Brain Power Vs. Physical Strength: Beowulf’s Character Revealed In Monster Fighting
Beowulf’s fight with Grendel proves his heroic credentials and strength. Grendel, the unstoppable demonic troll, all but surrenders at Beowulf’s squashing grip. The bone-crushing grab, however, raises a crux debated by Beowulf scholars: Does Beowulf make the first move and put the death clamp on the approaching Grendel? Or does the blood-smeared Grendel strike first? The confusion appears just as Grendel looms over Beowulf:
Forð near æstop,
nam þa mid handa, hige-þithigne
rinc on ræste, r?hte ongean
feond mid folme; he onfeng hraþe
inwit-þancum ond wið earm gesæt.
(“He stepped further in and caught in his claws the strong-minded man where he lay on his bed—the evil assailant snatched at him, clutching; hand met claw, he sat straight up at once, thrust the arm back” [Chickering, p. 93].) In Chickering’s translation, Grendel represents he, and reaches for Beowulf first. The original manuscript reveals an unclear pronoun antecedent that can be taken as either Beowulf or Grendel.
At the start of line 745, Grendel acts as the subject, advancing toward Beowulf, reaching out its hand. Yet some translators have switched the main subject from Grendel to Beowulf at line 746b. C. L Wrenn, for example, takes “hige-þithigne,” (literally the ‘stout-hearted warrior’) while on the bed, reaches (‘rinc on ræste, / r?hte ongean/ feond mid folme’) toward the enemy with an open hand (198). This would put Grendel hovering over Beowulf, preparing a strike with an outstretched hand. “Suddenly, Beowulf, perceiving Grendel’s hostile intent, springs up and literally arm wrestles with the monster” (Wrenn 198). Having Beowulf attack makes him appear aggressive instead of passive. Remaining in bed, waiting for the monster, seems unusual for a fearless hero such as Beowulf. He lies in the darkness while Grendel snacks on his comrade, Hondscioh, whose untimely death begs this question: why does Beowulf let his comrade meet such a horrible fate?
In light of Grendel storming Heorot for a Danish morsel, he snatches up Hondscioh, ripping him to pieces, and spilling his blood before swallowing him whole. This gory, revolting scene depicts Grendel as a threat; Hondscioh’s death reflects the philosophy “of expendability” (Pearce 170). The editors from a literary journal known as The Explicator offer this definition for the term: ‘ This behavior, we believe, may be explained as the earliest example of the scientific method: Beowulf watched attack upon the sleeping Thane in order to learn Grendel’s tactics well enough to defeat him later’” (as cited in Pearce 175). On the other hand, Arthur K. Moore believes Hondscioh’s sacrifice belongs to Germanic Code. Basically, “Beowulf letting Hondscioh die was an act of tribal security. The men have pledged their lives to protect him and serve his renown” (as qtd. in Pearce 175). In Moore’s view, Hondscioh’s death is a reflection of his duty and allegiance to Beowulf; however, the version of expendability from the editors of The Explicator seems more suitable to Beowulf as a heroic character. A superhero like Beowulf needs a horrifying monster to show off his physical prowess, and Grendel would not appear nearly as terrifying without a blood and guts sacrifice of at least one Geat or Dane. T.M Pearce mentions, that letting Hondscioh die gives Beowulf a tactical “advantage over his foe” (170). Basically, while lying down, Beowulf can watch the creature’s movements, waiting for just the right moment to strike. Another reason might have to do with proximity. The poet volunteers no layout information about the hall other than its vastness. Perhaps Hondscioh positioned himself too far away for rescue, and Beowulf could see no advantage of risking himself to save one of his men. Or maybe Grendel enters the hall too quickly for Beowulf to react. Poet and scholar Dick Ringler supports this idea and suggests Grendel’s swift movements resulted in Hondscioh’s death (xliii).
Still, some scholars and translators insist in keeping Grendel as the main subject. F. G. Cassidy notes that the subject changes after ræste, which makes the “reference of the understood subject of r?hte to rinc unclear and the he in the next line becomes superfluous” (88). Wrenn (despite accepting Beowulf as the main subject), notes that “taking wið earm as Beowulf’s own arm rather than Grendel’s is more difficult as is often done” (309). Howell D. Chickering concurs with Wrenn’s opinion, pointing out that the passage “requires some sentence twisting” (309). Nevertheless, Beowulf leading an arm offensive is suitable to his heroic character. Passivity may suit a calculating Hobbit like Bilbo Baggins, but not a brawny hero like Beowulf. Beowulf’s personality has the comic book appeal of a superhero. Even modern translations of the poem by Dick Ringler, and Seamus Heaney, despite compelling textual evidence that Grendel grabbed the Geatish hero first, all reconstruct the text so that Beowulf seizes the monster.
