Wednesday, September 28, 2016

The Most Difficult Couplet in Beowulf

No he þone gifstol gretan moste
maþðum for Me-tode, ne his myne wisse.

(Beowulf, Lines 168-9)

With typical understatement, the commentary accompanying these lines in the fourth edition of Klaeber’s critical text begins by declaring it “A perplexing passage.” (Klaeber 126) In his own notes on the passage, Tolkien declared it “perhaps the most difficult in Beowulf.” (Tolkien 181) There are a total of eight difficulties listed in Klaeber’s commentary for these two lines, and they have attracted considerable attention from Tolkien and others. For the purposes of this textual study, we will focus particularly on the pronouns he and him. Who is doing the approaching, to whom does the throne belong, and to whom does his refer in 169b?

The suggested reading in the commentary of Klaeber’s Fourth Edition reads “…Grendel could not approach the throne, nor might he (as one of the seed of Cain) know his (God’s) love (or perhaps: nor was he [Grendel] permitted his desire).”[1] The identification here of he with Grendel seems supportable light of the fact that Hrothgar has not been mentioned since 156, and since Grendel has been the subject since 164. But Tolkien challenges this reading on the grounds that it renders the rest of the sentence nonsensical. The throne cannot be Hrothgar’s, Tolkien argues, 

“Why could Grendel not approach the throne, when he was in sole control of Heorot all night? There was no magical or divine protection over the throne any more than over the hall or its inhabitants, and no doubt Grendel could have sat in the king’s throne and gnawed bones... It becomes plain therefore that the language is theological. gifstol is God’s throne, and is an example of the frequent user of heroic language with divine import…” (Tolkien 184)

Thus he is not Grendel, the argument follows, because Grendel’s standing before God has already been dealt with, and has little to do with “Hrothgar’s torment.” Tolkien thus regarded these lines as a sudden and clumsy shift to Hrothgar as the subject—clumsy because it is an “interpolation or elaboration.” (Tolkien 185)

But Tolkien’s whole argument hinges upon the assumption that the poet literally means that Grendel has the run of the hall itself, but cannot physically approach the king’s seat. But as Tolkien himself reminds us, gretan here means to “hail or address.” (Tolkien 183) We are not to imagine Grendel as being physically unable to come near Hrothgar’s chair, but rather that he cannot come and pay his respects before the “gift-seat” as a good retainer should[2], a reminder that the monster’s whole situation is a dark parody of the heroic society of the poem. Grendel holds the hall as a king, but he pays no wergild for those he kills[3]; he is referred to as healðegn (142) and yet he cannot participate in the gift-giving economy of the heroic society. He is an outsider, an interloper, whose time in the hall only ever comes at night, when all men have deserted it. Why is he outcast? for Metode – because he is under the divine curse laid upon all of Cain’s kin. 

ne his myne wisse is more difficult. Its interpretation hinges on who his signifies. As the context makes it unlikely to be Hrothgar, it must refer to either God or Grendel. Thus Klaeber (at different points) offers two conflicting readings: ‘nor did he [God] take thought of him [Grendel]’ or ‘nor did he [Grendel] feel (regard) gratitude for it.’

The simplest solution is that Grendel is still the subject of the sentence, for Metode being an interjection intended to keep our attention focused on Grendel’s state of isolation from God and man even as he enjoys the dominion of the hall, which has been the theme of this section of the poem since 144. myne, which appears elsewhere in the poem, may be here glossed as “desire, love, kind thought.” (Klaeber 415) Grendel thus “knows” an absence of desire regarding his ability to approach the gifstol and take his maþðum as a good retainer. This indeed is the reading suggested by P. Cosjin: “nor was he inclined to do so.” (Klaeber 127) By this reading, 169b is an echo of the sentiment expressed earlier in 154-8. Not only is Grendel total foreign to the social contract by which Hrothgar’s world operates, he has no desire to become a part of it. I would therefore suggest the following reading for these lines:

“Nor might he be permitted to approach the gift-seat for treasure, because of God‘s curse, nor did he desire to do so.”

Works Cited
    Klaeber, Fr, R. D. Fulk, Robert E. Bjork, and John D. Niles. Klaeber's Beowulf ; and the Fight at Finnsburg. Toronto: U of Toronto, 2008. Print.
    Tolkien, J. R. R., Christopher Tolkien, and J. R. R. Tolkien. Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary: Together with Sellic Spell. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014. Print.

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[1] The equivocation inherent in this rendering serves to illustrate just how difficult scholars have found this couplet.
[2] The use of maþðum makes this plain: this word which means “gift” or “precious thing” stands in apposition to the “gift” element of gifstol. It was customary for the king’s retainers to approach the king’s seat during the feast and accept a gift from him, in return for which loyal military service was expected. See Wiglaf’s speech beginning at 2633.
[3] 154-8

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Who really won the swimming match?

