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This blog post looks at how Bede’s famous parable of the sparrow was reused in the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries.
Bede’s famous parable of the sparrow is a common text in many introductory courses of Old English. It is found in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People (731), when he discusses how King Edwin of Northumbria was converted to Christianity in the year 627. In Bede’s story, one of Edwin’s counsellors compares the life of a pagan to the flight of a sparrow through the king’s warm hall. Here is the Old English version of the counsellor’s speech, from an 11th-century manuscript:
It seems to me thus, dearest king, that this present life of men on earth, in comparison to the time that is unknown to us, [is] as if you were sitting at your dinner tables with your noblemen, warmed in the hall, and it rained and it snowed and it hailed and one sparrow came from outside and quickly flew through the hall and it came in through one door and went out through the other. Lo! During the time that he was inside, he was not touched by the storm of the winter. But that is the blink of an eye and the least amount of time, but he immediately comes from winter into winter again. So then this life of men appears for a short amount of time; what came before or what follows after, we do not know. Therefore, if this new lore brings anything more certain and more wise, it is worthy of that that we follow it.’
Bede’s image is simple but effective: paganism, according to Bede, does not account for Creation or the Afterlife – the life of a pagan, therefore, resembles the flight of a sparrow through the king’s hall: it comes from the cold and dark winter, spends some brief time in the warm and pleasant hall and then it returns to the cold and dark winter. Since Christianity does give clarity about what came before and what came after, it must be better. Arguably, Bede is misrepresenting whatever pre-Christian faith Edwin of Northumbria and his counsellors adhered to, but that does not make the image less effective. Indeed, while Bede notes that the sparrow’s flight is over in the blink of an eye, Bede’s story reverberates until this present day.
William Wordsworth’s “Persuasion” (1822)
Bede’s parable of the sparrow was reiterated in sonnet-form by William Wordsworth (1770-1850) in his Ecclesiastical Sonnets (1822), a series of 132 poems narrating the history of Christianity, from its arrival in Britain to Wordsworth’s own days. In Wordsworth’s sixteenth sonnet “Persuasion”, Bede’s sparrow represents the human soul:
Man’s life is like a Sparrow, mighty King!William Wordsworth, “Persuasion” (1822) – source
That—while at banquet with your Chiefs you sit
Housed near a blazing fire—is seen to flit
Safe from the wintry tempest. Fluttering,
Here did it enter; there, on hasty wing,
Flies out, and passes on from cold to cold;
But whence it came we know not, nor behold
Whither it goes. Even such, that transient Thing,
The human Soul; not utterly unknown
While in the Body lodged, her warm abode;
But from what world She came, what woe or weal
On her departure waits, no tongue hath shown;
This mystery if the Stranger can reveal,
His be a welcome cordially bestowed!
In Wordsworth’s version, the king’s warm hall represents the human body, while the sparrow is the human soul. This interpretation of the sparrow may well have been what Bede intended and, at any rate, has an analogue in Psalm 123:7 (“Our soul hath been delivered as a sparrow out of the snare of the fowlers”).
Edwin Morgan’s “Grendel” (1976-1981)
Edwin Morgan (1920-2010) put the image of Bede’s sparrow on its head in his monologue poem “Grendel”. In this poem, we get the monster Grendel’s pespective on the hall Heorot (the Old English poem Beowulf tells us that Grendel decided to attack the hall, because he was distraught by the noise of merry-making Danes in the hall). In contrast to the warmth and pleasantness that both Bede and Wordsworth ascribed to the hall, Morgan’s Grendel describes the hall as a horrible place that the sparrow is glad to leave:
Who would be a man? Who would be the winter sparrowA passage from Edwin Morgan’s “Grendel”
that flies at night by mistake into a lighted hall
and flutters the length of it in zigzag panic,
dazed and terrified by the heat and noise and smoke,
the drink-fumes and the oaths, the guttering flames,
feast-bones thrown to a snarl of wolfhounds,
flash of swords in sodden sorry quarrels,
till at last he sees the other door
and skims out in relief and joy
into the stormy dark?
Bede’s warm and cosy hall are nowehere to be seen in this version of the sparrow’s flight! In this passage, as elsewhere in Morgan’s poem, Grendel’s disgust over human society shines through. This bleak view of humanity may also explain the two opening lines of the poem: “It is being nearly human / gives me this spectacular darkness”.
Morgan was well acquainted with Old English poetry; he made a translation of the original Beowulf and also a number of poem collected under the heading “From the Anglo-Saxon” in his Dies Irae (1952).
Jeff Smith’s BONE (1991-2004)
I am a fan of Jeff Smith’s epic comic book saga BONE (1991-2004). The series has received multiple awards and was named one of the ten greatest graphic novels of all time by TIME magazine, which described it as: “As sweeping as the Lord of the Rings cycle, but much funnier”.
Here is an image taken from the prequel volume Rose (2000-2002) and shows the ‘headmaster of the Venu’ (the hooded figure) explaining how ‘the dreaming’ (a sort of spirit world where everyone comes from and to which everyone must one day return) works.
In the BONE Companion (2016), Stephen Weiner explains that the dreaming is based on the Aboriginal concept of the ‘Dreamtime’. From the way the headmaster explains the concept, however, we can also see some influence from Bede! In the headmaster’s simile, the hall stands once more for human life and the cold outside of winter encompasses everything beyond this present life.
To conclude, while the sparrow in Bede’s imagination only spent a brief moment in the hall, Bede’s image has certainly stood the test of time!
If you liked this blog post, you can sign up for regular updates and/or read the following posts:
- Medieval manuscripts in modern media: Anglo-Saxon manuscripts spotted in Vikings, The Last Kingdom and Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla.
- Anglo-Saxon props: Three TV series and films that use early medieval objects
This blog post makes available, for the first time, a new Modern English translation of a Dutch serial adaptation of Beowulf that was accompanied by a set of fifteen paper dolls, originally published anonymously in 1934.
Beowulf: A Paper Doll Pirate History (1934)
This set of paper dolls, based on the Old English poem Beowulf, appeared as fifteen weekly installments in at least three Dutch newspapers in the year 1934 under the heading “Beowulf: Een Zeerooversgeschiedenis” [Beowulf: A Pirate’s History]. The fifteen cut-out paper dolls represent the figures of Hrothgar, Grendel, Beowulf, Grendel’s mother, Hygelac and the dragon, as well as costumes that could be hung over the paper figurines. The cut-out images were accompanied by the text of a serial children adaptation of Beowulf, narrating its eponymous hero’s fight against the three monsters.
Beowulf: A Paper Doll Pirate History (1934) is just one of many examples of Dutch adaptations of the Old English poem (for another one, see: The history of Beowulf’s sandwich: A sketch about ‘fake news’ from 1909). In the Low Countries, Beowulf became one of those stories (along with Sigurd, the dragon slayer) that was deemed suitable for children to read. As is to be expected, this adaptation alters its early medieval English source to accommodate its youthful readers. For example, while mentions of death and horror are not necessarily shunned, the gloomy end of the original poem (with its repeated reproaches of the cowardice of Beowulf’s men and the impending doom of the Geats) is drastically changed: Beowulf forgives his followers for fleeing on this occasion.
The full set of Beowulf paper dolls, along with a new modern English translation of the fifteen installments of the text, is available on this website (I recommend you print out the text, using the ‘Booklet’ option in Acrobat Reader; alternatively, make a double-sided print of the document on A4 for larger cut-our paper dolls!):
The text in this booklet was drawn from Dutch newspapers from the 1930s. The Dutch text was published anonymously and is now out of copyright. It has been newly translated into English and accompanying images were copied and digitally modified from the scanned newspaper pages. The translation is faithful to the original text, barring some very minor changes for continuation’s sake. Each image is accompanied by its original colouring instructions (provided in italics); it is recommended to paste the figures of installments 1, 3, 5, 10, 12 and 14 on cardboard, so as to make sure they can stand upright, even with the additional weight of the various costumes.
I hope you enjoy playing with your Beowulf paper dolls and do let me know how your colouring efforts worked out!
If you liked this blog post, why not follow this blog and/or read the following posts about Beowulf?
- The history of Beowulf’s sandwich: A sketch about ‘fake news’ from 1909
- Beowulf vs the Dragon: A Student Doodle Edition
- Spoiling the Mystery: Grendel in Beowulf Movies
Do you ever wonder what gifts to buy for your loved ones? For the Anglo-Saxons, matters appear to have been rather simple: when in doubt, give them a horse! This blog post considers some notable examples of equine gift giving in early medieval England.
