Monsters on the shores, and monsters in the morning (ll.1422-1432a)

Marine Mammals or Monsters?
Waking Monsters at Morning Time

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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Some of those with Hrothgar peer into the bloody depths of the waters and see monsters.

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“Amidst the waters blood surged — clear for the men there to see —
hot with gore. At times a horn sounded
an urgent war-song. Those on foot all sat down;
there through the water they saw many of the race of serpents,
strange sea-dragons knew those depths,
likewise, on the headlands lay water monsters,
those that often undertake to hijack ships as they
set out on fateful voyages down the sail-road in the morning,
dragons and beasts. They rushed about the waters,
fierce and enraged; they had heard that sound,
the resounding war-horn.”
(Beowulf ll.1422-1432a)

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Old English:


Modern English:


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Marine Mammals or Monsters?

After coming just a few miles from Heorot, Hrothgar and those with him haven’t just come to a strange swampy place. They have come to the heart of the world’s monsters’ home.

The Danes and Geats that look into the choppy waters see all manner of sea serpents, and those that look across to the cliffs see the very monsters the Anglo-Saxons may have feared the most as a sea-faring people: those that wreck ships. Since, you know, gremlins, or, rather, the “nicra,” are all about smashing ships. And, apparently, lazing on rocky shores.

I remember that when we got to this passage in a class that walked us through Beowulf we stopped and dug deep. And what the professor uncovered was the notion that the monsters Hrothgar, the Danes, and the Geats see on the far shore are seals or walruses, giant sea mammals that (probably wrongly?) they assumed wrecked ships since they were protective of all the sea as humans were protective of their homes. Building on this notion, I can’t help but wonder even now if the waters are bloody and churning because some of the seals are hunting. And, perhaps the horrendous writhing of the sea serpents is just the seals mowing down on fish or other water dwellers their size or bigger, leaving people on the shore with the impression of giant flailing monsters.

Of course, that’s just speculation.

Speculation that Hrothgar and those with him misinterpreted what they saw for what they expected instead of what actually was. Or, rather, speculation that this is what the Anglo-Saxons thought of seals and/or walruses. It’s hard to say for sure since I’m not sure how violent those animals are when they’re hunting. Or if they’d be violent enough to come onto land, steal a full grown man away and leave his head on the shore completely unintentionally.

Though, I guess the Grendels, in this den of monsters, being the only clear humanoids, are supposed the poem’s audience’s way into this experience. Everything around them is so strange that the Grendels, with their upright walking and sense of family, are actually much closer to our human heroes than to the lounging (and maybe laughing?) monsters that the assembled people see all around them.

But if they’re surrounded by these strange creatures, then is it somebody among Hrothgar’s men that blows on the war horn? Or is it one of the monsters doing it? Or, is that just the poet taking some licence with a seal’s bark or a walruses’ call?

For such a scene, the plain language here does wonders for setting up an utterly bizarre situation. But more than that I think it does a fantastic job of building up suspense.

Here’s this group of people — all warriors outfitted for fighting — in the midst of a bunch of monsters, looking for the one who is ostensibly their queen or maybe just the most aggressive of the bunch, and they can only guess that she’s beyond Æschere’s bloodily severed head, in the depths of the unfathomable choppy red water.

Do you think the monsters all around Hrothgar and his group are just seals or walruses? Or is the poet describing some other creatures?

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Waking Monsters at Morning Time

One of the things I wonder as I read this passage again is why the monsters don’t seem to notice Hrothgar or any of those with him. They’re either chilling on another shore, or feeding in the water. It’s something that definitely strengthens the idea that they’re all just marine mammals doing their own thing, and, much like other animals of a certain size ignore people unless they get to close.

But. For the sake of this little exercise, let’s continue to consider them monsters. And how to rouse them from their lounging?

Well, “wil-deor”1, “sæ-dracan”2, and those of “wyrm-cynn”3, rush up no matter what the “næs-hleoðum”4, when the guð-horn5 plays the “fyrd-leoð”6, in the “undern-mæl”7.

Monsters love bacon, after all, especially when it comes in rashers.

1wil-deor: wild beast, deer, reindeer.
wild (wild) + deor (animal, beast (usu. wild), deer, reindeer; brave, old, ferocious, grievous, severe, violent)

2sæ-dracan: sea-dragon.
(sheet of water, sea, lake, pool) + draca (dragon, sea-monster, serpent, the devil, standard representing a dragon or serpent)

3wyrm-cynnes: serpent-kind, sort of serpent.
wyrm (reptile, serpent, snake, dragon; worm, insect, mite, poor creature) + cynn (kind, sort, rank, quality, family, generation, offspring, pedigree, race, kin, people, gender, sex, propriety, etiquette; becoming, proper, suitable)

4næs-hleoðum: declivity, slope of a headland.
næs (cliff, headland, cape, earth, ground) + hlið (cliff, precipice, slope, hill-side, hill)

5guð-horn: war-horn, trumpet.
guð (combat, battle, war) + horn (horn, musical instrument, drinking horn, cupping horn, beast’s horn, projection, pinnacle)

6fyrd-leoð: war-song.
fierd (national levy or army, military expedition, campaign, camp) + leoð (song, lay, poem)

7undern-mæl: morning-time.
undern (morning (from 9AM to Noon), the third hour (9AM, or 11AM), religious service at the third hour) + mæl (mark, sign, ornament, cross, crucifix, armour, harness, sword, measure; time, point of time, occasion, season, time for eating, meal, meals)

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Next week, a Geat brings in a monstrous catch.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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1 thought on “Monsters on the shores, and monsters in the morning (ll.1422-1432a)

  1. Pingback: What Grendel’s mother did with Aeschere’s head, a monstrous real estate listing (ll.1408-1421) | A Blogger's Beowulf

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