The Heroic Age

Issue 5

Summer/Autumn 2001

Gæst, gender, and kin in Beowulf:

Consumption of the Boundaries

By Carolyn Anderson

University of Wyoming

Abstract: Grendel's Mother's masculinity is connected with the textual anxiety over kinslaughter in Beowulf. Grendel's Mother enacts the physical threat between hosts and guests, which itself recalls the ever present violence between men and the closest reflections of themselves, their kin. Gæst (host, guest), literally embodies the social relationship of consumption at both the metaphorical and physical levels; the term suggests more fluidity in the threat Grendel's mother poses to Beowulf than the purely oppositional one of monster, or even the psychological one of archaic feminine annihilation.

In this article, I discuss the relationship between the portrayal of Grendel's Mother as a masculine or ides aglæcwif,[1] "monstrous woman," and the textual anxiety over kinslaughter in Beowulf,[2] through an investigation of the meanings of the word gæst,[3] which appears initially to binarize a social relationship into one of hosts and guests. Closer examination of the word's Sanskrit root *ghas "to consume," highlights its deconstruction as a differentiating marker of the most intimate of social categories.[4] The collapse of reliable markers of gendered identity points to the fragility of identity at the psychoanalytic level, and to the recurrent fear of kin-slaughter at the social level. The text thus unifies cultural reflexes and individual psychodynamics.

Grendel's Mother enacts the physical threat between hosts and guests, which itself recalls the ever present violence between men and the closest reflections of themselves, their kin. Gæst (host, guest) literally embodies the social relationship of consumption at both the metaphorical and physical levels; the term suggests more fluidity in the threat Grendel's mother poses to Beowulf than the purely oppositional one of monster, or even the psychological one of archaic feminine annihilation.[5] The likeness between Beowulf and Grendel's mother and the fact that this single fluid term describes them both point to a cultural anxiety over the problem of guest/host relationships, evidenced in the text's recurrent references to the violence in kin relationships.

I begin with the critical attempts to categorize Grendel's Mother according to her female status, and then move to a discussion of the ways in which killing is not a reflection of the monstrous and the feminine in a divided male self;[6] next, I outline the ways in which kin slaughter is a pervasive anxiety. After analyzing the functional shifts at the heart of the guest/host/stranger/spirit cluster of words, which all relate to the word *ghas, 'to consume,' I explore the ways in which Grendel's Mother enacts the ambiguity of the socially necessary and threatening, not so much as a matter of femaleness, or "ides aglæcwif" qua "ides aglæcwif", but as a matter of gendered position, made monstrous as a way of conveniently projecting all instability of the subject onto the feminine.

For example, the "guest" is one who must be fed, while the "ghost" is shunned (lines 99-104); the "visitor" is he who enters and eats and sleeps at the "host's" agreement (lines 1799-1800). This apparent opposition/similarity leads me to a discussion of the psychoanalytic implications of the blurred boundaries between the ever moving monster and the man. Here, I rely on Kristeva, who sees a struggle between the semiotic (the presymbolic, the monstrous) and the symbolic (the Hero), where the abject is never successfully banished from the symbolic order but remains to challenge and threaten it. The threat of consumption, which is a return to the annihilation of the subject in the semiotic (by the monster, the hero, the warriors who do not know you yet, your kinsmen), is part of the meaning of any guest/host relationship in this poem; the banishment of Grendel and his Mother does not rid the world of Heorot or Beowulf of disruptions. The abject (repressed) persistently encroaches on and disrupts the symbolic order, so that the subject is always in process, on trial, and always insecure about the boundaries of identity.

Critics have discussed Grendel's Mother as a peculiar brand of monster and have generally been uneasy with her femininity .[7] The association between the categories of monster and woman developed, broadly speaking, into criticism of Grendel's Mother as a hyper-masculine female, who is really an extension of Grendel, and criticism of her as a representative of the threatening archaic feminine. For example, as Gillian Overing (74) notes, the text identifies women as "the visible tokens of male alliances"; James Hala argues that Grendel is the agent of abjection, recalled to the maternal asymbolia of his mother's mere, of her very being, where "Beowulf and the ides are bound to each other much as the soon-to-be-bound ego is bound to the Phallic Mother..neither Beowulf nor the ides can as yet be a subject or an object. ... a third term must intervene in the mother-son dyad" (Hala 38). This Kristevan approach acknowledges that the nature of the ides is that it escapes definition, and that Grendel's Mother functions as an eternal cause and reaction of masculine culture and the Symbolic to the maternal and the abject.

