Happy Halloween! Here’s a literary quiz!

A few days ago Grammarly (the grammar checker people) sent me an email asking if I’d like to take a Halloween quiz to see what literary monster I am.

I’ll admit that I put this off for a couple of days. Another quiz — and a Halloween quiz at that? My expectations were pretty low.

But when I took the quiz, the questions and the variety of their answers left me pleasantly surprised. The “literary” in “literary monster” is definitely highlighted, and I was left with the impression that vampire/werewolf/Frankenstein’s monster aren’t the only possible results.

(Or, if those are the only results, there’s at least some nuance, as you can see in my results.)

Plus, I’d never even heard of the epic poem referred to in my answer – so after the quiz my pleasant surprise quickly turned into bookish delight.

With that said, I got the werewolf. Here’s what the results have to say and the accompanying image:

A vintage style horror poster showing a werewolf holding a woman in a red dress

“Though the werewolf is a mythological creature who has appeared in tales for hundreds, if not thousands of years, you are most closely matched with the thirteenth century version from the epic poem “Guillaume de Palerne.” Here, the werewolf is a terrifying prince-turned-monster created by the sorcery of his own stepmother. But the werewolf’s loyalties remain with his family—he protects his cousin and his cousin’s beloved as they hide from persecution in a forest. Ultimately, the wolf-man takes revenge on his stepmother and breaks the curse.”

Pretty cool stuff!

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The poem returns to the status quo, words of war and of hall life (ll.1080b-1094)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Battleground just a Board Game?
Battle Words and Hall Words
Closing

A section of the Bayeux Tapestry showing Anglo-Saxon warfare

Image found here: “Bayeux Tapestry 4” by photo by Gabriel Seah – gssq.blogspot.com. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

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Abstract

Hrothgar’s poet continues his story, as he shifts from Hildeburh to what’s happening between the battle’s commanders, Finn and Hengest.

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Translation

                  “War had borne away
all of Finn’s warriors, save for a few alone,
so that he might not take to the field
to wage war against Hengest,
nor could the wretched remnant defend against hostility,
that lord’s man; but he to him offered terms,
that they for him clear the other side of the floor,
of the hall and high seat, so that he could control half
of what the sons of the Jutes possessed,
and that at the giving of gifts the son of Folcwalda
daily do honour to each Dane,
that even as generously to Hengest’s kin
he would grant those things, treasure rings
of twisted gold, as to his Frisian kin
during the giving in the beer hall.”
(Beowulf ll.1080b-1094)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Battleground just a Board Game?

Well, by now Hildeburh has fallen by the wayside, unfortunately, as the men debate and discuss what’s to be done. So the poem’s subject has returned to the status quo.

So what was even the point of showing Hildeburh mourning her fallen family?

I still think it’s supposed to mirror Grendel’s mother’s reaction to the death of Grendel. And I think it’s supposed to bring a bit of humanity to what might otherwise be simply expressed in lines 1080-1081’s “war had borne away/all of Finn’s warriors, save for a few alone” (“Wig ealle fornam/Finnes þegnas nemne feaum anum”).

I mean, starting with Hildeburh in mourning immediately establishes the tone of this war scene as sorrow and devastation rather than glory or action or excitement. And even though it’s not really clear who has the upper hand between Finn and Hengest in this situation, I think the poet at the least wanted to get across the direness of the battle between Finn and Hengest before it turned into just another war story.

But, who is in the position of power here? Finn’s forces are apparently nearly wiped out, but from line 1090’s alliteration with “d” on “daily” and “do” and “Danes” (in the original, it’s on “dogra” and “Dene” and “weorþode”) to the end of this passage it sounds like Hengest and his Danes are at the disadvantage. They’re the ones that need to be honoured and gifted to the same degree as Finn and his Frisians.

Running with that arrangement, it seems that Finn’s forces were nearly wiped out by Hengest’s, and yet Finn is the one who’s being called on to split up his wealth evenly for the time being. If Finn’s unable to take the field, but isn’t willing to admit defeat, then maybe this part of the passage shows the Danes being good sports, settling instead for hospitality rather than utter dominance.

If such is the case, then it makes you wonder why the Danes are willing to negotiate in the first place. The poem in general sets up the Frisians as great enemies of the Danes, so maybe, in an effort to keep that rivalry alive, this negotiation is the Danes’ letting Finn go this time so that he and his Frisians can shore up their numbers and try fighting them again.

But that makes it sound like a game. And the part of the passage about dividing the floor in half between the two groups makes it sound like it could be nothing more than a reference to a board game of some kind. Maybe something like chess or checkers. Though it would have to be a game with rules that include daily ring-giving (every turn, maybe?) and different movement rules and strategies than either of those games. Especially if dividing the board in half is some sort of special condition rather than the normal starting point of the game.

But if this conflict between Finn and Hengest is just a board game memorialized in poetry, why does it begin with Hildeburh mourning her fallen son and brother? Is the poet making a joke at the expense of her grief, implying that she’s a spectator who got so involved in the game she weeps over the loss of two pieces in particular? Or is it that Hildeburh’s grieving by the morning light is another of the game’s forgotten rules? Has Hengest activated the “mourning woman” card that entitles him to these negotiations in the first place?

