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English Pages  Year 1996
R.D. Fulk is Chancellor's Professor of English at Indiana University, Bloomington. --Book Jacket.
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The argument of this book starts from the observation that the spacing between words (and word-elements) in the copy of
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Monsters and the monstrous, whether from the remote pagan past or the new world of Christian Latin learning, haunted the
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From familiar fairy tales and legends - Red Riding Hood, Bluebeard, Puss in Boots, Beauty and the Beast, vampires and we
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A widely celebrated translator’s vivid, accessible, and elegantly concise rendering of an ancient English masterpiece
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THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO
MONSTROUS AND BLOODY SIGNS:
THE BEOWULF MANUSCRIPT
A DISSERTATION SUBMITTED TO THE FACULTY OF THE DIVISION OF THE HUMANITIES IN CANDIDACY FOR THE DEGREE OF DOCTOR OF PHILOSOPHY
DEPARTMENT OF ENGLISH LANGUAGE AND LITERATURE
BY SUSAN MARIE KIM
CHICAGO, ILLINOIS JUNE, 1996
73 037+3 iíf$G K 3 (s>
l Qf Q[ U b
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Acknowledgments .................................. iii Preface .......................................... iv
--Introduction— .— -- --------------------- -----------------------"Ask what I am called"...................... 1 Chapter One "They are called Double/Doubtful Men" ......
Chapter Two "If one who is loved is not present, a letter may be embraced instead" ........ . . 49 Chapter Three "Here you can clearly look on the head of Holofernes" .............................. 81 Chapter Four "Your tortures to me are sweeter than a honeycomb of honey" ........ .........
Chapter Five "As I once did with Grendel" ...............
Afterword "Say what I am called"......................
Bibliography ........ ...........................
I would like to thank my advisors, Christina von Nolcken, Jay Schleusener, and Karma Lochrie for their guidance, insight, and generosity. I would also like to thank the C.I.C., and the SteinerRudolph, and Whiting Foundations for their support. To my family and friends, I owe more gratitude than I can express.
I would like to thank my father, H. W. Kim,
for his patience and for always being an inspiration to m e . I would like to thank my sister, Lisa Kim, and my brother, David Kim, Sarai Sherman and David Jaffe, as well as my friends, Caroline, Doug, Eileen, Eva, Faith, Heidi, Jenny, Karen, Kevin, Larry, Lisa, Mary, MaryGail, Rob, Sharon, and Ted, the LACC Dojo, and Tohkon Judo Academy.
would like to thank Nick Jaffe, for helping me with everything, and for making difficulties adventure and everyday life such a pleasure.
PREFACE The Manuscript Facts
The Beowulf manuscript is bound together with another codex, a collection of works in twelfth century hands, in the British Library MS. Cotton Vitellius A. XV.
Manuscript, folios 94a to 209b of Cotton Vitellius A.XV, contains five works:
the "Life of Saint Christopher," the
"Wonders of the East," the "Letter of Alexander to Aristotle," Beowulf, and Judith.
The three prose works and
up to line 1939b of Beowulf are written in one hand.
rest of Beowulf and all of Judith are written in another. Both hands of the manuscript are dated to around the end of the tenth century.1
1 For general manuscript descriptions, see Kemp Malone, ed., The Nowell Codex. Early English Manuscripts in Facsimile, vol. 12 (Baltimore: Rosenkilde and Bagger, 1963); Stanley Rypins, Three Old English Prose Texts in MS Cotton Vitellius A. XV (London: Oxford University Press, 1929); Kenneth Sisam, "The Beowulf Manuscript," in Studies in the History of Old English Literature (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1953) ,Elliott Van Kirk Dobbie, Beowulf and Judith. The Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records, vol. 4 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1953); Fr. Klaeber, ed., Beowulf and the Fight at Finnsburc (Lexington: D. C. Heath, 1950).
Although there is no record of how Sir Robert Cotton obtained it, the manuscript is marked with the name of Laurence Nowell and the date 1563.
The manuscript was
charred at the edges in the 1731 Cottonian library fire, and further damaged afterwards by crumbling. As the works are now arranged, in the "new foliation,"2 the "Life of Saint Christopher" begins on 94a; the "Wonders of the East" on 98b; the "Letter of Alexander" on 107a; Beowulf on 132a, and Judith on 202a.
However, Peter Lucas,
in his article, "The Place of Judith in the Beowulf Manuscript," makes the persuasive argument that Judith was originally placed at the beginning of the manuscript, and that between Judith and "Saint Christopher" was a quire on which were written the last lines of Judith and the first two thirds of "Christopher."
Lucas bases his argument on
the evidence of wear on the last page of Beowulf, the pattern of wormholes discontinued between quires 13 and 14, and the'absence of "io" spellings in Judith and Christopher,
2 Beginning with "Christopher" on fol. 94. Dobbie gives a clear summary of the three foliation systems in his introduction, pages x-xi.
which suggests that the two were possibly bound together in an exemplar-collection.3
3 Peter Lucas, "The Place of Judith in the Beowulf Manuscript," RES. n.s. 41.164 (1990): 463-78.
INTRODUCTION "Ask What I Am Called"
Mec feonda sum feore besnyþede, woruldstrenga binom, wætte siþþan, dyfde on wætre, dyde eft þonan, sette on sunnan, þær ic swiþe beleas herum þam þe ic hæfde. Heard mec siþþan snaö seaxes ecg, sindrum begrunden; fingras feoldan, ond mec fugles wyn geond speddropum spyrede geneahhe, ofer brunne brerd, beamtelge swealg, streames dæle, stop eft on mec siþade sweartlast.... Gif min b e a m wera brucan willað, hy beoð þy gesundran on þy sigefæstran, heortum þy hwætran on þy hygebliþran ferþe þy frodran, habbaþ freonda þy ma, swæsra ond gesibbra, soþra ond godra tilra ond getreowra þa hyra tyr ond ead estum ycað ond hy arstafum lissum bilecgað ond hi lufan fæþmum fæste clyppað. Frige hwæt ic hatte, niþum to nytte. Nama min is mære, hæleþum gifre ond halig sylf.1 1"A certain enemy robbed me of life, took my strength in the world, afterwards wetted me, dipped me in water, put me afterwards from there, set me in the sun, where I was very much deprived of the hair that I had. Afterwards the hard edge of a knife, with all impurities ground off, cut me; fingers folded me, and the joy of a bird sprinkled me abundantly with successful droppings over the brown surface; I swallowed the ink, a share of the stream; afterwards it stepped on me, traveled with black tracks.... If the children of men wish to use me, they will be the sounder and the more victorious, the bolder at heart and the more joyful, the wiser at heart; they will have more friends,
2 The speaker of "Riddle 26", when it asks, "Frige hwæt ic hatte ," demands that the reader name it, "Book ."
many of the other Exeter Book riddles. however, the poem works by leading its reader to recognize in its "answer," "Book," the validity of other ways of identifying the object.
In a bawdy riddle like "Riddle 25," for example,
the joke is in the recognition of "penis" while answering "onion."
In "Riddle 26," however, the speaker does not
demand recognition as a different, but like object.
instead presents two versions of the same thing, the Book as a literal object, vellum and ink, and the Book as the meaning of its inscription.
The simultaneous presentation
of two meanings for the Book would be easily negotiable for the reader in whom, as Fred Robinson argues, apposition, * which requires "powers of inference and the ability to entertain two simultaneous points of view ," is less a literary device than a "habit of mind."2
The tension of
more dear and more akin, more true and good, better and more faithful, who will increase their glory and blessedness with favors, and cover them with graces kindly, and will clasp them fast in embraces of love. Ask what I, useful to heroes, am called. My name is famous, useful to men and holy itself." George Philip Krapp and Elliott Van Kirk Dobbie, eds.. The Exeter Book, vol. 3 of The Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records (New York: Columbia University Press, 1936), 193-4. Translation is my own. 2Fred C. Robinson, Beowulf and the Apuositive Style. (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1985), 12, 80.
3 "Riddle 26," however, is not only in the suspension of the two meanings, but also in the recognition of the explicit violence which one meaning does to the other:
the "I" of
the animal presence is "deprived of life" as the first condition for the creation of the "I" of the inscribed text. The speaker of "Riddle 26" identifies itself by dramatizing the relationship between the book as its inscription, and the book as its material.
The Book becomes
"useful to heroes and holy itself" only when it becomes a text, and it becomes a text only after the animal has been killed, and the vellum cut, folded, and inscribed.
modern critical discourse, Lacan describes the relationship of sign and thing with his formulation:
"the sign manifests
itself first of all as the murder of the thing...."3
speaker of the "Riddle," as "Book" is in effect the sign, speaking for itself, and it dramatizes in a very literal way a version of this murder.
For the speaker of the "Riddle,"
however, identity is not only as the sign, or as the Book's inscription.
The speaker's "I" is equally also the animal
3Jacques Lacan, Écrits: A Selection. Alan Sheridan, trans., Norton, 1977), 104.
4 and the vellum:
"Mec feonda sum
""Heard mec siþþan/ snað seaxes ecg .. wrah...."
Answering the demand, "Frige hwæt ic hatte,"
entails reading in the name, "Book," not only the murder of the thing, but also insistence on its identifying presence. The Book's demand can be answered, and its suspensions collapsed, only superficially by the word "Book":
"asking" how the riddle's speaker identifies itself requires not only the investigation of the understanding of how language works, but also, given the explicit violence to aspects of the Book's identity which is'^theTcondition for its inscription, the examination of the problem of how the identity of any speaker can be established at all.
argument in the following chapters is that the works which comprise the Beowulf manuscript, the "Wonders of the East," the "Letter of Alexander to Aristotle," Judith. "Saint Christopher," and Beowulf. negotiate, and respond to their own versions of the Book's demand.
5 Isidore defines "beast" as "all that lacks human language and form."4
Isidore's formulation establishes
human identity through its difference from what "we call 'beast.'"
As Bruno Roy argues, because the representation
of what is not human is also the delineation and reification of the human, maintaining the distinction between the human and the inhuman is critical.5
The monsters in the Beowulf
manuscript, however, never remain on the other side of any boundary.
Beowulf's body and Grendel's become
interchangeable during their fight in Heorot.
acts as the agent of the beasts he struggles against.
illustrated monsters in the "Wonders of the East" grasp and step out of their frames, or, frameless, invade the textual space.
Because the stake in containing the monsters within
a frame, or outside a boundary, can be as high as the stake in human identity, this slippage suggests a fundamental disturbance-
4"Pecus dicimus omne quod humana lingua et effigia caret." Isidori Hispalensis Episopi; Etymologiarum Sive Originum, w. M. Lindsay, ed., (London: Oxford University Press, 1962), XII.5. The translation is my own. sBruno Roy, "En Marge du Monde Connu: Les Races de Monstres," in Aspects.de la .Marginalité au Moyen Age. ed. Guy-H. Allard et al (Montreal: L'Aurore, 1974), 71-81.
6 Isidore's formulation, "Pecus dicimus omne quod humana lingua et effigia caret," not only establishes human identity through its difference from an external alien, the "beast;" it also establishes difference internal to -human identity, the difference between language and body. Isidore's discussion of monsters provides a theoretical context for the argument that the monsters in the Beowulf manuscript are an articulation not of an external threat, but of anxiety, based on an understanding of this difference and thus recognized as internal to the conception of human identity.
Isidore maintains that while some monsters are
divine signs, others are simply allegorical figures constructed by men.
He never provides a method for
distinguishing between these two kinds of monster-signs, or for connecting either kind of sign to a meaning, because as signs dissociated from their meanings, the monsters fit into his understanding of allegorical language as "alieniloquium," speech which is different from itself, or "alienated speech."6
The monsters as signs literalize the
function of allegorical language.
7 For Augustine, this "alienation" defines not onlyallegory, but any act of representation.
As he argues in On
Christian Doctrine, a conventional sign is a thing which must be taken not as the thing itself, but as a meaning from which it is distinct.
The ability to make the transfer from
the sign as thing to its meaning is key to the ability to use language, and thus to human identity:
the failure to make this transfer, and to sustain the separation of the sign as thing and the sign as meaning, is bestiality, the failure of the understanding and the death of the soul.7
This conception of language is problematic
because it entails absolute, and hostile, separation within human identity between the self identified in and through language, and the self identified as the body.
