Here's a preview of my paper at SEMA in St. Louis.
Two years ago in Yorkshire, Aishah Azmi, a teaching assistant at a C of E school, was suspended because she refused to remove her niqab in the presence of males—the result of a not uncommon interpretation of the Koran that demands modesty from women. Then-Prime Minister Tony Blair called the full-face veil “a mark of separation” that “makes people from outside the community feel uncomfortable”; Ms. Azmi countered that the niqab is an important part of her culture and “Muslim women who wear the veil are not aliens.” Ellen Goodman of the Boston Globe took the argument further linking Ms. Azmi’s niqab to the inadvertent support for “the mullahs of repression.”
Now, whatever our individuals thoughts on this particular issue, it is an exemplum of the way cultural tensions erupt in specific, concrete ways—in this case over a single piece of cloth placed somewhere on the body Western society deems disagreeable. These tensions often play out behind the guise of cultural markers—diet, speech, taboos, dress. Each is easily exaggerated into stereotypes: the Irish eat potatoes; barbarians don’t have a symbolic language (or don’t speak Greek); higher caste Hindus used to avoid contact with Dalits (the Untouchables); Native Americans wear feathered headdresses and buckskins.
These cultural markers were at work in medieval texts and characters, too. In his seminal The Monstrous Races in Medieval Art and Thought, John Block Friedman extended their application to the monsters of the Middle Ages. What we have found since then is that a monster is largely a creation of cultural markers important to its creator and cultural context.
Nevertheless, our interpretation of the Grendelkin has continued to be as problematic as it was in 1936 when Tolkien redirected our thinking on them. One of the basic problems with the current conversation on Grendel and his mother is that we keep trying to apply an ontological definition to them when a functional one is more instructive and viable. I think we should be less concerned with what they are—human exiles, demons, or trolls—and much more concerned with what they do and don’t do in the poem. This paper, which is a small part of a research project, represents my attempt to tease out more information and further direct our thinking about the Grendelkin by examining how the poet created their monstrous identity through the cultural markers—specifically that of clothing and armor.
This approach relies on a notion to my knowledge first put forth by Jeffrey Cohen and stated most clearly in Theses 3 and 4 of the initial chapter of Monster Theory. It is this: monsters draw their power to terrify both from their position outside the scope of human knowledge and their threat to social order. Without both of these, you get Sesame Street’s Snuffleupagus on the one hand and Adolph Hitler on the other. Thinking about the monster as both a physical pastiche and a constellation of cultural transgressions is also a way of framing a discussion of the Grendelkin. Their physical monstrous attributes have been much-discussed but they still give only a vague image—one that could just as easily be Tolkien’s cave troll or Sigourney Weaver’s alien nemesis from the film series!
Instead, I think the cultural side of their transgression ledger is a rich vein of inquiry. Returning to my constellation metaphor, we can see the Grendelkin through their cultural transgressions. They violate accepted foodways multiple times. They don’t use symbolic language, whereas fine speaking is a prized ability in Old English literature. They violate cultural conventions about the use of weapons in battle. But what is most interesting to me right now—the star, to perhaps belabor my metaphor, I want to study in this constellation—is their attitude toward clothing—specifically, armor—and how that sets them apart from the human warriors of the poem.
Most of us are aware, on some level, that material goods like armor were crucial to the function of a warrior society like the one depicted in Beowulf. It has a significant function in the principles of exchange demanded by the lord-thane bond. Some armor receives attention to is lineage. Old English grammar even gives armor a limited sense of agency: the mail-coat will often act as the subject by preserving the warrior, who is placed in the object position.
