Is Beowulf an introvert?

Synopsis
Translation
Recordings
Beowulf’s Struggle with Story
It’s Just a Simple Ancient Sword
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 tells the story of his fight against Grendel’s mother. This is his rough draft performance.


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Translation

“Beowulf spoke, son of Ecgtheow:
‘Harken unto me, son of Halfdane,
lord of the Scyldings, we who have been to the sea-lake
have brought back booty, a mark of fame, for all here to look upon.
I escaped that choppy conflict,
the war beneath the waters, ventured through
the risky deed; the fight was nearly taken from me,
but God shielded me.
In that struggle I could not bring Hrunting
to bear, though it is a noble weapon;
but the lord of men allowed
that I might see hanging on the cave wall
a shining magnificent sword of elder-craft — often
will the wise aid the friendless — that I seized and brandished as my own.'”
(Beowulf ll.1651-1664)


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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}


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Beowulf’s Struggle with Story

Beowulf has told many stories before. And he’s been called a boaster. That’s a label that fits quite well since his stories of fighting off sea monsters to protect Breca, or of taking out groups of monsters definitely seem embellished. But now he’s telling a story about an event that we witnessed. Well, witnessed the original telling of, anyway.

So what?

Well, one of the things that I’ve noticed on rereading this passage is that Beowulf’s telling of the fight with Grendel’s mother is that it’s very straightforward. It’s almost as if he’s shrinking away from the center of attention, as an introvert might.

Beowulf says that it was a close fight, that Hrunting wasn’t living up to its quality, and that he found a giant’s weapon to finish the job. All of that checks out, since that’s a pretty accurate summary of the fight with Grendel’s mother. Though it’s interesting to note that Beowulf doesn’t go into any details. He doesn’t admit that Grendel’s mother pinned him to the ground, or stabbed at him with a knife. If “specificity is the soul of narrative,” as John Hodgman is so fond of saying on his internet court show, Judge John Hodgman, then it seems like Beowulf is mangling the soul of his story.

Why?

Maybe because it’s so fresh in Beowulf’s mind. Coming so close to death, facing such terrifying enemies and circumstances, it’s fair to say that it’ll take more than a few hours to fully process what he’s been through. If that’s the case, then perhaps Beowulf is scanty on the details in this retelling because so little time has past and he’s still reeling.

Or maybe it has nothing to do with processing the events.

Instead, maybe Beowulf just needs more time to come up with embellishments that will hang together and keep the story coherent while elevating it to the tale of a grand heroic deed. Beowulf is a warrior and not a poet after all.

Thus, it might take some time for him to come up with the best way to phrase things like “she mounted me” or “I was almost stabbed to death but my mail saved my life.” Both details are important for the story’s full impact, but could come off as a little less than all-conquering. And, if you think about it, any story about a close call needs to maintain a sense that the hero isn’t really doomed, despite the circumstances. But being pinned by a woman and nearly stabbed to death are a little too dire to be brushed off as events on the way to a heroic close.

In other words, without embellishing those parts of the fight, Beowulf’s victory could be seen as less a victory from skill and more one from luck.

Why do you think Beowulf’s retelling of his fight is so general when it comes to the actual events of the fight? Why doesn’t he just give the play-by-play?


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It’s Just a Simple Ancient Sword

Normally, descriptions of battles and speeches are full of compound words. This is something I noted back in October 2015, while working through lines 1043 to 1049. Beowulf’s speech in this week’s passage is both, but there is only one compound word: “eald-sweord”1.

This lack of compound words is strange, but I think it links back to the events being so fresh in Beowulf’s mind. His use of simpler language reflects either his raw impressions of events or his need for more time to really embellish things as much as he might like to.

But what I wonder is why “eald-sweord”1 is the compound in this passage.

It stumped Clark Hall and Meritt since it doesn’t even appear in the edition of their dictionary that I’m using. Even C.L. Wrenn glosses the word simply as “ancient sword,” though there’s a dagger beside it, indicating that such interpretation is uncertain.

