Grendel's mother

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The first page of the Beowulf manuscript.

Grendel's mother (Old English: Grendles mōðor) is one of three antagonists (along with Grendel and the dragon) in the anonymous Old English poem Beowulf (c. 700–1000 AD). She is never given a name in the text.

The nature of Grendel's mother in the poem is the subject of ongoing controversy and debate among medieval scholars. This is due to the ambiguity of a few words in Old English which appear in the original Beowulf manuscript. These words, particularly "ides, aglæcwif" (ll.1258a-1259b), appear either in conjunction with Grendel's mother or with her place of dwelling (a lake). Some have a specific significance within the context of Germanic paganism.

Story[edit]

Main article: Beowulf

The poem, Beowulf, is contained in the Nowell Codex. As noted in lines 106-114 and lines 1260-1267 of Beowulf, Grendel's mother and Grendel are descendants of Cain. After Grendel is killed and Grendel's mother attacks Heorot in revenge, Beowulf ventures into her lake-based home. When Grendel's mother senses his presence, she immediately attacks Beowulf and drags him into her home. They then engage in fierce combat. Grendel's mother nearly defeats Beowulf until he sees a sword in the "mere." He uses the sword to kill Grendel's mother and to behead the corpse of Grendel. Beowulf then returns to the surface and to his men at the "ninth hour" (l. 1600, "nōn", about 3pm). [1]

Function in and structure of the poem[edit]

Some scholars have argued that the female characters in Beowulf fulfill certain established roles such as hostess (Wealhþeow and Hygd) and peace-weaver (Freawaru and Hildeburh). Grendel's mother and Modthryth (before her marriage to Offa), who challenge these roles, represent "monster-women." [2]

Chance Nitzsche also argued that there are two standard interpretations of the poem: one view which suggests a two-part structure (i.e., the poem is divided between Beowulf's battles with Grendel and with the dragon) and the other, a three-part structure (this interpretation argues that Beowulf's battle with Grendel's mother is structurally separate from his battle with Grendel).[3] Chance stated that, "this view of the structure as two-part has generally prevailed since its inception in J. R. R. Tolkien's Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics in Proceedings of the British Academy 22 (1936)."[3] In contrast, she argued that the three-part structure has become "increasingly popular."[3]

Debates on Grendel's mother[edit]

There is a debate among medieval scholars concerning the ambiguity of a few words in Old English related to Grendel's mother or her home (a lake) which appear in the original Beowulf manuscript. Because these terms are ambiguous, scholars disagree over aspects of her nature and appearance. Indeed, because her exact appearance is never directly described in Old English by the original Beowulf poet, part of the debate revolves around what is known, namely her descent from the biblical Cain (who was the first murderer, according to Abrahamic religions). For some scholars, this descent links her and Grendel to the monsters and giants of the Cain tradition. [4] Others argue that the lack of descriptives leaves Grendel's mother a marginal, rather than monstrous, figure.[5]

This lack of consensus has led to the production of a few seminal texts by scholars over the past few decades. One important focus of these articles and books concerns the numerous, and at times opposing, translations of especially the Old English compound "ides aglæcwif" (1259a).

Wretch, or monster of a woman (Klaeber and Gillam)[edit]

An illustration of Grendel's mother by J.R. Skelton from Stories of Beowulf (1908) described as a "water witch" trying to stab Beowulf.

Until the late 1970s, all scholarship on Grendel's mother and translations of the phrase "aglæc-wif" were influenced by the edition of noted Beowulf scholar Frederick Klaeber. His edition, Beowulf and the Fight at Finnsburg, has been considered a standard in Beowulf scholarship since its first publication in 1922.[6] According to Klaeber's glossary, "aglæc-wif" translates as: "wretch, or monster of a woman." Klaeber's glossary also defines "aglæca/æglæca" as "monster, demon, fiend" when referring to Grendel or Grendel's mother. On the other hand, "aglæca/æglæca" is translated by Klaeber as "warrior, hero" when referring to the character Beowulf.[7]

