Beowulf’s slip of the tongue and linden wood’s importance? (ll.429-441)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Beowulf’s ego between the lines?
A balance of compound words
Closing

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Abstract

Standing before Hrothgar himself, Beowulf states that he will face Grendel unarmed.

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Translation

“‘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.'”
(Beowulf ll.429-441)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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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.

Such is the explanation that this page about arms and armour on Regia Anglorum and this forum thread on Englisc Gateway have to offer anyway.

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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Closing

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.

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Beowulf’s forceful resumé and multi-purpose words (ll.407-418)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Words of force or forced words?
Multipurpose words
Closing

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Abstract

Beowulf’s speech continues. Picking up from last week’s speech about who he is and how he heard of Heorot’s distress, Beowulf now shares the highlights of his deeds.

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Translation

“‘They themselves saw, when I cleverly overcame,
foe after foe, when I bound five,
devastated the kin of giants, and upon the sea slew
water-demons by night, I have endured dire need,
have fulfilled the Geat’s hatred – such was the hope they summoned –
it consumed those enemies. And so it shall now against Grendel,
against this monster I will stand alone as it please
in such a meeting with the demon. I to thee now then,
lord of the Bright-Danes, will make my request,
prince of the Scyldings, will proclaim this alone:'”
(Beowulf ll.419-428)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Words of force or forced words?

The Anglo-Saxons were fond of woven patterns and intricate knotted designs. You can see it in their art (this blog’s header image for example), and poetry (Beowulf‘s interlace structure, is a prime example).

But Beowulf’s speech is a true show of what it means to weave words. Hrothgar has his “thee”‘s and “thou”‘s and the diction of an august figure. But Beowulf brings much more artifice to his speech. As a result, it’s hard to say how seriously we can take his words.

Now, as always when analyzing word use in Old English poetry, it must be noted that alliteration held considerable sway over which words made it to the page or performance. Beowulf’s speech is certainly no exception.

First among its more rhetorical flourishes is the use of ðing on line 426. This word has the same meaning as Modern English “thing,” but it can also mean “lawsuit,” “court of justice” or “meeting.” In this instance the word appears to be chosen for its alliterative properties (line 426’s alliterative sound being the dental fricative “th,”) yet its use gives me pause.

Should Beowulf’s use of this word be taken to mean that Grendel bears more than a mindless hatred toward Heorot?

Or is he just trying to say that Grendel has pursued this hatred of his with all the furor of a legal battle – a fight between two parties with wildly differing opinions about what’s fair?

Though it’s another example of something used for the sake of alliteration, line 428’s “bene” translates as “summon, command, proclaim.” These are strong words for a guest to use to indicate an upcoming request. Not to mention that this is the first time that Beowulf is addressing Hrothgar. As such, using such a forceful word comes across as rude. At the same time, though, the word’s force makes me wonder.

Beowulf is famed for having the might of many men in his grip. His deeds are all deeds of overcoming great odds against (mostly?) supernatural opponents. Beowulf is, at least in some ways, brute force personified. So then is he (or is the poet/scribe) trying to make that forcefulness come across in his speech as well?

Following the conventions of poetry is one thing, and a thing that Beowulf does more than the poet/scribe seems to as far as word-weaving’s concerned (he makes much greater use of interlacing his clauses), but surely words that carry such deep shades of force as “ðing” and “bene” indicate more than the speaker’s (and the poet/scribe’s) awareness of poetic convention.

As far as I know, there’s no pattern to the sounds used for alliteration. Perhaps it’s generally seen as poor form to have two consecutive lines with the same alliterating sound. But there are no hard and fast rules about ordering your alliteration scheme in Old English poetry as there are for, say, Renaissance or Victorian rhyme schemes. As such, any sound could have been chosen for these lines.

Although such interpretations of “ðing” and “bene” goes far too deep into authorial process (as well as authorial intent), I’m left wondering: What came first? Was it a word that gave rise to the line or the line that forced the poet/scribe into using a word that just sort of fit his/her intended meaning?