Wrenn’s definition is intuitive, since that’s exactly what the two words mean when combined, but “eald-sweord”1 doesn’t seem to be attested to anywhere other than this instance in Beowulf. So, it must have been a word that was made up especially for the occasion.

Which makes it all the more interesting to me since it’s such an intuitive combination of words for “ancient sword”. There are no strange, culture-specific senses of the words combining together, it’s just “old” and “sword” smashed together. The spontaneity of which, leaves me even more convinced that Beowulf, as much of a storyteller as he is, is struggling to improvise one about his fight with Grendel’s mother.

1eald-sweord: ancient sword (?). eald (old, aged, ancient, antique, primeval, elder, experienced, tried, honoured, eminent, great) + sweord (sword)

Back Up

 


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Closing

Next week, Beowulf assures Hrothgar that he’s finally taken care of his monster problem.

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)

Back Up

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

Back Up

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

Back Up

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

Back Up

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.]

Back Up

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.]

Back Up

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

Back Up

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

Back Up

 


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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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Grendel’s mother is gone, what warriors do (ll.1557-1569)

Synopsis
Translation
Recordings
Grendel’s Mother Beaten, But Where did She even come From?
A Warrior’s Two Faces
Closing


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Synopsis

Beowulf kills Grendel’s mother.


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Translation

“He saw then in her armoury a sword blessed by victory,
a sword of giants’ craft from elder days, strong of edge,
ready for a warrior’s glory; that was the best of weapons,
but it was more than any other man
would have strength to bear into the dance of battle,
superb and splendid, the handiwork of giants.
He seized that belted hilt, the Scylding warrior,
he was fierce and fatally grim, when he drew that ring-patterned sword
she had no hope of further life, he angrily struck her,
so that the sword caught slickly at the base of her neck,
it shattered her vertabra; the sword passed through
her entire, doomed body; she crumpled to the floor,
the sword sweating blood, the man rejoicing in his work.”
(Beowulf ll.1557-1569)


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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}


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Grendel’s Mother Beaten, But Where did She even come From?

And Beowulf has done it. He has killed Grendel’s mother. She wasn’t exactly “unseam’d from the nave to the chops” as the Sergeant says of Macbeth’s deed when talking with King Duncan in Macbeth (I.ii.22), but it still sounds like he split her with his enormous sword. How else could a threatened masculinity assert itself, right?

But what I wonder about while reading this passage is what sort of operation Grendel’s mother had in her underwater hall. I mean, Not only does she pull a dagger on Beowulf, but she has an entire armoury of some kind.

As more and more is built up around her, it’s sounding less and less like Grendel’s mother is some sort of animalistic monster and more like she’s the remnant of some sort of human culture. Or, at the least, she’s someone who was cast into exile and wound up living in a cave that had been lived in before.

So maybe Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary were onto something when they added an affair between Hrothgar and Grendel’s mother to the story of the 2007 Beowulf movie. But, instead of being a seductive water witch, Grendel’s mother was actually a member of Hrothgar’s hall.

Perhaps she was one who had given birth to a son with some sort of disability and, instead of just leaving him out on the rocks to die (if exposure was a thing the Norse did with babies who didn’t look “right”), she stole away into the night with him, found the cave, and became fierce and monstrous as she faced down all of the natural terrors that the community would otherwise have protected her and her child from.

Actually, looking at the timeline that the book gives us, Hrothgar ruled through 12 years of Grendel’s terror (ll.147-149). He also ruled for some time before that, enough time for Heorot to be built under his watch. whereas Grendel’s mother had ruled her depths for either 50 years or, as Seamus Heaney has it: “a hundred seasons,” which would work out to 25 years (ll.1498).

