On Grendel’s soul and joyous but plain compound words (ll.853-863)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Getting to Grendel’s Soul
Three Not Weird Words
Closing

Beowulf, Anglo-Saxons

King Harold out for a hunt on the Bayeux Tapestry. Image found at http://regia.org/research/misc/pastimes.htm.

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Abstract

Beowulf, the visiting chiefs, and the young warriors of Heorot go out for a celebratory ride. Along the way tales of Beowulf’s glory are told.

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Translation

Afterwards the old war-wagers went out,
so too did many youths go on that merry journey,
from the sea high spirited horses they rode,
warriors on their steeds. There was Beowulf’s
glory retold; many oft spoke of it,
that in neither north nor south between the two seas
there was no other on all the face of the earth
and under the sky’s expanse was no better
shield bearer, one worthy of kingship.
Though they indeed found no blame with their lord and friend,
gracious Hrothgar, for he was a good king.
(Beowulf ll.853-863)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Getting to Grendel’s Soul

Okay. Two things.

First off, in line 855, it’s really unclear if the horses that Beowulf and the gang are riding are high spirited or if the riders are. Admittedly, my Old English grammar isn’t perfect, but I think this ambiguity (mostly from word order, as far as I can tell, as little importance as that usually has in Old English) says something important about the spirit of this ride.

I think the idea isn’t that either the horses or the men are in high spirits, but that both are. I think this is a bit of pathetic fallacy before Shakespeare and other giants of English literature put the device to wide use. You see, in my mind the horses are in high spirits because the defeat of Grendel has restored the natural order; there’s nothing binding the horses’ spirits, there’s no shadow of the fens holding them back. Further, as part of this restoration of the balance the connection between man and beast has been restored. There’s no more conflict between the two because Grendel the freak has been killed and is no longer able to terrorize either.

Of course, this interpretation being subtextual adds a layer to it. After all, implying the restoration of what might have been understood as the natural order of things (including a belief in humanity’s having a place over animals) with the death of Grendel seems harsh. After all, not but a few lines ago the poet suggested that Grendel was a creature that may well have had a soul like a human’s and that seemed to have been empathized with by the poet. I’m no Anglo-Saxon philosophy expert, but maybe this relates to an idea of a soul being granted or manifesting at the time of death. Maybe the poet’s even getting at an idea that the soul boils down to a matter of will power.

Perhaps those who die honourably within the social structure of Anglo-Saxon civilization do so knowing full well that they’ve died honourably and so they die willingly. They willingly let go of their life, of their consciousness, of their soul. On the opposite end of things, those who die dishonourably, assuming that they know that they’re dying in such circumstances and they’re aware of the consequences might struggle more against death, though their body can no longer sustain it. Then, maybe the knowingly dishonourable person’s unwillingness to die or their rejection of it forms a sort of makeshift soul. Maybe that’s all that Grendel’s was, a manifestation of the pain he endured as he struggled back to the fen.

The other thing that’s important to mention in this passage comes in the last few lines. As you probably noticed, one line after the poet mentions that Beowulf is truly worthy of being king in line 861, he goes back on it faster than someone married to a jealous partner caught flirting with a super model. This is perhaps less metaphysical than the matter touched on above, but I still think it bears mentioning, since it shows the Danes’ loyalty to Hrothgar, since there’s no greater endorsement of something than turning something that seems better down, right? Though later on, we’ll have a similar pro-King Beowulf sentiment from Hrothgar himself.

What do you think the nature of the soul is? Is it something you’re born with? something you earn? Or is it something that only manifests itself in the way you die?

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Three Not Weird Words

In his joyous revelry, the poet doesn’t use many compound words. And, really, even those that he does use don’t really have any weird hidden meanings.

Still.

First up, on line 853, the poet gives us “eald-gesið meaning “old comrade.” Though I’ve translated it as “old war-wagers” because of the alliteration and the weirdly light lilt of a noun for combative folk fits the jaunty tone of this passage.