Horses for heroes: Rewards in Beowulf and The Battle of Maldon
What better way to reward a hero who has rid your people of a rampaging monster than giving him a royal steed? Try eight. In the Old English poem Beowulf, King Hrothgar celebrates Beowulf’s defeat of Grendel by lavishing the hero with gifts, including “wicga ond wæpna” [horses and weapons] (l. 1045a):
Heht ða eorla hleo eahta mearas
fæted-hleore on flet teon,
in under eoderas; þara anum stod
sadol searwum fah, since gewurþad;
þæt wæs hilde-setl heah-cyninges
ðonne sweorda gelac sunu Healfdenes
efnan wolde (ll. 1035-1041a)
[Then the lord of warriors commanded eight horses, golden-cheeked, to be led to the floor, inside within the precincts; On one of them stood a sadle decorated with artistries, made worthy with treasure; that had been the battle-seat of the high king when the son of Healfdene (i.e. Hrothgar) would engage in the play of swords.]
As it befits a loyal retainer, Beowulf shares his spoils with his own lord when he returns home. He gave four of the horses to his uncle, King Hygelac (ll. 2163b-5a: “feower mearas … æppel-fealuwe” [four apple-yellow horses]), and three to Queen Hygd (ll. 2174b-5a: “þrio wicg … swancor ons sadol-breoht” [three horses, slender and brigh-saddled]. As it turns out, Beowulf only kept one horse for himself – possibly the one with Hrothgar’s fancy saddle.
Hrothgar’s horsy gift is not unique within the Old English poetic corpus. The Battle of Maldon, a poem celebrating a lost battle against the Vikings (see: The Battle of Maldon: A Student Doodle Edition), also features an intriguing reference to equine gift giving. In the heat of battle, a man named Godric flees the field on his leader’s horse – a treacherous deed, made all the worse since Godric himself had been given various horses in the past:
Godric fram guþe, and þone godan forlet
þe him mænigne oft mear gesealde.
He gehleop þone eoh þe ahte his hlaford,
on þam gerædum, þe hit right ne wæs. (The Battle of Maldon, ll. 187-190)
[Godric went from the battle, and abandoned the good one, who had often given many a horse. He leaped upon the horse that his lord owned, into the trappings, although it was not just.]
The irony of the situation is clear: the lord had given his retainers horses in return for future loyalty in battle, but Godric, instead, stole away on his lord’s horse. As we shall see below, the gifting of horses was no mere poetic fancy: there are various examples of recorded equine gifts in Anglo-Saxon history.
Regifting a horse: How St Aidan looked King Oswine’s gift horse in the mouth
Perhaps the most famous example of an Anglo-Saxon gift horse was the horse given to St Aidan by King Oswine of Deira (d. 651). Aidan, impressed though he was with the gift, decided to regift the horse to a beggar. These events are recorded by Bede, in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People (731) as follows:
He [King Oswine] had given an extraordinarily fine horse to Bishop Aidan, which he might either use in crossing rivers, or in performing a journey upon any urgent necessity, though he was wont to travel ordinarily on foot. Some short time after, a poor man meeting him, and asking alms, he immediately dismounted, and ordered the horse, with all his royal furniture, to be given to the beggar; for he was very compassionate, a great friend to the poor, and, as is were, the father of the wretched.
When the king got wind of the matter, he lashed out against the bishop:
This being told to the king, when they were going in to dinner, he said to the bishop, “Why would you, my lord bishop, give the poor man that royal horse, which was necessary for your use? Had not we many other horses of less value, and of other sorts, which would have been good enough to give to the poor, and not to give that horse, which I had particularly chosen for yourself?” To whom the bishop instantly answered, “What is it you say, O king? Is that foal of a mare more dear to you than the Son of God?”
Clearly, the king was upset about Aidan regifting the royal horse to a beggar. Soon, however, the king realized his reaction was uncalled for – since the bishop had been given the horse, he was free to do with it whatever he liked:
Upon this they went in to dinner, and the bishop sat in his place; but the king, who was come from hunting, stood warming himself, with his attendants, at the fire. Then, on a sudden, whilst he was warming himself, calling to mind what the bishop had said to him, he ungirt his sword, and gave it to a servant, and in a hasty manner fell down at the bishop’s feet, beseeching him to forgive him; “For from this time forward,” said he, “I will never speak any more of this, nor will I judge of what, or how much of our money you shall give to the sons of God.” (source)
The king’s initial reaction to Aidan’s decision to pass on the royal horse to a beggar is understandable and is related to the anthropological concept of the “inalienability” of the gift. Marcel Mauss, in his famous essay on gift giving, describes this concept as follows: “[e]ven when it [the gift] has been abandoned by the giver, it still possesses something of him. Through it the giver has a hold over the beneficiary” (source). In other words, the horse in some way still belonged to the king and the fact that a beggar now used the royal horse was an affront to Oswine himself.
Horses for heirs: The evidence from Anglo-Saxon wills
Various wills and testaments feature bequests of horses. The Anglo-Saxon noblewoman Wynflæd, for instance, showered her grandchildren with gifts; these included not only her finest bedlinnen (!?) but also her tame horses (her will is discussed here: Digging for early medieval grandmothers in Anglo-Saxon wills). Another will that abounds in equine bequests belonged to Æthelstan Ætheling (d. 1014), who left a variety of horses (some of which had been given to him by others) to members of his family and household:
Ic geann minon fæder Æþelræde cynge […] þæs horses þe Þurbrand me geaf. 7 þæs hwitan horses þe Leofwine me geaf. […] Ic geann Ælfsige. bisceope. […] anne blacne stedan. […] Ic gean Ælfwine minon mæssepreoste […] mines horses mid minon gerædon. […] 7 Ic geann Ælmære minon discþene […] anes fagan stedan. […] Ic geann Siferðe þæs landes æt Hocganclife. 7 anes swurdes. 7 anes horses. 7 mines bohscyldes. […] 7 Ic geann […] minon heardeorhunton þæs stodes. þe is on Colungahrycge. (source)
[And I grant my father, King Æthelred … the horse which Thurbrand gave me, and the white horse which Leofwine gave me. … I grant Bishop Ælfsige … a black steed. To my mass-priest Ælfwine I grant … my horse with my trappings. … I grant to Ælmær, my ‘dish-thegn’ a fallow steed. …. I grant to Sigeferth the land at Hockliffe and a sword, and a horse and my ‘bow-shield’. … And I grant … to my stag-hunter the stud farm which is in Coldridge.]
Æthelstan’s stud farm, which he gives to his huntsman, suggests that some horses were bred locally. However, not all horses in Anglo-Saxon England were homegrown, as the last section of this blog post will demonstrate.
Shipping horses overseas in the days of King Athelstan
In 926, a Frankish embassy came to the court of King Athelstan(d. 939) to ask the king for the hand of the king’s half-sister Eadhild. The embassy, sent by Duke Hugh the Great, brought a variety of gifts to woo the Anglo-Saxon king, including (of course) horses:
The chief of this embassy was Adulph, son of Baldwin earl of Flanders by Ethelswitha daughter of king Edward. When he had declared the request of the suitor in an assembly of the nobility at Abingdon, he produced such liberal presents as might gratify the most boundless avarice: perfumes such as never had been seen in England before: jewels, but more especially emeralds, the greenness of which, reflected by the sun, illumined the countenances of the bystanders with agreeable light; many fleet horses with their trappings, and, as Virgil says, “Champing their golden bits”. (William of Malmesbury, Gesta regum anglorum – source)
Needless to say, the horses (and various other gifts, including the sword of Emperor Constantine and the spear of Charles the Great) convinced Æthelstan to give the proposed marriage his blessing.
Notably, Athelstan himself was not a fan of the international horse trade. He forbid the sending of English horses overseas. However, he made an exception for those who were shipped off as a gift, recording the following in one of his lawcodes:
Seofoðe þ[æt] nan man ne sylle nan hors ofer sæ butan he hit gifan wille.
[Seventh: that no man should send a horse over sea except if he wants to gift it.
Equine gifts, it seems, were sanctioned by law!
Whether as a royal present, a reward for heroism, a treasured heirloom or an impressive bride price, a horse was the perfect gift in early medieval England!
If you liked this blog post, follow this blog and/or check out the following posts:
- The Medieval in Middle-Earth: Horses!
- Half-assed humanoids: Centaurs in early medieval England
- Sitting down in early medieval England: A catalogue of Anglo-Saxon chairs
This post is the first in a series on the reception of the Old English poem Beowulf in the Netherlands. The post centres on a popular sketch about ‘fake news’, first performed in 1909, with the title ‘De geschiedenis van het broodje van Beowulf’ [The history of Beowulf’s sandwich]. Regrettably, the text of this sketch has been lost, but an attempt is made here to reconstruct it on the basis of scattered newspaper reviews.
Mr. A. W. Kamp (1879-1945): A performance artist at the start of the twentieth century
‘The history of Beowulf’s sandwich’ is first mentioned in 1909 as part of a playlist of a Dutch performance artist A. W. Kamp. Kamp performed the piece in various towns across The Netherlands between 1909 and 1917. In 1910, he even took his performance to the Dutch East Indies, where he performed at various ‘white societies’. The apparent author of the sketch was one ‘Max Speyer’, whom I have not been able to identify further. To date, it appears as if A. W. Kamp has been the only person to have performed the piece. Who was this perfomance artist?
