Hrothgar prefaces Grendel and a word combines “foolish” and “fiend” (ll.473-479)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Why preface the massacre?
A terrible jester
Closing

A page from an illuminated manuscript. Image from http://www.myarmoury.com/talk/viewtopic.php?t=28126&view=next.

A page from an illuminated manuscript. Image from http://www.myarmoury.com/talk/viewtopic.php?t=28126&view=next.

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Abstract

Hrothgar prefaces his relation of the terror of Grendel’s attacks with a brief summary.

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Translation

It grieves me at heart to tell,
to any man, what affliction Grendel has wrought
on me and and Heorot amidst his hostile designs,
those spiteful attacks; by these is my hall troop,
my band of warriors, made thin; wyrd swept them
into Grendel’s terror. God easily may
put an end to the deeds of that fell-destroyer!
(Beowulf ll.473-479)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Why preface the massacre?

This short passage is what Hrothgar uses as a preface to the retelling of Grendel’s attacks. In it he summarizes what he’s about to say next. But why?

Beowulf already knows about Grendel and the terror that he’s wreaked upon Heorot and the Danes. So why does Hrothgar feel the need to preface the relation of the same?

Maybe it’s because this is a first hand account of the story, and as such its details will be more vivid than those in news that has been blown afar by sailor and wanderer alike.

Maybe it’s not supposed to be taken in the same way as the modern newscasters’ “Now, we must warn viewers that some people may find some of the images in the following report graphic.”

Maybe, instead, it’s supposed to get Beowulf and his crew into the right mindset to hear the story of Grendel’s attacks.

In short, it’s meant to give context rather than to scare or warn.

Giving such a relation context makes fine sense. But I can’t help but think that there’s something more at work here.

Hrothgar’s old fashioned formality is certainly a factor. Someone like Beowulf would probably just rush right into the story and not really establish much beforehand.

Yet, such a formal system of expression seems strange given that Hrothgar’s just confessed openly to Beowulf that he’s not as great a man as his brother was. Normally someone in his position wouldn’t just come out and admit something like that, I think.

So perhaps that was something of a slip on his part, emotionally wrought as he’d been made by meeting Ecgtheow’s son and at last having a hero in whom he firmly believes.

If Hrothgar’s admission of weakness to Beowulf was a slip, then this little preface could well be his way of recovering himself and his manner.

After all, the poet wouldn’t want to waste time with lines about how Hrothgar’s look drooped and then slowly, like a trumpet vine, climbed and bloomed, ready to dispense the sweet nectar of the situation. Instead, the poet/scribe would be better off simply including this shift back to formality in the man’s dialogue. This poem thing has to keep a vigorous pace, right?

One other thing makes me think that this preface is more about context than being a warning.

Within the passage, Hrothgar makes a reference to the power of wyrd (kind of like fate, but beyond any notion of destiny) sweeping away his men (ll.477-478) and he also makes reference to god, whom he believes can put an end to Grendel all together (ll.478-479). This shows a man in transition on the spiritual level, since the concept of “wyrd” predates that of the Christian god among Anglo-Saxons. Hrothgar still holds to the old idea of wyrd while also investing hope in this new “god” figure. That is, so long as the “god” of line 478 is the Christian god and not just some vague reference to Odin or the Norse gods in general.

It’s also curious to note that wyrd and god appear in Hrothgar’s preface in the reverse order that they appear in Beowulf’s earlier speech. Pinning any real meaning on this kind of structure isn’t really worth the effort, since it could just be coincidence. But, Hrothgar’s repetition of these two things could relate to his hope that god will, without any real struggle, choose Beowulf to win. Hrothgar’s ending his preface with “God easily may/put an end to the deeds of that fell-destroyer” (“God eaþe mæg/þone dolsceaðan dæda getwæfan.”(ll.478-479)) definitely suggests this.

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A terrible jester

Brief as this passage is there is one word in particular that I want to break down. This word is “dolsceaða” (l.479). As a compound it means “fell destroyer.”

