Meanderings on Hrothgar and closely watching words (ll.642-651)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Meandering through analysis: Hrothgar’s departure
Delving deeply into three words
Closing

Interlaced men motif. Image from http://public.wsu.edu/~hanly/oe/503.html.

Interlaced men motif. Image from http://public.wsu.edu/~hanly/oe/503.html.

Back To Top
Abstract

It’s party time in Heorot until Hrothgar, noticing the imminent falling of darkness, decides it’s time to call it a night.

Back To Top
Translation

“Then it was again as it had been in the hall,
brave words spoken, people milled about beneath its roof,
the sounds of a victorious people, until in a short time
the son of Healfdane’s will turned to seeking his
evening rest. Knew he that the wretch
against that high hall planned attack,
after the sun’s light might be seen,
when grown dark was the night over all,
draped in shade mail the shape would come stalking
under the waning heavens. All the throng arose.”
(Beowulf ll.642-651)

Back To Top
Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

Back To Top
Meandering through analysis: Hrothgar’s departure

As had been the case the last time we were treated to quite a bit of expositional poetry from the poet/scribe himself, this week’s passage is rich primarily in words. And in one significant detail on which he dwells.

Near the end of this weeks’ passage we’re treated to three and a half lines about the transition from day to night and the shifting from light to darkness. I think it goes without saying that there’s something of importance here. Or at least there could be.

This transition to night begins around the middle of the passage, at which point Hrothgar begins to consider leaving the hall and heading to his evening rest. This is no doubt a reference to the first period of sleep in the usual way people slept before artificial light; he’s heading off to the first shift of sleep from sunset to about midnight. (At that point, people woke up and wrote, composed, met, talked, had sex, etc. before heading back to bed around 2 or so and then rising with the sun.)

Why is this sort of sleep pattern the pre-industrial usual? I can’t rightly say. What significance does it have here? Well, maybe not much, but it’s a fun tidbit to trot out every now and then.

As per stuff actually relevant to what’s going on in the passage, Hrothgar uses a curious word to describe what Grendel’s been doing: “geþinged.” This word comes up on line 647 and means “plan,” broadly. But specifically within the Clark Hall and Meritt dictionary I’m using, it translates as “to beg, pray, ask, intercede, covenant, conciliate, compound with, settle, prescribe; reconcile oneself with; determine, purpose, design, arrange, talk, harangue.”

Some of those words suggest “plan,” some don’t. But just about all of them suggest collaboration rather than singular action. I can’t help but get the impression that, aside from alliterative purposes (geþinged alliterates with þæm from earlier in the line), the poet put this word here to suggest one of two things about Hrothgar’s perception of Grendel.

It could suggest that Hrothgar regards Grendel as a shrewd and potent planner. He sees Grendel as a being that lays out careful plans and then follows through, as if working by committee or with the force of will of several beings.

Or, it suggests that Hrothgar is aware of Grendel’s collaboration with some other being. This doesn’t necessarily need to be Grendel’s mother. It could just as easily be a sense of some sort of spiritual communication amongst the other kin of Cain. Maybe those shunned by god just like to co-ordinate things really well.

Looking further at Hrothgar’s departure from the hall, I wonder why he leaves at all. Is it that he’s running away? Clearing the way for this Geat who’s so eager to gain glory?

Perhaps there was some kind of tradition that involved everyone belonging to a troop or band or peoples would just walk out once their leader did the same. If that’s the case, then Hrothgar could be trying to protect the Danes in this way. Though whether that’s from Grendel or from the menace of Beowulf and his seductive confidence, who can say?

Back To Top
Delving deeply into three words

This week’s passage bucks the pattern that the last few have kept: it’s actually got some compound words!

There is, however, one that I noted in the entry “Beowulf gets into puns and two regular words aren’t so regular (ll.590-597).” Well, the first half of it, anyway. This is “sige-folc.” I don’t really have anything new to say about it, except that in this context it is likely meant sincerely.