Now, it might be a bit of a stretch that Hrothgar and Grendel’s mother knocked boots if she’s been ruling for 50 years while he’s maybe been ruling for 20. But, if Grendel’s mother has only been ruling for 25, then, perhaps Grendel is Hrothgar’s son. So maybe she was an early mistress of the prince or even the young king Hrothgar and had to be kept quiet to allow for a more politically convenient marriage to come along.

Or, maybe there’s a bit of Anglo-Saxon history getting into the story here and Grendel’s mother was a Roman woman with a strange child that was cast out. After all, because they had better forging techniques, the Anglo-Saxons often considered Roman swords magical, mythically crafted weapons.

Unfortunately, though, all we can make of the Grendel’s mother’s background is based on assumptions.

But that’s also fortunate. As a poem Beowulf has a lot of gaps in its background information, and because of these gaps it can be talked about and used as a lens through which we can look at our own time almost endlessly.

So what do you think Grendel’s mother was doing with an armoury? Was she just a monster who happened upon an old previously inhabited cave? Or was she somebody exiled from Daneland who put everything around her together herself?


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A Warrior’s Two Faces

After the fact, a warrior who happens to bear a “eald-sweord”1 that he believes to be “sig-eadig”2 in the “beadu-lac”3 is likely to feel quite high and mighty. He’ll probably talk of the “weorð-mynd”4 he won while his grip was upon the “fetel-hilt”5.

But in the moment, through the “beadu-lac”3, that same warrior with the “hring-mæl”6 is a different person. He’s a “heoro-grim”7 swinging precisely and delivering death as limbs are severed and “ban-hring”8 are broken. His memory confers upon him “weorð-mynd”4 but his actions only make “flæsc-hama”9 after “flæsc-hama”9.

1eald-sweord: sword from elder days. eald (old, aged, ancient, antique, primeval, elder, experienced, tried, honoured, eminent, great) + sweord (sword)

2sig-eadig:blessed by victory. sig (victory) + eadig (wealthy, prosperous, fortunate, happy, blessed, perfect)

3beadu-lac: war-play, battle. beadu (war, battle, fighting, strife) + lac (play, sport, strife, battle, sacrifice, offering, gift, present, booty, message)

4weorð-mynd: honour, dignity, glory, mark of distinction. weorð (word, value, amount, price, purchase-money, ransom, worth, worthy, honoured, noble, honourable, of high rank, valued, dear, precious, fit, capable) + mynd (memory, remembrance, memorial, record, act of commemoration, thought, purpose, consciousness, mind, intellect)

5fetel-hilt: belted or ringed sword-hilt. fetel (belt) + hilt (handle, hilt of a sword)

6hring-mæl: sword with ring-like patterns. hring (ring, link of chain, fetter, festoon; anything circular, circle, circular group, border, horizon, rings of gold, corslet, circuit (of a year), cycle, course, orb, globe) + mæl (mark, sign, ornament, cross, crucifix, armour, harness, sword, measure) [A word exclusive to Beowulf]

7heoro-grim: savage, fierce. heoru (sword) + grim (fierce, savage, dire, severe, bitter, painful)

8ban-hring: vertebra, joint. ban (bone, tusk, the bone of a limb) + hring (ring, link of chain, fetter, festoon, anything circular, circle, circular group, border, horizon, rings of gold (as ornaments and as money), corslet, circuit of a year, cycle, course, orb, globe)

9flæsc-hama: body, carcase. flæsc (flesh, body (as opposed to soul), carnal nature, living creatures) + hama (covering, dress, garment, womb, puerperium, slough of a snake)

 


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Closing

Next week, Grendel comes back into the story.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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Beowulf’s armour questioned, words on weary warriors (ll.1541-1556)

Synopsis
Translation
Recordings
Is Beowulf’s Magic Armour really just God’s Influence?
Celebrating A Well-Armoured Warrior
Closing


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Synopsis

Grendel’s mother gets Beowulf down, but he bounces back.


