This is my third paper on Beowulf. It is the result of a long day and a longer night of struggle. The story is unpleasant but for a few redeeming moments. I crossed the 20 page limit and had to cut out a number of transitional sections which greatly interrupted the flow of the story, though it still functions—albeit roughly—in their absence. My attempt to understand Deconstruction distracted me to such a degree that the whole of the paper suffered. Still, it is kind of funny at points. I am pleased with the idea, but it would require a great deal of editing before I would be proud of it.
I have had two hours of sleep since Friday morning, and it is now time to rest. Goodnight.
* * *
The Monsters of the Criticism: A Beowulf Legend1
The fluorescent lights buzzed incessantly—the only noise in the library. In a corner, hidden behind scarcely-touched stacks of dusty tomes, as far as possible from any other patrons, a pencil-necked boy sat beneath those bleaching lights. On a dusty oak table were sprawled dozens of esoteric texts, all utterly impenetrable to the student. Eric, that hapless boy, stared at the incomprehensible works with blurring eyes and failing courage.
The dozen or so books were comprised of a few translations of Beowulf and a great many works of literary criticism on that poem. Eric, the poor boy, was supposed to somehow integrate all of this information into a cogent, coherent paper. Instead, postponing the inevitable, he let his head fall to the table. “Owww,” he said, but left his head lying there, lacking any strength of will to raise it up. He lay there, closed his eyes in pious submission to whatever malevolent gods of academia were displeased with him, and felt a blanket of sleep fall ever so gently over his consciousness.
* * *
Eric, son of Ethric, perched proudly on the prow of his rider-of-waves, swiftly skimming across the whale-road. Through the cloud-curtain of mist the thegn and his warriors sailed far from home. Across the swan-path to the land of Aporia, that son of Ethric sailed. Rumors of Aporian bloodshed and confusion swept across the waves in recent days to Eric’s uncle, the king. It was for this reason, and old promises of friendship sealed in blood, that Eric sailed across the whale-road to the distant land, there to offer the Danes his aid.
Oars propelled the boat, silent and swift. Soon the sands came beneath the ship, and the warriors stepped onto the unfamiliar land. As soon as their silver-shod shoes stood upon the foreign soil, a band of watchmen set to fend off any foreign foes accosted Eric and his warriors. “Hail, warriors, well-armed and armored. What brings you to Aporia, the land of the Danes?” Thus the guardian of King Hrothgar’s shores.
Eric, young and brave, answered him: “Shared bloodshed and brotherhood have built a bond between your king and mine: Ethgrin, king of the Geats. Rumors of war and mischief have reached our shores and I have been sent to aid your king and honor that allegiance.”
The guardian of Aporia stood in awe of this warrior and welcomed him gladly. Truly this was a good warrior. To the mead-hall of his king, the guardian led Eric and his band. It stood majestic, tall and wide, towering over the trees around it. From within came the sounds of revelry and the smoke of cooking meats. Into this hall, best of all halls and known around the world as Heorot, Eric and his spear-warriors entered, their war-tools shimmering in the setting sun.
Upon hearing their reasons for arrival, King Hrothgar welcomed Eric as a lost son, and freely told of his woes. “My kingdom had known peace for many years,” the stately king said, “and we reveled in our hall with mead and poems of the ages of giants. Many nights we heard the song of Beowulf, the brave Geat, and joyed in his song. But some demon found our tales odious, and in the night the creature known as Grendel came and ended our cheer. With wretched words and soiled thoughts, the beast our feasting stole. That monster’s words were grotesque, instilling fear of raising our weapons to fight. None are left who can face him.”
These woeful words fell heavy upon Eric, but his eyes glimmered with the war-call. To stay within the mead-hall through the night was his intent, but until the sun fell Eric and his warriors joined Hrothgar’s Danes in feasting and reading poems.
