The end of Grendel and clear compounds (ll.818b-824)

A Sturdy Example of Defeat
Straightforward, but still Compounds

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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Grendel realizes he’s done for and the Danes have their hearts’ desire fulfilled.

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“Beowulf was given
war glory; whereas Grendel would thence
flee with his mortal wound to the fen cliffs
seeking out a joyless home, he knew for certain,
that his life was coming to an end,
his days were numbered. Every one of the Danes
wishes were fulfilled after that deadly onslaught.”
(Beowulf ll.818b-824)

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Old English:


Modern English:


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A Sturdy Example of Defeat

This part of the poem continues the poet’s peering into Grendel’s psyche as he gets trounced. The first two lines might give us a little more insight into just why he’s bothering to do so, too.

These lines clearly state that “Beowulf was given/war glory” (“Beowulfe wearð/guðhreð gyfeþe” (ll.818-819)) while Grendel definitely was not. I think this contrast of outcomes tells us exactly why the poet gives so much attention to Grendel: he’s the underdog, the loser in a history written by the winners.

In this sense, I think that Grendel could be a stand-in for the Celts that the Anglo-Saxons assimilated into their own culture. In that reading, the violence of this fight represents the Anglo-Saxons forcing those early Britons off of their land and from their seats of power. But within the realm of the poem, I think saying that Beowulf won glory and Grendel suffered a terrible wound leads the poet to talk more about Grendel than Beowulf simply because his audience was probably deeply familiar with war glory. They didn’t need any more droning on about it. And yet stories of defeat were also popular, as the Finnsburgh Fragment and the story of the Geats in the Ravenswood show. I think sharing Grendel’s side of the story is meant to tap into the same interest in defeat that these other stories exploit.

This angle definitely accounts for the poet’s spending so much time on Grendel’s reactions.

Even the poet’s description of Grendel’s having to flee to a “joyless home” (“wynleas wic” (l.821)) supports the reading of the focus on Grendel being instructive or at least interesting to the Anglo-Saxons. After all, the idea of a joyless home sounds very similar to that of an exile’s home.

Home (or a “dwelling place,” “town,” or “fortress,” as “wic” can alternately be translated) has connotations of being a place where a person can exist in comfort. What’s a place where you have to exist but with out that comfort, without that joy? It sounds like exile, to me. Plus, I think the reference to Grendel’s days being numbered works as a kind of exaggerated reaction to the exile that he’s suffering. Being forced not from the core of society, but rather from the margins of it – from life itself – has Grendel in a state of utter misery.

The other curious thing in this passage (and not to horn in on the subject matter of section two) is the phrase “wiste þe geornor” (l.821).

Literally, this word means “knew he eagerly” but it’s generally translated as “knew for certain.” Working backwards from the general translation to the literal meaning of the phrase, I see an implication that eagerness can be construed as certainty in the original Old English. And this connection does make some kind of sense. When someone says that they know something for certain or for sure, their knowledge of it could still be wrong because they’re referring to an external piece of information. For example, if I say that I am totally certain that the corvette on the corner is red I could still be wrong because it could actually be mauve (perhaps a small detail, but still an alteration of a “real” fact). Thus, line 821’s “wiste þe geornor” introduces a curious sort of philosophical bent into the Anglo-Saxon language. Eagerness and certainty seem to cross over here, and since eagerness is in the mix, maybe bravery can be too (you could say being brave is being eager to do right despite opposition). Really, they’re all just forms of eagerness, if you think about it as Anglo-Saxons (or at least those translating them) did.

How much do you think can be learned about a society or a people from their language once that language is considered dead?

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Straighhtforward, but still Compounds

For a short passage, this week’s is pretty rich in compound words. Though they’re all deceptively straightforward.

In fact, “guð-hreð” leads the pack in being straightforward since as a compound it means “war glory” while its parts mean “war,” “combat,” and “battle” and “victory,” and “glory” respectively. Hence “war glory” (or the alternative, more staccato, “battle victory”).

Next up in terms of straightforwardness is “wael-raes.” This one combines “wael (“slaughter” or “carnage”) with “raes” (“rush,” “leap,” “jump,” or “running”) and gives us “deadly onslaught.” Though, with that combination of words something more literal would be “slaughter rush,” which sounds like it’d be right at home describing a game mode in a modern day FPS (or beat ’em up game).

Then there’s the most obvious “fenn-hleoðu” meaning ” fen covert.” I consider this combination of “fenn” (“mud,” “mire,” “dirt,” “fen,” “marsh,” “moor,” or “the fen country”) and “hleoðu” (cliff, precipice, hill-side, hill) to be fairly straightforward because of its reference to a rise of earth in a wild countryside. In my mind, this combination readily brings to mind a rough shelter in the midst of difficult or untamed terrain. This is especially true if you take “hleoðu” to mean “cliffside” or “precipice” since that leads me to visualize some patch of land below such an outcropping, which would be sheltered from the elements in a natural way, though, probably to a civilized bunch like the Anglo-Saxons, it might seem very crude.

Actually, curiously, if you take this combination completely literally to mean a hillside in a fen, then you come out with a phrase describing a hillside dwelling that might be closer to a hobbit hole than we realize. Tolkien did start with extensive study of Beowulf, after all.

Last up is the compound word “feorh-seoc” meaning “mortal wound.”

The combination of the two words “feorh” (“life,” “principle of life,” “soul,” “spirit”) and “seoc” (“sick,” “ill,” “diseased,” “feeble,” “weak,” “wounded,” “morally sick,” “corrupt,” “sad,” or “troubled”) isn’t so obtuse as to obscure its meaning completely, but with this compound we’re definitely getting a look at the Anglo-Saxons’ conception of things. After all, among seoc’s meanings is “wounded,” but also a general sense of being sick, which, even then probably wasn’t considered to be as dire as having a hole opened up in your body.

As such, I think the heart of the “feorh-seoc” compound is the sense that it describes a sickly life. That is, it’s not just that the word’s object is sick, but that its object’s very life essence is draining away; it’s weak and enfeebled and, well, leaking, if you will. I feel that this interpretation is a supportable one because three lines down we get the image of Grendel’s days being numbered, which itself suggests that his time left alive is so finite that it can be observed. Like sand leaking from one side of an hourglass to another, Grendel’s life is visibly slipping away and so he is “feorh-seoc.”

When it comes to translating compound words, do you think it’s more accurate to go with a straightforward interpretation or is it better to go with something that takes both parts of the compound into consideration?

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Next week, the poet comes around to Beowulf’s point of view as he describes the hero’s reaction to his victory and the placement of his gory trophy.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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1 thought on “The end of Grendel and clear compounds (ll.818b-824)

  1. Pingback: Grendel loses an arm, but gains humanity (809-818a) | A Blogger's Beowulf

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