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