One word with two meanings, and two words all about swords (ll.1030-1042)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Protection and Aggression
The Wicked Cravings and the Names of Swords
Closing

An example of a 9th-10th century Anglo-Saxon sword

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Abstract

The poet describes the helmet Beowulf’s given in more detail. And we see Hrothgar hand over eight horses — one of which is quite special.

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Translation

“Around the helmet’s protective top there
was a wire-wound ridge to keep the blows out,
so that its wearer would not be imperilled
by the battle-hardened sword’s bite, when the wicked
craving comes over the blade.
The lord then ordered a man to draw eight mares
with gold-pleated bridles into the hall,
within Heorot’s bounds; among them one stood
with a saddle skilfully coloured, a worthy treasure.
That was the very battle seat of the high king,
the place in which the son of Halfdane rode forth in
to make the battle even; never was he in
wide-known wars laid low, when the ridge was overthrown.”
(Beowulf ll.1030-1042)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Protection and Aggression

The poet must’ve gotten excited about the mention of the four treasures Beowulf’s given or for the opportunity to weave more words about war, because this passage is particularly rich. Despite that, I’m just going to focus on one word.

In line 1031 “walu” appears in reference to the helmet that Beowulf was given. As part of the description of this wondrous bit of headgear, the “walu” is understood as a kind of ridge which sounds like it gives a little bit of extra protection from blows. That it’s wound about with wire suggests that maybe part of this protection comes from the tightness of the bunched up wound wire in much the same way that a properly wrapped turban is supposed to protect from the downward slice of a sword. Though the wire and the ridge must be working with the basic metal hat-ness of the helmet to begin with.

Anyway, the point is that this first use of “walu” is used to refer to the helmet’s extra protective properties. It’s not just any old helmet, but one that’s specially designed to protect your head in the heat of battle (beautifully expressed as “when the wicked/craving comes over the blade” (“þonne scyldfreca/ongean gramum gangan scolde” (l.1033-1034))).

This instance of “walu” also alliterates with line 1031’s “wirum” and “bewunden.” In fact, as the first word after the caesura, “walu” bridges the two half lines, making (at least to my ear) for a faster paced line when it’s spoken.

The second instance of “walu” comes in on line 1042. Here the word takes on two meanings.

First is the geographic sense that Clark Hall and Meritt provide with their definitions of the word as “ridge,” or “bank.” I understand that this definition fits the line’s meaning because a ridge or bank could easily be the strongest part of an enemy’s (or your own) line in battle, and so the spot likely to have the most intense fighting. Even if it wasn’t the strongest, a ridge would certainly be a spot that a military force primarily made of infantry would want to capture. After all, fighting uphill is much more difficult than downhill when you’re mostly engaging in mêlée combat on foot. So, again, a ridge would likely be among the most intense sites during a battle.

The other possible meaning of “walu” (both Clark Hall and Meritt and C.L. Wrenn consider a secondary meaning, referring to the word “wael”) is “slaughter” or “carnage.” I think that this interpretation has a similar meaning, it’s just much more direct about it and there’s no subtext of why there’s slaughter or carnage.

But whatever the precise meaning of “walu” in line 1042, it’s possible that it’s also here for the purpose of alliteration. The line starts with “wid-cuþes wig” and then “walu” is the second word after the caesura, so it bridges the two parts of the line a little less strongly than in line 1031, but does so all the same.

But even though both instances of the word alliterate, and the second “walu” is possibly just a scribal error or variation for “wael,” I find its double duty in this passage interesting because of what the echoing of “walu” with its very disparate uses suggests.

The first appearance of “walu” refers to protection — specifically protection on the battle field. There’s the sense that the helmet that it’s describing provides extra protection, but hidden in there is also the sense that a ridge is a fairly safe place in a medieval battle (or so I’d guess — being higher ground and all that — arrows not withstanding). But then, on line 1042 the same word is used to denote a place that lacks safety both because it’s a hot spot during battle (definitely a place where the “wicked/craving comes over the blade” (ll.1033-1034)) and because in the context of the poem it refers to the spot where the celebrated Hrothgar is rampaging.

