Beowulf’s placement and Wulfgar’s use of "you" (ll.389b-398) [Old English]

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Are they in or out?
Oh, “eow”…
Closing

Back To Top
Abstract

Wulfgar runs to Beowulf and the Geats, bearing word of their being accepted by Hrothgar.

Back To Top
Translation

                &nbsp”Then to the hall door
went Wulfgar, from within this word was called out:
‘You as commanded by word of my war lord,
prince of the East-Danes, that he knows of your family:
and you to him are from over the sea-wave,
proven brave, welcome hither.
Now you may go in wearing your armour,
under your helmets, to see Hrothgar;
yet here unbind and leave your shields,
broad boards, and deadly spears, this is a meeting for     &nbspwords alone'”
(Beowulf ll.389b-398)
Back To Top
Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

Back To Top
Are they in or out?

This scene reminds me of Dorothy’s arrival at the Emerald City in The Wizard of Oz. I can very vividly picture Wulfgar popping his head out of a window cut into Heorot’s door and calling down to Beowulf that he and his Geats are allowed in.

The trouble with that is that they’ve already taken seats at benches. So are those benches outside on Heorot’s lawn (perhaps the setting for a now lost epic poem about lawn bowling) or are they in some sort of antechamber?

We are told, when the Geats arrive, that they lean some of their gear up against a wall (“sea-weary they set their shields aside,/battle-hard bucklers, against that hall’s wall;” (“setton sæmeþe side scyldas,/rondas regnhearde, wið þæs recedes weal,” (ll.325-326))). The benches (the exact word used is “bence” (l.327)) that they sit on are also vague. In the former case it seems as though they’re outside and have set their weapons up against the hall’s outer wall. The non-descript benches could also be outside (the word used isn’t “medu-benc” (“bench in a meadhall”) after all).

But then what can be taken from Wulfgar’s mentioning the conditions of their meeting with Hrothgar; namely that they are to leave their shields and spears outside?

Doing so could be an act of trust. It might be a way for the Danes to tell if the Geats are with honour and honesty. If they’re willing to leave the tools of their trade in the open, it shows that they see the Danes as no threat to their gear and that they believe that their equipment will be well kept for them.

If the Geats are still outside it definitely explains why the poet/scribe hasn’t said more about the Danes’ reaction to them. They are still new arrivals in this land and do not yet have the ability to freely enter and exit it. In effect, they need to leave part of themselves outside in order to gain access.

Though that does leave them with their swords.

But, as poetic as this all is, I can’ help but thiwael-sceaftasnk that the Geats are free to bring in their swords because these items are more status symbol than weapon.

Claiming to be someone’s son could only go so far, carrying your father’s sword would confirm your lineage. Along with whatever family resemblance there might be of course.

Not to mention, swords seem to have a much richer life as the weapon for single combats and particularly tough spots in battles. The compound for “spear” that appears on line 398 suggests that that weapon is much more regarded as the brutal tool of human destruction. The word “wælsceaftas” literally translates as “slaughter/carnage spear,” leaving little doubt as to their efficacy in mass combat.

Unless, behind all of this praise of spears, is a particularly boastful poet/scribe who thinks that the Danes and Geats were terrible swordsmen.

Back To Top
Oh, “eow”…

English has never been a tonal language. The difference between Old English and even Middle English (what Chaucer and Gower wrote in) is wide since the former is a synthetic language and the latter is much more of an analytic language, but even so. English has always been English.

Though, curiously, Old English seems to have more context-sensitive words.

The first word in Wulfgar’s speech, for example, is “eow.”

Seamus Heaney translated this as “my lord” and Francis Gummere translated the word simply as “to you” (l.391). From the original it’s clear that Wulfgar is addressing Beowulf directly. But even if he is a stranger, it seems as though more formality should be applied than that contained in “eow.” A nice “ðu” (modernized as “thou”) would be better suited.

