A tale of a torc (pt.1) and strangely simple compounds (ll.1192-1201)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Every Torc’s got a Story
Straight Ahead Compounds until the End
Closing

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Abstract

Wealhtheow brings generous words to Beowulf, along with generous gifts of golden garments.

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Translation

“To him the cup was carried and cordial invitations
offered in words, along with wound gold
bestowed with good will, armbands two,
garments and rings, the greatest neckring
in all the earth, as I have heard.
Not anywhere else under the sky have I heard of a finer
hero’s hoard treasure, not since Hama bore away to there
the magnificent necklace of Brosing,
jewels fixed in precious setting; when he fled
the cunning enmity of Eormenric; chose eternal gain.”
(Beowulf ll.1192 – 1201)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Every Torc’s got a Story

This passage reads like it’s written by someone who’s easily distracted by shiny things like jewels. It starts off sensibly enough with Beowulf being given “cordial invitations” (“freondlaþu” (l.1192)), then jumps into the history of the torc (a kind of tight, almost collar like necklace, sometimes with bits that hang over the chest) that Wealhtheow gives him. But why does she give him such gifts in the first place?

It looks like it’s just her way of saying thanks for getting rid of Grendel. After all, shiny and precious things are one thing to an Anglo-Saxon, shiny and precious things with a history are entirely another. That is, entirely another, more valuable, thing.

So when Wealhtheow gives Beowulf this torc that’s like the one whose history the poet starts to recite, there’s a lot of significance there. Slight spoilers, this particular necklace may have been worn by an earlyer Hygelac the Geat (likely the namesake of Beowulf’s lord, Hygelac), so, at least in part, the preciousness of this torc comes from its history and Beowulf’s history intersecting.

Actually, in a sense, this item may be seen as being destined for Beowulf. Or, at least, it might seem that he is meant to be the next owner with the understanding that such a privilege is only temporary – such an item being impossible to actually own. Rather, such an artifact is supposed to be understood as having a history that’s somehow above other objects, a history in which it isn’t owned by anyone but rather passed along, it’s not so much an object and accessory for one person, as it is an accessory for an entire ancestral history or, in this case, line of Geats.

That last interpretation is a bit of a stretch, and I feel like it strains against just what such an item may have been perceived as among the Anglo-Saxons. Still, the obvious capstone for the bridge that the poet builds back through the ages via this torc is that it is meant to pass through Beowulf’s hands either as his right or as the object’s inscrutable history.

Both of these interpretations might sound crazy, but the importance of an ancestral sword’s previous wielders wouldn’t be so great if the Anglo-Saxons had a more present-based sense of the value of objects. So, surely the same goes for this torc that fell out of Geatish hands only to come back to them after such an heroic deed as Beowulf’s.

How do you think the added history of this torc makes it more valuable? Does a warrior like Beowulf even care about such things as objects’ histories?

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Straight Ahead Compounds until the End

The compound words in this week’s passage vary pretty wildly. From the simple “earm-read” to the straightforward, but detailed “searo-niðas, they cover quite the range. Still, I’ll run through them in the order of their appearance.

First is “freond-laðu” (l.1192), the perfectly innocuous Old English word for “friendly invitation.” This one comes from the combination of “freond” (friend, relative, lover) and “laðian” (to ivnite, summon, call upon, ask).

Now, direcly related to this word there’s the curious point of “freond”‘s including the interpretation of “lover.” Also, there’s the weirdness of the coincidence that most other words in Old English that start with the syllable “lað” mean “hated” or “despised” (this is the root from which Modern English gets the word “loathe,” after all). I don’t think there’s much to make of this coincidence, except that “laðian” must come from a different language or region than the rest of the words it’s alongside in the dictionary.

But, when it comes to “freond” meaning “lover,” we see the ambiguity of the word “friend” was a thing even back in early Medieval Europe. Of course, the word’s ambiguity makes it hard to judge for certain, but maybe Wealhtheow just can’t control herself around this swarthy hunk. Or, maybe she’s letting some shreds of her true feelings slip through her proper persona. Or, of course, she’s just being gregarious as a good host should be.