It is interesting to note that Beowulf never actually corrects Unferth's account of the swimming match between Beowulf and Breca. His own account of his deeds on the water certainly has a lot more detail than Unferth's version, but Beowulf does not actually correct Unferth's basic assertion that the two of them swam together for seven nights before Beowulf dropped out and Breca washed up on the Heathoream shore. In fact, Beowulf's version of events has them together for only five nights before they are driven apart by a storm. He has the fight with the Nicors in the night, and washes up on the Finnish shore the morning of Day 6.

So who won the swimming fight? I think what Beowulf is saying, in the correct roundabout way that we'd expect from the hero of an Anglo-Saxon story, is that "sure, Breca stayed in the water for longer, but killed nine nicors. Who won the swimming fight? It doesn't matter. I didn't come to Heorot to swim. I came to Heorot to kill monsters."

Nicor, Artist Unknown


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Beowulf maþelode,    bearn Ecgþeowes:
"Hwæt, þu worn fela,    wine min Hunferð,
beore druncen,    ymb Brecan spræce,
sægdest from his siðe.    Soð ic talige
þæt ic merestrengo    maran ahte,
earfeþo on yþum,    ðonne ænig oþer man.
Wit þæt gecwædon,    cnihtwesende
ond gebeotedon,    wæron begen þa git
on geogoðfeore,    þæt wit on garsecg ut
aldrum neðdon,    ond þæt geæfndon swa.
Hæfdon swurd nacod,    þa wit on sund reon,
heard on handa.    Wit unc wið hronfixas
werian þohton.    No he wiht fram me
flodyþum feor    fleotan meahte,
hraþor on holme,    no ic fram him wolde.
Ða wit æt|somne    on sæ wæron
fif nihta fyrst,   oþ þæt unc flod todraf,
wado weallende,    wedera cealdost,
nipende niht,    ond norþanwind,
heaðogrim ondhwearf.    Hreo wæron yþa!
Wæs merefixa    mod onhrered:
þær me wið laðum    licsyrce min
heard hondlocen,    helpe gefremede,
beadohrægl broden    on breostum læg,
golde gegyrwed.    Me to grunde teah,
fah feondscaða,    fæste hæfde,
grim on grape.    Hwæþre me gyfeþe wearð
þæt ic aglæcan    orde geræhte,
hildebille.    Heaþoræs fornam
mihtig meredeor    þurh mine hand."
Swa mec gelome    laðgeteonan
þreatedon þearle.    Ic him þenode
deoran sweorde,    swa hit gedefe wæs.
Næs hie ðære fylle    gefean hæfdon,
manfordædlan,    þæt hie me þegon,
symbel ymbsæton    sægrunde neah.
Ac on mergenne,    mecum |wunde,
be yðlafe    uppe lægon,
sweordum aswefede,    þæt syðþan na
ymb brontne ford    brimliðende
lade ne letton.   Leoht eastan com,
beorht beacen Godes,    brimu swaþredon,
þæt ic sænæssas    geseon mihte,
windige weallas.    Wyrd oft nereð
unfægne eorl,    þonne his ellen deah.
Hwæþere me gesælde    þæt ic mid sweorde ofsloh
niceras nigene.    No ic on niht gefrægn
under heofones hwealf    heardran feohtan,
ne on egstreamum    earmran mannon.
Hwaþere ic fara feng    feore gedigde,
siþes werig.    Ða mec sæ oþbær,
flod æfter faroðe,    on Finna land,
wadu weallendu. 
(Beowulf, Lines 529-81)


Beowulf spoke, son of Ecgtheow: "Indeed thou a great multitude, my friend Unferth, drunk with beer, about Breca have spoken, said about his adventure. Truth I claim that I had great strength in the sea, hard struggle in waves, than any other man. We two this agreed, being boys, and boasted -- were both then still in youthfulness -- that we two out in the ocean to risk our lives; and that we did. Having naked swords, when we two in the sea swam, hard [blades] in hands, we two ourselves against sea-monsters intended to defend. He might not a whit from me over the sea-waves swim, faster in the sea, nor did I wish from him to go. Then we two together in the sea were the space of five nights, and the North Wind hostile turned against us. Rough were the waves, the anger of the ocean-fishes was aroused. There to me my body armor -- hard, hand-locked -- help provided, mail-shirt woven, lying on breast, well adorned. The hostile, dire foes drew me to the bottom, firmly, grim in graps: yet to me it was granted that I those monsters struck with point, with battle-bill; battles rush cut off mighty sea-beast through my hand. Thus those loathely-spoilers pressed me severely; I them served with good sword, as it befitting was. Not at all they their fill of joy had, wicked destroyers, that they partook, sat around at banquet on the sea floor near me; but at morning with sword wound by the shore above lay, by swords put to sleep, that afterwards never in the sea steep waterway to sea-farer passage hindered. Light came from the East, God's bright beacon; ocean waters subsided that I the headlands might see, windy high shores. Wyrd oft saveth the undoomed man, when his courage be good. Yet to me befell, that I with sword slew nine Nicors. Nor I heard of harder fight at night under heaven's fault, nor of men harder pressed in water-streams. Yet I from foes's grasp with life escaped, weary of undertaking. Then the sea bore me off, flood after current to the land of the Finns, waters surging..."

Thesis Theater: The Digital Hervararkviða

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