Friday, August 31, 2018

Notes on the Grendel Fight

The Grendel Fight is one of the best passages in Beowulf, perhaps in all of English poetry. There are so many things it does well that are only apparent in the original Old English. But there are a lot of things it does well that are apparent even in translation. Here are some of them:

Perspective Shift

"Perspective shift," one might almost call it an "apposition of perspective" is one of the Beowulf poet's main tools for building suspense. Working within an established genre trope (of the "monster goes to hall expecting dinner, monster meets hero instead and over-commits himself, monster and hero engage in wrestling match in which monster drags hero towards door, trying to get away" variety; see Grettis saga), the poet knows his audience knows (and indeed he has liberally foreshadowed) how the fight will end. Instead of creating suspense (and horror, and delight) by keeping them in ignorance about the outcome, he does it by forcing their perspective to shift through the various characters.

Grendel (709-735a)
  Beowulf (735b-748)
    Grendel (749-756)
     Beowulf (757-759)
      Grendel (760-765)
    The Danes (766-787a)
   Beowulf (787b-793a)
  The Geats (793b-802)
Grendel (803-822a)

As we see, Grendel's perspective interweaves and bookends, and is in fact at the center, of the fight. We get Grendel's perspective on his approach to the hall, and then the switch to Beowulf's perspective when Handsco is eaten. It's back and forth, blow by blow like this all the way through the first half of the scene, and then we're taken out of the hall entirely for a fairly lengthy digression on what the Danes are hearing and thinking.

Dramatic Irony

Everyone in this scene is a source of dramatic irony (where the audience knows something the characters do not) except for Beowulf himself:

  • Grendel does not know that he is going to die, etc.
  • The Danes do not know how the fight is going, and furthermore they are confident that nothing except fire can destroy their hall (whereas the audience knows that this is precisely how Heorot is going to be destroyed, as the poem frequently foreshadows).
  • The Geats do not know that Grendel is iron-proof.
Only Beowulf has no surprises here. We are told that he hopes Grendel won't get away, but we're never told he expects one thing to happen while in fact something completely different is going to happen. The effect is that we are put in a narratively superior standing to Grendel, to the Danes, even to the Geats, but never to the poem's hero.


Recall that it was the music (among other things) from Heorot which aroused Grendel's ire at the beginning of the poem. Now, the Danes are the ones on the outside, and they too hear music. Translations that render the noises Grendel makes as merely weeping or screaming miss the literal sense of the Old English, and so I think miss some of the irony the poet intends us to feel. Grendel is often referred to as a hall-chieftain, a warrior, even a king, all in order to emphasize his role as a grim parody of human society. The poet extends that metaphor here: Grendel is doing the thing that you're supposed to do in a Mead-Hall: making music! But Grendel's music is horrifying, because it is really the screams of a monster who is quite literally getting his arm ripped off--though I think some of the anguish must surely be mental, as well as physical. After all, Grendel has never lost a fight before this night. And he does not lose grinning, or laughing, or stoically, or even singing--all of which would be perfectly reasonable ways for a hero to go out. He loses screaming.

Currently reading: Justin Martyr's Dialog with Trypho
Current audio book: Paradisio, by Dante (trans. Longfellow)
Currently translating: Hervarar saga

The Grendel Fight: Beowulf, lines 709-822a

                  Ða com of more    under misthleoþum
                  Then came from the moor  under misty slopes

 710           Grendel gongan,    Godes yrre bær.
                  Grendel came,  God’s wrath bearing.

                   Mynte, se manscaða    manna cynnes,
                  He meant, that man-scather,  of mankind

                   sumne besyrwan    in sele þam hean.
                 someone to ensnare  in that high hall.

                   Wod under wolcnum    to þæs þe he winreced,
                 He stepped under the sky  until he saw that wine-hall,

                   goldsele gumena    gearwost wisse,
                 that gold-hall of men  most clearly recognized,

 715           fættum fahne.    Ne wæs þæt forma sið
                 gold-plated and shining.  Nor was that the first time

                   þæt he Hroþgares    ham gesohte.
                  that he Hrothgar’s  home had sought.

                   Næfre he on aldordagum,    ær ne siþðan,
                 Never he in life-days,  before or since,

                   heardran hæle    healðegnas fand.
                 harder luck  of hall-thanes found.

                   Com þa to recede,    rinc siðian,
                 Came then to the hall,  the warrior to travel,

 720           dreamum bedæled.    Duru sona onarn,
                 from joys deprived.  The door soon ran back

                   fyrbendum fæst,    syþðan he hire folmum æthran.
                 with fire-forged bars fast,  when he it with hands touched.

                   Onbræd þa, bealohydig,    ða he gebolgen wæs,
                 Threw open then, the evil-meaning one,  he that was swollen with rage,

                   recedes muþan.    Raþe æfter þon
                 the hall’s mouth.  Quickly after that

                   on fagne flor    feond treddode,
                 over the flagstoned floor  the fiend trod,

 725           eode yrremod.    Him of eagum stod
                 went angry-hearted.  From his eyes issued

                   ligge gelicost    leoht unfæger.
                 most like to a flame  light unlovely.

