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Beowulf is aided by his troop of Geats, who move valiantly to defend him.
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“For nothing at all would that man
allow the death-bringer to leave alive,
he did not consider that one’s life days of
any worth to anyone anywhere. Then the mobile host
moved swiftly to defend Beowulf with fathers’ swords,
they wished to defend the very soul of their leader,
those of the famed people, where they might do so.
But they knew not that their work was in vain,
the tough-spirited war men,
that each man’s looking to hew the beast in half was faulty,
their seeking his soul with the sword point unsuccessful:…”
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Grendel as twisted champion
This week’s passage is one half of a complete scene. As such, it ends on a bit of a cliffhanger. Just why is it that Beowulf’s men’s swords are being used in vain? All will be revealed next week.
For now, however, I think we have enough to spin some theories around. Once again, I’ll be basing my ramblings here on Robert Graves’ The White Goddess. I’m breaking this book out again because it’s what gives the most interesting reading of this passage. Though the most interesting reading isn’t always the most supported one. I’ve got to say up front that my idea here might not stand up outside of Beowulf and in our collection of known Anglo-Saxon literature.
However, in the world that the poem creates and within the poem itself, I think it’s a valid way of looking at things.
Grendel’s being immune to swords I read not necessarily as a side effect of his being some sort of monster. Instead I see it as an effect of his being a twisted version of the goddess’ champion. I base this in the interpretation of the first part of Beowulf as a play on what Graves points out as the trifecta of goddess, god of the waning year and god of the waxing year. Grendel’s mother is the goddess in this case, though she is, perhaps a twisted and gnarled one who lacks the power she had of old since Beowulf is a predominantly masculine poem and, at least for the purposes of this reading, an artifact of a patriarchal society.
As such, a woman who may have headed her own power structure and not just occupied a high place in one defined by men (as Wealhtheow does) would be be depicted as some sort of monstrosity. As Grendel’s mother is just a little later in the poem.
If Grendel is the champion of this goddess, then he could be either the god of the waxing or waning year. However, in keeping with the idea from an earlier entry that Grendel is actually the god of the waxing year whom Hrothgar hasn’t acknowledged for a full cycle of twelve years, he has begun to wane. And now Beowulf acts the part of the king of the waxing year. This changing of roles allows Beowulf to defeat Grendel because of his position.
I also think that Beowulf beats Grendel because he challenges the otherwise slightly feminized creature with sheer masculinity. The two of them engage in a wrestling match, which from classical times was a thoroughly masculine sport, and Beowulf is said to have the strength of thirty men. And strength has always been considered one of the primary virtues of masculinity.
Of course, that means that Grendel must be feminine, at least in some ways. I don’t think these ways are obvious, however.
Looking at the poem as a whole, three things are expected of great men. They must think right thoughts, do right deeds, and speak the right words. Since Grendel does none of these he is obviously no true man.
It might be a bit of a stretch (what’s this blog for otherwise, though?) but I think that Grendel’s is aggressively feminine in his devouring of his victims. Say what you will about men’s thoughts of women’s genitalia, but I think a yonic reading of Grendel’s devouring his victims is definitely valid.
With all this in mind, as much of a cliffhanger as this passage is, I also think that it’s a commentary on the old matriarchal system of government.
Not only is the goddess that society used to worship decrepit (I am getting a little ahead of myself there still), her champion shows no proper masculine virtue and is himself feminized. My point here is that the entire matriarchal system of a cyclical kingship that Graves outlines in The White Goddess is too feminine and not as stable as the more long lasting male kingship that was coming about during the lifetime of the scribes (if not the poet(s)) of Beowulf.
But back to my jumping off point. In my reading of this week’s passage, swords don’t work against Grendel because he’s not subject to the usual ways of masculine warfare, hence Beowulf can only defeat him in hand to hand, unarmed combat.
Do you think it’s useful to use one book as a lens through which to view another book? Or should you just stick with figuring out one book at a time?
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Three neat words
This week’s passage offers up some neat words.
First among these (in their order here, and in general interesting-ness) is “cwealm-cuman.”
A combination of the word “cwealm” (“death,” “murder,” “slaughter,” “torment,” “pain,” “plague,” or “pestilence”) and “cuman” (“come,” “approach,” “get to,” or “attain”), together these words are taken to mean “death-bringer.” As you might’ve noticed, there aren’t any really crazy combinations for “cwealm-cuman”, but it’s neat because of how it’s used in the poem.
Alliteration aside, the poet’s referring to Grendel as a “death-bringer” as he struggles to escape Beowulf’s hold and the overwhelming power that the Geat wields strikes me as a clever way to talk about Grendel the death-bringer getting adose of his own fatal medicine. It seems to me that he’s saying that Beowulf wanted Grendel to leave Heorot with a taste of the same death that he had visited upon it countless times before.
Next up is “frea-drihtnes,” a combination of “frea” (“ruler,” “lord,” “king,” “master,” “the Lord,” “Christ,” “God,” or “husband”) and “drihten” (“ruler,” “king,” “lord,” “prince,” “the Lord,” “God,” or “Christ”).
What’s neat here is that this is another instance of intensification through doubling, as we’ve seen in an earlier entry. Perhaps the sentiment contained in this compound word might also have become the phrase “lord and king,” too. They are both poetic terms, after all.
And that brings us to “heard-hicgend.”
I want to say that this compound is cool because it’s intuitive, but only “heard” is probably recognizable to Modern English speakers. It is, unsurprisingly, Old English for “hard.” The word “hicgend” translates as “mind” or “spirit”.
So, literally, “heard-hicgend” is a “hard spirit” or “hard mind,” a way of expressing the idea of courage. After all, what’s courage if not a certain kind of hardness (or immovability or unwaveringness) of spirit or mind? As odd a way to express courage as saying “hard spirit” might be, it still makes sense on a kind of basic level.
Do you ever find yourself doubling negatives or adjectives to intensify what you’re saying?
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Next week, all is revealed about the enchantment that Grendel has on himself, and why Beowulf’s fellow Geats are of no help to him in this fight.
You can find the next part of Beowulf here.