Anthonij Willem Kamp was born on 2 februari 1879 and received a law degree from the University of Leiden. He later worked as a lawyer and journalist. He had a love for poetry and, in addition to translating various works from English, French and German (including pieces by Shakespeare, Goethe and Voltaire) into Dutch, he wrote his own songs and sketches. Kamp appears to have enjoyed some popularity in his own days, even though he is no longer well-known today. The following words of wisdom attributed to Kamp by a Dutch quotation website suggest he was primarily a humorist: “Humour desires to temper the tragedy of life.”
Indeed, newspaper reports on ‘The history of Beowulf’s sandwich’ praise Kamp as a comic performer. One advert for Kamp’s performance guarantees “a great laughter-success” (Haagsche courant, 30-12-1916), while many reviewers praise his command of voice, mimicry and funny accents:
In the field of performance, he is like a caricature-artist in the world of painting. He performs with his voice, his posture, his flexible face, almost like a mad man. But at all times that which he provides remains recognisably the silliness that he has found in the everyday doings of human beings, which he so goofily exaggerates that the audience blurts with laughter. (Middelburgsche courant, 11-02-1909)
‘Beowulf’s sandwich’, in particular, was reviewed favourably as “a most entertaining piece” (Amersfoortsch Dagblad, 12-03-1913).
The history of Beowulf’s sandwich: A reconstruction
The text of ‘The history of Beowulf’s sandwich’ has not survived, but, on the basis of five relatively detailed newspaper reviews (1, 2, 3, 4, 5), it is possible to give a rough reconstruction of the contents of the sketch.
Act I: How it really happened
The young prince Beowulf is brought to school by his father’s master of arms. Along the way, he loses his sandwich, which ends up in the mud. A hungry girl brushes off the dirt with her skirt and eats it. This is the only fact in the sandwich’s whole history, the rest is fantasy, made up by various individuals who recount the story in different ways and contexts.
Act II: The history of the sandwich in the Provincial Newspaper of Krussa, the favourite magazine of Berengarius XIX
A sensationalist reporter for this court magazine paints a grand image of the scene: the generous prince Beowulf gracefully feeds the poor with his goose liver pie.
Act III: The history of the sandwich in the social-democratic magazine ‘The Scorpion’
A labourer, speaking with a thick rural accent, retells the story as an example of the unjustifiable gap between the elite and the lower classes, who are forced to eat the elite’s mud-covered scraps.
Act IV: How cardinal Vaporetto recounts the history of the sandwich in the acts of the canonization of Beowulf
Taking on the guise of a whiny old cardinal, Kamp relates the ‘Miracle of the Holy Beowulf!’. No doubt, the sandwich here acted as a miraculous relic. During one performance, the audience reacted so enthusiastically to this bit, that Kamp himself burst out laughing himself.
Act V: The history of the sandwich in the catalogue (no. 480) of the National Beowulf Museum
The crust of Beowulf’s sandwich ultimately ends up as a curiosity in the National Beowulf Museum. The curator praises the crust as a most important piece of evidence for the history of nutrition.
Act VI: A historical-critical research into no. 480 of the catalogue
A historian painstakingly questions the authenticity of the crust of Beowulf’s sandwich on the basis of thorough research of the ways flour was processed in the early Middle Ages.
As one contemporary reviewer put it, ‘The history of Beowulf’s sandwich’ is “a wonderful satire on the unreliability of tradition and the exaggeration of reports and the pedantry of scholars” (Nieuwsblad van Friesland, 06-10-1909). Today, we might associate the various partisan and biased reports of Beowulf’s sandwich as examples of ‘fake news’.
“Beowulf’s sandwich” as an idiomatic expression for ‘fake news’
For as far as we can trace, the phrase “Beowulf’s sandwich” was used only once without an explicit mention of Kamp’s performance. On 14 April 1910, it was used in a letter to the editor of Het nieuws van den dag voor Nederlandsch-Indie [The News of the Day for the Dutch East Indies] in order to complain about an exaggerated news report on the active volcano Tangkuban Perahu (Java):
Mister Phyto writes to us:
The description of the activity of the Tangkuban Perahu has by some newspaper correspondents been made into a repetition of ‘Beowulf’s sandwich’. They have looked for an effect in foolish exaggeration.
According to the letter writer, reports on the volcano’s being covered in one and a half meters of ash due to a destructive eruption that destroyed all nearby flowers were nothing but a pack of lies: the ash didn’t even come up to 15 centimeters and there had never been flowers in the first place. The use of the phrase “Beowulf’s sandwich” to classify this exaggerated report is intriguing and may be attributed to Kamp’s performances in the Dutch East Indies earlier that year – apparently the sketch had made quite an impression and the letter writer assumed his readers to be familiar with the phrase. Regrettably, this idiomatic expression for ‘false or exaggerated reporting’ did not stick – but it is never too late for a comeback: Make fake news Beowulf’s sandwich again!
If you liked this blog post, you may also enjoy:
- Spoiling the Mystery: Grendel in Beowulf Movies
- “A conspicuous specimen of Anglosaxon poetry”: A student summary of Beowulf from 1880
- Beowulf vs the Dragon: A Student Doodle Edition
© Thijs Porck and Dutch Anglo-Saxonist Blog, 2018. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thijs Porck and Dutch Anglo-Saxonist Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.
For a bonus question on one of my Old English literature exams, my students used their artistic talents to draw their own rendition of Grendel’s mother from the Old English poem Beowulf. Together, these doodles give a neat overview of how Beowulf criticism has approached this feminine ‘monster’ and what my students have remembered of the poem.
i) Grendel’s mother: An enigmatic being
Of the three main foes of Beowulf in the poem, Grendel’s mother is perhaps the most enigmatic. Scholars have long since debated what to make of this “brimwylf” [sea-she-wolf] Beowulf, ll. 1508, 1601), living in an underwater-hall. She is presented as monstrously violent, but her actions are motivated by a completely understandable (and human?) desire to avenge the death of her son. Is she a monster or a human?These drawings by my students clearly demonstrate this complex ambiguity, ranging as they do from catlike, beastly mothers to fair-haired dinosaurs, through to a green-scaled woman in a dress:
ii) Grendel’s mother enters the scene: A woman on a mission
Grendel’s mother makes her appearance halfway through the Old English poem. The poet has just recounted how Beowulf has defeated the monster Grendel by ripping off its arm. This arm is hung underneath the roof of the great hall Heorot as a sign of Beowulf’s victory and there is much rejoicing. King Hrothgar gives a lavish feast and, that night, the Danes fall asleep, confident that the monster Grendel no longer poses a threat. Enter Grendel’s mother, hell-bent on revenge:
She trashes the Danish slumber party in Heorot, grabs hold of Æschere, King Hrothgar’s “best friend”, and then returns to her underwater hall.
According to some critics (and students), there is a particular ‘poetic justice’ about the fact that Grendel’s mother takes Hrothgar’s ‘right-hand man’ in retribution for Grendel’s ripped-off arm:
iii) A mother in her mere
The next morning, Hrothgar wakes up to the news that his friend Æschere has been killed and, spurred into action by Beowulf, he leads a troop to Grendel’s mere. Grendel’s mother, we are told, had ruled this place for fifty years.
This eery pond is inhabited by strange monstrous creatures and none but Beowulf himself dares enter it. He swims down to Grendel’s mother’s underwater lair and soon finds out that his sword Hrunting is useless. Luckily, Beowulf finds a giant sword and manages to kill his female foe. Beowulf next finds the body of Grendel and decapitates it, turning the mere red with blood. The Danes see the blood and think Beowulf has lost, but the “faithful Geats remain in the neighbourhood waiting for Beowulf to emerge”:
iv) Grendel’s mother: An exotic monster?
As noted above, Grendel’s mother is often interpreted as a monster. How else could she live in an underwater lair and pose a threat to the strong hero Beowulf? Surely, she must have had sharp teeth, claws, webbed hands, flipper feet, “light eyes to see under water” and “biceps because she’s strong”:
Another student imagines a monster of another kind, one with a beard [the reference to the ‘Wonders of the East’ is to another text in the Beowulf manuscript, see The Marvels of the East: An early medieval Pokédex]:
Yet another student thought Grendel’s mother may have hailed from Eastern Europe and was distressed because it could no longer feed its son a bowl of borscht:
v) Grendel’s mother as a human woman
Some critics (and students) downplay the idea of Grendel’s mother as a monster. Their main argument revolves around the interpretation of the phrase “ides, aglæcwif” Beowulf, l. 1259a), used for Grendel’s mother. This phrase has been rendered rather negatively in some Beowulf translations, ranging from “wretch, or monster of a woman” (Klæber), to “monstrous hell bride” (Heaney), “monster-woman” (Chickering) and even “ugly troll lady” (Trask). These rather monstrous descriptions of Grendel’s mother are problematic: the word “ides” means ‘lady’ and is used in the poem to refer to queens, including Wealhtheow (wife of Hrothgar, king of the Danes); the first part of “aglæcwif” is indeed used of the monster Grendel and the dragon (both called “aglæca”), but it is also used of Beowulf and another human hero, Sigemund. Since there is no indication for calling Beowulf ‘ugly troll’, ‘monstrous’ or ‘monster’, it seems strange to give the word a negative meaning when it refers to Grendel’s mother. Hence, the word “aglæc” may be best rendered as ‘opponent, adversary’. The following student certainly remembered that bit:
The next student, too, sees Grendel’s mother as “not a monster, just a sad woman”:
Æschere’s bloody head on a pole is a nice touch. In an article I recently co-authored, we argue that Æschere’s head was indeed used as a boundary marker (see: Thijs Porck & Sander Stolk, ‘Marking Boundaries in Beowulf: Æschere’s Head, Grendel’s Arm and the Dragon’s Corpse’).
