Hrothgar’s gloom and Heorot’s hall cup

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Hall joy and Hrothgar’s mood swing
Straightforward compounds and the “hall cup”
Closing

The lady of Heorot serving Hrothgar. It looks genial enough.

The lady of Heorot serving Hrothgar. It looks genial enough.

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Abstract

Heorot revels in Beowulf’s promise. The beer-drinking commences!

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Translation

“Then in the hall was the treasure-giver joyed,
grey-haired and battle strong; consolation lived
for the ruler of the bright Danes, he heard in Beowulf
the guardian of the people’s steadfast hope.
There was the laughter of men, the roar of singing,
words were joyful. Then came forth Wealhtheow,
Hrothgar’s queen, mindful of her king;
she greeted the gold-ornamented warriors in the hall,
and the freeborn woman dearly/quickly gave
first to the lord of the East-Danes’ realm;
told him to be blithe at the beer-drinking,
dear to the people; he then turned more to
the feast and the hall-goblet, a victorious king.”
(Beowulf ll.607-619)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Hall joy and Hrothgar’s mood swing

In this week’s passage of Beowulf we take a break from all that dialogue and get some good old fashioned descriptive narrative. Hoo yeah!

So, in the passage Hrothgar responds incredibly positively to Beowulf and his boastful promise to destroy Grendel. I use “boastful” because, well, that’s still what his promise is.

Beowulf has shared stories of past victories with the Danes, but none of his fellow Geats have stepped up to back him nor has he shown any proof of these past victories. So far, Beowulf has just boasted expertly and looked the part of a warlike leader.

And that’s enough for Hrothgar. At the beginning of this passage he seems to be smiling benevolently at Beowulf. The poet even goes so far to say that Hrothgar saw in Beowulf “the guardian of the people’s steadfast hope” (“folces hyrde fæstrædne geþoht” (l.610)). It seems that after months, probably even years, of feeling utterly defeated at the hands of Grendel, this monster that listens neither to reason nor responds to human valour, he will finally find relief in this Geat.

This sense of joy and happiness then disperses itself throughout the hall and washes over the poet.

I’m not sure if the poem’s suddenly simple sentences (ex 1; ex 2) are a reflection of this joy or not, but I can see how they could be. In extreme happiness (especially that of the drunken variety that seems likely in the hall once the festivities start) it’s probable that the Anglo-Saxons abandoned their usual poetic wordiness in favour of more straightforward three word statements.

But then Wealhtheow, queen of the Danes, comes into the poem.

And for a brief second, for the space of maybe a line at most, it seems like that joy drains out of Hrothgar.

Already, unless I’m missing something, he seemed to be blithe and happy as he recognized in Beowulf the hero on which his people had waited. Yet Wealhtheow, when she serves him first from the beer jug, tells him “to be blithe at the beer-drinking” (“bæd hine bliðne æt þære beorþege,” (l.617)). Did Hrothgar slip back into his depression while the poet went off and described the general feeling in the hall?

I’ll cut right to it. I think he did.

But I don’t think gloomy thoughts stormed back in on him once the poet turned from him to the hall at large. I think the renewed furrow in Hrothgar’s brow is the result of Wealhtheow’s appearing. I think that she and Hrothgar are in the middle of some sort of spat.

I can’t say that the particulars can be sussed out from such a short appearance, but the poet (for reasons of alliteration, mind) mentions that she is a “freeborn woman” (“freolic wif”). Such a description directly contradicts Wealhtheow’s name, both parts of which (“wealh” and “theow”) translate as “slave”.

Interestingly, though, the first part of her name could also translate as “Welsh,” or “Briton.”

In the context of Beowulf‘s being an Anglo-Saxon poem it could just be that she represents the people of the British Isles that the Anglo-Saxons subjugated. So as pleasant as Wealhtheow appears at this point, I can’t help but wonder if she harbours some sort of resentment for Hrothgar. That is, of course, if the Danes represent the ruling Anglo-Saxons.

Whether representatives of something larger, or simply husband and wife, there’s definitely a tension between Hrothgar and Wealhtheow in this scene. But, that said, it wouldn’t surprise me if the poet/scribe created Wealhtheow and the tension based on the plight of the Britons who were under Anglo-Saxon rule.

Of course, there wouldn’t even need to be marital difficulties or any deeper meaning behind the tension I feel in this scene. Wealhtheow is, after all, in the position of being a sort of peace offering between the Danes and another tribe. That could be reason enough for tension, I think.

But what does it mean, though, having the ostensibly only actually British character in a poem from Britain be a woman and a wife to the king of a fading people who hold a grand old palace of a hall?

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Straightforward compounds and the “hall cup”

Because so much of this passage is straightforward, there aren’t too many words of great interest.

Of the few compounds that are used, gamolfeax and guðrof seem like they should stick out. But the former literally means old hair or old head of hair. The latter compound, likewise has a straightforward translation as war renowned or strong in battle. There’s not really much room to wiggle around in either of these cases.