After all, it isn’t necessarily calling the Danes a “victorious people,” just comparing the noise that they rose to the sort of noise that a victorious people would raise. The obvious connection is that the poet is saying that they’re celebrating before their problem has been solved.

Though, at this point, I get the impression that the original audience probably already figured out that Beowulf was going to win. But maybe there’s more dramatic tension here than I realize. I mean, we haven’t really seen much of Grendel in action. We’ve heard the aftermath of his attacks described, but we’ve never really seen him in action.

The opposite is also true. We’ve never seen Beowulf do anything. He’s boasted plenty, but done little aside from wearing his armour with a lordly air.

So what’s the conclusion here?

I don’t think the poet is trying for much beyond the surface reading of sige-folc. There’s a subtle reminder that the Danes are pre-empting their victory with a celebration here. Maybe there was an Anglo-Saxon sense of karma or cosmic irony and so this reminder could work as foreshadowing for Grendel’s mother’s attack after Beowulf has defeated Grendel. Though, I really can’t say what the poem’s earliest audiences thought and anticipated.

The other two compounds are unique (so far) to this passage. The first is from line 643: “þryðword.”

This word is a combination of “þryð” (meaning “might,” “power,” “force,” “strength,” “majesty,” “glory,” “splendour;” “multitude,” “troop,” or “host”) and “word” (meaning “word,” “speech,” “sentence,” “statement;” “command,” “order,” “subject of talk;” “story,” “news,” “report;” “fame;” “promise,” or “verb.”)

“Word” can also refer to “rod,” “(possibly) gooseberry bush” or “the word incarnate.” Why that last trio of meanings includes “rod” and possibly “gooseberry bush,” I can’t really say.

Unless, it’s a reference to words relating to Ogham alphabets. But so far in my reading, Graves hasn’t said anything about gooseberry bushes. He has put forth the idea that the burning bush was some loranthus (a kind of mistletoe) growing on a wild acacia, but other than designating this wood to Sunday and equating it with the Celtic broom, he hasn’t said much about it (The White Goddess 264)

Anyway, the thing that makes this combination of words interesting to me is that it could be a reference to armies being stereotyped as talking about manly, powerful things.

The literal translation of the compound is “power words,” and so I suppose it’s aptly applied to a bunch of warriors excitedly talking and drinking. It’s as if their confidence were returning to the Danes. For, even if a boast is empty, a boast is still something spoken from a place of confidence – even if that confidence is just an act.

Now, we come to what I think could be the coolest compound word in the passage. Maybe even up to this point in the poem. “Scadu-helm”

This word combines the Old English word for “shade,” “shadow,” “darkness,” “shady” “place,” “arbour;” “shelter,” or “scene,” “scadu,” and the word for “protection,” “defense,” “covering,” “crown,” “summit,” “top (of trees);” “helmet,” “protector,” “lord;” or “elm,” “helm.”

So the compound’s literal meaning is something like “cover of darkness.” Though that’s a bit plain. I think that something like “shade covering” or “shade mail” is a better fit — something that suggests that Grendel comes clothed in the darkness, not just under it.

I prefer that sort of interpretation because it suggests that he was civilized, but not in the civil ways of man — no — rather in the ways that kin of Cain understand civility.

Now, since elm and arbour are involved, what’s Robert Graves got to say?

(By the way, I’m referring to Robert Graves so much because I’m reading his The White Goddess right now for my blog Going Box by Box.)

On page 190 of that book, graves simply says that the elm became the alma mater (pun intended, I think) of the wine god because it was used to support grape vines. Other than that, there’s not much. So, it’s a supportive tree, and so that may well be why it’s connected to the word “helm” and all of its implications of protection.

Back To Top
Closing

Next week, check back to read about how Hrothgar hands things over to Beowulf on his way out.

