What’s found in Beowulf’s word hoard (ll.258-269) [Old English]

Beowulf’s credentials
Words from the hoard

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Beowulf unlocks his word hoard, and begins to answer the coastguard’s concerns.

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“The eldest answered him,
with the wisdom of the band, unlocked his word hoard:
‘We are kin of the Geatish people
and of Hygelac’s **hearth retainers;
His people knew my father,
a noble progenitor known as Ecgtheow, –
he commanded many winters, before he went on his way,
full of years; each man of counsel
on the wide earth takes heed of him.
We through care of the worries of your lord,
son of Halfdane, have come seeking,
the protector of your people; your exhortation to us is great!'”
(Beowulf ll.258-269)

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Old English:


Modern English:


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Beowulf’s credentials

Being the main character’s first speech, this extract is surprisingly straightforward.

We get the poet introducing the speaker with a description of him and his answer rather than a name. We hear Beowulf tell the guard who they are, who they serve, who he is, and who his father is.

Hold on a second.

It’s standard in old heroic stories that people introduce themselves with mentions of their connections. But placing the fealty connection so close to the blood connection creates a parallel that carries some weight.

In defining who they are, Beowulf says that they are “Hygelac’s hearth retainers.” In defining who he is, he says that Ecgtheow is his father. But, no doubt with a characteristic wry smile, the poet has for more than ten lines ignored the guard’s admonishment from last week’s extract: “haste is best
in saying why you are come hence'” (“Ofost is selest/to gecyðanne hwanan eowre cyme syndon” (ll.256-57)).

So why spend so many lines introducing himself so indirectly? In part because of tradition. But also, I think, because the credentials that Beowulf lays down are of the utmost importance.

Hygelac is a great war leader from what little we’ve learned of him so far. And, from what Beowulf says, his father is a famed tactician. Along with wanting to show the guard just what he’s all about, I think Beowulf mentions these two men in the way that he does to communicate that he combines these qualities. Qualities that until now have appeared separately in all of those who have come to face Grendel.

The combination of a warrior’s spirit and a commander’s mind (also, a commander who survived for a long time, suggesting, in one way, that Ecgtheow was able to delay death itself) would surely be seen as what was needed to destroy Grendel.

What, then, can be said for the order of Beowulf’s laying down his credentials? Why not put his father first and his people second?

I think it’s a move meant to show humility, that Beowulf is not out to serve himself, but instead in the service of a whole people.

Again, much like the reference to a warrior like Hygelac, I believe this is meant to show Beowulf’s courage or strength of heart. What he fights for is not personal gain, but the benefit of whole groups of people. That makes him the perfect candidate for defeating Grendel, since he has the moral high ground against a monster that the poet has called kin of Cain, a lineage that marks him with grand immorality.

At least, as far as kinship ties go. If Beowulf’s ties bring in longevity, battle strength, and cunning, Grendel’s brings in murderousness, gluttony, and rage.

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Words from the hoard

Some wondrous words are used in this passage.

“Yldest” (l.257) is usually fairly straightforward. It simply means “oldest,” or “chief.” In the context in which it appears here, this latter definition makes fine sense. And the probe into this word’s meaning could end there.

But if it’s taken to mean the “oldest,” then just how young are Beowulf’s companions?

As he is the hero of the story, it’s easy to see Beowulf as a young man who stands on an established reputation for prowess. But being reminded of the rest of his band like this makes that perception shaky. Especially if this trip is a means for Beowulf to come of age and prove his worth. Such a test seems tailored to someone in his teens. Does that mean that his companions are hardly able to grow beards? Or is the age difference just a matter of months?

Interpreting the word as “chief” is clearer, but why have a word that could mean either “oldest” or “chief”?

This dual definition implies a connection between the two, certainly.

And why not? seniority and authority often go together quite well, especially in medieval societies. Still, the connection one way makes me wonder if it could go the other way as well. If Beowulf is the oldest he can be the chief, but if he is the chief does that mean that he is, necessarily, the oldest?

Another curious compound appears in this passage, too. It’s the word translated as “hearth retainers” in line 261 above: “heorð-geneatas,” a combination of “heorð” (meaning “hearth”) and “neat” (meaning “companion, follower (esp. in war); dependent, vassal; tenant who works for a lord”). Because of the range of options for “geneatas,” the meaning of this one is difficult to bring out in Modern English.

Much like “hall hero”, I think that “hearth retainers” is a solid translation. This new compound gets across that those meant are close to the one they serve and that their master has given them job security of some sort – keeping them on retainer.

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Next week, Beowulf continues to speak. Come on by this blog on Thursday to listen!

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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1 thought on “What’s found in Beowulf’s word hoard (ll.258-269) [Old English]

  1. Pingback: What the Danes’ coastguard says of Beowulf (ll.247b-257) [Old English] | A Blogger's Beowulf

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