In the last part of the passage that describes Hrothgar’s reaction to Beowulf’s pledge (line 610, specifically), we’re given one compound that’s kind of neat.

The word “faest-raedne” means “steadfast.” Taken apart, translators got to this meaning by combining the security of “faest” with a word that generally means “counsel.”

That is, the word “raedne” means (aside from counsel) things like “resolution,” “deliberation,” “plan,” “way,” “design;” “decree,” “ordinance;” “wisdom,” “reason,” “intelligence;” “gain,” “profit,” “benefit,” “good fortune,” “remedy;” “help,” “power,” “might.” All of those concepts do sort of relate back to advice and advisers to some extent, but there are nuances. None of them are so far out of step as past parts of compounds, however.

Taken as a part of the larger sentence, though, “faest-raedne” as “steadfast” works with “geþoht” to shift the meaning of the clause away from simply “the people’s fervent thought” to the “people’s steadfast hope.” It’s a slight difference, but it’s still a curious one considering the elements that the poet put into place to achieve it (or, more large scale, considering how Anglo-Saxon developed to where it could express such things with this sort of nuance).

Oh, and there’s one more word that defies a simple breakdown but is still fun to speculate about. It’s the word “hall goblet” (“seleful”) on line 619.

The word “sele” is taken to mean “hall,” “house,” “dwelling, “prison,” or “tabernacle.” Given the importance placed on Heorot, this part of “hall goblet” fits most of those definitions quite nicely.

But add in “prison,” and the word fits Heorot almost like a glove. Since Grendel’s imposition, it’s a place that, for the Danes at least, is definitely prison-like.

The word “ful” is also pretty clear, meaning only “beaker, cup.”

So, taken together, “hall goblet” is just one sense of the word, the more general expression of which would be something like “sacred cup” or “exalted cup.” Basically, the sense that I get of the cup referred to with “seleful” is that it’s the one that the lord of the hall gets to use.

This cup may well have a ceremonial function, too, it being necessary for the lord of the hall to drink from this cup before any festivity or celebration really gets under way. There could also be a belief that any invited to drink from that cup shares in that lord’s glory.

More relevant to the poem, though, is the wondering that I got up to about the cup that’s stolen from the dragon in the latter half of the poem.

It’s just one cup, and it’s rust covered, but maybe it’s the hall cup of the forgotten people who used to live where the dragon took up residence. And maybe, since halls were generally places to go to be social and to drink, the hall cup represents the spirit of its hall.

As such, when the thief steals what could be the same cup from the dragon’s hoard, it recognizes the loss of this object with value beyond its physical worth and attempts to retrieve it to restore order to its hoard.

Or, when Wealhtheow fills Heorot’s “hall goblet” for Hrothgar maybe the act signifies the reinvigoration of Heorot and the Danes.

What do you think of a steadfast thought being a hope? Or of the hall cup having so much significance?

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Closing

Next week we watch as Wealhtheow travels around the assembled host, doling out beer until she gets to Beowulf.

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Beowulf gets mytho-poetic and words reveal more than meanings (feat. Robert Graves) (ll.598-606)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Finding the goddess in Beowulf
Words with mythical connotations
Closing

A piece of Anglo-Saxon ornamentation. Image from http://research.uvu.edu/mcdonald/Anglo-Saxon/Art.html.

A piece of Anglo-Saxon ornamentation. Image from http://research.uvu.edu/mcdonald/Anglo-Saxon/Art.html.

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Abstract

Beowulf finishes off his reply to Unferth with another boast.

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Translation

“‘After all, against that apostle of violence none arise
from among the Danish people, so he wars as he likes,
killing and feasting, prosecution he knows comes not
from the spear-Danes. But I shall now surprise
him with the might and strength of the Geats,
bringing him battle. Afterward whomever wants to
go to mead shall and heartily, once the morning light
brings another day to humanity,
when the light-clad sun shall shine once more from the south.'”
(Beowulf ll.598-606)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Finding the goddess in Beowulf

Since I’m reading Robert Graves’ The White Goddess over on my reading and gaming log Going Box by Box, I feel like I might have some insight into the meaning of Beowulf’s language here.

After all, this is the end of his speech to Unferth and the Danes. As such, he’d not want to waste any words getting his point across. He will defeat Grendel because he will do things in a way that the Danes never yet have. Such a statement is impressively logical.

But impressive enough to complete steam roll all of the Danes and get away with it? Well. Apparently. I still think he says things like “none arise/from among the Danish people” (“nænegum arað/leode Deniga” (l.598-599)) to stir them up to some extent. And to show that where they failed, he will not.

Though, using what I’ve gleaned from The White Goddess, I think that Beowulf isn’t just boasting about strength and power and the ever important element of surprise. I think he’s also speaking in a poetic language. Since I’ve not absorbed everything from The White Goddess like some sort of giant sponge, I won’t be covering all of the poetically sealed things that Beowulf has to say in this passage, but I will be speculating about the two that are the most apparent to me.