                   Geseah he in recede    rinca manige,
                 Saw he in the hall  warriors many,

                   swefan sibbegedriht    samod ætgædere
                 to sleep a host of kinsmen  all together

                   magorinca heap.    Þa his mod ahlog,
                 of young warriors a troop.  Then his spirit laughed,

 730           mynte þæt he gedælde,    ær þon dæg cwome,
                  intended that he would take away,  before the day should come,

                   atol aglæca    anra gehwylces
                 the terrible monster  each one of them

                   lif wið lic,   þa him alumpen wæs
                 life with body,  since to him it happened

                   wistfylle wen.    Ne wæs þæt wyrd þa gen
                 of fill-of-feasting hope.  Nor was that fate still

                   þæt he ma moste    manna cynnes
                 that he more might be allowed  of mankind

 735           ðicgean ofer þa niht.   
                 to partake beyond that night. 

Beowulf:                                          Þryðswyð beheold,
                                                          The mighty one beheld,

                   mæg Higelaces,    hu se manscaða
                 kinsman of Hygelac,  how the sin-scather

                   under færgripum    gefaran wolde.
                 with sudden-snatch  would proceed.

                   Ne þæt se aglæca    yldan þohte,
                  Nor meant  that monster to wait,

                   ac he ge|feng hraðe    forman siðe
                 but he quickly chose  at his first chance 
 740           slæpendne rinc,    slat unwearnum,
                 a sleeping hero,  slew him greedily,

                   bat banlocan,    blod edrum dranc,
                 bit open the bone-locker,  blood-streams drank,

                   synsnædum swealh.    Sona hæfde
                 gorged on gore.  Soon had

                   unlyfigendes    eal gefeormod
                   of the unliving  all consumed

                   fet 7 folma.    Forð near ætstop,
                 feet and hands.  Forward and nearer crept,

 745           nam þa mid handa    higeþihtigne
                 to seize with hands  the strong-hearted one

                   rinc on ræste,    ræhte ongean,
                 the warrior on bench,  began to reach for,

                   feond mid folme.    He onfeng hraþe
                 fiend with hand.  He [Beowulf] quickly clasped [Grendel]

                   inwitþancum    7 wið earm gesæt.
                 with ire  and with his arm sat up.

Grendel:                 Sona þæt onfunde,    fyrena hyrde,
                                Soon he found,  the keeper of crimes,

 750           þæt he ne mette    middangeardes,
                 that he never met  in Middle-earth

                   eorþan sceatta,    on elran men
                 in earth’s regions,  another man

                   mundgripe maran.    He on mode wearð
                 with greater hand-grip.  In mood he became

                   forht on ferhðe.    No þy ær fram meahte.
                 fearful in mind.  Not as before might he get away.

                   Hyge wæs him hinfus,    wolde on heolster fleon,
                 He was fain to flee  forth to his hiding-place,

 755           secan deofla gedræg.    Ne wæs his drohtoð þær
                 to seek the Devil’s companionship.  Nor was his condition

                   swylce he on ealderdagum    ær gemette.
                 such as he in former days  had met.

 Beowulf:                Gemunde þa, se goda    mæg Higelaces,
                                Remembered then, the good  kinsman of Hygelac,

                   æfenspræce.    Uplang astod
                 his evening speech.  Upright he stood

                   7 him fæste wiðfeng.    Fingras burston.
                  and firmly took hold of him.  Fingers burst.

 Grendel: 760        Eoten wæs utweard,    eorl furþur stop.
                 The ogre was eager to be gone,  the earl stepped forward.

                   Mynte se mæra,   hwær he meahte swa,
                  Meant the monster,  howesoever he might,

                   widre gewindan,    7 on weg þanon
                   far to flee,  and from that way thence

                   fleon on fenhopu.    Wiste his fingra geweald
                 flee to his fen-hold.  He knew, with his fingers’ might

                   on grames grapum,    þæt he wæs geocor sið
                   in the grip of the foe,  that it was a sorrowful trip

 765           þæt se hearmscaþa    to Heorute ateah.
                 that the harm-scather  to Heorot took.

The Danes:            Dryhtsele dynede.    Denum eallum wearð,
                                The mead-hall quaked.  To all of the Danes it was,

                   ceasterbuendum,    cenra gehwylcum,
                 to the encampment-dwellers,  to each of the bold,

                   eorlum ealuscerwen.    Yrre wæron begen,
                 to the earls a storm of bitter dregs.  Both were angry, 
                   reþe renweardas.    Reced hlynsode.
                 the raging house-guards.  The hall shook.

