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Grendel’s glee is given clear reason, fate rushes in, and Beowulf looks on — waiting.
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“…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.”
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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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Next week, Grendel goes after Beowulf.
You can find the next part of Beowulf here.