The following student blamed Grendel’s mother’s misfortune on her ugly baby:
vi) The Jolie-i-fication of Grendel’s mother
Beowulf has been brought to the big screen many times and these cinematic adaptations have certainly influenced how we visualise the monsters of this poem (I wrote about this here: Spoiling the Mystery: Grendel in Beowulf Movies). One of the most memorable depictions of Grendel’s mother was the 3D animation of Angelina Jolie in the 2007 film Beowulf. The Jolie-i-fication of Grendel’s mother is captured beautifully by this student’s drawing:
vii) The Pietà of Grendelangelo
The last student drawing is something special. It is not an exam doodle, but a ‘commissioned piece of art’. I asked Jolene Witkam, a student who wrote an excellent BA thesis about Grendel’s mother’s human nature ánd a skilled artist, to draw Grendel’s mother and Grendel in the poses of Mary and Christ of Michelangelo’s famous Pietà statue. The endresult, you will agree, is absolutely stunning:
If you liked this blog post, you may also enjoy other student doodle editions:
- The Battle of Maldon: A Student Doodle Edition
- Beowulf vs the Dragon: A Student Doodle Edition
- The Old English Judith: A Student Doodle Edition
“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” (H.P. Lovecraft, Supernatural Horror in Literature). The secret to any, successful scary monster story is to keep your monsters clouded in mystery; a secret that was known to the Beowulf poet, but sadly lost on modern movie makers.
Grendel goes to Heorot
Grendel is one of the three monsters that feature in the Old English poem Beowulf. We are introduced to Grendel as an “ellengæst” [bold spirit] (l. 86a) who has spent the last twelve years harassing the hall of the Danish king Hrothgar, devouring anyone who spent the night there. A Geatish hero, Beowulf, arrives to save the day. After a long battle, Beowulf rips off Grendel’s arm and the monster, mortally wounded, returns to his home in the swamp and dies.
A troll, a giant, a monstrous man or a bipedal dragon; what exactly is Grendel? The nature of Grendel is a matter of scholarly debate and the various solutions offered depend, mostly, on circumstantial evidence. The poem itself reveals very little about the monster; at one point, Beowulf himself confesses that Grendel is “sceaðona ic nat hwylc” [an enemy, I do not know what kind] (l. 274b). Throughout the poem, Grendel is described by generic terms, such as “grimma gæst” [grim spirit] (l. 102), “feond mancynnes” [enemy of mankind] (l. 164b) and “manscaða” [vile ravager] (l. 712a), and his physical description leaves much to be desired. At first, we only learn that “him of eagum stod ligge gelicost leoht unfæger” [from his eyes issued a distorted light, most like a flame] (l. 727b), that he drinks human blood and eats their bodies whole. It is only after Grendel is defeated that we learn a little more about him. The Danes report that he was wretchedly shaped like a man and very large:
hie gesawon swylce twegen
micle mearcstapan moras healdan,
ellorgæstas. ðæra oðer wæs,
þæs þe hie gewislicost gewitan meahton,
idese onlicnæs; oðer earmsceapen
on weres wæstmum wræclastas træd,
næfne he wæs mara þonne ænig man oðer;
þone on geardagum Grendel nemdon
foldbuende. No hie fæder cunnon (ll. 1347-1355)
[they had seen two such big boundary-steppers holding the moors, bold spirits. One f them was, as they were most certainly able to discern, in the likeness of a lady; the other was wretchedly shaped in the forms of a man, he trod in the exile’s tracks, but he was bigger than any other man; people called him grendel in the days of yore. They did not know his father.
Whatever kind of monster Grendel may be, what becomes clear from the poem is that Grendel is the ultimate ‘Other’. While the Danes enjoy life in a lighted hall, revelling in songs and enjoying each other’s company, Grendel dwells in a dark swamp, he does not speak and he lives the life of an exile, alone with his mother. Even Grendel’s parentage is obscured: whereas the Beowulf poet, rather annoyingly, mentions the father of every other Tom, Dick and Harry in the poem, we never find out who Grendel’s father is. We do learn that Grendel and his mother are descendants of Cain, just like “eotenas ond ylfe ond orcneas, swylce gigantas” [ogres, elves, orcs and also giants] (ll. 112-113a).
In short, Grendel is a mystery monster, unknown and different. The Beowulf poet must have realised that the omission of descriptive details was an effective narrative method which would stimulate his audience to participate actively with his story. The vague description of his monster allowed his audience to imagine its own nightmare being.
Grendel goes to Hollywood
Beowulf has been brought to the big screen on six occasions (Not counting the Beowulf-inspired TV episodes of Animated Epics, Star Trek and Xena: Warrior Princess; and happily ignoring the rather licentious adaptations in the Sci-Fi-Channel television film Grendel (2007) and the ITV Series Beowulf: Return to the Shield Lands). Each movie has solved the Grendel mystery in its own, unique way.
In Grendel, Grendel, Grendel (1981), an animated musical, Grendel is depicted as a slightly depressed green crocodile or, possibly, a dragon without wings. The film Beowulf (1999) features Christopher Lambert as Beowulf who battles Grendel, a muddy ogre of sorts, in a ‘post-apocalyptic techno-feudal future’. In The 13th Warrior (1999), the Viking hero Buliwyf takes on the Wendol, a group of bearskin wearing wildlings. Beowulf & Grendel (2005) depicts Grendel as an oversized, hairy human, who hits himself with rocks until his forehead bleeds. In the 3D animation Beowulf (2007), Grendel is “a hideously disfigured troll-like creature with superhuman strength”. Finally, in the movie Outlander (2008), Kainan (a man from another planet) crashes his spaceship in an eighth-century Norwegian lake and, accidentally brings along an alien, known as the Moorwen. The Moorwen takes on the role of Grendel and is best described as a fluorescent, reptile-like tiger with various tentacles at the end of its tail.
Sympathy for the devil: Feeling sorry for Grendel
Aside from making the monster’s appearance explicit, some movies also try to make their audience sympathize for the creature by adding motives for his vicious attacks on the Danes. In Grendel, Grendel, Grendel, the monster is a misunderstood intellectual that wants to be friends with the buffoonish Danes, who shun him for his monstrous appearance. Beowulf & Grendel opens with a scene where the young Grendel (a bearded baby!) witnesses the murder of his father by the Danish king. In Outlander, we learn that the Moorwen is only trying to avenge Kainan for having tried to colonize its home planet.
Who’s your daddy? Solving Grendel’s parentage
The films Beowulf (1999) and Beowulf (2007) go one step further and even solve the problem of Grendel’s parentage: Grendel turns out to be the monstrous offspring of Hrothgar, the king of the Danes. His vicious attacks on Hrothgar’s hall thus become payback for a fatherless childhood. Far removed from the original poem, the only advantage of this approach appears to be the casting of a physically attractive actress for the role of Grendel’s mother. While the poem describes her as a “brimwylf” [sea-wolf] (l. 1506a) and an “aglaecwif” [opponent-woman] (l.1259a), the 1999 film featured Layla Roberts, a former playmate (who, in one scene, erotically licks Hrothgar’s nose!), and a 3D animation of Angelina Jolie (naked, covered in gold, with a tail!) was one of the ‘unique selling points’ of the 2007 film.
To conclude, none of these movies can be seen as a faithful adaptation of Beowulf and some have argued that film is an unsuited medium for the early medieval epic poem. As long as modern movie makers feel that they need to produce stunning visual effects, to create a sense of sympathy for the ‘bad guy’ and to include steamy bedroom scenes to please their modern audience, this certainly seems to be the case. Unlike the Old English poem, none of these movies can be called a huge success in terms of cultural impact and popularity. When it comes to effective storytelling, there is still a lot we can learn from the literature produced over a thousand years ago.
If you liked this blog, you may also enjoy:
- Beowulf vs the Dragon: A Student Doodle Edition
- “A conspicuous specimen of Anglosaxon poetry”: A student summary of Beowulf from 1880
- Big-Boned Hero Mentioned in Beowulf on Display in Dutch Town Oegstgeest?
- The Freoðuwebbe and the Freswael: A Comic Strip Reconstruction of the Finnsburg Fragment and Episode
In the second episode of series two of The Last Kingdom, a row of decapitated heads has been placed outside the main gate of Dunholm/Durham. As this blog post will illustrate, this practice, barbaric though it seems, is well attested for Anglo-Saxon England.
