Beowulf-Grendel Book Club : Week One
Welcome all to the first chapter of our Beowulf-Grendel Book Club. As previously noted, this week we’ll be looking at the first section of the classic epic poem. We might call this section Beowulf’s Vs. Grendel; or – perhaps – we can simply think of it as the first movie released should the book ever be filmed by Peter Jackson.
First off, though, a quick note about the upcoming posts.
There is little doubt that Beowulf’s original orators did not intend for the work to be read with a 21st century eye; nonetheless, this is the eye that I will be using when making these initial posts. (Please feel free to approach the text from a more ancient perspective in discussions if you wish, however.) Each week I will look to begin with a short recap of the narrative, followed with a few quick thoughts of my own. God only knows what I might choose to go on about. As with all posts here at the League, feel free to comment on my own musings, or ignore them altogether and start your own discussion threads on the book.
With those few ground rules in place, let us begin.
This is a pretty heady first word, and deserves some attention. I cannot remember the first word of Beowulf in the translation I read in college, but I can assure you it was not “So.” “So” does not seem very Epic Poem; frankly, it feels a little Jaybird. In this context, it is a glass of cold water in the face in the very best sense. I found that Heaney’s first word, so simultaneously bizarre and appropriate a choice, has me suddenly paying attention in a way “Lo!” or “Hark!” would not. In a mere two letters, it is a most promising start.
Our story begins with a kind of history lesson of civilization itself. The narrator describes the advancement of kings and kingdoms over the ruffian bands of savages that once peppered the lands. It is interesting (and perhaps refreshing) that the rise to power of those kings is not credited to their divinity so much as their natural gifts at terror and fighting. The first of the great Dane kings, Shield, is not painted as a noble man of the people so much as a “scourge of many tribes; a wrecker of mead-benches, rampaging among foes.” By the time we come to the times of Grendel, the Dane’s king is Hrothgar – who was neither first born nor rose to power through virtue or good governance. He sits on the throne over his older brother because “the fortunes of war favored” him.
Hrothgar’s idyllic life of killing and pillaging is put to the test by the demon Grendel, however, and misery comes to his castle and mead hall. Each night for twelve years Grendel comes to the kingdom of Heorot and feasts upon whatever Danes stand to vanquish the beast. (He is not given a physical description; we are left to reference our own nightmares to imagine him.) For over a decade, Hrothgar’s kingdom drinks in the same kind of terror, one might imagine, that Hrothgar himself dispenses to other kingdoms within his reach.
News of Heorot’s suffering eventually reaches Beowulf of the Geats, who sails to help the Danes vanquish their savage nemesis. When he and his men arrive, Hrothgar and his court note that Beowulf is both well mannered and broad-shouldered, and he is welcomed as a hero. A feast is given in his honor. But as anyone that’s ever attended a large family gathering or office Christmas Party where the booze flows a little too freely knows, there’s always that one guy that lets his bitterness get in the way of everyone else’s fun. In Heorot, that man is Unferth.
Unferth, a little jealous of all the attention being given Beowulf, call’s Beowulf a braggart and suggests his past glories might not be all Beowulf is claiming. Unferth says he has heard a story of Beowulf being both reckless and bested in competition of strength and vigor upon the sea. Beowulf gives his own version of this story, where he might have beaten his friend in their swimming race – wearing chainmail and weapons, mind – had he not been forced to kill all of the whale-sized monsters in the ocean. The queen gives her approval. The court is delighted at Beowulf’s promise that not only will he defeat Grendel, he will do so with his bare hands, eschewing the use of weapons.
After the feast, the Dane’s exit and leave the mead hall to the Geats to enjoy whatever sleep they might before the beast’s arrival. Beowulf feigns sleep, keeping a watchful eye. When Grendel arrives he continues to play possum, presumably watching as the demon picks up Beowulf’s man, “mauled [him] on his bench, bit into bone-lappings, bolted down his blood and gorged on him in lumps, leaving the body utterly lifeless, eaten up hand and foot.”
Afterwards, as Grendel reaches for Beowulf to do the same, Beowulf surprises him, grabbing his arm and holding it behind his back in that way older brothers have done to younger brothers for time immemorial. Beowulf’s strength is as good as advertised, and he continues to twist Grendel’s arm as the Geats descend upon him. Eventually, the hero rips the arm and shoulder off the beast, mortally wounding it. The beast is vanquished, and runs off to die.
There is much rejoicing in Heorot. The bard of the castle sings the song of the ancient dragon-slayer Sigemund, and places Beowulf’s deeds among the heroes and legends of old. At our chapter’s end, Grendel’s severed arm is nailed over the mead hall as it is rebuilt.
I want to refrain from adding too much commentary in the post, because I want everyone else to shape these discussions as much or more than I. However, there are three quick and random things about our first reading that caught my 21st-century eye:
1. How trustworthy is Beowulf? I know this is definitely not what the original bard intended me to wonder, but wonder I do. I confess I find Beowulf’s tales of his own exploits and the narrator’s accounting of his (presumably) far greater feat of vanquishing Grendel at odds. When rebuking Unferth, Beowulf tells a tale where he fights leviathans, one after the other, at the bottom of the sea. Hell, he swims across the ocean in chain mail for fun. His defeat of Grendel, however, comes through trickery. Indeed, his mead-hall boast of defeating Grendel mano y mano struck many visions of heroism, but probably none of those visions was him using his lack of weapons to play possum and surprise his foe as his men attacked.
Which isn’t to say that he isn’t mighty – dude ripped the arm and shoulder off of a demon no Dane had laid a glove on. And his trickery did indeed work. But I’m left with a more complicated picture of Beowulf than when I had when I read the book as a young man. He uses guile to defeat Grendel, and (I now think) might have used guile to ingratiate himself with the Danes to get the chance. This makes him a fine contrast to Hrothgar and his line, who favored mere brute force to grab power but found that same naked violence by itself to be wanting once Grendel showed up at their door.
2. The Danes on Hrothgar’s court are nobody’s fools. I noticed that after Grendel’s defeat, as they were singing Beowulf’s praises the Dane’s were very, very careful to say to everyone that the Geat’s victory in no way diminished what a mighty and powerful ruler Hrothgar was. From my reading of how Hrothgar ruled, this seems like the kind of thing everyone knew was total bulls**t but decided would be a good thing to say quite loudly nonetheless.
3. The early church propaganda inserted into this story is very, very obvious. The tale of Beowulf obviously predates the influence of the Church; surely it was told for centuries before “Rome’s influence” was even a thing. I found it interesting, then, to note the odd places where the Christian God is clumsily forced into the story.
For example, in the days of Heorot’s terror the writer is very careful to note that out of fear the people turned to pagan gods for relief. This worshipping of false idols is given as the reason God did not step in and fix things Himself:
The Almighty Judge?
of good deeds and bad, the Lord God,?
Head of the Heavens and High King of the World,?
was unknown to them. Oh, cursed is he
?who in time of trouble has to thrust his soul?
in the fire’s embrace, forfeiting help;?
he has nowhere to turn. But blessed is he?
who after death can approach the Lord?
and find friendship in the Father’s embrace.??
So that troubled time continued, woe?
that never stopped, steady affliction
for Halfdane’s son, too hard an ordeal.?
There was panic after dark, people endured
raids in the night, riven by the terror.
It is such an odd and incongruous bit of writing, and it almost seems defensive. It feels as if the later tellers of the story found themselves worried that the narrative would cause uncomfortable questions to be asked, and as a result these words were quickly duct-taped in to circumvent them.
Anyway, that’s way more than enough of me.
Let’s hear from you now.