The “old” part of this compound is definitely straightforward, since “eald” translates directly and literally to “old”. And, likewise, “sið” (the root of “gesið)” just means “comrade,” “companion,” “follower,” “retainer,” “warrior,” “count,” “thane.” So there’s no realy surprise there. This compound is just a handy combo that can be busted out for purposes of alliteration and convenience.

Line 854’s “gamen-waþe” is kind of similar.

Combining the word “gamen” (“sport,” “joy,” “mirth,” “pastime,” “game,” “amusement”) and the word “wað” (meaning “wandering,” “journey,” “pursuit,” “hunt,” “hunting,” “chase”), we get “merry journey.” Yes, it almost sounds like a town in Newfoundland. But there’s not a whole lot more to say here. Even though the Old English “wað” includes meanings like “pursuit,” “hunt,” “hunting,” “chase,” and the Modern English “merry journey” doesn’t really get that part of the word’s meaning across, I think it still works. Why? Well, maybe it’s a bit of a romantic notion on my part, but I really think that part of any merry journey in Anglo-Saxon England would be a casual hunt. After all, if you were a noble out joy riding on your estate and you happened across a boar or a stag – even a rabbit – I’m sure you’d probably chalk the encounter up to your continuing good fortune and then put arrow to bow and take aim. It’s almost as if a “gamen-waþe” encompassed hunting as well as just riding in high spirits, while Modern English has separated the two concepts out into separate words.

Then we get to “eormen-grund” (l.859). Like the other two compound words for this entry, there’s nothing really all that weird here. Sure, you could try to bring “abyss” or “hell” into your interpretation, but I can’t see that getting too far. Though I like the sound of “between hell and here,” which, loosely, might work in a really liberal translation. But I stand by my own “face of the earth” because of the wideness implied in “eormen” since thinking about ears of corn or waves immediately puts images of expanses of corn swaying in a breeze or waters from horizon to horizon chopped with waves.

Honestly, the weird thing here is that “eormen” seems to be a conjugation of the word “ēar” which is a name of the rune for “ea.” It seems that none of the Old English words derived from rune names are very clear, which, in my mind (well, maybe more so my imagination) makes it seem like a mysterious word that has secrets even Clark Hall and Meritt haven’t dreamed of.

What do you think of Old English compound words? Are they a thing because the Anglo-Saxons liked the convenience of combining words to come up with new ones with varied meanings, or are they just useful for poets trying to alliterate?

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Closing

In the next entry, one of the riders begins to tell a tale of yore.

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Grendel’s end told again, and an Anglo-Saxon take on leadership (ll.837-852)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Lingering on Grendel
Leaders Tug and Monsters Trail Blood
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.

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Abstract

The poet turns again to Grendel, though Beowulf’s beaten him.

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Translation

“It was that morning, as I have heard,
when to that gift hall came warriors many;
chieftans marching from regions ranging
far and near to see that wonder,
the remnants of the resented one. None of those there
thought upon that one’s death sorely,
where the trail of the fame-less transgressor showed
how he went with weary-heart on his way,
that evil was overcome, to the watersprites of some pond,
the fated and fugitive leaving a trail of lifeblood.
There the water swelled with blood,
there repulsive waves surge, all mingling,
hot with gore, sword-blood tossing;
there the fated to die hid, when he, joy less,
in fen refuge laid aside his life,
his heathen soul; from there hell took him.”
(Beowulf ll.837-852)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Lingering on Grendel

I thought that this poem was called Beowulf for a reason. But it seems that here the poet’s forgotten about that temporarily as he shifts back to Grendel’s final moments. It could be that this is simply the poet waxing on about Grendel as an extended description of his severed arm and what it means. That’s definitely a part of what’s going on here since in lines 843-844 we’re told that the arm tells the story of how Grendel was beaten by Beowulf and forced to limp back to the fens.

