Beowulf, Characters in Costume, Comitatus, Disability Theory, Grendel, Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, Monster, Seamus Heaney, Subaltern, Wergild
Okay, so I signed up for looking at King Arthur and, well, that was an attempt to bite off far more than one post could chew. So I decided to delve into a character whose description is rather vague and wholly dependent upon the ideas of the translator and, yes, these are notes from the PowerPoint I have on the topic itself, which came from a much longer essay that I have written and may someday publish. So without further ado, here are my notes on how the character of Grendel could, and arguably should, be viewed as something more than just a monster as he is typically cast.
- The term monster may have meant something different back then than it does today
-This thought allows us to reclassify Grendel as an Other
-NOT solely Monster
- Using the scope of Disability
-Skepticism of how Grendel has been interpreted
-More nuanced reading
-Reader can sympathize
- Grendel lives on the fringe of the society of Heorot
-He can hear their merriment
-Yet he is an outsider, unable to partake
-He “nursed a hard grievance. It harrowed him / to hear the din of the loud banquet / every day in the hall, the harp being struck / and the clear song of a skilled poet.” (Beowulf, lines 87-90)
-His place in their society is a harbinger of death
-Moves among them like a specter at night
-Terrorizes the halls of Heorot
-Unable to be captured or defeated for twelve winters
-“So Grendel ruled in defiance of right, / one against all, until the greatest house / in the world stood empty, a deserted wallstead. / For twelve winters, seasons of woe, / the lord of the Shieldings suffered under / his load of sorrow” (Beowulf, lines 144-149)
- Jeffrey Jerome Cohen presents seven theses on monster culture
-“A method of reading cultures from the monsters they engender” (Cohen, 3)
- Looking at Grendel through his theory:
-“the monster always escapes because it refuses easy categorization” (Cohen, 6)
-Grendel is described in terms both human and monstrous, making him a hybrid of both
-This inability to classify with the society as a human leaves him no choice but to rage against them as a monster
-Grendel was not classified as human in their society, so “that no blade on earth, no blacksmith’s art / could ever damage their demon opponent” (Beowulf, lines 801-802)
-Only when Beowulf comes, facing Grendel on equal terms, is the reign of Grendel defeated.
- It is common practice to read Grendel as a monster and as little else
-There is etymological evidence that could support other readings
-It is the literary scholars who put the monsters in this poem
-The word ‘mon-ster’ does not appear in English until the fourteenth century . . . They had to go to Latin for monstrum – and even there it originally meant ‘a divine portent or warning
-Thus the text predates the word by several centuries at least
-During the time when the poem was written the old term for children born with marked deformities was monster
-If the term had indeed been used in a poem during this age, it would have referred to a deformed person
- Thus Grendel should be classified as “the monster is difference made flesh, come to dwell among us” (Cohen 7)
- There is no good visual of Grendel’s appearance in the text
-He is cast as a giant, black, deformed monster primarily due to his bloodthirsty violence and reputation of a nighttime terror
-We are told that Grendel is a direct descendant from the Biblical murderer, Cain
-Cain’s children were born as normal men
-Likely represents traits of jealousy, violence, and status of a fugitive or outcast
-All of these fit the character of Grendel
-None of them define him as physically being a monster in the modern sense.
- Two parts of Anglo-Saxon culture help demonstrate Grendel as Subaltern rather than monster
-Wergild was compensation paid by one who commits and offense to an injured party or their family
-This prevents an endless stream of blood feuds
-“Sad lays were sung about the beset king, / the vicious raids and ravages of Grendel, / his long and unrelenting feud, / nothing but war; how he would never / parley or make peace with any Dane / nor stop his death-dealing nor pay the death-price.” (Beowulf, lines 151-156)
-Comitatus was a bond between a ruler and his thanes
-Thanes swore to serve and protect the ruler, fighting his battles
-The ruler provided food and shelter for his thanes
- It may, in fact, be Grendel’s status of an outcast that spurs him into the violent actions seen in the poem
-There is no place for the deformed in this society of warrior men
-The ambiguity of Grendel’s physical nature lends the imagination to picture him as a monster, making his death a heroic deed
- Through his subaltern status in Heorot, Grendel has lost essential parts of his humanity
- He lives on the fringe of their society, unbound by their common laws
- He was considered as something less-than-human, not quite man yet not quite monster
- His portrayal is not in physical descriptions, but through actions and reactions
-Leaves the audience free to imagine grotesque deformities
- This presents a very different reading of Beowulf
Cohen, J.J. (1996). Monster theory: Reading culture. Minneapolis: University of
Heaney, S. (2001). Beowulf: A new verse translation. New York: Norton Paperbacks.
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Andrea Lundgren said:
Picturing his as somewhat human would spoil certain elements, it seems, for then he would just be a man who refused to operate in society, a sort of anti-hero almost like a highwayman or outlaw. I wonder if it would make him more sympathetic to the modern readers. But perhaps that’s your argument, that he is less-dragon-like than we’ve made him, combining the dragon at the end with the “monster” at the beginning?
Thanks for sharing your notes! It must make for an interesting lecture/PowerPoint. 🙂
David Wiley said:
Yes, it removes the mythical from the early part of the poem and makes the character of Grendel far more relatable as a person, someone the reader can sympathize with and even cheer for. There is a whole lot more to explore with it, including how the Old English word that is usually translated to “claws” when describing Grendel is actually the same word that would be used for “fingers”, and other instances where the translator’s interpretation, or bias, guides the reader toward a certain experience when reading Beowulf.
Andrea Lundgren said:
Interesting. And by extension, I suppose Grendel’s mother is…even more human? Or is she responsible for some of the monstrousness?
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Duri Rolvsson said:
That is fascinating! When I read Beowulf, the image of monster had already been ingrained in my head by osmosis, but you show how that is something we are, in a way, bringing to the text rather than taking from the text.
It’s interesting how action-based his character is…and the contrast made with the strong warriors. But it does very much change how one images that fight between him and Beowulf when I think of Grendel as less monster and more human…
So glad you could join in the blogfest!