How Grendel contrasts with Heorot, and an exalted humbling (ll.710-719)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Grendel and Heorot contrasted
Cliffs as lids, and an exalted humbling
Closing

Beowulf, Grendel, Old English, Anglo-Saxon

An illustration of Grendel by J.R. Skelton from Stories of Beowulf. Grendel is described as “Very terrible to look upon.”Stories of beowulf grendel” by J. R. Skelton – Marshall, Henrietta Elizabeth (1908) Stories of Beowulf, T.C. & E.C. Jack. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Back To Top
Abstract

Grendel and Heorot are described as Grendel makes his way towards it.

Back To Top
Translation

“Then came from the moor under misty cliff
Grendel bounding, he bore god’s ire,
meant the sinner against humankind
some to ensnare in that humbled hall.
Raging beneath the heavens, he headed to that wine hall,
the gold hall best known to men,
shimmering with ornaments. That was not the first time
that he the home of Hrothgar sought out.
Never had he in earlier days nor afterwards
found a thane so hard in the hall.”
(Beowulf ll.710-719)

Back To Top
Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

Back To Top
Grendel and Heorot contrasted

This week’s passage is at odds with last week’s. Not in that it’s written in a completely different style or anything like that, but because it takes the emphasis on Grendel’s appearance and shifts it onto his intent.

However, this passage does include some description of Heorot itself that sets up a contrast between it and its attacker.

Last week, Grendel was described as a being who moves in the shadows, who slinks around. As a result, I think the Anglo-Saxons imagined Grendel as the antithesis of brightness.

Now, it only gets about a line and a half of description here, as opposed to the three we had for Grendel last week. But in those one and a half lines, Heorot is described, quite simply, as “shimmering with ornaments” (“fættum fahne” (l.716)). It is also referred to as a “gold hall” literally, since “goldsele” translates handily from Old English to Modern English with little change (l.715). So Heorot, in very short order, is clearly made out to be the pinnacle of colour, of brightness.

Perhaps that’s why it’s given so little description here. I mean, it could just be that way because the poet has already described the hall on earlier occasions, but I think that what’s happening here goes beyond being mere shorthand by which the poet intends to remind people that Heorot is bright and shiny.

I think that this description is less lingered on than that of Grendel because the hall’s brightness makes itself apparent. Just how the eye worked wasn’t likely to have entirely worked out when Beowulf was being set down in writing, but the Anglo-Saxons would definitely have been aware of how the eye’s drawn to light. Thus, they probably had some sense that bright things are immediately bright while dull things are dull over time.

In other words, I think that Heorot is being characterized here as a flash to Grendel’s dull wall. The former is so bright it overcomes you, while the latter is so not bright that you can stare at it for hours.

So why set up this contrast? I think it’s to show how diametrically opposed Grendel is to the Danes. He’s there to steal them because they are his opposite, not only in the eyes of god or whatever, but simply in how they are perceived.

Or, if you like, the Anglo-Saxons may have had some concept of darkness swallowing light as much as light creating darkness. It’s possible that this idea may also have come in with Christianity, since the metaphor of darkness eating light sounds like something that any zealous missionary would bust out to frame Christianity as the underdog in a perpetual struggle not between the forces of nature or great heroes, but between the Anglo-Saxon’s two poles of perception: darkness and light.

One other thing that struck me about this passage, though it’s less thought out, is the line “he bore god’s ire” (“godes yrre bær” (l.711)).

This one is pretty easily a reference to Grendel bearing the mark of Cain and all of that, but it also ties neatly into an idea that I brought up in my entry two weeks ago.

What if, if Beowulf is god’s champion or god’s representative on earth in some way, Grendel’s bearing god’s ire isn’t just some poetic phrasing, but is actually a reference to his being marked for death by Beowulf? After all, if Beowulf’s stories and oaths are true, he seems very much to be the worker of that wrath. It’d be a neat bit of foreshadowing, I think

One other thing about Heorot as it’s described here.