So “walu” is used in practically opposite ways within the same passage — within 12 lines even, and I think that this is at least the scribe trying to throw in a micro-commentary about war. Namely that war is only ever safe for the victors, but that those victors imperil themselves in the process of winning both physically (usually having to fight through the toughest spot) and also spiritually since they gain a fearful reputation for cruelty on the battlefield. It’s not as heavy handed as you might expect from a medieval Christian scribe writing out a pseudo-pagan poem, but I think it’s there.

But what’s your take on this? Is “walu” used twice just because it sounds good or is easy to alliterate with a lot of words? Or is there something about war being said here?

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The Wicked Cravings and the Names of Swords

I haven’t been formally recording or watching the instances of compound words since wondering if there’s any sort of pattern a few posts ago, but I think it’s safe to say that war equals compounds. Something about the heat of combat or the rhythm that the poet felt was needed in verses about fighting just seems to require compound words. This passage is full of them.

They range from the simple like heafod-beorge (a mix of heafod, meaning “head,” “source,” “origin,” “chief,” “leader,” or “capital”; and “beorge” meaning “protection,” “defence,” “refuge,” or “mountain,” “hill,” “mound,” “barrow,” or “burial place” that means “prominent hill”) to “faeted-hleore” (mixing faeted “ornamented with gold” and hleore’s “cheek,” “face,” or “countenance” to mean “with cheek ornaments”) which describes the horses to things like “hilde-setl” (“war, combat” and “seat,” “stall,” “sitting,” “place,” “residence,” “throne,” “see,” “siege,” meaning “saddle”).

There’s also “heah-cyninges” (meaning “high king,” or “God” — a mix of “heah,” meaning ” high” “tall,” “lofty,” “high-class,” “exalted,” “sublime,” “illustrious,” “important,” “proud,” “haughty,” “deep,” “right (hand)” and “cyning” meaning “king,” “ruler,” “God,” “Christ,” or “Satan”) and wid-cuþes (simply “widely known,” or “celebrated” from “wid” (“wide,” “vast,” “broad,” or “long”) and “cuþ” (“known,” “plain,” “manifest,” “certain,” “well-known,” “usual,” “noted,” “excellent,” “famous,” “intimate,” “familiar,” “friendly,” or “related”)).

But two of the compounds encountered in this passage stand out — even from the usual crowd of compounds I’ve been coming across lately.

The first of these is “scyld-frecu” from line 1033. This word takes “scyld,” (which means “offence,” “fault,” “crime,” “guilt,” “sin,” “obligation,” “liability,” “due,” “debt”; or as “scield”: “shield,” “protector,” “protection,” “defence,” “part of a bird’s plumage(?)”) and combines it with “frecu” (meaning “greedy,” “eager,” “bold,” “daring” or “dangerous”; or as “freca”: “warrior” or “hero”) to come out with “wicked craving.”

At first glance this looks like a logical combination, a word for “sin” and a word for “greedy” — you’ve got all the necessary parts. But then “frecu” could mean “warrior” or “hero” if it’s read as “freca.” A stretch perhaps, but synonyms and puns are wordplay staples in Modern English, so there must’ve at last been some awareness of these uses of language in Old English.

Take the name “Heorot” itself for instance. It sounds like the Old English term for a stag (“heort”) and also the term for the centre of human feeling (and thought as well, according to some classical natural philosophers), the “heorte.” This three way meeting of meanings can’t just be coincidental. That’s why I see something curious in the “freca” connection to “scyld-frecu.” (Not to mention it sounds an awful lot like this compound could simply mean “shield man”…and maybe it does — but that’s the beauty of poetry!)

So perhaps there’s a connection between the “greedy craving” which you could simplify to “bloodlust,” and being a warrior or hero. This could be acknowledgement of the cost of working in either of these roles.

But as a compound word “scyld-frecu” is completely overshadowed by “scur-heard.”

This compound is completely new to me, and possibly of a type that’s rare even in Beowulf. As Clark Hall and Meritt explain in the entry, this word means “made hard by blows (an epithet for a sword).”

