British Lit. / 2nd Period
Beowulf: The fight at the center
The first of “two great moment in a great life…first achieved and final death” The best of recent studies have drawn out implications that illuminate not only the social import of Beowulf heroism First moment of heroism has been the fight with Grendel
“Entire episode…involving Grendel’s mother has been viewed as largely extraneous, a blot upon the thematic and structural unity of the poem”. Critical emphasis to the second fight, “climatic moment” at the bottom of the mere rather than in Heorot Addressed herself to proving that the dam, far from being an extraneous extension of Grendel, is “more important socially and symbolically” than her son. Importance of Grendel’s mother, the mere, and Beowulf heroic victory there. Beowulf heroic achievement, consider several ways in which the poem signals the importance of the fight in the mere. Beowulf does not conquer the forces threatening Heorot until he kills the dam and decapitates Grendel in the mere. “The fight with Grendel is rather monotonous and seems altogether too short and easy to give much opportunity for excitement” The critics of Beowulf have usually joined the Geats and Danes in proclaiming Beowulf the hero after his fight in Heorot. However, the festivities prove ironically premature- the celebration being destroyed when Grendel’s mother seeks vengeances for her son. Beowulf so called victory in heorot serves as a prelude that will amplify his fight against Grendel’s mother, much as verbal exchange. Use full insights into Beowulf’s role as hero, Beowulf in the second fight (1534 and 1537) Two lines describing Grendel earlier in the poem (135-137)
The passage suggests a similarity between Beowulf and Grendel since neither cares about the consequences of a feud. Beowulf’s attitude is praiseworthy, whereas Grendel’s is not… the distinction is that which we regularly make between the reckless courage of the criminal who has abandoned all hope and whose actions are purely selfish and the selfless courage of the hero who places the good he is defending before his instinct for self- preservation.
It is true that the selfish criminal is subtly contrasted with the selfless hero. Yet throughout the poem, similar contrasts are made between the kings and monsters that are destructive through greed and selfishness and the kings and heroes who exhibit generosity and selflessness. The importance of the lines describing Beowulf lies less in the concept of than in the context of the immediately ensuing defeat of Grendel's mother. As much as they stress Beowulf's selflessness, they signal the moment in the poem when he attains his selfhood and gains victory over Grendel and his mother. Still, we can take a cue from the “normative maxim” that distinguishes the heroic Beowulf from the monstrous Grendel. That expression, sw_ sceal man dôn, calls attention to the fact that Beowulf fights in the mere, not with animalistic instincts of rage or fear, but with something potentially heroic and particularly human. That something is precisely the “unyielding will” (that, if realized, defines the hero) which Tolkien and others since him have claimed for Beowulf in the first fight. That Beowulf is capable of an heroic exertion of will has been anticipated in the poem by his eagerness to fight for the Danes and by his initial power to overwhelm Grendel with fierce determination: [Grendel stepped nearer and with his hands seized the strong-hearted warrior in bed, reached toward him, the fiend with his hands. Beowulf quickly took on the hostile purposes and with his arm sat up. Instantly, the keeper of crimes found that he had never met on middle-earth, from the corners of the earth, in any other man a greater grip. In his heart he did not become frightened in spirit; nor might he leave there for all that. His heart was eager to get away, wished to flee into his hiding-place.] Yet in Heorot Beowulf's will is not taxed to the point of having to stand with unflinching resolve in the face of inevitable death. The ordeals he endures in the mere, however, test the full strength of his will. With no retainers to aid him and no weapon to protect him after Hrunting fails, Beowulf's will remains firm in his resolve to fight—despite the fact that the dam has overpowered him and that he despairs of his life. Instead of recoiling in fear as Grendel did in Heorot, Beowulf faces his opponent and proves him the hero, defeating Grendel's mother in an act of pure will. As only a man can do, Beowulf stands firm against the powers of destruction at the moment he physically stands against the dam: [On his shoulders lay the woven breast-net; that protected his life, withstood the entry of point and edge. The son of Edgetheow, champion of the Geats, would have perished then under the wide ground had not his battle-shirt, his hard war-net, brought him aid.—And the holy God granted victory; the wise Lord, the Ruler of the heavens, decided it rightly, easily, as soon as Beowulf stood up again.] Nagler, while agreeing that the mere is the central scene in Beowulf, argues that the “climactic moment” of the poem occurs a few lines later, in the ten lines (ll. 1563-72a) that describe Beowulf's seizing the Giants' Sword, his decapitating Grendel, and the light's shining through the mere. Although I think it right to regard these ten lines as the climax of a basic Indo-European myth that Nagler reconstitutes, I think it wrong to accept them as the climax of the poem as we have it. In Beowulf that decisive moment occurs when Beowulf stands against the dam, and it is marked at that moment by God's assurance of victory.
