I have never read Beowulf. Happily, my first reading of it will be Tolkien’s prose translation. It has been magnificent, another fine example of how beautiful and rhythmic prose can be in the hands of a true master. In addition to his translation, this edition (pictured above) also has commentary by Tolkien.
In the poem, Grendel is called “a fiend of hell” (lines 82-3; unless preceded by an asterisk all line numbers refer to Tolkien’s translation), in Old English, féond on helle. This phrase raises serious questions for Tolkien. He comments:
The Old English féond on helle is a very curious expression. It implies, of course, that Grendel is a ‘hell-fiend’, a creature dammed irretrievably. It remains, nonetheless, remarkable, for Grendel is not ‘in hell’, but very physically in Denmark, and he is not even yet a damned spirit, for he is mortal and has to be slain before he goes to Hell. There is evidently a confusion or twilight in the thought of the poet (and his age) about these monsters, hostile to mankind. They remain physical monsters, with blood, able to be slain (with the right sword). Yet already they are described in terms applicable to evil spirits, so here (*102) gæst. (pp. 158-159)
This being a problem for Tolkien has raised many questions for myself. I was at first rather taken aback by the literalness with which Tolkien here approaches the text. Beowulf is, what we generally would call today, fantasy. Is it really such a concern that in this type of work a physical creature, a being not of the spirit world would be called “a fiend of hell” and, therefore, be identified as irretrievably damned before actually having died? Tolkien’s concern is curious in itself. However, it is not so curious as it might first seem. There are two important details, easily overlooked by us of the secular modern age, that Tolkien has given right significance. First, the author of Beowulf was a Christian who told his story within a Christian framework. Second, the setting of the story makes this question more urgent.
Beowulf is not set in a fantastical world. It is set in our world (which goes to show just how fantastic ours’ really is). Beowulf involves real peoples: Danes and Geats. The action of the story begins in a real place: Heorot. It refers to real political divisions and to actual customs and practices of the people. While the poet set the story in the past, it was not too distantly past. There would have been an air of familiarity for that first audience. Finally, the culture of the people in the poem as well as in actuality was not pagan, but Christian. The author was a Christian, his audience was Christian, and the world in which he set the events of Beowulf was Christian. Taking all of this into account, Tolkien’s literalness on this issue is quite appropriate. He is giving the poet and his work the critical thoughtfulness which is its due. In this context, the question of identifying a physical monster of the world as irretrievably damned is, indeed, quite serious.
In lines 86-92, Grendel is placed among the wicked and extraordinary beings descended from the line of Cain. After introducing him, “that grim creature” (gæst) and “the ill-famed haunter of the marches of the land,” the poet says of him,
for the Maker had proscribed him with the race of Cain. That bloodshed, for that Cain slew Abel, the Eternal Lord avenged: no joy had he of that violent deed, but God drove him for that crime far from mankind. Of him all evil broods were born, ogres and goblins and haunting shapes of hell, and the giants too, that long time warred with God – for that he gave them their reward.
There is here a Scriptural bookending of northern myth. One may be tempted to think that Scripture has been subjected to myth; using Cain to replace whatever is the origins of evil creatures in northern mythology. But this is not the case. It is the myth which has been subjected to Scripture. This is evidenced by the reference to giants, the Nephilim of Gen 6:4. Through the inclusion of lines 86-92, the poet has given the myths of old a new framework and with that framework a different understanding.
What does this mean for the phrase, “a fiend of hell”, though? Tolkien speaks of two possibilities (p. 159). The first is that the poet uses this phrase to identify Grendel “due to a kind of half-theological notion” and a mistaken one concerning “accursed things”. The second is “due to taking over a ‘Christian’ phrase carelessly.” For the second possibility, Tolkien refers to Wycliff as an example, who called a still living friar a fend in helle. I think that it is impossible to know which of these possibilities is true, to know what the poet actually meant by féond on helle. I propose, however, that whether the poet meant the phrase merely as a descriptive or as an actuality, he was not using it carelessly, and it can be used in this context soundly.
In addition to féond on helle, Grendel is also called gæst. This is significant and Christopher Tolkien provides an important detail concerning this word which is also essential for answering our question. (p. 159, n. 1) Christopher notes that “in all the texts of the translation [gæst] is rendered ‘creature’.” He goes on to say that his father had said that gæst could not be translated as “ghost” or “spirit”. In modern English, the closest we can get to the meaning of gæst is “creature”.
