So relaxed, even the language reclines, and challenging a word (ll.864-874a)

Suspiciously Low-Key
Being Made of Stories

Beowulf, Anglo-Saxons

King Harold out for a hunt on the Bayeux Tapestry. Image found at

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The warriors keep riding and racing, while stories of Beowulf are told.

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“Meanwhile the battle-reputed let the horses trot,
in contests the bay horses sped,
there they found the path quite fair,
they thought it best; around then one of the king’s thanes,
a man made of stories, mindful of many tales,
such that he was in old tradition
immersed, bound words one to the other
according to appropriate meter. The man began again
of Beowulf’s struggle to smartly sing
and quickly made a new narrative account,
wrangled words.”
(Beowulf ll.864-874a)

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Old English:


Modern English:


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Suspiciously Low-Key

I’ve kind of cut things off in the middle ending this passage at the first half of line 874. But I did it with good reason. This next section of the poem is a pretty lengthy bit of storytelling. Weirdly, actually, this is the last time we hear any mention of Beowulf’s story for a while.

But that’s not the case with this passage.

The passage from line 864 to line 874 is all about the lead in to all that story telling. As such, there’s not much going on here as far as what’s described. But even the language here is pretty plain.

In previous scenes, like Beowulf’s fight against Grendel, or even the events after the fight, the lines are heavy with words and tightly jammed together. The words themselves give the impression of a lot of quick, decisive action. But here the Old English and the English translation of it have a much lighter, open air sort of quality.

Which makes sense, since this passage sees the group racing across a beach while somebody renowned for storytelling is spinning yarns, and all things are pretty cheerful. On the language side of things, all this leisure time leaves the poet’s sentences to repeat with variation. A lot of clauses in this section just wind down to their core meaning. Take for instance, the first three and a half lines. In the first of these lines we’re told about the men racing, then we’re told about the path they race on, and everything’s topped off with a generally positive comment about things being “best.” Ambiguity comes out to play again here, but in a much more light hearted way since the “it” on line 867 could be the path or the racing in general. Either way, what’s being thought “best” is pretty light stuff.

Then we come to the description of the storyteller. Of whom there’s not much to say. Though the same narrowing device seen at the start of the passage is used again: we start with a description of the teller and then wind up with a very straightforward bit about how he tells his stories.

Really, the only truly odd part of this passage is that directly after the final sentence, from the next passage onward, the poet tells of how this story teller recounts the deeds of Sigemund the dragon slayer and his partner Fitela. What I take from this is that Beowulf‘s original audience was already familiar with this other song of Beowulf, the storyteller is the poet’s self-insertion character, or to an Anglo-Saxon audience Beowulf was closely associated with Sigemund.

That last possibility stands out from the rest for me. In my thinking, for an audience to associate two characters so closely, they’d need to be familiar with each character’s story. In the case of Beowulf and Sigemund, this familiarity would mean that the audience would already know that both characters slew dragons. Sure, Beowulf beating Grendel might be reminiscent of a Nordic hero defeating a dragon, but Beowulf’s actually doing the same much later on in the poem would make the association more concrete. Plus, I think throwing in a story about dragon slaying here is too on the nose for mere foreshadowing. There’s more to why this story is told than that, especially since there’s such a shocking switch from mentioning this new song about Beowulf’s deeds to a story about someone completely different.

How does this the tone of this entry’s passage strike you? Does it feel more open and free roaming than those of past passages, or is it just more business as usual?

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Being Made of Stories

Much as was the case in my last post, the words in this passage are pretty straightforward. In fact, from line 869 onwards, the poet stops using compounds completely. And, in keeping with last week’s post, the compounds that are used are pretty straightforward.

We’ve got “heaðo-rōfe,” meaning “famed in war, brave” (a combo of “heaþo” (“war”) and “roofe” (“vigorous,” “strong,” “brave,” “noble,” “renowned,” “array,” or “number”)). You might pull something out of mixing “war” with a word that can mean “number,” but I think, in context, this combination means the same as joining “war” with “strong” or “renowned”; the person you’re talking about has been in many wars. And, since the Anglo-Saxons fought pitched battles rather than those based in trenches or with remote arsenals, to survive many wars suggests prowess or luck. And either of those qualities could make for a famed warrior.

Then there’s “fold-weg.” As a combination of “fold” (“earth,” “ground,” “soil,” “terra firma,” “land,” “country,” “region,” or “world”) and “weg” (“way,” “direction,” “path,” “road,” “highway,” “journey,” or “course of action”), this word could be literally translated as “earthen path.” But, its general translation simplifies this to “path” or “road,” which I’m perfectly okay with.

Now, the last two compounds that appear in this passage are a little more interesting. The word “gilp-hladen” claims this status because Clark Hall and Meritt somehow completely misrepresent it as “boastful.”

If we take it apart, though, we can see that “gilp-hladen” is a combo of “gielp” (“boasting,” “pride,” “arrogance,” “fame,” or “glory”) and “laedan” (a form of “hladan” meaning “lade,” “draw,” “take in water,” “heap up,” “lay on,” “build,” “load,” or “burden”). My translation of this compound word to “made of stories” might seem overly poetic, especially because “gielp” apparently doesn’t include “story” as an interpretation. But I think that underlying all of the meanings that Clark Hall and Meritt give the word is the concept of a story. None of those attributes are possible without a story. A person who is proud or arrogant feels that way because of how they perceive their actions and abilities, and the way that they relate those things to themselves and others is their story. Likewise, fame and glory are absolutely reliant on a story (or, sometimes stories) of the famed or glorious person spreading. So I consider the stuff of all of the listed meanings of “gielp” to be story; that is their essence. Hence, “made of stories” instead of something like “boast laden.”

The final compound for this post’s passage is “eald-gesegena” (combining “eald” (“old”) and “gesegena” (a variant of “gesegen” meaning “sayings”)). The neat thing here is that the tradition (of story telling, or at least of lore) is referred to by the short hand “sayings.” Not only are these old stories that the storyteller’s familiar with, but they’re things that people often quote or relate to each other or to themselves. That sort of detail is cool because it not only works well as a short hand for tradition (what could be more traditional than things that may, at least to cynics, be clichés or tropes?) but also very lovingly conveys the down-to-earth nature of this tradition, a word which itself refers to things that are earthy and of foggy origin.

Up until now we’ve seen a lot of compound words. Do you think the poet’s using fewer compound words in this passage is supposed to reflect a change in the poem’s tone?

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In the next entry, the singer sings a song of Sigemund.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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1 thought on “So relaxed, even the language reclines, and challenging a word (ll.864-874a)

  1. Pingback: On Grendel’s soul and joyous but plain compound words (ll.853-863) | A Blogger's Beowulf

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