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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A detour into the archaeological side of the Beowulf story

Archaeological find from Lejre of a silver figurine of Odin seated on his throne.

A silver figurine of Odin seated on his throne. Image from Von Harafnisa – Eigenes Werk, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=26076283.

Last week I dug up an article by David Keys that explained how the work of Dr Sam Newton showed that Beowulf was indeed an English story. Being more familiar with the literary side of the issue than the archaeological one, I was intrigued when simonjkyte posted a comment explaining that he didn’t believe that Beowulf was an English story.

Simonjkyte based his position on the idea that the alleged early Anglo-Saxon site Spong Hill (in North Elmham, Norfolk, England) was actually a Scandinavian site. This difference of settlers could be momentously important to the origin of Beowulf. If Spong Hill was in fact a Scandinavian settlement, then there would be a permanent Scandinavian presence in Anglo-Saxon England which could be the way in which Beowulf went from being a Scandinavian story to one told, and ultimately written down, by Old English speakers.

This week, I found another David Keys piece that sheds a bit more light on the subject. Unfortunately, I don’t have as much time as I’d like for these posts, so it’s not directly about Spong Hill and who the archaeological evidence suggests its early settlers were. Instead this article is about the discovery of a hall that could have been the basis for Heorot. This hall, unsurprisingly, is in Lejre (23 miles west of modern day Copenhagen), Denmark. Here’s the link.

To sum it up, Keys’ article explains how an archaeological expedition led by Tom Christensen uncovered a handful of royal halls near Lejre. Why a handful? Apparently, the Danes of the day dismantled the halls and moved them every few generations.

What Christensen and his team found in these halls suggests trade with England and the Rhineland, and their arrangement suggests that there was indeed something that drove the Danes of the day away from one of the halls; most of them are close together, but there is one that is 500 metres to the north of the rest.

Where this article starts to clarify the true origin of the Beowulf story and how it got to England is when Keys notes that Beowulf was likely brought to England when Scandinavian settlers came in the 6th or 7th centuries AD. So, somewhat confusingly, this three year old article admits that Beowulf is of Scandinavian origin, but was then made English by being written down.

This transmission and acquisition of stories happens all the time. If something strikes a people as being particularly important, then surely they’ll write it down. Even if it winds up turning into a poem of over 3000 alliterative lines.

So I guess the thinking behind announcing Beowulf as an English story is though Beowulf‘s origin is Scandinavian, the English made it their own when they wrote it down, giving the characters characteristic English wit, highlighting (or adding?) themes of storytelling and how greatness grates to a halt in the face of death.

Of course, given the settings of Daneland and Geatland, it seems that Beowulf definitely started out as a Scandinavian story, but it was transformed by the English into something different. Something different enough to make it English.

Though that transformation through writing doesn’t make it any less problematic that writing something down in your language gives you claim to it (much like the idea that sticking your flag in a chunk of land makes it yours). For me, this underlines even more how mixed and mingled the world’s cultures are. Just as individuals are the sum of their multifarious experience, so too are countries, it seems, which makes certain politicians’ ideas of border walls and exclusion utterly ridiculous.

Who do you think owns a story when it starts out as an oral performance only and is later written down? The originator? The writer? Or by the time that the split between performed and written happens are they two different stories regardless of their shared origin?

Beowulf’s mental power and the warrior’s way to riches (ll.1632-1643)

Synopsis
Translation
Recordings
Beowulf Purges his Inner Demons, but isn’t Indestructible
The Warrior’s Path to Riches
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: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Stories_of_beowulf_head_of_grendel.jpg#/media/File:Stories_of_beowulf_head_of_grendel.jpg


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Synopsis

Beowulf and the Geats lug Grendel’s head back to Heorot.


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Translation

“They then went forth on the footpath,
rejoicing in the wooded countryside, passing along the trail,
down familiar ways; those royally brave men
carried the head from the cliffs around the lake,
struggling with it all together,
the very bold. Four of them
balanced the beast’s head on their spearpoints
as they carried Grendel’s remains to the gold-hall.
Finally they could see the hall from the hill’s cusp,
the war-like fourteen turned from the road
and the Geats passed into the valley. The lord of battle
was at their heart as they strode through the meadhall’s yard.”
(Beowulf ll.1632-1643)


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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}


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Beowulf Purges his Inner Demons, but isn’t Indestructible

As someone reading this poem centuries after it was first performed and then later written out I can’t say for sure, but I think that the monks who were familiar with the story and wrote it out probably had Christ’s harrowing of hell and resurrection in mind when they penned Beowulf’s return. Hell has indeed been harrowed and the prize — in this case, and in the Biblical case, really — is a symbol of everlasting peace. Or, at least, peace from external forces. For there will always be things outside of our control that come in and stir things up.

