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

On Feet and Hands
Going Against the Group

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

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“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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Old English:


Modern English:


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

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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1 thought on “Beowulf and Grendel’s brawl begins (ll.739-754)

  1. Pingback: Grendel, Beowulf, and Graves’ Goddess, plus Grendel’s dark masses (ll.731-738) | A Blogger's Beowulf

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