The fight with Grendel quickly retold (again), five more humbly amazing compound words (ll.991-1002a)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Heorot Restored, Beowulf Vs. Grendel Revisited
Pedestrian, but Nuanced, Compounds
Closing

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Abstract

The assembled crowd starts to rebuild Heorot, and the poet goes over the scars the hall won when Beowulf grappled Grendel.

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Translation

“Then came quickly the command to the people
to adorn Heorot inward; many were there
men and women, so that that wine hall,
that guest hall was bedecked. Variegated with gold,
wall tapestries shone over walls, such a wonderful sight
they all agreed as they stared upon the same.
That bright house had been swiftly broken into pieces,
all of the inside’s iron bonds no longer fast,
the hinges sprung apart; the roof alone escaped
all untouched, that fiendish foe’s wicked deed
of winding away in his escape could be seen in the damage,
despairing of his life.”
(Beowulf ll.991-1002a)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Heorot Restored, Beowulf Vs. Grendel Revisited

So this post’s passage recounts, once more, the fight between Beowulf and Grendel.

First we saw the battle play out as the poet described it. Then we got Beowulf’s retelling. And now, we have the hall’s retelling. Though this retelling is curious in light of what Beowulf’s done with Grendel’s arm. For the inside of Heorot is where they fought, where the damage of their brawl is obvious and where the action itself is all marked out. But that internalization of the heroic deed can’t stand. Instead, the inside of Heorot is restored to its former glory as things are tidied up and shining tapestries are hung from the walls. Instead of being internalized, then, Beowulf’s victory over Grendel is put on public display. After all, a good story is something to share, not keep bottled up, right?

But then what’s up with the assembled people putting Heorot back together again?

This clean up seems to be something that they do mostly to erase the destruction of Grendel. Which makes good sense, since it’s here that Heorot starts to be referred to as a social hub once more. On line 993 the hall’s describe as a “wine-hall” (“win-reced”) and one line later it’s called a “guest hall” (“giest-sele” (994)). The abstract qualities of Heorot are stripped away. It’s no longer some shining hall, or the highest hall of them all, it’s no longer an idea, but something concrete. Heorot is once more a place where people can go for wine. It’s a place to go to entertain guests. Heorot is once more the social organ of the Danes’ society under Hrothgar’s rule. No longer are the Danes to relate to the outside world only through their troubles, but now they have a legitimate place to go when they want to share stories or cups of wine or simply to host guests. Guests like the Geats.

But, as much as this passage is about Heorot being restored to some extent, the scars that were opened over the course of Beowulf’s fight with Grendel are also meditated on. Actually, in describing the damage done to Heorot through the fight, the poet adds yet another piece of information to its story.

In the pivotal moment when Grendel escaped Beowulf’s hold and fled for the fens, he didn’t just slither out of Beowulf’s grip but his wriggling free is given the brunt of the blame for the hall’s sorry state (l. 1001).

What I find really neat about this third telling of the struggle between Grendel and Beowulf is that it’s a story that places the fight into a physically bounded space. Grendel didn’t just struggle against the hold of Beowulf, but the hold of Heorot itself.

I think the poem moves in this way to make it clear that when Grendel runs out to the fens he’s escaping Heorot itself and whatever promise the place held for the kin of Cain as much as he’s escaping Beowulf. From Grendel’s perspective this means that he’s finally giving up on Heorot (a sure sign of his death, given the stick-to-itiveness we’re been told about earlier). But from Beowulf and the Danes’ perspective this physical scar of Grendel’s escape might just be laughed at as the sign that the monster had had enough of being a guest in Heorot, which adds a curious hint of hazing to their social relations. Grendel played too roughly, but Beowulf, again assuring the audience that he’s not a monster, is able to control his power and successfully overcome Grendel — the image of what Beowulf could be if he lost control.