Klaeber has influenced many translations of Beowulf. Notable interpretations of line 1259a which follow Klaeber include "monstrous hell bride" (Heaney),[8] "monster-woman" (Chickering) [9] "woman, monster-wife" (Donaldson),[10] "Ugly troll-lady" (Trask) [11] and "monstrous hag" (Kennedy).[12]

Doreen M.E. Gillam's 1961 essay, "The Use of the Term 'Æglæca' in Beowulf at Lines 893 and 2592," explores Klaeber's dual use of the term "aglæca/æglæca" for the heroes Sigemund and Beowulf as well as for Grendel and Grendel's mother. She argues that "aglæca/æglæca" is used in works besides Beowulf to reference both "devils and human beings". She further argues that this term is used to imply "supernatural," "unnatural" or even "inhuman" characteristics, as well as hostility towards other creatures.[13] Gillam suggests: "Beowulf, the champion of men against monsters, is almost inhuman himself. [Aglæca/æglæca] epitomises, in one word, the altogether exceptional nature of the dragon fight. Beowulf, the champion of good, the 'monster' amongst men, challenges the traditional incarnation of evil, the Dragon: æglæca meets æglæcan."[14]

Arguments against Klaeber[edit]

Some scholars have argued that Grendel's mother is a woman warrior. In 1979, Beowulf scholars Kuhn and Stanley argued against Klaeber's reading of Grendel's mother. Sherman Kuhn (Emeritus Professor of English and former editor of the Middle English Dictionary, University of Michigan,[15]) questioned Klaeber's translations of both "aglæc-wif" and of "aglæca/æglæca" when referring to Grendel and Grendel's mother, stating that there are,

five disputed instances of áglæca [three of which are in Beowulf] 649, 1269, 1512...In the first...the referent can be either Beowulf or Grendel. If the poet and his audience felt the word to have two meanings, 'monster,' and 'hero,' the ambiguity would be troublesome; but if by áglæca they understood a 'fighter,' the ambiguity would be of little consequence, for battle was destined for both Beowulf and Grendel and both were fierce fighters.[16]

He continued the argument by stating that, "I suggest, therefore, that we define aglæca as 'a fighter, valiant warrior, dangerous opponent, one who struggles fiercely." [17] He also suggested that, "if there were one clear instance of áglæca referring to an unwarlike monster, a peaceful demon, or the like, this definition would fall apart."[18] Kuhn concluded that, "Grendel's mother was an 'aglæc-wif', 'a female warrior' [...] there is no more reason to introduce the idea of monstrosity or of misery here than there is in line 1519 where she is called merewif, defined simply as 'water-woman', 'woman of the mere.'" [17]

E.G. Stanley (Emeritus Professor of Anglo-Saxon, Oxford University) added to the debate by critiquing both Klaeber and Gillam, stating:

Grendel is described as an æglæca, a word which we do not understand. One scholar [Gillam] has, in fact, made investigation of this word a model for the methodology of establishing meaning. The attempt is of interest, but in the end we always come back to the fact that, as Klaeber's glossary shows, the word is used by the poet not only to describe Grendel as here, and later in the poem to describe the dragon, and the monsters of the mere as they attack Beowulf, but also Beowulf himself; and at one point the two enemies, Beowulf and the dragon, are described together using the plural æglæcean. As we assemble the many uses including compounds [...] it becomes clear that it is not pejorative in force. We must not follow Klaeber's distinction of 'wretch, monster, demon, fiend' for Beowulf's enemies, and 'warrior, hero' for Beowulf himself; and we must not abuse Grendel's mother when she is called aglæcwif by translating the word as Klaeber does, 'wretch,' or 'monster, of a woman.' We must never forget that she is called there ides aglæcwif (1259) and ides, 'lady,' is not a term of abuse [...] the poet does not speak of his monsters abusively.[19]