James Earl obliquely marks the cultural necessity of attributing this originary violence to Grendel's Mother when he notes that "the warrior class identifies the prime source of internal violence as the kinship system and so justified its attack on the kindred" (Earl 1983: 146). Drawing on a Girardian analysis of sacrifice, Eric Wilson claims that the violence of this civilization is intrinsic, and that Beowulf functions socially as a hero/sacrifice in a circle of reciprocal mimetic violence, where a sacrificial crisis demands "that all a community's monstrosities could be displaced onto him".[8] The hero and the monster are mimetic doubles, since the king is the only figure strong enough to quell violence by virtue of the fact that he is superior to other men in his violence (Wilson 10). This critical desire to binarize the characters and actions as male, civilized, and in the realm of the Symbolic, in opposition to female, uncivilized, and in the realm of the Imaginary, mirrors the text's attempts to binarize as well.

Critics have noted the doubling between Beowulf and Grendel and between Beowulf and Grendel's mother, focusing on Beowulf's conquest of the monstrous in his opponents as a reflection of his conquest of his own excesses.[9] John Hill's approach separates men from monsters, making the "destructive, unsocial impulses in the monsters..a negative apotheosis of their presence in men who act similarly" (Hill 1989: 15). As he argues, the text marks the differences between the monsters and the socially approved men. But exactly how are Beowulf and Grendel's Mother alike? What cultural work does the text perform to warn against "destructive, unsocial impulses"? Humans cannot imitate the purely monstrous; If Grendel, his mother, and the dragon were all completely unintelligible, then they would be physical threats only. But they are more than that, as discussions of the psychological effects of the descriptions of the monster evidence.[10] Jeffrey Cohen sums up the monsters' paradoxical cultural and psychological status as same and other: "Grendel represents a cultural Other for whom conformity to societal dictates is an impossibility because those dictates are not comprehensible to him: he is at the same time a monsterized version of what a member of that very society can become when those dictates are rejected".[11] Cohen notes that "Grendel's unnamed mother...violently reinscribes into a masculinist account of heroic self-fashioning the bodies, origins, and possibilities that narrative excludes; it is a tribute to the complexities of the poem that it accomplishes this reinsertion by demonstrating that the abjected realm of the monster is also a roofed hall (hrofsele) "described in human, almost homey terms" (Orchard 30; Cohen 27). The danger in any monster is that "repulsion curves into desire, and everything thought to be "ejected beyond the scope of the possible," is revealed as residing deep within the architecture of selfhood" (Cohen 27). I would argue that the guest/host nexus of meanings suggests the linguistic description of a cultural paradox: the self is constituted in and by the other, the threat of consumption presents the psychological version of the physical threat of the monstrous, and the imitable and therefore threatening human elements of the monster lie in its closeness, its likeness. The identity between the Grendel clan and Beowulf is the unacknowledged threat in the text.

Beowulf opposes Grendel's Mother and Beowulf, and she is Overing's "nameless woman" (Overing 73); her femininity is dubious at times, since she is only "idese onlicnes" "in the likeness of a woman" (line 1351). As a monster, she is a threat in her very similarity to the hero: if she were truly "other," she would be beyond description. As Hala and Overing point out, the text makes her secondary to her son when she must be logically prior, and excludes her from the symbolic (Hala 36; Overing 73). Both critics argue that she overwhelms these textual exclusions.

The text deploys more than these binary social oppositions between the Same and the Other in scenes where the hero and the monster both figure. Hosting and guesting are marked by positional differences in the relationship between those who offer food and those who consume it. Grendel's Mother is more than a "bad host," or a parody of a proper Anglo-Saxon lord, when she entertains Beowulf as her "selegæst," or "hallguest." Her opposition to Beowulf is precisely as measured in the Symbolic and physical realm by the guest/host relationship. She is a threat because she imitates all the social context of lord/host and retainer/guest, and displays in her physical desire to consume Beowulf the fear always present in the guest/host relationship. The danger of the "guest" who may be hostile is not merely a threat recognized by a pun: the source word points to the fragility of all relationships. Meetings between strangers and men in their homes confront both participants with the possibility of the collapse of boundaries between the family and the stranger, at the most obvious level. The host offers food and the guest consumes it. In ancient epics, this ritual of food giving and receiving is recognized as a guarantee of safety, a removal of the always present threat of physical consumption of one by the other in killing. The Odyssey reveals the anxiety over the proper treatment of strangers, when the rest of the unwelcome suitors rebuke Antinous for striking a wanderer. The stranger (Odysseus in disguise) "
ei dh pou tiV epourauioV qeoV esti," "(he) might be a god from heaven," since gods disguise themselves in order to observe "auqrvpwu ubrin te kai eunomihn eforvnteV" "the violence and order of men" (Odyssey 17: 483/ 487). Gods wander disguised among men in myth, epic, and tragedy, serving as cultural markers of the differences between men and gods: they remind men of their duties, and Odysseus himself occupies the function of the gods in his disguised homecoming to Ithaka. He reinstates the proper relationship between host and guest by testing his servants' loyalty and destroying the suitors, who sought to move from the status of non-related guest to the status of kin by marriage. [12]