So this compound word doesn’t just bring two terms together to create some other word, it’s an epithet for a sword. The Anglo-Saxons were so into swords that it wasn’t enough to have almost as many words for them as the Inuit have for snow, they had to also have words that were recognized as names for swords — not just words to refer to them (like “hildebill” or “gramum”).

But I digress, the parts of “scur-heard” are “scur” (“shower,” “storm,” “tempest,” “trouble,” “commotion,” “breeze,” or “shower of blows or missiles”) and “heard” (“hard,” “harsh,” “severe,” “stern,” “cruel,” “strong,” “intense,” “vigorous,” “violent,” “hardy,” “bold,” “resistant,” or “hard object”).

So literally read, you could take this one to mean something like “hardened in the shower of blows” or even “violent amidst the many blows.” On the one hand, maybe this is just referring to swords in general. Or. Maybe it’s referring to things a little more broadly. Maybe this is even evidence that the Anglo-Saxons attributed actions or personalities to swords.

Calling a sword (or swords in general) “hardened in the shower of blows” definitely makes me think that some of the power and agency of the sword in question are taken away from the wielder and given to the sword itself. Perhaps this denotes the Anglo-Saxons foisting something like “luck,” or even the intense violence of battle, off on the sword itself.

Or, maybe “scur-heard” contains the sense that the sword is so keen (being modified by that “wicked craving,” remember) that it’s just doing the work of slashing and parrying and drawing away attacks on its own. Perhaps the name’s a hint at an early longing for an inanimate object with a mind of its own.

Sounds crazy, perhaps. But legends and stories of magicians and mystics bringing statues to life (Jewish stories of the golem, the Greek myth of Pygmalion) go back quite a ways into recorded history.

If you could give an inanimate object life, or foist some characteristic of yours off on one (and not be thought crazy) what object would you choose?

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Closing

In the next post’s passage, Hrothgar formally bestows these gifts and horses on Beowulf. And the poet comments.

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The difference between a son and a sword, functional and fantastical compound words (Beowulf ll.1020-1029)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Hrothgar as Son or as Sword
Four Functional Compounds, One That’s Nuanced
Closing

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Abstract

Beowulf is given four gifts and the poet says that he’d never seen or heard of anyone receiving such gifts ever before.

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Translation

“Then to Beowulf the sword of Halfdane
gave as reward a golden banner of victory,
an ornamented battle banner, helm and byrnie;
a famed treasure sword that many in prior times
had seen a hero use. Beowulf became very
feted on that floor; he felt no need there
to be ashamed for the largesse shown before the warriors.
Never have I heard of a friendlier gift
of four gold-adorned treasures from
such a great man in any other ale hall.”
(Beowulf ll.1020-1029)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Hrothgar as Son or as Sword

Some of you probably think that all of these commentaries making mountains out of molehills. The tiny nuances of a language long dead can hardly hold any meaning that could possibly be relevant to today, and to try and draw meaning out of Beowulf is like trying to get water from a well that’s been dry for years.

But poetry is poetry. When it’s read all the meaning packed into it comes out. Old poetry’s just in need of a few drops of water to restore it, like something dried out to preserve it. And this entry’s passage practically makes its own sauce once you’ve added a few drops of water. Because this entry’s passage is the site of a decades long controversy.

In line 1020, we’re told that “the sword of Halfdane” (“brand Healfdenes”) is the person who gives Beowulf the gifts featured in this passage. Or is it “the son of Halfdane” (“bearn Healfdenes”)? Seamus Heaney’s text (published in 2001) uses the latter reading of the original manuscript, while C.L. Wrenn’s somewhat older version (published in 1958) goes with the former.

Now, I’m not about to dive into a mess of orthography and manuscript analysis because I don’t think I’m qualified to do so after so much time away from formal academia. But I am going to point out one major thing about this discrepancy.

It’s a small detail, but whether the poem refers to Hrothgar as “the sword of Halfdane” or “the son of Halfdane” makes a big difference in the matter of the passage’s tone.

