Thanks given to Beowulf’s mother, words nuanced but simpler than others

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Beowulf’s Mother, Divinity
Simple Words Hide Complexity
Closing

Beowulf, Old English, Anglo-Saxon, translation

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Abstract

Hrothgar’s speech of thanks continues as he praises Beowulf’s mother and then strengthens his ties with Beowulf.

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Translation

                      “Indeed let those who may say
even to such a woman, who gave birth to such a son
among the human race, if she yet lives,
that the god of old was gracious to her
in her child-bearing. Now I, Beowulf, accept you,
best of warriors, shall see you as a son
in heart and in hand; keep well this
new kinship. And be thee never wanting for
any desirable thing in the world, that I have power to give.
Quite often I’ve given rewards for less,
honouring with gifts men more lowly,
weaker in battle. You yourself have
done this deed, that thy fame may
endure well into the future. The Ruler of All
reward you with good, as it has to now done!”
(Beowulf ll.942b-956)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Beowulf’s Mother, Divinity

Hrothgar’s speech gets a little more florid now, as he continues to not thank Beowulf. Though, instead of thanking a deity, he thanks Beowulf’s otherwise unmentioned mother. We know that the hero’s father is Ecgtheow, and we can guess his mother is a Geat woman, but we’re never told so and we’re never given her name. Yet Hrothgar thanks her here, after he’s thanked god for getting the deed done.

Now, it’s possible that Hrothgar’s just following a formula here. Maybe the Anglo-Saxons went from god to the family tree to the person themselves when giving praise, but even for an Old English poem it seems very formal. Though, it does tie in rather nicely with the Christian colourings that this poem has. After all, the father, the mother and the son are essential figures in Christianity. So maybe this formulaic thank you is just another finger print of the monks or scholars that wrote Beowulf down. Though what exactly is said when Hrothgar thanks Beowulf’s mother?

Well, Hrothgar starts off with the condition that those who “may say” (“secgan maeg” (l.942)) what follows say it. I think the idea here is that those who are thankful should thank his mother for having him as a son. Next, Hrothgar delivers the subject of this part of his speech in his usual interconnected clause manner. And then he gets to the meat of his praise when he says “the god of old was gracious to her/in her child-bearing.” (“þæt hyre ealdmetod este wære/bearngebyrdo” (ll.945-946)). So he’s thanked Beowulf’s still unnamed (and therefore specifically unrecognized) mother and said that god was good to her. Other than this divine favour, it sounds like Beowulf’s mom just did what all mothers do, though Hrothgar makes no connection at all between Beowulf’s merit as a man of action and his mother’s actions. She’s just being thanked as a vessel, as a conduit, for the mighty Beowulf.

Since we’ve got a possible divine birth and this poem’s context is at least partially Christian, we need to ask: is this at all similar to the way Mary is pictured in the Bible? Well…kind of.

I mean we’re never shown Christ’s childhood in the Bible. He’s born, hangs back to talk to the elders and is separated from his parents then, but they quickly reunite and his parents just have the generic joyous reaction to said reunion. Then, if they’ve even given us that, the gospels skip ahead a few years to when Christ is in his early thirties and preaching. Likewise here, we’re told that Beowulf must’ve indeed been born by a mortal woman (at least by implication), but as far as his childhood goes all we have that comes close is Beowulf’s contest with Breca. The rest is all lost in the mists of history. Christ is Christ because of the divine birth and god wanting to reconcile with people. Beowulf is Beowulf because a woman was fortunate enough to have him as a son, and thanks to the grace of “the god of old.”

So, yeah, there does seem to be a bit of a Christian influence here as far as Beowulf’s mother is presented. Aside from knowing Beowulf’s father (perhaps something kept in explicitly so the poem would retain some of the original Anglo-Saxon flavour), the only other reason we can see that he’s successful as a fighter is the grace of god in both his being born to a woman who, I guess, could handle him, and his own status as a divine vessel of sorts: a vessel for the judgment of god.

What do you think of all this? Is this part of Beowulf another istance where the Christian religion of its scribes shows through, or is this passage left untouched and am I just missing an Anglo Saxon formula for thanking someone via god, parents, and then self?