What is pertinent to this examination, however, is the symbolic value armor has in this cultural context. George Clark wrote about this in 1965, and he is worth quoting at length here: “the multitudinous references and allusions to arms and armor pervading Beowulf constitute an imaginative whole, a symbol for the heroic life.” And later: “Arms and armor in Beowulf are…instances of man’s creative power…; they are status symbols, tokens of order and degree in human society; they are heirlooms…; [they] are both gifts and treasures, and as such they betoken both sides of the heroic contract.” Clark’s point here is that armor is tied to the idea of a warrior, but I would extend the significance to each warrior’s status among his fellows. What I’d like to quickly sketch out here is the obverse of the Grendelkin. If the pair is a constellation of transgressions, then Beowulf and the other humans should be a constellation of motifs that serve to support the values of their culture. Thus, I am extending Clark’s notion, and I am reading armor as a way of seeing warriors and as a way of judging them among their peers.
In some ways, material goods are all we’ve got to help us conjure up an image of Beowulf. We have no idea what he looked like—Ray Winstone? Christopher Lambert? Gerard Butler?—but we do get a significant amount of detail about what his helmet and armor when compared to Beowulf’s physical features. There are lots of examples of this scattered throughout the poem (in fact, Beowulf’s burial is focused much more on the armor on the funeral pyre that his body), but the examples on which I’d like to focus are the meetings with the Danish coast guard and Wulfgar.
Between Beowulf’s introduction in line 194 and the revelation of his name in line 343 we get detail that builds on three main ideas: he is Hygelac’s thane (194), he is the strongest of all men (196-97), and his fifteen chosen companions are the bravest warriors he could find among the Geats (206-07). We could rightly expect, then, that the things we find out immediately afterwards would have something to do with these facts. So it is significant that most of what we end up learning about the warriors has to do with their armor and other war-gear. In the 150 lines separating Beowulf’s introduction and his naming—those crucial lines in which the poet paints the initial picture of Beowulf and his brave band for his audience—we get at least ten separate references to armor—four of those being descriptions more detailed than we ever get for Beowulf or his men. The evidence for the Geatish troop being such brave thanes seems to be their terrific war-gear.
But it’s not just the audience who “sees” the nature of Beowulf and his thanes through their armor. When they first land in Denmark, the first thing the coast-guard sees in the glint of the shield bosses (231-32). Then he rides down to the shore and challenges the Geats with “What sort of men are you, wearing armor, protected by mail-shirts?” (237-38). It seems that all the coast-guard can see are Geatish armor and weapons.
But maybe we shouldn’t be surprised by his question. Immediately following, the poet focuses our own vision on the glint and clink of their armor as they advance along the stone path to Heorot. When they do arrive, Wulfgar greets the troop with further focus on their armor. “From where,” he asks them, “have you borne these gold-plated shields, gray mail-shirts, and visored helmets?” (333-39). When we would expect our mind’s eye to be focused most closely on the hero and his men, the poet and characters fix them instead on armor. The Danish men whom Beowulf and his troop first meet “see” the warriors through their armor. It seems a symbolic attitude toward armor and other war-gear is being developed here, that the mail-coats and helmets function as a metonymic representation of powerful warriors.
This metonymic relationship between great armor and a warrior’s status is supported by the Danish coast-guard and Wulfgar. We just saw how much attention the coast-guard pays to Geatish armor, but what is more compelling is that almost immediately after he comments on it, he praises Beowulf: “Never,” he says, “have I seen a greater warrior than this one among you, a warrior in armor” (247-51). The watchman is probably justified in his concern about the intentions of these men because they are well-armored warriors, which makes them potentially dangerous. But he also judges Beowulf’s prowess at least in part based on his armor: for the coast-guard, it seems, Beowulf is the greatest warrior he’s ever seen and certainly not merely a “hall-thane” because he has impressive armor and weapons. As if to dispel any doubt that this is a valid criterion by which to judge a man, the Dane adds “may his visage, his matchless appearance never belie him” (247-51).
The relationship between armor and a warrior’s prowess and nobility is shared by Wulfgar. As does the coast-guard, he notes the impressive armor and weapons the Geats carry. Then he makes a judgment on their character based on that observation alone: “Never have I seen so many foreign men braver in appearance. I think that you in boldness, high courage—certainly not exile—have sought Hrothgar” (336-39). The implications of the Geats’ gleaming armor are clear: battle-gear is symbolic of a warrior’s heroism.
