Grendel loses an arm, but gains humanity (809-818a)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Grendel and Beowulf, Monsters Both
Brutal 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

As Beowulf tears Grendel’s arm off, we’re told more from the monster’s point of view.

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Translation

Then the one who in earlier days had
completely changed the heartfelt mirth of man
for transgression — the one who sinned against god —
realized that his body would not endure,
for the spirited kin of Hygelac
had him firm in hand; as long as each was living
he was hateful to the other. What a wound
endured the terrible creature; his shoulder split
into an open and immense wound; sinews sprung loose,
bone joints split.
(Beowulf ll.809-818a)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Grendel and Beowulf, Monsters Both

This week’s passage is all about the wound at the centre of the fight between Beowulf and Grendel. And that makes sense, since it is the thing that ultimately proves Beowulf’s mastery, though, as has been the case up until now, we still get the story from Grendel’s side of things. We’re not yet let into Beowulf’s mind to see what’s going on with him as he pulls Grendel’s arm from his body.

Instead we’re told that Grendel realizes that he’s not going to survive this fight (“realized that his body would not endure” (“þæt him se lichoma læstan nolde” (l.812)) and that’s about that.

Except for lines 814 to 815.

Here the poet gives us another taste of how he shapes Old English into a mimetic experience of what he’s describing.

Just like two people grappling, this sentence’s reflexive nature shows how the two combatants mutually hate each other, seemingly just as part of their fight. In doing so, the fight gains an emotional aspect that we’ve never really had from Beowulf’s own descriptions of previous bouts.

In his stories, Beowulf has fought monsters and men alike, but we’re never given the poet’s perspective on those he fights. Is this intensity from Grendel’s side of the hand grip just a device common to Germanic heroic poetry? Or is it actually the poet trying to show some pity for Grendel?

Whatever the case, acknowledging that Grendel is at least able to direct his hate suggests to me that he’s more than just some monster.

Actually, it kind of makes them both monstrous since that’s basically what the line says. That is, both Beowulf and Grendel have mutually directed their hate to each other “as long as each was living” (“wæs gehwæþer oðrum/lifigende lað” (l.814-815)).

This line, for me, conjures the image of two figures emanating massive waves of energy toward each other simply because they’re fighting. In this scenario neither of the fighters have much say in this, these immense waves are more a by product of the fight than something intentional. It’s like Beowulf and Grendel are two AI-controlled monsters in a game like Shadow of Mordor who’ve been tricked into fighting each other, and since fighting’s all they know, they’re just locked in combat until it resolves itself — until one of them is beaten.

For Grendel this confirms his monstrosity. But for Beowulf it turns him into one. But what does this reading of Beowulf as temporary monster mean for the poem as a whole, or at least for Beowulf’s character?

Well, Beowulf has the whole poem to be shown to be human, while Grendel gets just a few hundred lines. So maybe the poet’s focus on his emotions and thoughts during this fight is merely a reminder that, despite behaviour and appearances, Grendel is a thinking creature and not just some monster. Grendel, though given much less credit for it (as indicated by his brief characterization primarily during the fight (the setting for this characterization could be indicative of how little humanity Grendel has left), is still, well, maybe not human, but a being with sentience greater than that of an animal.

Quick question:

Over the last few entries I’ve mentioned the idea that Grendel’s characterization during the fight with Beowulf makes him seem more sympathetic, almost human at some points. What do you think, though — is the poet’s point here to drum up sympathy for a misunderstood monster, or is the poet just trying to make Beowulf’s assault all the more brutal by putting us in the perspective of his target?

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Brutal Words

The language of this week’s passage is brutal. Particularly rough among the words the poet slings are “lic-sar” and “syn-dohl.”

Slightly familiar, or at least looking like one of those words you could probably correctly guess at, “lic-sar” means “wound.” It combines the words “lic” (body, corpse (origin of “lich”)) and “sar” (“bodily pain,” “sickness,” “wound,” “sore,” “raw place,” “suffering,” “sorrow,” “affliction,” “sore,” “sad,” “grievous,” “painful,” “wounding” (the origin of “sore”)). So literally “lic-sar” means “body sore,” something open and obvious on the body.

This word is pretty gruesome at the literal level, but if we punch it up by looking at the words stored in “sar” we get sentiments like “raw place on the body,” “body suffering,” “sickness of body.” The implication, I think, being that the wound “lic-sar” describes isn’t just a cut or a scrape, but something that you feel your whole body over. Not that it’s felt all over because it’s a particularly huge wound, but because it’s the sort of wound that makes you aware of your body, that brings attention to the fact that you have this physical form that can be struck and opened in ways that cause pain.