As you’ve probably guessed this hard turn into peace negotiations with unclear sides is where this passage becomes truly mysterious, even laying aside its starting out with Hildeburh surveying the battlefield.

So what do you think? Is this poem that Hrothgar’s poet is reciting about an actual conflict or just some board game match?

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Battle Words and Hall Words

The compound words in this passage are evenly split between matters of battle and matters of hall etiquette.

In the first category we’ve got “meðel-stede” and “weal-laf.”

Line 1082’s “meðel-stede” means “place of assembly,” or “battlefield.” It comes from the combination of “meðel” (“council,” “meeting,” “popular assembly,” “speech,” or “interview”) and “stede” (“place,” “site,” “position,” “station,” “firmness,” “standing,” “stability,” “steadfastness,” “fixity,” or “strangury”). As such, it’s pretty clear that it refers to a place where lots of people meet (or where lots of urine collects before leaving the body drop by drop, if we go with “strangury”).

The jump from “place of assembly” to the specific “battlefield” seems a bit of a leap, though. Neither of the words that make up “meðel-stede” are directly related to battle, so the meaning of the compound as “battlefield” implies that the Anglo-Saxons just regarded warfare as a different kind of council or meeting.

Maybe, like the ancient Greeks, and some early African peoples, war to the Anglo-Saxons wasn’t necessarily about killing but more about a kind of dramatic enactment of conflict, a kind of play with very real stakes (and very real injuries and deaths every now and then).

Or, maybe the use of this compound (beyond its alliterating with the line’s “m” sounds) feeds into the interpretation of this whole conflict between Finn and Hengest being some kind of board game. Maybe the two had some petty squabble so instead of putting actual people into the midst of it, they just played a round or two of whatever strategy game was popular at the time.

The other word that falls into the “war” category, line 1084’s “wea-laf,” is much more easily relatable to battle. After all, “wea” means “misfortune,” “evil,” “harm,” “trouble,” “grief,” “woe,” “misery,” “sin,” or “wickedness” and “laf” means “what is left,” “remnant,” “legacy,” “relic,” “remains,” “rest,” “relict,” or “widow.”

So the first word in “wea-laf” is a judgment of war that probably comes from the losing side rather than the winning one and the second word refers to those left behind (including the sense of a “widow,” which suits Hildeburh perfectly, and expands the meaning of the compound beyond merely those directly involved in the conflict).

Together, then, “wea-laf” implies that a small group was left over after the wickedness of war swept the rest away. So there is some small, beat up group left on the losing side of this conflict. Literally, they’re those that the battle left behind.

Then we move into the confines and mores of the hall.

The first of the hall compounds is line 1087’s “heah-setl.” Out of context it’s a bit trickier to just see the meaning of this word, but given that “heah” means “high,” “tall,” “lofty,” “high class,” “exalted,” “sublime,” “illustrious,” “important,” “proud,” “haughty,” “deep,” “right hand” and “setl” means “seat,” “stall,” “sitting place,” “residence,” “throne,” “see,” “siege,” this compound’s senses of “exalted seat,” “throne,” or “judgment seat” are quite clear.

As a “high seat,” “heah-setl” refers to the place of honour in a hall, that which the hall’s master occupies. It’s from this high seat that he would give treasure and hold audiences with guests and visitors. So splitting this power seems like a tall order, but if Hengest had really battered Finn’s forces, it might be seen as a valid request in exchange for mercy. Or as a clever stall tactic on Finn’s part.

Then comes “feoh-gyftum” on line 1089. This word means “bounty giving,” or “largesse” and comes from the combination of “feoh” (“cattle,” “herd,” “moveable goods,” “property,” “money,” “riches,” or “treasure”) and “giefan” (“give,” “bestow,” “allot,” “grant,” “commit,” “devote,” “entrust,” or “give in marriage”).

As a word that refers to the sharing of bounty and largesse, the intentions of “feoh-gyftum” are clear. So what can even be said about this word, really?

Well, I don’t think there was a treasure that an Anglo-Saxon (Beowulf‘s main audience) loved more than one given by a great figure. It’s kind of like the change of owner wasn’t a complete action in their minds, but rather the act of transferring ownership inherently shared not just the object being given but the giver’s very essence (though perhaps “residue” is more apt).

Actually, I think this sense that an object has more inherent value if it comes from someone great survived the rest of the medieval period in the veneration of saints’ relics and continues today in the high value people attach to things that celebrities have signed, used, or worn.

Why do you think an item that someone great or famous has used/signed is usually seen as more valuable than the same item that’s unused or that was just used by an average person?

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Closing

The oath between Hengest and Finn is sealed in the next part of Beowulf. And we finally get clarification as to who’s got advantage over whom.

