Blogging Beowulf: Fit II, lines 115-88

The murder and mayhem start here in Fit II. Grendel, who we were introduced to in the last section, finally attacks Heorot under the cover of night. Hrothgar’s thanes are all asleep in the hall after a long evening of beer drinking and Grendel seizes and kills thirty of them, dragging them back to his home in the fens. Morning comes and the deaths are discovered to great lamentation and wailing (dawn is a bad time for Anglo-Saxons). He returns the next night and kills more. Soon the thanes wise up and start sleeping elsewhere and Grendel rules the night at Heorot for twelve years. Nothing can be done to stop his predations. He is a monster, caring only for the slaughter and can’t be negotiated with. Hrothgar becomes despondent and the Danes take to offering sacrifices to their pagan gods in a vain effort to get Grendel to leave. The fit ends on a homiletic note, telling the reader to put his trust in the Christian God.

Two passages are problematic. The first is on lines 168-69 where it describes Grendel’s behavior within Heorot:

Nō hē þone ġifstōl     grētan mōste,
māþðum for metode,     nē his myne wisse.

(Never might he touch the throne,
a treasure, on account of God, nor [did he] know his love.)

Is the throne (ġifstōl) Hrothgar’s? Ġifstōl is literally “gift-seat,” the chair from which gifts, like rings, are distributed. Or is it God’s throne, indicating that the passage is a metaphor for Grendel existing outside of God’s grace? Grētan can mean touch, approach, or attack (and also to know carnally, but that would be a radical interpretation of the text), which meaning is intended is not clear. Mōste can mean permission or volition. Did Grendel choose not to approach the throne or was he unable to do so? Metod is an interesting word, too. Appearing almost exclusively in poetry, it is usually an epithet for God, but it carried an older, pagan meaning of fate or destiny as well. And myne could mean mind or love. Remember that the punctuation is a modern editorial addition, so a translation need not conform to what Klaeber’s thinks the punctuation should be.

Fred Robinson interpreted the passage to mean that Grendel ignored the treasure and symbols of power, intent only killing. R.M. Liuzza follows Robinson’s interpretation and translates the passage as:

he saw no need to salute the throne,
he scorned the treasures; he did not know their love.

While this is logical, this translation leaves out metode and invents scorned out of thin air.

The second problematic passage begins on line 180. It’s the homiletic ending of the fit. It’s problematic chiefly because its tone is completely different from the rest of the passage. One could think that it was not part of the original composition.

The poet appears to engage in word play on several occasions. Lines 129-30 describe Hrothgar after finding the slaughter in the morning as:

                         Mære þēoden,
æþeling ærgōd,     unblīðe sæt

(                         The famous king,
a prince good before others, sat joyless.)

The key word is ærgōd. Is it being used as a standard epithet for a beloved ruler, or is it implying that Hrothgar is over the hill and declining in his abilities—which is certainly the case.

There are also some wonderful alliterative phrases in this fit. Grendel is a deorc dēaþscua or dark deathshadow. The residents of Heorot have a miċel morgenswēġ, or great morning-wailing, when they discover the carnage that Grendel has wrought, only to have him return the next night for morðbeala māre, or more slaughter. Good stuff!

(Next: Fit III, lines 189-257)

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