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Simple Words Hide Complexity

Despite using his typical archaic-sounding clause arrangements, Hrothgar’s speech of thanks is pretty straightforward. It seems that to the Anglo-Saxons joy was a feeling that was unfettered by sadness. It was a feeling that, like sunlight itself, simply was and simply streamed into places, lighting and warming them. As such, expressions of joy like Hrothgar’s continuing speech of thanks is pretty simple to follow. He does use two compound words, though. But these are fairly simple combinations.

One of them is “gum-cynnan” meaning “human race,” “men,” or “nation.” This word combines “guma” (“man,” or “lord”) with “cynnan” (“kind,” “sort,” “rank,” “quality,” “family,” “generation,” “offspring,” “pedigree,” “kin,” “race,” “people,” “gender,” “sex,” “propriety,” “etiquette,” “becoming,” “proper,” or “suitable”), so it’s fairly clear that it’s a word for “human kind” as that’s what it literally translates to. Though it’s neat to wonder about the extra weight this word carries when we peek into its constituents words as we do here.

Even “guma” with its sense of “lord” implies that there’s a certain standard that a person needs to meet to be considered a member of this “race” or “family.” And we can see a similar notion of quality reflected in the senses of “cynnan” like “pedigree,” or, simply, “quality.” Actually, there’s a whole set of meanings of this word relating to things that are up to snuff (“becoming,” “proper,” or “suitable”). So, though we think of “human race” as an inclusive term, it seems likely that the Anglo-Saxons thought of it as a more exclusive kind of club. But perhaps in such a violent time such was necessary – after all, how could you fight and kill fellow members of the “human race”? It’s so much easier to slaughter demons or monsters or animals on and off the battlefield.

The other compound word that the poet gives Hrothgar in this half of his speech of thanks is “hord-weorþunge” which means “honouring by gifts.” This one combines “hord” (“hoard,” or “treasure”) and “weorþung” (“honouring,” “distinction,” “honour,” “glory,” “celebration,” “worship,” “excellence,” or “ornament”). Just like “gum-cynnan” this one’s pretty straightforward. But it’s also quite a bit plainer.

You could make the case that Honouring someone and worshipping them (both of which are senses of “weorþung”) are different, but when it comes to gifts I don’t see much distinction. Both of these intentions are similar except that one is more secular. But, if Beowulf is god’s agent, the earthly vessel of god’s will and judgment, and Hrothgar sees him this way, then Beowulf’s being “worshipped” isn’t particularly sacrilegious. Though perhaps it speaks to the Danes’ alleged idol worship earlier in the poem, in that Hrothgar’s framing Beowulf as such a vessel and then praising him at all means that he’s worshipping his “god of old” that much less – unless Beowulf’s being a divine vessel of sorts works both ways.

Such is the nuance of words – especially old ones.

Do you think that words and their meanings or senses reflect the thoughts of the people using them? Like, if one group of people uses the word “chew” while another group uses “masticate” instead, does the second group have more complex thoughts?

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Closing

In the next post Beowulf replies to Hrothgar.

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Missionary Beowulf, propaganda, words plain and poetic (ll.928-942a)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Beowulf as Beefy Missionary or Hrothgar’s Propaganda
Poetic Compounds found in Poetry
Closing

Beowulf, Old English, Anglo-Saxon, translation

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Abstract

Hrothgar makes a speech thanking god – and so far only god – for ridding the Danes of Grendel.

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Translation

“For this sight to the almighty thanks
be given immediately! Great grief I endured,
the affliction of Grendel; always may god work
wonder after wonder, the shepherd of glory!
It was not long ago, that I expected never
to meet anyone who could soothe
my miseries, when blood-bedecked
stood the best of halls gory from battle,
wide-reaching woe knew everyone so that
none would venture near, so that for a long time
the people in their stronghold had to hold out against
hated demons and evil. Now shall we have through
the might of god this deed done,
a thing requiring skill that that none before
may have even conceived of.”
(Beowulf ll.928-942a)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Beowulf as Beefy Missionary or Hrothgar’s Propaganda

In this passage, or rather, in this the first half of Hrothgar’s speech, Beowulf is suspiciously absent. Instead, this god character gets top billing.

So what’s the deal with this?