Unless Wulfgar, in conveying Hrothgar’s message of extreme welcome, is dialling it back a bit because he’s wary of this fierce band claiming to be from Geatland.

As Hrothgar’s herald Wulfgar has no doubt seen his share of warriors coming to them with hopes of ridding Heorot of Grendel only to have those hopes plucked from them like legs from a spider. And maybe Wulfgar’s sick of seeing the flower of youth trampled in this way. All of the men of courage are throwing themselves at a problem with no clear solution and leaving the world filled with layabout rogues.

Of course, even for someone with a master’s degree in English, that’s a lot to pull out of a single “eow.” Wulfgar could also just be adjusting his address to something more casual because Beowulf and his fellow Geats are entering the Danish social hierarchy with a reputation for courage but no first-hand proof of it. “Eow” is thus used because the Geats have yet to become worthy of the daintier “ðu.”

Back To Top
Closing

Next week Beowulf and a select few of the Geats crowd into Hrothgar’s hall.

Back To Top

On Danish welcomes and curious compounds (ll.381b-389a) [Old English]

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Danish welcomes
The case of the curious compounds
Closing

Back To Top
Abstract

Hrothgar finishes his command to Wulfgar, imploring him to make sure the Geats know that they’re welcome.

Back To Top
Translation

                 “‘He holy god
for our support has sent
to the West-Danes, this I believe,
against Grendel’s terror. I shall well reward
them with treasures for his courage.
Be thou in haste, go with this command,'”
that the peaceful host may hear it together.
Also give him word that they are welcome
in these Danish lands!'”
(Beowulf ll.381b-389a)

Back To Top
Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

Back To Top
Danish welcomes

Hrothgar very clearly wishes to greet the Geats with glee. From his abbreviation of what he will reward Beowulf and the Geats for down to simply “his courage,” that much is clear. Hrothgar’s speech continues to be dusty (though I’ve done some modernizing with his syntax), but the energy in his speech nonetheless comes through. His line of thinking can even be seen.

It looks like it runs thusly:

Beowulf is rumoured to have the strength of thirty men in his grip and is famed in war (from last week’s translation and commentary). He is god-sent, and has courage, therefore he cannot fail and will be rewarded. Not to mention, we can prepare him for his fight with Grendel with a warm welcome.

But what if Hrothgar was not so inclined to the Geats? What if he had never heard of Beowulf, nor of his father? How does the Danish lord deal with those whom he believes to have no chance against Grendel?

Based on his imploring Wulfgar to make sure that the Geats know “that they are welcome/in these Danish lands!” (“þæt hie sint wilcuman/Deniga leodum.” (ll.388-389a) (which sounds almost as if he’s asking Wulfgar to communicate this welcome in every word), a cold reception would entail a cold welcome.

That sounds obvious enough.

But would that mean an ejection from the hall? An outright attack? The Geats have come quite heavily armed, after all. Such a violent reception could be expected. Though the Geats did respect whatever etiquette exists in putting their spears and shields to the side of the door when they came in. Swords may have been worn as a last line of defense, or as a mark of nobility, though, and so be perfectly allowed even in a hall. Or maybe the Geats didn’t want to drop their guard entirely. We aren’t exactly told that all of the Danes in the hall are wearing swords (or if any are, for that matter).

So a hostile reply would likely be a formal request to leave the hall and return whence they came.

In point of fact, aside from Wulfgar’s being told to warmly welcome them and that they’ll eventually be rewarded for their courage, we’re not really told what a warm Danish welcome entails. Is this the poet/scribe using some telling to set up a bunch of showing?

Back To Top
The case of the curious compounds

Old English compound words are usually very straightforward. There’s some phenomenon or item that is more specific than the usual words for it have connotation to cover and so two words are combined. For example, there’s “sorg” for sorrow, and then there’s “modsorg” for the more intense “heart-sorrow.”

Such compounds make sense because they are the sum of their parts.

But in this week’s passage there are two compound words that are more than the sum of their parts.

