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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.
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“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.'”
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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?
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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.
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?
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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.