Poets and story tellers were highly esteemed in the the Anglo-Saxon period of England. They were the historians of the tribe, the chroniclers of society who ensured that everyone remembered the important heroes, the war chiefs, the important battles and the folklore of the tribe. Anglo-Saxon poetry, like the whole language itself, was an oral art – rarely written down, but recited as a song or as a riddle. Riddling was a popular pastime, and along with tongue-twisters, puns and all sorts of verbal wit, figured prominently in Old English.
One of the most renowned stories of this time was Beowulf. The story has been passed through many generations of telling, but it’s still a brilliant illustration of the Anglo Saxon period and it’s remained a true typical epic of its time. It’s also a ripping good yarn.
It all happens in Denmark, where the gruesome monster Grendel is ripping apart the warriors of the King inside his Great Hall of Heorot. The unknown poet continues …
One night, after a beer party,
the Danes settled in the hall
for sleep; they knew no sorrows.
The evil creature, grim and hungry,
grabbed thirty warriors
and went home laughing.
That was bad enough,
but the following night
Grendel killed more–
blinded by sin,
he felt no remorse.
(You can bet the survivors
started sleeping elsewhere.)
So Grendel ruled,
one against many,
and the greatest hall
in all the earth
stood empty at night.
Adaptation from the Old English by Dr. David Breeden
The warrior Beowulf sets sail for the land of the Danes, there to do battle with the man-eating monster Grendel. After some stirring action recounted in verse of strong alliteration and stressed syllables, we hear that Beowulf eventually kills Grendel. He than hangs the severed arm of the monster as a trophy in Heorot Hall.
But kill one monster and another steps forward to take its place. In true Anglo-Saxon fashion, the mother of Grendel, comes looking for revenge and to save her family honour. She savages more and more warriors in the drinking hall until Beowulf tracks her down to the cold watery place where she lives and, swimming to the bottom, he battles and slays her too.
History can be found through our stories. In every era they reveal the prevailing cultural attitude. In the time when the folk would sit around over a meal listening to the scop recite the epic stories, men of outstanding courage and loyalty were admired. Much was made of physical bravery, selflessness, and the gravity of an oath, and honour was more important than any temporal comfort. But that was long ago.
When I was a child I knew all about Grendel. He was the bogeyman under the bed, and you knew him too, perhaps not by name, but certainly in spirit. Perhaps’s it’s the common human interest in monster stories that kept the story of Beowulf alive.