Sunday, 30 December 2007

Monster of a Woman or Female Warrior - Who was Grendel's Mom?

Last night I went to see the current Beowulf film in the stunning glory of Imax 3-D. Its the type of film that takes a good deal of processing to absorb. For the first half an hour or so I was transfixed by special effects and having spears fly at me and rats crawl right over my head as well as the whole CGI/Stop Motion technique - so it took my brain a bit of time to actually focus on the movie and the story. I also could not stop myself from thinking "Boy I wish they did Lord of the Rings like this" as I pictured the 3-D Imax effects of Gandalf fighting with Saruman and the Nazgul's encounter with the Hobbits in the Shire.

I guess the most interesting element of the film for me was the portrayal of Grendel's mother played by Angelina Jolie. The Grendel character was for me pretty much as I pictured the "mearcastapa" in the poem - having him speak Anglo-Saxon was a master stroke I thought. There were a couple of times that he reminded me of one of those giants from a Maurice Sendak story - but overall ok. What kept niggling at me throughout the film was were is the textual justification for having Grendel's mother look like Angelina Jolie (with a tail of course)

She''s always been an interesting character to me - doesn't even have a name and certainly her son gets a lot more of the action and lines in the poem. She takes her revenge on the murder of her son, smash and grab (Aeschere's head) and then heads back where (and now we get into that weird space the movie created of are we being told what really happened?) Beowulf dispatches her with a mighty sword.

So I want back to the text (excuse the "th's") and the lines that describe Grendel's mother:
(Lines 1259-1263)

Grendles modor
ides, aglaec-wif, yrmthe gemunde
se the waeter-egesan wunian scolde
cealde streamas, siththan Cain wearth
to ecg-banan angan brother

Which I translate as:

The Mother of Grendel
a monster of a woman (or a woman warrior)
called to mind her misery
he (not she) who was doomed to dwell in the fearsome water - the cold streams
since that time when Cain do slay his own brother..."

The words that are of most interest to me is "ides, aglaec-wif" which seems to have two different meetings

  • Klaeber translates it as "awesome assailant in woman's form"
  • CL Wren's edition (1953) "a monster of a woman"
  • n the Beowulf Student Edition edited by George Jack (Oxford, 1994) "ides" is translated as woman and "aglaecwif" as "female warrior
According to Bosworth and Teller - aglaec can mean - a wretch, monster or miser -and an aglaec-wif is a wretch of a woman, vile crone, monstrum, miscreant.

But there may also be a textual variant according to Chickering who notes that the line could be read as "idese onlicnaes" which simply means "in the likeness of a woman" (what in the likeness of woman.),

And then I found another twist in the tail when looking at where else in poem that word "aglaec" is used - and this seems to point to the second potential meaning of the word as "female warrior." In line 893 of the poem the hero Siegmund is described as "aglaeca elne" fierce warrior. Then in later in line 2592 both Beowulf and the Dragon are described as "tha aglaecean" which can mean "those terrible ones, fierce ones."

So is the "aglaec-wif" we have in the poem a monster of a woman or a fierce woman warrior. Its also interesting to think that the word is used to describe both Grendel's mom and Beowulf both who come from the sea - and thinking about the plot of the film (without spoiling it for those who have not seen) the connection of Beowulf, Grendel's mom and the dragon).

Is what the poem (and the film to a certain extent) telling us that in this meeting of Beowulf and the Mother - they are equally matched and kindred spirits?

I will investigate the word further - and see what Tolkien may have thought of this word - any comments most welcome! I also belive Jane Chance wrote an article on this very subject which I will search for.

4 comments:

Michael said...

I would say that the key word is "ides," which in most other places has pretty positive connotations and is usually translated as "maiden" rather than just "female" (Hygd, in Beowulf, is a "mournful ides," but I think that's not inconsistent, since she needs the "mournful" description). The most famous phrase involving "ides" is "ides ælfsciene" ("elf-shiny maiden") applied to Judith. Tolkien wrote a poem called "ides ælfsciene." There's a good discussion of the problems associated with Grendel's mother in Mary Dockray-Miller's _Mothering and Motherhood in Anglo-Saxon England_.
Aglæca is also difficult, as the word is, as you note, applied to both Beowulf, Grendel and Grendel's mother. It's possible that this means something like "creature out of the ordinary" without the automatic pejorative of "monster," though that might be stretching things a bit. The problem is that the evidence is also pretty circular: how you think of Beowulf himself determines what you think of the word which feeds back into what you think of the way the poet is creating the character of Beowulf.

AnnieD said...

I've just read this rather interesting article on "Grendles modor" and the language used to describe her by Christine Alfano, published in 1993 (I'm pretty sure). If you care to return to your musings on Grendel's mother, its well worth reading. She challenges the interpretation of "Aglaecwif" (Heaney renders it "murderous hell-bride), brimwylf ("wolf of the deep" or "wolfish swimmer"), and takes a feminist perspective, blaming patriarchal attitudes when Beowulf was first translated for turning the "lady warrior-woman" into "Grendel's dam, monstrous hell-bride"

AnnieD said...

I've just read this rather interesting article on "Grendles modor" and the language used to describe her by Christine Alfano, published in 1993 (I'm pretty sure). If you care to return to your musings on Grendel's mother, its well worth reading. She challenges the interpretation of "Aglaecwif" (Heaney renders it "murderous hell-bride), brimwylf ("wolf of the deep" or "wolfish swimmer"), and takes a feminist perspective, blaming patriarchal attitudes when Beowulf was first translated for turning the "lady warrior-woman" into "Grendel's dam, monstrous hell-bride"

MyBrainHurts said...

In his Beowulf and The Fight at Finssburg, Klaeber translated aglaecwif as "wretch, or monster of a woman" in the glossary. I'm of the opinion that Grendel's Mother is in fact human/human-like, rather than the usual view of her as a monster. Aglaeca is also used in a description of Bede to describe him as an "awesome teacher", so I think it possibly means "awe-inspiring". I did my MA thesis on these issues, and would also suggest reading Christine Alfano's article. I wrote a few blog posts on this issue as well if you are interested! It's a very intriguing subject

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