Back To Top

Beowulf, Wealhtheow, and the two words that reveal much (ll.631-641)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
One Word Says much about Beowulf’s Song
Another Word, and More of just What Wealhtheow Is
Closing

An illuminated Chad Gospel. Image from http://events.nationalgeographic.com/ events/special-events/2011/11/13/saint-spinners/.

An illuminated Chad Gospel, just one place where words matter. Image from http://events.nationalgeographic.com/
events/special-events/2011/11/13/saint-spinners/.

Back To Top
Abstract

Beowulf sings his reply to Wealhtheow’s praises, and she, well-pleased, returns to Hrothgar’s side.

Back To Top
Translation

“Beowulf spoke, son of Ecgtheow:
‘I thought upon that, as I came across the sea,
seated in the sea boat amidst the multitude of my men,
that I completely for your people
would that will work, or die in the slaughter,
held fast in the fiend’s fist. I shall perform
the lordly deed, or my end days
find in this mead hall!’
That woman/lady well liked those words,
the boast-speech of the Geat; then went gold-laden
the stately queen of her people to sit with her lord.”
(Beowulf ll.631-641)

Back To Top
Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

Back To Top
One Word Says much about Beowulf’s Song

When last week’s passage ended with the poet/scribe possibly saying that Beowulf sang his response to Wealhtheow, I thought I knew what was coming. I figured that we’d get more of the same artful and rhetorical language that we saw when he was talking to Hrothgar. A few ‘thee”s and ‘thou”s, rhetorical separation of related clauses, all of that.

Instead, Beowulf’s dialogue here is some of the most straightforward text I’ve come across in the poem yet.

There aren’t any structural acrobatics. There aren’t any strange combinations of words. Even when it comes to compound words there are only two. These are “feondgrapum,” “endedæg” and “meoduhealle.”

All of these words are straightforwardly translated as “fiend-grip,” “end days,” and “mead hall.” There don’t seem to be any shades of morality hiding in multiple meanings, nor does Beowulf seem to be putting any of them to tricky use here.

It’s almost enough to make me think that when formal speech is delivered to a man it is a thicket, whereas when a formal speech is delivered to a woman it is a bouquet.

Though there are some rare words at play in Beowulf’s dialogue.

In line 634 Beowulf uses the word “anunga” and in line 635 he uses “crunge” (a form of “cringan”). These words aren’t often used, but there’s nothing really special about them aside from their being highly specialized.

The word “anunga” refers to something done quickly and thoroughly if taken as a whole word (my Clark Hall & Meritt dictionary separates these senses). Yet it makes sense that Beowulf use this word here since it alliterates with the word that follows, which just so happens to be on the other side of the line’s caesura: “eowra.”

“Crunge” isn’t used for alliterative purposes, but it is highly specialized, having but three meanings: “yield, fall (in battle), die.” Using any three of these fits the meaning of Beowulf’s punchy ending, but he could have simply used “acwelan” or “sweltan” (both mean “to die”).

It’s telling, then, that Beowulf dresses up his language as he sings his reply to Wealhtheow.

Perhaps this was part of formal speech, though. Perhaps when speaking to a woman the decorum was to avoid innuendo so that there would be no misunderstandings between the genders. So that there would be no young thanes lasciviously speaking to their lord’s wife about sheathing swords or venturing into mystically warm caves.

If that’s the case, though, then Beowulf slips up in being one hundred percent crystal clear. As Robert Graves might put it, he fails in speaking to Wealhtheow in plain prose; some poetry sneaks into his singing.

In line 633 Beowulf refers to his entourage as “minra secg gedriht.” This translates to “the multitude of my men.” The important word here, as far as poetry goes, is “secg.”

Why?

Because this word can mean “reed, rush, flag; sword; ocean.”

We can probably discount “ocean” right away since it’s not likely that Beowulf was thinking about defeating Grendel as he was sailing over and in the midst of ‘his multitude of oceans.’

