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Signed (student author)
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Signed (2d advisor, if applicable) _________________ _
Thesis title I he_ ·!J..e ru ±be_ CJ+N.r i r\ F);:owuW c\nd +he- o .\' R CJ \c-.:\\d
Date 6/ i 1/ I 2-.
. lin., i<::l J'''i)
a e. 1 t: .7--U! .-._
' cr March 2010
The Hero versus the Other in Beowulf and the Song of Roland
Sherron Knopp, Advisor
A thesis submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the
Degree of Bachelor of Arts with Honors in English
May 16, 2012
Table of Contents
II. The Song of Roland.................................................................................12
The periphery of the Hereford World Map, one of the largest and most detailed of
the numerous surviving medieval mappaemundi, is teeming with unusual creatures. In
particular, many figures resisting categorization as either human or animal appear along
the map’s edge, including dragons, giants, and various deformed humans in an extensive
catalogue of monstruosi populi, or monstrous races. In cultural-historical discussions of
medieval monsters, scholars frequently read the Hereford Map and other mappaemundi
as visual representations of the medieval cartographer’s worldview, particularly how he
defines himself in relation to other religions, cultures, and geographical places.
Accordingly, the medieval cartographer’s habit of relegating monsters to the edges of the
map, thus visually segregating them from his own race, namely European man, reveals
something about his perceived relationship to the monstrous Other. These peripheral
figures are sometimes, like the giants and dragons of the Hereford Map, monsters in the
fantastical sense of the word with which the modern reader is familiar. But others, like
the monstruosi populi, represent real people from cultures alien to medieval Europe, who
“simply differed in physical appearance and social practices from the person describing
them” (Friedman 1). Still, the medieval cartographer groups all monsters, the real
peoples along with the dragons and dog-headed giants, along the map’s edges. As Asa
Simon Mittman explains, “By lumping all the monsters together on the maps, the creators
of these maps have established a diametric world in which constant battle rages between
Men and Monsters” (45).
Jeffrey Cohen, drawing on a body of criticism that he labels monster theory,
describes the literary monster narrative as functioning similarly to medieval
mappaemundi, that is, as a tool for mapping cultural difference frequently in binary
opposition to the Self (7). Considering this unity of function, while the worldview
presented in medieval monster narratives will certainly differ from that found on maps
from the same period, it is reasonable to expect some correspondence between the two.
At the very least, one anticipates a representation of a similar “diametric world in which
constant battle rages between Men and Monsters.”
Deeply interested in such diametric worlds, medieval epic is a genre in many
ways synonymous with the medieval monster narrative, and comparative epic scholarship
confirms this relationship. In his historical linguistic analysis of Indo-European heroic
poetry, Calvert Watkins locates the monster narrative at the foundations of epic tradition.
He traces the theme of dragon slaying, as represented by genetically related linguistic
formulas, from its origin in myth to its emergence in epic as early as Homer’s Iliad and
Odyssey: “The serpent adversary of myth can easily become the human adversary of epic
‘reality’” (Watkins 471). Watkins also confirms the expectation of a diametric
worldview in medieval epic, identifying the very specific binary opposition of “Order,”
the human, versus “Chaos,” the dragon (299).
Even W.P. Ker, over a century ago, identified a binary opposition throughout
medieval epic in his seminal work on medieval genres, Epic and Romance. While he
argues that the “killing of dragons and other monsters is the regular occupation of the
heroes of old wives’ tales” and therefore undeserving of “epic dignity,” Ker defines the
epic as a conflict between defenders and invaders (Ker 190). Although Ker imagines this
particular conflict of the epic as occurring strictly between humans, these human
enemies, as invaders, share a characteristic of monsters emphasized by Cohen: “The
monster is difference made flesh, come to dwell among us” (7). The monster is not
simply a representation of the cultural Other, but an Other who strays from his own world
in order to invade that of the Self. In turn, the Self becomes responsible for the defense
of his world against this monstrous invader.
Thus, it is not surprising that “constant battle...between Men and Monsters” is at
the center of two of the most iconic medieval vernacular epics, the Old English Beowulf
and the Old French Song of Roland. In Beowulf the “Men” are Geats and Danes and the
“Monsters” they fight take the shape of fantastical nonhumans. In the Song of Roland,
the Franks fight other men, the Saracens, who are represented as monstrous because of
their Muslim faith. Initially, both poets seem to reinforce, through the relationship
between their respective heroes and enemies, the binary opposition that medieval
cartographers embed in mappaemundi, that Watkins identifies in the traditional theme of
dragon slaying, and that Ker establishes in his definition of epic as a tale of defenders
versus invaders. The monsters of Beowulf, for instance, superficially seem the antithesis
of the Danes and Geats, beginning with the poet’s immediate labeling of them as
inhuman. Grendel receives the bulk of these monstrous monikers, described as elleng!st
(“bold demon,” Beowulf 86), f!ond on helle (“enemy from hell,” Beowulf 101), and
grimma g!st (“cruel spirit,” Beowulf 102) in just the thirty-line passage in which he is
While the poem’s other two monsters accumulate a narrower variety of
labels, the poet frequently refers to Grendel’s mother as !gl"cw#f (“she-monster”) and
the dragon as draca (“dragon”). Similarly, the Roland poet initially constructs a binary
relationship between the opposing forces in his poem, constantly distinguishing the
Muslims from the Christians by labeling them paiens or “pagans” and even once
describing Marsile, the Muslim king, as Charlemagne’s mortel enemi (“mortal foe,”
The poet also describes the Muslims as physically other and grotesque in
lines such as Issi est neirs cum peiz ki est demise (“[He] is black as molten pitch,” Roland
1635) and Granz unt les nes e lees les oreilles (“They have large noses and broad ears,”
But as one delves further into these texts, the antagonism between hero and
enemy, between “Men and Monsters,” quickly becomes complicated as a result of
frequent mirroring between the groups. At times, the poets endow these otherwise
opposed characters with the same characteristics, behaviors, or psychologies. As the hero
and the enemy appear increasingly alike, the worlds of these poems begin to resemble
less and less the diametric worlds of medieval mappaemundi and the epic. This
unexpected mirroring appears to contradict not only the medieval worldview as extracted
from pictorial evidence, but also expectations of the literary genre for which Beowulf and
Roland serve as iconic exempla.
All citations from Beowulf are from Fulk, Bjork, and Niles. The translations are my
own unless otherwise noted.
All citations from the Song of Roland are from Brault vol. 2. The corresponding
translations are from Burgess.
Among Beowulf scholars, interest in those moments in which the poem’s
monsters bear a striking resemblance to its human heroes is far from new.
And yet the
critics have reached little consensus in their attempts to interpret this unexpected
parallelism. Carol Braun Pasternack, for one, analyzes several such instances using
Fredric Jameson’s theory of the political unconscious:
[A] post-structuralist reading takes such a contradiction [parallelism
between the monsters and the Danes] as pointing to something the text is
attempting to cover up, an idea that is scandalous within the text’s
dominant binary, which in Beowulf makes the heroic godly and the hero’s
opponents ungodly. The scandal here is that the Danes fundamentally do
not differ from Grendel. (Pasternack 185)
Pasternack proceeds to judge each of these moments as “unintended, a slip revealing a
scandal within the resolutions the text is attempting and a ‘political unconscious’ that the
text is working hard to cover up” (185). Pasternack is correct to point out that these
moments do not settle into the binary relationship between heroes and enemies one
expects of a medieval epic. But considering the frequency with which these “slip[s]”
occur, I would challenge her assessment of them as “unintentional” or “scandal[s]...the
text is working hard to cover up.” Rather, the abundance and consistency of the
similarities between the heroes and the monsters strongly suggest a deliberate attempt to
complicate a simplistic picture of heroic society.
Perhaps the most striking similarity between the heroes and the enemies in
Beowulf is that the motives for their equally violent actions are identical. Each group
kills members of the other in order to defend themselves and their property or to avenge
the death of their relations. One might even describe the poem’s monsters as conforming
For a concise summary of scholarship interested in the monsters’ close resemblance to
the heroes, see Fulk, Bjork, and Niles xliv.
to the Anglo-Saxon heroic code, in which one is expected to avenge violent deeds against
kin and countrymen. Grendel, of course, seems to be an exception as he attacks the
Danes neither in defense nor for vengeance. And yet, Andy Orchard argues that “of all
the monsters, it is Grendel who is most consistently depicted in human terms, particularly
in the constant evocation of exile imagery to describe his plight” (30). Indeed, as
Grendel approaches the human world of Heorot, having left the moor or the f!felcynnes
eard (“the region of the race of monsters,” Beowulf 104), he exhibits simultaneous
identification with and isolation from the men he later attacks:
Fand !" #!r inne æ!elinga gedriht
swefan æfter symble; sorge ne c$#on,
Then inside he found the company of noblemen
sleeping after a feast; they did not know sorrow,
the misery of men. (Beowulf 118-120)
While these men, resting comfortably in the human world, are unfamiliar with “sorrow,
the misery of men,” Grendel, a monster, knows this pain well.
In addition, whether committed by man or monster, acts of violence throughout
Beowulf are described by the poet in much the same language. For example, he
repeatedly uses the verb gewrecan or “avenge” to refer to both Beowulf’s defeat of
Grendel, a deed carried out in response to the monster’s ravaging of Heorot, and
Grendel’s mother’s subsequent attack in response to the death of her son. In fact, the
poet first mentions Grendel’s mother not as !gl"cw#f or even Grendles m$dor, but as
wrecend or “avenger” (Beowulf 1256). Even the dragon, while physically the most
monstrous of the three creatures with his body that is byrnende and gebogen (“burning
[and] coiled,” Beowulf 2569), appears more like a warrior guarding a hall in the passage
in which he is introduced:
deorcum nihtum draca r"csian,
s# $e on h#aum hofe hord beweotode,
...a certain one, a dragon, began to rule in dark nights,
who watched over treasure, a strong stone-barrow,
in a high hall. (Beowulf 2210-2213)
The words r!csian “to rule” and hofe “residence” could just as easily be used in a
description of Hrothgar presiding over Heorot. In addition, Beowulf himself
commissions the assembling of a st"nbeorh (“stone-barrow”) to commemorate his death
and, using the same noun as the poet uses in the above passage, calls it B!owulfes Biorh
As in the case of Beowulf, scholars have also noted similarities between the
Christians and the Muslims of the Song of Roland and interpret this mirroring in a
number of ways. Ellen Peel summarizes several possible interpretations:
[A] mild opposition can illustrate the strength and seductiveness of evil.
