Getting a Hand from Grendel: Book X – Book XIII

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.

X

Then from him Hrothgar went among his warrior band,
the prince of the Scyldings left the hall.
The war chief would seek out Wealhtheow,
the queen consort. But the king of heaven had
against Grendel, as people later learned by inquiry,
set a hall guard; one with a special office to fulfill
for the lord of the Danes, a steadfast sentry against monsters.
Indeed that Geatish man eagerly trusted
the courage of his strength, the Measurer’s protection.
Then he did off with his iron corselet,
took the helm from his head, entrusted his ornamented sword,
servant of the best iron, to his men
and he commanded them to keep his war gear.
Spoke he then some good boast words,
Beowulf the Geat, before he laid himself down:

“I consider my own prowess with battle work unbowed
when compared to Grendel;
as Grendel himself slays without sword,
that thief of life, I shall do the same.
He has not the advantage, that he shall slay me,
though he hew away my shield, though he be vigorous in his
evil deed: but we this night should
forego the sword, if he seeks to dare
a battle beyond weapons, and afterwards wise God
shall decide which of us, oh holy Lord,
is worthy of glory, as He deems proper.”

He kept himself bold then, took pillow
to cheek with his band, and he among the many
ready seafarers gave themselves over to hall-rest.
But none of those thought that they should afterward
ever see their dear land again,
their people or their towns, return to where they had been raised.
They all envisioned, through sleep-smeared eyes, those stories
of how things had been in that wine hall, how death had come
for many of those Danish people. But to that hall-guard the Lord gave
woven success in war, the Danes would thank the Weder people,
both would find joy and help, that they the fiend there
would fully overcome through that one’s strength,
by his own might. The truth is shown,
that mighty God rules humankind
always. In the deepest night
came slinking the wanderer in shadow. The warriors slept,
when they should have been holding that hall.
All but one. It was known of many people,
that they might not, as long as the Measurer allowed it not,
be brought to the shadow beneath by the sin-stained,
but that one woke with wrath in enmity
pledged enraged battle to the creeping creature.

XI

Then Grendel came from the moor under misty cliff
bounding. He bore god’s ire,
meant that sinner against humankind
to ensnare some in that humbled hall.
Raging beneath the heavens, he headed to Heorot,
the gold hall best known to men,
shimmering with ornaments. That was not the first time
that he the home of Hrothgar sought out.
But, never had he in earlier days nor afterwards
found a thane so hard in the hall.
When he came to the hall,
the joy of journeying men to rob, the door’s
secure fire-forged bar soon gave way, as he touched it:
it burst open for the one meditating on mischief. Standing at the hall’s mouth,
his own twisted into a raging smile. Quickly then
that fiend on the shining floor trod,
went with hatred at heart; he stood, in his eyes
an unfair light like flame.
Saw he in the hall many men,
a sleeping peaceful host gathered all together,
a heap of youths. Then his heart roared anew.
He intended to sever, before the day returned,
the terrible fierce assailant, from each one of those sleepers
their limb and life, expected he a lavish feast
to come about. Yet such was not set as fate,
that he would be allowed more of mankind
to taste during that night. The mighty looked on,
kin of Hygelac, to see how the enemy
with his calamitous grip would fare.
That fierce foe gave no thought to yielding,
but he swiftly seized at his first chance
a sleeping warrior, slit through him heedlessly,
bit through bone-locks, drank blood from the veins,
swallowed sinful morsels; soon he had
consumed all of that one,
feet and hands. Forward and nearer he stepped,
his hand grazed against the strong-hearted
warrior at rest — the fiend’s fingers reached
for him. He, the Beowulf, hastily took the arm
and sat up to strengthen his hold.
Soon that master of the wicked deed found one
like none he had ever met in all the earth,
no other in any region of the world
had so great a hand grip. At heart Grendel grew
panicked, feared he might never break free.
In his mind Grendel was eager to escape, wished he could flee to his darkness,
seek and join his devil kin. He could feel that further life for him was not there,
only one like none other he had ever encountered in all his days.
The goodly kin of Hygelac was mindful then
of his evening boast, he stood sternly upright
and secured his grip. His fingers were bursting,
the beast was squirming to escape. The man stepped toward the monster.
That creature intended, whenever he might do so,
to flee to the fen-hollow. Grendel could feel his fingers
loosening under the foe’s grip, it was indeed a terrible journey
that the horrible fiend took to Heorot that night!
The noble hall resounded, all of the Danes,
citizens, each violently stirred,
all awake in broken ale-dream distress. Both within were warring,
fierce were the hall wardens. That room resounded;
it was a great wonder, that the wine hall
held out against those boldly brawling,
that fair house; but it was yet secure
inward and outward in its iron bonds,
skilfully smithed. In there from the floor
were wrenched mead benches many, as I have heard,
each gold adorned, where the hostile ones fought.
Never before thought the wise of the Scyldings
that any man or means ever could be found
to bring the grand and antlered hall down,
destroy it by cunning, unless in the hottest embrace
it was swallowed by flame. Sounds newly rose up
often, horrible fear came over over
the Danes, each and every one of them
heard wailing while outside Heorot’s walls,
a chant of terror uttered by god’s adversary,
it sang of defeat, a wound to sear and sever
the captive of hell. He held him tight,
that man was the greatest in might
all the days of this life.

