Grendel’s end told again, and an Anglo-Saxon take on leadership (ll.837-852)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Lingering on Grendel
Leaders Tug and Monsters Trail Blood
Closing

Beowulf, Grendel, Old English, Anglo-Saxon

An illustration of Grendel by J.R. Skelton from Stories of Beowulf. Grendel is described as “Very terrible to look upon.”Stories of beowulf grendel” by J. R. Skelton – Marshall, Henrietta Elizabeth (1908) Stories of Beowulf, T.C. & E.C. Jack. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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Abstract

The poet turns again to Grendel, though Beowulf’s beaten him.

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Translation

“It was that morning, as I have heard,
when to that gift hall came warriors many;
chieftans 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,
that evil was overcome, to the watersprites of some pond,
the fated and fugitive leaving a trail of lifeblood.
There the water swelled with blood,
there repulsive waves surge, 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.”
(Beowulf ll.837-852)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Lingering on Grendel

I thought that this poem was called Beowulf for a reason. But it seems that here the poet’s forgotten about that temporarily as he shifts back to Grendel’s final moments. It could be that this is simply the poet waxing on about Grendel as an extended description of his severed arm and what it means. That’s definitely a part of what’s going on here since in lines 843-844 we’re told that the arm tells the story of how Grendel was beaten by Beowulf and forced to limp back to the fens.

But I can’t get past the way this extended description starts. The poet doesn’t preface it with something like “oh, wonder of wonders, the arm showed true/Grendel’s wretched final hours,” or “that arm hanging there, gruesomely suspended,/ told the final tale of Grendel/how the gore-spattered one limped home to hell.” Instead the poet says “None of those there/thought upon that one’s death sorely” (“No his lifgedal/sarlic þuhte secga ænegum” (ll.841-842)). The phrasing of this sentence is a little weird with “sore” being used as an adverb to describe “thought upon,” but I think the meaning here is that none of the people who came to see it thought, with sorrow at heart, about Grendel’s final hours as one defeated and fated to die. But why even mention the idea that no one felt bad about Grendel? Simply to contrast with the obvious emotions of joy or triumph that are coursing through the spectators’ minds and hearts?

I still think that this focus on Grendel amounts to a sort of lament. Maybe it’s even foreshadowing the lament over Beowulf at the end of the poem. Or, at the least, maybe it’s a lament for a fallen monster because even as a monster, Grendel was close enough to being human. And, given his demi-human nature and the Abrahamic god’s tendency to forgive when asked, maybe Grendel could have found salvation had he been able to veer away from his wickedness.

I mean, that’s what I get from where this passage ends, too. Grendel is noted as having a soul and that he went to hell. Surely, poetic license with language aside, this connection of Grendel and a soul suggests that he wasn’t supposed to just be some wild humanoid animal.

It’s been noted that Grendel is a member of the Anglo-Saxon humanoid classification of monsters (I’d give the source, but it’s lost in my Twitter feed). I think the most distinct property of this monster category is that they’re practically human beings. There’s just some minor difference in the things in this category that marks them as monstrous. So, could this sort of monster also still be human enough to have a soul?

Do you think that the poet’s constantly returning to Grendel’s plight and sorry end is meant to be taken as a call for pity for the beast? Or is it just the poet being poetic and aggrandizing the death of a foe that was equally aggrandized through wide-spread stories of his terror?

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Leaders Tug and Monsters Trail Blood

This week’s passage is full of compound words. But, most of these compounds are just combinations of two words that literally translate into their Modern English equivalences and are left at that. These simpler compounds include words like “gif-heal” (a combination of the word “gift” or “to give” and “hall” meaning “hall in which gifts were made/given”) (l.838); “guðrinc” (a combination of the word for “war” or “strife” and a word for “man” or “hero” meaning “warrior”) (l.838); “tir-leas” (a very neatly straightforward combination of the word for “fame” or “glory” with the suffix meaning “less” tacked onto it) (l.843); “heoru-dreore” (which combines words for “sword” and “blood” to mean “sword blood/gore”) (l.849); and “fen-freoðu” (a word that combines the literal words for “fen” and “refuge” to mean “fen refuge”) (l.851).

Of course, this wouldn’t be a passage of Beowulf if all the compounds were so neat and tidy. Two in particular stand out as strange and difficult.

The first of these appears on line 839, “folc-togan.” This word takes the Old English cognate of Modern English’ “folk” and jams it together with a really weird word, “togan.” As far as I can tell there are a few possibilities for this word. It could be a form of “toh” meaning “tough,” “tenacious,” or “sticky.” It could be a form of “togu” simply meaning “traces of a horse” (where “traces” refers to the straps, ropes, or chains that attached a horse to a carriage or wagon). Or this word could be a variation of “tog” meaning “tugging,” “contraction,” “spasm,” or “cramp.”

The thing is, if “folc-togan” means “chieftan” or “commander,” then all three of these interpretations of “togan” are possibly right. A leader of a people needs to be tough and tenacious, and, I guess, sticky when it comes to what they stand for and to what of their people they’re supposed to represent. But a leader could also be considered to tug their people along with them – after all, a single person isn’t going to be able to cover all of their peoples’ desires and beliefs. So these multifarious ideologies and such get tugged along behind a single leader who, hopefully, embodies at least what everyone considers the most important things among their beliefs.

Then there’s the equally mysterious “feorh-laestas,” or “step taken to preserve life, flight?[sic].” Yep, this is another one that even Clark Hall and Meritt of A Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary fame aren’t sure about.

If we take it apart we quickly find that their tentative definition works fairly well. The word “feorh” means “life,” or “principle of life” and “laestas” means “leaving,” “step,” “trail,” or “footprint.” So there’s definitely some reference to something being left behind. Maybe, in the case of Grendel, the poet’s actually referring to the trail of blood that the monster is leaving as he drags himself back to the fen. Since Grendel’s mortally wounded, it’s not just any blood he’s leaking, but it’s his very life blood, the loss of which seals his doomed fate.

Why do you think the combination of a word for “folk” and “tough” or “tugging” means “leader” in Anglo-Saxon? Does it suggest anything about what the Anglo-Saxons thought about people who lead? What about the combination of the word for “life blood” and “trail” meaning “step taken to preserve life” or “flight”?

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Closing

In the next entry Beowulf and the visiting chieftans go for a celebratory ride.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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Grendel loses an arm, but gains humanity (809-818a)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Grendel and Beowulf, Monsters Both
Brutal words
Closing

Beowulf, Grendel, Old English, Anglo-Saxon

An illustration of Grendel by J.R. Skelton from Stories of Beowulf. Grendel is described as “Very terrible to look upon.”Stories of beowulf grendel” by J. R. Skelton – Marshall, Henrietta Elizabeth (1908) Stories of Beowulf, T.C. & E.C. Jack. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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Abstract

As Beowulf tears Grendel’s arm off, we’re told more from the monster’s point of view.

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Translation

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 was living
he was hateful to the other. What a wound
endured the terrible creature; his shoulder split
into an open and immense wound; sinews sprung loose,
bone joints split.
(Beowulf ll.809-818a)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Grendel and Beowulf, Monsters Both

This week’s passage is all about the wound at the centre of the fight between Beowulf and Grendel. And that makes sense, since it is the thing that ultimately proves Beowulf’s mastery, though, as has been the case up until now, we still get the story from Grendel’s side of things. We’re not yet let into Beowulf’s mind to see what’s going on with him as he pulls Grendel’s arm from his body.

Instead we’re told that Grendel realizes that he’s not going to survive this fight (“realized that his body would not endure” (“þæt him se lichoma læstan nolde” (l.812)) and that’s about that.

Except for lines 814 to 815.

Here the poet gives us another taste of how he shapes Old English into a mimetic experience of what he’s describing.

Just like two people grappling, this sentence’s reflexive nature shows how the two combatants mutually hate each other, seemingly just as part of their fight. In doing so, the fight gains an emotional aspect that we’ve never really had from Beowulf’s own descriptions of previous bouts.

In his stories, Beowulf has fought monsters and men alike, but we’re never given the poet’s perspective on those he fights. Is this intensity from Grendel’s side of the hand grip just a device common to Germanic heroic poetry? Or is it actually the poet trying to show some pity for Grendel?

Whatever the case, acknowledging that Grendel is at least able to direct his hate suggests to me that he’s more than just some monster.

Actually, it kind of makes them both monstrous since that’s basically what the line says. That is, both Beowulf and Grendel have mutually directed their hate to each other “as long as each was living” (“wæs gehwæþer oðrum/lifigende lað” (l.814-815)).

