The Lay of Sigemund

Having recently posted a blog on dragonomics in Beowulf and Tolkien’s Hobbit, I decided to follow up by offering a complementary poetic translation of the Sigemund-episode in Beowulf.

I have chosen to isolate the Sigemund-episode (874-902) and translate this passage as a discrete poem, in part because the episode operates as a poem within a poem, delivered as one of three songs by the Danish court poet and recited in celebration of Beowulf’s victory over Grendel. Numerous scholars have tried to identify its literary function in Beowulf, and the episode has traditionally been regarded as a heroic exemplum, honoring Beowulf and foreshadowing his fight with the dragon. I wish to challenge this reading of the passage.

“The Sigurðr Portal” from Hylestad Stave Church, Setesdal, Norway; now housed at the Oldsaksamlingen of the University of Oslo.

The Sigemund-episode in Beowulf is the earliest known account of the Vǫlsung legend, and this tale is alluded to in both the anonymous Poetic Edda and the Prose Edda of Snorri Sturluson as well as in Njáls saga, Þiðreks saga and the Vǫlsunga saga. Christine Rauer notes in her study of the Beowulf-dragon and analogous medieval dragon-fights, “The more extensive accounts of the Vǫlsung dragon-fight, such as those found in Fáfnismál (Poetic Edda) and Vǫlsunga saga, date from the thirteenth century, although the subject matter can be presumed to be of an earlier date” (42). However, in these later Old Norse-Icelandic versions of the legend, it is Sigurðr, Sigmundr’s son, who is credited with slaying the hoard-guarding dragon, Fáfnir—not his father.

I would note that, in the section in Beowulf describing Sigemund’s slaying of the dragon, there appears to be an alliterative formula that features also in the Old English Maxims II. This poem characterizes the behavior, function and stereotypical nature of various things—including references to cyning “a king” (1, 28), wulf “wolf” (18) and þyrs “giant” (42), in addition to geological features such as ea “a river” (30), wudu “woods” (33) and brim “sea” (45), as well as material objects and structures such as daroð “a spear” (21), beorh “barrow” (34) and duru “doors” (36). Maxims II describes sweord “a sword” (25) before shifting focus onto the stereotypical image of a gold-proud and barrow-dwelling dragon. The line reads drihtlic isern. Draca sceal on hlæwe “lordly iron. The dragon shall be in a barrow” (26). This closely parallels a similar line in Beowulf, which reads dryhtlic iren. Draca morðre swealt “lordly iron. The dragon died by murder” (892). Although the ending of the line is altered, the commonalities are nevertheless striking, especially since in both cases the alliteration stretches across two discrete semantic units.

I have also tried in my translation and recitation to emphasize the poetics of this episode, especially the two rhyming b-verse half-lines, which emphasize the dragon’s demise. The first, draca morðre swealt “the dragon died by murder” (892), characterizes Sigemund’s killing of the monster as a crime, in its description of the slaying as morðor “murder” (892). The second, wyrm hat gemealt “the hot worm melted” (897), reiterates the dragon’s death at the hand of the hero, and emphasizes also the element of heat—otherwise absent from the characterization of the dragon in the Sigmeund-episode—though explicitly linked to the Beowulf-dragon, described as fyrdraca “fire-dragon” (2689) and ligdraca “flame dragon” (2334, 3040).

Vǫlsung Legend runestone discovered at Drävle (U 1163), relocated in 1878 to the courtyard of the manor house Göksbo, containing image of Sigurðr who thrusts his sword through the serpent.

The Sigemund-episode is also enveloped by references to his ellendædum “valorous deeds” (876, 900), a compound that appears at both the beginning and end of the passage. However, Mark Griffith has provided a detailed commentary of the episode, and he concludes that “The episode of Sigemund is more highly enigmatic, and its central figure much more problematic than received opinion has it” (40). Griffith observes the numerous pejorative terms used to describe the hero, perhaps most famously his characterization as aglæca “fearsome marauder” (893), a term used to characterize each monster in the poem, Grendel (159, 425, 433, 591, 646, 732, 739, 816, 989, 1000, 1269), Grendel’s mother (1259), and the dragon (2520, 2534, 2592, 2907, 3061), though notably also Beowulf at two key moments (1512, 2592). As Griffith points out, “if the term does have pejorative meaning, then this applies to both Sigemund and Beowulf” (35).

