Grendel's Mere: Freudian and

Metapoetical Implications

Sung-Il Lee

One of the most famous passages in Old English poetry is that uttered by Hrothgar, a bit after the first third of Beowulf, in which he describes the mere of Grendel and his mother. After Beowulf fulfills his promise to vanquish Grendel, Hrothgar and his thanes celebrate Beowulf's victory by holding a banquet before going to bed. Then, to revenge Grendel's miserable defeat, his mother comes to Heorot, and after killing Hrothgar's chief thane Aeschere, disappears, dragging his body. Beowulf, who has been sent for again to the royal presence, hears from Hrothgar about the mere where the monsters dwell, and promises to Hrothgar that he will go there to vanquish this second monster.

The depiction of the mere uttered by Hrothgar is an ultimate instance of the visualization of poetic imagination, and the correspondence between sound and sense detectable while the lines evolve enables the reader to envision a landscape of horror in his mind's eye. The passage describing Grendel's mere, in the voice of Hrothgar, has left a haunting image in my memory, and I have wondered why the Beowulf poet tried to carve such a long-lasting relief in the consciousness of the readers of his poem by composing these lines, where he exerted his poetic imagination to the utmost. The passage offers us a vivid picture of horror that all of us can envision, as if we had seen it somewhere in our deep-hidden consciousness, though not with our physical eyes. The poet's full exertion of his poetic imagination and the strong impact of the passage on the readers' sensibility suggest a yet-to-be- explored layer of the epic formulae manifested in Beowulf.

The passage abounds in sexual innuendo and allusion to the female reproductive organ. Whether it was part of an intentional artistic scheme, or merely an outcome of the mysteriously evolving interaction between an artist's subconsciousness and his artistic practice, which he was not even aware of, cannot be ascertained. But the strong impact of the passage upon the reader's imagination is comparable to that of the Gawain poet's depiction of the Green Chapel toward the end of the romance, in the sense that both passages contain hidden allusions to female genitalia. To bring you directly to my thesis, I will quote the passage on Grendel's mere in my translation:

They occupy a secret land, wolf-infested slopes,

Windy headlands, and a perilous fen-path,

Where the mountain-stream falls down in mist from the headland,

And flows under the earth's surface. Not far from here,

A few miles away, there stands the mere,

Over which droop trees covered with frost,

And the wood darkens the water with tangled roots.

There every night a fearful wonder is seen--

The fire gleaming on the water. None alive, no matter how old and wise,

Knows how deep it is. Chased by hounds from far,

A stag may seek a hiding place for his horns,

Yet he would rather give up his life on the bank

Than plunge his head in the water. Not a pleasant place!

From there surging waves rise up to darken the clouds,

And the wind stirs up loathsome storms, till

The air becomes choking and the sky howls.

(Beowulf, 11. 1357-1376, my translation)

Why did the poet exert his poetic imagination to the utmost to portray this landscape of horror, and make his readers shudder? And exactly what makes the reader respond so sensitively to the landscape drawn by the poet? Is some chilling correspondence between the reader's imagination and the poet's happening here? With these questions in my mind, I have to conclude that, in this passage, the poet has reached the summit of poetic imagination. Aside from the visual effect that the passage creates, we find a rather symbolic statement about the fear of a stag with large horns. Even while being chased by hounds, a stag, trying to hide his horns--a phallic symbol, unquestionably―in the bush, would not jump into the mere, or plunge his head in the water, knowing that the mere is a place of death. Does this statement allude to the primordial fear of womanhood deeply seated in the psyche of all male creatures?

To make my points clearer, I will quote the passage from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which captures the moment of Gawain's finding the Green Chapel:

He puts his heels to his horse, and picks up the path;

Goes in beside a grove where the ground is steep,

Rides down the rough slope right to the valley;

And then he looked a little about him--the landscape was wild,

And not a soul to bo seen, nor sign of a dwelling,

But high banks on either hand hemmed it about,

With many a ragged rock and rough-hewn crag;

The skies seemed scored by the scowling peaks.

Then he halted his horse, and hoved there a space,

And sought on every side for a sight of the Chapel,

But no such place appeared, which puzzled him sore,

Yet he saw some way off what seemed like a mound,

A hillock high and broad, hard by the water,

Where the stream fell in foam down the face of the steep

And bubbled as if it boiled on its bed below.