Of course, if there was this hazing ritual in place, then the bar for Gendel’s acceptance would be set incredibly high, leaving him with no choice but to refuse any sort of guest status in Heorot. Unlike Beowulf, who, if this hazing was a thing, seems to have faced his at the hands of Unferth and successfully out-worded the man to find acceptance.

Why do you think we keep hearing about how Beowulf fought Grendel although we just saw the fight a few hundred lines ago?

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Pedestrian, but Nuanced, Compounds

The compound words in this passage are, weirdly, pedestrian. Perhaps because this is supposed to be a more descriptive than poetic passage with the poet going into the detail of Heorot’s destruction, all of the compound words on display here have simple enough definitions. Let’s start with the most straightforward.

These would, without a doubt, be “win-reced” (meaning “wine hall”) (l.993) and “giest-sele” (meaning “guest hall”) (l.994). The first of these combines “win” (“wine”) and “reced” (“building,” “house,” “palace,” “hall,” or “triclinium”) to simply mean exactly the sum of its parts. Really, the only thing that subtly changes the meaning of “win-reced” is the “triclinium” sense of “reced” since the reference to a Roman dining table with three couches around it emphasizes the hospitality and social vibrancy you’d expect from a “wine hall.”

The word “giest-sele” is similar in its mix of “giest” (“guest,”or “stranger”) and “sele” (“hall,” “house,” “dwelling,” or “prison”). But there is some nuance in “giest-sele” After all, there is the meaning of “giest” that’s “stranger” and of “sele” that’s prison.

Perhaps Anglo-Saxons, for all of their apparent defensiveness around strangers (as we glimpsed when Beowulf and his crew appeared on Daneland’s shores) have the attitude that strangers are just potential guests — even that they’re one and the same except that strangers are unexpected and likely unannounced (perhaps making them a minor annoyance, since, let’s be honest, who 100% enjoys being dropped in on unexpectedly?).

The meaning of “sele” as “prison” also makes for an interesting point since it reflects on how Anglo-Saxons perceived prisoners. Treating them well, be they guest or stranger, would be important to keeping feuds to a low boil after all.

Then we come to an even more straightforward word with “gold-fag,” meaning “variegated with gold” or “shining with gold” (l.994). This one’s so straightforward because there’s no ambiguity around either of the terms that constitute it. The Old English word “gold” means “gold” and the word “fag” means “variegated,” “spotted,” “dappled,” “stained,” “dyed,” “shining,” or “gleaming” — all of which are basically saying the same thing — whatever “fag” describes is somehow shiny.

“Wunder-seon” is similarly plain, but, weirdly, is a Beowulf exclusive. The word itself means “wonderful sight” and is a combination of “wundor” (“wonder,” “miracle,” “marvel,” “portent,” “horror” “wondrous thing,” or “monster”) and “seon” (“see,” “look,” “behold,” “observe,” “perceive,” “understand,” “know,” “inspect,” “visit,” “experience,” “suffer,” or “appear”). Both of these individual words don’t offer much in the way of nuance. There could be a bit of variation in the sense of “seon” as “suffer” but I take it to mean a more intense kind of seeing, a sort of unfiltered vision, which perhaps works with the “miracle” and “portent” senses of “wundor” to give “wundor-seon” its more supernatural connotations.

Then, lastly, we come to “isenbend” which is maybe the plainest word of this bunch.

Now, that’s not because there aren’t nuances to this word’s individual parts, but because the nuances that are there don’t really mix. But let’s step back for a second.

The word “isenbend” means “iron bond” or “fetter” and brings “isen” (“iron,” “iron instrument,” “fetter,” “iron weapon,” “sword,” or “ordeal of red-hot iron”) and “bend” (“bond,” “chain,” “fetter,” “band,” “ribbon,” “ornament,” “chaplet,” or “crown”) together to do it.