XII

For nothing at all would Beowulf
allow the death-bringer to leave alive,
he did not consider that one’s days of life of
any worth to anyone anywhere. Then the mobile host
moved swiftly to defend Beowulf with their fathers’ swords,
they wished to defend the very soul of their leader,
those of the famed people, where they might do so.
But they knew not that their work was in vain,
the tough-spirited war-men,
that each man’s looking to hew the beast in half was faulty,
their seeking his soul with the sword point unsuccessful: that sin-laden wretch,
by even the best iron in or on the earth,
by any battle bill, could not at all be touched,
for he had forsworn the use of any weapon of war,
each and every edge. Yet his share of eternity
in the days of this life
would be agonizing, and the alien spirit
into the grasp of fiends would journey far.
Then the one who in earlier days had
completely changed the heartfelt mirth of man
for transgression — the one who sinned against god —
realized that his body would not endure,
for the spirited kin of Hygelac
had him firm in hand; as long as each of those fighters was living
he was hateful to the other. What a wound
endured the terrible creature: his shoulder split
into an open and immense red mouth, sinews sprung loose,
bone joints split. Beowulf was given
war glory; whereas Grendel would thence
flee with his mortal wound to the fen cliffs
seeking out a joyless home. He knew for certain,
that his life was coming to an end,
his days were now numbered. Every one of the Danes’
wishes were fulfilled after that deadly onslaught.
That place had been cleansed, after that one from afar arrived,
clever and brash, at the hall of Hrothgar,
rescued it from strife. Gladdened by his night work,
fodder for the flame of fame for courage, that man of Geatish
folk had fulfilled his boast to the Danes,
had cured a great wound,
parasitical sorrow, that had earlier been a daily part
of the misery they were to suffer —
no little grief. It was an open token,
when the war-fierce one placed the hand,
arm and shoulder — there all together was
Grendel’s grip — under the broad roof.

