Eating Harts: Blurton Chapter II

Blurton’s second chapter considers Beowulf within the alimentary logic and wonders of the whole of its manuscript, Cotton Vitellius A. XV, whose contents, as our Anglo-Saxonists surely know, include “part of a life of Saint Christopher, a version of the Wonders of the East, The Letter of Alexander to Aristotle, and an Old English redaction of the Book of Judith” (37). I loved meeting Donestres, Cynocephali, and other old friends in this chapter, and also enjoyed Blurton’s discussion of the problem word eoten. It’s a word whose meaning is clear enough during Grendel’s assault on Heorot “cannibal/anthropophage/maneater/whatever” (not Blurton’s translation there, folks), but in the other five instances, for example, during the Fight at Finnsburg episode, it “seems to connote..a group of people rather than a group of giants or other monsters” (52). Blurton argues the word should be translated consistently as having to do with cannibals and cannibalism, not, for instance, as “monster.” As she points out, Grendel is a threat not so much because of his size as because of his dietary habits, and also the Finnsburg fight is, like Grendel’s assault on Heorot, about a metaphoric threat “of cannibalistic incorporation” and a quite literal threat to the body politic (55). In sum, she argues that “The Beowulf-poet weaves the word [eoten] through the narrative to stress [the] theme of the conceptual link between the cannibalizing of the human body and the cannibalizing of the social body” (55).

I’m highlighting this argument, first, because I enjoy a good linguistic crux, especially one that leads to conclusions as surprising as these, and second, because I’m not an Anglo-Saxonist, so I don’t know what to make of her reading. In other words, I’ve love for some of my co-bloggers who know their way around Beowulf (in other words, the ones who aren’t me), as well as some other Anglo-Saxonists (Richard Scott Nokes and Mary Kate Hurley for example) to weigh in on this matter.

My second observation on this chapter is also–I hope not characteristically–minor, but I wanted, as I did in my previous post, to add a little something from my own reading to Blurton’s work. Inspired in part by the description of Grendel stepping through the “mouth” of Heorot, Blurton suggests that “Heorot is also a body of a kind. Heorot is itself metonymy for the body politic of the Danes” (36). You can see how this resonates with the interpretation I describe in the paragraph above. Now, Heorot is not just a kind of body; Heorot is in fact a very particular kind of body, namely (and obviously if you have Anglo-Saxon: which I don’t), that of a hart. A few months back, I read William Perry Marvin’s Hunting Law and Ritual in Medieval English Literature, where Marvin makes much of the hall’s strange name (why not call it “Hrothgar’s Place”?). In his chapter on Beowulf, Marvin describes two opposed modes of hunting: one in which killing an animal made the animal your property, and the other in which killing the animal made a claim to territory (he describes a third one as well, which I won’t get into here). Hrothgar has taken land and gains retainers by sharing out booty. As Marvin puts it, Grendel’s invasion of the Hart is an assault on Hrothgar’s “gifting prerogative” to force “the parting out of pieces of the body of the Hart–literally, Scylding warriors in the flesh” (43). Marvin’s political reading is a nice counterpart to Blurton’s: e.g, “Grendel’s actions appear regressive because he cannot stomach dynastic appropriation–an intolerance that is perfectly compatible with the most hard-bitten frontier egalitarianism of the migration and viking ages” (42). But what I also like about Marvin is that he doesn’t lose sight of the fleshy materiality of either anthropophagy or the eating of harts. By contrast, Blurton’s reading is emphatically metaphorical, and there’s no foul there: certainly anthropophagy is symbolically charged.

My Kzoo paper on anthropophagy (auto-horn-tooting) tried to answer why it should be so charged, but it also tried to keep in mind its fleshiness. So here I end with a different sort of question, meant for those of you in an answering mood: how might a fleshy reading of some of Blurton’s cannibalism texts–Beowulf for example–work? How might this enhance or alter her readings?

I’ll check in periodically over the weekend–I’m following my wife as she takes a quick worktrip to San Francisco–but I trust my fellow bloggers to keep things humming here.