Augustine's discussion in City of God, monsters, through their extreme physicality, signal the death of the body as we know it on earth; they mark the threat of the earthly body.8 At the same time, however, the threat of the
7Saint Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, trans. D. W. Robertson (New York: Macmillan, 1958), 34, 43. sSaint Augustine, Concerning the City of God against the Pagans, trans. Henry Bettenson (New York: Penguin, 1984), 982-3.
8 monstrous is explicitly a threat to the body:
renunciation of "carnal understanding" is also an impossible dissociation from a body equally constitutive of human identity. The five works of the Beowulf manuscript articulate versions of this conception of "alienated" identity, and attempt to revise it to a more inclusive model, or to read its alienations not as dislocation, but as potential integrity.
Desire for this revision is urgent, not because
the problem of negotiating identity in these terms is new, but because the fact of the transition from oral to written culture, and the particular circumstances of English literacy make the problem explicit. In the "Wonders of the East," the donestre episode (103b, 9-104, 3), in which the monsters call to their human victims by the names of "familiar kinsmen," then kill and eat them, explicitly connects the monsters with the problem of language, body, and identity.
The donestre "know human
speech" and use it to seduce.their human victims.
victim answers to his name, his identification in language,
only to have his body eaten, "all but the head. "9 Although other episodes of the "Wonders" involve the disintegration of the human body through contact with monsters, only the donestre explicitly use language to seduce, and only the donestre treat the body's remainder with tenderness.
head in this episode thus offers a revision of the conception of language because, as the body's remainder, it preserves, though perversely, the idea of the intact body, which it can signify.
The head can function, like
Augustine's "natural signs," to metonymically signify an intact body.
The donestre episode offers no real
alternative to conventional language; the mutilation is no less deadly than the complete annihilation of other encounters.
But the recognition of the dislocating demands
of identity is clear, as is the desire, even at horrible cost, for its revision. This desire is prompted in part by the transition to written -culture, which literalizes the dislocation of the
9>,& hy cunnon mennisce ge/ reord þonne hy fremdes cynnes mannan/ geseoð þonne nemnað hy hyne & his magas/ cuþra manna naman & mid leaslicum/ wordum hy hine beswicað & hine gefoð & æftefr/ þan hy hine fretað ealne buton þon heafd[e/ & þonne sittað & wepað ofer þam heafde." 103b, 17-104, 3.
10 body and the self represented in language.
In Beowulf. this
transition is staged by the juxtaposition of the "sign" of Grendel's severed arm, and the engraved hilt of the sword. As a "sign," the severed arm literalizes the process of dislocation from the monstrous body involved in identification through language. the status of the "sign."
The hilt does not revise
Like the arm, it is conspicuously
"giantish," but the sword is also marked by the identity of its maker:
the fact that the hilt is a written text doesn't
alter its functioning as a "sign" but it does make that function, and the "origin" of that "ancient strife," more explicit.10
This explicitness makes the already existing
problem of identification through language unavoidable.
"Letter from Alexander to Aristotle" pushes at this problem, this time from an explicitly literate perspective:
alienation of the "I" as presented in language and the "I" understood as presence, as the body, is obvious, because it
10"Geseah ðeah on searwum sigeeadig bil,/ ealdsweord eotenisc 1557-8. "Hroðgar maðelode -- hylt sceawode,/ ealde lafe, on ðæm wæs or writen/ fymgewinnes... ." 1G87-9. "Swa wæs on ðæm scennum sciran goldes/ þurh runstafas rihte gemearcod,/ geseted ond gesæd, hwam þæt sweord geworht,/ irena cyst ærest wære." 1694-7. All quotes from Beowulf are from Klaeber, Fr.( ed., Beowulf and the Fight at Finnsburcr. 3rd ed. (Lexington: D. C. Heath and Company, 1950).
11 is the premise of any letter.
At the same time, however, by
presenting, in the episode with Porrus' statues, the unreadable solidity of representations, Alexander acknowledges the equal threat of the collapsing of distance, or the failure of signification.
Against Michael Near's
association of literacy with the interiority and alienation which are violently resisted by oral culture, the self consciously literate Alexander establishes the resistance to interiority as necessary to his survival.11
"success" at the close of the "Letter" is not avoidance of either threat, but rather, through his insistence on both, the preservation of a conception of himself identified otherwise than through language as he knows it. Alexander's insistence on both of the forms of death in the "Letter" --on the absolute dissociation of the "I" of the self in language, and the "I" felt in the body, and on the collapse of distance which is the failure of signification, or "carnal understanding"-- lays the ground for the Christopher fragment's examination of the problem of human identity in the context of the special death of the
^Michael R. Near, "Anticipating Alienation: Beowulf and the Intrusion of Literacy," PMLA 108.2 (1993): 320-32.
12 Christian martyr.
Saint Christopher, a giant with the head
of a dog, is monstrous in this context less because of his physical form itself than because of the transparent relationship between his identity in language and his body as relics.
Victricius, with his account of the lodging of
infinite meaning in the fragments of the martyr's body, provides the basis for the argument that Christopher experiences the literal splitting of his body as pain "sweeter than honey" because in the actualization of his martyrdom, Christopher's body becomes true to himself as he represents himself; his speech becomes "true" and he becomes peculiarly whole.12
The agonistic relationship between
martyr and torturer establishes dual sites for the reader's identification within the text.
Through this split
identification, and the grounding in the body which the insistence on reading "with tears," necessitates, the Christopher fragment offers participation, however fleeting, in the martyr's wholeness and pleasure.
Victricius, "De Laude Sanctorum," in Origines Chrétiennes de la IIe_ Lvonnaise Gallo-romaine a la Wormandie Ducale, ed. René Herval (Rouen: Sari H. Maugard &. Cie, 19S6) .
13 The grounding in the body manifested by the Christopher fragment supports the critique in Judith of the binary interpretive model which generates the dislocations articulated throughout the manuscript.
Like Beowulf, Judith
displays her enemy's severed head as a "sign" of her victory.
But Judith disallows the exclusionary binarism at
the root of the understanding of the sign as fleshly excision.
She presents, 'through the metaphor of
circumcision, the now-familiar model of identity created and sustained through alliance with the sign and "alienation" from the body.
But at the same time, through the potential
for participation which is active and generative, but also invisible, Judith constructs an alternative model.
Hermann's Lacanian reading of the intersection of "textual strands of rape, circumcision and decapitation" suggests the sexualization of the decapitation scene, as well as the context of the Exeter Book "Riddle 25," the onion/penis riddle,- for the language allegory.13
In this context,
Judith's revised interpretive model can be read as based on
13John P. Hermann, allegories of War: Language and Violence in Old English Poetry (ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1989), 185.
14 the metaphor of pregnancy, validated by the antecedent of Christ as the Word.
Judith's alternative will drop out of
the existing binary interpretive economy, but it will not disappear.
By collapsing the metaphors of circumcision and
pregnancy, and insisting on reading the sign of the head "clearly," Judith proposes simultaneously reading and reconceiving identity. In Beowulf, given a literal construction of language as dislocation froin a body alienated from identity but equally constitutive of it, the work of the poem is to find a way to
use that language, a mode of speech which can read that dislocation as potential rather than horror.
literal reconception of identity is possible because of her simultaneous and contradictory identification of herself on another level, as both "male" and "female."
negotiations involve recognition of the diachronic alienability of the self within language, in narratives of past and future selves.
As Seth Lerer argues, Beowulf's re
telling of the fight with Grendel self-consciously reworks the text's account.14
The re-telling does not, however,
14Seth Lerer, Literacy and Power in Anglo-Saxon Literature (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1991). Seth Lerer, "Grendel's Glove." ELH 61:4 (1994): 721-51.
15 simply transform violence into language, and thus diffuse it.
Beowulf uses the re-telling to develop his nostalgia as
a mode of speech which counters the conflicts which the modes of boasting and the scop song make explicit.
Stewart provides an account of nostalgia as longing for "a moment before knowledge and self-consciousness that itself lives on only in the self-consciousness of the nostalgic narrative."15
The older Beowulf's nostalgia for the mode of
boasting is longing of this kind.
By making the focus of
his nostalgia the story of the fight with Grendel through which he establishes the arm as sign, however, Beowulf
represents the crisis of the sign which Stewart reads as the motivation for nostalgia's desire for origin.
By doing so
he at once recognizes the fictionality of the narrative of origin, and denies the tangible reality of the crisis, and thus poses his nostalgia as a means of establishing identity as already alienated, but also, because of the fictionality of that-alienation, as potentially intact.
15Susan Stewart, On Longincr: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection (Durham: Duke University Press,
My argument is informed by several modern critical discourses.
I have used Derrida's concept of the sign as
determined by the trace of the always absent other.
also used Freudian, Lacanian, and Kristevan psychoanalysis in my interpretation of the Beowulf manuscript's positioning of language, the body, the split subject.
I have rarely
used these critical discourses explicitly, however:
not define this project as deconstructive or psychoanalytical criticism.
This is not because I have
concerns about "second-guessing the Medieval mind" with modern theory.
My aim has been not to apply or to examine a
particular critical theory through the texts, but rather to raise the problem of identity as a matter of both external and internal alienation --a problem which is articulated in both modern and early critical discourses-- and to read in these texts strategies for negotiating that problem.
CHAPTER ONE "They Are Called Double/Doubtful Men"
The "Wonders of the East" is an illustrated catalogue of monsters and other "wonders":
horned serpents, chickens
that can set people on fire, women with tails, men with ears so long they can lie down on one and use the other as a blanket-
It is about what identifies the monsters and other
wonders of the East:
as such it is also about what
identifies the humans in England, from whom these monsters are ostensibly to be distinguished.1
As Isidore explains,
"Pecus dicimus omne quod humana lingua et effigia caret," "We call beast all that lacks human language and form. "2 Human identity is a matter of both body and language:
2The edition I have used is Stanley Rypins, Three Old English Prose Texts in MS-Cotton Vitellius. A.XV (London: Early English Text Society, 1924) . Translations from Old English are my own. JW. M. Lindsay, ed., Isidore Hispalensis Episcopi: Etymologiarum Sive Originum (London: Oxford University Press, 1962), XII. 5. Translations from the Latin are my own.
18 human self is both understood as the body and represented in language.
The problem which this double identification
entails is that using language, becoming a "reordberend," a "speech-bearer," means sustaining a kind of alienation within identity.
To bear speech, as I will'argue in the
context of Medieval theory, is to identify oneself in language, which means taking the difference within language, that difference necessarily sustained between sign and meaning, as also the alienation within human identity of the self represented in language from the self understood as the body.
The monsters catalogued in the "Wonders of the East"
thus define their human readers, not only because of their difference from them, but also because they are representations of the difference or alienation recognized within human identity.
The "Wonders of the East" is not recognizably poetry, or even sustained narrative.
But it is also clearly not
scientific, in the terms of its day, in its treatment of
19 geography or natural history.
Stanley Rypins points out
that the "unreliability" of the "facts" of the text even for its own culture "may be easily verified by a comparison of the so-called leones with the stadia, the relation between the two being anything but constant"
constant references to locations and descriptions of distances, any reader interested in actually following the directions would be hopelessly lost.3
Paul Gibb, in his
dissertation on the "Wonders," adds that although the idea of monsters and marvels was "in no way thoroughly dissociated from the medieval conception of the geography of the world," the geographical descriptions in this text are particularly illogical and unrealistic; furthermore, the descriptions have "absolutely no correspondence to any extant mappae mundi or to the writings of classical and patristical authorities," which locate the monstrous races in the "south of Africa or Arabia or in the north of
throughout the "Wonders" distances are given in both "stadia," "the lesser milemarking" and "leones," "the greater." In the nine references to "stadia" and "leones," the relation between the two varies from 800 (stadia) to 623.5 (leones) (on 100, 5-8), to 360 (stadia) to 110 (leones) (on 104b, 5-9) .
20 Scythia" rather than near Babylonia or Egypt.4
"Wonders" is also difficult to approach as natural history. Gibb notes that, given the wide availability of wellorganized encyclopedias, like Isidore's Etymologiesr Medieval readers were not likely to turn to the "Wonders" simply for information (60).
Furthermore, the "Wonders"
makes no pretense of Christian didacticism.
Although it is
clearly related to the bestiary, the "Wonders" contains no explicit Christian allegory.
Yet despite the apparent
absence of what John Friedman calls "utilitarian reasons" for its existence, the "Wonders of the East" must have sustained the interest of its Anglo-Saxon audiences.5
popularity is attested by the fact that it survives in no less than three versions, all illustrated, from the Anglo-
4Paul Gibb, "'Wonders of the East': diss., Duke University, 1977), 56-7.