Since it’s nearly impossible to know for sure, I’ll choose to think that Beowulf is opting more for force than accuracy, more for strength than finesse. After all, Anglo-Saxons aren’t known for their lithe forms, erudite reasoning and appreciation of fine art and music.

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Multipurpose words

As is to be expected in such a rhetorical passage as this, some words are curious cases.

The word that Beowulf uses when he talks about the kin of giants to say he’s “devastated” them for example, is “yðde” (a variation of the past form of “ieðan”).

But this word, like so many others in Old English doesn’t have just one meaning.

Along with meanings like “lay waste,” “ravage,” “devastate,” and “destroy,” this word means “to alleviate,” “be merciful.” Having such diverse meanings could be the result of the word’s appearing in different contexts in different Old English works.

However, it’s more interesting to wonder if the Anglo-Saxons had the idea that sometimes being merciful meant devastating something or someone. Monsters for instance. Surely, an existence outside of the love and purview of god was something that any thinking creature would want ended, right?

Such reasoning might stand for inhuman enemies, but, getting back to the previous section’s point about Beowulf brute-forcing his way through his speech, I can’t help but wonder if his using such a strong, double-edged word, leads him to qualify his devastating deeds (particularly those possibly against human enemies, the general “enemies of the Geats,”) as having been deserved (“such was the hope they summoned” (“wean ahsodon” (l.423))). If he is indeed qualifying his acts of violence, then perhaps Beowulf comes from a time of greater tolerance, a time in which the poem’s audience was less interested in wiping out those different from them.

Though there would always be plenty of room for enmity with giants, demons and wizards. In fact, why not roll them all into one word? The term “þyrse” would do nicely.

Yes, Old English has a single word that can mean “giant,” “demon,” or “wizard.” Now, these three things might seem distinct to us, but to a medieval mind (particularly an early medieval mind) they were likely much closer together.

Giants were believed to be enemies of god, a and the word could be a general term for the race of monsters that were the kin of Cain. It was also a handy term for unknown, powerful forces or enemies. In Layamon’s Brut, for example, the original settlers of Britain defeat the native giants before they claim the land.

Demons could have been giants. After all, they were the servants of Satan, the enemies of god, and therefore quite closely related to the kin of Cain. Save that, of course, they weren’t necessarily Cain’s kin. More like the family friend that Cain, in more modern times, might refer to as “uncle” or “aunt.”

And wizards famously enslaved demons to their wills. Surely someone who controlled demons must be somewhat demonic him or herself, right?

Also, wizards are wizards, so they could make themselves appear as giants or be cloaked in reputations of being unknown foes. Maybe they could even be referred to as giants in the general sense since they could be considered adopted members of the Cain family, those who have opted out of being sons of Seth and knowing god’s favour.

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Closing

Next week, Beowulf proclaims his intent and explains just how he plans to deal with Grendel.

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Beowulf’s poetic introduction and troubling relations (ll.407-418)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Beowulf’s “poetic” phrasing
Weird word choices
Closing

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Abstract

Beowulf introduces himself to Hrothgar and announces why he has come.

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Translation

“‘Be thou, Hrothgar, hale! I am Hygelac’s
relation and man; I have started into
great glory from my youth. News of Grendel
is openly known in my homeland;
It was the talk of sailors, that this hall stood,
best of buildings, idle and emptied
of each man after the evening light
becomes obscured beneath heaven’s brightness.
Then a council urged me to help,
the most esteemed, the cleverest of Geatish men,
the ruler Hrothgar, that I thee seek,
for they all know of my strength:'”
(Beowulf ll.407-418)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Beowulf’s “poetic” phrasing

When a poem’s titular character speaks up you should listen. But Beowulf’s speech is riddled with strange word choices and odd phrases that seem bewildering to modern perceptions and perspectives.