But I can’t get past the way this extended description starts. The poet doesn’t preface it with something like “oh, wonder of wonders, the arm showed true/Grendel’s wretched final hours,” or “that arm hanging there, gruesomely suspended,/ told the final tale of Grendel/how the gore-spattered one limped home to hell.” Instead the poet says “None of those there/thought upon that one’s death sorely” (“No his lifgedal/sarlic þuhte secga ænegum” (ll.841-842)). The phrasing of this sentence is a little weird with “sore” being used as an adverb to describe “thought upon,” but I think the meaning here is that none of the people who came to see it thought, with sorrow at heart, about Grendel’s final hours as one defeated and fated to die. But why even mention the idea that no one felt bad about Grendel? Simply to contrast with the obvious emotions of joy or triumph that are coursing through the spectators’ minds and hearts?

I still think that this focus on Grendel amounts to a sort of lament. Maybe it’s even foreshadowing the lament over Beowulf at the end of the poem. Or, at the least, maybe it’s a lament for a fallen monster because even as a monster, Grendel was close enough to being human. And, given his demi-human nature and the Abrahamic god’s tendency to forgive when asked, maybe Grendel could have found salvation had he been able to veer away from his wickedness.

I mean, that’s what I get from where this passage ends, too. Grendel is noted as having a soul and that he went to hell. Surely, poetic license with language aside, this connection of Grendel and a soul suggests that he wasn’t supposed to just be some wild humanoid animal.

It’s been noted that Grendel is a member of the Anglo-Saxon humanoid classification of monsters (I’d give the source, but it’s lost in my Twitter feed). I think the most distinct property of this monster category is that they’re practically human beings. There’s just some minor difference in the things in this category that marks them as monstrous. So, could this sort of monster also still be human enough to have a soul?

Do you think that the poet’s constantly returning to Grendel’s plight and sorry end is meant to be taken as a call for pity for the beast? Or is it just the poet being poetic and aggrandizing the death of a foe that was equally aggrandized through wide-spread stories of his terror?

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Leaders Tug and Monsters Trail Blood

This week’s passage is full of compound words. But, most of these compounds are just combinations of two words that literally translate into their Modern English equivalences and are left at that. These simpler compounds include words like “gif-heal” (a combination of the word “gift” or “to give” and “hall” meaning “hall in which gifts were made/given”) (l.838); “guðrinc” (a combination of the word for “war” or “strife” and a word for “man” or “hero” meaning “warrior”) (l.838); “tir-leas” (a very neatly straightforward combination of the word for “fame” or “glory” with the suffix meaning “less” tacked onto it) (l.843); “heoru-dreore” (which combines words for “sword” and “blood” to mean “sword blood/gore”) (l.849); and “fen-freoðu” (a word that combines the literal words for “fen” and “refuge” to mean “fen refuge”) (l.851).

Of course, this wouldn’t be a passage of Beowulf if all the compounds were so neat and tidy. Two in particular stand out as strange and difficult.

The first of these appears on line 839, “folc-togan.” This word takes the Old English cognate of Modern English’ “folk” and jams it together with a really weird word, “togan.” As far as I can tell there are a few possibilities for this word. It could be a form of “toh” meaning “tough,” “tenacious,” or “sticky.” It could be a form of “togu” simply meaning “traces of a horse” (where “traces” refers to the straps, ropes, or chains that attached a horse to a carriage or wagon). Or this word could be a variation of “tog” meaning “tugging,” “contraction,” “spasm,” or “cramp.”

The thing is, if “folc-togan” means “chieftan” or “commander,” then all three of these interpretations of “togan” are possibly right. A leader of a people needs to be tough and tenacious, and, I guess, sticky when it comes to what they stand for and to what of their people they’re supposed to represent. But a leader could also be considered to tug their people along with them – after all, a single person isn’t going to be able to cover all of their peoples’ desires and beliefs. So these multifarious ideologies and such get tugged along behind a single leader who, hopefully, embodies at least what everyone considers the most important things among their beliefs.