Moreover, the Muslims need to be represented as worthy opponents for
the Christians, enemies against whom the Christians can prove their
courage and skill, since an easy victory would have little meaning...
Finally, as potential converts to Christianity, the Muslims must be
somewhat diverse, for they cannot all be portrayed as utterly alien.
While these are all plausible explanations of what Peel describes as “surprisingly mild
oppositions...in an epic about mortal enemies,” they do not exhaust the interpretive
possibilities (263). For example, William Comfort offers a different view: “The evidence
would hardly show that the Christians thought of the Saracens as ethically or culturally
inferior to themselves” (633). While Comfort suggests, like Peel, that the Roland poet
might construct this parallelism because “the likelihood is ever present that a Saracen
may change his faith” (633), he also points to a more interesting interpretation of the
mirroring between the Christians and the Saracens. He demonstrates how the ethical and
cultural similarities between the two forces emphasize the Saracens’ “chief folly,” that is
“devotion to a religion opposed to that of the Christians” (623).
Even a casual reader of Roland will notice certain similarities between the Franks
and the Saracens, beginning with the identical structure of the two armies: Twelve Peers
lead the Christians and Twelve Champions lead the Muslims. Furthermore, the Muslim
soldiers appear to participate in the same Western institution of chivalry as the Christian
knights. In particular, the poet praises Margaris of Seville, one of Marsile’s Twelve
Champions, for his chivalrous qualities:
Pur sa beltet dames li sunt amies:
Cele nel veit vers lui ne s’esclargisset,
Quant ele le veit, ne poet muër ne riet;
N'i ad paien de tel chevalerie.
He is so handsome that the ladies adore him;
Whenever one sees him, her eyes light up.
When she catches sight of him, she becomes all smiles.
No pagan is such a good knight. (Roland 957-60)
In addition, the poet makes no attempt to portray Islam accurately, presenting it instead as
a corrupt mirror image of Christianity. Thus, he frequently describes the Muslims’
prayer to a false trinity of Tervagant, Mohammed, and Apollo, mirroring the Christian
trinity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Roland 3267-8). These examples are only a
few of the countless similarities between the Muslims and the Christians in Roland. The
two armies subscribe to the same rituals whether in court, on the battlefield, or at prayer.
Their battle adornments and fighting styles are so similar that the two forces are
sometimes indistinguishable in the poem’s battle scenes. In fact, it often seems as though
the only distinction between the two armies is their loyalty to different religions, a
phenomenon the poet himself emphasizes with expressions such as Deus! quel baron,
s’oüst chrestïentet! (“O God, what a noble baron, if only he were a Christian!” Roland
It should be apparent by now that the relationship between hero and enemy and,
in these texts, between man and monster, necessarily implies some correspondence to the
relative good and evil of the characters. In “The Dialectic of Fear,” an essay that
examines Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Paul Stoker’s Dracula, Franco Moretti
organizes good and evil, as they appear in the modern monster narrative, according to yet
another binary in which “man is good, the monster evil” (71). At the beginning of
Beowulf, the poet primes the reader to expect this model of good and evil in the medieval
monster narrative as well. Almost immediately, the Beowulf poet establishes the Danes
as the example of goodness, writing of Scyld Scefing, the founder of Hrothgar’s royal
bloodline, !æt wæs g"d cyning (“That was a good king,” 11). Similarly, throughout
Roland, the poet differentiates between good Christians and evil Muslims. He even treats
the relative morality of these characters as a fact they are capable of knowing or
understanding themselves, writing, Li amiralz alques s’en aperceit / Que il ad tort e
Carlemagnes dreit (“The Emir thereby begins to realize / That he is wrong and
Charlemagne right,” Roland 3553-4). Given these overt proclamations of good and evil,
the similarities between the hero and the enemy in both Beowulf and Roland should
disturb the reader. From the examples offered above, one can already anticipate how
mirroring between two warring groups in narratives of such violence might complicate
the reader’s sympathies. One expects epic heroes to appear consistently good and their
enemies consistently evil, but when the monsters and the Muslims behave identically to
the Danes and the Franks, it appears that this binary cannot possibly hold up.
As it turns out, mirroring between the hero and the enemy impacts the good/evil
binary of the two texts quite differently and I explore these differences in the chapters
that follow. First, I investigate the Roland poet’s use of mirroring to assert the inherent
goodness of the Christians and the evil of the Muslims. Portraying the Muslim forces as
a mirror image of Charlemagne’s army in many ways reduces the significance of the
enemies to the one quality that differentiates them from the heroes: their subscription to
Islam, the inherently wrong religion. As a result, the parallelism that initially appears to
contradict the expected good Christians versus evil Muslims dichotomy actually
reinforces it. I also identify instances in which this good/evil binary, despite the poet’s
attempt to strengthen it, breaks down, especially in the betrayal of the Christians by
Ganelon, a Christian traitor and arguably the most evil character in the poem. The next
chapter similarly examines the mirroring between men and monsters in Beowulf,
emphasizing the ways in which the poet destabilizes a heroic morality that superficially
seems to promote a binary distinction between hero and enemy. The Beowulf poet
includes monsters that demand sympathy usually reserved for humans, while the humans,
in turn, look occasionally as monstrous as their inhuman opponents. In doing this, the
poet reveals the limitations of the Anglo-Saxon heroic code, which often promotes
monstrous violence through its notions of protection and vengeance.
In the Song of Roland, the poet uses mirroring to firmly present “eastern” and
“Muslim” as innately evil qualities and “French” and “Christian” as innately good ones.
As a result, the Roland poet, writing at the very beginning of the first crusade, creates an
epic that promotes the virtue of the French Christian empire and justifies their violence
against the Muslim people. The goals of the Beowulf poet, however, are a little less clear.
Although the poet appears to destabilize the typical good heroes versus evil enemies
dichotomy of epic literature, it is too bold to suggest that the poem either condemns its
heroes entirely or absolves the monsters. Perhaps one should describe the work instead
as a reverent, yet critical reflection on Germanic heroic values. J.R.R. Tolkien first
characterized this quality of the poem in his 1936 essay, which still best explains the
poet’s position between admiration and criticism of his hero. He writes, “And this, we
are told, is the radical defect of Beowulf, that its author, coming in a time rich in the
legends of heroic men, has used them afresh in an original fashion, giving us not just one
more, but something akin yet different: a measure and interpretation of them all” (Tolkien
II. The Song of Roland
Despite what is said around us persecutors are never obsessed by
difference but rather by its unutterable contrary, the lack of difference.
René Girard, The Scapegoat
In 1095 at Clermont, while proclaiming the first Crusade, Pope Urban II uttered
these words: “Rise up and remember the manly deeds of your ancestors, the prowess and
greatness of Charlemagne, of his son Louis, and of your other kings, who destroyed
pagan kingdoms and planted the holy church in their territories” (Brundage 18). The
Song of Roland, which most scholars judge to be contemporary with this speech,
designed to do precisely what Pope Urban was commanding—that is, to “remember”
Charlemagne’s own military campaigns against non-Christians. It may then come as a
surprise that anti-Muslim military activity is completely absent from historical accounts
of the event on which Roland is based. In particular, Einhard’s ninth-century Life of
Charlemagne, a text that would have been available to the Roland poet, provides no
evidence that Charlemagne “destroyed pagan kingdoms and planted the holy church in
According to Burgess, “The poem has been dated as early as 1060 and as late as the
second half of the twelfth century, but the most frequently accepted date is around the
very end of the eleventh century (1098-1100)” (8).
their territories” at the 778 battle of Rencesvals.
Instead, leading up to Rencesvals,
Charlemagne was in Spain fighting with and for Muslims through an alliance with the
Muslim governor of Barcelona, Suleiman ibn al-Arabí (Brault 1: 1). According to
Einhard, as the French forces left Spain in order to join Charlemagne’s more important
military endeavors against the Anglo-Saxons, Basque insurgents ambushed and
subsequently wiped out the French rearguard.
Of course, these accounts of the historical
battle of Rencesvals are hardly recognizable in the poem. The Roland poet sets up the
battle as a consequence of longstanding animosities between Charlemagne and Muslim
states, making no mention of an alliance between the French emperor and Suleiman. He
transforms the Basque raiders of Einhard’s account into a massive Muslim force. And,
even though the poet describes the collapse of the Frankish rearguard in the first half of
his poem, he goes on to narrate an extremely successful yet entirely fictionalized
counterattack led by Charlemagne to annihilate the Muslim army in revenge.
These major discrepancies between the historical accounts of Rencesvals and its
literary representation in the Song of Roland suggest that, in the heat of Crusade fever,
the poet purposefully manipulated this ambush into a largely fictional tale of “the
prowess and greatness of Charlemagne” against Muslim enemies. As a result, Roland
seems to fit among a category of documents René Girard calls persecution texts. In The
Scapegoat, Girard defines persecution texts as “accounts of real violence, often
collective, told from the perspective of the persecutors, and therefore influenced by
For the original Latin text and an English translation of Einhard’s account, see Brault
William Kibler notes that Arabic accounts of the 778 battle of Rencesvals suggest that,
in actuality, a combination of Basque and Muslim insurgents participated in the ambush
on Charlemagne’s rearguard (55).
characteristic distortions” (9). Although Girard’s terminology of “persecutors” and
“victims” proves somewhat uncomfortable when applied to the epic, these terms quite
aptly describe Christians and Muslims during the Crusades. Certainly, twelfth-century
French crusaders, to whom the Roland poet hopes to appeal when fashioning the heroes
of Roland, can be considered persecutors and the Muslim people their victims.
