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

Two Mothers Mourning
Measured Compound Words

A section of the Bayeux Tapestry showing Anglo-Saxon warfare

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

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

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“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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Old English:


Modern English:


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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.


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

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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2 thoughts on “Battlefield mourning and measured compound words (1071-1080a)

  1. Pingback: Danes and Frisians cool the feud, but compound words tell a different story (ll.1095-1106) | A Blogger's Beowulf

  2. Pingback: Words to cool a harp solo and excite for history (ll.1063-1070) | A Blogger's Beowulf

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