It is because Beowulf has already completed his development as the hero that God so easily (l. 1556a) grants him the victory. And it is because Beowulf has already defeated the monsters with the strength of his will that he then has the power to raise the Giants' Sword (a sword no other man could lift) with which he will physically conquer them. The achievements and miracles that follow Beowulf's heroic stance—the seizure of the sword, the killing of the dam, the light's shining, the decapitation of Grendel, the melting of the blade, and the cleansing of the mere—all constitute the denouement, poetically reiterating and amplifying Beowulf's original heroic achievement. Thus, it is not his success in Heorot, but his stance in the mere that is the decisive victory socially, cosmologically, and psychologically toward which the first half of the poem has led. In the most literal reading of the poem, Beowulf accomplishes in the mere what he had originally intended when he came to Heorot. The hall is safe, and all is cleansed. Long before Beowulf kills Grendel's mother in the mere, the poem indicates, chiefly through surprise and dramatic suspense, that the victory there is the climactic achievement that completes the rising movement of the first part of the poem. Whereas there is never any doubt about whether Beowulf will overwhelm Grendel in Heorot, the audience remains as ignorant as Beowulf about the outcome of the second fight—that is, Until the moment he regains his feet. R. M. Lumiansky finds no essential difference between the predictions of victory which occur before the fight with Grendel and the assurance granted in the fight with the dam. But as Richard Ringler notes [in Speculum 41 (1966)], the fight in the mere is “fraught with uncertainty, suspense and alarm in a way that the Grendel fight is not." The intense uncertainty about the second fight is the culmination of dramatic suspense which arises from the moment Grendel's mother abruptly appears in the poem: [Then it became evident, widely known to men that an avenger yet lived after the hostile one, for a long time after the grievous strife—Grendel's mother.] As Irving notes [in Introduction to Beowulf, 1969], “She breaks into the poem as she breaks into the hall, out of nowhere.” Though long-abiding (l. 1257b), this menacing “wrecend” is as surprising to the Geats and Danes, and to Beowulf, as she is to the audience. After the dam's appearance, the marked increase in emotional tension continues to build through Hrothgar's description of the mere, which contains the suggestion that the mere is fatally hostile to society, and through the long march there. The dramatic technique of Beowulf is “cumulative, as when the poet first reveals Hrothgar's genuine fear of Grendel's lake . . . followed by the difficult march, the finding of Aeschere's severed head on the brink, and the slaying of the 'nicor.'” As they march to this, the men move increasingly away from the known into the unknown, leaving behind both the familiar lands around the hall and society itself. The path becomes increasingly narrow until the men are forced to walk in single file; finally they reach the mere that Beowulf will enter alone. The tension is “felt rather than seen” and “grows with each line." The cause of this tension is certainly felt, if not seen, by Beowulf when Grendel's mother seizes him in the mere and proves to be stronger than she had appeared on land. Then, in “almost total ignorance of what to expect,” Beowulf is left in a state of extreme uncertainty that does more than simply sustain dramatic suspense. It is a state of uncertainty thematically equivalent to the Unknown—that which Beowulf must enter willingly and alone if he is to become the victor. In a poem so obviously concerned with social loyalty (and the difficulty and transience of that), the fact that Beowulf is alone when he enters the mere is one of the largest signals that his experiences there are central to the meaning of the poem. As Nitzsche points out, isolation in Beowulf is a characteristic of the monsters, those alienated from and opposed to society: The dam's isolation is one of the many manifestations of her perversity that comment ironically on the maintenance and ethics of the comitatus. Yet in the fight in the mere and during the Breca swimming match—the two episodes in the poem in which Beowulf is successful in slaying monsters—Beowulf shares this “monstrous” characteristic of solitude. The Breca episode has several parallels with the fight against the dam. As in the mere, Beowulf, alone, conquers the monsters with a sword; light shines and the waterways are cleared: [ . . . the morning found them (the sea-monsters) lying in the leavings of the waves, dead from the sword-wounds, killed with the sword, so that thereafter nothing around the deep waterways hindered the passage of the seafarers. Light came from the east, the bright beacon of God; the sea became still.] Much as he does in the mere when careless of his life (l. 1536b), Beowulf gains the reward that can be attained only by an “immersion of the individual in the sea of experience . . . ready to risk all in the meeting." Yet Beowulf has not become the hero in the Breca episode. His “heroic” actions there are more accidental than willed. Meeting a boyhood challenge, Beowulf and Breca face the sea together to test their powers, not to use them for the benefit of society. Only accidentally does Beowulf become separated from his friend; and while fighting to stay alive, he inadvertently serves society by clearing the waterways of the sea monsters.
