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The Waning Sword: Conversion Imagery and Celestial Myth in 'Beowulf'
More info and resources at: https://doi.org/10.11647/obp.0190

11. A Tale of Two Creatures: The Theft and Recovery of Sunlight in Riddle 29

© Edward Pettit, CC BY 4.0 https://doi.org/10.11647/OBP.0190.11

In this chapter I examine a short Old English poem in which we meet a wiht ‘creature’ (grammatically feminine) who is evidently a thief of sunlight. I shall suggest that this creature is functionally analogous to Grendel. We also encounter another wiht (again grammatically feminine) who recovers the pilfered sunlight, which is analogous in essence to the radiant giant sword. The latter creature seems to me functionally comparable to Beowulf.

Riddle 29 of the Exeter Book reads:

Ic wiht geseah  wundorlice

hornum bitweonum  huþe lædan,

lyftfæt leohtlic,  listum gegierwed,

huþe to þam ham  of þam heresiþe.

Walde hyre on þære byrig  bur atimbram,

searwum asettan,  gif hit swa meahte.

Ða cwom wundorlicu wiht  ofer wealles hrof,

seo is eallum cuð  eorðbuendum;

ahredde þa þa huþe  ond to ham bedraf

wreccan ofer willan.  Gewat hyre west þonan,

fæhþum feran,  forð onette.

Dust stonc to heofonum,  deaw feol on eorþan,

niht forð gewat.  Nænig siþþan

wera gewiste  þære wihte sið.1

I saw a creature wonderfully carrying plunder between its horns, a radiant air-vessel/cup/plate, skilfully adorned, (as) plunder to the [i.e., its] home from the war-journey. It wanted to build a bower for it [i.e., the plunder] in the stronghold, to set it up craftily [or ‘with/among contrivances/war-gear/artefacts’], if it could be so. Then a wonderful creature came over the wall’s roof; it is known to all earth-dwellers; it then recaptured the plunder, and drove the exile/wanderer to its home against its will. It [i.e., the exile] departed west from there, journeying from the hostilities, hastened forth. Dust rose to the heavens, dew fell on the earth, night departed forth. Of men, none then knew the journey of that creature [i.e., the exile].

On one level, this poem treats the Christian theme of the Harrowing of Hell,2 the apocryphal episode probably also evoked in the imagery of the mere-episode in Beowulf. More immediately, though, it describes the moon’s theft of sunlight and the sun’s recovery of its stolen radiance. The moon is imagined as an exiled, warlike creature who carried off a vessel of sunlight between its horns with the intention of setting it up—possibly on a wall—inside a bur ‘bower’ within a stronghold. However, before the moon-creature got home a second creature, the sun, rose into the sky, presumably at dawn, reclaimed the stolen light and drove the moon back home. The moon hastened westward. Dust rose, perhaps from the moon’s hasty retreat or a conflict between the two creatures, and morning dew formed. Night then finally departed, at which point the moon’s course was beyond mankind’s ken. If this interpretation is correct, the riddle seems to have been inspired by the sight of the sun mounting the horizon at dawn, when it outshone a crescent moon which had lingered too long in the morning sky.

The physical form of the creature representing the sun is not described, but we can say a little more about the lunar creature. It is horned, so it is clearly not a wolf, as the Old Norse texts examined earlier may have led us to expect. If it is to be identified as any specific animal, as may be doubted, a snake appears only a remote possibility. It might rather be a stag, in which case its opponent, the solar creature, might also be cervine in keeping with the concept of the solar hart. What is clearer is that the lunar wiht bears a resemblance to Grendel in key respects, as does the solar wiht to Beowulf.

The Lunar Thief and Grendel

Grendel is similarly a wiht (Beowulf 120),3 one who lived in the home of ælwihta ‘alien creatures’ (1500); more remarkably, he may well have been imagined to have a lunar head (see Chapter 14). Additionally, he was a nocturnal thief. As we have seen, in the back-story to Beowulf, he may have been principally a heorowearh ‘sword-thief’ (1267)—if my thesis is correct, specifically a stealer of the giant sword which shone like the sun.

Appreciation of Grendel’s larcenous nature is not reliant merely on interpretation of the unique word heorowearh. As we have seen, Grendel raided Heorot for bodies (those of Beorht-Dene ‘Bright-Danes’, 427, 609), which he stuffed into his glove and took home. Such behaviour is in keeping with his nature as a þyrs ‘giant’ (426). In Old English poetry, a close association between þyrs and þeof ‘thief’ is implied by the juxtaposition and alliterative pairing of these words in Maxims II (42): Þeof sceal gangan þystrum wederum. Þyrs sceal on fenne gewunian ‘A thief must walk in dark weather(s). A giant must dwell in the fen’.4 This line calls to mind Grendel, the fen-dwelling þyrs who dwelt in þystrum ‘darkness(es)’ (Beowulf 87), out of which, from a rainy mere, com … gongan ‘he came walking’ (710–11) to Heorot by night, under the cover of misthleoþum ‘misty hills’ and wol(c)num ‘clouds’ (710, 714). Similarly, Old Norse giants (þursar, jǫtnar) are thieves. They stole the gods’ possessions and guarded property pilfered from the gods: most famously, Þjazi stole the goddess Iðunn and her apples, and Þrymr guarded Þórr’s stolen lightning-hammer; it is probably no coincidence that the arch-thief Loki was similarly of giant-stock. Less prominently, a (horned?) giant called Faunus stole a gold-hilted sword,5 and another called Hrossþjófr ‘Horse-Thief’ presumably rustled horses;6 the robbery committed by the sisters of the troll-woman Ýma in Hjálmþés saga may also be recalled.7