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Battlefield mourning and measured compound words (1071-1080a)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Two Mothers Mourning
Measured Compound Words
Closing

A section of the Bayeux Tapestry showing Anglo-Saxon warfare

Image found here: “Bayeux Tapestry 4” by photo by Gabriel Seah – gssq.blogspot.com. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

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Abstract

Hrothgar’s poet begins a recitation of the story of Hildeburh, a woman in mourning.

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Translation

“Indeed, Hildeburh had no need to praise
Jutish loyalty; guiltlessly she became bereft
of loved ones at the shield play,
of her son and of her brother; they were burdened
with ruinous spear wounds; she was made a mournful woman.
Not without reason was Hoc’s daughter
then fated to mourn, after morning came,
when she might under the sky see
the violent death of her kin, where they earlier
had held the great joy of the world.”
(Beowulf ll.1071-1080a)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Two Mothers Mourning

The most remarkable thing about this passage is that it’s coming from a woman’s perspective.

Hildeburh, the mother of a warrior, and sister to another, is, for some reason, near enough to the battlefield to go and see her fallen family the morning after a night battle. Her closeness suggests that this battle was probably a siege of some sort. If this is so, then she, distraught as she’s heard no word about her men, has left the city’s walls to see if she can find them herself.

Though it’s also possible that Hildeburh was along with the war party as some sort of supporter.

But I think that the line about “Jutish loyalty” (“Eotena treowe” (l.1072)) suggests that there’s been some treachery afoot, and so a siege is more likely. Or at least some sort of fortification.

Why?

Because when I think about treachery in what’s obviously some sort of war situation, I think of a betrayal that’s resulted in the fall of a fortification or castle that was hitherto impregnable. But Hildeburh’s exact situation isn’t important.

After all, the poet just launches into the story. This cold open likely comes from Hildeburh’s having been understood as a specific figure to the poem’s original audience. She’s someone who’s known to fit in with the context of the children of Finn and Hnaef Scylding, as mentioned in last week’s passage. So there’d be enough information for the poem’s early audience(s), but there definitely is not enough for us.

So, instead of trying to pull more information about the situation from this I just want to jump ahead a bit in the poem. After I’ve jumped back.

Grendel was defeated the night before the celebration at which this poet is singing. The monster’s arm was torn off, and he was left to wander, bleeding, back to his lair on the fens.

Later in the poem (about 200 lines from now) Grendel’s mother shows up to seek revenge for her son’s death.

I like to imagine that the poet’s giving us this episode from history (or common lore) about a woman going out to find her brother and son dead is supposed to parallel what Grendel’s mother is now doing (or has recently done) in the timeline of the poem.

As the Danes and Geats celebrate, Grendel’s mother is mourning. In the harsh light of dawn she’s found her son mangled and dead, having been dealt “ruinous/…wounds” (“hruron/…wunde” (l.1075-1076)). And so I can’t help but think that this part of the poem, a different version of the story found in the “Finnsburh Fragment,” is supposed to be showing us the other side of Beowulf’s great victory.

Grendel, to the Danes, and to the Geats who came to stop him, was monstrous. But Grendel is nonetheless the “kin of Cain.” He’s monstrous and some sort of abomination in the eyes of god, but he still has a family – a mother. And now that mother is grieving, angry.

But her rage comes out 200 lines down the road. Right now we just have Hildeburh. Who, even on her own, makes a curious statement about all of the war and violence in the poem so far. Showing the mourning side of battle adds the dimension of empathy for the fallen and their living relations that up to now hasn’t really been that big a deal.

But now we get to see just how that empathy plays out as Hildeburh’s part continues.

What do you make of a battle-celebrating poem like Beowulf‘s having a character mourn those freshly lost in battle? Is it a balancing element, just a token inclusion, or something else entirely?

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Measured Compound Words

This is definitely a passage about battle. Though it’s coming from the side more familiar to most of us – that of the spectator, the person who doesn’t fight but has to live with what comes of fighting. Nonetheless, there are quite a few compound words used here, considering the length of the passage.

What’s particularly notable about these compound words, though is that their use is fairly measured.

For instance, the poet doesn’t throw down a few compounds for the same thing or concept in short succession, nor do these compounds appear in parenthetical clauses that aren’t really part of the passage’s main ideas.

In fact, in this passage, the compound words generally are the main ideas of the sentences, or at least integral to understanding those ideas. I think this measured use suggests a more focused sort of intensity than that which we’ve seen when the poet is simply slamming down compounds. But let’s take a look at these words.

On line 1073 we’re given “lind-plegan,” an innocent sounding word for “battle” that literally means “shield play” (since it combines “lind” (“shield (of wood)”) and “plegan” (“quick motion,” “movement,” “exercise,” “play,” “festivity,” “drama,” “game,” “sport,” “battle,” “gear for games,” or “applause”)).

This word is used for alliteration, but I think it’s also a reference to the sort of close combat that Beowulf and Grendel engaged in just some 300 lines ago.

Next, on line 1077 “metodsceaft” appears. This one means “decree of fate,” “doom,” or “death” and comes from the mix of “metod” (“Measurer,” “Creator,” “God,” or “Christ”) and “sceaft.”