This calls into question the merits of his heroism, and makes the reader wonder about the nature of his ellendædum, uncuþes fela “valorous deeds, much known” (876). The mystery introduced in this line is resolved when the Danish poet reports that þara þe gumena bearn gearwe ne wiston,/ fæhðe ond fyrena, buton Fitela mid hine “feuds and crimes, of which the the sons of men did not readily know, except Fitela with him” (878-79). Indeed we learn that his valorous deeds are characterized specifically as fæhðe “feuds” (879), a term associated with the Grendelkin’s feud with God (109), and especially Grendel’s mother’s vengeance (1333, 1340, 1380, 1537) as well as the dragons wrath (2403, 2513, 2525, 2689). We learn also that these deeds are explicitly fyrena “crimes” (879)—a term repeatedly associated with Grendel (101, 164, 750, 811)—who likewise performs fæhðe ond fyrene (137, 153).

Moreover, the reference to Fitela, Griffith argues, may call to mind information for the Vǫlsunga saga, which “records how Signy changes shape with a sorceress, visits her brother and sleeps with him, whilst in this disguise, in order to beget a son to further the Vǫlsung feud with her husband” (25). In other words, Sigmundr (Sigemund) is both father and uncle to Sinflǫtli (Fitela), as a result of his incestuous relations with his twin sister. This seems further emphasized by the reference to the secrets shared eam his nefan “uncle to nephew” (881), which focuses the reader’s attentions on Sigemund’s incest and role as eam, an Old English term which indicates specifically “maternal uncle.”

Indeed, troubling descriptions of the hero persist, as Sigemund becomes characterized as wreccena wide mærost “the most famous of exiles”(898), which calls to mind the exiled Grendel, described as mære mearcstapa “famous border-crosser” (103), depicting the hero once again in pejorative terms. I would argue that this bears especially on the final reference to Sigemund’s ellendædum “valorous deeds” (900), and specifically the parenthetical half-line at the end of the episode, which indicates that he þæs ær onðah “he prospered before by these” (900).

Vǫlsung legend runestone located at Gök (Sö 327), containing a runic text on two serpents that surround much of the Vǫlsung imagery, including a depiction of Sigurðr stabbing the serpent from below (photo from 1922).

If Sigemund prospers through fæhðe ond fyrena “feuds and crimes” (879), what does this say about the warrior ethics displayed in the poem? Indeed, I would suggest that the parenthetical half-line he þæs ær onðah “he prospered before by these” (900) highlights how in the heroic world of Beowulf, the only way to thrive is by imitating monsters and engaging readily in fæhðe ond fyrena. In Beowulf, feuds and crimes result in the protagonist’s death and the subsequent genocide of the Geatish people—which mirrors Sigemund’s (and Fitela’s) annihilation of ealfela eotena cynnes “an entire race of giants” (883)—perhaps in part because Beowulf seems to adopt Sigemund as a role model and seeks to emulate the ellendæda of this aglæca.

Richard Fahey
PhD Candidate in English
University of Notre Dame

 

Further Reading:

Abram, Christopher. “Bee-wolf and the Hand of Victory: Identifying the Heroes of Beowulf and Vǫlsunga saga.The Journal of English and Germanic Philology 116.4 (2017): 387-414.

Bonjour, Adrien. The Digressions in Beowulf. Basil Blackwell. 1950.

Kaske, Robert.  “The Sigemund-Heremod and Hama-Hygelac Passages in Beowulf.” Publications of the Modern Language Association 74 (1959): 489-94.

Griffith, Mark. “Some difficulties in Beowulf, lines 874-902: Sigemund reconsidered.” Anglo-Saxon England 24 (1995): 11-41.

Rauer, Christine. Beowulf and the Dragon. D. S. Brewer. 2000.

Whose Runes are These? I (Don’t) Think I Know

In the mid-twelfth century, a stoneworker in the far northwest of England at Bridekirk, Cumbria cut a lavishly-decorated baptismal font with reliefs of dragons, mysterious figures, and, curiously, a line of runic writing. By the early modern period, the characters on the Bridekirk font were nothing but strange. Early English historian and chronographer William Camden, who included a sketch of the runic inscription in the 1607 edition of his Britannia, declared himself perplexed: “Quid autem illae velint, et cuius gentis characteribus, ego minime video, statuant eruditi.”[1]

The east face of the Bridekirk font, by permission of Lionel Wall. 

