Missing Things

21 June 2012

Ethics and Madness in Beowulf

Okay, interesting fact time!.

One of the problematic aspects of translating Beowulf is the use of ambiguous words whose clear definition is not known. One of these words is 'æglæca', a noun which has connotations of monstrousness, vileness, or hostility. This, however, is complicated by the fact that it is used at various points to describe not only every one of the monsters Beowulf fights, but Beowulf himself. Repeatedly. Indeed, at one point Beowulf and the dragon he is fighting are described together using the plural form 'æglæcean'.

That the authoritative translation of Beowulf (by Frederick Klaeber) makes the interesting choice of translating the word differently depending on to whom it is applied - 'warrior'/'hero' for Beowulf, 'monster'/'demon'/'fiend' for Grendel or Grendel's mother, 'wretch'/'monstrous woman' for æglæcwif (a feminine form used for Grendel's mother) - does not simplify matters.

Now, this is already interesting in the implication of considerably more moral awareness and complexity to the Anglo-Saxons than is normally attributed, but I find Doreen Gillam's analysis particularly thought-provoking. She argues that the term is used to imply "supernatural," "unnatural" or even "inhuman" characteristics, as well as hostility towards other creatures: "Beowulf, the champion of men against monsters, is almost inhuman himself. [Aglæca/æglæca] epitomises, in one word, the altogether exceptional nature of the dragon fight. Beowulf, the champion of good, the 'monster' amongst men, challenges the traditional incarnation of evil, the Dragon: æglæca meets æglæcan."

In other words, it's possible that what we have is a legitimate Anglo-Saxon word that translates with the vernacular meaning of 'psycho'! :D

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