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

Unferth the Cause of Heorot’s Woes?
A Collection of Compounds

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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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“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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Old English:


Modern English:


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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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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.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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

  1. Pingback: The Danes shred peace, and three diverse compounds (ll.1150b-1159a) | A Blogger's Beowulf

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