Beowulf’s boasts, pro wrestling, and fame (ll.1999-2013)

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

Beowulf fights Grendel as depicted by Santiago Garcia and David Rubin's graphic novel adaptation of Beowulf.

Beowulf battles Grendel in Santiago Garcia and David Rubin’s Beowulf. Image from http://bit.ly/2jVrgOn.


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Synopsis

Beowulf begins the story of his time at Heorot.


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The Original Old English

“Biowulf maðelode, bearn Ecgðioes:
‘þæt is undyrne, dryhten Higelac,
micel gemeting, monegum fira,
hwylc orleghwil uncer Grendles
wearð on ðam wange, þær he worna fela
Sigescyldingum sorge gefremede,
yrmðe to aldre. Ic ðæt eall gewræc,
swa begylpan ne þearf Grendeles maga
ænig ofer eorðan uhthlem þone,
se ðe lengest leofað laðan cynnes,
facne bifongen. Ic ðær furðum cwom
to ðam hringsele Hroðgar gretan;
sona me se mæra mago Healfdenes,
syððan he modsefan minne cuðe,
wið his sylfes sunu setl getæhte.'”
(Beowulf ll.1999-2013)


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My Translation

“Beowulf spoke, son of Ecgtheow:
‘That is all widely known, lord Hygelac,
that journey’s fame has spread to many among mankind,
how Grendel and I grappled
at the very place where he was used to
terrorizing the Victory-Shieldings with terrible sorrow,
where we battled for life with bare limb. There I avenged all,
so that no kin of Grendel’s would have need
to boast to any over earth when the crash of dawn came,
no matter how long any of his dark brood may last,
all that treacherous and trembling bunch. But when at first
I arrived at that ring hall I greeted Hrothgar.
Soon he trusted to my reputation, the son of Halfdane,
after he came to know the wish of my heart,
then he presented me with a seat between his own sons.'”
(Beowulf ll.1999-2013)


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A Quick Interpretation

This passage is Beowulf’s prologue for his own story. He entices Hygelac’s attention with his boast about his adventure in Daneland already being well-known, and then gives a preview of the match between himself and Grendel. And maybe this gives a little too much away.

Nonetheless, I find it pretty funny how similar Beowulf’s delivery is to what you’d hear from late 20th century pro wrestlers. The hyperbole, the extremity and slight contrivance of describing his victory over Grendel as reason for Grendel’s relatives to have nothing to boast about. For an example of what I mean, here’s a clip of the most extreme 80’s/90’s pro wrestler: The Ultimate Warrior:

Of course, Beowulf’s words make a little more sense, but that’s what sets literature apart from pro wrestling promos.

But aside from Beowulf’s rhetoric matching (appropriately?) the modern day male soap opera that is pro wrestling, he also subscribes to #8 in Kurt Vonnegut’s list of writing rules.

In just five lines (lines 2005-2009) he tells Hygelac the most important information from his story: that he beat up Grendel. Not how, so much, but he’s given away the ending. Granted, Beowulf’s presence does mean that he beat Grendel (or ran away), but he probably wouldn’t be so haughty about it if he ran away. Unless it turned out that Beowulf was actually going to turn into the Unferth of the Geat kingdom. But that would be a very different epic poem.

This passage also reminds us of the importance of boasts in Anglo-Saxon culture.

It’s not just that Beowulf uses this device once again to say how quickly his incredible story has become widely known (tying boasting to reputation). He also demonstrates how not being able to boast (and therefore bolster your reputation) is a bad thing. Even if you’re being barred from boasting about a relative.

Though when it comes to boasting about relatives’ accomplishments, I pretty much immediately think of schoolyard boasts about uncles who work at Nintendo.

Of course, people today don’t generally introduce themselves as “Beowulf, son of Ecgtheow” (“Biowulf maðelode, bearn Ecgðioes” (l.1999)), so it seems like boasting about your family’s accomplishments went the same way. Actually, all of this kind of makes me wonder how Beowulf would go if his father wasn’t notable. No doubt there would be some retroactive fame for his parents since they would become known as the parents of the great Beowulf. Curious how fame spreads forward and backward in time like that, isn’t it?