However, he could be, whether intentionally or unintentionally, referring to his men as reeds, rushes, or flags — things that bend and twist in the wind. Maybe he’s doing this to try to raise his own esteem in Wealhtheow’s eyes. His men look tough, but they’re nothing to him. He could be using this word to add to his boast, then.

Or, Beowulf could be practicing a bit more artistry in his song. He could be referring to his men as swords.

This bit of metonymy is especially fitting since it would mean that Beowulf’s saying he wasn’t just sitting amongst his men thinking about beating Grendel, but he was sitting amongst swords thinking about it. He was having his warlike, tumultuous thoughts surrounded by warlike, tumultuous gents.

If this is the sense that the poet wants us to take away it opens up the possibility that Bewoulf is once more trying to put across the idea that he can switch between war and peace states. That he isn’t just a warrior or some sort of lunkhead, but that he is adaptable — perhaps his most useful characteristic. And perhaps it is his adaptability is what he’s really been boasting about all along.

Perhaps Wealhtheow picks up on this adaptability and can respect it as Hrothgar seems unable to adapt, unable to try a new way to kill Grendel himself and so he must rely on the help of outsiders. Because of his adaptability, however, Beowulf has no need for such help.

What do you think about the idea that a single word could hold so much importance? Is the word “secg” just there to alliterate with “sae-bat” (sea boat) and “gesaet” (“sat”)?

Back To Top
Another Word, and More of just What Wealhtheow Is

This week’s passage is mostly Beowulf’s speech, but the last little bit is just as rich. Thanks in large part (again) to a single word: “freolic.”

This word is used to describe Wealhtheow as she goes back to her seat beside Hrothgar. In the text it’s in the nominative case, so it very clearly goes with “folccwen” (folk queen, also in the nominative case). It’s also one of the three alliterating words in the line along with “folc-cwen and “frean.”

But what does “freolic” mean?

The Clark Hall & Meritt dictionary offers a list of definitions: “free, freeborn, glorious, stately, magnificent, noble, beautiful, charming.”

The dictionary in the back of the C.L. Wrenn edition of Beowulf I have simply gives two definitions: “excellent” and “noble.”

Now, to be totally honest, the C.L. Wrenn definitions are no doubt right on, exactly what is meant. After all, the dictionary included in his edition of Beowulf is specifically for Beowulf. Clark Hall & Meritt’s dictionary is more general, a dictionary for all of Old English.

But. Simply going with C.L. Wrenn’s take on the word wouldn’t be any fun. And besides, as much as a modern reader knows that a “fan” could refer to a fanatic or a device that cools off its target, surely Old English speakers were aware of the same nuance in their language.

As such, let’s speculate a bit.

There’s no doubt that Wealhtheow is merely being described as stately, magnificent, noble, beautiful, and definitely charming. Any of the definitions of “freolic” fit her.

Especially that last one, since she seems to have charmed Beowulf. I mean, he’s never sung in the poem before now. Nor has he spoken so plainly when speaking formally. I’m interpreting that as a sign of his being smitten, the strange decorous informality of his reply.

But then what about the “free” and “freeborn” meanings of the word?

Well, I think that the poet is pointing to the similar word use in last week’s passage. I think that he’s trying to suggest, however subtly, that part of what makes Wealhtheow magnificent and noble is that she resists whatever sort of behaviours one in her position tends to fall into.

It needs to be remembered, after all, that Wealhtheow is very probably the queen of her people by force rather than by birth or (pre)arranged marriage. That’s not to say she’s Hrothgar’s spoils, but rather a peace-weaver, a woman given by one group to another as a means of creating peace between the two.

Yet, despite being away from home and amidst these foreign peoples, Wealhtheow retains the mien and attitude of a freeborn woman. I think it’s this that the poet is getting at and, aside from the ever-present convenience of alliteration, he used “freolic” with the full intention of getting this across.