As the word “feoh-gift” (which I’ve translated as “largesse” (l.1026)) signifies, this is a very important giving of gifts since there’s a sense of a strong bond being formed (akin to marriage – then still primarily a business/financial matter more than one of love, so there’s a sense of legality, or formality here). But whether it’s “the son of Halfdane” — his heir and descendant — doing the giving or “the sword of Halfdane” — his general and foremost warrior — tells us about the nature of that bond. I think. If we take the reference to be to Hrothgar’s being the son of Halfdane, then the bond seems much more familial, as if Beowulf is being welcomed into the family of Hrothgar, whatever that might involve. At the very least, you’d think that a family would be closer than something like a war chief’s comitatus.

Also, if you read the reference to Hrothgar as “the son of Halfdane,” then the bond the gifts signify seems to be more one of strengthened trust than anything else. Beowulf was entrusted with the hall — was legally made its owner — over the course of the night and he handled it well. So he’s proven that he can measure up to his word, and as such can be trusted.

But, if Hrothgar is supposed to be the sword of Halfdane here, then it paints the giving and the bond that comes with it as something that’s much more martial. Hrothgar could be seen as one making a political alliance with a figure that has proven himself strong beyond belief and definitely a force that you wouldn’t want to face in battle. So the four gifts given by the sword of Halfdane become the basis of an alliance of Beowulf (and by extension, the Geats) with Hrothgar. Perhaps this bond is even a continuation or renewal of the older man’s relationship with Beowulf’s father.

Actually, these two readings leave us with a kind of dichotomy. On the one hand the martial alliance is made perhaps out of fear or calculation, while on the other the familial bond comes from something more personal and made out of respect and trust.

Figuring this out would be much easier, I think, if the “jewelled sword” of line 1023 were a little more specific. At least in so far as it’s the most described treasure, so if we knew if it was practical or just decorative could lend itself to either reading.

Given what Beowulf’s done for the Danes up to now, which do you think makes more sense – Hrothgar bringing Beowulf into the family, or Hrothgar making a more formal political alliance with Beowulf and the Geats?

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Four Functional Compounds, One That’s Nuanced

One of the things that makes poetry interesting is variety. Whatever the frequency of compound words might mean, Beowulf just wouldn’t be as interesting if there was a very obvious pattern to them; like if the poet always used complex compounds while characters like Beowulf and Hrothgar only did so while boasting. This passage spoken by the poet keeps the use of compounds fresh since it’s got a mix in it that leans more to the simpler side.

First up is line 1022’s “hilde-cumbor,” a “war banner” and one of the gifts given to Beowulf. This compound is a straight up combination of the words “hilde” (“war,” or “combat”) and “cumbor” (“sign,” “standard,” or “banner”) that means exactly that: a “war banner.” Not much to say here since this is very much a compound of function.

Once again, the poet throws words together simply because the poet can on line 1023. The word “maðþum-sweord” is another compound of function since its meaning of “costly sword,” or “ornate sword” comes pretty directly from the combination of “maðm” (“treasure,” “object of value,” “jewel,” “ornament,” or “gift”) and “sweord” (“sword”). Now, which of the meanings of “maðm” you go with can determine the sort of import of the sword in question, but there’s not a lot of wiggle room in interpreting this word. Maybe reading this compound as referring to a “gift” sword is the same as considering it a “jewelled sword” or a “treasure sword.” After all, praiseworthy gifts are often decked out.

Now, line 1026’s “feoh-gift” is where this passage’s words get interesting. On its own, the word “feoh” means “cattle,” “herd,” “movable goods,” “property,” “money,” “riches,” or “treasure,” and the word “gift” means “gift,” “portion,” “marriage,” “gift,” “dowry,” “nuptials,” or “marriage.” So this compound definitely refers to a very valuable gift, but the heavy implication of a bond as strong as marriage makes anything called a “feoh-gift” more than just trinkets exchanged because of a job well one. These gifts are meant to seal a bond between Hrothgar and Beowulf, to somehow ally them. So this word is quite well chosen.

Then line 1029 sends us right back to the obvious compounds with “gum-manna.” Both “gum” and “man” mean “man” and so “gum-manna” means “man.”

But, given the word’s context, the poet uses “gum-manna” to suggest that these men are exemplary. That they’re shining examples of what a man should be. That’s the sort of emphasis that word doubling usually lays on a thing in Old English, after all.