A Critical Edition" (Ph.D.
5John Block Friedman, "The Marvels-of-the-East Tradition in AngloSaxon Art," in Sources of Anglo-Saxon Culture, ed. Paul E. Szarmach (Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 1986), 319. Friedman suggests that, given the fact that Anglo-Saxon secular art is rare, and when it has survived it is usually practical --calendars, or medical or astronomical material-- it is at least "surprising" to find in the "Wonders" manuscripts "programs of secular illustration which do not have utilitarian reasons'for their existence and which treat pagan subject matter without justification of didactic intent."
21 Saxon period:
in the Beowulf manuscript, in Tiberius B.V,
and in Bodley 614.e The illustrations, versions of which appear in all three manuscripts, provide a key to the popularity of, and the urgency behind the composition of the "Wonders."
Beowulf manuscript, unlike the illustrations in the Tiberius and Bodley manuscripts, the watercolors which accompany the "Wonders" text are at best "perhaps deliberately crude."* 7 In Kenneth Sisam's less generous terms, their "bad draughtsmanship gives many of them a ludicrous effect."8 But the same lack of technical skill which Sisam notices in the watercolors suggests an urgency in their construction. Sisam argues, Unless he found them in his original, a scribe so incompetent in drawing would hardly have ventured on illustrations. We shall find other evidence that they are copies, not originals; so the Vitellius drawings may, after all, represent a remote and debased development of the designs which are executed so brilliantly in the almost contemporary Tiberius manuscript. (78).
sThe Beowulf manuscript version is in Anglo-Saxon only; the version in Tiberius B.V is in both Latin and Anglo-Saxon; the version in Bodley 614 is in Latin only. 7Gibb, 5. 8Kenneth Sisam, "The Beowulf Manuscript," in Studies in the History of Old_English Literature (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1953), 78.
22 In his dismissal of the Vitellius illustrations, Sisam is eliding an important point.
A scribe "so incompetent" would
not attempt the drawings unless they were worth it, unless they were in his original, and unless the illustrations were taken as integral to the presentation of the text. The illustrations in the Beowulf manuscript are in fact active in their relationship to the text.
description of the long-standing and widespread tradition of English and Continental "Marvels-of-the-East" texts and illustrations, Rudolf Wittkower argues that most of the illustrations seem to be copies derived from a lost ninthcentury version of the "Collectanea rerum memorabilium" written by Solinus in the third century.
that the derivation is born out by the "spaceless arrangement and the loose assemblage of figures and groups, as well as by the frames, on the lower edges of which figures and animals are standing."9 What makes the AngloSaxon "Wonders" illustrations particularly interesting in this context is that the monsters and "wonders" are not
9Rudolf Wittkower, "Marvels of the East: A Study in the History of Monsters," Journal of the Warburg and Cortauld Institutes 5 (1942): 169-71.
23 simply standing on the frames.
Instead, they are often
aggressively interacting with the frames.
In the Beowulf
manuscript drawing, the figures are often frameless, or stepping outside the boundaries of the frame.
The left side
serpent on 99b, for example, extends its tail below the bottom of the frame.
The right side serpent is grasping the
right side of the frame as it climbs up and out of the frame.
The fan-eared monster on 104 has planted both feet
outside the bottom of the frame, as has the long-haired, boar-tusked woman on 105b, whose head as well extends beyond the frame:
both monsters appear to have just stepped
outside their frames.
The most striking illustration in the
Beowulf manuscript is the ant-dog drawing on folio 101, which is frameless and invading the textual space:
the ant-dogs even wraps itself around the word "fleogan." John Friedman reads this relationship between monster and frame as "uneasy," and as creating "a feeling of danger to the onlooker" because the "visual metaphor of their stepping into the viewer's world suggests the possibility of actual confrontation."10
10John Block Friedman, "The Marvels-of-the-East Tradition in Anglo-Saxon Art," 327. Friedman finds the Vitellius artist more passive in his approach than the Tiberius illustrator, but he sees an attitude
/ This "uneasiness," however, runs counter to the function of the monster catalogue.
As Bruno Roy explains,
monster catalogues --he uses Isidore as his example--
reassure their readers.11 Roy follows Augustine in his argument that the depiction of monsters is an articulation of the fear of the loss of corporal integrity.
provide a normalizing context for aberrant human births, monsters demonstrate what can happen to the human body -what can come off, what can be unnaturally added on. with the same gesture the catalogue reassures:
articulation of the fear of disintegration allows that fear to be put to rest, because as the monstrosities define the
of "ethnocentric and rhetorical fear and distaste" in all three AngloSaxon versions which belies the "catalogue raisonée" form of the texts. In his book. The Monstrous Races in Medieval Art._and Thought (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981), Friedman argues, "The artists of the Cotton Vitellius and Tiberius manuscripts, influenced by the dynamism of the races, allow their monstrous men to fill or dominate their frames, either from top to bottom or side to side.... This uneasy relationship of creature to frame suggests that the monstrous men are leaving the borders confining them to the static page and beginning to occupy landscapes: they cannot be contained in isolation, as they were in the miniatures presenting the moralists' point of view" (153-4). 11Bruno Roy, "En Marge du Monde Connu: Les Races de Monstres," in Aspects de la Marginalité au Moven Age, ed. Guy-H. Allard et al (Montréal: L'Aurore, 1974), 71-80.
25 norm, they confirm it, and thus quiet the fear of its dissolution.12 Crucial to Roy's argument is the maintaining of a boundary between the monsters and their readers.
are located at the extreme margins of the known world as a literalization of their function:
monsters, in their "a-
normality" define, or mark off the boundaries of human norms.13
We can see this in the "Wonders,” which promises
disaster to anyone who makes contact with many of the monsters.
In the early description of the red hens, for
example, it promises that "if any man wishes to seize them or touches them then they at once burn up his whole body."14 This suggests clear recognition of the importance of maintaining boundaries between the monsters and their readers.
However, the fact that the illustrations in the
"Wonders," particularly in the Vitellius version, are
12,,Isidore a done identifié et catalogué tous les dangers qui menapaient l'intégrité du corps humain. Sa classification represent un effort de l'homme occidental ouest-européen pour se confirmer dans sa normalité, en la confrontant point par point avec la difformité des races imaginaire." 76. 13"...leur a-normalité définit la norm, la confirme, et par la met fin á la peur." 79. 14"gif hi hwylc man niman wile oþþe him o/ æthrineð þone forbæmað hy sona eal his/ lie...." Fol. 99, 11-3.
26 characterized by their aggressive and persistent movement outside their frames, and even, as in the ant-dog illustration, by invasion of the textual space, suggests profound disruption.
The "feeling of danger to the
onlooker" which Friedman posits is thus more complex than the fear of corporal disintegration assuaged, as Roy argues, by the catalogue:
the transgression of boundaries between
illustration and text, monster and viewer, in the catalogue suggests both fear for the body (it is vulnerable to disintegration; the monster can burn it up or tear it apart and eat it) and fear of the body (for the same reason, that it can be taken away or dislocated from human identity; it can become monstrous). The donestre episode, which occurs at fols. 103b-104, begins to explain this double fear:
the donestre episode
explicitly connects monsters with language.
"know human speech" and use it to destroy their human victims: hy cunnon mennisce ge reorde þonne hy fremdes cynnes mannan geseoð þonne nemnað hy hyne & his magas cuþra manna naman & mid leaslicum wordum hy hine beswicað & hine gefoð Sc æftefr þan hy hine fretað ealne buton þon heafd(e
27 & þonne sittað & wepað ofer þam heafde.15 Human speech in the mouths of the donestre is a lure to horrible corporal disintegration for their "foreign" victims.
Speech "seduces" the human victim to approach, and
make contact with the monster, contact which preceding episodes promise will result in violence.
the victim because it calls him into an identity.
fundamentally, this identity is as a human being:
dicimus omne quod humana lingua et effigia caret."
victim responds to the "name of familiar kinsmen" as he responds to his own "name," his own identity as it is maintained in language.
Answering to his name, however, is
a seduction to brutal disjuncture.
The human victim in the
donestre episode finds himself literally unable to sustain both "human language" and human "form."
He answers to his
name, his identification through language, only at the literal cost of his corporal integrity.
"...they know the speech of men. When foreign race they call him and his kinsmen by and with deceitful words they seduce him, and they eat him, all but the head, and then they head." 103b, 17-104, 3.
they see a man of a the name of familiar men seize him and afterwards sit and weep over that
28 The association of monsters with the problem of maintaining human identity as a relationship to both language and "form" or body is not peculiar to the "Wonders."
Isidore and Augustine establish a Medieval
theoretical context for this discussion. monsters with allegory.
In the section on portents in
Etymologies (Xl.iii) Isidore argues that monsters can be portents, signs not only of God's omniscience, but also of future events:
"... monsters and prodigies are called omens
and portents because they seem to foretell and to disclose, to show and to predict some future things."16 Although Isidore quite explicitly equates monsters with a certain kind of sign, he never provides a method for reading them as such.
As Rudolf Wittkower notices, "he never mentions under
the single items what the monstrosity is supposed to portend"
Isidore's failure to map out an
interpretive guide for the portents which he catalogues underlines the problem of locating meanings for these monster-signs as his chapter progresses.
He goes on to warn
16"Portenta autem et ostenda, monstra atque prodigia ideo nuncupantur, quod portendere atque ostendere, monstrare ac praedicare aliqua futura videntur." Xl.iii.2.
29 that although some monsters are divine signs, some are representations, or allegorical figures constructed by men: "Moreover, other things are also called fabulous portents of men, which do not exist, but, having been imagined, are understood according to the causes of things."17
sirens, for example, are merely figures for prostitutes constructed by the sailors who left them behind.
sailors, he claims, gave the sirens allegorical wings and claws because "love both flies and wounds."18 Although Isidore carefully explains that some monsters, like the sirens, are actually allegorical figures rather than divine signs, he never provides any method for distinguishing between the two.
He makes it clear only that in either
case, the monsters have meaning outside their described physical manifestations.
Isidore thus underscores the
"alienness" of the monsters as signs, whether as portents or as allegorical figures.
In either case, the monsters as
17"Dicuntur autem et alia hominum fahulosa portenta, guae non sunt, sed ficta in causis rerum interpretantur." XI.iii.28. 18"Secundum veritatem autem meretrices fuerunt, guae transeuntes guoniam deducebant ad egestatem, his fictae sunt inferre naufragia. Alas autem habuisse et ungulas, guia amor et volat et vulnerat." XI.iii.31.
30 signs are separated, or alienated from their meanings, without any interpretive guide or method for definitively joining the sign to its meaning. Isidore emphasizes the "alienness" of the monsters as signs because as such they fit into his understanding of certain kinds of language.
In his discussion of figures of
speech, he explains that allegory itself is "alieniloquium," language which says one thing and means another, speech."19 itself:
Allegory is language made alien, or monstrous to
monsters are thus llteralized representations of
their function as allegorical figures, or as signs.
omitting any guide for linking the monster to its meaning, while at the same time maintaining that the monster does have a meaning, located somewhere outside its body, Isidore intensifies the "alienness" of the monsters.
In doing so,
he also foregrounds the dislocation inherent in allegorical language, because the monsters become figures for their own status as "alienated language," as allegorical figures, or as signs.
19"Allegoria est alieniloquium. intellegitur...." I.xxxvii.22.
Aliud enim sonat, et aliud
31 In Augustinian terms, this alienation is characteristic of not only allegory, but also any act of representation. Augustine, in On Christian Doctrine, defines the sign as "a thing which causes us to think of something beyond the impression the thing itself makes on the senses."20
work by transferring thought from the thing to the meaning beyond it.
Augustine distinguishes natural signs, like
smoke or animal tracks, which signify without intention, from conventional signs, like words, which have no organic connection to their meanings and which are used "for \ \ . ■ bringing forth and transferring to another mind the action of the mind in the person who makes the sign"
language for Augustine involves the dislocation between the sign as thing and the sign as meaning which Isidore sees in allegory as "alienated speech."
Augustine does distinguish
between literal and figurative speech, but argues that the difference is in degree rather than kind.
require an additional level of transference of meaning: "Figurative signs occur when that thing which we designate by a literal sign is used to signify something else..."
Saint Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, trans. D. W. Robertson (New York: Macmillan, 1958), 34.
In the case of figurative signs, the "alienation" of
meaning and thing is more obvious, because it is intensified by the additional transfer of meaning. This more explicit "alienation" also makes clearer the dangers involved in using language.
