Compound words and a single seed
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Hrothgar hands authority over the hall to Beowulf and promises him great riches if he survives the night.
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“Greeted the men each other then,
Hrothgar Beowulf, and to him wished health,
gave rule of the drinking hall, and these words said:
‘Never before have I to any man yielded up,
since I could raise my own hand my own shield,
the noble house of the Danes but to thee now.
Have now and hold this best of houses:
Have remembrance of fame, mighty valour’s seed,
be wakeful against the wrathful one! Thy desire shall not
lack if you this brave deed survive with your life'”
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The main focus of this week’s passage is Hrothgar’s handing the hall over to Beowulf for the night. This is a pretty big deal. And not just because Hrothgar says that it’s unprecedented (lines 655-657).
The lord of Heorot’s handing the hall over to Beowulf for the night suggests that he, Hrothgar, has full and utter trust in Beowulf to be successful. Beowulf isn’t just a glorified night watchman; he’s been made the ward of the hall. It is his to use as he sees fit. But what does such ownership confer?
Well, no doubt there are some things in Anglo-Saxon law that could shed some interesting tints of light on the matter, but I don’t have those to hand, nor do I have the time to chase them down just now. However, in and of itself, I think the trust that Hrothgar is putting into Beowulf is significant enough.
Hrothgar knew Beowulf’s father, so there’s a connection between them. Nonetheless, Hrothgar has only just met Beowulf, really. So his handing over his hall — the hall that he built when the Danes were powerful and prosperous — into the power of one whom he’s really only just met shows a great deal of trust.
But, of course, I think that there’s something more here, too.
After Hrothgar hands the metaphysical/figurative keys to Heorot over to Beowulf he adds something to his wishes of luck and success. He tells Beowulf to “be wakeful against the wrathful one!” (“waca wið wraþum” (l.660)).
On one level the “wrathful one” is clearly Grendel. Again, his wrath goes unexplained, but as hearers of the poem, wrath alone is really the only motivation that the marsh monster is given for the repeated raids against Heorot. Simple wrath.
But, given all of the previous points at which I found readings of the poem that take references like these and point them to Beowulf, I think it’s possible that Hrothgar is throwing a bit of a jibe the Geat’s way.
I think that Hrothgar, having never before given control of his grand hall over to someone else, is trying to coolly warn Beowulf to not get too carried away. I think he’s saying “hey, be careful and try not to bring the place down tonight, okay?” or more philosophically, “when you confront the monster don’t become monstrous yourself, all right?”
After all, Beowulf’s stories of overcoming terrible beasts have involved him becoming just as savage to overcome them.
In this passage I think reading Hrothgar’s wish of luck as a lighthearted warning against his own strength and temper gives a little more credit to Hrothgar, a character who is often depicted as being in the very dredges of despair.
That Hrothgar could crack a joke at a time like this, even one that would probably be accompanied by a slight glint of the eye and a weak half-smile, suggests that he’s got some resilience left in him. Hrothgar’s still able to rule, it’s just difficult for him to ask for help and to acknowledge that he needs it.
Though that only further supports reading this line as a crack at Beowulf as well as a warning to be vigilant against Grendel. Comedy is often a disarming way for people to assert themselves and why not give the otherwise utterly melancholic Hrothgar a bit of a joke line as he makes his way out?
Besides, later on, we’ll hear Beowulf throw a jibe right back at him.
In the meantime, I think it’s also interesting that Hrothgar feels the need to tell Beowulf he’ll be rewarded handsomely for his efforts. It’s possible that along with being just a simple incentive, mentioning the reward is also Hrothgar’s way of reminding Beowulf what’s in it for him if he doesn’t destroy the hall in the process of defeating Grendel. His stories of might and courage have painted him as being rather reckless after all.
What do you think about this situation? Is Hrothgar joking with Beowulf? Or is he just wishing Beowulf rote luck?
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Compound words and a single seed
There were a lot of words of note in this week’s passage. Some more so than others because of their placement in the poem, and some because they’re just curious words. Well, because they’re compound words.
