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‘Wrapped in the Anger of God’
A Warrior Be #21: Impressions of Beowulf
Lines 710-745 of John McNamara’s translation
Flatly stated, and reiterated, as doing God’s bidding, Grendel emerges from the misty marshes and creeps under clouds, “wrapped in the anger of God” to prey upon the men in the hall. This reads like a divine punishment for men’s collective hubris. This notion is further supported by the fact that the monster is selecting only one warrior at a time to kill, that this is a campaign of terror, not open war.
“Then deprived of joy, the creature came
to the famed hall. When touched by his hands,
the door sprang open, burst from its bands.”
Grendel is clearly in a state of suffering, and, since God has judged the men of the “famed hall” worthy of his evil attentions, then it follows that Grendel was “deprived of joy” by said men. This further buttresses the notion of an aboriginal uprising is the root tale, as Grendel has clearly been dispossessed by those he has been attacking.
Grendel is buoyed in spirit by the sight of a band of heroes and decides to kill them all, and to feast upon their flesh, an indication of deep antiquity in this tale, of a conflation of forest beasts overcome and of cannibal tribes conquered.
Grendel, in true monstrous style, devours the nearest warrior, who has been left as bait by Beowulf who is observing the monster’s feeding activity. Before dealing with the battle that is the centerpiece of this epic, let us look at the imagery of the demon, how indistinctly feline Grendel is, echoing forest demon Humbaba of Gilgamesh, the manticore that terrorized Enkidu in his dream of death and the Nemean Lion, the lion and tiger hunt being a central kingship ritual of the Aryan nations. I will suggest that here, in this scene, as Beowulf is a prince fated to become a king, that we have the second and eldest strand of the heroic myth woven into this tale, that of the lion-slayer, the crown wearer, the most primitive king, the man who slays the apex predator alone that his kind have collectively displaced. Europe was home to lions until late antiquity. Also, the Aryan hinterland overlapped with the range of the long-extinct Caspian Tiger. Just as Samson slew a lion and also slew an army of foes separately, I suggest, that in this epic, we have an ingenious combining of man’s most ancient nemesis, the devouring predator, with large cats still killing over 500 humans a year in Africa and India, and civilization’s most ancient nemesis, the aboriginal tribes it conquers, who eventually rise up in revolt as they did against Rome in Late Antiquity and America in Early and now in Late Modernity.
The following attributes of the monster are all feline:
“The hellish ravager sought to surprise...”
“His eyes shone forth like fearsome lights…”
“…such skill in sudden attacks…”
“…suddenly seized…”
“…biting into the body…”
“…to clutch with the claws…”
The Colonel, in whose living room I sit while writing this, as his two large dogs guard the chickens against the cougar prowling hereabout, has told me that this is how I would be attacked by that cat, a thing a good 70 pounds larger than I, if I walked alone and unaware over the mountain at dusk.
Just as Humbaba was the guardian of the forest, Grendel was the guardian of the moors and fens, both clawed, solitary predators who ate men, living on the edge of Man’s then-known world. I think these elements of the great felines as Man’s eldest nemesis in the wild, and also man’s heroic sorrow over having eradicated such powerful beasts and now no-longer having great wild enemies, only other men to fight, is at the base of many of the hero tales from Gilgamesh and Herakles, down to Beowulf. At some level, God is angry over the slaughter of his wild beasts, and greater punishments will come from the deeps and ultimately from heaven, for all of these heroes. After all, a king’s crown is a mere imitation of a lion’s mane, his being the lion hunter his most ancient qualification for kingship, with kingdoms swept into eternity according to God’s will, who sits in judgement of kings and their pretenders.
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