Going on the fairly thin theory that Wealhtheow is specifically Welsh or more broadly a Celt, I think this is also supposed to meant that she, like her brethren in the British Isles, remain culturally cool under fire. Even when their culture has been overrun (just as, in a way, the Anglo-Saxon culture implied by Beowulf‘s being in Old English has been overrun by its being about Norse peoples), they remain proud and true to that original culture beneath the trappings of the new or imposed.

In this sort of captive situation, the captured culture creates a kind of kernel of true identity around which they weave something more acceptable to the group in which they currently find themselves.

Beowulf’s being young and adventuresome, I think appeals to this kernel of true identity within Wealhtheow and that is why she goes away well pleased from him — not just because he boasts once more about beating the monster. Maybe that’s even why she “well liked his words,/the boast-speech of the Geat” (“þa word wel licodon,/gilpcwide Geates” (ll.639-640)). Wealhtheow recognized in Beowulf’s words the sort of power and mastery of her own people over their own arts and knowledge.

Not to mention, that “secg.”

This interpretation pretty much entirely turns on its being layered in its meaning and Beowulf’s slipping it in there either intentionally to get Wealhtheow’s attention or unintentionally as a reflection of his own true nature of adaptability, his own true identity.

For when an old word has many senses in a modern language, why would that same word not have multiple sense in the old?

Has Modern English just diversified more than Old English ever did, so where they had but the word “freolic” we have the nine that it can be defined as?

Or was it that in older languages words just pulled double (triple, quadruple, etc.) duty more often, coming to be used in multiple senses, the one intended being suggested by delivery or gesture or tone — something that is, unfortunately, lost when written out?

We’ll probably never know any of those answers. But that’s what makes this Old English stuff fun to me. We’ll never really know about it, but at the same time, we know enough for there to be a structure from within which we can look out and speculate about that which is unknown.

What do you think of the idea that Wealhtheow represents the Briton Celts as they were under Anglo-Saxon rule? Am I putting way too much stress on just one word?

Back To Top
Closing

Though Beowulf’s undoubtedly left an impression on Wealhtheow we won’t see it manifest again right away. Instead, we get a glimpse of things as they were before the night of revelry comes to an end in next week’s passage.

Back To Top

Further thoughts on Wealhtheow, Beowulf tries to pick her up? (ll.620-630)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
What’s Wealhtheow, Heorot’s layout, Beowulf’s fierceness
Two Compounds and a Dialogue Tag
Closing

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

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

Back To Top
Abstract

Wealhtheow makes her way to Beowulf, who graciously takes of the mead she offers before addressing her formally.

Back To Top
Translation

“Then went about that Helming woman
to each section of the noble and the young,
she offered/offering the costly vessel,until the time came
that to Beowulf she, the ring adorned queen
of distinguished mind/heart, bore the mead cup.
She greeted the Geatish man, thanked god
with wise words, that he her will fulfilled,
that she could find consolation in any living warrior
against that sin. He partook of that cup,
the fierce fighter, from Wealhtheow,
and then sang the one ever ready for war;”
(Beowulf ll.620-630)

Back To Top
Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

Back To Top
What’s Wealhtheow, Heorot’s layout, Beowulf’s fierceness

Where to start? This passage has a lot happening in it. Since choosing just one to write on this week would mean skimming over some curious speculation, let’s just go through the major points.

For the curious, these are Wealhtheow’s position in light of her being referred to as “ides;” what we can deduce about the layout of Heorot’s interior from this passage; and Beowulf’s being referred to as, basically, “bloodthirsty.”

I know I touched on this last week, but what, exactly, is Wealhtheow?

Up to this point in the poem she’s been introduced as Hrothgar’s queen and her name makes it abundantly clear that she is likely in that relationship for the sake of political expediency rather than any strong, all-conquering love.

Later in this passage she’s also referred to as a queen. So that makes it pretty clear.

But before that, in line 620 Wealhtheow is referred to as simply “ides.”