So with “isen” there’s the nuance of it referring to an “ordeal of red-hot iron.” But, that one just doesn’t fit, plain and simple. The others do to a better extent, in that any kind of bond or even crown could have its value, its power, reinforced by the sword or by an iron weapon. Perhaps this compound could be used to refer to particularly powerful tyrants.

But whatever you take “isenbend” to mean,and however you try to bend that meaning, I have to admit that it’s a very strong word. Maybe it’s the “s” sound in “isen” but “isenbend” sounds much stronger to me than Modern English’ “ironbound.”

How useful do you think Old English compound words are? Are they just words that were jammed together for a single purpose, or do they carry a unique set of connotations?

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Closing

The next few lines of the poem get philosophical, and tricky. But how can you not get those things when you’re writing about inevitable death?

Watch for the next post next Thursday!

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Grendel’s arm inspires awe, compound words get weird (ll.980-990)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Grendel’s Myth Grows
Five Words of Increasing Weirdness
Closing

Beowulf, Grendel, Old English, Anglo-Saxon

An illustration of Grendel by J.R. Skelton from Stories of Beowulf. Grendel is described as “Very terrible to look upon.”Stories of beowulf grendel” by J. R. Skelton – Marshall, Henrietta Elizabeth (1908) Stories of Beowulf, T.C. & E.C. Jack. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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Abstract

The poet takes ten lines to describe Grendel’s hand in more detail and to show how the assembled warriors react to the sight of it.

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Translation

Then more silent were those words, of the son of Ecglaf,
of boastful speech about warlike deeds,
after the noblemen that man’s strength
saw in that hand hung on the high roof,
the fiend’s fingers. At the tip of each was
a firm nail most like unto steel,
the heathen’s claw, the horribly dreadful
warrior. Everyone assembled said
that they had never heard of any time-tested sword
that could strike it, that would injure the wretch’s
bloodied battle hand.
(Beowulf ll.980-990)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Grendel’s Myth Grows

It’s not exactly within the purview of this top section, but I think it bears immediate wondering about: the poet has no trouble using compound words in this part of the poem. So are compounds words doled out with some sort of rhyme (or rather, alliteration) or reason? Does the poet keep most of them in the narration? Which character has the most compound words in their dialogue? Which character has the most compound rich dialogue? Who are these characters?

Anyway.

That bit of research question writing aside, this passage is weirdly mimetic of what it’s describing. That is, these 10 lines are all about awe and people being struck dumb save for a few whispers. And because this passage is fairly straightforward, even in Old English (though the vocabulary here is pretty rich), it’s just a very smooth passage in which the noise of tangled clauses or clamorous kennings aren’t issues or characteristics.

What’s more though, is that, like a movie director, as the poet moves away from Beowulf’s story, the poem moves away from Beowulf not just in terms of subject, but also in terms of perspective. I don’t get the impression from this passage that Beowulf is surveying those assembled with confident grin on his face and “I’m hot shit” running through his head.

I get the impression that this passage represents more of a sweeping shot in which we see Unferth front and centre, jaw agape, mouth maybe working but nothing coming out.

Next the camera pans around the hall’s yard to a group of lords or warriors or both that are just silent, looking up at the gable on which the arm is pinned.

Then, to finish the scene off, the camera then moves to a group that’s huddled and whispering, perhaps just loud enough for a boom mic to pick up “I’ve never heard of anything that could cut such an arm – to just tear it right off…” perhaps with the speaker going a shade or two paler, and with a look of worry on his face as he looks in the direction of Beowulf. Then the scene ends and a fresh shot comes up or we fade to black.

Stepping aside from this filming analogy, the one thing that grabs me in this passage is the extra time that the poet puts into building Grendel up after his defeat and death. Why mention that his severed hand has claws like steel now, when it’s completely disabled? Is it just part of immersing the reader or hearer in the fight with Grendel, a fight in which little details like steel claws might’ve gone unnoticed?

