A mysterious start to a tale of Sig(e)mund (ll.874b-884a)

A Promise of Mysterious Tales
Mostly Simple Compounds

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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The singer begins to tell of Sigemund and deeds hitherto little heard about.

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“Of everything he spoke,
what he of Sigemund had heard said,
deeds of courage, many not widely known,
the wrangling of Wælsing’s son, his wide wanderings,
where that warrior’s child was not often recognized
nor the feud and wicked deed, but to Fitela, the one with him,
when he would tell him of such things,
from uncle to nephew, as they were always
companions bound by need come every strife;
they had a great many of the giants race
slain with their swords.”
(Beowulf ll.874b-884a)

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Old English:


Modern English:


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A Promise of Mysterious Tales

In this passage the poem takes a break from Beowulf’s story to talk about a different hero: Sigemund (a.k.a. Sigmund). We’re not told much about this figure of mythic proportions yet, except that he travels with his nephew and has a darkened past. But is he trying to escape this past and the feuds and deeds it contains or is he just working with that as a feature of his story? The poet’s not at all clear about any of it. Actually, the poet seems to go pretty far to weave a curtain of mystery around Sigemund. And, to a lesser extent, Fitela. Or at least Fitela’s in there because the curtain’s just so damn big.

So this curtain of mystery (it’s too heavy to be a veil, I think), is made up of a few things. First the poet says that “many [of these deeds are] not widely known,” (“ellen-dædum, uncuþes fela” (l.876)). That’s straight forward enough. Maybe these stories aren’t widely known because they’re the ones that were told in the far country where Sigemund wasn’t very well known himself. No doubt he went on to make a name for himself in this country, but maybe that name was a pseudonym (maybe “Sigemund” is that pseudonym – not the cleverest, but hey, the extra syllable causes some confusion to this day). Or, maybe the locals that passed these stories on had a different angle on Sigemund’s deeds than most other tales about them. Whatever the case, this layer of the mystery curtain isn’t too far from being translucent.

But the next one is completely opaque.

When the poet moves onto the feuds and deeds that Sigemund apparently had some part in, he says that these things were as little known in the places he travelled to as he himself was. So, if these stories are coming from these countries, any information about these feuds and deeds will likely be scanty. What’s more though,is that we’re told that Sigemund only shared details about any of these things with Fitela.

Fitela is said to be Sigemund’s nephew (this checks out, the similarly named Sigmund travelled with his nephew/son (Norse mythology has some very racy bits), too). Fitela’s also said to be Sigemund’s companion in battle, maybe one who was so reliable that they always faced hardship together, or maybe one that just seemed to find Sigemund whenever he fell into difficulty. It’s hard to say. Whatever the reason for their partnering up, the fact that Sigemund only told these things to Fitela suggests that the only way the poet knows them well enough to sing about them is through Fitela. At some point, the nephew must’ve spilled it about his uncle. That is, if the poet is telling true stories or stories coming from a very close witness to these “deeds of courage” (“ellen-dædum” (l.876)).

Because this part of the poem is scant on details, maybe this poet knows these little known stories of Sigemund because he heard them not from Fitela but from this far country’s people. If that’s the case, then how far has this poet himself gone?

The question of how much the poet singing about Sigemund learned about his subject first hand is a tricky one. What do you think matters most in story telling – accurately relating facts, or action, intrigue, and suspense?

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Mostly Simple Compounds

These story telling sections of the poem are always so vivid and direct that compound words take on a completely different function in them. Instead of seeing those that I’d call “high action” compounds, we’re given those that are plainer. Like “ellen-dædum.”

The parts of this compound, “ellen” and “dædum,” literally mean “zeal,” “strength,” “courage,” “strife,” or “contention” and “deed,” or “action,” respectively. The combined meaning of “deeds of courage” isn’t far from clear. Though mixing the “contention” or “strife” sense of “ellen” with “deed” gets so clear that it upends the glorious/courageous implications of “ellen-dædum” by suggesting a pretty plain Jane sort of performance in war. Applying such a word to someone would mean that person just did a “strife deed,” which sounds like something that you just do by default in combat.

The word “eal-fela” graces line 883, just about rounding out this section. And it might be the plainest compound of them all. Though it does demonstrate the intensifying formula of Old English (combine two like words, (including negatives)), since “eal” means “all,” “many,” or “much” and “fela” means “very,” or “much.” So “eal-fela” literally means “all much,” with the sense of something that’s all-encompassing. Or, as is the case in the poem, the sense of “mostly all” of the giants.

No, this passage doesn’t really offer complexity in its compounds. It’s more about the simple word combinations.

Except for “nyd-gestealla.”

Now, maybe I’m piecing this one together wrong, but “nyd” could be a form of “neod” (meaning “desire,” “longing,” “zeal,” “earnestness,” “pleasure,” “delight”) or “nied” (meaning “need,” “necessity,” “compulsion,” “duty,” “errand,” “business,” “emergency,” “hardship,” “distress,” “difficulty,” “trouble,” “pain,” “force,” “violence,” “what is necessary,” “inevitableness,” “fetter” or just being the name of the rune for “n”). For the most part the difference between these two words is negligible. But, there are some exceptions. The word “neod” suggests a sort of leisurely need, as its meanings include “pleasure” and “delight,” while “nied” comes across as more business like as it can mean “errand,” or “duty” (or, even, “business”). But the compound that “nyd” is a part of doesn’t get any simpler in its second half.

The word “gestealla” seems to break down into “steal” or “steall.” The difference between these two lies primarily in specificity. The former word just means “structure,” even “frame,” while the latter means “standing,” “place,” or “position.”

So is the companionship that “nyd-gestealla” describes one that’s structured on duty or on pleasure? Or is it one that’s putting those involved in a position of business or of pleasure? Or is it that it’s supposed to do both, the ambiguity coming in to add a sense of reciprocity to the relationship it’s describing?

Do you think there’s a connection between the tone of sections of Beowulf and the intensity of the compound words found in them? So far, this part of the poem is very light-hearted and the compound words here have mostly been straightforward, almost relaxed. Is there a connection between the two? If so, what could using a word like “nyd-gestealla” mean for this part of the poem? Is it being used as a reminder of hard times or as something else?

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In the next passage, the poet begins to tell of Sigemund and Fitela’s victory over a dragon and the raid on its hoard.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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1 thought on “A mysterious start to a tale of Sig(e)mund (ll.874b-884a)

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

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