Line 1194 offers the next compound word with “earm-read.” This word means “arm ornament” and comes from the Old English “earm” (“arm,” “foreleg,” or “power”) compounding with “hread” (“ornament” or “shielding”). Just as with Modern English’s “arm-band,” this word’s just a plain description.

Next up, line 1195’s “heals-beaga.” Much like “earm-read,” this combination of Old English “heals” (“neck” or “prow of a ship”) and “beaga” (“ring (as ornament or money),” “coil,” “bracelet,” “collar,” “crown,” or “garland”) just means “collar,” “necklace,” or “torc.”

Likewise, line 1198’s “hord-maððum” just means “hoarded treasure,” which comes as no surprise since “hord” means “hoard,” or “treasure” and “maððum” means “treasure,” “object of value,” “jewel,” “ornament,” or “gift.” Though there is this word’s conceptual doubling to consider. I guess whatever you use “hord-maððum” to describe is extra special and extra precious – a treasure even among a treasure hoard.

Actually, this trend of straight ahead compounds continues through line 1200’s “sinc-fæt.” This one means “precious vessel” or “precious setting.” Coming from the combination of “sinc” (“treasure,” “riches,” “gold,” “valuables,” or “jewels”) and “fæt” (“vat,” “vessel,” “jar,” “cup,” “casket,” or “division”) this meaning isn’t at all surprising.

However, that trend ends with “searo-niðas.” Not entirely a word that means something more than the combination of its parts, this one is just a step up from “hord-maððum”‘s doubling.

“Searo-niðas” means “treachery,” “strife,” or “battle” and comes from the combination 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 “niðas” (“stife,” “enmity,” “attack,” “war,” “evil,” “hatred,” “spite,” “oppression,” “affliction,” “trouble,” or “grief”).

This combination of terms is curious mostly because they’re similar, but while “nið” basically means straight up “strife” or “hatred,” “searo” implies that there’s a certain level of thought or consideration that goes into its brand of offensiveness. So this combination is like a mix of two parts offense with one part clever, the result being “treachery,” “strife,” or all out “battle.”

This section is the poet speaking, so why do you think he continues to use somewhat restrained compound words? Is it to suit the atmosphere of the hall or the character of Wealhtheow?

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Closing

Next week the history of the torc continues!

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Wealhtheow notes her nephew, uses two crystalline compounds (1180b-1191)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Wealhtheow’s Nephew and Sons
Two Compounds in a Crystalline Speech
Closing

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Abstract

Wealhtheow brings up Hrothulf in her speech to Hrothgar before she turns to her sons and Beowulf.

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Translation

            “‘I myself know
how gracious Hrothulf is, that he will defend
the honour of the youth, if you before him,
friend of the Scyldings, leave this world;
I believe that he will liberally repay
our two sons, if he recalls all the care we’ve given him,
the favour and honour* that we showed him
while he was a child** and still growing up.’
She turned then from the bench, there to where her sons were,
Hreðric and Hroðmund, and to the hero’s son,
all the youths together; for there the good man sat,
Beowulf the Geat, there between the two brothers.”
(Beowulf ll.1180b-1191)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Wealhtheow’s Nephew and Sons

Wealhtheow’s speech to Hrothgar ends here, and as such she turns towards the subjects of her next few words. This is a very obvious part of this passage, but I think it’s important to note because the connotation of her very properly keeping eye contact with Hrothgar while she addresses him underlines just how controlled and prim Wealhtheow’s speech here is (despite the revelry that’s just got to be continuing on around her).

But what’s here in her mentioning Hrothulf to Hrothgar is the acknowledgement that he is not directly related to either of them. I think that’s why she points him out as she does. Not to mention, it sounds like he’s probably a little older than the sons that she turns to at the end of this passage.

So how, exactly, is Hrothulf related to Hrothgar or Wealhtheow? He’s Hrothgar’s nephew by his sister Halga. Undoubtedly Hrothulf’s at Heorot to learn the ropes of being a member of the ruling part of society away from home. And, as such, Wealhtheow doesn’t need to give much detail when she says that he’s likely to protect her children as a away of repaying them for the care and honour they showed to him while he was growing up (and presumably still is). But so much hangs on his repaying this debt.

