gruesome parodies of Catholic Christian mass in that the “sinful morsel” could be considered the profane counterpart to what might be considered the “sacred snack” that is the Christian Eucharist.

This is the second week in which Grendel’s actions at Heorot could be considered dark parodies of a Christian mass. Do you think there’s anything to that theory? Or is Grendel’s feasting just the way the poet chose to describe the actions of a monster? Maybe there’s some sort of criticism of Christianity here?

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Closing

Next week Grendel’s struggle with Beowulf starts in earnest.

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Grendel, Beowulf, and Graves’ Goddess, plus Grendel’s dark masses (ll.731-738)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Finding The White Goddess in Beowulf
Grendel’s Dark Masses
Closing

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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Abstract

Grendel’s glee is given clear reason, fate rushes in, and Beowulf looks on — waiting.

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Translation

“…intended he to sever, before the day returned,
the terrible fierce assailant, from each one
limb and life, expected he a lavish feast
to come about. Yet such was not set as fate,
that he would be allowed more of mankind
to taste during that night. The mighty looked on,
kin of Higelac, to see how the enemy
with his calamitous grip would fare.”
(Beowulf ll.731-739)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Finding The White Goddess in Beowulf

Grendel’s glee continues into this passage and we’re given the reason for it: Grendel believes he’s in for a feast since there’s an entire group of young warriors sleeping in the hall.

But then we’re told that such wasn’t set as fate on line 734. I think that this line is central to this passage and the scene in which it occurs. As such, I think it serves a few purposes.

First off, I think that line 734 helps to being the focus back to Beowulf. As fate’s agent in so far as Beowulf is the one fated to bring about the end of Grendel’s feasting (as is fated), this line is like a group of heralding trumpets announcing his arrival. Along similar lines, this line marks Beowulf as fate’s agent.

Actually, in light of what I’ve read in Robert Graves’ The White Goddess, the triangle that line 734 sets up is rather interesting.

Central to Graves’ book is the idea that the single poetic theme, the one thing that all true poetry is about in infinite variation, is the struggle between the king of the waning year and the king of the waxing year for the hand or approval of the goddess (in her form as maid).

In the scenario in this passage we have the god of the waning year in Grendel. And we have the god of the waxing year in Beowulf. But then, where is the female element?

Well, in chapter 25 of The White Goddess Graves writes that before patriarchal religion took over from matriarchal religion the idea of religious freedom was non-existent. During that time it was believed that whatever happened, happened, and people had no choice but to accept the good and the bad that the goddess at the centre of this matriarchal faith doled out. What happened was locked into happening — it was fated.

If Beowulf is a work reflective of the change from paganism to Christianity among the Anglo-Saxons, or even if it’s just a story steeped in pre-Christian lore that has a Christian gloss over it (the constant references to “The Lord,” “The Measurer,” “Almighty God,” etc.), then it makes sense that “wyrd” or “fate” would be a feminine concept. As such, in this scenario where we have Grendel, Beowulf, and Fate, we have the complete trinity of waning king, waxing king, and woman.

But how does this fit into Beowulf, and why does it matter? What about your reading of Beowulf does it change?

Well, it does an awful lot of foreshadowing. It also suggests a good reason why Beowulf is still around outside of its being the only example of Old English long form poetry that we have. It does the latter by fitting very neatly into the template of the singular poetic theme. It does the former because it fits so well into that theme.

It fits so well into the theme because the trinity of waning king, waxing king, and woman is cyclical. Within the scope of a cycle the waxing king becomes the waning king, the woman gives birth to a new champion and he becomes the waxing king who ousts the now waning king. And things just continue onward with that cycle forever.

With this in mind, it’s obvious that Beowulf will triumph here, but that he will fall later on. What’s interesting about his fall is that as he dies he passes things along to his successor himself, without any sort of female presence.

Thus, going along with Graves, Beowulf could be read as a story of how patriarchal faith ousted matriarchal faith. Such a reading also puts an interesting spin on Beowulf’s defeating Grendel’s mother, since it suggests that at some point the king or god of the waxing year killed not only his rival but also the woman for whom he fought.

Stepping back from this reading of the poem, the line about fate also foreshadows things in the way that it’s worded. Grendel’s not going to feast on many again, but nothing’s said about one or two.

Do you think that there’s anything more going on in the struggle between Beowulf and Grendel beyond an action scene? Is Beowulf really invested with the judgement of fate or are these two just savages?

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Grendel’s Dark Masses

This week’s passage has three words that I think are worth writing about. They are “wist-fylle,” “þryð-swyð,” and “fær-gripum.”

The first of these, “wist-fylle,” means “lavish feast.” It’s a word made up of the word for “being,” “existence,” “well-being,” “abundance,” “plenty,” “provision,” “nourishment,” “subsistence,” “food,” “meal,” “feast,” “delicacy,” — “wist” — and the word for “complete,” “fill up,” “perfect,” — “fullian” — which can also mean “to baptize.”

Hold on a second.