It’s tempting to read the “sceaft” in “metod-sceaft” as the usually prefix-less “sceaft” meaning “staff,” “pole,” “shaft,” “spear-shaft,” or “spear.” I mean, this reading gives us a word that would mean something like “the spear of God,” an apt sounding metaphor for fate. Not to mention taking this compound to mean “spear of God” sees Hildeburh suffering the same sort of wound that killed her brother and son. But, I don’t think that pre-fix resistant “sceaft” is the word meant here.

Instead, there’s a similarly written word that does take prefixes, “sceaft” (“created being,” “creature,” “origin,” “creation,” “construction,” “existence,” “dispensation,” “destiny,” “fate,” “condition,” or “nature”). When this word combines with “metod,” we get the much clearer “God fate,” or “decree of fate” (extrapolated from “Measurer of fate”). Though I’m not sure what the mixture of a name of god and a word for “creature” or “fate” really implies in Old English.

Finally, the third compound word in this passage goes in for emphasis rather than some sort of new concept. The word “morthor-bealu” is already implicit in the two men dying from spear wounds, as it means “violent death,” or “murder.”

And breaking down “morthor-bealu” doesn’t do much to make the word’s implications less violent. On its own, the word “morthor” means “deed of violence,” “murder,” “homicide,” “manslaughter,” “mortal sin,” “crime,” “injury,” “punishment,” “torment,” or “misery”; while the word “bealu” means “bale,” “harm,” “injury,” “destruction,” “ruin,” “evil,” “mischief,” “wickedness,” “malice,” “a noxious thing,” “baleful,” “deadly,” “dangerous,” “wicked,” or “evil.” So we’re left with a double whammy of “murder” on the one hand and “destruction” on the other. It’s definitely a compound word that connotes inescapable violence.

But, just in case we weren’t sure about the fate of Hildeburh’s kin, we’re told through “morthor-bealu” that they met a “violent death” or “murder,” suggesting that even within the realm of warfare, their deaths were particularly grisly. Unless the poet, along with keeping up with alliterating, also wanted to give us a sense of the shock and horror that Hildeburh is likely feeling when she sees them in the dawn’s light, rather than the stoic male perspective we’ve seen the poem through up to this point.

All three of this week’s compound words alliterate with the major sound in their lines (“lind-plegan” with “l”; “metod-sceaft” with “m”; “morthor-bealu” with “m”). Do you think that’s important at all?

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Closing

In the next passage we’ll find out what happens in the aftermath of the battle in which Hildeburh lost her son and brother.

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Words to cool a harp solo and excite for history (ll.1063-1070)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
A Harp Solo Before a History Lesson
Words of War Mingled with Words of Mirth
Closing

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Abstract

The poet describes the joy and noise of the hall before diving into a summary of a tale that’s about to be told.

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Translation

“There was song and clamour together there
before the Danish commanders.
The harp was played, many tales told,
when the hall joy Hrothgar’s poet
among the mead benches would recite:
He sang of Finn’s children, when calamity struck them,
when the Halfdane hero, Hnæf Scylding,
in the Frisian slaughter found death.”
(Beowulf ll.1063-1070)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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A Harp Solo Before a History Lesson

You know there’s not a lot happening in an old poem when there are bits like this passage. What makes this passage such a red flag for a low ebb of action? The lack of specificity for starters. Until the next part of the poem (another poem within a poem) is described, we’re just told how the Danish commanders are regaled while song and tale telling are happening all around everyone.

It’s also clear that this is a bridge sort of passage because immediately before hand we had some wisdom dropped on us. It wouldn’t surprise me if before this passage was recited there would usually be a little harp solo. It’s just the appropriate time for that sort of thing.

After all, things are going to get heavy again fairly soon, and the end of this passage is the warning for that. I mean, before we even get into the poem that’s about to be recited, the poem itself is telling us that the children of Finn will meet calamity and the Danish hero Hnæf Scylding will meet his end. So a little solo and maybe a re-enactment of the celebration would help.

But the story that follows this passage is definitely something inserted, a kind of gem embedded in the woven metal art piece that is Beowulf.

Perhaps it was a lovely poem that was much admired when Beowulf was being composed, maybe even just a piece of poetry that came to a poet’s mind after having told his audience about the gifts Beowulf and the Geats got. Whatever the case, the coming story is offset explicitly like the story of Sigmund and the dragon told the morning after Beowulf’s victory.

So we can tell that spirits are indeed high since Beowulf’s been fêted before with this kind of embedded story.

Likewise, the tale of Sigmund foreshadows Beowulf’s own fight with a dragon, and we can expect more foreshadowing from this passage. Though it’s not likely to be as clear.

Why?

Because all of the names and roles in Anglo-Saxon society can get a little tricky. And this poem is, if nothing else, historical and political, so it’s trying to exemplify something political and social. If the story of Sigmund is like Shakespeare’s The Tempest, the story of Finn’s children and Hnæf Scylding is like Titus Andronicus or Julius Caesar. It’s a neat yarn, but only really interesting if you’re already familiar with the history or are interested in it.