If Hrothulf was, in fact, raised well by these foster parents of his, then repaying them by taking care to teach their children will go without saying, and the two of them will be in good care, raised the way that Hrothgar himself and Wealhtheow herself would raise them, should either of them perish before the boys are grown.

As to why Beowulf is seated between Hrothgar and Wealhtheow’s sons, I’m not entirely sure.

On the one hand, I imagine it’s a seat of honour, definitely up near the front of the room.

But at the same time, I can’t help but wonder if it’s kind of like putting an esteemed guest at the kiddie table.

Not that that’s likely to keep Wealhtheow’s sons from sampling some of the wonderful brew that’s being spread around the hall as she speaks.

The best I can come up with for Beowulf’s placement in the hall is that his status as hero is assured and as ally is almost entirely certain, but not yet entirely locked down. Maybe it even shows how great the gulf was between those who had lived at a hall for much of their lives (Unferth, presumably) but hadn’t done many great deeds, and those who showed up, performed amazing feats of strength, and then are bound to head out again. After all, it wouldn’t do to give a seat of high honour or make them a councillor if they’re basically just passing through.

Getting back to the matter of Wealhtheow and Hrothgar’s sons, I think that Wealhtheow’s talking of Hrothulf and the poet’s mention of Beowulf being seated between the two boys, is supposed to emphasize that her sons are surrounded by positive models of masculinity. These boys have their father, their cousin, and this socially productive wayfarer. There could even be some subtext here about the heirs of Heorot being so well prepared that there’s absolutely be no way for them to screw it up and wind up with the hall destroyed because of betrayal and in-fighting.

Do you think there’s supposed to be some sort of joke in Beowulf’s being seated between Wealhtheow and Hrothgar’s sons?

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Two Compounds in a Crystalline Speech

Because this part of Wealhtheow’s speech is so straightforward and plain spoken, there are just two compound words in it. It really does seem like they’re just part of bombastic speech — maybe even male speech — rather than the kind of clear-eyed toasting that Wealhtheow’s doing.

Likewise, the compounds that are used are fairly clear. Almost, in fact, to the point of having a kind of crystalline quality.

The first of these two compounds is from line 1186, “weorð-mynd.” This word means “honour,” “dignity,” “glory,” or “mark of distinction,” thanks to the compounding of “weorð” (“worth,” “value,” “amount,” “price,” “purchase-money,” “ransom,” “worth,” “worthy,” “honoured,” “noble,” “honourable,” “of high rank,” “valued,” “dear,” “precious,” “fit,” or “capable”) and “mynd” (“memory,” “remembrance,” “memorial,” “record,” “act of commemoration,” “thought,” “purpose,” “consciousness,” “mind,” or “intellect”).

Literally translated, “weorð-mynd” means “worth remembering,” an idea that transitions pretty easily into any of the compound’s meanings. But a literal definition that helps define “honour” a little bit. Those things that bring you honour being things that are worth remembering.

Which is a simple enough definition, though also very neutral since there can sometimes be horrible events or actions that are worth remembering so that they can be avoided or prepared against. But maybe this general sense of what’s honourable encapsulated in “weorð-mynd” feeds into a medieval way of thinking about memory and its effect on behaviour.

The basic principle I’m referring to here is the idea that what you memorized or filled your brain with — be it poetry, scripture, history, whatever — would influence how you thought and acted in your day to day life. So, memorize beautiful, god-fearing things and you’ll have an easy time enjoying the positives in life, but fill your memory with hatred and darkness and your life will be miserable, your actions terrifying. So, maybe “weorð-mynd” isn’t so neutral. Maybe, baked into the idea of honourable things being those things which are worth remembering is the idea that the best things to remember are those that are good and positive. In other words, it is best to remember honourable things.

The second compound word in this part of Wealhtheow’s speech isn’t quite as exciting. It’s the compound “umbor-wesende” and is found on line 1187.

This compound, quite enticingly given its weird verbiage, means “being a child.” But, its parts offer up only an anti-climax: the Old English word “umbor” means “infant”; and the Old English word “wesende” is a form of the verb “to be.”