Then there’s the equally mysterious “feorh-laestas,” or “step taken to preserve life, flight?[sic].” Yep, this is another one that even Clark Hall and Meritt of A Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary fame aren’t sure about.

If we take it apart we quickly find that their tentative definition works fairly well. The word “feorh” means “life,” or “principle of life” and “laestas” means “leaving,” “step,” “trail,” or “footprint.” So there’s definitely some reference to something being left behind. Maybe, in the case of Grendel, the poet’s actually referring to the trail of blood that the monster is leaving as he drags himself back to the fen. Since Grendel’s mortally wounded, it’s not just any blood he’s leaking, but it’s his very life blood, the loss of which seals his doomed fate.

Why do you think the combination of a word for “folk” and “tough” or “tugging” means “leader” in Anglo-Saxon? Does it suggest anything about what the Anglo-Saxons thought about people who lead? What about the combination of the word for “life blood” and “trail” meaning “step taken to preserve life” or “flight”?

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Closing

In the next entry Beowulf and the visiting chieftans go for a celebratory ride.

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Beowulf’s fame grows while words do curious things (ll.825-836)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Beowulf Unnamed, but Still Widely Famed
Looking at Regular Compounds Three
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.

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Abstract

Grendel has been defeated and Beowulf (as well as the Danes) get ready to celebrate.

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Translation

“That place had been cleansed, after that one from afar arrived,
clever and brash, at the hall of Hrothgar,
rescued it from strife. Gladdened by his night work,
fodder for the flame of fame for courage. That man of Geatish
folk had fulfilled his boast to the Danes,
had cured a great wound,
parasitical sorrow, that had earlier been a daily part
of the misery they were to suffer —
no little grief. It was an open token,
when the war-fierce one placed the hand,
arm and shoulder — there was all together
Grendel’s grip — under the broad roof.”
(Beowulf ll.825-836)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Beowulf Unnamed, but Still Widely Famed

Getting back to the Danes’ wishes, in this entry’s passage we see that Beowulf’s wishes are also fulfilled in his deed. After all, in Anglo-Saxon culture it was one thing to boast and completely another to make good on a boast. Doing the former without the latter cost people dearly. Obviously Beowulf’s made good on his boast. So now, like a self-publishing author whose audience draws big publishers’ attention, he’s got a sure fire reputation.

And, actually, that’s pretty much it for this passage. Really. Beowulf wins, he gets what he wanted (well-earned fame) and the Danes get what they wanted (a Grendel-free Heorot).

Except something curious is happening around the passage’s third line (line 827).

On this line we finally get a bit of what’s going on inside Beowulf’s head. We’re told that he was “gladdened by his night work/fodder for the flame of fame for courage.” (“nihtweorce gefeh” (ll.827-828)). But that’s it. The rest of the passage states that Beowulf rid the Danes of their sadness, describes the Danes’ reactions, and then explains how Beowulf hung Grendel’s arm under the roof of Heorot for all to see.

Contrasted with Grendel, Beowulf has very little of his mind and motivation examined; it’s almost as though Beowulf’s such a stock hero that the poet doesn’t see the need to elaborate on him or to flesh him out at all. Beowulf’s gladdened and that’s it. Perhaps this can be chalked up to some sort of stoic element in what the ideal Anglo-Saxon man was. Maybe emotions were to be kept to a minimum and thoughts were to be minimized over deeds. That certainly makes Grendel all the more wretched for all of his fear and his long thinking about his final moments.

What’s weirder, though, is that Beowulf isn’t even mentioned by name in this passage. It might kind of odd if the poet just slammed down a line like “Then Beowulf was gladdened by/his victory over Grendel, kin of Cain,” but not once do we get his name in this celebratory section. But the absence of his name is conspicuous.