First published in 1586, Camden’s massive historico-chronographical Britannia went through six editions in the author’s lifetime, and Camden continually updated and expanded the text, augmenting it with maps and diagrams, such as the rendition of the Bridekirk runes seen below. The last Britannia edition on which Camden collaborated was a 1610 English translation by Philemon Holland, who translates: “But what they signifie, or what nations characters they should be, I know not, let the learned determine thereof.” Camden’s uncertainties cut straight to the heart of the matter: whose runes are these? and what do they mean?

The Bridekirk runes as pictured in the 1607 edition of Britannia. Courtesy of Dana Sutton.

In the more than 400 years that have passed since the publication of Camden’s Britannia and despite the best efforts of the eruditi, no simple answer has been found to either of Camden’s questions, the first of which I’ll consider in today’s post. Whose runes are these?

Danish antiquarian Ole Worm learned of the inscription from the Britannia and included his own version of the runes in a 1634 letter to one Henry Spelman:


Translation:
But if a well-printed text of the monuments inscribed with our characters that exist [in England] is sent to me, they would make up the much-desired appendix to those from our country. As far as the one Camden shows us in his book Britannia, I hardly know whether it can be read: [RUNES] That is, as I interpret it according to the laws of our language: “Harald made [this] mound and set up stones in the memory of [his] mother and Mabrok.” But I claim nothing as certain until someone can supply us with a more accurate description.[2]
Leaving aside Worm’s wildly inaccurate translation, which he based off of the second-hand evidence of Camden’s printed transcription, I’d like to note that Worm seems to claim the Bridekirk runes among the monumentorum nostris notis consignatorum (monuments signed with our script): he counts these as Scandinavian runes.

At other times the inscription has been claimed as English. The description of the Bridekirk font in Charles Macfarlane’s Comprehensive History of England, first published in 1856, praises the “ingenuity of design and execution” of the font and notes its “Saxon inscription.”[3] 

The font as pictured in Macfarlane’s History. 

Modern scholars agree with Worm that the incised characters are, in the main, Scandinavian. But the inscription is not wholly so: the text employs a few non-runic, decidedly English characters, including ⁊, Ȝ, and a bookhand Ƿ. Moreover, the language is not the Norse one might expect from Scandinavian runes but rather English:

Ricard he me iwrokte to þis merð ʒer ** me brokte.[4]
Richard crafted me and brought me (eagerly?) to this splendor.

So if the runic inscription is neither fully Norse nor fully English, whose runes (cuius gentis) are they? While Charles Macfarlane claimed them as “Saxon” and Worm counted them as Scandinavian, the runes are actually neither but rather the product of a mixed society continuing to encode both English and Norse cultural practices on stone. Most literally the runes represent phonological values and a particular message, but for most of the font’s history the place of these symbols in cultural memory – whose runes they have become – has been just as important as what they originally meant. The cultural equivocality of the Bridekirk inscription is emblematic of larger ambiguities involving Anglo-Scandinavian ethnicity and culture as imagined by the post-Hastings medieval English. These ambiguous cultural signs, later re-imagined in the early modern period, raise the question of what it meant to be Anglo-Norse in an Anglo-Norman world.

Rebecca West, PhD Candidate
University of Notre Dame

[1] William Camden, “William Camden, Britannia (1607) with an English Translation by Philemon Holland: A Hypertext Critical Edition,” ed. Dana F. Sutton (The Philological Museum, 2004), Descriptio Angliae et Walliae: Cumberland, 7.

[2] Ole Worm, Olai Wormii et ad eum doctorum virorum epistolæ, vol. 1 (Copenhagen, 1751), Letter 431. This translation is my own.

[3] Charles MacFarlane, The Comprehensive History of England :Civil and Military, Religious, Intellectual, and Social : From the Earliest Period to the Suppression of the Sepoy Revolt, Rev. ed. (London, 1861), 164.

[4] The transliteration above is based on that of Page, who reads “+Ricarþ he me iwrocte / and to þis merð (?) me brocte.” R. I. Page, Runes (University of California Press, 1987), 54.