So.

Entirely literally, “umbor-wesende” means “being a child” or “to be a child,” or maybe, in the right context, “having been a child.” There is, after all, a sense in the word that what you’re applying it to is no longer a child — their childhood has effectively ended and is behind them. Such must be the case with Hrothulf, not necessarily because of his age, but because he’s been raised with care and honour and is now expected to help do the same with his cousins.

Do you think that there’s anything to the idea that what you memorize or fill your brain with actually has an effect on your day to day life and behaviour?

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Closing

Next week, Wealhtheow brings Beowulf a gift of gold.

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Wealhtheow addresses the hall of men, the words she uses (1169-1180a)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Wealhtheow in a World of Men
The First few Compound Words in Wealhtheow’s Speech
Closing

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Abstract

Wealhtheow formally addresses Hrothgar, tells him to follow his joys, respect his kin and the Geats.

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Translation

“‘Take of this fullness, my noble lord,
treasure bestower; you in joy are,
gold giving friend of men, and to the Geats
speak mild words, as anyone shall do;
be with the Geats glad, be mindful of their gift
from near and far that you now have.
My man has said, that you for a son this
warrior would have. Heorot is cleansed,
the bright ring-hall; use, while you will,
your many joys, and to your kin leave
the folk and kingdom, when you shall go forth,
as fate* foresees.'”
(Beowulf ll.1169-1180a)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Wealhtheow in a World of Men

This passage sounds like a return to the highly formulaic speeches that Hrothgar and Beowulf exchanged when the Geat first arrived at Heorot. And it basically is.

Shot through with epithets tucked into subordinate clauses and a direct address to Hrothgar without actually naming him, this passage just has the ring of a very formal toast. As such, it’s a passage in which we see Wealhtheow’s public persona. This is very much the person that she is when she’s out amongst the mead benches, either offering mead or ale, or simply making an appearance to give her blessing and advice as she does here.

Though the world of Heorot remains staunchly a world of men.

Maybe there are a few women serving the men who are so raucous after the poet’s story, but there’s no way to know if there are any women joining in on the festivities. All we have is our impression of the scene, and mine is that Wealhtheow is probably the only woman on the floor right now. What’s more, it sounds like she’s well aware of this since, when she reports the rumour she’s heard of Hrothgar adopting Beowulf (as he had done with the boy’s father, Ecgtheow), Wealhtheow says that “My man said” (“Me man sægde” (l.1175)), suggesting a servant who, perhaps, is her go-to for gossip or information. But, I think it’s intentionally a male servant she refers to, since she knows that male authority is essential for being taken seriously in the hyper masculine realm she’s stepped into.

Plus, there’s no mistaking the Old English of “me man saegde,” since it’s practically identical to the Modern English “my man said” in its words and, probably, its idiomatic meaning of “my man on the inside” or, put another way, “my reliable source.”

As formal and as masculine as all of that is, though, Wealhtheow maintains her feminine grace at the end of this part of her speech when she caps off her toast with the wish that Hrothgar enjoy himself until the end of his days.

Of course, this line doesn’t sound quite so mysterious when summarized like that, but the reference to “fate” definitely feels like something enigmatic. Much more so than simply saying “the end of your life,” since at the least, that’s something definite — you’ll stop being able to enjoy yourself once you’re dead. But simply being able to indulge in joys “when you shall go forth,/as fate foresees” (“þonne ðu forð scyle/metodsceaft seon” (ll.1179-1180)), sounds like there could be something else that Wealhtheow foresees getting in the way of Hrothgar’s enjoying his wealth.

Now, she hasn’t turned to speak to Beowulf yet in this scene, but I think that this line is a great candidate for the spark that lights the flame of suspicion that Wealhtheow has the hots for Beowulf. Maybe, with the poet’s removed sense of history, her mention of fate is actually an intentional reference back to the hints that the poet’s dropped about Heorot’s own doom and demise – Wealhtheow’s been granted some sort of meta-story foresight and has seen Hrothgar’s fall from power and she hopes that Beowulf will step into the vacuum and be with her.

