Psychological Warfare and the Importance of Tactical Mercy (ll.2936-2945) [Old English]

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
A Differently Angled Ambush
Stories and Psychological Warfare
Closing

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Abstract

The messenger’s story of the Ravenswood continues, as the Geats are pinned by Ongeontheow’s host until a saviour is heralded.

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Translation

“‘Beset he then with an immense host the remnant
wearied by war wounds; all the night
long he twisted their tender spirits with vile boasts,
he said that he would destroy them with the
sword’s edge come morning, that he would hang them
on gallows trees to feed the birds. Yet joy again
existed in their sorrowful hearts just as day dawned,
for then came Hygelac with his horn and its call,
a sound they recognized, knew that it meant a troop
of great allies had arrived in their final &nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbspmoment.'”
(Beowulf ll.2936-2945)

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Recordings

Old English:

Modern English:

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A Differently Angled Ambush

The messenger’s message continues, and his story about the Ravenswood really picks up steam in this week’s extract. What could be more exciting than a situation in which a last minute arrival swings in the good guys’ favour, right?

It’s not the first time that we’ve had a story with late comers mentioned in Beowulf. After the hero himself defeats Grendel we hear about the Battle of Finnsburg (ll.1068-1158), where the Frisians have ambushed and wearied the Danes.

Since it sounds like Hygelac was completely unexpected by Ongeontheow and the Geats alike, his appearance here is definitely a kind of ambush. But rather than the tragedy that is the Battle of Finnsburg, Hygelac’s appearance is a cause for joy.

After all, in the story about Finnsburg listeners can take a side, but in the messenger’s story, we know that those listening are cheering for the Geats, and therefore it’s less a negative ambush and more of a rescue, as the phrase “at last faran” (“arrived in their final moment,” l.2945) suggests.

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Stories and Psychological Warfare

Speaking of perspective, it’s easy to see even the major players within the world of Beowulf as brutes with sharp swords, but Ongeontheow does something rather incredible when he has the troop trapped in the Ravenswood.

He doesn’t rush in and slaughter them outright. Instead he launches a psychological attack, as he bombards them with “vile boasts” (“wean oft gehet” l.2937) all through the night (“ondlong niht” l.2938). This is a strange move on Ongeontheow’s part at first glance, but if we look deeper we can see his reasons for it.

During this period of time, destroying a leaderless band outright would have been like killing a headless man. Matters of redundancy aside, it would have been dishonourable and a source of shame, rather than something that a warrior could be proud of. Besides, a terrified group of leaderless enemy soldiers would have to deal with their own shame of having outlived their lord, and would likely tell the darkest stories of their conqueror’s power.

This sense of shame explains a little bit of why Ongeontheow says he’ll leave the Geats until morning, but it doesn’t give a full picture of it.

Down the line of shame, there may have been some convention among warriors of the time to wait so many hours/watches before attacking such a disorganized rabble (perhaps to let one of them rise up as leader?), but Ongeontheow has another reason for his threats.

Multiple stories told by many terrified, shamed, and sorrowful men would grow Ongeontheow’s reputation. But a handful of stories that include his torturing them with vile boasts all night and then slaughtering most of the remaining host would make it easy for any survivors to tell stories of him that were absolutely intimidating.

And, as we saw in 2012’s last entry, Ongeontheow seems to care deeply for the safety of his family. So creating the seeds of intimidating stories would benefit him as it would deter future purpose-less raids from other groups that were looking for places to attack for arrogance’s sake.

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Closing

Next week, the story of Ravenswood continues. Don’t miss it!

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