This line, for me, conjures the image of two figures emanating massive waves of energy toward each other simply because they’re fighting. In this scenario neither of the fighters have much say in this, these immense waves are more a by product of the fight than something intentional. It’s like Beowulf and Grendel are two AI-controlled monsters in a game like Shadow of Mordor who’ve been tricked into fighting each other, and since fighting’s all they know, they’re just locked in combat until it resolves itself — until one of them is beaten.

For Grendel this confirms his monstrosity. But for Beowulf it turns him into one. But what does this reading of Beowulf as temporary monster mean for the poem as a whole, or at least for Beowulf’s character?

Well, Beowulf has the whole poem to be shown to be human, while Grendel gets just a few hundred lines. So maybe the poet’s focus on his emotions and thoughts during this fight is merely a reminder that, despite behaviour and appearances, Grendel is a thinking creature and not just some monster. Grendel, though given much less credit for it (as indicated by his brief characterization primarily during the fight (the setting for this characterization could be indicative of how little humanity Grendel has left), is still, well, maybe not human, but a being with sentience greater than that of an animal.

Quick question:

Over the last few entries I’ve mentioned the idea that Grendel’s characterization during the fight with Beowulf makes him seem more sympathetic, almost human at some points. What do you think, though — is the poet’s point here to drum up sympathy for a misunderstood monster, or is the poet just trying to make Beowulf’s assault all the more brutal by putting us in the perspective of his target?

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Brutal Words

The language of this week’s passage is brutal. Particularly rough among the words the poet slings are “lic-sar” and “syn-dohl.”

Slightly familiar, or at least looking like one of those words you could probably correctly guess at, “lic-sar” means “wound.” It combines the words “lic” (body, corpse (origin of “lich”)) and “sar” (“bodily pain,” “sickness,” “wound,” “sore,” “raw place,” “suffering,” “sorrow,” “affliction,” “sore,” “sad,” “grievous,” “painful,” “wounding” (the origin of “sore”)). So literally “lic-sar” means “body sore,” something open and obvious on the body.

This word is pretty gruesome at the literal level, but if we punch it up by looking at the words stored in “sar” we get sentiments like “raw place on the body,” “body suffering,” “sickness of body.” The implication, I think, being that the wound “lic-sar” describes isn’t just a cut or a scrape, but something that you feel your whole body over. Not that it’s felt all over because it’s a particularly huge wound, but because it’s the sort of wound that makes you aware of your body, that brings attention to the fact that you have this physical form that can be struck and opened in ways that cause pain.

I once had a two inch-wide slit in my forearm and I think “lic-sar” works well to describe it.

The other brutal word I wanted to point out is “syn-dohl.” The meaning of this one is less obvious, but it’s closely related to “lic-sar.”

The word “syn-dohl” means “deadly wound” (Clark Hall and Meritt also include a note suggesting that it means “sin,” an apt definition in a Christian context). The different combinations you could make based on the alternate meanings of these two words don’t deviate much from the sense of “deadly wound,” but they definitely add more colour.

After all, syn can mean “perpetual,” “permanent,” “lasting,” “infinite,” “immense,” and dohl can mean “wound,” “scar,” “cut,” “sore,” “boil,” “tumour.”

So, taken together this compound could mean “perpetual wound,” or “lasting tumour” or “infinite sore.” I actually quite like the last one since it sounds like it’d be right at home in Shakespeare (“It strikes me infinite sore” seems like the perfect line for a foiled Shakespearean villain).

But likeable language aside, all of the different combinations come back to “deadly wound.”

On a bit of a side note, although “dohl” as “tumour” probably refers to an external tumour, it’s interesting that “deadly” was ascribed to tumours then since the association of the two still holds true in many cases today. We might not wander around bashing each other over the head with old swords any more, but we’re still helpless before some of the same “deadly wounds” that have always affected the body.

Quick question:

Old English is a language in which double negatives are actually a more intense form of a negation. Do you think the same principle is at work in these compound words for “wound,” or are “sar-lic” and “syn-dohl” just the poet’s way of using different words for “wound”?

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Closing

Next week, Beowulf is triumphant.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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The spell on Grendel, and a bit about bird swords (ll.801b-808)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
The Spell on Grendel
Bird Swords and Weird Death
Closing

Beowulf, Grendel, Old English, Anglo-Saxon

An illustration of Grendel by J.R. Skelton from Stories of Beowulf. Grendel is described as “Very terrible to look upon.”Stories of beowulf grendel” by J. R. Skelton – Marshall, Henrietta Elizabeth (1908) Stories of Beowulf, T.C. & E.C. Jack. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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Abstract

The poet explains the enchantment put on Grendel and describes what will happen upon his death.

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Translation

801b – 808

“that sin-laden wretch,
by even the best iron in or on the earth,
by any battle bill could not be at all touched,
for he had forsworn the use of any weapon of war,
each and every edge. His share of eternity
in the days of this life
would agonizing be, and the alien spirit
into the grasp of fiends would journey far.”
(Beowulf ll.801b-808)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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The Spell on Grendel

So the answer to last week’s burning question about Grendel and weapons is that they don’t affect him because he’s “forsworn” them.

The actual word used here is “forsworen,” a form of the verb “forswerian,” which means “to swear falsely” (as the modern “forsworn” does) and “make useless by a spell” (which, according to Clark Hall and Meritt only appears in Beowulf). So there’s some sort of magic going on here.

Now, though we only have an example of the “spell” sense of “forswerian” in Beowulf, I think that the same word’s having the sense of “to swear falsely” is important. I think that it suggests that this isn’t just any magic, but dark magic based on some sort of demonic, or evil power. Or, at the very least, some sort of power based on negation.

Big surprise, I know.

Grendel has been the only who’s said to bear the mark of Cain and be the offspring of giants and all that. But I think that this line about having somehow forsworn weapons in particular is a good piece of evidence for Grendel as the enchanted champion of a fallen goddess.

Demons, after all, are often the new religion’s take on the old faith’s gods. So if Beowulf is coming from a culture that once had a pair of deities that were mother and son or even goddess and champion, I think this line about Grendel being enchanted by dark magic seals the connection.

But, once again turning to Robert Graves’ The White Goddess (here’s my first entry on it, from my other blog), there’s even more here than just the implication that Grendel is some sort of old and outdated deity or demi-deity made monstrous.

In the chapter that Graves dedicates to Llew Llaw Gyffes, Graves tells the story of this early Welsh hero. Ultimately, Graves comes to the death of this hero, but the thing with him is that he can only be killed in a very particular way.

And it’s not just that he has to be hit in his heel or struck with a certain sword, he’s got to be balancing between the lip of a cauldron and the back of a goat, beside a stream, under a tree, holding particular items and so on. The conditions are ridiculous (so much so Graves readily looks into them for their iconographic meaning).

The conditions on Grendel’s death aren’t quite so ridiculous, but in the context of Beowulf I think the idea of someone being impervious to weapons would be pretty incredible. I mean — they’re weapons. They’re designed to kill and maim and hurt. To not be affected by a thing’s defining purpose almost gives Grendel a weird metaphysical power over the world around him. Almost.

At any rate, I think that the spell on Grendel is a similar one to that one on Llew Llaw Gyffes.

Perhaps Grendel, as rude and slovenly as he is, is just such a hero viewed through a Christian lens — none of his powers or virtues are won in a straightforward manner and so how could he be anything other than a monster, something outside the proper realm of society, and therefore banished to its borders with his monstrously powerful mother?

The other thing I want to pick at here is why the poet gives half of this passage to describing Grendel’s flight and death.

Actually, I take it to be more than just a description of whatever track Grendel’s going to make as he runs home mortally wounded. Just as heroes die and have the arms of angels to look forward to once their soul ascends, I get the feeling that the poet is using Grendel’s flight from Heorot as a metaphor for his soul’s transmigration to hell (“the grasp of fiends” (“on feonda geweald” (l.808))). But why even mention this?

I think it goes back to the poet’s shifting the focus to Grendel to indirectly show just how strong and powerful Beowulf is.

Rather than just praising his hero unendingly, the poet decided to mix things up and show how terrified Beowulf’s enemies become as they fight him. Interestingly, actually, this is the only fight in which we get a sense of Beowulf’s opponent’s mind as the poem’s hero lands the fatal blow.

Perhaps this shift in perspective is also because, as much as Grendel is the twisted and monstrous champion of the old, Beowulf is the champion of the new?

What do you think?

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Bird Swords and Weird Death

This week’s selection of curious words is rather limited. Still, two stand out: “guð-bill” and “aldor-gedal.”

The first of these means “sword,” and is one of many creative words for the weapon in Beowulf.

This word’s two parts come out as “guð” (“war,” “conflict,” “strife,” or “battle”) and “bill” (“bill,” “axe,” “falchion,” “blade,” or “sword”). So it’s a pretty straightforward concept and even more so a straightforward compound.

But it does make me wonder about what kind of “bill” the sword’s being compared to.

