Unferth doubly damns a doomed Beowulf (ll.520-528)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Unferth’s biting conclusion
Normal words spiced with speculation
Closing

A medieval depiction of a donkey. An apt animal for Unferth.

A medieval depiction of a donkey. An apt animal for Unferth.

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Abstract

Unferth finishes his account of Beowulf and Breca’s swimming match before predicting Beowulf’s doom at the hands of Grendel.

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Translation

“‘Then he sought his dear father land
those dear to him, the land of the Brondings,
splendid strongholds against war, where he had folk
fortress and rings. So in truth the son of Beanstan
fully bested you by endurance in your bet with him.
Then I believe that you will have the worse outcome,
though thou hast thrived in combat everywhere,
bloody battle, if thou darest wait
nearly all the long night for Grendel'”
(Beowulf ll.520-528)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Unferth’s biting conclusion

Haters are gonna hate. Doubters are gonna doubt. But Unferth, really, seems to be neither of these things.

There’s no two ways about it: he doesn’t like Beowulf. And his account of the swimming match between Beowulf and Breca does not put the poem’s titular character in a good light.

But, I don’t think Unferth’s being entirely dismissive of Beowulf either last week’s or this week’s half of his outburst. I think he’s being a little more precise with his heckling.

I’m grounding this idea of Unferth’s being more subtle in his line “though thou hast thrived in combat everywhere,/bloody battle” (“ðeah þu heaðoræsa gehwær dohte,/grimre guðe” (l.526-527)). It’s sarcastic, sure. But Unferth isn’t just being smarmy, he’s saying that Beowulf lacks individual prowess.

Battles, such as they were in the early medieval period, were free for alls. Melees.

As such, there would be individual bouts, sure, but these would be surrounded by other fights. Within the mesh of warriors mashing each other to pulp archers could have your back. Fellow warriors, spearmen or swordmen, could have your back. So as long as you were quick enough and didn’t get in the way of your support team, you could no doubt do quite well and be quite the celebrated warrior.

After all, the Anglo-Saxons recognized that team work was an essential thing both on and off the battlefield. They were well aware that if you completely isolated yourself socially, you would have no means of understanding what was going on outside of your hall or hovel.

So I think that Unferth presents his account of Breca to say that Beowulf, for all of his boasting about beating Grendel, isn’t likely to come off well because his usual strategy of working in a tight team (he does have what is basically a comitatus of 12 Geats with him after all) won’t work because it hasn’t worked for the Danes.

Moreover, I think Unferth’s using the swimming match to illustrate Beowulf’s individual incompetence is meant to underline his inability to cope with things alone. It was he who floated off and wound up washed ashore in some foreign land, after all.

Breca, on the other hand, according to Unferth (or rather, the version of events that he heard – or maybe is making up on the spot), won their match handily. As such Beowulf is bound to get “the worst outcome” (“wyrsan geþingea” (l.525)) if he waits for Grendel.

As to why Unferth bothers specifying the difference in Beowulf’s team and solo performances in this subtle way, I think it’s because it’s more biting than just saying “hey, you work well in a team but stink on your own.”

Unferth is supposed to pose a threat to Beowulf’s state of mind and the way in which he’s perceived by the other Danes. Thus, he damns him directly and then follows up with further damning via faint praise. At least poetically (and in my own opinion), this is the best way to do so.

What do you think? Is Unferth just being sarcastic when he talks of Beowulf having “thrived in combat everywhere”? Or is there a bit of faint praise there?

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Normal words spiced with speculation

What to say about the words in this extract, this passage? Well, there aren’t many strange compounds. Actually, there really aren’t any at all.

There’s the word “eðel,” meaning “country,” “native land,” “ancestral home.” This word is completely straightforward when it comes to translating (though some might argue its implications that Anglo-Saxons had a sense of nationality or some grander unity beyond their immediate group are anachronistic).

But in this word’s dictionary entry, you can find that it combines with the word for whales (“hwales”) to make a compound word for “sea.” Of course, this makes sense, since the sea is the whales’ ancestral home and native land.

Though I can’t help but read this combination and think that the Anglo-Saxons had some crazy ideas about the origins of whales and just what they were. It’s not very likely, but maybe some had over developed vestigial legs and so the very early Anglo-Saxons regarded the whales as being somewhat like them?

