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

Beowulf gets into the puns
Regular words that aren’t that regular

A young man makes a mead hall stand.

A young man makes a mead hall stand.

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

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“‘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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Old English:


Modern English:


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

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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

  1. Pingback: Beowulf’s wild accusation and some “near relatives” (ll.581b-589) | A Blogger's Beowulf

  2. Pingback: The Pun-icle of Humor | The Source Weekly - Pacific Northwest News

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