That this is so should not be surprising. As the poem makes clear, the normal avenue for gaining armor, treasure, or swords is either to inherit them or earn them in battle. It stands to reason, then, that if a thane had good, skillfully-made armor, he either come from a good line of warriors or had been successful in battle on his own. Either way, he has access to and membership in the warrior society. Armor, then, is part of signifying the status of a warrior, but it is also crucial to one’s status among fellow warriors—as the coast-guard and Wulfgar show.
But if armor signifies one’s status as a warrior, then what are we to make of those who don’t wear it? What does armor use signify to the Grendelkin. Turns out, not much. Admittedly, we’re hampered in our study of what they wore into battle since, as Michael Lapidge notes, the poet was careful not to give us too precise a description of our antagonists. We do know that they were not ignorant of armor because it litters their hall. This, then, suggests they had no use for it—that it had no significance at all for them. It also indicates that Grendel’s frætewum is not armor.
There’s been a certain amount of confusion over how to translate this word. We’ve gotten translations as various as “trappings,” “ornaments,” “armor,” “finery,” “scaly harness,” and the confusion seems to have led Heaney to just omit it. Klaeber connects frætewum to a warrior who used only his own equipment, but he doesn’t explain what equipment that might be. Dobbie thinks the poet meant to depict him “as being ‘equipped for battle,’ whatever that may have involved in Grendel’s case.” Those very vague suggestions by two giants in the field highlight the paucity of detail we have when it comes to the Grendelkin’s clothing—especially when compared to the attention to armor within human cultural contexts. So while we may never learn what the poet meant by frætewum, I think we can safely say he did not mean armor.
The term’s equation with armor is unlikely since the poet emphasized a level playing field for the fight between Grendel and Beowulf. In lines 677-87, Beowulf remarks that he’d refrain from using weapons because his foe didn’t use them. Immediately before his boast, however, much had been made about Beowulf removing his armor and helmet. It seems obvious that our hero is going to great lengths to battle Grendel on equal terms and that he is relying on the judgment of God to determine the outcome. Because of Beowulf’s faith in God’s judgment of the battle, Morton Bloomfield—and more recently Roberta Frank—see it as an early example of judicium Dei, a trial by combat that, as Bloomfield notes, was “employed under some fixed conditions to determine the will of God.” At the heart of the judicium Dei were those “fixed conditions”: equality in weapons and armor supposedly prevented human influences from obscuring the judgment of God. So a pitched battle would undercut the purpose of the entire exercise. If this interpretation is correct—and the attention to parity between participants and God’s involvement in the duel suggests it is—then the frætewum that Grendel wore could not have been armor or Beowulf wouldn’t have had to shed his.
To my mind, it’s clear that his choice of clothing identified Grendel (and by extension his mother) as an outsider. It may work as a sub-text, but it’s a powerful marker of difference once identified. I might even venture to say it’s one of the main reasons we know they aren’t members of any recognized warrior class—because they don’t adhere to accepted customs. For humans, armor signifies their status as warriors and, along with other cultural markers, helps to create that constellation of heroism that we call the warrior society. The opposite is true with the Grendelkin. They don’t wear any armor—even though they had easy access to it in their hall. So for them, is signifies their status as Other and, along with those other cultural markers, helps to create that constellation of monstrosity.
The poet did not, then, fashion his monster out of whole cloth (if you’ll pardon the pun) but instead from the cultural materials at hand. And in the process of creating the Grendelkin, our poet has given us a glimpse of his own cultures attitudes (and perhaps anxieties) about clothing.
What that leaves us with is perhaps more questions than answers. What does it mean that this particular trait helped create a monster? What—if anything—more can that choice tell us about Anglo-Saxon culture and its attitudes toward…dare I say…fashion? And finally, are the Grendelkin teachers, markers of the wrong route? Or are they (as monsters so often are) symbolic of external cultural groups that were seen as threatening?