It’s not out of the question that the Anglo-Saxons were into cock-fighting, and part of that is definitely the roosters’ pecking at each other. Though even more likely is that the Anglo Saxons would have observed something like chickens pecking a newcomer nearly to death or other birds fighting and using their beaks primarily to drive their point home.

Though the thing with that is, at least in Modern English, “bill” refers specifically to a longer, often broad, sort of beak, like the kind you’d see on a duck or a stork. So maybe, if “bill” was just as restrictive among the Anglo-Saxons, it fit what the poet was going for since it’s a broad or long bit of a body that an animal uses as a weapon.

Good martial artists of all sorts treat weapons in the same way, as extensions of their bodies rather than separate things. So maybe “guðbill” carries more weight than just “sword,” instead implying a sword that’s wielded as well as any other limb (or maybe specific to a single person, an heirloom sword, perhaps).

The second word, “aldor-gedal,” means death.

Split into its pieces we get “aldor” (“elder,” “parent,” “ancestors,” “civil/religious authority,” “chief,” “leader,” “master,” “lord,” “prince,” “king” “source,” “primitive,” “life,” “vital part,” “age,” “old age,” or “eternity”) and “gedal” (“division,” “separation,” “sharing,” “giving out,” “distinction,” “difference,” “destruction,” “share,” or “lot”).

The tricky thing here is that it’s not entirely clear how these words combine to mean death.

Perhaps it’s because it’s the lot of all living things to one day die, or because death is the share that all living things have in eternity. Death commemorates the formerly alive in a way beyond the memories of the living, and somehow adds them into eternity.

Though that reasoning might give the Anglo-Saxons more credit in the realm of quantum physics, or at least ideas of corpses dissipating into the soil and re-entering the natural world.

The “lot of old age” or the “share of old age” makes a little more sense, without attributing too much philosophy to the Anglo-Saxons, but I think it’s a little too plain. If the Anglo-Saxons were into nothing else, they were definitely into death and elegies. Beowulf itself, in fact, has been considered an elegy by no less a scholar than J.R.R. Tolkien. As a whole it does seem to be about the loss of a whole people (within an Anglo-Saxon context, perhaps the Geats are the Celts?).

As with all old poetry that’s stood the test of time, it’s not at all clear. So, what do you think the reasoning is behind sticking “aldor” and “gedal” together to make a word for “death”? How does that equation work?

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Closing

Next week, Grendel gets a reprieve as the poet waxes poetic ends and we’re told just how Beowulf wins it all.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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Grendel as the Goddess’ champion, three neat words (ll.791-801a)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Grendel as twisted champion
Three neat words
Closing

Beowulf, Grendel, Old English, Anglo-Saxon

An illustration of Grendel by J.R. Skelton from Stories of Beowulf. Grendel is described as “Very terrible to look upon.”Stories of beowulf grendel” by J. R. Skelton – Marshall, Henrietta Elizabeth (1908) Stories of Beowulf, T.C. & E.C. Jack. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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Abstract

Beowulf is aided by his troop of Geats, who move valiantly to defend him.

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Translation

“For nothing at all would that man
allow the death-bringer to leave alive,
he did not consider that one’s life days of
any worth to anyone anywhere. Then the mobile host
moved swiftly to defend Beowulf with 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:…”
(Beowulf ll.791-801a)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Grendel as twisted champion

This week’s passage is one half of a complete scene. As such, it ends on a bit of a cliffhanger. Just why is it that Beowulf’s men’s swords are being used in vain? All will be revealed next week.

For now, however, I think we have enough to spin some theories around. Once again, I’ll be basing my ramblings here on Robert Graves’ The White Goddess. I’m breaking this book out again because it’s what gives the most interesting reading of this passage. Though the most interesting reading isn’t always the most supported one. I’ve got to say up front that my idea here might not stand up outside of Beowulf and in our collection of known Anglo-Saxon literature.

However, in the world that the poem creates and within the poem itself, I think it’s a valid way of looking at things.

Grendel’s being immune to swords I read not necessarily as a side effect of his being some sort of monster. Instead I see it as an effect of his being a twisted version of the goddess’ champion. I base this in the interpretation of the first part of Beowulf as a play on what Graves points out as the trifecta of goddess, god of the waning year and god of the waxing year. Grendel’s mother is the goddess in this case, though she is, perhaps a twisted and gnarled one who lacks the power she had of old since Beowulf is a predominantly masculine poem and, at least for the purposes of this reading, an artifact of a patriarchal society.

As such, a woman who may have headed her own power structure and not just occupied a high place in one defined by men (as Wealhtheow does) would be be depicted as some sort of monstrosity. As Grendel’s mother is just a little later in the poem.

If Grendel is the champion of this goddess, then he could be either the god of the waxing or waning year. However, in keeping with the idea from an earlier entry that Grendel is actually the god of the waxing year whom Hrothgar hasn’t acknowledged for a full cycle of twelve years, he has begun to wane. And now Beowulf acts the part of the king of the waxing year. This changing of roles allows Beowulf to defeat Grendel because of his position.

I also think that Beowulf beats Grendel because he challenges the otherwise slightly feminized creature with sheer masculinity. The two of them engage in a wrestling match, which from classical times was a thoroughly masculine sport, and Beowulf is said to have the strength of thirty men. And strength has always been considered one of the primary virtues of masculinity.

Of course, that means that Grendel must be feminine, at least in some ways. I don’t think these ways are obvious, however.

Looking at the poem as a whole, three things are expected of great men. They must think right thoughts, do right deeds, and speak the right words. Since Grendel does none of these he is obviously no true man.

It might be a bit of a stretch (what’s this blog for otherwise, though?) but I think that Grendel’s is aggressively feminine in his devouring of his victims. Say what you will about men’s thoughts of women’s genitalia, but I think a yonic reading of Grendel’s devouring his victims is definitely valid.

With all this in mind, as much of a cliffhanger as this passage is, I also think that it’s a commentary on the old matriarchal system of government.

Not only is the goddess that society used to worship decrepit (I am getting a little ahead of myself there still), her champion shows no proper masculine virtue and is himself feminized. My point here is that the entire matriarchal system of a cyclical kingship that Graves outlines in The White Goddess is too feminine and not as stable as the more long lasting male kingship that was coming about during the lifetime of the scribes (if not the poet(s)) of Beowulf.

But back to my jumping off point. In my reading of this week’s passage, swords don’t work against Grendel because he’s not subject to the usual ways of masculine warfare, hence Beowulf can only defeat him in hand to hand, unarmed combat.

Do you think it’s useful to use one book as a lens through which to view another book? Or should you just stick with figuring out one book at a time?

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Three neat words

This week’s passage offers up some neat words.

First among these (in their order here, and in general interesting-ness) is “cwealm-cuman.”

A combination of the word “cwealm” (“death,” “murder,” “slaughter,” “torment,” “pain,” “plague,” or “pestilence”) and “cuman” (“come,” “approach,” “get to,” or “attain”), together these words are taken to mean “death-bringer.” As you might’ve noticed, there aren’t any really crazy combinations for “cwealm-cuman”, but it’s neat because of how it’s used in the poem.

Alliteration aside, the poet’s referring to Grendel as a “death-bringer” as he struggles to escape Beowulf’s hold and the overwhelming power that the Geat wields strikes me as a clever way to talk about Grendel the death-bringer getting adose of his own fatal medicine. It seems to me that he’s saying that Beowulf wanted Grendel to leave Heorot with a taste of the same death that he had visited upon it countless times before.

Next up is “frea-drihtnes,” a combination of “frea” (“ruler,” “lord,” “king,” “master,” “the Lord,” “Christ,” “God,” or “husband”) and “drihten” (“ruler,” “king,” “lord,” “prince,” “the Lord,” “God,” or “Christ”).

What’s neat here is that this is another instance of intensification through doubling, as we’ve seen in an earlier entry. Perhaps the sentiment contained in this compound word might also have become the phrase “lord and king,” too. They are both poetic terms, after all.

And that brings us to “heard-hicgend.”

I want to say that this compound is cool because it’s intuitive, but only “heard” is probably recognizable to Modern English speakers. It is, unsurprisingly, Old English for “hard.” The word “hicgend” translates as “mind” or “spirit”.

So, literally, “heard-hicgend” is a “hard spirit” or “hard mind,” a way of expressing the idea of courage. After all, what’s courage if not a certain kind of hardness (or immovability or unwaveringness) of spirit or mind? As odd a way to express courage as saying “hard spirit” might be, it still makes sense on a kind of basic level.

Do you ever find yourself doubling negatives or adjectives to intensify what you’re saying?