I mean, Beowulf makes mention of god and god’s favour and help in his boasts and stories of past deeds, but Hrothgar really doesn’t say much of anything about god up until now. The way I see it, this could mean that Beowulf is an Anglo-Saxon twist on a missionary – think Rambo crossed with an evangelist – or that Hrothgar has converted (or just always been quietly Christian) and is now using Beowulf’s victory as a bit of propaganda to stir his people to conversion.

In the first instance, Beowulf makes for an archetypically macho missionary. And, the first half of the poem definitely supports this interpretation.

With the Danes you’ve got a people at their wits end. Their own gods have done nothing to help them and none who have come to deal with Grendel have succeeded for the last twelve years. Then this Beowulf fellow shows up and suddenly that Grendel problem’s dealt with. Of course, if in this analogy Grendel represents something like wrong belief or vile practices or the perceived wickedness that comes from being a non-Christian, then things are definitely sped up for dramatic effect. Though the speed at which missionary Beowulf turns his audience toward his message can be found in other stories, like that of Saint Boniface, who chopped down a sacred oak tree in one swing and replaced it with an evergreen, unwittingly setting up what would become the Christmas tree and, according to the story, converting crowds. Of course, Christianity has always brought its own host of problems to the various places it’s been taken, either because of the people bearing it or the way in which it melded or failed to meld with the target peoples’ beliefs. Still. With Beowulf as a super hero missionary who spreads the Word through his thirty-men strong grip, things getting done quickly is unsurprising.

What’s more when it comes to this missionary reading, though, is that if we jump ahead to the instance with Grendel’s mother, we can then read that as Beowulf facing off with powerful and seductive temptation. In which case Grendel’s mother represents the possible feelings that Beowulf has for Wealhtheow and/or vice versa, feelings that could lead to a terrible scandal. But, when he defeats Grendel’s mother, Beowulf proves himself to be so good at what he does that he’s able to overcome that potential scandal, too.

The alternative reading, that Hrothgar is just using Beowulf’s victory as a way to do some preaching himself, digs up a thing or two, as well. Namely that Hrothgar may have been so dejected when we first meet him because he’d converted but his people hadn’t followed since it alone hadn’t rid them of Grendel. But with the defeat of Grendel at the hands of Beowulf – a warrior who entrusts himself to fate and to god – Hrothgar sees an opportunity to put Christianity into a positive light and proceeds to do so by saying that without god none of this would be possible. It wouldn’t even be conceivable (ll.941-942a).

In the light of these two possible readings of this passage I think it’s important to note that I feel I can get away with these sorts of analyses because Beowulf would’ve been written down by someone who had at least experienced the Church’s educational system. In other words, whatever this story was when it was simply being told, it took on a few Christian elements in its being written down. And maybe the possibility of reading Beowulf as a missionary or Hrothgar as a Christian propaganda opportunist are just products of it having been written that way. Maybe.

What do you think is happening with religion here? Is Beowulf a macho missionary? Is Hrothgar a propagandist? Or are both true?

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Poetic Compounds found in Poetry

I’m not sure if prolonged exposure to Beowulf has made me a little jaded when it comes to Anglo-Saxon compound words or what. But this passage’s crop of them just isn’t doesn’t stack up to previous passages’. Gone are the combinations of words with almost opposite meanings, or senses that you’d normally not put together. Instead we have stuff that’s much more straightforward, but that still carries the quirk of age.

Take for instance “un-geara.” This isn’t a compound word in the truest sense, since it’s just the word for “yore,” “formerly, “in former times,” “once,” or “long since” with the prefix “un” stuck to it. But still, it’s pretty interesting to look at. I mean, this one means “not long ago” but literally translates as “not formerly.” You can clearly see the connection there, in that if something isn’t formerly, then it’s simply “not long ago.”

The word “heoro-dreorig” gets more straightforward as it’s just a combination of “heoro” (“sword”) and “dreorig” (“bloody,” “blood-stained,” “cruel,” “grievous,” “sad,” “sorrowful,” or “headlong?[sic]”). So it means “gory from battle,” though a more literal translation would be “sword gory.” I think it gets across its sense of the messy leavings of battle quite nicely. After all, even the sharpest knife, the most battle ready, is going to catch some of the gore, some of the blood on itself, and so too would anything that was the setting for battle, such as Heorot.