Or maybe because of the whales’ incredible strength and size and sociability they were regarded as being powerful denizens of the sea in a kind of spiritual way.

Maybe they were just big creatures that captured the imaginations of the Anglo-Saxons and fired up many a tale around a hearth fire.

There’s also the phrase “þaer he folk ahte.” Unferth uses this to describe Breca’s homeland. It more than likely means that he just had kinsmen there. But, because the word “ahte” means “to have, possess,” and combines with “folc,” could it be a reference to Breca’s having slaves or servants in that country?

It’s incredibly unlikely that that’s what’s intended, but it is something to think about. Maybe “having slaves there” was a kind of short hand for “has a well-established home there.” But that’s some deep speculation on my part. So deep in fact, that it’s pretty much groundless.

Rounding out the collection of words to at least stop and sniff at in this week’s passage is “freoð-burh.”

A combination of “friðu” meaning “peace, safety, protection; refuge, asylum” and “burh” meaning “stronghold,” “enclosed area,” this word strikes me as notable for its redundancy.

You’d hope that a stronghold or enclosed area would offer safety and protection. Though, maybe it’s like Old English’s use of double negatives for emphasis. Doubling up on words that imply protection means that this fortress of Breca’s is nigh unto impenetrable and so well-supplied that none could successfully lay siege to it or capture it in all out war.

If this Breca is the same Breca who later became a ruler of the strategic Swedish island of Brännö, then such a fortress may well have been there. Any strategic site in medieval Europe would need to be well fortified, after all.

What do you think of my interpretations of these words and phrase? Am I onto anything, or just filling space with groundless speculation?

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Closing

Well, we’ve heard Unferth’s heckling of Beowulf. It kind of splutters near the end, though. Next week we’ll get the main man’s reply.

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Unferth blasts boasts, and I wonder about boats (ll.506-519)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Unferth blasts boasts
Did Beowulf and Breca row or swim for their row?
Closing

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Abstract

Unferth sets up his eventual accusation of Beowulf.

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Translation

“‘Art thou the Beowulf, he who contended against Breca,
on the wide sea in a swimming contest,
where you two for pride moved as you could
and for a foolish boast in the deep water
ventured your lives? No man whatever,
neither loved nor loathed, could dissuade you two
from that distressing journey, as you rowed out to sea;
there you two eagerly covered the waters with your arms,
traversing the sea-street, moving more quickly with your hands,
gliding over spear-like waves. Ocean ripples roiled,
the winter’s surge; you two on the waters
had toil for seven nights; he who the flood overcame,
it had greater strength; so that come the morning
the sea had carried him to the land of the Heatho-Reams.'”
(Beowulf ll.506-519)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Unferth blasts boasts

Unferth addresses Beowulf like any one wishing to talk to someone contemptuously would: in the third person.

But what’s weird about how Unferth speaks to Beowulf in this part of his counter-boast is that he continues to talk about Beowulf in the third person after starting with “[a]rt thou the Beowulf[?]” (“[e]art þu se Beowulf[?]” (l.506))

The distancing that’s going on in this continued use of “he” definitely makes it clear that Unferth wants as little to do with the Geat as possible.

It also makes it clear that he’s holding himself aloft from Beowulf’s heroic persona.

Unferth’s relation of the swimming contest definitely doesn’t confirm Beowulf as some sort of grandiose figure. Instead it portrays him as nothing more than an idle-boaster (think of a drunk challenging all comers to whatever contest they might cook up), someone who tries to aggrandize himself through pointless challenges. Not entirely unlike a lot of modern day reality TV.

Actually, I think the implication of Unferth’s claim and that sort of TV are the same.

He’s implying that Beowulf has nothing better to do than to engage in such contests, just as a lot of reality TV’s audience probably has nothing better to do than watch (and/or participate). Unferth’s point in making this implication is to show that Beowulf isn’t nearly as worthy as a champion as he’s made himself out to be.

In fact, Unferth suggests that Beowulf not only lost the swimming contest, but in fact wound up washed ashore – the sea overcame him!

Him, the one with the power of thirty men in his grip!

Him, the one who has so pompously boasted that he will kill Grendel (if god so allows)!

On the one hand it’s easy to see how Unferth’s bringing up an old challenge is a direct attack on Beowulf’s integrity. Maybe the story of this swimming match is something that Beowulf would rather keep under wraps, and Unferth, in revealing it to all of Heorot’s gathered elite, has destroyed Beowulf’s posture of perfect warrior-hood. Or maybe it’s something ambiguous that Beowulf’s had to explain away before.