In line 713 the poet notes that the hall itself is “humbled” (“hean”). Given Heorot’s glory and grandeur in its description here, this seems odd. But I think that it’s the poet/scribe tying off the contrast that I’ve noted. I think that it’s their way of saying that Heorot wasn’t just deteriorating because it was so often empty since Grendel started attacking, but it was actually losing its lustre because it had fallen under the shadow that is Grendel.

On the one hand this might sound like a simple reading of the contrast of light and dark and the notion that the darkness is overpowering the light. But think about it for a second. Grendel’s not just dimming brightness or being shadow incarnate — he is taking the lustre from the brightest thing of all: gold.

How can any one — Geat, Dane, or even god — stand up to that? Grendel is a darkness so powerful that it is stripping away the characteristic property of an object.

What do you make of the contrast between Heorot and Grendel that seems to be set up in this passage?

Back To Top
Cliffs as lids and an exalted humbling

Okay, so there’s not much to write about when it comes to words that stand out in this week’s passage.

I’m actually starting to wonder if there’s some sort of pattern to watch for in these stretches where the poet is describing physical things.

For the most part, it’s these descriptive, geographical parts of the poem (as far as I can tell, and from memory) that contain the straightforward compounds — those compound words that, even when defined as separate words and then recombined, mean simply what they’d mean paired up otherwise.

For example, “mist-hloþum” sounds like it could be something really badass — maybe about the way that Grendel moves or his villainous intent. But, taken together these words just mean “misty cliff.” Apart they mean “mist, misty” (mist) and “cliff, precipice, slop, hillside, hill” (hlið). So, again, “misty cliff.”

Now, Old English would be far more straightforward if each word only had one meaning. But, because spelling was far from being standardized, some Old English words have various spellings, which makes Old English dictionaries networks of meaning.

For instance, in the Clark Hall and Meritt dictionary entry for “hlið” there’s a note that redirects you to “hlid,” a word that can mean “lid, covering, door,gate, opening” — basically a word with the sense of there being an opening that is also covered.

Now this definition of “hlið” could combine with mist to a similar effect.

If you think of the mist as enveloping a space, then the cliff jutting out from it is a covering for what would otherwise be open: the hole in the mist.

But that doesn’t open much up aside from a discussion of Anglo-Saxon metaphysics and their take on the nature of holes and openings. A topic that I know nothing about.

So instead let’s turn away from compounds and write about the word “hean.” As mentioned above, it’s used in this passage to describe Heorot.

Now, what’s neat about this word’s use here is that it’s not just a matter of its being another weird word with two, practically opposite meanings. As it appears here either of its meanings could work without any sort of linguistic stretching.

So, here’s how the word appears in the passage: “…in sele þam hean” (713).

And here’s what the word “hean” can mean: “lowly,” “despised,” “poor,” “man,” “bar,” and “abject” or “raise,” “exalt,” and “extol”

So, in that context, since the poet’s talking about Heorot, he could be praising it. It could be the “exalted hall.” Or it could be a reference to the hall’s current, fallen state: “that humbled hall.” I’ve chosen the latter because I think it best fits the situation and were it supposed to be “exalted hall,” I think that “hean” would be “hiēhst,” the superlative form of the Old English word for “high.”

Though I have to say that it’s fairly clever of the poet to use this word. Not just because it fits in with the alliterative line but because I think it is supposed to carry both meanings simultaneously. It was indeed the most exalted of halls but it is now humbled.

What do you think of the idea that simple compound words generally refer to geographical features?

Back To Top
Closing

Next week, Grendel arrives at Heorot and peeks in on his prey.

Back To Top

Beowulf wrathfully awakens and Grendel as shadow skulker (ll.700b-709)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Beowulf’s waking and Grendel’s shadows
More on Grendel, a bit on righteous wrath
Closing

Beowulf, Grendel, Old English, Anglo-Saxon

An illustration of Grendel by J.R. Skelton from Stories of Beowulf. Grendel is described as “Very terrible to look upon.” “Stories of beowulf grendel” by J. R. Skelton – Marshall, Henrietta Elizabeth (1908) Stories of Beowulf, T.C. & E.C. Jack. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Back To Top
Abstract

Grendel comes slinking over to Heorot, but Beowulf wakes and waits.