Feond Mancynnes: The Enemy of the People

The information and views set out in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent those of the Medieval Institute or the University of Notre Dame.

For Halloween this year, we continue our discussion of rhetorical representations of the monstrous in Beowulf by framing the poem in our current political climate and historical context. In my previous blog, “Mearcstapan: Monsters Across the Border” (July 20, 2018), I explored various interpretations of the Old English compound mearcstapan, used to describe the Grendelkin in Beowulf, and discussed the rhetorical implications of translating the compound as “border-crosser” when teaching or reading the poem in the United States in 2018. Placing the term mearcstapan in conversation with the current administration’s immigration policies (and President Trump’s rhetoric on immigration) emphasizes the othering force of being categorized as immigrant, foreign, or alien. These labels encourage an emotional response due in part to the in-group and out-group dynamics encoded in the language of migration, and the ramifications for certain immigrant groups living in the United States are dire.

Mexican emigrants crossing the Rio Grande near El Paso, Texas. Image by Danny Lehman/Corbis.

In Beowulf, Grendel is repeatedly described as the enemy of the Danish people and is characterized as the arch-nemesis of the heroic protagonist. Beowulf describes the monster as feorhgeniðla “mortal enemy” (969) to the Danish king, Hroðgar, whose hall was the focus of Grendel’s wrath and terror for twelve years. Hroðgar later refers to Grendel as ealdgewinna “old enemy” (1776), a satanic epithet and translation of the Latin hostis antiquus “old enemy.” Although the monster is Hroðgar’s long-time foe, in this description, the Danish king ominously characterized Grendel as something demonic—intuitively or unwittingly reinforcing the narrator’s designation of the Grendelkin as the monstrous progeny of Cain (102-114). This spiritual overlay frames the narrative, and Grendel’s dual characterization as the respective enemy of both the Danes and God is twice corroborated by the narrator’s explicit references to the monster as Godes ondsaca “adversary of God” (786, 1682).

Today, I will consider the Old English satanic epithet feond mancynnes “enemy of the people,” used by the narrator in Beowulf to describe Grendel and modeled on hostis publicus “public enemy” in Latin. The term dates back to Roman antiquity, and the senate famously pronounced emperor Nero a hostis publicus in 68 CE. This epithet has since been leveled against political opponents throughout history and in many languages. The term emphasizes animosity and frames whomever is designated hostis publicus as working against both the will of the people and the greater good. Embedded in this description are pathetical appeals to both fear-mongering and tribalism. Feond mancynnes stresses the majority group (mancynn “mankind” or “the people”) as in a position of moral superiority and opposed to a hostile minority group (feond “the enemy”). This adversarial aspect simultaneously encourages in-group and out-group mentality and emphasizes the danger inherent in hostility.

“The Roll Call of the Last Victims of the Reign of Terror” by Charles Louis Lucien Muller (1860), housed at the University of Notre Dame’s Snite Museum.

The epithet ennemi du peuple “enemy of the people” was employed by Maximilien de Robespierre during the French Revolution, and referred to a legally punishable group of socio-political opponents charged with moral depravity and disseminating false news. The epithet vrag naroda [враг народа] “enemy of the people” also gained traction in the Soviet Union because it highlighted economic disparity and social class, emphasizing both the strength of a unified public and the antagonism between the bourgeoisie and proletariat. Once in power, Vladimir Lenin used this epithet to characterize the political leadership of the Constitutional Democratic Party as public enemies in the decree of 1917. Other similar epithets featured prominently in Soviet rhetoric aimed at demonizing socio-political opponents include vrag trudyashchikhsya [враг трудящихся] “enemy of the workers,” vrag proletariata [враг пролетариата] “enemy of the proletariat,” and klassovyi vrag [классовый враг] “class enemy.”

‘Enemies of the 5-Year Plan’ by Viktor Deni 1931, Soviet propaganda targeting landlords, kulaks (wealthy farmers), journalists, capitalists, White Russians (anti-communists), Mensheviks (moderate socialists), priests, and alcoholics.