I can see the connection between “complete, fill up, perfect” and “baptize,” especially in a Christian context. But pairing that up with the word for feast in such a context really strikes me as weird.

Now, I know that the poet probably didn’t create most of the compound words that he uses, but “wist-fylle” is still a weird pairing. In fact, I wonder if at some point (maybe even when Beowulf was being put to paper or even just composed) the word had connotations of a sacred meal or maybe even a Eucharistic mass. You know, the sort celebrated each Sunday by practicing Christians with readings and songs and the wafer (or actual piece of bread) served up around the end.

On the one hand, given its context as what Grendel’s expecting at the sight of so much youthful flesh, “wiste-fylle” seems like it could be sacrilege. But, I think that on the other hand even with such connotations, this word is a perfect fit.

Grendel certainly came to Heorot with enough regularity for it to be considered a ritual. Like Christian mass. He also always supped on flesh before going away. Like at Christian mass (metaphorically, of course, unless you’re a strict Catholic and believe that the Eucharist undergoes transubstantiation once blessed and then is the body of Christ, as they say). So maybe the word’s meant to suggest that Grendel’s visits are a kind of mass for him.

With these things in mind, I don’t think it’s far off the mark to see Grendel as not only the representation of the evil of the world but also of the pagan religion that was being supplanted by Christianity. The old religion of ritual sacrifice and bloodshed was being replaced by one with righteous bloodshed in the name of a true god — perhaps a small irony that didn’t escape the erudite among the Anglo-Saxons (such as their “scops” or poets).

Though also at the heart of Christianity is the idea that such sacrifices are no longer necessary because Christ’s dying on the cross stands as a sacrifice for and across all time — making any others unnecessary, even insulting to god if you want to look at it that way.

Unfortunately, that’s where this reading of the word sort of falls apart. Beowulf does eventually die. And, in doing so he saves his people, but only for a very short time. Otherwise, there really isn’t a permanent sacrifice that comes in to replace that which Grendel takes during his dark visits. Ah well, good run. Unless the whole thing’s meant as a criticism of Christianity. But that’s something for another entry.

The second word worth looking at doesn’t really lend itself to much analysis. The word “þryð-swyð” is weird because it literally translates out to something like “strong strength” or “severely strong.” It’s like two words meaning powerful things being bashed together into something even more powerful. A kind of linguistic Masa and Mune, if you will.

And, to be honest, “fær-gripum” doesn’t have much to it either (I should probably work at organizing these sections more strictly).

The first half of this word means “calamity,” “sudden danger,” “peril,” “sudden attack,” or “terrible sight” and the second half means “grip,” “grasp,” “seizure,” “attack.” It’s not the most compelling combination, essentially meaning “sudden attack” or more specifically “sudden grip.”

However, a bit of the Anglo-Saxon (Beowulfian?) love of violence creeps into the word if you dig down into “fær.” This is because “fær” is an alternate spelling of the word “fæger,” meaning “fair,” “beautiful,” or “pleasant.”

With this new first element in place, the word becomes “beautiful grip” or “fair attack.” Such a word combination might sound more like it belongs in the mouth of a pro wrestling commentator, but really, Beowulf is kind of a pro wrestler-type character if you think about it. And Grendel’s quite a heel.

Or, the Anglo-Saxons just really could appreciate beautiful violence, the sort of thing that puts you in awe of how graceful — yet painful — it looks. For examples of what I mean, go check out The Raid: Redemption. There’s a ton of beautiful violence in that film. Beautiful, horrifying violence.

Do you think that Beowulf could be a long tongue-in-cheek anti-Christian tale?

Or, do you think that there is such a thing as “beautiful violence”?

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Closing

Next week, Grendel goes after Beowulf.

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Grendel feels glee again, shining laughter in Heorot hall (ll.720-730)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Grendel’s noise, and anger or bag?
Shining foes and roaring laughter
Closing

Beowulf, Grendel, Old English, Anglo-Saxon

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Abstract

This week, Grendel enters the hall and finds succulent sleeping youths.

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Translation

“Came he then to the hall
the joy of journeying men to rob. The door’s
secure fire-forged bar soon gave way, as he touched it:
it burst open for the one meditating mischief, then he became angry,
standing at the hall’s mouth. Quickly then
that fiend on the shining floor trod,
went with hatred at heart; he stood, in his eyes
an unfair light like flame.
Saw he in the hall many men,
a sleeping peaceful host gathered all together,
a heap of youths. Then his heart roared anew…”
(Beowulf ll.720-730)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Grendel’s noise, and anger or bag?

The main thing I want to address this week is how much noise Grendel must be making with his entrance. From the way the poet describes it, he destroys the door by merely touching it and then seems to toss it aside. For a creature of the shadows he isn’t very stealthy when it comes to the works of man.

And yet, the Geats within are asleep. And what’s more, they remain asleep despite the racket that Grendel’s entrance must have made.