In line 602 when Beowulf speaks of the “power and might” (“eafoð ond ellen”) of the Geats, the second word he uses in his alliteration stands out. This word is fairly commonly used in the poem Beowulf, and, although my reading’s limited, probably other Old English writing as well. It stands out here, though, because one of the definitions that my Clark Hall & Meritt dictionary offers is “elder-tree; elder-wood.” A large part of The White Goddess is about Graves deciphering the Druidic tree alphabet, and elder is amidst its letters.

I think that there might be a connection between that alphabet and Beowulf’s speech here.

According to Graves, the elder tree is the one that stands for the last month of the Druidic calendar. It signifies death and is said to have been the crucifixion tree. Graves backs this connection up with the mention of elder-leaf shaped funerary flints found in megalithic long-barrows.

In short, the elder tree is deeply associated with death.

It’s also quite deeply connected with witches and the devil itself. Though, because of its white flowers that are “at their best at midsummer” (185), the elder is also an aspect of the white goddess herself, the ruling triple deity of Graves’ Indo-European religion.

Setting this into the context of Beowulf’s speech, specifically his boasting that Geatish “might and strength” ((“eafoð ond ellen”) l.60) will prevail, does actually make sense.

The word “eafoð” specifically means “power,” “strength,” or “might,” and “ellen” means “zeal,” “strength,” “courage;” “strife,” “contention.” As a noun or adjective “ellen” means “elder-tree” or “elder-wood” respectively.

Pairing both words up is, thus, a little redundant. Though this apparent redundancy could be emphasizing the power of which Beowulf speaks. Combining the strength of eafoð with the death connotations of ellen as “elder wood,” though, I think that Beowulf is pushing his claim that he’ll beat Grendel with brand new tactics even further. He’s really saying that with the strength of death he will overcome the fiend that has been terrorizing the Danes for years.

Maybe that sounds a little far-fetched, even for something on the blog of someone who studied literature up to the graduate level. But hear me out.

The Geats have so far been characterized as a warlike people. Anyone who is so warlike will likely invest a lot of importance in their armour and arms.

The Anglo-Saxons clearly do this, as a good portion of the poem to this point has been about this or that bit of armour. Beowulf even gives Hrothgar explicit instructions to send his armour back to Hygelac should he fail.

In a sense, then, Beowulf identifies with his armour, as any culture that puts hereditary significance onto arms will. (Passing a sword down from father to son, I think, signifies a passing of a sort of family spirit, something that identifies the rightful wielder as a true member of the tradition and therefore of the family.)

When push comes to shove, Beowulf’s tactic for defeating Grendel is to fight him at his own game. Beowulf knows that conventional weapons have no effect on the fiend and so he strips away his armour and wrestles with him. Removing his armour signifies a death of sorts, and I think that (along, of course with alliteration), that’s why Beowulf refers to the might of the Geats with eafoð and ellen. I think that he’s definitely pulling on the alternate interpretation of “ellen” as “elder” and all that the tree connotes.

Jumping down to the bottom of the excerpt, I think that Beowulf completes very intentionally ends his speech about defeating Grendel and restoring Heorot with a reference to the sun rising and shining from the south.

Again, turning to Graves, he gathers quite a bit of evidence for the conception of the most terrible place on earth in many European myths being the far reaches of the north (it’s basically the whole point of chapter six). Thus, the sun’s shining from the south signifies a complete turn around in which the Danes’ troubles are over and the light of the sun (already equated to the light of god elsewhere in Beowulf) will shine down on them with all of its might.

Ultimately, then, I think that Beowulf’s not just boasting about taking a new tack against Grendel to beat him, I think he’s making the extreme claim (at least in the connotation of his full boast from lines 601 to 606) that he will defeat Grendel by dying and resurrecting.

If this is the case, then I have no idea what to make of the reference to one of the most important events in the pre-Christian year (the festival celebrating the death and rebirth of the year) in a poem that was very clearly written in its current form in a post-Christian time. The reference’s not being a direct one does suggest the sort of subterfuge that Graves writes about poets using to avoid church persecution, but I’m not entirely sure that’s at work here.

Though I could push my analyses of these references further by pulling one more thing from Graves.

In chapter three he writes that in the old poetic language, the roebuck signifies something hiding. A hart (the animal on whose name “Heorot” puns) isn’t exactly a roebuck, but again, maybe the poet/scribe was just covering himself.

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Words with mythical connotations

Unsurprisingly for a passage that contains the sort of arcana that I pointed out in the first part of this entry, this one has some doozies so far as words go.

In its first line, for example, is the mysterious word “nyd-bade.”

The Clark Hall & Meritt dictionary I have defines it as “messenger of evil?[sic]” and grabs this definition from the word’s context in the Old English Exodus. Breaking down the word doesn’t give us a clear definition, but it might shed some light on just what it means.

