Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Responses to you

I think the anecdote about Beowulf’s competition in the sea is interesting for a couple of reasons. First, I wonder what the purpose of this competition is. As far as I can tell, Beowulf and his friend simply decide one day that they will do this when they get older. I am leaning toward interpreting it as a right of passage of sorts. These two men found the need to prove themselves and test their limits by traversing into a very dangerous place. For some reason this still doesn’t sit right with me, however. Apparently the tales of this exploit is known far and wide. I wonder if it doesn’t serve more as a manner of self-promotion. Beowulf certainly has no qualms about bragging. Maybe this trip into the sea was meant to bring fame.
Beowulf showing up to fight Grendel is the same thing: the hero is going forth into the world to conquer.

I don't think that the term "rite of passage" applies here. The rop in a strict sense is for indoctrination into a society or to move to "another level" of society. The process whereby the boy becomes a man, etc. Beowulf and Breca do it "for a silly boast. (l 492).

As for boasting, I like line 558-560,
Neither Breca nor you in the press of battle/Ever showed such daring with dripping swords--/Though I boast not of it...."


I find it interesting that these people are reasonably well skilled in navigating the sea and even send their dead leaders out into the waves as a funeral right yet still see these bodies of liquid as frightening and unknown.


I'd argue that the Vikings were the greatest navigators of the Middle Ages, although that's neither here nor there.

As for the sea being familiar to them but it also being "frightening and unknown," I think that it follows perfectly, if on the level of metaphor.

For some reason my first read through this section, I thought Beowulf lost the race. I then wonder if the story of him being attacked by the monsters (I'd imagine that his story, if true, would be describing storms rather than evil beasties) would be an excuse for losing.

Of course, on further readings, it doesn't say that he lost at all. Did you get that in your reading?

I read a web page a while back about Scandinavian combat and they mentioned a form of wrestling that seemed very similar to the combat between Beowulf and Grendel.
Could it be Glima? The article's dating makes it appear newer than Beowulf, but perhaps it's worth reading again.

If we fit this into the society vs. anarchy theme, Beowulf, by necessity, enters the same state that Grendel is in, that of murder and unorganized war, and doesn’t even use weapons yet still manages to force Grendel into a civilized manner of combat. Of course, this is all assuming that Beowulf would have actually been familiar with this sort of dueling technique.


Interesting - read this as "Grendel doesn't follow the norms of society, so society's punishments won't be able to deal with him." I can see this sort of thing applied to the War on Terror, but that's probably a bit off topic for this discussion.

Wrestling is one of the oldest sports (if I had to wager, I'd put it as #2. #1 being running away from something trying to eat you) and is very ritualised as training for combat that isn't meant to hurt your partner and cause them to rendered unfit for combat. It's also putting rules on something as primal and savage as killing.

Grendel then has no training and the weapons of man can't hurt him, so Beowulf has no choice but to sink to his level - but, he can still win by virtue of his superior skills.

We've established that Beowulf isn't a human like anyone else and neither is Grendel (OK, he's not human at all, but you get the idea). The thing that separates the terrible power of Beowulf from that of Grendel is that Beowulf is "civilized." Thus, civilization is stronger than barbarism.

This makes quite a bit more sense than my previous remembering of the "Beowulf v. Grendel is about the power of the individual and B. vs. Grendel's Mom is about technology" because we see that Beowulf's thane tries to attack Grendel with the sword and the sword breaks.

Ah well, we'll see how well the magic weapon motif holds up when we get to the next part.

I think you're on to something though.

I noticed as I was reading that Hrothgar still inhabited the mead hall 12 years after the attacks began! Apparently, Grendel only visits during the night. I just can’t get my head around Hrothgar’s lack of action. Not only does he not personally confront the monster, despite being a great warrior, he also decides not to move away. He is completely passive. At the very least you would think he might be a bit reluctant to stay in a place that is covered with gore, as the hall is described in my translation. I suppose I am overanalyzing a literary device used to set Beowulf up for his triumphant victory, but I still find it strange.


I covered this in part in at the bottom of this post. They do try numerous mehtods to stop Grendel, but are unable.

As for Hrothgar not leaving, I'm going back to the level of allegory and thinking that this is about civilization defending itself against outside attack. If they leave, they've proven that they're unworthy of all that they had to go through to "earn" Heorot. If they give up civilization, then they'll go back to being like Grendel. If they leave Heorot and start again, Grendel will just find them. The problems of the barbarians at the gates will persist no matter where they go.

