The Danes scheme against Finn, compound words herald spring (ll.1127b-1141)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
A Feud Defined
Compounds Both Simple and Complex
Closing

The goddess of spring, Ostara, shown with her symbols and beams of light.

“Ostara by Johannes Gehrts” by Eduard Ade – Felix Dahn, Therese Dahn, Therese (von Droste-Hülshoff) Dahn, Frau, Therese von Droste-Hülshoff Dahn (1901). Walhall: Germanische Götter- und Heldensagen. Für Alt und Jung am deutschen Herd. Breitkopf und Härtel.. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ostara_by_Johannes_Gehrts.jpg#/media/File:Ostara_by_Johannes_Gehrts.jpg

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Abstract

The poet tells us that, as much as they’ve been wanting to head home, the Danes have been plotting against Finn all the winter long. And now, with spring in the air, the revenge is about to happen.

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Translation

                      Hengest there yet
dwelt, through the slaughter-stained and all ill-fated winter
with Finn; filled with thoughts of home,
though they might not sail the sea upon
a ring-prowed ship; the sea heaved with storms,
winds fought upon it; the wintry waves were locked
tight with binding ice, and would be until came
another year to the world, as it yet does,
as the seasons are still observed,
bringing gloriously bright weather. Then would winter depart,
leave the earth’s fair bosom; the exiles were eager to go,
the strangers in the hall; but then they thought more
of revenge for their injury than of putting to sea,
if they might bring about a hostile encounter,
that the son of Jutes may have his crime etched in his heart.”
(Beowulf ll.1127b-1141)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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A Feud Defined

In this passage the poet gives us the reason why Hengest and the Danes couldn’t yet leave Finn’s stronghold: the winter held them in place.

A natural phenomenon kept them from sailing home, and so they were held there at Finn’s place. Maybe this should be viewed as an act of god, or maybe that’s just how it was framed when Beowulf was put to paper.

At the very least, we can say that Hengest and his Danes had no choice in the matter. They’re definitely not sticking around because they want to. Indeed, though the poet spends a bit of time decorating this passage with the natural imagery of a storm-laden sea and a new year coming to the world (back when New Years was actually celebrated much closer to the spring equinox), we can also see Hengest an the Danes smouldering.

Hell, maybe they’re smouldering because they can’t leave and if the Danes had been able to just up and head out after the funeral there would be no hard feelings beyond the disgrace of having to submit to their lord’s slayer. But winter is just that cruel.

More than that, though, I think there’s something to be said for the Danes’ hate growing through the winter. It’s a kind of neat time lapse of a feud’s growth if you think about it. Very much in miniature, but nonetheless. Let’s get into the imagery to suss this view of feuds out.

We’re told that the seas are stormy and locked up with ice. But only after the poet tells us that the Danes can’t sail away. And then, before we get back to the Danes, we’re told about how the seas were impassable until a new year came (“as it yet does,” (“swa nu gyt deð” (l.1134)) the poet assures us for some reason), and we’re told about how the new year brings with it “gloriously bright weather” (“wuldortorhtan weder” (l.1136)).

Actually, that kind of light sounds like the sort that could refresh and renew a person — even if we consider this part of the poem to be entirely (or at least mostly) free of the Christian influence that likely came with the writing down of Beowulf.

If even this part of the poem has been Christianized, then that “bright weather” sounds like the sort of thing that redeems the world, that saves it every single spring in a grand cycle of renewal and decay. It packs the season of spring with so much rebirth that the four season cycle becomes a metaphor even for human life itself (though that would be one grand cycle of the seasons of life, starting over again, in Christian thought, with the resurrection at the next, true spring).

So renewal is really highlighted, underlined, and made a big deal of here. Even if only subtly through imagery.

And yet, the Danes’ anger persists. It is powerful enough — dark enough? — to resist this “gloriously bright weather,” which, in a way actually encourages the Danes’ plan. After all, now they can get back at Finn and make their escape, thus fleeing the consequences of their violence.

If that sort of enduring, growing anger doesn’t describe a feud I don’t know what does.

Or, as Blake would write some centuries after Beowulf was put to paper in his poem The Poison Tree[http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/175222]:

“I was angry with my friend;
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe:
I told it not, my wrath did grow.

And I waterd it in fears,
Night & morning with my tears:
And I sunned it with smiles,
And with soft deceitful wiles.