And so, if taking the popular assumption that Beowulf does grab first, then what does this say about his character as a monster-fighter? Unfortunately, the first fight with Grendel lacks visual details, leaving much of the contest to the reader’s imagination. Nor does the poet explore Beowulf’s inner-thoughts while the monster readies the attack. This scene is purely physical. Also Beowulf’s power grip and stance remain a mystery—just how does a person sitting up in a bed break off a troll’s arm? Donald K. Fry attacks the crux with an argument that has Beowulf perform a special type of arm lock on Grendel. In Fry’s interpretation, Beowulf’s own weight pushes Grendel’s “arm downward and forces it upward behind the monster’s back” (365). Using his freehand, Beowulf squeezes and pops Grendel’s fingers (Brown as quoted in Fry 365). So in order for Grendel to get out, the monster “must spin clockwise”; then, as the monster tries wrangling itself out from Beowulf’s grip, the hero simply moves “in the same direction of the pinned arm at a faster speed” (Fry 365), snapping Grendel’s arm off in the process. Fry uses Beowulf’s victory account to Hrothgar as evidence for his arm-lock claim:
Ic hi[ne] hrædlice heardan clammum
On wæ-bedde wriþan þohte,
þæt he for [mu]nd-gripe minum scolde
licgean lif-bysig, butan his lic swice.
“I thought to bind him in a hard grip, tie him to his own deathbed with my grip, so
that it would make it impossible for him to escape, unless he disappeared”[Chickering p.103]).
This passage is somewhat problematic because Beowulf “thought” or “planned” to carry these actions out, but did not necessarily succeed. Another problem Fry does not mention appears during Beowulf account to Hygelac of the monster fight, in which the hero says “ac he mægnes rof/ min costode”, “he tested my might/ his claw seized me” (Chickering 171). However, this account might be interpreted as rhetorical flourish to please the king. Beowulf’s own account differs quite a bit from the original scene described by the poet. First, Beowulf does not mention the fact that he was lying in bed during Hondscioh’s death. He tells his king that he and his men were guarding the hall, when in fact his men were all “asleep” (Chickering 91). Consequently, Beowulf’s narrative is in question. In addition, Grendel seizing first would put the hero at an incredible disadvantage and he would have considerable difficulty pushing Grendel’s arm back initially. Standing above Beowulf allows Grendel the advantage of leverage. So, as Grendel captures Beowulf and prepares to pull him up, he becomes startled in the process because of Beowulf’s countermove and strong hold. In Chickering’s translation, “Grendel instantly knows that he has never encountered a grip like Beowulf’s and stands in the hall paralyzed by fear” (93).
The next part has Beowulf rising to his feet for combat. The move looks like this: Using his free hand as leverage, Beowulf pulls his legs in , bends his knees, and springs to his feet. Now this is an awkward move, even for a monster-slaying mega-hero like Beowulf “with the strength of thirty men in his hand grip” (Chickering 71). Strategically, Beowulf would lose a lot time propping himself up and Grendel could simply throw Beowulf off balance. Perhaps the difficulty the hero faces in performing this maneuver is why many translators like interpreting the passage as Beowulf reaching for Grendel first. Beowulf can pull himself up using Grendel’s arm; however, pushing the monster’s arm back, as Fry suggests is still difficult from this vantage point. Grendel does not remain stunned for very long, and in the action that follows, the monster tries fleeing—“the giant pulled away/the noble moved with him” (761). From this perspective, Grendel is dragging Beowulf behind him. Beowulf, however, does not lose any ground and Grendel’s arm snaps off as a result. Instead of a complex wrestling move, Beowulf is playing a game of tug-of-war with Grendel. With one hand free, Grendel could cause serious damage to Heorot, tossing mead benches and clawing at the hall’s walls, while Beowulf maintains a firm footing. Realistically, in order for Beowulf to gain an advantage over Grendel or use a new wrestling move, he would need seize Grendel’s arm first.