James Redfield notes that the Iliad opposes aidoV (social humanity) and nature, especially in battlefield scenes, where men become like animals. The extreme position reached by those who ignore culture is that of Achilles, who becomes a raw meat eater. Achilles wants to digest Hector (Iliad 24. 207-8), and destroy the differentiating markers between nature and culture (Redfield 194-200). Even in a nominally peaceful meeting, danger can come from either party, and the social rules naming obligations and appropriate behaviors for both parties are a means of subduing that conflict. The rituals of "household ceremonies...convert the stranger from a nonentity and prey to a person with status. Hostility to a stranger is both natural and monstrous. Polyphemus, that uncivil monster, did not entertain his guests; he ate them...if it were not for the restraints of civility, man would become to man as predator to prey" (Redfield 198). There are ritualized greetings, asking the stranger to "tell of himself, his land, and his ancestry" (Odyssey 19. 104-5). Gifts to the stranger "provide outsiders, who are by nature without status, with that place in society which constitutes an identity " (Murnaghan 76). In Greek culture, Zeus is the "XeinioV", the Protector of strangers," and the choice of supreme god for this role marks the cultural importance of this social dilemma. There are other terms for describing the relational values between an individual and the members of his group, who are bound together by reciprocal duties. These are moral terms, which encompass different stages in kinship and action. For example, the earliest meaning of the word, philotes which means "friendship" in classical Greek texts, appears to refer to the obligations of a man to a cenoV or guest. Homeric adversaries can agree to a mutual exchange of weapons and gifts, and remain enemies, and the term for their agreement is philotes (Illiad 7.302). In northern Germanic societies, the guest/host relationship is also inflected by kinship bonds. As Paul Durrenberger and William Miller both note, bonds of frændi (blood kinsmen) and magar (male affines) do not always predict a united social group.[13] In Norse literature, Havamal repeatedly focuses on the proper behavior of guests and hosts, warning

inn vari gestur
er til verðar komr
þunnu hlioði þegir
eyrom hlyðir,
enn augom scoðar.
Sva nysiz froðra hverr fyrir.
(Havamal verse 7, Kuhn)

Let the wary stranger who looks for refreshment
keep silent, with sharp hearing, let him listen with his
ears, let him look with his eyes. So each wise man spies out his way.

The text examines the life of a wanderer, who observes men's behavior in company. The essential tone of the axioms seems to be that a wise man keeps his counsel, and that a wise man is always wary of everyone. In Anglo-Saxon culture, Maxims I comments on the fragility of friendship,

Eadig bið se þe in his eþle geþihð,
earm se him his frynd gewicað.

Happy is he who prospers in the place of his birth;
unfortunate he whom his friends betray.(Krapp and Dobbie 1966: 158)

The danger is never done away with, however, and it is the position in the relationship in regard to the other that is unstable, rather than the sex of either that is dangerous. That is, of course, Grendel's Mother embodies also the threat of the killing woman, "the monstrous woman", the maternal excess, the avenger, and the imitation man; but she is more than the dark valkyrie female other so frequently found (or suspected) in medieval texts.

For example, critics of slightly later Norse sagas and pre-romance Germanic literature have noted the destruction wrought by women in the sagas, and have interrogated the motivations and structure of their deeds, and those of the men around them, focusing on the female and the feminine as if they were the same. That is, biology is made critical destiny. For example, for Richard F. Allen (132), sagas continue and transform the "heroic" spirit of Germanic poetry, and there is an archetypal connection between the "struggle between dark, bloody, engulfing forces from a chaotic realm, forces represented as belonging to a female chthonic side of nature, against powers with a masculine signature, often incorporated into a single hero, a figure of light" .[14] This critical approach binarizes the actions of men and women into male hero vs vengeful women. Allen (165) goes on to speculate on the persistence of the motif of women whetting to revenge, suggesting that "one explanation is that the figure of the vengeful woman is an outward projection of man's own uneasy awareness of the divided state within him, that it is a mechanism whereby the blame and guilt for his failure to control his passions (and his desire for such failure) can be shifted to an outside cause". Thus there is a critical and textual reliance on the monstrous and abject woman who represents the dark desires of men.

