Blogging Beowulf: Fit I, lines 53-114

Fit I gets us right into the meat of the poem. It picks up after Scyld’s funeral and zips through the reign of Beow (a.k.a., the other Beowulf) and that of Healfdene, Beow’s son. Healfdene is also the king that builds Heorot, the great mead-hall that Grendel will plunder. The throne eventually passes to Hrōðgār, Healfdene’s son, who is also reckoned a great king who also bēagas dælde (dispensed rings). We are then introduced to the monster Grendel, who lurks in the shadows, jealous of the joy and feasting that is going on in Heorot.

The opening of the fit is more genealogy. Healfdene has four children, three sons: Heorogār, Hrōðgār, and Hālga, and an unnamed daughter. It does not appear that the daughter was meant to be left out; rather it looks like scribal error. Several words, and perhaps several lines, are missing. The manuscript reads (fol. 130r):

Heorogar ond
Hroðgar ond Halga til; hyrde ic þæt elan cwen
heaðo silfingas healsgebedda

The missing words are between þæt and elan. Klaeber’s edits this as:

Heorogār ond Hrōðgār     ond Hālga til;
hyrde iċ þæt [……     wæs On]elan cwēn,
Heaðo-Scilfingas     healsġebedda.

(Heorogar and Hrothgar     and Halga the good;
I heard that [name     was On]ela’s queen,
of the War-Swedes,     dear bedfellow.)

Onela, the king of the Swedes, appears later in the poem and from other sources we understand that his wife’s name was Ursula, or something similar.

The line with the missing words is the sixth from the bottom of the folio. You’ll also note that the manuscript does not present the text in poetic lines with caesuras. These are the work of later editors. In the manuscript, the poem is written out as if it were prose, continuously from one edge of the folio to another.

We cannot forget that Grendel is introduced to us starting on line 86. He is called an ellengæst (courageous spirit). This is the only place in Old English literature that this word appears. At four other places in the poem, he is referred to as ellorgast or ellorgæst (spirit from elsewhere/faraway) words that also do not appear outside of Beowulf. Since “courageous” doesn’t seem to be all that appropriate for Grendel, this may be scribal error and ellorgast is what was originally intended in line 86 as well. But on the other hand, there could also be punning going on with gast. Two unrelated, but similar, roots give us the modern words ghost and guest. A “courageous guest” is not so strange and perhaps the poet is slyly introducing Grendel as a “visitor” before revealing in the next few lines that he is actually a monster. All this goes to show that how the manuscript is edited and presented in print really makes a difference in how the poem is read.

The fit ends with us learning that Grendel is in Cāines cynne (of the lineage of Cain). In the universe of the poem, Cain fathered a line of untydras (bad broods), including eotenas ond ylfe ond orcneas, swylċe ġī(ga)ntas (ogres and elves and evil spirits, also giants). This, by the way, is where Tolkien gets his orcs.

This introduces another contradiction in the poem. Beowulf is a pre-Christian hero, but the poem was written from a Christian perspective. The poem recognizes that the heroes and kings in it are pagans, but it is also filled with references to the Christian God and beliefs.

Finally, the discussion of Grendel’s lineage bookends the fit with the listing of Beow’s descendents at the beginning. In the next fit, the comparison of Grendel with Hrothgar will continue.

(Next: Fit II, lines 115-88)

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