Broken into its constituent parts, though, we’re left with “dol” (meaning “foolish,” “silly;” “presumptuous;” and “folly”) and “sceaða” (meaning “injurious person,” “criminal,” “thief,” “assassin;” “warrior,” “atagonist,” “fiend,” “devil,” and “injury”).

At first glance a combination of a word for things like “foolish,” “presumptuous,” etc. with one for “criminal,” “thief,” “fiend” probably seems strange. How exactly can someone be a “foolish fiend”?

Within the context of Anglo-Saxon society, though, the reason that these two words combine to mean “fell destroyer” becomes clear.

As we saw in last week’s post, Ecgtheow started a feud with the Wulfings when he killed one of them. Along with the feud, Ecgtheow was also exiled from his people. And in Anglo-Saxon culture exile is a fate worse than death.

Death is final. Exile is an ongoing punishment in which the exiled was cut off from their community. Since Anglo-Saxons relied on their community for physical and emotional well being, such separation would leave one leading a solitary, vulnerable life. In exile, a person would cease being a Geat or a Dane and become simply an exile.

Therefore, killing indiscriminately as Grendel does would be foolish. Anyone who carried out such action would definitely be considered as grave a thing as a “fell destroyer” because they would be acting outside of all societal norms. What’s more, such a person would certainly be exiled and would gather all the rage of the slain’s kith and kin would be directed squarely at you. Gathering together so much hatred would surely, and rightly, be seen as a thing of folly.

Thus, combining the word for foolish and the word for criminal to create a third word meaning “fell destroyer” makes perfect sense. Applying it to Grendel makes even more, since his killing is indeed foolishly criminal.

Yet, you could argue that such is his nature as the kin of Cain. So Grendel’s actions aren’t so much mad or foolish as they are natural. He’s killing without any sort of sense of “feud” or “exile.” That’s really only if you take the monster’s perspective, though. From within the Danes and Geats’ frame of reference, in which feuds are a legal means for reparations, Grendel’s actions are indeed insane, those of a “fell destroyer.”

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Closing

Next week, Hrothgar goes into gory detail in his telling of Grendel’s visits to Heorot.

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Hrothgar’s speech gets casual but his words stay interesting (ll.456-472)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Hrothgar gets calculatedly casual
Less colourful words, but words nonetheless
Closing

An example of an image touched with gold leaf from an illuminated manuscript. Image from http://ica.princeton.edu/conferences/2010march16-17.php.

An example of an image touched with gold leaf from an illuminated manuscript. Image from http://ica.princeton.edu/conferences/2010march16-17.php.

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Abstract

Hrothgar replies to Beowulf. He opens with an explanation of how and when he knew his father.

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Translation

“Hrothgar spoke, protector of the Scyldings:
‘For manly deeds thou, friend of mine Beowulf,
and for our benefit have you sought us.
Thy father fought his way into a terrible feud,
he became Heatholaf’s killer by hand
amongst the Wulfings; so that he might not have
shelter with those kin for dread of war.
From thence he sought South Dane folk
over the surging waves, the Ar-Scyldings;
that was when I had just begun rule of the Danish people
and in youth governed this fierce empire,
walled and treasure-filled towns of warriors;
then was Heregar dead, my elder kinsmen left unliving,
son of Halfdane; he was better than I!
Afterwards I settled that feud with goods;
sent I to the Wulfings over the water’s ridges
old treasures; he to me oaths swore.'”
(Beowulf ll.456-472)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Hrothgar gets calculatedly casual

It seems that Beowulf has proven himself to Hrothgar.

Certainly not because he’s shown the Danish lord what he can do, but because his words have inspired him with belief. That’s my explanation for Hrothgar’s switching to a more plain speaking style, anyway.

Throughout the entirety of his speech in this week’s extract, Hrothgar leaves out any sort of interlaced structure. He doesn’t start an idea before the caesura of one line and then end it on the opposite side of the next line’s mid-way pause.

Considering that he’s just met Beowulf, and only just heard him speak, Hrothgar is also being quite open and forthwith. Certainly the thanes that he has around him would only faintly correct him when he says that his brother was a better man than he (l.469) at this point in the struggle with Grendel, but it’s still a strange thing to admit to a total stranger.