Back To Top
Translation

                “The truth is shown,
that mighty god rules humankind
always. In the deepest night
came slinking the wanderer in shadow; the warriors slept,
when they should have been holding that hall,
all but one. It was known of many people,
that they might not, as long as the Measurer allowed it not,
be brought beneath shadow by the sin-stained,
but that one woke with wrath in enmity
pledged enraged battle to the creature.”
(Beowulf ll.700b-709)

Back To Top
Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

Back To Top
Beowulf’s waking and Grendel’s shadows

Well, although the first two lines and a bit are more suited to last week’s passage (they’re a reiteration of the idea of god’s power), they go well with this week’s too. Why? Well, because it reminds the audience that god is there and so such an ungodly thing as the Danes losing out on their hero entirely won’t happen.

In a way, I wonder if this reference to god’s power is here at all less for reiteration and more to solidify the frightening aspects of Grendel. For an enemy that humanity can’t deal with on its own must be truly terrifying. And Danes and Geats and Anglo-Saxons alike surely didn’t think so little of themselves that they needed god for every thing.

But I’m getting away from the passage. Aside from the opening sentence, the rest of this week’s passage is about Grendel’s approach and Beowulf’s being awake.

Though just how is he awake?

Last week, I got the sense that Beowulf bedded down with the rest of his thanes. So he had his bedroll down or whatever and had settled into rest before the narrator cut away to the machinations of god. But here we’re told that everyone in the hall (who was supposed to be guarding it, by the way) were asleep except for Beowulf.

So was Beowulf cunning enough to realize that he could catch Grendel by surprise if he pretended to sleep as the others did? Or was he actually asleep for a time and then stirred before Grendel arrived thanks to some sort of divine intervention?

Considering Beowulf’s fixation on the fight, I find myself leaning more towards his being woken up through god’s touch. So, in truth, all the Geats had fallen asleep, including Beowulf, and his happening to stir to wakefulness is the miracle that saved them all (well, as we’ll see in a few weeks, almost all). Thus, this is where the might of god (as the narrator describes it) is shown.

Truth be told, I like the idea that Beowulf’s waking is an act of god because it seems somehow apt that the great boaster (still in his late teens, likely) is still susceptible to sleep.

Such a reading is supported by the flow of the narration, as it moves from describing Beowulf’s pre-bed vow to the Geats settling into bed to god’s role in what’s to come to Grendel’s approach to Beowulf’s waking with a curse and a pledge of violence on his tongue. It’s like god woke Beowulf but he’s nonetheless grumpy when he first gets up, so Grendel’s not just his enemy, but likely the first thing he sees and turns his freshly woken rage to.

Anyway, the other thing that I think is of note in this passage is Grendel’s characterization. This kind of gets into the second section’s territory since it has to do with words, but bear with me.

In two instances Grendel is associated with shadows:

1) Lines 703-704: “Com on wanre niht/scriðan sceadugenga.” (“In the deepest night/came slinking the wanderer in shadow”)

2) Line 707 “…se scynscaþa under sceadu bregdan.” (“…be brought beneath shadow by the sin-stained.”)

Add to this his being sin-stained (“scynscaþa” (l.707)).

The references to shadow alone paint a picture of Grendel as this being who lives more in darkness than in light. It makes him a very mysterious figure to modern readers, but keeping in mind the way that Anglo-Saxons categorized colours (that brighter is better, brightness is the defining quality of colour), Grendel must have been a terrifying force utterly opposed to all lightness, merry-making, and friendship. That sounds kind of bad to us, but to a society where those were essential for the physical survival of individuals, relationships and social networks, such a creature could be compared to a sentient computer virus.

What’s more, Grendel’s being related to shadows makes him diametrically opposed to light, since shadows are very much light’s opposite. The fact that light makes shadows also yields something, but I think that just ties back to Grendel’s being the kin of Cain and “sin-stained.”

