Beowulf-Grendel Book Club : Week One

Tod Kelly

Tod is a writer from the Pacific Northwest. He is also serves as Executive Producer and host of both the 7 Deadly Sins Show at Portland's historic Mission Theatre and 7DS: Pants On Fire! at the White Eagle Hotel & Saloon. He is  a regular inactive for Marie Claire International and the Daily Beast, and is currently writing a book on the sudden rise of exorcisms in the United States. Follow him on Twitter.

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36 Responses

  1. Jaybird says:

    My take on “So” is that it immediately reminds the reader that this story was *SPOKEN*.

    Imagine yourself sitting on a stump by a fire and there are those who say “tell us the story of…” and you open with “So”. It’s a moment for everyone to get themselves prepared. Get comfy, lean in. We’ve a story to tell.

    Line 26: “when his time came”. I immediately turned to the old English and tried to suss out whether this was a direct translation. This is one hell of a euphemism. In digging, I’ve found that some translations of 2nd Samuel 7:12 use it… which tells me that, maybe (depending on whether *THAT* is a direct translation), this is a very, very old euphemism indeed.Report

    • Chris in reply to Jaybird says:

      The translations Tod read before probably began with a “Lo” or a “Hark,” because that would be literal translations of the first word, “Hwæt.” “So” is, perhaps as Jaybird said, a nod to the story’s origins in the oral tradition (whether the poem itself has an oral origin is a matter of some controversy), while at the same time making it more modern (“So,” is a pretty modern way of beginning a story. “So I was walking to the store today, when…” instead of, “Listen, ye!” or something like that). . I haven’t read the translation ya’ll are using, but I know some people dislike it because it takes liberties like this, and worse. I suppose it’s a matter of taste. I know a lot of people do like this translation because it’s very readable for contemporary readers.

      Also, the insertions of Christianity is one of the major sources of the controversy related to the origin of the poem (not the story, but the poem). The two theories are basically:

      1.) The poem itself comes from a pagan oral tradition that, over time, acquired some Christian accoutrements as paganism became more and more marginal in the society of medieval England (at the time this poem is thought to have been composed in its current form, sometime around the 9th century, Christianity had become the dominant religion, though it had been around sine Roman times). The “pagan” is thought to imply illiterate, by the way, which is why it wasn’t written down for so long.
      2.) The poem was composed by one person, literate, which almost certainly means a monk. This means that the monk took the traditional pagan story and, in writing it down, Christianized it, because ya know, he was a monk.

      Depending on who you ask, one or the other of these two answers is obvious and the debate is clearly over with their side winning. I suspect, short of finding an even earlier manuscript than the one on which all of our knowledge of the poem is based, or perfecting the flux capacitor, we’ll never really know whether it’s a multiple or single-author, oral or written poem.

      All this is peripheral, and I don’t mean for it to derail the discussion of the first part of the poem. Have fun.Report

      • Kolohe in reply to Chris says:

        “I know some people dislike it because it takes liberties like this, and worse.”

        “Say ‘Hwæt!’ again. SAY ‘ HWÆT’ AGAIN! I dare you, I double dare you moder fiscere…”Report

        • Fnord in reply to Kolohe says:

          See, that’s extra funny because “what” is indeed derived from Old English “hwæt”. Which brings up the issue of what exactly you mean by “literal translation”.

          Now, I’m not an expert on Old English. But I know enough about translation to know that the idea of a literal translation is sticky at best, and an examination of available resources puts the “hwæt” situation as a long way from best.

          It’s true that using “So” to start a story is a relatively new usage, but I don’t think that counts against it. To the extent that Old English is another language, use the word that best fits the meaning, there’s no need to use archaic language just because the text you’re translating happens to be old. To the extent that Old English is not another language, the best equivalent of the same word is “what”, which makes no sense at all to a modern speaker (although if we really want to use it here in some form, I suppose we might use “What ho!”).

