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

Battleground just a Board Game?
Battle Words and Hall 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 continues his story, as he shifts from Hildeburh to what’s happening between the battle’s commanders, Finn and Hengest.

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“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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Old English:


Modern English:


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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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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.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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

  1. Pingback: Battlefield mourning and measured compound words (1071-1080a) | A Blogger's Beowulf

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