Beowulf versus the sea-deer, and, about those sea-deer (ll.550-558)

Beowulf (and Anglo-Saxons?) on armour
“Mere-deor” and other weird words

The medieval depiction of a kind of deer. Just picture this creature in the water and you may have a "mere-deor."

The medieval depiction of a kind of deer. Just picture this creature in the water and you may have a “mere-deor.”

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Beowulf relates his struggle with one of the sea-beasts.

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“‘Then against the loathed my corslet,
hard, hand-woven, was of great help,
the broad coat of mail that on my breast lay
gold adorned. Me to the bottom pulled
the hostile enemy, held fast
in its grim grip; however I was yet given mercy,
that I the fiend could reach with sword-point,
my battle blade; in the war rush was taken the life
of the stalwart sea-deer by my hand'”
(Beowulf ll.550-558)

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Old English:


Modern English:


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Beowulf (and Anglo-Saxons?) on armour

Beowulf goes on about his wondrous deeds here. And he includes a great deal of detail about how his armour saved him.

Actually, there seems to be a lot of emphasis on armour in Beowulf’s speeches.

Well, it’s not like that’s all that he talks of, but it does seem kind of strange how often he mentions armour.

In this extract, he spends just over three lines on it, and earlier, when speaking to Hrothgar he instructs him to send Hygelac his armour as a memento if he should die.

On the one hand, this armour focus could be ascribed to Beowulf and Beowulf alone. In that case, I’d say that it shows just how aware of the machinations of combat Beowulf is. He may know well the importance of the war rush, or having your opponent’s within reach of sword point, but more than that he realizes the importance of a good coat of mail.

Because sometimes you just can’t be sure.

If, on the other hand, this emphasis on armour is the poet’s doing (rather than just characterization), then it says something about the Anglo-Saxons.

Actually, it says just about the same thing, really. Though I’d add that if it is a general thing, then maybe armour has a special importance to memory.

Perhaps it’s sort of how things might be in a particularly sentimental cicada’s brain: its shell, as the armour of its youth, holds within it all of the memories that it made while wearing it. Likewise, just as a sword was regarded as imbued with special power if it’d been wielded by a male relative or great hero, a person’s armour could hold a memorial significance.

Or, more specifically, maybe these mentions of armour are part of a lost mnemonic, some sort of arcane technique for remembering not only heroes (as Beowulf would be remembered by his armour when it got to Hygelac in the event of his death), but their stories as well. It could be that the armour, after enduring with its wearer the great feat of facing Grendel (or the crash of the ocean waves), becomes a metonymy for its wearer. Not just in a metaphorical sense, but in the same sense as the shed carapace to the sentimental beetle, that armour becomes a shed part of that hero, that fighter.

Practically, speaking though, swimming in a mail shirt makes Beowulf’s bet with Breca all the wilder.

Those rings wouldn’t be made of fancy ultralight bicycle aluminium, they’d likely be made of iron. Swimming can get difficult if you’re weighed down by a particularly thick, wet shirt. It’s hard to imagine the struggle that both of them would endure wearing that sort of armour to sea.

Though it’s quite easy to imagine that weight working against Beowulf as the sea-beast he encounters in this passage drags him down.

But then, in his retelling the instance, he puts on the armour of the storyteller, shielding his tale in words reserved for warfare.

Terms like “war-rush” (“heaþoræs”) and “battle-blade” (“hildebille” (l.557)). But you know that the struggle was truly mortal when Beowulf doesn’t just say “I could just reach the fiend with the tip of my battle-blade” or “yet, I managed to wrench my sword into the beast’s gullet” but instead that he was “given mercy.”

By whom?

Well, no doubt by something between the Christian god and the Anglo-Saxon idea of “wyrd,” a kind of fate.

Invoking such a force, even indirectly, really shows how hard Beowulf was struggling because it places the battle on a cosmic level. This wasn’t just a wee brawl, it was a struggle that the cosmos had a hand in!

What do you think of the idea of a warrior’s armour being a container for the memory of his experiences while wearing it? Or of a warrior’s armour becoming metonymous for the warrior?

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“Mere-deor” and other weird words

After last week’s “whale-fish,” this week we’re faced with what could literally be a “sea-deer.”

Tee word “mere-deor” (l.558) literally translates into that. And it creates a very simple image: A fish with horns, possibly a narwhal. Why exactly Beowulf would be fending off a narwhal isn’t clear, but that’s clearly not the point of his story. What it’s all about is his strength in overcoming the power of nature.

And what a terrible power that is.

In line 553 we’re told that Beowulf was being drug down to the “grunde.” Since he’s in the sea, this word generally gets translated as “bottom.” In fact, both Heaney and Gummere use this translation.

But “grunde” could also mean “foundation,” “abyss,” “hell.” These words might not be as accurate as “bottom,” but they all have a much deeper connotation to them; “abyss” and “hell” coming neatly packaged with implications of damnation and the impossibility of escape.

Given what Beowulf has to go through when he fights Grendel’s mother, this perception and conception of the bottom of the sea becomes very curious indeed.

Just as curious as some of this week’s compounds.

There’s “lic-syrc,” combining “body” with “shirt,” or “coat of mail,” to give us “mail coat” (specifically a mail shirt that would run down to its wearer’s thighs or knees). Then we get “hond-locen,” for “hand-made” from “hand” and the verb for “to lock,” “enclose,” “fasten,” or “intertwine.” And “beado-hraegl,” or, literally, “battle dress.”

The word “feond-sceatha” makes another appearance, too. And we’re joined by the dully straightforward “headthu-raes,” a combination of the words for “battle” and “rush” that gives us: “battle rush,” or “war press.”

So what does all this mean?

Well, to be completely honest, it’s hard to say. It’s possible that the use of all of these clear, literally translatable compound words is just due to Anglo-Saxon’s being short on words for these things that were more obscure or poetic.

Or maybe they’re the best choices for each line’s alliteration (they are).

But both of those possibilities wouldn’t really shed much light on Beowulf and his dramatic retelling of his adventure on the seas.

As such, I like to think that Beowulf is shifting his energies from using obscure words and forms to shaping his sentences to reflect the action he’s describing.

What then, does the straightforward and literally translatable, but still odd “mere-deor” mean (outside of being alliteratively convenient)?

Well, I think it, and the compounds with “hrone” and “fixas” from last week, are present in Anglo-Saxon because the sea was regarded as a mysterious place.

Who knows what goes on in there, right?

The Anglo-Saxons sailed it regularly, too, and so probably had a sort of reverent fear for things like the tides and the speed at which storms could come upon those ships that were unwary. As such, they probably had only words for the things that they saw most often.

Whales and fish definitely fit this bill because both are prevalent along the Northern coasts of Europe, as deer are on the land there.

But some sort of strange creature that was a tusked or horned thing in the sea was probably a rare sight indeed, and so to express the idea of that creature the Anglo-Saxons just took two of their existing words and ideas and mashed them together. Adding, in a way, to that creature’s mystery.

Do you think that the animal referred to as a “mere-deor” is just a narwhal, or could it be something rarer?

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Next week Beowulf continues his tale with an account of the rest of the night and the next morning.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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1 thought on “ Beowulf versus the sea-deer, and, about those sea-deer (ll.550-558)

  1. Pingback: Beowulf finds his footing in public speaking and thoughts on a “whale” of a word (ll.539-549) | A Blogger's Beowulf

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