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

Are they in or out?
Oh, “eow”…

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

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     “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 words alone'”
(Beowulf ll.389b-398)
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Old English:


Modern English:


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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.

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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.”

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

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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

  1. Pingback: Words to cool a harp solo and excite for history (ll.1063-1070) | A Blogger's Beowulf

  2. Pingback: On Danish welcomes and curious compounds (ll.381b-389a) [Old English] | A Blogger's Beowulf

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