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

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

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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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Old English:


Modern English:


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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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Next week, Beowulf is triumphant.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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1 thought on “Grendel loses an arm, but gains humanity (809-818a)

  1. Pingback: The spell on Grendel, and a bit about bird swords (ll.801b-808) | A Blogger's Beowulf

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