Looked at in the context of the poem, though, I think that there’s a case to be made that Beowulf’s experience in the Grendels’ hall isn’t about Heorot at all. Instead it’s more about Beowulf himself.

In the comments on this entry, fellow writer about ancient things, Megas Begadonos mentions that the feminine has long been associated with the realm of the subconscious. Thus, Beowulf’s fighting and overcoming Grendel’s mother symbolizes his gaining control over his subconscious mind. Such a feat is indeed the mark of strength.

Of course, when he defeated Grendel, there’s no question that Beowulf showed an incredible strength. But when he defeats Grendel’s mother, I don’t think it’s just a matter of strength, or even of God or fate’s favour. I think the victory over Grendel’s mother is due to Beowulf’s adaptability and his mental resilience. Both qualities that could be useful in ferreting out subconscious impulses that might derail a warrior on the way to kingship.

After all, when Hrunting fails him, he’s quick enough to find another weapon to use against this foe who, in a straight grappling match seems to be his equal if not his superior. And since the sword that he grabs is an ancient weapon made by giants, it could be interpreted as wisdom or ancient knowledge, the kinds of things that could help someone in their struggles to not just subdue the demons that torment them and those around them, as Grendel did, but to take off their heads and rob them of all power.

Thus, unlike the Beowulf in Robert Zemeckis’ 2007 animated feature, in the poem Beowulf does not give in to the wiles of Grendel’s mother. Instead he is able to overcome a desire for the power that he could easily seize (a theme that also comes up in Beowulf: A Musical Epic, though not from Beowulf’s interaction with Grendel’s mother, but rather from Wealhtheow’s lusting for him).

Because of all of this symbolic growth, Beowulf eventually goes on to be a judicious king, only to lose his power and his life when a stranger rouses not just a humanoid monster but a flying, fire-breathing dragon. A beast all together alien from him and his experience, suggesting that as powerful as a person can become physically, mentally, or spiritually, there are still variables they can’t control for and obstacles they can’t top.

What do you think the symbolic significance is of the fight with Grendel’s mother? Is it any different from the significance of Beowulf’s fight with Grendel?


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The Warrior’s Path to Riches

As long as it was followed for the right reasons (according to the ring giver, of course), the “fold-weg”1 of the “fyrd-hwate”2 could be quite rewarding. Indeed, if you shook your “wæl-steng”3 in battlefields from the plains to the forests to the “holm-clif”4 you’d be on “feþe-last”5 to receive quite a reward. In fact, if you were “fela-modig”6 or even “cyne-beald”7 you could go to the “medu-wong”8 in triumph. For you’d know full well that you’d have a fantastic place in the “gold-sele”9 waiting for you.

1fold-weg: way, path, road, earth. fold (earth, ground, soil, terra firma; land, country, region; world) + weg (way, direction, path, road, highway,; journey, course of action)

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2fyrd-hwate: warlike, brave. fyrd (national levy or army, military expedition, campagin, camp) + hwæt ((as adjective) sharp, brisk, quick, active, bold, brave)

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3wæl-steng: spearshaft. wæl (slaughter, carnage) + steng (stake, pole, bar, rod, staff, cudgel) [A word that is exclusive to Beowulf.]

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4holm-clif: sea-cliff, rocky shore. holm (wave, sea, ocean, water) + clif (cliff, rock, promontory, steep slope) [A word that is exclusive to Beowulf.]

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5feþe-last: step, track, course. feðe (power of locomotion, walking, gait, pace) + last (sole of foot, spoor, footprint, track, trace)

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6fela-modig: very bold. fela (many, much, very much) + modig (spirited, daring, bold, brave, high-souled, magnanimous, impetuous, headstrong, arrogant, proud) [A word that is exclusive to Beowulf.]

