Grendel and Cain’s Descendants

Grendel and Cain’s Descendants

By Thalia Phillies Feldman

Literary Onomastics Studies, Vol.8 (1981)


Introduction: The epic of Beowulf has long been subjected to severe Christological scrutiny with scholars tending either to strong commitment to it as Christian allegory, or to equally strong opposition, regarding it instead as thoroughly pagan though lightly touched by the Old Testament. One of the best means of resolving that controversy lies in the internal evidence afforded by the interpretation of the Epic’s names and major terminology. Part of that evidence is offered now in this analysis of the names surrounding the kinfolk of the villainous cannibal, Grendel, who was descended from Old Testament Cain, but had numerous non-Biblical relations of significant onomata.

Whether viewed as pagan epic or Christian allegory, the social basis of Beowulf rested on the comitatus, the pre-urban warrior-society of thanes which held their lord’s authority and the obligations of kinship as dual sacred trust. The adoption of Christianity strengthened these beliefs all the more. Hence, the figure of Cain, the first rebel against the Lord and murderer of kin, acted as a particularly significant link in identifying ancient belief with the new faith through his descendant Grendel. As the ravager of Lord Hrothgar’s Hall and murderer of his thanes, he was logically regarded by the newly converted Anglo-Saxons as descended from Cain, that arch-enemy of the social order.

Yet, Grendel’s line of descent does not run direct from that son of Adam either, for he derives also from the fifelcyg, evil spirits and figures of Germanic origin. Although Christian belief had its own share of devils and spirits, there were crucial differences between these and those of pagan belief. An investigation of these differences seems to make it evident that the fifelcyn were owing entirely to their ancient pagan sources rather than to any Christian analogues. The investigation of these will also help clarify the nature of Grendel’s ambiguous character, particularly as to whether he was wholly or in part man or devil, or simply a monstrous configuration of fantasy.

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