The word “nyd” is an alternate spelling of “neod” meaning any one of “desire,” “longing,” “zeal,” “earnestness,” “pleasure,” or “delight” or of “nied” meaning “need,” “necessity,” “compulsion,” “duty,” “errand,” “business;” “emergency,” “hardship,” “distress,” “difficulty,” “trouble,” “pain;” “force,” “violence,” “what is necessary;” “inevitableness,” or “fetter.” This word could also signify the name for the rune “n.”

Notwithstanding the possible rune reference, the common denominator in the various meanings of “nyd” is urgency. Drawing urgency out of “fetter” might be a stretch, but something that’s fettered is usually so bound quickly to prevent it from doing any unnecessary harm.

Thankfully, “boda” is much more straightforward; it means “messenger, herald, apostle, angel; prophet”

Taken together, then, these words seem to refer to someone who brings something urgent.

In that general sense, they don’t need to bring something evil.

It could even be interpreted as referring to someone who is a forerunner for some important piece of information. Actually, following that interpretation could lead to reading Grendel not as some godless monster, but perhaps as a pagan priest who continually visits the freshly converted Heorot in an effort to bring them back to the old beliefs.

Grendel’s only known relation being his mother makes this a very curious interpretation indeed, since that could make Grendel the final, faded champion of a now perverted great goddess. Or perhaps even the champion only of the death aspect of Graves’ triple goddess.

Looking at it that way really casts the whole poem into a new light – it’s not just about a vaguely Christian warrior claiming victories over monsters in god’s name and ruling his people well, but about the decay of the old religion and the revitalizing force of this new one. As well as how the new one is integrating aspects of the old.

A comparative study of Grendel’s mom and the as yet unintroduced Wealhtheow of Heorot could be quite curious in this light. But that’s a project for another day.

Another word worthy of note (and another compound!) is “sweglwered.” This word’s parts are much clearer than those of “nyd-boda.”

The word “swegl” means “sky,” “heavens,” “ether,” “the sun;” or possibly “music” while “wered” means “throng,” “company,” “band,” “multitude;” “host,” “army,” “troop,” or “legion.”

The combination of these two words creates a fairly vivid picture of the other things in the sky forming a sort of comitatus with the sun at its head.

Closing on this reference of a bright and shining lord and retinue really brings out the hope in Beowulf’s claim. He’s not just claiming that a new day will dawn on Heorot, bringing them all their old happiness, but that the sun will be out in all its grand array to herald this day, truly an omen of great things ahead.

Now, one more thing.

Something that’s clear to me from my reading of Graves is that the goddess of whom he writes is associated with the moon. The rising of the sun from its poetically strongest quarter, and with its full retinue then suggests something opposing the goddess.

In a general sense it could be the more aggressive, patriarchal religion that Graves believes overtook an older matriarchal one. This would make Beowulf’s claim all the grander, but it’s not as if his wrestling a terrible monster to death and then later facing a dragon were stories told with mind numbing regularity when one Anglo-Saxon asked another “how was your day?”

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Closing

Next week there’s an interlude in the dialogue. Hrothgar takes in what Beowulf says and Wealhtheow, his queen, appears.

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Beowulf gets into puns and two regular words aren’t so regular (ll.590-597)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Beowulf gets into the puns
Regular words that aren’t that regular
Closing

A young man makes a mead hall stand.

A young man makes a mead hall stand.

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Abstract

In a rather round about way, Beowulf attacks Unferth for his cowardice.

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Translation

“‘I tell to you the truth, son of Ecglaf,
that Grendel never could such a horror perpetuate,
that dire demon, over your people,
the humiliation of Heorot, were thy courage,
your heart, so fierce as thou thyself sayest it is;
but he has discovered that he need not the vendetta,
the terrible thronging swords of your people,
greatly fear, the Victory-Scyldings.'”
(Beowulf ll.590-597)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Beowulf gets into the puns

All neat and tidy, Beowulf really covers it up here. He gets to the meat of the issue and makes his point very succinctly:

“Unferth, because of your cowardice, Grendel is terrorizing Heorot.”

Bang. Boom. Oof.

Though the actual poetry isn’t quite so straightforward.

However, I really think that Beowulf’s scattered sentence structure is the result of his being livid while he speaks. This emotional state would explain to some extent why he dives into apposition as often as he does, and why things are quite so lively. He’s just tearing into Unferth at this point.

But does Beowulf maybe lose control at the end of this rant? Is his referring to the Danes as a whole (the “Victory-Scyldings” (“Sige-Scyldinga” (l.597))) pushing things too far, and unfairly spreading the blame that Unferth must bear to the rest of Hrothgar’s people?

I’d say that he’s definitely going a bit far. But I think that it’s necessary for Beowulf to sort of gently call out all of Hrothgar’s men in this instance. After all, Beowulf will be doing things differently. Spreading the blame to all of them is no doubt a keen way to show that their approach simply isn’t working and so an outsider’s approach is necessary.

Beowulf’s upending the mead benches, as it were.