Augustine sees the
failure to make the transfer of meaning in a figurative sign as a kind of death.
He explains the axiom, "the letter
killeth...," by arguing that when that which is said figuratively is taken as though it were literal, it is understood carnally. Nor can anything more appropriately be called the death of the soul than that condition in which the thing which distinguishes us from beasts, which is the understanding, is subjected to the flesh in pursuit of the letter. He who follows the letter takes figurative expressions as if they were literal and does not refer the things signified to anything else. (84).
Failure to make the transfer of meaning, failure to sustain the alienation of thing and meaning, is posed as a danger to human capacity.
Language users can lose their human
identities by slipping into "carnal" understanding:
identity as maintained through language use is perilous because of the possibility for slippage from the figurative
33 into the literal, or by extension, from the meaning to the thing, the body. Although Augustine does not explicitly connect monsters to the problem of maintaining human identity as a relationship between language and body, his treatment of monsters as signs of God's power over the body is telling. In his brief discussion in City of God. XXI. 8, Augustine claims that monsters as signs mean "that God is to do what he prophesied that he would do with the bodies of the dead, with no difficulty to hinder him, no law of nature to debar him from so doing."21
Other meanings for Augustine are
wrong or right only by chance.
Monsters as signs mean God's
power, and the death of the body as we know it. emphasis makes two points.
Monsters, which are recognizable
as such by the state of their bodies, through their very "bodiness" announce the death of the body as it is known on earth.
At the same time, in the context of his warning of
the dangers of "carnal" understanding, their "bodiness" also foregrounds the danger to human identity, as it is maintained through language, of the imminent failure to
21Saint Augustine, Concerning the City of God against the Pagans, trans. Henry Bettenson (New York: Penguin, 1984), 983.
34 sustain the difference, or "alienation" of meaning and thing:
the death of the body as we know it can also occur
with slippage of identity into the body, into the "carnal slavery" of linguistic failure. The "uneasiness" of the relation between monsters and their frames in the "Wonders" expresses this dual anxiety, as does the more explicit donestre episode.
The victim in
the donestre episode answers to his name, the demands of sustaining his identity in language.
Because this language
requires "alienation" within identity, because it allows for no organic unity of the sign as both thing and meaning, the human victim can only answer to his name by committing his body to a monster who tears it apart.
The anxiety expressed
here is recognition of the danger, in using language, of failing to sustain the "alienation" of meaning and thing, and thus slipping into the body in "carnal" understanding: that is, anxiety comes from recognition of the danger of the body.
But there is also recognition of the danger posed to
the body by a means of establishing human identity that demands the body's "alienation":
the "bodiness" of monsters
he represents himself, as a martyr.
The collapse of this
difference is represented in Victricius in the investment of meaning and full presence in the fragments of the martyr's body.
In the Christopher fragment, the martyr prays before1 8
18"Unde queri jam de exiguitate non possumus nam cum dixerimus ad instar generis nihil sacrosanctis perire corporibus, certe illud adsignavimus non posse minui quod divinum est quia totum in toto est et ubi est aliquid ibi totum est." 137.
he is killed not that his body be kept intact, but that the fragments of his body be meaningful: ...ic þin þeow nu on þysse tide þe bidde gearwa hyt me þte on swa hwylcre stowe swa mines lie __ haman ænig dæl sy ne sy þær ne wædl ne fyres broga. & gif þær neah syn untrume men & hig cumon to þinum þam halgan temple & hig þsr gebiddon to þe of ealre heortan & for þinum naman hi ciggen minne naman ge hæl þu þone drihten fran swa hwycere un trumnesse swa hie forhæfde...."19 Christopher prays for miraculous potency for the scattered pieces of his body, so that even proximity to these pieces will protect and cure other men.
Evidence of the success of
his prayer is in part provided by the miracle of Dagnus' cure from blindness.
The capacity of relics to cure, to
make whole, can be read as figuring the wholeness of the resurrected body of the saint.
Caroline Walker Bynum, in
her essay, "Material Continuity, Personal Survival and the Resurrection of the Body," discusses later Medieval treatments of martyrdoms in which the martyrs are described
"... I, your servant, at this time clearly pray it to you that in whatever place as any part of my body is, there will not be poverty or the terror of fire. And if there are unwell men near, and they come to your holy temple, and they there pray to you from their whole heart, and for the sake of your name they call my name, heal him, lord, from whatever illness hindered them." 96b, 9-18.
as "unscathed" or unaffected by terrible tortures.
their imperviousness is the certainty of the intact resurrected body.
Christopher's prayer for the potency of
his relics suggests a similar understanding of the whole-inthe-part, the link of the relic to the wholeness of the resurrected body. Bynum argues, Crystal or gold reliquaries that associate body bits with permanence, paintings in which body parts are assimilated to reliquaries or statues, stories in which torture does not divide and body cannot really be scattered because no fragment can ever be lost --such images hide the process of putrefaction, equate bones with body and part with whole, and treat body as the permanent locus of the person. (295). •Her point in this essay is that in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, "enthusastic recourse to" as well as "prurient fascination with" bodily partition, in a religion and culture which at the same time deny and oppose that partition, suggests "a deep conviction that the person is his or her body"
Bynum's argument is born out in2 0
20Caroline Walker Bynum, "Material Continuity, Personal Survival and the Resurrection of the Body: A Scholastic Discussion in its Medieval and Modern Contexts," Fragmentation and Redemption: Essays on Gender and the Human Body in Medieval Religion (New York: Zone, 1991), 239-97.
earlier texts, for example, in Ælfric's Edmund passion, in which Edmund's men, searching for his severed head, call out, "Hwær eart þu nu, gefera?" and are answered by the head, which calls out, "Her, her, her"
Here it is
clear that Edmund's severed head is Edmund, and thus can locate and speak for him.21 In the Christopher fragment, however, Christopher's prayer raises the issue of personal identity both with the "body as the permanent locus of the person," and without the body's presence:
in addition to the potency of his relics,
Christopher prays for the power of his name.
In doing so he
also stresses the "language-ness" of his name by forwarding the function of transfer inherent in language; petitioners call out his name not to call him, but for the sake of the name of God.
Language, in Augustine's model, works as
transfer from the sign as thing to the sign as meaning. This transfer is felt most basically as a movement away from
21The strength of this identification as the body is evident in the post-mortem healing of the martyr's body. In the case of Edmund, the firmness with which the martyr's wholeness is maintained after his death is presented in a later episode, in which the martyr's body is vigorously examined, with an abbot pulling on the head, and a priest pulling on the feet: the abbot and priest are drawn together by the elastic strength of the martyr's healed body. David Rollason, Saints and Relics in Anglo-Saxon England (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1989), 227.
"there is a miserable servitude of
the spirit in this habit of taking signs for things, so that one is not able to raise the eye of the mind above things that are corporal...."22
This conception of language is
fundamentally different from that presented by Victricius in De Laude Sanctorum, where the structure of language can be lodged in the body. Augustine,
Even on the most basic level, for
"a sign is a thing which causes us to think of
something beyond the impression the thing itself makes upon the senses"
(my emphasis) .
In order to maintain both
identity as the body and the power of his name, Christopher in his final prayer presents the image of the sick men near the relics but made whole by the power of his name ("& gif þær neah syn untrume men.../ ... & for þinum/ naman hi ciggen minne naman ge/ hæl þu þone...") .
Christopher is projecting
wholeness first by locating meaning and transformative potency in both his relics and his name, and then by maintaining both their proximity, and a space between them:
;2OCP. III. 5, 84.
23OCP. II.1, 34.
the unsound man has to come near the relics before calling out Christopher's name can make him whole. God's answer to Christopher's prayer, however, denies the plea for the power of his relics.
...cristoforus min þeow þin gebed ys gehyred þeah þin lichama ne sy on þære stowe swa hwyllce geleaffulle men swa þines naman on heora gebedum beoð gehælede fram hyr[a synnum & swa hwaes swa hie rihtlice biddaþ for þinum naman & for þinum geearningum hig hit onfoð.24 In God's response Christopher's name is endowed with divine power; devout men are healed because they call his name in prayer.
Christopher's body drops out of the equation.
Christopher's body --even his dead body-- "is not in that place."
It is not surprising that as soon as God's speech
is finished, Christopher is finally killed.
itself, however, continues rather than allows the collapse of Christopher's suspension by following God's prohibition
Christopher, my servant, your prayer is heard. Although your body is not in that place, whatever devout men as in their prayers [make use?] of your name will be healed from their sins, and whatever they rightly ask for the sake of your name and for the sake of your merit they will receive it." 96b, 20-97, 6. Other versions of the Christopher story current for the Anglo Saxons contain variations of the prayer and answer. The Vitellius version is the only one I have seen which so markedly absents the body from God's answer. The OE Martyrolocy has, "swa hit bið swa þu biddest." The Acta Sanctorum has, "ubi est corpus tuum, & ubi non.est....” 11.15.
and Christopher's death with the healing miracle of Dagnus restored vision. Dagnus goes "to that place where the holy body was."25 There, he calls first to Christopher to show him the. "truthfulness" of his God, then, mixing Christopher's blood with some of the earth on which he was martyred, Dagnus prays, "on naman/ cristiforus godes ic þis dem," and his eyes are healed.25
Dagnus challenges Christopher to show
him the "truthfulness"
("soðfastnesse") of his God, how well
God's words can be aligned with events in the world.
is, in effect, replaying the sort of quaestio he staged in the martyrdom, attempting to enforce an alignment of word and event.
The fact that this quaestio is gruesomely after
the fact doesn't seem to make a difference to Dagnus; he
25"to Jpære stowe þær se halga lichama wss."
2S”Se cyninge cigde micelre stemne & cwæð cristoforus ætyw me nu þines godes soð fastnesse & ic gelyfe on hyne & he genam dæl þære eorðan þaer þæs cristes martyr was on þrowingende & medmicel þæs blodes & mengde to somne & sette on his eagan & he cwaeð on naman cristoforus godes ic þis dem & hraöe on öære yl can tide his eagan wæron ontynde & gesihþe he onfeng...." 97, 19-97b, 6. Rypins glosses the problematic "dem," based on the occurrence of "credo" in the Latin version, as a first person singular form of "deman." Sisam suggests that "dem is best taken here as a miscopying of do, ’apply,' which is often written with an accent. Dom (1 pres, sg.) is possible if the original was Mercian." 70.
addresses "that place where the holy body was" directly, as "Christopher."
Dagnus is healed immediately; "his eyes were
opened, and he received sight."
The fragment locates the
miraculous potency in neither the relics nor the name.
states flatly that after Dagnus put the blood.mixture on his eyes and called out, he was healed.
This reticence, in the
face of the immediately preceding prohibition from God, suggests that the miracle of Dagnus's healing is also an assertion of "truthfulness" as a kind of speaking which allows for suspension of the sort Christopher maintains through his martyrdom. This miracle is enough to convert Dagnus, so that he, like Christopher, who manages to convert "eight and four thousand men and a hundred and fifteen, "27 now assumes the task of converting his kingdom.
In this sense, as well as
in the literal sense of standing in "that place where the holy body was," Dagnus is now acting as a version of Christopher.
He has participated in both the torture and
the wholeness which Christopher generates.
He is obviously
the torturer, but he also receives his own torments; not
27,,eaht & feower/ þusenda manna & hundteontig & fiftyne.__ " 12-3.
only does he "endure" the torment of Christopher's denial of bodily pain, but, literally, the arrows which blind him are those he has aimed at Christopher. in Christopher's stead.
Dagnus is now standing
The taunt which Christopher throws
at Dagnus early in the fragment, "þas tintrego/ þe ðu on me bringan hehst to þinre gecyndnesse/ & to þinre forwyrde becumað," which in that context seems vindictive and unsaintly, begins to make sense.28
Dagnus receives the
injuries he has aimed at Christopher; with these injuries, however, he also receives a share of the compensation granted to the martyr, both of which he, in turn, passes on to his people through his conversion at sword point. Dagnus, standing in the martyr Christopher's stead, is now in the position to understand the martyr's perspective and the "truthfulness" of his God.
That this understanding
is sealed by the miracle of Dagnus's restored eyesight suggests not only the obvious revision of his own view of
28"These torments which you order to be brought upon me will come to your nation and to your destruction." 94b, 9-11. Sisam sees a scribal error here. He argues, "To take þinre gecyndnesse as a genitive, 'of thy race,' is awkward syntactically, and the sense is unsuitable; for a saint would not threaten such vicarious punishment. Read gescyndnesse *to thy confusion,' with the fair certainty that (in tua) confusione was in the Latin text used." 69.
