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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