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

The Poem gets Historical
Words with Secrets to Unlock

Wealhtheow serving Hrothgar

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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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“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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Old English:


Modern English:


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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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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.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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2 thoughts on “Foreshadowing history, words with secrets (ll.1008b-1019)

  1. Pingback: A fair and square exchange and the simple words for it (ll.1043-1049) | A Blogger's Beowulf

  2. Pingback: The poet meditates on death, and four words that come of it (ll.1002b-1008a) | A Blogger's Beowulf

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