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 mearcstapan “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.

Dragonomics: Smaug and Climate Change

Today, we talk about dragons. I refer specifically to the greedy, northern (often fire-breathing) variety as described in Beowulf and featured in Tolkien’s Hobbit, and I will consider how these monsters present environmental catastrophe as a direct result of hoarding and greed.

My discussion of dragons and climate change continues my recent series of blogs interested in placing medieval literature (and in this case also modern medievalism) in conversation with current crises. This blog develops an earlier argument made in a paper at a “Tolkien in Vermont” conference (2014), titled “Dragonomics: Smaug and Pollution on Middle-Earth,” in which I argue that pollution in Tolkien’s Hobbit is linked to both the literal destruction by the dragon, and the rampant greed that motivates Smaug and ultimately initiates the plunder and violence at the Battle of Five Armies.

‘Dragon Hoard,’ Stephen Hickman (1985).

In the past, I have defined dragonomics as “the relationship between greed and catastrophe characteristic of certain representations of medieval dragons (especially the Beowulf-dragon),” which I separately argued also may apply to the study of Smaug in Tolkien’s Hobbit. In Beowulf, both the draca “dragon” slain by Sigemund (892), and the draca slain by Beowulf (2211), are depicted as excessively greedy, possessing heaps of beagas “rings” (894 and 3105) and frætwe “treasures” (896 and 3133). To emphasize the extent of their respective plunder, the dragon in the Sigemund episode is named hordes hyrde “guardian of the hoard” (887), and likewise the Beowulf-dragon is characterized repeatedly as hordweard “hoard-guardian” (2293, 2302, 2554, 2593), an epithet otherwise used throughout poem to describe kings, such as Hroðgar (1047) and Beowulf (1852).

Smaug’s hoard is equally impressive, and Tolkien describes the dragon atop his treasure: “Beneath him, under all his limbs and his coiled tail, and about him on all sides stretching away across the unseen floors, lay countless piles of precious things, gold wrought and unwrought, gems and jewels, and silver red-stained in the ruddy light” (215). Likewise when Smaug attacks, Bard of Lake-town acknowledges that the dragon is “the only king under the Mountain we have ever known” (248). Smaug similarly styles himself a king in his riddling conversation with Bilbo. Before he journeys to destroy Esgaroth, Smaug proudly remarks that “They shall see me and remember who is the real King under the Mountain!” (233).

Smaug and Bilbo, from Jackson’s ‘The Desolation of Smaug’ (2013).

Indeed, it is the hoarded wealth of a dying people that lures the Beowulf-dragon to the barrow (2270-72), and similarly, in Tolkien’s Hobbit, we learn that the dwarves’ obscene wealth is what lured Smaug to Erebor in the first place. Thorin explicitly notes how their hoard attracted Smaug:

“So my grandfather’s halls became full of armour and jewels and carvings and cups, and the toy market of Dale was the wonder of the North. Undoubtedly, that was what brought the dragon” (23).

Although the greedy wyrm “serpent” (891) that Sigemund kills is not described as particularly destructive, the avaricious Beowulf-dragon becomes belligerent once its wealth is disturbed by an anonymous thief, who steals its dryncfæt deore “precious sippy-cup” (2254). The narrator explains that after the wyrm (2287) is robbed of his prized chalice, he ravages the countryside causing widespread destruction.

Manuscript image of Beowulf, British Library, Cotton Vitellius a.xv, f.184r.
Beowulf, 2312-27
Ða se gæst ongan   gledum spiwan,
beorht hofu bærnan;   bryneleoma stod
eldum on andan.   No ðær aht cwices
lað lyftfloga   læfan wolde.
Wæs þæs wyrmes wig   wide gesyne,
nearofages nið   nean ond feorran,
hu se guðsceaða   Geata leode
hatode ond hynde;   hord eft gesceat,
dryhtsele dyrnne,   ær dæges hwile.
Hæfde landwara   lige befangen,
bæle ond bronde.   Beorges getruwode,
wiges ond wealles.   Him seo wen geleah.
Þa wæs Biowulfe   broga gecyðed
snude to soðe,   þæt his sylfes ham,
bolda selest,   brynewylmum mealt,
gifstol Geata.
“Then the spirit began to spew flames, burning the bright buildings. The burning-light [i.e. dragon] remained in anger toward all humans. The loathsome air-flier wanted to leave nothing alive there. The war of the serpent, the enmity of the narrow-hostile one, was widely seen, near and far—how the war-harmer hated and humiliated the Geatish people. It shot back to its hoard, its secret lordly-hall, a while before daybreak. The land-citizens had been surrounded by fire, by flame and brand. It trusted in its barrow, war and wall. The expectation for him was deceived. Then was the terror known to Beowulf, quickly to truth, that his own home, the best of houses, melted in burning-waves, the gift-throne of the Geats.”

