Beowulf and Grendel

The author of this paper first encountered Beowulf in 1989 while studying history and literature in England. Excerpts of the great Anglo-Saxon epic were read aloud to us in the original Old English as the class followed a parallel text of a modern translation. The instructor, a seasoned scholar steeped in the English literary tradition, recited the work in a deep, melodious tone, her flawless pronunciation conveying all the robustness and guttural resonance of the ancient language. I remember closing my eyes and imagining the scop of old, replete with hoary beard and gleaming eyes, moving from table to table, singing the verses of the legendary warrior to the noble thanes of the meadhall.

At the time, since the poem was only touched upon in passing (the primary focus of the course being an in-depth study of Shakespeare), my experience of Beowulf was that of an enigmatic, somewhat esoteric work, basically a rosetta stone; significant only as a transitional work, a milestone on the way to the more important works of Chaucer and, subsequently, the Upstart Crow himself.

Just recently, however, I had the opportunity of reading the much-celebrated epic for myself. And what a revelation: It was wonderful! It could have been the translation, or it might have been the basic substance of the work itself, but in any case I found myself devouring the poem, finishing it in one sitting.

In analyzing my fascination with Beowulf, I hit upon two specific areas of appeal: 1) The fundamental attraction of the archetypical super-hero and 2) the more contemporary trend in modern culture to attempt to recapture the experience of this particular era via popular fiction and film.

The ideal of the hero is a concept so completely integrated into the human psyche as to be virtually built-in. From Homer's Ulysses to Nietzsche's Ubermensch, we as a race of beings are fixated on the "doer," the individual (until recently the man) who makes things happen, who gets things done, preferably with a healthy dose of bravado and daring-do. This is most probably attributable to an innate sense of vulnerability in each of us, that unsettling little voice which whispers to us that, despite all our efforts, we have overlooked some crucial factor which will lead to our ultimate (and probably horrible) demise. The hero has no such insecurities: he is invincible!

It is interesting to note that not only has the hero figure continued to thrive in the collective human consciousness, but, in our own western culture, the Beowulf-prototype has come full circle: there is a whole genre of fantasy novels which center on one form or another of the Anglo-Saxon warrior tradition, as well as a veritable plethora of movies. Fleet upon fleet of ring-prowed ships sail ever-onward on the seas of our imagination, on quests of adventure and conquest. The mist-shrouded forests of countless kingdoms are yet overrun with the likes of Grendel, as well as a host of others, to be rended limb from limb by neo-Beowulfs. In the light of such mass-entertainment trends, it is curious that more people have not discovered the original, the story that started it all.

For years I have heard the name "Beowulf" uttered with a shudder and a sneer. What is it about this enjoyable read that so terrifies the average college student? Could it be the inevitable scholarly prerequisite status attached to it? Is the etymological significance, the historical importance of the work so intimidating that it convinces the reader that it is not actually...interesting? To those students who tremble at the mere mention of the name of the son of Ecgtheow, I offer John Gardner's Grendel. Here is a companion piece if ever there was one, a modern-day debunking of the Beowulf legend.

As much as I enjoyed reading the exploits of the great Geat, I must say that Grendel resonated at a deeper level for me. In the title character's first-person narrative I found a personal corollary: Gardner's Grendel, though man-eating beast, is a thinker, an intellectual trapped (isolated) in a world without peers. As strange as it might sound to say that I identified with a monster, that is exactly how I felt reading this novel. To experience acutely the scorn and/or fear of a world with which one feels no affinity, and yet, at the same time, to perceive the vapidity and obviousness of that world; to feel ostracized by a race of beings whose own fatuity and turpitude makes one ashamed for having relished the thought of acceptance; to be lonely. This, to me, is the crux of the matter regarding Grendel. Loneliness can drive an individual to monstrous extremes. Eating Danes, for instance.

Grendel also does much to flesh out areas either vaguely described or omitted altogether by Beowulf's unknown chronicler. The experience of the proletariat of the day, for example, the rural community wholly ignored in the light of kings and courageous warriors, is here brought into the picture, as well as pagan priests, scops (or "shapers" as Grendel calls them), even local wildlife. The addition of these elements serves to balance the somewhat top-heavy epic upon which Gardner's novel is based.

The most intriguing aspect of Grendel is the background we receive on primary characters such as Hrothgar, Wealtheow, Unferth, and, of course, Grendel. Gardner, while admittedly taking full advantage of his poetic licence, provides biographical data for each of these individuals which lays a groundwork for subtle, psychological insights into the personalities and actions of each. For example, I wondered at Unferth's unfriendliness toward Beowulf in the original poem. I didn't understand why the former should be so rude to the great warrior who had come in friendship to help the Danes in their time of woe. Even if he was "vexed by Beowulf's adventure, by their visitor's courage, and angry that anyone in Denmark or anywhere on earth had ever acquired glory and fame greater than his own" (501-505), I still found his attitude a bit inappropriate. But in Grendel we discover a "fact" that wasn't mentioned in the ancient work: Hrothgar had himself attempted to conquer Grendel and had been defeated and humiliated. "Aha," I thought after reading this passage, "so that's why Unferth was so hot, calling Beowulf a 'boastful fool' and so forth. Perhaps he was secretly afraid that this Geat would succeed where he had failed." Rather than detracting from the original, deft narrative touches such as this serve to enhance and expand the characters, making them more whole, more three-dimensional.

Looking at the two works side by side, a question arises: Who is the true monster? Beowulf fans will, no doubt, assert that their hero is the undisputed good guy, and that Grendel was a vicious bastard who got what he deserved. But the Gardner perspective offers an interesting twist: Beowulf was insane! An unbalanced, obsessive weirdo babbling bizarre gibberish into Grendel's ear as he rended the unfortunate creature's arm from his torso. This latter interpretation is not as far-fetched as one might think; the police departments of every major city in this country contain a certain number of these so-called "heroes," men so mired in violence that their perceptions become distorted, that they ultimately become the very thing they've fought so hard to defeat.

In any case, whatever your perspective, both Beowulf and Grendel are great studies in Anglo-Saxon legend. I thoroughly enjoyed reading them both.

©1996 Patrick Galloway

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