141 the world and God, but also the more specific movement of his perspective to that of the martyr.
As Alison Goddard
Elliott points out, the Greek "martyrein" has as its primary meaning "to witness": J
The martyr is one who witnesses (Gk. MARTYREIN 'to witness'), but Christian witnessing is active not passive. The Christian confession of faith is an act which the speaker must be willing to back up with deeds."29 As Christopher has become a "witness" to his true God, Dagnus, with his vision restored, can now "witness" the truthfulness of Christopher's speech.
fragment makes it clear that the martyr's true speech is not merely coincidental with his persecution.
Rather, it is
possible because of the transformation of his body into relics.
Although the martyr may speak the truth about God
before his persecution, it is the revision of his relationship to his own body during the martyrdom that makes his speech true, and a model for making others whole. Augustine, in City of God, argues that, In fact, it was for speaking the truth that they suffered; arid because of this they have the power to perform miracles. And among all the truths 29Alison Goddard Elliott, "The Power of Discourse: Martyr's Passion and Old French Epic," Medievalia et Humanistica n.s. 11 (1982): 46.
142 they speak this is the most important: that Christ rose from the dead and first displayed the immortality of the resurrection in his own body, and promised that it would come to us at the beginning of the new age or (which is the same) at the end of this world.30 The most important truth spoken by the martyrs, for Augustine, is the truth of the resurrection, which they speak through their bodies in imitation of Christ.
for the martyr to speak this truth, he has to be able to speak, to transfer meaning, and simultaneously to lodge meaning in his body, to be in his body.
This is possible
for the martyr because through his martyrdom he actualizes the dissociation from his own body, inherent in his identification with his name, in his body's transformation through torture into relics; at the same time, he sees himself in his body as meaningful by virtue of the same disintegration, because he is a martyr, and that suffering makes him himself. Hippolyte Delehaye makes this process clearer when he explains the early practice of taking or bestowing the name of a saint or martyr as a gesture of love and admiration for
143 the martyr, but also as the desire to have or ensure the relationship to God that the martyr did.31
discusses in particular the occurrence of the nonspecifiying name, "Martyrius," or "Martyria" in the fourth century.
He finds both historical and literary mention of
the name throughout the Roman world, and ends, in the logical development, with the note that there are also martyrs named Martyrius/Martyria.32
from the desire to stand in the martyr's relationship to God, to taking the name of the martyr, to taking the name Martyr, to becoming a martyr named Martyr, maps the
31"Le plus ancien texte, celui de Denys d'Alexandrie (265), qui constate que les noms de Paul et de Pierre étaient fréquents chez les fideles de son époque, énonce cette supposition qu'anciennement, il dut en étre de mime du nom de Jean, que l'on prenait sans doute par amour pour l'apotre, par admiration, par une sorte d'emulation et par le désir d'etre airne du Seigneur comme Jean l'avait été." Hippolyte Delehaye, Les Origines du Culte Des Martyrs. 2nd ed. (Bruxelles: Société des Bollandistes, 1933), 137. 32"Un coup d'oeil dans les recueils d'inscriptions le fait découvrir sur tous les points du monde romain: á Rome, á Milan, en Dalmatie, a Constantinople, en Sicile, en Gaule, en Asie Mineure. Les textes littéraires de tout genre en mentionnent beaucoup d'autres et il suffit de rappeler ici Martyrius l'évique Macédonien, Martyrius l'évéque de Marcianopolis et plusiers homonymes cités par Sozomene, un pritre correspondant de Théodoret, Martyrius éveque d'Acherontia, Martyrius évique d'Antioche et Martyrius évique de Jérusalem. Il y a un Martyrius parmi les contextores du code Théodosien; il y a mime des martyrs de ce nom: le compagnon de S. Marcianus, a Constantinople et celui de Sisinnius et d'Alexandre, mis a mort en Anaunie á la fin du IVe siécle. La liste des Maryrius serait fort considerable si nous voulions continuer 1'enumeration." 139-40.
development of the "true" relationship, possible for the martyr, not only to God, but also to himself; the martyr's name means the disintegration of his body, thus in the actualization of his martyrdom, the martyr's body becomes true to himself as he represents himself.
within his identity is literalized in his body's mutilation. Because he is named as a martyr, however, this mutilation solidifies rather than dislocates the martyr's identity as both name and body.
In this sense, through his martyrdom,
with his body and name true to each other, the martyr becomes peculiarly whole, and his speech becomes "truthful." Dagnus's restored vision, his ability, as he stands in "the place where the holy body was" to see, or to witness the possibility for true speech, or the wholeness of * identity accessible to the martyr, identifies him with the martyr.
At the same time, it figures the possibility for
access to true speech, not only for Dagnus, but also for the other witnesses to the martyrdom, for the spectators, or the readers of the text.
After Dagnus's conversion speech, the
fragment contains only the formulaic locating of God with
145 Christ and the Holy Ghost before it closes with the record of Christopher's last words: þyses eac bæd se halga cristoforus of þære nihstan tide ær he his gast on sende & cwaeð drihten min god syle gode mede þam þe mine þrowunga awrite & þa ecean edlean þam þe hie mid tear[um ræde.33 Christopher's last words, and the last words of the fragment are the prayer for a "good reward" for the writer of the passion, and "the eternal reward" for the reader who reads "with tears."
This prayer privileges, with the difference
between a "good" and an "eternal" reward, reading with tears over writing.
The reader with tears is a spectator to the
martyrdom; because his response, of tenderness, or pity, marks his body with his identification with the martyr, however, he is not so easily reassured of his detachment from the spectacle.
The fragment's promise of the "eternal
33"This also the holy Christopher prayed from the last time before he sent his spirit forth, and said, ’Lord, my God, give a good reward to him who writes my suffering, and the eternal reward to him who with tears reads it.'" 98, 12-7. The Vitellius version seems to have re arranged the order of phrases in this passage. The Acta version, which can reasonably be assumed to come from an identical or very similar source, ends with the expected "qui regnas cum Patre, & Spiritu sancto, in secula seculorum. Amen." The Vitellius, even at the risk of some sense, (the "qui regnas" passage reads in the Vitellius, ”& þær ys bebletsod crist godes sun[u/ lyfigendes se rixað mid fæder & mid suna/ a mid þam halgan gaste a butan ende")appears to have switched the order of phrases so that the last words of the prayer are also the last words of the fragment.
146 reward" is obviously encouragement to this kind of reading, but it is also evidence of its costs:
the martyr only
attains his eternal reward by undergoing martyrdom.
moved by reading the passion entails identifying with the martyr as he undergoes his torments; being moved to tears grounds that identification in the reader's own body, so that the reader, like Dagnus, standing in the stead of the martyr, can participate at least momentarily in the wholeness of the martyr's understanding of himself. The response of tears to the Christopher fragment, however, also dissociates the reader from the martyr. Christopher undergoes terrible tortures, but throughout asserts his experience of wholeness, and of pleasure.
response of tenderness or pity in this case thus suggests instead dissociation, projection of a different relationship between the body and the represented self onto the martyr presented in the text, which is in fact the only response accessible to the reader who is not himself a martyr. the Christopher fragment arranges this passage, and the words "mid tear[um/ ræde" to be the last words of the martyr, and the last words of the text ensures self
consciousness for the reader.
The reader with tears
recognizes both his identification with the martyr through his reading, and his essential difference from him, which the affect of his reading makes evident.
this difference entails consciousness of the difference internal to the reader's own understanding of himself.
the same time, however, in the lodging of meaning, the promise of eternal reward, in the reader's affect, in his body's tears, the Christopher fragment still pulls the. reader into participation in the martyr's pleasure, in the true, if fleeting, self-conscious, and disallowed, alignment of himself as he represents himself, as he reads himself, and himself as he is in his body.
CHAPTER FIVE "As I Once Did With Grendel"
"We get in fact a poem from a pregnant moment of poise, looking back into the pit, by a man learned in old tales who was struggling, as it were, to get a general view of them all, perceiving their common tragedy of inevitable ruin, and yet feeling this more poetically because he was himself removed from the direct pressure of its despair."1
"Nostalgia, like any form of narrative, is always ideological: the past it seeks has never existed except as narrative, and hence, always absent, that past continually threatens to reproduce itself as a felt lack. Hostile to history and its invisible origins, and yet longing for an impossibly pure context of lived experience at the place of origin, nostalgia wears a distinctly utopian face, a face that turns toward a future-past, a past which has only ideological reality. This point of desire which the nostalgic seeks is in fact the absence that is the very generating mechanism of desire."2
\j. R. R. Tolkien, "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics," in Lewis E. Nicholson, ed., An Anthology of Beowulf Criticism (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 19S3), 73. 2Susan Stewart, On Longing;__Narratives of the Miniature, the Ginantic. the Souvenir, the Collection (Durham: Duke University Press, 1993),23.
149 T. A. Shippey explains the embarrassment at the root of the kind of "critical uneasiness" which, for example, places Beowulf atop a list of Fifty Works of Literature We Can Do Without. with this metaphor: Again and again Beowulf produces in readers (especially highly trained readers) that feeling which simple people experience the first time they see Frenchmen kissing each other formally and in public --surprise, horror, a dumb sense that social signals no longer mean what they should.3 His point is that because "social signals are arbitrary, conventional, and to be understood only within the system of which they are part," reading Beowulf requires contextualization, reading in the context of the reconstructed systems of the world of the poem.
metaphor, however, suggests dissonance more complex than cultural difference.
The sight of men kissing formally in
public evokes not only surprise but also horror in the metaphor's "simple people" not because it is alien, or because the gesture in another context would simply mean something else, but because the gesture of the kiss is recognized as present --though more or less violently
3T. A. Shippey, Beowulf (London:
Edward Arnold, 1978), 8.
150 denied, deflected, mutated-- in the gesture, the handshake or slap on the back, which is expected in its place. Actually quieting this sort of dissonance cannot be a matter of information, or contextualization, because the horror lies not in the question of what the gesture of the kiss might mean to French men, but in the recognition for the "simple people" of what constitutes the expected gesture. Shippey's metaphor is particularly resonant because from the beginning of most modern readings of the poem, the issue of the construction of horror is positioned at the center of the poem.
Modern readings of the poem begin with
Tolkien's essay, "The Monsters and the Critics," in which Tolkien counters his own era's version of "critical unease" with his claim that the monsters in the poem are "not an inexplicable blunder of taste; they are essential, fundamentally allied to the underlying ideas of the poem, which give it its lofty tone and high seriousness"
Tolkien places the monsters at the center of the poem not because he reads Beowulf as just a poem about monsters, but because he reads the struggle against the monsters as defining the hopeless heroism of the poem.
151 provocativeness of his claim is evident:
by making the
monsters "essential" to this poem about the "tragedy" of being human,4 Tolkien argues that the poem, instead of working only to suppress these forces, makes central exactly the aspects of life which humans struggle against in order to remain human.
The horror in Shippey's metaphor comes
from the recognition of the desire which is suppressed, deflected, or denied by the homosocial bond.
implicit in Tolkien's argument is similar in kind; it entails recognition of the monsters not as alien, but as inseparable within the poem from the human. As I have argued in earlier chapters, the Beowulf manuscript is a book about monsters because it is a book about how it is possible to understand what it means to be human.
The most fundamental means of establishing human
identity is through language: speech.
to be human is to bear
Because language works by difference, by
"alienation" of the sign as thing and the sign as meaning, but also of sign from sign, this identification entails alienation within human identity.
On one level, this is the
4,1 [Beowulf] is a man, and that for him and many is sufficient tragedy." 68.
152 alienation of the self understood as the body and the self represented in language.
On another, it is the alienation
of versions of the self, for example, in the "Wonders of the East," the self as "English" from the self as "literate and Christian," or in Judith, the self as "female" from the self as "male."
In Beowulf this alienation is literalized first
in the identification of Beowulf with the monster, and the establishment of the severed arm as a "sign" of Beowulf's triumph over the monster.
Given this literal construction
of language as dislocation from a body equally the hero's own but made monstrous to him, the work of the poem becomes the negotiation of a way to use this language, a way to recognize the alienation internal to human identity not as horror but as potential.
* * *
The monsters in Beowulf first surface in connection to the modes of speech through which men define themselves, to the scop song and the mode of boasting.
Grendel appears in
the poem and the world of Heorot when the scop sings his
153 song of creation.