Actually, throughout the rest of the poem Grendel has more and more detail added to him. Later we see his body in his mother’s lair, and after that Beowulf tells again of the night and the fight and gives Grendel some sort of dragon skin bag in which he stuff his victims. Maybe it’s just that Beowulf is so long that it gets a bit meta with its myth-making and actually has characters building up their own myths and legends while they’re still being told.

It’s also neat that the onlookers’ go-to weapon is the sword, which by now would certainly be a sign of wealth and power rather than just a fighting implement. Spears would’ve been much cheaper and the standard weapon of any infantry after all. So it’s a sure sign that those looking on at Grendel’s arm are of noble lineages or prestiges of one sort or another.

Though it could also be a bit of socio-economic commentary — the old guard and established nobles wouldn’t have thought of debasing themselves by fighting such a monster barehanded. Perhaps their not considering such a tactic might even reflect on the poet’s opinion that nobles hide behind their swords (that is, their prestige and their wealth) rather than actually doing the fighting themselves and, very literally, getting their hands dirty.

Sometimes there’s just too much to this poem.

In your opinion, why does the poet give more detail about Grendel here?

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Five Words of Increasing Weirdness

Whatever the reason — if there even is one — this passage is rich in compound words. So much so in fact, that I can actually arrange them in order of ascending weirdness rather than just going at them as they appear. Here we go.

The word “beadufolm” appears in line 990 and means “battle-hand.” There’s not much to this one since it’s a very straightforward combination of “beadu” (“war,” “battle,” “fighting,” “strife”) and “folm” (“palm,” “hand”). Aside from referring to a hand that participates in combat, I think this word could also carry connotations of one who, in his or her hand, carries war in the sense that the work of their hands is strife and difficulty for all those they encounter. Since it’s describing Grendel that seems very appropriate, too. Could the same word describe Beowulf, though?

Next up is the slightly more nuanced “gielp-spræc” of line 981. This word means “boastful speech” and combines “gielp” (“boasting,” “pride,” “arrogance,” “fame,” “glory”) and “spræc” (“language,” “power of speech,” “statement,” “narrative,” “fable,” “discourse,” “conversation,” “eloquence,” “report,” “rumour,” “decision,” “judgment,” “charge,” “suit,” “point,” “question,” “place for speaking”) to come to this meaning.

This is the first of this post’s words that’re Beowulf exclusive, meaning that, as far as we know, the Beowulf poet(s) made this word up specifically for the poem since there aren’t any other Old English texts that use it. Considering the importance of boasting and making big claims in Beowulf, I think it’s safe to say that this one was definitely handcrafted for the poem.

The “gielp” part of the word is fairly straightforward, since its meanings are logical enough and sensible enough. But, things get more vague with “spræc.” This word includes the expected things like “language” or “conversation,” but also includes “rumour,” “charge” (in the legal sense), and even “place for speaking.” Because of this versatility, I’d like to think that “gielp-spræc” would’ve been popular with the thanes and warriors who heard it in the poem, the range of places and functions of boasting it seems to encompass as well as being a more decorative way of getting the idea across really dress up the practice of boasting.

Similar to “gielp-spræc” in its mostly straightforward meaning and combination is “guð-geweorc” (also from line 981) This one means “warlike deed” and is another Beowulf exclusive compound. As a combination of “guð” (“war,” “conflict,” “strife,” “battle”) and “geweorc” (“labour,” “action,” “deed,” “exercise,” “affliction,” “suffering pain,” “trouble,” “distress,” “fortification”), it’s kind of hard to interpret it as anything other than a “warlike deed.” Even pulling something like “war fortification” out of it suggests a “warlike deed” because of the intention involved.

But I think that this is just the power of the compound word in Old English, it can get across intentionality in a way that other words just aren’t able to.

Next, a word that comes from near the passage’s end (line 988 to be exact), but is full of the surprises you’d expect from an opener. The word “ærgod” means, as you might have guessed, “good from old times.”

