23 September 2011

XXIII. Beowulf Finds Grendel's Mother

Beowulf's encounter with Grendel's mother begins firmly in the real world. Beowulf asks Hrothgar to respect two promises he had made: If Beowulf dies, Hrothgar should treat Beowulf's companions well and send Beowulf's newly-won treasures to comfort the Geat king.

Beowulf then enters the water, and reality is left behind. The rest is dreamlike, surreal.

First, he sinks for the better part of a day (!) until he sees the bottom. Grendel's mother then seizes him so that he cannot resist. At this point, evil sea beasts come ravening in against him, striving to get through his armour. He then finds himself in an underground chamber, mysteriously dry and brightly lit. His sword has no effect on Grendel's mother, so he engages in a desperate hand-to-hand fight with the hag and is forced to his knees. Only his armour saves him. He pulls himself together and rises...

This fight reminds me of one that the god Thor had in a giants' palace, according to the Prose Edda. Stealing a translation from a Wikipedia page:
Útgarda-Loki answered, looking about him on the benches, and spake: 'I see no such man here within, who would not hold it a disgrace to wrestle with thee;' and yet he said: 'Let us see first; let the old woman my nurse be called hither, Elli, and let Thor wrestle with her if he will. She has thrown such men as have seemed to me no less strong than Thor.' Straightway there came into the hall an old woman, stricken in years. Then Útgarda-Loki said that she should grapple with Ása-Thor. There is no need to make a long matter of it: that struggle went in such wise that the harder Thor strove in gripping, the faster she stood; then the old woman essayed a hold, and then Thor became totty on his feet, and their tuggings were very hard. Yet it was not long before Thor fell to his knee, on one foot.
Beowulf is godlike in his strength; like the god, he faced an old woman as an opponent; like the god, he was forced off his feet. One might say that Elli, as the personification of Old Age, would look much weaker than Grendel's mother, but we don't know what Grendel's mother looked like. All we know from her attack on Heorot is that she was nowhere near as formidable in appearance or strength as Grendel:
Grendel’s mother, a menace less great
by the same amount a maiden’s strength,
a woman’s might, is weaker than an armed man’s
So, once the alarm was raised against her, she had to flee Heorot to save her life. Why she was so much more formidable in her own territory is a question without an answer. However, if an Old English audience knew the story of Thor and Elli in the Prose Edda, I am sure they would think of the parallel with Beowulf.

Before we start, here is a drawing of Thor and Elli; it would serve for one of Beowulf and Grendel's mother, if you ignore the giant onlookers and covered Thor's chest with chain armour.


Beowulf spoke, the son of Ecgtheow.
“Hold in your mind, Healfdene’s great heir,
“before I face her—far-seeing ruler,
“gold-friend to the people—the pact that we made.
“If it happens that the help I give
“causes my death, then keep for me
“a father’s mind from that moment on. 1480
“Look after these, my loyal young men,
“my brothers in arms, if battle claims me.
“And all the rich gifts I got from your hand,
“honoured Hrothgar, are Hygelac’s.
“The lord of the Geats will look into the gold,
“and Hrethel’s son will see in the hoard
“that I found a man of many virtues,
“a generous giver I enjoyed while I could.
“Let Unferth have an ancient treasure,
“the wonderful wave-sword; let that well-known man 1490
“have that hard edge. With Hrunting I earn
“fame for myself or find my death.”

