These comments come from my friend who is a biblical literature scholar. I asked for her insight:
Fascinating discussion. A few thoughts. First, "free will" is a relatively modern notion, too, certainly a Christian one. Genesis in the original Hebrew mind is not about free will. Cain is one of those set up to fail figures. Another one is Saul, about whom I have spent a great deal of time thinking. I'm intrigued especially by these characters, because I think the attentive reader will identify with them. Of course we feel Cain's outrage, Saul's utter confusion and frustration; it's not fair, we agree with them. Job's story is the same idea, as was pointed out, though that one gets rescued too easily. I object to interpretations that smooth over the difficulties these figures present. The one I am most willing to accept is that presented by God in Job, which is that this is unknowable to us. If so, then we must accept something like Greek tragedy in our Hebraic worldview: for some people, life sucks and then they die. I'm not sure about Grendel.
(to be cont'd next post)
You don't sound like a nut, but in terms of religious knowledge I have a feeling the best thing to do is tuck my tail between my legs and walk away.
I agree with the both of you about the seeming lack of free will - but a lack doesn't mean it's not there at all. It's the same choice we preach in our classrooms, isn't it? Complete your work, study hard, etc., and you'll pass your classes. If you're interested in graduating, it would appear that you have a lack of free will because you'll have to study. But, just because what's behind door number two isn't very friendly doesn't mean you can't still choose it.
Remember that in our Old Testament God has to create sin in order to separate Himself from us, so he provides the temptation. Poor Cain was just the first one to fall to that temptation. Guided in that direction by God? Probably, but not absolutely.
Look at this from a different angle, though (and I know I'm close to completely leaving Beowulf on a religious rant now). If God wouldn't have set somebody (whether Cain or anyone else) up to fail (sin), there wouldn't have ever been a need for Him to die to save us from sin. In that light, isn't what Cain did a good thing? And to juxtapose, doesn't that mean that Grendel's actions allowed the Danes to have a Geat hero in Beowulf? Something they wouldn't have add without Grendel's original choice (I guess I did tie it together...).
Well, I have gone upstairs to ask my noisy neighbors to please not vacuum after midnight!
I'm not a Hebrew scholar, but I did spend twenty years copy editing Bible commentaries and handbooks. What I've learned is that the Hebrew word adam (thus Adam) is not a name but is the word for "man" or "humankind." God created man, not just a man.
I agree with what you say about free will. Cain did have a choice, and he made the wrong one. The whole book of Job concerns that very issue. Will Job choose to curse God and die, or will he remain faithful, no matter what happens? (On a sideline, isn't it interesting that the story of Job revolves around a bet between God and the devil?)
You could almost think of Beowulf as a sort of parable for the early Anglo-Saxons. The Catholic church grew by assimilating bits and pieces of native customs and religious practices into their rites and rituals. Thus the "reviser" of Beowulf made him a Christian hero and inserted notes to explain how the action really represented the will of God. The people could relate much easier to someone who looked like them than to a nomadic tribe of Hebrews in the Near East. (Do I sound like a nut?)
See, that's where you went wrong. They were delicious, especially basted in rum the way they were...
Good thoughts, maybe we could get Grendel on the couch, ask him about his dreams...
I guess what disturbs me is being set up to fail from the beginning. There's just not enough information about Cain to justify his choice, or lack thereof, in farming, is there? And the poet does say Grendel was "irredemable"; unless this is a translation choice, it seems to imply a lack of free will and a weight toward fate, does it not?
But doesn't Cain still practice free will even if God did set him up to fail? Certainly God knew that rejection of Cain's gift would anger Cain and make him jealous of Abel's acceptance, but Cain still had other choices. He could have chosen to increase his own gift and try again, or he could have simply go on doing what he does. Anyone who considers themself a devout Christian is aware of the rules that God has set in front us and is even more aware of the temptations He surrounds us with that threaten the parameters of those rules. It was absolutely a cruel and harsh test, but Cain still made the choice.
So tie that into Grendel as Cain's ancestor; Grendel was mad about the noise from the party upstairs (my first apartment was on the ground floor of a low-rent place - I know how he felt), but he still had the choice of how to deal with it. Who's to say that had Grendel ventured out of the lake and politely asked the Danes to keep the noise down they wouldn't have complied? As a reader we can feel sorry that for Grendel because he was placed in that position, but once he acted the way he did, it's tough to feel sorry for him anymore.
Just in case you're curious, I never walked up the stairs to my loud neighbor's place, bashed in the door, and stole thirty of them back to my place to devour at my leisure!
Yes, yes! My point exactly! If God did indeed set up irredemable evil, then what does that mean for man and free will? Is there really such a thing?
And as to Cain, you're very correct that zillions of arguments have been written about him, yet I've never been satisfied and I've always wanted to know: who, exactly, was waiting to attack him in the wider world, if Adam and Eve were the only people? (Remember that God sets the "mark" upon him for protection.) And it's always disturbed me about God's rejection of his gift. He was a farmer. What was he supposed to offer, bacon? Well, not bacon, maybe...
Is it a problem of translation? Any Hebrew scholars out there?
I guess we're digressing from the tale, but digressions are a part of Beowulf, yes? That's how I'm justifying it, anyway!
Here's another angle: If God created everything, does that mean God created evil? And does that mean God set Cain up to fall? The writers of Genesis don't give any reason for why God didn't accept Cain's offering (although a gazillion theologians have written gazillions of books claiming they know the answer--and I copy edited most of them!).
I agree, Linda. The original poet intended no sympathy; Gardner's version, while highly enjoyable, was a satire. Still, I personally feel some sympathy for the poor monster. He is doomed from the start, a descendant of Cain, marked as evil. I particularly feel for his distress over the noise in the hall, which pushes him over the edge. (But perhaps this is a result of having two children of my own, who wake up talking and don't stop until they go to sleep.)
It might be interesting to have students try to create a sympathetic portrait of the monster, and also bring in the issue of "fate." I mean, the fall of man means there is evil in the world, but are some people/creatures doomed by fate from the start? What, then, are the implications for free will?
The way Grendel is portrayed in the story, we're not supposed to feel anything for him but disgust and horror. Beowulf is not so much a Viking saga as it is the depiction of the virtuous Christian warrior versus the powers of evil.
Sympathy for the bad guy is a modern concept. The original poet who composed the poem and later the Christian monks who revised it (my assumption) would be shocked at the very idea that anyone could feel sorry for Grendel. Even John Gardner's character in his Grendel is more someone to mock and pity rather than feel true compassion toward. We moderns see too many shades of gray; the ancients were more straightforward.