"What is this babbler trying to say?" Acts 17:18

Saturday, January 8, 2011

The Man Behind the Monster: An Interview with Grendel.

By Kate Corrnie, special to Forbode Magazine.

Today I had the unique opportunity to interview Grendel, a well-known literary figure, and someone who was just named to Forbode Magazine's list of 10 most ruthless characters. I caught up with Grendel at one of his favorite haunts: a desolate pond in Scandinavia near where he was raised. The place is a cross between those two iconic bodies of water: Walden Pond and the planet Dagobad. When I met him, Grendel was applying a fresh bandage to a wound he had recently received, so I asked him about it.

Kate: How did you lose your arm?
Grendel: I got in a fight with a big guy who ripped it off.
Kate: I'm so sorry! That sounds terrible. Can you describe what that experience was like?
Grendel: It was the worst day of my life, believe me. I was feeling down and out that day to begin with, real angry at the world, and all that. You know the feeling—well, maybe you don't.... Anyway I decided to take it out on some of old Hrothgar's folks, same as I've done many-a-time. It always makes me feel better to knock some heads. I get there and everybody's sleeping, and all that, so I grab a guy and show him who's boss, when all of a sudden this big guy jumps me and we have a real go at it. He has this incredibly strong grip. We're wrestling together for a while and I just can't shake him off. Finally he grabs hold of my arm—and by this time I'm thinking: “this place is hell, I need to get outa here”—and he literally pulls my bloody arm off!
Kate: Horrible! What did you do then?
Grendel: Well, he was holding my arm, not me, at that point so I got outa there in a hurry.
Kate: How do you feel towards the man who disabled you?
Grendel: How do you think?! How would you feel if somebody pulled your bloody arm off! That guy should be drawn and quartered! I talked to a lawyer but he acted like there was nothing to do. It was self defense he said. Self defense to pull somebody's arm off?! How wrong is that? My livelihood is gone!
Kate: Since you bring up your livelihood, why don't you tell me a little about your business?
Grendel: Basically, I'm a pirate. I take what I need and then some. It's not a bad business to be in in this economy, actually.
Kate: Clearly not, since you were recently named to Forbode Magazine's list of 10 most ruthless businessmen. It's been said that you don't just make a living, you make a killing. Is that an accurate characterization?
Grendel [chuckling]: Yeah, you could say that.
Kate: What was the pinnacle of your pillaging career?
Grendel: Well, I've been in the business a little over 12 years, so there have been a lot of good hauls, but I would have to say the best was the time I carried off 30 of Hrothgar's men in one night. I do everything on a graveyard shift, it just makes my work so much easier.
Kate: In your dealings with others you have often been compared to Cain. Do you think the comparison is accurate?
Grendel: Well... Sure. We're both kinda loners. Kinda outcasts from society. People don't like us, and we don't like people!
Kate: You say you are a loner. Did you have any friends growing up, Grendel? Why don't you tell us about your childhood?
Grendel: My life as a kid was hard. I grow up without a father: my mother was a single parent. The only place we could afford to live was little better than a swamp. No electricity. We had running water, but, unfortunately, it was running through the roof. I would have to say my childhood wasn't typical. I was always a loner; didn't have any friends growing up. I was always jealous when I saw the other kids having fun together. I tried to steal their toys and scare them. I guess I just wanted to make their life miserable because I was miserable.
Kate: Were you—forgive me if this sounds crude—were you a bully growing up?
Grendel: Yeah, you could probably say that.
Kate: How would you characterize your relationship with your mother?
Grendel: She taught me everything I know. Always stuck up for me. Still does. In fact, as we speak she's on her way to pay back the fellow who did this to my arm. Pity the poor wretches she gets her hands on. Raising me alone like she did taught her to be every bit as tough as I am myself.
Kate: We're running out of time, and I can see that shoulder is giving you a lot of pain. One more question: who's your hero?
Grendel: That's a hard one... Frankenstein's Creature is someone I really look up to, but on the other hand, there's a lot I admire in Gollum as well...

Editor's Note: Shortly after this interview with Forbode Magazine, Grendel passed away due to complications from the injury to his arm. Correspondent Kate Corrnie was the last person to interview him before his death.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

More Than a Monster: The Symbolic Meaning of Grendel

“In off the moors, down through the mist-bands
God-cursed Grendel came greedily loping” (Beowulf Lines 710-11).
In this way the anonymous author of the epic Beowulf poem offers us a glimpse of the blood-chilling monster Grendel just before he attacks the mead-hall of Heorot. Leaving terror in his wake, Grendel ranges out from the wild swamps of Scandinavia with the express intention of seeking out men and doing them harm. But who is Grendel? On one level, Grendel is a Gothic forerunner of Frankenstein's Creature, worthy to take his place among the terrifying monsters who inhabit the world of fiction. Yet, like Frankenstein's Creature, Grendel is more than just an inhuman monster. He is a symbol of the jealousy and hate that seeks to destroy others' happiness and can ultimately cripple a civilization.