Well, I think Grendel makes so much noise (or at least seems to) is the poet’s way of describing how destructive Grendel is. I think the poet’s describing a sort of weird disconnect, in which Grendel is causing heavy damage to the hall door but not making any noise; his actions aren’t making any waves. At least, none that the poet comments on, which I find very odd.

Perhaps this the supernatural power of Grendel, to cause great destruction but to leave no trace of it aside from wreckage. That sounds like something that could be pretty frightening to a people like the Anglo-Saxons. After all, how can you pre-emptively defend yourself from something that gives you no warning?

Of course, it’s possible that the poet might just be lazy here. Or maybe it’s just not part of the Anglo-Saxon tradition to write for more than one sense at a time. Whatever the case, it wouldn’t be as exciting if Beowulf and his men were waiting at the ready for Grendel. Even though that’s generally how most movies have this scene play out.

I’m not sure if it has any extra meaning in this context, but maybe this is the poet’s way of Anglo-Saxon-izing Christ’s parable of the unwary servants and the thief in the night. Though if that’s the case, if Beowulf is god’s champion, why isn’t he up and ready?

The other thing from this passage to bring up here is the word “belgan.” This word means “to be angry,” or “to become angry.” Or, taken as the final meaning that Clark Hall and Meritt offer, it means “bag,” purse,” “leathern bottle,” “pair of bellows,” “pod,” “husk,” or “belly.”

I can’t help but wonder if this word is supposed to double as Grendel’s anger and the “glove” that Beowulf describes him as carrying when he tells the story of their fight. Though, given Grendel’s reputation for eating Danes, maybe that glove is nothing more than his stomach, a thing he always has with him and with which he’s ready to store whatever he needs to.

What’s your take any the Geats’ sleeping through Grendel’s entrance? Did he come in quietly despite his destroying the hall’s door? Or are the Geats just really sound sleepers?

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Shining foes and roaring laughter

This week’s passage has a few words of note, so let’s take a look.

First off, this week’s words of note aren’t compounds. As in last week’s post, those compounds that are used are straightforward.

For example, the word “sibgedryht” is made up of the word for “kin,” “relationship” (“sib”) and “host,” “company,” or “troop” (“gedryht”) and all together means “peaceful host,” or “related band.”

Likewise, the word “mago-rinc,” which means “youth,” “man,” or “warrior,” is a combination of the Old English word for “male kinsman,” “son,” young man” (“mago”) and the word for “man, warrior, hero” (“rinc”). So there’s not really much there.

Instead, the words of not this week are those of the non-compound variety. You might even call them the regular words of the Old English language even. Imagine that.

Two such regular words stand out this week. The first of these is “fagne.”

This word shows up fairly frequently in Beowulf. It shows up so often because it fits quite a few lines and because it means “variegated,” “spotted,” “dappled,” “stained,” “dyed,” “shining,” or “gleaming,” all meanings that work well in descriptions of light or of treasure.

However, in Clark Hall and Meritt, the entry for “fagne” also redirects you to “fah” which means “hostile,” “proscribed,” “outlawed,” “criminal,” “foe,” “enemy,” “party to a blood feud.” In this passage “fagne” is used to describe the lustre of the floor that Grendel walks over.

But maybe both meanings are supposed to be at play.

Maybe the poet is trying to get twice as much out of a single word. That is, maybe he meant to imply that Grendel’s very step darkens the bright and joyful glimmer of the hall floor to a clouded enmity.

Or, if the poet wasn’t going for a dosage of extra meaning, maybe “fagne” is being used as a pun. Maybe.

The other word I want to point out and pick on is “ahlog.” I want to do so with this one because it’s not really clear whether it’s supposed to be a form of the word “ahliehhan,” meaning “laugh at,” “deride,” “exult,” or a form of the word “ahlowan,” meaning “to roar again.”

If it’s the former, then Grendel simply laughs, maybe enjoys a bit of a thrill or sense of power as he looms over his sleeping victims.

But, if his heart “roars again,” I’m left with the question: when did his heart roar before? Are we to take this to mean that Grendel has lost whatever twisted joy he once took in terrorizing the Danes and only just rediscovered it?

This angle perhaps characterizes him a bit too much, but it leads me to wonder which is more monstrous: a monster who simply terrorizes to terrorize, or one with a sense of duty to terrorize, who punches in at sundown and out at sunrise for decades even after the joy is gone?

If the word meant is “ahlowan,” then maybe Grendel’s being a more complex monster is why Beowulf was included with The Life of St. Christopher, Letters of Alexander to Aristotle, Wonders of the East, and Judith in what we now call the Nowell Codex. After all, if these stories were gathered together just because they all had monsters in them, you’d think there’d be more in th codex (physical and fiscal limitations of medieval publishing notwithstanding). Maybe Grendel is more complex than most give credit.

At the least, this fork in interpretation is food for thought — is Grendel just a mindless monster, or a creature who had just been going through the motions for years until he happened upon the heap of hapless Geatish youths and rediscovered his passion for his line of work?

What do you think?

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Closing

Next week, Grendel makes his first move against the sleeping Geats. And Beowulf re-enters the poem.

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