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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