While they feasted, the minstrel recited the tale of Beowulf, glad to tell of that fierce warrior and good king. While the minstrel spoke, Unferth, Hrothgar’s thegn, stood, trouble planned in his heart. All attention turned to him, and he said, “It seems to me…umm…it seems that this poem—Beowulf, that is—seems to be incomplete.” Goblets slipped from hands, food ceased to be chewed, and only silence greeted his words. “I mean. . .-” He paused to clear his throat. “A-hem. . . . I mean, parts of it seem to leave something for the reader”—The crowd looked at him askance—”. . .I mean, the listeners—it leaves something for the listeners to do: it isn’t complete on its own.” 2
Eric, offended, rose from his seat. His golden goblet, a fine piece of craftsmanship, he slammed downwards into the table, sloshing wine all about. He said, “Whatever do you mean, Unferth? Beowulf is autonomous; it needs nothing from you.”
Unferth tensed at Eric’s words and multisyllabic vocabulary. “Friend Geat,” Unferth said, “look, for example, near the very end, when Beowulf comes face to face with the dragon and is abandoned by all but one of his thegns. The poet does not tell us anything about them, or why they ran: we are left to fill in these gaps with our own imaginings. However, the fleeing of those thegns does bring to mind the apostles of Christ. This example in Beowulf seems to be an inversion of Christ’s betrayal when one of his disciples betrayed him and the others remained true. From this, we can see how the poet was contrasting Beowulf with Christ to show how inferior the former is, obviously in order to demonstrate the inferiority of the pagan Anglo-Saxon worldview.”
“But- but…” Eric struggled for the words, “but the Beowulf-poet obviously avoids any direct reference to Christ—it doesn’t make any sense that Christ would be in the poem in this way.”
“That’s beside the point,” said Unferth. “The meaning of the poem isn’t created until it interacts with the audience, and so the audience can bring sometimes anachronistic things to the text.”3
Eric sighed in sadness but offered no rebuke. He sat, confused and silent, resigned to the mead-benches. Soon enough the Danes sipped the final drops of honey-wine from their goblets and emptied the hall, leaving only Eric and his thegns in the twilit room. The darkling hall constricted as the night slipped in through the cracks of the woodwork. The courageous prince, bold and thew4, removed his arms and armor, laid his head down, and rested.
In the distant forests, hidden from even the light of the moon, the black waters stir beneath the boughs of gnarled oak and ash. Up from the bogs and meres, a shadow rises. Out from that stretching shadow, a dark form emerges, stepping quickly towards the source of all the noise and song it so much hates. The creature Grendel makes toward Heorot.
In fury and fierce wrath he burst through the oaken doors of the Danish mead-hall. With a mighty roar, he roused the warriors from their rest. As they scrambled from their sleep, the Geats reached for their spears and swords, hoping to spill the blood of this creature. But then the creature, grotesque and strange, placed spectacles on his face and said, “Your spears and swords, warriors, are phallic symbols, you know.” The warriors paused, glancing askance at the weapons of war in their grasps. “Your reliance on such objects for a constant affirmation of masculinity is inextricably connected to a childhood insecurity which resulted from your sexual attraction to your mother and your recognition that your father was a rival for your mother’s sexual and emotional attention.” Green were the faces of the Geats at these thoughts. Their hands, in horror, released their spears and fell limply to their sides. Such thoughts aroused great terror in their hearts, and the warriors fled the hall, leaving the creature Grendel far behind. All fled—all, that is, but Eric.
The brave prince of Geats rose from his bed and faced the creature unabashed and unafraid. A tinge of justifiable apprehension filled the brave warrior as he stood before the monster. Grendel watched him, contemplating and calculating.
“You do not seem like such a fierce monster, Grendel,” Eric said, speaking proudly. “Why do the Danes fear you so?”
Grendel scratched his chin for a moment. “Actually, you know, I don’t really understand that m’self. I’ve simply been telling them that Beowulf was a psychological manifestation of its poet’s attempt to cope with the changes going on in his society at the time while simultaneously dealing with the emotional and sexual strains that tug at every human psyche.”5
Eric, fierce and lordly, scratched his scalp. “Wait…huh?” he asked. “So…Beowulf is like a mental illness? Or- what?”