The word “arstæfum” is Old English for “support,” “assistance,” “kindness,” “benefit,” or “grace.” It is made up of “ar” (“servant,” “messenger,” “herald,” “apostle,” “angel”) and “stæfum” ((singular, stæf) “staff,” “stick,” “rod;” “pastoral staff;” “letter,” “character,” “writing;” “document;” “letters,” “literature,” “learning”). Maybe to Anglo-Saxon minds the herald or apostle of writing, literature, or learning are a support or a benefit, but I’m willing to bet that to most modern minds that connection isn’t as immediately made as “mod” and “sorg” being “heart-sorrow.”

Nonetheless, there is the religious and poetic combination of “benefit” (or “grace”) and “pastoral staff” which sounds like just what Hrothgar is talking about when he states his belief that Beowulf has been sent by god. So perhaps this word isn’t as literal a compound word as most others, but instead results from the combination of the senses of its two parts.

A similar case could be made for “mod-þræce” meaning “courage.”

This word is a combination of “mod” (“heart,” “mind,” “spirit,” “mood,” “temper;” “arrogance,” “pride,” “power;” “violence”) and “þræce” (“throng,” “pressure,” “fury,” “storm,” “violence,” “onrush,” “attack”). With such individual meanings combining it’s hard to see how these two words combine into one that means “courage.” Especially since modern everyday courage could be described as a “violence of the spirit,” but generally doesn’t happen in violent circumstances. As such, this compound sheds some light on the world from which it comes. Courage then may have included standing up to a bully as it does now, but then the follow through was much more likely to be a violent clash of one sort or another.

Though, that’s just one interpretation.

It’s also possible that combining such words to mean courage is meant to add a slightly negative connotation to the word. Perhaps “mod-þræce” isn’t intended to refer to a clean and tidy courage, but something more akin to the boldness of a berserk state. A kind of controlled fury. Something that even the poem’s early audiences well knew was dangerous, but that was also contained and controlled – for the most part.

Anyone with the strength of thirty men in his grip must have been considered at least a little bit monstrous even then after all.

Back To Top
Closing

Next week, Wulfgar rushes back to the Geats to relay Hrothgar’s message.

Back To Top

Hrothgar as grammatical relic and Beowulf’s grandfather? (ll.371-381a) [Old English]

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Hrothgar as relic
Ambiguity in spelling
Closing

Back To Top
Abstract

Hrothgar speaks, acknowledging Beowulf’s parentage and his reputation.

Back To Top
Translation

“Hrothgar spoke, protector of the Scyldings:
‘I knew him when he was a boy;
his father of old was called Ecgtheow,
Hrethel of the Geats gave to him
his only daughter; now I hear his son
has come here, seeking favourable friendship.
Once sailors, that brought gifts
from Geatland thither as thanks,
said that he has the might of
thirty men in his hand-grip,
famed in war**.'”
(Beowulf ll.371-381a)

Back To Top
Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

Back To Top
Hrothgar as relic

Beowulf is an old poem. Whether you agree with those scholars who place its creation as a written piece of literature sometime around the eleventh century or with those who place it around the seventh, it’s still an old poem. As such, many early translations of it gave it a very authoritative “thee and thou” sort of tone. Take this passage from Francis Gummere’s famed Edwardian translation, for instance:

“HROTHGAR answered, helmet of Scyldings: —
‘I knew him of yore in his youthful days;
his aged father was Ecgtheow named,
to whom, at home, gave Hrethel the Geat
his only daughter.'” (ll.371-375a from gutenberg.org)

It sounds like an old poem. Yet, if you compare that to Seamus Heaney’s much more recent translation of the same passage it seems a little younger:

“Hrothgar, protector of Shieldings, replied:
‘I used to know him when he was a young boy.
His father before him was called Ecgtheow.
Hrethel the Geat gave Ecgtheow
his daughter in marriage.'”
(ll.371-375a from Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf)

The difference is clear in Heaney’s preference for a more common, everyday syntax.