What really strikes me about the way Grendel’s described, though, is that those three words all have an “s” sound in them.

Shadows can be very fleeting, they shift and move as their light does. And what could be more fleeting than the letter that you sound by simply exhaling through closed teeth? The sound brings to mind steam from a kettle, smoke from a fire, or the sound of water racing down a river. All of which are fleeting and ever-shifting. That sound also gives Grendel a very slinky sort of feel, that he’s a creature that skitters about. A word that even in Modern English has disgusting connotations.

So why then, maybe you’re wondering, is he named “Grendel”? There’s not an “s” in sight in that name.

I think that, though he’s very much a creature who flits and slinks as shadows do and who dwells in them (possibly controls them?), he is called Grendel because that is his signature feature. He grinds things, destroying them, dragging them down to the insubstantiality of a shadow, reducing them to dust and powder.

It’s possible that this process would extend beyond people’s personal bodies to their reputations, their names. After all, none of the warriors who came before Beowulf to challenge Grendel are named. And why should they be?

What do you think Grendel looks like? Something like a troll? Or more of a misshapen person?

Back To Top
More on Grendel, a bit on righteous wrath

Let’s start this section off with a little more about Grendel and how he’s portrayed here.

On line 709 Grendel is referred to as “geþinges” (meaning “creature,” or, more generally, “thing”).

I think that within the context of this passage, using a word that boils down to “thing” (even if it can mean “creature”) suggests that Grendel is a being of little sentience. He’s denied any sort of personality or any sort of reasoning faculty.

Just as the Anglo-Saxons probably likely believed it to be madness to try to reason with a bear, it’s pretty clear that Grendel can’t be reasoned with. This goes far to promoting his image as a being who has no other purpose than to destroy and spread fear and terror. I also think it plays into the shadow imagery that he’s so strongly associated with here.

For, going back to the Anglo-Saxon classification of colour being dependent on light/brightness, a shadow would be considered near the bottom in the kingdom of colours. Just as the phrase “deepest night” is used here to indicate the darkest, deepest part of the night (literally “wanre niht,” the “dullest night” (l.702)). So Grendel’s being associated with shadows and referred to as a thing really makes it clear that he’s a being of sheer evil and not to be pitied in the least, nor empathized with, nor really regarded at all as anything other than a monster.

I think this portrayal is here to either help forward Beowulf as god’s champion (or simply as a great warrior), or because Grendel, at one point, was something more.

It’s easy to say that Grendel represents old pagan practices that don’t work because they aren’t true (remember the bit about the Danes praying to their idols for help back on lines 175-180? completely ineffectual) and Beowulf is the bringer of the new light, of the word of god through Christ and all that. But I don’t think that’s quite right.

I think that the writer or transcriber of the poem was well aware of what Grendel was and wanted to downplay it to an incredible degree. Why? Perhaps to put what he represented into a bad light.

But really, does it matter what Grendel is? He’s so generic in his being a personification of the lowest sort of evil that he could be whatever bugbear a society who took up this poem wanted him to be.

At the emergence of Christianity as an evangelical faith, Grendel could be old religions; today he could simply be terror itself. This is what makes poems like Beowulf so transcendent. Not that they’re so open to interpretation that they can mean anything but because they’re drawn in just the right strokes to give such poems layers of meaning — some of which aren’t apparent until someone reads them hundreds, even thousands of years after they’re written.

The other word that I think is interesting is “anda.” This is a word with several meanings: “grudge,” “enmity,” “envy,” “anger,” “vexation;” “zeal;” “injury,” “mischief,” “fear,” or “horror.”

What’s curious about this word is that it, like many other words, suggests a connection between concepts that we don’t often credit to medieval societies. It combines the idea of grudges and anger with that of horror and fear. In short, it’s a word that suggests that the Anglo-Saxons were aware of the idea that we hate what we fear.

In this passage in particular this is intensified, since it’s used for Grendel in the bit about Beowulf’s waking in wrath against him. So much for being the big brave hero — it seems that part of Beowulf’s might may well be in his extreme fear. Though maybe this is more than intentional if Beowulf has any sort of explicit religious aspect to it.