And it grew both day and night.
Till it bore an apple bright.
And my foe beheld it shine,
And he knew that it was mine.

And into my garden stole,
When the night had veild the pole;
In the morning glad I see;
My foe outstretched beneath the tree.”

What do you think the point is of telling a story about revenge after a major victory?

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Compounds Both Simple and Complex

This week’s passage has quite a few compound words. But let me just barrel through the straightforward ones first.

These are “wael-fag,” (l.1128) “hringed-stefnan,” (l.1131) and “sae-lad” (l.1139).

“Wael-fag” simply means “blood-stained” and comes from the combination of “wael” (“slaughter,” or carnage”) and “faeg” (“variegated,” “spotted,” “dappled,” “stained,” “dyed,” “shining,” or “gleaming”).

Likewise, “hringed-stefnan” just joins the meaning of its parts to create a quicker word. “Hringed” means “made of rings,” and “stefnan” means “prow or stern of a ship.”

And, “sae-lad” is almost close enough to Modern English to figure out with a glance — almost. This word combines “sae” (“sheet of water,” “sea,” “lake,” or “pool”) and “lad” (“course,” “journey,” “way,” “street,” “water-way,” “leading,” “carrying,” “maintenance,” “support,” “clearing from blame or accusation,” “purgation,” or “exculpation”) for its meaning. Though there’s definitely something more in this one. Something about a journey being purging and cleansing, along with the sea itself being seen as something flat, a place welcoming roads.

But now let’s get to the good stuff.

The word “wuldor-torhtan” is a fantastic compounding of “wuldor” (“glory,” “splendour,” “honour,” “praise,” “thanks,” or “heaven”) and “torht” (“clearness,” “brightness,” “bright,” “radiant,” “beautiful,” “splendid,” “noble,” “illustrious,” “brightly,” “clearly,” “beautifully,” “splendidly”) meaning “gloriously bright,” “clear,” “brilliant,” or “illustrious.”

This word is also fairly straightforward, but it’s not quite as cut and dry as just being a mix of two words for fairly concrete things. Any kind of “glorious light” is a little more than just your desk lamp being flicked on, after all.

Then on line 1138 we have “gyrn-wraece” a word based on the combination of “gyrn” (“sorrow,” or “misfortune”) and “wracu” (“revenge,” “vengeance,” “persecution,” “enmity,” “punishment,” “penalty,” “cruelty,” “misery,” “distress,” “torture,” or “pain”) that means “revenge for injury.”

I think that this compound is a little more complex than those at the top of this section because of the nuance that “wracu” brings to it.

This word’s nuances suggest that the revenge isn’t necessarily for some sorrow or misfortune, but it’s maybe a penalty for it. Which brings the perhaps selfish seeming act of revenge the flavour of something cosmic, or, at the least, something social. In that your participation in a society entitles you to lash out at another who has wronged your society.

On the one hand, this is definitely a clear motivation in whatever the Danes are planning in this passage. But on the other, it’s definitely something that can seem petty. But our first reaction to the kind of violence Finn visited upon the Danes even today is the same — to hit back, rather than to try to find the real root of the problem and go after that. As the feud with the Frisians continues after this incident, the Danes didn’t bother to attack the root of their problem with the Frisians either.

And then we come to line 1140’s “torn-gemot,” a word meaning nothing more than “battle.”

But this word combines “torn” (“anger,” “indignation,” “grief,” “misery,” “suffering,” “pain,” “bitter,” “cruel,” or “grievous”) and “gemot” (as a form of “mētan”: “meet,” “find,” “find out,” “fall in with,” “encounter,” or “obtain”) to get there, so there’s definitely more to it than battle.

In fact, I went with the literal translation in this passage because I don’t think the Danes want to initiate another battle with Finn. Sure, all of his forces have dispersed so he likely only has his own personal comitatus around him, but still. What the Danes are scheming is subtler than an all out attack — otherwise it wouldn’t outpace thoughts of homes in their minds, as we see in line 1138-1139’s “but then they thought more/of revenge for their injury than of putting to sea” (“he to gyrnwræce/swiðor þohte þonne to sælade”).

What’s really odd about the second word in this compound, mētan, though, is it’s senses of “find” and of “obtain,” combined with the anger or pain of “torn,” it sounds like the compound doesn’t just refer to “battle” as Clark Hall and Meritt suggest, but to any encounter in which “anger” or “pain” are found — so not just physical fights but also battles of words, or bloodshed-free political clashes.