These arguments were supported by Christine Alfano (Lecturer in English, Stanford University), who questioned standard translations related to Grendel's mother in her 1992 article, "The Issue of Feminine Monstrosity: A Reevaluation of Grendel's Mother." She argues that: "I find a noticeable disparity between the Grendel's mother originally created by the Beowulf poet and the one that occupies contemporary Beowulf translations. Instead of being what Sherman Kuhn calls a 'female warrior,' the modern Grendel's mother is a monster. This assumption informs almost all areas of Beowulf scholarship, although there is little evidence for this characterization in the original Anglo-Saxon work." [20] In addition, Alfano discusses the fact that the Beowulf poet never explicitly described what Grendel's mother looks like and explores a number of different translations relating to her ambiguous appearance. Concerning the hands of Grendel's mother Alfano argues that, "Where a literal reading of Grendel's mother's atolan clommum (line 1502) suggests a "terrible grip/grasp," the phrase instead becomes alternatively "horrible claws," "terrible hooks," and "terrible claws" [...] similarly, lapan fingrum (line 1505) literally "hostile/hateful fingers," becomes "claws" and "piercing talons" and grimman grapum (line 1542), "fierce grasp," is transformed into "grim claws" and "sharp claws." Alfano also argues against the choice of some translators to translate "modor" as "dam" rather than "mother": "The simple substitution of the word 'dam,' a term used generally to describe animals, for 'mother' in the translation of modor (line 1538) further diminishes her claim on humanity." [21]

Ides/dis (Germanic paganism)[edit]

The Old English ides, Old High German itis and Old Norse dís are cognates that all mean "lady,"[22] and idisi appears as the name of the valkyries in the only surviving pagan source in Old High German, the Merseburg Incantations.[23] More generally, in Norse mythology, the Dísir ("ladies") are fate goddesses who can be both benevolent and antagonistic towards mortal people.

Consequently, many have pointed out that dís is probably the original term for the valkyries (lit. "choosers of the slain"), which in turn would be a kenning for dís.[24]

Scholars have continued Stanley's discussion of ides as "lady" when discussing Grendel's mother, most notably Temple ("Grendel's Lady-Mother," 1986) and Taylor (who argues in his 1994 essay that the term Ides indicates that "Grendel's mother is a woman of inherently noble status"[25]). In addition, other scholars have suggested that Grendel's mother may be associated with the Norse figures of the valkyries and of the goddess Gefion who may be an extension of Frigg and Freyja. Freyja, the daughter of the sea god Njörðr, was both a fertility goddess and a goddess of war, battle, death, seiðr, prophecy and was also sometimes associated with the valkyries and disir.

A sculpture of a valkyrie on a horse by Stephan Sinding (1908)

Nora Kershaw Chadwick (1959) and later Helen Damico (Professor of English at Oxford University), in two works (1980 & 1984) argue that Grendel's mother may refer to the myth of the valkyries. In her 1980 essay, "The Valkyrie Reflex in Old English Literature," Damico argues that:

in both their benevolent and malevolent aspects, the valkyries are related to a generic group of half-mortal, half-supernatural beings called idisi in Old High German, ides in Old English, and dis in Old Norse, plural, disir. Both groups are closely allied in aspect and function: they are armed, powerful, priestly [...] The Beowulf poet follows the tradition of depicting the valkyrie-figure as a deadly battle demon in his characterization of Grendel's Mother. As Chadwick has argued, Grendel's Mother, that wælgæst wæfre 'roaming slaughter-spirit' epitomizes the earlier concept of the valkyrie.[26]

Damico later argues in Beowulf's Wealhtheow and the Valkyrie Tradition that Wealtheow and Grendel's mother represent different aspects of the valkyries.

Other mythological figures and hero[edit]

The Gefion Fountain in Copenhagen, Denmark by Anders Bundgård, 1908.
Freyja, depicted in a painting by J. Penrose.

In his 1991 article "The Germanic Earth Goddess in Beowulf," Frank Battaglia (Professor of English, CUNY) also drew on the term "ides" by pairing it with "dis." He noted that, the "dis" were "female guardian spirit[s]" with "power over the dead and choosing who would die. In this capacity [they] might be feared."[27] Battaglia thus suggested that Grendel's mother was the Early Germanic goddess Gefion (whom he states was also a form of Nerthus and Freyja).[28] He further notes that "in scaldic poetry the word dis means goddess [...] Freyia herself is called Vanadis, that is, dis of the Vanir, the Scandinavian chthonic, fertility deities."[29] He also notes that Gefion was referenced five times in the poem: l.49 (géafon on gársecg – "Gefion on the waves"), l.362 (ofer geofenes begang – "over Gefion's realm"), l.515 (geofon ýþum – "Gefion welled up in waves"), l.1394 (né on gyfenes grund – "Ground of Gefion"), and l.1690 (gifen géotende – "Gefion gushing"). In addition, he states, "in Old English poetry, geofon is a word for ocean which has been seen since Jakob Grimm (1968, 198) as related to the name Gefion of the Danish Earth Goddess...power to divide land and sea is shown by representations of Gefion in Norse literature." [30]

