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Wealhtheow brings up Hrothulf in her speech to Hrothgar before she turns to her sons and Beowulf.
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“‘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.”
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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.”
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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Next week, Wealhtheow brings Beowulf a gift of gold.
You can find the next part of Beowulf here.