After these words the Weder-Geat lord
waded out strongly, unwilling to stay
for words in reply. The waves covered
the man-at-arms. Most of the day
passed till he saw solid bottom.
Then soon the hag that had held the sea
for fifty years in fury and hunger,
grim and greedy, grew aware of a human, 1500
an alien presence exploring her realm.
Then she groped forwards and gripped the fighter
with a wild strength. At once she crushed
his sturdy frame. The strength of the ring-mail
in the soldier’s shirt shut the passage
of her hateful hand through the hauberk’s links.
Then the sea-wolf took, when she touched bottom,
the rings’ possessor inside her court.
She held him so, despite his courage,
no weapon could strike. Many strange creatures 1510
smelled him and raged in. A rout of sea beasts
with deadly tusks tore at his war-shirt;
the nightmares attacked.
                                        Then the noble was
in a deep-buried hall—I do not know which–
where no water waited to harm him.
It chafed to reach through the chamber’s roof
in savage flood. He saw firelight,
a pale lustre that lit the room.
Then the good man saw the sea-deep’s monster,
the mighty hag. With a heave he swung. 1520
He did not deny the deadly sword,
so right on her head the ring weapon sang
a vicious war song. Then the visitor found
that the torch of war would not bite her,
refused to slay, and so it failed him,
the lord in his need. It had lasted through
hand-to-hand combats, cut through helmets,
doomed men’s armour. Only this time
the great treasure disgraced its name.
With strength of will, stern-minded and brave, 1530
and thinking of fame, the furious lord,
Hygelac’s kinsman, cast the patterned sword,
damascened iron, to earth where it lay
steel-edged and stiff. Now strength was his hope,
his mighty grip. So a man will act
whenever in war he wants to earn
a lasting name: his life means nothing.
With no regrets, the noble Geat
grabbed her shoulder, Grendel’s mother.
The battle-hard fighter, inflamed with rage, 1540
heaved down his foe so she hit the floor.
She requited him quickly after
with an angry grip. She grappled him.
Worn by the struggle, the warrior stumbled;
standing alone, he lost his footing.
She knelt on her downed guest and drew out her knife,
wide and bright-edged. She wanted vengeance
for the last of her line. There lay on his shoulder
a woven-mail coat. It kept him alive,
allowing no entry to edge or point. 1550
Life would have ended for Ecgtheow’s son,
the earl of the Geats, there under the ground,
without the help his armour gave,
that hard battle-net, and holy God
controlled who won; the wise Master,
Heaven’s ruler, rightly decided
so the earl quickly came to his feet.

21 September 2011

XXII. The Search for Grendel's Mother

The Fitt begins with a few heartening words from Beowulf to Hrothgar, reminding him of the duty to avenge Aeshere and how fame is more important than life, since everyone eventually dies, anyway. Hrothgar is inspired to lead a party out to search for Grendel's mother. They travel through a varied landscape before arriving at an extraordinary body of water, stained with blood and full of monstrous creatures. The warriors kill one of these "nicors," giving an opportunity for grim understatement (Once a creature has its heart pierced by an arrow, "It seemed in the water/to swim more weakly") and bizarre metaphor (dragging the dying creature onto the land is "A wondrous sea birth"). Then Beowulf prepares himself to follow Grendel's mother into the lake. Beowulf's courage is contrasted with Unferth's cowardice.


Then Beowulf said, the son of Ecgtheow,
“Wise sir, it is better to abandon grief,
“to avenge friends than vainly mourn.
“Each one of us waits for the end
“of mortal life. Man should then strive
“for fame before death! To a fighter, that,
“when life closes, lasts as a comfort.
“So rise, realm’s warden! Ride out at once, 1390
“for Grendel’s kin has granted a trail.
“I promise you this: no place will hide her;
“no cover in field, nor forested heights,
“nor rocky sea bottom, run as she may!
“Only endure this day with patience
“and every shock as I am sure you can.”

Then the old man rose and offered thanks
to God Almighty the man had spoken.
A horse was harnessed for Hrothgar then,
with wave-plaited mane. The wise monarch 1400
travelled stately; strong shield-bearers
followed behind. Her footprints were
easily followed on a forest trail;
she cut across the countryside
over a murky moor, making off with the clansman,
the best of men—now merely a body!—
that held the homeland by Hrothgar’s side.
The high-born hero hurried over
drifts of sharp stones and deep valleys,
tight earth fissures and untested fords,
mountain faces and monsters’ nests.  1410
He pushed ahead with a handful of men,
scouts with the skill to scry the land,
till he stumbled on a stand of trees
overhanging ice-covered rocks,
a dismal sight. Unsettled water
was full of blood. The band of Danes,
their hearts aching, and all the Scyldings,
those many men, mourned at the cliff
to see Aeschere as a severed head.

