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.

[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

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