          “Hark” and “Listen” are verbs, which in the imperative form can be used to draw the audience’s attention by literally commanding it. But “hwæt” is not a verb; as I said, it usually means “what”. There’s simply a convention to use it to draw attention at the start a story. In that sense, then “so” (or perhaps “now”) is a more literal translation for “hwæt”.Report

      • Tod Kelly in reply to Chris says:

        What you say here (as well as what JB says above) is pretty consistent with my take and understanding as well.

        On the language front, it creates a potential argument about translation itself. Is the job of a translator to say exactly what the author said in another language, or is the job to communicate to a different culture what the author meant to convey? I have never done any translations, of course, but it strikes me as much as an art as it is a science.

        I find that I enjoy Heaney’s translation far more than I did whatever translation I read in college, which I remember thinking of at the time best described as “stick firmly up butt.” On the other hand, I find the modern non-KJ Bibles to be completely lacking in poetry.Report

  2. Jaybird says:

    I noticed the same lines as you in #3 (I focused on lines 180-188).

    The feeling that I got was not that the Christian God, necessarily, was thrust into this story but that the Lord God mentioned was an amalgam of the Christian God and a handful of others. Like, if we (with our fairly decent knowledge of Christianity) went back there to try to worship this God, we’d have *NO* freakin’ idea what was going on and we’d be tempted to believe that this God had about as much relationship to Our Lord as, well, Old English to American English.Report

  3. Jaybird says:

    Beowulf shows up in line 194… but we don’t hear his name until line 344.

    Which is a pretty neat trick.Report

  4. Fabius says:

    It’s been awhile since I read the Poem, so the refresher is nice.

    While I agree that the careful attempt to “in no way diminish Hrothgar’s rule” trick is probably obvious “bullsh*t,” the way it’s handled and reason for doing is pretty interesting, especially if used in a historical/sociological light.

    These warrior-band societies were held together through conceptions of honor and prestige based on gift-giving and homage-derived power. A king/warlord who can’t defend his own realm by himself isn’t worth following, unless you spin it that the heroic champion is only there at the invitation of the king, or because he heard of the kings reputation as a great warrior/gift-giver and wants to offer the king service. In other words, Beowulf’s greatness HAS to become a reflection of Hrothgar’s greatness, which gets reinforced through the mutual praises offered afterwards and the offering of gifts to Beowulf. Now instead of Beowulf merely showing up Hrothgar’s inability to fulfill his primary obligation to his people, everyone benefits from the mutual prestige bestowed. Beowulf gets heaps of praise to enhance his reputation, and Heothgar looks magnanimous and powerful in being able to both receive the services of such a champion, and in being able to offer to Beowulf “what is owed” to such a champion. So even if it’s a but of a fiction from a straight power-politics perspective, in reality the whole kingdom benefits, since all Hrothgar’s warriors can now boast about their king’s prestige and generosity, which is just the sort of thing likely to attract new followers/warriors to the kingdom, and deter potential rivals/enemies.Report

    • Tod Kelly in reply to Fabius says:

      This is both an interesting and excellent observation, Fabius. Well described.

      This past week as I was rereading this, and now when I read your own retelling of the behind the scenes politicking going on, my thought was how the more things change the more they remain the same. The entire thing feels (mistakenly!) very modern to me.Report

      • Maribou in reply to Tod Kelly says:

        I don’t think it’s mistaken to feel that it’s very modern… I think it’s a variant of suspension of disbelief – the translator deliberately went for the most modern-yet-timeless feel he could, and he is a masterful poet in his own right.Report

    • James Hanley in reply to Fabius says:


  5. Jaybird says:

    Unferth’s section is the section that struck me as offputting.

    A character is introduced only to say “I heard you ain’t all that” allowing the hero to rejoin “actually… I am. Here’s what *REALLY* happened.” I mean, it’s a decent enough device. You don’t want the hero to come across as a braggart or anything, and if you want him to tell a “I AM THE MAN!” story, you need to give him a reason to tell it other than “he was drinking”.

