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

Hrothgar as relic
Ambiguity in spelling

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

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“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)

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Old English:


Modern English:


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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

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.

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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”?

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

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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

  1. Pingback: On Hrothgar and "equipment" (ll.356-370) [Old English] | A Blogger's Beowulf

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