In Tolkien’s Hobbit, widespread devastation occurs when Smaug first plunders the wealth from the dwarves, unlike in Beowulf, where the hoarders are long-dead (2236-70). Pollution seems to accompany Smaug, and in Thorin’s retelling of the dwarves’ exile from Erebor, he describes how “A fog fell on Dale, and in the fog the dragon came on them” (23). Smaug again causes calamity when his hoard is disturbed, and Bilbo—like the Beowulf-thief—steals a treasured cup from the dragon. Bilbo accidentally directs Smaug’s attention toward Lake-town, and when the dragon attacks, he arrives with “shadows of dense black” (249) that engulfs the city.

Smaug attacking Lake-town, Rankin and Bass’ ‘The Hobbit’ (1977).

Although both dragons lay waste to the surrounding region, Smaug’s pollution of Middle-Earth expands well beyond the scope of his medieval predecessor. Indeed, as a result of Smaug, the environment has been poisoned, and a once lush and thriving place had withered as a result of excessive smoke and heat.

I would argue that for Tolkien—whose environmentalism is no secret—Smaug represents a more contemporary form of dragonomics with special attention toward the ways in which greed drives war and industry, which pollutes the land and skies. The smog episodes in London throughout the 19th and 20th centuries–which culminated in the “Great Smog” of 1952 that killed 4,000 peoplemay not be part of the philological jest of the dragon’s name (since Tolkien describes the etymology of Smaug as derived from the past tense smaug of the proto-Germanic smugan “to squeeze through a hole” in his 1938 Observer letter); nevertheless, Smaug becomes a representation of the dragonomics more closely associated with industrialization, which promised wealth but delivered also ecological catastrophe. Tolkien emphasizes that “his hot breath shriveled the grass” (219) and “The dragon had withered all the pleasant green” (229).

London during the Great Smog of 1952, Associated Newspapers /REX.

Smaug is characteristically avaricious, and Thorin describes him as “a most specially greedy, strong and wicked worm called Smaug” (23).” Tolkien refers to Smaug’s environmental impact as “The Desolation of the Dragon” (203, 255), and the author imagines an earlier, greener and more plentiful time before the dragon made his mark:

“There was little grass, and before long there was neither bush nor tree, and only broken and blackened stumps to speak of ones long vanished” (203).

I would argue that Smaug’s pollution changes the climate of Middle-Earth, affecting the land and the skies, but also the rivers and woods (such as the poisoned river and forests encountered in Mirkwood), and even the Elf-king’s woodland realm and the human merchant city of Lake-town. A conversation between Bilbo and Balin emphasizes Smaug’s lingering effect. Bilbo wagers that ‘The dragon is still alive—or I imagine so from the smoke’ (204), but Balin is worried about the lasting pollution of Smaug, and so the dwarf objects. Balin explains how Smaug “might be gone away some time … and still I expect smokes and steams would come out of the gates: all the halls within must be filled with his foul reek” (204). Bilbo discovers the truth of the dwarf’s words, for even when Smaug is not at home, “the worm-stench was heavy in the place, and the taste of vapour was on his tongue” (235).

Smog in Lianyungang, China (2013), Chinafotopress/Getty Images.

I offer this interpretation of Tolkien’s dragon, because I would suggest that Smaug may be productively read as a representation of climate change, in the sense that the dragon is a force of smoke and heat which destroys ecosystems and disrupts the environment in much deeper and more long-lasting ways. Indeed, Tolkien reiterates the ecological cost of Smaug’s presence, and he describes how “his hot breath shriveled the grass” (219) and “The dragon had withered all the pleasant green” (229).

Since the president’s declaration of a national emergency with regard to the alleged immigration crisis on the southern border of the United States, many have already begun to discuss the potential for a future president to declare a national emergency in order to act on climate change more comprehensively, if necessary. We are already imagining our environmental crisis as the monster it threatens to be.

Cal Fire firefighter in Igo, CA (2018), Hector Amezcua/The Sacramento Bee via AP.

