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In “The Fates of Men in Beowulf,” James H. Morey investigates a “murder mystery in reverse” (40), tying together the strange matter of the spelling of Hunferth’s name and the elision of details surrounding the deaths of the royal Danes.  In his provocative conclusion, Morey asks, “what can account for Grendel's twelve-year long depredations upon what seems to be an honourable, well-ruled kingdom?  The answer . . . is that Hrothgar owes his kingship to the kin-slayer who sits at his feet” (43).  In order to follow Morey to this conclusion, one must accept the following: that kin-slaying is punishable by cannibal-monster visits which spare the guilty parties yet destroy loyal warriors, that Hunferth is a kin-slayer responsible for Hrothgar’s being on the throne, and that, therefore, Grendel’s decimation of Heorot’s warriors and night-time tyranny of the hall are logical and fitting punishment for this “dark family secret” of kin-killing (44).  As supporting evidence for his minor premise, Morey claims that it is Hunferth’s responsibility to cleanse Heorot by killing Grendel (43).  While some elements of Morey’s argument are convincing, his ultimate claim relies on several logically dubious steps.

    Morey’s attention to detail on the causes of death is one of his essay’s strengths, as is his deployment of those details to argue that, in the case of the missing obituaries, even “the dog that does not bark in the night [is] significant” (28).  His linking of the manuscript’s insistent “H” in Hunferth’s name to those of the Danish royal line is suggestive, and he goes some distance toward supporting the premise that Hunferth is a kin-slayer responsible for Hrothgar’s being on the throne. The first difficulty with Morey’s argument lies in the missing major premise of his enthymeme: kin-slaying is punishable by cannibal-monster visits.  Unfortunately, nothing in the text suggests that supernatural retribution is a fitting punishment for any of the other kin-slaying that occurs in Beowulf.  According to Morey’s analysis, Hæðcyn would occupy a position similar to that of Hrothgar – he is the unrightful inheritor of the throne when he kills his brother and his father follows in grief.  In fact, Hæðcyn’s crime may be greater, because he is not only responsible for his older brother’s death but also stands to benefit directly from it.  Yet Hæðcyn dies on the battlefield; there is no indication that any supernatural retribution is involved.  Presumably, the taint of kin-slaying in the Geatish line is removed with Hæðcyn’s death; it is fitting, within the world of the poem, that he should die violently, and his death effectively cleanses the royal family of any taint or curse: from it springs Beowulf, “secg besta” (947).   Grendel, however, spares both Hunferth and Hrothgar. Therefore, something must make the Scylding case special in order for them to merit such a legendary punishment.  Morey has taken pains to show us “the ubiquity of kin-killing” in the poem (42), so the mere presence of its possibility – even its probability – does not seem enough to warrant the visits from Grendel. 

Furthermore, no textual evidence supports the claim that Grendel visits Heorot because of Scylding sinfulness, crime, or wrongdoing.  In fact, Grendel is repeatedly described as sinful and engaged in unlawful activity; if he is visiting the Danes because Hrothgar occupies the throne on shaky authority, the poet has taken pains to not only deliberately obscure this fact, but to supply the audience with a red herring.  According to the poem, Grendel is a figure of suffering rather than vengeance:

    Ða se ellengæst earfoðlice
þrage geþolode, se þe in þystrum bad,
þæt he dogora gehwam dream gehyrde
hludne in healle; þær wæs hearpan sweg,
swutol sang scopes. (86-90)
[A bold demon who waited in darkness / wretchedly suffered all the while, / for every day he heard the joyful din / loud in the hall, with the harp’s sound / the clear song of the scop.]

In these lines, the poet suggests that the audible presence of Heorot’s occupants causes Grendel pain; Heorot, “heah ond horngeap” [high and horn-gabled] (82), will in fact be destroyed (82-85), but not by Grendel.  Until his arrival, the Danes had lived without “sorge” [sorrow] or “wonsceaft” [misery] (120): “Swa þa drihtguman dreamum lifdon, / eadiglice oð ðæt an ongan / fyrene fremman feond on helle” [Thus this lordly people lived in joy, / blessedly, until one began to work his foul crimes – a fiend from hell] (99-102).  Clearly, Grendel’s visits are to be understood as unjustly violent, and Grendel himself as tainted with evil.  The Danes, on the other hand, appear to be blessed with a “god cyning” [good king] (863), a king who rules the Danes in peace and plenty for “hund missera” [a hundred half-years] (1669) before Grendel shows up as an embodiment of supernatural retribution. In this case, the puzzle pieces Morey supplies do not quite fit the larger picture.  Why would the Danes enjoy fifty years of peace before Grendel descends on them, and by what logic may Grendel’s cannibalizing of Danish thanes justly punish the guilty parties?

