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

Beowulf’s “poetic” phrasing
Weird word choices

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

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“‘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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Old English:


Modern English:


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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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Next week Beowulf begins to boast about his deeds.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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1 thought on “ Beowulf’s poetic introduction and troubling relations (ll.407-418)

  1. Pingback: On mythical smiths and plundered gear (ll.399-406) [Old English] | A Blogger's Beowulf

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