This word combines “ær” (“ere,” “before that,” “soon,” “fomerly,” “beforehand,” “previously,” “already,” “lately,” “til”) and “god” (“good,” “virtuous,” “desirable,” “favourable,” “salutary,” “pleasant,” “valid,” “efficient,” “suitable,” “considerable,” “sufficiently great”) to come to its august meaning and strong sense of describing something that’s withstood the test of time.

What’s surprising about this one, though, is that it’s a Beowulf exclusive. This might be explained away because it fits the line’s alliteration, but “ær-god” doesn’t really alliterate with anything on its line. So I think it’s safe to take this line to mean that the Anglo-Saxons (a people definitely not living in a disposable culture) prized things that lasted, even went so far as to give these things special meaning and status. So it’s really strange to me that “ær-god” isn’t found in any other Old English texts that have, themselves, withstood the test of time.

Now, the final word from this passage that’s worth note: “handsporu,” meaning “claw,” or “finger.” A mix of “hand” (“hand,” “side (in defining position),” “power,” “control,” “possession,” “charge,” “person regarded as holder or receiver of something”) and “sporu” (“spoor,” “track,” “trail,” “footprint,” “trace,” “vestige”), this word’s compound meaning is strange to say the least.

Why is it so strange?

Well, this word implies that, at least conceptually, Anglo-Saxons (or, perhaps their Germanic ancestors) saw fingernails as “hand poop.” After all, only the “hand” part of “handsporu” has any internal variation. No matter how you cut it, “sporu” means “leaving,” and is the root of the Modern English “spoor” which has become specialized to refer exclusively to animal poop that trackers and hunters and the like use to guess an animal’s trail or whereabouts. Though maybe this was just the poet’s own creative way of looking at fingernails, and claws since this one’s also a Beowulf exclusive. I guess no one else wanted to touch this one.

Four out of this week’s five words are exclusive to Beowulf. Do you think there’s any kind of pattern to words that are exclusive to Beowulf?

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Closing

In the next passage we’ll see the Anglo-Saxon equivalent of an 80s montage as everyone assembled at Heorot rushes around to fix up the hall.

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Beowulf explains Grendel’s escape, keeps speaking plainly

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Beowulf Covers his Tracks with Grendel’s
Just Three Simple Words
Closing

Beowulf, Old English, Anglo-Saxon, translation

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Abstract

Beowulf wraps up his story of the struggle with Grendel, excusing himself from killing the creature by saying that god will deal with him.

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Translation

          “‘Nevertheless he relinquished his hand
as a protection of life and as a thing to leave behind,
arm and shoulder; not in any way did that
wretched being find comfort here;
nor will the hateful attacker be afflicted
with a long life of sin, but he knew pain
while tightly squeezed in my inexorable grip,
the deadly fetter; where he goes he shall await
with men bespeckled with crimes the great judgment,
what for them resplendent God will allot.'”
(Beowulf ll.970b-979)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Beowulf Covers his Tracks with Grendel’s

The conclusion of Beowulf’s version of his fight with Grendel is fitting for one who’s trying to be more than just some slaughterer himself. Beowulf’s story of how Grendel escaped, but was mortally wounded, works so well because it takes Beowulf out of the role of killer and leaves that to god. This is important because it suggests that Beowulf’s strong enough to beat these monsters, but simply defeating them isn’t enough to fully vanquish them. As such it’s better to leave that to god itself, the one who sits in judgment over all those “bespeckled with crimes” (“maga mane fah” (l.978)).

But that’s not to say that deferring responsibility for Grendel’s death to god is a way for Beowulf to get out of blame if Grendel comes back. I think he’s well aware that he needs to cover for having let Grendel escape. But the fact that Grendel left his arm behind as a memento (“as a thing to leave behind” (“last weardian”(l.971))), really works in Beowulf’s favour. After all, what kind of creature could survive having its arm — including the shoulder — torn off?