One thing’s for sure, historical accuracy in regards to these men’s exchange takes a back seat here.

Instead of having to go through several meetings to get to this level of candid speech, Hrothgar just immediately moves to it after hearing Beowulf’s pitch. And that is exactly what the main man’s speech was, a pitch.

Epic poems can’t be all bluster and long-winded speeches after all, so rather than showing a series of meetings between the leaders where Beowulf and Hrothgar gradually build up a rapport and mutual trust (no doubt a decent way to turn this story into a modern novel), the poet just has Hrothgar accept Beowulf at his word. Oh – and at his father’s word, too.

For, although Ecgtheow isn’t present, I think his having sworn oaths to Hrothgar (l.472) gives Beowulf some privileges within his estimation. From the sounds of it Ecgtheow caused Hrothgar some worry when he was just starting to rule over the Danes, but I think something important remains unsaid here.

I think that Hrothgar’s being given the opportunity to solve the feud between Ecgtheow and the Wulfings is something that he used to secure his then new-found position as ruler of the Danes.

On line 467 he describes the Danish people as consisting of “walled and treasure-filled towns of warriors” (“hordburh hæleþa”). These are a people who would probably not readily transition into having a new king. Any one who was fresh to the throne would likely have to prove himself worthy of it.

Such proof would probably come in the form of a show of might, but I think part of why Hrothgar brings up Ecgtheow here is that he sees the man as having given him an alternative way of showing is aptitude. He’s given a diplomatic situation to solve, and he does so handily. Hrothgar sends the Wulfings what amounts to wergild – payment as recompence for a slaying – and gets the exile to swear oaths to him. Thus, the Wulfings are appeased and the threat that is Ecgtheow is neutralized.

So on one hand, Hrothgar helped Ecgtheow when he was in a tight spot. Being exiled because you’ve killed a man with your bare hands isn’t an enviable position. But Hrothgar took Ecgtheow in. On the other hand, Ecgtheow helped Hrothgar, though it seems that this help was much less explicit. Yet, I think that Hrothgar is well aware of both of these and so he feels desperation because only might (something Hrothgar lacks) can deal with Grendel and a sense of obligation to Ecgtheow’s kin.

Hrothgar’s feeling this way explains his shift into a more open style of conversation.

Going further, I think that Hrothgar mentions the oaths that Ecgtheow swore to him to confirm to Beowulf his father’s honorability and to inspire in our hero a sense of filial obligation. Beowulf did not take such oaths. Nor can he be expected to at this point in his relationship with Hrothgar.

Yet, Hrothgar would certainly have been aware of Beowulf’s understanding of the importance of words after hearing his pitch. Thus, he likely mentioned his father’s oaths in a calculated move to appeal to Beowulf’s underlying philosophy of following through on his word.

So Hrothgar’s jumping to much more open speech (though it’s still not free from his use of words like “ðu”) fits into the poem’s current situation. This shift is also, of course, a convenient way to pick up the story’s pace.

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Less colourful words, but words nonetheless

Hrothgar’s speech is much less colourful than Beowulf’s. He doesn’t use nearly as many words that could be interpreted in more than one way, nor does he use that many compound words. Though of those that he does use, the curious “hordburh” and “gesloh,” an example of how much the prefix “ge” can change a word, are worth pointing out.

The word “hordburh” is made up of the word “hord” (meaning “treasure”) and the word “burh” (meaning “walled town,” “fort,” or “castle”). This word is noteworthy partially because it also appears in the Anglo-Saxon poetic version of Genesis and the Cartularium Saxonicum (a collection of Old English charters), and apparently in all three can mean simply “treasure city.”

Now, fierce as the Danish people that Hrothgar rules over are, and as likely as they are to live in towns filled with plunder, “treasure city” just doesn’t have enough of a ring to it for my tastes. So I got a little creative and instead rendered “hordburh” as “walled and treasure-filled towns.” It’s a bit wordy, but I think it works.

Modern English just doesn’t compound like its ancestor.