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Closing

Next week, all is revealed about the enchantment that Grendel has on himself, and why Beowulf’s fellow Geats are of no help to him in this fight.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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The Beowulf poet gets frugal, plus cunning, antlers, and fear (778-790)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Heorot’s Two Weaknesses, The Poet’s Economy
Cunning, Antlers, Fear
Closing

Beowulf, Grendel, Old English, Anglo-Saxon

An illustration of Grendel by J.R. Skelton from Stories of Beowulf. Grendel is described as “Very terrible to look upon.”Stories of beowulf grendel” by J. R. Skelton – Marshall, Henrietta Elizabeth (1908) Stories of Beowulf, T.C. & E.C. Jack. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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Abstract

The poet continues his break from covering the fight directly and gives more detail about the Danes’ reactions before cutting back to a smugly secure Beowulf.

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Translation

“Never before thought the wise of the Scyldings
that any man or means ever could be found
who might the grand and antlered hall bring down,
destroy by cunning, unless in the hottest embrace
it was swallowed by flame. Sounds newly rose up
often, over the Danes came
horrible fear, each and every of them
outside the wall wailing heard,
a chant of terror uttered by god’s adversary,
it sang of defeat, a wound bewailed
the captive of hell. He held him tight,
that man was the greatest in might
all the days of this life.”
(Beowulf ll.778-790)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Heorot’s Two Weaknesses, The Poet’s Economy

First up this week is a bit of a nod back to last week’s passage.

Last week I pointed out the word “foldbold” (l.773) and how it suggested that Heorot wasn’t just some building but a part of the landscape. Similarly, this week the poet states that it was inconceivable that Heorot could be destroyed.

The only two exceptions that the wisemen of the Scyldings make, so we’re told, are cunning and fire. Either the greatest destroyer of all, a thing the Anglo-Saxons no doubt witnessed changing whole landscapes or perhaps had stories recording such incidents, or the sort of potent social disintegration that could bring down great dynasties and families. Fire or cunning.

This hearkens back to last week’s passage simply in that it bolsters the idea that Heorot is this indestructible thing; only the strongest forces in nature or society could bring it down.

Though, as many an academic note will tell you, this is just what happened to Heorot in the end. After various parties’ infighting and striving against each other, Heorot burned to the ground. So there’s definitely some foreshadowing here. There could even be a clever wink at actual events since there is a Hrothgar on historical record.

In fact, maybe while Beowulf was being sung audiences and listeners would’ve been well aware of Heorot and its eventual fall, once more bringing them a richer description of the fight since the force of Beowulf and Grendel, despite the deafening din of their battle, weren’t enough to bring the mighty hall down.

The other thing to mention this week is the last line. It’s rather ambiguous. Particularly the word “þysses” (790).

If this word translates as “his” then the line simply marks Beowulf as the strongest man alive during his time. But if it’s the broader and more general “this” then the poet’s throwing down the gauntlet and saying that Beowulf was the strongest ever. Period. It’s a neat little ambiguity, really.

And that’s just about it.

I mean, so much of this week’s passage is straightforward as far as the description of the fight goes. However, I can’t help but think that much of this is because the poet isn’t describing the actual fight. There’s no primal tumble of body over body or grip against pull to record. There’s no struggle to try to encapsulate in verse, no titanic conflict to alliterate all over.

So the poet’s able to just say the Danes heard some noise, they thought that maybe Heorot would be destroyed, then they heard wailing, were terribly afraid and that’s that. Let’s cut back to Beowulf who’s now got the situation under control.

Actually, it’s almost like the poet doesn’t want to describe the fight any more than he has so he’s cleverly cut away to the outside perspective of the fight. He’s still recording it, but without having to spend so much of his time on all of the special effects that would be involved in reporting on it directly. Perhaps that’s why, at the end of the passage, we’re just brought right back to Beowulf as he is sure and steady in his terrible hold on Grendel.

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Cunning, Antlers, Fear

This week, first up is a word that’s nothing like a compound. It is, in fact, a verb. This is the word in line 781 that refers to the destruction of Heorot, “tolucgan.” I’m picking on this word this week because I think one of its meanings builds on the apparent foreshadowing that a lot of scholars have pointed out on lines 778 to 782a.

In Clark Hall and Meritt, “tolucgan” is defined as “pull apart,” “desolate,” or “destroy.” The last two definitions aren’t very specific in the method used to effect the destruction that they denote. But the first definition, “pull apart,” adds what I think is a social dimension to the idea that Heorot could be destroyed by cunning.

I see this sense of “tolucgan” bringing in a social angle to the destruction to which it refers because what could be more cunning than orchestrating social strife and in-fighting? Pulling the socially tight knit group within a hall apart in this way could definitely destroy a place meant for merriment and sealing friendships over mead. And not just metaphorically.

Sure, the break down of social structures within the hall would warp its intended function and operation, but that sort of conflict could lead to someone going and setting it on fire.

Back to the compounds. First off is “banfag.” This word is a straight combination of “ban” (bone) and “fag” (dappled, decorated, decked, adorned).

Though on the surface this word combination sounds pretty grim and gruesome for a place as cheerful as Heorot’s supposed to be, I think there’s definitely merit in Clark Hall and Merrit’s translation of the compound as “adorned with bone work. (deer antlers?)” (33). Antlers are, after all, a trophy of the hunt and any successful hunt would be cause for celebration. Perhaps enough of one to hoist high the inedible antlers and hang them over a doorway. Not to mention, putting antlers on a place called “Heorot” completes the name’s pun.

Though I suppose it’s possible to also take this compound more literally and see Heorot as being hung with the bones of all of those whom Grendel has slain over his 12 year reign. Actually, Robert Graves, in his The White Goddess, said the cycle of sacred kings once ran for 12 years. So maybe Grendel is supposed to be the next sacred king, but Hrothgar stands for the patriarchal system of lifelong kingship and the poet/scribe is writing at a time when that patriarchal system was prevalent so Grendel’s framed as the villain.

Maybe.

The other compound to look at this week is similarly simple: “gryre-leoð.” A mix of “gryre” (“horror,” “terror,” “fierceness,” “violence,” or “horrible thing”) and “leoð” (“song,” “lay,” or “poem”), this one means “terror song” or, my translation: “chant of terror.”

So what makes this one so interesting? Hm…good question. I guess I just find it neat how the Anglo-Saxons would describe the sound of someone (something?) wailing out in fear as a song or poem or lay of terror or horror.

I mean, putting a poetic spin on something like fear just really suggests that the Anglo-Saxons understood it to be a multifaceted emotion, that there were many things packed into fear and a sort of manic-ness, a sort of schizophrenic quality to it in that one can be afraid of so many things in a single moment and fear can easily shift focus once it kicks in.

Fear is all the more terrifying when it’s described this way, too, since you can’t help but get the sense that along with all of the musicality and variety implied in a poetry-based metaphor for a fearful cry, it’s also regarded as all the more bewildering. This poem of fear is like a wad of pure horror that’s being cast about willy-nilly.

In fact, maybe this cry’s given this poetic status because of the power it has over people in its area of effect. The Danes are terrified out of their wits, after all. They’ve just been woken from their ale dreams by all this banging and crashing about and now there’s this terrifying scream from their hall. It’s just so much and it’s all packed into a single, poetic compound.

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Closing

Next week, Beowulf’s fellow Geats join the brawl.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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A clash of hall guards, a handful of words (ll.767-777)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Clashing Hall Wardens
A Rich Vein of Words
Closing

Beowulf, Grendel, Old English, Anglo-Saxon

An illustration of Grendel by J.R. Skelton from Stories of Beowulf. Grendel is described as “Very terrible to look upon.”Stories of beowulf grendel” by J. R. Skelton – Marshall, Henrietta Elizabeth (1908) Stories of Beowulf, T.C. & E.C. Jack. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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Abstract

In this week’s passage, Beowulf and Grendel shake Heorot to its very foundations.

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Translation

“The noble hall resounded, all of the Danes,
citizens, each violently stirred,
all in broken ale-dream distress. Both within were warring,
fierce were the hall wardens. The room resounded;
that 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 fought.”
(Beowulf ll.767-777)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Clashing Hall Wardens

There’s a lot to write about this week. So I’ll see what I can do.

After a few weeks in which passages were fairly dry and straightforward, save for a word or phrase on which I could hang my fan theory hat, this week’s is rich and juicy.

First up there’s the word “renweardas” (on line 777). This compound word isn’t out of place being written of in this section, since its nature as a compound is fairly unremarkable. It’s not the word itself I’m interested in so much as how it’s been conjugated.

In context, “renweardas” is the “hall wardens” of its line in this passage, it’s the word that refers to the hall wardens currently fighting in Heorot. But why is it plural?

This is puzzling because you’d think that the poet would refer to just one hall guard: Beowulf. (Unless he heard a different version of events, but I’ll get into that in a bit.) With this plural noun there are two possibilities for interpretation.