What do you think? Does it seem like Wealhtheow has some sort of plot for or hope that Hrothgar will fall to the side so that someone like Beowulf can step up? Or is it too early in the poem to tell?

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The First few Compound Words in Wealhtheow’s Speech

This week’s passage doesn’t contain too many surprising compound words. There are a few – sure – but they’re all what you’d expect from a very buttoned down, formal speech like the one Wealhtheow is giving here. She’s not talking of any battles or any extreme sorrow, she’s just making a formal address.

To whom is she making this address? Well – we just need to turn to line 1171 to find out. Here, in a little epithet, she refers to Hrothgar as her “gold-wine,” which means “liberal prince, lord, or king.” The word combines the Old English “gold” (“gold”) with “wine” (“friend,” “protector,” “lord,” or “retainer”). Of course, a liberal ruler is going to be one who seems to be made out of gold, he has so much to give away. So “gold-wine” seems a very functional, if not somewhat glittery in itself, word.

Next, on line 1176, Wealhtheow uses the word “here-rinc.” This word means “warrior” and comes from a combination of “here” (“predatory band,” “troop,” “army,” “host,” “multitude”) and “rinc” (“man,” “warrior,” “hero”). So, a man or warrior from a troop – someone with decent enough social standing to be in a troop rather than just some lone wolf or exile. The latter of which having been one of the coast guard’s worries about Beowulf when the Geats first arrived in Daneland.

Then, closing off the list of compound words we’ve never seen before, is “beah-sele” (found on line 1177). This compound offers a little more wiggle room than the previous two when it comes to interpreting it. There’s not much secret meaning in it, but there is a possible implication that runs against “beah-sele”‘s general meaning of “hall in which rings are distributed.”

This implication comes from the meaning of “sele” on its own: “hall,” “house,” “dwelling,” or “prison.”

If you pick out “prison” and combine it with any of “beag”‘s meanings (so any of “ring (ornament or money),” “coil,” “bracelet,” “collar,” “crown,” or “garland”), you get the impression that a “beah-sele” isn’t necessarily just a place of wealth distribution and the joy that comes with that, but that there’s also the possibility that a person using “beah-sele” sees such a place as a prison, as a thing that impinges on their freedom because of the societal expectation that rulers distribute their wealth, and so wealth brings no true freedom, only the burden of doling it out and of ruling well with it.

I didn’t mention it here, but how much do you think using these compound words is a matter of intent and how much do you think it’s a matter of choosing a word for the alliteration or meter?

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Closing

Next week, we’ll hear Wealhtheow’s further words on the succession in Heorot.

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Unferth the reason for Grendel? A very German compound word (ll.1159b-1168)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Unferth the Cause of Heorot’s Woes?
A Collection of Compounds
Closing

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Abstract

As we return to the hall after the story of Hildeburh, Finn, and Hengest, we’re given a brief tour of the social hierarchy in Heorot before Wealhtheow takes centre stage.

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Translation

            “Then the song was sung,
the entertainer’s tale. Revelry again arose,
the noise among the benches flashed as the cup bearer brought
joy from/the joy of the wondrous vessel. Then Wealhtheow came forth,
going under the weight of golden rings, over to where
the two sat, nephew and uncle; there yet were those kin together,
each to the other true. Also there sat spokesman Unferth
at the foot of the Scylding lord’s seat; each of them to his spirit trusted,
that he had great courage, though he to his own kin was not
merciful at the swordplay. Spoke then the Scylding lady:”
(Beowulf ll.1159b-1168)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Unferth the Cause of Heorot’s Woes?

And just like that the story of Hildeburh, Hengest, and Finn is over and it’s back to the meadhall Heorot. Though I think it’s worth a quick noting that the Beowulf poet implies that everyone was quiet while his in-story counterpart sang of the Danes’ patient revenge on the slayer of their lord. The Beowulf poet (or the person who wrote it down) likely wanted to imagine a place and time when their art was more respected. Or, maybe having a quiet crowd is a way of showing how important what’s being recounted is.

Though however quiet the revellers of Heorot were while the poet sang of Hengest and Finn rekindling the age-old feud of their peoples, they’re right back to it once the poem’s over. I mean, the benches are simply flashing with the noise of it all — that’s just how close the motion of the people on the benches and the noise coming from them is. That’s really something!