Actually, it makes me wonder how Beowulf would do on social media. Would we get a Twitter feed full of baseless boasts or would he rock Instagram with pictures of all of his latest victories, stunningly hashtagged and captioned? What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments!


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Closing

Next week, Beowulf shares some otherwise unknown information about Heorot.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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Beowulf as spiritual achiever (ll.1840-1854)

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

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

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


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Synopsis

Hrothgar says that Beowulf will make a good king, if he ever gets the chance to take the throne.


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The Original Old English

“Hroðgar maþelode him on ondsware:
‘þe þa wordcwydas wigtig drihten
on sefan sende; ne hyrde ic snotorlicor
on swa geongum feore guman þingian.
þu eart mægenes strang ond on mode frod,
wis wordcwida. Wen ic talige,
gif þæt gegangeð, þæt ðe gar nymeð,
hild heorugrimme, Hreþles eaferan,
adl oþðe iren ealdor ðinne,
folces hyrde, ond þu þin feorh hafast,
þæt þe Sægeatas selran næbben
to geceosenne cyning ænigne,
hordweard hæleþa, gyf þu healdan wylt
maga rice. Me þin modsefa
licað leng swa wel, leofa Beowulf.'”
(Beowulf ll.1840-1854)


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My Translation

“Hrothgar spoke to him in answer:
‘The Lord in his wisdom sent those words
into your mind; never have I heard wiser words
from one so young in age.
You are of powerful strength and of wise mind,
with wit in your words. I consider it something to be expected,
that if it shall happen that the spear takes him,
if fierce battle seizes the son of Hrethel,
if illness or iron edge claims your lord,
the guardian of people, and you still have your life,
then the Sea Geats will not have
anyone better to choose as king,
warrior of hoard guardians, if you will rule
the kingdom of your kin. The better I know you,
the more I like you, dear Beowulf.'”
(Beowulf ll.1840-1854)


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A Quick Question

If this was set in a democracy, Beowulf definitely has Hrothgar’s vote. But, since the world of Beowulf is more of a feudal monarchy, Hrothgar’s words are at least a ringing endorsement of Beowulf. If (if!) he should ever be king. Since he’s not Hygelac’s son, or an heir in any other direct way, Beowulf can’t exactly bank on being king of the Geats.

The real story here, I think, is in the first few lines of this passage.

I can’t quite get over Hrothgar’s saying that “‘the Lord in his wisdom sent those words/into your mind'” (“þe þa wordcwydas wigtig drihten/on sefan sende” (l.1841-1842)). There’s something here to suggest that Beowulf was indeed written down by a Christian monk (or monks) who wasn’t afraid to add a bit of Christianity into their copying.

I mean, if Hrothgar is complimenting Beowulf on being a medium for divine wisdom, then it seems to me that he’s saying Beowulf has a direct line to the divine law that’s inscribed on the hearts of all good Christians, according to medieval theology. In other words, Beowulf is in a spiritually perfect state, despite his youth.

But I can’t really justify that reading of those few lines.

Nothing else in Hrothgar’s speech seems to have been Christianized, nor point in that direction. The list of potential killers of Hygelac just seems like a list of fatal things. There’s no “live by the sword, die by the sword” about it. But I think that, even if some meddling monks did make a few subtle changes to the poem, the Catholic Church in northern Europe saw Beowulf as a way to bridge Germanic paganism and Christianity.

After all, Beowulf was a figure that could blend the brazen machismo of figures like Odin or Thor with a righteous warrior persona who put on the armour of the holy spirit. I think that side comes out when Beowulf chalks his victory over Grendel up to god, and why the poet says things like ‘fate must decide’ or that god was on Beowulf’s side.

But where’s my proof for this interpretation?

Well, Beowulf’s battle prowess can be seen pretty plainly in his boasts and when he actually takes out Grendel and the monster’s mother. It’s something that the poet can show us as well as tell us.

But that doesn’t make him a complete person in the medieval mind.