    I’m sure that that’s a 21st century complaint rather than a 10th century complaint, though. “Show, don’t tell! You’re telling!”Report

  6. Jaybird says:

    As to the fight itself, it’s weird: Beowulf’s retelling of the fight is more interesting than the narrator’s original description of it.Report

    • Tod Kelly in reply to Jaybird says:

      I agree. The more I think of this, the more I am reminded of the climax of Anansi Boys.

      I think you can make a case that Hrothgar is the kind of primitive, violence-first-and-last despot that was required to create a kingdom out of the wilderness. In Grendel, however, he finds something of a Modern Problem – something that cannot be conquered simply by having the biggest sword.

      The more I think about Beowulf, the more I think of him as being a story-teller. He may not have really been dragged to the bottom of the ocean by a whale-monster, but he’s able to conceive of how he might endure were it to happen. He hears how 12 years of nights (more than 4,000 failed attempts in a row!) of wiating for Grendel with swords ready just hasn’t worked; he is able to create a different possible solution, which works. Afterwards, he is able to describe what he has done in a way that will inspire others far more than the play-by-play might.

      We think of Beowulf as being fierce, mighty and strong, but I wonder if the real lesson is that he represents that cleverness and inventiveness that civilization eventually bears.Report

      • Bob2 in reply to Tod Kelly says:

        Given the later story of Beowulf and the dragon, I’m not sure if that lesson is really there, but I think you’ll understand when you get there.

        IIRC from Old English class years ago, boasting in the old Anglo culture was considered to be prideful and a cultural meadhall norm. Modern readers might take it as prideful, but Beowulf’s boast is considered to be a contract with Hrothgar to defeat Grendel. Beowulf is promising he will defeat Grendel in the name of his ancestors and clan, and the audience was likely aware of the exaggeration in his deeds. There was no concept of hubris here per expectation if you grew up with Greek classics.Report

        • Bob2 in reply to Bob2 says:

          Sorry, I need to really proofread, prideful in the second instance should’ve been arrogant.

          “Modern readers might take it as arrogant, but Beowulf’s boast is considered to be a contract with Hrothgar to defeat Grendel. “Report

  7. Burt Likko says:

    Real early on we are told Grendel is a descendant of Cain. Cain was cursed by Jehovah for killing his brother.

    Are Beowulf and Hrothgar cousins? Do they trace a common ancestry to Scyld? Is the reference to the Hebrew myth a parallel to the upcoming conflict between Beowulf and Hrothgar? And is there a parallel between the Cain-Abel story in Norse myth?Report

  8. BlaiseP says:

    It helps to remember Beowulf would have been sung, not spoken. We don’t have the music but we can make some guesses: the scop has parallels in the Middle East, where the itinerant singer/storyteller still gathers an audience.

    Gather round the village square
    Come good people both wretched and fair.
    See the troubadour play on the drum
    Hear my songs on the lute that I strum.
    I will make you laugh,
    Revel, Merry-dance.
    Throw your pennies, then you’ll hear
    more of
    the story-telling half.

    There’s no other chance,
    Always move on
    Raconteur, troubadour.

    The Cotton manuscript is only a shadow of the story as it was originally sung. The two monks who wrote it down knew they were only preserving something far more ancient than themselves. Look at the songs of Heorot,

    With envy and anger an evil spirit
    endured torment in his dark abode,
    when he heard each day the din of revel
    high in the hall: there harps rang out,
    clear song of the singer. He sang who knew
    tales of the early time of man

    Music was a great big deal in the world of those monks. The text continues,

    how the Almighty made the earth,
    fairest fields enfolded by water,
    set, triumphant, sun and moon
    for a light to lighten the land-dwellers,
    and braided bright the breast of earth
    with limbs and leaves, made life for all
    of mortal beings that breathe and move.

