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Grendel's Mother Broods Over Her Feral Son


Marijane Osborn, University of California, Davis

Editor's Note: Marijane Osborn, Professor of English at the University of California, Davis, has announced her retirement at the end of the 2006-07 academic year. She received her Ph.D. from Stanford University in 1969 (she enjoys the distinction of being Fred C. Robinson's first Ph.D. student) and was instrumental in the creation of the Old English Newsletter; she joined the faculty of the English Department at UC Davis in 1981. She received the Teaching Excellence Award from the Northern California Association of Phi Beta Kappa in 2004. She is the author, among many other publications, of Beowulf: A Verse Translation with Treasures from the Ancient North (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983); Beowulf: A Likeness, with Randolph Swearer and Raymond Oliver (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990), which won the Association of American Publishers Professional and Scholarly Division's 1990 Award for Excellence in Book Design and Production; "Translations, Versions, Illustrations" in A Beowulf Handbook, Ed. John D. Niles and Robert Bjork (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997), 341-82; and co-author with Gillian Overing of Landscape of Desire: Partial Stories of the Medieval Scandinavian World (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota Press, 1994).

Along with her translations, she has published numerous original works of poetry, and it seems appropriate to include the poem below in an issue which focuses on modern versions of Beowulf. In both her scholarly and creative work Osborn exemplifies the belief that we cannot deny the validity or ignore the power of the emotions and personal experiences that we bring to our scholarship or that our work raises in us. The poem takes a fine point of philology as the inspiration for a fiercely-imagined portrait of a character whose voice and point of view are largely excluded from Beowulf. We present it here not only in gratitude for Professor Osborn's distinguished career but as a reminder that old works of literature like Beowulf will continue to matter to contemporary readers only if we have the courage to apply not just philological skill and critical discernment, but also emotional intelligence and creative imagination, to our interpretation of them. -RML.

Author's Note: This poem gives Grendel's Mother a voice, although she has no voice at this point in her story. The poem is based on William A. P. Sewell's proposal (TLS, 11 September 1914) that line 6 of Beowulf should be construed to mean that Scyld Scefing egsode eorl[e] in reference to the Danes' routing of the Heruli mentioned by the historian Jordanes. According to Jordanes the Heruli (or Eruli) were the tallest of the tall people of Scandinavia and "fought with the cruelty of wild beasts" (Getica III 23-24). If Grendel's Mother may be imagined as a member of this dispossessed and decimated tribe, her duty is clear, for among the Scandinavians a man was bound by honor to avenge his slain kinsman, and the woman's role was to urge him to the task, or even to do it herself as a final resort.

"High Halfdane"! He was tall enough, like me,

but he was also low; he lurked in thickets.

Often I would have told this tale, my son,

my little one grown huge, had I been able.

He raped me, then he spoke of love, then cut

my tongue out so that I could not betray

him and his men, whose plans I knew, in words.

And then he burned my family in their house.

I still cannot "betray" him, cannot incite

my only son, as a woman should, to vengeance,

now that the killer's dead, upon his kinsmen.

Nor can you speak. You're only half a human

living alone with me, my grunts and moans,

a mother inarticulate as a wolf.

But blood—at least I have accustomed you

to blood, to blood and silence ...

They've always fought us,

ever since that wicked king called Scyld

snatched our Heruli home from father's mother.

She ruled the land with courtesy, but not

the strategy to match a warrior's cunning.

We needed a lord, they said. It seems we did.

Scyld took our mead seats, razed our halls, and slew

all those who did not vanish in the wilds.

My father, just a little boy, was one

who vanished, grew to manhood, headed out

to fight old Scyld, then headed a stake in the woods.

When still a girl I met him grinning there.

I'll not forget that smile; I learned from it.

I learned such hate. Then Scyld's son ruled our kingdom,

then his son Halfdane, your unhonored sire.

Now he lies dead and Hrothgar rules, your brother—

No kinsman of my own, whom soon you shall

salute by painting his golden hall dark red.

Listen, they're singing. I see your neck hairs move.

Poor boy, you never had a chance to know

such warmth of fellowship, such mead-drunk love

of man for man. Yes, darling, love them, go,

defile that Dane-joy! Hug them till they lack

the breath to scream with. Win our honor back.