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In this week’s extract Beowulf fends off more of those sea-borne fiends.
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Very often the loathed enemy
vexed me violently; I to them stretched out
my dear sword, as was suitable.
Nor did they there have much joy,
the evildoers, they that would have me served up,
they came to permanent seats in the sea-bed;
and come morning with sword wounds
they were laid upon the shore,
set to sleep by the sword, so that afterward none
near the steep ford the seafarers’
course could hinder.
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Beowulf’s strategic boasting
So Beowulf here takes a little opportunity to explain more of his exploits when fighting feral beasts. Of course, you kind of have to admire the guy. He’s here, supposedly just explaining what really happened with the whole swimming contest thing, but he manages to work in some boasts about his battle skill nonetheless.
Plus, what he describes is a battle with an enemy that’s just as ill-defined as Grendel is, too. No doubt that’s meant to give the Danes further hope in spite of Unferth’s attempt to chop Beowulf down.
Maybe, as unlikeable as Unferth is in my mind, that’s kind of why he speaks up. Or rather, that’s why Hrothgar let him speak up. He knows that Unferth, as cowardly as he is, will call Beowulf out and if this Geat is as worthy of the challenge of Grendel as he himself claims to be, then he’ll be able to repel Unferth’s accusations. Since he’s shown himself a master of rhetoric, it’s possible that if Unferth’s speech is part of some test of Hrothgar’s that he was also hoping that this young warrior newly come into his hall will prove his ability with words as well as with swords.
I’d say Beowulf does that with some success here. He might not be as eloquent as Hrothgar, or, of course, as the poet behind all of this, but Beowulf does become poetic when he’s talking of what he excels in: Battle.
The marauding sea beasts would have “served [him] up” (“þæt hie me þegon”(l.563)), and the beasts aren’t just killed, they’re “set to the sleep of the sword” (“sweordum aswefede”(l.567)).
Plus, having been a boaster since he was a child Beowulf not only takes this opportunity to boast about how he spent a night defeating sea beasts (a skill that the Danes no doubt hope will transfer to land), but also goes one step further. In this part of his version of the story Beowulf makes the self-aggrandizing claim that because of his handiwork the sailors in the area no longer have to worry about being harassed by these beasts.
This statement brings up some questions.
Is Beowulf trying to imply that he killed all of the region’s sea beasts or simply that he scared them off?
Was this part of the sea famous for being overrun with “whales” or whatever “sea deer” are/were? Or was it a little known place that anyone could say anything about and not really be called out on?
Answering the first pair of questions is tricky, at best.
In either case, Beowulf aggressively asserts his battle prowess. Almost to the point where it would sound like a drunken boast if Beowulf shouted outright – “I killed all the sea-deer dwelling in the swirling water there!” or “Never again would the sea-beasts of that bay trouble sailors, for my fighting filled them all with mortal fear!”
Left at just an implication, though, Beowulf’s saying that after his night of fighting “none/near the steep ford the seafarers’/course could hinder” sounds almost equal parts true and untrue.
Which brings us to the second pair of questions.
If this place was famous for monsters, then surely someone would pipe up with a contradiction or agreement.
Though, Beowulf did do all of this fighting when he was a few years younger, so, as long as the area didn’t fall back into the fins of the sea-deer, I guess there’d be no real objections to his story.
And that makes it all the more ingenious.
Maybe around the time that he did this the beasts actually did start to grow scarce, but not because of him. Perhaps they moved because they needed to find a better food source. Or they left the area in search of a place where boastful swimming contestants wouldn’t harass them so violently.
The same thing can be said if the area Beowulf’s story is set in is little known. These events’ happening a few years before his appearance in Heorot would simply make it all the more difficult to prove or disprove his story.
So, as much as Beowulf may be a brute when it comes to matters of sentence-level rhetoric, jamming his ideas into whatever constructions he has, it seems like he really does know his way around a boast.
However, whether or not that’s because he’s made many successful boasts or just has a stick-to-it attitude when it comes to fulfilling his boasts has yet to be seen.
Do you think Beowulf killed all of the area’s sea beasts or that he merely put the fear of human kind into those that remained?
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Two straightforward words, a third undefined
Past weeks have left us with little to note in the way of weird words. This week, that changes.
These first two words paint vivid pictures of their subjects through their combinations.
The word “yð-laf” means “shore” or “beach.” But it’s actually a combination of the word for “wave” or “sea” and a word for “leavings,” “relic,” or “remnant.” That the sea’s leavings are the beach makes some sort of sense.
The constant motion of the waves over it could stir that sort of idea in an observer. Under close scrutiny, the waves might start to look like they were leaving the sand behind as they pulled away. It’s a rather poetic image that sheds some light on the Anglo-Saxon worldview.
Though, whether that particular aspect of their worldview is that the water is greater than the land or that the earth is the remains of some sort of long gone water being or simply that all things leave something behind when they depart is unclear. There’s something locked in the poetry of that image.
Similarly, though more straightforwardly, this week’s extract brings us the word “brim-liðende.” This word combines “brim” for “surf,” “flood,” “wave,” “sea,” or “ocean,” with “to go,” “travel,” or “sail” to give us a word for “sailor.” It’s neat and quite tidy, and is simply a more descriptive way of identifying someone who travels by sea.
This week’s third word isn’t quite so straightforward.
Now, the real star of this week’s word watch.
It’s a strange one primarily because it’s unclear. What it means as a whole is well-defined enough. But with my dictionaries and limited knowledge of Old English word formation I wasn’t able to come up with exactly what its parts mean.
The word is “man-fordædlan,” meaning “evil deed, crime, wickedness, guilt, sin.”
The first word in this compound is pretty easy to find (it’s on the page opposite the entry for “man-fordædlan” itself, in fact). The word “man” means “evil deed, crime, wickedness, guilt, or sin.”
The word “fordædlan,” though, is tougher to define.
My first instinct was to look up “fordæd,” thinking that the last three letters are probably a suffix of some kind. But that turned up nothing.
Next came the even shorter “dæd” meaning “deed, action, transaction, event.” If we take this word as the root of “fordædlan” and combine it with “man” its translating as “evil doers” makes sense. The doubling of the sense of act or deed could be a way of emphasizing just how evil the thing the word refers to is. The thing itself is an evil deed, an act of malice, an enacted expression of wickedness that, of course, begets its own wickednesses. Hence, the “evil doers” of line 563.
No doubt it’s actually unnecessary to do these sort of linguistic acrobatics to get the compound word “man-fordædlan” to work. There’s probably some little known “fordæd” or “dædlan” that means “doer” or “enactor.” Though an interesting nuance is that the prefix “for” can, and I quote from my Clark Hall and Meritt Anglo-Saxon Dictionary: “denotes loss or destruction…or is intensitive or pejorative[.]”
What do you think “fordædlan” of “man-fordædlan” means on its own? Could “man-fordædlan” be a compound that’s so old that its second half no longer stood on its own when Beowulf was written down?
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Next week Beowulf brings us into the next day and tells of what he saw in the morning light.
You can find the next part of Beowulf here.