The translation of gæst is significant because it gives us an opening into the mind of the poet. Grendel is not simply a twisted, deformed creature descending from Cain’s corrupted line. Grendel does not randomly come on the scene; there is a purpose in his coming. Prior to his introduction, the poet tells of the establishment and glory of Heorot (53-65). Twelve lines before Grendel is introduced, we are told of “the fierce spirit that abode in darkness.” (70) Seeing as Tolkien would not translate gæst as “spirit”, it can be safely assumed that a different word was here used in the original Old English. Also, judging by Tolkien’s comments above concerning Grendel not being a spirit, it is fairly safe to assume that gæst and whichever word is used for “spirit” in the original are not synonymous.* This “fierce spirit that abode in darkness” is obviously a devil in the truest sense of the word, a true hell-fiend who is irretrievably damned. The poet says that this spirit “endured a time of torment” (71) and then goes on to say what was tormenting it. The poet mentions the revelry of men, the sound of their music, and later their not knowing sorrow. This alone, however, is not what causes the torment nor the greatest part. We’re not talking about the Grinch; we’re speaking of a damned spirit dwelling in darkness. The greatest torment was the telling of God Almighty, His creating the world, giving life, and creating man. The action of Beowulf is not a mere opposition of man against corrupt and murderous creatures; it is a part of the great battle that the evil one, the murderer from the beginning, wages against man. Whether Grendel was directly ordered by this spirit to attack Heorot or was unconsciously influenced to do so, he is representative of the darkness and the damnation that accompanies that darkness. And the poet strengthens this identification as the poem progresses. He calls Grendel a “demon cursed” (106) and “accursed” (97); he does not grieve over “his deeds of enmity and wrong.” (109-110) The reason he does not grieve is due to his being wholly enveloped in darkness. The word “enmity” (possibly a reference to Gen 3:15) also may be a marker of his being so thoroughly bound to the hatred of hell. The poet goes on to show this enmity between Grendel and men:
So it was made known to men and revealed to the children of mankind sadly in songs that Grendel strove a while with Hrothgar, wrought hate and malice, evil deeds and enmity, for many a year, a strife unceasing; truce would he not have with any man of the Danish host, nor would withhold his deadly cruelty, nor accept terms of payment; and there no cause had any of the counsellors to look for golden recompense from the slayer’s hands; nay, the fierce killer pursued them still, both knights and young, a dark shadow of death, lurking, lying in wait, in long night keeping the misty moors. (119-129)
If the action of Beowulf is part of the great battle, could it not be said that this enmity between Grendel and the Danes is part of the enmity between Satan and the woman? Yes, Grendel is a physical creature and, yes, Beowulf is set in a Christian world and imbued with a Christian ethos, but it is still mythic. It gives expression through myth of a reality often forgotten and not seen: the great battle that Lucifer wages upon us, and our need to fight valiantly, ceaselessly, and with a humble ferocity.
Perhaps there is a Chestertonian solution here. Chesterton said that fairy tales are meant to remind us of the wonder of our own world, of that which actually is. A river flowing with wine in a fairy tale should make us take note and wonder at the fact that rivers actually run with water. I may feel a pleasant little happiness while listening to “The Big Rock Candy Mountains”, but much more importantly it reminds me of all the wonderful things of the earth God has given us for our delight. Does not Grendel being a physical creature who is a fiend of hell remind us that there really are spiritual creatures who are true fiends of hell? We read the horror that Grendel brings upon the Danes and his utter relentlessness in doing so. Yet, Grendel sleeps; the real devils do not. We cannot fathom the completeness of malevolence and hatred demons hold for us, nor do they ever grieve one iota because in a truer sense than for Grendel too deep are they therein. (cf. 110) Demons and the way they work are rather foreign and abstract to us today. We are, however, quite familiar with their work such as the spread of vices, the plethora of addictions, the divisions among peoples, the senseless acts of violence heard in the news every day, and the animosity, rage, and desolation that has infected so many people’s hearts. While we identify demons as actual fiends of hell, I think we can properly speak of some things such as vices as fiends of hell in a descriptive way. Grendel, in the dark of night, silently snatched 30 sleeping knights on his first attack upon Heorot. Not until morning did King Hrothgar and the rest of that house become aware of what had happened, and they wailed grievously. What of ourselves? How many times in our lives did we do something or arrive at a certain state of mind and wonder where so many good things in our life had gone? Virtues, friends, family, hobbies and interests, memories, and all the other varied blessings of God, how many times were they silently snatched away only for us to become conscious of the fact later and have to figure out in retrospect by what means it had happened? How great were our sorrow and the pain of loss when we realized what had happened?
Taking all of the above, I think, yes, Grendel can be properly called a fiend of hell even though he is not so in the truest sense. More important than attempting to resolve the issue of Grendel’s identity, though, we are reminded by the blessed Chesterton to ask ourselves the question: What is the Grendel in my life? And as I now go to ponder that question, I will be doing so with the help of my own Big Rock Candy Mountain: i.e. the cabinet in the kitchen where the cognac is kept.
And just for a little fun…
*If the two words are synonymous, and, therefore, Grendel is the fierce spirit, the argument made here still generally holds due to the overall context and most especially the motivation that draws him out.