And, actually, given that this is something with a little more grounding in history than Sigemund’s fight with the dragon, it’s interesting how the poet doesn’t really try to hook us with any special detail about the story.

Before the Sigemund story we’re told that the poet brought stories of Sigemund from far off lands, but here we’re explicitly told that what we’re about to hear tell of calamity and death. But I think that’s just part of mustering authority. The poet’s introduction to what’s about to be recited needs to be simple and clear to set the tone of what’s to come and also to make clear that this isn’t an embellishment or grand story, but a retelling of facts. Plus, most people hearing Beowulf, or even reading it, would probably be familiar with the calamity that befell Finn’s children and Hnæf’s end, so things are primed as being familiar rather than new. What’s to come is history rather than mythology, after all.

Though, maybe that’s why history feels boring to a lot of people. Even if we don’t know the details, the stories within history are familiar because we’ve heard the archetypal historical stories before (stories of people in war, of intrigue, of the ambitious). But works of fiction (or mythology) seem fresh and new because there’s the promise of a story we’re unfamiliar with – including twists and surprises that we aren’t expecting.

What do you think makes a good story? Something unlike anything you’ve ever come across before, a regular story with a twist at the end, or something that’s mostly familiar? Why?

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Words of War Mingled with Words of Mirth

Well, because this passage is leading us into history, things get pretty serious by the end of it. But that doesn’t mean they don’t get the poet revved up to use a bunch of compound words.

We get four here, including one that must have been made up specifically for this occasion. However, none of these compounds are particularly deep or complex. So perhaps the excitement the poet feels as he gets ready to launch into a little history isn’t as unbridled as it’s been in the past but is more like the excitement of a professor about to lecture on her favourite subject.

Anyway, the four compounds we come across in this passage are “hilde-wisan” (l.1064), “gomen-wudu” (l.1065), “heal-gamen” (l.1066), and “Fres-wæle” (l.1070).

The word “hilde-wisan” means “commander.” Though I think “veteran” works, too.

After all, “hilde” means “war,” “combat,” “keeping,” “custody,” “guard,” “protection,” “loyalty,” “fidelity,” “observance,” “observation,” “watching,” “secret place,” “protector,” or “guardian”; while the Old English word “wisan” means “leader,” or “director.” So combining the two gives us something like “director of combat,” or “leader of protecting,” which sounds like a veteran or commander to me. Of course, I think that goes without saying since all commanders would likely have been veterans (though not all veterans would be commanders).

Line 1065’s “gomen-wudu” is probably the neatest compound of this bunch, and quite appropriately so.

This word means “harp.” It derives that meaning from “gomen” (“sport,” “joy,” “mirth,” “pastime,” “game,” or “amusement”) and “wudu” (“wood,” “forest,” “grove,” “tree,” “the Cross,” “Rood,” “wood,” “timber,” “ship,” or “spear-shaft”). So literally, this compound for “harp” means “mirth wood.” I rather like how how the mirth is focused in the wood.

Not because it takes the emphasis off of the skill of the person playing the harp. But because it suggests that the musician playing the harp is more of a medium than someone actively creating music, that they’re someone through whom the music flows rather than someone who just plays. Which makes sense since, in a joyous meadhall where its namesake alcohol is freely flowing, I imagine the harp player would get pretty into their playing. And it’s really cool how the compound reflects that.

The word “gamen” comes up again in “heal-gamen.” Though in this case it’s combined with “heal” (as a form of “healh” it could mean “corner,” “nook,” “secret place,” “small hollow in a hillside or slope”; or as “heall” it could mean “hall,” “dwelling,” “house,” “palace,” “temple,” “law court,” or “rock”) to simply mean something like “hall joy.”

Though Clark Hall and Meritt drily define this compound as “social enjoyment.” But I think that definition makes the compound sound like it’d be more comfortable in a piece of Old English sociology rather than Old English poetry.

Then, rounding things out, is a word that the poet must’ve just mashed together to fill the line and fit the alliteration: “Fres-wæle.”

This word must be unique to Beowulf because it’s just the name of a group of people – the Frisians (“Fresan” in Old English) – and “wæle,” which we’ve encountered before (which means “slaughter” or “carnage”). Hence, “the Frisian slaughter.” It’s not a very complex compound word, nor is it one that allows for a lot of misinterpretation, but it’s definitely something I take as a sign of the poet’s transcendent sort of state at this point in the poem.

What’s your take on “Fres-waele”? Is it used just because it’s a word? To alliterate? Or to show how the poet’s beside himself with excitement?

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Closing

In the next passage we’ll start to get a sense of what this Frisian slaughter, and the matter of Hnæf Scylding are really all about.

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Payment for the dead and weird words with clear covers (ll.1050-1062)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Obligatory Gifts for the Living and the Dead
Sailing through a Batch of Inherited Words
Closing

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Abstract

The poet fills us in on how Hrothgar rewarded the other Geats before telling us about “the fore-thinking mind.”