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7cyne-beald: royally bold, very brave. cyning (king, ruler, god, Christ, Satan) + beald (bold, brave, confident, strong, presumptious, impudent) [A word that is exclusive to Beowulf.]

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8medu-wong: field (where the meadhall stood). medu (mead) + wang (plain, meadow, field, place, world) [A word that is exclusive to Beowulf.]

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9gold-sele: hall in which gold is distributed. gold (gold) + sele (hall, house, dwelling, prison)

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Closing

Next week, Grendel’s head enters Heorot.

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Beowulf breaks the surface, bringing in a brave and bloodless haul (ll.1623-1631)


Synopsis
Translation
Recordings
A Quieter Ending Grants Greater Closure?
Crab Fishers as Brave Bearers of Sea-Gifts
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: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Stories_of_beowulf_head_of_grendel.jpg#/media/File:Stories_of_beowulf_head_of_grendel.jpg


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Synopsis

Beowulf emerges from the Grendels’ lake and is gratefully met by his fellow Geats.


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Translation

“Then came the seafarer to the safety of land,
swimming stout-heartedly, joyous with his sea-spoils,
the amazing burden that he had with him then.
They all flocked to him, thanked god,
that mighty heap of thanes, took delight in their chief,
that they were able to see him safe again.
Then they were busied with the swift unbinding
of helm and byrnie. The lake’s surface stilled,
the sky was again visible within, though dappled in blood.”
(Beowulf ll.1623-1631)


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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}


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A Quieter Ending Grants Greater Closure?

As Beowulf resurfaces we see his thanes crowd around him, giving their thanks and feeling overjoyed for his safe return. Then they take his armour off as the poet reflects on how the lake is stilled. Though there is still some blood at the surface.

This little section of the poem does a lot to signal that the battle is over, and in a much more meaningful way than the parts of the poem that followed the fight with Grendel.

After that fight we saw Beowulf being loudly celebrated by the Danes and heard the story of Sigemund and the the dragon. There was feasting and festivities almost immediately after the victory.

But, here, by the side of the Grendels’ lake, we just get a man’s loyal retainers thanking god for his safe return and removing from him the garb of battle. The exuberant celebration around the defeat of Grendel is very satisfying, but the quiet reception Beowulf gets after leaving the lake is much more conclusive.

Not unlike what comes after the climax in the classical arc of a story.

As Aristotle put down in his Poetics, after the climax of a story there’s the denouement.

The denouement is the part of the tale where the hero settles down and the new normal (whatever that may be) sets in. It’s the part of a story where the audience can settle back into their seat after spending the previous part of it on its edge and reflect on what just happened. It’s the critical down time where you can bask in the glow of the story that’s just been told while still being in it.

Actually, most superhero movies spring to mind when I think about the ending to this adventure of Beowulf’s compared to the end of the adventure with Grendel.

By the end of the first movie in a planned trinity there’s a loose thread or two that aren’t tied up by the time the credits roll. And, now, more and more, there are even more loose ends presented after the credits. A more conclusive ending doesn’t come until the third movie.

As such, that first movie is just like the fight with Grendel, there’s much fanfare for the victory, but the savvy reader can see the signs that there’s more to come. In a way, Beowulf’s victory over Grendel was “too easy”.

After finishing the fight with Grendel’s mother, however (and taking Grendel’s head), there is no fanfare. No stories are raucously told. No gifts of gold or horses are promised and presented. Instead, Beowulf’s armour is undone not by his hand, but by those of his men.

I can’t say for sure, but to me this gesture betokens a great deal of closure. The actor, Beowulf, isn’t just taking off his costume to prepare for the next scene. His captive audience, his fellow Geats, are removing that costume, as if to say, “we, the audience, acknowledge that the story’s over, you’re free to go.”

Which denouement do you find more rewarding: that of the fight with Grendel, or of the fight with Grendel’s mother? Why?


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Crab Fishers as Brave Bearers of Sea-Gifts

As shows like Deadliest Catch illustrate, any “lid-mann”1 who goes out after crab is indeed “swið-mod”2. But you’d have to be to haul in such a “sæ-lac”3 as those crab, that “mægen-byrþen”4 taken in by net. And all without the “wæl-dreore”5 being spilled between crab and “lid-mann,” though the sea and the elements are much fiercer fighters.