“You doubt me, warrior of the morning, but the neuroses of a poet are obvious in any work. The poet was clearly struggling with a clash between his pagan roots and the new Christian faith. The rebellion of Grendel—yours truly—against the social norms, the order, the paternal control of Hrothgar and, symbolized in him, the Christian God, is obviously an expression of the Id’s attempt to overthrow the Super-Ego’s morality. Is it any wonder that immediately after Grendel is introduced, the poet tells us that ‘the Creator had condemned him’?6 God is the manifestation of the poet’s Super-Ego; Grendel is the manifestation of the Id; and, not surprisingly, Beowulf proves to be the expression of the Ego, the mediator between the extremes. With his phallic swords and spears, Beowulf arrives, asserting the power and superiority of the masculine, the paternal: God. He defeats Grendel, of course, and then dives into the mere—obviously a yonic, gynecological symbol—and overcomes the Id with the magical sword of a giant.7
Eric took a fearful step backwards and clenched his eyes shut, desperately trying to shut out Grendel’s horrible, subversive thoughts. His hand, despite distaste, clutched tightly to his sword-hilt. To hear Beowulf, the epic of Eric’s age, described so was too much for the young warrior, and his sword flew free of its sheath, baring its silver edge, thirsty for blood. As a dragon bares its mouth of razors, so Eric bared his blade. With that blade, with his might, Eric gave the monster a mortal blow, gruesome and gory. Grendel, pained and disoriented, fled in terror before the young Geat. Blood and gore marking his path, the demon fled to the darkness, to the marshes, to the mere—but only to die.8
There was much feasting and singing in Heorot that night. Hrothgar celebrated Eric with many words and praises, hailing the warrior, young and mighty. The revels went on long into the night, for no longer did Heorot fear the darkness. Four nights passed in such revelry, the longest occasion of joy since years before Grendel had begun his terrible reign. The fifth day since the monster’s defeat soon advesperates, and on the fifth eve of feasting, while the minstrel sang of the creation of the world, Eric felt his spirits fall for the first time since his victory over the demon.
“King Hrothgar,” the thew warrior said, “was not Grendel’s mother supposed to take horrible, bloody, and unexpected revenge on you and your kin for the gory execution of her son?”
The King, noble and lordly, raised his palm and silenced that raucous throng. At his motion not a susurrus disturbed the hall. “Young Eric, it is true what you say. We should have these yesternights been set upon by that grotesque dam, the mother of demons. It is a strange thing that we go unharmed.”
Eric, keen of ken, evaded somnolence all that night, wrestling with shadowy fears of that demonic dam and her dolorous mere. The dawn came; the sun rose russet as it shook free night’s gown, then rusty red as it tore itself from the middle-earth’s embrace, and soon saffron as it alit upon the world. The heaven-candle warmed Eric as he stretched his muscles and sinews, wrapping his fingers around the spear-shaft, arming himself for a hunt. Grendel’s mother was his prey. He forsook that glorious sun and hunted through the darkness.
Now black and dry, blood from Grendel’s mortal wound led Eric to the den of that demon-spawn. Through the woods the warrior wended. In the depths of the forest, hidden beneath the ghastly, grasping branches of ash trees and behind the curtains of mournful willows, lay the stagnant mere. His armor donned, the warrior grasped his sword, whispered a prayer, and dove deep into the rancid water.
Underneath, into a dank cave the warrior swam, surfacing in a deep cavern. His eyes attended to the search for Grendel’s mother. Strange moss along the cavern walls glowed, emitting only enough light to make out the grim shape of Grendel’s dam a short stone’s throw away. Raising his sword, Eric approached the fiendish creature.
“You did not come to avenge your son,” Eric said, pointing his war-knife at her heart, “but I have come to end your foul life regardless.”
The woman rolled her eyes. “How utterly masculine of you,” she said. “Did it not occur to your testosterone-overdosing brain that maybe I don’t have to fulfill every role you lay out for me?” Eric’s sword dropped a few inches—his mouth even further. “Perhaps, my muddle-minded man, I don’t feel obligated to adhere to ridiculous stereotypes of women that are propagated by people like you and the author of Beowulf.”
Eric regained a bit of his composure, lifted his blade, and said, “This has nothing to do with stereotypes: you are demon-kin, and the mother of demon-kin. I am here to end your abominable life.”