It could be that the poem’s suggesting that fear tempered by faith, channelled through it (as Beowulf’s seems to be channelled through his faith that god will determine the victor in his various fights) creates strength in a person. Though, in this case, that strength seems to come from an extreme, faith-fuelled hatred or bigotry.

Well. Timeless poems aren’t without problems.

What do you make of Beowulf’s wrathful anger? Is it righteous? Is it an example of misguided faith?

Back To Top
Closing

Next week, Grendel arrives at the hall and revels in what he finds there.

Back To Top

Geats want to go out fighting, “alma mater” to the max (ll.688-700a)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
The dedication to die away from home
Very dear country
Closing

Beowulf, Anglo-Saxons, poetry, translation

A pillow inspired by artifacts found at the Sutton Hoo site. Design by Karen Dixon, full information available at http://www.millennia-designs.com/tapestry-cross-stitch-embroidery-kits/76/91/53/.

Back To Top
Abstract

Beowulf and his fellow Geats bed down for the night while the narrator assures us that their beliefs about never again seeing home are unnecessary.

Back To Top
Translation

“He Kept himself bold then, took a pillow
to his cheek with his band, and he among the many
ready seafarers gave themselves to hall-rest.
None of those thought that they should afterward
ever see their dear land again,
their people or their towns, where they had been raised;
and they had prayed, with fervour earlier, that they
in that wine hall be taken by death in battle,
those Danish people. But to them the Lord gave
woven success in war, thanks to the Weder people,
joy and help, that they the fiend there
through that one’s strength fully overcame,
by his own might.”
(Beowulf ll.688-700a)

Back To Top
Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

Back To Top
The dedication to die away from home

Unlike last week’s passage, there’s a fair bit more going on in this week’s. Not that it’s wall to wall action or anything, but, nonetheless, I have some things to say about it rather than just a thing.

In the middle of this week’s passage, we get something that seems uncharacteristic for the sorts of warriors Beowulf and his men are said to be. We’re told that “None of those thought that they should afterward/ever see their dear land again,” (“Nænig heora þohte þæt he þanon scolde/eft eardlufan æfre gesecean”(ll.691-692)). At first, this bit of information makes it seem as though the Geats feel that theirs is a doomed project.

And why not?

Countless others have tried before them and have failed. Why should they, a band of warriors whose leader is really an unproven whelp have any better luck?

But, immediately after this fairly touching bit about never returning to where they were raised (ll.693) we’re given a little more information. The sort of information that clarifies things further and explains quite a bit about the difference between our culture and that expressed in Beowulf.

From lines 694 to 695 we’re told that the Geats had earlier prayed (the word is “gefrignan,” meaning, in general “to ask”) that they should die in battle. Again, at first you think, well, that’s probably so that they don’t have to face defeat. That they’ll be remembered as having gone down fighting. But when you put this idea with the belief that they’ll never see home again, then you get what I think is the full picture.

The Geats think that they’ll never see their homeland and loved ones again because hat’s just how resolved they are to dying in the fight with Grendel. It’s not that they’re afraid of the monster or sorrowful about a doomed fate. Instead, I think the poet/scribe is showing us the strength of the Geats’ resolve. They’re so willing to die in the service of this quest that they, in the calm before Grendel storms in, are convinced that they’ll never go back across the waters to see Geatland again.

Nevertheless, this passage closes out with a curious reassurance.

In line 698, the poet/scribe tells us that Grendel will be defeated, but by “one’s strength” (“anes cræft” (l.699)). What’s curious about this to me is that, on one hand, this seems to be about Beowulf.

But If such is the case what’s unclear is whether this means that Beowulf’s strength overcomes Grendel’s or if it’s Beowulf’s strength that convinces god to give the victory to the Danes (as mentioned on lines 698-699).

But, “one’s strength” (l.699) could also refer to god itself.

