The subversive power of the poet’s song, people and sadnesses (ll.898-906)

All Hail the King of the Danes
Peoples and Sorrows

Beowulf, Anglo-Saxons. poetry

King Harold out for a hunt on the Bayeux Tapestry, no doubt a song was sung soon after. Image found at

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The poet’s song turns from Sigemund and his glorious victory to look instead at a man defeated: Heremod.

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“His fame was pushed most widely
among the nations, protector of warriors,
for deeds of courage — he prospered from then after —
after Heremod retired from war,
his strength and courage; he against the Jutes
had his power stolen in ambush and his force
was quickly slain. His sorrow oppressed him
far too long; to his people he waned,
to all his nobles his life grew too full of care.”
(Beowulf ll.898-906)

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Old English:


Modern English:


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All Hail the King of the Danes

Although there’s no poet interjecting here to keep things from getting messy, this passage is dangerous.

Earlier, before this poet on horseback started to sing of Sigemunde, there was some noise made about everyone praising Beowulf, but being happy with Hrothgar as their king. In fact, the poet goes so far as to give Hrothgar one of the highest epithets: “that was a good king!” (“þæt wæs god cyning” (l.863)).

In light of this passage, though, there could be some sarcasm in that earlier statement.

Here we’re told how Sigemund’s fame grew after he beat the dragon and stole away its treasure, bringing it to his own people. In fact, it even sounds like Sigemund had some sort of happy homecoming because of his courageous deed. In fact, it sounds like he might have been in that far country where the poet alleged his story of the hero came from because of some sort of exile. And, what’s more, possibly exile at the hands of king Heremod. After the first three lines, the poet shifts over to this figure of lore.

Heremod is king of the Danes, and when we meet him here he is the very picture of melancholy. Having suffered a great loss when fighting the Jutes (maybe the giants? the word used is “eotena” which could mean either), Heremod falls into a depression and loses his warlike demeanour. He must’ve been some battler since his entire court is thrown into disarray when he no longer steps out to campaign or bring in treasure from raids.

As a reader of Anglo-Saxon culture as much as Anglo-Saxon poetry, this passage — the poet’s song on horseback in general — is supposed to show the two examples of great man that stand before Beowulf — the man triumphant in Sigemund and the leader who is shackled by shame and fear in Heremod. Later on, Hrothgar talks more explicitly about Heremod as a bad king (the kind Beowulf should not be), but right now this whole thing being an example for Beowulf is just implied.

But it’s really hard to not see it as a subversion of the poet’s saying “the people thought Beowulf was great! But, oh yeah, they still like Hrothgar, too.” I mean, you’ve got the young hero Sigemund who’s just reversed his fortunes by defeating the dragon and winning the treasure and that’s pretty much Beowulf. Sure, our hero hasn’t fought a dragon yet, but he’s beaten Grendel and won great fame that’s quickly spread thanks to the treasure that Grendel left: his arm and claw. Then you’ve got Heremod, the man who sits in his court and bemoans his defeat. Isn’t that too much like the Hrothgar of the last 12 years for any sort of analogy or parallel to be made?

So I think this passage is the poet insinuating that Beowulf could become the new ruler of the Danes. But we can’t know for sure until we get the rest of the story in the next part of the poem.

How subversive do you think the poem Beowulf is? Is it just some light entertainment? Or is it about the young overtaking the old? Or is Beowulf a Christianized Germanic hero bringing new vibrancy to an old tradition?

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Peoples and Sorrows

Maybe it’s because sorrow and pitched battle are involved in this passage, but compound words are coming back! Actually, it wouldn’t surprise me if their reappearance was due more to the depression and sorrow of Heremod. If Anglo-Saxon poets wove their words into tangles to accurately represent war, then surely they could do the same to represent the complexities of the deep sadness the old king’s experiencing.

Anyway. Onto the words.