We first get a taste of Beowulf’s poetry when he describes the situation in Heorot. He explains how he has heard that the hall is “emptied and idle” every night in such a way that almost makes it possible to translate these words as a reference to the Danish men (rinca).

Such a translation isn’t quite right, though, since line 412’s “best of buildings” is an interjection set within “that this hall stood/…idle and emptied/of each man…” (ll.411-412).

Next, he explains how he has heard that the hall is emptied as soon as “the evening light/becomes obscured beneath heaven’s brightness” (“siððan æfenleoht/under heofenes hador beholen weorþeð” (ll.413-414)).

“Heaven’s brightness” sounds like a phrase that could be used for the sun or for a sky full of stars. Since Beowulf uses it along with a reference to the setting sun, though, the latter definition must be more accurate to his meaning. No doubt it is right, but it’s curious how the Anglo-Saxons construed the night sky as a show of “heaven’s brightness.” If it was only by night that heaven shone, then what did they believe the sky showed during the day?

Later in the passage, when describing his own situation, Beowulf explains that a council of “the most esteemed, the cleverest of Geatish laymen” (“þa selestan, snotere ceorlas” l.416) are the ones who suggested he come to Daneland. Once again we have Old English poetry’s penchant for interrupting itself to work with on this line.

As it is line 416 sounds like it’s referring to either one group or two.

Assuming that it is two groups, we’re left with a council made up of the learned advisers of the Geats (the most esteemed) and some of the wiser (hopefully) of the general population. Such a council of peers sounds like a fine group from which to receive advice. However, it’s also possible to read this line as a reference to just one group, and that’s where things get tricky.

Interpreted as just a single group of highly esteemed laymen, Beowulf could well be referring to drinking buddies. In this case the recommendation that he come to seek out Grendel could be a drunken dare or suggestion. As Robin Waugh contended, in some instances, Beowulf is known to struggle with the poet, almost as if he were trying to seize control of his voice and his story. But we’ll see more of that as Beowulf speaks on next week (and in the coming weeks, especially in the verbal showdown with Unferth).

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Weird word choices

Along with whole phrases that prove problematic, Beowulf uses a few words that also caused me some confusion.

When detailing his relationship with Hygelac, Beowulf says “relation* and man**” (“mæg ond magoðegn” (l.408)). The word “magoðegn” is pretty straightforward.

It can mean “vassal,” “retainer,” “warrior,” “man,” “servant,” or “minister.” All of these positions are understandable. The basic sense of them being that Beowulf has some clout in the court of Hygelac. He’s not just some common hanger on.

The first word that he uses, however, means “male kinsman,” “parent,” “son,” “brother,” “nephew,” or “cousin.”

This is slightly trickier to parse.

Because of the difference in Beowulf and Hygelac’s ages “parent” and “brother” don’t make sense.

Likewise, we’ve already been told a few times that Beowulf’s father is Ecgtheow, so “son” is out.

The generic “male kinsman” is intriguing, but ultimately too vague to use, and so we’re left with “nephew” and “cousin.”

This instance is one in which the date of the version of the poem that we have is fairly important.

For those tracking lineage in medieval Europe cousins were a much more valued relation than they are today. This is partially because to marry someone the bride and groom had to be at least seven degrees of consanguinity apart (meaning at least your fifth cousin). This was part of medieval canon law rule, and as such, marrying your fourth cousin or closer would make the marriage illegal.

That said, “cousin” could be used in a more general sense, too. Sort of in the same way that a good family friend might be referred to as an “uncle” or “aunt.”

The other definition, “nephew” might actually describe Beowulf and Hygelac’s relationship more accurately. After all, it is possible that Beowulf is indeed Hygelac’s nephew through his mother.

At the very least, Ecgtheow’s marrying into the Geats would make him a legitimate cousin of the Geatish king.

But convention mustn’t have allowed for a court’s greatest warrior to just come out and clearly state his relation to his lord, lest it be his father.