Which brings us around to a compound that’s neat for unexpected reasons. This is 1029’s “ealo-benc,” meaning “ale bench.” This compound, unsurprisingly, comes from combining the words “ealu” (“ale,” or “beer”) and “benc” (“bench”) together. What makes it neat, though is that the poet hangs quite a bit of meaning on this word. Either the poet’s using a single ale bench as a metonymy for all halls everywhere, or the poet’s getting super specific and saying that he’s never heard of anything like this happening on any ale bench – ever.

Which do you find more interesting, practical compounds like “hilde-cumbor” or more nuanced ones like “feoh-gift”?

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Closing

In the next entry, the gift giving continues as Hrothgar hands over some more gear and a few horses.

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Foreshadowing history, words with secrets (ll.1008b-1019)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
The Poem gets Historical
Words with Secrets to Unlock
Closing

Wealhtheow serving Hrothgar

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Abstract

It’s party time in Heorot once again, though the poet reminds us that this high hall won’t be standing high forever.

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Translation

                  “Then came the due time
that Hrothgar’s son come to the hall;
and Hrothgar himself would come to enjoy the feast.
I have no need to ask if ever a greater group of assembled peoples
has gathered around their revered ring-giver.
The renowned then bowed onto the benches,
filling them with joy; they tore into the fare
and went round after round through cups of mead,
becoming bold minded, in that high hall,
Hrothgar and Hrothulf among them. Within Heorot were
many friends; not at all was treachery
yet made amongst the Scyldings.”
(Beowulf ll.1008b-1019)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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The Poem gets Historical

Okay, so the big thing to take away from this passage is that Heorot has been restored to normal! Huzzah!

But, the Anglo-Saxons must’ve collectively been a Taurus because as soon as the poet establishes that everyone’s enjoying the feast and slugging back mug after mug of mead he decides its time to foreshadow how Heorot meets its ultimate end. He decides that it’s time to lay some history on us. Though only in a way that people who’d have been incredibly familiar with their history (perhaps in the same way that Americans are familiar with their history) would understand it.

After all of this talk of friendship and happiness, even of a level of comfort that allows Hrothgar to bring out his son and heir Hrothulf, the poet says “not at all was treachery/yet made amongst the Scyldings” (“nalles facenstafas/þeodscyldingas þenden fremedon” (ll.1018-1019)).

This passage and even the one about death from last week, but to a lesser extent, really make it seem that these parts of the poem are all about relating to the very specific audience that Beowulf would’ve been initially performed for. Not even written down for (that’s a totally different kettle of fish) but written down for. People who knew about the history of Heorot and the Scyldings.

So what?

Well, it means that this poem must’ve been written a fair bit after all of this stuff happened with the Scyldings. Long enough for it to have become part of the historical record, but not so long before that it would’ve been forgotten. Though I get the feeling that by the time Beowulf was completed (likely as an oral performance piece), this bit of history had passed into legend to some degree. That it was the stuff of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of England. So it was historical in that it happened some time before the writer/performer lived, but as factually accurate as our stories of Arthur and his knights. Things have been muddied. But then maybe that’s why the poet goes for a vaguely prophetic sort of reference to these future hardships here. Instead of diverting the audience’s attention away from the story that’s being woven over these 3182 lines, the poet’s instead just riveting the story down into the realm of past facts, of history, with references like this one.

In another form of speaking of the future, the poet trots out Hrothulf here. I think Hrothgar might’ve referred to his son earlier, but this is the first time that we see him mentioned by name. I take this action of Hrothgar’s as a sign that he believes the hall is truly saved, and that the Danes’ troubles are over at last. So the young prince, his heir and successor, can come to the hall without any tragedy befalling the Danes.

Getting back to the reference to history, though, I find it interesting that the poet just says that the hall was full of friends and that treachery wasn’t there quite yet. Putting it like that makes it sound like treachery itself is a guest that wouldn’t visit just yet, and that Heorot would host some wild parties before treachery comes calling to totally destroy Heorot later. It seems like treachery is just another house guest.