1lid-mann: seafarer, sailor, pirate. lid (ship, vessel) + mann (person, man, mankind, brave man, hero, vassal, servant, name of the rune for ‘m’)

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2swið-mod: stout-hearted, brave, insolent, arrogant. swið (strong, mighty, powerful, active, severe, violent) + mod (heart, mind, spirit, mood, temper, courage, arrogance, pride, power, violence)

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3sæ-lac: sea-gift, sea-spoil. (sheet of water, sea, lake, pool) + lac (play, sport, strife, battle, sacrifice, offering, gift, present, booty, message) [A word that is exclusive to Beowulf.]

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4mægen-byrþen: huge burden. mægen (bodily strength, might, main, force, power, vigour, valour, virtue, efficacy, efficiency, good deed, picked men of a nation, host, troop, army, miracle) + byrðen (burden, load, weight, charge, duty) [A word that is exclusive to Beowulf.]

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5wæl-dreore: blood of battle, battle gore. wæl (slaughter, carnage) + dreore (blood)

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Closing

Next week, Beowulf and the Geats head back to Heorot.

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A marathon inspired by Beowulf?

Ben de Rivaz and Tom Burton train for the Breca Wanaka SwimRun, inspired by Beowulf.

Breca Wanaka SwimRun race organiser Ben de Rivaz, of the UK, right, trains with friend Tom Burton in Lake Wanaka in front of Ruby Island. Image from http://www.stuff.co.nz/sport/85042363/new-multisport-concept-launches-in-wanaka-in-march

Earlier in this blog I found a connection between Beowulf and baseball. That connection of the ancient poem to modern sport was pretty unexpected. The latest connection between Beowulf and sports is much clearer, but no less surprising.

This connection is the sport known as “swimrun”. You can read all about an English enthusiast’s setting up a new course in Australia, and get a quick summary of the sport here.

With its start in Sweden, and a slow spread throughout Europe (so far mostly England, it sounds like), “swimrun” is a marathon that involves (unsurprisingly) swimming and running. The twist comes in with the condition that competitors must wear running shoes and a wetsuit for the entire race and carry certain gear as well.

Unfortunately, this article doesn’t specify what kind of gear needs to be carried, but given the analog to Beowulf’s swimming race with Breca, it wouldn’t surprise me if the gear was something that tried to replicate the weight and feel of a sword. Interestingly, though, given the fact that Beowulf is an Old English poem about Nordic peoples, the only explicit reference to Beowulf and Breca’s swimming race associated with swimruns (as far as I know) is the name of English enthusiast Ben de Rivaz’s new course. That name is, quite simply, the Breca Wanaka SwimRun.

Though the name of his course isn’t the only reference to the swimming race in Beowulf. De Rivaz’s also requires competitors to race in pairs.

Movie, book, theatrical, and TV adaptations are one thing, but it’s great to see that Beowulf is inspiring people in other spheres as well. It just shows that fans of Beowulf have diverse interests, which suggests to me that the poem really has a broad appeal.

Though, I think Beowulf has a few advantages over other literature when it comes to broad appeal. I mean, how can you go wrong with something that’s literature but also includes magic, monsters, and even a dragon?

Along with Breca and Beowulf’s swimming race, Quidditch and other sports from books have been adapted to real life settings. If you could put together a club or league based on a game from any book which would you choose? Let me know in the comments!

Courageous hope and a summary of the Finn and Hengest incident (ll.1600-1611)

Synopsis
Translation
Recordings
The Geat’s Hope, Beowulf’s Bewilderment, God’s Power
A Summary of What Happened to Hengest in Finn’s Hall
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: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Stories_of_beowulf_head_of_grendel.jpg#/media/File:Stories_of_beowulf_head_of_grendel.jpg


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Synopsis

The Danes go while the Scyldings stay. Meanwhile, Beowulf’s sword melts.