“Not about stereotypes! Ha!” Grendel’s mother ran her claws through her hair and groaned. “This is entirely about stereotypes! What exactly am I? I’m a woman: that’s what! But am I an individual? Not at all, I’m only defined by my relationship to my son. Oh, I’m ‘Grendel’s mother’, that’s all. The Beowulf-poet doesn’t even give me a name; I’m merely the mother of a monster, and that is the only source of my personhood. You damn chauvinistic pigs don’t even grant me that half the time! Most of the time, I’m just ‘Grendel’s dam‘ like I’m some kind of animal!9 You smug little men wouldn’t want to give someone like me any individualization as a woman, would you? No, I am just a stereotypical woman, like the other women in Beowulf. Women in literature have to be either sex maniacs, goddesses, or demons. Now Wealhtheow, Hrothgar’s wife—she’s a peace-weaver, she gets to be the sweet, obsequious, attentive, and dutiful angel of a wife; I’m the hideous demon that all the manly warriors must slay! Well, did it ever occur to you—and I’m sure it has not crossed your little pea-brain—that maybe I don’t want to be an evil, scary-looking demon woman? Maybe I just want to be a woman, left free to make my own choices without the constraints of your, the author’s, or society’s preconceived notions about what it ought to mean for me to be a woman.”10
Eric raised his sword to the mother of the demon, spoke quickly, “Perhaps I was hasty in my judgment of you…perhaps.” Eric paused for a moment, considering. “I no longer intend to spread your blood across the cavern walls,” he said. “Your punishment will come of yourself: you may rot away in your cavern, alone, with no husband or son to accompany you, and never again see the surface of this middle-earth.” The warrior ended, turned, and with the strength beyond that of mortal men, struck at the roof of her cavern at its mouth. Boulders of enormous weight collapsed at the cave’s door, forever trapping the demon-kin within. Eric, brave and victorious, dove into the water and again arose in the light of the sun.
The Danes and Geats together rejoiced at Eric’s return. With much feasting, they celebrated his victory, found the enemy of mankind’s punishment perfectly fit. Hrothgar poured out thanks and praise for Eric and his Geats, assuring them of everlasting peace and friendship. Gifts unimaginable—wrought gold and shining armor forged of old—loaded the ship of the Geats, as they sailed back to their land in victory.
Eric returned home, and was praised for his mighty deeds. World-round his name was sung, his battles hailed as mighty. Years passed quickly and his name spread. Soon Eric’s king, King Ethgrin, closed his eyes and passed on to death—who can say where his spirit went? Then, Eric was crowned king, and he ruled there for many years, fighting fierce battles and giving great gifts of gold and arms to his thegns.
He reigned in peace for two score winters, certain of truth and security, but great terror stirred within his kingdom. For an age, there had slept a great beast, a dragon, in the mountain caves of Eric’s kingdom. When Eric, aged and wise, had reigned for many years, that dragon’s sleep was disturbed, his flames kindled, by a foreign adventurer known as Derrida, of the Gallic wilderlands. This Gaul—and what gall!—encroached upon the dragon’s treasure-horde, woke the sleeping dragon, called forth his infernal wrath. Aroused, his flames swept the hamlets and countryside, ash and ember marking his wake.
Eric, the folk-guard and protector of kin, grasped a hold of his old sword once more, and rose from his throne, gathered his thegns. Together, this band braved the mountains in search of the dragon. The bold protector scaled the summits and there found the foe they sought. His serpentine head protruding from his lair, the horde-guardian rested, his lizard-eyes deep in slumber, worn from his flights of destruction. As Eric and his thegns approached, the great worm awoke, swift and terrible. His crimson eyes pierced that band of warriors, unscrewing the courage they had mustered. As the dragon stepped out from its lair towards their king, those thegns fled in fear; all but Wiglaf, the only one loyal to his liege-lord, remembering many gifts, unafraid of fire and death.
These two, bound in their fate, stepped towards the dragon with their weapons bared. The dragon’s lip twitched to reveal a row of razors, terrible to behold.
“Why do you wish to wage war against me,” the dragon roared, his words ringing in the king’s ears.
“Your wanton ways have destroyed and endangered my kingdom,” spoke the king, “and I shall not idly watch my kingdom come to harm. Evil worm, you have killed my people, and that is reason enough to destroy you.”
