Karl Steel over at In the Middle tagged me on a question a few days ago, and I've yet to answer. I haven't been ignoring the tag in the post; it just happened to fall on the first day back for faculty. I wanted to look at the Old English Beowulf again before commenting, but I haven't had a chance. I didn't want too much time to elapse before responding, so this is coming off the top of my head a bit, without having reviewed the OE Beowulf and without having read Blurton's work at all.
In any case, for those of you who aren't Old English specialists, the argument has to do with the word "eoten," generally translated as something like "giant" or "monster." Blurton (or at least my reading of Karl's summary of Blurton) is suggesting that "cannibal" would be a better translation.
As Karl points out, the Beowulf manuscript (Cotton Vitellius A.xv) is full of all sorts of monstrousness. Beowulf has some really odd narrative lacunae in the story (most notably 50-odd years). When I try to reconcile these facts with Kevin Kiernan's research on the Beowulf MS, I come up with this speculative conclusion: The Beowulf MS scribe was collecting a codex of monster stories. He had three different monster stories from at least 2 different Beowulf poems, from which he excised the non-monsterous parts, and then knitted the remains back together, giving us our extant Beowulf poem.
That being said, then, I think that the argument about cannibalism holds up very well for the Grendel section, and not so well for the Grendel's mother section and the dragon. Without looking at the OE, I think there is much less threat of being eaten by the eoten.*
Without the OE in front of me, I don't know what to make of the claim that "The Beowulf-poet weaves the word [eoten] through the narrative..." because I don't know if by "narrative" we mean just the narrative about Grendel, or the whole of Beowulf, or the whole of the Beowulf MS. From the context, it looks like Blurton means the entire Cotton Vitellius A.xv manuscript.
Let's limit it here just to what I remember of the Beowulf poem. As I recall, the sword that Beowulf uses to slay Grendel's mother is a sword of the eoten. By this, we can either assume that she is one of the eoten and it's her sword, or that she's NOT one of the eoten and she just happens to have it.
If she is one of the eoten, then the threat to Beowulf should be a cannibalistic threat. I just don’t see that. Sexual threat, yet. A threat to the community, yes. But the regular consumer of coffee and Danish? I don’t see any real evidence of that in the text.
OK, so if she’s not one of the eoten – presumably that means that the un-encountered Grendel’s father must be one – where does that leave us? Beowulf kills Grendel’s mother with a cannibal’s sword, so Beowulf is committing a symbolic act of cannibalism? Beowulf is the cannibal? It is Grendel’s special eoten man-eating sword, and so Grendel’s mother is being symbolically eaten by Grendel? Again, I don’t see any of this in the text.
Grendel and his mother are part of a general Scandinavian troll tradition. Trolls occupied a sort of semi-human category. On the one hand, they are clearly monstrous, but on the other, they are humanoid physically and mentally. Some Viking heroes even claimed to be partially descended from trolls, so they were close enough to humans to cross-breed.
That troll connection, much more than the word eoten, suggests cannibalism to me. The dragon is a mere animal (unlike Grendel, who is more like a mere person)**, and therefore cannot cannibalize humans. Grendel, though, is close enough to human as a troll that his behavior could be considered cannibalism.
So, the short answer is this: I buy the cannibalism argument, but wouldn’t link it at all to the word eoten.
*Do you like that pun? More to come!
**Get it? Get it?! Gosh, I must be tired ... I'm having too much fun with the puns.