Guest Post: Tamarind On Grendel

So Firespirit invited me to contribute a celebratory blogging anniversary post on the subject of villains and, of course, I leapt at the opportunity because I’m shameless like that. The more I thought about it, the more I realised I wanted to write about something NOT related to WoW. So I apologise in advance for the off-topical nature of this flight of fancy, but I don’t often get the opportunity to indulge myself to this degree.

I notice the villain versus monster debate has already been touched upon a few posts back, but my favourite villain, and arguably the first villain of English literature (as well as being AWESOME) considerably complicates any easy distinctions we might make between these two ideas.

Without further ado: let me introduce you to Grendel.  Hwaet!

Most people are familiar with the story of Beowulf, partially because of a moderately successful Seamus Heaney translation of the poem that came out a few years ago but also because of the truly awful movie, which sticks in the mind for nothing so much as deserving some kind of award for Most Strategically Placed Sword Pommel in Film History. (If you’re at all morbidly curious, you can see the fight scene between Beowulf and Grendel <a href = “http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r6u98h0c6iA”>here</a> – for the record in the original poem Beowulf dispenses with his battlegear (his hildegeatwe), meaning he intends to take on Grendel armed only with his faith not, as the film seems to think, bollock naked).

The Beowulf poem is long and a bit incoherent and if you’d like to hear more, see me after class. But, basically, the bit with Grendel in it goes something like this: Beowulf, hero of the Geats (that’s the Swedish to you and me), comes across the sea to aid the King of Danes.  His hall is being trashed by a people-eating monster called Grendel, who nobody has been able to overcome in combat. Beowulf waits for Grendel to attack again, fights him with his bare hands, rips off one of his arms and sends him off to die in the misty deadlands from whence he came.

Now I know looking at that you might be all “Tam, that’s a totally lame villain, having his arm ripped off by a psychotic Swede should have at the very least been ONLY A SETBACK.” But Grendel, despite being a maneater and a monster, and despite getting his arse thoroughly handed to him about 30 minutes after entering the text, is still one of the most haunting and fascinating villains I’ve ever encountered. You do, however, have to get a bit close to the text in order to see it.

But, first, a brief aside about Anglo Saxon poetry. I love Anglo Saxon texts – the problem is, because we have so few of them left, they are next to impossible to interpret. Oh, you can translate them, that’s not a problem but they are, in many ways, utterly and fascinatingly alien. You can read an Anglo Saxon poem and literally have no idea if it’s saying one thing or the direct opposite. In The Battle of Maldon, for example, Brythnoth is about to kick the arse of some Vikings, but gets over-ambitious or hubristic or something and charges them instead of waiting for tactical advantage. All his thanes, except a lone coward who pegs it, die, one after the other, each making a personal but generic speech about how they are going to die for their King. Is that heroic or anti-heroic? Fucked if I can tell. Nobody else can either. Or there’s The Wanderer, a poem about a lone man, wandering (heh) about the country, literally or metaphorically (who can tell?), pondering his alone-ness, and trying to articulate it. Is this a tragic tale of a dude who has lost all he cared for is he A FUCKED UP MURDERER. Nobody knows.

(Also, somebody needs to write an anglo-saxon stoner comedy called Dude, Where is the Horse Gone).

I genuinely enjoy the puzzle-box quality to Anglo-Saxon poetry, and there’s a certain liberation that comes from knowing that you … just … don’t … know. L. P. Hartley said “the past is another country” – reading Anglo Saxon poetry gives you a tantalising glimpse of that distant, long-lost shore, while never letting you forget that no boat will ever take anyone there again.

The other thing I really love – and stick with me through this one – is what you might call the grappling with psychological interiority. Especially in the wake of Freud, we take the concepts and linguistics of selfhood and consciousness so much for granted, that it’s genuinely startling – and heart-racingly amazing – to read texts that are still establishing their own internal structures to express even basic ideas of the self as separate from society, let alone complex thoughts, responses and emotions. Nor do these struggles and experiments easily make the leap from one culture to another: for example, in Alfred’s Preface to Pastoral Care, he uses the phrase “mid ure mode” which we can translate, somewhat clumsily, as “hearts and minds”. But what Alfred means is applying both will and understanding to the task at hand, the dedication of the whole soul and the power of the intellect at the same time. Yet the subtlety of this, and the power of it, along with the religious undertone, is entirely lost in our 21st century understanding of “hearts and minds.”

Still with me. Wow. Okay, let’s get back to Grendel. So the question is: how could this monstrous maneater (I should probably tell you the Anglo Saxon for that, since it’ll come in handy – it’s manscatha) be in any way a compelling character, and with whom a 21st century person could not only sympathise but identify.  It’s primarily to do with his presentation in the poem, which is actually remarkable. The provenance of Beowulf is horribly confusing – it comes from an oral tradition, and was written down and potentially edited by Christian monks (edited in the sense of “stuck Christian bits in at random”) long after the traditions it evokes were archaisms.

Grendel first enters the text stalking down from the misty crags where he lives to nom down on some sleeping Danes. It’s fairly standard practice now for the physical surroundings of a character to denote something of their psychological make-up but for the 8th century it’s mindblowing stuff. Grendel is a creature of dark places, who drags others into darkness. No metaphor is spared, let me tell you. But the weirdest thing about it is that, unlike everyone else in the poem, Grendel thinks and feels, suffers, and is afraid. Beowulf is Hero Figure 101 (unless, of course, he’s anti-heroic…blah). When he and the Swedes first arrive in Denmark, the poet describes how their shields flash brightly – this, like Grendel’s darkness, functions as a sort of metaphor. Beowulf reflects his society utterly, he is Warrior, Hero, King. He is not, and cannot, be a person. We never learn his thoughts. We never know what he feels about anything. When he speaks he does so formally, again rhetoricising his role. He doesn’t actually tell us anything.

But Grendel, by contrast, is an astonishingly articulated individual.   And you see the fight with Beowulf entirely from his perspective – you get the isolation in which he lives, the ugliness of the dark places, his tormented yearning turned to hate for the beautiful hall, and his terror and loneliness when he flees, defeated and dying. Moreover, Grendel’s section reflects and echoes the language used in such poems as The Seafarer and The Wanderer – language reserved for men in emotional extremis. It is nearly impossible not to connect with him, to empathise. He may eat people but he thinks, and feels, like us.

Also I can’t help but think that even the people-eating is a sort of metaphor. As an individual – an individual with hopes and needs and fears and a sense of self that may at lie at variance with society – Grendel is a profound threat to his turbulent world. Individuals, driven by their individual needs, do indeed, devour the social structures that heroes uphold. A hero supports his world; a villain challenges it. A hero is reflects only the role in which he cast, a villain carves out his own, a hero admits no gap between the interior and the exterior of himself or others, a villain understands that these are two different concepts, and may use this knowledge for his own advancement.

In fact, to sum it all up glibly: in literature, at least, there are no villains. Only individuals.

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