“‘Evil’?” mocked the dragon. “You think me evil? Your concept of evil is merely an arbitrary construction, my little king, and the designation is utterly meaningless. Your concepts of good and evil are based on an inherently flawed metaphysical system, mired in language. These concepts cannot exist apart from mere words.”11
The king frowned, always glaring. “You are evil, dragon, and you are no mere concept. You stand before me, objective and reviled.”
“But you cannot even think outside of this system, king, and your thoughts are a construction of your social paradigm as much as anything else. There is ambiguity everywhere, in every little thing. Look at that silly epic poem you men laud so highly: Beowulf is full of these ambiguous nominalizations, all susceptible to subversion and play. Take, for example, that last moment of Beowulf’s life, as he lies mortally wounded by me. The poet tells us that “from his breast flew / his soul to seek the judgment of the righteous.”12 Here, the poem deconstructs itself, making clear its ambiguities and undetermined meaning. The didactic quality of the poem depends on whether Beowulf’s soul is here going off to be judged as righteous and therefore enter heaven, or whether is soul is going off to be judged by the righteous and therefore condemned as a pagan. The entire tone of the poem and its attitude towards noble pagans in a pre-Christian time period is dependent on this ambiguous line which can never be definitively resolved.13The language clearly deconstructs the metaphysical and religious foundations upon which the poem is based.”
The dragons words faded into silence, falling upon deaf ears. The king listened not to his ramblings but bared his sword against that huge beast and attacked. For this insolence, the dragon tried to spew forth flame, but only belched and expelled a deluge of hot air. Unharmed, the king, with his iron-forged sword, stabbed at the dragon’s scales, lightly scoring that beast’s hard breast but fracturing his sword in the attempt. At this small wound, the dragon roared and snapped its jaw down upon the king, capturing him in his gaping maw, piercing him with fearful teeth. The king’s wound was gory and wide: terribly and utterly mortal. Blood spilling, the king collapsed to the ground.
Then it was that loyal Wiglaf, the brave thegn and last friend of that dying king, took up the king’s cracked blade, and stood before his gold-friend, his ever kind lord, protecting that good king with a sturdy shield. With tears in his eyes and the image of his dying lord, the thegn spoke these words of rebuke for that destructive dragon: “You are mortal too, dragon, and your doom is soon. Your words are insidious but otiose for you have lost sight of all that is beautiful in the world and in poetry. Like the monsters before you, you forget that there is a magnificent poem, a powerful elegy, at the heart of what you tear apart. There is an old tale, told long ago by a wise man, but you and your kind have forgotten:
A man inherited a field in which was an accumulation of old stone, part of an older hall. Of the old stone some had already been used in building the house in which he actually lived, not far from the old house of his fathers. Of the rest he took some and built a tower. But his friends coming perceived at once (without troubling to climb the steps) that these stones had formerly belonged to a more ancient building. So they pushed the tower over, with no little labour, in order to look for hidden carvings and inscriptions, or to discover whence the man’s distant forefathers had obtained their building material. Some suspecting a deposit of coal under the soil began to dig for it, and forgot even the stones. They all said: ‘This tower is most interesting.’ But they also said (after pushing it over): ‘What a muddle it is in!’ And even the man’s own descendants, who might have been expected to consider what he had been about, were heard to murmur: ‘He is such an odd fellow! Imagine his using these old stones just to build a nonsensical tower! Why did not he restore the old house? He had no sense of proportion.’ But from the top of that tower the man had been able to look out upon the sea.”14
The warrior fell silent, prepared for battle; the dragon laughed at Wiglaf’s words of rebuke. With a cry for his dying lord, when the dragon struck with his vicious maw, that brave Geat thrust his king’s broken sword into the fierce worm’s mouth, slicing upwards, bleeding out that creature’s spirit. The dragon fell, and his reign of fire ended at the point of that broken blade.
To his king went Wiglaf, lifting up his lord’s head and shedding tears at his dying. But that king smiled, rejoicing in the comfort of his loyal thegn, and turned his bloodied head towards the south. From the top of that high summit, the king looked out and saw the sea. And then, in the hands of that true warrior, the king of Geats surrendered his spirit.
