Hreðel’s Choice [ll.2460-2471] (Old English)

Abstract
Translation
A Religious Out
Another Crucial Phrase
A Word to Modernize
Closing

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Abstract

In this week’s excerpt Beowulf finishes his retelling of Hreðel’s reaction to Herebeald’s death. The old king is conflicted and ultimately gives up all of his possessions and holdings to his remaining sons:

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Translation

“‘Then he lays himself in his bed and, wailing a dirge,
is alone even with himself; to him it all seems too large,
the fields and the halls. Thus was the Geat lord’s
heart sorrow after Herebeald
went into that far country; he knew not how he might
wreak his feud on the slayer;
nor could he hate that warrior,
despite his loathsome deed, though he loved him not.
Amidst that sorrow, that which sorely him concerned,
he gave up life’s joys, chose God’s light;
he left all to his sons, as any prosperous man does,
lands and towns, when he left off this life.'”
(Beowulf ll.2460-2471)

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A Religious Out

What more is there to say here? Hreðel’s great sorrow is combined with the utter failure that he faces in the face of the social code of the feud.

He can’t kill his own son. So he does what anyone in a bind did in those medieval days (and these modern ones as well), he turns to “God’s light”. However, the phrase “chose God’s light,” (“Godes lēoht gecēas” l.2469) is open to interpretation.

Hreðel might’ve gone and joined a monastery, maybe became an anchorite, or he might have just given up entirely and let his body waste away until he died. The phrase could also refer to a conversion, but that interpretation isn’t likely given the history of the poem’s transmission.

If Beowulf was written out by Christian monks as a way of preserving it/using it for teaching/propaganda, it seems odd that a conversion would cause a character to drop out of society as Hreðel, a king, does.

So, I think, that the phrase “chose God’s light” refers to some great act of austerity (fasting, seclusion) that leads Hreðel, in his weakened state, to his death.

{Job also “chose God’s light” it seems. A William Blake original.}

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Another Crucial Phrase

That’s not the only sticky phrase in the mix, though.

Afterall, there is the phrase used to describe the old man of Beowulf’s simile when he shuts himself in his room: “ān æfter ānum.” I translate this as “alone even with himself” (l.2461). As I have it, the phrase might seem to be lacking sense, but it’s based on the apparent meaning of a literal translation: “alone for the purpose of being alone.”

My rendering is intended to have the same basic meaning as a literal translation but with fewer words. “Alone even with himself” demonstrates how the old man is alone and separated from his thoughts and feelings even when he is by himself; that’s just how much his grief and sorrow consume him.

Other than those cruxes, the passage is pretty straightforward. It’s even got a neat Old English word that Modern English should pick up and dust off.

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A Word to Modernize

This word is “gum-drēam” (“enjoyment of life”), definitely a favourite. It’s a compounding of a word for “man” (“gumma”) and “joy, mirth, music, singing” (“drēam”), certainly a curious combination.

Literally it would translate as “man-joy” or “man-mirth,” a word that definitely wouldn’t resonate as well in a world where “man” is very rarely used to represent all of humanity. But it’s a cool word, and if, say, someone wanted to bring it back, “lifejoy” or “are-mirth” could work.

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Closing

If you’ve got your own take on how “gum-dream” could be modernized, or on what Hreðel’s choosing “God’s light” means let me know about it in a comment!

Next week, Isidore writes about animals for war and animals for sacrifice, and Beowulf relates how the Swedes and Geats met in the field of war and how a certain Geat doesn’t return. Watch this blog for those entries next Tuesday and Thursday respectively!

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