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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