The Three Tellings of Beowulf’s Fight with Grendel’s Mother
Leeds Studies in English, n.s. 20 (1989)
Beowulf offers three descriptions of Beowulf’s fight with Grendel’s mother. The first is by the narrator (ll. 1492-1590), the second is by Beowulf to Hrothgar (ll. 1652-76), the third is by Beowulf to Hygelac (included in ll. 2131-51, within the longer speech from l. 2047). Early (structuralist) studies of narration in English typically used the word ‘story’ to describe the sequence of events involving characters which could be abstracted from any specific telling (such as the story of Beowulf’s fight with Grendel’s mother). The term ‘discourse’ was then contrastively used to describe the specific telling in the medium language of that story. In that terminology, here in Beowulf we have three discourses of the one story. In 1955, Leslie Rogers published an article in the Review of English Studies entitled ‘Beowulf’s Three Great Fights’. This paper, ‘The Three Tellings of Beowulf’s Fight with Grendel’s Mother’, is intended to echo that earlier paper, as befits a student of a teacher, but also to demonstrate one of the developments in literary discussion over the thirty odd years since that earlier article was published: the concern with discourse rather than story.