The first is the wildest: the poet is referring to both Beowulf and Grendel with this noun.

At first glance this might sound crazy, but I think it’s possible that Grendel is being regarded as a hall warden in that whenever he’s in the hall no one else can get in. And what’s the definition of a great warden or guard? One who keeps the unwanted out. And Grendel does that wonderfully in Heorot, though his definition of “unwanted” is not the same as the Danes’.

Whenever Grendel’s been on duty at any point in the last 12 years, no one has been able to get into Heorot. He’s been keeping people out, but he’s been keeping people out of a place designed for joy and companionship and socializing. He’s keeping a tight guard on a place that really requires a narrower filter on the in-flow of people. And those people need to be in it in order for its function to be fulfilled.

With this in mind, I think the poet could be having a bit of a joke here. Or he might just be upping the ante and showing the binary forces that are here — a guard who is too perfectly and senselessly a guard (like a poorly programmed machine guard might be, actually) and a guard who is human and able to properly discern between friend and foe. If this is the case, then this isn’t just a fight between Beowulf and Grendel, it’s a fight between the old guard and the new — literally.

The other explanation of why “renweardas” is plural is because the poet is referring to all of the Geats. From his description of the tumult and madness within Heorot it definitely seems like people outside would guess that it was the noise of many in combat. Of course, its being only two introduces some nice dramatic irony in that the audience will clearly know that it’s just two combatants having one hell of a brawl.

And that brings me to another of the points raised in this passage. On line 776, the poet uses the classic filler phrase: “so I have heard” (“mine gefraege”).

It’s possible that this is just a throw away phrase used to round things out and to give the poet a chance for a breath in the midst of a very intense scene. But it’s in a strange place if you look at it logically.

How does the poet mean “so I have heard”? Is this second hand information? Was he there? Did he hear it from one of the Danes? Maybe one of the Geats?

In the middle of a scene that’s defined primarily by the intensity of its noise (enough to wake drunken Danes from their sleep), it’s kind of comical to be told that the teller you’re listening to has heard about what sorts of sounds were coming from this fight.

What do you think the phrase “so I have heard” is doing in this passage? Is it just filler, or is there something more to it?

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A Rich Vein of Words

This week’s passage is rich in compound words, though they continue to be fairly straightforward. Nonetheless, the combination of words in each of these compounds does seem to suggest something that’s a little different from their modern English definitions, a shade of meaning that has since fallen away or been so well integrated into their new sense that it’s been forgotten.

The word “ceastra-buendum” is the first of these. It’s a combination of the word “ceastra” (“castle,” “fort,” “town;” “heaven” or “hell”) and the word “buendum (“dweller” or “inhabitant”). Together they make what dictionary makers agree is “citizens.” (remember how I said this week’s words are straightforward?)

But I think it’s instructive to drill down into this word’s meaning a bit. After all, if a citizen is necessarily a dweller in a town or castle but not a village why make the distinction?

I think part of the reason why is because a village or even smaller community of scattered people doesn’t have a strong central authority or clearly marked border. Speaking from my embarrassingly limited knowledge of medieval social structures at the level of government, such small organizations of people as villages or even just farms scattered across pasture land would have been related to a single lord or (later) a parish.

These institutions would act as central authorities, sure, but they’d still be ruling over a people that were few or that were scattered. Because of this, and because of these communities’ exclusion from “citizenship” in a sense, I think that to the Anglo-Saxon mind the word meant belonging to a strong amalgam of people who lived more closely together than disparate farmers or were longer than a village that even in the middle ages you might miss if you blinked while riding through on horse or in cart.

So “citizenship” isn’t just something you can apply to anywhere, it refers particularly to a strong centrally governed, populated place. There’s a certain civilized feel to the word, as if it could be placed on the opposite side of the spectrum from a word like “folk” and its implication of country people.

The people the poet’s referring to here, then, aren’t a bunch of bumpkins but instead a bunch of civilized, worldly people. In short, if you like, people you can trust to give you the facts straight without much embellishment. The sort of people you might want to “have heard” something from, in fact.

Next up is a word that I’m surprised didn’t transition more cleanly into Modern English. “Ealuscerwen” means what it may sound like: to be deprived of ale (in the sense that you are shorn of it (literally), that it is somewhat forcefully taken away from you). Clark Hall and Meritt define the word as “deprival of joy,” “distress,” or “mortal panic” and Wrenn cites many sources that suggest that the word is a metaphor for the distribution of bitter ale, suggesting that disaster follows grand celebration.

But I disagree with both. I think that “ealuscerwen” isn’t so much a word that refers to the deprival of ale or beer, but the deprival of its effects.

I think that when everyone is woken by Beowulf and Grendel’s brawl in the hall, they’re woken from a deep, drunken sleep and that is what they’re being deprived of: sweet sleep. And this is so disastrous because the sleep after drinking heavily at a party like the one thrown for Beowulf is one of the few peaceful experiences for the Danes.

After all, if you were living in a place that was regularly attacked by a monster at night who brutally killed and devoured any people he came across for a solid 12 years would you sleep soundly? I think a little nightcap might be pretty appealing then, and that parties like those thrown for Beowulf would be so enjoyed not just for the joy and fun and happiness experienced while drinking and socializing but also because of the joy of a deep sleep that you would truly enjoy because of its deepness. It would be the sort of sleep in which you’d forget all of your waking life’s problems. Being deprived of that sleep, an effect of the ale or beer you drank, but not the beer or ale itself, would be like having your greatest happiness snatched from you while you were in the middle of enjoying it. Truly a cause for great distress.

Next up is “foldbold” a word that combines “fold” (“earth,” “ground,” “soil,” “terra firma,” “land,” “country,” “region,” or “world”) with “bold” (“house,” “dwelling place,” “mansion,” “hall,” “castle,” or “temple”) to mean simply “house,” or “castle.”

There’s definitely a sense of permanence about this word. It sounds like a house or castle that’s made of the very soil or made so solidly that it’s more a feature of the landscape rather than something on it. This word, I think, carries some hubris with it, though we don’t get any true foreshadowing of Heorot’s future until next week’s passage.

Lastly, I turn to the word “searoþanc,” a word that means “sagacity,” “ingenuity,” “skill” “cunning,” or “artifice.”

This one combines the words “searo” and “þanc” to deepen the sense of sagacity and skilfulness of whatever it’s being applied to. How? By expressing the idea of a person who’s so skilful they could do something with their eyes closed but instead they’re doing that thing with their full attention — guaranteeing that whatever they’re doing it will be utterly masterful.

What do you think of this week’s words? Should (or could) a word like “ale-deprival” make its way in Modern English?

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Closing

Next week the poet dwells on Grendel’s defeat.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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Beowulf and Grendel’s brawl begins (ll.739-754)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
On Feet and Hands
Going Against the Group
Closing

Beowulf, Grendel, Old English, Anglo-Saxon

An illustration of Grendel by J.R. Skelton from Stories of Beowulf. Grendel is described as “Very terrible to look upon.”Stories of beowulf grendel” by J. R. Skelton – Marshall, Henrietta Elizabeth (1908) Stories of Beowulf, T.C. & E.C. Jack. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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Abstract

Beowulf watches as Grendel seizes one of the Geats. Then Grendel goes for Beowulf and things get real.

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Translation

“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 near he stepped,
as his hand grazed against the strong-hearted
warrior at rest — the fiend’s fingers reached
for him; he hastily took the arm
and sat up to strengthen his hold.
Soon that master of the wicked deed found one
like none he’d ever met in all the earth,
no other in any region of the world
had so great a hand grip; at heart he grew
panicked in spirit, feared he might never break free.”
(Beowulf ll.739-754)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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On Feet and Hands

This week’s passage is pretty straightforward. Beowulf looks on as Grendel devours one of his fellow Geats (at least, I think it’s safe to guess that it’s a fellow Geat), and then Grendel goes for him.

But the creature is surprised by Beowulf’s counter attack.

From the way the poet describes it, Beowulf’s counter seems to be some sort of arm hold, maybe even an arm bar. It definitely sounds like a classic grappling move at any rate. Although the description is minimal, I can see Beowulf grabbing Grendel’s arm and then using it to leverage himself to a seated position while also strengthening his grip on that arm.

But that’s all part of the straightforward nature of this passage. It’s as if the poet wrote it to be streamlined so that the combat that’s beginning would start smoothly — as smoothly as if it were being played out in front of his listeners.

Really, though, the element mentioned in this week’s passage that grabs me most is the brief, subordinate clause modifying “soon he had/consumed all of that one” (“sona hæfde/unlyfigendes eal gefeormod” (ll.743-744)): “feet and hands” (“fet ond folma” (l.745)).

This is a weird thing to point out, I think.