But this critical view narrows the world of the text, and ignores gender both as inscribed and as a matter of position and function. Grendel's Mother embodies the destruction of the boundaries at the level of identity and ontology. She is only onlicnes, "in the likeness of a woman," she avenges her son as a proper male kinsman would, she is the unnameable descendant or associate of descendants of Cain, she has some vague relationship to eotenas, who appear to be damned, and she is not entirely alien. Grendel's Mother is ambiguously stationed between the human and the monstrous, and it is her fluidity that threatens Beowulf. Further, if her gender is not biologically determinative of her actions, then those actions cannot be "feminine", and she is a threat to the hero because she offers him the opportunity of destroying those who are like him.

In order to demonstrate the many codings of killing and vengeance, I will begin with the facts that most critics have noted: first, violence is a male prerogative and duty, and heroic masculinity is performative, especially in such poems as Maldon and Beowulf. For example, Byrthnoth is an unduguðe eorl, an "undisgraced earl," a man whose death inspires others' hearts "to be the keener" (Maldon line 312, Dobbie). Certainly, heroic action for material reward is criticized, as when the Beowulf poet describes the dragon's gold as "gold on greote, þær hit nu gen lifað/ eldum swa unnyt, swa hit æror wæs" (3167-8) "gold in the dust, where it still remains, as useless to men as it was before." Beowulf himself is lofgeornost, "eager for renown," (3182), and that includes killing.

Men not only kill but they also avenge death at the hands of the enemy, without any apparent guilt that they have not managed negotiation or reliance on legal codes of reparations. For example, Beowulf avenges Aeschere's death, and the deaths of all those who have died at the hands of Grendel, and this is the mark of a hero. Thus, there is no determination to avert the escalation of slaughter, especially of monsters, on the grounds that it is a bloody business, luring men to the end of desire and self in a replication of the female. Killing enemies is laudable, except in the case of the gnawing anxiety over kin-slaughter, which does reveal cultural anxiety over the actual male desire for, and habit of, resorting to violence as the proper response to an offence. The text notably alludes to cases of kin slaughter as anomalies insofar as the wergild system of reparation cannot operate; the father's lament for the unavenged death of one son, at the hands of the other son in a hunting accident (2438), may very well highlight the exacerbations of male blood-line identity within each family, which furnishes a reflection of the same, necessary for the processes of individuation within, and separation from, other kin groups. Male alliances in Beowulf are initially based on blood kinship (between sister's son and sister's brother, and between brothers) and that inevitably creates both the fear of, and desire for, phallic identification. Thus we read the text's homosocial discourse, fratricidal strife, and mimetic violence. Hrothgar's advice to Beowulf and the Finnsburh fragment both hint at the loss of self inherent in a violent world. The condemnation of violence is confined to kin-slaughter, and revenge is honorable. The text notes repeatedly the disastrous habit of engaging in kin-slaughter; Beowulf's last speech famously claims, in a tone of elegiac and almost astonished congratulation,

"Ic on earde bad
mælgesceafta, heold min tela,
ne sohte searoniðas, ne me swor feal
aða on unriht. Ic ðæs ealles mæg
feorhbennum seoc gefean habban;
forðam me witan ne ðearf Waldend fira
morðorbealo maga, þonne min sceaceð
lif of lice "
(lines 2736-2743).

"I endured on earth times of fate, held my own
well; I did not seek treacherous quarrels, nor
swore many oaths in injustice. I am able because
of this, sick of mortal wounds, to have joy,
because the ruler of men has no cause to charge
wicked murder of kinsmen, when my life shall pass
from my body."

Beowulf did not kill any kin. If men are so violent that any peace among kin is astonishing, then the binarizing of violence as an abject element of the monstrous feminine can no longer be persuasive.