The water roiled. The warriors stared 1420
for it was hot with blood. A horn quickly blew
a song for his soul. They sat themselves down
and saw in the water serpentine creatures,
strange sea-dragons that sounded the deep,
and on stones near shore stretched the nicors
that often launch in the late morning
deadly sorties on the sail-road.
Rough and snaky, they rolled away,
swollen and hating, on hearing the sound
of the war horn. One of the Geats 1430
with an arrow and bow ended a beast
and its struggle with waves, for straight in its heart
he sent the arrow. It seemed in the water
to swim more weakly, the one death had seized.
They rushed into breakers with boar-spears raised,
steeply-angled, and stabbed at it,
pierced its hide, and hauled it to land.
A wondrous sea birth! Warriors stared
at the brute stranger.
                                   Beowulf prepared.
He dressed in fine armour, with no fear of death. 1440
He needed his byrnie, braided by hand,
broad and regal, to risk the lake
so it could armour his arch of bones,
protect his heart from holds that kill,
and keep himself safe from her grip.
The shining helmet that sheltered his head
and would swirl up mire from the mud below,
creating currents, was crusted with treasure
in elaborate bands for long before
a weaponsmith worked, wonderfully lengthened, 1450
and fastened boars as a firm sign
that no blade at all could ever bite.
Another piece of powerful war-gear
Hrothgar’s spokesman had handed over:
Hrunting, an ancient and excellent sword,
with a hilt for two hands, was high among heirlooms.
Its edge was patterned with poison twigs
and tempered in blood. Time and again
the one who held it had won his fight.
So the man who chose this chilling trip 1460
to the foe’s land was far from the only
that the sword had helped with heroes’ work.

Ecglaf’s kinsman could not remember,
that hardy man, what he had said,
when, addled with wine, he offered the sword
to a braver swordsman. He himself would not
risk the deeps and endanger his life
to attest his worth. He tossed away glory,
well-earned honour, as the other did not
after he dressed for a deadly fight. 1470

13 September 2011

In Memory of Michael Stern Hart, and a Sound File Experiment

Michael Stern Hart died on September 6, 2011. I never met the man, but was saddened by his passing. He contributed mightily to many causes that I believe in. He was also the first person to create and distribute an e-book on the Internet (in 1971, twenty-one years before the World Wide Web, two years after the introduction of Unix, six years before the first mass-market personal computer, the Apple II). After six downloads of that first document, the Declaration of Independence, he realized that such documents filled a need, and he dedicated himself to filling that need. Eventually, this led to the founding of Project Gutenberg and similar organizations in Canada, Australia, and other countries. Project Gutenberg alone has about 36,000 free texts, and adds dozens daily. Mr. Hart also campaigned against laws that extend copyright terms and thus, in his view, rob the public domain and the public itself. My own contact with Mr. Hart was limited to a few e-mails when I tried to submit to Project Gutenberg the typed-in text of an old poetry book. Unfortunately, we could not prove that it was out of copyright in the United States, so he had to refuse it. However, I did not give up on the idea of contributing something, and later submitted a work to Project Gutenberg Canada: Fletcher Pratt's The Battles that Changed History. So, my contact with him was typical in that it inspired me to contribute what I could to the public domain on the Internet. His influence did not die with him.

If you are looking for some relevance to Beowulf  in this post, go to Project Gutenberg and search for Beowulf. You will find an edition in Old English, translations, and sound recordings. More will come.

A Recording of Beowulf's "Prologue"

Speaking of sound files, I have experimented with making one. I took a microphone that came with my son's copy of the game "Rock Band II," plugged it into my computer, and recorded my translation of the Prologue to Beowulf. Play it here. If anyone has interest in hearing more such files, please let me know in the comments.