Furthermore, details about Grendel and his mother agree with ideas about thieves preserved in Old Norse sagas, which may offer insights into earlier Germanic concepts. In the sagas special opprobrium attaches to thievery, rather than robbery. The distinction seems to have been that thievery, of which estranged and sometimes intersexual persons were often accused, was characterized by secrecy, concealment and occasionally sorcery, whereas robbery was a matter of open violence.8 In this light, both Grendel and his mother fit the description of thieves, albeit extremely violent ones. Grendel’s mother is an intersexual exile who under the cover of darkness attacks Æschere on ræste ‘in his rest/bed’ (1298), from which she abducts him, while also taking Grendel’s sword-like arm and bringing it to her hidden home in a dygel lond ‘secret land’ (1357). Her son is an exiled deogol dædhata ‘secret deed-hater/persecutor’ (275), one belonging to a category of dyrnra gasta ‘secret spirits’ (1357), who practises magic. He preys on sleeping men by night (1580–3), a practice which in the morning becomes gumum undyrne ‘un-secret to men’ (127); he conceals them in a glove, and carries them to his secret home—a destination comparable to the swamp to which a sorcerer-thief called Þórólfr sleggja ‘sledgehammer’ is consigned in Vatnsdœla saga.9 Grendel’s narrative function also appears comparable to that of the typical saga-thief, which, according to Theodore Andersson, is ‘to instigate trouble, which then develops a life of its own and eventually engulfs everyone’.10 The likelihood that Grendel is a thief is bolstered by a passage from Grettis saga in which the eponymous hero, after being implicitly identified as one of the land’s un-Christian illvirkjar ok ránsmenn ok þjófar ‘evil-doers and robbers and thieves’, is called a margýgjusonr ‘son of a sea-giantess’.11 Significantly, too, according to Þrymskviða, Þórr’s hammer was stolinn ‘stolen’ (another charged term) while the god slept, and buried by Þrymr, who lived with an old giantess.12 Finally, for now, Grendel bears comparison to the thief who stole a precious cup from the slumbering dragon in the final part of Beowulf, a man whom Andersson describes as ‘a dispossessed outcast fleeing hostility, in need of refuge, and guilty of some misdoing’13—much the same can be said of Grendel.

Nor do the parallels between Riddle 29’s wiht and Grendel end there. Rather as the riddle’s wrecca ‘exile/wanderer’ intended to take plunder home (huþe to þam ham) after a martial expedition, so Grendel trod wræclastas ‘exile-paths’ (1352) and returned from a murderous trip to Heorot bearing huðe ‘plunder’ to his ham ‘home’ (124). Grendel’s plunder on that occasion was ‘Bright-Danes’ (427, 609), and he also dimmed the light of Heorot by his presence therein as a deorc deaþscua ‘dark death-shadow’ (160) on sweartum nihtum ‘dark nights’ (167).

The Solar Repossessor and Beowulf

Riddle 29’s solar creature appears broadly to parallel Beowulf in its repossession of a solar treasure from a lunar thief. If my interpretation is correct, Grendel actually outdid the riddle’s lunar thief by reaching home with his solar plunder and putting it on display, but that is not a fundamental difference and it does not disguise suggestive correspondences.

The riddle’s reclaiming creature came ofer wealles hrof ‘over the wall’s roof’, the ‘wall’ here being a metaphor for the horizon, whose ‘roof’ is the sky, reclaimed its lost treasure, and drove the moon-creature away to its home against its will. Beowulf descended to a hrofsele ‘roofed hall’ (1515), where he dispatched the nocturnal Grendel, whom he had earlier effectively driven home against his will. If the riddle’s thief had reached home with his prize, he would have set it up in a bur ‘bower’, potentially a woman’s private chamber, in which case we may compare Beowulf’s discovery of the giant sword hanging on wage ‘on the wall’ (1662) near to Grendel’s mother. And rather as in the riddle the solar treasure may have been intended for placement above searwum ‘(other) artefacts’, so Beowulf discovered the giant sword hanging among searwum (1557). Beowulf then brought the treasure to the sun-like hall of Heorot, which, I suspect, was its rightful home.

These parallels suggest that Beowulf may well play the role of the sun, or a solar emissary, in recovering a lost treasure symbolizing sunlight which had been stolen by a lunar creature. Subsequent chapters will strengthen the possibility that the lunar thief was Grendel in collaboration with his mother.

1 Adapted from Muir, Exeter Anthology, I, 309.

2 See P. J. Murphy, Unriddling the Exeter Riddles (Pennsylvania, 2011), 123–39.

3 As is the climactic dragon of Beowulf (3038), which appropriated and guarded treasure (including a fateful precious cup) in a walled chamber.

4 R. E. Bjork (ed. and trans.), Old English Shorter Poems. Volume II: Wisdom and Lyric (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2014), 176.

5 See Chapter 12 n. 56.

6 PTP, 722–3.

7 Further evidence of thefts by Norse giants will be adduced in Chapter 14.

8 See Andersson, ‘Thief’, an investigation into the nature of the thief of the dragon’s cup which mentions neither Grendel nor Grendel’s mother; also Anderson, Understanding Beowulf, 487–90.

9 Einar Ól. Sveinsson, Vatnsdœla saga, 72–3; Andersson, ‘Thief’, 502.

10 Andersson, ‘Thief’, 506.

11 Guðni Jónsson (ed.), Grettis saga Ásmundarsonar, ÍF 7 (Reykjavík, 1936), 133; Andersson, ‘Thief’, 502.

12 See Chapter 5 for the relevance of Þrymskviða to the middle part of Beowulf.

13 Andersson, ‘Thief’, 493.