Grendel Versus Goemagog: The Ultimate Antagonist
*This is an essay I wrote while studying abroad for my British Fantasy Literature class.*
I, Shelby Lueders, promise that these words are truly my own and if proven otherwise, then throw me over Goemagog’s Leap.
Grendel Versus Goemagog: The Ultimate Antagonist
Grendel and Goemagog represent the antagonists in Beowulf and The History of the Kings of Britain respectively. Coming from different eras, Monmouth writing significantly later than Beowulf’s anonymous author, they each feature two villainous characters with similar qualities and stories overall. Both characters are depicted as horrible monsters and both meet their fate quickly by an extremely heroic man who stands apart from all other men. However, there are some differences between the two creatures, the main contrast being the amount of detail allotted to each character. Though Goemagog and Grendel have similar tales, Grendel is significantly better described and holds deeper qualities than Goemagog.
Geoffrey of Monmouth compiled a mock genealogy titled The History of the Kings of Britain in which a scene that depicts great civic pride for the Britons, an accomplishment Geoffrey was hoping to to convey, is discussed in this essay. A giant named Goemagog assembles twenty other giants and creates carnage during a feast for the gods put on by the Britons. The men are able to subdue and kill the extra twenty giants, leaving Goemagog for Corineus whom loves to fight with giants. Corineus shows his manliness by defeating the giant while naked and without weapons, earning only three broken ribs from the fight, and able to cast the massive beast over the shore cliff and the tale ends.
The background of Beowulf is more of a mystery compared to Geoffrey of Monmouth’s. Supposedly created in the eighth century by an anonymous author, it was originally presented orally, meaning the speaker had to memorize the entire 3182 lines the story consists of. The excerpt discussed in this essay portrays the demon-like figure of Grendel approaching the Danish king, Hrothgar’s, massive hall, where for some time now he had violently killed and devoured all of Hrothgar’s knights inside, but soon his nights of terror would be brought to an end according to this excerpt.
Both characters are described more as creatures and less as men. Goemagog is indirectly described as being inhuman: standing “twelve cubits tall and so strong he could loosen and uproot an oak tree as if it were a twig of hazel.” Monmouth also describes the giant as “a monster,” much like how Grendel is depicted. In comparison, Grendel is described as being “The bane of the race of men” (line 712), showing here that he was at some point in time a form of man. However, he also “greedily lop[es]” (line 711) towards Hrothgar’s dwelling and the anonymous author associates him more with animalistic qualities rather than manlike characteristics. Ward Parks’ article “Prey Tell: How Heroes Perceive Monsters in ‘Beowulf’” pinpoints how Grendel “is neither fully human nor fully bestial” and is an “essential defining characteristic of the particular challenge to [the] human community” (1). Both antagonists are barely human, which makes their conquerors seem even more significant and heroic. Corineus, the knight who loves to wrestle giants, is able to defeat this massive being with just his bare hands. Beowulf is able to kill Grendel when no other man could. Since both creatures are shown as monsters and are eventually defeated, the more “normal” quality men who are responsible for their death are then able to seem more heroic in the eyes of the other characters and ultimately the Britons themselves.
Goemagog’s reasoning for coming down to ruin the feast for the gods is not described in this excerpt of The History of the Kings of Britain, however Grendel’s reasoning is slightly implied. This creature is described as being “Spurned and joyless” (Anonymous line 720) or better said as being extremely angry and rejecting Hrothgar and his people with disdain. This excerpt does not go into much detail as to why Grendel is so angry, but clearly he has a reason for seeking this revenge. Furthermore, the anonymous author shows that Grendel has a “baleful light, flame more than light, flared from his eyes” (lines 726-27). Choosing the word “baleful” is quite interesting when it comes to depicting a ravaging monster because it both is defined as being “full of menacing or malign influences; pernicious” but also as being “miserable” and “wretched” (Dictionary.com). Grendel is being malicious to Hrothgar’s people, violently killing them in their sleep and then proceeding to devour them, but by describing him as being “baleful,” this also proves that Grendel has another, deeper side to him. He is miserable and the only way the he can cope with this misery is by acting out of rage towards the men who have wronged him. Grendel is also referred to as being “God-cursed” (Anonymous line 711), which implies that once before, Grendel was in the good graces of God, but has now acted in an unacceptable way to earn the cursing, and therefore, his time is sure to come to an end soon.
Both antagonist’s tales are coming to a close in these two excerpts. Goemagog’s death is thoroughly described. Geoffrey goes into much detail about Corineus’ courageous battle with the giant and the Goemagog’s death itself: “As he fell down the rocky crag, the giant was torn into a thousand pieces and stained the sea red with his blood.” By ending the scene with Goemagog’s death, the reader understands that the story is now over and all is better again, whereas the ending of this scene of Beowulf and Grendel is left to the anticipation of the reader: “his fate that night was due to change, his days of ravening had come to an end” (lines 733-35). The ending of this scene is much more poetic than Geoffrey’s ending, probably because Geoffrey was simply trying to create a quick and believable history for the Britons, whereas the tale of Grendel and Beowulf is just that, a tale to raise moral, and therefore requires more story-like qualities.
