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

Beowulf Embellishes Grendel
Rich and Simple Compounds

Beowulf, Old English, Anglo-Saxon, translation

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

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“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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Old English:


Modern English:


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

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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

  1. Pingback: Thanks given to Beowulf’s mother, words nuanced but simpler than others | A Blogger's Beowulf

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