To do that, he also need to have achieved spiritually. But that’s harder to show convincingly.

Though Beowulf’s emerging from the Grendels’ lake at around the same time as Christ is said to have given up his spirit when on the cross could get this across, if your audience or readers were familiar enough with that part of the Easter story. There’s also Beowulf’s harrowing the monster’s lair, just as Christ harrowed hell, according to the Catholic Easter story.

Yet character isn’t just revealed through actions. It’s also learned through what other people say about a person. So, as a long time and mostly successful king, Hrothgar’s saying that god put those words into Beowulf’s mind (and the implication that Beowulf was able to release them as they were) is definitely a legitimate way to show that Beowulf has obtained some level of spiritual achievement.

But that’s all just my theory. What’s your take on Hrothgar’s words to Beowulf? Is there any secret Christian meaning in them, or is Hrothgar just saying “hey Beowulf, you’ll be a good king” and nothing more?

Leave your thoughts in the comments!


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Closing

Next week, Hrothgar gets political in his farewell speech.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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Beowulf and the Creationist: A lesson in critical thinking

Maybe it’s possible that, ceolocanth-like, one or two species of dinosaur lived on into the ancient Greek world. Maybe one even made it far enough to meet a knight or medieval king. Although, if the stories are to be taken literally, any dinosaur in such a situation would be summarily slain.

As an explanation for the dragon in fiction, the idea that some giant lizard from a long lost age doesn’t seem too far fetched if you limit it to the stories that early sailors no doubt told about giant sea serpents. These kinds of stories could have easily inspired the the water-based dragons of stories like Perseus and Andromeda. From there, poets and artists could have easily added their own twist to the terrible monster of the deep by bringing it onto land, letting it breathe fire, and having it fly on enormous leathery wings.

But to think that the flying dragon of medieval Europe was itself a dinosaur is a little too much. And claiming that the dragon that terrorizes the Geats in the last third of Beowulf is an eye-witness account of a dinosaur is downright dumb. Yet, according to this article, that’s exactly what geologist Andrew Snelling claimed when reporter Charles Wolford asked about the matter.

Now, Snelling is a staunch creationist. Wolford caught up with him at the Noah’s Ark theme park in Williamstown, Kentucky. So Snelling’s understanding of the world’s history is necessarily compressed. But to think that a dragon’s being in Beowulf is eye-witness proof is problematic on two levels.

First, there are no fossils (as far as I know) for a dinosaur that’s long and serpentine like a Chinese dragon but that also has wings like the dragon on the Welsh flag. Even setting that aside in the “physical evidence category,” I also know of now dinosaur which paleontologists believe could breathe fire. There are a lot of “what if” books about this point of dragon physiology, and many of them try to be as “scientific” as possible. But these books, like Beowulf, are fiction.

Which brings me to my second point. The use of Beowulf‘s dragon as evidence that humans and dinosaurs lived together at some point in the past is a fantastic example of people picking and choosing what they want to get out of a story. Because if the dragon is a real monster, then so too must Grendel and Grendel’s mother be based on real monsters.

Now, I’ve spent a lot of time making the case that Grendel and Grendel’s mother are sympathetic characters, maybe even the remnants of a displaced clan of people. But even if they were inspired by such, the details that we’re given about them in the poem are far from being based in reality.

Grendel is immune to weapons made of iron. But I can guarantee that 10 out of 10 people who try to nick themselves with an iron knife will bleed – humans are not iron resistant.

Along similar lines, Grendel’s blood melted the blade of an ancient sword. I’m guessing that most people who are reading this have bled before, and probably didn’t have the bandage or tissue they used to staunch the bleeding melt away as the red stuff spilled out onto these pads.

So if people like Snelling want to say that Beowulf is proof that humans and dinosaurs co-existed, then they must also believe that there are humanoids on earth that bleed a kind of acid and who are immune to iron weapons.

Now, I feel like I’ve come down a little hard on Snelling. And I kind of mean to.

After all, I think that there is some truth both philosophical and historical in Beowulf.

