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This week, Grendel enters the hall and finds succulent sleeping youths.
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“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…”
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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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Next week, Grendel makes his first move against the sleeping Geats. And Beowulf re-enters the poem.
You can find the next part of Beowulf here.