Sunday, December 7, 2008

God-cursed Grendel

What do you think Grendel looks like? I never could get a good mental picture of him. I'm tempted to search the Internet for Grendel-art. I bet there's a bunch of it. I wish I still had access to JSTOR; I'm sure there's mountain of Grendel-specific criticism. It says that "...he had dwelt for a time/ in misery among the banished monsters,/ Cain's clan, whom the creator had outlawed/ and condemned as outcasts" (ll. 104-7).

The maddening vagueness of every physical description of Grendel -- "Every nail,/ claw-scale and spur, every spike/ and welt on the hand of that heathen brute/ was like barbed steel" (ll. 983-6)... yeah, thanks for clearing that up -- is exceeded only by the hopeless muddle that is the story's theological situation. The Danes are described as having "pagan shrines" and "vow[ing] offerings to idols" (175-6), and we are told that "the Lord God... was unknown to them" (ll. 181, 183). The narrator himself credits Beowulf's victory over Grendel to "the Lord/ the Ruler of Heaven" (ll. 1554-5), which is all very well and good, okay, because the narrator can be a Christian who is describing the events of pre-Christian times. But no. That would be too straightforward. BECAUSE THEN HROTHGAR GIVES THIS SPEECH. Explain to me how lines like these make sense:

...It is a great wonder
how Almighty God in His magnificence
favors our race with rank and scope
and the gift of wisdom; his sway is wide. (ll. 1724-27)

AND LEST YOU WONDER JUST WHICH GOD HE IS TALKING ABOUT, we get a little caution to Beowulf about being a Good Christian--though that word is never used:

Choose, dear Beowulf, the better part,
eternal rewards. Do not give way to pride. ...
...Your piercing eye
will dim and darken; and death will arrive,
dear warrior, to sweep you away. (ll. 1759-60; 1766-68)

And to finish off all that--

...So I praise God
in His heavenly glory that I lived to behold
this head dripping blood... (ll. 1178-80)

Even Beowulf himself says God helped him to defeat Grendel! So what is going on here? There's an essay in the Norton entitled "The Christian Language and Theme of Beowulf." I really hope it will help me figure out what is up with that. I'm so confused.


I forgot to mention the I am using the 2002 Norton Critical Edition of Beowulf, edited by Daniel Donoghue.