Grendel the Outsider




Ari Berk



As the year wanes, I want to spare a thought for outsiders, for outcasts, for the forlorn. I would speak a word or two and give a thought to goblins.


Of all the goblins that ever haunted heath or hearth, the greatest, surely, was Grendel of the epic tale Beowulf. He roamed the pages of an elegy of heroic times when real monsters lurked on the margins of society. No diminutive hobgoblins out on those ancient moors. The moors and marshes were the edges of the world then, the boundaries between this world and The Other, the places where people tried not to go, where spirits wandered crying in the mists, where things went, or, were sent, to be forgotten: shadow lands. Out there you'd have only the sharp sedge grasses, the frigid rocks, the shades of the dead for fellows. Above the moors danced the cold and distant stars, each one a reminder of warmth far removed, warmth you'd never know.


Here was Grendel's domain. Beyond the village. Beyond the field. Beyond the grim ground set aside for burial. Beyond the salt marshes. Out, out, out among the fens and fastnesses.


Far away, but not far enough from his lonesome home, was the high hall built by many hands. Fire and fellowship, both golden like the hall itself, adorned it. Heorot (which means "Hart", or "Stag") was the name of that hall. Say its name: Hay-oh-rot. The spoken sound of its letters calls up that great golden place from the dim memory, draws its beams and banners up from the boggy earth of the past.


Think of how it might have felt to walk across its threshold, to hear your name called with joy from the revelers' rune-carved benches; then to drink deep of good mead (won by gods from giants long ago), to eat your fill from the burnished boards, to clap your hands warmly about the shoulders of your comrades and kin. Imagine the heart-deep comfort of knowing you were home. In the center of the hall was the great fire. Warm yourself by the flames and remember what the hearth brings: heat, story, song, food, family, fellowship, (called comitatus long ago), all good things. Every good thing. Civilization and safety were conjured out of the sun-bright embers and if you stood in that circle of light among your kin, among your neighbors, well, you knew what "society" meant.


But now, bring your mind away from the torch-lit revel. Think of some poor someone living away from that light, living far beyond its reach. Someone banished to walk the night and wander the lonely places of the land.


Is it any wonder Grendel stalked in from the moor to haunt that kingly hall and prey upon its retainers? Who could live each night in the bright shadow of that place? Imagine yourself such an outcast, but an outcast with senses sharp as knives: every night, the wind brings you fragments of song. Every night, the smell of meat, the roar of laughter, the thunder of mead horns brought roughly together in toast and promise, in boast and bond. That was Grendel's curse: to live within earshot of that glad company who partied each night in the mead hall.


Some say Grendel's story is little more than an epic tale of monster slaying; a song of a hero and the evil creatures who increased his reputation. But a goblin is always something more than a mere monster. Goblins are reminders that something has been lost. Tales about goblins ask us to look about and ask what, or who, has been forgotten. Is it possible that after Heorot was built and the thanes and good folk were gathered together that some people were left out of the company? Is it possible that in the amassing of the wealth necessary to build such a hall and feed such a company, some people were left poor and hungry? Is it possible that in emphasizing the greatness of human deeds during the evenings of revelry and song that tales of gods and spirits were set aside, their offerings forgotten?


It is true that, in the story of Beowulf, Grendel is depicted as a monster: bloodthirsty, violent, unrelenting. But is it possible that the monstrous Grendel may have more in common with us than we might like to think? We have all stood on the outside looking in, with only the spilling moon for company. Imagine those times when the door to the mead hall, or the party, was shut to you. Imagine the times when no one was answering your calls. Imagine those nights when you had nowhere to go and wanted so much only to be out in the company of others. Imagine being forgotten.


We are social animals. No one wants to be alone on the margins. No one wants to hear the music and merriment of a gathering when they have been left out. No one wants to admit they have walked the lonely mist-paths hand in hand with the goblins, out on the dark moor. Who would admit such a thing?  Who would admit to being an outcast?


At this time of the year, when the Great Wheel turns towards its dark half, remember the lost ones, remember the nameless. Remember the hungry. Remember the ghosts that wait just beyond the light of living memory. Remember the goblins of the world and, every now and then, welcome them in.