Swedish Retribution "from over wide water" [ll.2472-2483] (Old English)

On Swedes and Geats
Compounding New Words

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We get the history hard and fast in this week’s passage of Beowulf (ll.2472-2483, Chapter XXXV).

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“‘Then between Swedes and Geats was war and enmity;
from over wide water causing laments,
wall-hard warfare, after Hrethel had perished,
Ongeonðēow’s sons to them came,
warlike; they would not free
those they held under sorrow’s sway, and near Hrēosnahill
they oft launched voracious ambushes.
My close-kin avenged this,
feud and war-fire, as it is known,
though one of them bought the victory, at a hard price,
with his life; Haethcyn, Geatish lord,
was taken in the war’s assailing.'”
(Beowulf ll.2472-2483)

{Approximation of the Hrēosnahill fight offered by a mural of the Battle of Maldon. From the Braintree collection of murals.}

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On Swedes and Geats

Questions bubble up like air in a flagon of ale upon reading this passage. Who was Ongeonðēow? What’s important about Hrēosnahill? What liberties were taken with the translation?

Ongeonðēow [On-g’in-thou] was the king of the Swedes who launched an attack on the Geats to recover his daughter and his gold, both of which had been taken by the Geats on an earlier raid. He was famed as a powerful king, and two Geats (Eofor and Wulf) had to work together to defeat him (read more here). Though, as we’ll see in next week’s entry, Beowulf makes it sound like Hygelac himself lands the deathblow.

Hrēosnahill [Heh-res-na-hill] is where Hæðcyn had taken Ongeonðēow’s daughter, and is apparently a real place (modern Swedish:”Ramshult”), as well as a place that is traditionally within Geatish territory. Go to this Wikipedia page for more info.

So, what’s happening here is a little bit of old fashioned early medieval back and forth. The Geats stole Ongeonðēow’s daughter and gold (according to Wikipedia), and now the Swedes are coming for rescue and revenge – which they (again, from Wikipedia) only half exact. The Swedes recover the woman, but not the gold.

Two liberties were taken in the above translation. In the third line (l.2474) “wall-hard warfare” is altered from the literal “hard warfare” since the alliteration makes it sound more Anglo-Saxon and “hard warfare” isn’t as evocative as the original “here-nīð hearda.”

The phrase “under sorrow’s sway” was also altered from the literal “lamentation holding” since it doesn’t have enough punch in Modern English. It also confuses the metaphor of being held under extreme emotion, which is clarified by “under sorrow’s sway.”

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Compounding New Words

The words “here-nīð,” and “inwit-scearo” are both compound words worthy of elaboration.

The first combines the word for “predatory band, troop, army; war, devastation” (“here”) and for “strife, enmity, attack, spite, affliction,” (“nīð”). Literally, then, it could be rendered “war-strife” or “troop-enmity” and so warfare is a clear translation of it. The redundancy of a literal translation also makes the standard translation of the phrase more efficient than a literal rendering.

The word “inwit-scearo” on the other hand, is more worthy. The term is a mix of “inwit,” meaning “evil, deceit, wicked, deceitful,” and “scearo,” a form of “scieran,” meaning “to cleave, hew, cut; receive tonsure; abrupt.”

Literally, the word could be rendered as “evil-cleave” or “abrupt-deceit” which sound like they could still be productive words among modern counterparts. “Evil-cleave” at least sounds like a technique in an RPG, while “abrupt-deceit” could be a spicier way to describe an ambush or surprise attack.

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To let me know what you think about these compound words (or this entry in general) just post a comment below. And feel free to follow this blog, I’ll follow yours back.

Next week, Isidore elaborates on the workings of sheep and rams, and Beowulf tells of Hygelac’s revenge, all the while bolstering his own warrior-like image.

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