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Standing before Hrothgar himself, Beowulf states that he will face Grendel unarmed.
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“‘That you do not refuse me, protector of warriors,
close friend of the people, that for which I have now come from afar,
that I might alone and my band of warriors,
this hardy heap, to cleanse Heorot.
I have also learned, by asking, that this demon
in his recklessness does not care for weapons.
I the same shall scorn, that Hygelac may be for me,
my liege-lord, blithe of heart,
that I neither sword nor the broad shield shall bear,
the linden-bound battle buckler; and I shall grapple
against the fiend with my grasp and struggle for life,
hater against hated; in that I shall trust
in god’s judgement to take whom he will in death.'”
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Beowulf’s ego between the lines?
As has been the case since Beowulf opened his mouth a few weeks ago, he says some curious things in this week’s passage. Either that, or the space of centuries has changed English so much that (my) modern interpretations are mismatched with his intentions.
Also, as has been the case with past posts, this week’s most curious passage could be the result of poetic conventions.
In lines 431-432 Beowulf states that he and his crew are here to cleanse Heorot. But in line 432 there’s a curious division between him and the rest of the Geats.
In Old English poetry, each line consists of two parts separated by a medial caesura. The medial caesura is a full stop used to give poetry a set meter and rhythm. On line 431, however, the caesura happens to fall at a crucial point in Beowulf’s statement.
The first part of this line ends with the nearly complete thought “that I might alone” (“þæt ic mote ana” (431)). At first glance such a statement seems perfectly normal. But then the audience/readers are reminded of the other Geats in the second part of the line “and my band of warriors” (“ond minra eorla gedryht”).
The caesura’s separating these two thoughts so cleanly leads me to believe that Beowulf, for a second, forgot about his fellow Geats.
He may have became so inflated with thoughts of the personal glory to be won that his focus was entirely on himself. But then something must have twinged in his memory and he snapped back to his senses, just in time to realize that there were other Geats – his “band of warriors” – with him.
Because the break in the line occurs in such a perfect place I find it hard to write off this apparent mental slip as merely the result of Old English poetic convention. Using a multifaceted word rather than a definite one to fill in alliteration is one thing. Splitting the line between clauses like this is entirely another.
But does such a slip necessarily mean that Beowulf is temporarily blinded by an egotistical drive for glory? Or could it be that his continuing use of interlacing clauses is starting to confuse him, showing that his forceful use of rhetorical speech is nearly too much for even him to handle?
Or, again, if you want to approach things on the meta level, is having the hero become so tongue-tied the poet’s way of stepping in to say, in a small way, “this poetry stuff is so hard even Beowulf here can’t fully handle it!”?
It’s this poem’s ability to generate these sorts of questions that makes it so fascinating. That’s why I keep coming back to it time and again and why I run this blog in the first place. What are your thoughts on Beowulf’s mental slip?
If Beowulf has tied himself into a bit of a rhetorical knot here, by the end of this part of his speech he’s pretty much recovered.
The phrase “lað wið laþum” is a linguistic gem. A near literal translation of this phrase is “the hater against the hated.” In the context of Beowulf’s fight with Grendel it works wondrously well no matter who its subject and object are between the two.
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A balance of compound words
Unlike the other parts of his speech that we’ve seen so far, Beowulf’s boast is rather short on strange compound words. The word “wonhydum” (a variation of “wanhygd”) is kind of neat, but it’s one of those compounds that makes perfect sense.
The first part, “wan” means “wanting,” “deficient,” “lacking,” or “absent,” and the second means “mind,” thought,” “reflection,” or “forethought.” So “wanhygd” translates into “reckless” quite nicely.
However, “gealobord,” meaning “buckler covered with yellow linden bark,” is something of a find.
Why should it matter that a shield is covered within yellow? And why is it linden bark?
Maybe it’s just because linden bark is the best bark suited to covering a shield and it happens to be yellow? Maybe one or both have special significance outside of practicality?
From what I’ve been able to turn up online the reason that linden bark (or more likely just plain old linden wood – unless there’s a ship metaphor in there somewhere (“bark” could mean “ship”) – was used for shields is because it’s soft and light. It didn’t tend to split like harder woods such as oak, and could even catch and hold spear blades.
Also, Della Hook notes on page 215 of Trees in Anglo-Saxon England: Literature, Lore and Landscape that linden wood was so commonly used for shields that the word “lind” came to be used as a metonymy for shields in poetry.
Perhaps there was also some mythic or folkloric understanding of why linden wood was so well-suited to shields, but I’d need to dig deeper to find it. If you happen to know of such a thing though, please drop a link (or a line) in the comments.
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Next week Beowulf balances his boasting with a description of his gruesome defeat and outlines what the Danes should do with his remains. If he happens to lose, that is.
You can find the next part of Beowulf here.