At the center of our modern struggles with dragonomics, I would argue, the problem of avarice endures. It is greed, especially from the fossil fuel lobby and the major energy companies (many linked to nations themselves), which have stalled and prevented developments in renewable energies in order to reduce our carbon footprint. And greed continues to obstruct human efforts to act upon the issue, both globally and as individual nations, as the looming dragon grows ever bigger and more ominous.

Dragonomics is not simply about making money, it is about plundering it and more importantly hoarding it. I have already referenced how greed motivates Smaug’s plunder, and I will turn now to Tolkien’s description of dragon-hoarding:

“Dragons steal gold and jewels…and they guard their plunder as long as they live….and never enjoy a brass ring of it. Indeed they hardly know a good bit of work from a bad, though they usually have a good notion of the market value” (23).

‘Smaug,’ Sam Kieser (2012).

The socially detrimental result of hoarding obscene wealth marks the very pinnacle of greed in the Hobbit, which Tolkien describes specifically as “dragon-sickness” (305).  I would argue that hoarding is also a major motivating force when it comes to our environmental crisis, especially with regard to our delayed and incoherent responses to the issues climate change presents. This is especially true with regard to the oil companies and related special interests linked to fossil fuels, which in their attempts to consolidate and retain their wealth and virtual monopoly on energy, have awoken a terrible dragon, one that will dwarf Smaug and will require heroism—not only from those in leadership positions, but also from the people. Indeed, when it comes to the crisis of global pollution and climate change, Bilbo’s sentiments ring truer to me than ever: “‘This whole place still stinks of dragon….and it makes me sick’” (267).

Thorin’s final words to Bilbo, Rankin and Bass’ ‘The Hobbit’ (1977).

Still, it is Thorin’s famous deathbed realization that speaks most directly to today’s crisis, if the goal is to work together globally in order to combat our collective environmental crisis. The moment calls for a collective change of attitude, particularly from those who maintain that profits and economics necessarily trump ecological concerns. As even the miserly dwarf-king, formerly seduced by “the bewitchment of the hoard” (240), must admit at the end of his life: “If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world” (290).

Richard Fahey
PhD Candidate in English
University of Notre Dame


Editions and Translations:

Tolkien, J. R. R. 1937. The Hobbit, or, There and back again. George Allen & Unwin.
Pages correspond to:
Tolkien, J. R. R. 1937. The Hobbit, or, There and back again (Mass Market Edition). HarperCollins Publishers. 2012.

Heaney, Seamus. Beowulf: A New Verse Translation (Bilingual Edition). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 2000.

Klaeber’s Beowulf (Fourth Edition), ed. R.D. Fulk, Robert E. Bjork, John D. Niles. University of Toronto Press. 2008.

Further Reading:

Abram, Christopher. Evergreen Ash: Ecology and Catastrophe in Old Norse Myth and Literature. University of Virginia Press. 2019.

Bates, Robin. “Dragon Billionaires Assaulting America.” Better Living Through Beowulf. September 19, 2012.

Cooke, William. “Who Cursed Whom, and When? The Cursing of the Hoard and Beowulf’s Fate.” Medium Aevum 76.2 (2007): 207-224.

Evans, Jonathan D. “A Semiotics and Traditional Lore: The Medieval Dragon Tradition.” Journal of Folklore Research 22 (1985): 85-112.

—. “‘As Rare as They Are Dire’: Old Norse Dragons, Beowulf and the Deutsche Mythologie”: 207-269. In The Shadow-Walkers: Grimm’s Mythology of the Monstrous, ed. Tom Shippey. Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies. 2005.

Lawrence, William Witherle. “The Dragon and His Lair in Beowulf.” PMLA 33.4 (1918): 547-583.

Lee, Alvin A. Gold-hall and Earth-dragon: Beowulf as Metaphor. University of Toronto Press. 1998.

Lionarons, Joyce Tally. The Medieval Dragon: The Nature of the Beast in Germanic Literature. Hisarlik Press. 1998.

Park, Jisung and James Hacker. “The Derivation of Smaug: Dragons, Methane, and Climate Change.” Sense and Sustainability. January, 20, 2014.

Rauer, Christine. Beowulf and the Dragon: Parallels and Analogues. Boydell and Brewer. 2000.

Shabala, Alex. “From Smaug to Smog: Historical carbon emissions due to dragons in Middle Earth.” Climate System Analysis Group. January 27, 2014.

Shippey, T.A. The Road to Middle-Earth: How J.R.R. Tolkien Created a New Mythology. Mariner Books. 2003.

Silber, Patricia. “Gold and Its Significance in Beowulf.” Annuale Mediaevale 18 (1977): 5-19.


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.