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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