According to Girard’s theory, it is not surprising that French crusaders direct their
violence against the Muslim community because both ethnic and religious otherness are
“universal signs for the selection of victims” (Girard, The Scapegoat 18). Girard notes
that physical differences, particularly disability and deformity, also belong to this group
of signs and that one of the “characteristic distortions” found in persecution texts is the
confounding of many signs in a single victim. For example, “[I]f a group of people is
used to choosing its victims from a certain social, ethnic, or religious category, it tends to
attribute to them disabilities or deformities that would reinforce the polarization against
the victim, were they real” (Girard, The Scapegoat 18). The Roland poet exemplifies this
theory, characterizing the Muslim armies as not only morally corrupt, but also physically
As a result, although the heroes of Roland do not fight actual monsters like those
in Beowulf, the poet nevertheless portrays the Christians’ Muslim enemies as monstrous.
To begin, he attributes inhuman or beast-like physical characteristics to many of the
Muslim warriors. Of the Micenes as chefs gros (“the large-headed Milceni,” Roland
3221), for instance, he writes, Sur les eschines qu’il unt en mi les dos / Cil sunt seiet
ensement cume porc (“On their spines, along the middle of their backs, / They are as
bristly as pigs,” Roland 3222-3) and, of the people from Occian, he notes, Durs unt les
quirs ensement cume fer (“Their skins are as hard as iron,” Roland 3249). Certainly, the
poet attributes these physical deformities to the Muslim army in order to “reinforce the
polarization against” them (Girard, The Scapegoat 18). But these images of men with
distinctly inhuman characteristics also recall the monstruosi populi of the Hereford World
Map. While the Milceni and the people from Occian, like the monstruosi populi,
probably represent real people who “simply differed in physical appearance and social
practices from the person describing them,” the Roland poet, like the medieval
cartographer, exaggerates these differences and interprets them as outward manifestations
of inherent evil (Friedman 1).
The Roland poet expresses the monstrosity of the Muslims not only in their
physical descriptions, but also by symbolically associating them with beasts. Within the
vocabulary of Charlemagne’s prophetic dream imagery, beasts consistently signify the
Frankish king’s Muslim enemies:
Aprés iceste altre avisiun sunjat:
Qu’il ert en France, a sa capele, ad Ais;
El destre braz li morst uns uers si mals.
Devers Ardene vit venir uns leuparz,
Sun cors demenie mult fierement asalt.
After this dream he had another vision:
That he was in France in his chapel at Aix;
In his right arm he is bitten by a vicious boar.
From the direction of the Ardennes he saw a leopard coming;
It attacks his body with great ferocity. (Roland 725-9)
This vision of Charlemagne attacked by a boar and a leopard foreshadows the impending
Muslim assault on the Christian rearguard. In a subsequent dream predicting a second
battle, Charlemagne sees the Muslims as a number of even more demonic animals,
including [s]erpenz e guivres, dragun e averser (“serpents, vipers, dragons and devils”)
and [g]rifuns (“griffins,” Roland 2543, 2544). Some of these creatures, namely leopards,
might be explained as typical signs of military ferocity in medieval heroic poetry.
Similarly, medieval armies are often pictured carrying heraldic images of dragons and
griffins. But boars, serpents, vipers, and, most dramatically, devils evoke not heroic
prowess, but beastliness and monstrosity. And, in the second dream, the sheer variety of
animals that the poet lists overwhelms the reader with a sense of the Muslims’
inhumanity, representing them not as an army of men but a catalogue of monstrous
creatures. In turn, the symbolism of these dreams establishes more forcefully the
inherent evil the poet wishes to attribute to the Muslims.
According to these examples, the Roland poet portrays the Muslims precisely as
Girard expects persecutors to treat their victims. The poet exaggerates the Muslims’
cultural difference to such an extent that he essentially makes the Muslims and Christians
into different species. But Girard also explains that the persecutor’s urge to emphasize
and even invent differences between the victimized and persecuting groups is,
paradoxically, a symptom of their very real similarities: “Religious, ethnic, or national
minorities are never actually reproached for their difference, but for not being as different
as expected, and in the end for not differing at all” (The Scapegoat 22). As applied to
Roland, this idea suggests that the Christians fear and therefore persecute the Muslims
because their similarities as monotheistic warring peoples threatens the illusion that
Christians alone practice the right religion and pray to the right God. The fact that the
Muslims pray in similar ways and are equally assured that they direct those prayers to the
right God therefore terrifies the Christians. Girard explains that the tendency of the
persecutor to emphasize those differences that do exist, and often those that do not,
allows him to maintain the illusion of difference between himself and his victim, just as
the Roland poet distorts his descriptions of the Muslims to make them not just wrong or
evil, but literal monsters.
But, of course, the Roland poet also reveals and even intensifies a lack of
difference between the Christians and the Muslims in the mirror images of the heroes and
the enemies he provides. On some occasions, in fact, the two armies are nearly
indistinguishable from one another, as in the following passage, where their fighting style
and wardress are identical:
Mult ben i fierent Franceis e Arrabit;
Fruissent cez hanste e cil espiez furbit.
Ki dunc veïst cez escuz si malmis,
Cez blancs osbercs ki dunc oïst fremir,
E cez escuz sur cez helmes cruisir,
Cez chevalers ki dunc veïst caïr
E humes braire, contre tere murir,
De grant dulor li poüst suvenir.
The Franks and the Arabs strike fine blows;
They smash their shafts and their furbished spears.
Anyone who had seen the ruined shields,
Heard the ring of metal on shining hauberks,
And the grating of swords on helmets,
And anyone who had seen these knights toppling,
Men howling, as they fall dead upon the ground,
Would have many sorrowful memories! (Roland 3481-8)
But the similarities between the warriors seem to extend beyond their weapons, armor,
and accoutrements when the poet evaluates the fighting of the two armies with equal
praise, asserting that both “[t]he Franks and the Arabs strike fine blows” and members of
each army “fall dead upon the ground.” Certainly, the equally fatal combat of the two
armies may simply confirm that the Muslims are worthy opponents for the Christian
heroes. But the final line of this passage, that “anyone who had seen...[w]ould have
many sorrowful memories,” seems a surprising place to confound distinctions between
the Christians and the Muslims. The reader expects the poet to encourage the
hypothetical onlooker to sympathize only with the Christians, but this passage implies
that all deaths at battle are equally mournful regardless of the victim. After many
references to the Muslims’ bestial and monstrous qualities, the poet portrays the Muslims
and the Christians as equally human and sympathetic when describing their respective
The mirroring between the two armies is perhaps best illustrated in the parallel
figures of Charlemagne and the Muslim emir, the grey-bearded leaders of the two armies:
Li amiralz Preciuse ad criee,
Carles Munjoie, l’enseigne renumee.
L’un conuist l’altre as haltes voiz e cleres,
En mi le camp amdui s’entr’encuntrerent.
Si se vunt ferir, granz colps s’entredunerent
De lor espies en lor targes roees,
Fraites les unt desuz cez bucles lees.
De lor osbercs les pans en desevrerent,
Dedenz cez cors mie ne s’adeserent.
Rumpent cez cengles e cez seles verserent,
Cheent li rei, a tere se turnerent,
Isnelement sur lor piez releverent.
Mult vassalment unt traites les espees.
The emir cried out ‘Preciuse’
And Charles ‘Monjoie,’ his renowned battle-cry.
They recognize each other’s loud, clear voices
And both met in the middle of the field.
They go to strike each other and dealt mighty blows
With their spears on their wheel-patterned shields.
They shattered them beneath their broad bosses
And severed the skirts from their hauberks,
Without touching each other’s bodies.
They break their girths and turned over their saddles;
The kings fall and tumbled to the ground.
Immediately they rose to their feet;
Very courageously they drew their swords. (Roland 3564-76)
The synchronized combat described in this passage reads as though the two kings are
performing a well-choreographed dance. Charlemagne and the emir face one another,
each handling his weapon so adeptly that they strike in unison until they simultaneously
plummet from their horses, rise, and begin to fight again, this time on their feet. It is
particularly interesting that the poet describes both kings as courageous rather than
reserving this compliment for Charlemagne alone. Previously, the poet praises other
qualities of the emir, calling him a mult par est riches hoem (“very powerful man,”
Roland 3265) and a mult de grant saveir (“man of great wisdom,” Roland 3279),
characteristics also ascribed to Charlemagne. Consequently, the Roland poet seems to
“remember...the prowess and greatness” not only of Charlemagne (Brundage 18), but
also of his Muslim opponent.
In the above passages and others, the Roland poet portrays the Muslims and the
Christians fighting or leading their armies with equal skill and often similar success even
as he and his characters repeatedly assert that [p]aien unt tort e chrestïens unt dreit
(“[t]he pagans are wrong and the Christians are right,” Roland 1015). Such explicit
mirroring between the two armies initially seems counterproductive to the poet’s goals.
That is, one would think that actively minimizing the differences between the Christians
and the Muslims only reinforces the very reality that frightens the Christians—that they
and their victims are “not...as different as expected” (Girard, The Scapegoat 22). And yet
the Roland poet’s mirroring ultimately emphasizes the one difference that he preserves,
which is also the difference in which the Christians have the most at stake. Mirroring
between the Christians and the Muslims does not contradict the poet’s statement that
[p]aien unt tort e chrestïens unt dreit (“[t]he pagans are wrong and the Christians are
right,” Roland 1015), but rather reinforces it. After describing the equally deft combat of
Charlemagne and the Muslim emir, for instance, the poet concludes, Ceste bataille ne
poet remaneir unkes, / Josque li uns sun tort i reconuisset (“This combat can never come
to end, / Until one of the men admits his wrong,” Roland 3587-8). Although the emir
never backs down from the fight, he realizes [q]ue il ad tort e Carlemagnes dreit (“[t]hat
he is wrong and Charlemagne right,” Roland 3553-4). Accordingly, even after the emir
strikes Charlemagne, God sends Saint Gabriel to ensure that the emir, not Charlemagne
falls slain. In turn, although both leaders and armies possess admirable strength, only the
Christians have the true God on their side.
The way in which mirroring between the Christians and the Muslims actually
strengthens the Roland poet’s assertion that the Muslims are “wrong” or evil is most
apparent in his misrepresentation of Islam as a false mirror image of Christianity.