Though, weirdly, Beowulf also sounds like one who’s aware that Grendel should have a more long lasting punishment when he says

“nor will the hateful attacker be afflicted
with a long life of sin, but he knew pain
while tightly squeezed in my inexorable grip”

“no þy leng leofað laðgeteona,
synnum geswenced, ac hyne sar hafað
mid nydgripe nearwe befongen”
(ll.974-976)

Here Beowulf’s basically saying “look, he won’t suffer for very long, but while I held him in my grip he knew the meaning of the word pain, so don’t worry about it.” I’m sure that as Beowulf said this audiences would imagine him gesturing up to the arm and maybe saying something like “after all, no one’s going to survive after that – have any of you ever had your arm torn off?”

So, as before we really see Beowulf flex his rhetorical muscle here, as he addresses the major concerns that the Danes might have with his performance since there’s no body to show for his victory (unlike that time when he fought sea monsters by night and woke up surrounded by corpses, perhaps something closer to what some Danes wanted). Grendel suffered, and though he ran off, he’s definitely doomed to die. Very soon, as Beowulf’s speech ends, Grendel will face the ultimate death at the judgment of god, where the wretch will have just punishment doled out to him. As if death wasn’t just enough, right?

It is, however, strange that Beowulf should refer to Grendel’s leaving his hand behind as a “protection of life” (ll.971). The entire first two lines are tricky to translate into Modern English, but the sense seems to be that Grendel left his arm behind in the same way that a lizard might leave its tail behind when a predator grabs onto it. Though there was definitely more pain and trauma in Grendel’s losing his arm than a lizard’s losing its tail. I get the feeling from these lines that Beowulf refers to the arm as a “protection of life” to imply that Grendel was a coward ultimately and just couldn’t stand up to the Geat’s own incredible power.

Why do you think Beowulf makes such a big deal of Grendel’s continuing to suffer after he escaped from Heorot?

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Just Three Simple Words

Beowulf’s diction doesn’t drastically change from the first half of his speech to the second. So we still get a bunch of compounds, though they’re still pretty grounded. All three of those I’m writing about here are exclusive to Beowulf, too.

On line 971, we meet the first of the bunch: “lifwraðu.” This word means “protection of life” and combines “lif” (“life,” “existence,” “life time”) and “wraðu” (“prop,” “help,” “support,” “maintenance”) to get there. It seems that “protection of life” might not be 100% what you’d expect these two words combined to mean, but I think that’s what’s meant to come out of the word’s context.

After all, the implication is that Grendel left his arm behind so that he could escape. His fate is sealed, and he will die (even after he escapes to the fens), but the idea that Beowulf’s trying to get across here is that rather than face the judgment of death, Grendel fled his sure quick death at Beowulf’s hands to go and suffer through a few more hours of life out in the wilds. So not only is Grendel a terrible monster, he doesn’t even die honourably. Or rather, he doesn’t even have the decency to die with grace.

The word laðgeteona (from line 974), meaning “hateful attacker,” “hateful giant,” or “enemy” is next up.

This combination of “lað” (“hated,” “hateful,” “hostile,” “malignant,” “evil,” “loathsome,” “noxious,” “unpleasant,” “pain,” “harm,” “injury,” “misfortune,” “insult,” “annoyance,” or “harmful thing”) and “geteona” (“giant,” “monster,” or “enemy”) speaks for itself. Another compound that is more about intensifying a single meaning rather than combining meanings to create a hybrid, “laðgeteona” is definitely an Old English word that loses little to nothing being translated into Modern English. Sure, the reference to giants (“geteona”) might not work today, but “hated enemy” is still a clear concept, even across the variations that combining these two words might afford you.

As far as weird words go, this last one’s not quite there, either.

Line 976’s “nid-gripe” means “coercive grip.” Simple enough. So, too, are its constituent parts.

