Beowulf hauls Grendel’s head in, spectacles of the war-fierce (ll.1644-1650)

Synopsis
Translation
Recordings
The Wondrous Beowulf and His Spectacle of a Head
Spectacles of the Bold in Deed
Closing

Beowulf and his band of Geats carrying Grendel's head.

J. R. Skelton – Marshall, Henrietta Elizabeth (1908) Stories of Beowulf, T.C. & E.C. Jack.
Image found at: http://bit.ly/2frmbiU


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Synopsis

Beowulf and the Geats stride into Heorot, heaving Grendel’s head.


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Translation

“Then that weathered warrior strode in,
the man bold in deeds had grown authoritative,
a war-fierce man, he greeted Hrothgar.
By the hair was Grendel’s head then borne
into the middle of the floor, where the warriors drank,
the terror dropped amidst the men and their queen;
a wondrous spectacle in the sight of men.”
(Beowulf ll.1644-1650)


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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}


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The Wondrous Beowulf and His Spectacle of a Head

I wonder what the people assembled in Heorot are more shocked by: Grendel’s head or the return of Beowulf?

The Danes had lost hope for the young Geat, after all (ll.1601-1602). So it must be a wonder that he’s back.

Even more so that he’s back with the head of Grendel.

But why should hauling the head into the hall matter?

I think it’s because the head is an important symbol of the seat of power in early medieval minds. That the head is drug in by the hair might also have some symbolic significance since the people that the Anglo-Saxons encountered when they first came to Britain grew their hair long – both men and women. In this sense, Grendel’s monstrosity doesn’t just come from being cursed by god, but by being the other, the thing that needed to be purged from the land to make it pure and good.

Actually, if Grendel is seen as a reference to the Celtic peoples that the Anglo-Saxons encountered, then maybe there was a sense that they were cursed by god. After all, the Irish retained an earlier variety of Christianity even after the second wave of missions came in. No doubt there would have been differences in doctrine, however, leading the British locals’ ideas of Christianity being considered heretical, a people whom god had turned its back on.

Whatever it might have meant to early audiences, the fact that Beowulf managed to separate Grendel’s head from his vile body shows that, with line 1645, he has indeed “grown authoritative” (“dóme gewurþad”). His deeds now match his words. After all, he had promised Hrothgar to rid Heorot of Grendel, and up until this moment it was a promise unfulfilled.

Yes, Beowulf killed Grendel when they fought in Heorot, but then Grendel’s mother came raging in. And who knows what Grendel’s body was doing on that altar in her hall. Perhaps he was just being prepared for burial, perhaps that’s where their tribe laid people out for a set number of days after death.

Or, maybe Grendel was such an angry creature because he had died and been revived before on that altar, the catch being that with each revival, he lost a bit of whatever humanity he had in him. In this case, maybe her mourning wasn’t for Grendel’s death but for the fact that with each revival she lost a little bit of the sweet, playful son whom she had raised years ago.

Why do you think Beowulf plonks Grendel’s head down in the middle of Heorot? Is it just done for dramatic effect? Or is there something more to it?


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Spectacles of the Bold in Deed


At medieval festivals you could go see the “bold in deed”1. Yes, there would be all manner of performers, competitions, and carousing, but there would also be games for the “war fierce”2. Things like one-on-one tournament sword and shield fights, jousts, wrestling. Activities which would have been the “spectacle”3 of the day.

1daed-cene: bold in deed. daed (deed, action, transaction, event) + cene (bold, brave, fierce, powerful, learned, clever) [A word that is exclusive to Beowulf.]

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2hilde-deor: war fierce, brave. hilde (war, combat) + deor (animal, beast, deer, reindeer; brave, bold, ferocious, grievous, severe, violent)

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3wlite-seon: sight, spectacle. wlite (brightness, appearance, form, aspect, look, countenance, beauty, splendour, adornment) + seon (look, behold, observe, perceive, understand, know, inspect, visit, experience, suffer, appear, seem, provide) [A word that is exclusive to Beowulf.]

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Closing

Next week, Beowulf speaks!

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