First in the passage, on line 899, is “wer-þeod,” a combination of “wer” (meaning “male being,” “man,” “husband,” “legal money-equivalent of a person’s life,” “a man’s legal value,” “dam,” “fish-trap,” “catch,” “draught,” “troop,” or “band”) and þeod (meaning “people,” “nation,” “tribe,” “region,” “country,” “province,” “men,” “war-troop,” “retainers,” “Gentiles,” “language,” or “fellowship”). This compound is taken to mean “folk,” “people,” or “nation,” and I can see why. It could literally be translated as “people of men.”

But, of course, there are some very interesting nuances to both of these words.

With “wer” we get a look into the Anglo-Saxon idea of the value of life in that the word can mean the “legal money-equivalent of a person’s life,” or “a man’s legal value.” Of course, it has to be noted that a monetary value was attached to human life in Anglo-Saxon society because of law makers’ attempts to control rampant feuding. So, if you happened to kill someone from that group over there, they wouldn’t have to come and kill you, you could just pay that group the value of the life you took and the feud would be called off (legally, anyway). This bunch of laws is an unfortunate imposition since it might’ve been used to turned a few lives into bits of silver, but still. This concept helped to keep people from endlessly feuding so they could do other things. Plus, I bet these laws had some repercussions on ideas of manliness that have resonated down through the centuries, too.

The other half of this compound similarly has some neat meanings. Like “Gentiles” or “language.” In combination with the former, the compound could mean the collection of those who weren’t Jewish, those who weren’t chosen by God. In light of the Anglo-Saxons trying to identify with the Jews of Exodus, a people in search of a homeland, referring to the Danes as Gentiles even through vague implication is interesting. And as a story about pre-Christian times, this meaning seems unlikely to be a coincidence. At the least, I can see the poet smiling after the fact and considering himself very clever indeed for using “wer-þeod where he has.

But combining “wer” with the “language” sense of “þeod” is where things really pick up. The sense of such a combination is that all of those who speak the same language are one group. That’s a really cool idea!

But I digress, since there’re other compounds to get to.

Like the less mysterious “sorh-wylmas.” This combination of “sorg” (“sorrow,” “pain,” “grief,” “trouble,” “care,” “distress,” or “anxiety”) and “wielm” (“boiling,” “swelling,” “surge,” “billow,” “current,” “stream,” “burning,” “flame,” “inflammation,” “fervour,” “ardour,” or “zeal”) means “wave of sorrow.” And its constituent parts don’t really make that meaning a secret. Though I suppose there’s a bit more colour to the idea of a wave of sorrow if you add in the sense of that wave being arduous or zealous. It’s not just a lazy lolling mass of sadness washing over you, but the sort of wave a ship in the middle of the sea might encounter while in a storm’s clutches.

Then, rounding out the bunch but being strangest of the three is “aldor-cearu” of line 906. Meaning “great sorrow,” this one combines “ealdor” (“elder,” “parent,” “ancestors,” “civil or religious authority,” “chief,” “leader,” “master,” “lord,” “prince,” “king,” “source,” “primitive,” “life,” “vital part,” “age,” “old age,” or “eternity”) with “cearu” (a form of “carig” carrying meanings like “sorrowful,” “anxious,” or “grievous”).

“Cearu” is pretty straightforward. But “ealdor” much less so. This one could combine with the former to mean a few shades of “great sorrow.” It could be old sorrow, implying that it’s the sort of sorrow that’s sat and festered for years; it could mean that it is a princely sorrow, a sorrow that comes with the responsibility of ruling over a people; or it could be seen as the sorrow that simply comes with age, the regret and feelings of inadequacy a person experiences as they inevitably compare their present selves to their younger, remembered as happier and stronger, selves. It’s definitely a worthy companion to the much simpler “sorh-wylmas,” though, since both carry a heavy weight with them.

If you agree that the language of the poem is intentionally more complex around descriptions of battles and of sorrow, what do you make of it? Is treating sorrow as the same sort of complex ordered mess as a battle accurate, or just a weak comparison? What do you think of all of this if you don’t agree that the language’s complexity is intentional?

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In the next post, the story of Heremod wraps up.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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1 thought on “The subversive power of the poet’s song, people and sadnesses (ll.898-906)

  1. Pingback: Beowulf gets introspective, even plain words can be lovely (ll.884b-897) | A Blogger's Beowulf

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