    Erm, no. The real scops weren’t singing the text of Genesis. They were singing of Odin and the Aesir and if there was any grumbling and torment, it was those shaved-pate monks annoyed by such pagan songs. They had their own songs, great mooing versions of the Psalms and suchlike.

    In some ways, we have to look through the text to see the world of the Danish invaders and their heroic boasting. The Vikings were being vigorously christianised during time those monks got to work on the Cotton manuscript and that conversion effort was far from finished. The English had once feared the pagan Danish invaders. Grendel, seen in this light, is the apotheosis of that centuries-old fear, a totem and symbol of what the Vikings had once been, enemies of God.Report

  9. Strange says:

    Only one woman in the story. But let’s not talk about tat.Report

    • BlaiseP in reply to Strange says:

      The text of Beowulf is full of women’s names. Women figure large in the Viking world. They certainly enjoyed a measure of equality.

      Hygd very young was,
      Hygd, the noble queen of Higelac, lavish of gifts.
      Fine-mooded, clever, though few were the winters
      That the daughter of Hæreth had dwelt in the borough;
      But she nowise was cringing nor niggard of presents,
      Of ornaments rare, to the race of the Geatmen.

      Thrytho nursed anger, excellent folk-queen,
      Hot-burning hatred: no hero whatever
      ’Mong household companions, her husband excepted
      Dared to adventure to look at the woman
      With eyes in the daytime; but he knew that death-chains
      Hand-wreathed were wrought him: early thereafter,
      When the hand-strife was over, edges were ready,
      That fierce-raging sword-point had to force a decision,
      Murder-bale show. Such no womanly custom
      For a lady to practise, though lovely her person,
      That a weaver-of-peace, on pretence of anger
      A belovèd liegeman of life should deprive.
      Soothly this hindered Heming’s kinsman;
      Other ale-drinking earlmen asserted
      That fearful folk-sorrows fewer she wrought them,
      Treacherous doings, since first she was given
      Adorned with gold to the war-hero youthful,
      For her origin honored, when Offa’s great palace
      O’er the fallow flood by her father’s instructions
      She sought on her journey, where she afterwards fully,
      Famed for her virtue, her fate on the king’s-seat
      Enjoyed in her lifetime, love did she hold with
      The ruler of heroes, the best,

    • Jaybird in reply to Strange says:

      Grendel’s Mom is a strong female character…Report

  10. Plinko says:

    I’m still gathering my thoughts on the discussion so far, I’m rather surprised how different reactions are than my own so I’m trying to get back on track. The big thing for me is how committed everyone is to seeing this as a translation of a crappy version of an oral lay. As far as I’m concerned, it’s absolutely without a doubt a writing down of an existant lay that would have been well known by the English people of the time and place, but it is so much more than that as well. I’m mulling a full post on the subject, if I have time and there’s interest.

    I do think the unsaid thing that’s really, really, really important to consider is how unimportant the battle with Grendel is to the work as a whole. The fight lasts all of, what, 20 lines out of a thousand, and this section is much less than half of the entire work? That’s a pretty big sign that this is a set up to the actual core of the work and not a fully contained story in and of itself. A lot of the questions about how the story so far unfolds make a lot more sense if you consider this (well, they do to me, at least).

    Regarding the ‘trickery’ – I don’t get that at all – Grendel isn’t a man so the idea of needing to face him honorably is probably looking at things the wrong way. It’s not as if Grendel shows up, knocks on the door and challenges the Geats to single combat, he tears in and kills everyone he can get his hands on. Waiting for him to attack and then killing him sounds like a perfectly normal idea to me. The thing I can’t figure out is how does Beowulf come to the decision to fight Grendel without weapons? I mean, does he think ‘everyone else used weapons, so let’s try without!’ It’s not as if any of Beowulf killed the sea monsters bare handedly – he was fully armed. Grendel is said, later, to be immune from weapons and so it was the right method, but I never get how he comes to that conclusion aside from the oddball excuse given that Grendel fights without weapons, so Beowulf will, too.