As during the French Revolution, the term became legally formalized in Stalin’s Soviet Union, and similar articles codified versions of the term in other Soviet Republics. Mao Zedong also referred to dissenters as “enemies of the people” in his 1957 speech, On the Correct Handling of Contradictions Among the People. In each appropriation of this epithet, both moral and political animosity is linked to social otherness. The rhetoric of hostis publicus may have been used to depose a tyrant in Roman antiquity, but modern dictators have consistently used the epithet to target their political rivals. More recently, after the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom, the Daily Mail labeled the presiding judges “enemies of the people” for ruling that consent from British Parliament was necessary for departure from the European Union.

Image of Lord Chief Judge John Thomas featured in the Daily Mail’s article headlined “Enemies of the people” (November 3rd, 2016).

The epithet is famously the title of Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen’s En folkefiende, “An Enemy of the People” (1882), and Shakespeare appeals repeatedly to this Roman designation in Coriolanus, when Caius Marcius Corliolanus is charged as “chief enemy to the people” (I.I.5), “enemy to the people and his country” (III.III.119) and “[The] people’s enemy” (III.III.138). However, Beowulf and the Old English Juliana also participate in the epithet’s rhetorical tradition and appropriate the Latin political designation by transforming it into a satanic epithet. The Old English feond mancynnes represents an Anglo-Saxon appropriation of the Roman designation, which frames the antagonism in spiritual rather than political terms. In this way, Christian morality is emphasized and opponents are represented as demonic.

“Hell” by Hans Memling, Right Hand Panel from the Triptych of Earthly Vanity and Divine Salvation (ca. 1485).

This shift reflects the semantic evolution of the Old English feond “enemy” into the modern English “fiend,” which the Oxford English Dictionary defines primarily as “An evil spirit or demon.” In Juliana, the demon who visits the saint is designated a public enemy, thrice referred to as feond moncynnes (317, 523, 630). The demon comes disguised as an angel to deceive the protagonist and tempt her into sin, but Juliana conquers the monster with her saintly virtue. Once she identifies her visitor as demonic, she commands him to disclose his plot: þu scealt furþor gen, feond moncynnes,/ siþfæt secgan, hwa þec sende to me “you must still say further of your journey here, enemy of mankind, and of who sent you to me” (317). The demon boasts how he successfully overcame Nero, Neþde ic nearobregdum þær ic Neron bisweac “I dared venture with wicked tricks when I deceived Nero”(302), but laments that he cannot overpower Juliana:

                           Næs ænig þara
þæt mec þus bealdlice         bennum bilegde,
þream forþrycte,   ær þu nu þa
þa miclan meaht         mine oferswiðdest,
fæste forfenge,         þe me fæder sealde,
feond moncynnes,        þa he mec feran het,
þeoden of þystrum,         þæt ic þe sceolde
synne swetan.  

“There were not any [others] who have so boldly laden me with bonds or overcame me with rebuke, before now when you seized me firmly and overpowered my great strength, which my father gave me, the enemy of mankind, when he commanded me to journey forth, a prince from the darkness, so that I should sweeten your sins for you” (520-525).

St. Juliana defeating a demon, in “Jerusalem Psalter,” The Hague, KB, 76 F 5, f. 32, (ca. 1190-1200).

Eventually, seeing that he is no match for Juliana, the demon flees from the saint:

                                 þa seo eadge biseah
ongean gramum,         Iuliana,
gehyrde heo hearm galan         helle deofol.
Feond moncynnes         ongon þa on fleam sceacan,
wita neosan,         ond þæt word acwæð:
“Wa me forworhtum!         Nu is wen micel
þæt heo mec eft wille         earmne gehynan
yflum yrmþum,         swa heo mec ær dyde.

“Then blessed Juliana gazed at the angry one, she heard the devil from hell sing his torment. The enemy of mankind began then to retreat in flight, seeking punishments, and spoke these words: “Woe to me, forwrought! There is now a great expectation that she will again humiliate wretched me with evil calamities, as she did to me before” (627-34).

In the first and third instances, the satanic epithet feond moncynnes is used to describe not the demon’s father (i.e. Satan), but rather the demon himself. These references to devils as “enemies of the people” elevate the Roman epithet hostis publicus by presenting the term in a spiritual context, thereby shifting the focus from political opponents to moral adversaries.

“Hellmouth,” image from Hours of Catherine of Cleves, Morgan Library & Museum, MS M.945, f. 107r (ca. 1440).