Interestingly, though, Hrothgar’s dialogue tends more towards Gummere’s version.

Alliteration is a major feature of Old English poetry. Don’t ask why rhyming hadn’t caught on as much, no doubt it had to do with the sounds that English used at the time. When you learn to read Old English it isn’t a very sing-song tongue after all. But even keeping in mind the frequency of alliteration in the main text of Beowulf, Hrothgar really puts this poetic device to use. What’s more, he seems to really like the first sound of his name since much of the alliteration in his dialogue is “h” alliteration.

Perhaps littering his lines with “h” alliterations was the poet/scribe’s way of showing which lines were Hrothgar’s. Early writing was pretty scant on punctuation marks, and readers would much appreciate that sort of signal whether they were reading aloud or more silently to themselves.

But what Hrothgar’s taste for alliteration signals to me is that even in the world of the poem he’s a relic. Even some of his syntax is so much like Gummere’s translation that I’m left wondering if the original poet/scribe was actively copying a kind of old, poetic style for the elder Dane. I mean, lines like

“ðonne sægdon þæt sæliþende,/þa ðe gifsceattas Geata fyredon/þyder to þance, þæt he XXXtiges/manna mægencræft on his mundgripe”

would translate literally as

“Once said of him sailors,/those that gifts from Geatland brought/thither as thanks, that he thirty/men’s might has in his hand-grip” (ll.377-380).

Word order is shuffled, and clauses are delayed into a strange arrangement. It’s almost as if Hrothgar is a living link to an earlier time in the world, a time that is ending just as Beowulf’s own era is beginning. No wonder Hrothgar came across as depressed in last week’s entry.

But perhaps that’s the point. Amongst all of the battles and the monsters Beowulf is positioned as a figure of transition. From the old ways to the new. From the old gods equated with “the soul-slaying fiend” (l.178) to the new “Lord” who keeps saving Beowulf’s bacon as he gets it ever closer not to the frying pan but to the flames.

Back To Top
Ambiguity in spelling

Old English’s lack of regulated spelling makes translation difficult at times. Most modern editions of texts will have some degree of standardization to their spelling, but there are still some outlier words. Take for example line 373’s “ealdfæder.”

Translated literally, I would render this compound word “old-father” possibly even “grandfather.” Such a translation isn’t out of the question, since “ealdfæder” could be a variation of “ieldrafæder,” the Old English word for “grandfather.”

However, in the context that “ealdfæder” appears, such a translation is troublesome. This difficulty comes up because the word refers to Ecgtheow who is Beowulf’s father and most certainly not his grandfather.

It’s a tiny detail, and, to be honest, “ealdfæder” is probably in that line simply to alliterate with “Ecgtheow.” But nonetheless, it’s a bit disorienting to come across such a word when you expect a simple “father” to come up.

Heaney changed “father” to “father before him” in his translation, and I think that’s a great choice. It sets this appearance of Ecgtheow’s apart from the others, and also acknowledges the element of time inherent in “ealdfæder.” It’s the same reason that I appended “of old” to the word, despite the ambiguity this phrase brings into the matter. Namely, was Beowulf’s father once called “Ecgtheow” but is now called something else? Or is Ecgtheow now long dead and hence is himself “of old”?

Back To Top
Closing

Next week Hrothgar concludes the message he sends back to Beowulf via Wulfgar.

Back To Top

On Hrothgar and "equipment" (ll.356-370) [Old English]

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Hrothgar as depressed Dane
Noble customs and “equipment”
Closing

Back To Top
Abstract

Wulfgar brings Beowulf’s petition to Hrothgar. His tone makes a positive reply seem like a long shot.

