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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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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.”
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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:
“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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In the next passage, all of the Danes’ schemes come to a head.
You can find the next part of Beowulf here.