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Hrothgar closes off his speech to detail with an account of the carnage Grendel has wrought upon Heorot.
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“‘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!
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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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Next week Beowulf and his crew are treated to an intermission of mead and minstrel song before a new challenger appears.