* * *
A few drops of drool had slipped down Eric’s chin and landed on a particularly insipid anthology of literary theory. The young man’s eyes snapped open, visions of a strange middle-earth fading from his mind. With his sleeve he wiped his chin and shook his head a bit to free himself from the drowsiness. It took a few moments but he was soon staring once again at his piles of Beowulf-iana. But from somewhere far away—as if from a dream or an enchanted memory—there came an image of himself standing bravely and proudly as a great lord. It was a strange image, improbable and foolish, but Eric held on to it nonetheless; and, instead of reopening those tomes of critics and of scholars, Eric picked up the poem itself and pored over its pages, reveling in the well-wrought legend of beauty and truth. That was a good student!
1. Dear reader, I apologize for the, at best, inconsistent tone and style of this work. I am usually a fairly decent writer of fiction; however, creative fiction and literary criticism create something of a mess in each other’s company. I suspect a straight-forward essay might have been the more concise and clear option, but this was far more fun and slightly more humorous (I hope). Focus on the content rather than the form, if you would, and admire the one or two pleasant constructions that dapple the work.
2. Charles E. Bressler, in his anthology Literary Criticism: An Introduction to Theory and Practice, says that Reader-Response criticism, which Unferth here manifests, is based on the denial of the text as an autonomous object (61).
3. “Meaning, declare reader-response critics, is context-dependent and intricately associated with the reading process” (Bressler 61). This includes both the context of the work and that of the reader. While Bressler does say that critics in this school vary in their opinions of the importance of the reader in interpretation, there is a shared sense of his important influence on meaning (63). Therefore, the historical milieu of the author is important, but not necessarily more important than the milieu of the reader.
4. The word thew is, in this form, traditionally a noun. It has an adjectival form, thewy, but this sounds, in this author’s opinion, unpleasant. While I generally oppose the misuse of the English language, in this case the noun form of the word is of such higher aesthetic quality that adopting this same form for the adjectival function seems incredibly reasonable. Using the noun form for the adjectival form is not unheard of at all in the English language, and seems especially fitting for the attempted Old English tone of this work. Moreover, this is a creative work, and as such grants some freedom for creative language use.
5. This historical atmosphere of metamorphosis and tension has been discussed in this author’s previous works on Beowulf. For more information also see Dorothy Whitelock’s The Audience of Beowulf (Oxford, 1951).
6. Beowulf 106. Grendel is also described as “the foe of mankind” and as one who “bore God’s anger” (164, 711).
7. Note: I will not go into any specific detail relating to the psychoanalytic significance of a magical giant sword.
Freudian psychoanalysis revolves primarily around Freud’s tripartite model of the human mind which posited the existence of the id, the ego, and the super-ego, according to Bressler (122). The id constitutes the “irrational, instinctual, unknown, and unconscious part of the psyche” which is the source of “all our psychosexual desires and all our psychic energy” (123). Utterly impulsive, the id is only kept in check by the super-ego, an “internal censor” which acts according to moral principles instilled by social pressures (123). The super-ego, according to Wilfred Guerin in A Handbook of Critical Approaches to Literature, is intended to “block off and thrust back” the irrational, primal desires of the id (his choice of words, I think, deserve a moment or two of contemplation) (90). The last part of the human psyche is the ego, the mostly conscious part of the human brain which mediates between the id and the super-ego, primarily attempting to regulate the id’s irrational longings (Bressler 123). Wilfred Guerin cites Freud as saying, “In popular language, we may say that the ego stands for reason and circumspection, while the id stands for the untamed passions” (90).
Guerin also notes that “from the psychoanalytic viewpoint all rebellion is in essence a rejection of parental, specifically paternal, authority” (97). Integrated with Freud’s tripartite model, this provides for an interesting analysis of Beowulf in which Grendel manifests the rebellion against the masculine, paternal figure represented by Hrothgar and, on occasion, God. With Grendel as the id, God (through Hrothgar) as the super-ego, and Beowulf as the ego, it is not hard to view Beowulf as a reaction by the poet to the tension between paganism and Christianity by portraying such rebellion in this way. Grendel’s rebellion against masculinity and paternity is, of course, put down swiftly by Beowulf who wields swords and spears, obvious phallic, masculine symbols in psychoanalytic archetypes (Guerin 91).