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Translation

“Yet then the lord to each man
who had with Beowulf undertaken the sea-way,
there at the ale bench gave treasure,
bequested booty, and then commanded that immediately
gold be paid up, for to cover the one whom
Grendel earlier killed, as he surely would have killed more,
had not wise God and a single man’s
daring prevented that fate. The Measurer ruled
over all human kings then, as it now yet does.
Thus understanding is always best,
the fore-thinking mind. Much shall it endure
of love and of hate, so long as it partakes of
this world’s days of strife.”
(Beowulf ll.1050-1062)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Obligatory Gifts for the Living and the Dead

What is there to say about this passage? The other Geats get rewarded, the poet shares a bit of Christian-tinged gnomic wisdom and the way is made clear for more partying.

But. I’m just gonna hold us up on our way to that with a few small things.

First, on line 1152, the word for “gave” (“gesealan”) doesn’t really come off as nicely as line 1044’s “confer” (or “onweald geteah”) in last week’s passage. That is the word used for Hrothgar’s formally giving Beowulf those great gifts we’re told all about. But the treasures given to his fellow Geats seem to be given over a greater sense of obligation.

After all, “sellan” includes such senses as “furnish,” “supply,” and “allot.” It sounds like there’s much more of a need motivating Hrothgar’s giving treasure to the Geats who were either asleep or useless in the fight with Grendel. Social custom just says that you need to pay those who come in to help you, so Hrothgar’s paying up. And I guess they all get paid the same.

Even if they die in the line of duty.

On lines 1053-1055 we’re told that after he gave the other Geats gifts, Hrothgar then “commanded that immediately/gold be paid up, for to cover the one whom/Grendel earlier killed” (“ænne heht/golde forgyldan, þone ðe Grendel ær/mane acwealde”)

This makes Hrothgar sound like a very upstanding guy. Someone who really sticks to what had been offered, what had been promised. But there’s more to this exchange than a ruler simply paying everyone who came to his rescue.

Grendel had been feuding with the Danes, at least in a sense. The reason for the feud is unclear, but earlier in the poem reference is made to Grendel acting as if he had some sort of feud with them.

I’m not sure of all the laws involved, but one of the major ones in Anglo-Saxon Britain was the concept of “wergild.” I’ve mentioned this before when talking about the word itself and when talking about Hrothgar handling Beowulf’s father. But, as a quick refresher, “wergild” was the money paid out to a rival group if your group happened to kill one of their members. The purpose of this payment was to keep a feud from breaking out so that violence between familial or clan groups could be quelled in the interest of organizing these smaller groups into something bigger.

But back to the poem.

In this mention of payment for the dead Geat we might be seeing wergild paid out. Not because the Geat was killed in some sort of feud they had with the Danes. No such feud exists in the poem. Instead, this payment’s made, I think because when Beowulf was legal owner of Heorot for that night, he also took on Grendel’s feud (or, by virtue of Heorot being the Dane’s base of operations, legal ownership of it enveloped him in the relations surrounding the building). As such, since it was the Danes that got them involved in the feud with Grendel, and Grendel can’t pay any wergild, Hrothgar takes it on himself to make up for the death of the Geat that Grendel snacked on when he first arrived at Heorot that fateful night.

Plus, paying the wergild for a man killed in a battle not his own, would help to make the message of alliance and peace between Geats and Danes deafeningly clear. So there’s another reason to pay for the fallen Geat.

What do you think of the concept of attaching a monetary value to a life? Do you think such a payment was satisfying to the Anglo-Saxons?

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Sailing through a Batch of Inherited Words

Since this is another meditative, kind of serious and slow paced passage we don’t get much in the way of wild compounds. There are few though. At the least, I’ll point them out.

First, on line 1051, we have “brim-lade,” a word for “flood-way” or “sea-way.” This word mixes “brim” (“surf,” “flood,” “wave,” “sea,” “ocean,” “water,” “sea-edge,” or “shore”) and “lade” (“course,” “journey,” “way,” “street,” “water-way,” “leading,” “carrying,” “maintenance,” “support,” “clearing from blame or accusation,” “purgation,” or “exculpation.”) for its aquatic meaning. The senses of “lade” involved blame aren’t likely related to this compound, but it’s kind of fun to wonder if such a seafaring people as the Anglo-Saxons saw sailing or going along the “sea-way” as somehow purgative. Maybe, because of the time for all parties involved to think things over and perhaps forgive, a sea voyage was seen as a good way to ultimately have people clear each other of blame.

Though even I think that’s a bit of a stretch.

For all of its simplicity, “yrfe-lafe” (1053) is a weird word.

Combining “yrfan” (“inherit,” “leave (by will),” or “honour with a funeral feast”) and “lafe” (“what is left,” “remnant,” “legacy,” “relic,” “remains,” “rest,” “relict,” or “widow”) to leave us with a word meaning “bequest, inheritance, heir,” it’s clear where the meaning of “yrfe-lafe” comes from. Though, in its use in this passage, it seems like its context skews its meaning.