Throughout the poem, for instance, the Muslim warriors carry ensigns featuring images
of Tervagant, Mohammed, and Apollo. Edward Said explains that, beginning with their
earliest attempts to understand Islam, medieval Christians faced an “analogical”
difficulty: “[S]ince Christ is the basis of Christian faith, it was assumed—quite
incorrectly—that Mohammed was to Islam as Christ was to Christianity” (60). But, as
Comfort notes, in medieval French epics or chansons de geste, this inaccurate analogy
becomes even more pronounced, in which texts “Mahom was facile princeps, with
Apolin and Tervagant next in importance and forming with him a sort of trinity”
(Comfort 640). But even as the Roland poet intends these three figures to mirror the
Christian trinity, he uses them to prove the Muslims polytheists. That is, because this
Islamic “trinity” is not the Christian trinity, Tervagant, Mohammed, and Apollo are not
three consubstantial persons, but idols. In addition, the poet depicts both the Christians
and the Muslims praying for victory throughout their battles, albeit with differing
success. When Charlemagne [c]ulchet sei a tere, si priet Damnedeu / Que li soleilz facet
pur lui arester (“[l]ies down on the ground and prays to God / That for him he should
stop the sun in his tracks,” Roland 2449-50), an angel immediately appears and grants
this miracle. In the following laisse, however, when the poet portrays Muslims engaging
in similar prayer, the outcome differs greatly: Paiens recleiment un lur deu,
Tervagant...mais il n’i unt guarant (“The pagans call on one of their gods, Tervagant...but
they have no one to save them,” Roland 2468-9). Perhaps the most powerful example of
this simultaneous mirroring and moral distinguishing occurs in parallel scenes during
which the soul of a fallen Muslim en portet Sathanas (“is carried off by Satan,” Roland
1268) while [a]ngles del ciel i descendent (“[a]ngels come down...from Heaven,” Roland
2374) to collect the soul of a Christian. In these ways, the Roland poet makes literal the
very difference that the Christians imagine to exist between themselves and the Muslims.
While the armies pray, fight, and die in nearly identical ways, the Roland poet
emphasizes that the Christians believe in the one true God and are consequently
redeemed whereas the Muslims believe in a false God, or rather gods, and are therefore
aligned with the devil.
For a large part of the poem, the poet’s characterizations of the heroes and the
enemies consistently function as described above. And yet the Roland poet endows two
characters, Roland and Ganelon, with more complexity than the others. For vastly
different reasons, both Roland and Ganelon are distinct from the rest of the Christian
army. Although Roland is the definitive hero of the poem, he possesses certain qualities
that the poet also uses to portray the Muslims negatively. For instance, in a number of
passages, the poet compares Roland to a beast. In Charlemagne’s first prophetic dream
during which a leopard and a boar represent the Muslim forces, another beast, clearly
symbolizing Roland, appears:
D’enz de sale uns veltres avalat
Que vint a Carles le galops e les salz.
La destre oreille al premer uer trenchat,
Ireement se cumbat al lepart.
From within the hall a hunting-dog came down,
Bounding and leaping towards Charles.
It tore off the right ear of the first boar;
Angrily it wrestles with the leopard. (Roland 730-3)
Similarly, Roland’s demeanor at war is described as [p]lus...fiers que leon ne leupart
(“fiercer than a lion or a leopard,” Roland 1111) and the poet again likens him to a
hunting-dog in the following simile: Si cum li cerfs s’en vait devant les chiens, / Devant
Rollant si s’en fuient paiens (“Just as a stag flees before the hounds, / So the pagans take
flight before Roland,” Roland 1874-5). As I noted earlier, when the Roland poet
compares the Muslims to beasts he emphasizes their inhumanity. But when the poet
depicts his hero in these primal, strikingly violent images of an animal attacking his prey,
it only emphasizes Roland’s merit as a warrior. In his discussion of the figure of the hero
across the Indo-European tradition, Dean Miller addresses such contradictions in the
character of epic heroes:
[H]is liminal nature may appear in a high-flown, hubristic assault on
heaven in the one direction, and his risky penetration of the Netherworld
in the other, with all of the rich, ambiguous powers they represent or
contain. The hero may stand (or deliquesce?) between genders and
generations, or between the realms of life and death. (Miller 296)
While Miller does not list the position between man and beast/monster as one that the
hero might occupy, except regarding his size of inhuman proportions in certain texts,
Roland’s position between warrior and beast seems to place him in a liminal space
similar to those Miller discusses. Even though Roland may resemble his Muslim
enemies, who are frequently figured as boars, dragons, and even devils, he only assumes
greater strength when he is portrayed as a hunting-dog, lion, or leopard, or, to borrow
Miller’s language, “all of the rich, ambiguous powers [those images] represent or
contain” (Miller 296). As a result, Roland’s bestial characteristics only strengthen the
poet’s argument by suggesting that a Christian remains good and perhaps even becomes
better when he acquires the very traits that align the Muslims with evil.
But Roland possesses another quality associated with evil when observed in the
Muslims. When it becomes clear that the Muslim army greatly outnumbers the rearguard
of the Christians, Roland refuses to the blow his horn and call for Charlemagne’s help,
arguing en perdreie mun los (“I should lose my good name,” Roland 1054). Oliver
suggests that Roland’s refusal to blow the horn makes him a disloyal vassal: Kar
vasselage par sens nen est folie; / Mielz valt mesure que ne fait estultie (“For a true
vassal’s act, in its wisdom, avoids folly; / Caution is better than great zeal,” Roland 1724-
5). Oliver’s condemnation reveals a particular tension in the poem’s heroic morality, a
tension that has generated extensive debate among scholars about this particular
Since the “great zeal” Roland displays and the “true vassal[age]” Oliver
Brault briefly summarizes the predominant viewpoints in this debate: “[Joseph] Bédier
believed that Turoldus [the Roland poet] deliberately left unanswered the question of
whether Roland or Oliver was right in the famous oliphant scene, but other scholars have
argued either for or against Roland’s desmesure, concluding more often than not that hero
was morally wrong in his initial decision to make a stand at Roncevaux” (1: 10).
recommends are both virtues in battle, it is difficult to determine whether or not Roland
makes the right choice according to a heroic ethos. But the value system with which the
poet seems more preoccupied, religious morality, even in this somewhat ambiguous
image of the hero, remains clear. Regardless of how one wishes to interpret Roland’s
refusal, his statement en perdreie mun los (“I should lose my good name”) certainly
displays pride. When the Muslims show pride, the poet condemns them quite explicitly:
Devers vos est li orguilz e li torz (“On your side is both pride and wrong,” Roland 1549).
These incidents seem to suggest that pride amounts to sin or evil if one is already a sinner
for praying to the “wrong” God. Similarly, despite Oliver’s harsh accusation, Roland’s
pride and its consequences for the rearguard are ultimately labeled as a more trivial
error—Oliver uses the term “folly”—rather than sin or evil because, as a Christian,
Roland is inherently good. Thus, Roland’s pride does not approach the evil of the
Muslims, who sin simply in their rejection of Christianity and their faith in Islam.
Although Oliver tells Roland, Cumpainz, vos le feïstes (“Companion, you have
been the cause of it,” Roland 1723), the real cause of the Christians’ loss is Ganelon.
Charlemagne recognizes Ganelon as the source of his rearguard’s defeat in another
Sunjat qu’il eret as greignurs porz de Sizer,
Entre ses poinz teneit sa hanste fraisnine.
Guenes li quens l’ad sur lui saisie,
Par tel aïr l’at estrussee e brandie
Qu’envers le cel en volent les escicles.
He dreamed he was at the main pass of Cize;
In his hands he was holding his lance of ash.
Count Ganelon seized it from his grasp;
He broke it and brandished it with such violence
That the splinters flew up into the sky. (Roland 719-23)
Ganelon initially leads the unsuspecting rearguard into deadly battle in order to exact
revenge on his stepson Roland, who earlier nominates him to serve as the envoy to
Marsile’s court. And yet, in this scheme, Ganelon also knowingly betrays his king and
country. As Charlemagne himself exclaims when he interprets his dream, Par Guenelun
serat destruite France! (“France will be destroyed by Ganelon,” Roland 835). The
Roland poet acknowledges the great evil of such a betrayal. He frequently labels
Ganelon li fels (“the traitor”) and, at one point, Charlemagne refers to him as the vifs
diables (“living devil,” Roland 746). Still, the Roland poet does not condemn Ganelon to
the extent that he condemns the Muslims, beginning with the fact that Ganelon is never
portrayed as definitively monstrous. In Charlemagne’s dreams, for instance, Ganelon
appears as himself, a human, while the Muslims and even Roland are portrayed as beasts.
In addition, Charlemagne grants Ganelon a trial to determine his punishment, implying
that his absolution is possible. In fact, had Charlemagne’s knight Thierry not defeated
Ganelon’s proxy Pinabel in the tournament, the traitor would presumably have been
released without any punishment for his treason. The Muslims, however, receive no trial
to determine the punishment for their sins: their evil is indisputable because of their
heretical faith. Each Muslim warrior must submit to baptism or [i]l le fait prendre o
ardeir ou ocire (“[h]e [Charlemagne] has him hanged or burned or put to death,” Roland
Girard asserts that the authors of persecution texts “consider themselves judges,
and therefore they must have guilty victims” (The Scapegoat 6). Certainly, the Roland
poet possesses a strong judgmental voice, continually asserting [p]aien unt tort e
chrestïens unt dreit (“[t]he pagans are wrong and the Christians are right,” Roland 1015)
and variations on this phrase. He justifies these words and the guilt of the Muslims with
images of divine judgment, sending the souls of fallen Christians to Heaven and those of
the Muslims to Hell. The criteria on which the poet bases his judgments then are
exceedingly clear: Christians are inherently good, while Muslims are inherently evil. The
poet manipulates the content of his poem in order to support this binary morality, most
notably transforming a historical defeat by Basques into a victory against Muslims and
then proceeding to turn the Muslims into monsters.