Basically, then, “torn-gemot” should mean, in its plainest sense, “conflict encounter” or even just “conflict.” Though we can be quite sure that the Danes aren’t just planning to have some choice words with Finn before they sail for home.

What do you think makes the difference between compound words that are straightforward and those that have more nuance? Is it a matter of a word’s newness, or of a word’s popularity?

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Closing

In the next passage, all of the Danes’ schemes come to a head.

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The Frisians head home after a funeral full of wounding words (ll.1118b-1127a)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Heading Home, Gore Foreshadows
Wound Words Before a Shift for Home
Closing

An example of a 9th-10th century Anglo-Saxon sword

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Abstract

The poet gives us some graphic details of the funeral pyre and then tells of how Finn’s troops went home.

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Translation

                   “The warrior went up;
the great funeral fire wound into the sky,
the burial mound roared with it; heads melted,
gaping wounds burst anew, then blood gushed out,
the bodies’ grievous wounds. The flames swallowed all up,
speediest of spirits, there the blaze’s belly bore away men
of both peoples; their glory together passed away.

Departed then the warriors to go to their homes
deprived of friends, scattered across Frisia,
their homes and their strongholds.”
(Beowulf ll.1118b-1127a)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Heading Home, Gore Foreshadows

Reading this passage over again the thing that jumps out the most for me (aside from the gore) is that the poet makes a point of telling us where everyone went after the funeral. They all went back to their homes – they “scattered across Frisia” (“Frysland geseon” (l.1126)).

This kind of mass departure suggests that whatever battle was waged between Danes and Frisians must have been huge. Since soldiers are returning to their homes all across the land, Finn would have had to have brought in all of his vassals, all of those who had pledged loyalty to him in exchange for land or at the least the right to own enough property to create a home.

So this latest battle between Frisians and Danes wasn’t just one gang of Frisians fighting another gang of Danes, it sounds like it was some sort of all out offensive.

What makes this fight even more dire, though, is that we have no sense of how many Danes there were. They’re obviously not near home so we’re not told where they went after the funeral at this point. In fact, it’s even possible that Finn overpowered the Danes with force of numbers. We’ll learn next week that the Danes came by ship, so how many of them could there have been?

But even then, if you consider Hildeburh’s position as a peaceweaver between the Danes and Frisians (she’s Hnaef’s sister, after all, and had bore Finn at least one child), there must have been a very good reason for Finn to have called such a massive force together. Some incident must have re-sparked the conflict and brought it to a head in which this episode of attempted peace would come to a bloody conclusion.

Unfortunately, all I can do is offer wild speculation. But that’s just the spirit of this blog, really.

So, to the gore.

We haven’t seen many accounts of battles between human armies yet, and even Beowulf’s accounts of fighting monsters have been pretty tame in comparison to this scene. Hell, even when Beowulf pulls off Grendel’s arm, there’s nothing quite so bloody as this scene of head-melting heat. So why embellish it so?

I think that it’s a pretty clear metaphor that the violence between Danes and Frisians is going to burst anew in the fires of rage. The poet just phrases it in such burning red lines to underline the searing fury underlying this restarting of an apparently age old feud.

But amidst the very graphic foreshadowing that violence is going to break out between Frisian and Dane once more, I think there’s a quiet call for peace. Or at least a condemnation of war.

After all, the poet says “there the blaze’s belly bore away men/of both peoples” (“þara ðe þær guð fornam/bega folces” (ll.1123-1124) The rage or anger that fuels the next outbreak of violence won’t satisfy either side because it will be motivated by a passion that’s gotten into the offender. Just like the actual fire, such indignation will be indiscriminate, and burn all alike.

That’s my theory anyway. What do you think of all the gore and fire here? Feel free to leave them in the comments

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Wound Words Before a Shift for Home

Well, in keeping with the pattern we’ve noticed when it comes to the Beowulf poet talking about war, this passage has some choice compound words.

First among them is line 1119’s “wael-fyra” meaning “deadly fire.” This one is incredibly straightforward, since “wael-fyra” comes from the combination of “wael” (“slaughter,” or “carnage”) and “fyr” (“fire”).

