Beowulf finds his footing in public speaking and thoughts on a “whale” of a word (ll.539-549)

Understanding Beowulf’s interjections
A word on “whale”

St. Brendan and his crew celebrating Easter on the back of a whale. Found at

St. Brendan and his crew celebrating Easter on the back of a whale.
Found at

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Beowulf tells a more detailed version of his swimming contest with Breca.

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“‘We had swords naked, as we two rowed over the waves,
hardiness in hand; we two against the whales
thought to protect ourselves; he not at all far from me
could float on the ocean-waves,
the swifter on the swell, I would not float from him.
When we two together had been on the sea
for five nights’ time, then we two drifted apart on the flood,
wading on the raging waves, in the coldest of weather,
the night darkened, and the north wind
battle-grim blew against us. Wild were the waves,
enraging the hearts of the sea-fish.'”
(Beowulf ll.539-549)

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Old English:


Modern English:


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Understanding Beowulf’s interjections

In this part of Beowulf’s version of the swimming contest story, we see a return to an old form.

Once more Beowulf is setting descriptions within his narrative, dropping short descriptive phrases between points of action. And he’s doing it an awful lot. So much so that I can’t help but wonder if the poet is deliberately having Beowulf chew the scenery.

Or maybe this is just what Beowulf, brash and bold, is like when he tells a story. Perhaps working through each of his little description digressions will help shed some light on what exactly is going on.

The first one comes in line 540: “hardiness in hand” (“heard on handa”). In reference to the swords that they held in their hands as they swam, this line seems like it’s mostly a space-filler.

It reiterates that the swords they held to guard themselves are hard, and therefore useful weapons. Not to mention, within the alliterative scheme of the line, the original Old English alliterates entirely with itself.

This alliterative scheme separates the first half of line 540 from the second, which in turn suggests the semi-colon that divides the line in Heaney’s text, and the comma that does something similar in the text found on the McMaster University site I link to beneath the extract.

So would Beowulf the speaker run one of his sentiments into another line like this, overflowing his expression in such a way?


I mean it is the beginning of the passage, and it’s not unlikely that he’d feel impassioned as he told of yet more of his wondrous feats.

So, maybe in putting this half line here and having it link directly with the previous one the poet is showing Beowulf’s near loss of control over his own story and his own boasting. Or, maybe at this point Beowulf’s starting to feel all that ale he’s no doubt been drinking.

The next among Beowulf’s additional phrases is line 543’s “the swifter on the swell” (“hraþor on holme”).

Definitely Beowulf’s way of making sure that everyone knows that he’s the stronger swimmer between he and Breca, this half line fits perfectly with its surroundings. It doesn’t seem to be overflow or anything like that.

So what’s it mean for it to be compartmentalized like it is?

I think, if anything, because this statement is a boast. Beowulf’s been boasting since he was a child, he knows his way around such things and is able to smoothly fit it into his description of their swimming. It almost naturally flows with what’s around it, too.

It’s sort of difficult to pin down the next extraneous descriptive phrase, because after line 543 they all become necessary.

Beowulf’s description of his and Breca’s “wading on the raging waves,” how the atmosphere shifted to “the coldest of weather,” how “the night darkened” and the storm winds picked up around them, all feed into each other.

This part of the extract practically imitates the storm it describes. The shuffling of four distinct and independent half-lines simulates the way in which everything around Beowulf and Breca at this point came crashing into them.

This analysis runs a bit short of something you’d find in an academic journal, but I think the main thing to take away from it is that Beowulf, for all his prowess on the battle field, is not so great in front of a crowd. He’s only truly comfortable speaking about the battles in which he fares so well.

We can see this as his interjections move from the strangely extraneous feeling, through to a boast, and ending with a series of short clauses that themselves descriptively crash against themselves.

Before he starts into the threat of the “sea-fishes.”

But that’s in next week’s extract.

What do you think of Beowulf’s speechifying? Is this part of his reply to Unferth perfectly smooth or is it as craggy as I seem to think? In either case, what do you make of it?

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A word on “whale”

Okay everyone. There are, as always, more words than one that are notable for one weirdness or another in this week’s passage.


One stands out from the rest. Technically two. (They both carry one word that could unlock them both.)

This word is “fiscas,” as it’s found in the compounds “hron-fixas” and “mere-fixas.”

The first of these combines the word for “whale” and for “fish” to make the word “whale.” Seamus Heaney translates the instance of “hron-fixas” on line 540 as “whale-beasts;” Francis Gummere translates it as “whales;” and C.L. Wrenn offers “whale.” So it sounds like there’s agreement across the board.

But why append “fixas” to the word for whale? Well, if you guess “for alliteration” you would be sort of right.

As I mention above, line 540 is neatly divided by its caesura. On the left side of the line “h” is definitely the alliterative sound. But on the right side of that caesura, where “hron-fixas” is found, the alliterative sound is “w.”

So another alliterative pair stands between it and its alliterating brethren. It’s safe, then, I think, to say that “hron-fixas” isn’t there to add music to the poetry of Beowulf’s speech.

Maybe, then, the dictionary will have some answers.

Looking at the definition of “fixas” in Clark Hall and Meritt only yields up “fish” (after pointing us to “fisc”).

So that doesn’t really tell us much about why the poet didn’t just use “hron” either.

Perhaps, then, looking at “mere-fixas” will shed some light on why “hron-fixas” has that extra “fixas.”

In Seamus Heaney’s translation, the “mere-fixas” of line 549 is translated as “sea-brutes.” Gummere gives us “sea-fish.” C.L. Wrenn gives us the straightforward variation “fish of the sea.”

What other sort of “fish” were the Anglo-Saxons writing about?

But that brings up a good point. Especially with “mere-fixas,” both of these compounds are redundant. That is, “hron-fixas” and “mere-fixas,” combine words that are so alike that they easily reduce into one word when translated. But why compound them in the first place?

Well, since both involve “fixas,” which we’ve already established means “fish,” maybe it’s to emphasize their being in the sea. These aren’t land or sky beasts or brutes – they’re “sea-beasts” and “sea-brutes.” At least according to Seamus Heaney.

But, then why does Beowulf even bother calling these beasts “whales”?

My guess is that “whale” was just the Anglo-Saxon word for any enormous sea creature, whether it was actually what we know today as a whale or something else entirely (a giant squid or now extinct dinosaur-like creature).

Some have theorized, based on x-rays, that whales carry vestigial legs. It’s possible (though unlikely?) that the whales that Beowulf fought still had these legs and they were recognizable as legs. If that’s the case, then maybe these legs lead the Anglo-Saxons to seeing them as the sea’s guardians just as dragons were the guardians of caves and hoards.

Of course, because we don’t have Anglo-Saxons to pull aside and ask just what was meant by “hron-fixas” specifically, we may never know exactly what Beowulf means when he uses the word.

It could, after all, just be a general word for a general application that the poet felt was the best fit.

It should also be said that two men swimming in stormy waters aren’t likely to get a good look at such creatures. That they were swimming armed suggests that they weren’t worried about getting a good look, either.

How do you understand Beowulf’s use of “whale” and “sea-fishes”? Do you think he’s referring to things that we would refer to with these words, or some other class of animal entirely?

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Next week, the action continues as Beowulf recounts his bout with one of these mysterious sea creatures.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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1 thought on “ Beowulf finds his footing in public speaking and thoughts on a “whale” of a word (ll.539-549)

  1. Pingback: Beowulf’s reply to Unferth (part 1) and words with picky translations (ll.529-538) | A Blogger's Beowulf

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