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‘Who Dwelt in Darkness’
A Warrior Be #5: Impressions of Beowulf
Lines 86-114 of John McNamara’s translation
Lines 102-103
“Grendel was the name of the ghastly stranger,
Famed wanderer in wastelands who held the moors…”
In the novel The Eaters of Men, made into the movie The 13th Warrior, Michael Chricton, supposed that the legend of Grendal and other aspects of the Beowulf tale, represented a folk memory of Neanderthal holdouts striking back at their human oppressors. I suggest a broader interpretation, that this tale is an accretion of three legacies imbedded in myth:
-1. that primal fear of that other species of human who seem to have held the European forests from modern humans for tens of thousands of years
-2. that ancient agrarian fear of the hunters who annihilated and intermarried with the original Europeans
-3. the Aryan nomad conquerors distrust of his agrarian wife, whose father and brothers he slew in effecting a continent-wide annihilation of her men folk
In many ways the poet here paints word picture of the New England candelabra of illuminated Christian garrison, surrounded by the darkness of the forests and fens and moors haunted by its savage occupants. This poem gives much voice to the legacy of the monstrous wilderness folk who are thought to descent from the murderous Cain who killed Abel and who God punished as they fought the “eternal Lord,” “Creator,” “Almighty,” “Triumphant One,” “time beyond time,” sketching an ages old battle between the people of towns and the people of the wild places that colored much of Plantation America in that later age and had typified “Rome against the barbarians,” Christendom beleaguered by heathen Prussians, Lithuanians, Saxons, Magyars and Norsemen in earlier ages. Christendom did inherit the Roman worldview.
What is very telling in this section is the empathy for Grendel, who, while “a fiend from hell,” was also described as suffering “distress,” “long in torment,” “unhappy”, “banished” and “famed.” Grendel has the poet’s sympathy. And, as the poet recites a Christian story of creation with heathen overtones, describing the sons of Cain as “giants, elves, and evil demon-creatures and gigantic monsters,” very much cast-out of the most desirable portions of “creation,” the monster seems so well understood by the poet as to reflect his deeper ancestral half.
This suspicion is strengthened upon rereading lines 87-89
“For day after day, he heard rejoicing
loud in the hall; there was music of the harp,”
If the music of the harp and the voice of the poet were alien to him, why would Grendel, confined to the wild and dark places of night, be jealous and angry, if the poet had not once sung for Grendel and his kind?
If the “wanderer” of the wild places had not known a home, why would he be aching in lonely torment after his condition?
This reader sees the hand of the poet in the subtext of the monster possessed of a florid kinship, it what seems to be the deepest conscious level of the poem, for the primary aspect of Grendel is a sense of lonely, vengeful dispossession that could have been written about Chief Joseph Brant of the Mohawks a thousand years later. Furthermore, Grendel has a mother, not a father, indicating the plight of a conquered race.
End Section 1
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