This word translates to “virgin;” “woman,” “wife,” “lady,” or “queen.” I get that this is probably just here for the alliteration of the line (phonetically the Old English reads: “iumb-eh e-o-deh tha e-dez hel-min-ga”), but even so, using that word simply for alliteration’s sake feels like a stretch. Almost as much a one as my reading into this word.

Though, alliteration and overreaching aside, I think there’s something sane and kind of obvious at work in the use of “ides.”

At this point in the poem, the poet puts his focus squarely onto Wealhtheow. As such, it’s possible that a vague word like “ides” is used here to reflect the variety of perceptions the men in the hall have of her. Some see her as mother, others as their lord’s wife or queen, and to others still she was a woman or a lady, possibly even a virgin (at least figuratively, unless the apparent marital strife between them is about more than Hrothgar being able to raise his sword against Grendel).

Of course, it’s hard to say how the person who wrote or composed Beowulf worked. Did they ever come up with an alliteration before a line was written out, or even have a sense of which letter would be that’s line’s sound and then build the line out from there?

Perhaps with this line in particular the poet/scribe may have simply wanted to use “i” or “ides” (or “eode”) here and then built outward.

Whatever the case, figuring out just who Wealhtheow is as a person is made even more difficult by the line below describing her as having a “distinguished heart.” Is she an incredibly early expression of the idea of a noble savage? Did the Anglo-Saxons maybe consider the Celts in the same way that later Europeans considered First Nations?

Onto the arrangement of the hall. Line 621 states that Wealhtheow “went about the hall to the experienced and the young alike” (“duguþe ond geogoþe dæl æghwylcne”). What’s unclear about this line is whether those in the hall are all young and experienced (kind of a strange combination) or if the experienced sit together and the young do the same.

My guess is that it’s more the former, mostly because it makes sense that these two words represent two distinct groups and because the Geats’ needing to be let into some sort of inner chamber to see Hrothgar suggests that rank (won through experience, and therefore, age) is reflected in where your seat is.

I think that these divisions of young and experienced aren’t as you might expect, though. I don’t think “young” denotes someone who has not been alive for very long. Instead, I think that it refers to someone young in the way of battle. Why? Because the word that I’ve translated as “experienced” is also commonly used to describe or denote warriors. As such I think the poet is working in a dichotomy and though young and experienced could be seen as opposites, I think it’s a very specific sort of “young” that the poet has in mind.

Besides, Beowulf himself at this point in the story can’t be more than 20. Yet he is, at least according to his own stories, vastly experienced. Again, there are probably some in Hrothgar’s retinue that aren’t grey about the temples but have nonetheless seen plenty of combat. So it looks to me like Heorot’s seating reflects the Danes’ various skill levels.

After Wealhtheow has thanked Beowulf (for his boasts, at this point), the poet launches into a description of the warrior before he breaks into a speech.

For the most part this description of Beowulf seems fitting except that in the first part of line 629 Beowulf is described as a “fierce fighter”. The original word for “fierce” is “wælreow” which means “cruel, fierce, savage, blood-thirsty.”

Why is Beowulf characterized by such an adjective as this?

I suppose it’s possible that the poet is exulting in Beowulf’s deeds in combat or is trying to give the impression that Beowulf has seen this attractive (“ring adorned” (“beaghroden” (l.623))) lady and is trying to puff himself up to impress her.

Even so, using a word that carries “bloodthirsty” among its definitions seems like overkill to me. Unless, the word “wælreow” started off with more positive connotations (maybe as another way to refer to berserkers?) but then slowly deteriorated over time. Though, perhaps this is also part of Beowulf’s puffing up for Wealhtheow, maybe his animalistic nature is expressed sexually as well as in battle? Or maybe her thanking him has revved him up to fight Grendel?

What do you think about anything I’ve raised in this section? Leave your thoughts in the comments!

Back To Top
Two Compounds and a Dialogue Tag

Although I mentioned it in the above section, the word that seemed a bit extreme to describe Beowulf’s fierceness, “wælreow” bears further investigation.