Though taking a look at his epithet for Unferth and Hrothgar’s Danes, the “Victory-Scyldings,” suggests that a little bit more than merely spreading the blame might be at work.

The latter part of this compound name means, simply refers to a group of people. But the word used before it, “sige” can mean “victory,” “success,” “triumph” or “sinking,” or the “setting of the sun.”

Is Beowulf playing the prophet here, sarcastically referring to the Danes as the “Victory-Scyldings” while implying that their power is waning?

Maybe it’s not all that prophetic to say so, since for the last seven years Grendel has been tormenting them and has made their house of joy into the home of sorrow.

Yet, I think the wordplay to be found in “Sige-Scylding” is definitely intentional. The Anglo-Saxons liked a bit of sarcasm in their writing, and puns have been around since the Epic of Gligamesh.

Plus, a word for something like “victory” would likely be one well-travelled over the tongues of Anglo-Saxon audiences. It stands to reason then, that the wise among them would also be well aware of the words referring to things that are waning in some way.

Beowulf may pun earlier in this passage, as well, when he uses the compound word “searo-grim” to describe Unferth’s heart and spirit. The first part of the compound is straightforward enough, it usually means something like “art,” skill, or cleverness. But the word “grim” is rather ambiguous. (Ain’t that always the way?)

This word can be interpreted as grimman: terrible sin, along with the more literal, “grimm” meaning “fierce,” “savage,” or “severe.”

Beowulf mentioned Unferth’s killing his own kin in last week’s passage. Such a deed is truly a terrible sin, so I think it’s entirely possible that (aside form reasons of alliteration) the poet/scribe went with “searo-grim” for the little punning wink it puts on Beowulf’s sarcastic burn against Unferth’s frosty courage.

What do you think – is Beowulf making puns along with pointing out Unferth’s failings? Why would he throw such things into so serious a part of his speech?

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Regular words that aren’t that regular

To mix things up further this week, this part will still deal with words, but will entirely avoid discussing compounds.

Instead, there’re two regular, old words in this week’s passage that I think are worthy of discussion.

First up is the verb “onsittan” (from line 597). This one means “to seat oneself in,” “occupy,” “oppress,” “fear,” “dread.” Though sharing verbal real estate might not necessarily mean that those doing the sharing have much in common, “onsittan” offers a curious combination. The sort of combination that I like to read into. So read into it I shall!

Since the concepts of occupation and fear are paired together in this verb, I wonder if it implies a certain variety of fear. Not necessarily a sort of intensity of fear, but rather a certain quality of fear. One that doesn’t envelop you or creep up on you, but instead one that you set yourself into, like laying back on a nice massage bed – only to realize that the massaging fingers are thousands of squirming cockroaches.

Such a conception of fear, as something that you occupy rather than something that comes over you, may seem strange, but if you think about the larger implications it starts to make sense.

The Anglo-Saxons weren’t the most optimistic of people and so perhaps the more negative, primal emotions (such as fear) were conceptualized not as things that came from you but things that you encountered and entered into. Hence, you could come to occupy fear or dread just as you could occupy a room.

On the topic of different conceptions of things that we might take for granted, the Anglo-Saxons had a curious idea about colour.

Rather than defining it by hue, they had a tendency to define colour by its lustre. The brighter the colour, the better and more favourable it was. The darker, the more dim and drear. This might not sound too strange, but when you run into a bunch of colour descriptions only to find that they continually include light, it’s hard not to see how it differs from our modern ideas of colour.

With the word “atol” (from line 592), meaning “dire,” “terrible,” “ugly,” “deformed,” “repulsive,” “unchaste” “horror,” “evil,” I think something similar is happening. I don’t think appearance is necessarily being equated with moral uprightness as we might understand the old trope.

Instead, I think that ugliness is being related to evil simply because it lacks symmetry, it lacks the brightness that might define beauty or an incredibly valuable item or colour (like gold, for instance).

Further, I think that it’s possible that this is at the root of the old appearance/morality trope, or at least why it persisted in so much British culture and English literature.

What do you think about the Anglo-Saxons’ differing conceptions of things like fear and appearance? Are they so different from our own?

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Closing

Next week, Beowulf finishes haranguing Unferth and confidently assures that Danes that he will kill their monster.

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Beowulf’s wild accusation and some “near relatives” (ll.581b-589)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Beowulf starts big
Who are these near relatives?
Closing

A young man makes a mead hall stand.

A young man makes a mead hall stand.

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Abstract

Having finished his version of the swimming contest story, Beowulf begins to properly lay into Unferth.

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Translation

              “‘I from no man of you
in such strife have heard tell,
sword terror. Neither you nor Breca
at battle-play, still neither of you two,
have done sincerely such deeds
with the stained sword – nor do I mean to boast in this –
though thou brought death to thine own brother,
near blood relation; thus thou in hell shall
suffer damnation, though thine wit thrives.'”
(Beowulf ll.581b-589)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Beowulf starts big

Perhaps it’s just a formal formulation that Beowulf is quoting at the beginning of this week’s extract, but lines 581b and 582 stand out as being the most knotted of the bunch. That is, they’re the only ones in which his word order gets twisted around for some sort of effect.

