Progressive early medieval religion and why that word? (ll.348-355) [Old English]

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Going deep into a short passage
Wulfgar’s wisdom
Closing

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Abstract

Wulfgar gives a bureaucratic and ordered reply to Beowulf’s request.

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Translation

“Wulfgar spoke: a Wendel man,
well known for his heart-thought,
of war and of wisdom: “‘I the friend of Danes
will inquire of our shield,
giver of rings, as thou art a petitioner,
of that famed lord, about your journey,
and then the answer I shall convey immediately,
that I may speak as it so pleases him.'”
(Beowulf ll.348-355)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Going deep into a short passage

This week’s passage is no shorter than last week’s, but it seems less dense. Maybe I see it this way because Wulfgar isn’t a character of action.

Presented in his role as Hrothgar’s herald, he is very definitely installed in the Danes’ hierarchy and his actions are defined by his place in it. Therefore, his actions seem less interesting than Beowulf’s since he isn’t acting as an outsider trying to get into the Danes’ society. Instead he is already very much an integral part of that society.

That said, Wulfgar is portrayed as a nearly perfect front for Hrothgar. We’re not given much of his conduct, but it’s easy to picture (quite anachronistically) Wulfgar dressed up in a suit with a smartphone and briefcase acting as Hrothgar’s PR guy. Beowulf has put in a petition and Wulfgar’s now about to send this request up the line since he sees nothing wrong with it.

Speaking less anachronistically, you could make the case that this relationship, free from emotion as it appears to be, mimics that of god and god’s scribe in the Hebrew tradition: The angel Metatron.

Of course, Hrothgar’s realm being ravaged by Grendel does not make him out to be a very capable god. Though it is interesting to think of that situation representing the poet/scribe’s take on the pagan gods of the Anglo-Saxons: Old, hoary men who have passed their glory years and are in need of a hero to come in and save them – and eventually to supersede them.

It’s jumping quite a ways ahead, but there are some who believe that Beowulf is a kind of Christ figure at points in the poem. Combine that with the Anglo-Saxons’ taste for the story of Exodus (and no doubt god’s struggle against rival gods in that book and the rest of the Old Testament) and it’s rather tempting to see Beowulf as the Anglo-Saxons’ take on a hunky young god going around showing up and taking down all of the other gods among which people’s attentions are split.

Of course, for this reading of Beowulf to work entirely you’d need to figure out what the God-Beowulf’s very definite death could mean. Maybe the Anglo-Saxons, with a concept that their own gods could pale and die in comparison with the Christian god also believed that eventually the same would happen to that new Christian deity.

Of course, that’s nothing but pure speculation. The sort of speculation that has little to no basis in what we know about Anglo-Saxon religion, since it’s hard to say who first uttered the thought that Neitszche would write at the end of the nineteenth century, “God is dead.”

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Wulfgar’s wisdom

Getting back to Wulfgar and his role as Hrothgar’s herald. Wulfgar’s entirely by the book. He says that he’ll ask for Hrothgar’s take on the matter (using all due honorifics), that he’ll bring answer back immediately, and then that he’ll speak as it so pleases Hrothgar. The poet/scribe really goes all in to show just how fastidious Wulfgar is in all this.

So much so that I don’t think the translation of of “mod-sefa” as simply “thought” is good enough.

Instead, I think this is a situation that calls for a literal translation from “mod-sefa” to “heart-thought.”

Why? (You may ask.)

Because of the clause that follows: “of war and of wisdom” (“wig ond wisdom” (l.350)). Being renowned for “thought” just doesn’t suggest a man who is supposed to be wise in the matters of both war and of peace. Instead something that strikes a bit deeper, like “heart-thought” seems better suited. Not because his thoughts are necessarily borne of passion, but because they are a combination of instinct and reason.

This interpretation of “mod-sefa”s meaning might be a bit much, but I really think that’s what the word means in situations like this.

Although it’s not stated, Wulfgar is likely an older man, one who has seen many battles at Hrothgar’s side and no doubt been with him for many social functions. As such I think it’s safe to say that he has internalized a great deal of knowledge. With such a store of knowledge, much of it is likely instinctual, and so Wulfgar’s able to bring it forth from his instinct and then temper it with his reason. Thereby making his council sharp as a sword and tough as steel plate.

“Heart-thought” seems the perfect fit.

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Closing

Next week, Wulfgar delivers Beowulf’s request (in a passage longer than eight lines!).

