The trouble with Beowulf humanizing Grendel’s mother

Introduction
Synopsis
The Original Old English
My Translation
A Quick Interpretation
Closing

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, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11001837


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Synopsis

Beowulf tells of Grendel’s mother’s late night visit.


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The Original Old English

“‘Swa we þær inne ondlangne dæg
niode naman, oððæt niht becwom
oðer to yldum. þa wæs eft hraðe
gearo gyrnwræce Grendeles modor,
siðode sorhfull; sunu deað fornam,
wighete Wedra. Wif unhyre
hyre bearn gewræc, beorn acwealde
ellenlice; þær wæs æschere,
frodan fyrnwitan, feorh uðgenge.
Noðer hy hine ne moston, syððan mergen cwom,
deaðwerigne, Denia leode,
bronde forbærnan, ne on bæl hladan
leofne mannan; hio þæt lic ætbær
feondes fæðmum under firgenstream.'”
(Beowulf ll.2115-2128)


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My Translation

“‘So we took pleasure in that place
all the day long until another night came upon men.
Late within that dark Grendel’s mother appeared,
ready for revenge for the injury she suffered;
she made a journey full of grief. Death had carried off her son,
death egged on by grim faced Geats. That monstrous woman
avenged her son, schemed to boldly steal a hall dweller for her loss.
There on the floor was Aeschere for the taking,
the wise old counsellor departed from this life at her touch.
But, when the morning came, none could
burn up the dead of the Danish people by fire,
nor could that dear man be lain upon a pyre —
she bore the body in her fiend’s embrace to her home beneath her mountain stream.'”

(Beowulf ll.2115-2128)


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A Quick Interpretation

Whoever the Beowulf poet or poets were one thing is clear. They cared a whole lot more about Grendel’s mother than Beowulf does.

The poet took pains to build her up as this malevolent force that was smaller and perhaps more timid than Grendel but far more fierce and intelligent. Here, though, she just appears.

This retelling makes it very tempting to think that Beowulf simply doesn’t need to explain Grendel’s mother to Hygelac. Beowulf definitely doesn’t need to explain her to the poem’s audience. After all, there’s no need for Beowulf to try to swirl some mystery around her, since that mystery is already solved.

But why would he not need to explain what she is to Hygelac? As we’ll find out next week, it’s because Beowulf’s exploits have already been heard of.

But I think there could be more to it.

As someone who was apparently monstrous himself, Hygelac could no doubt understand a mother’s sympathy for her monstrous child and her seeking revenge for him. I think that’s why Beowulf goes directly to the more human elements of her character.

But Beowulf almost skips over the monstrous elements of Grendel’s mother entirely.

I mean, his description of Grendel’s mother makes her out to just be a mother seeking revenge. Aside from living “beneath her mountain stream” (“under firgenstream” (l.2128)), there’s nothing here that suggests that she’s a monster. Instead, she sounds like she’s just a mother driven to murder by the death of her child. Which is troubling because Beowulf does kind of kill her in the end. Even if, as we’ll see, he shortens that part of his story to just a few lines and skips over a lot of the grisly details of their fight.

But, what do you think is going on with Beowulf’s description of Grendel’s mother? Is she too humanized? Is Beowulf making this easier for Hygelac? Or for himself?

Share your thoughts in the comments!


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Closing

Next week, Beowulf shares a very condensed version of his fight with Grendel’s mother.

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Beowulf the storyteller’s idea of a great celebration

Introduction
Synopsis
The Original Old English
My Translation
A Quick Interpretation
Closing

A scop sings his boasts, just like Beowulf does before Hrothgar.

Image found at http://bit.ly/2jumA3j


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Synopsis

Beowulf recounts the various conversations going on in Heorot’s post-Grendel celebration.