On one of those hands, it could just be that the poet/scribe is playing on the use of “bottom” as a term for the human butt and so the logical top are the hands and feet as they’re forced together in a kind of mid-air folded position. So Grendel eats his victims butt first, going from the bottom up.

On the other of those now devoured hands, the phrase “feet and hands” could be a metonymy for the whole person. That is, in the Anglo-Saxon mind, a person’s feet and hands were representatives of the whole person.

If you think about it, this might not be too far fetched if you apply it only to the person’s body. That is, if you read “feet and hands” as a metonymy for the body alone. This becomes clear if you look at the feet as being necessary to carry the body around (remember, most mead halls at this time wouldn’t be wheelchair accessible — nor would there even be wheelchairs) and view the hands as being necessary for the body to act on the world around it and to feed itself to perpetuate its motion and its action.

In that sense, saying that Grendel devoured the man “feet and hands” expresses how completely Grendel devoured the man. Though maybe his body alone, implying that his soul or spirit was still somehow untouched. Which I suppose makes sense since an evil figure like Grendel devouring a soul seems like it would be a transformative metaphor for the corruption of that soul. The Geat who was sleeping so deeply as to be devoured might not have been perfect, but it’s safe to say that he wasn’t corrupt either.

Or, the explicit mention of “feet and hands” could just be a phrase added for emphasis. Losing their hands and feet was probably a terrible fear among early medieval peoples because it meant you could not act and might be considered a burden on your community or family. So noting that the hands and feet had been devoured would probably cement the vileness of Grendel in listeners’ minds.

Or it could have to do with Anglo-Saxons not eating the hoofs of animals like deer or the paws of creatures like rabbits. Grendel’s doing so thus marks him as disgusting other.

Why do you think the poet mentions the devoured warrior’s hands and feet? What’s your fan theory?
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Going Against the Group

Just as this week’s opening lines of the Beowulf/Grendel fight are straightforward and clear cut, so too is much of the language used. I guess those two kind of go hand in hand.

There are two compounds that are kind of neat, though. So here we go.

First up is “unwearnum.” This word is a combination of the negating prefix “un” and the word “wearnum,” meaning “reluctance,” “repugnance,” “refusal,” “denial,” or “resistance,” “reproaches,” or “abuse.” How these two elements combine to make the word “heedlessly” is pretty clear since the negation of the core meaning of “wearnum,” “reluctance,” suggests an adverb meaning “without any reluctance,” or “having no feeling against the action.”

But, this is Old English, so varying spellings invariably enter the picture. In this case, the word “wearn” could be spelled “worn.”

If spelled as “worn,” then the compound (so long as the two can still compound) could mean the negation of a “large “amount,” “number,” “troop,” “company,” “multitude,” “crowd,” or “progeny.”

In a fairly loose way, the negation of something like a large group could give you a similar meaning to the original “unwearnum” since doing something heedlessly or without reluctance seems like it’d be an act that violates a taboo. And really, what’s a taboo if no something that a group has a strong negative feeling (like reluctance or repugnance) towards?

Using such a word, whichever of the roots you use (“wearn” or “worn”), to describe Grendel’s actions is really well suited. After all, Grendel is framed as this lonely creature living on the absolute fringe of society, and so it makes perfect sense that he act against that society’s firmly held beliefs.

The other compound word of note this week is “syn-snaedum.” It’s a combination of “syn” (meaning “sin”) and “snaedum” (meaning “handle of a scythe,” “detached area of woodland,” “piece,” “morsel,” “slice,” or “portion of food”) — perfect for describing the raw flesh of a human being.

Though, the more geographical meaning of “snaedum” make for an interesting variation, or metaphor even: In breaking in and destroying Danes (and now Geats), Grendel is making large swaths of land sinful in so far as he is keeping humanity, biblically appointed stewards of creation, from being able to rein nature in. Though that reading is quite a stretch, even by the standards of an English major.

Actually, the poet’s use of this word (aside from alliterative reasons) hearkens back to last week’s idea of Grendel’s visits being profane masses or gruesome parodies of Catholic Christian mass in that the “sinful morsel” could be considered the profane counterpart to what might be considered the “sacred snack” that is the Christian Eucharist.

This is the second week in which Grendel’s actions at Heorot could be considered dark parodies of a Christian mass. Do you think there’s anything to that theory? Or is Grendel’s feasting just the way the poet chose to describe the actions of a monster? Maybe there’s some sort of criticism of Christianity here?

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Closing

Next week Grendel’s struggle with Beowulf starts in earnest.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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Grendel, Beowulf, and Graves’ Goddess, plus Grendel’s dark masses (ll.731-738)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Finding The White Goddess in Beowulf
Grendel’s Dark Masses
Closing

Beowulf, Grendel, Old English, Anglo-Saxon

An illustration of Grendel by J.R. Skelton from Stories of Beowulf. Grendel is described as “Very terrible to look upon.”Stories of beowulf grendel” by J. R. Skelton – Marshall, Henrietta Elizabeth (1908) Stories of Beowulf, T.C. & E.C. Jack. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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Abstract

Grendel’s glee is given clear reason, fate rushes in, and Beowulf looks on — waiting.

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Translation

“…intended he to sever, before the day returned,
the terrible fierce assailant, from each one
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 Higelac, to see how the enemy
with his calamitous grip would fare.”
(Beowulf ll.731-739)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Finding The White Goddess in Beowulf

Grendel’s glee continues into this passage and we’re given the reason for it: Grendel believes he’s in for a feast since there’s an entire group of young warriors sleeping in the hall.

But then we’re told that such wasn’t set as fate on line 734. I think that this line is central to this passage and the scene in which it occurs. As such, I think it serves a few purposes.

First off, I think that line 734 helps to being the focus back to Beowulf. As fate’s agent in so far as Beowulf is the one fated to bring about the end of Grendel’s feasting (as is fated), this line is like a group of heralding trumpets announcing his arrival. Along similar lines, this line marks Beowulf as fate’s agent.

Actually, in light of what I’ve read in Robert Graves’ The White Goddess, the triangle that line 734 sets up is rather interesting.

Central to Graves’ book is the idea that the single poetic theme, the one thing that all true poetry is about in infinite variation, is the struggle between the king of the waning year and the king of the waxing year for the hand or approval of the goddess (in her form as maid).

In the scenario in this passage we have the god of the waning year in Grendel. And we have the god of the waxing year in Beowulf. But then, where is the female element?

Well, in chapter 25 of The White Goddess Graves writes that before patriarchal religion took over from matriarchal religion the idea of religious freedom was non-existent. During that time it was believed that whatever happened, happened, and people had no choice but to accept the good and the bad that the goddess at the centre of this matriarchal faith doled out. What happened was locked into happening — it was fated.

If Beowulf is a work reflective of the change from paganism to Christianity among the Anglo-Saxons, or even if it’s just a story steeped in pre-Christian lore that has a Christian gloss over it (the constant references to “The Lord,” “The Measurer,” “Almighty God,” etc.), then it makes sense that “wyrd” or “fate” would be a feminine concept. As such, in this scenario where we have Grendel, Beowulf, and Fate, we have the complete trinity of waning king, waxing king, and woman.

But how does this fit into Beowulf, and why does it matter? What about your reading of Beowulf does it change?

Well, it does an awful lot of foreshadowing. It also suggests a good reason why Beowulf is still around outside of its being the only example of Old English long form poetry that we have. It does the latter by fitting very neatly into the template of the singular poetic theme. It does the former because it fits so well into that theme.

It fits so well into the theme because the trinity of waning king, waxing king, and woman is cyclical. Within the scope of a cycle the waxing king becomes the waning king, the woman gives birth to a new champion and he becomes the waxing king who ousts the now waning king. And things just continue onward with that cycle forever.

With this in mind, it’s obvious that Beowulf will triumph here, but that he will fall later on. What’s interesting about his fall is that as he dies he passes things along to his successor himself, without any sort of female presence.

Thus, going along with Graves, Beowulf could be read as a story of how patriarchal faith ousted matriarchal faith. Such a reading also puts an interesting spin on Beowulf’s defeating Grendel’s mother, since it suggests that at some point the king or god of the waxing year killed not only his rival but also the woman for whom he fought.

Stepping back from this reading of the poem, the line about fate also foreshadows things in the way that it’s worded. Grendel’s not going to feast on many again, but nothing’s said about one or two.

Do you think that there’s anything more going on in the struggle between Beowulf and Grendel beyond an action scene? Is Beowulf really invested with the judgement of fate or are these two just savages?

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Grendel’s Dark Masses

This week’s passage has three words that I think are worth writing about. They are “wist-fylle,” “þryð-swyð,” and “fær-gripum.”