Although Fry’s wrestling argument sheds light on the mysterious fight, the idea of a new, complex hand move does not fit the textual descriptions of Beowulf’s physical actions as well as it should. The executed movements are awkward because the hall would be dark, and Grendel’s height might cause Beowulf difficulty. Moving an arm to a monster’s back from a supine position on the bed sounds almost impossible. And it does seem a bit hammy that Beowulf’s inspiration for a wrestling move on Grendel occurs just as Hondscioh loses his lower-half, when he could have executed the move with better effect earlier. A better strategy might have been this: Beowulf hides in an inconspicuous place in the hall, waiting for Grendel. The hall’s vastness allows Beowulf plenty of vantage points for attack. Not to mention the fact that there appears to be only one way in or out of Hrothgar’s great mead hall, which offers a considerable advantage for a surprise attack. Beowulf could have constructed a decoy to fool Grendel, which might have spared Hondscioh from death. In light of the various attack methods Beowulf could have chosen, his lying-in-wait strategy lacks effectiveness, because Grendel has the advantage. Also, the action-packed fight between Beowulf and Grendel does not offer much time for the Geatish hero’s wrestling plan. Instead, Beowulf, possessing an abundant amount of confidence and strength, reaches first and subdues Grendel.
So what does the surprise tug-of-war combat against Grendel say about the Geatish hero? Basically, Beowulf relies on brute strength rather than complex tactical maneuvers. Fred G. Robinson writes, “Against these superhuman and (some human) adversaries, he can pit only his man’s courage and his man’s strength” (79). Robinson’s quote reflects the true nature of Beowulf. He is not a clever Odysseus foiling a Cyclops through a combination of word play and trickery. He does not indulge in riddle-games before destroying a foe. Instead, he hyperbolizes his exploits and, like a superhero, takes the foe out through mortal combat.
One noticeable quality about Beowulf’s attack pattern is that he does not thoroughly plan out his offenses. After the Grendel’s mother storms the hall, claiming another victim, Beowulf pledges to destroy her. But, instead of waiting for the monster, Beowulf must go to its lair. One would think that an undertaking like this would require a bit of strategy. Beowulf has never once seen the she-troll’s mire. He never contemplates the possible dangers awaiting him underwater. Rather than make any plan, Beowulf puts on his enchanted armor, gives another hyperbolic speech about life and death, receives a special sword and forges ahead to a cursed swamp where Grendel’s mother awaits. This fight has a similar attack pattern to Beowulf’s contest with Grendel. Beowulf’s gift sword from Unferth proves useless against the water-troll, so he must rely on his “strong grip” (Chickering) once again. Even the third and final fight with the dragon depicts Beowulf rushing into its lair with no plan; however, this time the monster destroys the hero and burns “his hand to a crisp” (Chickering 2698). The dragon has ruined Beowulf’s best weapon—the destruction of his hand symbolizes the loss of his strength. Each monster fight showcases Beowulf’s strength and his valor in exchange for a lack of strategy. Although he is successful in destroying monsters with his bare hands, after each fight the people he saves are “doomed to suffer some type of catastrophe” (Brodeur 1). So it seems as if Beowulf’s monster fights are nothing more than a band aid for the feuds plaguing the Danes and the Geats. His strength gives him fame keeps the peace until it is lost in the final fight with the dragon.
Beowulf. Trans. Howell D. Chickering, JR. New York: Anchor Books, 2006.
—. Trans. Seamus Heaney. New York: Norton, 2000.
—. Trans. Dick Ringler. Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2007.
Brodeur, Arthur Gilchrist. “An excerpt from The Art of Beowulf.” The Art of Beowulf. Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism 1 (1959): 1-8.
Cassidy, F.G. “Suggested Repunctuation of a Passage in Beowulf.” Modern Language Notes 50 (1935): 87-88.
Fry, Donald K. “WI Ð Earm Gesæt And Beowulf’s Hammerlock.” Modern Philology 67 (1969): 364-366.
Pearce, T.M. “Beowulf’s Moment of Decision in Heorot.” Tennessee Studies in Literature 11 (1966): 169-176.
Robinson, Fred G. “Elements of the Marvelous in the Characterization of Beowulf: A Reconsideration of Textual Evidence.” The Beowulf Reader. Ed. Peter S. Baker. New York: Garland Publishing, 2000. 79.
Wrenn, C.L., ed. Beowulf with the Finnesburg Fragment. London: George G. Harrap & Co. LTD, 1958.
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