    Regarding Unferth – his part is quite important as a contrast to Beowulf as Christianizable hero. Beowulf calls out Unferth as a killer of his own tribe members – something we can probably infer is true because it goes unremarked. I can’t imagine that an unfounded accusation in the meadhall of such would not moved immediately to some kind of duel or fight. From what I see, Beowulf’s schooling of Unferth is a really important part of this section, occupying as it does a much bigger part than the actual fight with Grendel.Report

    • BlaiseP in reply to Plinko says:

      The big thing for me is how committed everyone is to seeing this as a translation of a crappy version of an oral lay.

      Beowulf is not crappy, whatever might be the case. The pagan world had not entirely passed away and the Christian world had not fully entered Britain. We know from Codex Junius the Christians were producing their own poetic paraphrase versions of the Christian myths, especially what is now called Genesis B.

      So here are two learned men, we know there were two because they had different handwriting, trying to build a book. Sure, Beowulf was derived from older sources, so was Codex Junius. And as with Genesis B, it was meant to be sung, as were the Psalms themselves. If they had the scops of Heorot singing Genesis, those two men had probably read Codex Junius, which also features Cain and Abel. They were constantly recycling old material, by the time of the writing of Beowulf, lots of it written material, not just oral.

      The genius of Beowulf is its detail. We’re given these exquisitely detailed episodes, all the motivations and emotions, the weeping, the gift-giving, the jewels glinting, the sounds of the armour clanging as the men disembark from their ships, the suspicious parleys at the shore, the boasting, the joking about Unferth being too drunk to get the story right and even more extravagant tall tales. Good fun! Nothing is left to the imagination, it’s all there. There’s very little plot in the way we’d think of it today, just a little glue to bind together all these details. That’s what people wanted back then. It’s what we expect in films, now.Report

      • Plinko in reply to BlaiseP says:

        Not that Beowulf, the lay, is crappy, just that the Nowell Codex is somehow an unsatisfactory version and it’s too bad we’re stuck with it as the only source document with all it’s Christianizing of details.

        Based on the last thread, BP, I would have put you squarely in that camp, I’m sorry if I misinterpreted your viewpoint.Report

        • BlaiseP in reply to Plinko says:

          I presume you know Tolkien and LOTR well enough to understand how he went about writing in his own saga form, building his own mythology. It’s like those odd sfumato backgrounds to the paintings by Da Vinci: the backgrounds give life to the figures.

          You haven’t really misinterpreted anything. I see Heorot and Meduseld through the same lenses. Where others see all that Swords ‘n Sorcery, magic and rings and things, I see Tolkien attempting bringing the Saxon world back to life — Ferthu Theoden hal, Old English, ferþu hal, health to thy spirit. We still hear the word in the phrase hale and hearty. These are the sfumato backgrounds upon which the characters of Beowulf live and breathe, a world ancient even to the monks who wrote down that story.Report

  11. Coyle says:

    Enjoying both the post and the comments- thanks for making this happen!

    I use the first few lines of Beowulf about Shield Sheafson in my Intro to Political Theory courses as a point of comparison between the political virtues of the Medieval and Classical worlds. Sallust’s list of the virtues of Caesar and Cato (in “Conspiracy of Catiline,” 54) include traits like humanity, benevolence, generosity, temperance, etc. When compared to what makes Shield “one good king”, the contrast is pretty clear.

    Which I think helps sharpen your first question a bit (or maybe it doesn’t, given that I’m nowhere near a Medievalist)- Beowulf was being honest in describing himself if we think of it as a list of his characteristics explained through exaggeratedly violent tales. The factuality of his feats is less important than that they reveal something true about him- namely that he is crazy strong. Which, as you point out, is what people cared about at the time.

    Just my thoughts, anyway- again, I’m definitely not a Medievalist.

    Thanks for the post and the fantastic discussion!Report