In support of his claim that Hunferth had a direct hand in getting Hrothgar onto the throne, Morey further argues that it is Hunferth’s responsibility to fight Grendel, and that Beowulf is quick to point this out during the flyting. Morey cites lines 590-594 to support his statement, without supplying further comment to anchor his claim.  But the poet elaborates in the following lines in terms which suggest Hunferth is being singled out more because he challenged Beowulf’s courage than because he is neglecting a singular responsibility.  The poem proceeds,

    Secge ic þe to soðe, sunu Ecglafes,
þæt næfre Grendel swa fela gryra gefremede,
atol æglæca, ealdre þinum,
hynðo on Heorote, gif þin hige wære,
sefa swa searogrim, swa þu self talast;
ac he hafað onfunden, þæt he þa fæhðe ne þearf,
atole ecgþræce eower leode
swiðe onsittan, Sige-Scyldinga;
nymeð nydbade, nænegum arað
leode Deniga, ac he lust wigeð,
swefeð ond snedeþ, secce ne weneþ
to Gar-Denum. (590-601)  
[I will say it truly, son of Ecglaf, / that never would Grendel have worked such terror, / that gruesome beast, against your lord, / or shames in Heorot, if your courage and spirit / were as fierce as you yourself fancy they are; / but he has found that he need fear no feud, / no storm of swords from the Victory-Scyldings, / no resistance at all from your nation; / he takes his toll, spares no one / in the Danish nation, but indulges himself, / hacks and butchers and expects no battle / from the Spear-Danes.]

While I agree that Beowulf is responding to Hunferth by accusing him of a lack of deeds to go along with his words, Hunferth is only one among many of the Scyldings from whom Grendel expects no battle.  The text does not support Morey’s claim that “Beowulf himself observes that fighting Grendel is really Hunferth's problem and responsibility” (43).  In lines 480-488, Hrothgar makes it clear that many men have tried and failed to defeat Grendel.  Hrothgar’s loss of his troops causes him grief and humiliation, and indeed Beowulf maligns Unferth’s courage, but there is no indication that Unferth bears the responsibility for stopping Grendel.  He occupies a position of honor at Hrothgar’s feet, and while knowledge of his involvement in the death of his own kin is evidently common, he is indulged and trusted: “gehwylc hiora his ferhþe treowde / þæt he hæfde mod micel þeah þe he his magum nære / arfæst æt ecga gelacum” [everyone trusted his spirit, that he had great courage, though to his kinsmen he had not been merciful in sword-play] (1166-1168).

In order to accept Morey’s ultimate claim, one must postulate a sustained double awareness on the part of the audience, a level of dramatic irony that strains both art and belief.  It may be true that the poet deliberately explicates or obscures the causes of death for the sake of “tactful politics known to an audience contemporary with the poem but unknown to us” (38).  It is more difficult to accept that the poet would move beyond tactful omission into an outright sleight of hand, expecting the audience to tacitly acknowledge a shady Danish succession but presenting Grendel textually as an enemy of not just mankind but also God, an enemy who punishes the innocent and spares those directly involved in the shady succession.  Morey’s painstaking excavation of the fates of men in Beowulf results in an intriguing read, but his conclusion about the significance of the dog that does not bark rests on more than one ill-supported premise.

 Works Cited

Beowulf: An Edition.  Eds. Bruce Mitchell and Fred C. Robinson.  Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 1998.

Liuzza, R.M., trans.  Beowulf: A New Verse Translation.  Peterborough, Canada: Broadview Press, 2000.

Morey, James H.  “The Fates of Men in Beowulf.”  Source of Wisdom: Old English and Early Medieval Latin Studies in Honour of Thomas D. Hill.  Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007.  26-51.

ETA: LJ ate my formatting.  All OE follows Mitchell and Robinson because Klaeber wasn't out in time for this class, and translations follow Liuzza, who has a license tag that says ... wait for it.... BEOWULF.


( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 6th, 2008 04:19 am (UTC)
I got a huge kick out of reading this :)... Hunferth responsible for Grendel's attack? Pff, NOT.
Mar. 6th, 2008 11:56 am (UTC)
Up until the point where he makes that leap, it's really interesting... he seems to have a point about the descriptions of the deaths in the poem, and he ties it nicely into the manuscript's insistent spelling of Unferth's name as Hunferth. But yeah... I am not on board with the "Grendel as supernatural punishment for Unferth's kin-slaying" idea.
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )

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