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The Original Old English

“‘Me þone wælræs wine Scildunga
fættan golde fela leanode,
manegum maðmum, syððan mergen com
ond we to symble geseten hæfdon.
þær wæs gidd ond gleo. Gomela Scilding,
felafricgende, feorran rehte;
hwilum hildedeor hearpan wynne,
gomenwudu grette, hwilum gyd awræc
soð ond sarlic, hwilum syllic spell
rehte æfter rihte rumheort cyning.
Hwilum eft ongan, eldo gebunden,
gomel guðwiga gioguðe cwiðan,
hildestrengo; hreðer inne weoll,
þonne he wintrum frod worn gemunde.'”
(Beowulf ll.2101-2014)


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My Translation

“‘Golden ornaments were awarded to me then
by the friend of the Scyldings for that mortal conflict,
countless treasures, once the morning had come
and we had sat down to feast.
There was song and sonorous entertainment there,
an elder Scylding recounted tales of things learned long ago,
one brave in battle was in harp joy,
he struck the delightful wood while retelling
tales both true and tragic, the great hearted king
correctly shared strange stories,
and an old warrior bound by age proceeded
to a lament for his youth, of strength in battle.
Within him his heart surged when
he recalled many things from the seasons of his past.'”
(Beowulf ll.2101-2014)


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A Quick Interpretation

This passage is really all about how stories and celebration are linked in early medieval Anglo-Saxon culture.

That said, I’m not surprised (but I am a little disappointed) that there aren’t any women telling stories here. I mean, Wealhtheow must have a wealth of stories to share. After all, she grew up elsewhere and probably knows some regional tales that none of the Danes would’ve heard before. Or she could share the story of her upbringing, of some court intrigue back home, or of travelling to Daneland to marry Hrothgar. There’s a lot for her to work with.

But instead this is a very masculine scene. Which is how a party in an early medieval hall would likely be.

Though Beowulf once again shows his sensitive side here. He must have been sitting back and just taking everything in. Otherwise, I’m not sure how he would’ve heard all of these different conversations and stories.

It’s this extra detail once again makes Beowulf’s account of his time in Daneland much more interesting than the poet’s version. Beowulf even includes a detail that proves that his version is probably just a differently told version of the same events.

On line 2109 Beowulf says that the tales of one of the tellers were “both true and tragic” (“soð ond sarlic”).

I think this is probably a reference to the story of Hildeburh and the slaughter of Finn’s house. But what does such a connection matter?

This connection suggests that this poem is really playing with the theme of how people shape their story.

A great example of this comes up at the end of the poem: Beowulf’s dying wish is that he be remembered as one who was always eager for glory. Further, Tolkien’s reading Beowulf as an elegy rather than an heroic epic brings it even more in line with the importance of shaping your story. After all, elegies are tragic remembrances of things now gone and such remembrances are rarely comprehensive.

And that what I think is the crux of this scene. Beowulf is shaping his story as he describes the hall full of stories to Hygelac.

Plus, though there are only male voices sharing stories, there are still several of them. One is a king, another is handy with an instrument, and at least one other is an old man well past his prime. But it’s those several voices that weave together and tell tales, and in so doing contribute to Beowulf’s own tale.

It seems that as much as Beowulf is about daring heroics and gory action, it is also a story, and passages like this one show how much its early tellers and audiences revelled in stories.

What do you think the reason Beowulf includes all of this storytelling in his description of the celebrations in Heorot? Why not just talk about how good the mead was, or how well received the other Geats were?

Share your thoughts in the comments!


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Closing

Next week, Grendel’s mother strikes!

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Did Beowulf “yes, and…” a glove?

Introduction
Synopsis
The Original Old English
My Translation
A Quick Interpretation
Closing

Grendel terrifyingly looms with his death bag, screaming at Beowulf.

An illustration of Grendel by J.R. Skelton from Stories of Beowulf. Grendel is described as “Very terrible to look upon.” From: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Stories_of_beowulf_grendel.jpg


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Synopsis

Beowulf tells of his fight with Grendel. But just gives Hygelac the SparkNotes summary.