My guesses are that these lines have their word order turned about to show Beowulf shifting from narrative to outright declamation (that is, in fact, defamation). He’s now turning his attention directly to Unferth and so perhaps there’s some dramatic value in having Beowulf speak in a more convoluted way as he turns to accusing Unferth of having done no deeds of note. Maybe there’s something there, but I’m not too sure about what it could be.

What’s much more explosive and attention grabbing is the meat of Beowulf’s attack on Unferth. He doesn’t pull any punches.

He starts by saying that neither he nor (for what it’s worth, I suppose) Breca have done any great deeds of might in battle to match his own against the sea monsters. He underscores this by saying that he doesn’t “mean to boast in this” (“no ic þæs fela gylpe” (l.586))

Then Beowulf very quickly raises the stakes, saying that Unferth is going to burn in hell because he killed his kin.

Wait. Where did that come from?

Is this a commonly known thing? Is this act something that’s been published abroad with Unferth as the fiend, the villain?

Or is Beowulf maybe misinterpreting something, sharing among the Danes some piece of news that was mangled by the time it reached the Geats?

It’s possible that Beowulf’s verbal finger wagging here is based on mangled, second hand news. In that case, Beowulf’s bold statement here makes him look like an ass. Though he’d put shame into the heart of Unferth (and the rest of the Danes) with next week’s words.

If, on the other hand, Beowulf’s accusations are based on a well known story, then where does that put Unferth?

I can’t help but get the feeling that Beowulf is being something of a prig in pointing out Unferth’s killing of his own kin. If he’s in a position of honour, close to Hrothgar, then this deed must be generally ignored. Beowulf’s dredging it up could be an oversimplification of what really happened.

Perhaps Unferth slew his kin because he was bound by some sort of complex system of alliances to do so?

Or maybe Unferth has a sister and her marriage soured to such a degree that her blood relations were forced to fight her relations by marriage?

The word “heafod-mægum” does, after all, merely mean “close kin.” And it can mean anything from wife to husband to uncle to aunt.

Whatever the case, I think that Beowulf is glossing over something major in his outright defamation of Unferth as a kinslayer.

I think there’s something here in Beowulf’s saying that even Unferth’s wits won’t be able to save him from burning in hell could be a reference to Unferth’s having reasoned his way out of whatever moral quandary lead him to kill his kin.

The weirdest part of this whole passage to me, though, is that no one interrupts.

No one steps in to say “Hey, Beowulf, lay off.”

It’s not as though dialogue gets interrupted elsewhere in the poem, but the way that things are presented here it feels as though Beowulf and Unferth are utterly alone rather than in a packed mead hall.

One way to read this whole bit is that it’s might calling out brains. Beowulf is very clearly might, and so it could be argued that his moral understanding is simplified to “good guys” and “bad guys.”

Whereas, Unferth, if he really is as witty as he’s said to be, represents the brainier side of things. He is perhaps, a coward at battle, but quick in his mind and able to evade the judgment of his peers because of this. Though, in true Christian fashion (and pre-Christian Anglo-Saxon beliefs, too?) Beowulf states that Unferth will face up to his crime in the day of judgment.

Perhaps, then, what Beowulf’s getting at is that his wits will save Unferth from the judgment of his peers, but not from the final judgment of god itself.

Do you think Beowulf is really being as religious as his reminding Unferth of his final judgment suggests?

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Who are these “near relatives”?

Not to kick a dead brother, but this week, the second section is going to repeat the subject of the first.

The word that Beowulf uses to further describe Unferth’s slain kinsmen, “heafod-mægum,” is just too weird to pass up.

On its surface, the word meaning “near relatives.” It’s a combination of the Old English for “head,” “source,” “origin,” “chief,” or “leader” on the left side of its hyphen and the Old English for “male kinsman,” parent,” “son,” “brother,” “nephew,” “cousin,” “compatriot,” “female relation,” “wife,” “woman,” or “maiden” on its hyphen’s right side.

What we can take away from dissecting this one is that a near relative isn’t necessarily a blood relation (the only occurrences of blood relations in “mægum”‘s definition are “parent, son, nephew, cousin,” just 4 out of 11 total possibilities). It could be something as intimate as a spouse or fellow member of a close group that identifies as a singular unit.

I think that it’s also possible to see “mægum” being combing with “heafod” as a way to express that the connection implied by “near relatives” is something established through reasoning. The connection it describes relies on someone’s wits to understand it. Figuring out degrees of relation isn’t simple arithmetic after all.

Given the need for wits to understand the relationship denoted by “heafod-mægum,” could Beowulf be making a joke when he says that Unferth’s wits won’t save him from his hellish fate?

