Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Can Grendel Talk? Does he have Pockets?

This isn't as obvious a question as it might at first appear (I assume the obvious answer would be "No, or he'd say something in the poem"), because, if Grendel can't talk, how can he put a spell on weapons so that they won't bite him? 

Now I'm not suggesting that all spells require words. In not even sure that what Grendel has done in line 804b-805a is necessarily a spell. 

But see for  yourself.  The poet says: þone synscaðan ænig ofter eorþan irenna cyst, guðbilla nan, gretan nolde, ac he sigewæpnum forsworen hæfde ecga gehwycre."

Not one of the war-swords on the earth, made of the choicest of iron, was able to greet the enemy, for he had *forsworen* victory-weapons, each of edges." 

What does this mean, exactly?

Almost every other place it appears in Anglo-Saxon,  "forsworen" means "renounced" or "gave up," so at first it's tempting to find an analogy to Beowulf, who has given up his weapons to fight Grendel.  But the problem, then, is to explain why the swords of the Geats aren't able to strike ("gretan") the monster.

Editors have solved this problem by taking "forsworen" not as "renounced," but as "enchanted with magic" or "cursed." There aren't a lot of unambiguous examples in the corpus, however, where the word works this way. In fact, the whole argument seems to be based on the context and one instance where the word glosses "devotabat" (put a spell on, cursed). But ok, let's go with "put a spell on."  How did Grendel do it? Words? Hand gestures? A magic staff? Tarot cards? 

Everywhere else in the corpus that I've had a chance to look at, when it's not obviously giving up or renouncing something (and even many times when it is), "forswor" is some kind of verbal action: I haven't yet found a single instance where the word means something physical or mental.

Hence my question about whether or not Grendel can speak: if he's casting some kind of spell that is described by "forsworen," then it seems he would have to talk in some way.

Perhaps similarly, I always wonder about the assertion by the poet that Grendel won't pay compensation for the men he killed.  Did someone ask him to?  Does he have money to pay with? Where does he keep it? We know he has a dragon-skin bag, for bringing victims back to his underwater lair, but it seems unlikely that he uses it as a purse and carries his gold with him when he goes to visit Heorot.  I can never decide if this point is a joke by the poet: he chews up and swallows people, slaughters many, wrecks the hall... oh, and he won't even pay a wergeld for it (because you know if he did, then we could all be friends...).

Reading that line as litotes help explain the lack of wergeld payment, but it doesn't bring us closer to understanding whether or not Grendel can talk. One way to read the whole situation is to say that the poet deliberately wants to make Grendel more human than his original trollish conception might have been.  That's somewhat consistent with current monster theory, which immediately makes me think it is wrong (I try to use Diax's Rake as much as possible nowadays; thanks, Neal Stephenson).

But I think I can see a way that we can deal with the "can Grendel talk problem" and the "wouldn't pay wergeld."  The latter can be a litotes.  The former could be a form of berserkr behavior. 

I was just teaching Egil's Saga, and my students noticed that in one battle King Harald has Thorolf in the prow of his ship with Brand, but the sides of the vessel are manned by the king's twelve berserks.  After the battle, Brand is mortally wounded and Thorolf is badly hurt, but the saga author (Snorri?) tells us, that all twelve berserks were unharmed, "because no iron could strike them when they were in their battle frenzy." 

Hmmmmmm.  Maybe to get into that berserkr battle frenzy, one has to give up armor (though not weapons), and then when you do, you become impervious to weapons.  Could something like this be the idea behind Grendel's having "forsworen" weapons? By giving them up, he makes himself immune to their blows, and the audience might expect this if they already had an idea that berserks could do something similar.  Then we could dispense with talking Grendel and not worry about whether or not he had pockets.

(Though I still do worry about these things). 


John Cowan said...

Your last idea is what I thought of right away, and besides I like the idea, and so (Diax or no Diax) I believe it.

Dr. Virago said...

But wouldn't drawing an analogy with berserkers make him a little bit more human, too? Aren't berserkers, after all, human?

Less serious, the purse/pockets thing cracked me up. I'm now picturing Grendel (well, to the extent we can picture him at all) with a nice Coach man bag.

Evan said...

I have no talent with the linguistic side of this at all. On the other hand, the analogy with the berserkers seems a very apt one on a cultural level (I can claim a bit of anthropology in my background). However, even if the "translation" of the word does not really mean "put a spell on" per se, the act of forswearing and obtaining immunity to the war-swords/edged weapons of the earth does seem to me to bespeak a level of cognition, ritual, and volition that puts Grendel into a category of being who might use language. I mean, if anything that did not use weapons was immune to them, hunting would be a problem. Gredel has to commit some affirmative act to forswear the weapons and obtain the benefit. Commonly, we would expect that to involve language, though perhaps some wordless ritual might be conceivable. Still, the monster Grendel seems both more human, and more monstrous for being so like and unlike humans by looking at this.

As far as the pockets issue, I'm not sure why he wouldn't just throw everything in one bag. I mean that's what my kids do (okay, so no Geat warriors but, sometimes the oddest mish mash of things). Still, I'm not really sure what the poet might be driving at, except to say that Grendel, whatever he is or was, is thoroughly outside of society, because even when there is strife and violence, real humans have a system for working things out (wergeld and, as you say, we all get to be friends), whereas, nothing by death can end the strife between monster and man.

That's my completely off the cuff guess.

Andrew Higgins said...

Dr Drout

So cool that you are blog posting again! Well, I think the question " Did Grendel have Pockets?" has now completely trumped the other burning questions of my life - "Do Balrogs have Wings?" and will delve back into the text!!! looking forward to your book Tower and the Ruin.

Best Andy

BTW Just recently finished reading Exodus using Peter Lucas and Tolkien texts/notes and your Anglo-Saxon aloud reading was brilliant and very helpful!!!

Jason Fisher said...

Now that you've planted a talking, pocket-savvy Grendel image in my mind, I can't stop imagining him saying to Beowulf, "ach, ssss, what has it got in its pocketses, eh, precious?!"

N.E. Brigand said...

Can Grendel's pocket talk? I'm sure I'm not the only one to wonder if Tolkien's pursed, pocketed, sack-bearing trolls are meant to echo Grendel. (And if Grendel is carrying a Coach purse, as Dr. Virago imagines, is it perhaps time to reconsider this question?)

Dr. Virago said...

Perhaps more metrosexual, N. E. Brigan. :)

Montague said...

This is an out-of-the-blue-unbased guess on the off-chance that I may be right, but maybe forsworn here denotes (and I make the DANGEROUS assumption it means anything like in modern English) that he has "forsworn the use of weapons" -- something like how King Helm in LOTR was believed to be invincible against swords because he only uses his hands to kill.

...And now I need to go to Wheaton. Lots.

Anonymous said...

You need to look at the various works of S R Jensen on the poem. Jensen argues that Grendel is Agnar, son of Ingeld, who died with his 'lips separated into a smile'. 'Grin' plus 'divid(ed)'. It is suggested that the poem is a tale of Ingeld in its first two parts, monster and mother.