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Translation

“Then came the ninth hour of the day. To a man
the brave Scyldings left the lake, and with them went
that generous gold-friend. But the strangers stayed to wait,
though sick at heart, and stared at those waters;
they wished and yet could not believe that they would see
in the flesh once more their lord and friend. Meanwhile,
back in the cave the sword began, after the blood of battle
spattered the war-icicle, to soften and wane. It was a wondrous sight,
all the blade melting away much like ice
when the Father looses the frost bonds,
unties the waters from their cold-cords, he who has power
over the sowing and the harvest; such is truly the Measurer’s might.”
(Beowulf ll.1600-1611)


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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}


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The Geat’s Hope, Beowulf’s Bewilderment, God’s Power

At least the Geats kept faith. Sort of.

It’s pretty clear that they stayed on because of a stubborn hope that Beowulf would return. Though the poet acknowledges that this hope is tempered with the belief that the Danes must be right, that Beowulf must be dead.

Nonetheless, I think that the Geat’s sticking around is a different kind of ofermod. That the Geats don’t just get up and leave with the Danes exemplifies a kind of internal courage to wish and hope in the face of adversity. It’s the kind of hope that isn’t easy to conjure up and hold onto, so I think the Geats definitely show tremendous spirit in holding onto it, despite their belief that Beowulf is dead.

Actually, I take the Geats’ enduring faith in Beowulf as a sign that the poet believes the Geats have more life in them than the Danes. After all, the poet’s told us that Heorot will burn, but (so far) no mention of the fall of the Geats has been made.

At any rate, after that look at sorrowful hope, the poet brings us back to the man himself.

We rejoin Beowulf as he watches the sword he pulled from the Grendels’ armoury melt. Apparently because Grendel’s blood (but not his mother’s?) was too hot for the steel to handle. Which, I guess makes sense, since, Grendel would have to be the hotter blooded of the two.

I mean, he was the one who actively went out and attacked Heorot. All the while we can only guess that Grendel’s mother just did her own thing. At least, that is, until Grendel was killed. Though up until then I think it’s fair to say, as the Greeks might, that Grendel had itchy blood.

The imagery that the poet uses to explain the melting of the sword, much like Beowulf’s swordstrokes in his battles, is perfectly placed. This image demonstrates the power of god as an entity that has the ability to melt the ice, and, as I’ve translated it, is an entity that “has power/over the sowing and the harvest” (“se geweald hafað/sæla ond mæla” (ll.1610-1611)). So this god is nothing to mess around with, but also a powerful ally for one such as Beowulf.

Plus, the use of the image of melting ice is a great metaphor for the melting away of the chilly atmosphere around Heorot. Just as in a video game, the defeat of the Grendels’ has palpably restored peace to Daneland. In fact, even the waters that Beowulf swims through, which were once teeming with all sorts of monsters, are now seemingly calm.

So I don’t think it’s much of a jump to go from the image of god freeing the waters from their “frost bonds” (“forstes bend” (l.1609)) to Beowulf freeing Daneland from the Grendels’ grip of terror.

Why do you think Grendel’s blood melted Beowulf’s sword?


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A Summary of What Happened to Hengest in Finn’s Hall

After being trapped there for the winter by frozen water, Hengest was forced into an uneasy truce with his enemy Finn. Along with being untrustworthy in the past, Hengest’s lord and his lord’s nephew had just been killed in pitched battle.

Now, Hengest, that “gold-wine”1, tried to resist the “heaþo-swate”2 that called to him. But his men implored their “wine-dryhten”3 to revenge, and he could not resist the “wig-bill”4. Though he waited through a long winter to exact revenge for his lord and his son, waited until the “wæl-rap”5 were melted from the sea-ways.

At least, that’s the reason the poets give.

I think he waited to ensure that his wrath would not just be a “hild-gicel”6, melting away after the strife in the hall. Instead he wanted something surer and so waited until his hatred hardened into the kind of “wig-bill”4 that Beowulf would praise.

1gold-wine: liberal prince, lord, king. gold (gold) + wine (friend, protector, lord, retainer)

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2heaþo-swate: blood of battle. heaðu (war) + swat (sweat, perspiration, exudation, blood, foam, toil, labour)

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3wine-dryhten: friendly lord, lord and friend. wine (friend, protector, lord, retainer) + dryhten (ruler, king, prince, lord)

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4wig-bill: sword. wig (strife, contest, war, battle) + bill (chopper, battle axe, falchion, sword) [A compound word that’s exclusive to Beowulf.]