On the other hand, is there really any shame in being overcome by the sea? Especially after, as Unferth puts it, having “had toil for seven nights” (“æht/seofon niht swuncon” (ll.516-517)) on its waters?

It’s easy to see how Unferth’s sudden accusation would probably turn heads and gather all of the crowd’s attention onto Beowulf – the one who, until Unferth opened his mouth – was very clearly the focus of the Danes’ hopes for relief from Grendel.

But, I think, Unferth’s broad and accusatory tone, combined with his distancing Beowulf through the use of the third person in his accusation, also signalled to the poem’s listeners that Unferth’s threat to Beowulf’s heroic image is fiery but unfounded. His appeal to the rhetorical tactic of immediately seizing upon some hitherto unknown weakness of his target probably sounded as desperate to that early audience as it does to us, familiar as we are with political debates.

In fact, we can, I think, almost see Beowulf slowly nodding and grinning slightly as Unferth speaks, knowing full well that he can either twist the man’s version of the story to maintain his heroic image or correct it with his own version of what happened – the truth.

Do you think Unferth is just a strawman the poet set up for Beowulf to knock down? Or does he pose a real threat? Write your take in the comments.

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Did Beowulf and Breca row or swim for their row?

The exact word that Unferth uses to describe the challenge between Beowulf and Breca is “dol-gilpe.” This word, when translated as a whole comes out as “idle-boasting.” Taken as the words “dol” and “gilpe” we get “foolish,” “silly,” and “presumptuous,” and “boasting,” “pride,” “arrogance,” “fame,” and “glory” respectively.

Cultural differences between the Anglo-Saxons and ourselves aside, the first half of the word is none too flattering, and being able to interpret “gilpe” as “arrogance” doesn’t do much for the second half. So this word’s pejorative connotation, at least in Unferth’s usage, is pretty clear to see.

Even combining one of the more upstanding interpretations of “gilpe” with any of those for “dol” gives us something like “silly glory” or “presumptuous glory.” In other words, a sort of glory that is as valuable as the sands on which Beowulf washed up. This quality of “dol-gilpe” shows that there is some meat to Unferth’s calling Beowulf out on his boastful ways.

In a way, Unferth’s even trying to get under the skin of boasting words in that using the word “dol-gilpe” could well imply that all boasts are nothing more than words.

Although the parallel isn’t perfect, it could even be that Unferth is trying to make the swimming contest and Beowulf’s challenging Grendel parallel events. Both start with idle boasting, nothing more than words, and then deeds are quickly shown to run contrary to all those words. Actually, on the level of words, Unferth could also use this compound (matters of the poet’s concern with alliteration aside) to call attention to Beowulf’s affected way of speaking, his use of stiff forms of address and of formalized rhetoric.

On the topic of words and their being void of meaning, Unferth’s “reon” in line 512 may as well mean nothing.

This word, as it appears, means “rowing.” It could also, however, mean “go by water, sail, swim.”

In the context of Unferth’s telling of the swimming contest between Breca and Beowulf this brings up a small, but niggling question: Did they row out to sea and then start swimming? Or did the two start from the shore?

As I said, it’s a very minor thing, but it is an important detail. If they did row out to sea in a boat, then it’s likely that some sort of third party was involved – otherwise that boat would have to be abandoned.

If there was a third party, he could have stopped the two, or he could have been the contests’ judge. Also, if they did go out in a boat, then maybe the race was merely from the boat to the shore. In that case it’s possible that Beowulf wound up ashore elsewhere because he tripped on the boat’s edge, fell into the sea rather than heroically leaping into it, and was washed away.

If “reon” is meant to be “swim” or “go by water,” though, and Beowulf and Breca swam for the entirety of their challenge, then it could well have been nothing more than a contest between two drunks who jumped in the ocean late at night and wound up ashore elsewhere some time later.

Without clarity about the boat – not to mention clarity about the rules of the race – it’s entirely unclear just what happened. We only have Unferth’s (and later Beowulf’s) version of events to go by.

There may be some clue as to how deep the waters were, though, in the word “gar-secg.”