The prevalence of trolls and dragons in stories suggests that they were popular for a reason, though I don’t think that it’s because they were ever real in the way that ancestral swords were. I understand Beowulf as being historically reflective of tropes and metaphors and ideas that were popular when it was written.

It’s one thing to say that, for example, Beowulf took on the people of early Sweden and died in a pyrrhic victory, but it’s much more interesting and hardcore to say that he fought a dragon that was terrorizing his people and died doing so. Making a battle with a dragon the climax of a story about a man whose power makes him as monstrous as the monsters he fights is just far more suiting than saying that he died fighting some war.

Likewise, let’s say that there’s a historical analogy for the first two thirds of the poem. If so, then it’s much more heroic and exciting to read about a man defeating two monsters that no one has even got close to scratching for twelve years than to read about a bully from Geatland coming in and killing off the last two of a tribe of people who have an ancestral claim to the lands where Heorot stands.

Part of the power of fiction is embellishment, and when we forget that, we leave ourselves open to looking very foolish indeed.

But that’s also what makes knowing the difference between fiction and fact and knowing how fiction can be given the sheen of fact (think fake news) that makes thinking critically about what we read incredibly important. And what Snelling’s interpretation of Beowulf teaches us here is that it’s important to think just as critically about what gets written today as what was written 1000 and more years ago.

The book that changed Beowulf’s course in pop culture

The cover for the 1989 edition of John Gardner's Beowulf-inspired Grendel.

The cover for the 1989 edition of John Gardner’s Grendel. Image from http://amzn.to/2gZcPqK

I first read John Gardner’s novel Grendel while studying for my master’s degree at the University of Victoria. The same copy I read then now sits on my shelf, begging for a reread. And it’s deserving of one, I think. I remember the novel being a complex web of meanings and interpretations, though the meaning that was front and centre was a straightforward critique of human society through the eyes of Grendel.

Yes, as the book’s title suggests, it focuses on Grendel and what he gets up to between bouts of terrorizing Heorot. But it’s not all loping around the moors, scaring animals and feasting on his victims. The humans intrigue him as they build Heorot and celebrate its beauty and light. But he also sees and feels just how different he is from the Danes. And when Grendel first sees Beowulf he has this eerie feeling that his days are numbered.

It’s a good read, and from Gardner’s flipping of the original poem’s focus, to his social commentary through the monster’s eyes, to his use of zodiac symbolism, there’s a lot to its 174 pages. If you have the chance you should check it out!

But what brought Gardner’s book to mind today was my discovery of this extract from an article that centres around Gardner’s Grendel.

The extract explains how the pop culture scholars Michael Livingstone and John William Sutton argue that though the 20th century is full of adaptations of Beowulf, Gardner’s Grendel marks a turning point in these works. Whereas those that came before the novel are usually just retellings of Beowulf tailored to suit various genres and audiences, those that came after it share in Gardner’s use of the poem and of Grendel to generate social commentary on specific figures, incidents, or observed traits of the human condition.

If you’re interested in reading their article in full, you can find it here.

Along with Livingston and Sutton’s main thesis, the article is a treasure trove of adaptations that I never even knew existed. So if you’re interested in reading historical fiction based around Beowulf, or tracking down a rock musical in which Grendel’s a punk rocker, check out that article for some extra details.

Why do you think the Beowulf story is so widely adapted? What is it about the story and its characters that make it so flexible?

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?

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)

Back Up

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.]

Back Up

 


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Closing

Next week, Beowulf speaks!

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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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.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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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.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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Beowulf leaves the underwater haul, and a summary of his time in the Grendels’ hall (ll.1612-1622)

Synopsis
Translation
Recordings
Take only What’s Needed, Leave only Slaughter?
A Treasure Never Lost
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 grabs a couple of things and then leaves the Grendels’ hall.


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Translation

“Nothing more did he take from that place, the lord of Weder-Geats,
any valuable things, though he there many did see,
except for the head and the hilt both,
the shining treasure; the blade before it melted
was a fire-hardened damescened edge, but its blood was too hot,
that alien spirit’s poison, the one which died there.
Soon he was safe and swimming, he who in earlier strife
had called down defeat in his wrath, he climbed through the waters;
the churning waters had been purified,
likewise was the land thereabouts, when that alien spirit
left off her life days and lost her loaned life.”
(Beowulf ll.1612-1622)


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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}


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Take only What’s Needed, Leave only Slaughter?