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The Original Old English

“‘No ðy ær ut ða gen idelhende
bona blodigtoð, bealewa gemyndig,
of ðam goldsele gongan wolde,
ac he mægnes rof min costode,
grapode gearofolm. Glof hangode
sid ond syllic, searobendum fæst;
sio wæs orðoncum eall gegyrwed
deofles cræftum ond dracan fellum.
He mec þær on innan unsynnigne,
dior dædfruma, gedon wolde
manigra sumne; hyt ne mihte swa,
syððan ic on yrre uppriht astod.
To lang ys to reccenne hu ic ðam leodsceaðan
yfla gehwylces ondlean forgeald;
þær ic, þeoden min, þine leode
weorðode weorcum. He on weg losade,
lytle hwile lifwynna breac;
hwæþre him sio swiðre swaðe weardade
hand on Hiorte, ond he hean ðonan
modes geomor meregrund gefeoll.'”
(Beowulf ll.2081-2100)


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My Translation

“‘Not yet eager to leave empty-handed,
that slayer with bloodied teeth, intent upon evil,
pressed on to get further into the hall.
But then he came against my great strength,
as he grabbed me with a readied hand. A grotesque glove hung,
broad and strange, secured with a cunning clasp,
from his hip, it was a thing concocted through ingenuity,
a work of devil’s craft made from dragon’s skin.
He wished to shove blameless me
into that sack, press me in among the many,
that fierce perpetrator of vile deeds. But it would not be so.
Not after I stood upright, completely enraged.
It would be too long to tell how I repaid that rapacious evil
for each of his crimes, each treachery of that ravager of a people.
Let it simply be known, my lord, that there I brought honour
to our people through my deeds. Yet he managed to squirm away,
he escaped to live a little while longer, to draw the dregs of mirth from his life,
though he left a trail of lifeblood behind and his right hand with me at Heorot
as he ran from the hall, an abject creature. I can only guess that he,
sad at heart, bereft of strength, sank to the bottom of his mere that night.'”
(Beowulf ll.2081-2100)


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A Quick Interpretation

The glove that Beowulf says Grendel has is one of the great mysteries of English literature. Where did he get it from? Is it actually big enough for more than one fully grown human man to be stuffed inside? I mean, that’s what’s implied with the line “He wished to shove blameless me/into that sack, press me in among the many” (“He mec þær on innan unsynnigne,/…gedon wolde/manigra sumne” (ll.2089-2091)).

The easy answer here is that Beowulf is just making all of this up. He’s embellishing his story for the sake of his audience. Already, he has Hygelac’s attention since the stakes were raised with the graphic death of the Geat Handscio. And now Beowulf is making Grendel seem even more fiendish in that there’s some level of agency to his menace. The beast doesn’t just kill and devour on the spot, he sometimes has some tasty take out from the Danes’ golden hall. I guess, in a way, that just makes Grendel a pioneer of the relatively recent trend of fast food places having all night drive throughs — he would regularly attack Heorot and drag off a Dane or two at night after all.

But let’s set aside Grendel’s late night appetite for a second though. And let’s get back to that glove.

One of the most interesting things about this item is that it is unmistakably called a “glove” (“glof” (l.2085)). The Old English word used for it is simply “glof”, which would carry into Modern English mostly unchanged as “glove”. The catch being that while the word didn’t change much, it’s meaning did. In Old English “glof” can mean either “glove” or “pouch”. In Modern English, though, “glove” has dropped that second sense and refers exclusively to a closed and fitted piece of cloth that goes over your hand.

Despite this straightforward word use, there could be something more at work here. In last week’s translation we met the tragic Handscio. Like Beowulf, Handscio’s name is a compound noun. Specifically, though, his name is a compound noun that means “glove” quite definitively. After all, what else could a “hand-shoe” be?

With these two things in mind, Grendel’s “glof” and Handscio’s name, I can’t help but wonder if the poet was improvising this bit, saw a glove and just ran with it. Or, maybe, the implication is that Beowulf is improvising his story, having been so hopped up on adrenaline that he doesn’t remember a single second from his fight with the monster. Or, maybe this is just yet another reason why Beowulf was put in a collection with other works about monstrous things: it’s take on the truth and what really happened is just too muddied by all of the differing accounts of past events.

But what do you think about the “glof”/”Handscio” connection? Is it just coincidence at work, or is it the work of a poet thinking on their feet? Share your thoughts in the comments!


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Closing

Next week, Beowulf shares how the Danes celebrated his victory over Grendel.

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Telling tall tales? Beowulf gives Grendel a greater role

Introduction
Synopsis
The Original Old English
My Translation
A Quick Interpretation
Closing

Grendel terrifyingly looms with his death bag, screaming at Beowulf.