Literally translated as “spear-sea,” this word implies that the waters were choppy, the tiny waves atop it looking like spear blades pointing skyward (or, feeling like the points of hundreds of spears because of the intense chill). If the waters were that choppy, the race must’ve been a ways out to sea, and a boat was probably present. Probably. Maybe the boatman was among the “neither loved nor loathed” (“ne leof ne lað” (l.511)) who couldn’t dissuade Beowulf and Breca from their fool’s errand.

Do you think the two “rowed” out to sea, or “swam”? Leave your take on this in the comments.

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Closing

Next week, Unferth’s attack on Beowulf continues. Can it get much nastier?

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Tolkien’s influence on Unferth? And unbinding battle runes. (ll.499-505)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Unferth’s first impression – a success?
Unpacking the battle runes
Closing

What they are: Runestones. What they mean: ...I'm not entirely sure.

What they are: Runestones. What they mean: …I’m not entirely sure.

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Abstract

Unferth is brought onto the stage and introduced as a self-important toady who can’t stand the greatness of others.

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Translation

“Unferth spoke, son of Ecglaf*
he who sat at the foot of the Scylding lord,
unbound battle words**, that venture of Beowulf’s,
the courageous sea-farer, a great grudge***,
for he would not allow that any other man
over all the earth and under heaven
could ever achieve fame to match his own:****”
(Beowulf ll.499-505)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

*”Ecglaf” – “sword-leaving/Sword-heirloom” Hm. So he’s a child of war? Or is this a ref to penis?
**onband beadu-rune: unbound his ‘secret of a quarrel’ [HALL, MERRIT]//battle words/hostile words [CL WRENN] = unbound + war/battle/fighting/strife + mystery/secrecy/secret/counsel,consultation;council;runic character, letter;writing – Is this meant to be a foil to beowulf’s “unlocked his word hoard”? Hm…
***interweaving structure starts up here. This clause refers back to the battle words.
****Gets really, really tangled in terms of regular ModE syntax here. A literal translation is
“|that any other man//ever fame compared to greater|in earth//care for under heaven| than he himself:”
-Unferth introduced as one who sits at the feet of Hrothgar, a close councilor, a coward who is close to Hrothgar to avoid fighting. Does this relate to his father’s name? Is my impression of him as wormtongue because he could be the template for wormtongue or because I encountered wormtongue first? Hm…little help, Tolkien?

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Unferth’s first impression – a success?

Beowulf is not a poem that’s full of characters or character introductions. Many of those that do appear in it are just dropped into place. Wulfgar, Hrothgar’s trusted councillor and herald is a great example of this class of character. Major characters like Hrothgar and Beowulf, on the other hand, get more of an introduction.

And then there’s Unferth.

This guy, whom I’ll forever remember as being well-played by John Malkovich in the mostly terrible Zemeckis Beowulf of 2007, is a character of a third sort.

Unferth occupies a grey middle ground between protagonist and antagonist. In this position he’s able to become a much more interesting character than most of the others in the poem. Yet these seven lines are his introduction, and set the tone for his character going forward.

So what can we say about him?

Being told that he comes from the foot of Hrothgar, tells us that he’s very close to the elder Dane. He’s probably a councillor in a similar capacity to Wulfgar.

However, his breaking into the poem with the line “Unferth spoke, son of Ecglaf,” (“Unferð maþelode, Ecglafes bearn” (l.499)) gives the impression that he’s been holding his tongue until this very moment, at which, like a coiled cobra, he strikes into the din of the partying troop.

Nonetheless, he’s saved from being entirely maligned in the reference to his father that the poet adds in for alliterative reasons.

Though what kind of a father a man named “sword heirloom” was is up for debate. Maybe he was the son of some sort of illicit, war-time love affair. Or, maybe more crudely, his name’s a play on simply being a “sword’s leavings.” Either way, it’s not him but his son (whose name in the manuscript is reported as “Hunferth”) that we’re concerned with here.

After the next line in which we’re told that he was sitting at Hrothgar’s foot the poet decides to shuffle the syntax of his line halves around. This means that, as had happened in some of Hrothgar’s dialogue, one line contains two halves that combine with the next line’s opposite halves to create full thoughts.

Making this change in descriptive poetry rather than dialogue, where we’ve mostly seen it before, leaves me with the impression that these lines are made to endure. They’re given extra care in their making, and so are meant to stand as important. Of course, the single phrase “unbound his battle words” (“onband beadu-rune” (l.501)) also marks this as important. For the poet earlier used a similar phrase to set off the first speech of the poem’s hero himself.

