The Beowulf poet gets frugal, plus cunning, antlers, and fear (778-790)

Heorot’s Two Weaknesses, The Poet’s Economy
Cunning, Antlers, Fear

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.

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The poet continues his break from covering the fight directly and gives more detail about the Danes’ reactions before cutting back to a smugly secure Beowulf.

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“Never before thought the wise of the Scyldings
that any man or means ever could be found
who might the grand and antlered hall bring down,
destroy by cunning, unless in the hottest embrace
it was swallowed by flame. Sounds newly rose up
often, over the Danes came
horrible fear, each and every of them
outside the wall wailing heard,
a chant of terror uttered by god’s adversary,
it sang of defeat, a wound bewailed
the captive of hell. He held him tight,
that man was the greatest in might
all the days of this life.”
(Beowulf ll.778-790)

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Old English:


Modern English:


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Heorot’s Two Weaknesses, The Poet’s Economy

First up this week is a bit of a nod back to last week’s passage.

Last week I pointed out the word “foldbold” (l.773) and how it suggested that Heorot wasn’t just some building but a part of the landscape. Similarly, this week the poet states that it was inconceivable that Heorot could be destroyed.

The only two exceptions that the wisemen of the Scyldings make, so we’re told, are cunning and fire. Either the greatest destroyer of all, a thing the Anglo-Saxons no doubt witnessed changing whole landscapes or perhaps had stories recording such incidents, or the sort of potent social disintegration that could bring down great dynasties and families. Fire or cunning.

This hearkens back to last week’s passage simply in that it bolsters the idea that Heorot is this indestructible thing; only the strongest forces in nature or society could bring it down.

Though, as many an academic note will tell you, this is just what happened to Heorot in the end. After various parties’ infighting and striving against each other, Heorot burned to the ground. So there’s definitely some foreshadowing here. There could even be a clever wink at actual events since there is a Hrothgar on historical record.

In fact, maybe while Beowulf was being sung audiences and listeners would’ve been well aware of Heorot and its eventual fall, once more bringing them a richer description of the fight since the force of Beowulf and Grendel, despite the deafening din of their battle, weren’t enough to bring the mighty hall down.

The other thing to mention this week is the last line. It’s rather ambiguous. Particularly the word “þysses” (790).

If this word translates as “his” then the line simply marks Beowulf as the strongest man alive during his time. But if it’s the broader and more general “this” then the poet’s throwing down the gauntlet and saying that Beowulf was the strongest ever. Period. It’s a neat little ambiguity, really.

And that’s just about it.

I mean, so much of this week’s passage is straightforward as far as the description of the fight goes. However, I can’t help but think that much of this is because the poet isn’t describing the actual fight. There’s no primal tumble of body over body or grip against pull to record. There’s no struggle to try to encapsulate in verse, no titanic conflict to alliterate all over.

So the poet’s able to just say the Danes heard some noise, they thought that maybe Heorot would be destroyed, then they heard wailing, were terribly afraid and that’s that. Let’s cut back to Beowulf who’s now got the situation under control.

Actually, it’s almost like the poet doesn’t want to describe the fight any more than he has so he’s cleverly cut away to the outside perspective of the fight. He’s still recording it, but without having to spend so much of his time on all of the special effects that would be involved in reporting on it directly. Perhaps that’s why, at the end of the passage, we’re just brought right back to Beowulf as he is sure and steady in his terrible hold on Grendel.

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Cunning, Antlers, Fear

This week, first up is a word that’s nothing like a compound. It is, in fact, a verb. This is the word in line 781 that refers to the destruction of Heorot, “tolucgan.” I’m picking on this word this week because I think one of its meanings builds on the apparent foreshadowing that a lot of scholars have pointed out on lines 778 to 782a.

In Clark Hall and Meritt, “tolucgan” is defined as “pull apart,” “desolate,” or “destroy.” The last two definitions aren’t very specific in the method used to effect the destruction that they denote. But the first definition, “pull apart,” adds what I think is a social dimension to the idea that Heorot could be destroyed by cunning.

I see this sense of “tolucgan” bringing in a social angle to the destruction to which it refers because what could be more cunning than orchestrating social strife and in-fighting? Pulling the socially tight knit group within a hall apart in this way could definitely destroy a place meant for merriment and sealing friendships over mead. And not just metaphorically.

Sure, the break down of social structures within the hall would warp its intended function and operation, but that sort of conflict could lead to someone going and setting it on fire.

Back to the compounds. First off is “banfag.” This word is a straight combination of “ban” (bone) and “fag” (dappled, decorated, decked, adorned).

Though on the surface this word combination sounds pretty grim and gruesome for a place as cheerful as Heorot’s supposed to be, I think there’s definitely merit in Clark Hall and Merrit’s translation of the compound as “adorned with bone work. (deer antlers?)” (33). Antlers are, after all, a trophy of the hunt and any successful hunt would be cause for celebration. Perhaps enough of one to hoist high the inedible antlers and hang them over a doorway. Not to mention, putting antlers on a place called “Heorot” completes the name’s pun.

Though I suppose it’s possible to also take this compound more literally and see Heorot as being hung with the bones of all of those whom Grendel has slain over his 12 year reign. Actually, Robert Graves, in his The White Goddess, said the cycle of sacred kings once ran for 12 years. So maybe Grendel is supposed to be the next sacred king, but Hrothgar stands for the patriarchal system of lifelong kingship and the poet/scribe is writing at a time when that patriarchal system was prevalent so Grendel’s framed as the villain.


The other compound to look at this week is similarly simple: “gryre-leoð.” A mix of “gryre” (“horror,” “terror,” “fierceness,” “violence,” or “horrible thing”) and “leoð” (“song,” “lay,” or “poem”), this one means “terror song” or, my translation: “chant of terror.”

So what makes this one so interesting? Hm…good question. I guess I just find it neat how the Anglo-Saxons would describe the sound of someone (something?) wailing out in fear as a song or poem or lay of terror or horror.

I mean, putting a poetic spin on something like fear just really suggests that the Anglo-Saxons understood it to be a multifaceted emotion, that there were many things packed into fear and a sort of manic-ness, a sort of schizophrenic quality to it in that one can be afraid of so many things in a single moment and fear can easily shift focus once it kicks in.

Fear is all the more terrifying when it’s described this way, too, since you can’t help but get the sense that along with all of the musicality and variety implied in a poetry-based metaphor for a fearful cry, it’s also regarded as all the more bewildering. This poem of fear is like a wad of pure horror that’s being cast about willy-nilly.

In fact, maybe this cry’s given this poetic status because of the power it has over people in its area of effect. The Danes are terrified out of their wits, after all. They’ve just been woken from their ale dreams by all this banging and crashing about and now there’s this terrifying scream from their hall. It’s just so much and it’s all packed into a single, poetic compound.

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Next week, Beowulf’s fellow Geats join the brawl.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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1 thought on “The Beowulf poet gets frugal, plus cunning, antlers, and fear (778-790)

  1. Pingback: A clash of hall guards, a handful of words (ll.767-777) | A Blogger's Beowulf

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