The reverse of this approach is the discussion of Grendel's Mother as an imitation of a man, suggesting in an associative way, that this too is a species of monstrous being. Critics have accumulated numerous Anglo-Saxon exegetical examples, where the woman as man trope serves to delimit the human from the demonic, as well as the man from woman.[15] Further, the descriptions of Grendel's Mother's hall are strongly reminiscent of the vision of Hell in Blickling Homily XVI (Orchard 39), while Grendel is described as Godes andsacan, "God's enemy" (lines 786, 16820), and he fag wið God, "he had a feud with God" (lines 811). Lee Edelman's discussion of queer theory usefully describes the process whereby "the homosexual subject is represented as being, even more than inhabiting, a body that always demands to be read, a body on which his "sexuality" is always inscribed".[16] Glenn Burger has developed this notion of Ideal ontological status claimed in silence for the heterosexual male in opposition to the deviant or lesser embodied status of everyone else, which requires comment, to account for medieval categories of difference: the masculine is the category of the "natural," which derives its power and authority from its likeness to God, its closeness to the ordered speech of God, and its superior ontological status. The categories of difference can only exist if the male body is stable, absolute, and beyond or not needing inscription, and it has opposing, lesser bodies to inscribe AS different.[17] This relies on a kind of Platonic theory of being and gender, where the male is seen as being his gender, while the female is seen as a woeful addition of bodiness, an inscription on a perfect slate. The male is the norm, and his gender is seen as essential, while the female's gender is seen as accidental, excessive, and secondary. Overall, this seems to me to explain the desire to validate Beowulf's violence and revenge while dismissing Grendel's Mother's revenge as imitative and/or monstrous.

Critics have long acknowledged the mirroring elements of Beowulf and his first opponent, Grendel, while Grendel's Mother and her desire for revenge have been quietly shuffled off into the realm of women as improper men criticism. This critical manoeuvre seems to make the improper and the abject safely destroyed in a world fit for heroes, if not monsters and critics. This looks like symmetrically neat categories of gender and violence, but these categories do not address the complexities and contradictions of violent subjects, be they men or women.

Rather than assimilating gender behavior to a strict hierarchy of biological binarism, I suggest that when seen as a matter of social function, gender in Beowulf is inherently unstable as a consequence of the unfinished nature of the entry into the Symbolic by both men and women.[18] Judith Butler (136) notes in Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity that "gender identity and its signs are performative in the sense that the essence or identity that they otherwise purport to express are fabrications manufactured through corporal signs and other discursive means. That the gendered body is performative suggests that it has no ontological status apart from the various acts which constitute its reality". Let us now look at some acts in Beowulf which constitute reality.

In this text, there is an apparent opposition between the terms gæst, "ghost, spirit, demon" and gist, "guest, stranger, visitor." This opposition collapses in some passages, suggesting that Beowulf and Grendel view each other similarly, and are even indistinguishable at times. Before examining the root meaning of the word, I will first look at those instances in the text which construct an opposition between the terms. Gæst itself presents a philological problem, since it is not always clear that the word is derived from gæst with a long mark over the "æ", "ghost" or "spirit," or from gæst, "guest" or "host", which does not have the length mark.

Gæst occurs 8 times apparently meaning "ghost," or "demon" only, as a masculine noun (lines 102, 133, 1123, 1274, 1357, 1747, 2073, 2312), with variations of 4 compound nouns ('ellen-, ellor-, geoscaft-, and wæl-'). At least two instances are uncertain (lines 2073 and 2312). Gæst (also spelled gist,) occurs 9 times, with the apparent primary meaning of "guest," (lines 1138, 1441, 1522, 1602, 1800, 1893, 2073, 2227, 2312, 2227). Lexicographers from Bosworth and Toller onwards have differentiated in their editing of instances of this word or words, according to whether they see Grendel and his Mother as demonic (in which case they read the disputed lines at 1274 and 2312 as gæst, with an erroneously missing length mark).[19] Klaeber enters the disputed lines under both words, accompanied by question marks in parentheses. A more recent editor suggests that only context can decide.[20] The difference is important because the words seem to distinguish between the natural and the demonic, accentuating Grendel's and his Mother's monstrous natures. The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots notes that gæst meaning "guest" derives from*ghos-ti, meaning "stranger, guest, host," and "someone with whom one has reciprocal duties of hospitality." Reflexes of the word include Germanic *gastiz, Latin hostis "enemy" and Greek xenos, "stranger." Lewis and Short note that Latin word hostis, derives from the Sanskrit root *ghas- to eat, consume, or destroy" and that the Germanic gast is derived from the same word. The compound of this word in Latin, hospes, adds the suffix "pa" "to feed," thus combining the idea of feeding with the word for stranger, and then contracting to "hospites" or "he who entertains a stranger." The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots gives gist as deriving from *gheis in an unclear original meaning, having to do with "fear or amazement," with the "suffixed o-grade form *ghois-do in Germanic *gaistaz, a ghost." The Oxford English Dictionary notes that word's etymological relations are "fury, anger....the root "*gheis-, *ghois- appears with cognate sense in ON geisa to rage, Gothic usgaisjan to terrify; outside Teutonic the derivatives seem to point to a primary sense "to wound, tear, pull to pieces." This last may suggest a link between the two original words, since both roots have to do with consumption, with a possible development from the relatively neutral *ghas- , "to consume", to the more negative *gheis-, "fear." The first would note what is expected from a social relationship, the offering and consumption of food, while the second would encompass the possible excesses of a guest who destroys. Simple, ritualized consumption gives way to destruction and fragmentation. The negative association of the supernatural world with cases of excess would also make sense, in that enforcement and punishment of those who break the treaties is projected into the realm of the gods, as numerous examples in Greek demonstrate. The case for reading the disputed words in Beowulf as either "guest" or as "ghost," or as reflexes of the same idea, cannot be solved here, since there is no syntactical or prosodic reason to prefer one to the other.