XIII

It was that morning, as I have heard,
when to that gift-hall came many warriors;
chieftains marching from regions ranging
far and near to see that wonder,
the remnants of the resented one. None of those there
thought upon that one’s death sorely,
where the trail of the fame-less transgressor showed
how he went with weary-heart on his way,
the evil that was overcome, to the water-sprites of some pond,
the fated and fugitive leaving a trail of lifeblood.
There they guessed the water swelled with blood,
there repulsive waves surged, all mingling,
hot with gore, sword-blood tossing;
there the fated to die hid, when he, joy-less,
in fen refuge laid aside his life,
his heathen soul. From there hell took him.
Afterwards the old war-wagers went out,
so too did many youths go on that merry journey,
from the sea high-spirited horses they rode,
warriors on their steeds. There was Beowulf’s
glory retold; many oft spoke of it,
that in neither north nor south between the two seas
was there any other such man on all the face of the earth,
and under the sky’s expanse was there no better
shield bearer, one worthy of kingship.
Though they indeed found no blame with their lord and friend,
gracious Hrothgar, for he was a good king.
Meanwhile the battle-reputed let the horses trot,
in contests the bay horses sped,
there they found the path quite fair,
they thought it best. Around one of the king’s thanes
was a man made of stories, mindful of many tales,
such that he was in old tradition
immersed, bound words one to the other
according to appropriate meter. The man began again
of Beowulf’s struggle to smartly sing
and quickly made a new narrative account,
wrangled words. Of everything he spoke,
what he of Sigemund had heard said,
deeds of courage, many not widely known.
He spoke of the wrangling of Wælsing’s son, Sigemund’s wide wanderings
where that warrior’s child was not often recognized
nor the feud and wicked deed known but to Fitela, the one with him.
For Sigemund would tell Fitela of such things,
from uncle to nephew, as they were always
companions bound by need come every strife;
they had a great many of the giants race
slain with their swords. Sigemund’s fame saw
no small surge after his death day,
after he had in cruel combat killed the dragon,
the hoard’s guardian. Under the grey stone,
the nobleman’s son, alone he dared to do
the dangerous deed; Fitela was not with him then.
Without that comrade he plunged his sword through
the wondrous wyrm, so that it stuck in the wall,
that lordly iron. The dragon died its death.
His courage over the foe won him its treasure fully,
so that he ring hoards had to give
as he saw fit; a boat they loaded,
they bore in the ship’s bosom bright treasures,
Waels’ son; the hot wyrm melted.
[]His fame was pushed most widely
among the nations, protector of warriors,
for deeds of courage — he prospered from then after —
after Heremod retired from war,
his strength and courage. He had his power stolen
when ambushed by the enemy Jutes and his forces
were quickly slain. His sorrow oppressed him
far too long; to his people he waned,
to all his nobles his life grew too full of care.
That campaign was often a source of anxiety for
many wise men before the time of king Heremod’s brash way of life,
it made those miserable who relied on him for relief,
those that wished that every prince would prosper,
receive his patrimony, protect the people,
their stores and their strongholds, be a man of might,
uphold the ancestral home of the Scyldings. Just the same there,
Beowulf, the kin of Hygelac, to all humankind
became a decorated friend. Yet sin still slinked in.
The contending continued among
the tawny mares racing on the sand. By then the morning light
shoved and rushed over the horizon. There came many retainers,
all bold-minded, to that high hall,
to see that strange object; the king himself
from the bed chamber, guardian of the ring-hoard,
walked with a sense of leading an army,
of renowned virtue, and his queen with him
tread the path to the mead hall with her maiden troop.

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A mysterious start to a tale of Sig(e)mund (ll.874b-884a)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
A Promise of Mysterious Tales
Mostly Simple Compounds
Closing

Beowulf, Anglo-Saxons

King Harold out for a hunt on the Bayeux Tapestry. Image found at http://regia.org/research/misc/pastimes.htm.

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Abstract

The singer begins to tell of Sigemund and deeds hitherto little heard about.

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Translation

“Of everything he spoke,
what he of Sigemund had heard said,
deeds of courage, many not widely known,
the wrangling of Wælsing’s son, his wide wanderings,
where that warrior’s child was not often recognized
nor the feud and wicked deed, but to Fitela, the one with him,
when he would tell him of such things,
from uncle to nephew, as they were always
companions bound by need come every strife;
they had a great many of the giants race
slain with their swords.”
(Beowulf ll.874b-884a)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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A Promise of Mysterious Tales

In this passage the poem takes a break from Beowulf’s story to talk about a different hero: Sigemund (a.k.a. Sigmund). We’re not told much about this figure of mythic proportions yet, except that he travels with his nephew and has a darkened past. But is he trying to escape this past and the feuds and deeds it contains or is he just working with that as a feature of his story? The poet’s not at all clear about any of it. Actually, the poet seems to go pretty far to weave a curtain of mystery around Sigemund. And, to a lesser extent, Fitela. Or at least Fitela’s in there because the curtain’s just so damn big.

So this curtain of mystery (it’s too heavy to be a veil, I think), is made up of a few things. First the poet says that “many [of these deeds are] not widely known,” (“ellen-dædum, uncuþes fela” (l.876)). That’s straight forward enough. Maybe these stories aren’t widely known because they’re the ones that were told in the far country where Sigemund wasn’t very well known himself. No doubt he went on to make a name for himself in this country, but maybe that name was a pseudonym (maybe “Sigemund” is that pseudonym – not the cleverest, but hey, the extra syllable causes some confusion to this day). Or, maybe the locals that passed these stories on had a different angle on Sigemund’s deeds than most other tales about them. Whatever the case, this layer of the mystery curtain isn’t too far from being translucent.

But the next one is completely opaque.