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Translation

“She was quickly up and payed back that blow
with a fierce grip of her own, followed through with her forward grasp.
Stumbled then the wearied warrior, though the strongest,
a true foot-soldier, so that he fell to the floor.
She sat then on her hall-guest and she drew a dagger,
broad of blade, bright of edge; she was ready to avenge her son,
her only offspring. But on his breast lay
the firm mail-coat, that protected his life,
it prevented the dagger’s point and its edge from piercing.
The son of Ecgþeow would have perished
beneath the wide earth, that Geatish man,
if his war-corslet had not provided its help,
that tough mail-coat, and holy God
controlled the victory in that battle, the wise Lord,
Ruler of Heaven, he easily decided
the right outcome for the fight, once that man stood up.”
(Beowulf ll.1541-1556)


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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}


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Is Beowulf’s Magic Armour really just God’s Influence?

Beowulf’s back, baby! Just as with the fight against Grendel, there’s explicit mention of god’s favour at the end of this passage. Though, Grendel’s mother almost had him.

Sitting astride her victim, she had a dagger at the ready, and raised. She would’ve gotten away with it, too, if it hadn’t been for that meddling mail!

In fact, Bewoulf’s mail coat gets top billing, while god is just mentioned after the fact.

I think that the poet credits the armour and then god because the mail’s turning away the dagger is the incident, while god is said to be the cause.

Though, I can’t help but think that Beowulf’s armour is more than just something he straps on before a fight. I mean, he always heaps it with importance. In fact, he goes so far as to say that if he dies, the Danes need to send his armour back to Hygelac before the fight with Grendel (ll.452-453). As far as heirlooms go, that mail’s definitely really important to him. And he makes it clear that it’s the work of Weland the Smith (l.455), so there’s some magic to it.

And thinking of magic armour brings my mind around to RPGs.

As an avid fan of RPGs I find Beowulf interesting from a character building perspective. If you think of Beowulf as a caharacter in a game of Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) or in an RPG on a video game console or PC, then his attack stat is insanely high (that handgrip’s something to reckon with, right?), but his defense most be average or worse. So to compensate he’s got this magic mail.

Looking at Beowulf this way really makes me wonder if the poet or the audience for the poem had some sense of fighters being offensive or defensive but never both, and the magic mail is a device that makes Beowulf almost invulnerable since it balances his defense with his attack power.

Though, on one hand I feel like reading eowulf as a character from an RPG like this is reading things from my life into Beowulf rather than reading things actually in the poem out of it. On the other hand, though, complex games like D&D aren’t outside the ken of people from the medieval period. Surely somebody, somewhere in medieval Europe, invented a variation on chess, or had some sort of battle simulation game that had numbers at work behind the clashes of fighters.

Anyway, getting back to the mention of god that I made above, the poet doesn’t just refer to god once in this passage. He lays down three back to back. These three epithets over the course of just two lines suggest to me that something’s up there. However, I can only guess at what exactly is up here. Maybe the poet’s trying to throw attention off of Beowulf’s magical armour – surely a heathen idea! Or maybe he’s just playing up the Christian spin on wyrd to show that magic armour or not, it isn’t the gear that a player has equipped so much as it is the DM’s rolls that save people.

Chess has been around in Europe since about 800 AD, so the poet and audience of Beowulf likely knew about it, and maybe some of them played it. How complex do you think medieval board games were? Did thanes sit around playing dice and checkers while enjoying their mead and pork, or were some of them playing games as complex as D&D?


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Celebrating A Well-Armoured Warrior

The “werig-mod”1 “feþe-cempa”2 could make a fantastic “sele-gyst.”3 Especially after he has dirtied his “breost-net”4 on the battlefield (is that rust or blood…or both?) and achieved “wig-sigor”5. Though that “heaðu-byrne”6 may have just narrowly turned the sword “brun-ecg”7 away from his vitals in the fight. But at least that means that there aren’t any holes in him, or that wondrous “breost-net”4!