Since Beowulf is always invoking god as the one who grants him victory after victory, it wouldn’t surprise me if the poet/scribe (more so the scribe) snuck this into the poem as a reference to what the Christian version of a single omniscient and omnipotent deity was.

Based on nothing aside from his depth of knowledge, I agree with Robert Graves in his argument that the peoples of Northern Europe had the idea of a singular ruling deity, a sort of monotheism, before Christianity (as Graves outlines in The White Goddess).

But it’s possible that early Christian missionaries sold those people on the idea of Christ and God and such on its being a new, fresh deity, someone who could overcome and vanquish the old gods or their champions. With this sort of reading, “one’s strength” takes on a much more proselytizing tone, and, over all, makes the poem weirdly more Christian than it would be otherwise (that is Beowulf thanks god for victories, but those victories are by god’s grace, so the whole poem, whatever else it is, is really about god’s grace in battle).

However, where such a religious reading of this line falls apart is that there’s no clear reference to god.

It’s possible that Beowulf, at best an adaptation of a hero from an earlier story, is god as god’s champion, and so that “one alone” is both god and Beowulf simultaneously. But to expect that this meaning would get across to the audience of a poem seems far-fetched to me.

Yet, in that case, it could be that the poet/scribe intended this particular passage as a sort of coded wink or nod to those in the know. Maybe at this point in the poem, while it was being read/performed, the guy beside you who’d been pretty quiet up until then would turn to you and say “have you let Jesus Christ into your heart, brother?”

How much Christian influence do you think is in Beowulf? Are all of his references to god just references to a pre-Christian deity?

Back To Top
Very dear country

This week’s passage isn’t without its compound words, but most of them are straightforward and to the point. They’re combinations of words that make sense together and don’t offer as much room for wiggling.

These are words like “hleorbolster” (“hleor” (meaning “cheek,” “face,” or “countenance”) + “bolster” (meaning “cushion”)) or “wigsped” (“wig” (meaning “war,” “strife,” “battle”) + “sped” (meaning “success”). But, as in all good poetry, this passage does have its variety.

Otherwise I’m not sure how you’d explain the presence of “eard-lufan.”

This word is, at first blush, a simple compound. It combines the word “eard” (meaning “native place,” “country,” “region,” “dwelling-place,” “estate,” “cultivated ground,” “earth,” “land,” “condition,” or “fate”) with the word “lufan” (meaning “dear,” or “beloved”).

So, very simply, we get the dictionary-prescribed “dear home” (as in Clark Hall and Meritt) or “beloved home” (as in C.L. Wrenn’s glossary). The difference here is infinitesimal, and it looks like an easy enough compound word to deal with.

But what about those weird definitions of “eard” near the end of that list up there? “Condition” and “fate” are strange words to translate a word that seems to otherwise just mean “home” or “earth.”

I think these alternate meanings of “eard” don’t alter the compound word or give it radically different meanings, though. I think that their being possible translations for “eard” just deepens the meaning of “eardlufan.”

For the most part, “eard” is a word that represents earth and home. I think the inclusion of “condition” and “fate” in this list suggests that a dear home isn’t just a place where a person grew up, but also where they hope to die. It is a place so dear to them so utterly connected to them and they to it, that they want to be raised there, live there, and die there.

I’m basing this speculation on the Biblical notion that “dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return” (Genesis 3:19) (something I imagine the Anglo-Saxons were aware of); the earth or ground isn’t just our home or where we make our dwelling, but we are the very stuff of it and return to it when we die.

I think this extra shade of “eardlufan” deepens its meaning because it suggests a connection with a country and a land so strong that a person would give all they have for it. I might even go so far as to say that a person who uses such a word implies that they themselves are a part of the country or land from which they come.

What’s more, to the Anglo-Saxons, a people who identified with the wandering, country-less Jews of Exodus, this notion of an incredible bond with a place must have been a great fantasy. It may have even driven them to settle in as much as they did in the British Isles. Perhaps it even encouraged them to establish a country for themselves, the nation of wanderers that they saw themselves as.

But that’s just some succinct speculation. Though it brings to mind a question.