In the fight with Grendel, the more experienced Beowulf is prepared to endure the ordeal in order to help society. And although he attempts to fight Grendel alone and without arms (an attempt that marks him as the potential hero), Beowulf does not fulfill his quest as the hero—precisely because he is still within society, literally inside the walls of Heorot and the circle of his men. As the poem makes clear, no hand, however powerful, that is still connected to the hands of society is free to wield the blow that would conquer the forces threatening that society. It is thus particularly ironic that Grendel's arm is raised to the roof of Heorot as a sign of victory: [It was a clear sign when the brave in battle set the hand, arm, and shoulder—there was all together, Grendel's grasp—under the vaulted roof.] Although closely aligned to an entire set of hand imagery representing the interdependence of society, the arm and hand of Grendel are actually signs of mockery rather than of victory. As the Geats and Danes discover after Beowulf's first fight, chaos still reigns over Heorot. In order to save society, the potential hero must leave the necessarily restrictive bounds of society and confront, as Beowulf did only accidentally in his youth, the destructive force directly. He must, paradoxically, become like the monsters, alienated from society—become the wracca (meaning “wretch, miserable outcast, and outlaw”) in order to be the wracca (also meaning “hero, avenger, and champion”). Beowulf must symbolically leave his own country, then the familiar walls of Heorot—the “civilized world” that is “distinctly inside“—and follow the wraclastas [exile tracks] of Grendel's mother into the alien waters of the mere. This motif is continued in the battle with Grendel's mother when Beowulf discovers that Hrunting, the chief protecting weapon of society that “nafre hit at helde ne” (ll. 1460b-61a) [never had it in battle failed any man], is ineffective in subduing the dam. As Nagler points out, some scholars have thought that “the failure of Hrunting when Beowulf seems to need it most is part of Unferth's plot against Beowulf.” Others, such as Thomas A. Shippey, have argued that Hrunting fails only because its conquering function in a core tale has been transferred in Beowulf to the Giants' Sword. Yet as Nagler convincingly argues, the two swords serve significantly different functions: the hero must learn that “whatever (relatively) ordinary, earthly weapons he brings with him are of no avail” in battling his opponent: he “must have recourse to the demon's own weapon” or to “a weapon that is in the demon's possession." Although Nagler concentrates on the mythic and psychological levels of Beowulf, his point about the swords has social import. In order to defeat the force threatening society, it is necessary for Beowulf to learn that he cannot defeat it with Hrunting which, representing the “order and degree in human society” that weapons in Beowulf usually mean, is as incapable of defeating that force as Beowulf is within the civilized world of Heorot. When he stands alone in the face of impending death and, consequently, proves stronger than the threatening power of the mere, Beowulf makes manifest the heroic inner strength that then enables him to execute that strength in physical action. Only then is he able to lift the Giants' Sword, associated with “primordial conflict,” and complete his quest as the savior of society. That Beowulf's heroic quest has cosmological as well as social significance has been recognized by several readers. It is not surprising that most of them have, until recently, concluded that it is in the fight at Heorot, the symbolic “center of the universe,” that Beowulf acts in a god-like manner by repeating the original act of creation. Nor is it surprising to find that Grendel's mother, who seeks to avenge her son (l. 1278b), is generally considered to be a humanized extension of Grendel's chaotic energy. Similarly, the mere is considered to have only human, rather than cosmological, proportions. Certainly, Grendel assumes cosmological significance in the poem, hating (as both Bernard F. Huppé and Raymond J. S. Grant note) not only the men in the hall and the joy there, but the Song of Creation in particular. When Grendel hears the song (ll. 86a-92b), his fury and pain establish him as a force of destruction, utterly opposed to the force of creation. But just as the fight in Heorot only anticipates Beowulf's victory for society in the mere, the cosmological