Grendel as the Goddess’ champion, three neat words (ll.791-801a)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Grendel as twisted champion
Three neat words
Closing

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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Abstract

Beowulf is aided by his troop of Geats, who move valiantly to defend him.

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Translation

“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:…”
(Beowulf ll.791-801a)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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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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Closing

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.

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The Beowulf poet gets frugal, plus cunning, antlers, and fear (778-790)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Heorot’s Two Weaknesses, The Poet’s Economy
Cunning, Antlers, Fear
Closing

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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Abstract

The poet continues his break from covering the fight directly and gives more detail about the Danes’ reactions before cutting back to a smugly secure Beowulf.

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Translation

“Never before thought the wise of the Scyldings
that any man or means ever could be found
who might the grand and antlered hall bring down,
destroy by cunning, unless in the hottest embrace
it was swallowed by flame. Sounds newly rose up
often, over the Danes came
horrible fear, each and every of them
outside the wall wailing heard,
a chant of terror uttered by god’s adversary,
it sang of defeat, a wound bewailed
the captive of hell. He held him tight,
that man was the greatest in might
all the days of this life.”
(Beowulf ll.778-790)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Heorot’s Two Weaknesses, The Poet’s Economy

First up this week is a bit of a nod back to last week’s passage.

Last week I pointed out the word “foldbold” (l.773) and how it suggested that Heorot wasn’t just some building but a part of the landscape. Similarly, this week the poet states that it was inconceivable that Heorot could be destroyed.

The only two exceptions that the wisemen of the Scyldings make, so we’re told, are cunning and fire. Either the greatest destroyer of all, a thing the Anglo-Saxons no doubt witnessed changing whole landscapes or perhaps had stories recording such incidents, or the sort of potent social disintegration that could bring down great dynasties and families. Fire or cunning.

This hearkens back to last week’s passage simply in that it bolsters the idea that Heorot is this indestructible thing; only the strongest forces in nature or society could bring it down.

Though, as many an academic note will tell you, this is just what happened to Heorot in the end. After various parties’ infighting and striving against each other, Heorot burned to the ground. So there’s definitely some foreshadowing here. There could even be a clever wink at actual events since there is a Hrothgar on historical record.

In fact, maybe while Beowulf was being sung audiences and listeners would’ve been well aware of Heorot and its eventual fall, once more bringing them a richer description of the fight since the force of Beowulf and Grendel, despite the deafening din of their battle, weren’t enough to bring the mighty hall down.

The other thing to mention this week is the last line. It’s rather ambiguous. Particularly the word “þysses” (790).

If this word translates as “his” then the line simply marks Beowulf as the strongest man alive during his time. But if it’s the broader and more general “this” then the poet’s throwing down the gauntlet and saying that Beowulf was the strongest ever. Period. It’s a neat little ambiguity, really.

And that’s just about it.

I mean, so much of this week’s passage is straightforward as far as the description of the fight goes. However, I can’t help but think that much of this is because the poet isn’t describing the actual fight. There’s no primal tumble of body over body or grip against pull to record. There’s no struggle to try to encapsulate in verse, no titanic conflict to alliterate all over.

So the poet’s able to just say the Danes heard some noise, they thought that maybe Heorot would be destroyed, then they heard wailing, were terribly afraid and that’s that. Let’s cut back to Beowulf who’s now got the situation under control.

Actually, it’s almost like the poet doesn’t want to describe the fight any more than he has so he’s cleverly cut away to the outside perspective of the fight. He’s still recording it, but without having to spend so much of his time on all of the special effects that would be involved in reporting on it directly. Perhaps that’s why, at the end of the passage, we’re just brought right back to Beowulf as he is sure and steady in his terrible hold on Grendel.

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Cunning, Antlers, Fear

This week, first up is a word that’s nothing like a compound. It is, in fact, a verb. This is the word in line 781 that refers to the destruction of Heorot, “tolucgan.” I’m picking on this word this week because I think one of its meanings builds on the apparent foreshadowing that a lot of scholars have pointed out on lines 778 to 782a.