1werig-mod: weary, cast down. werig (weary, tired, exhausted, miserable, sad, unfortunate) + mod (heart,mind,spirit,mood,temper;arrogance, pride,power;power, violence)

2feþe-cempa: foot soldier. feþe (power of locomotion, walking, gait, pace) + cempa (warrior, champion) [A word exclusive to Beowulf]

3sele-gyst: hall-guest. sele (hall, house, dwelling, prison) + gyst (guest, stranger) [A word exclusive to Beowulf]

4breost-net: coat of mail. breost (breast, bosom, stomach, womb, mind, thought, disposition) + net (netting, network, spider’s web)

5wig-sigor: victory in a battle. wig (strife, contest, war, battle, valour, military force, army) + sigor (victory, triumph)

6heaðu-byrne: war-corslet. heaðu (war) + byrne (corslet)

7brun-ecg: with gleaming blade. brun (brown, dark, dusky, having metallic lustre, shining) + ecg (edge, point, weapon, sword, battle-axe)


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Closing

Next week, Beowulf’s luck turns around.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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Grendel’s mother inspires a new trope

A depiction of Grendel's mother from the graphic novel adaptation of the 2007 Beowulf movie.

Grendel’s mother in IDW’s graphic novel adaptation of the 2007 Beowulf movie. Image from: http://www.comicosity.com/buttkickn-moms-in-comics-beowulf-aliens-and-lois-lane/

On the translation side of this blog, I’m currently working through Beowulf’s fight with Grendel’s mother. Out of the three monsters, she somehow seems the one most shrouded in darkness.

For starters, we never really get a good description of her. We’re only told on lines 1349-1351 that she has a woman’s likeness. Beowulf encounters her in the depths of a strange lake, and fights her in an underwater cave. And, although she’s a monster, some sort of creature like Grendel, she pulls out a dagger at one point in their fight and tries to stab Beowulf.

So she’s definitely mysterious, but entirely monstrous? That’s left quite unclear.

Especially if you focus in on her motivation for attacking Heorot and killing Æschere.

Grendel’s mother only kicks into action once she learns that her son has been killed. So she’s plainly motivated by revenge and the sort of anguished sorrow that only a parent who loses a child can really know.

This mysterious figure whose motivations are not only clear but also relatable has inspired comics fan and writer Michael Hale to identify a new trope.

Writing for Comicosity, Hale jumps from Grendel’s mother’s motivation to the presence of other female characters stepping up when their children are in danger. He calls this trope the “Ripley Twist,” based on Ripley’s fighting the alien at the end of Aliens to protect her ward Newt. You can read Michael’s full article here.

Finding the connection that Hale makes with Beowulf reminds me of how relevant the poem remains. As he points out in his first sentence, the poem isn’t too well known anymore. And, sometimes it seems like people groan and bemoan its existence in favour of things wittier and more polite (Victorian lit, I’m looking at you).

And why not?

In Victorian literature the gruesome brutality of human nature is tucked away in things like My Secret Life.

Beowulf, on the other hand, makes no excuses for the brutality of life. Its brutality is much more physical and visceral, but that makes its violence a potent analogy to the to the social, psychological, and emotional brutality that people experience today.

As brutal as it can be, Beowulf is something that allows us to look back at ourselves in a very different context. That people like Hale can bring ideas like the “Ripley Twist” out of it, then I’d say Beowulf‘s definitely worth reading. Who knows what you’ll find within its wordhoard?

What’s your favourite era of stories and why?

Beowulf a law breaker? And Old English tips for facing your mortal foe (ll.1529-1540)

Synopsis
Translation
Recordings
Beowulf the Law Breaker?
Things to Remember When Facing your Mortal Foe
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 gathers himself, and then grabs and throws Grendel’s mother.