So this word is, literally, a “slaughter fire” or “carnage fire.” A bit more evocative in its literal form, though maybe not quite so clear as the old adjective-noun combo that is “deadly fire.”

Next we have a compound word that reminds me of Mercutio’s line in Romeo and Juliet: “No, ’tis not so deep as a well, nor so wide as a church door, but ’tis enough. ‘Twill serve” (III.i.96-97).

This is the word “ben-geato,” which means “wound-gash” (l.1121). Though this word comes to use from the compounding of “ben” (“wound,” or “mortal injury”) and “geat” (“gate,” “door,” or “opening”).

So, again, the literal form is quite evocative (if a bit clunky), as it comes out as “wound door.”

What I find especially evocative here is that the wound isn’t just gaping, or deep, or serious. It is literally a “door” or “gate” into the body.

These are wounds that’s definitely not closing any time soon, especially if the flames have anything to say about it – the fact that these wounds bursts suggests to me (with my limited medical knowledge when it comes to wounds) that the bodies and their damage is so fresh that the wounds had just lightly scabbed over, but were still raw underneath. So when the scabs melted in the flames, the fallen bled anew. Perhaps not something an audience rapt with the description of a funeral pyre would pick up on, but maybe something extra intended as further foreshadowing of friction between Danes and Frisians.

In a similar vein, we then get “lað-bite” on line 1122. This word means, simply, “wound.”

At least in translation. In a more literal form, it’s a combination of “lað” (“hated,” “hateful,” “hostile,” “malignant,” “evil,” “loathsome,” “noxious,” “unpleasant,” “pain,” “harm,” “injury,” “misfortune,” “insult,” “annoyance,” or “harmful thing”) and “bite” (“bite,” “sting,” “sword-cut,” or “cancer”), so something like “malignant sting” or “noxious sword-cut” is probably more in line with what the word intends. Again, definitely not something particularly pleasant.

Then, stepping away from war, there’s the word “heah-burg,” meaning “chief city,” or “town on a height” (l.1127). It comes from a combo of “heah” (“high,” “tall,” “lofty,” “high class,” “exalted,” “sublime,” “illustrious,” “important,” “proud,” “haughty,” “deep,” or “right (hand)”) and “burg” (“dwelling or dwellings within a fortified enclosure,” “fort,” “castle,” “borough,” or “walled town”), unsurprisingly.

This word signifies a major tonal shift from the graphic gore and blood of the funeral pyre, giving a sense of something very removed from such things. A sense that leaves me with the impression that, at least within the poem of Beowulf, there is an idea that war and life in general are separate.

It’s the idea that war is something to do far away from your high town, your home. It’s an idea that we definitely share with the culture from which Beowulf came. After all, wars in foreign lands often don’t seem real until they’ve touched us personally, or come to involve some threat to the “homeland.” Even if those threats are exaggerated or blown out of proportion for the sake of eyes on screens/pages/ads.

What do you think of the shift from the funeral to the talk of homes?

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Closing

In the next part of the poem we’ll see what happened to Hengest and his Danes after the funeral. After a little poetic flourish, of course.

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Wild ideas about boars and words from corpses (ll.1107-1118a)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Wild Boars, Wild Boars!
Words Fit for a Corps(e)
Closing

A man hunting down a boar on a 4th century AD Roman mosaic

“Mosaico de Las Tiendas (MNAR Mérida) 01” by Helen Rickard. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mosaico_de_Las_Tiendas_(MNAR_M%C3%A9rida)_01.jpg#/media/File:Mosaico_de_Las_Tiendas_(MNAR_M%C3%A9rida)_01.jpg

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Abstract

The story of Hengest and Finn continues, as Finn makes good on his promise to treat the Danes well and begins a funeral for the fallen Danes – including Hildeburh’s brother Hnæf and her son by Finn.

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Translation

“What was promised was prepared, and treasure-gold
was raised from the horde: the Scyldings
best battler was readied on the pyre.
Mail-shirts shiny with crusted blood were easily visible
on that heap, old gold boar images,
the iron-hard boar, many wounded warriors
were piled there; those few that fell in battle.
Commanded then Hildeburh that at Hnæf’s side
her own son’s body be placed for the blaze,
that his body burn on that same pyre.
Beside his uncle the lady mourned,
lamented with dirges.”
(Beowulf ll.1107-1118a)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Wild Boars, Wild Boars!