If Hrothgar leaves Heorot to sleep in the bowers, it's as good as saying that it's all for naught.

The end of section 1, take 2

I think the anecdote about Beowulf’s competition in the sea is interesting for a couple of reasons. First, I wonder what the purpose of this competition is. As far as I can tell, Beowulf and his friend simply decide one day that they will do this when they get older. I am leaning toward interpreting it as a right of passage of sorts. These two men found the need to prove themselves and test their limits by traversing into a very dangerous place. For some reason this still doesn’t sit right with me, however. Apparently the tales of this exploit is known far and wide. I wonder if it doesn’t serve more as a manner of self-promotion. Beowulf certainly has no qualms about bragging. Maybe this trip into the sea was meant to bring fame.

Another thing I find interesting is that he ends up killing several sea monsters. I believe Grendel himself is associated with the watery depths and as I recall from my abridged reading in high school, Grendel’s mother is a sea monster of some sort. I think there is a very obvious tie between water and danger. I guess I don’t have too much to say about it, but I find it interesting that these people are reasonably well skilled in navigating the sea and even send their dead leaders out into the waves as a funeral right yet still see these bodies of liquid as frightening and unknown.

I read a web page a while back about Scandinavian combat and they mentioned a form of wrestling that seemed very similar to the combat between Beowulf and Grendel. From what I recall, this form of wrestling was used to settle disputes, sort of like a gentlemanly duel. If we fit this into the society vs. anarchy theme, Beowulf, by necessity, enters the same state that Grendel is in, that of murder and unorganized war, and doesn’t even use weapons yet still manages to force Grendel into a civilized manner of combat. Of course, this is all assuming that Beowulf would have actually been familiar with this sort of dueling technique.

I noticed as I was reading that Hrothgar still inhabited the mead hall 12 years after the attacks began! Apparently, Grendel only visits during the night. I just can’t get my head around Hrothgar’s lack of action. Not only does he not personally confront the monster, despite being a great warrior, he also decides not to move away. He is completely passive. At the very least you would think he might be a bit reluctant to stay in a place that is covered with gore, as the hall is described in my translation. I suppose I am overanalyzing a literary device used to set Beowulf up for his triumphant victory, but I still find it strange.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Man, have I been ignoring Beowulf

But I have started Bettelheim's The Uses of Enchantment, which has some interesting ideas about what's going on with fairy tales and how they relate to myths.

He argues that myths are inherently pessimistic because they, among other things, discuss the greatness that only a given person can achieve - in this case it would be Beowulf.

Whereas one may be able to emulate Hrothgar and live a life like his (honest and fair, fierce in battle and loved by his comrades), they'll never have a chance to be Beowulf. That is, Hrothgar is a normal guy who sticks to his guns, but Beowulf is a superhero - he's got a good pedigree and some stuff that us normal mortals don't, and never will, have.

Another point Bettleheim makes (or at least one I'm extrapolating, but we can argue my take on it rather than his actual idea) is that fairy tales are inherently optimistic because they promise living "happily ever after" while myths have definite endings that are either pessimistic (think of the Greeks getting chained to a rock, being stuck in Hades, etc.) or ridiculous enough that no one would believe them on a subconcious level (going to heaven as it were).

Fairy tales discuss things in broad terms whereby it's easy for one to imagine themselves in the role (there's a prince, a stepdaughter, etc.) while myths are about specific people. Nonetheless, while myths present a manner of living that the authors* feel we should be living up to, they either make the payoff unbelievable or unattainable.

Of course, the idea of fate played a very strong role in Norse mythology and even though it was every man's lot to fight and die and one day the world would likewise perish, the honor was in the act, not necessarily the reward, so they soldiered on.

OK, not sure where I was going with that, but it seemed relevant at the time.

* Authors is of course plural because of the myriad tellings and retellings of the story. Presumably the story was altered with each telling depending on the interests of the audience.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Quick responses

Perhaps he is just past his prime?
Well, nothing is explicitly stated which, in this poem, means it may as well not have happened, so I agree that it is a bit odd for him to not have tried anything. However, as I noted previously, others have tried to do something. I'm not familiar enough with the comitatus arrantements to know whether or not the leader was expected to lead his troops into battle, but I think the "past his prime bit" definitely fits here. We'll see that parallel again with the dragon.

Thoughts after partial reread.

I have done a partial reread with what we have already discussed in mind and here are some thoughts.