This third compound combines “nyd” (from “nied,” meaning “need,” “necessity,” “compulsion,” “duty,” “errand,” “business,” “emergency,” “hardship,” “distress,” “difficulty,” “trouble,” “pain,” “force,” “violence,” “what is necessary,” “inevitableness,” “fetter,” or the “name for the rune ‘n'”) and “grip” (“grip,” “grasp,” “seizure,” or “attack”).

One neat thing that jumps out at me about “nid-gripe” is that one of the senses of “nyd” is “fetter” and Beowulf refers to his grip as “the deadly fetter” (“balwon bendum” (ll.977)). Just a little thing to notice. But, otherwise, the only thing I can really say about this compound is that it carries the weight of being inevitable not just because that’s one of the senses of “nyd,” but because many of the senses of the word carry urgency. So Beowulf sees his grip’s power as inevitable, perhaps as the power of inevitability that ultimately brings all mortals what they deserve.

Anyway, it’s not a bad crop of words. There’s just nothing stand out about any of them to me.

Weigh in in the comments: Do this passage’s words stand out from your usual Old English? Or do you think they’re just the standard for one of Beowulf’s speeches?

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Closing

In the next part of the poem, the poet dwells on the silence that falls after Beowulf’s speech and the arm he refers to.

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Beowulf as storyteller, words sharp and simple (ll.957-970a)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Beowulf Embellishes Grendel
Rich and Simple Compounds
Closing

Beowulf, Old English, Anglo-Saxon, translation

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Abstract

Beowulf speaks of his fight with Grendel and the monster’s god-defying strength.

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Translation

“Beowulf spoke, the son of Ecgtheow:
‘We that brave deed did with much good will,
carried out the fight, daringly risked ourselves
against strength unknown. Wish I very much
that thee thyself might have seen it,
the enemy entangled and exhausted to the point of death!
I swiftly grasped him tight and thought
to bind him then and there to his death bed,
so that for my handgrip he should
lie struggling for life, but his body slithered out.
For I might not, though god willed it not,
prevent him from going, nor could I then firmly enough grasp him,
that deadly foe.'”
(Beowulf ll.957-970a)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Beowulf Embellishes Grendel

The first thing that struck me about this passage is Beowulf’s first word. He says that “we” defeated Grendel (l.958).

He doesn’t put the brunt of the glory on himself, but on his team of Geats. His team that was, as far as the poet told us, not even really around for the start of the fight and not really all that effective by the time that they came in to help. Yet Beowulf spreads the credit around. Almost as if, being a warrior but not yet a leader with a castle and treasure of his own, all he has to share out among his band is that glory.

It’s a curious idea, if you think about it. I mean, it’s what would happen with Anglo-Saxon social groups with treasure, so why not with glory, too? After all, the actions of the leader reflect upon that leader’s followers. So Beowulf’s defeating Grendel suggests that his fellow Geats are also quite powerful and formidable.

Though not so powerful as Grendel is made out to be.

Because as a boaster and storyteller Beowulf knows his way around suspense, we’re told by our hero that he had Grendel in a grasp designed to kill the fiend. Yet, the monster’s “body slithered out,” suggesting that he lithely escaped Beowulf (l.967). Though there’s the implication that Grendel’s morale took a serious hit. What I’ve translated as “body” is “lic”, after all, a word that is hard to disassociate from the notion of a physical form (since it generally means “body” or “corpse” and is the root of the Modern English word “lich,” referring to a sort of zombie). So Grendel’s body slithered out, but his spirit might not have escaped quite so easily.

What’s more, Beowulf doesn’t let this example of Grendel turning the tables on him work as an example of his own mortal weakness. No. Beowulf quickly moves on to the point that he didn’t want Grendel to escape and that he did so even “though god willed it not” (“þe Metod nolde” (l.967)). So, first off Grendel was a bit more of a slippery guy than Beowulf imagined. And he was strong enough to openly and effectively defy god itself. In this single line, Grendel is made into the ultimate outlaw. Even if you don’t buy the idea that Beowulf is the instrument of God’s justice in the world of the poem, at the very least Grendel’s escape from our hero is said to go against god’s own will. According to Beowulf, anyway.