But after we return to the partying atmosphere of Heorot in celebration of Beowulf’s deed and the greatness that he’s helped restore, we’re given a bit of a sombre note to carry through the procession. And, just as Hildeburh was the bearer of sorrow in the story we just heard, Wealhtheow, Hrothgar’s lady, now seems to be carrying the same. As she goes through the hall to the high seat, the poet follows her, describing along the way the relationship of Hrothgar and his nephew and how Unferth, the doubter of Beowulf, fits into the hierarchy at Heorot.

And that’s where that note of sorrow is hit the hardest.

It seems that Unferth is quite an esteemed counsellor in Heorot, “each of them to his spirit trusted” (“gehwylc hiora his ferhþe treowde” (l.1166)). And yet, the poet makes it clear that this is the case “though he to his own kin was not/merciful at the swordplay” (“þeah þe he his magum nære/arfæst æt ecga gelacum” (ll.1167-1168)).

So Unferth has committed one of the harshest crimes of all in the Anglo-Saxon world — kin-killing. We’re never given any more detail than this about the incident that the poet’s referring to, but it continues to be a constant black mark on Unferth’s reputation for as long as he plays a role in the poem. In fact, Beowulf has even heard of this, since he mentions it in his witty riposte to Unferth’s doubting his stories of valour when he first comes to help Hrothgar with his monster problem (l.587).

So that makes me wonder.

If Unferth’s killed his own kin, a crime that really has no means of punishment (who do you ask for wergild — the monetary punishment for murder meant to cut feuds off before they can start — especially in a situation where the price was often paid by a group rather than an individual, and how could a single person’s paying into the group that he lives in be a punishment, if Anglo-Saxon society is all about distribution of wealth based on success on the battlefield?), how is he able to be such a trusted advisor?

Is he allowed this position because he’s been through the hell of having killed a relative and was left to live with the infamy?

And, in terms of the wider story of Heorot, could Unferth’s killing his kin and then Hrothgar’s bringing him on as an advisor been the thing that sparked Grendel’s feud with Heorot? After all, Grendel is “the kin of Cain” (“Caines cynne” (l.107)), and Cain was damned for killing his own brother. So is Grendel an ironic punishment in the grand tradition of ironic Christian punishments — a monster born of kin-killing that’s come to destroy a place that supports someone who killed his kin but has yet to be perceived as fully monstrous (that is, exiled or ostracized) for it?

So many questions. If you’ve got some opinions or hypotheses to share, please feel free to do so in the comments.

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A Collection of Compounds

This week’s batch of compounds covers the range of the straightforward to the much less obvious. Let’s get right into it.

First is line 1160’s “gleo-mann,” meaning “gleeman,” “minstrel,” “player,” “jester,” or “parasite.” This word comes from the compounding of “gliw” (“glee,” “pleasure,” “mirth,” “play,” “sport,” “music,” or “mockery”) and — surprise, surprise — “man” (“person,” “man,” “mankind,” “brave man,” “hero,” “vassal,” “servant,” “name of the rune for ‘m,'” or “used indefinitely like Modern English ‘one'”).

This is a pretty clear compound that, although archaic today, remained in English for quite a while as “gleeman.” Though by the time it got to us, the word’s connotations depreciated (it became pejorated, as linguists say), as “gleo-mann” started to carry a connotation less of a poet who brought joy to people and more of a connotation of someone closer to a court jester rattling off bad rhymes and worse jokes, perhaps giving people glee more through the idiocy of his performance than what he was performing.

Then we get line 1161’s “benc-sweg.” This one brings together the near cognate “benc” (“bench”) with the word “sweg” (“sound,” “noise,” “clamour,” “tumult,” “melody,” “harmony,” “tone,” “voice,” “musical instrument,” or “persona”), to mean “bench-rejoicing,” or “sound of revelry.”

It’s not too terribly surprising a compound once you get over the Old English word for “sound” being “sweg,” but it’s still kind of neat because if you were to tell someone about the “bench sound” today, they’d probably think of a wooden bench scraping across a floor, not the sound of lively conversation, mugs clinking, and drunken singing. Oh how times have changed.