I feel like this sense of future ruin is a lot of the Norse influence on Anglo-Saxon culture coming through, since sagas of great families falling into ruin account for quite a few of the older legendary ones we still have. There’s definitely not just a sense that whatever goes up must come down but that nothing great lasts because this is a world of change, set below the influence of the ever changing moon and not within what later poets would refer to as the immutable heavens.

Couched within a story that’s very much about a culture shifting from non-Christian to Christian what could such a reference to the fall of a great house mean? Maybe the poet and the others along with them thought that this limit to great things, great families, extended to religion, and believed that just as the Germanic religions gave way to Christianity someday Christianity would also wane? Who knows?

Isn’t literature great?

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Words with Secrets to Unlock

The two (yep, just two) standout words from this entry’s passage are “blæd-agende” and “facen-stafas.”

The first of these, coming to us on line 1013, is a combination of “blæd” (“blowing,” “blast,” “inspiration,” “breath,” “spirit,” “life,” “mind,” “glory,” “dignity,” “splendour,” “prosperity,” “riches,” or “success”; or it’s a form of the word “bled” meaning “shoot,” “branch,” “flower,” “blossom,” “leaf,” “foliage,” “fruit,” “harvest,” or “crops”) and “agende” (“owner,” “possessor,” “master,” “lord,” or “the lord”).

Even with its second possible meaning as “bled,” the word “blæd” is undeniably a word of great prosperity (that is, in fact, even one of the original word’s senses). So it’s not very surprising to see that combined with the Old English word for things like “owner” and “master” we get a word that means “renowned.” Such a person is a lord of inspiration, or dignity, or splendour, or success – take your pick, they all really boil down to the same thing: a thing to be renowned for. Though we could get into chicken and egg questions here in that are these people renowned for the splendour that they’ve built up or are they renowned for having reached such a level of success? It’s hard to say from this compound word alone.

The second word has its own secrets to unlock.

The word “facen-stafas” as a combination of “facen” (“deceit,” “fraud,” “treachery,” “sin,” “evil,” “crime;” “blemish,” or “fault (in an object)”) and “stæf” (“staff,” “stick,” “rod,” “pastoral staff”; or, when “stæf” is in the plural form, as it is in this passage, it usually means “letter,” “character,” “writing,” “document,” “letters,” “literature,” or “learning”) curiously means “treachery” or “deceit.”

Obviously the Anglo-Saxons respected the intelligence required for a good bit of intrigue (and if the continuation of the mystery genre of storytelling in the northern parts of Europe’s anything to go by, they still do) since this word essentially combines the idea of treachery with some sense of command, of having power over it as represented by the image of the pastoral staff, or by the control required for things like writing, letters, or literature.

What’s more, the word “stæf” is a part of another compound word, “stæfcraft,” meaning “grammar” or “learning.” So, somewhat unsurprisingly since education still followed the classical model of literally beating concepts into students through corporal punishment and rote memorization, that same staff which I think stands as a controlling influence in “facen-stafas” is essential to learning the basics in a classical education. But this association doesn’t just buttress the idea that “stafas” in this compound refers to some sort of control through intelligence, it builds on the idea that treachery was respected (at least in some way) inherently in Anglo-Saxon culture. Maybe not on the surface, there’s probably no epic poem about a liar who makes their way to the top (unless those lies are stories) left for us to find, but definitely under it. Maybe it could stem from an interest in gossip since rumours are often convoluted and largely constructed to falsely damage reputations at some point over their lifespans.

Do you think it takes a smart person to be successfully treacherous? Or does treachery depend on a trait other than smarts?

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Closing

Next up, Beowulf is rewarded for his victory over Grendel with some shiny new armour – which he does not equip at all over the course of the poem. So far as we see, anyway.

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A post for international literacy day

Hey everyone! The usual Beowulf translation and fan theories post will be going up this Thursday as usual. But this entry is all about International Literacy Day.

Earlier today the people over at Grammarly asked me if I’d like to post an infographic of theirs in exchange for a $10 donation to one of three charities. Because literacy is really important to me I agreed. Of the three charities (Reading Is Fundamental, First Book, ProLiteracy) I chose First Book because it helps kids in Canada and the US get their hands on books, which is incredibly important. Plus, it’s the most local charity of the three.