First, it appears that you are correct about Hrothgar being a powerful guy. I think the main evidence for this is around line 65. Also take a look at line 79 or so where it says "Nor did he fall short of his boast." This puts him in company with Beowulf. They may be braggarts but they can still deliver on their promises. However, I still find his actions after Grendel appears to be a bit strange. As far as I can tell, this supposedly mighty warrior personally does nothing to try and stop the ogre. Strange when you consider that, according to line 150, “Grendel had been waging war against Hrothgar for some time,” some time meaning 12 years in this context. Perhaps he is just past his prime?

I think we can rule out some of the possible motivations I was floating out for Grendel, however. The author makes it pretty clear that Grendel is an evil guy and certainly not likened to a Fury or an avenging agent of God. Line 105, for instance. I still think Grendel is a little undefined, however. I think we have to accept the author’s word that Grendel doesn’t like the noise that is coming from the mead hall but after he has chased everyone away from the building, why does he continue to “wage war?” I think that ultimately it is necessary to assume that Grendel acts as a demonic animal, acting purely on instinct and impulsive bloodlust. I am certainly open to hearing evidence explaining otherwise but I don’t see anything from my examination of the text, unfortunately. Regarding the line around 711 that I pointed out earlier saying Grendel “bore the anger of God,” I think that is more likely saying that God was angry at Grendel rather than Grendel was angry. It is ambiguously written.

I like you suggestion for putting Grendel and Beowulf on opposite ends of a behavior spectrum. This tale really does work well on the level of “civilization vs. anarchy.” As well, this would be a great explanation for why Grendel is fixated on the mead house. The mead house is a gathering place for those living in civilization and is a method that Hrothgar uses to sustain power and loyalty amongst his people. These two things, the gathering of citizens and an organized power structure, are emblematic of civilized society and thus Grendel could see it as a prime target. It works even better when you factor in the Cain lineage of the antagonist. In the bible, civilization was begun as a result of the Cain and Abel story. I think I would want to reread that section of the bible before making further comment on it, but I think this is a potential goldmine.

If we run with the civilization vs. anarchy theme, perhaps the fact that Beowulf decides to lower himself to Grendel’s level by not using any weapons is somehow significant. When you think about it, the very fact that Beowulf has to fight Grendel is moving the hero toward the other end of the spectrum. As we discussed earlier, the civilized way that these people dealt with their feuds was to demand monetary compensation, something that didn’t work with Grendel. The only other course of action is violence, exactly what the monster is doing as an agent of anarchy.

Earlier you wrote: “Yes, but have any of his men made boasts to deliver on?” My response it that they have not explicetly made any boasts but they certainly have implicitly. I think the very act of going up against a monster that no one else has been able to put a scratch on for 12 years is pretty boastful, even if you don’t say anything aloud.

This was basically just a retread of stuff we have alreay talked about but I think we are on the same page, metaphorically, now. I still have a bit more to reread so I will be back with some more comments probobly and then we can get back to moving the discussion foreward!

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Some Beowulf Resources

For those of you following at home (and for my future reference), I've found two superb sites on Beowulf.

As good as they are, I'm hesitant to recommend reading them since it may make our discussion superfluous.

Beowulf on Steorarume

Syd Allan -- Beowulf: Start Page

Fair Enough

Will give me some time to work on the Unferth and Grendel as Bad Things in Viking Culture.

Perhaps we'll be able to get some background material up in the meantime.

A reread is in order

I think I am going to reread the first part of Beowulf again. It has been a couple of weeks since I read it and I am doing most of this commenting from memory, which probobly isn't very good. Plus I was lazy and didn't take too much of an effort to follow all the names and stuff, evidenced in my inability to notice the relationship between Hrothgar and Beowulf via werguild. Might take me a little bit. I think I am going to take it easy for a couple of days. Slipped and fell while carrying 30 pounds of meat and landed head first. Concrete floor. Minor concussion, probobly. Hurts to think.

I am going to have some difficulty giving line numbers, just so you know. My translation only lists line numbers every 25 lines or so and the lines don't add up between them. I think the translator took some liberties with the formatting and is offering the line numbers as a general guideline.

Gawain and the Green Knight would be a reasonable next book. It is a fast read. I have already read it a few times, actually, so I probobly have some stuff to say about it. What else is in your anthology?

Something silly to consider

Silly because it probably isn't there, but might be worth discussing nonetheless.