But, as I have demonstrated, the Roland poet also supplies ample evidence to
undermine this binary morality. He portrays the deeds of the Muslim and the Christian
armies as equivalently violent and reveals Ganelon’s treachery, not the evil of the
Muslims, to be the most destructive force in the poem. Even though the poet attempts to
justify these discrepancies, the reader can still demystify his text. Girard is instrumental
in this demystification, whose theory leads the reader to see that the Roland poet makes
the Muslims a monstrous mirror image of the Christians because he fears the many
similarities that actually exist between the two groups. Outside of literature, of course,
devils and angels do not carry away the souls of the dead and God does not always
answer Christian prayers. Frightened by the lack of assurance that, indeed, chrestïens unt
dreit (“the Christians are right,” Roland 1015), the poet seeks to justify this statement on
his own in the Song of Roland.
S!" bi" swicolost.
Truth is most deceptive.
The Cotton Gnomes
Although the Beowulf poet devotes the majority of his three thousand lines to
telling the story of a hero and three monstrous opponents, the poem opens with an
account of conflict among men: Oft Scyld Sc#fing scea$ena $r#atum, / monegum
m%g$um meodosetla oft#ah, / egsode eorlas (“Often Scyld Scefing withheld hall-seats
from troops of enemies, many peoples, and terrified warriors,” Beowulf 4-6). Even
beyond this initial image, the poet refers throughout Beowulf to ongoing feuds among
“many peoples” or clans, including the Danes, Geats, Swedes, Finns, and Frisians.
Through these frequent references, the poet makes palpable “an extreme loss of social
order” in the Anglo-Saxon society he describes, a quality that, according to Girard, is a
precondition for the scapegoat mechanism (Girard, The Scapegoat 14). Girard suggests
that societies facing such disorder often use scapegoats to displace their resulting anxiety:
“[R]ather than blame themselves, people inevitably blame...other people who seem
particularly harmful for easily identifiable reasons” (The Scapegoat 14). These “easily
identifiable reasons” refer to overt differences between the persecuting community and
the scapegoat community, whether those differences are ideological—for example, the
religious opposition between Christians and Muslims in the Song of Roland—or
superficial. Grendel, his mother, and the dragon, opponents in the three main battles of
Beowulf, “seem particularly harmful” because they differ from the poem’s human heroes
both in appearance and as inhabitants of the unknown. The scapegoat mechanism then
helps to explain why Beowulf seems most preoccupied with battles against monsters,
even though the poet hints that feuds among men, beginning long before Grendel arrives
at Heorot and continuing long after Beowulf defeats the dragon, pose a more sustained
threat to the poem’s heroes.
In the preceding chapter, I characterize the Roland poet as a judge, albeit a poor
one, an observation based on Girard’s claim that persecutors “consider themselves
judges” (The Scapegoat 6). And, indeed, throughout his poem, the Roland poet makes
statements leading to the assertion that [p]aien unt tort e chrestïens unt dreit (“[t]he
pagans are wrong and the Christians are right,” Roland 1015). But even more frequently
and distinctly than the Roland poet, the speaker of Beowulf shifts from his primary mode
of narration to one of judgment. At times the poet himself issues moral evaluations,
while at other times characters within the poem participate in the judging. One judgment
in particular rings out more often than others: !æt wæs g"d cyning (“That was a good
king,” Beowulf 11). This half-line appears three times in the poem, first in its opening
passage where it is attributed to Scyld Scefing, later in reference to Hrothgar (Beowulf
863), and a final ambiguous instance, which praises either Beowulf or Onela (Beowulf
2390). Several other lines in Beowulf resemble this far-echoing half-line, such as wæs
s#o $#od tilu (“that was a good people,” Beowulf 1250), which is ascribed to Hrothgar’s
retainers. But there are still other passages that, while prescriptive rather than evaluative,
similarly grapple with concepts of good and evil. In fact, the majority of the poem’s
moralizing moments occur in passages like the following, from the opening lines of the
Sw! sceal geong guma g"de gewyrcean,
fromum feohgiftum on fæder bearme,
#æt hine on ylde eft gewunigen
wilges$#as, #onne w$g cume,
l%ode gel!sten; lofd!dum sceal
in m!g#a gehw!re man ge#eon.
So must a young man carry out goodness, bold treasure dispensing,
in his father’s keeping, so that close companions stand by him
afterwards in his old age and, when war comes, men serve him;
one must prosper by glorious deeds in all nations. (Beowulf 20-25)
In this passage, parallel constructions using sceal not only signal a transition from the
surrounding narrative sentences, but also associate these lines with the Anglo-Saxon
poetic tradition of gnomic wisdom proclamations.
Greenfield and Calder, in A New
Critical History of Old English Literature, suggest that gnomes or maxims of this sort
“offered up moral guides for large socio-religious areas of human endeavor” (259).
Whether judgmental or gnomic, the above passages and those similar to them reveal a
persistent preoccupation with evaluations and definitions of morality on the part of the
Interest in establishing a particular morality or ethos and, in turn, making
judgments according to that value system, is a prominent feature of most Anglo-Saxon
Gnomic language occurs throughout the surviving body of Anglo-Saxon poetry, found
both embedded in larger narrative poems as Beowulf and throughout two poems
consisting entirely of these gnomic phrases known as the Exeter Gnomes and the Cotton
heroic poetry. In fact, Greenfield and Calder claim that most important for Old English
were the spirit and code of conduct they embodied... This heroic spirit
manifested itself most strongly in the desire for fame and glory, now and
after death. The code of conduct stressed the reciprocal obligations of lord
and thegns: protection and generosity on the part of the former, loyalty
and service on that of the latter. (134)
Certainly, the Beowulf poet gestures at precisely these values in his moralizing passages.
In fact, in just the six-line maxim excerpted above, the Beowulf poet accounts for both the
“reciprocal obligations of lord and thegns” and the “desire for fame and glory.” To
begin, the poet avers that a lord must reward his vassals with treasure and, in return,
receive their service, particularly at battle. Then, in the final lines of this same passage,
he asserts the importance of widespread glory in the heroic society of the poem:
lofd!dum sceal / in m!g"a gehw!re man ge"eon (“one must prosper by glorious deeds
in all nations,” Beowulf 24-5).
Those passages in Beowulf that overtly deliver moral precepts stand out against
the poem’s predominant narrative. Many of these judgments and maxims are also
imbedded in the poem’s narrative digressions.
For instance, the first iteration of the
phrase "æt wæs g#d cyning as well as the first maxim I quoted above refer to legendary
kings in the line from which Hrothgar descends, the former to Scyld Scefing and the
latter to his son Beow. Similar moralizing passages occur later in the poem among tales
of characters only tangentially related to the main narrative, such as the evil king
Some scholars differentiate between Beowulf’s true “digressions” and other episodes
removed from the main plot of the poem. Above, by digressions, I mean any narration
describing events that occur outside the primary narrative. Robert Bjork’s “Digressions
and Episodes” in Bjork and Niles provides a comprehensive summary of the interesting
critical history surrounding these moments in the poem (193-212).
Heremod or the kin-slayer Hæthcyn. As a result of their distance from the main episodes,
these judgments and maxims form somewhat of a superstructure for the poem. Thus
girded in definitions and evaluations of heroic morality, Beowulf invites, if not compels,
the reader to consider the ways in which the events of the primary narrative match the
overarching heroic code of the maxims and to judge the morality of the characters
dominating the plot.
The reader already knows what events underlie this superstructure of moral
definitions and evaluations: three battles against three monsters. As I suggested earlier,
these inhuman enemies seem to serve as scapegoats for a society in which feuding among
men presents the more destructive threat. Girard suggests and, indeed, the reader sees in
Roland that such societies tend to endow scapegoats with characteristics that “reinforce
the polarization against the victim” (The Scapegoat 18). Accordingly, the reader expects
the monsters of Beowulf to appear supremely other and evil, particularly in contrast with
the human heroes.
When the reader initially encounters Grendel and his mother, who together make
up the monstrous family that Beowulf opposes in the first two battles of the poem, the
poet seems to offer precisely this characterization. At times, the Beowulf poet quite
explicitly labels Grendel and his mother evil. For instance, he uses m!n, the Old English
word for “evil,” in the compound m!nsca"a or “evil-destroyer” twice to describe Grendel
as he approaches Heorot on the night of his battle against Beowulf (Beowulf 712, 737)
and once to refer to his mother when she follows this same path towards revenge
(Beowulf 1339). Even more frequently, the poet applies the semantically similar word
atol or “terrible” to this monstrous family, labeling Grendel atol !ngengea (“terrible
solitary one,” Beowulf 165) and atol !gl"ca (“terrible monster,” Beowulf 732) and his
mother atol...fylle (“terrible in feast,” Beowulf 1332-3). In addition, the poet associates
Grendel and his mother with a particularly inauspicious progeny: f#felcynnes eard /
wons"l# wer weardode hw#le, / si$%an him scyppen forscrifen hæfde / in C!ines cynne
(“the unfortunate one occupied the region of the race of monsters for a long time, since
the creator had condemned him as Cain’s kin,” Beowulf 104-7). Beowulf himself, after
telling the story of Hæthcyn’s fratricide, deems kin slaying feohl&as, which literally
means “without money,” but implies that the sin is inexpiable or unforgiveable (Beowulf
2441). As a result, the poem suggests that, through their descent from the original kin-
slayer, Cain, Grendel and his mother have somehow inherited his paradigmatic evil.
Their evil also manifests itself in their geographical segregation from the humans,
another consequence of their relationship to Cain:
ne gefeah h! "!re f!h#e, ac h! hine feor forwræc,
metod for "" m$ne, mancynne fram.
"anon unt"dras ealle onw%con,
eotenas ond ylfe ond orcneas,
He [Cain] did not rejoice for that hostile act, and the Lord exiled him far
from mankind for this crime. From him arose all evil offspring,
enemy creatures and elves and monsters and also giants.
This landscape, featuring various monsters exiled mancynne fram (“from mankind”),
recalls the geography of medieval mappaemundi, in which monsters are exiled to the
periphery. In this portrayal of f#felcynnes eard (“the region of the race of monsters”), the
Beowulf poet seems to be presenting a similar “diametric world in which constant battle
rages between Men and Monsters” (Mittman 45).