My thinking here is that if wits make this close connection, if the relationship between people joined through marriage or common membership in a certain group was regarded as being a connection based on understanding rather than anything physical, then it’s possible for such a connection to be cast aside using that same understanding. Wits can unbind what they have bound, though, if Beowulf’s right in saying Unferth is still damned, god does not forget what has been bound.

Disposing of a connection would mean forfeiting of whatever rights and privileges went with the connection. Reasoning your way out of a non-blood relationship also wouldn’t erase any heinous acts done to those near relatives. Acts like, say, murdering them. And it does sound like Unferth killed more than one of his close kin since both “broðrum” and “heafod-mægum” are in their plural forms.

Given all of this, I think Beowulf is speaking figuratively when he says that Unferth killed his own brothers. Rather than being blood relations, I think he’s going more towards the “compatriots” sense of “heafod-mægum.”

Why?

Because if someone were to slaughter his actual brothers, he would not end up in the inner circle of someone like Hrothgar.

However, it’s possible that Unferth is a turncoat, that he betrayed his birth tribe or group for the position that he now enjoys and Beowulf places the slaughter of his people squarely on his shoulders because if not for his betrayal they would have managed to overcome whatever was assailing them – even if that happened to be the Danes themselves as I’m guessing it was.

Because of the slithering sort of vibe I get from Unferth, I think it’s likely that he did betray the kin he slew. And that he probably did it for a place of honour with another group. However tarnished that place might be by a past that he has reasoned his way out of.

What do you think Unferth’s story is? Is he a stone-cold killer as Beowulf’s accusation suggests, or is he simply misunderstood by the Geatish hero?

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Closing

Next week, Beowulf continues his haranguing of Unferth, laying the blame for Grendel’s terror on his cowardice.

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Beowulf’s return to civility and just what “foreign land” means (ll.569b-581a)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Beowulf’s come down
A land of something
Closing

An Anglo-Saxon world map known as the "Cotton" world map (c.1040). (Looks like I'm not the only one with a sketchy sense of geography.) Image found at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Early_world_maps#mediaviewer/File:Anglo-Saxon_World_Map_Corrected.png.

An Anglo-Saxon world map known as the “Cotton” world map (c.1040). (Looks like I’m not the only one with a sketchy sense of geography.) Image found at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Early_world_maps#mediaviewer/File:Anglo-Saxon_World_Map_Corrected.png.

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Abstract

Beowulf brings his version of the events of his swimming contest with Breca to a close.

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Translation

              “‘Light of the east came,
God’s bright beacon; the sea abated
so that I the sea-cliff might see,
upon the windy shore. Wyrd oft saves
the unmarked man, when his strength thrives.
However they me confined, I with the sword slew
nine seabeasts. Never have I heard of any
through inquiry to fight so hard beneath heaven’s vault by night,
nor any man so miserable on the sea.
Yet I continued to survive the hostile distance,
weary of the journey. Then the sea bore me up,
the waters brought me to Finland,
the sea of a foreign land.'”
(Beowulf ll.569b-581a)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Beowulf’s come down

At long last, after three entries, Beowulf wraps up his account of the swimming contest. In this version, it’s unclear what exactly happened to Breca, save that he didn’t win. But it’s also clear that Beowulf’s not content to limit his tale of glory to some contest. He has to boast about how badass he was in beating up nine sea beasts!

Actually, given this information, It’s safe to say that he probably didn’t rout the sea beasts in the area, only put the fear of Beowulf (and the god that he keeps invoking?) into them.

Actually, Beowulf’s return to simple, straightforward language signals the audience rather nicely that his battle is over. I don’t think Beowulf is necessarily a berserker, but were he, this part of his story would show his ability to come down from his battle fury (and mescalin trip) so that he can re-enter normal society.

Sidebar: Beowulf could be a berserker, though. It’s thought that his name means “bear” since it’s a combination of “bee” and “wolf” – implying a wolf that hunts out bees. Berserkers wore bear hair shirts (or just plain bear skins). If someone was called a bear straight up, then maybe it was because that person was hoped to have the potential to go fight as berserkers did.

Beowulf’s showing that he so readily came down from his battle fury, along with being the denouement to his story, also might put the Danes at ease. As shown in the simplification of his diction the morning after his kill, once he’s defended himself he becomes relaxed and fully reasonable. Almost like the shore being revealed after the fury of the ocean recedes from it with the lowering tide.

Now, this isn’t to say that the Danes looked at this young Geat and worried that his monstrosity would replace Grendel’s should he defeat him, but I think that the Anglo-Saxons and other early medieval people were well aware of how people who became monstrous in battle (ie: berserkers) could sometimes carry that monstrosity over to times of non-battle. Because of that I think it’s safe to say that rhetorically Beowulf’s conclusion of the swimming episode is meant to show his ability to return to society despite doing something as incredible, and well, mad, as beating up nine sea monsters in one night.