The other word to be aware of in this week’s excerpt is “gesloh.”

This prefixed verb means “to enter into by fighting.” It’s pretty straightforward in context, and I’ve kept it nearly as it is in the passage above. But what happens when you take “ge” away?

The word “sloh” is a form of “slean,” which can mean “strike,” “beat,” “stamp,” “coin (money),” or “forge (weapons)” in one sense, “throw,” “cast,” “sting,” or “pitch,” in another, “strike across,” “dash,” “break,” “rush,” or “come quickly” and “slay,” or “kill” in yet another. It’s a single word that covers a lot of ground. Yet with “ge” added to it, it becomes quite narrowly focused.

Though, in the first sense of “slean” there’s some of “geslean” to be seen. For that first group of words relates to creation in some form or another (as long as you understand “strike” and “beat” as referring to hitting instruments or mixing things. Building on this relationship, I think that you can draw a connection between the first sense of an un-prefixed word and its prefixed form. The latter may also bring in some of the former’s other senses.

Another word that becomes more specific when you add “ge” to it is “ascian.”

On its own, this word means “ask,” “inquire,” “seek for,” “demand,” as well as “call,” or “summon,” and “examine,” or “observe.”

Put a little “ge” on the front, though, and the word means “to learn by asking,” “discover,” or “hear of.”

These “ge-” words are sort of the opposite of the words that I’ve been tracking over the last few weeks because of their specificity, but they’re just too odd to pass up.

There really isn’t anything like the “ge” prefix in Modern English. Just another reason to study these old books.

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Closing

Next week Hrothgar continues to speak, telling Beowulf that his thanes are thinning out.

As for this week’s excerpt: What do you make of Hrothgar’s switching tones? Do you think that he’s come to trust Beowulf based on his family connections and speech alone?

What about this week’s words, “is walled, treasure-filled town” a good translation of “hordburh”?

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Beowulf focuses though his words run free (ll.442-455)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Beowulf focuses his speech for arms’ sake
Words off-book and revealing
Closing

Interlaced men motif. Image from http://public.wsu.edu/~hanly/oe/503.html

Interlaced men motif. Image from http://public.wsu.edu/~hanly/oe/503.html

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Abstract

Beowulf finishes his speech with a prediction of what will happen if Grendel takes him and instructions should such a thing occur.

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Translation

“‘I expect that he will, if he be allowed,
in the hall of battle, the Geatish people,
devour unafraid, as he often has,
that flower of men. You need not
to cover my head,but he will have me
blood-stained, if death take me;
he will bear away my bloodied body, thinking to taste;
mournlessly will the lone-goer eat me,
staining his moor-den; nor need you be long anxious
about my body’s state.
Send to Hygelac, if me battle take,
this best of battle dresses, that I bear upon my breast,
choicest of garments; that is Hraedlan’s heirloom,
the work of Weland. Always fate shall go as it will!'”
(Beowulf ll.442-455)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Beowulf straightens his speech for arms’ sake

Beowulf’s first sentence this week offers up more of something that we saw earlier in his speech (see June 13’s entry). The interlace of clauses once more makes the climactic statement “devour unafraid” (“etan unforhte” (l.444)) applicable to Grendel or Geat alike.

Grendel will be unafraid as he devours them because they pose no threat to his otherworldly might, and/or the Geats will be unafraid because they always accept their fate without flinching. If taken in the latter sense, this statement foreshadows Beowulf’s closing remark, actually.

Curiously, however, Beowulf’s clauses stop interlacing after that first sentence. He still retreats into subordinate clauses to add extra description to his subjects, but he doesn’t talk about parallel subjects again.

Why does he make this shift in speech?

My theory is that Beowulf’s speech becomes more focused after he wraps up about Grendel because he stops talking about the battle and matters that involve two feuding parties. Since he’s now discussing serious matters pertaining only to him (he is talking about his own death here) he brings more concentration to his words. They need to convey things clearly after all.

And convey things clearly they do. How could Beowulf’s instructions not be clear when “send my mail coat back to Hygelac” is stretched over four lines?