The word “wide-scofen” gets a little more poetic, thankfully. A combination of “wide” (“wide,” “vast,” “broad,” or “long”) and “scufan” (“shove,” “thrust,” “push,” “push with violence,” “urge,” “impel,” “push out,” “expel,” “deliver up,” or “display”) this word means “scattered far and wide.” A simple translation of the two words gives the sense of things being shoved or pushed wide apart, though. And I think the nuance here is important because unlike the modern English “scattered far and wide” to say that something’s been shoved far apart suggests a more forceful and immediate agency to me. It’s not that some invisible force from on high has scattered these things involved, but something more immediate, something that exercised force directly on them or on their surroundings has forced these things apart. Shoving things wide apart is just so much more evocative than the seemingly random sense of being “scattered far and wide”. So it goes without saying that this is my favourite compound of the passage.

Though “land-geweorc” is a close second. Combining “land” (“earth,” “land,” “soil,” “territory,” “realm,” “province,” “district,” “landed property,” “country as opposed to town,” or “ridge in a ploughed field”) and “weorc” (“work,” “workmanship,” “labour,” “construction,” “structure,” “edifice,” “military work,” or “fortification”), this word comes out as “fortified place,” though literally translated it means something like “earth structure.” So it’s not just some sort of structure built on the land, but there’s a very real sense here that this structure or fortification is built very much with the land in mind. Whether that means that it’s built into its area’s natural features or if it means that it’s simply taking advantage of those features, this combination really makes me think of something built cleverly rather than with a lot of sweat and labour. Actually, as with “wide-scofen” there’s a certain connotation of immediacy to this word which I find really interesting. Why? Because it carries with it a sense almost of being closer to the natural world and being able to take advantage of knowledge of its rhythms and patterns.

Why do you think old words like “wide-scofen” (which looks like “wide-shoved” if you think about it) changed to different phrases with similar meanings? Does this just reflect a change in taste, or is there something more at work in these changes?

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Closing

In the next entry, Hrothgar’s speech continues and he mentions the man of the hour.

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I don’t think the poet’s letting up on Hrothgar, more words of mild note (ll.916-927)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Persistently Satirizing Hrothgar
Thoughtful Brides on the Mead Hall Path are Marvelling
Closing

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 http://regia.org/research/misc/pastimes.htm.

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Abstract

The beach front horse races continue, and Hrothgar steps into the crowd.

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Translation

“Meanwhile the contending continued among
the tawny mares racing on the sand. By then the morning light
shoved and rushed over the horizon. Came retainers many,
all bold-minded, to that high hall,
to see that strange object; the king himself
from the bed chamber, guardian of the ring-hoard,
walked with a sense of leading an army,
of renowned virtue, and his queen with him
tread the path to the mead hall with her maiden troop.
Hrothgar spoke – he stood upon the steps
once he reached the hall, saw the lofty roof
with its gold decor and Grendel’s hand alike:”
(Beowulf ll.916-927)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Persistently Satirizing Hrothgar

What I’m fixated on in this passage is how the poet describes Hrothgar. Sure, there’s the stuff about the men still racing on the sand and the sun light rushing out over the horizon and all that, but I think that there’s more to be said about Hrothgar here.

So, let’s look at his intro. He’s said to be coming from the bedchamber “with a sense of leading an army” (“tryddode tirfæst getrume micle” (l.922)). This is my interpretation of the phrase, which Heaney (the main translation I’m using as my base since it’s poetic yet strives to be “Anglo-Saxon” where it can) seems to just gloss over. Heaney renders the same Old English (as far as I can tell) as “Walked in majesty…with a numerous train” (ll.921-922). The sense of these two is definitely similar, but I think that mine is hitting on a bit more of the satire or caricaturization that might be going on here. Maybe I just can’t believe that Hrothgar still holds power despite his failing to oust Grendel over the course of 12 years. Not to mention the poet’s chiming in twice now that the stories of Sigemund and Beowulf aren’t meant to bring down Hrothgar’s authority.

Anyway, Heaney’s rendering of that bit of line 922 shares in attributing majesty to Hrothgar, and I think that’s definitely what’s going on here. But I think that what’s important but missing from Heaney’s translation is what gives Hrothgar the sense of majesty: being at the head of an army (“getrume micle”). This is important because with it in place, Hrothgar’s character as the fallen warlord is given more detail.