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Translation

“He was yet resolute, not at all did his courage wane,
mindful of the glorious deed at hand was that kin of Hygelac,
that angry warrior threw the sword with curved markings,
inlaid with ornamentation, so that it lay, useless, on the ground,
hard and steel-edged, he then trusted to his own might,
the strength of his hand-grip. So shall a man do
when he thinks to gain long-lasting fame in the midst
of combat; not at all is he anxious about his own life.
He grabbed her by the shoulder — feeling no sorrow for his violent act —
the man of the warrior Geats pressed against Grendel’s mother,
then flung the fiend from where she stood, enraged
against the deadly foe, so that she fell to the floor.”
(Beowulf ll.1529-1540)


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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}


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Beowulf the Law Breaker?

Beowulf gathers himself after the sword that Unferth gave him falters (here’s a poem that speculates as to why it failed). And then? Well, Beowulf resolves to do things his way: the bare-handed way!

Though rather than going for some sort of karate chop or punch from a “horse” stance, Beowulf pulls a grab and throw. What exactly does he grab though?

The old English word for what he throws is “eaxl,” which means “shoulder” (l.1537). However, some translations of the poem render the word “eaxl” here into “hair” instead. They do this not because “eaxl” could also mean “hair” but because of the quick parenthetical that follows Beowulf’s grab: “feeling no sorrow at all for his violent act” (“nalas for fæhðe mearn” (l.1537)).

I think that this little phrase could be taken literally: the poet, if not also Beowulf, is respectful enough of women that to attack one by grabbing them is unfit for a warrior of any honour.

But, according to Anglo-Saxon law pulling on someone’s hair could be considered an insult, and quite a few translators believe that “eaxl” is a corruption of “feax” (the actual Old English word for “hair”). So some translators render “eaxl” into “hair”. This change makes this little phrase less about Beowulf or the poet expressing concern about being gentlemen and more about Beowulf feeling no remorse for insulting Grendel’s mother in such a crude and illegal way.

In other words, Beowulf, the upright fighter for god, feels no remorse for breaking the law.

Maybe this means that god’s law is indeed greater than that of human judges and kings. If this is how this act is meant, then of course Beowulf is all right with breaking the anti-hair pulling policy.

But maybe this phrase is more about Beowulf feeling extremely frustrated that once again a weapon doesn’t work for him. After all, when he fights the dragon at the end of the poem the poet tells us that no sword ever worked for Beowulf (ll.2682-2687). Though then I wonder why Beowulf would be frustrated about his sword not working.

Is he afraid that he doesn’t know his own strength when he’s bare-handed?

Is he afraid of fighting a woman without a weapon to keep distance between them?

Is there something dangerous about Grendel’s mother that Beowulf wants to keep away?

What do you think Beowulf is feeling as he flings Grendel’s mother to the floor? Frustration? Rage at her for resisting the sword? Rage at himself for trusting Unferth? Share your thoughts in the comments!


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Things to Remember When Facing your Mortal Foe

If you’re facing your “feorh-geniðlan”1, then you’re probably “an-ræd”2 about things. There’s not likely a lot of grey area there.

I mean, this is your greatest foe and you are now ready to defeat them. You’ve got your “styl-ecg”3 sword that’s “wunden-mæl”4 with a lovely design and twice as deadly tight in your “mund-gripe”5 and are ready to go.

But you must be careful in this moment. If there’s even the smallest fruit fly of doubt buzzing around your brain, your foe could just lay out the slightest empathetic fact to get you to drop your guard. So be sure to have your mind “wunden-mæl”4 with your “an-ræd”2 purpose.

1feorh-geniðlan: mortal foe. feorh (life, principle of life, soul, spirit) + nið strife, enmity, attack, war, evil, hatred, spite; oppression, affliction, trouble, grief) [A word exclusive to Beowulf]

2an-ræd: of one mind, unanimous, constant, firm, persevering, resolute. an (one) + ræd (advice, counsel, resolution, deliberation, plan, way, design; council, conspiracy; decree, ordinance; wisdom, sense, reason, intelligence; gain, profit, benefit, good fortune, remedy; help, power, might)

3styl-ecg: steel-edged. style (steel) + ecg (edge, point, weapon, sword, battle axe) [A word exclusive to Beowulf]