As a gamer immersed in the lore of The Legend of Zelda, I can’t help but take this parallel sort of setup as a cue to view Unferth as Shadow Beowulf.

This man is a reflection of Beowulf’s darker side and what he could become were he to use his powers for ill.

The poet doesn’t give much leeway for such an interpretation after this echoing phrase, though, since we’re told in some of the most tangled Old English I’ve ever read, that Unferth can’t stand the thought that anyone is considered more famous than himself.

Nonetheless, Beowulf’s key characteristic up to this point is his optimism. His boasts are claims of great power and the ability to defeat Grendel despite the odds. He willingly faces death with high hopes for glory.

Here, though, we’re shown that Unferth’s outlook is inherently pessimistic since he refuses to acknowledge anything great from outside of himself. To some extent, this portrayal makes him Beowulf’s foil. It also makes him a character that forces Beowulf to reflect on his own goals and aspirations. This gives Beowulf some room to grow spiritually, perhaps something that’s required of him to overcome Grendel.

It’s also got to be said of Unferth that I can’t decide if I view him as a slimy toady sort of character because I first encountered a similar type in Tolkien’s Wormtongue or if I see him as such because Tolkien used him as a template for Wormtongue.

What do you think is more likely? What came first in terms of impressions – the slimy underling Wormtongue or the shady and suspect Unferth?

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Unpacking the battle runes

Carrying on from something mentioned above, let’s take a look at the phrase “onband beadu-rune” (“onband beadu-rune” (l.501)) Starting, of course, with the definitions of each word.

The verb here, “onband,” is quite close to its Modern English equivalent: “unbound.” It could also mean “untie,” “loosen,” “release,” or “disclose.”

The word “beadu” translates as “war,” “battle,” “fighting,” “strife.”

And, finally, the word “rune,” along with its less than helpful translation to the Modern English “rune” could also mean “mystery,” “secrecy,” “secret,” “counsel,” “consultation;” “secret council;” “runic character,” “letter,” or “writing.” Translating it as “words” is kind of a stretch, but it’s one that fits well and makes clear sense of the phrase.

But those first four definitions of the word are tempting. The word “rune” is clearly one that’s quite coloured by things unknown, unseen.

Perhaps it’s the poet’s use of this word rather than something more straightforward like, well, “word” that puts me in mind of Tolkien’s Wormtongue as I read this passage.

The word “rune” is definitely not used for reasons of alliteration, since it’s the only word that starts with “r” in the line. In fact, people who know more about Old English prosody than I could probably argue that “rune” could be substituted for with “word” with only a small change to the quality of the line.

So then why is it there? Why choose the word “rune” if it has these associations with the mysterious rather than a straightforward word?

I think it’s used here because it suggests that Unferth is about to say things that Beowulf would rather have hidden. He is about to challenge Beowulf not with swords but with facts to undercut his boasts.

In a metaphorical sense, this makes Unferth a representation of Beowulf’s doubt.

A hero of so clear a purpose and one-track a mind can’t be clouded by complex internal strife, and so the self-doubt that a normal person would feel in Beowulf’s position is placed in another character all together. Personifying Beowulf’s doubts like this allows him to overcome and disprove them, basically to work through them, in the forum that Heorot provides. It gives Beowulf a chance to speak through the secrets and possibly less-than-heroic facts of his past.

That Unferth would utter such secrets does nothing for his character, though. The idea that he can’t stand the existence or idea of there being people more famous than himself around boldly paints him as a schemer and underhanded coward. He’s a cad who would sooner undercut a boaster than suffer him to try to actually fulfil his boasts.

I think that quality in his character – an apparent desire to impose his own limits on other people – is what gives the lasting impression of Unferth’s villainy. He is made to personify the antithesis of the idea of grasping beyond what you expect is your reach.

As a people interested in treasure and in venturing off to new locales, I think it goes without saying that the Anglo-Saxons prized such a characteristic in people. It’s definitely a strong one in Beowulf and he’s the poem’s hero after all.

So maybe my reaction to Unferth is less learned and more cultural.

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Closing

But just what are the secrets that Unferth lets out of the bag? Well, find out in next week’s extract!