An illustration of Grendel by J.R. Skelton from Stories of Beowulf. Grendel is described as “Very terrible to look upon.” From: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Stories_of_beowulf_grendel.jpg


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Synopsis

Beowulf restarts the story of the fight with Grendel. And adds a character while he’s at it.


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The Original Old English

          Ic sceal forð sprecan
gen ymbe Grendel, þæt ðu geare cunne,
sinces brytta, to hwan syððan wearð
hondræs hæleða. Syððan heofones gim
glad ofer grundas, gæst yrre cwom,
eatol, æfengrom, user neosan,
ðær we gesunde sæl weardodon.
þær wæs Hondscio hild onsæge,
feorhbealu fægum; he fyrmest læg,
gyrded cempa; him Grendel wearð,
mærum maguþegne to muðbonan,
leofes mannes lic eall forswealg.”
(Beowulf ll.2069b-2080)


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My Translation

            “I shall now speak
further about Grendel, so that you may know the matter well,
bestower of treasures, and of what happened after
the hand to hand struggle between warriors. After heaven’s gem
had glided out beyond the earth’s rim the enraged creature came,
that dreadful one sought us out for its evening hostilities,
while we stood guard, still unharmed, in the hall.
There battle proved fatal for Hondscio,
he had been fated to die by the deadly evil; he was the first laid low,
that girded warrior. Grendel swallowed him up,
took his whole body into his mouth and snapped
through mail and bone and sinew until that renowned thane was gone.”
(Beowulf ll.2069b-2080)


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A Quick Interpretation

Either Beowulf or the poet recording his life in this poem is a terrible journalist. But one (maybe both) are fantastic storytellers.

After all, the poet left out Hondscio and his being eaten whole while the Geats looked on and Beowulf thought it best to include that detail.

Though why would anyone want to add such a gruesome thing in?

Perhaps Beowulf wanted to punch the story up a little bit. He hadn’t been sent out after a nest of monsters, and so couldn’t say he beat all of them up. Nor had he been out swimming alone for hours so he couldn’t exactly say that he defeated a bunch of water beasts. So he includes a demonstration of Grendel’s terrifying strength and appetite.

But then, shouldn’t Hygelac say “Hondscio? Who’s Hondscio?” Or “Oh, poor Hondscio!”

Beowulf names one of his otherwise nameless retinue here. And Hygelac says nothing. Which just confuses things further.

But maybe I’m demanding too much realism from such an old poem. Maybe this is why Beowulf was included along with the other strange and monstrous writings in the Nowell Codex. The events and characters of the poem are monstrous, but the things left out are even more so. In other words, even medieval monks thought it terrifying that characters lacked awareness and their interactions were so formulaic that they couldn’t speak up in the middle of them.

I mean, Beowulf is reporting to the man who is his social superior. If Hygelac had some questions, Beowulf would be silenced while those questions were asked and addressed.

Beyond those questions, though, is the poet’s word choice on line 2072. It’s here that the word “hæleða,” appears. This word means “fighter” or “man” or “hero”. Because of English’s quirks, just about any of those definitions could work in this passage since Beowulf could be talking about his and his troop’s struggles rather than the collective struggles of them and Grendel.

Even so, the use of this word as a plural makes me think. Is the poet humanizing Grendel again? At the very least, he is acknowledged as another warrior, rather than just as some crazed beast.

Journalist or storyteller or both, I think that it’s this consistent ambiguity that makes Beowulf and Grendel’s struggle so timeless.

Just like the struggle of someone against the crueller side of their nature, it could be read as a person fighting a monster. Or it could be read as a more intimate struggle, one between a person and some ugly aspect of themselves.

Actually, I think this fight does one better than Nietzsche’s warning about becoming a monster when you battle them. Because this fight really shows how close the monster and the human are to one another. There is no becoming the monster, only acknowledging it, accepting it, and moving beyond it. Or, perhaps, acquiescing to it.

What do you think of Beowulf’s addition of Hondscio to his story? Is he trying to make it more interesting for Hygelac? To demonstrate how terrifying Grendel is? Or is Beowulf just trying to make himself sound greater for destroying such a monster? Do you think this addition makes the fight and its participants even more frightening and monstrous?

As always, add your thoughts in the comments!


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Closing

Next week, Beowulf’s one man show “The Terrors of Grendel” continues!

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