import of the first fight only anticipates that of the second. Heorot has been recognized as being, symbolically, the “center of the universe, i.e., the place from which creation . . . was begun”: and if the mere-hall is accepted as an inversion of Heorot, then it may also be recognized as the symbolic “center” of chaos, the place from which destruction springs. The mere, itself, with waters indistinguishable from the clouds (ll. 1373a-76a), suggests uncreated, unformed chaos. Almost exclusively identified with the mere and the mere-hall, Grendel's mother is more of an extension of primal, chaotic energy than a humanized extension of Grendel. She is, notably, Grendel's mother—the source from which he and his destructive powers spring. This is one of the reasons that the dam, at home in the symbolic center of chaos, proves stronger there than she had appeared to be on land and why her fury is characteristically irrational and instinctive, whereas Grendel, if not exactly rational, approaches Heorot with premeditated cruelty (ll. 710a-34b). It is the dam who is most nearly identified with the cosmological force of chaos and Grendel who, to some degree, represents the humanized extension of that destructive power. The cosmological significance of Beowulf's victory in the mere is most clearly signaled by the two similes in that scene: [The beam brightened, light shone within, just as the sky's candle from heaven clearly shines.] [Then, because of the battle-sweat, that sword began to diminish, war-sword into battle-icicles. That was a wondrous thing—that it all melted, most like ice when the Father who watches over the times and seasons, loosens the frost's bond, unwinds the water-fetters. That is the true God.] Both similes make connections between events in the mere and ones that carry connotations of the divine. Furthermore, the light's shining like heaven's candle suggests the first act of creation—a reading that follows not only from Nagler, but also from Grant's suggestion [in Leeds Studies in English, Vol. 8, (1975)] that light in Beowulf is “an image of creation or fire under control.” Being rare in Old English poetry, the similes call attention to this special moment of Beowulf's god-like victory over chaos. Yet the creative act on either the social or cosmological level is finally only a metaphor for the creative act potentially within every man. As the similes make clear, Beowulf's actions are only like a god's; however heroic, they are fundamentally human. The confrontation between Beowulf and Grendel's mother is, psychologically, a concrete form of the abstract “battle of the inner self” [according to Jeffrey Helterman, ELH, Vol. 35, (1968)]. That battle may mean courage overcoming fear, will overcoming instinct, the conscious overcoming the unconscious, or any process in which the uncontrolled, potentially destructive energy of the psyche is conquered and converted into a constructive force. That process is the creation, or re-creation, of the self. In the poem, that process is presented in the form of Beowulf's facing the female monster, the antithesis of all his constructive, heroic qualities. That destructive force must be faced directly: avoiding it or repressing it may cause it to become manifest in a new and more powerfully destructive form—much as driving Grendel from Heorot leads to the mother's rising from the mere. In order to earn the decisive victory, the hero must enter the unconscious, a symbolic landscape of the irrational and the unknown that can be entered only willingly and alone. In a passage that well applies to the episode in the mere, Joseph Campbell writes [in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, 1949] that the journey of the hero is fundamentally . . . Inward—into depths where obscure resistances are overcome, and long lost, forgotten powers are revivified, to be made available for the transfiguration of the world. This deed accomplished . . . life becomes penetrated by knowledge of its own unconquered power. Something of the light that blazes invisible within . . . breaks forth, with an increasing uproar. As he enters the mere, Beowulf makes his journey inward. Rapidly he discovers that neither society nor even his own physical strength can help him in this internal battle. But when he stands, he also finds the center of himself, the strength of his unyielding will: the Giants' Sword is revivified; light breaks through the opaque mere as Beowulf discovers his own power and emerges from the mere as the hero.