Beyond their shared marks of evil, Grendel and his mother each possess
individually incriminating characteristics. Grendel’s damning qualities are largely the
ways in which he commits his violent acts. Shortly after Hrothgar erects Heorot, that
healærna m!st (“greatest of hall-buildings,” Beowulf 78), Grendel ravages it daily for
twelve years, slaughtering countless Danes. Of course, nearly every character in
Beowulf, including Hrothgar, Hygelac, Beowulf, and their retainers, take part in highly
destructive acts of violence. Yet, unlike Grendel’s murderous visits to Heorot, the
violence that Hrothgar, Hygelac, and Beowulf either commission or commit are acts of
vengeance and therefore excused, even promoted, by the heroic code. And, of course, the
aspect of Grendel’s attacks that most disturbs readers is the way in which he does not
simply kill his human victims, but devours them. Upon entering Heorot, Grendel
fantasizes about the feast he will make of the men:
!" his m#d "hl#g;
mynte !æt h$ ged!lde, !r !on dæg cw#me,
atol "gl!ca, "nra gehwylces
l%f wi& l%ce, !" him "lumpen wæs
Then his heart exulted; he thought that he would dispense life
from the body of each one, before day came, the terrible monster,
then the expectation of a plentiful meal was arisen to him.
This description of Grendel’s greedy feasting on the Danes, who are later described as eal
gefeormod (“all eaten up,” Beowulf 743), seems only to intensify his portrayal as an evil
But even among these images of unbounded violence, the poet often portrays
Grendel as strikingly human and, in turn, sympathetic. Grendel, when he is not killing,
wanders alone: on weres wæstmum wræcl"stas træd, / næfne h# wæs m"ra $onne !nig
man !"er (“[he] walked upon the tracks of exile in the form of a man, except that he was
larger than any other man” Beowulf 1352-3). Exile, even as an abstract concept, seems
primarily a human condition and one that is continually mourned by men in Beowulf and
throughout Anglo-Saxon poetry generally.
The poet makes explicit the human quality of
exile when he portrays a solitary Grendel walking on weres wæstmum (“in the form of a
man”). In addition, after describing the construction of Heorot and the merriment that
fills it subsequently, the poet causes the reader to sympathize with Grendel by narrating
the monster’s experience from outside Heorot’s walls:
!" se elleng!st earfo#l$ce
%r"ge ge%olode, s& %e in %"strum b"d,
%æt h& d'gora gehw"m dr&am geh"rde
hl(dne in healle;
Then the bold demon painfully endured this time,
he who waited in darkness, so that each day he heard delight,
loud in the hall. (Beowulf 86-9)
This passage leaves Grendel and the reader alike unable to visualize the activity inside,
but cognizant of it through sounds of merriment. Through this imagery, the reader is
invited to share Grendel’s misery as an outcast, a condition made particularly pitiable
considering a distant ancestor of both monsters and humans was the agent of the original,
Instead of creating an absolute contrast between Grendel and his hero, the poet
uses mirroring between the two characters to further emphasize the way in which
Grendel’s exile lessens his monstrosity. Even as a hero, Beowulf exhibits some of the
In particular, the section of Beowulf known as the “Lay of the Last Survivor” (lines
2247-2266) as well as The Wanderer and The Seafarer, two shorter Anglo-Saxon poems,
lament being a man #"le bid$led (“deprived of a homeland,” The Wanderer 20). This
citation from The Wanderer is taken from Mitchell and Robinson and the translation is
same distance from the Danes and Geats as Grendel does from humankind. For instance,
the poet presents both Beowulf and Grendel as figures of unmatched enormity, describing
their freakish size in nearly identical phrases:
N!fre ic m!ran geseah
eorla ofer eor"an #onne is $ower sum,
Never have I seen a larger nobleman than the one among you.
næfne h$ wæs m!ra "onne !nig man %#er;
[E]xcept that he was larger than any other man. (Beowulf 1353)
Similarly, Beowulf and Grendel stand out from all other warriors on the night of their
battle because of their incredible strength. In particular, the poet remarks both that
Heorot’s [d]uru s!na onarn / f"rbendum fæst (“door, firm with fire-forged bonds,
immediately gave way”) under the strength of Grendel’s handgrip and that Grendel ne
m#tte...on elran men / mundgripe m$ran (“never met in another man a greater handgrip”)
than Beowulf’s (Beowulf 721-2, 751-3). In addition, Beowulf resembles Grendel walking
along wræcl$stas (“the tracks of exile”) when, later in the poem, having lost most of his
retainers, the hero returns from war against the Frisians an earm $nhaga or a “wretched,
solitary being” (Beowulf 1352, 2368). Of course, Beowulf’s condition as outcast is a
consequence of his superior strength and bravery, which are consistent with goodness,
especially according to heroic morality. Grendel, on the other hand, is exiled as a result
of his monstrous appearance and an inherited affiliation with evil. Nevertheless, through
this mirroring the poet seems to be making a deliberate connection between the hero, who
should stand for goodness, and the monster, who should stand for evil, and therefore
begins to confound expected binary moral distinctions.
The poet also narrates from Grendel’s perspective as the monster enters Heorot.
At this point, the poet includes the following intensely sympathetic passage, which I cited
earlier in my introduction:
Fand !" #!r inne æ!elinga gedriht
swefan æfter symble; sorge ne c$#on,
Then inside he found the company of noblemen
sleeping after a feast; they did not know sorrow,
the misery of men. (Beowulf 118-120)
The situation of this quotation immediately before the violent events that follow, namely
Grendel’s slaughter of countless Danes, provides the reader with an increased
understanding of his actions. Grendel’s violence might be interpreted as retribution, an
attempt to inflict misery on the men who, unlike himself, sorge ne c!"on or “did not
know sorrow.” The poet reminds the reader of this image of Grendel as joyless on the
night he encounters Beowulf. He describes the monster, making his ritual approach to
Heorot, as dr#amum bed$led (“deprived of joys,” Beowulf 721) and, at the end of the
battle, notes that Grendel retreats, fatally injured, to his wynl#as w%c (“joyless den,”
Even while Grendel is made surprisingly sympathetic in his battle against
Beowulf, the hero is made to look quite monstrous. Choosing to fight, like his monstrous
opponent, without a weapon, Beowulf gruesomely tears off Grendel’s arm with his
hands: seonowe onsprungon, / burston b&nlocan (“the sinews sprang open, the joints
burst,” Beowulf 817-8). He then revels in his butchery, hanging Grendel’s severed arm
from the roof of Heorot as a t&cen sweotol (“clear sign”) of what the hero undoubtedly
considers a triumph (Beowulf 833). But Grendles gr&pe (“Grendel’s grasp”) suspended
from the ceiling instead seems an emblem of something quite disturbing—namely, the
destructive power of one monstrous handgrip over another (Beowulf 836). Thus, the
poem’s first battle between man and monster already leaves the reader with an
impression that the hero is somewhat monstrous, while the m!nsca"a (“evil-destroyer”)
is somewhat human and sympathetic. Andy Orchard notes that Grendel’s label
m!nsca"a itself points to his ambiguous position between man and monster:
Twice he is described as se manscea"a (lines 712 and 737), in contexts
which suggest that the poet may be playing on the two senses of the
homographs man (‘crime, wickedness’) and man (‘man’)... Grendel is
certainly ‘the wicked destroyer’, but he is also both ‘the destroyer of men’,
and ‘the man-shaped destroyer’. (31)
Indeed, this pun is emblematic of the way in which the poet seems generally to play with
notions of monstrousness and humanity in Beowulf’s battle against Grendel.
Superficially, Grendel’s mother seems even darker and more inhuman than her
son. She first appears in the poem on a mission to avenge Grendel’s death. Although a
mother’s wish to avenge her son may inspire sympathy in a modern reader, such an
activity would be entirely inappropriate for a woman and, therefore, horrific in the
Anglo-Saxon society of the poem. Although Hrothgar’s wife Wealhtheow and Hygelac’s
wife Hildeburh also suffer the loss of kin and countrymen, they remain—in contrast to
Grendel’s mother—hospitable and gracious throughout the poem, never participating in
violence. Indeed, Paul Acker suggests that, even though Grendel and his mother commit
similar crimes, Grendel’s mother’s violent intention alone makes her more monstrous as
a woman than her son:
That a female creature and more particularly a maternal one takes this
revenge may have highlighted its monstrousness. Unlike Hildeburh and
Wealhtheow, Grendel’s mother acts aggressively, arguably in a fashion
reserved for men. The similarity of her actions to that of her son, the fact
that she is following in her son’s (bloody) footsteps, is emphasized. (705)
The poet also emphasizes Grendel’s mother’s monstrousness in a number of ways
more obvious to the modern reader. For instance, when Beowulf arrives at her
underwater residence to avenge the death of Hrothgar’s adviser Æschere, his visit is
reminiscent of a katabasis in which Grendel’s mother functions as the ruler of an
underworld. The water, dr!orig ond gedr!fed (“blood-stained and stirred up,” Beowulf
1417), is full of s"dracan (“sea-dragons”) and nicras (“water-monsters,” Beowulf 1426,
1427) that attack the hero as he descends. In addition, Beowulf’s fight against Grendel’s
mother proves far more challenging than his battle against her son. While the hero
defeats Grendel handily without arms, Grendel’s mother nearly kills Beowulf even
though he is equipped with helmet, mail-shirt, and a sword that n"fre...æt hilde ne sw#c /
manna "ngum (“never failed any man at battle,” Beowulf 1460-1). But this sword does
fail Beowulf against Grendel’s mother and, falling victim to many of her blows, it is
Beowulf’s mail-shirt that gebearh f!ore (“saved his life,” Beowulf 1548). In fact, it is
likely that Beowulf would not have killed Grendel’s mother without the magic sword he
finds in her hall, the blade of which gemealt (“melted”) and forbarn (“burned-up,”
Beowulf 1615, 1616) once immersed in her blood.