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Beowulf’s rhetoric (ll.340-347) [Old English]

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Introductory patterns
Is there a mic in that helmet?
Closing

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Abstract

Beowulf replies to Wulfgar with his origins, but masks his purpose with formality.

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Translation

“‘One man among them courageously answered,
the proud man of the Weders, spoke after those words,
bold beneath his helm: “We are Hygelac’s
table-companions; Beowulf is my name.
I will explain to the son of Halfdane,
that famed lord, my errand,
your prince, if he will grant us such,
that we may greet him graciously.'”
(Beowulf ll.340-347)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Introductory patterns

Despite the brevity of this passage, there are some things that can be said about it.

Not the least of which is the continuation of a pattern we’ve seen before.

In 6 February’s entry (in which Beowulf introduces himself to the coastguard, ll258-269), we saw that Beowulf didn’t just say outright “I am Beowulf.” Instead he introduced his group as friends of Hygelac’s, and then introduced himself primarily through his father.

Once again, Beowulf introduces the group first, with a similar line explaining their relationship with Hygelac (l.342). But then, instead of introducing his father and merely claiming to be his son, we hear Beowulf say for the first time in the poem that takes his name, “Beowulf is my name” (“Beowulf is min nama” (l.343)).

Surely the herald of a great prince like Hrothgar commands more respect than a coastguard?

So then why does Beowulf simply give his own name (a name which makes no reference to his father)?

My theory is that this has to do with the intimacy of the hall setting.

Although this conversation is still very formalized, Heorot is nonetheless a place of leisure. It’s where Hrothgar and his thanes hang out and trade treasures and stories between battles and forays. The hall would even draw strangers into Hrothgar’s hospitality, at least, were it not for Grendel. As such, Beowulf has no need to show his “son of” card just yet.

Even so, the other curious thing about Beowulf’s shift in tone is that he keeps his purpose for from Hrothgar’s herald. Instead of declaiming for all to hear, “I am Beowulf! I’m here to kill your monster” (as a cg’d Ray Winstone did), he says that he’ll reveal just what his purpose is when he speaks to Hrothgar.

I think this feint is meant to show Beowulf’s social acumen. In a hall besieged for twelve years by some seemingly invincible terror, anyone (especially anyone as young as Beowulf’s supposed to be here) coming around claiming to be there to deal with Grendel is likely not going to be believed. Likely, for most of those twelve years such an approach hasn’t been useful. Those who did come in with boasts blaring were probably laughed out of the hall.

And once you’ve been laughed out of something it’s all the harder to win glory there.

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Is there a mic in that helmet?

All the more so if you appear ridiculous. It might seem Beowulf would were he still wearing his helmet, as the poet suggests on line 342. But this detail appears to bolster his position.

Maybe it’s all just to keep building up the mystery around these Geats among the Danes. The Geats’ helmets are supposed to have cheek-guards, and you’d think that they would protect the helmet’s wearer from sight as well as blows.

Or perhaps the poet is engaging in a bit of embellishment. Painting Beowulf into a bit of a caricature of a warrior. He keeps his helmet on so that he can be ever vigilant. Or maybe because it’s simply the outfit of a warrior and keeping his helmet on shows Beowulf’s seriousness.

Regardless, I definitely think it’s a poetic detail. Though his speaking “bold[ly] beneath his helm” could well be an image of sorts, suggesting that Beowulf spoke as deeply as if he were wearing a helmet. Maybe there’s even something about Beowulf’s tone itself being a source of protection in such an image.

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Closing

Next week, Wulfgar takes Beowulf’s message and departs.

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Exile and bandits’ weapon of choice (ll.331b-339) [Old English]

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Finding community among exiles?
A word for spear
Closing

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Abstract

Hrothgar’s herald questions the Geats’ origins.

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Translation

              “Then a proud warrior
asked after those men’s origins:
‘Where come ye of the anointed shields,
shirts of grey mail and visored helms,
this crowd of spears? I am Hrothgar’s
herald and officer. Never saw I this many men
from far away of such high spirits.
It seems to me that you for glory, not at all for exile,
yay for courage have sought out Hrothgar.'”
(Beowulf ll.331b-339)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Finding community among exiles?

Hrothgar’s herald says something more than passing strange in what seems to be passing. On lines 336 to 337 he states that he has “Never [seen] this many men/from far away of such high spirits” (“Ne seah ic elþeodige/þus manige men modiglicran”).

Given the fact that challengers to Grendel have probably dried up over the past twelve years of his reign of terror, it’s fair to say that this man’s probably not seen many foreigners lately.

