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

Protection and Aggression
The Wicked Cravings and the Names of Swords

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

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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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“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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Old English:


Modern English:


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

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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

  1. Pingback: The difference between a son and a sword, functional and fantastical compound words (Beowulf ll.1020-1029) | A Blogger's Beowulf

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