OK, so all stories are, to some degree, didactic. That is, they purport to show how to do something, whether it's how to act or perhaps specific detailed instructions on how to perform some task. Although there were Viking equivalents to Miss Manners, I'm working on the assumption that most of their works were similar in purpose to myths of any other culture where the values espoused therein are memetically picked up and integrated into one's behavior.*

Following this, I may be reading too much into it when I say that one of the themes appears to be somewhere between, "you can't do it all yourself" and "it's OK to ask for help." We have Hrothgar who is a great warrior and leader, who runs into trouble that he can't extricate himself from** and finally Beowulf who appears to be the greatest ever, but he's smart enough to realize that his own skills won't save the day all the time (this of course isn't apparent until the part with the dragon).

What do you think?

* I keep referring to these guys as Vikings although the written story is almost certainly of English origin. I'll have to go back and read the introduction in my book to see how far off I am.

** Both Egtheow's feud and Grendel. I'll have to think about Egtheow's feud. The text might be praising him for ending what is essentialy a neverending feud and allowing life to get back to normal.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Responses, Part II

And my responses to:

In response to your comment about King Arthur being a Christian king, I am not really sure how this is at all relevant. The thematic linking I was suggesting was not based on religion but rather the ideals that the medieval society measured their leaders against. I don’t think Hrothgar measures up.


Your first post states "In both cases we have supernatural creatures that are challenging the celebratory excesses of the local ruling class and forcing them to prove their worth."

My intent was to show that Grendel is not challenging any celebratory excesses and therefore your comparison is invalid. While Arthur is held to a more chivalric standard where drunken feasting on the order of what we'd assume your typical post-raid Viking would be doing, Hrothgar isn't. Therefore, as stated in my first response, his celebrations aren't looked down upon.

I thought that maybe the point here was that Grendel is showing the Danes going soft, but the author doesn't cast a critical eye towards their actions, either in the lines quoted previously, or in response to your next point, below. Hrothgar, is, as far as I can tell, a good king. My explanation of why this is necessary to the story is below as well.

Take a look at the lines around line 600. The King is seen as weak and it is up to Beowulf to save his sorry behind.


Perhaps my translation is different. From 510 to 579, Beoiwulf delivers a WWF-style boast about his abilities in relation to Unferth's disbelief. Lines 580-1 describe Hrothgar as "Hoary-headed and hady in war;/Thelordly leader...." Wealtheow then admires Beowulf then proclaims that he'll kill Grendel. We are then told about how everyone is optimistic and Hrothgar spends lines 620-630 telling Beowulf that he's never trusted anyone so. The guard is set and Beowulf says he will defeat Grendel bare-handed.*

I don't see Hrothgar's weakness in any of this. Furthermore, I think Hrothgar being weak would damage the story. This story isn't a simple "might makes right" metaphor, nor a Laibachian "more evil than Evil." It's about how even the best of us find problems that we can't solve. Hrothgar can't defeat Grendel on his own, so he calls Beowulf. Later (and this is going beyond where we've read to by this point, so I apologize), finally Beowulf can't defeat the dragon by himself, even with a sword - he need Wiglaf.

The drama of the situation is not that Hrothgar is a useless cur who Beowulf decides to help out of the goodness of his heart, it's from a good man who is unable to stand up for himself.

Also note that around line 475 the King tells the story of the blood feud that he was involved in. Unlike his dead kinsmen before him, he decides to pay the fine to end feud rather than face his opponent on the battlefield and this is equivalent to admitting his ultimate guilt.
I think you're misreading this. Hrothgar's brother dies before him, yes, but Hrothgar pays the weregild on behalf of Ecgtheow who is Beowulf's father. He ends the feud between Ecgtheow and the Wylfings. After this, they become friends.

Besides, I don't know that paying the weregild was anything to be ashamed of. Recall the our Vikings were traders first and foremost and I don't know that this sort of payment would be unacceptable. After all, the payer of the weregild would have had to have gotten that money from somewhere, presumably from his own exploits. My available sources don't really specify what the social aspects of paying weregild were, but I'm guessing that it's like losing a lawsuit; in this case, I suppose it's closer to settling out of court.

Again, this emphasizes his inability to command respect as a warrior. Even the Queen seems to see the King as kind of a pansy if you read between the lines around 625. Furthermore, Hrothgar does not need to run away from his kingdom. Grendel is only focused on the mead house, for whatever reason. Simply staying away from the building is all he has to do to stay safe. He certainly has no problem sending others in to do his dirty work, of course, but this is not something I would associate with bravery.
See my previous quote form lines 580-1 for Hrothgar still being respected.