In Clark Hall and Meritt, “tolucgan” is defined as “pull apart,” “desolate,” or “destroy.” The last two definitions aren’t very specific in the method used to effect the destruction that they denote. But the first definition, “pull apart,” adds what I think is a social dimension to the idea that Heorot could be destroyed by cunning.

I see this sense of “tolucgan” bringing in a social angle to the destruction to which it refers because what could be more cunning than orchestrating social strife and in-fighting? Pulling the socially tight knit group within a hall apart in this way could definitely destroy a place meant for merriment and sealing friendships over mead. And not just metaphorically.

Sure, the break down of social structures within the hall would warp its intended function and operation, but that sort of conflict could lead to someone going and setting it on fire.

Back to the compounds. First off is “banfag.” This word is a straight combination of “ban” (bone) and “fag” (dappled, decorated, decked, adorned).

Though on the surface this word combination sounds pretty grim and gruesome for a place as cheerful as Heorot’s supposed to be, I think there’s definitely merit in Clark Hall and Merrit’s translation of the compound as “adorned with bone work. (deer antlers?)” (33). Antlers are, after all, a trophy of the hunt and any successful hunt would be cause for celebration. Perhaps enough of one to hoist high the inedible antlers and hang them over a doorway. Not to mention, putting antlers on a place called “Heorot” completes the name’s pun.

Though I suppose it’s possible to also take this compound more literally and see Heorot as being hung with the bones of all of those whom Grendel has slain over his 12 year reign. Actually, Robert Graves, in his The White Goddess, said the cycle of sacred kings once ran for 12 years. So maybe Grendel is supposed to be the next sacred king, but Hrothgar stands for the patriarchal system of lifelong kingship and the poet/scribe is writing at a time when that patriarchal system was prevalent so Grendel’s framed as the villain.

Maybe.

The other compound to look at this week is similarly simple: “gryre-leoð.” A mix of “gryre” (“horror,” “terror,” “fierceness,” “violence,” or “horrible thing”) and “leoð” (“song,” “lay,” or “poem”), this one means “terror song” or, my translation: “chant of terror.”

So what makes this one so interesting? Hm…good question. I guess I just find it neat how the Anglo-Saxons would describe the sound of someone (something?) wailing out in fear as a song or poem or lay of terror or horror.

I mean, putting a poetic spin on something like fear just really suggests that the Anglo-Saxons understood it to be a multifaceted emotion, that there were many things packed into fear and a sort of manic-ness, a sort of schizophrenic quality to it in that one can be afraid of so many things in a single moment and fear can easily shift focus once it kicks in.

Fear is all the more terrifying when it’s described this way, too, since you can’t help but get the sense that along with all of the musicality and variety implied in a poetry-based metaphor for a fearful cry, it’s also regarded as all the more bewildering. This poem of fear is like a wad of pure horror that’s being cast about willy-nilly.

In fact, maybe this cry’s given this poetic status because of the power it has over people in its area of effect. The Danes are terrified out of their wits, after all. They’ve just been woken from their ale dreams by all this banging and crashing about and now there’s this terrifying scream from their hall. It’s just so much and it’s all packed into a single, poetic compound.

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Closing

Next week, Beowulf’s fellow Geats join the brawl.

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A clash of hall guards, a handful of words (ll.767-777)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Clashing Hall Wardens
A Rich Vein of Words
Closing

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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Abstract

In this week’s passage, Beowulf and Grendel shake Heorot to its very foundations.