8. Grendel’s death is not so much an attack on the school of psychoanalytic criticism as it is a reflection of the obvious decline in the school’s credence. An article by Jonathan Redmond of Deakin University and Michael Shulman of Madonna University provided unambiguous evidence of the nearly complete absence of psychoanalytic theory in psychology studies. Patricia Cohen’s analysis of the article says that 86% of psychoanalytic theory and practice—or what claims to be so—is practiced outside of psychology departments, usually by literary critics.
9. Alexandra Hennessey Olsen, professor at the University of Denver, argues, in her essay on gender roles in Beowulf, that the common translation of the old English Grendles modor to Grendel’s dam instead of Grendel’s mother “enables critics to ignore her humanity and her womanness by equating her with animals” (Olsen 319).
10. Feminist criticism most clearly manifests itself here in Grendel’s mother by her uncovering and opposition to misogyny in literature which is one of the keys to feminist criticism for feminists like Elaine Showalter, according to Bressler (149). Interestingly, Lacan argued that “it is language that ultimately denies women the power of language and therefore the power of literature and writing” (Bressler 152). In light of this, the common translation and delineation of Grendel’s mother as Grendel’s dam can be viewed as an obvious attempt, subconscious or otherwise, by modern scholars to depreciate the power of the female character through language.
One of the goals of many feminist critics is the overturning of stereotypical female roles. Bressler says,
[S]ome feminist critics begin their debunking of male superiority by exposing stereotypes of women in every literary period. Women, they argue cannot be simply depicted and classified as either angels or demons, saints or whores, or brainless housewives or eccentric spinsters. Such characterizations must be identified and challenged, and this kind of abuse / diminishment of women by male authors must be acknowledged as a way that men have consciously or unconsciously demeaned, devalued, and demoralized women. (155)
It is this type of criticism that Grendel’s mother here takes on. While the search for a canon more sympathetic to feminine studies is also central to the feminist school, such criticism falls outside the scope of what would fit here. In Grendel’s mother’s attempt to “break free from this oppression and define” herself, she is able to attack the misogyny she sees on the part of the Beowulf-poet (Bressler 154).
11. Bressler argues that deconstructionism assumes that “the entire history of Western metaphysics from Plato to the present is founded on a classic, fundamental error” and this error proves to be the search for an objective signified, outside of subjective concepts (104). While Western philosophy avers some kind of objective transcendental signified at the center, deconstruction aims to point out the shaky foundations of such claims (Bressler 105). By showing how language is never able to escape the confines of language—because signifieds only mean by differentiation, by being different than other words, and because signifieds also perpetually defer their meanings to other words, never to an objective truth—Derrida and the deconstructionists can display the inherent ambiguity in any discourse, and the supposedly endless potential for play in significance (Bressler 105).
12. Beowulf 2819-2820.
13. M. H. Abrams, Professor Emeritus at Cornell University, says, “There is thus no ground, in the incessant play of difference that constitutes any language, for attributing a decidable meaning, or even a finite set of determinately multiple meanings. . .to any utterance that we speak or write. [. . . .] As Derrida puts it in Writing and Difference: ‘The absence of a transcendental signified extends the domain and the play of signification indefinitely’ (p. 280)” (79). Derrida’s argument is basically that “on the one hand, a text proffers the ‘effect’ of having a significance that is the product of its difference, but that on the other hand, since this proffered significance can never come to rest in an actual ‘presence’—or in a language-independent reality Derrida calls a transcendental signified—its determinate specification is deferred from one linguistic interpretation to another in a movement of ‘play’. . .in an endless regress” (Abrams 78). Essentially, language, as it is always arbitrary and refers infinitely to other words, can never escape ambiguity. By discovering such ambiguities in a text—such as that here in Beowulf—Derrida and the deconstructionists would watch as the text is shown to undermine its own affected air of truth and determinacy.
14. Tolkien 7-8. These are the word of J.R.R. Tolkien in his essay “The Monsters and the Critics”, and these words are the salvation of Beowulf criticism. These are the words with which Professor Tolkien rescued Beowulf criticism from old historicism in the 1930’s, and these are the words with which Beowulf criticism of the 21st century ought to be confronted.
Abrams, M. H., and Geoffrey Galt Harpham. A Glossary of Literary Terms. 10th ed. Boston: Wadsworth Cengage, 2009. Print. Beowulf Handbook.
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