On line 1053 we’re told that the other Geats are “bequested booty,” though I’ve translated that from a simple “yrfe-lafe.” The thing here is, as mentioned above, I think that Hrothgar’s giving gifts to the rest of the Geats more out of obligation than genuine gratefulness. It’s as if they’re inheriting them as a matter of fact rather than being rewarded with them.

Line 1060’s “fore-þanc” is quite a bit more straightforward, given its place in the philosophical part of this passage.

Meaning “forethought,” “providence,” “consideration,” or “deliberation,” this word is a combination of “fore” (“before,” “in the sight of,” “in presence of,” “because of,” “for the sake of,” “through,” “on account of,” “by reason of,” “from,” or “before”) and “þanc” (“thought,” “reflection,” “sentiment,” “idea,” “mind,” “will,” “purpose,” “grace,” “mercy,” “favour,” “pardon,” “thanks,” “gratitude,” “pleasure,” “satisfaction,” “reward,” or “recompense”). So “fore-þanc” very literally means “before thought” or several variations of the same that all boil down to consideration being made before things either temporally or pseudo-physically (in that the action is given because of, or in the presence of something.

Which brings us down to the last line’s “windagum,” or “days of strife.” The “dagum” part of this word is Old English for “day” (though it could also mean “lifetime,” “Last Day,” or just be used as name of the rune for “d”), while “win” is a word for “toil,” “labour,” “trouble,” “hardship,” “profit,” “gain,” “conflict,” “strife,” or “war.” So, since “dagum” is the plural form of “daeg,” we get “days of toil.” Pretty neat, huh?

But, that’s not all. Because as terrible as “days of toil” sounds, it seems like there’s a bit of a silver lining. Possibly, anyway. The non-toil or labour-intensive definitions of “win” are “profit” and “gain.” It’s unclear if we’re supposed to understand these gains as coming from toil and labour or if it’s just a different take on what makes days full of strife. Maybe instead of battling sin, for example, “days of profit” are those in which you can embrace virtue.

In either case it’s neat to know that an alternative perspective (or even meaning) is contained in a word like “win.” Though, given modern English’s “win” it’s pretty clear which senses of the word won out. Though, again, winning can take a lot of strife and toil, so maybe this struggle of the senses isn’t over yet.

How closely can you look at a word (like “win,” for example) before it starts to temporarily lose all meaning to you?

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Closing

After all of this talk of gifts and understanding, we’re told of how high times finally return to Heorot.

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A fair and square exchange and the simple words for it (ll.1043-1049)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
The Legality of Hrothgar’s Giving
Why the Plain Speaking Compounds?
Closing

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Abstract

The poet describes how Hrothgar gives Beowulf all of the stuff that was described in the last two passages.

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Translation

“And then the lord there, descendant of Ing,
conferred both those gifts unto Beowulf,
horses and weapons; commanded/entreated him to use them well.
Thus the famed lord nobly,
The guardian of those treasures rewarded the warrior for the storm of battle
with treasures and steeds, so that no man might ever find fault with
the two, for what those words exchanged were rightly aligned with truth.”
(Beowulf ll.1043-1049)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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The Legality of Hrothgar’s Giving

Since the last two passages pretty much covered Beowulf getting the gifts, there’s more to this passage than simply restating that Hrothgar gave him the horses and four weapons. This little cap off for this part of the poem could just be a formality, or part of the poetic practice of making things just a bit longer than they need to be. But there’s a reason for the poet to say that Hrothgar, then and there, “conferred both those gifts unto Beowulf” (“Ond ða Beowulfe bega gehwæþres/…onweald geteah” (ll.1043-1044)).

The crux of this passage comes at its end, and I think it’s directly related to the poet’s foreshadowing Heorot’s doom on line 1018-1019 (discussed in this post).

Just as that passage ended with the poet saying that treachery would not yet tear Heorot apart, the poet’s statement here that Beowulf and Hrothgar acted in such a way that “no man might ever find fault with/the two” (“swa hy næfre man lyhð,” (l.1048)) is meant to make it clear that the Geats played no part in the treachery that does Heorot in.

Just as I discussed two posts ago, whether Hrothgar is first referred to as Halfdane’s sword or his son makes no difference when it comes to the substance of the gifts themselves – whether it’s familial or political, the gifts are given to solidify an alliance.

And here, since the “words exchanged were rightly aligned with truth” (“se þe secgan wile soð æfter rihte” (l.1049)), that alliance is definitely a clear and forthright one. It’s not the sort of agreement where one part misinterprets the other’s intention or aim (which was a fairly common cause of tricksters justifying their treacherous deeds in some of the Norse sagas and no doubt in similar Germanic stories). So this passage firmly establishes that the Geats and the Danes are perfect friends. There is no bad blood between them whatever.

But why establish that?

Well, without knowing a lot of the history of the actual interactions between the Geats and the Danes (so long as the Geats actually were a people at the same time Hrothgar’s Danes were around), it’s hard to say. This whole passage could be sarcastic and the Geats, in actual fact, could be a central player in the downfall of Heorot. But I don’t think that’s why this passage is here.