As Tolkien observes, "Grendel is maddened
by the sound of harps" frumsceaft fira
The scop is "se þe cuþe/
feorran reccan," "he who knew how to relate
from far back the origin of men."56 His song of creation is explicitly about the process of substantiation, the divine construction of the tangible world.
Grendel's terror is
thus paired with the presentation of a narrative of human origin.
Hrothgar's later description of Grendel's terror,
however, does not locate its cause in the actual attack, or in the scop song which the text suggests is its provocation. When Hrothgar tells Beowulf about the horror Grendel has worked in the hall, he elides the attack. say the words:
He can't seem to
as he puts it,
Sorh is me to secganne on sefan minum gumena ængum, hwæt me Grendel hafað hynðo on Heorote mid his heteþancum, f æ m i ð a gefremed... ,e Instead, he describes first his men boasting, and then the devastation in the morning: Ful oft gebeotedon
s90-l. All quotations from the poem are from Fr. Klaeber, ed., Beowulf and the Fight at Finnsburo. 3rd ed. (Lexington: D. C. Heath and Company, 1950). Translations are my own. 6,’It is a sorrow for me in my heart to say to any men what Grendel has brought about for me of harm in Heorot, of sudden terror." 473-6.
ofer ealowæge oretmecgas, þæt hie in beorsele bidan woldon Grendles guþe mid gryrum ecga. Ðonne wæs þeos medoheal on morgentid, drihtsele dreorfah, þonne dæg lixte, eal bencþelu blode bestymed, heall heorudreore....7 Hrothgar's elision is not only a contrasting of the boasts and the ensuing reality.
It also locates Grendel's terror
in the warriors' boasting speeches:
the warriors boast, and
in the morning the hall is wet with blood.
representation of horror as embedded in the modes of boasting and the scop song develops the argument I have raised in earlier chapters that monstrous figures are literalizations of their own function as "alienated speech," language which works by its assertion of difference and thus requires of the human "reordberend" constant and identitythreatening negotiation between the self understood as the body and the self represented in language. monstrosity is manifest in several ways:
Grendel's he has a big body,-
he is a voracious cannibal, and he never speaks.
7"Very often having drunk beer, warriors boasted over ale-cups that they wished to await Grendel's warfare in the beer-hall with the terrors of edges. Then in the morning was this mead hall, the noble hall, stained with blood, when day shone, all the bench-planks wet with blood, the hall with battle-blood...." 480-7.
155 he represents is the terror of the speechless body, the terror of losing oneself to that body, of falling into it, being eaten by it.
At the same time, Grendel's terror is
also the terror of losing that body, of the body being eaten by something alien to it.
This terror is embedded in both
the scop song and boasting because both modes of speech make a claim to the alignment of word and deed, or body, an alignment the impossibility of which makes the potential for slippage from human identity monstrously apparent.8 The poem flags the problem of boasting's claim to the alignment of word and deed as soon as Beowulf sets foot in the land of the Danes.
The coast guard warns Beowulf, as
the Geats' most prominent boaster, "Æghwæþres sceal/ scearp scyldwiga gescad witan,/ worda on worca, se þe wel þenceð."9 As Shippey points out, the literal translation of this maxim, on the level of the plot, doesn't make much sense. As he says,
"Any fool can tell the difference between words
8While there is much to be said about the scop song and its relationship to the written text which both contains it and laments its loss, I will focus here on the poem's similar treatment of the related mode of boasting, in which Beowulf locates his lost and youthful potency, and Hrothgar locates Grendel's terror. 9"The sharp shield-warrior, who thinks well, must understand the difference of each of words and deeds." 287-9.
156 and deeds,"
(12-3) and the maxim should probably read, on
this level, something like, "The sharp shield-warrior must be able to judge everything, words as well as deeds" (14). The maxim does makes sense, however, literally, in the context of the poem's concern with human identity as the negotiation between the self as the body and the self represented in language.
Understanding the difference
between words and deeds means understanding the impossibility of the claim of boasting to their alignment. Beowulf himself, however, does not seem to respond to the coast guard's warning, and continues on his way.
an extended boasting session in Hrothgar's court, Beowulf fights Grendel:
he liberalizes his boasting speech by
fighting with grips, by physically holding on to the monster, in the same way that he is attempting to hold his body to his words.
The problem which he thus faces is that
to uphold his boast, to protect Heorot, he also has to fail in his grip.
To purge Heorot, he has to rid it of Grendel
To be human, he has to both speak, and be in
he has to hold together the self he represents
in language, and the self he inhabits as his body.
157 speak, even in the mode of boasting, he has to maintain the difference between the sign as thing and the sign as meaning, and between his body and the self he represents in language.
That Grendel's body is also Beowulf's own becomes
explicit during the fight, when, as Katherine O'Brian O'Keeffe points out, the bodies of the two "æglæcan" are literally joined, until "fingras burston,-/ eoten was utweard, eorl furþor stop"
O'Keeffe asks, "Whose
fingers?" and suggests that "this ambiguity is intentional, unresolvable, and designed to prepare us for the merging of the hero and the hostile one."10 Norma Kroll adds that while these fingers "which burst and crack in the struggle become anatomical emblems of personal and social disjunction," still, "interdigitation" can "represent affiliation."11
Beowulf is trapped by the demands of his
boast, by the relationship which that mode of speech forces him to take not with an external opponent, but with himself.
10Katherine O'Brian O'Keeffe, "Beowulf. Lines 702b-836: Transformations and the Limits of the Human," Texas Studies in Language and Literature 23.4 (1981) : 489. “Norma Kroll, "Beowulf: Modern Philology 84.2 (1986):
The Kero as Keeper of Human Polity," 126.
O'Keeffe's argument is that the poem's exploration of the limits of the human draws both the hero and the monster to a boundary, where the distinction between them blurs. O'Keeffe defines the human on the level of the social rather than the personal: (491).
"to be human is to live in community"
Her argument, however, speaks as well to the problem
which Beowulf's mode of speech presents to him.
concludes that the geographic distancing of Grendel from human society is an effort to reassure, because "Grendel is at his most terrifying not in the marches but in the place of men.
When he opens the door of the hall, our horror is a
horror of recognition"
Although for O'Keeffe,
Grendel is recognizable as a "grotesque parody," her own account suggests that, at least in the moment of confrontation, Grendel is literally inseparable from Beowulf; that is, Grendel is Beowulf, and thus Beowulf fights paradoxically both to defeat and to hold on to him, to preserve him. Norma Kroll makes this claim clearer in her discussion of the hero and monsters as "identical and opposite enough
159 to be doubles."12 are complicit:
As "second selves," Beowulf and Grendel
despite their opposition, they participate
in each other's actions.
Kroll goes as far as to argue that
Beowulf's "curious inertia" while Grendel eats Hondscio is acquiescence:
"the hero, although clearly watchful and
therefore fully conscious of what happens, virtually sacrifices his companion, a brother in arms, to his second self"
Although Kroll is arguing for the doubling of
hero and monster, her discussion here of "second selves" also suggests the possibility of the negotiation of an understanding not of duplicated selves, but of a single identity predicated on splitting, or alienation from itself. The negotiation of this relationship erupts into a crisis for Beowulf because of the demands of the mode of speech through which he defines himself as a hero.
Beowulf finds himself compelled by his boast to attempt to align his words and deeds identically, he confronts the
12Kroll's larger argument, however, is that "the hero's and the monsters' prodigious battles have social and political rather than personal and psychological consequences." 117. I am suggesting in this chapter as I have in earlier chapters, especially Chapter One, that the personal and psychological consequences of the confrontations with the monsters are versions of, rather than unrelated to, social and political consequences internal as well as external to the world of the text.
160 monster Grendel; that is, he faces both his own body, which he alienates from himself, and the horror of losing that body, which is equally himself, through that alienation. Beowulf, heroically, tries to hold on to Grendel but cannot. He tells Hrothgar, Ic hine hraedlice heardan clammum on wælbedde wriþan þohte, þæt he for mundgrippe minum scolde licgean lifbysig, butan his lie swice; ic hine ne mihte, þa Metod nolde, ganges getwæman, no ic him þæs georne ætfealh, feorhgeniðlan; wæs to foremihtig feond on feþe. Hwæþere he his folme forlet to lifwraþe last weardian, earm ond eaxle....13 Beowulf cannot purge Heorot in the same way that he cannot hold his body to his words as his boasting speech requires. He insists that he tried, "except his body escaped." Beowulf means Grendel's body here, but he is also talking about his own.
Beowulf hasn't exactly failed, however.
he says, Grendel has left behind a literal trace of himself which acts "to lifwraþe," "as a life-protection."
13"I intended to twist him quickly with hard grips on a bed of death, so that he because of my handgrip had to lie down, struggling for life, except his body escaped; 1 could not, when the creator did not wish, separate him from 'iis going, by no means did I hold to him, to the life-enemy; he was too strong in his going. Nevertheless, he left his arm behind, as a life-protection, his arm and shoulder." 953-72.
161 is a life-saver, temporarily, for both Grendel and Beowulf. Although Grendel leaves Heorot with a wound where his arm used to be, he leaves Heorot alive because his arm has come off.
The arm is a "life-protection" for Beowulf because it
allows him to uphold, for the moment, the premise of his boasting speech, but it also allows him to escape, for the moment, from its impossibly contradictory demands. As a "clear sign," a "tacen sweotul" graphically metonymic. monstrous body.
(834) the arm is
It is a literal dislocation from the
Gillian Overing, in Language. Sign, and
Gender in Beowulf, makes the argument that Beowulf's use of metonymic rather than metaphoric language affirms the ambiguity and play of language and counters the binarism of the masculine economy of violence.14
violent establishment of the literally metonymic sign of Grendel's arm, however, not only positions the metonymic within the violent economy and the binarism of the mode of boasting; it also counters Overing's assertion that the aspect of self, or presence as determiner of meaning in any degree, is absent, simply not required, in a purely metonymic structure. As an instance of the Saussurean system of internally “ Gillian Overing, Language. Sion. and Gender in Beowulf (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1990).
162 referential differences, or of Derrida's field of infinite substitutions the poem requires that the subject be a function of language, and not the other way around. The nature and function of the self are identified and determined by the nature and function of the system, whether this be language in general or its specific instantiation in a poem. ... [An] Old English poem encourages, even demands that the reader be 'in language'; the metonymic impact of the poem originates in the thrilling and freeing experience of being 'spoken.' (13-4). While the metonymic sign of Grendel's arm is raised as a triumph in the poem, as a remedy to the terror in Heorot, it remains a literal dislocation:
the same physicality which
makes the arm as sign literally metonymic also insists on its presence, its existence --and Beowulf's-- as not language but body.
The arm as sign is also the remainder of
a self identified as presence, or as exactly what lacks language.
Especially in the context of Overing's invocation
of "the Saussurean system of internally referential differences," the sign of the arm suggests not a celebration of absorption by language, but rejection of the alienation of word and body demanded by language.
"thrilling and freeing experience of being 'spoken,'" Beowulf's establishment of the sign of Grendel's arm is already marked by desire for a relationship to language
163 which would allow for the identification of the self otherwise than through its dislocation. The contingency of Beowulf's solution, however, is evident.
As a "clear sign," the arm is evidence of the
separation, or difference from the monstrous body. is a metonymic sign, in the most literal way.
substitution for the potency of the whole body ("þær was eal geador/ Grendles grape"
[835-6]) is proof of Beowulf's
successful escape from the impossible task of both holding on to and driving out the monster, or holding the body to his words.
At the same time, however, the clearly metonymic
sign is also evidence of Beowulf's failure.
possession of it, but it is still Grendel's grip (836) .
is the monstrous body's literal remainder, a trace, and, like spoor, or the footprints which people come from near and far to look at, it is a "leaving," which will track back to the monster whose demise it is celebrating.
of Grendel's mother is already implicit. Grendel's mother is not just another monster; she is the monster's mother.
As his mother, she is literally of
his body, as he is of hers.
She is called into the poem,
however, by his dismemberment and death.
Coming as she does
to avenge her son's death, her monstrous appearance in the poem is a reformulation not of his whole body, but of his trace, his "last," or the sign which Beowulf has made out of him.
As a reformulation of the "clear sign" of Grendel,
Grendel's mother appears as a representation, not just as a monstrous and speechless body, but as "idese onlicnæs," "the likeness of a woman" (1351).
In his fight with Grendel's
mother, Beowulf is struggling with the result of his fight with Grendel.