When the poet moves onto the feuds and deeds that Sigemund apparently had some part in, he says that these things were as little known in the places he travelled to as he himself was. So, if these stories are coming from these countries, any information about these feuds and deeds will likely be scanty. What’s more though,is that we’re told that Sigemund only shared details about any of these things with Fitela.

Fitela is said to be Sigemund’s nephew (this checks out, the similarly named Sigmund travelled with his nephew/son (Norse mythology has some very racy bits), too). Fitela’s also said to be Sigemund’s companion in battle, maybe one who was so reliable that they always faced hardship together, or maybe one that just seemed to find Sigemund whenever he fell into difficulty. It’s hard to say. Whatever the reason for their partnering up, the fact that Sigemund only told these things to Fitela suggests that the only way the poet knows them well enough to sing about them is through Fitela. At some point, the nephew must’ve spilled it about his uncle. That is, if the poet is telling true stories or stories coming from a very close witness to these “deeds of courage” (“ellen-dædum” (l.876)).

Because this part of the poem is scant on details, maybe this poet knows these little known stories of Sigemund because he heard them not from Fitela but from this far country’s people. If that’s the case, then how far has this poet himself gone?

The question of how much the poet singing about Sigemund learned about his subject first hand is a tricky one. What do you think matters most in story telling – accurately relating facts, or action, intrigue, and suspense?

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Mostly Simple Compounds

These story telling sections of the poem are always so vivid and direct that compound words take on a completely different function in them. Instead of seeing those that I’d call “high action” compounds, we’re given those that are plainer. Like “ellen-dædum.”

The parts of this compound, “ellen” and “dædum,” literally mean “zeal,” “strength,” “courage,” “strife,” or “contention” and “deed,” or “action,” respectively. The combined meaning of “deeds of courage” isn’t far from clear. Though mixing the “contention” or “strife” sense of “ellen” with “deed” gets so clear that it upends the glorious/courageous implications of “ellen-dædum” by suggesting a pretty plain Jane sort of performance in war. Applying such a word to someone would mean that person just did a “strife deed,” which sounds like something that you just do by default in combat.

The word “eal-fela” graces line 883, just about rounding out this section. And it might be the plainest compound of them all. Though it does demonstrate the intensifying formula of Old English (combine two like words, (including negatives)), since “eal” means “all,” “many,” or “much” and “fela” means “very,” or “much.” So “eal-fela” literally means “all much,” with the sense of something that’s all-encompassing. Or, as is the case in the poem, the sense of “mostly all” of the giants.

No, this passage doesn’t really offer complexity in its compounds. It’s more about the simple word combinations.

Except for “nyd-gestealla.”

Now, maybe I’m piecing this one together wrong, but “nyd” could be a form of “neod” (meaning “desire,” “longing,” “zeal,” “earnestness,” “pleasure,” “delight”) or “nied” (meaning “need,” “necessity,” “compulsion,” “duty,” “errand,” “business,” “emergency,” “hardship,” “distress,” “difficulty,” “trouble,” “pain,” “force,” “violence,” “what is necessary,” “inevitableness,” “fetter” or just being the name of the rune for “n”). For the most part the difference between these two words is negligible. But, there are some exceptions. The word “neod” suggests a sort of leisurely need, as its meanings include “pleasure” and “delight,” while “nied” comes across as more business like as it can mean “errand,” or “duty” (or, even, “business”). But the compound that “nyd” is a part of doesn’t get any simpler in its second half.

The word “gestealla” seems to break down into “steal” or “steall.” The difference between these two lies primarily in specificity. The former word just means “structure,” even “frame,” while the latter means “standing,” “place,” or “position.”

So is the companionship that “nyd-gestealla” describes one that’s structured on duty or on pleasure? Or is it one that’s putting those involved in a position of business or of pleasure? Or is it that it’s supposed to do both, the ambiguity coming in to add a sense of reciprocity to the relationship it’s describing?

Do you think there’s a connection between the tone of sections of Beowulf and the intensity of the compound words found in them? So far, this part of the poem is very light-hearted and the compound words here have mostly been straightforward, almost relaxed. Is there a connection between the two? If so, what could using a word like “nyd-gestealla” mean for this part of the poem? Is it being used as a reminder of hard times or as something else?

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Closing

In the next passage, the poet begins to tell of Sigemund and Fitela’s victory over a dragon and the raid on its hoard.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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