These story-like qualities that are used to describe Grendel are what make this tale a fantastical one. As discussed in class, Farah Mendlesohn presents four different fantasy theories that all fantastical stories can fit into. One of these fantasy theories is the idea of Intrusive Fantasy, which is where the fantastic is the bringer of chaos into the “non-fantastic” world. In a way, Richard Butt’s article “The Analogical Mere: Landscape and Terror in Beowulf” agrees with Mendlesohn:
Grendel represents something beyond the experience of the Danes—something beyond the limits of the natural and social order with which they are familiar—is reinforced by an imagery which suggests that the monster is part of a world which is both temporally and physically distinct from the world of contemporary men. (Butts 113)
His argument is that Grendel is coming from a completely different world than that of the Danes, and when those two worlds collide, it creates what Mendlesohn considers to be the Intrusive Fantasy. However, Butts is arguing that Grendel is a symbol of something greater than just a fantastic monster. He is a representation of the pre-civilization of the Danes, the darker history before Hrothgar’s reign (114). This can still be considered Intrusive Fantasy, but it goes beyond Mendelsohn’s simplistic explanation of something fantastical entering one non-fantastical world.
Mendlesohn also stresses that the fantastic does not necessarily need to be unpleasant, but it has at its base an assumption that normality is organized, so that when the fantastic does retreat back to its own world, the world it intruded is now back to normal. In a sense, this theory can be applied to both excerpts of Beowulf and The History of the Kings of Britain. Goemagog and Grendel do originate from a foreign place that is different and slightly mysterious to the other characters in the story and they both leave their dwellings to interrupt the other characters in their native territory. Mendelsohn’s idea of everything returning to normal once the fantastic departs from the story is slightly off however. Geoffrey of Monmouth’s tale ends with Goemagog’s death and the naming of the cliff, Goemagog’s Leap, in honor of Corineus casting the giant over the seacliff and to his death. That cliff will never be the same again thanks to the fantastic, the giant Goemagog and the feat of carrying the massive creature on Corineus’ back. The same can be said in the case of Beowulf. What was left out in the excerpt provided is that Beowulf sacrifices himself at the end of his tale after killing Grendel’s mother. Hrothgar and his people will forever mourn their hero that saved many men from their untimely deaths. Both people, in defense of Mendlesohn, will most likely return to their normal ways of living, by continuing to throw feasts and parties in large halls, but they do not have to worry anymore of some monster that can come and ruin their festivities. If everything were to return to normal, then the stories would not be relevant in the first place. Both stories are there to raise moral in the people who would have heard or read it, and if the lives of the characters returned to normal, then why would one even bother to read the story? There would not be such a drive to continue telling the story throughout the years and an oral story originally told in the eighth century would have disappeared.
Perhaps Geoffrey of Monmouth read or heard the tale of Beowulf and used some of the same ideas while writing down his history seeing as the antagonists and the heros that subdue them are quite similar. Corineus is wounded by the giant Goemagog and Beowulf ends up sacrificing himself to the fight between himself and Grendel’s mother; both antagonists are described as monsters, or barely human; and they both come to interrupt the feasts and partying by the people in the story. However, the anonymous author that imagined the story of Beowulf was not inventing the story for the British people, but instead created a story that simply entertained, and he succeeded in being the better writer between the two authors. Goemagog is the character that Geoffrey of Monmouth wants him to be, someone who is ruthless, but also easily defeatable. When it comes Grendel, the anonymous author creates more of a story around this antagonist. He has a fuller description compared to the few lines that cover the simple characterization of Goemagog. Since his description provides more information, the character of Grendel comes to life more than Goemagog, which the reader can predict is going to lose the battle and end up dying. Grendel has the power to make the readers and listeners of the story potentially feel something for the “God-cursed” and “baleful” creature. Even if the reader does not side with the vicious monster, by creating a more in depth antagonist, the author of Beowulf makes the battle between Grendel and Beowulf even more exciting and prideful because the reader or listener would want Grendel to be overpowered and ultimately killed for his malicious actions.
Anonymous. Beowulf. Trans. Seamus Heaney. New York: W. W. Norton, 2000. N. pag. Lines 710-735. Print.
“Baleful” Dictionary.com Unabridged. Random House, Inc. 21 Feb. 2015.
Butts, Richard. “The Analogical Mere: Landscape and Terror in Beowulf.” Ed. Carol T. Gaffke and Anna J. Sheets. Poetry Criticism 22 (1987): 113-21.Gale Cengage Research. Web. 24 Feb. 2015.
Geoffrey of Monmouth. The History of the Kings of Britain. Ed. Michael D. Reeve. Trans. Neil Wright. N.p.: Woodbridge: The Boydell, 2007. N. pag. Print.
Parks, Ward. “Prey Tell: How Heroes Perceive Monsters in “Beowulf”” The Journal of English and Germanic Philology 92.1 (1993): 1-16. JSTOR. Web. 21 Feb. 2015.