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It’s party time in Heorot until Hrothgar, noticing the imminent falling of darkness, decides it’s time to call it a night.
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“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.”
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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?
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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.
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Next week, check back to read about how Hrothgar hands things over to Beowulf on his way out.
You can find the next part of Beowulf here.