He is, after all, the one retelling this story.

And that in itself is neat.

Here (and elsewhere in the poem) Beowulf is framed as a hero not just because he’s got the strength and the poise for the job, but because he’s also an experienced speaker and storyteller. So he can do the deed, sure, but he can then head back to the hall and spread the word about that deed himself. It’s like he’s a self-publishing author writing a novel and then going out and shouting about it himself rather than relying on someone else to cover marketing. Here, though, his duality of fighter and storyteller is mildly threatening to the poet writing this epic and to every poet before or since – poets after all were said to be the ones with the ultimate power, no matter what the strength of a hero, since it was the poets who made and kept the detailed records of their deeds.

Do you think that Beowulf is a reliable story teller? He’s a known boaster, sure, but does that mean that his retellings of events will always be embellished?

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Rich and Simple Compounds

This passage is rich in compound words. So, let’s get right to them.

Up first is line 962’s “fyl-werigne.” This is a straightforward compound, especially if you can wrap your mind around the words “fyl” and “werigne” and sort of sense by linguistic intuition, that the compound brings together a word generally meaning “very” and another meaning “weary.” More specifically, “fyl” (a form of “fyllu” meaning “fulness (of food),” “fill,” “feast,” “satiety,” or “impregnation”) and “werig” (“weary,” “tired,” “exhausted,” “miserable,” “sad,” or “unfortunate”). The one thing to note here is that the Old English word for weary doesn’t just encompass physical weariness, as Modern English’s “weary” seems to (you can be “weary in spirit” or “weary of heart” but need to specify as much in most instances), it also includes more emotional or spiritual weariness as well. So when someone or something is “fyl-werigne” you know that they’re simply done.

Next up is another straightforward word (it seems that Beowulf is laying rhetoric on thick, but keeping it simple, too – maybe as a courtesy to a Hrothgar who’s just woken up?): “wael-bedd.” This word just means “slaughter bed.” That’s it. Even the combinations across the different senses of “wael” (“slaughter,” or “carnage”) and “bedd” (“bed,” “couch,” “resting place,” “garden bed,” or “plot”) come out to this (though there could be a bit of a horticultural slant to some combos). So, onto number three.

The word “lif-bysig” isn’t entirely what it seems. At first glance you might think that it refers to having a busy life or some such, but there’s a bit of a spin that seems to have been lost over millennia. Indeed, this word does bring “lif” (“life,” “existence,” or “lifetime”) and “bysig” (“busy,” “occupied,” or “diligent”) together, but the result is a word meaning “struggling for life.” This word is exclusive to Beowulf, and definitely sounds like something a performer could’ve come up with on the fly or to fill out a line. Either way, it’s neat how this word demonstrates the compound’s power to be more than the sum of its parts.

Actually, the next word in my list does something similar. And this one’s exclusive to Beowulf; it’s the word “feorh-geniðlan.” This word means “mortal foe.” And it comes to that meaning through a combination of “feorh” (“life,” “principle of life,” “soul,” or “spirit”) and “nið” (“strife,” “enmity,” “attack,” “war,” “evil,” “hatred,” “spite;” “oppression,” “affliction,” “trouble,” “grief”). So, much like “lif-bysig,” “feorh-geniðlan” takes its parts and twists them together to create its compound meaning rather than just sticking two concepts together. By combining the concept of life and struggle this compound refers to something or someone that is striving against the principle of life or oppressing it in a major way. Hence “mortal foe.”

Do you think that Beowulf’s going easy on the compound words because Hrothgar’s just waking up, or is there another reason for his relatively simple diction?

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Closing

In the next passage Beowulf finishes his account of the fight with Grendel, and declares his opponent painfully dead.

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