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Closing

Next week Beowulf begins to boast about his deeds.

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On mythical smiths and plundered gear (ll.399-406) [Old English]

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Vague words and allusions
Plundered gear
Closing

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Abstract

Wulfgar having given him the okay, Beowulf strides in to Hrothgar with his thanes in tow.

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Translation

“Arose then the hero, from amidst his many thanes,
various valiant warriors, some remained there,
to watch the war-gear, as they were strictly ordered.
They hurried together, their chief going first,
under Heorot’s roof; on went the war-fierce,
under hard helmets, until they stood upon the hearth.
Beowulf spoke – on him the byrnie shone,
his corslet crafted with the smith’s skill:”
(Beowulf ll.399-406)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Vague words and allusions

Although the poet/scribe here describes Beowulf’s walking “under Heorot’s roof” (“under Heorotes hrof” (l.403)) we’re no closer to figuring out whether he and his fellow Geats have been waiting outside or in some sort of antechamber. Even the Old English is of no help since it literally means “under Heorot’s roof.” Either Beowulf has walked in to be under it, or is striding (no doubt manfully) beneath Heorot’s golden eaves.

Though really, what sort of hall could be called “great” without some sort of antechamber?

Moving from one vague phrase to another, at the end of this passage we encounter “smiþes.”

This word translates easily into “smith,” but the question is: is it plural or singular?

A quick look at the University of Virginia’s famed Magic Sheet reveals that “smiþes” is in fact singular.

So what?

It’s possible that this word is an allusion. In Norse myth there is a famous smith named Wayland who crafted many wondrous things (like the incredible, instantly-travelling “Wade’s boat” referenced in Chaucer’s “The Merchant’s Tale”). Normally it would be ridiculous to pick this reference out of a throwaway use of the word “smiþes.” But the end of this passage is special.

After we’re told that Beowulf speaks, the poet/scribe decides to go on and describe the armour that Beowulf is wearing.

We’re told that Beowulf’s byrnie (waist-length maille shirt) shone and that his corslet (breastplate) was made “with the smith’s skill” (l.406). All of this talk of armour, however brief, opens up the possibility of “smiþes” being a reference to Wayland. This description being the set up for Beowulf’s speech also suggests a reference because reading even the first line of the Geat’s gab shows that it is a formal, carefully worded address. It’s not every day (even during the lifetime of the poet/scribe) that you use “þu,” (“thou”) after all.

Now, if “smiþes” is a reference to Wayland, it doesn’t necessarily mean that Wayland made Beowulf’s armour. Though that would fit in well with why Beowulf (not to mention the poet/scribe) prizes it so highly. It could just be a reference that is idiomatic in that the real live smith who fashioned the Geat’s battle gear seemed to have channelled the mythical skill of the smith when making it. It’s just that good.

Mythological reference or not, as we’ll see soon, whoever the smith was that made Beowulf’s armour, he made it to last.

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Plundered gear

Along with a bizarre, translation-blocking typo in the Old English text of the bilingual edition of Heaney’s translation (the apparently non-existent “pryðlic” for “þryðlic” (l.400)), this passage has a word of note.

Yet another word for “war-gear,” “heaðo-reaf,” has a curious meaning when pulled apart and patched back together.

Separately, its words translate as “war” and “plunder, booty, spoil; garment, armour, vestment.” These don’t exactly come together like “Wig/laf” (literally “war legacy/relic”), there’s a definite implication that this armour is directly related to combat. Beowulf has pulled it from the battle field.

But in what sense?

Could it simply refer to its being plundered from a battlefield?

Or should the reference be taken to mean that it’s seen many close scrapes and yet been “plundered” from each one in that its wearer has survived to wear it again?

Either way, it’s not used here to avoid some sort of reference to genitalia, but instead, to simply alliterate in the first half of the line.

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Closing

Next week, Beowulf to Hrothgar speaks.

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