Historical examples: Saint Oswald and the real Uhtred
Perhaps the best-known example of decapitation and impalement was that of Saint Oswald of Northumbria (d. 642). After Oswald had been defeated by the pagan King Penda of Mercia, Penda had Oswald’s head and arms cut off. Penda then had these body parts put on stakes, until Oswald’s brother Oswy retrieved them, a year after the battle. Later, Oswald’s head was likely buried in the tomb of Saint Cuthbert (about whom, see: Splitting Anglo-Saxon Hairs: Cuthbert’s Comb) which ended up in Durham, where it still remains today. Intriguingly, aside from Durham Cathedral, four other institutions today claim to have the skull of Saint Oswald (Bailey 1995), including Hildesheim Cathedral which houses a beautiful twelfth-century head reliquary depicting the head of Oswald (see image below).
The display of decapitated heads did not die out with the arrival of Christianity. In the De Obsessione Dunelmi, a Latin historical work from around 1100, we are told of a siege of Durham by the Scots in the early eleventh century. Luckily for Durham, their bishop Ealdun’s daughter had been married to Uhtred (d. 1016), son of the earl of Northumbria and the inspiration for Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Stories series upon which BBC’s The Last Kingdom is based. This Uhtred came to Durham’s aid and massacred the Scottish host and had the Scots decapitated. Uhtred then sent for the most attractive heads to be brought to Durham:
The heads of the slain, made more presentable with their hair combed, as was the custom in those days, he had transported to Durham, and they were washed by four women and fixed on stakes around the circuit of the walls. The women who had previously washed them were each rewarded with a single cow. (cited in Thompson 2004: 193)
Aside from the intriguing reward of a cow for washing a dead man’s head, this episode in the De Obsessione Dunelmi reveals that the display of decapitated heads remained common (customary even) until the eleventh century, at least.
Heafod stoccan in Anglo-Saxon charters
Anglo-Saxon charters often contained vernacular boundary clauses which described the areas under discussion. Within these boundary clauses, the term heafod stocc ‘head stake’ is frequently attested, suggesting that it was common practice to mark the limits of estate properties with impaled heads. Various charters locate such head stakes in the vicinity of a road: e.g., “æfter foss to þam heafod stoccan” [after the way to the head stakes] (S 115); “of heafod stocca andlang stræt” [from the head stakes along the street] (S 309); and “7lang stret to þam heafod stoccan” [along the street to the head stakes] (S 695). These examples suggest that these head stakes would have been visible for people travelling from and towards locations, possibly along main access roads. Given their use as boundary markers in surviving Anglo-Saxon charters, these head stakes must have been a permanent as well as salient feature in the landscape. The existence of head stakes is supported by archaeological evidence, which also locates execution sites at the boundaries of estates (see Reynolds 2009: 169). Just like the heads of criminals spiked on the walls of old London Bridge, the purpose of these head stakes must have been to not only mark the boundaries of an estate, but also to warn potential transgressors against the consequences of wrongdoings.
An inspiration for Anglo-Saxon authors and artists
The spectacle of decapitating an enemy’s head and putting it on display proved inspirational for various Anglo-Saxon authors and at least one artist. The Beowulf poet, for instance, has Beowulf and his men parade Grendel’s head on a stake towards Heorot: “feower scoldon / on þæm wælstenge weorcum geferian / to þæm goldsele Grendles heafod / oþ ðæt semninga to sele comon” [four had to carry Grendel’s head with hardships to the gold-hall on a battle-pole, until they came to the hall] (Beowulf, ll. 1637b-1639). Here, Grendel’s head functions as a trophy, a sign of Beowulf’s heroic triumph.
A rare visual depiction of a decapitated and impaled head is found in the Old English Hexateuch (British Library, Cotton Claudius B.iv) an eleventh-century, illustrated translation from the Latin Vulgate of the first six books of the Old Testament (see: The Illustrated Old English Hexateuch: An early medieval picture book). In his depiction of Genesis 8:7 (‘And he sent forth a raven, which went forth to and fro, until the waters were dried up from off the earth.’), the artist of the Hexateuch deviated from the biblical text and depicted a raven pecking at a head, impaled on Noah’s ark (see below). It has been suggested that the artist was drawing on his own creativity here, given the fact that there is no iconological tradition that depicts Noah’s raven in this way (Gatch 1975: 11). Perhaps, the Anglo-Saxon artist was so familiar with the practices of decapitation and impalement that he could think of no better way to depict God’s wrath!
If you liked this post, you may also enjoy other blog posts on The Last Kingdom or Anglo-Saxon decapitations:
- Chop chop! Three bizarre beheadings in Anglo-Saxon England
- An Anglo-Saxon Anecdote: How a peasant beheaded himself
- Arseling: A Word Coined by Alfred the Great?
- Anglo-Saxon props: Three TV series and films that use early medieval objects
Works refered to:
- Bailey, Richard N., “St Oswald’s Heads,” in Oswald: Northumbrian King to European Saint, ed. C. Stancliffe and E. Cambridge. 195-209. Stamford: Paul Watkins, 1995.
- Gatch, Milton McC., “Noah’s Raven in Genesis A and the Illustrated Old English Hexateuch”, Gesta 14:2 (1975), pp. 3-15
- Reynolds, Andrew, Anglo-Saxon Deviant Burial Customs. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.
- Thompson, Victoria. Dying and Death in Later Anglo-Saxon England. Woodbridge: Boydell, 2004.
At the end of the nineteenth century, Dutch schoolmaster G. J. P. J. Bolland studied older Germanic languages with a particular interest in Old English. He studied under Eduard Sievers in Jena, Germany, and spend close to a year in England, where he interacted with prominent scholars of Old English, such as Richard Morris and Henry Sweet. On the basis of his studies, Bolland tried to write a chronological survey of English literature for the use in Dutch class rooms. While the work would never be published, his hand-written drafts are of interest, since they may contain one of the earliest student summaries of Beowulf…
Bolland and Beowulf: Inglorious youths
When Beowulf returns home to Geatland and is rewarded for his deeds in Denmark, the Anglo-Saxon poet remarks the following about his hero’s inglorious youth:
Hean wæs lange,
swa hyne Geata bearn godne ne tealdon,
ne hyne on medo-bence micles wyrðne
dryhten Wedera gedon wolde;
swyðe wendon þæt he sleac wære,
[For a long time he (Beowulf) had been lowly, as the sons of the Geats had not thought him good, nor had the lord of the Weders cared to put him in possession of much on the mead-bench; they had rather thought that he was shiftless, a slack lordling.] (Beowulf, ll. 2183b-2188a, ed. and trans. Fulk 2010)
The younger years of G. J. P. J. Bolland (9 June, 1854 – 11 February, 1922) were equally devoid of promise. Born to a family of peddlers in Groningen, Bolland lost his father at a young age, which forced his mother to make a living as a prostitute. As a boy of 14 or 15 years old and having enjoyed little education, he joined the army in 1868. Bolland proved to be a problematic recruit: he was convicted for cursing and foul language on several occasions, as well as for singing illicit songs. In May 1872, he spent half a month in jail, because he had sold his underpants and lied about this to his commanding officer. In January the next year, he physically assaulted a high-ranking sergeant and was convicted for insubordination: the Groningen-born Bolland would spend the next three years in a Leiden jail-house.
His jail-time in Leiden proved to be a turn-around in Bolland’s life: he began reading books and, following his release from prison, studied hard to become a teacher. As a schoolmaster, first in Groningen, then in Katwijk, Bolland became interested in the study of older languages (Gothic, Old English, Old High German) – his Katwijk students called him ‘Meester Sanskretans’, because he would occassionally teach them about Sanskrit!
Bolland got acquainted with P. J. Cosijn (1840-1899), Professor of Germanic philology at Leiden University and a specialist in the field of Old English. Under Cosijn’s guidance (as well as his financial support), Bolland continued his studies of Old English. He spent close to a year in London and a brief period in Jena, Germany, developing his expertise. Bolland showed great promise as a Germanic philologist, but a series of events led to his departure for Batavia, where he became a teacher once more. Upon his return to The Netherlands in 1896, Bolland was made a professor of Philosophy at Leiden University and he would never return to the study of Old Germanic languages. For the next twenty-five years, Bolland would be one of Holland’s most prominent and influential philosophers (the standard biography of Bolland is Otterspeer 1995). Quite a reversal of fortunes! Or, in the words of the Beowulf poet:
tir-eadigum menn torna gehwylces
[A reversal of fortune for all his troubles came to the man blessed with glory.] (Beowulf, ll. 2188b-2189, ed. and trans. Fulk 2010)
Bolland and Moritz Heyne’s Beovulf
Despite being an autodidact student and the absence of Dutch translations of Beowulf (the first one appeared in 1896), Bolland was a serious and highly critical reader of the Old English poem. He owned several editions of Beowulf, which included those by Alfred Holder (1882-1884) and Benjamin Thorpe (2nd edn., 1875); of the latter he wrote to Cosijn “I will show you that I have every reason to despise Thorpe’s horrible edition of Beowulf“, pointing out several of misprints in the Old English text. Bolland’s Beowulf edition of choice appears to have been the one by Moritz Heyne, Beovulf: Angelsächsisches Heldengedicht (3d imprint, 1873), which according to Niles (2015) “was long admired as the most authoritative edition of Beowulf” (p. 245).
