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

Getting to Grendel’s Soul
Three Not Weird Words

Beowulf, Anglo-Saxons

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

Back To Top

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.

Back To Top

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)

Back To Top

Old English:


Modern English:


Back To Top
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?

Back To Top
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.


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?

Back To Top

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

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

Back To Top

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

  1. Pingback: So relaxed, even the language reclines, and challenging a word (ll.864-874a) | A Blogger's Beowulf

  2. Pingback: A case for Danish sympathy and a sword’s name along with other words (ll.1142-1150a) | A Blogger's Beowulf

  3. Pingback: Grendel’s end told again, and an Anglo-Saxon take on leadership (ll.837-852) | A Blogger's Beowulf

Share Your Thoughts

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.