The first of these, “wist-fylle,” means “lavish feast.” It’s a word made up of the word for “being,” “existence,” “well-being,” “abundance,” “plenty,” “provision,” “nourishment,” “subsistence,” “food,” “meal,” “feast,” “delicacy,” — “wist” — and the word for “complete,” “fill up,” “perfect,” — “fullian” — which can also mean “to baptize.”

Hold on a second.

I can see the connection between “complete, fill up, perfect” and “baptize,” especially in a Christian context. But pairing that up with the word for feast in such a context really strikes me as weird.

Now, I know that the poet probably didn’t create most of the compound words that he uses, but “wist-fylle” is still a weird pairing. In fact, I wonder if at some point (maybe even when Beowulf was being put to paper or even just composed) the word had connotations of a sacred meal or maybe even a Eucharistic mass. You know, the sort celebrated each Sunday by practicing Christians with readings and songs and the wafer (or actual piece of bread) served up around the end.

On the one hand, given its context as what Grendel’s expecting at the sight of so much youthful flesh, “wiste-fylle” seems like it could be sacrilege. But, I think that on the other hand even with such connotations, this word is a perfect fit.

Grendel certainly came to Heorot with enough regularity for it to be considered a ritual. Like Christian mass. He also always supped on flesh before going away. Like at Christian mass (metaphorically, of course, unless you’re a strict Catholic and believe that the Eucharist undergoes transubstantiation once blessed and then is the body of Christ, as they say). So maybe the word’s meant to suggest that Grendel’s visits are a kind of mass for him.

With these things in mind, I don’t think it’s far off the mark to see Grendel as not only the representation of the evil of the world but also of the pagan religion that was being supplanted by Christianity. The old religion of ritual sacrifice and bloodshed was being replaced by one with righteous bloodshed in the name of a true god — perhaps a small irony that didn’t escape the erudite among the Anglo-Saxons (such as their “scops” or poets).

Though also at the heart of Christianity is the idea that such sacrifices are no longer necessary because Christ’s dying on the cross stands as a sacrifice for and across all time — making any others unnecessary, even insulting to god if you want to look at it that way.

Unfortunately, that’s where this reading of the word sort of falls apart. Beowulf does eventually die. And, in doing so he saves his people, but only for a very short time. Otherwise, there really isn’t a permanent sacrifice that comes in to replace that which Grendel takes during his dark visits. Ah well, good run. Unless the whole thing’s meant as a criticism of Christianity. But that’s something for another entry.

The second word worth looking at doesn’t really lend itself to much analysis. The word “þryð-swyð” is weird because it literally translates out to something like “strong strength” or “severely strong.” It’s like two words meaning powerful things being bashed together into something even more powerful. A kind of linguistic Masa and Mune, if you will.

And, to be honest, “fær-gripum” doesn’t have much to it either (I should probably work at organizing these sections more strictly).

The first half of this word means “calamity,” “sudden danger,” “peril,” “sudden attack,” or “terrible sight” and the second half means “grip,” “grasp,” “seizure,” “attack.” It’s not the most compelling combination, essentially meaning “sudden attack” or more specifically “sudden grip.”

However, a bit of the Anglo-Saxon (Beowulfian?) love of violence creeps into the word if you dig down into “fær.” This is because “fær” is an alternate spelling of the word “fæger,” meaning “fair,” “beautiful,” or “pleasant.”

With this new first element in place, the word becomes “beautiful grip” or “fair attack.” Such a word combination might sound more like it belongs in the mouth of a pro wrestling commentator, but really, Beowulf is kind of a pro wrestler-type character if you think about it. And Grendel’s quite a heel.

Or, the Anglo-Saxons just really could appreciate beautiful violence, the sort of thing that puts you in awe of how graceful — yet painful — it looks. For examples of what I mean, go check out The Raid: Redemption. There’s a ton of beautiful violence in that film. Beautiful, horrifying violence.

Do you think that Beowulf could be a long tongue-in-cheek anti-Christian tale?

Or, do you think that there is such a thing as “beautiful violence”?

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Closing

Next week, Grendel goes after Beowulf.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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Grendel feels glee again, shining laughter in Heorot hall (ll.720-730)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Grendel’s noise, and anger or bag?
Shining foes and roaring laughter
Closing

Beowulf, Grendel, Old English, Anglo-Saxon

An illustration of Grendel by J.R. Skelton from Stories of Beowulf. Grendel is described as “Very terrible to look upon.”Stories of beowulf grendel” by J. R. Skelton – Marshall, Henrietta Elizabeth (1908) Stories of Beowulf, T.C. & E.C. Jack. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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Abstract

This week, Grendel enters the hall and finds succulent sleeping youths.

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Translation

“Came he then 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 mischief, then he became angry,
standing at the hall’s mouth. 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…”
(Beowulf ll.720-730)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Grendel’s noise, and anger or bag?

The main thing I want to address this week is how much noise Grendel must be making with his entrance. From the way the poet describes it, he destroys the door by merely touching it and then seems to toss it aside. For a creature of the shadows he isn’t very stealthy when it comes to the works of man.

And yet, the Geats within are asleep. And what’s more, they remain asleep despite the racket that Grendel’s entrance must have made.

Well, I think Grendel makes so much noise (or at least seems to) is the poet’s way of describing how destructive Grendel is. I think the poet’s describing a sort of weird disconnect, in which Grendel is causing heavy damage to the hall door but not making any noise; his actions aren’t making any waves. At least, none that the poet comments on, which I find very odd.

Perhaps this the supernatural power of Grendel, to cause great destruction but to leave no trace of it aside from wreckage. That sounds like something that could be pretty frightening to a people like the Anglo-Saxons. After all, how can you pre-emptively defend yourself from something that gives you no warning?

Of course, it’s possible that the poet might just be lazy here. Or maybe it’s just not part of the Anglo-Saxon tradition to write for more than one sense at a time. Whatever the case, it wouldn’t be as exciting if Beowulf and his men were waiting at the ready for Grendel. Even though that’s generally how most movies have this scene play out.

I’m not sure if it has any extra meaning in this context, but maybe this is the poet’s way of Anglo-Saxon-izing Christ’s parable of the unwary servants and the thief in the night. Though if that’s the case, if Beowulf is god’s champion, why isn’t he up and ready?

The other thing from this passage to bring up here is the word “belgan.” This word means “to be angry,” or “to become angry.” Or, taken as the final meaning that Clark Hall and Meritt offer, it means “bag,” purse,” “leathern bottle,” “pair of bellows,” “pod,” “husk,” or “belly.”

I can’t help but wonder if this word is supposed to double as Grendel’s anger and the “glove” that Beowulf describes him as carrying when he tells the story of their fight. Though, given Grendel’s reputation for eating Danes, maybe that glove is nothing more than his stomach, a thing he always has with him and with which he’s ready to store whatever he needs to.

What’s your take any the Geats’ sleeping through Grendel’s entrance? Did he come in quietly despite his destroying the hall’s door? Or are the Geats just really sound sleepers?

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Shining foes and roaring laughter

This week’s passage has a few words of note, so let’s take a look.

First off, this week’s words of note aren’t compounds. As in last week’s post, those compounds that are used are straightforward.

For example, the word “sibgedryht” is made up of the word for “kin,” “relationship” (“sib”) and “host,” “company,” or “troop” (“gedryht”) and all together means “peaceful host,” or “related band.”

Likewise, the word “mago-rinc,” which means “youth,” “man,” or “warrior,” is a combination of the Old English word for “male kinsman,” “son,” young man” (“mago”) and the word for “man, warrior, hero” (“rinc”). So there’s not really much there.

Instead, the words of not this week are those of the non-compound variety. You might even call them the regular words of the Old English language even. Imagine that.

Two such regular words stand out this week. The first of these is “fagne.”

This word shows up fairly frequently in Beowulf. It shows up so often because it fits quite a few lines and because it means “variegated,” “spotted,” “dappled,” “stained,” “dyed,” “shining,” or “gleaming,” all meanings that work well in descriptions of light or of treasure.

However, in Clark Hall and Meritt, the entry for “fagne” also redirects you to “fah” which means “hostile,” “proscribed,” “outlawed,” “criminal,” “foe,” “enemy,” “party to a blood feud.” In this passage “fagne” is used to describe the lustre of the floor that Grendel walks over.

But maybe both meanings are supposed to be at play.

Maybe the poet is trying to get twice as much out of a single word. That is, maybe he meant to imply that Grendel’s very step darkens the bright and joyful glimmer of the hall floor to a clouded enmity.

Or, if the poet wasn’t going for a dosage of extra meaning, maybe “fagne” is being used as a pun. Maybe.

The other word I want to point out and pick on is “ahlog.” I want to do so with this one because it’s not really clear whether it’s supposed to be a form of the word “ahliehhan,” meaning “laugh at,” “deride,” “exult,” or a form of the word “ahlowan,” meaning “to roar again.”