Beowulf must want to travel light. Otherwise, I can’t see why he doesn’t take more from the strange hall of the Grendels. Practically speaking, anyway.

Poetically, there’s a parallel here between the dragon and the thief who steals the cup. There’s even a parallel between Beowulf’s taking little and Wiglaf taking only a single item from the dragon’s hoard after it’s defeated. But after having seen the armoury of the Grendels’ I still don’t quite see why Beowulf doesn’t go back and grab a complete sword. I guess he’s already carrying Hrunting though, since he owes Unferth that sword.

Stepping back, Beowulf’s choice to not raid the Grendels’ armoury like someone who’s just teamed up with a bunch of other players and headed to a dungeon in World of Warcraft makes a little more sense when you think about the figurative weight of what he took.

Grendel’s head is the symbol of the end of the Grendels’ reign of terror. There is a very old belief that to cut the head off of an enemy ensures the loss of their power. Aside from physiology, the idea that the head is the central part of something lives on in things like the word “capital” (from the Latin “caput”, or “head”). After all, a capital is where a country’s government is based, and therefore one of the most symbolically significant places in any sort of major conflict.

The sword hilt that Beowulf doesn’t just pitch into the water but takes with him also has its significance.

As we’ll learn later, there’s a story engraved on the hilt. And though Beowulf comes from a vibrant oral tradition, I’m sure that the notion of writing was held in very high esteem. I’m not sure what kind of script would be on the hilt, but the importance that’s ascribed to this hilt with its engraved story of the great flood really plays into the idea that a written story gained even more reverence than a remembered one.

Actually, maybe this little trinket suggests (at least in part) why Beowulf was eventually written down. It was simply well regarded enough to justify all of the effort that went into writing something down before the age of widely available pulp-based paper and ballpoint pens.

Would you have just taken what Beowulf took, or would you have tried to take all the treasure out of the Grendels’ hall as the spoils of victory?


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A Treasure Never Lost

It sounds like something out of a video game, but Beowulf did it first. He went down to a hall of monsters, where he fought an “ellor-gast”1 or two. And during the strife he found a “maðm-æht”2, a giant’s sword. A weapon that guaranteed the monster’s “wig-hryre”3. And though after beheading the other “ellor-gast”1 that giant’s “broden-mæl”4 had melted away he still had the hilt and the story of how he got it.

Along with Grendel’s head, he pulled the hilt out with him, too, as he swam through a “yð-geblond”5 that had now calmed. Though of the three things he hauled out of the underwater hall, it’s the story that he’ll have for the rest of his “lif-dæg”6.

 

1ellor-gast: alien spirit. ellor (elsewhere, elsewhither, to some other place) + gast (spirit, ghost) [A word that is exclusive to Beowulf.]

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2maðm-æht: valuable thing, treasure. maðum (treasure, object of value, jewel, ornament) + æht (possessions, goods, lands, wealth, cattle, serf, ownership, control) [A word that is exclusive to Beowulf.]

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3wig-hryre: slaughter, defeat. wig (strife, contest, war, battle, valour, military force, army) + hryre (fall, descent, ruin, destruction, decay) [A word that is exclusive to Beowulf.]

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4broden-mæl: damescened sword. broden (surface, board, plank, tablet) + mæl (mark, sign, ornament, cross, crucifix, armour, harness, sword, measure; time, point of time, occasion, season, time for eating, meal, meals)

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5yð-geblond: wave mixture, surge. yð (wave, billow, flood, sea, liquid, water) + blandan (blend, mix, mingle, trouble, disturb, corrupt)

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6lif-dæg: life-day, lifetime. lif (life, existence, life-time) + dæg (day, life-time, Last Day, name of the rune for ‘d’)

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Closing

Next week, Beowulf returns to the surface.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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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.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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