When someone becomes famous – especially for doing something – they become associated with that deed that made them famous. In the minds of the public you could say that they become “[whatever their name is], doer of [that deed].”

In Beowulf’s case, his name might be omitted because the poet is trying to emphasize that Beowulf has specific desirable traits by establishing three attributes.

In line 825 the poet calls Beowulf “that one from afar” (“se þe ær feorran com”) This epithet builds the mystery around Beowulf by moving his origin to some far away place. In doing so, the poet gives him the power of being an outsider, a risky power that Beowulf managed quite well since people hearing the full story would also hear of how he got Hrothgar to trust him enough to legally grant him Heorot for the night.

Then, in lines 828-829, Beowulf’s ancestry is roughly given (“that man of Geatish/folk” (“Geatmecga leod”)), establishing Beowulf as a member of a group and removing any possible mislabelling of him as some sort of exile.

Most important of these attributes, perhaps is that Beowulf is identified as the “war-fierce one” (“hildedeor” (l.834)). Though along with being important, its placement as the final of these epithets for our hero is just as important. Assured of Beowulf’s identity, the poem’s audience is then free to feel secure in his war fierceness. He’s not some kin-less mercenary who’s fighting for the wrong reasons, nor is he an established enemy of the Danes. Plus, being war-fierce was pretty much the only thing on Beowulf’s CV when he first appeared among the Danes. Repeating this attribute here cements that part of his reputation.

Thus, I think the poet’s dropping “Beowulf” from the text here is his way of establishing what makes Beowulf a stable hero (and maybe gives audiences some epithets for the Geat).

Also, in keeping with the importance of tying boasts to deeds, it’s interesting to note that all of these attributes are tied to actions (more or less): Beowulf is “that one from afar,” implying that he’s hearty and savvy enough to travel long distances; he is “of the Geatish folk,” establishing that he’s a representative member of a whole people (and implying that the Geats themselves have enough faith in him to let him go and be such a representative); and he is “war-fierce,” an adjective that is entirely active.

What do you make of the poet’s leaving Beowulf’s name out of this passage? Is he trying to bring more variety to his alliterations? Working to show Beowulf’s reputation growing? Or something else entirely?

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Looking at Regular Compounds Three

To try to keep this section from running too long, I’ve chosen three compound words to wonder about in this entry.

First up is line 827’s “niht-weorc.” This word, as it looks and sounds, just means “night work,” as in work done at night. Maybe, if you stretch it, the word could also be used to describe the amount of work that can be done in a night.

So. Why am I picking on this word when there are other compounds in this entry’s passage?

Well, because according to Clark Hall and Meritt’s dictionary “niht-weorc,” a compound that seems like it should have pretty wide applications, appears only in Beowulf. If you look at the line on which it appears, it seems like the poet may have made it up for the occasion, since it mirrors the first half of the line’s “wið niðe” as far as initial consonants go, making for a sort of reflective alliteration. But, even so, why doesn’t “niht-weorc” show up elsewhere? I mean, surely people picked up on this word, saw its practical application and used it to describe things fairly frequently. Perhaps this one word is definitive evidence for Beowulf‘s being written down (or at all) at some point in the eleventh century, making it too late for such a word to really get into everyday use since the conquering Norman’s Old French terms were already coming into vogue.

This entry’s second word is “ellen-maerðu”. Again, this word’s fairly straightforward since ellen means “zeal,” “strength,” “courage” “strife,” or “contention,” and “maerðu” means “glory,” “fame,” or “famous exploit.” So the word’s general meaning is just a reversal of the Old English words’ order, really. What makes this word noteworthy, though is that it’s the only word in its half line, which is why I embellished my translation of it so much. After all, I feel like an appropriate image for being famed for anything is a fire since it gives off a great light and some smoke, both of which draw people’s attention. But fame is also something that needs to be tended to, lest it go out.