And yet, in many ways, Grendel’s mother’s actions seem to mirror precisely those
of the poem’s good rulers. Throughout the poem, men frequently avenge kin and protect
halls. Beowulf himself avenges numerous deaths, including those of his lords Hygelac
and Heardred and of the men from Hrothgar’s company slaughtered by Grendel and his
mother. Similarly, Grendel’s mother’s attempt to defend her home, which the poet
describes as a hr$fsele (“roofed-hall,” Beowulf 1515), is not unlike Hrothgar’s attempts to
defend Heorot. Certainly, avenging kin and countrymen and defending one’s hall are the
very deeds sanctioned in the poem’s maxims as heroic virtues. But these actions, of
course, are only sanctioned for men. As a result, although Grendel’s mother’s behavior
mirrors that of the archetypal g!d cyning, her image is undoubtedly a dark reflection of
Hrothgar, Beowulf, Scyld, or Beow. This darkness is also manifested in the monstrosity
and mysteries of her hall. The perversity of Grendel’s mother’s heroic actions might be
explained as her own willful corruption of the heroic code in order to commit evils or, in
a more complicated way, as a mirror that reveals the darkness inherent in that heroic
code. As Acker contends, Grendel’s mother’s horrors “reside in (or are attributed to) her
maternal nature,” but “through her is projected an anxiety over the failure of vengeance
as a system of justice” (703).
These first two battles demonstrate that Grendel and his mother, while labeled
monstrous, are not so different from their apparently good human opponents. In the case
of Grendel’s mother, this mirroring reveals the inherent violence, or perhaps even the
monstrosity, of the heroic code itself. Upon review, some of this monstrousness may be
apparent even in the poem’s earliest images of the heroic code. Recall that the verdict
"æt wæs g!d cyning sums up the following description of Scyld’s deeds: Oft Scyld
Sc#fing scea"ena "r#atum, / monegum m$g"um meodosetla oft#ah, / egsode eorlas
(“Often Scyld Scefing withheld hall-seats from troops of enemies, many peoples, and
terrified warriors,” Beowulf 4-6). Although this account of Scyld denying his enemies
benevolence and terrifying armies prove him supremely capable of protecting his
kingdom, he commits violence in service of vengeance just like Grendel and his mother.
These initial lines about Scyld Scefing gesture to the larger pattern of feuding among men
in the heroic society of the poem, which is also promoted by the notions of vengeance
and protection embedded in the heroic code. The Beowulf poet thus hints at the problem
of an ethos that sanctions such violence and destruction even in the opening passage of
his poem, a point he develops in Beowulf’s first two battles and makes explicit in the
hero’s final fight against the dragon.
Fifty years after he defeats Grendel and his mother, Beowulf faces his third
monstrous opponent under quite different circumstances. Now king of the Geats,
Beowulf is in essentially the same position as Hrothgar fifty years earlier. As an aged
ruler, he must still protect his kingdom against a dragon, which, incensed by the theft of
his treasure, wreaks widespread slaughter and destruction. As I assert in my introduction,
the dragon is physically the most monstrous and other of Beowulf’s three enemies. In
addition to having a body that is byrnende and gebogen (“burning [and] coiled,” Beowulf
2569), he is f!ftiges f"tgemearces / lang (“fifty foot-lengths long,” Beowulf 3042-3) and
older than #r$ohund wintra (“three-hundred years,” Beowulf 2278), the length of time he
has been guarding his hoard. The dragon also nihtes fl$oge% (“flies through the night,”
Beowulf 2273) and breathes wælf&re (“deadly fire,” Beowulf 2582).
In Beowulf’s third battle, the dragon does not elicit any of the sympathy that
Grendel does nor does he demonstrate the same familial loyalty as Grendel’s mother. He
seems entirely non-human. And yet, the dragon still participates in something of a heroic
code based on vengeance. He resides in a hall filled with riches, which he protects,
thoroughly avenging any injury to his realm. Described so abstractly, this image is not
far from that of Hrothgar at the beginning of the poem, who presides over sincf'ge
(“treasure-adorned”) Heorot and desperately tries to protect the hall from Grendel’s
attacks (Beowulf 167). But the dragon’s existence is a solitary one, divorced from the
kinship and vassalage of the human heroic code and dependent on hoarding rather than
distribution of treasure. Hrothgar himself warns against such treasure hoarding and
obsession with worldly life and possessions. He tells the story of the evil king Heremod,
who, like Beowulf, was outstanding in heroic gfits: hine mihtig God mægenes wynnum, /
eafe!um st"pte ofer ealle men (“mighty God raised him in the joys of strength and in
power over all men,” Beowulf 1716-17). But Heremod used these gifts for evil and
gew"ox...t# wælfealle / ond t# d"a$cwalum Deniga l"odum (“brought about slaughter and
deaths to the Danish people,” Beowulf 1711), br"at...b"odgen"atas (“killed table-
companions,” Beowulf 1713), and nallas b"agas geaf / Denum æfter d#me (“never gave
rings to Danes in pursuit of glory,” Beowulf 1719-20). Ultimately, Heremod, a ruler gone
astray, and the dragon, the most monstrous and inhuman creature in the entire poem, look
quite a bit alike.
Hrothgar directs his sermon about Heremod to Beowulf before the hero returns to
Hygelac’s kingdom, commanding him, %& !" l'r be !on, / gumcyste ongit (“Teach
yourself by this, understand manly virtue,” Beowulf 1722-3). He even prophecies that
Beowulf, unlike Heremod, scealt t# fr#fre weor!an / eal langtw(dig l"odum !(num (“shall
become a very lasting help to [his] people,” Beowulf 1707-8). But the circumstances
Beowulf faces in the final episode of the poem and the consequences of his actions
demonstrate that the path to becoming a g#d cyning instead of another Heremod is not as
clear as Hrothgar’s sermon and the maxims throughout the poem imply. The heroic code
privileges a ruler’s needs to acquire fame and protect his kingdom. Beowulf attempts to
do both these things when he determines to fight the dragon and, in many ways, this
choice seems to emphasize Beowulf’s heroic virtue. He even insists on facing the dragon
alone, remarking to his retainers:
Nis !æt "ower s#$,
n" gemet mannes nefne m#n %nes,
!æt h" wi$ %gl!cean eofo"o d!le,
It is not your undertaking,
nor is it fitting for any man except me alone,
to deal out strength, even heroism,
against the monster. (Beowulf 2532-5)
But despite this great show of bravery, Beowulf still cannot adequately protect his
kingdom. Beowulf eventually defeats the dragon—of course, not without the help of his
retainer Wiglaf— but he loses his life in the process. Thus, Beowulf leaves his kingdom
virtually leaderless and vulnerable to the even more destructive attacks of the Swedes and
As a result, in attempting to uphold the heroic code, seeking both to protect his
people and achieve glory, Beowulf falls short of absolute goodness. The poet expresses
the moral ambiguity of the hero’s final actions in the last lines of the poem:
Sw% begnornodon G"ata l"ode
hl%fordes hryre, heor$gen"atas,
cw!don !æt h" w!re wyruldcyninga
manna mildust ond mon$w!rust,
l"odum l#$ost ond lofgeornost.
Thus the Geatish people lamented
the death of their lord, his hearth-companions,
they said that he was of earthly kings
the mildest of men and kindest,
most gracious to his people and most eager for fame. (Beowulf 3178-82)
This long list of superlative virtues seems to characterize Beowulf as entirely good, the
perfect hero—that is, until lofgeornost. Much scholarly debate surrounds this final word
of the poem and how it should be read. Some readers wish to attribute a favorable sense
to lofgeornost in this instance. But, as E.G. Stanley notes, no such example survives in
the Anglo-Saxon corpus even though “[i]n an unfavorable sense the word occurs often”
(148). Thus, this final superlative must be read as a somewhat jarring final comment on
But rather than suggest that the fault of being “most eager for
fame” belongs to the hero himself, I would like to argue that this is a quality the heroic
code promotes, although, as Beowulf’s final battle demonstrates, it does so at a cost.
Although Beowulf’s actions here do not approach the deliberate slaughter and greed seen
in Heremod and the dragon, the poem’s hero and his kingdom are brought to their tragic
ends by the same inclination toward earthly glory, an inclination that Anglo-Saxon heroic
Certainly, the humans of Beowulf use monsters as a scapegoat on which they
displace their anxiety over “an extreme loss of social order” as a result of the continual
feuding among human clans. But the Beowulf poet, rather than disguising or attempting
to disguise this maneuver in the way the Roland poet does, exposes it and reveals its
injustice. The poet continually reminds the reader that the human obsession with fighting
monsters is simply a displacement of their fear of the more destructive and sustained
problem of feuding among men. The clearest reminder by far comes after Beowulf’s
final battle. Even though the hero eliminates the last monster of the poem, the kingdom
will yet be destroyed, as a messenger prophecies after Beowulf’s death, not by a monster,
but by men:
!æt ys s"o f!h#o ond se f$ondscipe,
wæln"# wera, #æs #e ic w$n hafo,
!$ %s s$cea# t& Sw$ona l$oda,
sy!!an h"e gefricgea! fr#an $serne
That is the feud and the enmity,
the deadly-hate of men, of which I have an expectation,
that the men of Sweden seek us out
after they hear our lord is lifeless. (Beowulf 2999-3003)
At the beginning of this chapter, I suggest that the Beowulf poet, girding his
poem in moral prescriptions and evaluations, invites the reader to consider the way in
which the heroic code interacts with the poem’s main plot and to judge the morality of
the main characters. As it turns out, the poet may have wanted the reader to judge or to
consider the morality of the heroic value system itself. Even as the Beowulf poet defines
and promotes heroic morality in the superstructure of the poem, he undercuts that
superstructure with ambiguities in the morality of the main characters, presenting the
supposedly evil monsters as human and the supposedly good humans as monstrous. But,
rather than push against these ambiguities or attempt to hide them as the Roland poet
does, the Beowulf poet emphasizes them or, at least, allows them to exist in full exposure.
In the Cotton Gnomes, a poem composed entirely of maxims similar to those interspersed
throughout Beowulf, an anonymous Anglo-Saxon poet wisely instructs the reader, amid a
series of “truths” about nature and society—[w]inter by! cealdost (“winter is coldest”),
[w]ind by! on lyfte swiftust (“wind is swiftest in the sky”), and even [c]yning sceal r"ce
healdan (“a king must maintain his kingdom,” Cotton Gnomes 5, 3, 1)—that [s]#! bi!
swicolost (“[t]ruth is most deceptive,” Cotton Gnomes 10).
As a result, Greenfield and
Evert rightly describe the Cotton Gnomes as “a poem on the limitations of knowledge”
All citations from the Cotton Gnomes are taken from Mitchell and Robinson. The
translations are my own unless otherwise noted.
