Young Beowulf’s Melancholic Tale [ll.2430-2440] (Old English)

Summary
What is and What’s to Come
All About a Name
Beowulf’s Phrasing
Closing

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Summary

This part of Beowulf is one that makes the Anglo-Saxon propensity for melancholic reflections painfully obvious. We see the old king sitting on the sea cliffs and talking with his thanes about his life, and how even at an early age he witnessed something tragic – fratricide.

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What is and What’s to Come

Lines 2430 to 2440 actually present a curious kind of contrast. In the first five lines Beowulf tells of Hreðel’s (Hrethel) warm reception (“mindful as kin,” “sibbe gemunde” (l.2431)).

But then in the second, we get his report of the murder. According to Beowulf (no mean storyteller, he did, after all, boast to Hrothgar about his deeds, clear up the matter of the swim with Breca, and give Hygelac a slightly diverging story about his fights with the Grendels upon his return to Geatland) Hreðel’s eldest son, Herebeald, was shot and killed by the youngest, Hæðcyn (Haethcyn).

Within his account, two things come up that I want to expand upon here. First is one of the brother’s names, and second is Beowulf’s phrasing.

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All About a Name

Perhaps a bit of Christian propaganda, Herebeald’s name echoes a similarly killed Aesir in Norse mythology.

This Aesir is the son of Odin, Baldur, god of Light and Spring. For the full story of his death check here. The gist of it is that Baldur’s death is foretold, all of the things on the earth take an oath that they will not hurt Baldur, yet through some of Loki’s trickery and a technicality Hodor is given a sprig of mistletoe that did not take the oath. Hodor fires and Baldur is killed.

This could be some low level Christian propaganda because it points towards fratricide within Nordic myth, thus attempting to show its wrong-headedness. However, Beowulf seems to be defending Hæðcyn.

Here is how he describes Hæðcyn’s act: “he aimed for a misted mark and shot his own kin” (“miste mercelses ond his mǣg ofscēt” (l.2439)). Because this is a whole line and not just a word or phrase, I think that strategic language on the poet/scribe’s part for the sake of form can be ruled out.

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Beowulf’s Phrasing

Within the phrase itself, all of the words are quite clear. “Miste,” “ond,” “his,” and “ofscēt” are all more or less left unchanged on their way into Modern English. “Mǣg” is less immediately clear, but translates as “kin, family.” Ah, but “mercelses,” that offers some difficulty.

Knowing that the word is a form of “mearc” meaning “mark, sign, standard, border, etc.” means that it’s just a matter of figuring out its case. That it ends in “es” gives solid ground to say that it is indeed in the genitive case, which I expressed by adding in “aim” to clarify a more literal translation.

Such a literal translation is: “mark of mist and his brother shot.” Since it’s mentioned that Hæðcyn has a bow in line 2437 (“bogan”), the logical step that must come between his having it and the mention of a “mark of mist” is that he must have been aiming his bow. Hence the addition.

Though even without this addition, the emphasis that the line’s alliteration puts on “misty” suggests that Hæðcyn was in some sort of daze.

I think that this ambiguity absolves him of the murder, in a way. it certainly makes it more ambiguous, and might even be pointing towards the moral idea that a person cannot be judged on their actions but only on their intent.

Beowulf (and/or the poet/scribe) might just be unclear on what his motivation was, but there is a germ of something more here, I believe. Why? Because it’s coming in at a part of the larger story of Beowulf in which Beowulf is looking for solace in the sorrows of his past.

Perhaps, some might argue that he is trying to forgive himself for killing Grendel whom he somehow viewed as a brother. Or perhaps he is just trying to work out his feelings for the Geats that he will be leaving behind through an analogy with Hreðel and the loss of his son.

Beowulf has seen the Geats come far, but also has seen their youth lose their spark. Whatever the case is, the ambiguity presented here makes it plain that this whole episode is more opaque than evil dragons and troublesome killers.

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Closing

Next week the story continues, as Beowulf adds more detail to his tale – what becomes of Hæðcyn? Just how melancholic can Anglo-Saxon poetry get? Read on next week to find out!

And if you’ve got any opinions, arguments, or points on or about this week’s section, toss them in the comments.

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