Third is another somewhat lacklustre compound. This word is the combination “inwit-sorge” meaning “sorrow.” But that translation misses the mark.

The word “inwit” means “evil,” “deceit,” “wicked,” or “deceitful” and “sorge” means simply “sorrow.” So there’s more to “inwit-sorge” than just “sorrow.” I get the impression that this word refers specifically to the kind of sorrow that isn’t just a temporary, passing thing, but that’s almost parasitical. It’s the kind of sorrow that lingers and poisons all that you do. It’s not quite depression, but it’s close. After all, to my mind, depression is more about a negative outlook and just a general negative feeling without much awareness as to why. But an “evil sorrow” is something that is more active and that you probably know the cause of and are aware of but can’t shake. That’s why I’ve punched the simple “sorrow” that “inwit-sorge” is translated as in Clark Hall and Meritt to “parasitical sorrow.”

How much alteration do you think is necessary when it comes to translating things like compound words from one language to another? Are literal translations better than figurative ones? Or vice versa?

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Closing

In the next entry the Danes party as people come from afar to see Grendel’s arm and the beast itself meets his end.

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The end of Grendel and clear compounds (ll.818b-824)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
A Sturdy Example of Defeat
Straightforward, but still Compounds
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.

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Abstract

Grendel realizes he’s done for and the Danes have their hearts’ desire fulfilled.

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Translation

     “Beowulf was given
war glory; whereas Grendel would thence
flee with his mortal wound to the fen cliffs
seeking out a joyless home, he knew for certain,
that his life was coming to an end,
his days were numbered. Every one of the Danes
wishes were fulfilled after that deadly onslaught.”
(Beowulf ll.818b-824)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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A Sturdy Example of Defeat

This part of the poem continues the poet’s peering into Grendel’s psyche as he gets trounced. The first two lines might give us a little more insight into just why he’s bothering to do so, too.

These lines clearly state that “Beowulf was given/war glory” (“Beowulfe wearð/guðhreð gyfeþe” (ll.818-819)) while Grendel definitely was not. I think this contrast of outcomes tells us exactly why the poet gives so much attention to Grendel: he’s the underdog, the loser in a history written by the winners.

In this sense, I think that Grendel could be a stand-in for the Celts that the Anglo-Saxons assimilated into their own culture. In that reading, the violence of this fight represents the Anglo-Saxons forcing those early Britons off of their land and from their seats of power. But within the realm of the poem, I think saying that Beowulf won glory and Grendel suffered a terrible wound leads the poet to talk more about Grendel than Beowulf simply because his audience was probably deeply familiar with war glory. They didn’t need any more droning on about it. And yet stories of defeat were also popular, as the Finnsburgh Fragment and the story of the Geats in the Ravenswood show. I think sharing Grendel’s side of the story is meant to tap into the same interest in defeat that these other stories exploit.

This angle definitely accounts for the poet’s spending so much time on Grendel’s reactions.

Even the poet’s description of Grendel’s having to flee to a “joyless home” (“wynleas wic” (l.821)) supports the reading of the focus on Grendel being instructive or at least interesting to the Anglo-Saxons. After all, the idea of a joyless home sounds very similar to that of an exile’s home.

Home (or a “dwelling place,” “town,” or “fortress,” as “wic” can alternately be translated) has connotations of being a place where a person can exist in comfort. What’s a place where you have to exist but with out that comfort, without that joy? It sounds like exile, to me. Plus, I think the reference to Grendel’s days being numbered works as a kind of exaggerated reaction to the exile that he’s suffering. Being forced not from the core of society, but rather from the margins of it – from life itself – has Grendel in a state of utter misery.

The other curious thing in this passage (and not to horn in on the subject matter of section two) is the phrase “wiste þe geornor” (l.821).