Seamus Heaney, in his translation of Beowulf, compared Grendel's mother to an "amazon warrior" in l.1283 (swá bið mægþa cræft).[8]

In addition, Kevin Kiernan (Emeritus Professor of English, University of Kentucky) followed Klaeber's interpretation of monstrosity in his 1984 article "Grendel's Heroic Mother." At the same time, he argues, a scholar could "find plenty of evidence for defending Grendel's mother as a heroic figure." [31] He further argues that, "Grendel's mother accepted and adhered to the heroic ethic of the blood-feud, the main difference between Grendel's feckless feud with the noise at Heorot and his mother's purposeful one exacting retribution for the death of her son. In heroic terms, her vengeance for the death of her kinsman Grendel."[32]

Dictionary of Old English (Jack, Mitchell and Menzer)[edit]

The Dictionary of Old English, University of Toronto, made the following updates in 1994:

  • āglāc-wíf (noun) is translated as female warrior, fearsome woman.
  • āglæca (adj.) is translated as formidable, awe-inspiring
  • āglæca (noun) is translated as awesome opponent, ferocious fighter

The 1994 DOE translations were supported by George Jack (Former Lecturer in English, University of St. Andrews [33]) in his 1997 glossary of Beowulf. They were also supported by Bruce Mitchell (Emeritus Fellow at St Edmund Hall, University of Oxford) in his 1998 glossary of Beowulf.

Melinda Menzer (Associate Professor of English, Furman University) critiqued both the new DOE translations, as well as those influenced by Klaeber, in a 1996 article which argued that the actual meaning of aglæca is problematic. Thus Menzer states, "from the semantic norms governing compounds with -wif [...] the word does not merely refer to the female equivalent of a male or genderless aglæca ('female warrior,' 'female monster'); aglæcwif denotes a woman, a human female, who is also aglæca [...] Indeed wif alone always refers to a woman, rather than a female being." [34]

Grendel's mother in film, literature, and popular culture[edit]

Grendel's mother has been adapted in a number of different media (film, literature, and graphic/illustrated novels or comic books).

Further reading[edit]

Dictionaries:

  • Cameron, Angus, et al. "Aglac-Wif to Aglaeca." Dictionary of Old English. Toronto: Published for the Dictionary of Old English Project Centre for Medieval Studies University of Toronto by the Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 1986/1994.

English translations and dual text:

  • Jack, George. Beowulf : A Student Edition. Oxford University Press: New York, 1997.
  • Heaney, Seamus Beowulf: A New Verse Translation. New York: W.W. Norton, 2001.
  • Klaeber, Frederick. Beowulf and the Fight at Finnsburg. Third ed. Boston: Heath, 1950.
  • Mitchell, Bruce, et al. Beowulf: An Edition with Relevant Shorter Texts. Oxford, UK: Malden Ma., 1998.

Scholarship:

