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

The Spell on Grendel
Bird Swords and Weird Death

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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The poet explains the enchantment put on Grendel and describes what will happen upon his death.

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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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Old English:


Modern English:


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

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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

  1. Pingback: Grendel as the Goddess’ champion, three neat words (ll.791-801a) | A Blogger's Beowulf

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