Accordingly, he finds his way to the mere by
following the bloody and obvious tracks:
æfter waldswabum wide gesyne,/ gang ofer g r u n d a s . . - - h e gets to the mere by reading his own sign.15 Grendel's arm calls forth Grendel's mother because the "clear sign" of the arm clearly locates the body, at the same time that it makes that body alien to it, as both its issue (the monster which it summons) and its antecedent (the
“ "The tracks were seen far along the forest-paths, the track over the plains.__ " 1402-4. That Beowulf is reading, traveling a conceptual rather than literal distance, is suggested by Hrothgar's explanation that the mere is not far from Heorot, in miles: ”Nis þæt feor heonon/ milgemearces, þæt se mere standeð..." ["It is not far from here in miles that the mere stands..."]. 13S1-2. The distance from Heorot to the mere is a matter less of physical miles than of conceptual distance.
165 monster's mother).
In doing so the arm as sign also
literalizes the workings of the mode of boasting on another level.
Boasting requires the identification of the present
self as a uniform continuity of narratives of past heroism with a promised future.
The alternative to fulfilling the
boast, matching word and deed on one level, aligning the past stories of heroism with the promised future on another, is death.
In order to be Beowulf, Beowulf has to be both
the self understood as the body and the self represented in language, and both "that Beowulf who competed with Breca and won," and "that Beowulf who will fight with Grendel and win."
The problem for Beowulf with this identification is
that he must lay claim to a past which he will prove by his future performance, and which he will use to justify the promise of his future performance. not simply his as he lived it.
This past, however, is
The past which he requires
in order to justify his promised future is a narrative, and thus is not stable, concrete, indisputable, or inalienable. Beowulf is confronted by the alienability of his past in his flyting match with Unferth.ie
lsIn his articles, "Flyting and Fighting: Pathways in the Realization of the Epic Contest," Neophiloloerus 70:2 (1986): 292-305, and "The Flyting Speech in Traditional Heroic Narrative, " Neophiloloerus
166 Eart þu se Beowulf, se þe wið Brecan wunne, on sidne sæ ymb sund flite, ðær git for wlence wada cunnedon ond for dolgilpe on deop wæter aldrum neþdon?* 17 He concludes his challenge, Donne wene ic to þe wyrsan geþingea, ðeah þu heaðoræsa gehwær dohte, gimre guðe, gif þu Grendles dearst nihtlongne fyrst nean bidan.18 Beowulf can and does contradict Unferth, with his own accounts of both the swimming match with Breca and his promised outcome for the fight with Grendel.
Nothing in his
account, however, makes that account more recognizable as fact, as Beowulf's actual lived experience, for all that he might "consider it truth."19
Beowulf recognizes his
71:2 (1987) : 285-95, Ward Parks examines flyting in Beowulf, and the "Battle of Maldon," as well as several classical texts. Parks' interest is in structural or "microstructural" description ("Flyting Speech," 285), but he also discusses flyting as a means of establishing identity "agonistically yet within a contractual framework" ("Flyting Speech," 292) . 17"Are you that Beowulf who contended with Breca, competed in swimming on the broad sea, where you two because of pride made a trial of the water, and because of foolish boasting risked your lives in deep water?" 506-10. 18"Then I expect from you worse things, although you were strong on every occasion in storms of battle, in grim battle, if you dare to wait for Grendel nearby for a nightlong space of time." 525-8.
19"Soð ic talige/ þæt ic merestrengo ðonne ænig oþer man." 533-4.
maran ahte,/ earfeþo on
alienation from his own identifying narrative:
recognition becomes clear when Beowulf both denies that he is boasting, and strikes the otherwise inexplicably desperate blow against Unferth with his charge of fratricide.
Beowulf concludes his version of the match
against Breca, Breca næfre git æt heaðolace, ne gehwæþer incer, swa deorlice dæd gefremede fagum sweordum --no ic þæs [fela] gylpe--, þeah ðu þinum broðrum to banan wurde, heafodmægum; þss þu in helle scealt werhðo dreogan, þeah þin wit duge.20 In order to carry his boast, Beowulf asserts that he is not really boasting. simply true.
In effect, he claims that his narrative is
Beowulf attempts to anchor his narrative in
experience which is widely recognizable, but which he can also claim as indisputably his own.
The anxiety attendant
upon this attempt, however, is manifest in Beowulf's immediate turn after making this claim to his charge of fratricide, and his manipulation of a narrative of Unferth's
20”Breca never yet, nor either of you, accomplished such bold deeds at battle with decorated swords --by no means therefore do I boast much— although you became a murderer to your brothers, to near kinsmen; for that you must endure punishment in hell, although your wit is strong." 583-8.
Beowulf recognizes that he cannot simply counter
Unferth's charge with the identifying story of his own "true" past, because the mere fact of Unferth's accusation presents the inevitable alienability of that past, and thus the impossible instability of the identity he constructs through the mode of boasting. Beowulf's establishment of the arm as sign literalizes the dislocations inherent for Beowulf in his identification through boasting.
The literalness of the arm as sign poses
a temporary solution to the problems of identification which it also makes explicit.
This literalness articulates the
desire for revision, not only of the alienated relationship of the self represented in language and the self understood as the body, but also that of the alienability of the self constructed as the continuity of its past and promised future.
Beowulf himself proposes this desired revision when
he revises his story on his return to Higelac's court.
* * *
169 In his re-telling, Beowulf introduces two significant details into the story of the fight with Grendel:
of the warrior, Hondscio, and the description of Grendel's fabulous glove.
Beowulf tells Higelac,
þær wæs Hondscio hild onsaege, feorhbealu fægum; he fyrmest læg, gyrded cempa; him Grendel wearð mærum maguþegne to muðbonan leofes mannes lie eall forswealg. .... Glof hangode sid ond syllic, searobendum fæst,sio wæs orðoncum eall gegyrwed deofles cræftum ond dracan fellum. He mec þær on innan unsynningne, dior dædfruma gedon wolde manigra sumne,- hyt ne mihte swa, syððan ic on yrre uppriht astod. To lang is to reccenne, hu ic ðam leodsceaðan yfla gehwylces ondlean forgeald....21 In his book, Literacy and Power in Anglo-Saxon England. Seth Lerer argues that, "in his naming of the first Geat killed, Hondscio, and his description of Grendel's glove, Beowulf offers a revision of the tale and a potential recasting of
21"There was the battle fatal to the doomed Hondscio, a deadly evil; he, girded warrior, lay dead first; to him, to the famous young retainer, Grendel became a slayer with the mouth, swallowed up entirely the body of the dear man. ... A glove hung roomy and strange, fast with cunning bands; it was all adorned with skills, crafts of the devil and the skins of a dragon. He, the fierce doer of (evil) deeds wished to put me, guiltless, inside there, one of many, but could not do it thus, after I in anger stood upright. It is too long in the telling, how I paid that enemy of the people the requital of each evil." 2076- 94.
170 its central themes."22
Lerer takes the name "Hondscio" as a
pun, and, with the detailing of the glove, evidence of Beowulf's transformation of the episode into a joke, a reassuring social performance.
In his more recent article,
"Grendel's Glove," Lerer reconsiders and develops this argument, and focuses on the glove as a key image in the poem's representation of "the act of imaginative representation itself."23
Lerer reads the glove and the
naming of Hondscio as evidence of Beowulf's self-conscious wordplay and humor, which places the episode with Grendel in the context of "the great myths of communal ingestion and bodily breakage" as well as traditions of poetic presentation.
Although he looks closely at the glove, as a
suggestive image of both hand and devouring mouth, both body and "horrific craft"
(734), Lerer does not here note the
link between the hand which the poem presents as a literal "sign," and the glove as evidence of Beowulf's skill at poetic transformation.
The pairing of the dead man's name,
Hondscio, and the description of Grendel's glove, in the
22Seth Lerer, Literacy and Power in Anglo-Saxon Literature (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1991), 183. 23Seth Lerer, "Grendel's Glove," ELH 61:4 (1994):
171 context of his narration of the establishment of the sign of Grendel's arm, can suggest less humor than a different kind of horror, through which Beowulf represents not only his skill with language, but also his recognition and refusal of the consuming absence with which it threatens •him. The terror in the episode is of being, like Hondscio, snatched away and eaten.
As Lerer argues, Grendel,
presented almost exclusively as synecdoche, grasping hand and bloody-toothed mouth, is thus neatly represented as the glove, "a hand-shaped cavity that swallows men" (735), and Beowulf's self-conscious interjection, "To lang is to r e c c e n n e . e m p h a s i z e s his recognition of his own skill at linguistic manipulation.
However, the juxtaposition of the
image of the glove with the sign of the arm, in both the earlier textual presentation, and as the "swaðu" in Beowulf's retelling, prevents the simple transformation of this terror into edification or entertainment:
literalness and presence of the arm as sign speaks exactly to the danger of Beowulf's linguistic facility, the danger of being swallowed by the absence which is necessary to using language.
The monstrousness of the glove is thus not
172 only its association with the bodiness of Grendel, but also its representation as language; as such, the glove also represents the consuming absence at the center of Beowulf's own narrative.24 This absence is, as I have araued, ir part the absence necessary to using language conceived as founded on the alienation of the sign as thing and the sign as meaning. The absence figured by the glove also suggests, however, the revision of the mode of speech through which Beowulf has chosen to represent himself.
Before he fights Grendel's
mother, Beowulf offers Hrothgar the maxim, "Ne sorga, snotor gumaí
Selre bið aeghwæm, / þæt he his freond wrece,
Explicitly, in the context of his boast of a
24Michael Near, in his article, "Anticipating Alienation: Beowulf and the Intrusion of Literacy," PMLA 108:2 (1993), also associates Grendel's monstrosity with the language of the poem. Near suggests that Grendel figures the psychological interiority which he sees as both the reflection of and the condition necessary for literacy; Grendel's alien presence figures the privacy and absence constitutive of literacy. Near's point is that "implicit in the poem's involvement with language is a marked and persistent hostility toward the epistemological foundation underpinning the practice of literacy." 321. Beowulf's construction of Grendel's glove reinforces Near's reading of Grendel on the point of Grendel's association with the absence, withdrawal, or alienation constitutive of literacy. However, because Grendel's glove appears in the poem only within Beowulf's own very self-conscious re telling of the fight, it becomes clear that this alienation is already recognized by the "completely public, unhesitatingly articulate Beowulf" as also his own. 25"Don't grieve, wise man! It is better for everyone, that he avenge his friend, than he mourn much." 1384-5.
reversal for Hrothgar, he privileges the action of revenge over mourning.
In his retelling, however, Beowulf's
language no longer makes the claim of certainty with respect to events in the world.
The self-consciousness of Beowulf's
language in the retelling is also a self-conscious dissociation of the narrative of the past from accountability to actual events in the past or future.
absence figured by the glove is also recognition that this dissociation involves loss, the loss of exactly the claims to alignment, presence, and continuity, which the mode of boasting sustains.
This loss is not simply loss, however,
because articulating the experience of the loss becomes a means of generating a present identity:
the mode of speech
which Beowulf is developing around this figured absence is the mode of nostalgia. In nostalgia, the mourning which Beowulf eschews in the confidence of his boasting becomes central, but with the difference that the loss which is lamented is itself recognized as narrative. Stewart argues that
In her book, On Longing. Susan
Nostalgia is a sadness without an object, a sadness which creates a longing that of necessity is inauthentic because it does not take part in lived experience. Rather, it remains behind and before that experience. Nostalgia, like any form of narrative, is always ideological: the past it seeks has never existed except as narrative, and hence, always absent, that past continually threatens to reproduce itself as a felt lack. Hostile to history and its invisible origins, and yet longing for an impossibly pure context of lived experience at a place of origin, nostalgia wears a distinctly utopian face, a face that turns toward a future-past, a past which has only ideological reality. This point of desire which the nostalgic seeks is in fact the absence that is the very generating mechanism of desire. (23). The absence* at the center of the glove, which Beowulf constructs as a metaphor for his own narrative of past achievements, also figures the loss of boasting's claim to alignment of word and deed, and continuity of past and future identity.
At the same time, it represents the
absence essential to the mode of nostalgia through which Beowulf revises the mode of boasting:
the absence of the
authentic origin which is longed for; the absence of the present moment in an account which defines that moment with respect to a self-consciously inauthentic past. The poem presents Beowulf's nostalgia as explicitly nostalgia for the mode of boasting.
Before Beowulf faces
the dragon, the poem draws out the pathos of his imminent death.