The knight urges its horse, and heads for the knoll;

Leaps lightly to earth; loops well the rein

Of his steed to a stout branch, and stations him there.

He strides straight to the mound, and strolls all about,

Much wondering what it was, but no whit the wiser;

It had a hole at one end, and on either side,

And was covered with coarse grass in clumps all without,

And hollow all within, like some old cave,

Or a crevice of an old crag--he could not discern aright.

(Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,, 11. 2160-2184, Marie Borroff's translation)

I don't think my imagination is anything morbid. It happens quite often that a poet reveals part of his unconsciousness unwittingly. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight contains the theme of the cycle of history--most palpably manifested by the seasonal cycle--and the continuity of life. The passage I have just quoted undoubtedly contains words that evoke in the reader's imagination the image of the female reproductive organ. Such is the case of the passage depicting Grendel's mere. The only difference between the two is that the passage on the Green Chapel contains the implication of rebirth, in the sense that when Gawain receives the counter-stroke from the Green Knight, it is the moment of his castration as a knight, and when that moment of humiliation is over, he comes to be reborn as a humble man, aware of his shortcomings as a man of weak flesh. Inasmuch as the Green Chapel is a place for the rebirth of Gawain, the birth of a new life, so the mere of Grendel and his mother is a place for the birth of evil, a swamp for destruction and despair and death.

But I am not sure whether the poets intentionally resorted to the sexual implications in developing their themes. Hrothgar says two creatures dwell in the mere, one with a male figure, the other with a female figure. The female-looking creature is supposedly Grendel's mother, for sure; but while reading the passage, we don't conceive her simply as Grendel's mother, but rather as his life's companion. In the depiction of the fight between Beowulf and Grendel's mother, we also encounter passages that contain much allusion that is associated with human sexuality--a fact that denotes that, even in Anglo-Saxon literature, the Freudian elements are to be found.

Having commented on the parallel between Grendel's mere and the Green Chapel, I must point out that the dissimilarities between them arise from the difference in the outlooks on life presented in the two works. Although an epic, in terms of literary genre, Beowulf is a work containing a tragic vision. Its weltanschauung is more pessimistic than optimistic, and the whole work emphasizes the loneliness of the hero in his confrontation with evil, whether it attacks Heorot―an allusion to the human 'heart'―in the shape of Grendel or it devastates the Geatish land in the form of the Dragon. Beowulf is always alone: in his fights with Grendel and the Dragon, he either chooses or is forced to carry on a solitary confrontation with his opponent. And when he dies, his people mourn his death as something final, believing that they will never be able to see his like again. What he leaves behind is utter despair, as if the Doomsday had come and the world had come to an end. In stark contrast with Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight offers us a more embracing kind of worldview. It is a romance of adventure, for sure; but its hero is not extolled at the expense of others. Gawain finally admits and embraces his human limitations, and imperfect as he is, he is accepted and embraced by those around him. The happy ending of the romance is geared to the spirit of comedy, and the predominant spirit of the work is the common bond of humanity. Unlike Beowulf, who always has to carry on a solitary journey of life, Gawain belongs to the general humanity.

For this reason, while resorting to sexual allusions, each passage presents a picture starkly contrasted with the other. Grendel was born and reared in the swamp land of death and destruction, while Gawain is given another life, after receiving the counter-stroke from the Green Knight. Both Grendel's mere and the Green Chapel are conceived as the places of birth; but the former is the birth place of evil and destruction, while the latter is the spot where spiritual regeneration is achieved and a new-born man is granted a second journey of life.

It is quite appropriate, then, that both passages contain the water imagery. Water is the source of all life, and after impregnation a fetus floats in the water inside the womb, before coming out to the world. The water imagery, combined with the image of a cave and the winding paths covered with bushes, in both passages, consolidates my thesis on the Freudian implications of Grendel's mere. Gawain's neck is touched by the edge of the Green Knight's axe, and drops of blood trickle on the new-fallen white snow. The bleeding, of course, can be associated with the image of the first menstruation, or the breaking of the hymen, in the sense that it is the moment of the rebirth of a man.

My speculation on the Freudian implications of the passage on Grendel's mere or on the Green Chapel, however, is not to propound any psychoanalytical interpretation of the works, but to co-relate them to the metapoetical implications, which will reveal how a poet's suppressed subconsciousness finds an occasion for its release, and also how the artistic consciousness that ever remains alert throughout the process of artistic creation manifests itself in the lines he writes. Though the thesis of my presentation may sound two-fold, the two implications, Freudian and metapoetical, are closely inter-related and inseparable from each other.