Now, without further ado, here’s Grammarly‘s infographic, some food for thought not just for International Literacy Day, but for the whole year, hopefully:

Literacy Day

The poet meditates on death, and four words that come of it (ll.1002b-1008a)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Reasons to Meditate on Death and Four Names for People
Four Compound Words from the Wave of Death
Closing

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Abstract

The poet steps away from Grendel, Beowulf, and the assembly at Heorot to mediate briefly, but deeply, on death.

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Translation

                    “That wave cannot be
fled – no matter what one does to avail themselves –
but seeking shall all humans,
those desirous of need, the sons of men,
earth-dwellers, in a place eager for us
where this body holds fast to its bed,
sleep after the feast.”
(Beowulf ll.1002b – 1008)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Reasons to Meditate on Death and Four Names for People

To cap off the section of the poem that’s primarily about Beowulf fighting Grendel, the poet meditates on death. I think this section is here for a few reasons.

Chief among these reasons is all of the death that Grendel caused. This passage shows that those deaths aren’t necessarily something to mourn for too long. After all, there’s an inevitability to death, since all people come to it in their ends. But also presented is the idea that death is rest, that after the feast that, in this metaphor I think is life, the souls of the dead are sent to rest. So death puts those in its care to rest.

There’s also the obvious reason of this passage: Grendel is, at this point in time, bleeding out somewhere in the fen. His death, too, is inevitable. Even after a 12 year reign of terror, there’s an end to it. There’s change to be had, and perhaps it’s not so much a matter of whether there will be change when your main meeting space is a place of terror and your mighty reputation is ruined, but a matter of whether or not you’ll be around to see it. Though even if it’s missed, at least, keeping with the poet’s metaphor, there is rest to be found in death.

Then, the other, big picture sort of reason I think the poet meditates on death here is that Beowulf itself is a poem that always has death hanging over it. Not necessarily the death of central, or even named characters, but the death on the battlefield, or death in the family, or death as the end of all of the soldiers and monsters a figure like Beowulf has killed. The poem is drenched in blood and cloaked in death. So the poet’s meditation on the inevitability of death calls to mind that though Beowulf is victorious now, he too is ultimately heading to death. It’s a kind of reminder that he’s a mortal man, despite whatever divine favour – or even divine role – he may or may not have.

But the thing with this meditation on death isn’t so much its “why?” as its “what?”

There’s a lot to these few lines, but I’ll do what I can, picking at the bigger stuff in it. Namely the idea of death as a wave and the tangle of titles for humanity around the passage’s end.

I think the poet describes death as a wave because in a world of seafarers and adventurers like the Anglo-Saxons, a wave is the perfect symbol of inevitability. On the sea, in a wind- or muscle-powered boat, there wouldn’t be much control to avoid waves that weren’t seen well in advance. Besides that, in a truly stormy sea – or even in just a choppy one – slowly avoiding one wave would probably just leave your vessel facing another one. So being hit by waves while on the sea would be seen as inevitable.

Add to that the use of a lone sailor out on the sea as a metaphor for exile (in the poem The Seafarer), and there’s something to be said for the Anglo-Saxons associating ships with people, or more accurately (I think) bodies. So saying that death is an inevitable wave fits into the imagination of the Anglo-Saxon world quite nicely, I think.

Related to the idea that the Anglo-Saxons used boats or other vessels as metaphors for bodies, is the word “sawl-berendra” (l.1004), meaning, literally, “soul bearer,” but taken to simply mean “human being.” So it’s safe to say that the Anglo-Saxons had a sense of the soul being separate from the body.

“So what?” you may well ask.

Well, I think the flurry of human epithets in this passage is meant as a reminder of mortality. After all, the terms for humanity go from literally “soul-bearer” to noting how people are beings of need and desire (unlike classical ideas of angels, beings without need or want, kind of like pre-robot robots), then “the sons of men,” putting emphasis on humanity’s being a bunch that reproduce themselves, nesting themselves deep into the body, then, finally, “earth-dwellers,” making it clear that these people are bound to the earth, they walk on the ground.