Indeed, Hrothgar once walked at the head of armies on the field, but now he merely walks at the head of a train of women coming from the bedchamber. In short, he’s been put out to stud and, not unlike Heremod, has pulled away from battle after being greatly discouraged by Grendel. The overly melancholic Hrothgar of “Beowulf: A Musical Epic” is a bit much, but I think what Victor Davis and Betty Jayne Wylie really picked up on (and emphasized for the stage and the speaker) is Hrothgar’s sense of despair. Though, unlike Heremod, Hrothgar hasn’t become so glum as to put the rest of his court at risk. He’s still able to ask for help and to put out a call, even if it takes twelve years for that call t be answered.

More than anything, though, I can’t help but read these few short lines of Hrothgar coming out with Wealhtheow and her attendants as emasculating. I see it this way because there’s just so much contrast with what we’ve just heard about conquest and battle. And not even about the pitched group battle that Hrothgar’s army of old would’ve fought in, but single combat – and single combat with a mythical creature no less. And yet, here we have the formerly glorious warrior king coming out from his bedchamber at the head of a troop of women. It’s definitely still majestic, but I think the poet is really emphasizing what can happen to even the greatest warriors in their old age. Part of this is definitely giving the audience ideas of what could happen to Beowulf down the road.

And, yeah, there’s the matter, of the sunlight, too (on line 918). I think that’s just the poet’s way of saying that this, the first post-Grendel dawn, is eagerly awaited because it signifies the real and definite defeat of the monster (light shines again on Heorot!). Plus, the way the light’s said to shove and rush over the horizon suggests to me that this sunrise is a symbol of an aggressive reassertion of the natural order that Grendel had disrupted.

Do you think the poet meant to sarcastically glorify Hrothgar here? And do you think the early audiences of Beowulf would pick up on this?

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Thoughtful Brides on the Mead Hall Path are Marvelling

In this passage there are a few more compound words than in the past few weeks’. These words’re cool and all that, but none of them are that complex. No doubt this is because the description of the men riding around after the story’s finished is supposed to be a light moment. Not to mention, the sight of a war proud lord leading his wife and her handmaids from their chambers is also probably meant to bring out some smirks before things get serious again with Hrothgar’s speech.

That said, here are this week’s compounds:

The word “swið-hicgende” (l.919) combines “swið” (meaning “strong,” “mighty,” “powerful,” “active,” “severe,” or “violent”) with “hycgan” (meaning “think,” “consider,” “meditate,” “study,” “understand,” “resolve upon,” “determine,” “purpose,” “remember,” or “hope”) to mean bold-minded, or literally “strong thinker.” Though I think the concept is more about having strong thoughts than being one who thinks a lot. Those that this word describes on line 919 are the ones who are leaders because of their ground breaking ideas (no doubt mostly martial, but so what?).

Then there’s the compound “bryd-bure” meaning “bride-chamber.” How this combination gets to “bride-chamber” is pretty straight forward since it’s a combination of “bryd” (meaning “bride,” “betrothed,” “newly married woman,” “wife,” or “consort”) and “būr” (meaning “bower,” “apartment,” “chamber,” “storehouse,” “cottage,” or “dwelling”). There are a few little things with this one. Like the idea that a bed chamber could be thought of (maybe exclusively through our perspective) as a storehouse for brides or wives (unless the word’s where the idea for the story of Bluebeard came from). I really like the idea of a bridal cottage, it ties in neatly with the very European-seeming idea of the rural couples retreat, the sense that in a natural setting a man and a woman who are married will be able to rekindle their spark or reconnect. Though that idea itself could go back even to Homer and Odysseus and Penelope’s bed being made of a carved tree that was also what the entire house was built around.

Also, a fun fact here is that “bryd” is also how the Old English forerunner of the modern word “bird” used to be pronounced (and, therefore, spelled), so that’s probably one reason why women are sometimes regarded as flighty in Anglo-Saxon derived cultures.

