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

Hrothgar as depressed Dane
Noble customs and “equipment”

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

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“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)

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Old English:


Modern English:


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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.

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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.”

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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.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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

  1. Pingback: Progressive early medieval religion and why that word? (ll.348-355) [Old English] | A Blogger's Beowulf

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