01 November 2015

So Sorry I Only Tore His Arm Off -- Beowulf 956-89

As I've mentioned here before, I've been working my way through Beowulf lately, pretty slowly and no doubt amateurishly, but I'm loving every minute of it. Not too long ago I went over the passage I give below, in which Beowulf, having just fought Grendel, speaks of it the next morning to the crowd outside Heorot:

Beowulf maþelode,  bearn Ecþeowes:

"We þæt ellenweorc      estum miclum,

feohtan fremedon,   frecne geneðdon

eafoð uncuþes.   Uþe ic swiþor

þæt ðu hine selfne      geseon moste,                      
feond on frætewum   fylwerigne.

Ic him hrædlice   heardan clammum

on wælbedde   wriþan þohte,

þæt he for handgripe   minum scolde

licgean lifbysig,   butan his lic swice.                      
Ic hine ne mihte,   þa Metod nolde,

ganges getwæman:   no ic him þæs georne ætfealh,

feorhgeniðlan.   Wæs to foremihtig,

feond on feþe.   Hwæþere, he his folme forlet

to lifwraþe   last weardian,                                        
earm 7 eaxle.   No þær ænige swa þeah

feasceaft guma,   frofre gebohte.

No þy leng leofað      laðgeteona

synnum geswenced,      ac hyne sar hafað

in niðgripe,   nearwe befongen                                
balwon bendum.   Ðær abidan sceal,

maga mane fah,   miclan domes,

hu him scir Metod   scrifan wille."

Ða wæs swigra secg,   sunu Eclafes,

on gylpspræce   guðgeweorca,                                
siþðan æþelingas   eorles cræfte

ofer heanne hrof   hand sceawedon,

feondes fingras.   Foran æghwylc wæs

steda nægla gehwylc,   style gelicost,

hæþenes handsporu,   hilderinces                            
egl unheoru.   Æghwylc gecwæð

þæt him heardra nan   hrinan wolde,

iren ærgod,   þæt ðæs ahlæcan

blodge beadufolme   onberan wolde.

‘With kind hearts and cold courage,
We have entered this struggle against the unknown,

Ungrasped power, and snapped its strength,

I wish you might have seen it yourself,

The feast-weary fiend, scales dragging,

Falling in the hall, dead-tired.
I wanted to catch him quick, hold him

Hard with a hand-grip, cradle him

In a death-bed, a slaughter-couch,

So he might find a savage sleep,

His ghost lifting from the body-bed.
He was bound to stay in my unyielding grip

Unless his flesh could flee. I wanted

Him dead, no bones about it --

But I couldn't hold him the restless enemy,

Against God's will.  He slipped my grasp
To save his life he left his hand behind,

His arm and shoulder -- a nice touch!

The token claw gave him cold comfort,

No hope of life, that loathed spoiler,

Tortured by sin; but pain grabbed him
In a hard grasp, a wailing wound,

A misery-grip.  There he must wait,

Stained with crime, till bright God

Brings judgment on his dark deeds.'

After this, Unferth son of Ecglaf,
Boasted less of his battle-works,

His courage quiet, while all warriors

Gazed on the claw, the fiend's fingers,

Nailed near the roof by Beowulf's strength.

Each claw-nail, each hand-spur 
In the heathen's banged up death-grip,

Was stiff as steel.  The old talk was dead --

Men claimed no hard thing could pierce him,

No ancient iron, no trusted blade,

Could cut his bloody battle-fist.
(transl. Craig Williamson)

What's going on here is wonderful. Beowulf is quick to share the credit with his men (thus "We" in 957), who did little or nothing to help him, but just as quick to blame himself (thus "I" in lines 959-65), for failing to accomplish all he had set out to do. He virtually apologizes for failing to do more than mortally wounding Grendel by tearing off his arm.  But not even a hero who fights sea monsters (574-75) and can swim home from Friesland wearing thirty coats of mail (2354-68) can do what God wills not (966). This tells us two things. First, how great a hero it took to kill Grendel; and, second, how even such strength as that avails nothing against the will of God. And Beowulf accepts the limits of his strength here, surrendering his enemy and God's to the judgement of God.  In the very same way he had surrendered the outcome of the battle to God's will before it began (685-87).

Unferth, the king's counselor, with whom Beowulf had traded barbs and boasts the night before (499-606) is now reduced to silence by Beowulf's deeds just as he had previously been by his words. And those deeds, proven by Grendel's arm, not only silence the 'old talk' about the impossibility of defeating such a monster with weapons, but seems to allow no new talk, since in fact Beowulf had defeated the feond without them, just as he had said he would (675-687).

When you're down in the trenches of grammar, trying to sort out cases and syntax, parsing your way through a word or two at a time -- Why, why, why is that in the genitive plural? -- it's all too easy to overlook the way the poet has woven the story together. But when you have the fortune to notice as elegant a web as this one, it makes every moment of struggle worthwhile.


Beowulf and Other Old English Poems, edited and translated by Craig Williamson, with a foreword by Tom Shippey, University of Pennsylvania Press (Philadelphia 2011). 978012222753

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