(354). The Beowulf poet seems to be doing somewhat of the same thing in his own
poem. He spends numerous lines defining a heroic code and making judgments based on
it, only to prove that system of morality ultimately insufficient and destructive.
Laden with statements such as [p]aien unt tort e chrestïens unt dreit (“the pagans
are wrong and the Christians are right,” Roland 1015) and [!]æt wæs g"d cyning (“that
was a good king,” Beowulf 11), the Song of Roland and Beowulf are poems largely about
the morality of their characters. The poets of both texts grapple with prescriptive value
systems and, as a result, the limited but absolute definitions of good and evil these
systems offer. But the poets ultimately respond to such limitations in strikingly different
ways, as I have shown. While the Roland poet strives to justify a simplistic binary
opposition between good Christians and evil Muslims, the Beowulf poet emphasizes the
insufficiencies of a value system that provides for a similar moral distinction between
men and monsters.
The Roland poet relentlessly asserts that his French Christian heroes are good and
their Muslim enemies evil even though evidence found throughout the poem proves this
binary claim weak. The poet often portrays the Muslims as a mirror image of the
Christians, revealing the two armies to be equally violent and skilled at war. Similarly,
the poet depicts the Christians and the Muslims praying with equal faith and in largely
the same ways. Finally, Ganelon, a Christian, proves himself more evil than any Muslim
character when he deliberately leads Charlemagne’s forces, including his own stepson
Roland, into slaughter and death. But the Roland poet works to conceal or at least to
rationalize these discrepancies between his moral judgments and the events of the poem.
Even while providing mirror images of the Christians and the Muslims, the poet
maintains a crucial distinction between these groups, namely that the Christians pray to
the one true God and the Muslims worship idols. He then justifies his judgment by
creating events in the poem to explicitly confirm it. Thus, angels retrieve the souls of
fallen Christians and respond to Charlemagne’s prayers, while devils collect the Muslim
warriors whose prayers are left unanswered. In turn, although the poet acknowledges
ways in which the two armies are similar, he uses these similarities to highlight the single
glaring difference in which he and his Christian society have the most at stake. He quite
literally shows the reader that chrestïens unt dreit (“the Christians are right,” Roland
1015) and will therefore be redeemed.
Beowulf also revolves around a moral system of binary oppositions. Both the poet
and his characters issue a variety of judgments and moral prescriptions, which appear to
form a rigid heroic code. This code calls for a king to defend his people and reward his
vassals and mandates that the deaths of kin and countrymen be avenged. And yet the
poet constantly undercuts this value system in the main episodes of the poem. Significant
mirroring between the heroes and the enemies at times causes the reader to sympathize
with the monsters when the heroic code condemns them, or to shudder at the violence of
the humans when that code reinforces their behavior. Rather than attempt to justify the
prescriptive morality of the heroic code in spite of these disruptions, the Beowulf poet
allows this mirroring to reveal its limitations.
Although the poets possess vastly different relationships to the societies they
describe—one promoting, the other undercutting his value system—the condition of both
societies is quite similar. Each poet, before relating a tale of extensive fighting, refers to
a history of violence that precedes the events of his own narrative. The Roland poet
begins his poem by contextualizing it within Charlemagne’s larger military campaigns—
Carles li reis, nostre emperere magnes, / Set anz tuz pleins ad estet en Espaigne
(“Charles the king, our great emperor, / Has been in Spain for seven long years,” Roland
1-2)—and the Beowulf poet by summarizing the battles of his heroes’ ancestors—Oft
Scyld Sc!fing scea"ena "r!atum, / monegum m#g"um meodosetla oft!ah, / egsode eorlas
(“Often Scyld Scefing withheld hall-seats from troops of enemies, many peoples, and
terrified warriors,” Beowulf 4-6). The beginnings of both poems thus demonstrate that
the heroes have long been involved in cycles of violence, for years in Roland and for
generations in Beowulf.
Applying Girard’s theory to these texts helps the reader to understand that, amid
this ongoing violence, the heroes of both poems displace their resulting anxiety about
justice and morality on scapegoats, Muslims and monsters, respectively. Still, both
poems reveal that members of the non-monstrous group, namely treacherous Ganelon in
Roland and the feuding tribes in Beowulf, carry out the greatest evils and cause the most
destruction. The two poets handle this reality very differently. The Roland poet
condemns Ganelon far less severely than the Muslims, expressing little dismay over his
near escape from punishment. The Beowulf poet, on the other hand, constantly reminds
the reader of the great evils that men can inflict on one another even though the poem’s
main battles are fought against monsters. According to Girard, in an attempt to prove the
guilt of a scapegoat community, the persecuting society often generates the kinds of
moral judgments we see in both poems. Thus, the Roland poet, in attempting to justify a
binary moral distinction between the Christians and the Muslims, seems to share the
scapegoat mentality of his heroes, while the Beowulf poet, in revealing the inadequacy of
such moral evaluations, undermines this mentality as demonstrated by his own heroes.
Perhaps the following quotation best explains this particular contrast between the two
When I say that a character...is a scapegoat, my statement can mean two
different things. It can mean that this character is unjustly condemned
from the perspective of the writer. The conviction of the crowd is
presented as irrational by the writer himself... There is a second meaning
to the idea that a character is a scapegoat. It can mean that, from the
perspective of the writer, this character is justly condemned, but in the
eyes of the critic who makes the statement, the condemnation is unjust.
The crowd that condemns the victim is presented as rational by the writer,
who really belongs to that crowd; only in the eyes of the critic are the
crowd and the writer irrational and unjust.
(Girard, “To Entrap the Wisest” 248)
According to this model, the Beowulf poet is the first writer, a voice somehow distant
from the Anglo-Saxon men he describes. The Roland poet then is the second writer. He
himself “belongs to that crowd” of French Christians who condemn the Muslims in his
At the beginning of this thesis, I suggested that Beowulf and the Song of Roland
initially seem like literary analogs to the visual representations of the known and the
monstrous Other that appear in medieval mappaemundi. Even though the monstrous
enemies are not relegated to periphery of either poem, but integrated thoroughly into the
landscape of the heroes, that integration occurs through war. Thus, “constant
battle...between Men and Monsters” remains the central narrative of both Beowulf and
Roland (Mittman 45). But prominent mirroring between Christians and Muslims in
Roland and men and monsters in Beowulf reveals that these relationships are far more
complicated than simple oppositions. To understand this apparent contradiction, one
should again consider Girard’s theory of the scapegoat. Societies persecute scapegoats
because the scapegoat community’s easily identifiable difference overshadows the real
source of the society’s disorder. Thus, the placement of war at the center of these poems,
either against literal monsters or against humans portrayed as monsters, seems to reflect
the mentality of the societies both poems describe. That is, monstrous enemies dominate
the physical world of the heroes just as they dominate their minds.
Of the most influential essay in Beowulf scholarship, Paul Acker writes, “J.R.R.
Tolkien’s essay ‘Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics’ has for many readers achieved
one of its stated intentions, that of placing the monsters at the center of the poem rather
than at the periphery” (702). In this quotation, perhaps unintentionally, Acker uses
cartographical terminology that calls to mind yet contrasts with the representation of
monsters in medieval mappaemundi. He continues in a footnote, quoting Cohen on
Such a focus on monsters reflects the essay’s cultural anxieties, both for
Tolkien, writing between the wars, and for the readers who follow him.
For contemporary American readers, Cohen comments on “a society that
has created and commodified ‘ambient fear’—a kind of total fear that
saturates day-to-day living, prodding and silently antagonizing but never
speaking its own name. This anxiety manifests itself symptomatically as a
cultural fascination with monsters.” (Acker 709)
Acker suggests that Tolkien and “the readers who follow him” misunderstand the
monsters of Beowulf precisely as the heroes of the poem do, relying on these monsters as
a scapegoat and, therefore, missing the Beowulf poet’s hints about the more destructive
threat posed by human invaders. John Leyerle expresses a similar sentiment when
discussing the structure of Beowulf:
Monster-fighting thus pre-empts the reader’s attention just as it pre-empts
Beowulf’s; the reader gets caught up in the heroic ethos like the hero and
easily misses the warnings. In a sense the reader is led to repeat the error,
one all too easy in heroic society, hardly noticing that glorious action by a
leader often carries a terrible price for his followers. (147)
Indeed, misinterpreting the societies in both Beowulf and Roland—that is, buying into
their scapegoats and perceiving the monsters and the Muslims as absolute evil—is a
danger any modern reader of these poems face.
Acker and Leyerle thus pose a challenge to readers of epic poems about constant
battle between heroes and their monstrous enemies. One can follow Tolkien and the
modern readers that Acker describes and become obsessed with monster-fighting in the
same way that the Roland poet and even the hero of Beowulf are. Or one can perceive the
problems of these societies more clearly. One can reject binary moral distinctions
between Christians and Muslims or men and monsters. One can read the conclusions of
both works as signs that, despite victories against Muslims and monsters, violence will
continue until these societies are destroyed entirely. At the end of Roland, an angel calls
Charlemagne to return to war against the Muslims, but, cognizant of the tragedies of
recent battle, even the good Christian Charlemagne n’i volsist aler mie (“had no wish to
go,” Roland 3999). Beowulf ends with the image of a community mourning their leader’s
death and, consequently, the imminent loss of their kingdom to feuds against men.
Indeed, this interpretive challenge does not apply solely to literature, but is a
dilemma we face when interpreting our own societies everyday. Although the feuding
and crusading presented in these poems seem distant, the endeavors of centuries past,
even in the 21
century we are still involved in destructive cycles of violence. Just a year
ago, “Americans gathered in jubilant crowds to cheer, sing and applaud early Monday
after the president announced that Osama bin Laden was killed” (Salazar 1). One must
wonder whether a nation that celebrates the death of a human being, not unlike the Geats
and Danes celebrating Grendel’s death, has really progressed beyond the condition of the
societies in Beowulf and the Song of Roland. Do we perceive any more clearly than the
Danes, Geats, and Christians of these poems the sources of destruction and disorder in
our own societies? We blame it on our “enemies,” but perhaps we need to look more
critically at ourselves.
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