Beowulf [ll.2409-2419] (Old English)

Introduction
Section Summary
A Word Wanted
A Difficult Word
Speculation on Hengest and Horsa
Closing

Introduction

Thursday is here again, and so I’ll continue with my work on Beowulf.

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Section Summary

The next section of my Beowulf translation covers line 2409-2419: The part at which the thrall is forced to guide Beowulf and his eleven chosen warriors to the place where he found the stolen cup that Beowulf believes is the cause of the dragon’s rage. They reach the cave (hleaw, 2411) and discover that it is full of wondrous treasures (“wraetta ond wira,” or “wrought and wound,” as I translate it, 2413).

But, they also know that the treasure’s guardian is the dragon and, as the poet points out, no man is able to extract that treasure cheaply because of the dragon’s eagerness to guard it (“gearo guð-freca gold-maðmas heold” 2414) (2416). The passage ends when Beowulf sits down on the cliff-top overlooking the sea and wishes all of his warriors health and luck (haelo abead, 2418). For he already seems to know that his loan of days is due.

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A Word Wanted

I always have a lot of fun with this language. Maybe it’s because the expression seems so fancy free or because it’s from a time before there was really a formalized register and diction that could be learned in school (since English wasn’t taught in school back then, it was just the common tongue – what people spoke to communicate with each other. Latin, Celtic, and probably even some Old French would have been used for business, since native Old English speakers would trade with those peoples).

Whatever the case, this degree of enjoyment tends to turn me onto a word that should still be around in one form or another.

In the case of this passage, the word that I want to see come back is heorð-geneat (hearth-companion). The origin of the term probably came from the practice of those fighting wars/feuds together sitting down and talking/eating/relaxing by a fire. The same sort of bonding happens today with MMORPGS or online forums. Flickering lights still help us to bond with one another.

But not too many people actually sit around fires on a regular basis. Sure, some people go camping, and maybe some use wood furnaces to heat their living space. But, it’s generally not a daily occurrence to wind up beside friends in front of a roaring blaze. But, it is a daily occurrence for people to bond while playing MMORPGS and other such online games (sorry TV, but high speed internet and wi-fi have done to you what you did to radio).

So, as a modernized version of heorð-geneat, I propose that we bring in the term connection companion. Or, for short, conn-comp. Think about it.

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A Difficult Word

Within the passage the only word completely unfamiliar to me was “unhiore,” on line 2413. The word translates as terrible, a shuffle that is easy enough, but it’s parts are a little bit curious to me.

A hearty little particle, “un” meant then what it still means now – a negation of what follows (such as unsure for not sure). The rest of the word, “hiore,” as best as I can figure is a variant of “hearra,” meaning lord, master, or it is a variant of “heorra,” meaning “hinge, cardinal point.”

The latter actually makes a little bit more sense to me, since something that is “not a hinge/cardinal point” would mean that it is not tied into the world in an extremely structured way (perhaps not subject to wyrd/fate like everything else).

Basically, this combination makes the word “unhiore” seem like it refers to an anomaly in the system. Such a variation is a truly terrifying thing when your system is there to help navigate life in a world full of strife. Especially since that strife was not of the life-choice kind we face today (seriously think through grad school if it be among your choices, oh ye bright eyed senior undergraduate) but of the wayward sword cutting open an artery kind.

Of course, this interpretation of “unhiore” is primarily supported by my trusty Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary.

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Speculation on Hengest and Horsa

Since we’re in the realm of speculation already, here’s some more.

While looking up “yð-gewinne” (“wave-strife”) I came across the word “yð-hengest” (“sea horse,” a kenning for “ship”). This got me thinking.

Recently I listened to the Anglo Saxon podcast by frederic and he mentioned that Gildas calls only Hengest and Horsa by name among all of those Angles called in by the king of the Britons to help fend off the other Celtic tribes. On the podcast frederic noted that these names translate as horse and mare respectively. But what if Gildas meant yð-hengest instead of just Hengest? Then it would be ship and mare.

Further, what if this is an old saying signifying men and supplies? Or families and rations? I mean, it’s clear that the Angles didn’t just bring two guys and a few ships over when they came, there were much more than that coming to the Britons’ aid.

Old English idioms like this are notoriously difficult to figure out because there are so few sources, but I think that this could be something. I mean, until England became the major super power, English was just a bunch of dialects that at times could pose some difficulty to each other.

Hundreds of years earlier, when the only permanent media was the written word, idiom would have traveled at a snail’s pace and probably would have taken years, if not decades, to work its way into everyday use between dialects.

So maybe horse and mare or ship and mare is an example of a dialect from Gildas’ region. Already clear is that ships are super important to Anglo-Saxons – they can be treasure houses, the means to travel for adventure and conquest, and potentially the final resting place for warriors. But what are horses to them? A means of transit? A thing to gamble on?

Maybe if I can establish what a horse *was* to the Anglo-Saxons of 800-1100 AD, then I can write more about what a mare by itself might signify beyond the animal. And what something like “ship and mare” might mean.

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Closing

Anyway, with that question, and that quest, I leave off with Beowulf until next Thursday. Leave any suggestions, contentions or comments in the text box below.

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