Literally, this word means “knew he eagerly” but it’s generally translated as “knew for certain.” Working backwards from the general translation to the literal meaning of the phrase, I see an implication that eagerness can be construed as certainty in the original Old English. And this connection does make some kind of sense. When someone says that they know something for certain or for sure, their knowledge of it could still be wrong because they’re referring to an external piece of information. For example, if I say that I am totally certain that the corvette on the corner is red I could still be wrong because it could actually be mauve (perhaps a small detail, but still an alteration of a “real” fact). Thus, line 821’s “wiste þe geornor” introduces a curious sort of philosophical bent into the Anglo-Saxon language. Eagerness and certainty seem to cross over here, and since eagerness is in the mix, maybe bravery can be too (you could say being brave is being eager to do right despite opposition). Really, they’re all just forms of eagerness, if you think about it as Anglo-Saxons (or at least those translating them) did.

How much do you think can be learned about a society or a people from their language once that language is considered dead?

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Straighhtforward, but still Compounds

For a short passage, this week’s is pretty rich in compound words. Though they’re all deceptively straightforward.

In fact, “guð-hreð” leads the pack in being straightforward since as a compound it means “war glory” while its parts mean “war,” “combat,” and “battle” and “victory,” and “glory” respectively. Hence “war glory” (or the alternative, more staccato, “battle victory”).

Next up in terms of straightforwardness is “wael-raes.” This one combines “wael (“slaughter” or “carnage”) with “raes” (“rush,” “leap,” “jump,” or “running”) and gives us “deadly onslaught.” Though, with that combination of words something more literal would be “slaughter rush,” which sounds like it’d be right at home describing a game mode in a modern day FPS (or beat ’em up game).

Then there’s the most obvious “fenn-hleoðu” meaning ” fen covert.” I consider this combination of “fenn” (“mud,” “mire,” “dirt,” “fen,” “marsh,” “moor,” or “the fen country”) and “hleoðu” (cliff, precipice, hill-side, hill) to be fairly straightforward because of its reference to a rise of earth in a wild countryside. In my mind, this combination readily brings to mind a rough shelter in the midst of difficult or untamed terrain. This is especially true if you take “hleoðu” to mean “cliffside” or “precipice” since that leads me to visualize some patch of land below such an outcropping, which would be sheltered from the elements in a natural way, though, probably to a civilized bunch like the Anglo-Saxons, it might seem very crude.

Actually, curiously, if you take this combination completely literally to mean a hillside in a fen, then you come out with a phrase describing a hillside dwelling that might be closer to a hobbit hole than we realize. Tolkien did start with extensive study of Beowulf, after all.

Last up is the compound word “feorh-seoc” meaning “mortal wound.”

The combination of the two words “feorh” (“life,” “principle of life,” “soul,” “spirit”) and “seoc” (“sick,” “ill,” “diseased,” “feeble,” “weak,” “wounded,” “morally sick,” “corrupt,” “sad,” or “troubled”) isn’t so obtuse as to obscure its meaning completely, but with this compound we’re definitely getting a look at the Anglo-Saxons’ conception of things. After all, among seoc’s meanings is “wounded,” but also a general sense of being sick, which, even then probably wasn’t considered to be as dire as having a hole opened up in your body.

As such, I think the heart of the “feorh-seoc” compound is the sense that it describes a sickly life. That is, it’s not just that the word’s object is sick, but that its object’s very life essence is draining away; it’s weak and enfeebled and, well, leaking, if you will. I feel that this interpretation is a supportable one because three lines down we get the image of Grendel’s days being numbered, which itself suggests that his time left alive is so finite that it can be observed. Like sand leaking from one side of an hourglass to another, Grendel’s life is visibly slipping away and so he is “feorh-seoc.”

When it comes to translating compound words, do you think it’s more accurate to go with a straightforward interpretation or is it better to go with something that takes both parts of the compound into consideration?

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Closing

Next week, the poet comes around to Beowulf’s point of view as he describes the hero’s reaction to his victory and the placement of his gory trophy.

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