When it comes to early nationhood, which do you think came first: a country big enough to sustain a large group of people or a large group of people who strongly identified as a single group?

Back To Top
Closing

Next week, Grendel begins his approach to Heorot.

Back To Top

Beowulf’s boast before bedtime (ll.675-687)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Beowulf’s boastful address
A compound word for “prowess”
Closing

Boasting was a sort of performance among Anglo-Saxons. Rocking the harp while telling tales of your deeds would make those tales even more convincing. Image found at http://www.comm.unt.edu/~ktaylor/scop/boasting.htm.

Boasting was a sort of performance among Anglo-Saxons. Rocking the harp while telling tales of your deeds would make those tales even more convincing. Image found at http://www.comm.unt.edu/~ktaylor/scop/boasting.htm.

Back To Top
Abstract

Beowulf boasts about what he will do to defeat Grendel and invokes the judgement of god regarding who shall have the victory in the upcoming fight.

Back To Top
Translation

“Spoke he then some good boast words,
Beowulf the Geat, before he went to bed down:
‘I consider my own prowess with battle work unbowed
when compared to Grendel;
as Grendel himself slays without sword,
that thief of life, nevertheless I shall do all.
He has not the advantage, that he shall slay me,
though he hew away my shield, though he be vigorous in his
evil deed: but we this night should
forego the sword, if he seeks to dare
a battle beyond weapons; and afterwards wise god
shall decide which of us, oh holy Lord,
is worthy of glory, as he deems proper.'”
(Beowulf ll.675-687)

Back To Top
Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

Back To Top
Beowulf’s boastful address

This week’s passage is weird in that there isn’t a whole lot to pick out that hasn’t already been picked out.

Beowulf speaks a final boast before he (and likely the rest of the Geats) head to bed for the night. In this boast he covers mostly familiar ground: he won’t be bowed by Grendel, let god decide, etc, etc.

But who is he boasting to?

Hrothgar and the bulk of the Danes (all of them, perhaps, since who among them would want to stay in the hall?) have left.

The fourteen warriors that Beowulf has with him are, as always, it seems, silent extras, so if they’re listening we don’t get any impressions of what they think about their leaders’ boasts. Yet, anyway.

Then, since Beowulf appears to have no audience, the boast is likely for himself and himself alone. It’s another of his means of psyching himself up.

But then, why, I have to ask, does he make this boast with the same formal diction that he used when addressing Hrothgar?

Beowulf’s sentences in this passage are chopped up and rearranged across multiple lines, making translation trickier than usual. Perhaps Beowulf’s engaging in some apostrophe here — addressing god itself with this boast of his.

Or maybe he’s just speaking his intention so that, in a way no doubt familiar to contemporary self-help readers and motivational speakers, it’s given an existence outside of him before he performs it. That is, in speaking about his defeating Grendel, even if it comes to a “a battle beyond weapons” (“wig ofer wæpen” (l.685)), Beowulf could be putting it out there so that he has something outside of himself to hold himself to; he’s giving himself something to grasp at in the upcoming struggle. It’s also a good way to clarify, one more time, just what his intentions are — for himself and for anyone listening.

Or, based on nothing from the poem thus far, but instead on the inclusion of a bard-like character in Sturla Gunnarsson’s 2005 film Beowulf and Grendel, maybe one of the Geats that Beowulf brought with him is making a record of this adventure and Beowulf wants to make a definite statement before the action takes place?

That last one, though possible, seems unlikely, -since Beowulf is fairly well-spoken himself and presents his adventures at great length to Hygelac when he returns to Geatland. Though, even Anglo-Saxons (or their folktale analogue, the Geats) probably appreciated the importance of back-up plans. Especially of things that could lead a person to great glory.

Nonetheless, I don’t think Beowulf is boasting here for the sake of a bard in his party.

Beowulf’s addressing god is definitely possible, and the constant recourse he makes to god as the agent of his victories suggests a certain kind of devotion on the Geat’s part.