Actually, there were two sets of compounds in Hrothgar’s speech. The first is “winærn” and “ðryþærn.” The common element between these two words (“ærn”) means “dwelling,” “house,” “building,” “store,” or “closet.” The first of the pair’s modifier is “win” which means simply “wine,” while the second’s, “ðryð” has a broader variety of meanings: “might,” “power,” “force,” “strength,” “majesty,” “glory,” “splendour;” “multitude,” “troop,” or “host.”
The first of the pair isn’t really all that interesting. It pretty much just means wine-house. I could also mean “wine-closet,” but that’s basically just a shade of the meaning of “wine-house” (that is, a house for wine) spelled out rather than left up to implication and context.
The word “ðryþærn” is slightly more interesting because of the variety of meanings for “ðryð.” Though if you look at the list of them, they all, again, kind of make sense translated as simply “great house” or “powerful house.” After all, a great house is what you’d need for a multitude of people, just as it’s what you’d need to express strength or power.
I do think it’s kind of neat how it’s the narrator who refers to Heorot as a “winærn” and Hrothgar who refers to it as a “ðryþærn.” Alliteration is definitely at work in this, but still, there’s no real reason the poet couldn’t have composed this part so that he was left with “ðryþærn” and Hrothgar with “winærn.” Their order definitely suggests a kind of up-scaling of the house in he eyes of its owners. Though, really, even were it not for Grendel, Heorot would just be a drinking hall.
Similarly the words “ellenweorc” and “mægenweorc” star in this week’s passage. They mean “deed of courage” and “deed of might” respectively. But what’s so interesting about them is that they’re both spoken by Hrothgar. Either he’s feeling the pinch of alliteration, going for emphasis, or feeling a bit sleepy.
Maybe it’s a mix of all three. It’s definitely possible that along with his gentle jibe at Beowulf’s possibly losing control Hrothgar is trying to keep Beowulf in check with the promise of glorious deeds — something that he’s clearly after since his swimming contest story was so elaborate.
I’m not so sure, though, that there’s any special significance to the order in which these two compounds appear.
They’re both part of their respective lines’ alliterating pairs, so the poet/scribe likely just wanted to express the same idea with a bit of alliterative flexibility. In this case are deeds of might really that different from deeds of courage?
The last word that I found particularly interesting in this week’s passage is “cyð” from “mægenellen cyð” on line 659.
One interpretation of this word makes it “seed,” “germ,” “shoot,” “mote.” This makes for some neat natural imagery. Hrothgar’s comparing this great undertaking to a seed of glory puts me in mind of mythological, sacred trees — even Yggdrasil, the world tree.
But there’s also a second way to read “cyð.” It could be an altered spelling of “cyðð” meaning “kith,” “kinsfolk,” “fellow-countrymen,” “neighbours” or “acquaintance,” “friendship;” “knowledge,” or “familiarity.”
Similar to the above interpretation of “cyð,” this puts some figurative language into Hrothgar’s mouth. Though this time the imagery is more familial, more interpersonal.
This deed Beowulf is about to undertake is a close friend to glory; it’s glory’s next of kin.
I feel like this might actually be the better interpretation between the two. Why? Because it has more to do with kinship and interpersonal ties.
Hrothgar can offer all the treasures he likes, but I think that this sense of kinship is the true reward from Beowulf’s quest.
Reading the word in this way makes the store of treasure that’s waiting for Beowulf all the more meaningful, too, since all of that gold will come along with a strong bond, and that is practically invaluable in a world in which groups need to rely on other groups, either for goods, protection, or mutual peace.
Beowulf can win all the gold in Daneland, but what will really win him glory in Geatland is forging a strong alliance with the Danish tribe.
Which of the two interpretations of “cyð” do you think is better? As “seed” or as “kin”?
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Next week, Hrothgar gets into bed, Beowulf prepares for Grendel, and the poet drops spoilers.
You can find the next part of Beowulf here.
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