Saturday, 2 August 2014

In which I continue to defend the mihtige grundwyrgen

Grendel's mother by Virgil Burnett

Yes, I'm back at it, back to defend Grendel's mother's glory - DEATH BEFORE DISHONOR.

In my last defence of Grendel's mother I didn't go into very much detail about a number of terms (partly because of mid-post fatigue and partly because I probably didn't have that much evidence - yet in my heart I knew, I knew, I was right (this is up for speculation of course)).

In general the only scholars who have really looked into Grendel's mother's character and questioned her monstrosity and some of the outlandishly wrong translations that were applied to her (such as "most evil monster" for secg (warrior/hero) by Crossley-Holland - like, wut?), are limited to Christine Alfano, M.W Hennequin, and Signe M Carlson (although she (/he? - someone please confirm this for me!) focuses more on Grendel's character). Sherman Kuhn in his study of aglæca also helped to clear up issues surrounding the monster/hero/formidable one/blahblah disaster there (something I wish to return to again, despite the fact that it has been DONE TO DEATH). 

Anyway, a few terms haven't really been given so much attention as brimwylf, grundwyrgenne and secg so I kind of wanted to return to those words and try make a convincing case for how they are not monstrous terms, despite what translators keep telling us (BTW I found three translators who translated  aglæcwif as it should be - George Jack, Dobbie and Wrenn - unfortunately, all these are glossaries and not full translations - booo). 

I will begin at the point where I began to slack off in this blog post with . . .

wif unhyre (2120) - A few examples of this terms translations are as follows: "ghastly dam" (Heaney), "monstrous woman" (Chickering), "the gruesome she" (Alexander), and "inhuman troll-wife" (Tolkien). Inhuman troll-wife? Really, Tolkien? Not that his dismissal of her is very surprising seen as he completely forgets about her in Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics. 
But if we look at wif unhyre and split it up, we have wif, which is “i. woman, a female person . . . iii. a married woman, a wife . . . iv. a female” (Bosworth-Toller). Of course this dictionary also adds a separate entrance for wif , "a being in the form of a woman", under which we find Grendel's mother as an example, along with a reference to Bald's Leechbook for the charm "For a Sudden Stitch". These wif however, are not actually physical beings, but metaphorical wif. I don't think Grendel's mother really belongs in the same category as beings that don't even have a physical form, and more so beings that do not even exist except in a cute "oh sure that sudden stitch you have is just some little women throwing spears at you", especially when there's not enough evidence for her being something other than human (in mine own opinion). 

Anyway, if we take wif as what it means for every other sense of the word (ie WOMAN), we can move on to unhyre, which is shit tons more complicated. 
It is often used in this case (and other cases) to imply monstrosity, but I believe it actually means "terribleness" or "cruelty" or "ferocity". Because there are many instances where it just would not make sense if it were to mean "monstrous". Unhyre appears in Genesis A to describe Ishmael - Se bið unhyre, orlæggifre, wiðerbreca wera cneorissum – “He shall be rough, warlike, hostile to the races of men” (2287 Mason), or alternatively “He shall be fierce, battle-greedy, and an enemy to the men of his generation, his own kin” (Hostetter). Wouldn't it be fierce feckin' odd if the author of Genesis A was to describe Ishmael as monstrous or ghastly or inhuman or gruesome? Eh, yeaah, it would. 
Aaand, it appears in An Old English Martyrology as unhyran cwelres, cwelres beaing "executioner" - Cruel, terrible, grim, (anything besides monstrous) fits way better here. Unless they were a very open-minded culture and perhaps hired a panotti or maybe even a sciopod. Because yes, although it could mean "monstrous" in the sense that murderers are monstrous, then that also applies for Grendel's mammy. 
Again, the word appears in The Meters of Boethius in Meter 29 – on wintres tid, weder unhiore, “in time of winter, when fierce is weather” (61), as it is translated by Sedgefield. Again, rough, fierce, terrible makes much more sense here.

A page from the OE Genesis in the Junius MS 

It is also handy to look at Icelandic and Old Norse and all the languages that share similarities with Old English, and the Icelandic word uhyrr stands out as a possible relative, itself meaning "frowning" or "unfriendly looking". 
And it's also great to look at its possible antonym, heoru, hyre, or heora, defined as "pleasant gentle or mild" (B-T). It appears in Beowulf on line 1372 (Nis ðæt heoru stow – “that was not a pleasant place”), in Genesis A (Culufre fotum stop on beam hyre – “the gentle bird stepped with her feet on a tree” (Hostetter)). Surely the antonym of "pleasant" or "gentle" would be "unpleasant", "cruel", "awful", "grim" and not "monstrous". 

I think I wrote enough there to last at least however long it takes me to build up the motivation for another post. 'Til then, here are some great medieval manuscript images

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