September 13, 2013


        In honor of Seamus Heaney, I was skimming through his translation of Beowulf the other day, and thought the time had come for a few words on Grendel.  I have to say that Beowulf's culture is really not my thing, and in many ways I think it's a fairly stupid story - just a bunch of brainless macho men (and monsters) running around tearing each other's limbs off for no good reason and calling it honor and prowess.  Not exactly my cup of mead.  For example, after Grendel's mother kills one of the warriors in revenge for her son's death, Beowulf tells the distraught king, "Wise sir, do not grieve.  It is always better to avenge dear ones than to indulge mourning."  Isn't that exactly what Grendel's mother just did?  And for that she's called a monster while Beowulf's called a hero?  Stupid.
        That said, you can certainly see in Beowulf the roots of so much of our fantasy vocabulary that it's fascinating to look at what's changed, and what's stayed the same after all this time.  Beowulf had disappeared from view for centuries, so it didn't directly influence anyone before Tolkien, but I think it's pretty clear that it represents some of the roots of our ideas of culture and literature, heroes and quests.
        In some ways, the most interesting characters are not Beowulf and all the other drunken, smack-talking heroes, but Grendel and his mother.  (I think she needs a name.  Grendelina?  Madam Grendel?  Pam?)  Scholars and critics continue to debate their nature.  Are they human or monster?  And if monster, are they humanoid or completely monstrous, of earth or hell?  Heaney's translation calls Grendel demon, fiend, monster, God-cursed brute, shadow-stalker, terror-monger, hell-serf…
     …they have seen two such creatures
     prowling the moors, huge marauders
     from some other world. One of these things,
     as far as anyone ever can discern,
     looks like a woman; the other, warped
     in the shape of a man, moves beyond the pale
     bigger than any man, an unnatural birth
     called Grendel by country people
     in former days. They are fatherless creatures,
     and their whole ancestry is hidden in a past
     of demons and ghosts. They dwell apart…

        This seems to me like a rather pro forma litany of insults, and very little to go by if you're trying to picture their physical appearance.  Would they be scaly or slimy, furry or smooth-skinned?  Who knows?  (Though I do feel fairly certain that no swamp-dweller would have high-heeled feet as Madam Grendel does in the 2007 movie.  Anyone with half a brain knows that swamp creatures have wide flat feet so they don't sink in.)
        The description of their lair, by contrast, is more interesting, conjuring up images of a specific, fantastical place.

     a frost-stiffened wood waits and keeps watch
     above a mere; the overhanging bank
     is a maze of tree-roots mirrored in its surface.
     At night there, something uncanny happens:
     the water burns. And the mere bottom
     has never been sounded by the sons of men.
     On its bank, the heather-stepper halts:
     the hart in flight from pursuing hounds
     will turn to face them with firm-set horns
     and die in the wood rather than dive
     beneath its surface. That is no good place.
I like that.
        As for my own small spin on the Grendel story, it appears as an aside in Kate and Sam and the Cheesemonster.  The toad Grimm explains, “Haven’t you ever heard of the Grendel family?  One of Grendelkin’s great-great-grandpas had a disagreement with some human folks in Denmark.  There was a big fight, an arm got ripped right off, his mother had to step in… It was just a mess.  You’d think swamp-dwellers wouldn’t have to worry about rowdy neighbors all the time, but eventually the family emigrated to North America in hopes of some peace and quiet.  That was hundreds of years ago, of course, but these monsters can live a long time when warriors with magic swords don’t get involved.  Anyway, the thing to remember if you ever meet Grendelkin is that he hates a ruckus, so no hollering.”

[Pictures: Beowulf and Grendel, wood engraving by Jonathan Day (Image from Mad Pencil on Flickr);
Grendel in His Pit, linoleum block print by Jacob Sharpe (Image from his Etsy shop thehangingbadger).]
Quotations from Beowulf, verse translation by Seamus Heaney, 2000 (on-line here.  And for good measure you can also see the original Old English manuscript courtesy of the British Library, although it's mixed with other manuscripts.)

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