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Taking a break for a brew and some nuanced words (ll.491-498)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Breaking for a brew
Words of nuance
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

Space is cleared for the Geats to sit, ale is poured, and songs are sung in Heorot hall.

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Translation

“Then for the Geat men together at once
a space was cleared on a beer hall bench;
there the bold went to sit,
exulting in their strength; a thane acted on that office,
he who in hand bore the adorned ale cup,
poured out the sweet brightness; the poet meanwhile sang
clear in Heorot; there were songs of heroic joy,
among the none too few noble warrior Danes and Geats.”
(Beowulf ll.491-498)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Breaking for a brew

It’s no secret that the Anglo-Saxons enjoyed their beer. Such could be said for all Germanic peoples, really. But, they weren’t swillers of whatever they could get their hands on. At least, one would hope so after reading such a vivid description of a perfect presentation and pour as that found on lines 494-496.

The best way to approach this description is line by line, since each has a singular focus.

First, the second half of line 494 is about the person doing the pouring. Notice that this is the shortest part of the description. Also, that pouring the ale isn’t just some act or event that stands in the way of drinking it – it’s an “office.”

The Old English word used is “nytt,” which could translate as “use,” “utility,” “advantage;” “duty,” “office,” “employment,” “supervision,” “care;” “useful,” “beneficial,” “helpful,” “profitable.”

The word “office” best captures the sense that I think is implied here, a combination of officialdom with importance.

It goes unsaid throughout these three lines, but aside from the enjoyment of a good brew, ale-pouring would have been one of the major ways in which a host could make an impression upon his guests. Just as various modern cultures have various drinking etiquettes, the Anglo-Saxons surely had their own. As such, knowing how to properly pour was likely included in this and something that was learned early and learned well.

There’s some room for interpretation in the word “þegn,” since it could mean “servant” or “retainer.” But, whether it’s someone who is only a servant in Heorot or who is one of Hrothgar’s remaining retainers, I think that the act of pouring ale in Anglo-Saxon culture confers a great deal of importance on the pourer. Just like a bartender who knows how best to get that stout from the tap to your glass, anyone who could pour ale well no doubt commanded some respect.

After all, it is that servant who bears the ornamented drinking cup (as read on line 495). Probably a large pitcher-sized thing from which the smaller cups were filled, this cup’s exact decoration remains unmentioned. Likely with good reason.

The recitation of poetry in Anglo-Saxon Britain happened in social settings. In such settings just the same sort of pouring and drinking would be going on, so leaving out any fine details that would make this “adorned ale-cup” a specific item allows hearers of the poem to step into the fiction of Beowulf through this detail (or lack thereof).

Perhaps some hearers may even have thought, “maybe this ale-cup that poet’s caterwauling about is just like this one?” as they admired the design carved around their own cup, fingering over its design as much as looking at it.

But the bearer and the cup are just vehicles for the ale itself. That’s why the most vivid brief description of all is saved for the ale (or mead?) itself – that “sweet brightness” of line 496. It doesn’t contain so much detail as to become self-parodying, but the original Old English, “,” is, nonetheless open to interpretation.

Heaney translates the phrase as “bright/helpings of mead.” Wren would render it “bright [or “glorious”] sweet drink.” And Francis Gummere went with “clear mead.” These are all fairly similar, and mead is definitely implied (if not outright stated).

Yet, it’s curious that the word for the drink is not “medu” meaning “mead” or “ealu” meaning “ale.” It’s possible that the poet declined the use of either because it was obvious enough to contemporary audiences what the drink was. Though to us (and to me) it’s rather vague. There’s mention of the ale cup, and yet this is a sweet drink that’s being poured out. So is it mead or is it ale?

A meaning taken for granted is lost to us.

Or maybe I just need to get a little of either in me to work this one out.

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Words of nuance

One of the things that drew me to the study of words when I was younger is their power to reflect the values and ideas of the people and cultures who use them.

One of the words that stands out in this week’s extract is “swiðferhð.” Taken together, the word means “bold, brave, rash.”

Curiously, there’s a kind of gradient present in these definitions: to be called “bold” is generally a compliment, calling someone “brave” could go either way, and then calling someone “rash” sounds like a downright insult. Coming from a society that seems steeped in physical conflict and warfare, such nuance to a word that sounds like it should bear only positive connotations is curious. But, of course, contemplation and wisdom were highly valued in that society, too.