Then we stagger onto “medo-stigge” on line 924. This compound for “path to the mead hall” comes from a cocktail of “medu” (simply “mead”) and “stigge” (meaning “narrow path,” “way,” “footpath,” “track,” “road,” “course,” “line”). There’s some sense of the “path to the mead hall” being a little well worn here, but I think that the variety of roads that “stigge” covers simply opens up that possibility rather than actually reflecting anything really meaningful.

And, the last of the bunch is the marvelous “searo-wundor” or “strange object.” This one has a little bit more to show.

A combination of searo (meaning “art,” “skill,” “cleverness,” “cunning,” “device,” “trick,” “snare,” “ambuscade,” “plot,” “treachery,” “work of art,” “cunning,” “device,” “engine (of war),” “armour,” “war-gear,” or “trappings”) and “wundor” (meaning “wonder,” “miracle,” “marvel,” “portent,” “horror,” “wondrous thing,” or “monster”), this compound holds the secret of how the Anglo-Saxons viewed the world.

If “searo-wundor” is any indication, then, just as we still do today, the Anglo-Saxons regarded things that were out of the ordinary both “marvels” and “portents.” I don’t find this interesting because it suggests a connection from the Old English world to the Modern English world via superstition. Superstition is something that every culture has. The thing here is that the doubling of “wundor” suggests that the Anglo-Saxons had some idea that exceptions to the established rules must mean that there are other higher rules we don’t know about. Those, of course, to the Anglo-Saxons would be god’s rules. The funny thing is that even now there’s still a great deal of things that we just can’t account for. A millennium later and we’re still seeking rules when the ones we know are broken.

Do you think medieval people had some idea of world order or structure beyond their religious beliefs?

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Closing

In the next passage Hrothgar thanks god and Beowulf alike.

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A single half line of warning, a single word about patrimony (ll.907-915)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Sin at the end of a Story
A Single Word on Inheritance
Closing

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 http://regia.org/research/misc/pastimes.htm.

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Abstract

The horseback poet wraps up his singing of Sigemund, Heremod, and Beowulf.

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Translation

“That campaign was often a source of anxiety for
many wise men before the time of the king’s brash way of life,
it made those miserable who relied on him for relief,
those that wished the king’s son would prosper,
receive his patrimony, protect the people,
their stores and their strongholds, a man of might,
the ancestral home of the Scyldings. Just the same there,
the kin of Hygelac, to all man kind,
became a decorated friend; yet sin still slinked in.
(Beowulf ll.907-915)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Sin at the end of a Story

Maybe it’s because covering at least eight lines of Beowulf every week breaks some things up, but I’m not sure of what to make of this passage. It’s the end of the section of the poem that’s the horseback poet’s song about Sigemund, Heremod, and Beowulf. So, the question is, I suppose, what can we say about this ending?

Looking at the very last line of the passage, we see that it ends with a note of warning: “yet sin still slinked in” (“hine fyren onwōd” (l.915)). This half line suggests that though Beowulf is celebrated in this instance something still comes up to throw off the joy of Danes and Geats. Having read the poem a few times before, this half line could refer to a few things. First among them is the idea that Grendel’s mother, when she comes seeking revenge for her son, is the sin that still slinks in. Or it could be a reference to some sort of slip up on Beowulf’s part that lands him in the poor state he’s in when he faces the dragon at the poem’s end. More broadly, this half line warning could just be a comment that there is no perfect joy, and that there will always be some little niggling thing or other that brings down the most secure seeming happiness.

Of course, “yet sin still slinked in” is my own interpretation of this apparently crucial half line.

Seamus Heaney translates it simply as “But evil entered into Heremod” (l.915). Why Heaney pulled Heremod out for this line is unclear. It could be that he’s just following the poet’s example of making reference to not the most recent antecedent but to one related to the content of its clause instead. This sort of context-sensitive referring seems to be a big part of how the poets of Old English wove the language together since there have already been a few points in the poem where pronouns or implied subjects and antecedents are a few lines apart. And I can understand why Heaney would want to make this line about Heremod. The poem really does not give much context for the last half line of this passage, and leaving it vague as I did is ambiguous.

Though ambiguity does have its place in Beowulf and the bits of gnomic wisdom that crop up in the poem from time to time. The best example of these bits of wisdom being “fate goes ever as she shall!” (“Gæð a wyrd swa hio scel!” (l.455)). So a line like “yet sin still slinked in” shouldn’t necessarily be made specific just because it’s vague where scant lines earlier the poet was singing specifics. Since this is the end of the horseback poet’s song, I think a general statement, especially one that’s a warning makes sense.

