Beowulf a law breaker? And Old English tips for facing your mortal foe (ll.1529-1540)

Beowulf the Law Breaker?
Things to Remember When Facing your Mortal Foe

Grendel's mother menaces the pinned Beowulf with a knife.

By J. R. Skelton – Marshall, Henrietta Elizabeth (1908) Stories of Beowulf, T.C. & E.C. Jack, Public Domain,

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Beowulf gathers himself, and then grabs and throws Grendel’s mother.

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“He was yet resolute, not at all did his courage wane,
mindful of the glorious deed at hand was that kin of Hygelac,
that angry warrior threw the sword with curved markings,
inlaid with ornamentation, so that it lay, useless, on the ground,
hard and steel-edged, he then trusted to his own might,
the strength of his hand-grip. So shall a man do
when he thinks to gain long-lasting fame in the midst
of combat; not at all is he anxious about his own life.
He grabbed her by the shoulder — feeling no sorrow for his violent act —
the man of the warrior Geats pressed against Grendel’s mother,
then flung the fiend from where she stood, enraged
against the deadly foe, so that she fell to the floor.”
(Beowulf ll.1529-1540)

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Old English:


Modern English:


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Beowulf the Law Breaker?

Beowulf gathers himself after the sword that Unferth gave him falters (here’s a poem that speculates as to why it failed). And then? Well, Beowulf resolves to do things his way: the bare-handed way!

Though rather than going for some sort of karate chop or punch from a “horse” stance, Beowulf pulls a grab and throw. What exactly does he grab though?

The old English word for what he throws is “eaxl,” which means “shoulder” (l.1537). However, some translations of the poem render the word “eaxl” here into “hair” instead. They do this not because “eaxl” could also mean “hair” but because of the quick parenthetical that follows Beowulf’s grab: “feeling no sorrow at all for his violent act” (“nalas for fæhðe mearn” (l.1537)).

I think that this little phrase could be taken literally: the poet, if not also Beowulf, is respectful enough of women that to attack one by grabbing them is unfit for a warrior of any honour.

But, according to Anglo-Saxon law pulling on someone’s hair could be considered an insult, and quite a few translators believe that “eaxl” is a corruption of “feax” (the actual Old English word for “hair”). So some translators render “eaxl” into “hair”. This change makes this little phrase less about Beowulf or the poet expressing concern about being gentlemen and more about Beowulf feeling no remorse for insulting Grendel’s mother in such a crude and illegal way.

In other words, Beowulf, the upright fighter for god, feels no remorse for breaking the law.

Maybe this means that god’s law is indeed greater than that of human judges and kings. If this is how this act is meant, then of course Beowulf is all right with breaking the anti-hair pulling policy.

But maybe this phrase is more about Beowulf feeling extremely frustrated that once again a weapon doesn’t work for him. After all, when he fights the dragon at the end of the poem the poet tells us that no sword ever worked for Beowulf (ll.2682-2687). Though then I wonder why Beowulf would be frustrated about his sword not working.

Is he afraid that he doesn’t know his own strength when he’s bare-handed?

Is he afraid of fighting a woman without a weapon to keep distance between them?

Is there something dangerous about Grendel’s mother that Beowulf wants to keep away?

What do you think Beowulf is feeling as he flings Grendel’s mother to the floor? Frustration? Rage at her for resisting the sword? Rage at himself for trusting Unferth? Share your thoughts in the comments!

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Things to Remember When Facing your Mortal Foe

If you’re facing your “feorh-geniðlan”1, then you’re probably “an-ræd”2 about things. There’s not likely a lot of grey area there.

I mean, this is your greatest foe and you are now ready to defeat them. You’ve got your “styl-ecg”3 sword that’s “wunden-mæl”4 with a lovely design and twice as deadly tight in your “mund-gripe”5 and are ready to go.

But you must be careful in this moment. If there’s even the smallest fruit fly of doubt buzzing around your brain, your foe could just lay out the slightest empathetic fact to get you to drop your guard. So be sure to have your mind “wunden-mæl”4 with your “an-ræd”2 purpose.

1feorh-geniðlan: mortal foe. feorh (life, principle of life, soul, spirit) + nið strife, enmity, attack, war, evil, hatred, spite; oppression, affliction, trouble, grief) [A word exclusive to Beowulf]

2an-ræd: of one mind, unanimous, constant, firm, persevering, resolute. an (one) + ræd (advice, counsel, resolution, deliberation, plan, way, design; council, conspiracy; decree, ordinance; wisdom, sense, reason, intelligence; gain, profit, benefit, good fortune, remedy; help, power, might)

3styl-ecg: steel-edged. style (steel) + ecg (edge, point, weapon, sword, battle axe) [A word exclusive to Beowulf]

4wunden-mæl: etched, damescened. wunden (wind, plait, curl, twist, unwind, whirl, brandish, swing, turn, fly, leap, start, roll, slip, go) + mæl (mark, sign, ornament, cross, crucifix, armour, harness, sword, measure) [A word exclusive to Beowulf]

5mund-gripe: hand-grasp. mund (hand, palm (of the hand, as a measure), trust, security, protection, guardianship, protector, guardian, the king’s peace, fine for breach of the laws of protection or guardianship of the king’s peace) + gripe (grip, grasp, seizure, attack, shield, handful) [A word exclusive to Beowulf]


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Next week, Grendel’s mother turns the tables on Beowulf!

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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2 thoughts on “Beowulf a law breaker? And Old English tips for facing your mortal foe (ll.1529-1540)

  1. I cast my lot with the theory of a frustrated Beowulf having trusted Unferth, a man he seemingly viewed as inferior. Fantastic post!

    *A poetic take on Beowulf’s thoughts during the battle with Grendel’s mother*

    A glance unto the sword by way that Unferth had bestowed
    And Beowulf took notice that it’s blade no longer glowed.
    Exaggerated rhythm in the cutlass he displayed
    Connected in his mind and in the moment he dismayed.
    The weapon had been bated as an errand for a fool-
    A glimmer in the eye of Grendel’s mother, lean and cruel,
    Bespoke of something deeper, though the Geat could not see-
    That she had shared with Unferth more than hidden subtlety.
    The secret of the magic that was Hrunting’s fatal flaw-
    Encrypted in its steel were runes its wielder never saw.
    And when the blade created met with Beowulf’s design,
    It would not harm its maker, forged in evil nature’s shrine.
    Unknown to him this moment was supposed to be his last.
    Alas for Grendel’s mother, Beowulf was swift and fast.
    He thrust the blade aside and cursed at a Unferth for belief-
    Misplacing trust in someone who was weaker brought him grief.
    Again, his hands tore out and gripped at tentacles and skin,
    Removing from her face the once assured victory grin.
    Upon the wall the very sword Goliath once had held
    Became the means the Geat would employ as in him swelled
    A pride for thinking better than the man that sent a sword
    As useless as a feather, or as hollow as a gourd.
    For Unferth was the lesser Beowulf had so surmised,
    And as he lopped her head off, he was not a bit surprised.
    An anger in him faded and with Hrunting in his hand,
    He tore the head of Grendel and swam up to drier land …

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Beowulf’s borrowed sword fails, a quick guide to facing off against a water witch (ll.1518-1528) | A Blogger's Beowulf

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