There’s a quote attributed to J.R.R. Tolkien that says that the Anglo-Saxons ate too much boar and drank too much mead. The mead part of that equation isn’t present in this passage, but their passion for boar certainly is. Well, in the form of things blazoned on their armour at any rate.

So what’s the deal with the boar references in lines 1111 and 1112? Well, the passage almost answers that question itself.

The first reference to a boar is the “old gold boar images” on the mail and armour of the fallen (“swyn ealgylden” (l.1111)). These images of the animals sound like they were decorative, something that adorned the armour that the fallen wore rather than something worn for practical purposes. The fact that these boars are “gold” definitely suggests decoration.

But then what about the “old” part?

My thinking is that since Hnæf is a lauded hero, he travels with the best he could muster. If they’re all part of a comitatus, perhaps their insignia is a golden boar. Or maybe the boar image at that time was just the symbol for a certain sort of soldier. So its being made of gold, the most prized metal at the time, signifies that these are the best soldiers that the Danes had to offer.

So these “old gold” boars are symbols of the fallen warriors’ status as celebrated fighters and heroes.

The next line definitely suggests the same thing, since a group of seasoned and skilled soldiers would certainly have the raw power of “the iron hard boar” (“eofer irenheard” (l.1112)). And boars are definitely powerful animals, as you can see here:

So the boar could easily have been the symbol for great warriors of old, those who fought and fought and fought and always came back.

And maybe that’s why the Anglo-Saxons (at least according to J.R.R. Tolkien) ate so much boar. Being Germanic the old German saying “you are what you eat” could well have been at work in their dietary choices.

The other major thing to address in this passage is that despite the sombre tone of this funeral scene, Hrothgar’s poet still throws in some comedy.

Line 1113’s “those few that fell in battle” just has to be sarcastic understatement. After earlier describing the dawn-lit battle field as a place where she sees “the violent death of her kin” (1079), there’s got to be more than a “few” that fell in battle. How else could someone so great as the hero Hnæf fall in battle?

Why the poet injects this little joke here may be a matter of pride – “there’s no way the Frisians killed that many of us, we still got him to follow through on his oath (as stated in this passage’s opening – “What was promised was prepared” (“Ad wæs geæfned” (l.1107)).

But the joke might also be here to dampen the military tone of recounting the soldiers and their garb as they lay on the pyre so that he can bring up the woman in mourning motif more effectively. The joke makes for a bittersweet bridge between the two, I think.

Do you think the poet’s trying to lighten the mood with this joke? Is it even a joke? Let me know what you think in the comments.

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Words Fit for a Corps(e)

Because of the tonal variety of this week’s passage, and perhaps even to play down the glory angle of battle, the poet doesn’t use too many compound words. In fact, none of them relate to high falutin concepts as is usual when we hear about war and combat in Beowulf. Instead, they all relate to the body in very mundane ways.

Line 1109’s “beadu-rinc” is first, with its meaning of “warrior” or “soldier.” How this word derives this meaning from its parts is completely straightforward. The word “beadu” means “war,” “battle,” “fighting,” or “strife” and the word “rinc” means “man,” “warrior,” or “hero.”

So “beadu-rinc” refers to a warrior as literally a “battle man” or a “fighting man.” This is clearly someone who’s defined by their battle experience. Which, if the word’s modern cousins like “firefighter (or fireman) or “fisher” (or “fisherman”) are any indication, is probably quite a deep and long experience indeed. Maybe it’s even referring to people whose vocation was war.

Then we peer inside the warrior to get a compound word for what’s leaked out all over their torn and damaged armour: blood.

The word is “swat-fah” and it means “blood-stained,” or “bloody.” The word comes from “swat,” meaning “sweat,” “perspiration,” “exudation,” “blood,” “foam,” “toil,” or “labour”; and “fag” which means “variegated,” “spotted,” “dappled,” “stained,” “dyed,” “shining,” or “gleaming.”

There’s no doubt that the fallen warriors garments and arms are spotted or stained with blood. But I went a little further with my translation of “shiny with crusted blood” (l.1110) but I’d like to think that for the remaining Danes the blood-encrusted garb of their comrades had a certain gleam to it. That the blood dried on it was something that called out to those Danes still living and tore at their guts more than any Frisian barb about being in the service of their lord’s slayer.