Bolland’s own copy was donated to the University Library of Leiden and features ample hand-written notes in Bolland’s hand (see image below). These notes reveal that Bolland added Dutch glosses to many of the words, grammatical analyses (providing case and number for nouns, etc.) as well as interpretations (noting, for instance, that “se fróda fäder Óhteres” [Beowulf, l. 2929] referred to Ongentheow). He was also able to add five corrigenda to Moritz’s list of “bemerkte Druckfehler im Texte” [noticed printing-errors in the text], probably on the basis of other editions. A thoughtful and diligent reader, indeed!
“A conspicuous specimen of Anglosaxon poetry”: Beowulf in Bolland’s ‘Early English Literature’
Upon returning from his studies in London in 1880, Bolland wrote to a friend about the possibilities of publishing “A short Chronological List of English Literature, with analyses and explanatory notes, being intended as a help for the memory of all who teach or study English literature”. Regrettably for Bolland, this late nineteenth-century version of SparkNotes was never published. Two hand-written drafts related to this work have survived, however, and are currently held at Leiden University Library.
The first draft is found in a little student notebook with the title ‘Early English Literature’. In this notebook, two essays, on Old English Literature and Transitional English [Middle English], precede a brief survey entitled “Landmarks for a chronological survey of Literature in North-America”; lists of English expressions and proverbs; and a chronological overview of Arthurian literature. The essay on Old English features a brief analysis of Beowulf:
A conspicuous specimen of Anglosaxon poetry is the epic poem of Beowulf, which consists of far more than three thousand lines. It is the oldest extant epic in any Germanic language and strongly tastes of ancient heathenism, in spite of a few traces of Christianity, which may be later interpolations. Its hero sails from a land of the Goths to a land of the Danes, where he frees a chief of the names of Hrôthgar from the attacks of the marshfiends Grendel and his mother, two monsters lurking in neighbouring fens and moors. In course of time Beowulf comes to be a ruler himself, and in this capacity is deadly wounded at last in a struggle with a fire-spitting dragon that had infested the environs of his residence. He is buried in great statue under a great barrow on a promontory which rises high above the sea.
This fine, brief summary of Beowulf, is followed by an evaluation of the historical value of the poem, which lies in its depiction of “actual life of ancient Germanic leaders”:
Real events have been transformed into legendary marvels in this story of old Teutonic exploits, but the actual life of ancient Germanic leaders is vividly painted. We read of feasts in the mead-hall, of the leader and his hearth-sharers, of their customs and manners, and of rude beginnings of a courtly ceremony. There is much boastful talk and reliance upon strength of hand in the poem, and a practical spirit of adventure that seeks peril as a commercial speculation. For the hero is undisguisedly a tradesman in his sword.
Following Daniel Haigh (1819-1879) (for which, see Shippey & Haarder 1998, pp. 315-317), Bolland then situates the scenery of Beowulf in Yorkshire:
The original scene of the story was probable a corner of the isle of Saeland opposite to Gothland, but though England is never mentioned it seems that the scenery for its existing English shape as taken from the coast of Yorkshire, between Whitby and Bowlby Cliff.
Next, Bolland rounds up his analysis with a few words about the Beowulf manuscript (London, British Library, Cotton Vitellius A.xv):
The manuscript in which the poem has been preserved belongs to the Cottonian library in the British Museum and is held to have been written in the tenth century. It has been much damaged in course of time and shows many gaps; especially the 32d, the 33d, and the 44th or last canto have come down to us in a fragmentary state.
Bolland, obviously, had nothing new to add to the scholarship of Beowulf, but it is interesting to see that he gave the poem such a prominent place in his survey – the analysis of Beowulf precedes his discussion of Caedmon, for instance.
Bolland’s summary of Beowulf in A short Chronological List of English Literature (1880)
Bolland’s hand-written version of A short Chronological List of English Literature (1880) expands over 400 pages and features a chronological list of landmark publications, interspersed with summaries of well-known works, such as Milton’s Paradise Lost, Spencer’s Faerie Queene and Thomas More’s Utopia. For the Anglo-Saxon period, Bolland dwells at length on Beowulf, providing a 5-page summary. I provide his full text below (with added white lines for legibility):
Hrôdhgâr, a Danish King and descendant of Scild Scefing, the mighty warrior, causes a grand hall to be built, to which he gives the name of Heorot. This hall is soon made a scene of slaugter by the mighty attacks of Grendel, a fiendish being, that lives in gloomy marshes and carries off at one time no less than thirty thanes, whom he devours in his retreat. These dreadful visitations continue for a period of twelve years. Intelligence of this calamity having reached Bêowulf, the valiant son of Ecgthêow and a nephew to Hygelâc the King of the Geats, he sets out to rid the Danes of the monster. In company with fifteen other warriors he sails from home. When reaching Hrôdhgâr’s realm he is desired by an outpost standing on the extreme point of the land to give his name and tell the reason of his coming. After a parley Bêowulf and his companions are brought before Hrôdhgâr, who recapitulates all that he has suffered from Grendel; all then sit down to drink. During their potations Hunferth, a quarrelsome and envious courtier, taunts Bêowulf on the subject of a swimming match between the latter and Breca, prince of the Brontings. Bêowulf however retorts effectually and related the perils he underwent at the bottom of the sea in his struggles with the nickers. Wealhthêow, Hrôdhgâr’s queen, then stepping in, presents the mead-cup to the guests; after a while she and her consort retire to rest, leaving Bêowulf & his companions in the hall.
Whilst the other warriors are snoring Bêowulf awaits the coming of Grendel. At last the latter suddenly appears and gets hold of a sleeping warrior whom he devours. He then is caught by Bêowulf, whose companions run to his assistance; but they find that the monster’s carcass is proof against their weapons. Bêowulf, however, grasps him & tears his arm from his shoulder; so mutilated Grendel succedes in escaping to his fen-dwelling. All the people are eager to behold Grendel’s hand & arm; the praises of Bêowulf are sung and one of the King’s thanes recites the heroic deeds of Sigemund Waelsing & Fitela his son & nephew. After this a horse race is held. Heorot is restored to its former splendour and at a great feast Bêowulf & his companions are munificently rewarded for their services. A glee-man having sung some heroic deeds Bêowulf is presented with a rich dress & golden collar.
When the warriors have betaken themselves to sleep Grendel’s mother, bent on vengeance for her dead son, enters the hall; the warriors rousing themselves she hastens back, not however without taking with her Aeschere, an old friend of Hrôdghâr’s. When hearing of this new disaster Beowulf courageously resolves to attack the monsters in their own retreat, and accompanied by Hrôdhgâr he sets out on an exploring expedition towards the marshes. On their way they find Aesc-here’s head lying on the bank of a lake. Notwithstanding its horrid aspect and the monstrous beings it contains, Bêowulf makes up his mind for a descent, armed as he is with a famous sword named Hrunting, lent him by Hunferth. Having plunged into the water he encounters Grendel’s mother, and an awful struggle ensues. After an anxious suspense Hrodhgâr sees the brave Gêat reappear a victor, with Grendel’s head for a trophy, which is borne before Bêowulf in triumph. Bêowulf presents Hrôdhgâr with the hilt of a magic sword found by him in the sub-marine cave; the blade of this goodly weapon melted away when he slew the witch, through the heat and venom of her blood. The monsters now being destroyed once for all, the Danish King & Beowulf take leave of each other. Richly endowed with presents Bêowulf and his warriors return home. They find a welcome reception, and Bêowulf relates his story to Hygelâc, his kinsman.
By a series of subsequent events Bêowulf becomes the successor on the throne of the Gêats; in the latter part of his reign a dragon begins to sorely invest the neighbourhood of the residence. This monster is the keeper of a treasure hid in a mound and laid down there by some prince in by-gone days. He has been enraged by the theft committed by a subject of Bêo-wulf’s, who, having to meet the demands of his master, has ventured in his despair to invade the spell-bound cave. The dragon begins to vomit forth glowing embers and devastates the whole neighborhood. If the dreadful foe is not to lay waste every particle of land the old king must make an effort to overcome him. Bêowulf accordingly prepares for the conflict. In the ensuing struggle the old hero is reduced to great straits; valiantly the noble Wiglaf, his kinsman comes to his help, notwithstanding the cowardice of the followers of the King, who seized by a panic, have fled to a wood.
