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

Breaking for a brew
Words of nuance

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

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“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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Old English:


Modern English:


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

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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

  1. Pingback: Hrothgar’s pro-story agenda and two normal compounds (ll.480-490) | A Blogger's Beowulf

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