If it’s the former, then Grendel simply laughs, maybe enjoys a bit of a thrill or sense of power as he looms over his sleeping victims.

But, if his heart “roars again,” I’m left with the question: when did his heart roar before? Are we to take this to mean that Grendel has lost whatever twisted joy he once took in terrorizing the Danes and only just rediscovered it?

This angle perhaps characterizes him a bit too much, but it leads me to wonder which is more monstrous: a monster who simply terrorizes to terrorize, or one with a sense of duty to terrorize, who punches in at sundown and out at sunrise for decades even after the joy is gone?

If the word meant is “ahlowan,” then maybe Grendel’s being a more complex monster is why Beowulf was included with The Life of St. Christopher, Letters of Alexander to Aristotle, Wonders of the East, and Judith in what we now call the Nowell Codex. After all, if these stories were gathered together just because they all had monsters in them, you’d think there’d be more in th codex (physical and fiscal limitations of medieval publishing notwithstanding). Maybe Grendel is more complex than most give credit.

At the least, this fork in interpretation is food for thought — is Grendel just a mindless monster, or a creature who had just been going through the motions for years until he happened upon the heap of hapless Geatish youths and rediscovered his passion for his line of work?

What do you think?

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Closing

Next week, Grendel makes his first move against the sleeping Geats. And Beowulf re-enters the poem.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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How Grendel contrasts with Heorot, and an exalted humbling (ll.710-719)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Grendel and Heorot contrasted
Cliffs as lids, and an exalted humbling
Closing

Beowulf, Grendel, Old English, Anglo-Saxon

An illustration of Grendel by J.R. Skelton from Stories of Beowulf. Grendel is described as “Very terrible to look upon.”Stories of beowulf grendel” by J. R. Skelton – Marshall, Henrietta Elizabeth (1908) Stories of Beowulf, T.C. & E.C. Jack. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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Abstract

Grendel and Heorot are described as Grendel makes his way towards it.

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Translation

“Then came from the moor under misty cliff
Grendel bounding, he bore god’s ire,
meant the sinner against humankind
some to ensnare in that humbled hall.
Raging beneath the heavens, he headed to that wine hall,
the gold hall best known to men,
shimmering with ornaments. That was not the first time
that he the home of Hrothgar sought out.
Never had he in earlier days nor afterwards
found a thane so hard in the hall.”
(Beowulf ll.710-719)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Grendel and Heorot contrasted

This week’s passage is at odds with last week’s. Not in that it’s written in a completely different style or anything like that, but because it takes the emphasis on Grendel’s appearance and shifts it onto his intent.

However, this passage does include some description of Heorot itself that sets up a contrast between it and its attacker.

Last week, Grendel was described as a being who moves in the shadows, who slinks around. As a result, I think the Anglo-Saxons imagined Grendel as the antithesis of brightness.

Now, it only gets about a line and a half of description here, as opposed to the three we had for Grendel last week. But in those one and a half lines, Heorot is described, quite simply, as “shimmering with ornaments” (“fættum fahne” (l.716)). It is also referred to as a “gold hall” literally, since “goldsele” translates handily from Old English to Modern English with little change (l.715). So Heorot, in very short order, is clearly made out to be the pinnacle of colour, of brightness.

Perhaps that’s why it’s given so little description here. I mean, it could just be that way because the poet has already described the hall on earlier occasions, but I think that what’s happening here goes beyond being mere shorthand by which the poet intends to remind people that Heorot is bright and shiny.

I think that this description is less lingered on than that of Grendel because the hall’s brightness makes itself apparent. Just how the eye worked wasn’t likely to have entirely worked out when Beowulf was being set down in writing, but the Anglo-Saxons would definitely have been aware of how the eye’s drawn to light. Thus, they probably had some sense that bright things are immediately bright while dull things are dull over time.

In other words, I think that Heorot is being characterized here as a flash to Grendel’s dull wall. The former is so bright it overcomes you, while the latter is so not bright that you can stare at it for hours.

So why set up this contrast? I think it’s to show how diametrically opposed Grendel is to the Danes. He’s there to steal them because they are his opposite, not only in the eyes of god or whatever, but simply in how they are perceived.

Or, if you like, the Anglo-Saxons may have had some concept of darkness swallowing light as much as light creating darkness. It’s possible that this idea may also have come in with Christianity, since the metaphor of darkness eating light sounds like something that any zealous missionary would bust out to frame Christianity as the underdog in a perpetual struggle not between the forces of nature or great heroes, but between the Anglo-Saxon’s two poles of perception: darkness and light.

One other thing that struck me about this passage, though it’s less thought out, is the line “he bore god’s ire” (“godes yrre bær” (l.711)).

This one is pretty easily a reference to Grendel bearing the mark of Cain and all of that, but it also ties neatly into an idea that I brought up in my entry two weeks ago.

What if, if Beowulf is god’s champion or god’s representative on earth in some way, Grendel’s bearing god’s ire isn’t just some poetic phrasing, but is actually a reference to his being marked for death by Beowulf? After all, if Beowulf’s stories and oaths are true, he seems very much to be the worker of that wrath. It’d be a neat bit of foreshadowing, I think

One other thing about Heorot as it’s described here.

In line 713 the poet notes that the hall itself is “humbled” (“hean”). Given Heorot’s glory and grandeur in its description here, this seems odd. But I think that it’s the poet/scribe tying off the contrast that I’ve noted. I think that it’s their way of saying that Heorot wasn’t just deteriorating because it was so often empty since Grendel started attacking, but it was actually losing its lustre because it had fallen under the shadow that is Grendel.

On the one hand this might sound like a simple reading of the contrast of light and dark and the notion that the darkness is overpowering the light. But think about it for a second. Grendel’s not just dimming brightness or being shadow incarnate — he is taking the lustre from the brightest thing of all: gold.

How can any one — Geat, Dane, or even god — stand up to that? Grendel is a darkness so powerful that it is stripping away the characteristic property of an object.

What do you make of the contrast between Heorot and Grendel that seems to be set up in this passage?

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Cliffs as lids and an exalted humbling

Okay, so there’s not much to write about when it comes to words that stand out in this week’s passage.

I’m actually starting to wonder if there’s some sort of pattern to watch for in these stretches where the poet is describing physical things.

For the most part, it’s these descriptive, geographical parts of the poem (as far as I can tell, and from memory) that contain the straightforward compounds — those compound words that, even when defined as separate words and then recombined, mean simply what they’d mean paired up otherwise.

For example, “mist-hloþum” sounds like it could be something really badass — maybe about the way that Grendel moves or his villainous intent. But, taken together these words just mean “misty cliff.” Apart they mean “mist, misty” (mist) and “cliff, precipice, slop, hillside, hill” (hlið). So, again, “misty cliff.”

Now, Old English would be far more straightforward if each word only had one meaning. But, because spelling was far from being standardized, some Old English words have various spellings, which makes Old English dictionaries networks of meaning.

For instance, in the Clark Hall and Meritt dictionary entry for “hlið” there’s a note that redirects you to “hlid,” a word that can mean “lid, covering, door,gate, opening” — basically a word with the sense of there being an opening that is also covered.

Now this definition of “hlið” could combine with mist to a similar effect.

If you think of the mist as enveloping a space, then the cliff jutting out from it is a covering for what would otherwise be open: the hole in the mist.

But that doesn’t open much up aside from a discussion of Anglo-Saxon metaphysics and their take on the nature of holes and openings. A topic that I know nothing about.

So instead let’s turn away from compounds and write about the word “hean.” As mentioned above, it’s used in this passage to describe Heorot.

Now, what’s neat about this word’s use here is that it’s not just a matter of its being another weird word with two, practically opposite meanings. As it appears here either of its meanings could work without any sort of linguistic stretching.

So, here’s how the word appears in the passage: “…in sele þam hean” (713).

And here’s what the word “hean” can mean: “lowly,” “despised,” “poor,” “man,” “bar,” and “abject” or “raise,” “exalt,” and “extol”

So, in that context, since the poet’s talking about Heorot, he could be praising it. It could be the “exalted hall.” Or it could be a reference to the hall’s current, fallen state: “that humbled hall.” I’ve chosen the latter because I think it best fits the situation and were it supposed to be “exalted hall,” I think that “hean” would be “hiēhst,” the superlative form of the Old English word for “high.”

Though I have to say that it’s fairly clever of the poet to use this word. Not just because it fits in with the alliterative line but because I think it is supposed to carry both meanings simultaneously. It was indeed the most exalted of halls but it is now humbled.

What do you think of the idea that simple compound words generally refer to geographical features?

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Closing

Next week, Grendel arrives at Heorot and peeks in on his prey.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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