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The horseback poet wraps up his singing of Sigemund, Heremod, and Beowulf.
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“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.
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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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In the next passage of Beowulf, the Danes continue their joy riding and Hrothgar steps out with a speech.
You can find the next part of Beowulf here.