A case for Danish sympathy and a sword’s name along with other words (ll.1142-1150a)

Hengest Gets Pushed over the Edge
A Sword’s Name and a few Other Compound Words

A section of the Bayeux Tapestry showing Anglo-Saxon warfare

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

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After some cajoling from his fellow Danes, Hengest kills Finn before leaving Frisia in the spring.

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“So he could not refuse the law of the world,
when to him Hunlafing gave War-Radiance,
the best of swords, placed it into his lap,
that was amidst the Jutes a known weapon.
Just so, it later befell Finn, the bold in spirit,
that he was cruelly killed in his own home,
suffered the dire attack after Guðlaf and Oslaf
spoke of the sorrow of their sea voyage,
all blamed their share of woe on Finn.”
(Beowulf ll.1142-1150a)

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Old English:


Modern English:


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Hengest Gets Pushed over the Edge

I feel like finding sympathy for villains in this poem is something that I do a bit much of (see this entry in particular), but I can’t help but feel like there’s something in here regarding Finn’s feelings.

I mean, from the sounds of it, Hengest almost left without exacting revenge.

It’s not until Hunlafing gives him the famed sword, “War Radiance” (l.1143) and “Guðlaf and Oslaf/spoke of the sorrow of their sea voyage” (ll.1148-1149) that he acts. Or so it seems. These two actions turn Hengest towards killing Finn before leaving.

And rightly so, right? Finn is one of the Danes’ sworn enemies – a Frisian – and so his wreaking vengeance makes sense.

But what does it say about Hengest that he needed so much convincing?

If Hunlafing hadn’t given him the sword famed from fights with the Jutes or Guðlaf and Oslaf hadn’t complained about how sorry they’d be coming back to Daneland lord-less and leaving his slayer alive, would he have killed Finn?

I honestly don’t think so. I think Hengest, bitter as he was all winter, had started to like Finn, or at least respect him.

The Danes, after all, had been at Finn’s mercy, and yet he respected the pact that his marriage to Hildeburh represented. Finn extended a hand of friendship to the Danes, even if only out of obligation, and he did not go back on any of his terms. Hnæf and Finn’s own son were burned together, a funeral was held for all who perished in the battle we never see, and the Danes go unharassed all winter.

So it seems likely that Hengest, who must have been the second in command while Hnæf was alive (or at least shows the level headedness required of a leader), gradually had his grudge against Finn worn away through exposure. The ember of his hatred for the man and for his people would likely remain since this is a feud we’re talking about, but if Hunlafing, Guðlaf and Oslaf hadn’t fanned that ember back to life, I think the Danes would’ve left without incident.

But instead they kill Finn and run off – but not before committing another act to perpetuate the feud. Though that act is mentioned in the next part of the poem.

So let’s pull back for a second.

As a sword guy I just want to point out the significance of the sword Hunlafing shows Hengest. Because I think that’s probably more of a factor in what Hengest did than Guðlaf and Oslaf’s needling. After all, as a sword that “the Jutes knew well,” it’s safe to say that it was a battle-hardened sword.

Since this is a sword that seems to have been wrapped up or tucked away, it was probably Hnæf’s own weapon. As such, it probably rampaged through the battle that came before we see Hildeburh mourning on the battlefield, and so the memory of it would be fresh in Finn and the Frisian’s minds.

Or maybe they actually wouldn’t remember it at all.

What makes the reputation of the sword “War-Radiance” important is that the Danes perceive it has such a thing. Because more than idle talk of people back home thinking them dishonourable cowards for not killing Finn, showing a concrete artifact that represented the feud between Danes and Frisians, I think, would really get Hengest thinking about revenge.


Because it would remind him of all the conflict between the two in the past, such a reputed sword would stand as a testimony and representation of their feud and its enduring nature in steel. Plus, if “War-Radiance” was Hnæf’s, there’d be the twinge of duty Hengest would no doubt feel, the duty to avenge his lord at last, perhaps long since his initial feelings of frustration and anger had cooled.

Which do you think pushed Hengest toward killing Finn – the sword or Guðlaf and Orlaf’s telling him they’d be dishonoured back home?

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A Sword’s Name and a few Other Compound Words

This passage’s compounds are pretty clear-headed. Perhaps because of the dire nature of the act the poet sings of here. After all, it’s not a battle in which you could become ecstatic in the telling, swinging compounds about like tree trunks, it’s a revenge killing of a lord in his own hall after having been his guests for the winter. It brings a chill into springtime. So the compounds are just as cold – but not less interesting.