Ælfric refers to the devil as mancynnes feond in two of his Catholic homilies. In one homily, he makes a direct appositive association linking mancynnes feond with awyrigeda deofol “accursed devil” (II.31-32), and in the other Ælfric positions awyrigeda engel “accursed angel” (II.38) in apposition with the satanic epithet. Moreover, mancynnes feond appears in two anonymous Old English homilies. In one of these homilies (contained in Oxford, Bodleian Library, Junius 121), the Latin political epithet hostis publicus is combined with a Latin satanic epithet, hostis antiquus “the old enemy,” and expanded into the Old English epithet se ealda feond mancynnes “the old enemy of mankind.” Additionally, mancynnes feond is used as a satanic epithet in Old English prose hagiographies, twice in a vita of St. Giles and once in two vitae of St. Guthlac.

This demonic epithet also features in Beowulf and is twice used to describe Grendel, marking him as demonic. The narrator characterizes Grendel as feond mancynnes in his initial description of the monster’s carnage wreaked in Denmark:

                            se æglæca   ehtende wæs,
deorc deaþscua,   duguþe ond geogoþe,
seomade ond syrede,   sinnihte heold
mistige moras;   men ne cunnon
hwyder helrunan   hwyrftum scriþað.
Swa fela fyrena   feond mancynnes,
atol angengea,   oft gefremede,
heardra hynða

“The fearsome marauder was attacking the veterans and young warriors, the dark death-shadow lied in waiting and plotted. In the endless night, he ruled the misty marshes. Men did not know whither the hell-wonders glide in turns. So the enemy of mankind, the terrible lone-goer, often performed many crimes, hard humiliations” (159-66).

Saturno devorando a su hijo, “Saturn eating his son,” by Francis Goya (1819-23).

The narrator’s second reference to Grendel as mancynnes feond comes over a thousand lines later, during his description of Grendel’s defeat:

                                he þone feond ofercwom,
gehnægde helle gast.   Þa he hean gewat,
dreame bedæled,   deaþwic seon,
mancynnes feond.

“He (Beowulf) overcame the enemy, humbled the hellish ghost. Then he, the enemy of mankind, departed humiliated to see his death-place, bereft of joy” (1273-76).

In both these descriptions of Grendel, hel “hell” is directly referenced (163, 1274), which both reinforces the satanic undertones implied by feond manncynnes and further signals Grendel’s affiliation with the demonic. By characterizing the monster as “enemy of mankind” (164, 1276), the narrator emphasizes both the existential threat posed by Grendel to the Danish people as well as the spiritual doom which awaits them. The Danes are explicitly condemned as hæðen“heathen” by the narrator (179), especially for offering worship to the devil, described as gastbona “soul-slayer” (177). In this way, physical and spiritual devastation are fused—uniting the political and moral implications of hostis publicus or feond mancynnes represented as a terrifying monster in Beowulf.

Of course, in Trump’s America,  the phrase “enemy of the people” calls to mind the president’s repeated use of the term to demonize the media.

President Donald Trump, photo by Carlo Allegri/Reuters.

President Trump regularly resorts to scare tactics—portending doom—such as when he threatened an economic depression if he were to be impeached. However, the president has especially targeted the media as political and moral adversaries, and their designation as public enemies has resulted in threats of physical violence.

On February 17, 2017, Trump’s rhetorical appropriation of this epithet erupted on Twitter, when the president declared: “The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @NBCNews, @ABC, @CBS, @CNN) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!”

Trump repeated his designation of the press as “the enemy of the people” on February 24, 2018: “A few days ago I called the fake news the enemy of the people and they are. They are the enemy of the people.” On June 25, 2018, the president condemned journalists as “fake newsers” and “the enemy of the people”during a rally. After his summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, Finland (July 15, 2018), in his response to criticism by the press, Trump tweeted on July 19, 2018: “The Summit with Russia was a great success, except with the real enemy of the people, the Fake News Media.”

Trump and Putin hold a joint news conference after their meeting in Helsinki (July 16th, 2018), photo by Grigory Dukor/Reuters.

