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


  1. good stuff, Richard, and good catch. The poet does something similar at lines 1584-1650 where the scene shifts from Beowulf beneath the mere fighting Grendel's mother, to his Geat comrades and and from them to Hrothgar and his men up on the shore, wondering what's happening and guessing wrong. I wrote about it on my blog some time back. It makes a nice counterpoint to this.

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