 770           Þa wæs wundor micel    þæt se winsele
                 That was a great wonder  that the wine-hall

                   wiðhæfde heaþodeorum,    þæt he on hrusan ne feol,
                 withstood the battle,  that it to the earth did not fall,

                   fæger foldbold.    Ac he þæs fæste wæs,
                 fair earth-dwelling.  But it so firm was,

                   innan 7 utan    irenbendum,
                 inside and outside  with iron bands,

                   searoþoncum besmiþod.    Þær fram sylle abeag
                 with such skill strengthened.  There from the floor were ripped

 775           medubenc monig,    mine gefræge,
                  mead-benches many,  so I’ve heard,

                   golde geregnad,    þær þa graman wunnon.
                  with gold adorned,  where the fierce ones fought.

                   Þæs ne wendon ær,    witan Scyldinga,
                 They never thought before,  the wise Scyldings,

                   þæt hit a mid gemete    manna ænig,
                 that by power  of any man,

                   betlic 7 banfag    tobrecan meahte,
                 the splendid and antler-adorned [hall]  might be broken,

 780           listum tolucan,    nymþe liges fæþm
                 destroyed with cunning,  unless the fire’s embrace

                   swulge on swaþule.    Sweg up astag,
                 with flames swallowed.  Music arose,

                   niwe geneahhe:    Norð-Denum stod
                 new and desperate: the North Danes started

                   atelic egesa,    anra gehwylcum
                 in abject horror,  every one of them

                   þara þe of wealle    wop gehyrdon,
                 those who from the wall  wailing heard,

 785           gryreleoð galan    Godes andsacan,
                 singing a terrible song,  God’s adversary,

                   sigeleasne sang,    sar wanigean,
                 the victory-less singing,  bewailing sorrow,

                   helle hæfton.   
                 Hell’s prisoner. 

Beowulf:                                    Heold hine fæste,
                                                    Held him fast,

                   se þe manna wæs    mægene strengest
                 he that of men was  in might strongtest

                   on þæm dæge    þysses lifes.
                 in that time of this life.

 790           Nolde, eorla hleo,    ænige þinga
                 He had no desire, the earls’ protector,   by any means

                   þone cwealmcuman    cwicne forlætan,
                 that deadly guest  to release alive,

                   ne his lifdagas    leoda ænigum
                  nor his lifedays  to any people

                   nytte tealde.   
                  useful considered. 

The Geats:          Þær genehost brægd
                                           There very earnestly brandished

                   eorl Beowulfes,    ealde lafe,
                  warrior of Beowulf,  ancient heirloom,

 795           wolde freadrihtnes    feorh ealgian,
                  wished his lord’s  soul to defend,

                   mæres þeodnes,    ðær hie meahton swa.
                 of famous lord,  however they might.

                   Hie þæt ne wiston,    þa hie gewin drugon,
                 They did not know,  when they joined the fray,

                   heardhicgende    hildemecgas,
                  brave-minded  battle-men,

                   7 on healfa gehwone    heawan þohton,
                 and on each side  thought to hew,

 800           sawle secan:    þone synscaðan
                 soul to seek:  that sin-scather

                   ænig ofer eorþan,    irenna cyst,
                  any on earth,  of irons choice,

                   guðbilla nan    gretan nolde.
                 war-swords,  none would harm him.

Grendel:                 Ac he sigewæpnum   forsworen hæfde,
                 But he against victory-weapons  had cast spells,

                   ecga gehwylcre.    Scolde his aldorgedal,
                 against every edge.  His life-ending must,

 805           on ðæm dæge    þysses lifes,
                 on that day  of this life,

                   earmlic wurðan,    7 se ellorgast
                 wretchedly take place,  and the alien spirit

                   on feonda geweald    feor siðian.
                 with the fiend’s power  go far away.

                   Ða þæt onfunde    se þe fela æror
                 Then he found,  he that often before

                   modes myrðe    manna cynne,
                 mind’s affliction  to mankind

 810           fyrene gefremede,    he fag wið God,
                  crimes committed,  feuding against God,

                   þæt him se lichoma    læstan nolde;
                 that him the life-shell [his body]  would not obey;

                   ac hine se modega    mæg Hygelaces
                 but to him the proud  kinsman of Hygelac

                   hæfde be honda.    Wæs gehwæþer oðrum
                 had by hand.  Was each by the other

                   lifigende lað.    Licsar gebad,
                 loathed while living.  Pain he felt,

 815           atol æglæca.    Him on eaxle wearð
                 the horrible monster.  On his shoulder appeared

                 syndolh sweotol,    seonowe onsprungon,
                 a large wound,  sinews popped apart,

                 burston banlocan.    Beowulfe wearð
                 the bone-locker burst.   It happened that to Beowulf

                 guðhreð gyfeþe.    Scolde Grendel þonan
                 glory in battle was granted.  Grendel was forced from there

                 feorhseoc fleon    under fenhleoðu,
                 life-sick to flee  under the fen-slopes,

 820          secean wynleas wic.    Wiste þe geornor
                 to seek his joyless home.  Knew he surely

                 þæt his aldres wæs    ende gegongen,
                 that his life had reached its end,

                 dogera dægrim.   
                 its allotted span. 

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