The common notion of consumption in both terms hints at a similar current of thought; the text opposes the guest and ghost word, but this appears to be a socially constructed difference: the "guest," is a person to be entertained, while the "demon," or "ghost," is to be shunned. Thus Grendel is explicitly represented as one who shuns the purpose and the place of entertainment in the hall of Heorot, and is the outcast from society.

Swa ða drihtguman dreamum lifdon
eadiglice, oð ðæt an ongan
fyrene fremman feond on helle;
wæs se grimma gæst Grendel haten,
mære mearcstapa, se þe moras heold,
fen ond fæsten.

So the brave men lived in joy blessedly prospering,
until a certain one began to do evil deeds, a hellish enemy.
That grim spirit was called Grendel, great marsh stepper,
he who held the moors, fen and fastness, unhappy creature (lines 99-104).

Grendel hates the songs of joy, which serve to enforce the reciprocity between God and Hrothgar and Hrothgar and his people, In contrast, Beowulf is represented as a welcome "guest,"who takes his rest in the hall after entertainment.

Reste hine þa rumheort; reced hliuade
geap ond goldfah; gæst inne swæf.

Then the greathearted man rested himself,
the hall towered upgabled and gold adorned.
The guest slept inside (lines 1799-1800).

Thus, the monster and the man appear opposed to each other, according to the treatment each receives in a foreign society. The word "guest" also implies the concept "stranger," who is, or may be, "enemy". For instance, one of the monsters in Grendel's mere is referred to as gryegieste or "dreadful stranger," (line 2560) and is killed as an enemy. Similarly, the dragon is referred to as atol inwitgæst or "hostile malicious stranger/guest" (line 2670). The line suggests an essential duplicity in meaning, since the guest is now a stranger to be shunned in the same way as a "ghost". This second meaning, or nexus of meanings, is the less privileged of the two since it implies a negation of, and absence from, the courts of man and the knowledge of God.

However, the terms are interchangeable and uncertain, so that this hierarchy is dissolved, calling attention to the instability of the social function described. First, there are several occasions where the context does not supply sufficient information to decide which of the two terms is implied. The ontological status of Grendel, his mother, and the dragon is uncertain. For example, "Da se gæst ongan gledum spiwan," "The guest (ghost/spirit) began to spew fire," (line 2312) and "Syððan heofenes gim,/ glad ofer grundas, gæst yrre cwom." "After heaven's gem had passed over the ground, the angry spirit came" (line 2072-3). Second, the behavior and physical location of a being, whether man, monster, or dragon determines how it will be viewed. Grendel's behavior is that of a stranger to those who live in Heorot, and he is described as a gæst or spirit. Beowulf is similarly a gist or "stranger" in Grendel's mere hall, and is appropriately treated as an enemy/stranger by Grendel's mother. He is to be shunned rather than treated as a "guest" to be entertained. Finally, the importance of physical location for the way the stranger/guest/enemy is viewed reflects an anxiety over the social function of whoever is temporarily host.