But Beowulf doesn’t finish selling his ability to do what he Danes need done. In this conclusion, Beowulf also quips about wyrd. In doing so, I think that Beowulf is trying to suggest that he is favoured by this mysterious force.

For, being thrown around by the sea and attacked by so many mysterious monsters definitely suggests that he is a marked man (as in line 572-573). Yet, he’s quick to add that wyrd will spare those (even those marked) when they’re at the height of their strength (l. 573).

If Beowulf’s in his early twenties or late teens when he comes to Daneland, then it’s probable that he’s still at the ‘height of his strength.’ Or even that he’s at the very height of it. Whatever the specifics, wherever he is on the trajectory of his strength over the course of his life, it’s a stat that must still read fairly high (high enough for wyrd to give him some saving throws), and Beowulf, I think, is rhetorically banking on this to show the Danes that he can, indeed deal with their monster problem. He’s won glory against such foes before, so why not one more time, right?

Right?

Do you think the poet had all of these meanings in mind when he/she composed/wrote out Beowulf? Or am I reading way too much into this?

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A land of something

Well, in this week’s passage there were quite a few things to do and see word wise.

The most interesting to me and my ever-on-the-back-burner project of sorting out early medieval Anglo-Saxon nationalism and how it relates to the Celts that they displaced/absorbed/wiped out from Britain is the word “wealland.”

This word simply means “foreign land.” However, there’s a loose thread on it to pull at. Why should there be such a thing? Because it’s a compound word.

So the seam between the words of this compound comes between the two l’s. The word “land” means the same thing that it does in modern English; it refers to a country, land, or, in the most clinical sense, a span of physical space. The first word in this compound, “weal” is where things get complicated. And, carrying on with the metaphor of clothing, is where the whole thing’s aesthetic appeal comes from.

The word “weal” can mean a few things. As “wiel” it can mean “slave,” “servant.” As “wael” it can mean “slaughter,” “carnage” or “dead bodies.” As “weall” it can mean “wall,” “dike,” “earthwork,” “rampart,” “dam,” “rocky shore,” or “cliff.”

Although, as with most of the compound words I dissect in this part of these entries, “wealland” was probably in such common use when Beowulf was written down as to simply mean “foreign country,” the two words that come together to make it wouldn’t have been put together without reason in the first place. So what could any of these combinations mean, and what might each say about the Anglo-Saxon world view?

Well, if the original first part of the compound was “wiel,” then “wealland” implies that the Anglo-Saxons viewed foreign lands as things to be conquered.

These lands were places that were ripe for plunder and invasion, places that, of course, would become subject to the Anglo-Saxons Germanic might and superiority. If this really was the original combination, then it suggests, in my mind anyway, that the word probably came together around the height of the Anglo-Saxons’ power.

Argument could be made in favour of “wiel” and “land” being the original combination since the country that eventually formed beside what eventually became England is known, in English, as Wales, implying that its people (the Celts on the British mainland) were slaves or servants to their Anglo-Saxon neighbours.

Though, come to think of it, the basis of this analysis means that “Wales” could also have been so named in reference to its being a place of great carnage, a field of constant battle.

More generally, if this gorier meaning of “weal” is what combined with “land” originally, then the Anglo-Saxons perhaps took a more sober view of foreign lands and their potential for conquest.

Instead of being unceasing optimists, they realized, somewhat philosophically (probably after having landed in Britain and growing fond of the place), that the conquest of foreign lands would lead to nothing but slaughter. Though on whose side exactly is unclear. The implication, nonetheless being that foreign lands were places of great and terrible conflicts.

The third possibility for the subtext of “wealland” is simply that it’s used to refer to foreign lands that are fortified. These fortifications could be from either sea-cliffs and promontories or from walls that these lands’ people built.

Since I’m not so sure about the Danes’ or Geats’ relationship with Finland (Sweden was their mutual big bad, at least in the world of Beowulf), I can’t say how the Danes are supposed to take Beowulf’s landing there. But specific to this passage, I think it’s entirely possible that this “walled land” or “sea-cliff-protected land”) is the subtext, at least in Beowulf’s use of “wealland” here. Beowulf mentions the sea-cliff and the tide receding from it after all. Plus, if he swam to Finland from the spot where he fought the nine sea-monsters its sea-side topography couldn’t be too different, right?

But I feel like bringing geography into this is a bad idea. My languages and history might be all right, but my geography gets pretty terrible pretty quickly – let alone historical geography.

There is also, actually, a fourth possibility for “wealland.” It’s totally possible that all three meanings could be taken from the word depending on context. I mean, if there’s one thing that I’ve often assumed in this part of these Beowulf entries it’s that one compound word with varying elements can have multiple meanings. So why wouldn’t that be the case with one used to refer to foreign lands, something that I imagine came up quite a bit in the Anglo-Saxons’ literature, poetry, and day to day dealings.

Which combination do you think makes this most sense in general? What about in the context in which Beowulf uses “wealland”?

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Closing

Next week Beowulf starts to lay down a sick burn on Unferth.

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