April 03, 2004

Tacen sweotol

Over this past week in my Old English class, we’ve been reading parallel passages from Beowulf and Judith (as I’ve mentioned in a previous posting), specifically dismemberment passages: Beowulf’s fight with Grendel and the tearing off of his arm (ll. 809-836), Beowulf’s fight with Grendel’s mother (ll. 1557-1590), and Judith’s decapitation of Holofernes (ll. 94b-121).

In the first passage, in a fight with Grendel, Beowulf mortally wounds Grendel by ripping his arm off; Grendel then flees the hall to die in private. Beowulf then puts the arm on display in the hall Heorot (Hart House, anyone?) as visible evidence — tacen sweotol ‘visible token’ — that he defeated Grendel.

In the second passage, Beowulf cuts Grendel’s mother’s head off with a special ancient sword he finds in her underwater abode. He then proceeds to mutilate the already dead body of Grendel, cutting the head off. Beowulf does this for two reasons, for revenge and so that he can bring the head back with him to Heorot. When Beowulf arrives at the hall, he shows it to the Danes tires to tacne ‘as a token of glory’, again, visible evidence of his victory.

In the final passage we looked at, Judith saves her people, the Hebrews, from Holofernes and his invading army of Assyrians. The Assyrians have beseiged the city of Bethulia, and Judith uses feminine charms to gain access to the enemy camp. The wicked Holofernes holds a banquet and becomes very drunk. Deciding to have his way with Judith, he orders her brought to his bedchamber, but then passes out from all the alcohol. Judith takes this opportunity to cut Holofernes’ head off, though it takes two blows to do it, and then sneaks out of the camp bringing the head with her. When she returns to her city, she orders her handmaiden hyt to behðe blodig ætywan ‘to show it, bloody, as a sign’ to her people. And she says, “Her ge magon sweotole … on ðæs laðestan hæ&eht;enes heaðorinces heafod starian” [‘You may clearly gaze on the head of that most hated heathen warrior’]. Having seen this visible evidence of Holofernes’ death, the people of Bethulia are enheartened and attack and defeat the now leaderless Assyrians, who panic and flee.

I find this all very interesting, the need for visible evidence, the motives for dismemberment, the thematic implications. I should also point out that both these poems are found in the same manuscript, so drawing parallels between the two is very tempting.

Posted by Mark at April 3, 2004 05:55 PM