I once had a two inch-wide slit in my forearm and I think “lic-sar” works well to describe it.

The other brutal word I wanted to point out is “syn-dohl.” The meaning of this one is less obvious, but it’s closely related to “lic-sar.”

The word “syn-dohl” means “deadly wound” (Clark Hall and Meritt also include a note suggesting that it means “sin,” an apt definition in a Christian context). The different combinations you could make based on the alternate meanings of these two words don’t deviate much from the sense of “deadly wound,” but they definitely add more colour.

After all, syn can mean “perpetual,” “permanent,” “lasting,” “infinite,” “immense,” and dohl can mean “wound,” “scar,” “cut,” “sore,” “boil,” “tumour.”

So, taken together this compound could mean “perpetual wound,” or “lasting tumour” or “infinite sore.” I actually quite like the last one since it sounds like it’d be right at home in Shakespeare (“It strikes me infinite sore” seems like the perfect line for a foiled Shakespearean villain).

But likeable language aside, all of the different combinations come back to “deadly wound.”

On a bit of a side note, although “dohl” as “tumour” probably refers to an external tumour, it’s interesting that “deadly” was ascribed to tumours then since the association of the two still holds true in many cases today. We might not wander around bashing each other over the head with old swords any more, but we’re still helpless before some of the same “deadly wounds” that have always affected the body.

Quick question:

Old English is a language in which double negatives are actually a more intense form of a negation. Do you think the same principle is at work in these compound words for “wound,” or are “sar-lic” and “syn-dohl” just the poet’s way of using different words for “wound”?

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Closing

Next week, Beowulf is triumphant.

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The spell on Grendel, and a bit about bird swords (ll.801b-808)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
The Spell on Grendel
Bird Swords and Weird Death
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 explains the enchantment put on Grendel and describes what will happen upon his death.

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Translation

801b – 808

         “that sin-laden wretch,
by even the best iron in or on the earth,
by any battle bill could not be at all touched,
for he had forsworn the use of any weapon of war,
each and every edge. His share of eternity
in the days of this life
would agonizing be, and the alien spirit
into the grasp of fiends would journey far.”
(Beowulf ll.801b-808)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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The Spell on Grendel

So the answer to last week’s burning question about Grendel and weapons is that they don’t affect him because he’s “forsworn” them.

The actual word used here is “forsworen,” a form of the verb “forswerian,” which means “to swear falsely” (as the modern “forsworn” does) and “make useless by a spell” (which, according to Clark Hall and Meritt only appears in Beowulf). So there’s some sort of magic going on here.

Now, though we only have an example of the “spell” sense of “forswerian” in Beowulf, I think that the same word’s having the sense of “to swear falsely” is important. I think that it suggests that this isn’t just any magic, but dark magic based on some sort of demonic, or evil power. Or, at the very least, some sort of power based on negation.

Big surprise, I know.

Grendel has been the only who’s said to bear the mark of Cain and be the offspring of giants and all that. But I think that this line about having somehow forsworn weapons in particular is a good piece of evidence for Grendel as the enchanted champion of a fallen goddess.

Demons, after all, are often the new religion’s take on the old faith’s gods. So if Beowulf is coming from a culture that once had a pair of deities that were mother and son or even goddess and champion, I think this line about Grendel being enchanted by dark magic seals the connection.

But, once again turning to Robert Graves’ The White Goddess (here’s my first entry on it, from my other blog), there’s even more here than just the implication that Grendel is some sort of old and outdated deity or demi-deity made monstrous.

In the chapter that Graves dedicates to Llew Llaw Gyffes, Graves tells the story of this early Welsh hero. Ultimately, Graves comes to the death of this hero, but the thing with him is that he can only be killed in a very particular way.

And it’s not just that he has to be hit in his heel or struck with a certain sword, he’s got to be balancing between the lip of a cauldron and the back of a goat, beside a stream, under a tree, holding particular items and so on. The conditions are ridiculous (so much so Graves readily looks into them for their iconographic meaning).

The conditions on Grendel’s death aren’t quite so ridiculous, but in the context of Beowulf I think the idea of someone being impervious to weapons would be pretty incredible. I mean — they’re weapons. They’re designed to kill and maim and hurt. To not be affected by a thing’s defining purpose almost gives Grendel a weird metaphysical power over the world around him. Almost.

