Sunday, November 05, 2006

Beowulf on Cain's Original Kinslaying

Grendel scrithes into Heorot
Brian Froude, in Magic of Words
The Monstrous Consequence of Original Kinslaying?
(Image from Benjamin Slade's Artwork)

I'm currently writing an article on Beowulf titled "Cain's Fratricide: Original Violence as Original Sin in Beowulf."

As the title partly reveals, I'm investigating how the Old English epic poem Beowulf works into its plot the way that Anglo-Saxons interpreted the biblical story of Cain's primeval kinslaying. Given the importance of kinship for the Anglo-Saxons, and their horror at kinslaying, the relatively mild crime of stealing some fruit from a forbidden tree pales in comparison -- especially for a culture in which successful raids conducted for grabbing the richess of neighboring tribes was considered a virtue.

In Beowulf, Cain's original fratricide seems to have acted as a type of original sin, for his violence appears to have pervaded the world, an argument that I make about a third of the way into my paper:
It appears, then, that Beowulf attributes to Cain's original violence the blame for the various violent evils in the world: violent monsters, violent blood feuds, violent wars, violent siblings, for Cain's "primal fratricide ... is surely the operative link between [such things as] Grendel, the monsters, and Hrothgar's family kinslaying" (Anderson, para. 24; cf. Mellinkoff, "Cain I" and "Cain II"). Everywhere lurks the threat of violence. Interestingly, all of this violence not only stems from the first kinslaying, the various sorts of violence implicitly retain aspects of kinslaying. Cain's exile gives rise to the monsters, who are in some way understood as Cain's kin. Grendel himself, "God's adversary" (ll 1682: godes andsaca) -- and "the Anglo-Saxons had no stronger signifier of evil than the enmity of God" (Nokes, para. 10) -- is one of the "evil offspring" (ll 111: untýdras) who "were born" (ll 111: onwócon; cf. ll 1265-1266: wóc) through Cain's fratricide and are (whether actually or by association) Cain's kin (ll 107: Caines cynne). By extension, these creatures are the kindred of mankind, either actually or associatively. Human beings themselves, by virtue of the common descent presupposed by the poem's reference to Cain, are all connected by implicit ties of kinship, and Cain's original violence thus characterizes human relations everywhere, for "human behavior is defined by his crime" (Morgan, "Origins," para. 2). Kinslaying, therefore, and especially fratricide, stands for the violence characteristic of monsters, blood feuds, and wars.
I have other arguments and bits of evidence, but these will have to wait till some other post or for the hoped-for publication of the finished article.

Meanwhile, here's the bibliography for the scholarly texts used in the quoted paragraph:
Anderson, Carolyn. "Gæst, gender, and kin in Beowulf: Consumption of the Boundaries." The Heroic Age. Issue 5 (Summer/Autumn 2001) .

Mellinkoff, Ruth. "Cain's Monstrous Progeny in Beowulf: Part II, Post-Diluvian Survival." Anglo-Saxon England 9 (1981): 83-97.

Morgan, J. A. "The Origins of Violence: Maxims I and Beowulf." Musings, Polemics, & Good Sense. 2003 (Accessed October 21, 2006).

Nokes, Richard Scott. "Teaching Grendel as a Villain in a Post-Modern Age." Alabama English 14 (2004): 6-17.
Perhaps all this will be of some use or at least some interest for a few of my Medievalist readers.


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