The Three Tellings of Beowulf’s Fight with Grendel’s Mother

The Three Tellings of Beowulf’s Fight with Grendel’s Mother

By Rosemary Huisman

Leeds Studies in English, n.s. 20 (1989)

An illustration of Grendel's mother by J.R. Skelton from Stories of Beowulf (1908) described as a "water witch" trying to stab Beowulf.

Introduction: Beowulf offers three descriptions of Beowulf’s fight with Grendel’s mother. The first is by the narrator (ll. 1492-1590), the second is by Beowulf to Hrothgar (ll. 1652-76), the third is by Beowulf to Hygelac (included in ll. 2131-51, within the longer speech from l. 2047). Early (structuralist) studies of narration in English typically used the word ‘story’ to describe the sequence of events involving characters which could be abstracted from any specific telling (such as the story of Beowulf’s fight with Grendel’s mother). The term ‘discourse’ was then contrastively used to describe the specific telling in the medium language of that story. In that terminology, here in Beowulf we have three discourses of the one story. In 1955, Leslie Rogers published an article in the Review of English Studies entitled ‘Beowulf’s Three Great Fights’. This paper, ‘The Three Tellings of Beowulf’s Fight with Grendel’s Mother’, is intended to echo that earlier paper, as befits a student of a teacher, but also to demonstrate one of the developments in literary discussion over the thirty odd years since that earlier article was published: the concern with discourse rather than story.

The trouble with a simple story/discourse opposition is that, if one equates story and subject-matter, or if one paraphrases story as ‘what the discourse is about’, then it is obvious that the three passages from Beowulf are not simply ‘about the same event’. In the first passage, the narrator tells the reader/listener about Beowulf’s fight with Grendel’s mother, whereas in the second and third tellings the narrator tells about Beowulf telling about his fight with Grendel’s mother. The second and third passages again differ in that the narrator tells of Beowulf’s telling to different audiences, first to Hrothgar of the Danes, later to Hygelac, his own lord, of the Geats. These three tellings illuminate two points, a practical one and a more general, theoretical one. The practical point, which will be the concern of this paper, is that dealing with these three accounts allows us to relate differences in the telling to differences in the social positioning of tellers and audience.

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