Beowulf’s forceful resumé and multi-purpose words (ll.419-428)

Words of force or forced words?
Multipurpose words

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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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“‘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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Old English:


Modern English:


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

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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1 thought on “ Beowulf’s forceful resumé and multi-purpose words (ll.419-428)

  1. Pingback: Beowulf’s poetic introduction and troubling relations (ll.407-418) | A Blogger's Beowulf

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