  • Alfano, Christine. "The Issue of Feminine Monstrosity: A Re-evaluation of Grendel's Mother." Comitatus 23 (1992): 1–16.
  • Anderson, Carolyn (Summer–Autumn 2001). "Gæst, gender, and kin in Beowulf: Consumption of the Boundaries". The Heroic Age: A Journal of Early Medieval Northwestern Europe, heroicage.org, Issue 5. 
  • Battaglia, Frank. "The Germanic Earth Goddess in Beowulf." Mankind Quarterly 31.4 (Summer 1991): 415–46.
  • Chadwick, Nora K. "The Monsters and Beowulf." The Anglo-Saxons: Studies in Some Aspects of Their History. Ed. Peter ed Clemoes. London: Bowes & Bowes, 1959. 171–203.
  • Damico, Helen. Beowulf's Wealhtheow and the Valkyrie Tradition. Madison, Wis.: University of Wisconsin Press, 1984.
  • ---. "The Valkyrie Reflex in Old English Literature." New Readings on Women in Old English Literature. Eds. Helen Damico and Alexandra Hennessey Olsen. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990. 176–89.
  • Gillam, Doreen M. "The Use of the Term 'Aeglaeca' in Beowulf at Lines 893 and 2592." Studia Germanica Gandensia 3 (1961): 145–69.
  • Horner, Shari. The Discourse of Enclosure: Representing Women in Old English Literature. New York: SUNY Press, 2001.
  • Kiernan, Kevin S. "Grendel's Heroic Mother." In Geardagum: Essays on Old English Language and Literature 6 (1984): 13–33.
  • Kuhn, Sherman M. "Old English Aglaeca-Middle Irish Olach." Linguistic Method: Essays in Honor of Herbert Penzl. Eds. Irmengard Rauch and Gerald F. Carr. The Hague, New York: Mouton Publishers, 1979. 213–30.
  • Menzer, Melinda J. "Aglaecwif (Beowulf 1259a): Implications for -Wif Compounds, Grendel's Mother, and Other Aglaecan." English language notes 34.1 (September 1996): 1–6.
  • Nitzsche, Jane Chance. "The Structural Unity of Beowulf: The Problem of Grendel's Mother." Texas Studies in Literature and language 22 (fall 1980): 287–303. Repr. inNew Readings on Women in Old English Literature. Eds. Helen Damico and Alexandra Hennessey Olsen. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990. 248–61.
  • ---. Woman as Hero in Old English Literature. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1986.
  • Porter, Dorothy (Summer–Autumn 2001). "The Social Centrality of Women in Beowulf: A New Context". The Heroic Age: A Journal of Early Medieval Northwestern Europe, heroicage.org, Issue 5. Retrieved 2006-08-09. 
  • Stanley, E.G. "Did Beowulf Commit 'Feaxfeng' against Grendel's Mother." Notes and Queries 23 (1976): 339–40.
  • ---. "Two Old English Poetic Phrases Insufficiently Understood for Literary Criticism : Þing Gehegan and Senoþ Gehegan." Old English Poetry: Essays on Style. Ed. Daniel G. Calder. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979. 67–90.
  • Taylor, Keith. "Beowulf 1259a: The Inherent Nobility of Grendel's Mother." English Language Notes 31.3 (March 1994): 13–25.
  • Temple, Mary Kay. "Beowulf 1258–1266: Grendel's Lady Mother." English Language Notes 23.3 (March 1986): 10–15.

References[edit]

