The Danes shred peace, and three diverse compounds (ll.1150b-1159a)

A Severed Peace
Three Diverse “Compounds”

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

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Finn is definitively slain and the Danes head back to Daneland with Hildeburh and some keepsakes along with them.

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“nor might the restless spirit
restrain itself at heart. Then was the hall made red,
red from the blood of their enemies, likewise was Finn slain,
king of the troop, and they seized the queen.
The Scyldings also bore away to their ships
all that had belonged to the lord of that land,
whatever within that hall they could find of
jewels, fine-worked gems. Then they left with that noble lady
on the sea voyage to Daneland,
lead her back to her people.”
(Beowulf ll.1150b-1159a)

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Old English:


Modern English:


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A Severed Peace

As if killing Finn in his own hall wasn’t enough, the Danes go whole hog and ransack the place, too. In fact, lines 1154-1157 make it sound like they took everything that wasn’t bolted down. Then they loaded up their ships and left, bringing Hildeburh back to Daneland with them.

Minor spoilers for next week: this is the end of the song that Hrothgar’s poet sings.

So we’ve seen, at least from this little look at the episode of the Danes’ winter with Finn, that every attempt that had been made to clear up the feud between Danes and Frisians was undone.

Maybe that’s why this episode was so well known that the Beowulf poet/scribe could just launch right into it, starting off with Hildeburh’s mourning on the battlefield. Though looking back, that mourning takes on much more meaning than a single woman’s reaction to the sight of her brother and son slain in a terribly grotesque way.

Hildeburh, as a peaceweaver, as a Danish woman sent to Finn to be his wife, sees the devastation of her family and realizes that the peace she was meant to broker has failed. Perhaps in that moment, as the sun rose over the battlefield and she saw her relatives so bloodily slain, she knew that any hope for peace between Dane and Frisian had ended.

Going ahead to the funeral, as I pointed out in this entry we’re told that the glory of both Danes and Frisians burned up together.

It’s mostly speculation (this blog’s stock and trade, after all), but where there’s glory, honour can’t be far behind, right?

So, if the Danes and Frisians’ glory was gone, honour between them was likely on the way out as well. Though it must’ve lasted the winter, since Finn’s vow to the Danes that they’d be left alone as long as they stayed with him seems to have kept the Frisian lords in line until they left in the spring. But the Danes’ sense of honour towards their host and erstwhile partner in peace must’ve seriously waned. So maybe Hengest wasn’t so sympathetic with Finn as I’d imagined. Maybe, instead of Hunlafing and Guðlaf and Oslaf shoving Hengest into action, all they did was give him a gentle push.

All I can say for sure is that when the Danes take Hildeburh back to her home country of Daneland they’ve effectively undone whatever peace Hildeburh’s marriage to Finn had woven. They tore that tapestry. Stealing the gems was likely something for their trouble (and Anglo-Saxons loved treasure, so why not throw some of it into such a well known story?), though their thorough-sounding stealing of the gems is also akin to running that torn tapestry through a shredder and then lighting what’s left on fire.

Why do you think the Danes broke their peace with the Frisians? Because their leader, Hnæf, had been killed in battle? Or because they had to endure the tense and awkward winter with Finn? Or was it both and more?

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Three Diverse “Compounds”

There are only two true compounds from this week’s passage that I want to point out. The other word is kind of a compound, but also kind of not.

This special case is the word “in-gesteald,” meaning “household goods” (found on line 1155). I think this is an older compound, or something more firmly entrenched in the language because “gesteald” itself is a modified version of of the verb “stealdan” (as far as I can tell). Let’s break it down:

The verb “stealdan” means “to possess,” or “to own.”

Meanwhile “ge” is a kind of intensifier (a weird quirk of old English grammar).

And “in” is thankfully the cognate of Modern English’s own “in,” so its meanings are similar.

So we have a word that means “in” plus an intensifier plus the verb for “to possess.” Yeah, I’d say that adds up to “household goods.” Though probably not in so far as we’d regard them as things like a coffee maker or specialized pan. I think the word refers to goods that the household had especially valued — basically, a household’s treasures.

Going from marshy murk to crystal lake clear, the next word to point out is “eorð-cyning.” This compound brings together the word “eorð” (“ground,” “soil,” “earth,” “mould,” “world,” “country,” “land,” or “district”) and “cyning” (“king,” “ruler,” or “Satan”) to make a word that means “earthly king” or “king of the country.” Not much surprising there.

Though it is a bit strange that the Old English “cyning” could refer to “Satan.” This little nuance gives the word “eorð-cyning” a curious tinge of greed and possessiveness. Maybe to imply (almost sarcastically?) that any king who was an “eorð-cyning” wasn’t a very high-minded ruler, but instead one who just ruled with greed and gluttony (or perhaps was ruled by them).

Though jumping to these conclusions about the word is risky since “cyning” having the sense of “Satan” could just be the result of missionaries using “cyning” to refer to Satan. It could have been their way of trying to devalue and dishonour what the word stood for when the Anglo-Saxons used it to refer to excellent kings, turning them instead into rulers who held nothing but earthly power and happiness in high regard in an attempt to turn the Anglo-Saxons’ imaginations away from treasure hoards and towards some glittering afterlife. But who knows?

And that brings us to “searo-gimma.” This word is a compounding of “searo” (“art,” “skill,” “cleverness,” “cunning,” “device,” “trick,” “snare,” “ambuscade,” “plot,” “treachery,” “work of art,” “cunning,” “device,” “engine (of war),” “armour,” “war-gear,” or “trappings”) and “gimma” (“precious stone,” “gem,” “jewel,” “sun,” or “star”) that means “curious gem.”

I think the point here is that a “searo-gimma” is a gem that’s been cut in a special way, or maybe designed to be part of a larger work of art — maybe even cut into a particular shape. Whatever the case, a “searo-gimma” isn’t just some ruby or sapphire lying around, but something that’s had a bit more craft applied to it. With things like “armour, war-gear and trappings” being senses of “searo,” maybe “searo-gimma” is simply short hand for jewelled armour — stuff that would dazzle as much as it would defend.

And that’s it. I think the compound words are relatively few in these, the last few lines of the song of Hildeburh and the Danes and Frisians’ fateful battle, because it’s supposed to be conclusive. As such, it’s much more straightforward than other passages about slaughter, robbery, and making off with people and booty, would be.

Though maybe the Beowulf poet just didn’t want to write a poet character who was more artful with compound words than he was himself.

My speculation about the word “cyning” and its carrying some sense of referring to “Satan,” comes from the idea that changing words can change thoughts. Do you think changing words can actually change thoughts? Or is that just an outmoded way of looking at how language and perception interact?

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Next week we get back to the celebration in Hrothgar’s hall, since the poet’s song is over.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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1 thought on “The Danes shred peace, and three diverse compounds (ll.1150b-1159a)

  1. Pingback: A case for Danish sympathy and a sword’s name along with other words (ll.1142-1150a) | A Blogger's Beowulf

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