The trouble with Beowulf humanizing Grendel’s mother (ll.2115-2128)

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

Grendel's mother menaces the pinned Beowulf with a knife.

By J. R. Skelton – Marshall, Henrietta Elizabeth (1908) Stories of Beowulf, T.C. & E.C. Jack, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11001837


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Synopsis

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


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The Original Old English

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


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My Translation

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

(Beowulf ll.2115-2128)


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A Quick Interpretation

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

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

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

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

But I think there could be more to it.

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

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

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

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

Share your thoughts in the comments!


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Closing

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

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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Did Beowulf “yes, and…” a glove? (ll.2081-2100)

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

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

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


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Synopsis

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


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The Original Old English

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


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My Translation

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


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A Quick Interpretation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Closing

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

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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Telling tall tales? Beowulf gives Grendel a greater role (ll.2069b-2080)

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

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

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


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Synopsis

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


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The Original Old English

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


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My Translation

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


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A Quick Interpretation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As always, add your thoughts in the comments!


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Closing

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

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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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?