On the other end of a slayer, you’ll likely find the slain. And a good word to describe such a person is “ban-fatu.” This word means “body, corpse” and comes to do so through combining “ban” (“bone,” “tusk,” or “the bone of a limb”) and “fæt” (“vessel,” “jar,” “cup,” “casket,” or “division”). So literally, “ban-fatu” means “bone vessel,” or “vessel for bones.”

Unfortunately, I can’t say if the Anglo-Saxons had any theological or cultural beliefs about bones being extra important to human life, but maybe there’s something about the bones as human frame in there. So that calling someone a “vessel for bones” meant that they were just a flesh vat carrying around their bone frame, which, in a way, is exactly what a corpse is.

What sort of image does the word “bone vessel” bring to mind when you hear it? Let me know in the comments.

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Closing

With the funeral of the fallen Danes under way, the poet next meditates on the sight of the pyre ablaze.

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Danes and Frisians cool the feud, but compound words tell a different story (ll.1095-1106)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
A Roiling Blood Feud
Compounds Tell a Story
Closing

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Abstract

Hrothgar’s poet continues his recital. In this poem within a poem, Finn and Hengest conclude their peace treaty, including a mention of what will happen should the treaty be broken.

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Translation

“Then they with trust their two halves together
secured in a peace treaty. Finn to Hengest
with ill-fated courage oaths swore
that he the survivors of the carnage would treat
honourably as his counsellors advised, that no man
there would by word or deed break the treaty,
nor through any artful intrigue complain of it.
All this though they were forced to serve the slayer
of their ring-giver while leaderless, to him necessity bound them;
though if any of those Frisians were to remind them of that
through boldly speaking of the blood feud,
then the sword edge should settle it.”
(Beowulf ll.1095-1106)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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A Roiling Blood Feud

So 11 lines more and then we see the end of the negotiations between Hengest and Finn, between Dane and Frisian. There is some tension here, and it’s pretty clear that the Danes don’t want to have to sit and wait with the Frisians. But it’s still quite a mellow section of the poem as a whole. But perhaps that’s because this part of Beowulf is really reliant on knowing the history behind it.

Actually, without Hildeburh to relate to Grendel’s mother, or something else to relate to the main action of the poem, there’s nothing except history for us to really grab onto. Though we can definitely say with confidence that the “blood feud” (“morþorhetes” (l.1105)) between the Danes and Frisians that this treaty is supposed to quell will probably break out.

But maybe there’s something about the feud between Grendel and the Danes in there.

Without the historical context, but with the trope of the feud that’s gone on so long neither side can remember the reason for it, maybe the poet is telling this story to Hrothgar, Beowulf, and the assembled Danes and Geats as a kind of joke about the situation with Grendel. But to really get a handle on that we’ll need to see the conclusion of the poem first. If Dane and Frisian don’t bloodily clash in the poem’s final lines, but instead amicably part ways then this little diversionary poem is indeed mysterious.

But I don’t think the poet would include lines like 1107’s threat of any disputes with the treaty being settled with “the sword’s edge” (“sweordes ecg”) if this poem didn’t end with some sort of fight.

Anyway, the peace terms themselves (since that is what this passage of the poem is about), offer at least some insight into Anglo-Saxon culture. At least in terms of ideals.

Ideally, counsellors would be listened to, guests/hostages would be treated honourably lest a greater force come seeking to fulfill a renewed blood feud, and, ideally, those who don’t like the treaty are kept in line with the threat of harm or death. Which is kind of a funny way to enforce a peace treaty (I can’t help but visualize a parent snapping a belt as they say “now play nice – or else!” while standing over fuming siblings), but there you go. Though violence may have been the only deterrent, since I get the impression that Danes and Frisians didn’t have much in the way of trade. Plus, this is a treaty between two small sub-groups after all, not an out and out treaty between two entire peoples.

Also, it’s good to see that just who is who is cleared up. The slain ring-giver of lines 1102-1103 was the Dane’s. Even without the historical context for this story, the “them” of line 1104 suggests the Danes since it refers to the people that the Frisians are reminding, and since it’s just Danes and Frisians here, there’s no one else that “them” could refer to. Also, the poet singing this story is himself a Dane, so it makes sense that they’re the underdogs here (just as they were against Grendel, lending some weight to my idea that more than Hildeburh’s mourning relates this little story back to Beowulf at large).

So it sounds like the Danes are without a leader. But if one side’s leader remained, why not just envelop the weakened side while you hold the advantage?