At any rate, I think that the spell on Grendel is a similar one to that one on Llew Llaw Gyffes.

Perhaps Grendel, as rude and slovenly as he is, is just such a hero viewed through a Christian lens — none of his powers or virtues are won in a straightforward manner and so how could he be anything other than a monster, something outside the proper realm of society, and therefore banished to its borders with his monstrously powerful mother?

The other thing I want to pick at here is why the poet gives half of this passage to describing Grendel’s flight and death.

Actually, I take it to be more than just a description of whatever track Grendel’s going to make as he runs home mortally wounded. Just as heroes die and have the arms of angels to look forward to once their soul ascends, I get the feeling that the poet is using Grendel’s flight from Heorot as a metaphor for his soul’s transmigration to hell (“the grasp of fiends” (“on feonda geweald” (l.808))). But why even mention this?

I think it goes back to the poet’s shifting the focus to Grendel to indirectly show just how strong and powerful Beowulf is.

Rather than just praising his hero unendingly, the poet decided to mix things up and show how terrified Beowulf’s enemies become as they fight him. Interestingly, actually, this is the only fight in which we get a sense of Beowulf’s opponent’s mind as the poem’s hero lands the fatal blow.

Perhaps this shift in perspective is also because, as much as Grendel is the twisted and monstrous champion of the old, Beowulf is the champion of the new?

What do you think?

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Bird Swords and Weird Death

This week’s selection of curious words is rather limited. Still, two stand out: “guð-bill” and “aldor-gedal.”

The first of these means “sword,” and is one of many creative words for the weapon in Beowulf.

This word’s two parts come out as “guð” (“war,” “conflict,” “strife,” or “battle”) and “bill” (“bill,” “axe,” “falchion,” “blade,” or “sword”). So it’s a pretty straightforward concept and even more so a straightforward compound.

But it does make me wonder about what kind of “bill” the sword’s being compared to.

It’s not out of the question that the Anglo-Saxons were into cock-fighting, and part of that is definitely the roosters’ pecking at each other. Though even more likely is that the Anglo Saxons would have observed something like chickens pecking a newcomer nearly to death or other birds fighting and using their beaks primarily to drive their point home.

Though the thing with that is, at least in Modern English, “bill” refers specifically to a longer, often broad, sort of beak, like the kind you’d see on a duck or a stork. So maybe, if “bill” was just as restrictive among the Anglo-Saxons, it fit what the poet was going for since it’s a broad or long bit of a body that an animal uses as a weapon.

Good martial artists of all sorts treat weapons in the same way, as extensions of their bodies rather than separate things. So maybe “guðbill” carries more weight than just “sword,” instead implying a sword that’s wielded as well as any other limb (or maybe specific to a single person, an heirloom sword, perhaps).

The second word, “aldor-gedal,” means death.

Split into its pieces we get “aldor” (“elder,” “parent,” “ancestors,” “civil/religious authority,” “chief,” “leader,” “master,” “lord,” “prince,” “king” “source,” “primitive,” “life,” “vital part,” “age,” “old age,” or “eternity”) and “gedal” (“division,” “separation,” “sharing,” “giving out,” “distinction,” “difference,” “destruction,” “share,” or “lot”).

The tricky thing here is that it’s not entirely clear how these words combine to mean death.

Perhaps it’s because it’s the lot of all living things to one day die, or because death is the share that all living things have in eternity. Death commemorates the formerly alive in a way beyond the memories of the living, and somehow adds them into eternity.

Though that reasoning might give the Anglo-Saxons more credit in the realm of quantum physics, or at least ideas of corpses dissipating into the soil and re-entering the natural world.

The “lot of old age” or the “share of old age” makes a little more sense, without attributing too much philosophy to the Anglo-Saxons, but I think it’s a little too plain. If the Anglo-Saxons were into nothing else, they were definitely into death and elegies. Beowulf itself, in fact, has been considered an elegy by no less a scholar than J.R.R. Tolkien. As a whole it does seem to be about the loss of a whole people (within an Anglo-Saxon context, perhaps the Geats are the Celts?).

As with all old poetry that’s stood the test of time, it’s not at all clear. So, what do you think the reasoning is behind sticking “aldor” and “gedal” together to make a word for “death”? How does that equation work?

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Closing

Next week, Grendel gets a reprieve as the poet waxes poetic ends and we’re told just how Beowulf wins it all.

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