There is a scene in “Gabriel’s Inferno” in which Professor Emerson accompanies two young women (one of whom is his sister) to a club in Toronto. As their host, he realizes that he will not be able to indulge himself in his usual sins, at least for an evening. Instead of the hunter, he becomes the protector. Ever the professor of literature, he muses on the fact that he will have to play the part of Beowulf, prepared to slay Grendel and his relatives if they threaten his precious charges.
It’s surprising, perhaps, that someone who is convinced he is irredeemably evil views himself as a Beowulf rather than a Grendel, at least in this scene.
(Whether he is or not is for the readers to judge for themselves.)
Beowulf is the name of a hero and also of an Old English epic poem that dates from around 800 AD. Although the poem is written in Old English, it isn’t set in Britain nor is it about Angles or Saxons. The poem is Scandinavian, combining mythical elements with historical persons, along with references to Christianity. For example, the monster Grendel is described as a descendant of Cain, son of Adam, who slew his brother Abel.
Here is how Grendel is described in Beowulf:
Grendel this monster grim was called,
march-riever mighty, in moorland living,
in fen and fastness; fief of the giants
the hapless wight a while had kept
since the Creator his exile doomed.
On kin of Cain was the killing avenged
by sovran God for slaughtered Abel.
Ill fared his feud, and far was he driven,
for the slaughter’s sake, from sight of men.
Of Cain awoke all that woful breed,
Etins and elves and evil-spirits,
as well as the giants that warred with God
weary while: but their wage was paid them!
Notice that the offspring of Cain (who was a human being) include elves, evil spirits, and Etins, which are a kind of giant.
In the poem, Grendel threatens the warriors of Hrothgar, King of the Danes. None of Hrothgar’s men seem to be able to kill the monster, so Beowulf, who is a Geat, rises to the challenge. His act is both courageous and honourable as he is repaying a service to Hrothgar, who aided his father.
Grendel does not fare very well in his confrontation with Beowulf. There’s also an interesting bit about Beowulf’s magical sword (and it’s lack of magical effect). Beowulf also battles Grendel’s mother, who takes up her son’s revenge. (This narrative twist provides all kinds of fodder for discussion, Freudian and otherwise.) The third part of the poem describes Beowulf’s battle with a dragon.
Interestingly enough, J.R.R. Tolkien had a lively interest in Beowulf. He wrote at least two essays on the subject, which you can find included in this volume. You can also find a short piece comparing Tolkien’s characters with Beowulf here and here. (Is an Ent an Etin?)
To read the full text of Beowulf, click here.
All the best and thanks for reading,
ETA: I was contacted by a very kind reader who is translating Beowulf into modern English. Like me, he admires Seamus Heaney’s translation. You can follow Gareth Jones’ translation and commentary here.