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

Obligatory Gifts for the Living and the Dead
Sailing through a Batch of Inherited Words

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

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“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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Old English:


Modern English:


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

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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

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

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