Middle English Word of the Moment

Monday, March 7, 2011

Jottings on Beowulf and fragmentation of the body/nation

As I've not posted anything in a while, here's a note-form version of something I'm working on at the moment. This is the seminar paper I delivered a couple of weeks ago, and which I am currently working on expanding into a full-length paper (c. 20-22 pages, if I can keep it down to that length!). I'm keeping it in note form, because I am, sadly, beginning to get a little chary of copyright on the internet.

Not that I expect to publish this. I am not going to make my first major analytical publication on Beowulf.

A - General outline: Fragmentation or unity of the body as reflective of (and a site for exploring anxieties about) that of the nation.

- Lerer calls beowulf ‘a poem of the body’ (723). [1] Poem’s focus on the physical deeds and prowess of the warrior body often excludes the use of ornamentation, weaponry or armour. Every conflict with a monstrous opponent results in not merely the death of one party but in the fragmentation or destruction of their body: Grendel rends and eats his victims, Beowulf relies on muscle rather than weapon and tears off Grendel’s arm, Grendel’s mother tears off Aeschere’s head and discards it far from civilisation, Beowulf kills Grendel’s mother and cuts off Grendel’s head then displays head and arm as tokens of his victory. He cleaves the dragon in two; the sea monsters try to make a feast of him, but he scatters their bodies on the shore. All of the most dramatic moments of conflict with an outside force, Lerer concludes, draw attention to the maintenance of the intact body of the victor over the broken body of the defeated.

B - ‘Nation’ (for this purpose) as defined not by maps or land but as the people and culture.
- Spatial imaginaire, but not the physical boundaries on which Michelet[2] focusses. Not particularly useful for Beowulf (partly for reasons Hiatt points out, but also simply because the rest of the land is not very interesting, with the partial exception of its coast-boundaries).
- Instead, nation is centred on / symbolised by the vivid image of the hall and the bodies within - as Michelet does point out, it is the hall in each instance (whether human or monstrous) that is under the threat of invasion. The invasions into the hall (by Grendel or the dragon) lead to a breakdown in unified social function (Michelet 79).
- Within the hall, imagery is centred on the body and the cultural actions of the body, esp. re. gift-giving (and the throne, the centred position of the leader, is a particular point of threat from both Grendel and dragon). Proximity to the central figure as crucial element in ordered and functioning social space - cf movements of queen within hall bearing cup to guests, etc. (May not be spatial centre if one were to draw a floor plan, but is imagined/conceptual centre.) The absent leader provides space for his replacement with Grendel (Hroðgar leaves the hall in the night, Michelet 92). (note that the den of dragon and Grendel provide a negative image of this)
- Image of nation therefore as the body (esp. that of the leader) within the communal space.
- But centre and boundaries are defined against each other: centre implies boundaries, boundaries necessitate centre (Michelet 10, then 24). Anxiety about definition and establishment of secure boundaries, the point where in becomes out, us becomes them, at which they touch by necessity, the point farthest from centre. How do we define the boundaries? ... monsters!

C - Jeffrey Cohen’s work on the idea of the giant in Anglo-Saxon literature/mythology[3] as a starting point from which to examine the nature of the threat presented by Grendel and his mother. [Firstly: giant tears and eats, is a threat to the body, but also, in its violent exaggerated human form, a threat to unified society] Especially:
- The giant as inhabiter / transgressor of boundaries, of both society and human bodies. Cohen 1-2 re. giant as psychological and cultural delineator of boundaries - extend this to spatially, to the temporal boundaries of beginnings and endings, and also culturally taboo-boundaries like cannibalism: in each instance the physical body and its physical effects are important.
- The giant as originary or causative, particularly in their body, inhabiting some distant past on which the present is built. The broken body of the giant provides origins (cf Gog/Magog, who are thrown into the sea as the dragon is) (p. 9 for Ymir). The giants’ violent acts and boundary-breaking, the damage they visit on bodies and landscape (17), form the origin both of cultures (imaged in the body) and cultural space.

D - Fragmentation of that body
- By consumption or mutilation.
- Maintenance of the intact body = success, vs. consequences of defeat = dismembered body (Grendel, Aescere’s head, etc) - see Seth Lerer. What is at stake in the conflicts, then, is unity vs fragmentation, as conceived in terms of the body.
- He does not point out, however, that each conflict (even Beowulf vs. sea monsters) has one party transgressing the boundaries of the other’s space - one enters to the other and the result is a dismembered body within a violated space. The space itself often shows signs of this violence - the blood bubbling to the surface of the mere is an irrefutable sign of the violence within, and is read as such, although Hrodhgar’s men misread the results of that violence. Crossing the boundary is a defining moment that, like the passage of the Rubicon, commits the intruder to a battle for control of the integrity of the space and the body. Attention is thus drawn to the boundaries and the moment of breaking them.
- Therefore the body (society or the body of its leader) defined / celebrated by challenge to it.