4wunden-mæl: etched, damescened. wunden (wind, plait, curl, twist, unwind, whirl, brandish, swing, turn, fly, leap, start, roll, slip, go) + mæl (mark, sign, ornament, cross, crucifix, armour, harness, sword, measure) [A word exclusive to Beowulf]

5mund-gripe: hand-grasp. mund (hand, palm (of the hand, as a measure), trust, security, protection, guardianship, protector, guardian, the king’s peace, fine for breach of the laws of protection or guardianship of the king’s peace) + gripe (grip, grasp, seizure, attack, shield, handful) [A word exclusive to Beowulf]

 


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Closing

Next week, Grendel’s mother turns the tables on Beowulf!

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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Beowulf’s borrowed sword fails, a quick guide to facing off against a water witch (ll.1518-1528)


Synopsis
Translation
Recordings
Why Hrunting Had to Fail, and Grendel’s Mother’s True Threat
How to Face a Water Witch
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

The sword Unferth leant to Beowulf fails him, just as Grendel’s mother advances on our shocked hero.


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Translation

Then clearly he saw that accursed woman of the deep,
the strong sea-woman; a mighty blow he gave
with his battle blade, he held nothing back in his handstroke,
so that the ring patterned sword sang out upon her head
its greedy battle dirge. Yet there that surface dweller discovered
that the flashing sword would not bite,
that it would not harm his target’s life: the sword failed
that prince in his time of need. Before it had endured many
hand to hand combats, had often shorn away helmets,
sliced through the fated ones’ war garments; that was the first time
that dear treasure failed to show forth its true glory.
(Beowulf ll.1518-1528)


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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}


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Why Hrunting Had to Fail, and Grendel’s Mother’s True Threat

A few entries back, I mentioned that Hrunting was the first named sword in the poem. Well, for all of the power and mystery and strength that’s implied for a sword when it’s given a name, Hrunting’s glory is short lived.

The sword proves useless in this fight, just as Beowulf needs it most. After all, if the sword worked as it should, then his attack should have ended the battle before it began. But, for a reason that the poet never gives (except through the audience’s assumption that Grendel’s mother shares her son’s immunity to weapons), Hrunting has no effect. It’s as if Beowulf just found an electric Pokemon to help him take out a gym leader’s ground type Pokemon, and he never realized that ground-types are immune to electric types. Unfortunately, for all of their board games and riddles, I don’t think the Anglo-Saxons had charts drawn up showing the strengths and weaknesses of various monsters to various heirloom swords.

Actually, I find the failure of Hrunting funny.

It’s supposed to be this 100% never fail, surefire thing, but then, in Beowulf’s hands, it fails.

Had it succeeded in killing Grendel’s mother in a single blow, where would the glory for a hero like Beowulf be? She’d be just like any other foe he’s faced. And that just wouldn’t do; the reputation of the sword needed to take the hit for Beowulf’s sake.

In fact, if Beowulf killed Grendel’s Mother in one strike, then she would’ve been weaker than Grendel. I mean, Beowulf had to wrestle Grendel for some time before he tore off the monster’s arm. And that’s not how this can work.

Grendel’s mother isn’t just some ghoul that comes around haunting halls, she’s a “water-wolf” (“grund-wyrgenne” (l.1518)), a “water witch” (“mere-wif” (l.1519)). So she’s still humanoid, but is, at least, given her titles (and maybe her nature in the eyes of an at times misogynistic culture), much more of an intellectual or spiritual threat than a physical one.

Sure, she grabbed Beowulf and dragged him down, but if you get into the spiritual element of the poem (read: the Christian element), it’s very easy to interpret Grendel’s mother dragging Beowulf down as tempting him. I mean, think about it, he’s this upright warrior for god who seems almost entirely chaste.

Plus, Beowulf’s beating Grendel shows that he’s nothing to be trifled with physically, and Beowulf is very pious about attributing his victory to god and fate. So where could the next big threat go except into the spiritual realm?