Even when heroes in waiting were coming by Heorot, they were probably more grim and serious than the apparently boisterous Geats (though we’re not really told this – maybe they were like giddy teenagers in the presence of some musical idol, all jostling together and too nervous to speak, and that’s what their weapons jostling last week was all about).

So the herald probably speaks true. He never has seen so many foreigners and in such high spirits.

But the word he uses for foreigners (“elþeodige”) could also be translated as “exiled people.”

The difference between “foreigners” and “exiled people” may seem slight, perhaps. But if the herald mentions exiles here then his assertion just a few lines later that these men are not here for exile makes much more sense.

Translating “elþeodige” as “exiled people” also paints a curious picture.

The image of a group of exiles is, strangely, the perfect representation of the importance of community to Anglo-Saxons. Among them, exile was considered a fate worse than death.

Partially because being exiled meant that you lost your social standing and whatever came with it. But at least as much as that if not more, exile meant that you were cut off from the people with whom you shared an ipso facto relationship through blood. You didn’t earn their trust, nor did you work for their friendship – ties of kinship were supposed to be the reliable ties that saw you through the hardships of life.

Being exiled cut you off from all of that, but at the same time, it wouldn’t be impossible for exiles to meet while in their respective outcast states. That a group of exiles would find each other, and, one can only assume, band together under the common aegis of their exiles shows just how important having a group and belonging was.

All of that said, whether or not such a hypothetical band of exiles would be in high spirits because they had found new community is hard to say.

It’s possible that their common state would cause these exiles to form a strong bond in which case high spirits would definitely be possible.

Though it’s also possible that though their respective communities no longer regard them as members, the exiles would still see themselves as Angles, or Saxons, or Danes, or Geats. In which case, they would likely still hold the prejudices of these groups.

Whatever the case with such a group of exiles is, either their numbers or their spirits were great enough for Hrothgar’s herald to believe these Geats before him to be not exiles but something else.

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A word for spear

Another extract, and another batch of crazy words. The craziest this week, though, has got to be “here-sceaft.”

The second part of this compound word for “spear” might look familiar. It’s the word that eventually became the name of a famed and funky 70s private detective. Shaft.

But the first part of “here-sceaft” is where meanings become bizarre. Standing alone, this word could mean “troop,” “army,” “host,” “multitude,” or “predatory band.”

So the spear is very much the common man’s weapon. All right. But then, since “here” can mean “predatory band” is it also the weapon of choice for bandits and thieves?

Logically, the answer would have to be yes.

If a spear was something that you could easily come by in Anglo Saxon England, then certainly it would be the scoff-law’s preferred weapon. Swords certainly wouldn’t be lying around, that’s for sure.

Actually, pushing logic a bit further, is it possible that swords were harder to come by simply because smiths who could work such large pieces of metal were hard to come by? Or, more likely, forges that could get such a lump of metal hot enough were rare?

Because making a spear requires making nothing more than a little pointy hat for a stick (or you could forgo the hat and shave the stick to a sharp point).

Given the fact that the resources consumed in making a sword were that much greater than those used for a simple spear really makes me wonder if associating the spear with bandits (even at the level of language like “here-sceaft”) and the commons was just another thing that elevated the sword to the point where it became a prestigious and noble weapon.

Clearly, if “here-sceaft” has the potential for negative connotations as I believe it does, then the cultural elevation of the sword had happened long before Beowulf was written.

But then, when?

At the very moment that someone working their forge to ridiculous heats threw in big long chunks of metal and wound up with something no other forge-user in the area ever thought possible?

When technology and manufacturing are so unrestricted as they are today it’s hard to imagine something so simple as a long pointy piece of sharpened metal being impressive, but it certainly would’ve been when making such things was harder.

And it’s easy to see, then, that something as low-tech as a spear could be associated with “predatory bands.”

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Closing

Next week, Beowulf answers Hrothgar’s herald.

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Words and the noise of the Geats’ arrival in Heorot (ll.320-331a) [Old English]

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Word order wonderings
Why the Geats’ weapons jostle
Closing

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Abstract

Beowulf and his crew come to Heorot and plonk down onto its benches.