The act of writing a work of imagination is often compared to child-birth. As Sir Philip Sidney wrote in one of his sonnets, the pain of writing is comparable to the throe of childbirth. The act of creating presupposes the undercurrent of an artistic libido working under the surface of sprezzatura. The ardor to create is inherent in the subconsciousness of all artists, just as biological reproduction is the most fundamental principle in phenomenal nature. And the instinct for biological reproduction has drawn the attention of all living creatures to genitalia. Don't the flowers bloom to attract the bees and the butterflies, and don't the paragon of animals, man and woman, pay much attention both to the concealment and the revelation of their physical beauty? The artists suffer from having to play the tight-rope game, the game of hovering between the desire to reveal their inner worlds and the fear of exposure of their inner selves to the outside world. An artist must keep a certain distance from what he or she is creating. An artist's effort to maintain aesthetic distance from his work stems from his fear of much self-exposure, yet he wishes to reveal his inner world.

Allusions to the female reproductive organ in those passages, then, should not be taken as something intended, but a spontaneous overflow of the powerful desire to create. Whether a poet is aware of it or not, the lines he writes reveal the undercurrent of his artistic compulsion for creation. The intellectual activity of composing poetic lines thus inevitably has its root in the libido for reproduction. The sexual innuendos contained in the passage on Grendel's mere can be explained, in that sense, in relation to the metapoetical implications contained therein. The heroic formulae, which apparently suggest no direct relationship with human sexuality and with the subtler subject of artistic consciousness, have to be reconsidered and redefined, for all literary activity has its root in the unfathomable humal psyche and the artistic effort both to reveal and conceal it.

(Yonsei University)



그렌델과 어미가 거처하는 늪지대에 관한 묘사가 전개되는 시행들에는 다분히 프로이드적인 심상이 내포되어 있는데, 필자는 시행들을 심리 분석적인 측면보다는 메타-시적인 의미를 갖는 것으로 본다. 시인의 억압된 잠재의식과 창작의 순간에 끊임없이 지속되는 예술가적 자의식이 교감하면서 시인이 나가는 시행들에 노정되기 마련인 까닭이다. 시행들에 담겨 있는 프로이드적 심상과 메타-시적인 의미는 불가분의 관계를 갖고 있다. 악의 본원을 그려내는데 있어 시인은 허구의 인물을 설정하여 흐로스가르가 삼자로부터 들은 바를 베오울프에게 다시 들려주는 형식을 취하지만, 결국 시인, 흐로스가르, 베오울프, 삼자는 악의 본질을 규명하고자 하는 시인의 노력을 표상하는 존재들이란 점에서 동일선상에 놓이고 궁극적으로는 합일이 된다. 영웅적 서사시의 전통 속에서 인간의 성적인 본능과 예술가적 자의식, 사이의 상관 관계는 표면적으로는 드러나지 않으나, 모든 예술 활동이 깊이를 없는 인간의 심리에 뿌리를 두고 있고, 무의식의 세계를 외부에 노정시키고 싶은 욕망과 그것을 감추고 싶은 예술가적 자의식이 팽팽한 대립 관계를 지속하는 것이 창작의 과정이라고 , 영웅적 서사시라는 문학 형식의 성격을 다시 살펴 필요가 있다.


Grendel's Mere: Freudian and

Metapoetical Implications

Sung-Il Lee

This essay explores the Freudian implication of the passage describing Grendel's mere, not for the purpose of propounding any psychoanalytical interpretation, but to co-relate it to the metapoetical implication, which reveals how a poet's suppressed subconciousness finds an occasion for its release, and also how the artistic conciousness that ever remains alert throughout the process of artistic creation manifests itself in the lines he writes. Though my thesis may sound two-fold, the two implications, Freudian and metapoetical, are closely interrelated and inseparable.

In order to prove my thesis, I discuss the author's scheme of the tripartite division of self--the poet and his two fictive characters (Hrothgar and Beowulf)--and show how the three, in effect, converge, while we carry on our probing into his artistic endeavor to explore the nature of evil. The heroic formulae, which apparently suggest no direct relationship with human sexuality and with the subtler subject of artistic conciousness, have to be reconsidered and redefined, for all literary activity has its root in the unfathomable human psyche and the artistic effort both to reveal and conceal it.