Thus, to sum up the uses of this gæst/gist word, for Hrothgar, Beowulf is a guest who is also a visitor. For Grendel's Mother, he is a hall guest who is both a stranger and an enemy. Similarly, Grendel is a hall guest, who is stranger, enemy, and ghost as well. If the perception of strangers and enemies, ghosts and guests is a social one, depending not only on the actions and attitudes of the outsider, but also those of the host, then the cautious ambivalence displayed in the words describes both an attempt to explain the world and a recognition of worldly reversals which deconstruct those explanations.

The reason for these ambiguities, as obliquely pointed out in J. Hillis Miller's essay, "The Critic as Host," is that host and guest, host and visitor, host and ghost, are not only reflexes of the same word (allowing for Grimm's Law and the loss of the digamma), but are all functional words which contain the social functions of givers and receivers of action.[21] "Guest" is in fact the word "host", and one needs a host in order to be a guest. What do guests do? They consume. A host is one who provides that which may be consumed, or is an enemy from whom you may take it. If my initial speculation regarding the possible continuum of nuances between *ghas- and *gheis is correct, then guests may become "ghosts," or spirits, when they consume beyond socially acceptable limits. The most drastic form of consumption a guest threatens is the death of the host, and this is especially reviled in cases where the host and guest are kin. Killers of hosts or guests breach the boundaries, which religious taboos enforce. They become terrifying hungry ghosts, who will need propitiation and sacrifice (consumables) before they will leave.

Grendel was jealous of the singing and celebration of God's creation, across the fens in Heorot. This led him to cannibalism, as overt a reflection of oral aggression and consumption as one can imagine. Physical production through the mouth (the praise) elicits physical consumption. This obvious mirroring and doubling is easily explained as masculine imitation and parody. But the opening scenes of the text evidence the insufficiently repressed violence of the human world and suggest the link between the monstrous and the human. Hrothgar inherits from his father, Healfdene of the Scyldings, although it is unclear what the exact succession between him and his brothers is. Hrothgar's success in battle leads him to build a great mead-hall (lines 67-70). The text describes the treasure and the hall itself, but then goes on to mention, as a kind of deflation

Sele hlifade
heah ond horngeap; heaðowylma bad,
laðan liges. Ne wæs hit lenge þa gen,
þæt se ecghete aþumsweoran
æfter wælniþe wæcnan scolde.

The hall rose up high, lofty and high gabled;
awaited the battle surge of hostile flames.
Nor was the time yet near that the war hate
arose between father-in-law and son-in-law because
of a mortal hatred (lines 81-5).


The text then describes Grendel, but this little noticed kin violence among Hrothgar's extended family reappears in the announcement of Grendel's parentage.

fifelcynnes eard
wonsæli wer weardode hwile,
siþðan him Scyppend forscrifen hæfde
in Caines cynne þone cwealm gewrææ
ece Drihten þæs þe he Abel slog

Unhappy creature, he lived for a time in the home
of monsters, after the Creator had outlawed him as
Cain's kin, against whom the Eternal Lord took
vengeance that he slew Abel (lines 104-08).

Although the "him" in line 106 may refer to the monsters or to Grendel, making Grendel or the monsters the kin of Cain, the primal fratricide of Cain and Abel is surely the operative link between Grendel, the monsters, and Hrothgar's family kinslaying.[22] Only Scyppend, "the Creator", enforces the rules against kinslaying, just as Zeus enforces rules of guest friendship among the Greeks. Kin feuds within the blood or marriage kindred will occur even with a Creator, as the lines foretelling the "battle surge" between Hrothgar and Ingeld demonstrate.

Violence in Beowulf is male, with the exception of Grendel's Mother. She is not the only source of violence. Indeed, the early mention of Hrothgar's problems to come should make us wary of believing that removing Grendel and his Mother will function as a cure. The attempt to enclose her in any singular way does not work. Grendel's Mother is also described in association with Cain, when she has to live in "dreadful waters..after Cain killed his only brother, his father's son, by the sword" (lines 1260-63). She, too, is linked to the violence that does not differentiate between kin and non-kin. If function creates identity, then she faces Beowulf with a reflection of his own instability, when they are described interchangeably.