Trump has drawn criticism from international organizations such as the United Nations and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights for his targeting of journalists and the institution of the free press. Still, the president’s attacks on the media have continued, despite that his administration is investigating the abduction and apparent murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a journalist for The Washington Post. Turkish media reports that he was tortured, executed and dismembered shortly after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2, 2018. Despite political pressure, the president has not toned down his rhetoric, and Trump praised Montana Republican Rep. Greg Gianforte for assaulting a reporter on October 19, 2018. The president applauded Gianforte’s violence and complimented the GOP Congressman saying, “any guy who can do a body slam, he’s my kind of… he’s my guy.”

Trump supporting Greg Gianforte after “body-slamming” a reporter, photo by Carolyn Kaster/AP Images.

While rhetorical demonization of political opponents as “enemies of the people” is by no means new, in the past it has proven effective in arousing fear and hatred, paving the way in many cases for atrocities. By painting the free press as a public enemy, Trump has appropriated this political designation (and satanic epithet), applying it to those who would criticize him and sanctioning violence against them. The president uses the term as a rhetorical weapon—a tool which both challenges the credibility of his dissenters and conjures the specter of conspiracy against him. Even this past week, after pipe-bombs were sent to some of his most prominent political targets (including CNN and members of the previous administration), Trump persisted in his rhetoric against the media. Despite the ongoing manhunt for a serial bomber (which apprehended the alleged perpetrator, Cesar Soyac), the president tweeted on October 25, 2018: “A very big part of the Anger we see today in our society is caused by the purposely false and inaccurate reporting of the Mainstream Media that I refer to as Fake News. It has gotten so bad and hateful that it is beyond description. Mainstream Media must clean up its act, FAST!”

Trump followed this up a few days later with another tweet, again designating the media as enemies of the people and blaming the free press for the recent surge in politically motivated violence, declaring on October 29, 2018: “There is great anger in our Country caused in part by inaccurate, and even fraudulent, reporting of the news. The Fake News Media, the true Enemy of the People, must stop the open & obvious hostility & report the news accurately & fairly. That will do much to put out the flame…”

Until Trump’s presidency, attacks against the free press were primarily associated with the Nazi regime, which appropriated the 19th century political term lügenpresse “lying press” for their propaganda efforts against the free press in Germany. However, the alt-right movement in the United States has more recently appropriated this Nazi epithet to attack the media as pathological liars, and the president has adopted this rhetorical position. The New York Times has pointed out that the president’s demonization of the media frequently follows moments of crisis and criticism, comparable to the propagandizing use of lügenpresse by Nazis and vrag naroda by Soviets.

Nazi propaganda poster “We Workers Have Awakened” for the 1930 election in Germany, targeting political opponents including communists and the lügenpresse (lying press).

When Trump designates the free press as “the enemy of the people,” he appeals to the political tradition of hostis publicus, but invokes also a moral—even spiritual—component emphasized in the satanic epithet feond mancynnes used for the demon in Juliana and Grendel in Beowulf. The president has weaponized the rhetoric of monstrosity against his most vocal critics and whistleblowers, those who might hold him accountable for his actions through their reporting or political opposition. In placing Old English literature (such as Beowulf and Juliana) in conversation with global trends in political rhetoric, we find that the epithet feond mancynnes resonates with Trump’s ethical appeals and demonization of the media as “the enemy of the people.” In this way, the rhetoric of monstrosity displayed in these medieval poems can speak to the current crisis of credibility plaguing American politics. The narrator’s designation of Grendel as feond mancynnes sanctions vengeance against him in Beowulf, and similarly the president’s rhetoric both condones and encourages violence against the free press and his political adversaries.

Richard Fahey
PhD Candidate in English
University of Notre Dame

 

Further Reading

Feldman, Thalia Phillies. “A Comparative Study of FeondDeoflSyn, and Hel in Beowulf.” Neuphilologische Mitteilungen 88 (1987): 159-74.

—. “Grendel and Cain’s Descendents.” Literary Onomastics Studies 8 (1981): 71-87.

Orchard, Andy. Pride and Prodigies: Studies in the Monsters of the ‘Beowulf’-Manuscript. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1995.

—. A Critical Companion to A Critical Companion to ‘Beowulf’. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2003.

Vinsonhaler, Chris. “The HearmscaÞa and the Handshake: Desire and Disruption in the Grendel Episode.” Comitatus 47 (2016): 1-36.