I think it’s a sincere expression of an actual state of the alliance between Geats and Danes. Maybe it’s overstating the strength of the bond between real life Geats and Danes, but I think it’s here mostly to underscore Beowulf’s success. He’s defeated Grendel handily (*ahem*), brought peace back to Heorot, and didn’t let too much damage mar Heorot while it was legally his. Hence Hrothgar’s legally handing these things over to Beowulf (as the word “conferred” (“onweald geteah” (l.1044)) implies).

Everything is fair, square, and above board because that’s the kind of clean acting hero Beowulf is. He’s uncomplicated as far as his deeds go because that’s just who he is.

And perhaps it’s just how young he is. As we’ll see later in the poem, the older Beowulf we find in the poem’s latter half is a more complicated hero. But for now, he and his dealings are straightforward and simple. Singing out the legal transference of goods is part of expressing that, I think.

And, maybe this singing is a clue to the poem’s age since the early Scandinavian “skalds” were responsible for poetry as well as preserving and chanting the laws (mostly from memory). This repetition for legality’s sake could refer to that Scandinavian legal singing and so suggest that the Beowulf scribes were familiar with the practice. Though maybe only through books about it.

Everything medieval’s muddy, isn’t it?

What’s your theory on why the poet repeats Hrothgar’s giving Beowulf the arms and horses?

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Why the Plain Speaking Compounds?

After having been indulged these last few weeks I feel a little cheated by what the poet’s left me in this passage. There’s a serious shortage of compound words. But, as always, I think there’s a purpose behind that lack.

The two compound words that are given are “hord-weard” and “heaþo-raesas.” Both of these compounds are very straightforward. If you’ve been following this blog for a while you might even be able to translate their parts on sight.

The first of these, “hord-weard,” means “guardian of treasure,” “king,” “heir,” or “firstborn.” To get to this meaning, it combines “hord” (“hoard” or “treasure”) and “weard” (“watching,” “ward,” “protection,” “guardianship,” “advance post,” “waiting for,” “lurking,” “ambuscade,” “keeper,” “watchman,” “guard,” “guardian,” “protector,” “lord,” “king,” or “possessor”). So all together, the word means, “guardian of treasure” pretty plainly.

Though, there’s some interesting stuff in the meanings of “weard” that lean more toward stealth or even sneak attacks rather than outright guarding of something, But the two are still related within those senses, I think. If you’re setting traps, you’re guarding your life after all. The same goes for “waiting for” or “lurking”; you’re present in a place and in an active state of watching for something or someone. So the sense of “guardian of treasure” is pretty consistent throughout.

The next word in this pair is “heaþo-raesas.” This one means “onrush,” “attack,” or “storm of battle,” and comes to use from the union of “heaþo” (“war”) and “raes” (“rush,” “leap”, “jump,” “running,” “onrush,” “storm,” or “attack”). And, just like with “hord-weard” that meaning, “storm of battle,” is consistent throughout combinations. The word basically means a fierce, sudden attack.

At the top of this section, though, I mentioned that I think having only these two compound words in this passage is intentional.

In past entries it’s been clear that the complicated compound words come out when the poet (or the poet’s subjects) become excited. When big speeches with rhetorical flourishes are made, or wise asides, or descriptions of action and battle – those are the times when the compounds come out in full force. And the complexity of those compound words matches the level of excitement to some extent. These speakers (or the poet themselves) don’t have time to come up with common compound words – they need to make up their own!

And there’s no saying that the calm, clear giving of gifts for a job well done is anything but heart pounding in the same way as a battle or a rousing speech. So there being no complex compounds fits the tone of this part of the poem.

But, I also think the poet keeps the compounds toned down here because of the legality of this little recap. Yeah, this kind of turns on the legal implications of “confer” (which I’ve translated from “onweald geteah” (l.1044)), but I think that’s enough. Simply giving us a summary of the goods exchanged practically stands in as a kind of receipt after all. And what’s a receipt except a record of a transaction that can later be used for bureaucratic stuff like taxes. And what’s the language of bureaucracy? Law.

So I think we can consider any kind of legal passage or bit of the poem that’s a formality as a stretch where the compound words that are used will be pretty straightforward to keep confusion to a minimum. Like a receipt, this section of the poem is probably meant to be as bare bones as an alliterative poem can be.

But so what? Well, the idea that clarity of language is important to this sort of legal passage suggests that the Anglo-Saxons liked their laws simple, or at least the poet wanted to promote the clean dealing of a trade of gifts for services rendered. Perhaps it’s a bit of anti-feuding, anti-treachery propaganda – give gifts plainly instead of with malicious machinations!

Plus, that simple compounds appear at all in such a straightforward passage suggests that compounds are so important to Old English that they’re simply everywhere – even in legalese.

It’s not exactly related, but what’s your favourite weird law? I’m not sure if it’s on the books any more, but in 19th century Canada it was illegal to wear a mask in the woods – a pretty good weird law.

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Closing

After all of this gift giving, there’s more still to come in the next passage. Hrothgar’s rewarded Beowulf, but that doesn’t mean he’s forgotten the other Geats.

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