Beowulf explains Grendel’s escape, keeps speaking plainly

Beowulf Covers his Tracks with Grendel’s
Just Three Simple Words

Beowulf, Old English, Anglo-Saxon, translation

Back To Top

Beowulf wraps up his story of the struggle with Grendel, excusing himself from killing the creature by saying that god will deal with him.

Back To Top

“‘Nevertheless he relinquished his hand
as a protection of life and as a thing to leave behind,
arm and shoulder; not in any way did that
wretched being find comfort here;
nor will the hateful attacker be afflicted
with a long life of sin, but he knew pain
while tightly squeezed in my inexorable grip,
the deadly fetter; where he goes he shall await
with men bespeckled with crimes the great judgment,
what for them resplendent God will allot.'”
(Beowulf ll.970b-979)

Back To Top

Old English:


Modern English:


Back To Top
Beowulf Covers his Tracks with Grendel’s

The conclusion of Beowulf’s version of his fight with Grendel is fitting for one who’s trying to be more than just some slaughterer himself. Beowulf’s story of how Grendel escaped, but was mortally wounded, works so well because it takes Beowulf out of the role of killer and leaves that to god. This is important because it suggests that Beowulf’s strong enough to beat these monsters, but simply defeating them isn’t enough to fully vanquish them. As such it’s better to leave that to god itself, the one who sits in judgment over all those “bespeckled with crimes” (“maga mane fah” (l.978)).

But that’s not to say that deferring responsibility for Grendel’s death to god is a way for Beowulf to get out of blame if Grendel comes back. I think he’s well aware that he needs to cover for having let Grendel escape. But the fact that Grendel left his arm behind as a memento (“as a thing to leave behind” (“last weardian”(l.971))), really works in Beowulf’s favour. After all, what kind of creature could survive having its arm — including the shoulder — torn off?

Though, weirdly, Beowulf also sounds like one who’s aware that Grendel should have a more long lasting punishment when he says

“nor will the hateful attacker be afflicted
with a long life of sin, but he knew pain
while tightly squeezed in my inexorable grip”

“no þy leng leofað laðgeteona,
synnum geswenced, ac hyne sar hafað
mid nydgripe nearwe befongen”

Here Beowulf’s basically saying “look, he won’t suffer for very long, but while I held him in my grip he knew the meaning of the word pain, so don’t worry about it.” I’m sure that as Beowulf said this audiences would imagine him gesturing up to the arm and maybe saying something like “after all, no one’s going to survive after that – have any of you ever had your arm torn off?”

So, as before we really see Beowulf flex his rhetorical muscle here, as he addresses the major concerns that the Danes might have with his performance since there’s no body to show for his victory (unlike that time when he fought sea monsters by night and woke up surrounded by corpses, perhaps something closer to what some Danes wanted). Grendel suffered, and though he ran off, he’s definitely doomed to die. Very soon, as Beowulf’s speech ends, Grendel will face the ultimate death at the judgment of god, where the wretch will have just punishment doled out to him. As if death wasn’t just enough, right?

It is, however, strange that Beowulf should refer to Grendel’s leaving his hand behind as a “protection of life” (ll.971). The entire first two lines are tricky to translate into Modern English, but the sense seems to be that Grendel left his arm behind in the same way that a lizard might leave its tail behind when a predator grabs onto it. Though there was definitely more pain and trauma in Grendel’s losing his arm than a lizard’s losing its tail. I get the feeling from these lines that Beowulf refers to the arm as a “protection of life” to imply that Grendel was a coward ultimately and just couldn’t stand up to the Geat’s own incredible power.

Why do you think Beowulf makes such a big deal of Grendel’s continuing to suffer after he escaped from Heorot?

Back To Top
Just Three Simple Words

Beowulf’s diction doesn’t drastically change from the first half of his speech to the second. So we still get a bunch of compounds, though they’re still pretty grounded. All three of those I’m writing about here are exclusive to Beowulf, too.

On line 971, we meet the first of the bunch: “lifwraðu.” This word means “protection of life” and combines “lif” (“life,” “existence,” “life time”) and “wraðu” (“prop,” “help,” “support,” “maintenance”) to get there. It seems that “protection of life” might not be 100% what you’d expect these two words combined to mean, but I think that’s what’s meant to come out of the word’s context.

After all, the implication is that Grendel left his arm behind so that he could escape. His fate is sealed, and he will die (even after he escapes to the fens), but the idea that Beowulf’s trying to get across here is that rather than face the judgment of death, Grendel fled his sure quick death at Beowulf’s hands to go and suffer through a few more hours of life out in the wilds. So not only is Grendel a terrible monster, he doesn’t even die honourably. Or rather, he doesn’t even have the decency to die with grace.

The word laðgeteona (from line 974), meaning “hateful attacker,” “hateful giant,” or “enemy” is next up.

This combination of “lað” (“hated,” “hateful,” “hostile,” “malignant,” “evil,” “loathsome,” “noxious,” “unpleasant,” “pain,” “harm,” “injury,” “misfortune,” “insult,” “annoyance,” or “harmful thing”) and “geteona” (“giant,” “monster,” or “enemy”) speaks for itself. Another compound that is more about intensifying a single meaning rather than combining meanings to create a hybrid, “laðgeteona” is definitely an Old English word that loses little to nothing being translated into Modern English. Sure, the reference to giants (“geteona”) might not work today, but “hated enemy” is still a clear concept, even across the variations that combining these two words might afford you.

As far as weird words go, this last one’s not quite there, either.

Line 976’s “nid-gripe” means “coercive grip.” Simple enough. So, too, are its constituent parts.

This third compound combines “nyd” (from “nied,” meaning “need,” “necessity,” “compulsion,” “duty,” “errand,” “business,” “emergency,” “hardship,” “distress,” “difficulty,” “trouble,” “pain,” “force,” “violence,” “what is necessary,” “inevitableness,” “fetter,” or the “name for the rune ‘n'”) and “grip” (“grip,” “grasp,” “seizure,” or “attack”).

One neat thing that jumps out at me about “nid-gripe” is that one of the senses of “nyd” is “fetter” and Beowulf refers to his grip as “the deadly fetter” (“balwon bendum” (ll.977)). Just a little thing to notice. But, otherwise, the only thing I can really say about this compound is that it carries the weight of being inevitable not just because that’s one of the senses of “nyd,” but because many of the senses of the word carry urgency. So Beowulf sees his grip’s power as inevitable, perhaps as the power of inevitability that ultimately brings all mortals what they deserve.

Anyway, it’s not a bad crop of words. There’s just nothing stand out about any of them to me.

Weigh in in the comments: Do this passage’s words stand out from your usual Old English? Or do you think they’re just the standard for one of Beowulf’s speeches?

Back To Top

In the next part of the poem, the poet dwells on the silence that falls after Beowulf’s speech and the arm he refers to.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

Back To Top

1 thought on “Beowulf explains Grendel’s escape, keeps speaking plainly

  1. Pingback: Beowulf as storyteller, words sharp and simple (ll.957-970a) | A Blogger's Beowulf

Share Your Thoughts

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.