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

Word order wonderings
Why the Geats’ weapons jostle

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

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“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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Old English:


Modern English:


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

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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

  1. Pingback: The coastguard’s farewell (ll.312-319) [Old English] | A Blogger's Beowulf

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