Grendel exposed! (ll.189-201) [Old English]

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Old time telephone
Punishment personified
Closing

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Abstract

Word of Grendel reaches the Geats.

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Translation

So they brooded upon the troubles of that time,
none of the wise could put them upon the right
way; that strife was too steep, loatheful and longlasting,
that which had befallen the people,
that fierce severe punishment, wreaker of night-destruction.
One of his thanes heard of this while home with Hygelac,
one good amidst the Geats, he heard tell of Grendel’s deeds;
he was humanities’ mightiest in strength
in the days of this life,
regal and great. He was given command of a ship
and well-directed; he spoke, saying he would seek
the troubled king across the swan’s way,
that famous ruler, to show that he was the man they needed.
(Beowulf ll.189-201)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Old time telephone

For the first time here, we get a kind of report on Grendel’s activities. That is, we’re told once again about Grendel’s doings with the Danes, but in a quick summary. Also, this summary is in a different voice, one that’s more removed from the scene than that previously used to describe the terror that is Grendel. Of course, this distant voice is just perfect, since that’s likely how contemporary news would have been after travelling hundreds of miles.

What’s also interesting about this reportage is that it ossifies the Danes as a troubled group. Again, this is all too appropriate. By the time the news had reached as far as it would, the situation – if truly terrible – would probably be quite well-ensconced.

Unfortunately, the poet/transcriber doesn’t seem to be interested in the dimension of time here, nor is there any mention of how distant the Geats are from the Danes. We’re not told how long it takes the Geats to hear about the Danes’ plea. We’re only told that one among them is intrigued by the whole thing and seeks to make a name for himself.

Nonetheless, I can’t help but get the impression that the Geats are among the last to hear about the Danes’ plight. I can’t quite say why, save that the Geats’ being last to receive word and the group from which the Danes’ hero comes works well for narrative purposes.

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Punishment personified

Old English is full of curious compound words.

You can find such a word lurking in line 193: “nyðwracu.” Now, so joined, the word means “severe punishment.” But, taken separately, “nyðwracu” is made up of “nyð,” which means “strife,” and “wracu,” meaning “vengeance,” “punishment,” or “cruelty.” The jump to “severe punishment” when the two are combined thus becomes clear.

For, when each word is looked at, we get a sense of some severe form of vengeance – a vengeance that’s not just contained in a single act, but that is more long-lasting and spreading. It’s the sort of vengeance that comes in the form of a series of calamities. Because the word describes an act of vengeance, that is, a reaction to something that’s gone before, the idea of punishment can enter into it and we get “severe punishment.”

Once again, what we’re left wondering, though, is just what is it that the Danes are being punished for?

Since, in a grammatical sense, Grendel isn’t described as one who is bringing “severe punishment,” it’s not that he’s some greater figure’s agent. Instead, on line 193, the word is used in the sense of a pronoun for Grendel, personifying him as this severe punishment by means of synecdoche. In personifying Grendel as the punishment, rather than merely its agent, the poet answers our wondering. Grendel is then made into a symbol of severe punishment, retribution, vengeance – maybe even the furious heart of every feud – itself. He has no purpose but to cause incredible strife.

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Closing

Next week, we’ll hear about the Geats’ preparations and their shoving off into the sea.

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Idols of love (ll.175-188) [Old English]

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Wants and Worship
“Love is all you need”
Closing

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Abstract

After going over the Danes’ religious practices, the poem’s recorder (poet?) gives them a stern talking to.

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Translation

“Meanwhile they made demands of cherished idols
at household shrines, with words of worship,
so that they sought help against their problems
from the soul-slaying fiend. Such was their way,
their heathenish hope; they concentrated on hell
in their hearts, they knew not the Measurer,
deeds of the Judge, they knew not almighty God
nor knew they of the praiseful protection of heaven,
glorious God. Woe betide them that shall
cast their soul into the flames’ embrace when
embroiled in cruel enmity, cheer they never know,
never a person restored! Well be those that might
after their death day seek the Lord
and hope for the safety of God’s grace.”
(Beowulf ll.175-188)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Wants and Worship

What’s striking about the description of the Danes and their idols is the relationship that’s presented. It doesn’t seem that these idols are things that they regard on a regular basis, but instead whenever they have some request. A request that they very courteously couch in worship, of course.

This is a worship that seems to be entirely for the sake of appealing to their deities. Quite literally: “they made demands of cherished idols/at household shrines, with words of worship” (“hie geheton æt hærgtrafum/wigweorþunga, wordum bædon” (ll.175-76)).

In making this connection, the poet sets himself up for the very Christian address that follows. The Danes serve the soul-slaying one because their worship isn’t of any deity, but ultimately their own desires and wants is what underpins his complaint. According to the poem’s recorder (or poet?), this hip new Christian god, on the other hand, is something that requires worship in good times and in bad – with eternal rewards. And even if you’re not too sure about this Christian god, then, well, Danes, you can see for yourselves in a few hundred lines that its power is greater than even Grendel’s.

At the same time, the poet doesn’t break out all the fire and brimstone when condemning the Danes’ practices. He very clearly states that “they knew not the Measurer,” (“metod hie ne cuþon” (l.180)). So the Danes aren’t even aware of this Christian god that Beowulf is strangely always on about.