Let me just take a quick look at Wikipedia’ entry on the this part of the poem (under the “Finnsburh Fragment” entry).

Ah. Here we go.

Hildeburh was Finn’s wife, and their marriage was meant to bring harmony between the Danes and the Frisians. So Finn, leader of the Frisians, obviously wanted peace. Hence, he makes a treaty with the Danes rather than just destroying them.

So Finn’s desire for peace is likely genuine (not unlike the well-meaning, but wrong-headed parent from a day dream a few paragraphs back). But that’s obviously not something that’s shared among the other Frisians, since any mention of the Danes serving their lord’s slayer is made punishable by death. And with good reason.

As poems like the Battle of Maldon make clear, loyalty to your lord was paramount in Anglo-Saxon society. So there could be no greater insult than to dishonour your former leader by turning around and working with his killer. Working with your lord’s slayer in any capacity – whether it was simply signing a treaty or running his errands – was the ultimate slander to your fallen leader because it suggests that he inspired no loyalty in those he lead. And, though it might’ve been fuelled by gifts of treasure, a true comitatus (or warrior band) was held together with loyalty. True warriors would stick with their leader no matter what, confident that in the end they would get their reward.

But Finn’s desire for peace doesn’t really clear up why the Danes are hanging around. Are they hostages? Are they trapped by winter’s icy water? Or is there something else keeping them?

I’ve already thrown in my guess that this peace treaty between the Danes and Frisians won’t last. Do you think it’ll make a difference and bring the two groups together, or that it will end in bloodshed?

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Compounds Tell a Story

Because of the tension the negotiation between two bitter rivals in this passage, it’s full of compound words.

But what makes these compounds really stick out is that this passage’s compounds tell a story. Here goes.

On line 1096 we find the passage’s first compound word. This is the word “frioðu-wær,” which means “treaty of peace.”

Simply enough it comes from the words “friðo” (“peace,” “safety,” “protection”) and “wær” (“true,” “correct,” “faith,” “fidelity,” “keeping,” “protection,” “agreement,” “treaty,” “compact,” “pledge,” “covenant,” “bond (of friendship)”). So right there in the constituent words you can see the meaning of “peace treaty.” It’s just as straightforward as such a treaty should be.

But things thicken on line 1101. This is where “inwit-searo” is mentioned. This word, meaning “artful intrigue,” comes from the words “inwit” (“evil,” “deceit”; or “wicked,” deceitful) and “searo” (“art,” “skill,” “cleverness,” “cunning,” “device,” “trick,” “snare,” “ambuscade,” “plot,” “treachery”; as well as “work of art,” “cunning device,” “engine (of war),” “armour,” “war-gear,” or “trappings”).

So now we’re faced with a kind of “cunning evil” or “wicked snare,” perhaps the machinations of someone or some group against the peace treaty mentioned above. But what makes these machinations plot-thickening is that they aren’t direct. This isn’t a compound word for “fight” or “sword” but instead comes from a sense of malicious intelligence that has set pieces up only to knock them down in a clever way.

In fact, “inwit-searo” describes just the kind of act that could spark a “morþor-hete,” or “blood feud” like the one on line 1105. This word combines “morþor” (“deed of violence,” “murder,” “homicide,” “manslaughter,” “mortal sin,” “crime,” “injury,” “punishment,” “torment,” or “misery”) and “hete” (“hate,” “envy,” “malice,” “hostility,” “persecution,” or “punishment”).

So at its simplest, aside from “blood feud,” morþor-hete” could simply mean hate-fuelled murder, or any violent act with malicious intent. To my eye at least, the word itself even looks like it could mean the fog that someone gets into when they commit such an act, a “murder-heat” or maybe “murder-haze.”

Without knowing exactly what the big rivalry between Dane and Frisian was, I can’t say if these three compound words tell the probably forgotten origin of the feud between these two peoples. But it is rather neat to see the compounds lined up like this. It might just foreshadow this poem’s own end, but we’ll find that out in four weeks.

Blood feuds were a common problem in Anglo-Saxon society and the early medieval period in general. But, feuds continue to be a super popular idea in TV and movies. Why do you think we still tell stories about feuds?

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Closing

Next week, following up on forging this peace, the poet turns to tell of the funeral for all those slain in the tragic combat of Frisian and Dane.

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