Sunday, August 12, 2007

Cannibals and Beowulf; Or, Eatin' with the Eoten

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.


  1. Thanks for this response!

    Coffee and Danish: harh!

    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.

    I'm traveling, so I don't have the book in front of me, either, but iirc, Blurton means the whole of Beowulf.

    In re: the sword B gets during the fight with Gr's momma: if momma came by the sword (which is what I think, totally arbitrarily of course), then why does the unnamed father have to have been the owner? I tend to think of monsters as having hoards, which to my imagination look like a yard sale with really good stuff gotten from who knows where and belonging to who knows whom.

    I'm imagining that a lot of you Anglo-Saxonists are going to find the eoten thing untenable--fair enough! not my argument!--but I'm still wondering, RSN, what you make of eoten during the Finnsburg episode?

  2. Karl,

    You asked: "In re: the sword B gets during the fight with Gr's momma: if momma came by the sword (which is what I think, totally arbitrarily of course), then why does the unnamed father have to have been the owner?"

    I didn't express that well. Grendel's father would not have to be the owner of the sword. Instead I meant something like this:

    1. Grendel is eoten...
    2. Therefore, one or both of Grendel's parents must have been eoten...
    3. If Grendel's mother was not eoten...
    4. Grendel's father must have been eoten.

    The sword only gets mixed up in the argument because the only use of the word "eoten" I can recall in the Grendel's mother section is a description of the sword.

    Hope that's clearer. I'm also kind of assuming that "eoten" really refers to a race (species?) of cannibals, rather than just the behavior itself.

    As for the Finnsburg reference, I need to look at it again -- but my gut reaction is skepticism.

  3. On the other hand, getting eotin has led to pregnancy on occasion. (On 1, 2, 2...)

    Now by combining a bit of regional American dialectism and a two headed humanoid monster you get, ettin by the ettin.

  4. Anonymous10:16 AM

    The Eotenas (ēotenas) otherwise called Iuti, Iutae Eucii, Jutons, Jötuns or Jutes. A very typical Anglo-Saxon metaphorical and poetic jibe aimed at neighboring nations.

    We still refer to opposing nations as vermin, snakes or worse, a medieval nation of pedophiles, to use as an example.