The End of an Epic (Simile) [Beowulf ll.2450-2459] (Old English)

On Heirs and Reasons
Summary and Surmise
Some Potential New Words

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Beowulf finishes his digression in this section and then returns to the specifics of Hreðel’s situation after the death of Herebeald. Here, read for yourself.

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“‘Relentlessly he is reminded each morning
of his son’s demise; he does not care to wait
for another heir in his hall
since his firstborn has been fettered
by death’s decree.
He looks with sorrowful soul into his son’s chambers,
a joy-hall now desolate, the dwelling place of winds,
bereft of all joy; the riders are asleep,
the fighters are laid down in darkness; no harp sounds are
there, no men in the yard, as there once were.'”
(Beowulf ll.2450-2459)

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On Heirs and Reasons

Among the images used in the passage, I think that of the father who has no interest in producing another heir because his first born has been killed is the strongest. That image really speaks to the sort of despair and sense of futility that anyone within a hierarchical inheritance system would feel when, as the Old English word implies, one has lost their inheritance guardian (“yrfe-weard,” ll.2453).

True, the man has his other sons to inherit his lands and property upon his death, but the death of the firstborn throws the identity of the heir into question. If mere birth order determines it then there could be a motive for the murder there.

Hæðcyn could have possibly killed his older brother to jump ahead in line, thus marking him as dishonourable and selfish and thus a bad king. If it was just an accident then might Hæðcyn also be a bad choice because he lacks control?

Yet simply handing the realm over to Hygelac and skipping Hæðcyn entirely would be a slight to him as the second eldest – and besides, who’s to say that the two didn’t conspire against Herebeald? The destruction of even a single link in the chain of inheritance throws the whole sequence into question.

And I think that’s why Hreðel’s sorrow is described in terms that are similar to those used for the last survivor’s sorrow. Though he has sons and his line will continue, he may be the last one who can fully enjoy the legacy of his properties and lands.

In the Lay of the Last Survivor (ll.2247-66) the bitterness of being the last of a clan is described, and these lines are particularly relevant:

“‘[…] the tried warriors passed elsewhere'” (l.2254)

“‘[…] No harp joy,
no delight of musical instruments, nor any good hawk
flies through the hall, nor any swift mare
stomps in the courtyard.'” (ll.2262-65)

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Summary and Surmise

The first of these sections echoes the statement in line 2458 that the “fighters are laid down in darkness,” after some verbal acrobatics. The word used for “elsewhere” in line 2254 (“ellor”) is also used in a compound word meaning death (ellor-sīð) in reference to Herebeald.

The death of the fighters in line 2458 is sheerly communicated via metaphor, but the idea of death being some ‘far country’ could be present in the mention of ‘darkness.’ Darkness was a very strong marker of the Other, and death is a great Other as well.

The second section is more clearly related to Beowulf’s description of Hreðel’s sorrow in that the imagery is that of lack of music, emptiness in the hall, and silence in the yard.

Essentially, spaces that were once filled – the air with sound, the hall with feasting, and the yard with motion – are now lacking these qualities.

Just as the last survivor laments the loss of people who bear cups, polish armour, or use any of the treasures that he’s returning to the earth, so too is the lack of what defines these spaces useful as an expression of mourning. One who is integral to the regular function of life and society has been lost.

Could there be more of a connection here? Does Beowulf perhaps look at the younger generation of Geats and think that he too is a last survivor? Is that why he uses similar imagery? Or was the poet/scribe just strapped for ideas?

{Image from Shopify.}

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Some Potential New Words

Narrowing my focus down to words that caught my eye, one that I would like to get back into everyday speech is “windgereste,” “resting place of the winds,” implying an empty or disused space. That whole phrase is a bit much (it’d take 26 characters out of any tweet!), so instead it could be introduced as wind-place, or wind-dwelling, or wind-home.

“Ellor-sīð” is also curious (meaning “journey elsewhere, death”), but ideas of death and dying are now so much broader than they were in the recorded West of the early middle ages. It’s a broad term, but I’m not sure if it would work given the acknowledged breadth of current ideas of death.

“Yrfe-weard,” mentioned near the top of this entry, could work on the same level as “windgereste,” since inheritance still happens and wills can be sticky situations.

However, inheritances don’t have the same general importance as they did then, since they aren’t the only (near) surefire way to a life of comfort/success/wealth. Whether it’d fly or not, “surety-heir” could work since surety is basically a term for a very specific kind of guard, and it does have a nice flow.

What’s your preference among those three compound words for a new English word? Let me know in a comment!

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Next week, come on back for the continuation of St. Isidore’s entry on herd animals and beasts of burden, and for the completion of Hreðel’s part in Beowulf’s reminiscence.

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