The closest I can get to Wealtheow not looking down on Hrothgar is in line 598, "At last she could look to a hero for help." I do get a sense that she prefers Beowulf to Hrothgar, but that's about it.

As for Hrothgar running away, or otherwise not occupying his throne, where do you get that? It's possible that I'm just missing the reference, but given that Grendel attacks for twelve years the implication is that there's someone sleeping in the stained seats of "the high-built house." (line 166)

For Grendel focusing on the mead-house, I believe that's because it's the symbol of the might of the Danes. Not only that, but here we have "A mightier mead-hall than man had known” (line 65) which sets up Grendel as being paricularly odious.

Since you brought it up, however, I believe an argument could be made about King Arthur representing Christianity in "Gawain and the Green Knight." The Green Knight is very overtly associated with paganism. While I don't have the text on hand to offer any quotes, the symbolism used during his description fall in line with those used in pre-Christian religion. In fact, Gawain's chivalry, a knightly code of conduct developed in Christian times, was tested and found wanting by the temptations of the Green Knight's pagan feasting ritual. The Green Knight also lives in, according to my translation, a “green chapel.” Make of that what you will.
I've got a copy in my anthology, so perhaps we can get to that one next. :)

This does bring up the issue of motivation when comparing the antagonists of these two texts. The Green Knight’s reasons are pretty plainly spelled out. Not so with Grendel, as he apparently lacks the ability to talk. I pointed out a quote before that suggested Grendel didn’t like the noise being made by the folks in the mead house and I think that is about as direct as the author ever gets. Even if we take this at face value, this particular establishment is very clearly the center of the issue.
I don't know if there's anything more than, "Grendel monster, monster bad" (tho' there is the lineage from Cain), however, lines 118-122:

Grim and greedt the gruesome monster,
Firece and furious, launched attach,
Slew thirty spearmen asleep in the hall,
Sped away gloating, gripping the spoil,
Dragging the dead men home to his den.
I think there may be something here. Hrothgar is a mighty warrior himself, who leads his troops on attacks, capturing booty. The booty goes to him, but he dispenses it. In return, he gets loyalty from his men. Grendel, on the other hand, lives alone and away from the civilized people. He fights not for gold, but for the love of killing (and food, but I think the love of is much more prevalent). Instead of having any companions, he lives alone, hoarding everything for his own use. He comes in the night when the "good" men with their deserved rest are unable to defend themselves. Where they put themselves in what is a monment to civilization, he lives in a cave, underwater, places where no civilized man would go.

I would even go so far to say as Hrothgar's foil, Grendel is the other end of this didactic how-to manual for Viking living.

I'll have to think on this a little, but I think there's a kinship between Unferth and Grendel, if not narratively, then thematically. They are both examples of how one shouldn't act and are equally villainous.

It says in my book, around line 712 or so, that "[Grendel] bore the anger of God." If your translation says something similar then this leads to some interesting possibilities. It could of course, be referring to the type or magnitude of Grendel's anger. A metaphor, in other words. But, even in that case it leads to imagery of righteous fury rather than hateful madness. Seen in this way, Grendel kind of reminds me of The Furies, the supernatural figures in Greek myth that rise up from the underground, hunt out, and kill the wicked. Given that Grendel seems fixated on the magnificent mead hall, I wonder if this building would have had some sort of significance to the medieval reader. Maybe a tower of Babel sort of thing, with the earthly king trying to create a heaven on earth?


My version doesn't have anything similar. I think the numbering between the two versions may be different.

I probably should have included this above (I'm responding as I go along), but I believe Grendel doesn't necessarily fill that role. As mentioned above, I don't see Hrothgar as wicked and the mead-hall, IMO, is the civilization of which Grendel can't (or, if we follow my thinking, won't) join.

I first thought of Heorot as a monument to ego and that perhaps Grendel was the avenging angel (as it were), but in viewing Grendel and Hrothgar as opposites and thinking of the text as a didactic one, I don't think this holds.

Hrothgar’s motivations for building the mead house certainly seem to be self-serving. I get the impression that it is basically a tribute to himself. He is certainly entitled to such, I suppose, but I don’t see any reason to believe that the king was being a humanitarian.