  1. ^ Jack, George. Beowulf: A Student Edition, p. 123
  2. ^ Porter, Dorothy (Summer–Autumn 2001). "The Social Centrality of Women in Beowulf: A New Context". The Heroic Age: A Journal of Early Medieval Northwestern Europe, heroicage.org, Issue 5. Retrieved 2006-08-09. 
  3. ^ a b c Chance, Jane (1990). Helen Damico and Alexandra Hennessey Olsen, ed. The Structural Unity of Beowulf: The Problem of Grendel's Mother. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press. p. 248. 
  4. ^ Williams, David. Cain and Beowulf: A Study in Secular Allegory. Toronto:University of Toronto Press, 1982
  5. ^ Alfano, Christine (1992). "The Issue of Feminine Monstrosity: A Reevaluation of Grendel's Mother. Comitatus: A Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies, Vol 23". Retrieved 2006-08-09. 
  6. ^ Bloomfield, Josephine. Benevolent Authoritarianism in Klaeber's Beowulf: An Editorial Translation of Kingship. "Modern Language Quarterly 60:2, June 1999
  7. ^ Klaeber, Fr, and ed. Beowulf and the Fight at Finnsburg. Third ed. Boston: Heath, 1950.
  8. ^ a b Heaney, Seamus Beowulf: A New Verse Translation. New York: Norton, 2001.
  9. ^ Chickering, Howell D. Beowulf. Garden City: Anchor, 1989.
  10. ^ Donaldson, E. Talbot, and Nicholas Howe. Beowulf : A Prose Translation : Backgrounds and Contexts, Criticism. 2nd ed. New York: Norton, 2002.
  11. ^ Trask, Richard M. Beowulf and Judith : Two Heroes. Lanham: UP of America, 1998.
  12. ^ Kennedy, Charles W., and tr. Beowulf, the Oldest English Epic. New York: Oxford UP, 1940.
  13. ^ Gillam, Doreen M. "The Use of the Term 'Aeglaeca' in Beowulf at Lines 893 and 2592." Studia Germanica Gandensia 3 (1961).
  14. ^ Gillam, Doreen M. "The Use of the Term 'Aeglaeca' in Beowulf at Lines 893 and 2592." Studia Germanica Gandensia 3 (1961):169.
  15. ^ Middle English Dictionary Review
  16. ^ Kuhn, S.: "Old English Aglæca-Middle Irish Olach." Linguistic Method: Essays in Honor of Herbert Penzl, pp. 216–7. Mouton Publishers, 1979
  17. ^ a b Kuhn, S., Old English Aglæca-Middle Irish Olach." Linguistic Method: Essays in Honor of Herbert Penzl, pages 218. Mouton Publishers, 1979
  18. ^ Kuhn, S., Old English Aglæca-Middle Irish Olach." Linguistic Method: Essays in Honor of Herbert Penzl, page 227. Mouton Publishers, 1979
  19. ^ Stanley, E.G. "Two Old English Poetic Phrases Insufficiently Understood for Literary Criticism : Þing Gehegan and Senoþ Gehegan.Old English Poetry: Essays on Style, pp. 75–76. University of California Press, 1979
  20. ^ Alfano, Christine (1992). "The Issue of Feminine Monstrosity: A Reevaluation of Grendel's Mother. Comitatus: A Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies, Vol 23, pages 1 & 12". Retrieved 2006-08-09. 
  21. ^ Alfano, Christine (1992). "The Issue of Feminine Monstrosity: A Reevaluation of Grendel's Mother. Comitatus: A Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies, Vol 23, page 3". Retrieved 2006-08-09. 
  22. ^ The article Dis in Nordisk familjebok (1907).
  23. ^ Calvin, Thomas. 'An Anthology of German Literature', D. C. Heath & co. ASIN: B0008BTK3E,B00089RS3K. P5.
  24. ^ Including: Ström, Folke (1954) Diser, nornor, valkyrjor: Fruktberhetskult och sakralt kungadöme i Norden; Näsström, Britt-Mari (1995) Freyja: The Great Goddess of the North; and Hall, Alaric (2004) The Meanings of Elf, and Elves, in Medieval England.
  25. ^ Taylor, Keith. "Beowulf 1259a: The Inherent Nobility of Grendel's Mother." English Language Notes 31.3 (March 1994): 18
  26. ^ Damico, Helen.The Valkyrie Reflex in Old English Literature." New Readings on Women in Old English Literature. Eds. Helen Damico and Alexandra Hennessey Olsen. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990: 176, 178.
  27. ^ Battaglia, Frank. "The Germanic Earth Goddess in Beowulf" in Mankind Quarterly, page 433. Summer 1991
  28. ^ Battaglia, Frank. "The Germanic Earth Goddess in Beowulf" in Mankind Quarterly, page 415–17. Summer 1991
  29. ^ Battaglia, Frank. "The Germanic Earth Goddess in Beowulf" in Mankind Quarterly, page 436. Summer 1991
  30. ^ Battaglia, Frank. "The Germanic Earth Goddess in Beowulf" in The Mankind Quarterly, page 416. Summer 1991
  31. ^ Kiernan, Kevin S. "Grendel's Heroic Mother." In Geardagum: Essays on Old English Language and Literature 6 (1984):31.
  32. ^ Kiernan, Kevin S. "Grendel's Heroic Mother." In Geardagum: Essays on Old English Language and Literature 6 (1984):24–5.
  33. ^ George Jack Memorial Lecture
  34. ^ Menzer, Melinda J. "Aglaecwif (Beowulf 1259a): Implications for -Wif Compounds, Grendel's Mother, and Other Aglaecan." English language notes 34.1 (September 1996):2