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

Grendel’s Myth Grows
Five Words of Increasing Weirdness

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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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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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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Old English:


Modern English:


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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?


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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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.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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

  1. Pingback: Beowulf explains Grendel’s escape, keeps speaking plainly | A Blogger's Beowulf

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