Again, the mead-hall as center of life. Where the men who are Men sleep and from which they sally forth to spread their influence and to which they return to celebrate a job well done.

I don’t have my text on hand, but based on your quote of lines 155+, I don’t see that the same way you do. It does not necessarily say that they argued with Grendel. The author just as easily is saying that those who had enough brain cells could easily tell that it would be impossible to stop him. I’ll take another look at the lines you point out around 175 before commenting further. I am also interested in your footnote about the wergild. Do you have any evidence that this is what is being reference or are you making a conjecture?
The "stricken by the image of a..." was a joke. I think what the author was going for was another reiteration of "Grendel doesn't understand civilization."

Re: weregild: Whoops. My copy has a footnote that explains that they're referring to the weregild. I should have mentioned that, especially since my first reading of it was "pay for" as in "have revenge taken on him." My bad.

As for Beowulf having balls, I don’t think that is really the issue at all. After all, when our hero ultimately fights Grendel he is grouped up with several other fighting men. Unfortunately, they are eaten before they can do anything, but I would certainly classify them along with Beowulf in the balls department. What I think separates Beowulf from the rest isn’t that he has a large set, but rather that he can actually deliver on his boasts.


Yes, but have any of his men made boasts to deliver on?

As for Beowulf having a measure of testicular fortitude that's lacking in the others: I suppose that was a bad call on my part. There is the implication that there have been other would-be monster hunters who came before, but remember that a fair number of Hrothgar's men abandoned him and slept in the bowers (lines 138-9), only to come back when Beowulf makes his boast (ll 632-635).

There is a scene were he is presenting himself before Hrothgar and telling the assembled court of his accomplishments and his intended solution for dealing with Grendel. One of the characters seems a bit dubious (sorry, I don’t have my text to give you a line number or name). I am sure the sight of Grendel’s disembodied arm probably shut him up


Ah, Unferth. Will examine this in my "Grendel vs. Unferth" comparison. Will try to get that posted by Friday, but between laundry and wrestling, I don't know that I'll get to it with any coherency sooner.

* This is something I'd like to come back to when we get to "Parts II and III" (that is, the battle against the troll-mother and dragon). Beowulf makes a conscious decision to fight Grendel without weapons, ostensibly because Grendel knows nothing of "noble" fighting (presumably weapons/tools/companionship are what differentiates good/human from evil/monster). However, he chooses to use weapons both against the troll-mother and dragon. I'll have to see how this decision is made in those parts as I can't remember all the way back to sophmore year in college right now.

** An aside for later, I noticed (but couldn't find again) that Grendel is referred to as a Sea-Geat. I'll consider this as I try to follow my thought that he's the "ideological" opposite of the guys from Heorot.

Monday, March 07, 2005

Responses and Comments for the first 1/3 of Beowulf

In response to your comment about King Arthur being a Christian king, I am not really sure how this is at all relevant. The thematic linking I was suggesting was not based on religion but rather the ideals that the medieval society measured their leaders against. I don’t think Hrothgar measures up.

Take a look at the lines around line 600. The King is seen as weak and it is up to Beowulf to save his sorry behind. Also note that around line 475 the King tells the story of the blood feud that he was involved in. Unlike his dead kinsmen before him, he decides to pay the fine to end feud rather than face his opponent on the battlefield and this is equivalent to admitting his ultimate guilt. Again, this emphasizes his inability to command respect as a warrior. Even the Queen seems to see the King as kind of a pansy if you read between the lines around 625. Furthermore, Hrothgar does not need to run away from his kingdom. Grendel is only focused on the mead house, for whatever reason. Simply staying away from the building is all he has to do to stay safe. He certainly has no problem sending others in to do his dirty work, of course, but this is not something I would associate with bravery.

Since you brought it up, however, I believe an argument could be made about King Arthur representing Christianity in "Gawain and the Green Knight." The Green Knight is very overtly associated with paganism. While I don't have the text on hand to offer any quotes, the symbolism used during his description fall in line with those used in pre-Christian religion. In fact, Gawain's chivalry, a knightly code of conduct developed in Christian times, was tested and found wanting by the temptations of the Green Knight's pagan feasting ritual. The Green Knight also lives in, according to my translation, a “green chapel.” Make of that what you will.

This does bring up the issue of motivation when comparing the antagonists of these two texts. The Green Knight’s reasons are pretty plainly spelled out. Not so with Grendel, as he apparently lacks the ability to talk. I pointed out a quote before that suggested Grendel didn’t like the noise being made by the folks in the mead house and I think that is about as direct as the author ever gets. Even if we take this at face value, this particular establishment is very clearly the center of the issue.