Taken apart, the word’s halves, “swið” and “ferð,” mean, respectively: “very,” “much,” “exceedingly,” “severely,” “violently,” “fiercely;” and “mind,” “intellect,” “soul,” “spirit,” “life,” “person.”

All of the definitions of “ferð are benign enough. But, the last four interpretations of “swið” sound like adverbs for something taken too far. Yet someone who is “severely spirited,” for example, could well be an asset or a liability on the battlefield. He’d be a powder keg, as likely to do much good as he would be to do much ill. So characterized are the Geats as they sit amongst the Danes for their entertainment.

I don’t think the poet means this as a backhanded compliment, though. I read the use of “swiðferð (aside from its use for alliteration’s sake) as the poet’s take on the Dane’s feeling about the Geats at this point. They don’t know if Beowulf will be successful against Grendel, or if he and his band will be smeared around their precious Heorot come morning.

Such an atmosphere is perfect for songs of man rejoicing, though. Or are they songs of hero gladness?

Line 497’s “hæleða dream” isn’t exactly a compound word, but its interpretation is still something of a crux.

The words “warrior,” “hero,” and “man” cover “hæleða” well enough. But that leaves the strangely familiar “dream,” a word that has a meaning that’s almost analogous to its Modern English cognate: “joy,” “gladness,” “delight,” “ecstasy,” “mirth,” “rejoicing;” “melody,” “music,” “song,” “singing.”

All of these words are close enough to one another, but the question is: which shade of meaning should someone translating Beowulf go with?

Songs of a warrior’s ecstasy are likely different from those of a warrior’s rejoicing. He might rejoice after a hard-won battle, but he may well be ecstatic right in the middle of it.

That’s kind of a problem of translation, though. Too often, in the process of moving words from one language to another, the original needs to be unpacked since all together it just won’t fit into its target language. It doesn’t help when one such word is attached to another (a man’s ecstasy is likely to be different from a man’s rejoicing, just as a warrior’s ecstasy is different from his rejoicing).

This sort of nuance might not be as wild as that of swiðferð or of other words I’ve covered in previous entries, but it’s still something that makes translating a fascinating task.

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Closing

Next week, one of Hrothgar’s closest thanes calls Beowulf out on his boasting.

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Hrothgar’s pro-story agenda and two normal compounds (ll.480-490)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
On the use of stories
Two normal compounds
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 closes off his speech to detail with an account of the carnage Grendel has wrought upon Heorot.

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Translation

“‘Quite often ale-drunken threats
from warriors were issued over ale-cups,
that they would wait in the beer-hall
for Grendel’s onslaught with sword horror.
Yet when morning came to this mead hall,
this noble-hall was blood-stained, as day was lit,
all the bench space was smeared with blood,
the hall battle-bloodied; then had I fewer loyal
dear men, those death had carried off.
Sit now to the feast, and in the hall hear
of heroes’ glorious victories, as thine heart urges thee!
(Beowulf ll.480-490)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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On the use of stories

This week’s passage is pretty straightforward.

Hrothgar tells Beowulf of those who have come before him in sparse, yet gory, detail, and then sends him off to make merry. It’s such a quick turnabout that I wonder if it’s supposed to be comical.

Schadenfreude can’t possibly be that recent a phenomenon after all. Especially when it’d be crystal clear that Beowulf will win, despite the odds. I mean, the poem is named after him and so it’d be hard for it to go on too far beyond his death were Grendel to bring it about.

If not schadenfreude, then maybe there’s some sort of irony at work here. Maybe Hrothgar’s conclusion is meant to be tragicomic.

Or perhaps Hrothgar is just drunk. That’s another possibility for sure.

Whatever his own state is, Hrothgar’s definitely a tragic figure and so that could well be what’s powering the comedy here.

It’s also important to remember that these characters, as much as they are the front end of the poem, are still puppets dancing upon the poet/scribe’s strings of words.

Another possibility is that Hrothgar’s emphasis falls on his final sentence. Maybe he’s trying to get Beowulf to fill his head with stories in which the hero triumphs over the monster. Medieval belief in the idea that what you carried around in your head affected your conduct and life in general was pretty widespread after all. So the big man’s conclusion might be less for comedic effect and more along the lines of “get your head in the game!”