Back To Top
Translation

“Then quickly he turned, to face where Hrothgar sat,
old and hoar among the throng of his thanes;
he went to the one of honourable deeds, stood shoulder to shoulder
with the Danish lord: knew he their noble customs.
Wulfgar spoke to his friend and lord:
‘Here are those who came, who ventured
forth going over the sea from the Geatish lands;
their chief champion
they call Beowulf, he is the petitioner,
the one asking, my lord, if he might mix
words with you. Do not propose to deny
your reply, gracious Hrothgar:
by his war-gear I think their worth
that of esteemed warriors; indeed he seems dependable,
the one warrior who has lead them so far.'”
(Beowulf ll.356-370)

Back To Top
Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

Back To Top
Hrothgar as depressed Dane

Is this speech a sign of Wulfgar’s knowledge of the Dane’s “duguðe þeaw,” (“noble customs” (l.359)) or is it an honest plea to a forlorn lord?

The honorifics (“my lord” (“þeoden min” (l.365)), “gracious Hrothgar” (“glædman Hroðgar” (l.367))) seem like things said as parts of Wulfgar’s addressing Hrothgar. They sound like what’s required of someone lower speaking to the highest ranking individual in the Dane’s hierarchy.

But, it’s hard to read Wulfgar’s imploring Hrothgar to “not propose to deny/your reply” (“No ðu him wearne geteoh/ðinra gegncwida” (ll.366-67)) without hearing an imploring note. There’s something in those words that speaks to the Dane’s desperation. Perhaps Hrothgar has fallen into a depression after seeing so many warriors fall to Grendel’s might. Or, as Neil Gaiman would have it, Hrothgar is covering up some past misdeed of his with sorrow.

I believe that Hrothgar has fallen victim to depression.

Sitting amongst his warriors he’s no doubt reminded of how he valiantly fought to bring peace to his lands. And, being surrounded by those who are enjoying themselves in Heorot, he is no doubt reminded of the efforts that went into the construction of that glittering mead hall. And yet, empty seats all around him bring phantoms into his vision, ghosts of the past that hang off of his memory like overripe apples heavy with both savour and with worms.

Anyone in that state of mind is likely to wave away petitioners and those willing to help without a further thought. Hrothgar seems to have no reason to look out from the past, he has nothing to look forward too, after all.

Anyone in that sort of state would need someone like Wulfgar to talk them back to the present. Someone to inspire some hope in them, as Wulfgar attempts to. And, as we’ll see next week, there are hints that Wulfgar’s mentioning Beowulf’s name and his merit in bringing his fellow Geats so far that the attempt is successful. Hrothgar brightens – but stays well within the bounds of the customs of the nobility.

Back To Top
Noble customs and “equipment”

As high and noble as the customs of a ruling host may be, they bear a striking resemblance to the customs of modern day politicians. Both are full of seemingly empty words.

At least for our scholarly purposes, there aren’t many words of great interest in Wulfgar’s speech.

Even the words used for “noble customs” (l.359), “duguðe þeaw,” isn’t necessarily all that interesting.

The first word in the pair means “body of noble retainers, people, host, the heavenly host, strength,” and the second means “usage, custom, morals, morality.” So, like most other systems of conduct, there’s a suggestion of the Danes’ system having a higher origin (translating the phrase as “the custom of the heavenly host”). There’s also, perhaps reflecting poorly on Beowulf‘s time to our modern eyes, the translation “the custom of strength,” that could be construed as “might makes right.” Curious how heaven and power have that sort of relation – however distant.

More interesting in an archaic sort of way, part of the word “getawum” (“war-gear” (l.368)) once had a different meaning. This sense of “taw-u,” the root of “getawum,” once meant “genitalia” (along with “apparatus, and “implement”). But, even to Beowulf‘s early audiences, I’m willing to guess whatever sense of “genitalia” was inherent in “getawum” was a distant echo, something that only the scholarly among them would catch.

Nonetheless, maybe this sense (or the spirit?) of “getawum,” after some major transformations, came to rest in modern euphemisms like “bait and tackle.”

Back To Top
Closing

Next week we hear Hrothgar’s whispered reply to Wulfgar, and perhaps see the first stirrings of hope in this downcast ruler of a people.

Back To Top