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

Danish welcomes
The case of the curious compounds

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

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“‘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)

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Old English:


Modern English:


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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?

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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.

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

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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

  1. Pingback: Hrothgar as grammatical relic and Beowulf’s grandfather? (ll.371-381a) [Old English] | A Blogger's Beowulf

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