Power over physical consumption can shift between men and women, depending on who plays which role. Women may be active or passive, just as men may be. For Lacan and for Kristeva, the transition from the Imaginary (a specular relationship between the child, the mother, and the world) into the Symbolic (the realm of representation, of language as a consequence of alienation from self) is never final. Gender is unstable as a functional category of culture, because identity is also unstable.[23] If that is true, not only does Beowulf have enemies who will consume him if they can, but almost more threatening than this is the fact that Beowulf enters that relationship of his own free will. He has deliberately exposed himself to the possibility of a fluid identity, where he must claim his public self in the world of men, as in the sentinel scene and in his progressively longer speeches in Heorot, where he constructs himself as a guest, as a hero, and as a rebuke to Grendel's improper consumption. He is persistently aware of his duties in the guest/host relationship to Hrothgar, and thus shows that he is aware, at least subconsciously, of the shifting nature of his own identity. After all, Unferth's challenge affords a chance for Beowulf to claim his identity as a hero, but Beowulf's speech also carefully notes that he is no longer the careless youth of his swimming contest days. Next, the dangers of contact with non-kin are ritualized into exchanges and nuanced shifts in social positions, as for example, the sentry's challenge and Beowulf's reply demonstrate.

Since killing between strangers can easily shift to killing actual hostiles, one might look at the fluidity between closer relations. The most profound anxiety in the text is over killing kin, people who begin as guests and may become hostile strangers, perhaps by accident or alliances or marriage. The appearance of Grendel and his Mother as doubles of Beowulf and his killing of them enacts the feared social disruption of host/guest relations. By killing them, Beowulf removes a threat of consumption. By doubling Beowulf, Grendel's Mother presents a mirror to show her shifting positions as host, which require that her identity is fluid. If she is fluid, then so is he. If she is a double and he can kill her, she reposes and represents the ease with which men fall into kin-slaughter. It is clearly not unthinkable to kill the other social participant who is a reflection of the self; this close dependency of identity, role, and position, which lead to death, serves to warn of the possibilities and likelihoods of death within the most closely bound group, the kin.

The culture of the world in this poem is one of "predatory kinship"[24]: Hæðcyn accidentally kills his older brother Herebeald, and does gain by it (2438); Unferth "his magum nære/ arfæst æt ecga gelacum," "had not been honorable to his kinsmen in the sword-play" (lines 1168-9), and he is Hrothgar's counsellor, regardless of Beowulf's comment to him earlier in the poem

þeah ðu þinum broðrum to banan wurde,
heafodmægum; þæs þu in helle scealt
werhðo dreogan, þeah þin wit duge
(lines 587-9).

Although you became the slayer of your brothers,
your closest kin; for that, you shall suffer
damnation in hell, despite your cleverness.

Hrothgar and Hrothulf, uncle and nephew, sit together, but the text warns, "þa gyt wæs hiera sib ægædere,/ æghwylc oðrum trywe," "at that time their kinship as yet unviolated, each was true to the other" (lines 1164-5), and Onela rewards the warrior who kills his nephew (lines 2616-19). The Finnsburgh fragment returns the feasting, consuming, celebrating warriors in Heorot to the extreme version of consumption, the confusing alliances and motives of Finn and Hengest, who make treaties (alliances between strangers, who are guests, visitors, hosts, and enemies), which end in slaughter. Finn's wife, Hildeburh,is visited by her brother, Hnæf; he and his men are attacked at night, resulting in the death of Finn and Hildeburh's unnamed son, many of Finn's thanes, and Hnæf. Hengest takes over for Hnæf, swears mutual oaths, and after a winter of brooding, Guthlaf and Oslaf stir Hengest into action. Finn is killed, and Hildeburh carried off back to her own people.

The destruction of the proper boundaries is the cause of anxiety here. Killing is not in itself a wrong: the fear is of the loss of identity, of differentiation between kin, who may be regarded as an extension of the self, and non-kin, who may be regarded as clearly not-self. Name and patronymic identify men; Grendel lacks a patronymic, and his Mother lacks a name. This difference marks Grendel and his Mother as less closely allied than all the humans in the text, and it marks them as different. But it is a difference of degree rather than of kind. The possibility of fluid identity and kinship as uncertain is made monstrous because it offers a glimpse of the truth of the Anglo-Saxon world, where men kill their relations. Those relations are mirrors of the self; they offer a reassuring duplication which also threatens to consume or destroy the singularity of the self.

Grendel's Mother poses a threat of consumption, at both the physical and the psychoanalytic levels. This threat works not through the fear of the violent and the excessive maternal on the part of the hero, but instead through a fear of fragmentation and social practices on his part. What he sees may consume him, and will certainly change him, so that he is reminded of his own fluidity, his own tendencies towards slaughter, and must instead, consume her.


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Copyright © Carolyn Anderson, 2001-2. All rights reserved.

This edition copyright © The Heroic Age, 2001-2. All rights reserved.