It says in my book, around line 712 or so, that "[Grendel] bore the anger of God." If your translation says something similar then this leads to some interesting possibilities. It could of course, be referring to the type or magnitude of Grendel's anger. A metaphor, in other words. But, even in that case it leads to imagery of righteous fury rather than hateful madness. Seen in this way, Grendel kind of reminds me of The Furies, the supernatural figures in Greek myth that rise up from the underground, hunt out, and kill the wicked. Given that Grendel seems fixated on the magnificent mead hall, I wonder if this building would have had some sort of significance to the medieval reader. Maybe a tower of Babel sort of thing, with the earthly king trying to create a heaven on earth?

Hrothgar’s motivations for building the mead house certainly seem to be self-serving. I get the impression that it is basically a tribute to himself. He is certainly entitled to such, I suppose, but I don’t see any reason to believe that the king was being a humanitarian.

I don’t have my text on hand, but based on your quote of lines 155+, I don’t see that the same way you do. It does not necessarily say that they argued with Grendel. The author just as easily is saying that those who had enough brain cells could easily tell that it would be impossible to stop him. I’ll take another look at the lines you point out around 175 before commenting further. I am also interested in your footnote about the wergild. Do you have any evidence that this is what is being reference or are you making a conjecture?

As for Beowulf having balls, I don’t think that is really the issue at all. After all, when our hero ultimately fights Grendel he is grouped up with several other fighting men. Unfortunately, they are eaten before they can do anything, but I would certainly classify them along with Beowulf in the balls department. What I think separates Beowulf from the rest isn’t that he has a large set, but rather that he can actually deliver on his boasts. There is a scene were he is presenting himself before Hrothgar and telling the assembled court of his accomplishments and his intended solution for dealing with Grendel. One of the characters seems a bit dubious (sorry, I don’t have my text to give you a line number or name). I am sure the sight of Grendel’s disembodied arm probably shut him up.

Sunday, March 06, 2005

My translation:

I'm using the Kennedy translation as it appears in The Oxford Anthology of English Literature: Medieval English Literatrue.

I'll probably visit the other translations available from Project Gutenberg from time to time if anything needs some more looking into.

Response to your Comment #3

Hopefully this isn't too scatterbraned. I felt bad for not responding and this may be a bit premature.

While your comparison with the Green Knight struck me as quite adept when you first emailed it to me, I don’t think there’s really any thematic continuity between that work and this.

Arthur, especially in L’Morte is a Christian King (although Campbell may argue with the execution of that) and Beowulf (Christian imagery aside, per your #3) is still very much in the pagan mindset. In fact, with the Christian imagery throughout, I get the sense that the work wasn’t written down by a well-meaning but clueless monk who was trying to Christianize a well-known but essentially naughty fairy tale, but rather by someone who rather enjoyed the old story and tried to change just enough to get it past the censors.

Now, I couldn’t say how succeeding centuries of listeners interpreted this, whether they kept the “original” (read “Pagan”) version, or if they listened to this “new” (read Christian/written) one. I also couldn’t say whether or not they knew enough about their history and the history of the story to know that it was originally a pagan work.

And to Hrothgar: is he really running away? While the rest of his comitatus group may be able to pack up and head to another thane, he’s pretty much stuck where he is until he can get rid of Grendel and seems resigned to his fate (although in this case, I’m not sure whether it’s a capital “F” or not).

Now, the comparison to Green Knight seems to fall apart a little more: the Knight (per my recollection) is essentially asking if there is anyone tough enough to stand up to him. He is, in effect, chastising the knights for going complacent and not wanting to, well, risk their necks. Arthur’s hesitation is problematic as it shows that he too is imperfect. When Gawain stands up, it’s not necessarily because he’s any better than the other knights, it’s just that he’s the only one with enough balls to stand up to him.*

Now, Hrothgar certainly isn’t throwing all-night keggers either. I get the sense that after his initial round of ass-kicking, he makes a grand monument to self (“A mightier mead-hall than man had known” line 65) and people paid their taxes (lines 66-7). Further, lines 96-98 show

…the lordly warriors lived in gladness
At ease and happy until a beast from Hell
Began a series of savage crimes.
that he’s essentially a good king and everyone’s living peacefully. There is no motivation given for Grendel other than he’s evil and presumably, the Danes are keeping him up at night with their drinking songs.

