On Wiglaf’s Weapons (Pt.1) [ll.2606-2619] (Old English)

{What Weohstan may as well have done in returning Eanmunde’s armor to his kin. Image from the National Library of the Netherlands Medieval Illuminated Manuscripts Collection.}

Wound Around Vague Pronouns
No Fuel for a Feud?

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Wiglaf remembers all the things that Beowulf has done for him. While Wiglaf wanders the corridors of memory, the narrator tells us the origin of the young warrior’s equipment.

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“Then he remembered that property which Beowulf had
earlier given, the rich dwelling place of the
Waegmundings, how he granted each the common rights,
as his father possessed. Then he could not restrain
himself, he grasped his shield in hand, a yellow shield;
the ancient sword he drew, that was, according to men,
Eanmunde’s heirloom, son of Ohthere. It came to Weohstan
while he was exiled, friendless, the slayer by blade’s
edge of Ohthere’s son, yet he still bore to his kinsman
the spoils of a shiny helm, a ringed mail shirt,
the ancient sword of giant’s craft. Onela gave
them to him, his kinsman’s war garments,
the war-ready garb; no feud was there to speak of,
though Weohstan had slain Onela’s nephew.”
(Beowulf ll.2606-2619)

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Old English:

Modern English:

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Wound Around Vague Pronouns

Although it’s mostly been cleared up, this passage is lousy with vague pronouns.

Lines 2606, 2614, and 2619 originally contain no proper names. Even so, it might seem that there are a few too many pronouns in this section of the poem, possibly because of the intense weaving that the poet/scribe is attempting. In fact, this use of vague pronouns could be a way of verbally showing how the characters involved in this digression are connected to each other.

Actually, if ever a case was to be made that Beowulf really is the product of a long oral tradition finally being written down by someone, this passage should be used as a prime piece of evidence.

Medieval writing is littered with abbreviations, but it’s usually not skimpy on clear pronouns – even if it’s common for some Old English to have been written with the remnants of grammatical gender in effect, meaning that inanimate objects are referred to as “he” and “she” rather than “it.”

Matters of poetry and writing aside, this section presents a curious case.

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No Fuel for a Feud?

In Anglo-Saxon culture, the feud was the central means to conflict resolution before there was any kind of central authority figure (ie: a king). Since the events of Beowulf happened before there were really tightly controlled kingdoms (think Charlemagne’s or Alfred the Great’s) feuds were still common and are often at the middle of ballads and poems and stories from the early medieval era (c.400 – c.1066).

So what happened with Weohstan and Eanmunde’s family? Why is it that Weohstan doesn’t get an axe lodged in his skull when he returns Eanmunde’s sword, helmet, and chainmail to his uncle?

Is it possible that Eanmunde’s family took pity on Weohstan because he was an exile? That is, could there have been some sense that a feud against a man without a country is pointless and therefore not worth taking up? Or, is it possible that the act of returning the arms to his family erases any kind of bad blood between that family and Weohstan?

We’re only told that Weohstan kills Eanmunde “at battle” (“æt sæcce” l.2612). Since he is also in exile at the time (“wræccan wine-lēasum” l.2613), maybe Weohstan is fighting as a mercenary and therefore as someone without connections. Or, maybe he and Eanmunde just fought in single combat; they met up while Weohstan wandered, fought, and Eanmunde was killed.

Given what’s present in this part of the poem, it seems that they must have met on the battle field. The strongest piece of evidence for this is the echo of Beowulf’s asking Hrothgar to send his armor back to Hygelac if he gets eaten by Grendel (ll.450-55) in Weohstan’s returning Eanmunde’s equipment to his kin.

Further, Eanmunde’s father (Ohthere) and uncle (Onela) both being referred to must mean that this family was quite famed. So, maybe, as one currently in exile, Weohstan’s beating Eanmunde was viewed by his family not as something that couldn’t be properly repaid with a feud. Why? Perhaps feuding against just one man for the murder of someone from a family of people who are famous or worth many men could make the family appear petty.

Such an appearance might make them seem overly wrathful – something that might not be so bad in strictly Anglo-Saxon terms, but having already told stories of cruel Heremod (ll.1709-1722) and wicked Modthryth (ll.1931-1943), one of the poet/scribe’s purposes in telling/writing Beowulf must be to show that cruelty and wickedness are not good qualities. It’s not a stretch to add wrathfulness to that list of qualities frowned upon in the work.

Possibly, then, Eanmunde’s family’s not taking up a feud with Weohstan to wreak vengeance for their lost kinsman could be the result of that aim to teach.

This part of Beowulf definitely lays down some mysterious circumstances, but at the least it also shows that there’s more to Beowulf than a bunch of guys clubbing each other with pointy sticks.

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Check back next week for Isidore’s take on various horses, and for part two of the history of Wiglaf’s equipment.

Why is the origin of his equipment so long in the telling? Well, in old oral traditions, you’ve got to build up to that sword with +3 attack and chain mail with +2 resistance to dragon’s fire.

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