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Translation

“The noble hall resounded, all of the Danes,
citizens, each violently stirred,
all in broken ale-dream distress. Both within were warring,
fierce were the hall wardens. The room resounded;
that was a great wonder, that the wine hall
held out against those boldly brawling,
that fair house; but it was yet secure
inward and outward in its iron bonds
skilfully smithed. In there from the floor
were wrenched mead benches many, as I have heard,
each gold adorned, where the hostile fought.”
(Beowulf ll.767-777)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Clashing Hall Wardens

There’s a lot to write about this week. So I’ll see what I can do.

After a few weeks in which passages were fairly dry and straightforward, save for a word or phrase on which I could hang my fan theory hat, this week’s is rich and juicy.

First up there’s the word “renweardas” (on line 777). This compound word isn’t out of place being written of in this section, since its nature as a compound is fairly unremarkable. It’s not the word itself I’m interested in so much as how it’s been conjugated.

In context, “renweardas” is the “hall wardens” of its line in this passage, it’s the word that refers to the hall wardens currently fighting in Heorot. But why is it plural?

This is puzzling because you’d think that the poet would refer to just one hall guard: Beowulf. (Unless he heard a different version of events, but I’ll get into that in a bit.) With this plural noun there are two possibilities for interpretation.

The first is the wildest: the poet is referring to both Beowulf and Grendel with this noun.

At first glance this might sound crazy, but I think it’s possible that Grendel is being regarded as a hall warden in that whenever he’s in the hall no one else can get in. And what’s the definition of a great warden or guard? One who keeps the unwanted out. And Grendel does that wonderfully in Heorot, though his definition of “unwanted” is not the same as the Danes’.

Whenever Grendel’s been on duty at any point in the last 12 years, no one has been able to get into Heorot. He’s been keeping people out, but he’s been keeping people out of a place designed for joy and companionship and socializing. He’s keeping a tight guard on a place that really requires a narrower filter on the in-flow of people. And those people need to be in it in order for its function to be fulfilled.

With this in mind, I think the poet could be having a bit of a joke here. Or he might just be upping the ante and showing the binary forces that are here — a guard who is too perfectly and senselessly a guard (like a poorly programmed machine guard might be, actually) and a guard who is human and able to properly discern between friend and foe. If this is the case, then this isn’t just a fight between Beowulf and Grendel, it’s a fight between the old guard and the new — literally.

The other explanation of why “renweardas” is plural is because the poet is referring to all of the Geats. From his description of the tumult and madness within Heorot it definitely seems like people outside would guess that it was the noise of many in combat. Of course, its being only two introduces some nice dramatic irony in that the audience will clearly know that it’s just two combatants having one hell of a brawl.

And that brings me to another of the points raised in this passage. On line 776, the poet uses the classic filler phrase: “so I have heard” (“mine gefraege”).

It’s possible that this is just a throw away phrase used to round things out and to give the poet a chance for a breath in the midst of a very intense scene. But it’s in a strange place if you look at it logically.

How does the poet mean “so I have heard”? Is this second hand information? Was he there? Did he hear it from one of the Danes? Maybe one of the Geats?

In the middle of a scene that’s defined primarily by the intensity of its noise (enough to wake drunken Danes from their sleep), it’s kind of comical to be told that the teller you’re listening to has heard about what sorts of sounds were coming from this fight.

What do you think the phrase “so I have heard” is doing in this passage? Is it just filler, or is there something more to it?

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A Rich Vein of Words

This week’s passage is rich in compound words, though they continue to be fairly straightforward. Nonetheless, the combination of words in each of these compounds does seem to suggest something that’s a little different from their modern English definitions, a shade of meaning that has since fallen away or been so well integrated into their new sense that it’s been forgotten.

The word “ceastra-buendum” is the first of these. It’s a combination of the word “ceastra” (“castle,” “fort,” “town;” “heaven” or “hell”) and the word “buendum (“dweller” or “inhabitant”). Together they make what dictionary makers agree is “citizens.” (remember how I said this week’s words are straightforward?)

But I think it’s instructive to drill down into this word’s meaning a bit. After all, if a citizen is necessarily a dweller in a town or castle but not a village why make the distinction?

