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Hrothgar shares what his people have told him about Grendel and his mother.
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“I have heard the dwellers in the land, my people,
and my hall counsellors say,
that they have seen two such
mighty prowlers of the murky moors protecting them,
alien creatures; there one of them,
they all can say with great certainty,
has a woman’s likeness; the other unfortunate
in a man’s form treads the path of exile,
but never had they seen a bigger man;
in earlier times the dwellers in the land named
him Grendel; they knew not their lineage,
their parentage was said to be hidden among
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Hrothgar Lays his Land Claims
After Hrothgar has questioned Beowulf’s effectiveness, the hall ruler changes his approach. He starts to finally tell us more about Grendel and Grendel’s mother. And it sounds like there are things that Hrothgar can tell us — even if they are just hearsay.
It’s definitely important that there are only two of these creatures. Though it’s curious that the way that all of Hrothgar’s people go when wondering about their origins is down the road of “mysterious spirits” (“dyrnra gasta” (l.1357)). None of Hrothgar’s people say that these two are just two exiles from long ago.
In fact, since in earlier times people would often cast out children who were born with physical defects, maybe that’s what Grendel is: a person with a physical disability of some kind. His mother, then, is indeed a woman but, since Grendel’s as big as he is, in this scenario she probably went out into the wilderness with him. Then the two were away from human society for so long that they’ve forgotten how to talk and express themselves in a recognizable way.
Whatever the case is, Hrothgar’s sharing these mysterious stories of Grendel sightings call into question just how objectively the two are monsters after all. As I’ve said before, maybe the “monster” label is just Hrothgar’s label for two people that were exiled so long ago that all they share with his people are their shapes and likenesses.
I also really wonder about the use of “land-buend” (l.1345) and “fold-buend” (l.1355) in this passage.
Both words basically mean “someone living in the land” as opposed to someone living in a more populated settlement like the one that’s undoubtedly around Heorot. So not only does Hrothgar not recognize these two monsters as long exiled and unfamiliar people, it also sounds like he’s asserting his ownership of the land via possession pretty hard here. Almost as if he (or maybe just the poet) is well aware of how he encroached on the land that Grendel and his mother once had to themselves.
The matter of land ownership and identifying yourself with the land and the people living on it with the land is the angle that hooks me to tightest when I’m reading through Beowulf. It’s so interesting to me because I’m thoroughly convinced that politics of land ownership and identification as a singular people are major themes in Beowulf. And here Hrothgar’s pushing pretty hard to put the beings that he’s feuding with in the “not us” category otherwise known as “monsters” dwelling on the borders of his territory while also working to convince Beowulf that the people living on the land are indeed his people.
What do you think Hrothgar’s history with Grendel and Grendel’s mother is? Are the two creatures exiles or monsters? Could Grendel be an illegitimate son of Hrothgar whom he threw out to secure his power?
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The Rise and Fall of a Country-Dweller
Being a person who “lives on the land” sounds like a rough life. But, I think even when Beowulf was being dreamed up there was a sense that such a life was simpler. After all, if you were a “land-buend,” you literally were a “dweller” or “inhabitant” (buend) on the “land” (the Old English word “land” meaning “earth,” “land,” “soil,” “territory,” “realm,” “province,” “district,” “landed property,” “country (not town),” or “ridge in a ploughed field”).
That there’s an almost identical word with similar meaning convinces me that country life was idealized even more.
“Fold-buend” after all, just means “earth-dweller” or “man” or “inhabitant of a country” — it’s the more concrete cousin of “land-buend” no doubt because the one word that makes the difference between the two, “fold” means “earth,” “ground,” “soil,” “terra firma,” “land,” “country,” “region,” or “world”. But really, it’s just a difference of degrees. “Land” is somehow more abstract (with its meanings of “territory,” or “province” or “country (as opposed to town)”), while “fold” is more about the dirt and soil themselves.
But aside from understanding those who lived on the land as country-dwellers and also as people living somehow more in tune with the earth (living capital “o” “On it”), country people might’ve been regarded as more fortunate because they had the protection of a “sele-raedend” without having much to do with them.
Sure farmers would have to go to war with their “sele-raedend,” he is the “hall ruler or possessor” after all, but they wouldn’t have been expected to perform great deeds or distinguish themselves in battle. That would be the duty of the hall ruler’s closest posse (the “comitatus”).
Although, since “sele-raedend” breaks down into “sele” (“hall,” “house,” “dwelling,” or “prison”) and “raedend” (“controller,” “disposer,” “ruler,” or “diviner”) it’s quite possible that simple household owners or heads of families would regard themselves as the “sele-raedend” of their own dwelling.
Which is all fine and good until one of these heads of an outlying family got it into their heads that they could do a better job of ruling the people. If their plot succeeded, great! But if it failed, they’d either be killed on the spot or forced onto the “wraec-lastas” or “path of exile.”
The word comes from the mix of “wraec” (“misery,” “vengeance,” “persecution,” “enmity,” “punishment,” “penalty,” “cruelty,” “misery,” “distress,” “torture,” or “pain”) and “lastas” (“sole of foot,” “spoor,” “footprint,” “track,” “trace,” “gait,” or “step”), which outlines quite nicely what exile is all about: a path of punishment, torture, and misery.
I mean, in a time when everyone in a community relied on each other not just for niceties and a sense of connectedness but for food and protection, being forced out on your own would indeed make you “earm-sceapan.” You would be left “unfortunate” or “miserable.”
Such is the outcome of failed rebellion and such is the meaning of that mix of “earm” (“arm,” “foreleg,” “power,” “poor,” “wretched,” “pitiful,” “destitute,” or “miserable”) and “sceapan” (“shape,” “form,” “created being,” “creature,” “creation,” “dispensation,” “fate,” “condition,” “sex,” or “genitalia”).
Although, perhaps all hope would not be lost. If you managed to survive long enough to say that your being forced into exile happened in “gear-dagum” you could then call yourself (perhaps with pride) a “mearc-stapa.”
Although, if you were living outside of society for so long that you’d think of your exile as having happened in “the days of yore,” then maybe you’d have lost touch with reality enough to come up with the combination of “mearc” (“mark,” “sign,” “line of division,” “standard,” “boundary,” “limit,” “term,” “border,” “defined area,” “district,” or “province”) and “stapa” (“going,” “gait,” “step,” “pace,” “spoor,” “power of locomotion,” “short distance,” “measure of length,” “step,” “stair,” “pedestal,” “socket,” “grade,” or “degree”) to mean “march-haunter.”
Perhaps, if he or his mother were given any dialogue, that’s what Grendel or Grendel’s mother would be calling themselves.
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Next week, Hrothgar tells us more about Grendel and his mother, and about where the duo live.