Then, as if lined up nice and neatly, on line 1162 we get the last of this week’s plainer compounds with “wunder-fatum.” The Old English word “wunder” means almost what our “wonder” does, but more in the UK English noun sense (which we don’t really hear much in North America), since “wunder” means “wonder,” “miracle,” “marvel,” “portent,” “horror,” “wondrous thing,” or “monster.” And “fatum,” since the letter “f” when it’s surrounded by vowels in Old English sounds like a “v” is the ancestor of our “vat,” though it’s got a more general meaning of “vat,” “vessel,” “jar,” “cup,” “casket,” or “division.”

Combine these two words and you get the Old English “wunder-fatum,” which means “wondrous vessel.” A little nickname for the ale pitcher or mead jug, since that’s definitely what its bearer is pouring out.

Hopefully those simpler three have you warmed up, because the next compound we come across in this passage is line 1164’s very German-seeming “suhterge-faederan.” Since this word compounds “suhterge” (“brother’s son,” “nephew,” “uncle’s son,” or “cousin”) with “faederan” (“paternal uncle”), “suhterge-faederan” itself means “uncle and nephew.”

It’s definitely not a word that we have in Modern English. And my guess is that the reason we don’t is because of family dynamics. Uncles are no longer a go-to mentor figure for children. In fact, “the creepy uncle” is a way more common trope than the informative or wise uncle, something that’s almost solely concentrated in grandparent figures in pop culture now. So here’s another sign that times have changed quite a bit from the days in which Beowulf was sung.

My guess as to why this happened (a very quick and dirty guess) is that people started to raise their own kids rather than sending them out to learn a trade or how the hierarchy within a house or hall worked, so uncles and aunts came to play less and less of a role while grandparents (perhaps because they’d actually be visited or lived with?) continued to play a role in children’s growing up. Not a perfect hypothesis, but I’m not looking for something air tight.

Or water-tight for that matter.

Which brings me around to the word “aerfaest” from line 1168 meaning “respected,” “honest,” “pious,” “virtuous,” “merciful,” “gracious,” “compassionate,” or “respectful.”

I mention water-tightness here, though because that’s one of the meanings of “faest,” along with “fast,” “fixed,” “firm,” “secure,” “constant,” “steadfast,” “stiff,” “heavy,” “dense,” “obstinate,” “bound,” “costive,” “enclosed,” “closed,” “strong,” “fortified,” “reputable,” or “standard”; while “aer” means “ere,” “before that,” “soon,” “formerly,” “beforehand,” “previously,” “already,” “lately,” or “till.”

Given what we’re told about Unferth being trustworthy because of some sort of past loyalty (a more literal interpretation of “aerfaest,” I think (maybe too literal?)) seems pretty suspect. Unless, maybe the relative that Unferth killed was in opposition to Hrothgar, and so, as unforgivable an act as it is, Unferth was brought in because his actions suggested that his loyalty to Hrothgar was greater than that between relatives (perhaps Unferth killed a nephew, or an uncle? Maybe not too far-fetched if the uncle-nephew relationship was prominent enough in Anglo-Saxon society to get its own compound).

Maybe that’s the key to all of this, Unferth, as unsavoury as his behaviour is to the rest of the world, is trusted within the realm of Heorot because of that loyalty to Hrothgar — he’s successfully and seriously set his lord over his family in an age when family was important, but not necessarily the top priority.

Though that Hrothgar would keep such a person around, one who, according to the conventions of the time was a little monstrous himself — what does that say about Hrothgar? Perhaps Hrothgar’s making Unferth a counsellor is what brought Grendel on him in the first place, not because Hrothgar harboured one who failed to fall into the binary of monster/not-monster, but because Hrothgar himself was an even greater monster in disguise.

Do you think that Unferth’s killing his kin relates to why Grendel attacked Heorot in the first place? Or was it something else that kicked off all of Hrothgar’s troubles?

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Closing

Next week, Wealhtheow gives Hrothgar her two cents on everything that’s happened since Beowulf arrived and what the lord of the hall should do.

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