Prog rock makes Grendel good in Beowulf

An Anglo-Saxon helmet with face mask of the style associated with Beowulf.

A helmet, complete with face mask, from the Sutton-Hoo treasure hoard. Image from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sutton_Hoo_replica_(face).jpg

I’m a big fan of a particular flavour of prog rock. It started in high school, when I got into Rush, and each song I downloaded (via Kazaa or Limewire one song at a time (yep, when downloading music was still controversial)) was a new discovery in a style of music.

And this music was unlike anything I’d ever heard. It had the hardness of everything my older brother would blast over the stereo when we were home alone but was tempered with a variety of emotions (rather than just anger or angst) and the sort of sprawling stories that I love. Thus, a taste for concept albums and story songs was born, and after Rush I started to thirst for more prog.

Throughout my teens I managed to slake that thirst with a little bit of The Who and Pink Floyd, but my wanderings largely ended with Genesis. However, a close friend of mine went deep into prog and showed me a band called Marillion. Among this band’s oeuvre is a song called “Grendel.”

Here’s a recording of the song’s live performance at London’s Hammersmith Odeon in 1983:

And, you can find the lyrics here.

Now, a song about a marauding monster seems like an obvious choice for a band working in a genre heavily influenced by fantasy, D&D, and general medieval romance. But Marillion didn’t just string together a 17 minute song about a creature that rampages against a bunch of vikings. Instead they took a different tack. They made Grendel the hero of their adaptation.

If I had to place Marillion’s “Grendel” within the timeline of Beowulf, I’d put it near the beginning of Grendel’s terrorizing Heorot. Beowulf hasn’t been called yet, and the Danes are still pleading with their pagan gods for salvation. This is where the twist comes in.

As Marillion spins it, Grendel isn’t some hell creature that can be swept away by pagan gods.

As Grendel himself says “God’s on my side sure as hell, I’m gonna take no blame.” In other words, Marillion’s Grendel, though still an outsider, is not a tool of Satan or of the forces that fight God after Creation, but of God itself. After this point in the song, Grendel is described as some sort of avenger of God who is attacking the Danes because of their heathenish worship of pagan gods and their indifferent killing of each other, which, according to Grendel, makes them the true monsters.

As an English major, it’s my instinct to tear into this wildly different interpretation of a poem so thoroughly established as good (Beowulf) versus evil (the monsters). So, let’s go!

Since they’re a prog rock band, a genre that’s pretty under-represented and I think safe to say associated with the kind of teenage nerds who follow fantasy and sci fi and spend their weekends playing video games or D&D in friends’ basements, it’s not too surprising that they’d make Grendel the hero of the song.

After all, Grendel is the epitome of an outsider. He’s not apparently human though bipedal. He’s living in what is basically an inversion of Heorot, a dank and cold hall with only his immediate family rather than a crowd of broader society. Grendel is as strange as can be, relative to the Danes.

Because of this outsider quality and the outsider quality of a lot of their listeners, I think it makes sense that Marillion would come up with a song that has this take.

What’s really odd to me, though, is that Grendel isn’t just some lone wolf fighting against the “normals” but is, instead, an instrument of God. This sends my English major senses reeling since I see this pairing representing the perspective that many outsiders take on those who are so deeply embedded in the mainstream system that they can’t see where they’re going wrong.

Putting Grendel on God’s side despite his outsider status and utter strangeness also ties nicely to the lives of so many mystics throughout history. For mystics of all faiths, people of incredible religious devotion, are generally kept at arms length by the official body of their declared religion. Why keep such thoroughly devoted people out of the spotlight? Because mystics’ ideas and practices tend to be more or less aligned with doctrine in theory but take a meandering and unorthodox path to reach that alignment, sometimes coming up with radical ideas along the way. Despite this difference, they often receive some form of recognition after their deaths. Many Christian mystics, for example, were made saints (like Saint Catherine of Siena) after the Church heard enough examples of their remains causing miracles.

But even with all of that information about how organizations like the Catholic Church treat such outsiders, that anyone would give such a role to Grendel is incredible.

Even more incredible is how the band presented the song during their stage shows.

Fish (a.k.a. Derek Williams Dick), Marillion’s lead singer when the song was played live, would wear a tattered cloak and the Anglo-Saxon helmet with face mask that’s most evocative of Beowulf himself. Crossing Grendel with the usual hero of the story like this forces you to think about a lot of parallels between the two that I think are definitely valid.

In particular, though, I think that Marillion’s Grendel has a lot to say about religion.

If Grendel is God’s wrath, and Beowulf is also a tool of God’s will, then Beowulf’s saving the Danes from Grendel says a lot about Christianity, and maybe even about organized religions in general.

I mean, if God controls all the pieces, it’s as if there is no devil and God is simply using the classic sales tactic of distressing his target audience and then presenting them with a solution of his own making. Which, if you think about it, is pretty much how it goes if the Christian God has a monopoly on creation, even if you lay bad things happening at Satan’s feet. After all, Satan was an angel who was cast out of heaven for pride and arrogance. Who made the angels? Who could decide to cast them out or keep them in?

Wow. I admit I’m a pretty big fan of Marillion’s brand of prog rock but never thought it would say so much with a simple twist on who’s really the hero in a classic story.

But that’s the power of adaptation. Artists can take old stories and old ideas — things that seem to anchor the world into the status quo — make a few changes, and thereby force people to see that status quo in a totally different way.

What do you think of Marillion’s adaptation of Grendel?

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One thought on “Prog rock makes Grendel good in Beowulf

  1. Pingback: Assurances to end a story, or just an act? | A Blogger's Beowulf

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