Using such a statement is a great way to end off a story about someone still living, because that person’s story is still being written. Though if that’s what the poet’s going for, there are some heavy implications that to live is to sin, suggesting that already the Anglo-Saxons had adopted ideas of Catholic guilt. Or at least this poet and his audience had.

But I also think the general ending of this story makes sense because leading up to it is a bramble of clauses and words that gives the sense of the poet not so much reciting form something he knows as bringing out something based on inspiration. So capping off his ramble, from the fanned fire in his head, is a bit of prescience. Though it’s a prediction based on experience. Heremod was once grand, and yet he fell. Likewise, even though it’s not mentioned here, Sigmund ultimately falls in battle at the hands of attackers after Odin shatters his sword (inescapable divine disfavour, if ever I’ve seen it). Likewise, Beowulf, the real life mythical hero, falls in the end. Not only is this fall foreshadowed in the idea of sin still slinking in, but capping his story off with this bit of wisdom suggests that the poet is grounding his tale in reality both because of Beowulf’s being included and in its bittersweetness.

Why do you think poets in Old English bothered to make their language more complicated when describing things like battle or complex emotion?

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A Single Word on Inheritance

This passage is sparser than any before it when it comes to compound words of interest. Even words of interest are in short supply here. But I make no promises about this section being short. I can be a bit like Rumpelstiltskin at times, spinning nearly nothing into quite a bit (though I won’t go so far as to say that I spin that nearly nothing into gold).

Anyway. The single stand out word in this passage is “faeder-aeþelum.” This word means “patrimony,” or “paternal kinship.” This meaning shouldn’t be too surprising since this compound is made up of the words “faeder” (“father,” “male ancestor,” “the Father,” or “God”) and “aeþeling” (“man of royal blood,” “nobleman,” “chief,” “prince,” “king,” “Christ,” “God;” “man,” “hero,” or “saint”). So the compound meaning is pretty much right there in the words involved.

But what makes this word stand out? Well, looking at the word itself, it’s interesting how self contained it is. We’ve seen our share of obvious compounds here at A Blogger’s Beowulf, but this one is neatly wrapped up in itself. This ouroboros like effect comes from both of the words being very similar in meaning. Sure, “faeder” is pretty limited to a sense of masculine power, but so too is “aeþeling.” Really, the biggest difference is that, to me at least, the latter carries a sense of youthfulness. Fathers, especially authoritative fathers, aren’t usually that young. So it’s like this word combines one part the power of youth and two parts the power of masculinity to come out with a word for male inheritance either of property and responsibility or of name and reputation or both. So, the effect of compounding “faeder” and “aeþeling” is more like an intensifying one than any sort of subtle modification.

There’s also the sense that this inheritance is something passed on only through the male parent or guardian. That it’s something that only the male parent can give to a child. That’s also something that strikes me as interesting. though not nearly as much as the sense of “faeder” as “god,” which at least hints at some notion of there being some sort of divine element to patrimony. And, maybe also to kingship itself, since that’s what’s at stake here. Though just in general, I can see it being a more divinely regarded thing, since Biblical stories about inheritance tend to be through the male line. Like the story of Jacob stealing Esau’s place as the inheritor of Isaac’s honour and divine favour, or of the parable of the prodigal son.

On the level of the word itself, there’s not much to say. It’s the first word in line 911, so there’s that, I guess. But otherwise, it looks like its primary function on the line is to alliterate with “onfōn” and “folc.” And, I’m not entirely sure of its significance, but there is the matter of the alliteration falling on the first, seventh, and eighth syllables of the line. Or its being in the first and last syllables of the first half line and the first syllable of the second half line. Whichever you prefer.

Point is, there’s some extra meaning packed into this word, and I think I’ve taken some of that out for inspection.

How much meaning do you think poets pack into single words? If we can look at a single word like I just did and pull out so much meaning, is it because the poet meant it that way, or is it just what the culture or context of the interpreter gets out of it?

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Closing

In the next passage of Beowulf, the Danes continue their joy riding and Hrothgar steps out with a speech.

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