So on the one hand, this cluster of terms for humanity could just be a poetic burst, but there’s also a descending order to it. You could even say that this whole passage works its way from a high concept of death as a wave and a high concept of people as “soul-bearers” down to the very basic ideas that humans are things that walk the earth and death is the big sleep.

What do you think about the idea of death as a wave? Does that imagery still hold up today, or are we (for the most part) too landlocked for it to work?

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Four Compound Words from the Wave of Death

What sort of meditation on a heavy philosophical topic would be complete without a cadre of compound words? Let’s get right into those the poet used here.

First up is line 1004’s “sawl-berendra” meaning “human being.” This word literally means “soul bearer” and its constituent parts mean the same – “sawl” is Old English for “soul,” “life,” “spirit,” or “living being” and “berendra” means “bearer,” or “carrier” in the language. Now, normally a straightforward compound is a straightforward compound. But here it seems like the plainness of this combination helps strengthen its literal meaning. It’s just a clean descriptor of a concept that cleanly splits the soul and the body in two, making for the foundation of a whole school of thought.

Line 1006’s “grund-buend” isn’t quite so exciting. The word’s mix of “grund” (“ground,” “bottom,” “foundation,” “abyss,” “hell,” “plain,” “country,” “land,” “earth,” “sea,” or “water”) and buend (“dweller,” or “inhabitant”) gives us “earth-dweller” pretty readily. It’s curious how “sea” and “water” are part of this word that has so many connotations of solid ground or foundation . But I think that’s supposed to signal that the aquatic sense of the word doesn’t necessarily mean a body of water. Instead I think those sense of the word refer to water as a fundamental thing, as something essential to life – maybe even as a reference to the primordial waters in the Biblical creation story.

But put even that sense of “grund” together with “buend” and you just get the sense that it refers to “dwellers in creation.” Still not very exciting, right?

Thankfully, the word “lic-homa” (found on line 1007) is weird.

(Yeah, I throw that word around a bit much on this blog, but this one’s definitely worthy.)

Instead of combining two words to make another like most compounds, this is one of those intensifying kinds of compounds. But it’s one in which I think a lot is lost in translation. The first part of the compound, “lic” means “body,” or “corpse,” while “homa” means “village,” “hamlet,” “manor,” “estate,” “home,” “dwelling,” “house,” “region,” or “country.”

So with a literal combination like “body house” or “body estate” you’d think that you’d get a word meaning something like “graveyard” or “corpse dwelling” y’know, somewhere that’s a home to corpses. Instead, we just get “body,” “corpse,” or “trunk.” But I think, if this is an intensifying kind of compound, that “lic-homa” has connotations of referring to the bodily portion of a living person, that is, to a corpse that has the energy and liveliness of a “village” or a “home.” Or, at the least, that this intensified version of “body” refers to the body of a dearly departed person. So maybe there’s not an inherent vibrancy, but there’s at least some life in the body this word refers to.

Capping of this passage’s compound words is line 1007’s “leger-bedde.” This word mixes “leger” (“lying,” “illness,” “lair,” “couch,” “bed,” or “grave”) and “bedde” (“bed,” “couch,” “resting-place,” “garden-bed,” or “plot”) to mean “bed,” “sick bed,” or “grave.” Not too surprising. Nor is there much room for interpretations to wiggle with this word. Though I guess you could say that the death subtext is baked into it since a “garden-bed” or a “plot” could make for a good spot for a “grave.” Though when I hear the word I think of a slab more than a bed, the sort of thing sacrifices might be laid on.

Or monstrous but dead sons – but that’s not going to come up for another few hundred lines.

What do you think of the idea that we as humans are a combination of body and spirit/soul/mind/self? Is it a solid notion, or is it more accurate to think of ourselves as more of a singular being that just happens to have a mental/spiritual manifestation and a physical one somehow working in harmony? Does thinking of ourselves as a distinct and separate body and spirit/mind make death easier to think about or deal with?

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Closing

In the next passage, the poet sets us up for more good times in Heorot, though some of the sparkle of history is put into the air.

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