Actually, stepping into the territory usually reserved for the second section of these posts, the word that Hrothgar uses for “urge” in that last sentence is worth a closer look.

In the original Old English it’s “hwette,” a clear ancestor of modern English’s “whet” and also translatable as “sharpen, incite, encourage.” The last two of these definitions are what led me to “urge.” But keeping the first two possibilities in mind makes Hrothgar’s use of “hwette” all the more fascinating.

(A quick note, “hwette” appears not to be used for its alliterative qualities since this line’s sound is “s,” curiously.)

If Hrothgar (or the poet) meant to mean “whet,” or “sharpen” then the line still retains its meaning. Beowulf is still being encouraged to sharpen himself on the whetstone of stories. But what does that say about stories?

I think this line gives us some minor insight into how the Anglo-Saxons (and many other cultures of the time, in keeping with the belief that what you enshrined in your memory affected you) regarded stories. In instances like those in which Beowulf finds himself, they could be used as much for entertainment as they could be for preparation.

Under such circumstances, it’s not likely that such stories were not necessarily closely analyzed. They were likely taken more or less at face value; the heroes are real and the monsters are real and that’s that.

I think we can add a layer of complexity to this matter, though.

I don’t think that the Anglo-Saxon’s necessarily believed that the monsters and heroes of such stories were real. Instead, I think they regarded their deeds as being such stories’ major purpose. Regaling each other with such stories could help to remind people that whether it was with divine or supernatural aid, or merely through human wit and wisdom, people can overcome some very large obstacles.

However, just as it’s possible to over-sharpen a knife, I think that the Anglo-Saxons also believed it was possible to over-sharpen oneself on such stories as those that Hrothgar encourages Beowulf to give an ear to.

However willing you might be to believe that hero x defeated supernatural terror y, hearing too many of these stories would inevitably lead to an awareness of their gaps. Analysis of such stories – whether out loud or only on reflection – would seriously undercut their power to empower.

Though, perhaps that’s why such stories are traded over ale or mead or beer, rather than, say, strong coffee or gentle tea.

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Two normal compounds

This week’s passage doesn’t have any wacky compounds.

However, it does have one that apparently isn’t in the Clark Hall & Meritt dictionary that I’m using as my primary reference.

This word is “hreðsecga,” meaning “hero,” and it’s from line 490. The glossary in the back of C.L. Wren’s edition of Beowulf does include this word, though, and in it he gives the quite literal translation of “glorious warrior.”

How is that quite literal?

Well, “hreð” means “victory” or “glory” and “secga” means “warrior,” “hero,” or “man.”

All in all it’s pretty straightforward.

Except that “secga” also translates to “sedge,” “reed,” “rush,” flag,” and “ocean,”

Given the word’s context it’s clear that it’s not meant to mean “glorious reed” or “glorious ocean.” But it’s curious to think that a word for “man,” or “warrior” could also mean things like that. Especially such unwarlike things as “sedge,” or “rush.”

A “flag” could refer to the standard or emblem that a tribe bore into battle for symbolic and psychological reasons. As the Anglo-Saxons (and the Danes and Geats) were familiar with sailing, the “ocean” may have been (and was) commonly characterized as war-like.

But, those plants are just there.

Still, it’s possible that the Anglo-Saxons saw sedge and rushes as bristling clumps of swords and spears respectively, mêlées in which a hundred swords were drawn, raised, and then frozen in the moment before they all strike their targets, preserving these scenes as grasses that bristle in the breeze.

Maybe these alternate translations for “secga” nod towards some forgotten myth about just such a martial scene being transformed into a plant doomed to dress the fen and marshy waste that the Anglo-Saxons populated with beings like Grendel. Such a myth wouldn’t be outside the ken of Western mythology, since Greek mythology is full of origin stories involving people being turned into plants.

The word “oret-mecgas” is another compound word found in this week’s passage (on line 481). It doesn’t carry any mystifying possible alternate meanings like “hreðsecga,” but it’s a compound word that sort of tells a story.

The word’s first part, “oret,” means “contest,” or “battle” and its second part means “man,” “disciple,” or “son.” So, combined, the whole compound literally means “disciple of battle” or “son of contest,” referring to someone deeply versed in combat. Indeed an apt definition for a word meaning “warrior.”

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Closing

Next week Beowulf and his crew are treated to an intermission of mead and minstrel song before a new challenger appears.

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