The fight continues; Bêowulf’s sword, Naegling, snaps asunder and the dragon clutches the aged hero in his talons. Wiglâf having wounded the dragon, Bêowulf draws his knife with which he puts an end to the struggle by cutting the monster through the middle. But though a victor now he feels his own death too to be at hand, the dragon having infused his venom into his veins. Sitting on a stone he bids Wiglâf go and bring the treasure from the cave, that, having looked at it, he may die in peace. Coming back from this mission Wiglâf finds his lord dying; and Bêowulf breathes his last after having given his faithful kinsman his directions for the funeral. Bitterly are the king’s men reproached by Wiglaf having left their prince in the lurch at the time of his need, after having received so many favors at his hands. The funeral pile is constructed according to the wishes of the dying king, and a mound is erected in Hrones-naes as a token of remembrance, that the sailors who will afterwards pass by it, call it Bêowulf’s mount.
His incorrect notion that the dragon clutches Beowulf in its talons and infuses him with its venom notwithstanding (the dragon fatally bites Beowulf in the neck), Bolland provides an accurate and fairly detailed summary of Beowulf. The text holds few surprises for readers who are familiar with the poem, but it is as useful today as it would have been in the 1880s. Bolland’s interesting use of slightly archaic and highly idiomatic English is noteworthy – not bad for a Dutch autodidact student, who spent the first twenty-five years of his life in the gutter of Groningen and a Leiden jailhouse!
This is the third in a series of blogs related to my research project “My former Germanicist me”: G. J. P. J. Bolland (1854-1922) as an Amateur Old Germanicist , which explores how a Dutch student at the end of the nineteenth century tried to master Old English. Other blog posts include:
- Henry Sweet: The Man Who Taught the World Old English
- Benjamin Thorpe: The Man Who Translated Almost All Old English Texts
Works referred to:
- R. D. Fulk, ed. and trans., The Beowulf Manuscript. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010.
- John D. Niles, The Idea of Anglo-Saxon England 1066-1901: Remembering, Forgetting, Deciphering, and Renewing the Past, Malden: Wiley-Blackwell, 2015.
- Willem Otterspeer, Bolland: Een biografie, Amsterdam: Bert Bakker, 1995.
- T. A. Shippey and Andreas Haarder, Beowulf: The Critical Heritage, London: Routledge, 1998.
Not much is known about Benjamin Thorpe (1782-1870), yet he was one of the first scholars to publish voluminous editions and translations of Old English texts. This blog provides an overview of Thorpe’s works on Anglo-Saxon texts and also reveals how his reputation was almost ruined because of faulty reprints of his Beowulf edition.
Benjamin Thorpe: A demanding stepfather and a humble translator
Little is known about the background and youth of Benjamin Thorpe; his entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography notes that he “is of obscure origins” (Seccombe 2014). In 1826, at the age of forty-four, Thorpe studied early English antiquities at the University of Copenhagen, under the guidance of one of the most prominent philologists of his day: Rasmus Rask (1787-1832). A good working knowledge of ancient tongues and literature was not the only thing Thorpe picked up in Copenhagen: he also married Mary Anne Otté and adopted her daughter Elise. A eulogy written on the latter’s death in 1904 reveals that Benjamin Thorpe had been a demanding stepfather who eventually drove his stepdaughter to flee to Boston, USA:
Apparently aided by his talented stepdaughter, Thorpe started to earn his living as a translator of, mostly, Anglo-Saxon texts – according to Niles (2015), he may be regarded as “the first professional Anglo-Saxonist”, since his income mainly consisted of the stipends he received for his books.
A glance at Thorpe’s activities as an editor and translator (a full overview is provided below) shows an admirable range: from poems to law texts, psalms, chronicles and homilies. Thorpe also strikes as a humble man. His humility, as well as his intended purpose for most of his books, are made clear in the preface to his Analecta Anglo-Saxonica (1834), a student anthology of Old English texts:
Like the generality of first attempts, [this work] is, I am too well aware, extremely defective both in plan and execution, and has large demands to make upon the indulgences of its readers; but I shall not regret having sent it forth to the world, if, by its publication, the study of the old vernacular tongue of England, so much neglected at home, and so successfully cultivated by foreign philologists, shall be promoted in the land where it once flourished. (Thorpe 1834, A2)
He was also humble enough to indicate when a text had proven too difficult for him to translate. Of the Old English Riming Poem, for instance, he remarked: “My endeavours to give a version of the “Riming Poem” have failed.” (Thorpe 1842, ix). The Exeter Book Riddles also caused him trouble:
Of the “Riddles”I regret to say that, from the obscurity naturally to be looked for in such compositions, arising partly from inadequate knowledge of the tongue, and partly from the manifest inaccuracies of the text, my translations, or rather attempts at translation, though the best I can offer, are frequently almost, and somtimes I fear, quite as unintelligible as the originals. Though they have baffled me, yet as they will now be in the hands of the Public, a hope may reasonably be entertained, that one more competent will undertake their interpretation, and with a more favourable result. (Thorpe 1842, xi)
These two failed attempts notwithstanding, it would be hard to find a person “more competent” than Thorpe – Niles (2015) rightly notes that “no human being past or present has ever read more lines of Old English manuscript text than Benjamin Thorpe, word by word and letter by letter” (p. 229).
Editions and translations of Old English texts
Thanks to the Internet Archive, it is now possible to not only make a complete list of Thorpe’s editions and translations of Old English texts, they are all freely available. Below follows a chronological overview of his works (I have limited my selection to works touching on Anglo-Saxon England; Thorpe also translated the Elder Edda, a Latin chonicle by Florence of Winchester and historical works by J. M. Lappenberg; he also wrote multiple works about Northern mythology):
- A grammar of the Anglo-Saxon tongue : with a praxis (1830) – The Old English grammar of Rasmus Rask, translated by Thorpe.
- Caedmon’s metrical paraphrase of parts of the Holy Scriptures in Anglo-Saxon (1832) – edition and translation of the Old English poems in the Junius manuscript: Genesis A, Genesis B, Exodus, Daniel and Chist and Satan.
- Analecta Anglo-Saxonica : a selection in prose and verse, from Anglo-Saxon authors of various ages; with a glossary (1834) – a student anthology of Old English texts, ranging from the Old English Gospels to the poem Judith; no translations provided.
- The Anglo-Saxon version of the story of Apollonius of Tyre (1834) – first modern edition and translation of the romance of Apollonius of Tyre in Old English.
- Libri Psalmorum versio antiqua Latina; cum paraphrasi Anglo-Saxonica (1835) – first modern edition of the Paris Psalter, which contains a prose translation of the first fifty psalms and a verse translation of psalms 51 to 150; no translation provided, prefatory material and notes all in Latin.
- Ancient Laws and Institutes of England (1840) – a two-volume edition of law texts from Æthelbert of Kent (d. 616) to Henry I (d. 1135). The collection includes both secular and ecclesiastical laws, in Latin and Old English; only the Old English texts have been translated. Regrettably, only the second volume is available via the Internet Archive.
- Codex exoniensis. A collection of Anglo-Saxon poetry, from a manuscript in the library of the dean and chapter of Exeter (1842) – first modern edition and translation of all the Old English poems of the Exeter Book.
- Đa halgan Godspel on Englisc: The Anglo-Saxon version of the Holy Gospels (1842) – The Gospels in Old English; no translation provided.
- The homilies of the Anglo-Saxon church: The first part, containing the Sermones catholici, or Homilies of Ælfric (1843-1846) – first modern edition and translation of the two series of Catholic Homilies by Ælfric; for as far as I know, Thorpe’s is still the only Modern English translation available. Second volume.
- The life of Alfred the Great (1852) – translation of the German biography of Alfred the Great by Reinhold Pauli; also contains edition and translation of the Old English Orosius.
- The Anglo-Saxon poems of Beowulf, the Scôp or Gleeman’s tale, and The fight at Finnesburg; with a literal translation, notes, glossary, etc.(1855) – edition and translation of Beowulf, Widsith and the Finnesburg Fragment.
- The Anglo-Saxon chronicle, according to the several original authorities (1861) – edition of manuscripts A to E of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle; translation provided in Volume 2.
- Diplomatarium Anglicum Aevi Saxonici (1865) – edition of various legal documents in Latin and Old English; only the Old English texts are translated.
While generally overshadowed by his contemporary John Mitchell Kemble (1807-1857), Thorpe has certainly left his mark on the developing profession of Anglo-Saxon studies.In addition to his publications, Thorpe was a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London and became a member of the Royal Academy of Sciences at Munich (Germany) and the Society of Netherlandish Literature in Leiden (The Netherlands). Benjamin Thorpe died in 1870, aged eighty-eight years old.
A reputation nearly ruined by reprints?
While Thorpe’s works generally enjoy a good reputation, some nine years after his death, a Dutch student of Old English found reason to complain about Thorpe’s edition of Beowulf. This student, G. J. P. J. Bolland (1852-1922), wrote the following to the Professor of Germanic Philology in Leiden, P. Cosijn (1841-1899), on October 10, 1879: “I will show you that I have every reason to despise Thorpe’s horrible edition of Beowulf“. Bolland provided a number of errors in the first thirty lines of Thorpe’s edition of Beowulf and scornfully remarked: “Here’s the work of a member of the Society of Netherlandish Literature at Leiden!”