Part of the extension of his instructions involves some curious information about his mail coat. It’s being the work of Weland is definitely noteworthy. Though, as was the case the last time Weland was mentioned, it’s possible that “the work of Weland” (“Welandes geweorc” (l.455)) is just a very high compliment to the smith responsible for it.

More tangible is Beowulf’s mentioning that his mail coat is an heirloom of Hraedlan’s. Now that’s a name we haven’t seen before.

Though according to every translation of the poem I have at hand (Seamus Heaney’s, Allan Sullivan’s, and R.M. Liuzza’s) “Hraedlan” (l.454) is an alternative spelling of “Hrethel.”

This figure is none other than Beowulf’s maternal grandfather.

So Beowulf’s armour, made by Weland the Smith or not, is at least from Beowulf’s grandfather’s younger days.

Age and history added value to arms, making it obvious why Beowulf would not want to lose this mail coat. A sword that’s passed down from a grandfather is one thing – it can be broken to pieces and reforged. But armour that lasts that long must be doing something right.

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Words off-book and revealing

Telling someone “gullible” isn’t in the dictionary is one thing. Using a word that’s not in that language’s dictionary (at least the one you happen to be looking in) is completely another.

Yet that’s just what happened with the word “hreð-manna” (l.445)

This word apparently translates as “flower of men,” but more literally could be “quick-man.”

Combined with the word “mægen,” the first half of line 445 could be taken to mean “mighty fast-men” – people who combine speed and strength. You may well wonder how “flower of men” can be pulled from such a line, but the path from “mighty fast-men” to “flower of men” is fairly logical.

The word “manna” on its own means “men,” and the word “hreð” on its own means “quick,” nimble,” ready,” active,” alert,” prompt.” The general implication of those words is liveliness, a certain vivacity of spirit that could be represented by a vibrant flower.

Plus, it doesn’t hurt that “hreð” + the Old English word for “month,” “monað,” means “March” – traditionally the first month of spring. A very lively season, especially when people had no long-lasting artificial light to extend those short winter days.

From this place of “hreð” comes the translation of “maegan hreð-manna:” “the flower of men,” or “the liveliest/most vital of men.”

Another unclear word in this passage is “byrgean” (l.448).

In the context of Beowulf’s speech the word means “to taste, eat,” but there are two other senses in which it can be taken.

One of these is “to raise a mound, hide, bury, inter,” and the other is “to save, deliver, preserve, guard, defend, fortify, spare; beware of, avoid, guard against.”

Translating “byrgean” as “to taste” definitely makes the most sense, but it’s interesting to see what other meanings branched off of the same word. In a sense they all mean to “bury,” since eating something certainly covers it, and, although drastic, burying something could be a way of saving it. Applied in this situation, though, it’s strange to think that Grendel would want to save Beowulf – or even more so that he would want to bury him.

Though this word’s alternative meanings are one of the poem’s several entry points to the view that Beowulf and Grendel share a certain kinship, that they’re both monstrous in a sense.

If the word “byrgean” is supposed to be translated as “to cover” or “to bury,” then the implication is definitely that Grendel doesn’t take Beowulf back for a midnight snack, but instead to pay the proper respects to his fallen kin.

Actually, maybe it’s just a question of Beowulf’s alignment.

He could be a monstrous being who’s not on the cusp of society as Grendel is because he has learned how to act within it (something shown in his speech to Hrothgar and to the coast guard), yet in the alternate future where Beowulf is beaten by Grendel the only reason he loses is because he comes to identify too closely with his monstrous self.

Without recourse to his association to the godly kin of Seth, Beowulf fails in ridding the Danes (included in the kin of Seth) of Grendel (kin of Cain). Because Beowulf, reminded of his own monstrousness, is set on an equal footing with Grendel he is bested and Grendel takes him back to his den to bury his fallen kin.

But all that is just a theory. A Beowulf theory.

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Closing

With that, Beowulf’s speech to Hrothgar and his assembled thanes is finished. Next week Hrothgar takes up the mic to fill us all in on how exactly he came to know Beowulf’s father Ecgtheow.

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