Beowulf speaks his characteristic boasting words
apparently "for the last time," "niehstan side," and "for the last time," "hindeman side," greets each of his dear companions (2510, 2518).
He then claims,
Nolde ic sweorde beran, wæpen to Wynne, gif ic wiste hu wid dam aglæcean elles meahte gylpe widgripan, swa ic gio wid Grendle dyde; ac ic dær headufyres hates wene, [o]redes and attres; fordon ic me on hafu bord on byrnan.25 The poem here presents the pause between what Tolkien sees an "opposition of ends and beginnings" or of "two moments in a great life, rising and setting; an elaboration of the ancient and intensely moving contrast between youth and age, first achievement and final death"
The appearance of * balance and contrast of this sort, however, is not sustained.
Beowulf boasts for what the poem promises is the
"last time," then claims to have given up boasting, then boasts, with a formulation nearly identical to that of his earlier boasts, "Ic mid elne sceall/ gold gegangan,
26"I would not wish to carry a sword, a weapon to the worm, if I knew how else against the worm I could fight with grips according to boast, as I once did with Grendel; but I there expect battlefire, hot breath and venom; therefore I have on me shield and armor." 2518-23.
guð nimeð,/ fearhbealu frecne
frean eowerne!" ["I with
courage shall win gold, or battle, terrible deadly evil will take your lord!"]
What is articulated here as the
loss of youth, physicality, and the power of the mode .of boasting, for both Beowulf and the poem, cannot be simply loss:
Beowulf, after his statement of- loss is in fact as
able as he was before, and he proves it, immediately, by boasting.
The desire implicit in Beowulf's regret ("Ic
nolds sweorde beran...") becomes manifestly not simply desire for potency which is lost, but also desire for that potency to be located in the past, so that it can be lost and regretted.
At the same time, the fact that Beowulf is
able to boast again, immediately after his assertion of loss and regret, suggests that his nostalgia is also generative: Beowulf uses his nostalgia not only to dissociate himself from the fullness, the loss of which he laments, but also to reposition himself in his present moment as potentially in possession of that fullness. Beowulf needs only to mention fighting "as I once did with Grendel" to evoke that fight.
It has already been
presented to the reader once by the narrator, and once by
Beowulf; it is already an old story.
The effect of
Beowulf's evocation is to position him in his present moment with respect to the past moment of his fight with Grendel. Beowulf's desire here is explicitly the nostalgic longing for a past moment of origin, which is full and fixed, which can be held on to, in the way that Grendel could be, and which is thus experienced only within the nostalgic narrative of loss:
the episode with Grendel has already
been re-presented within the poem as Beowulf's own narrative.
Because the past moment is recognized as an
impossible origin, as a self-conscious narrative rather than a lived experience, Beowulf positions himself in his present moment as defined by the loss of a past moment which he knows, by the very gesture of its evocation as already an old story, does not exist as his own lived experience.
present moment, constructed in this way, is not surprisingly an absence in his account.
Beowulf moves from his regret,
that he cannot now fight as he once did with Grendel, to his expectation of fire and poison from the dragon. The nostalgia of Beowulf's evocation, and the corresponding absence of an account of his present moment is
It cannot be simply personal because Beowulf
carries the burden of history within the poem.
de Looze points out, Beowulf's fight with the dragon is "profoundly linked" to the Swedish-Geatish wars: the outcome of the dragon conflict will greatly influence, perhaps even determine, the outcome of the wars. Beowulf's death in the fight with the dragon will mean a resumption of the SwedishGeatish conflict and the near annihilation of the leaderless Geatish nation.27 Beowulf, as now both the hero fighting the monster and the king fighting for the survival of a nation, is a hinge for the two kinds of narrative.
De Looze suggests that Beowulf,
struggling with the conflicting demands of his situation (knowledge that he must act and answer the dragon's provocation, confounded by the knowledge that if he dies, as he is likely to, he will leave the Geats open to attack by human enemies), uses the technique of "fictional projection" in order to "distance himself from the clash of obligations facing him, to examine them more objectively"
27Laurence N. de Looze, "Frame Narratives and Fictionalization: Beowulf as Narrator," in .Interpretations of Beowulf: A Critical Anthology, ed. R. D. Fulk (Bloomington; Indiana University Press,
De Looze takes lines 2287-2508 ff. as a series of narrative shells surrounding Beowulf's extended metaphor of the lamenting father (2444-62).
Dragon feud episodes (2287-
349, 2508b ff.) surround Swedish-Geatish war episodes (2349b-99a, 2472-508a) which surround Hæðcyn episodes (242543, 2462b-71) which encase the Father's Lament (2444-62a). In de Looze's reading, Beowulf, unable to find a model for solving his dilemma in history, turns finally to fiction, which enables him to return with a resolution to his present problem.
More than providing "an excellent example of
creative problem solving," however, the location of Beowulf's extended metaphor at the center of the narratives of personal and historical confrontation argues for the centrality of "fictionalizing" to these modes of discourse. €
This is not to say that the historical in Beowulf is reducible to personal fiction, but rather to suggest that the stake in the poem's presentation of the historical narratives of tribal disintegration is a version of that in Beowulf's metaphors of personal loss.28
28The historical fate of the Geats is not at all clear. Kenneth Sisam argues that "there is not evidence anywhere for the virtual annihilation of the Geats by the Swedes and much against it," and cites evidence both external and internal to the text. Kenneth Sisam, The Structure of Beowulf (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 19G5), 55-9. R. T.
The lament metaphor itself focuses on the centrality not simply of the father's loss, but also of his consciousness of the loss, and the relationship of both loss and consciousness of loss to his own singing and recitation, to his own "fictionalizing": Swa bið geomorlic gomelum ceorle to gebidanne, þæt his byre ride giong on galgan; þonne he gyd wrece, sarigne sang, þonne his sunu hangað hrefne to hroðre, ond he him helpe ne mæg eald ond infrod ænige gefremman. Symble bið gemyndgad morna gehwylce eaforan ellorsið; oðres ne gymeð to gebidanne burgum in innan yrfeweardas, þonne se an hafað þurh deaðes nyd dæda gefondad. Gesyhð sorhcearig on his suna bure winsele westne, windge reste reote berofene, --ridend swefað, hæleð in hoðman,- nis þær hearpan sweg, gomen in geardum, swylce ðær iu wæron. Gewiteð þonne on sealman, sorhleoð gæleð an æfter anum; þuhte him eall to rum,
Farrell similarly argues that the absence of historical evidence of the annihilation of the Geats in no way contradicts the poem's presentation of relations between the Swedes and the Geats: the Swedes and Geats "engage in a series of battles, with victories on either side. Quite naturally, once they have lost a strong ruler, the Geats fear incursions from without --but there is no mention of tribal destruction in Beowulf, and none in history." R. T. Farrell, Beowulf: Swedes and Geats (London: Viking Society for Northern Research, 1972), 41-3. The impulse to read Beowulf as a narrative of national disintegration may reflect less the treatment of the actual fate of the Geats within the poem than the poem's nostalgia, explicit from the beginning in its location of this story of the Geats in the "geardagum" of a lost and heroic past.
wongas ond wicstede.29 The pathos of the metaphor is in the father's tortured recognition of his impotence.
His son hangs on the gallows
and there is nothing he can do to help him.
information is presented tersely in the first six lines of the metaphor.
The remaining thirteen lines dwell on the
father's psychology, on what the world seems like to him after he experiences his son's death.
The present world
exists for the father only inasmuch as it can remind him, or direct him to the world which he considers now lost to him. He won't allow his present tö be populated; he doesn't heed what is actually there, the possibility of another heir and life in the stronghold, so that he can occupy a vacancy, the "deserted wine-hall." empty:
This vacancy is not, however, exactly
the father responds to his loss with song.
2s"Thus it is sad in the experiencing for an old man, that his son rides young on the gallows; then he recites a tale, a mournful song, when his son hangs as a joy to the raven, and he, old and wise, cannot provide any help to him. Always he is reminded, on each of mornings, of his son's journey elsewhere; he does not care to await another heir in the stronghold, when he alone has, through.death's compulsion, experienced evil deeds. Sorrowful, he sees in his son's dwelling a deserted winehall, a windy resting-place bereft of joy, — the riders sleep in death, the heroes in the grave; there is not the sound of the harp, sport in the yards, as there once was. He goes then to the bed, sings a sorrow-song, one alone for the one; to him everything seemed too roomy, the plains, and the dwelling-place. 2444-62a.
"recites a tale, a mournful song,"
(2445-6) when his son is
on the gallows and "sings a sorrow-song, one alone for the one"
(2460-1) from his bed. The two descriptions of the father being moved to his
song essentially frame the metaphor, so that the father's loss is presented as not only generative of his lament, but also contained by it. of his son.
The father's loss is first the life
That his son is to be taken as a version of
himself is evident, by virtue of not only the paternal relationship, but also the description of the lament, "an æfter anum."
This phrase erases any difference between
father and son except for the temporal and/or causal difference carried by "æfter."
Donaldson translates the
phrase as "one alone for one gone."
Klaeber notes Leonard's
translation, "the lone one for the lost one" and finds the phrase "strikingly expressive of the father's solitary state."30
The phrase is "strikingly expressive of the
30El Talbot Donaldson, trans., "Beowulf," in Beowulf: The Donaldson Translation. Backgrounds and Sources. Criticism. Joseph F. Tuso, ed. (New York: W. W. Norton, 1975), 43. Klaeber's reference is to William Ellery Leonard, Beowulf. a New Verse Translation (New York, 1923).
father's solitary state" because it makes clear the problem that the father's longing is also for his past self. In the same way that Beowulf evokes his past and longed-for potency, the father here summons in the "deserted wine-hall" a past which is overtly fictionalized, as populated by the stock features of happy life in the hall -riders, heroes, and harpsong-"mournful song."
and contained by his
Klaeber (209) notes the similarity of the
father's lament to the elegy at lines 2246-66.
particularly lines 2263-7, Næs hearpan wyn, gomen gleobeames, ne god hafoc geond sæl swingeð, ne se swifta mearh burhstede beateð. Bealocwealm hafað fela feorhcynna forð onsended! most clearly set up the father's riders, heroes and harpsong # as stock, as already figures from a tradition for representing loss.31
The recognition of this fictionalizing
at the center.of the narrative shells surrounding the metaphor cuts the narratives of genealogical and tribal
n The similarity of these passages to the language of the Exeter Book laments, most clearly "The Wanderer" (especially lines 91-6) and "The Seafarer" further suggests self-conscious evocation of a genre, or a mode of speech, rather than relation to the experience of the event in the world.
disintegration from any perception of their anchoring in a full and tangible origin.
At the same time, it makes the
experience of that dislocation itself generative of these narratives. The absence which Beowulf figures by the glove is the absence, or vacancy, of the present moment in the nostalgic narrative, the willful vacancy of the lamenting father's empty wine hall, or in the aged Beowulf's elision as he moves from the memory of his past potency in the fight with Grendel to the expectation of disintegration.
with Grendel and his struggle to uphold the claims of his boasting speech become for the older Beowulf the focus of his nostalgia because the recognition of their unavoidable failure and repetition, already articulated in the episode, generates his nostalgia, his longing to read the fight as a moment of authenticity and origin.
Susan Stewart argues,
The nostalgic dreams of a moment before knowledge and self-consciousness that itself lives on only in the self-consciousness of the nostalgic narrative. Nostalgia is the repetition that mourns the inauthenticity of all repetition and denies the repetition's capacity to form identity. ... The inability of the sign to 'capture' its signified, of narrative to be one with its object, and of genres of mechanical reproduction to approximate the time of face-to-face communication leads to a generalized desire for origin, for
nature, and for unmediated experience that is at 32 work in nostalgic longing. Beowulf's story about his fight with Grendel according to boast stages "the inability of the sign to 'capture' its signified, of narrative to be one with its object."
is, it represents the crisis which Stewart reads as the motivation for nostalgia's desire for origin.
locating of this episode as the moment of origin, or fullness, or past potency is thus recognition that that origin is already a fiction, an absence, a story which can only generate other stories.
But at the same time, by
making the "crisis of the sign" just another story of origins, Beowulf is also denying the tangible reality of that crisis.
In a similar move, in the retelling episode,
Beowulf introduces Hondscio and the glove in order to figure his own narrative construction.
After spelling out the
glove's "broad and strange" capaciousness as language, as well as the monster's desire to put him inside of it, an undifferentiated "one of many," Beowulf narrates his refusal to enter the glove, and re-presents the arm as sign.
On Longing. 23-4.