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5wæl-rap: flood-fetter (ice). wæl (whirlpool, eddy, pool, ocean, sea, river, flood) + rap (rope, cord, cable)

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6hild-gicel: battle-icicle (blood dripping from a sword [like water from an icicle]). hild (war, combat) + gicel (icicle, ice) [A compound word that’s exclusive to Beowulf.]


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Closing

Next week, Beowulf makes his escape.

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How “Northern Courage” and ofermōde help Beowulf stand out

A simple drawing of old Beowulf reflecting on heroes of the past.

Image found at: http://mseffie.com/assignments/beowulf/beowulf.html. (If you are, or know, the artist, please get in touch so I can give proper credit.)

In my wanderings to find something to write about for this week’s news post, I came across this article from A Tolkienist Perspective: Northern Courage, Ofermōde and Thorin Oakenshield’s last stand.

In this article, James (the author) offers a fairly in depth look at J.R.R. Tolkien’s conception of “Northern courage,” and his interpretation of the tricky Old English word “ofermōde.” The former of these is a sort of boldness that Tolkien explained as maintaining a persistent spirit despite terrible odds. And, according to this article, Tolkien understood “ofermōde” as that Northern courage going too far. In a sense, Northern courage is the kind of spirit that buoys you towards your goal through stormy waters, where ofermōde catapults you across those waters and clear past your goal.

Stepping outside of the realm of Beowulf and into one of the most popular creative worlds that it inspired, gives me a bit of perspective on the original poem. As such, reading James’ article got me thinking that one of the things that I really appreciate about Beowulf is that it is indeed a story with consequences. Unlike other poems that might be described as “epic,” though, those consequences aren’t national rivalries or divine wrath. Instead they are the end of the hero and his people. Thus, Beowulf is really more of an elegiac epic (or an epic elegy).

But what does that have to do with this article about J.R.R. Tolkien’s ideas of Northern courage and foolhardiness?

Well, something that’s always fascinated me is people’s comparing themselves to the characters of the great stories of their times.

Throughout the classical period and the Renaissance (unfortunately, the stars of a lot of medieval epics were saints or Christ himself, so comparisons weren’t quite so welcome), people would make these comparisons to famed heroes for rhetorical purposes. But these heroes always have some fatal flaw, and it often seemed to me that saying “I’m just like Hercules!” was foolish because of Hercules’ sufferings (killing his own family in a fit of divine rage, dying when he dons a coat that burned away all of his skin).

Sure, it’s easy to compare yourself to a hero in their prime, and maybe that’s all that was intended with these comparisons. But to my mind there was a kind of hubris, a kind of overstepping of the speakers’ bounds just in the comparison alone. These heroes are something beyond human already. I mean, with my above example, Hercules is the son of Zeus and, after his agonizing death he rises to Olympus.

Nonetheless, the superstitious part of me winces when these kinds of comparisons are made since they’re like the point in so many cartoons where one character says “things are better than ever!” and the situation quickly turns around.

But, although the idea of hubris is pretty widespread, Tolkien’s understanding of Northern courage and ofermōde as counterparts (as James explains) goes a long way into expressing why Beowulf stands out for me.

Beowulf isn’t a form like a Greek drama or a Homeric epic with strict rules for dramatists and poets to follow. Instead, it’s a single story that embodies its culture’s greatest attribute (the courage to stand and defend your community against all others and the harsh Northern European elements) and its greatest downfall (the extreme of courage, where actions quickly become more and more foolish) in a single story and a single character.

After all, Beowulf himself oversteps his courage and exhibits too much spiritedness when he insists on fighting the dragon on his own despite his age and despite the danger. This closing of the loop of action and consequence in a single story and in a very human way just seems utterly unique to me, like it’s something that no other story of Beowulf‘s scope manages to do. Beowulf lives, fights monsters, displaying more and more courage each time, until finally that courage becomes too much and he (and his people) die. It’s a sorrowful story, for sure. But it’s complete in a way that nothing else I’ve come across is.

James’ article helped to clarify that for me. Maybe it’ll do something similar for you, so go give it a read.

What do you think of the idea of separating courage into something to be celebrated (Tolkien’s Northern courage) and something that’s just stupid (“ofermōde”, or “foolhardiness,” as it could be translated)? Is all courage stupidity or is there necessary courage that’s actually kind of wise?

Leave your thoughts in the comments!