Especially line 1143’s “hilde-leoman.” This technically isn’t a compound word since it’s the name of a sword, but that name is two other words smashed together, so here we go!

The word “hilde-leoman” comes from the compounding of “hilde” (“war,” or “combat”) and “leoman” (“ray of light,” “beam,” “radiance,” “gleam,” “glare,” or “lighting”), and I’ve chosen to translate it as “War-Radiance” (Seamus Heaney went with “Dazzle-the-Duel”) I think both have their merits.

But what’s interesting about this compound is that it’s a sword’s name.

Let me back up.

We see other named swords in this poem. There’s Hrunting and Nægling later on, for instance. But these are actual names, not just two words a poet (or someone) slammed together.

Sure, the usual alliteration comes to play with “hilde-leoman” (“Hunlafing hilde-leoman,” with the line’s cæsura right in the middle, perfectly bridges the gap), but it’s still neat that the name is just two words combined.

Plus, naming a sword something like “War-Radiance” makes sense. As a sword’s raised over and over again in a battle it’s going to catch whatever light there is on the field, especially if it’s constantly being swung but also being kept constantly clean either with quick wipes or jerky swings that shake any blood or gore free from the blade. So “War Radiance” (or the more personable” Dazzle-the-Duel”) makes an almost onomatopoeic sense (at least in Modern English).

The word “world-rædenne” (l.1142), meaning “way of the world,” is also kind of neat. Though more for its concept than anything to do with the word’s parts, those being “worold” (“world,” “age,” “men,” “humanity,” “way of life,” “life,” “long period of time,” “cycle,” or “eternity”) and “ræd” (“advice,” “counsel,” “resolution,” “deliberation,” “plan,” “way,” “design,” “council,” “conspiracy,” “decree,” “ordinance,” “wisdom,” “sense,” “reason,” “intelligence,” “gain,” “profit,” “benefit,” “good fortune,” “remedy,” “help,” “power,” or “might”).

I mean, no matter how you slice it, it basically comes back to meaning something pertaining to life and its order. The implication being, though, that killing Finn is just the way to go, it’s just what Hengest has to do as a rule of the world.

But I wonder if part of this editorializing on the part of Hrothgar’s poet sheds some light on the Anglo-Saxons’ view of history. Namely that history wasn’t something fluid that changes with every teller, but that it was something solid, and that since history was solid and fixed, so too what was to come. Though, obviously, what was to come couldn’t be read by people. So maybe there’s some determinism in that word, Hengest not being able to resist killing Finn simply because Danes and Frisians feud, and Finn’s murder would keep that going. It offers some insight into how a deterministic view of the past can lead to a deterministic view of the present and future, too, I think.

The next two compounds, “sweord-bealo” (l.1147) and “sæ-sið” (l.1149), just aren’t as interesting as “world-rædenne” and “hilde-leoman.”

Nonetheless, “sweord-bealo” brings together the unmistakable “sword” (“sword”) and “bealu” (“bale,” “harm,” “injury,” “destruction,” “rain,” “evil,” “mischief,” “wickedness,” “malice,” “a noxious thing” “baleful,” “deadly,” “dangerous,” “wicked,” or “evil”) to make a word that unmistakingly means “sword injury” or even more literally, “a grievous injury inflicted by a sword.”

And “sæ-sið” combines the nearly Modern English “sæ” (“sheet of water,” “sea,” “lake,” or “pool”) and “sið” (“going,” “motion,” “journey,” “errand,” “departure,” “death,” “expedition,” “undertaking,” “enterprise,” “road,” “way,” “time,” “turn,” “occasion,” “late,” “afterwards”) to give us “sea voyage” and almost nothing else. Though there is an implication that any kind of “sið” could be a euphemism for death since that is one of the word’s definitions according to Clark Hall and Meritt.

Do you think that the sword’s name, “hilde-leoman,” is something the poet came up with entirely for alliteration or because it was actually a sword’s name? Maybe both?

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Next week we hear the rest of the story of Hengest and Finn, and see what the Danes do before they leave Frisia.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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2 thoughts on “A case for Danish sympathy and a sword’s name along with other words (ll.1142-1150a)

  1. Pingback: The Danes scheme against Finn, compound words herald spring (ll.1127b-1141) | A Blogger's Beowulf

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