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

Beowulf focuses his speech for arms’ sake
Words off-book and revealing

Interlaced men motif. Image from

Interlaced men motif. Image from

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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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“‘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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Old English:


Modern English:


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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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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.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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1 thought on “ Beowulf focuses though his words run free (ll.442-455)

  1. Pingback: Beowulf’s slip of the tongue and linden wood’s importance? (ll.429-441) | A Blogger's Beowulf

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