Sunday, August 15, 2010

Locus Focus - Grendel's Mere

As a continuation of last week's Subterranean-Themed Challenge, for this week's Locus Focus (as hosted at Shredded Cheddar) I am covering Grendel's mere in Beowulf.

"Everybody gazed as the hot gore
kept wallowing up and an urgent war-horn
repeated its notes: the whole party
sat down to watch. The water was infested
with all kinds of reptiles. There were writhing sea-dragons
and monsters slouching on slopes by the cliff,
serpents and wild things such as those that often
surface at dawn to roam the sail-road
and doom the voyage. Down they plunged,
lashing in anger at the loud call
of the battle-bugle. An arrow from the bow
of the Geat chief got one of them
as he surged to the surface: the seasoned shaft
stuck deep in his flank and his freedom in the water
got less and less. It was his last swim."

So Beowulf and a troop of Geat and Heorot men come to Grendel's mere, following the tracks through the forest made by Grendel's mother, after she avenged her son's death by snatching up Hrothgar's counsellor, Aeschere, back in Heorot. When they come to the haunted mere, they find Aeschere's head at the foot of the cliff. His blood and entrails are boiling up from beneath the mere's surface.

Beowulf must meet with Grendel's mother under the water of the mere; and infested as the water is with monsters, dragons and serpents, he remains resolute in the promise he made to Hrothgar in Heorot:

"'So arise, my lord, and let us immediately
set forth on the trail of this troll-dam.
I guarantee you: she will not get away,
not to dens under ground nor upland groves
nor the ocean floor. She'll have nowhere to flee to.
Endure your troubles to-day. Bear up
and be the man I expect you to be.'"

The visitation to the mere, and hence its actual enfleshment, is preceded by its vivid description in the form of country tale and hearsay retold by Hrothgar the morning after the attack, before the men set out to the mere. This layering is typical of the poem. The setting is pre-given, in the form of tales, and then the characters come to occupy the actual setting.

In Heorot, Hrothgar speaks to Beowulf thus about Grendel and his mother and their mere:

"'I have heard it said by my people in hall,
counsellors who live in the upland country,
that they have seen two such creatures
prowling the moors, huge marauders
from some other world. One of these things,
as far as anyone ever can discern,
looks like a woman; the other, warped
in the shape of a man, moves beyond the pale
bigger than any man, an unnatural birth
called Grendel by country people
in former days. They are fatherless creatures,
and their whole ancestry is hidden in a past
of demons and ghosts. They dwell apart
among wolves on hills, on windswept crags
and treacherous keshes, where cold streams
pour down the mountain and disappear
under mist and moorland.
A few miles from here
a frost-stiffened wood waits and keeps watch
above a mere; the overhanging bank
is a maze of tree-roots mirrored in its surface.
At night there, something uncanny happens:
the water burns. And the mere bottom
has never been sounded by the sons of men.
On its bank, the heather-stepper halts:
the hart in flight from pursuing hounds
will turn to face them with firm-set horns
and die in the wood rather than dive
beneath its surface. That is no good place.
When wind blows up and stormy weather
makes clouds scud and the skies weep,
out of its depths a dirty surge
is pitched towards the heavens. Now help depends
again on you and on you alone.'"

When Beowulf arrives at the mere he dons mail and helmet and a sword that Unferth gives to him; he makes a short speech and impatiently goes in:

"...the prince of the Weather-Geats
was impatient to be away and plunged suddenly:
without more ado, he dived into the heaving
depths of the lake. It was the best part of a day
before he could see the solid bottom.
Quickly the one who haunted those waters,
who had scavenged and gone her gluttonous rounds
for a hundred seasons, sensed a human
observing her outlandish lair from above."

Grendel's mother clutches Beowulf and takes him to the bottom and,

"carried the ring-mailed prince to her court
so that for all his courage he could never use
the weapons he carried; and a bewildering horde
came at him from the depths, droves of sea-beasts
who attacked with tusks and tore at his chain-mail
in a ghastly onslaught. The gallant man
could see he had entered some hellish turn-hole
and yet the water did not work against him
because the hall-roofing held off
the force of the current; then he saw firelight,
a gleam and flare-up, a glimmer of brightness.

The hero observed that swamp-thing from hell,
the tarn-hag in all her terrible strength..."

And so deep, deep under the "wide earth", in an underwater cavern that is free from water inside of it, Beowulf does combat with Grendel's mother, while the other men wait above, watching the boiling surface, losing hope.


Note: The translation used here is by Seamus Heaney.


Enbrethiliel said...


Oh, how did I forget this setting??? I did teach Beowulf once, too. I guess it wasn't that memorable the first time. =( That makes me feel bad. I should reread the poem.

Paul Stilwell said...

Honestly, the first time I read it I wasn't bowled over or anything; it struck me as...somehow prosaic, if I remember right. Have you read Tolkien's essay on the poem?

Curious, what was student response like to the poem?

Enbrethiliel said...


Okay, I didn't teach it as much as help my students revise for uni entrance exams that were sure to ask them about it. (Beowulf is the one text we can't really take off the third-year curriculum here because the fourth years will need it for their entrance exams.)

But that was also the year the animated Beowulf movie with Angelina Jolie s Grendel's mother came out, and my students were livid at how fast and loose it played with the story. I told them, "You're probably the last class I will ever teach who will not see that movie in their minds when I talk about Beowulf."

Paul Stilwell said...

Too true. It makes me sad when I think the same about The Lord of the Rings, though all in all, TLOTR didn't play as fast and loose with the story (though they did plenty of damage) as they - who did Beowulf again, Zemeckis? - did with Beowulf. For starters, they f-ed it up by setting it in an A.D. timeline rather than B.C.