“A few miles from here…”

 

One of the most beautiful passages from Beowulf, in my opinion, is lines 1362 – 1377, which can be found on page 71 of the Norton Anthology of English Literature, volume A. The passage provides a beautifully eloquent narrative of the desolate and frightening location Grendel, his mother, and other monsters make their home. What appealed most to me was the ability of the passage to transport me into the imagery by description alone. Words can work intense magic – as English students, we are all aware of this. It is easy to imagine sitting around a fire, listening to an elder relay the story of Beowulf, drawing in his listeners through his choice of words and performance. Most folklore stories contained situations of violence and wickedness, not only to inspire and entertain, but to frighten as well. Children were taught to respect the wilderness, and to never stray from the safety of their town or village into the gloom of the unknown. This is made evident through more well-known tales such as Little Red Riding Hood and Hansel and Gretel. Though they are certainly more contemporary than Beowulf, such bed-time (or fire-side) stories served a similar purpose. The notion of monsters such as Grendel and his mother deterred potential causalities and promoted unity within families and clans.

There were numerous things that intrigued me about my chosen passage, aside from my initial attraction to it. Upon closer inspection, I discovered I could perform a closer analysis of its cultural, semantic and structural elements. Almost immediately I noticed many cases of alliteration. Lines such as “…a frost-stiffened wood waits and keeps watch” (1363) and “the heather-stepper halts: the hart in flight from pursuing hounds will turn to face them with firm-set horns” (1368-1370) repeat the letters w and h, respectively. When read aloud, it creates a pleasant melodic flow that intrigues the listener. This again ties back to Beowulf being, after all, an oral piece. Both lines also contain strong assonance through their repetition of vowel sounds. The long vowel sounds will slow down the energy, take longer to pronounce, and in general, make the mood more sombre and foreboding. I like to think that this gives the listener ample time to create an image in their mind of twisted, grisly trees casting shadows over a steely lake, over which drifts a chill mist.

Another element which is continuously present in my chosen passage is personification. As a creative writer, I find it is one of the most provoking ways to flavour any piece of writing. In the passage I chose from Beowulf, the wood “waits and keeps watch” (1363) and the skies “weep” (1374). Both cases of personification make it easier to imagine the ominous woods having a menacing spirit of their own. This is only reinforced by the depiction of the hart (a male adult deer) being pursued by blood-thirsty hounds but choosing to fight to the death rather than leap into the seemingly evil lake. The hart could also be considered a symbol for the mortal man, and the hounds representing cruel monsters that use the wilderness to their advantage when it comes to cornering their prey. Further, the deer is described as a “heather-stepper” (1369). After searching up the definition of ‘heather’, I confirmed my suspicions when I discovered it to be a purple-colored sort of shrub that grows abundantly on the moor. The moor is also associated with the notion of safety, since its open ground is much more appealing and familiar to humans and other creatures. The hart being described as a beast who makes its home on heather only further suggests it to be a symbol for man, especially when it is placed out of its element and thrust into the danger of the woods and lake.

The lake plays an important role within the passage. It is unyielding and threatening to all mortals, its “mere bottom has never been sounded by the sons of men” (1366-1367). Later in Beowulf, the listener learns that the lake is full of reptiles, sea dragons, and serpents, and also happens to be the underwater lair of Grendel and his mother. Perhaps my favourite part of the passage is the description of the lake at night, when the “water burns” (1366). The tension between the two words is eerie and perfectly describes the perils that lay within its depths.

All in all, my conclusion is that if I were to make Beowulf into a film, I would take great care when it came to the visuals of this setting, when it is first introduced to the viewer! Though hopefully, Grendel’s mother would not be as sexy as say, Angelina Jolie…

 

Beowulf. Translated by Seamus Heaney. p.48. Greenblatt, Stephen, gen. ed. The Norton Anthology of English Literature: Volume A The Middle Ages 9th ed. 6 vols. New York: NY, 2012. Print.

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2 Responses to “A few miles from here…”

  1. Dane Thibeault says:

    It is fascinating to consider the capacity of vivid, rhythmic language to unify the entities of plot, setting, characters, mood and theme within a text, all at once. Therefore, it is warranted for one to speculate that the foundation of the text of Beowulf is its language, and further, that were this language to be deprived of its poetic devices, the enticing elements of the story would be likely supressed as well. Additionally, it is an object of intrigue to inquire into the relationships between the language implemented within the text, and the author’s stylistic or contextual motivations for doing so. For instance, as you indicated, the poem reflects the necessity for oral recitation—did this concept influence the author’s decisions to incorporate an abundance of alliteration and personification, or are the inclusions of these poetic devices merely incidental, and not determined by style? There is, of course, no explicit answer for such questions, regarding the evaluation of poetry. Regarding your observations of the linguistic portrayal of the vindictive monsters within the text of Beowulf, however, the same considerations apply. Are the supernatural or creature elements employed with Beowulf indicative of an intent to rhetorically glorify the beliefs of Christianity over paganism, based upon the author’s personal convictions? Is it possible that these efforts to depict creatures such as Grendle as grotesque, and to deter human involvement with them serve as reflections of Christian anxieties towards pagan inspired entities? Were these speculations the case, one would have to deduce that language is virtually an implement of persuasion or manipulation, subtly interwoven into texts to instill within the readers a calculated perception or opinion regarding a subject. In other words, the author could, in effect, theoretically have slandered Grendle through an artful use of language, thus prompting adverse reader opinions towards him, with the motivation of obscuring or distorting belief systems contrary to Christianity. An underlying consideration, more generally pertaining to the text of Beowulf as a whole would be: To what extent are language and authorial tone unified within a text? May one concept be manipulated to misrepresent the other, or vice versa? Regards,

    -Dane Thibeault

  2. Stephanie Van Dewark says:

    Hey Amy, (Correct me if I’m getting your name wrong.)

    I think you definitely highlighted the two main literary devices in Beowulf, personification and alliteration. I like to think these devices create a sense of intimacy for the listener, because the “melody,” as you put it, captures the listener’s attention, while personification increases the readers understanding of the plot and characters.

    I also agreed with the connection you drew between the hart and man. Although I think the metaphore between the two also serves to accent the innocence and delicacy of man in the face of the harsh evil of the woods and lake. The notion of the the hart being a “heather-stepper” is a way in which this delicacy is accented, as if anything other that the soft heather would harm the deer/man.

    The one thing I disagreed with in your blog post was when you mentioned that “the moor is also associated with the notion of safety, since its open ground is much more appealing and familiar to humans and other creatures” (P3). To me, the moor is the exact opposite. It is frequently mentioned in previous passages that the moor is associated with Grendel. Therefore, I see the moor as this dark, damp, and eerie place of evil, not as a place of “open ground.”

    Overall good work!

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