The physical description of Grendel is vague, an indication that his fictional existence in time and space is less important than the idea that he represents. The author of the poem has fleshed out Grendel just enough to show us that while misshapen and abhorrent, Grendel is not really alien to the race of men. The text indicates that he is essentially human in form. Huge and misshapen, but having “hands,” “arms” (Lines 833, 835), and a mother who is familiar enough with tools to use a dagger (L 1545-6). What places him solidly in the role of a human—albeit, disfigured—is his relation to Cain. It is this relationship to Cain that needs to be explored to fully understand Grendel.

Like Cain who killed his brother, Grendel is a “restless wanderer on the earth” alienated from the rest of mankind (Genesis 4:12). Unable to join the community of men, Grendel becomes envious and “nursed a hard grievance. It harrowed him/ to hear the din of the loud banquet/ everyday in the hall, the harp being struck/ and the clear song of a skilled poet” (L 88-90). Grendel's jealousy and hate finds outlet in destroying the good things he envies. In this way, Grendel personifies the destructive nature of jealousy.

The object of his envy is the mead-hall of Heorot. This is the center of the Danish community's civilization, and—giving the story universal application—this mead-hall is, “the greatest house in the world” (L 145-46). No civilization is free from the attacks of envy and strife which Grendel represents, since even “the greatest house in the world” is thrown into confusion. Clearly, Grendel is no backwater freak-show scaring some villagers, he is a cunning force that even the greatest civilizations must wrestle with. It is telling that Grendel only cares about terrorizing the main hall of Heorot, the center of civilization. To escape him, a man could leave the mead-hall, “shifting himself to a safer distance/ to bed in the bothies [outlying buildings]” (L 139-40). Since any building would be within the range of Grendel, it is clear that he represents a community problem more than just an individual problem. He purposefully strikes at the social and political heart of Danish civilization: the mead-hall.

This disruption at the heart of the community has serious implications. The feasting and fellowship that are synonymous with the traditional mead-hall are interrupted, crippling the harmony of society. It is a bad sign when men no longer feel safe in the place where traditionally safety and trust are paramount. And this breakdown of the community is long lasting. The text tells us that for “twelve winters” the mead-hall of king Hrothgar is terrorized by Grendel (L 147).

During this entire time, the coming of Grendel is unpredictable. He always attacks at night when the warriors are sleeping. Even on the night Beowulf hopes to encounter Grendel, “the hall guards were slack, asleep at their posts” (L 704). From the standpoint of realism it is unbelievable that a roomful of warriors—fearful of their lives and with a knowledge of Grendel's habits—would all fall asleep. When seen in the context of Grendel's personification of lurking envy in society, however, their sleep mirrors the vulnerability of society to those who hate what is good in it.

When the warriors do wake up to their danger they find that Grendel can not be hurt by traditional weapons of war, illustrating yet again that he is not just a physical enemy but a moral one as well that must be “wrestled” with. “There was something they could not have known at the time,/ that no blade on earth, no blacksmith's art/ could ever damage their demon opponent” (L 800-802). Swords cannot cut through the feelings of jealousy and hate that disturb the harmony of the mead-hall.

Grendel is not the only illustration of this. Reinforcing the point that this is an inner human problem, the text gives lengthy space to the envy of Unferth. Whereas all the other Danes welcome Beowulf, Unferth is left feeling, “sick with envy:/ he could not brook or abide the fact/ that anyone else alive under heaven/ might enjoy greater regard than he did” (L 502-505). Unferth is the fully human counterpart of Grendel in the text, mirroring in real life what Grendel represents symbolically. Unferth is envious of Beowulf''s glory in the mead-hall, just as Grendel is envious of the glory and happiness of all men in the mead-hall. Unferth is a murderer of his “own kith and kin” as Beowulf points out (L 587), just as Grendel is a bloody killer. Unferth seeks to humiliate Beowulf, just as Grendel seeks to humiliate all men. We are surprised to learn that Unferth is an unpunished killer, but this is precisely because he does on a small scale what Grendel does for a living: Grendel we are told—but it applies equally well on a personal level to Unferth—“knows he can trample down you Danes/ to his hearts content, humiliate and murder/ without fear of reprisal” (L 599-601). Happily, after Beowulf conquers the monster, Unferth is reconciled to Beowulf and they exchange presents, representing once again that when the monster of envy and hate is destroyed, peace and harmony are possible.

We end with the question we began with: Who is Grendel? Grendel is the rapacious envy of man given living shape. He cannot stand the happiness or glory of others in the mead-hall. If he cannot share it, he must destroy it. Grendel may or may not have lived in the forgotten past of Northern Europe but it doesn't matter. What matters is that Grendel still lives—lives and lurks outside our own mead-hall. But he may do more than lurk on the outside—on a personal level, we must beware of becoming Grendel. What God told Cain (the first ancestor of Grendel) before his envy caused him to kill his brother, is a good warning: “If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it” (Genesis 4:7).
Works Cited

Beowulf. Seamus Heaney, Trans. M.H. Abrams, Editor. The Norton Anthology of English Literature: the Major Authors Edition. 7th ed. W.W. Norton and Co. 2001