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Translation

“The way was stone-paven, along the path
the warriors went together. War-byrnies shone,
hard, hand-linked, shining ring-mail from
skilled hands celebrated in song. Shortly they
arrived at the hall in their horrible war gear,
sea-weary they set their shields aside,
battle-hard bucklers, against that hall’s wall;
they dropped onto the benches, mailshirts ringing,
those war-skilled men. Spears stood,
bound in a seaman’s bunch, all together,
ashen shaft over grey; that iron-clad crew’s
weapons jostled.”
(Beowulf ll.320-331a)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Word order wonderings

It’s passages like this that make it abundantly clear that Beowulf is a poem, but also that it’s a product of a time quite different from our own. Not just on the obvious levels of social structure and what was considered entertainment, but on the level of language itself.

The brief phrase “æscholt ufan græg” (l.330) that I’ve translated as “ashen shaft over grey” is a prime example.

Word order in Old English is definitely not as hard and fast as it is for we speakers of Modern English.

Because Old English is a synthetic language (it has declensions), a word’s function wasn’t defined by its place in the sentence but instead by its different forms.

Take for instance “searwum.” This word is the dative plural of “searo”. In English this word’s translation “skilled”/”skilful” will almost always occur before the noun that it modifies.

We could say “that person is a skillful engineer” or “a skilled artisan.” But you’d never hear a native English speaker (of classical English, anyway) say something like “an artisan skilled” without that being followed up with a prepositional phrase for “skilled” to modify (“an artisan skilled in the craft of blacksmithing“). Likewise “engineer skilful” just isn’t how English is spoken for the most part. Unless you change that phrase’s into a compound adjective with a hyphen.

However, in this passage “song in searwum” is just how it’s written. The Old English word for “skilled” or “skilful” is left to the end of the sentence.

But the word’s ending shows what it is modifying, it’s that ending that establishes its relationship with “hringiren” from line 323. This difference in placement suggests, with a bit of a leap, that native Old English speakers had a greater awareness of words’ relationships to each other. English is definitely a difficult language to learn from scratch, but its static structure makes it worlds easier than any synthetic language.

Getting back to “æscholt ufan græg” its word order is a complete mystery to me.

Are there grey and ashen shafts bundled together?

Are the spears being stored counter-intuitively with their points in the ground (perhaps for symbolic or ceremonial reasons)?

At the heart of this issue is the preposition “ufan”. This word is said to mean “over,” “above,” “on high.”

Those definitions would seem to rule out the possibility that the phrase “æscholt ufan græg” refers to different coloured spear shafts being bundled together. Although maybe the preposition isn’t meant to be taken so literally.

It could be that the ash-shaft spears are over or above those that are grey because they’re given a prominent place in the bundle.

Or it could be that they’re simply taller.

I’m just not convinced that warriors would store weapons point-down, risking the dulling of their points and edges. Unless sticking your spears in the ground was a sign of peaceful intentions, certainly a fair assessment of their being described as “ashen shafts over grey.”

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Why the Geats’ weapons jostle

Yet, peaceable as the Geats’ intentions are, we’re told that their weapons jostled as they sat down. Is this to be taken as a sign that those weapons are eager for a fight? Or is it just a matter of the Geats being armed to the teeth?

Though, there’s another completely unrelated reason that the poet could give us that aural detail.

Picture this:

You’re sitting in a hall with your comrades and kin, along with your lord. You’re on edge because you and your people have been mercilessly ravaged night after night by some sort of un-killable fiend.

All is quiet.

Until the door opens and in walk a group of men bristling with arms and armour. They set their weapons to the side and then proceed to plonk down onto your benches – maybe the place where old Higðor Stonefist the stone mason once regularly sat before the demon made off with him leaving nothing behind but the ring that his wife had given him, still attached to the grisly remains of a gnawed finger.

All remains quiet except for the newcomers murmurs of conversation. One of them muffles a laugh. But the biggest one is silent.

Nothing happens.

No one is saying anything now. The entire hall is as quiet as…yes, you think it, a burial mound.

But then the newcomers start to shuffle around on the benches, and their ringcoats (looking resplendent in the fire light) clank, their sheathed swords knock together, and their spears fall from the earth in which they’d been set.

The poet’s just used five words to give this detail, but I think, whatever it might mean on a sub-textual level, it’s there to break the silence that otherwise exists in the hall. It’s there to call the Danes’ attention fully to these newcomers and to clear out the hall’s quiet (there’s no mention of noise or music coming from the hall as the Geats approach it) so that the newcomers can be questioned in the following lines.

If nothing else the jostling of the Geats’ weapons restores sound to the world of the hall, one so deep in mourning and sorrow that its collective voice needs to be called forth.

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Closing

Next week Hrothgar’s top man Wulfgar questions the Geats.

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