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

The Legality of Hrothgar’s Giving
Why the Plain Speaking Compounds?

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

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“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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Old English:


Modern English:


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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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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.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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

  1. Pingback: Is Beowulf an introvert? | A Blogger's Beowulf

  2. Pingback: One word with two meanings, and two words all about swords (ll.1030-1042) | A Blogger's Beowulf

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