E. Grendel and his mother inhabit and transgress the boundaries of body and nation and thus help to delineate them (Michelet 94-5). The image of the broken body of the giant + intact body of hero (alive or celebrated in his tomb) provides origin, projected back into the past?
- Cohen: fragments of Grendel’s body are elevated as symbols of “a public validation of the control and acceptance of structured society whose antitheses Grendel represents” (24). So the fragments are not only a result of victory, but a sign of it, signalling triumph over the other and a society (and heroic body) whose unity has been affirmed.
- Michelet points out that “The demon’s footsteps provide the spatial transition between the two places” (Heorot and the mere) (80) & treading the grounds defines the limited (107-08). He does not point out that Grendel’s footprints are not merely impressions in the dirt, but marked in blood, signs of the damage to his body and his consequent defeat. Cannot break the boundaries of his space until his body is broken - and once he does, Beowulf breaks his body again.
- Walkers in the wasteland: with their feet, especially the bloody footprints, they mark out and define the boundaries of civilisation.

In expanding this to a proper paper, I'd like to explore further the idea of temporal boundaries - the beginning and ending of nations / things / memory / knowledge. Beowulf and Wiglaf are the last of their people, Beowulf says, and this is signalled by the breakdown of society after Beowulf dies, as if his death and the sundering of social ties shown by the earls’ failure to help him signal the actual end of the Geats as a whole. Beowulf’s body, however, remains: he says that his cairn is to be a signal to later generations, or later ages, far into the future. But there is very little human history, only a few generations back, as if the past can only be accessed by the monsters.

Drawing again on Cohen: the hilt of the sword that Beowulf takes from the mere depicts the giants before the flood, which is where they’re usually found, in some legendary but foundational long-ago. They build, yes, and old stone ruins are often referred to semi-metaphorically in Anglo-Saxon poetry as ‘the work of giants’ (Cohen 11), but other landscape features are also attributed to them. They and their brute strength are used to explain the presence of mountains, lakes, ancient cities, broken rocks, changes wrought long ago before the human nation arrived. In Germanic cosmogonies they predate the material universe, which is fashioned from the corpse of one of them (7).

So giants are originary or causative, particularly in their body, inhabiting some distant past on which the present is built. The broken body of the giant provides origins - Gogmagog is dashed into a thousand pieces and thrown into the sea so that Brutus can found Britain. The dragon, incidentally, meets the same fate - but I don't think we can equate the dragon and the Grendelkin so easily. He seems to me to be a very different creature, especially in terms of how he relates to the beginnings and endings of human civilisations.

Grendel’s fragments possibly provide, for the poem’s audience, a similar imaginative origin in the defeat of the previous inhabitants of the land. The giants’ violent acts and boundary-breaking, the damage they visit on bodies and landscape (Cohen 17), form the origin both of cultures (imaged in the body) and cultural space, but they also demarcate a boundary in time that cannot be crossed by human knowledge: once again, they demarcate the unknowable.

[1] Seth Lerer, ‘Grendel’s Glove’, English Literary History 61 (1994): 721-751. (The glove Grendel wears – ie, the monster as symbolised by his hand and his mouth, Beowulf’s removal of these; Norse traditions of giants’ gloves; Beowulf is ‘a poem of the body’, and victory results in destruction of the body of the defeated.)
[2] Fabienne Michelet, Creation, Migration and Conquest: Imaginary Geography and Sense of Space in Old English Literature. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2006. (Anglo-Saxon conceptions of space; Grendel’s mere and the dragon’s den compared and contrasted to Heorot, Beowulf’s hall, Beowulf’s cairn; demarcations of land boundaries in Beowulf.)
[3] Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, ‘Old English Literature and the Work of Giants’, Comitatus 24 (1993): 1-32. (Figure of the giant in Old English literature; debts to Germanic and Latin/Old Testament traditions; psychological function of the monster; figure of Grendel within this tradition.)


Jonathan Jarrett said...

... as if the past can only be accessed by the monsters...

I don't know what to do with this idea, exactly, but it seems important to me. Most of all, this is not the Christian world-view of Bede, of thousands of years of sacred history into which the English can be fitted; this is pagan historical sense, or perhaps an immediate post-conversion one, where the past has now become the realm of demons that might once have been kindred. Maybe. Cor.

On the other hand:

... old stone ruins are often referred to semi-metaphorically in Anglo-Saxon poetry as ‘the work of giants’...

Cohen cite notwithstanding, is that more than one actual poem ('The Ruin')? I may just be ignorant, but if I'm not (about this at least) it might be worth nuancing its representativeness.

Hannah Kilpatrick said...

Yes, I do want to play around with the idea of access and relationship to the past - it does seem to me to fit into the religion question, but I'm going to try to avoid touching that one, because... well, that kind of opens a can of dragons.

I think he pointed to several poems in which that or paraphrases of that expression turn up, but thanks for highlighting it - I'll check.