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“Love is all you need”

There are hundreds of thousands of words in English. Hundreds of thousands. But, there isn’t a single word (so far as I know) that expresses the same thing as a certain word in Latin that is best translated as “in the bosom of.” The Latin word (an adjective, I believe, which, unfortunately, escapes me) actually refers to keeping something in layer/piece of clothing that went over the chest – meaning that whatever it described is kept very close indeed.

Maybe it’s the fifth grader in me, but “in the bosom of” just seems off the mark. There are connotations of motherly love in this term, true. The same concept is at play in the Latin term, but the Latin term transcends “in the bosom of” because its connotation is genderless and relies on a cultural commonality.

More than likely this lack on English’s part is due to its difficulty in expressing several kinds of love. Sure we all have acquaintances, friends, lovers, platonic partners, significant others, and the like, but we don’t really have too many words to describe the feeling between people in these various roles. “Love” is about the only one that comes up, though you would probably think it strange to hear someone say that they love an acquaintance (maybe even a friend, depending on the person speaking).

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Closing

Next week, we hear about how a certain Geat first heard of Hrothgar’s woe.

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Words from the "gif-stol" (ll.164-174) [Old English]

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
All about the “gif-stol”
On ‘secret’ ‘courage’
Closing

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Abstract

At long last we’re given details about Grendel’s grip on Heorot beyond a body count.

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Translation

“So the fiend trespassed deeply against humankind,
the horror of the lone-goer, oft cursed,
awful affliction; Heorot was lived in,
the richly adorned hall was his by gloomy night,
though he could not approach the throne,
the treasure to the Measurer, nor could he be known.
This did much to the misery of the Scyldings,
their hearts broken. Many oft sat
with the ruler to give counsel, esteemed advice,
things that the rash and the best were fixing
to do against the awful horror.”
(Beowulf ll.164-174)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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All about the “gif-stol”

As the physically stronger party, Grendel claims physical control over Heorot, though the Danes retain legal ownership of it. But Grendel, even as a violent squatter, cannot approach “the throne” (“gif-stol” (l.168)).

The Old English word used here for “throne” can also mean “gift-seat.” The difference between the two translations is minimal, but the reason for there being two in the first place is because “gif-stol” doesn’t just refer to the throne as a place of power. It refers to the gift-giving role that any good ruler had to play, as well. The throne is the place from which a ruler would dispense gifts and favours.

It’s entirely possible that the throne is set aside so that it can be the exclusive purvey of a ruler, imbuing him with a kind of positive, public solitude. It’s a place in which a ruler could be guaranteed clearer thinking and judgement in the matter of gifts because it was the ruler’s alone – no one else could enter that head (or cheek) space. Gifts were important in early medieval Europe, to the point where their being given and being received was closely watched. Who gave what to whom and vice versa mattered greatly to peoples’ reputations and standing.

Grendel can’t approach this gift-giving center, however.

In the text, the implication is that the throne is somehow dedicated to god. Building on the story that the scops had been singing in Heorot when times were still great, it seems that Grendel, as an accursed of god, can’t approach the throne because it is simply not for him. In a gift-driven society in which gifts could end feuds (and start them), not being able to approach the throne would mean that Grendel is cut off from a major social function. Being so isolated from society at large shouldn’t matter much to one who is already quite monstrous and thus excluded from society, and, really, it doesn’t seem to. The mention of Grendel’s not being able to approach this throne reads more like a detail added to show that there was hope yet. After all, Grendel “could not be known” (“ne his myne wisse” (l.169)).

I take this extra clause to mean that he could not be acknowledged by anyone in the throne (seated there, or to whom it had been dedicated), and therefore showing that Grendel was indeed cut off from society at large, reinforcing his isolation. It’s interesting to note that there’s no mention of Grendel’s aggression in this passage. He rules the hall by night. After reading this passage, it almost seems that Grendel could be capering about it, revelling in being in a public, social space.

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On ‘secret’ ‘courage’

Some curious words appear in the latter half of this passage.

First, on line 172, we have “counsel” or, in Old English: “rune.” It’s a neat philological fact that the Old English word for “mystery, secret, secrecy” is also the one for “counsel, consultation.” It gives the sense that rulers were believed so wise and powerful not necessarily because they themselves were, but because their counsel – with whom they worked behind the scenes – helped them to be so. The dictates and gifts made from the throne, would, after all, be made by the ruler alone. Thus the power of many would appear to be the power of one in public.

One line later we run into the word that I’ve translated as “rash”: “swiðferhðum.” This word pulls triple duty as far as Modern English translators are concerned, since it can mean “bold,” “brave,” or “rash.” In the context of the survivors giving Hrothgar advice about what to do with Grendel, “rash” is the best fit because it definitely reflects the attitude and outlook of some of his counsellors, as well as their advice.

The “and” between “rash” and “best” is my own insertion. I added it to distinguish between the “rash” and the “best” who are giving Hrothgar advice.

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Closing

Next week, we learn more about the measures that the Danes have taken to ward off Grendel.

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