Maybe Beowulf is even addressing god here to garner some of the deity’s favour — something that Grendel, as kin of Cain, surely has no access to. Though, with such a reputation, maybe it was thought that Grendel had the help of Satan (I’m pretty sure that concept had made its way into Christianity by the sixth century, the earliest date for Beowulf‘s composition) and so Beowulf calls on god to judge the victor as a counter to his opponent’s demonic support. Addressing a deity would definitely be reason for Beowulf to speak with the diction that he does.

Though it’s possible that he’s also just being overly eloquent because of a buzz or his being slightly drunk. I mean, he has been drinking all evening, right?

Matters of record or prayer/deity acknowledgement aside, I think it’s most likely that Beowulf makes this boast for his own good.

I think he puts his aspirations into words to make them more real so that he can have something to reach for beyond the abstract idea of beating some sort of hitherto unseen monster. It could be argued that even if Beowulf is addressing god here, that too is done as a way of psyching himself up. Though whether or not such ideas would be current among the Anglo-Saxons is another question all together. They may still have totally thought that prayer pierced the firmament of immutable stars overhead and made an inroad for god’s power to enter the realm of mortals.

Do you think giving yourself pep talks before you face major challenges helps make them easier to overcome?

Back To Top
A compound word for “prowess”

Just as Beowulf’s boasting doesn’t bring much new to the table thematically, this passage is pretty light on new words that are awesome. Easy puzzles like “gylp-word” (“boast word) and “guþ-weorca” (“war work”) make appearances, but those words are too straightforward to easily go into depth with.

However, one word stands out (as always seems to be the case in this section, right?). This word is “herewæsmun” — a word that looks like a compound (and, I’m convinced, is one), but, at first look, defies being broken into its constituent parts.

The “here” part is pretty straightforward: “predatory band, troop, army, host, multitude.” Easy enough.

But there’s no entry in my Clark Hall and Merrit dictionary for “wæsma.” The closest thing is an entry for “-wæsma” (acknowledging that it is only a suffix) which redirects you to “here-w” and the compounds definition: “prowess.”

The word “wæstm” is pretty close to “wæsmun”/”wæsma,” so I think that it’s a good candidate for defining the latter half of herewæsmun. Though wæstm’s meaning “growth,” increase,” “plant,” “produce,” “offspring,” “fruit;” “result,” “benefit,” “product;” “interest,” “usury;” “abundance,” “stature,” “form,” or “figure” doesn’t mesh neatly with a word for “army” to give us a compound that means “prowess.”

However, in the glossary included with my copy of C.L. Wrenn’s second edition of the Old English Beowulf (published in 1958 by Harrap & Co.), “herewæsma” appears as “herewæs(t)m.” The inclusion of the “t” (even in parentheses) suggests that, though Wrenn doesn’t include “wæstm” in his glossary, “herewæsma” is indeed a compound of “here” and “wæstm.” Wrenn’s definition of the compound as “vigour in war” also makes a little more sense than Clark Hall and Meritt’s generalized “prowess.”

Plus, “vigour in war” isn’t that difficult to arrive at given the combination of words presented.

For, if you take a word meaning “troop” or “army” and combine it with another meaning “fruit” or “stature” then you get a word with the sense of something that is the fruit of a war band or one of great stature in such a band. And, if you think about what it’d be like to fight in a band of warriors, something that’s likely to come to mind is how you and the group might coalesce into one unit and be rallied by each other in the heat of battle. What would come from such rallying? Vigour in war — or, more generally, prowess.

Neat, huh?

Though passages like this might be light on interesting words, this is the stuff I love about readin Old English literature. It gives me a chance to really stick my hands into the muck of words (even if that muck is already pre-sifted by people like C.L. Wrenn and John R. Clark Hall and Herbert D. Merrit). Actually, this depth of language is one of the reasons why I think Beowulf is so rich; its language is much more sensitive to context than much of Modern English seems to be.

Which language do you think has more fluidity: Old English or Modern English?

Back To Top
Closing

Next week, check back here for a run down of the passage wherein the narrator tells of how none of the Geats thought they’d ever see home again.

Back To Top