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

Finding community among exiles?
A word for spear

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Hrothgar’s herald questions the Geats’ origins.

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“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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Old English:


Modern English:


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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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Next week, Beowulf answers Hrothgar’s herald.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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

  1. Pingback: Words and the noise of the Geats’ arrival in Heorot (ll.320-331a) [Old English] | A Blogger's Beowulf

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