The errors noted by Bolland are accurate: “eyren-þearfe” for “fyren-þearfe” (Beowulf, l. 14); “eþ” for “þe” (Beowulf, l. 15); “fæt” for “þæt” (Beowulf, l. 22); etc. In Thorpe’s defense, however, these errors are not found in his first edition, published in 1855; they are only found in the second edition of his work, published in 1875 (five years after Thorpe had died). Apart from this scornful letter of a Dutch student to his professor, the errors in the the second edition of Thorpe’s Beowulf appear to have gone unnoticed, since they are retained in the third edition of 1889:
When it came to his Beowulf edition (for which he is generally praised), it seems Thorpe is lucky that first impressions are indeed more lasting – the errors in the posthumous reprints of his works have not affected his reputation, although at least one Dutch student despised him for it!
This is the first in a series of blogs related to my project “My former Germanicist me”: G. J. P. J. Bolland (1854-1922) as an Amateur Old Germanicist , which explores how a Dutch student at the end of the nineteenth century tried to master Old English.
Texts referred to:
- John D. Niles, The Idea of Anglo-Saxon England 1066-1901: Remembering, Forgetting, Deciphering, and Renewing the Past, Malden: Wiley-Blackwell, 2015.
- Thomas Seccombe, ‘Thorpe, Benjamin (1781/2–1870)’, rev. John D. Haigh, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/27375, accessed 8 April 2016]
The Freoðuwebbe and the Freswael: A Comic Strip Reconstruction of the Finnsburg Fragment and Episode
One of the most intriguing stories referred to in Old English heroic poetry is whatever happend at Finnsburg, between Hnæf , Finn and Hengest. The story is referred to in Beowulf, the so-called Finnsburg Fragment, and Widsith, but the events are rather difficult to piece together. For all who have ever struggled making sense of Finnsburg, here is an attempt at a comic strip reconstruction.
“gid oft wrecen” (Beowulf, l. 1065b): A Tale Often Recited
After Beowulf has defeated Grendel, there is much rejoicing in the hall of the Danish king Hrothgar. During the festivities, a minstrel performs a well-known tale, a “gid oft wrecen” (l. 1065b): a tale often recited. The Beowulf poet certainly assumed his audience to be familiar with the contents of this tale, since what follows is a rather enigmatic summary of events of something that took place in Frisia, concerning Finn, Hnæf and Hengest (ll. 1063-1159). The basic premise of the story is somewhat clear: a feud between Danes and Frisians had been solved by a political marriage between the Frisian prince Finn and the Danish princess Hildeburh; a visit by Hildeburh’s brother Hnæf to Finnsburg renewed the hostilities and resulted in the death of Hnæf and Hildeburh’s son among others; although a new truce was made, Finn is killed the following year and Hildeburh is brought back to Denmark. The exact particulars of the story, however, are only alluded to and many scholars have tried to figure out what exactly happened (chief among them, a man named J.R.R. Tolkien in the posthumous work Finn and Hengest: The Fragment and the Episode, ed. A. Bliss (1982)).
That the story of Finnsburg was indeed well known and often recited, becomes clear from the Finnsburg Fragment. The Finnsburg Fragment was found on a loose manuscript folio, once kept at Lambeth Palace and edited by the George Hickes in 1705 (the manuscript folio has since been lost). The Fragment consists of 48 lines of Old English poetry, which outline how a band of warriors led by Hnæf are attacked by Frisians, near Finnsburg. the text breaks off when a certain “folces hyrde” [leader of people, possibly Hnæf] is mortally wounded. As such, the Finnsburg Fragment fills in some of the details that are lacking in the summary of the minstrel’s tale in Beowulf, which in turn provides information about the cause and outcome of the fight which are not mentioned in the extant text of the Finnsburg Fragment.
Yet a third text to testify to the circulation of this story in Anglo-Saxon England is the poem Widsith. This poem which is something of a catalogue of people, kings and heroes that the traveling poet Widsith [wide-jouney] had supposedly met over the years. Among the heroes mentioned in Widsith are the Frisian “Finn Folcwalding” [Finn, son of Folcwald] (l. 27), “Hnæf” who ruled the Hocings (l. 29) and “Sæferð” (l. 31) who ruled the Sycgs. These heroes can all be identified with people mentioned in the Finnsburg Fragment and/or the Finnsburg episode in Beowulf. The story of Finnsburg, then, was well known indeed, even if the particulars still elude scholars today (matters are made worse by apparent errors in the extant texts of the Finnsburg Fragment and the lines in Beowulf, which cause even more confusion and uncertainty).
The Freoðuwebbe and the Freswael: A Comic Strip Reconstruction of the Finnsburg Fragment and Episode
The comic strip below, extending over 28 panels, represents one way of reading the Finnsburg Fragment and the Finnsburg episode in Beowulf. In places, I have simplified things (glossing over, for instance, the matter of the Jutes who appear to be fighting on both sides of the conflict or may actually not be Jutes, but giants – the words “eotan” [Jutes] and “eoten” [giant] are easily confused!), elsewhere I have opted for one interpretation and ignored others. Some ‘scholarly’ justification follows after the comic strip…
Here is how the panels relate to the texts of Beowulf and the Finnsburg Fragment – I recommend you read the comic strip along with the actual texts!
- “The Freoðuwebbe and the Freswæl”. The term “freoðuwebbe” (Beowulf, l. 1942) is used to refer to women who were married off to solve a political feud. The Beowulf poet seems to be rather opposed to this idea, given the dramatic outcome of Hildeburh’s marriage. For the term “Freswæl” [Frisian massacre], see Beowulf, l. 1070. “Or: How Hildeburh became a sad woman”. See Beowulf, l. 1075 “þæt wæs geomuru ides”[that was a sad woman].
- I assumed that the feud dated back to the parents of Hildeburh and Finn; this is not neccessarily the case.
- For clarity, I gave all the Danes (and Jutes, and Sycgs) mustaches; the Frisians have beards.
- The marriage between Hildeburh and Finn must have lasted long enough to produce a son that could die during the fighting at Finnsburg.
- Hnæf visits and this leads to hostilities. It is still unknown why these hostilities took place; here, I blame Finn, since it would appear as if the Frisians were the ones to start the fight.
- See Finnsburg Fragment, ll. 3-4.
- See Finnsburg Fragment, ll. 5-12. What Hnæf and his men see is the sudden approach of the Frisians, carrying torches.
- See Finnsburg Fragment, ll. 13-15. Sigeferth can be identified as “Sæferð” in Widsith, l. 31.
- See Finnsburg Fragment, ll. 16-17. The fact that the Fragment says “Hengest sylf” (l. 17) suggests that Hengest is a figure of importance; this also becomes clear from his role in the episode in Beowulf.
- See Finnsburg Fragment, ll. 18-21. It is not entirely clear whether Garulf tells Guthere to stay back or the other way around. Nor is it clear whether the warning is heeded and so it is unclear who approaches the door first. Since we are told Garulf is the first to die (Finnsburg Fragment, l. 31), I suggest Garulf was the first to approach the door and that Guthere indeed listened to his warning. In this way, Garulf is the senior warrior who leads the charge.
- See Finnsburg Fragment, ll. 22-27.
- See Finnsburg Fragment, ll. 31-34a.
- See Finnsburg Fragment, ll. 34b-35a.
- See Finnsburg Fragment, ll. 37-45. It is unclear whether the mortally wounded “hæleð” [hero] (l. 43) is indeed Hnæf. The Finnsburg Fragment breaks off with this wounded hero asking how the young warriors are doing.
- See Beowulf, ll. 1067-1069.
- See Beowulf, ll. 1071-1081
- See Beowulf, ll. 1080-1085.
- See Beowulf, ll. 1086-1100.
- See Beowulf, ll. 1101-1106.
- See Beowulf, ll. 1107-1112.
- See Beowulf, ll. 1113-1116. It is uncertain on whose side Hildeburh’s son had been fighting. If he had been fighting on the Frisian side (which seems likely), his body being burned with Hnæf’s is highly symbolic.
- See Beowulf, ll. 1117-1124.
- See Beowulf, ll. 1125-1136a.
- See Beowulf, ll. 1136b-1150a. The “Guthlaf and Oslaf” mentioned in Beowulf (l. 1148) can probably be identified with the “Ordlaf and Guthlaf” of the Finnsburg Fragment (l. 16).
- See Beowulf, ll. 1143-1144. It is unclear whether it is the son of Hunlaf (who may be Guthlaf) who gave Hengest a sword or whether “Hunlafing” (Beowulf, l. 1143) is the name of the sword. Whatever the case, Hengest gets a sword which reminds him of the things that happened the year before – in my reconstruction this is the sword of Hnæf.
- See Beowulf, ll. 1150b-1152a.
- See Beowulf, ll. 1146-1152a.
- See Beowulf, ll. 1152a-1159a.