So it makes sense that the second threat Beowulf faces is more spiritual.

Who even knows how she “grasped” Beowulf when she was pulling him down? I’m imagining that she full on wrapped herself around him, almost like water itself.

The presence of water even adds a drowning motif, which, I’m not sure was commonly related to temptation at the time, but no doubt is now. Though, of course, there’s also the redemptive property of water in the rite of baptism, so, all’s not lost for Beowulf and his failed sword. A sword that, in Beowulf’s overly capable hands, just had to fail to increase his renown — otherwise, he’d just be another one who used Hrunting instead of the one man who used it to no effect.

How much of a threat do you think Grendel’s mother is to Beowulf? Is she more of a physical threat or a spiritual one?


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How to Face a Water Witch

When fighting a “mere-wif”1 it’s important to be prepared.

Be sure to wear your best “fyrd-hrægl”2 for “hand-gemot”3. This will help you against the “mægen-ræs” that the “mere-wif”1 is bound to unleash upon you. In fact, if you’re particularly unlucky, she may show how feral she had to be to earn the epithet “grund-wyrgenne”4.

You’ll also want to bring along a “hilde-bille”5. It isn’t necessary to have a ” hring-mæl “6, nor is it recommended. These sorts of swords are fine against human opponents, but generally have no effect on your average “water witch”7. Any sword which can catch the light dramatically as you hold it aloft so that it can be your ” beado-leoma “8 while you sing your ” guð-leoð “9 will do. after all, the sword is mostly required to intimidate and parry the “mere-wif”1‘s attacks. Damaging such an opponent with any forged iron has long been thought impossible.

It is highly recommended that you do not fight a “mere-wif”1 on her own turf. Her familiarity with and power over water and the creatures of the deep is sure to prove overwhelming. And, if she brings you into a strange underwater cave, then may the Measurer, Lord of All, have mercy upon your soul. If you find yourself in such a situation, your wyrd is clear and inescapable.

1mere-wif: water witch. mere (sea, ocean, lake, pond, pond, cistern) + wif (woman, female, lady, wife) [A word exclusive to Beowulf]

2fyrd-hrægl: corslet. fierd (national levy or army, military expedition, campaign) + hrægl (dress, clothing, vestment, cloth, sheet, armour, sail) [A word exclusive to Beowulf]

3hand-gemot: battle. hand (hand, side (in defining position), power, control, possession, charge, agency, person regarded as holder or receiver of something) + (ge)mot (conflict, encounter) [A word exclusive to Beowulf]

4mægen-ræs: mighty onslaught. mægen (bodily strength, might, main, force, power, vigour, valour, virtue, efficacy, efficiency, good deed, picked men of a nation, host, troop, army, miracle) + ræs (rush, leap, jump, running, onrush, storm, attack)

5grund-wyrgenne: water-wolf. grund (ground, bottom, foundation, abyss, hell, plain, country, land, earth, sea, water) + wyrg (wolf, accursed one, outlaw, felon, criminal) [A word exclusive to Beowulf]

6 hilde-bille: sword. hilde (war, combat) + bill (bill, chopper, battle-axe, falchion, sword)

7 hring-mæl: sword with ring-like patterns. hring (ring, link of chain, fetter, festoon; anything circular, circle, circular group, border, horizon, rings of gold, corslet, circuit (of a year), cycle, course, orb, globe) + mæl (mark, sign, ornament, cross, crucifix, armour, harness, sword, measure) [A word exclusive to Beowulf]

8beado-leoma: battle-light, sword. beadu (war, battle, fighting, strife) + leoma (ray of light, beam, radiance, gleam, glare, lightning) [A word exclusive to Beowulf]

9guð-leoð: war-song. guð (combat, battle, war) + leoð (song, lay, poem) [A word exclusive to Beowulf]


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Closing

Next week, Beowulf regroups and Grendel’s mother moves in.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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