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

Beowulf Unnamed, but Still Widely Famed
Looking at Regular Compounds Three

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

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“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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Old English:


Modern English:


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

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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

  1. Pingback: The end of Grendel and clear compounds (ll.818b-824) | A Blogger's Beowulf

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