In lines 758-60 (admittedly further on than you had read when you made that observation) one of his men tries to attack Grendel and it’s not for wont of bravery that he’s killed, but that he doesn’t have “the right stuff”.

However, while Hrothgar’s men are suffering (for 12 years! Line 146), there do appear to be attempts to argue with Grendel (lines 155+)

No strength could move [Grendel] to stay his hand
Or pay for his murders; the wise knew well
They could hope for no halting of savage assault.*
as well as numerous conferences as to what should be done (Hrothgar’s wonderings in lines 175-80).

In a good example of your item #3, it appears that that silly Danes are having so much trouble because they are pagan and worship Satan (lines 175-6).

* An interesting aside on that, the theme there seems to be that you’re only as good as the guys you have supporting you, while Beowulf really puts the power of the individual in the fore, until we get to Wiglaf in “Part III.”

* “Pay for…” of course is a reference to the weregild wherein a cash settlement could be made to stop their feud. I’m stricken by an image of a hapless fellow who tried to explain this to Grendel.

Friday, March 04, 2005

Beowulf lines 1 to 275

Let's see how this works... Here are some questions I put together earlier via e-mail:

1. I am interested to know how your version translates the description around line 9. Mine says "He grew strong among the clouds, grew rich in men's esteem, until each of those settled around him across the whale's road had to obey him, had to pay him tribute." The thing I am specifically interested in is the "whale's road." Just so we are on the same page here, I would interpret that to be referring to the ocean. Egil's poetry in "Egil's Saga" was filled with this sort of description but usually much more difficult to understand. I am curious as to how much of this sort of description, which may require a certain amount of explanation were it to be directly translated (In Egil's Saga much of these sorts of descriptions required a thorough understanding of Viking lore), is actually in the original text and how much has made it to the modern version. Thus far this is the only line I have seen like this.

2. It looks like my memory was correct regarding Grendel and why he was causing trouble. Rather than revenge, his only motivation seems to be causing strife. Interestingly, his motivations seem similar to that of the Green Knight in "Gawain and the Green Night." Around line 90 the poem says "This was the time when the demon of daring who loitered in shadows found it hard to put up with the noise of good cheer he heard loud in the hall day after day." I would also like to point out the line around 120 that says about the men in the great mead hall "They knew nothing of sorrow, the lame fate of men." In "Gawain...," the Green Night shows up at a great feast that King Arthur is holding and makes a challenge. No one will take the challenge, including the King, until they are shamed into it, at which point King Arthur puts himself up to the job and Gawain takes his place. In both cases we have supernatural creatures that are challenging the celebratory excesses of the local ruling class and forcing them to prove their worth. I haven't reached this place yet, but I am predicting that Beowulf will take up the challenge of killing Grendel that Hrothgar (I think that is the name I want) seems only able to run away from.

3. There are quite a few instances of interjecting Christian theology into this poem that seems obviously built upon paganism. A good example is around 175. The narrator mentions the blood sacrifices they were making to rid themselves of Grendel and then it goes into a rant about how these people were playing into the hands of the devil because they were ignorant of the Lord, who is giving about 5 different names in that single sentence. Umpire of Fate, Judge of Deeds, Protector in Heaven, Governor of Glory, Lord God. Strangely I don't recall any mention of God during the "burial" scene with the dead king being sent out to see on a long boat. If I were to guess, I would say that this poem was originally part of a pagan oral tradition and was transcribed by Christian monks after Christianity had taken hold in the area. There are some less obvious clues like this in Egil's Sagas as well, with the narrator saying things like "At this time, the people believed such and such" making it obvious that they were wrong about their belief yet still mentioning it. The typical stereotype of the middle ages and the church is that the religious rulers liked to banish whatever disagreed with their holy book but texts like Beowulf and Egil's Saga definitely seem to dispel this idea.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

First step good

Svanr decided to play along. Now all I have to do is remember how to spell his freakin' name.

Testing Feedburner

Nothing for you to see here .

A mission of sorts

So, I figured that it'd be cool to get started thinking about some stuff with my friend Svanr. Beowulf may be a good place to start. Also wanted to try a collaborative blog to see what the limitations of creating something online were without actually investing a lot of time and energy into something. Maybe an idea like this would have been better off as a message board, but perhaps something good will come of this.

I also wanted to check out feedburner without screwing up my own site's feed. We'll see how this works.