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

Beowulf through Grendel’s Experience
Doubling Words

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 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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“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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Old English:


Modern English:


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

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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

  1. Pingback: Beowulf and Grendel’s brawl begins (ll.739-754) | A Blogger's Beowulf

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