I think part of the reason why is because a village or even smaller community of scattered people doesn’t have a strong central authority or clearly marked border. Speaking from my embarrassingly limited knowledge of medieval social structures at the level of government, such small organizations of people as villages or even just farms scattered across pasture land would have been related to a single lord or (later) a parish.

These institutions would act as central authorities, sure, but they’d still be ruling over a people that were few or that were scattered. Because of this, and because of these communities’ exclusion from “citizenship” in a sense, I think that to the Anglo-Saxon mind the word meant belonging to a strong amalgam of people who lived more closely together than disparate farmers or were longer than a village that even in the middle ages you might miss if you blinked while riding through on horse or in cart.

So “citizenship” isn’t just something you can apply to anywhere, it refers particularly to a strong centrally governed, populated place. There’s a certain civilized feel to the word, as if it could be placed on the opposite side of the spectrum from a word like “folk” and its implication of country people.

The people the poet’s referring to here, then, aren’t a bunch of bumpkins but instead a bunch of civilized, worldly people. In short, if you like, people you can trust to give you the facts straight without much embellishment. The sort of people you might want to “have heard” something from, in fact.

Next up is a word that I’m surprised didn’t transition more cleanly into Modern English. “Ealuscerwen” means what it may sound like: to be deprived of ale (in the sense that you are shorn of it (literally), that it is somewhat forcefully taken away from you). Clark Hall and Meritt define the word as “deprival of joy,” “distress,” or “mortal panic” and Wrenn cites many sources that suggest that the word is a metaphor for the distribution of bitter ale, suggesting that disaster follows grand celebration.

But I disagree with both. I think that “ealuscerwen” isn’t so much a word that refers to the deprival of ale or beer, but the deprival of its effects.

I think that when everyone is woken by Beowulf and Grendel’s brawl in the hall, they’re woken from a deep, drunken sleep and that is what they’re being deprived of: sweet sleep. And this is so disastrous because the sleep after drinking heavily at a party like the one thrown for Beowulf is one of the few peaceful experiences for the Danes.

After all, if you were living in a place that was regularly attacked by a monster at night who brutally killed and devoured any people he came across for a solid 12 years would you sleep soundly? I think a little nightcap might be pretty appealing then, and that parties like those thrown for Beowulf would be so enjoyed not just for the joy and fun and happiness experienced while drinking and socializing but also because of the joy of a deep sleep that you would truly enjoy because of its deepness. It would be the sort of sleep in which you’d forget all of your waking life’s problems. Being deprived of that sleep, an effect of the ale or beer you drank, but not the beer or ale itself, would be like having your greatest happiness snatched from you while you were in the middle of enjoying it. Truly a cause for great distress.

Next up is “foldbold” a word that combines “fold” (“earth,” “ground,” “soil,” “terra firma,” “land,” “country,” “region,” or “world”) with “bold” (“house,” “dwelling place,” “mansion,” “hall,” “castle,” or “temple”) to mean simply “house,” or “castle.”

There’s definitely a sense of permanence about this word. It sounds like a house or castle that’s made of the very soil or made so solidly that it’s more a feature of the landscape rather than something on it. This word, I think, carries some hubris with it, though we don’t get any true foreshadowing of Heorot’s future until next week’s passage.

Lastly, I turn to the word “searoþanc,” a word that means “sagacity,” “ingenuity,” “skill” “cunning,” or “artifice.”

This one combines the words “searo” and “þanc” to deepen the sense of sagacity and skilfulness of whatever it’s being applied to. How? By expressing the idea of a person who’s so skilful they could do something with their eyes closed but instead they’re doing that thing with their full attention — guaranteeing that whatever they’re doing it will be utterly masterful.

What do you think of this week’s words? Should (or could) a word like “ale-deprival” make its way in Modern English?

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Closing

Next week the poet dwells on Grendel’s defeat.

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