This word is one of my favourite types of words – a compound. As a such, what are its parts?

Well, there’s “wael” meaning “slaughter” or “carnage” and there’s “hreoh,” meaning “rough,” “fierce,” “wild,” “angry;” “disturbed,” “troubled,” “sad;” “stormy,” or “tempestuous.”

Interestingly, though I don’t think it’s the exact same word, there’s also an entry in the Clark Hall & Meritt dictionary for “hreoh” (“hreow”) that defines it as “sorrow,” “regret,” “penitence,” “repentance,” “penance;” “sorrowful,” or “repentant.”

Combining these two words obviously intensifies the sense of carnage and wildness that both convey. Yet, it’s curious that “wael” is a word that just describes something like a scene while “hreow” conveys a little more emotion, reflecting perhaps on the state of mind that a person is in to create a scene that could be described with “wael.”

Bringing the other possible meaning of “hreow” into the picture makes things even more curious since a slaughter that a warlike person regrets or is sorrowful over suggests that they were not themselves in their rage.

Perhaps, as I suggested in an earlier entry, Beowulf’s fighting style or battle prowess somehow relates to the practice of going berserk. If so, here, as Beowulf primes himself for his fight with Grendel, we see him starting to get into his battle frenzy.

And no doubt, Beowulf would fight in a battle frenzy. One example doesn’t make a strong case, but one of the central players in Celtic myth, Cuchulain entered into a battle frenzy in which his entire body convulsed and became grotesquely changed. Maybe Beowulf does the same or is feared for being capable of doing the same?

Another compound word worth mentioning from this week’s passage is “wisfæst” (l.626)

It’s the simple combination of “wis” meaning “wise,” “learned,” “sagacious,” “cunning,” “sane,” “prudent,” “discreet,” “experienced” and “fæst,” meaning “fast,” “fixed,” “firm,” “secure;” “constant,” “steadfast,” “stiff,” “heavy,” “dense;” “obstinate,” “bound,” “costive;” “enclosed,” “closed,” “watertight;” “strong,” or “fortified.” The word “fæst” might also mean “reputable” or “standard.”

That “wis” and “fæst” combine to simply make “wise” is incredibly straightforward. Though, I think the modern English word “wise” loses some of the original’s oomf.

After all, it’s not just the word wise, there’s a sense that the wisdom that the compound describes is something tried and true, a sort of wisdom not born merely of experience, but also from those who have gone before. Although there’s no mention of learning or reading, I get the sense that it could be the sort of wisdom that comes from instruction and experience. Or, if “reputable and standard” work as defintions of “fæst,” wisfæst” could be a sort of common sense – suggesting that even in the early medieval period those who had such sense weren’t so common and were this considered wise.

Though maybe it’s because Wealhtheow doesn’t seem to get high off of her own supply that she and her common sense seem indeed marvellous. Though, again, what exactly is her position and character?

Lastly, I just want to bring up the word “gieddan” (l.630).

It’s not a compound word, but it is one that hasn’t shown up in the poem before.

It’s another word for “said,” basically, though its dictionary entry offers “speak formally, discuss, speak with alliteration, recite, sing.” The implication of this word’s use being that what Beowulf is about to speak formally (maybe even musically?).

The word fits perfectly with line 630’s alliterating “g” sounds, but I still like to think that the poet expresses the idea that Beowulf is about to speak (before, weirdly, using the formulaic “Beowulf spoke, son of Ecgtheow” in next week’s first line) by saying he’s about to speak formally to round off the image of this young (possibly still teenaged) Beowulf seeing the lovely Wealhtheow and puffing himself up to attract her attention.

What do you think is up with Wealhtheow? Is she just Hrothgar’s queen and nothing more? Or is she somehow working behind the scenes, keeping the Danes going?

Back To Top
Closing

Next week, Beowulf sings to Wealhtheow an assurance of his boast about beating Grendel and she goes to sit with Hrothgar, fully contented — for the moment.

Back To Top