A theory on Anglo-Saxon soldiers’ motives, a primer on compound word combat (ll.1242-1250)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Serial-Inspired Thoughts on the Military of Beowulf
Defense Through Compound Words
Closing

A shield from the Anglo-Saxons' Britain, likely what would be called "bord-wudu."

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Abstract

The poet details how those left in the hall arranged their weapons before bed.

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Translation

“They set at their heads their battle-shields,
the bright shield-wood. On the benches behind the
princes who’d watched the waves
were the helmets that towered in battle, ringed mailshirts,
glorious spears. Such was their custom,
to be always ready for war,
whether at home or out plundering, or at any time
that their lord showed signs of
need for rallying; that was a brave people.”
(Beowulf ll.1242-1250)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Serial-Inspired Thoughts on the Military of Beowulf

This passage, though brief, tells how the people it’s referring to are a brave and war-ready people. They’re constantly ready to defend their safety and repel danger. But, more interesting is their being ready to rally around their lord.

I’ve been listening to the second season of Serial, and recently heard of how this season’s subject, Bowe Bergdahl, saw himself as an idealistic soldier, as someone who was supposed to be fighting for a noble cause that he himself believed in. However, as Sarah Koenig (serial’s host) points out, modern armies don’t work like the armies of old on which Bowe had modelled his ideas of soldiering. Modern day privates aren’t individuals fighting for a single cause that brings them together, but are instead tools for the higher ups to send out and fight for them and for their ideas — whether or not the individuals agree with them.

There’s definitely still the mist of nobility around the martial sentiments presented in Beowulf. Whether Anglo-Saxons actually regarded being a warrior as fighting for a single ideal or not, I can’t help but think of these men, “always ready for war” (“oft wæron an wig gearwe” (l.1247)), being like Bowe. Not because they’re fighting for some uniting ideal, but because they’re fighting for individual reasons that happen to align with what their lord can offer them. After all, when society’s on the level of clans and groups (or even city states) rather than centralized massive populations, it’s hard to imagine that the greater good extends beyond defending what you have and maintaining order within the group.

Ultimately, the better a warrior in a lord’s comitatus fought, the better his reward would be either because of merit or just because there’d be more spoils — so it would have been directly in warriors’ (soldiers’) best interests to fight well for their lord. Plus, in a sense, warriors paid their lord in kind, returning the favour of a lord’s political or social protection with physical protection on the battlefield. But even then, squaring up such a deal would be a way of clearing individual (*maybe* familial) indebtedness. But in the end, the warriors in Beowulf seem to fight for individualistic to a greater extent than those from later in history who are remembered for fighting for entire nations or the fates of mass political movements.

That’s not to say that Anglo-Saxon warriors were petty.

The Anglo-Saxons themselves, as unsure of their identity as most teens are, probably saw a grat deal of good in fighting to defend the integrity of what they regarded as theirs and as meaningful to them. Hence the emphasis on honour in Beowulf, and on fighting bravely in this poem and in other major Anglo-Saxon works (like the Battle of Maldon).

But the Anglo-Saxons were, nonetheless, a people who’d left their native Anglia and Saxony, who’d mixed with Celts and met and mingled with Romans, both of which I’d expect had a huge impact on how they saw themselves and how they subtly changed before ultimately being melded with the French, Spanish, and countless other world cultures to become the English that we know today.

So what’s my point here? Simply that among Anglo-Saxon warriors I think there was a strange and unique sense that protecting your individual needs and wants was somehow more in line with, if not entirely synchronized with, the greater good of the group. After all, if all Anglo-Saxons kept up their own business and concerns, then surely the mass of them together would be Anglo-Saxon, right?

Leave your thoughts in the comments!

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Defense Through Compound Words

Whatever the ideals or orders behind it, war-time combat’s always been fairly simple at its heart.

For example, When someone strikes out with their “þræc-wudu” (l.1246), or spear, you need to defend yourself. Especially if you consider what’s gone into make that “þræc-wudu”: “þræc” (“throng,” “pressure,” “force,” “violence,” “equipment”) and “wudu” (“wood,” “forest,” “grove,” “tree,” “the cross,” “Rood,” “wood,” “timber,” “ship,” or “spear shaft”), turning the component parts into a kind of “force wood.”

And how better to defend yourself than with a “hilderand” (l.1242)? This kind of shield would be especially helpful in combat in general, at least if you translate “hiderand” literally. Doing so combines “hilde” (“war” or “combat”) and “rand” (“border,” “edge,” “boss of shield,” “rim of shield,” “shield,” or “buckler”), giving you “war shield.”

Though if you’re trying to escape a mortal wounding from a “þræc-wudu” in particular, why not block wood with wood and use a “bord-wudu” (l.1243)? The word “bord-wudu” also means “shield,” but as a compounding of “bord” (“board,” “plank,” “table,” “side of a ship,” “ship,” or “shield”) and “wudu” (“wood,” “forest,” “grove,” “tree,” “the cross,” “Rood,” “wood,” “timber,” “ship,” or “spear shaft”) it sounds much more natural, like a simple “wood shield,” though maybe it’s so simple it’s mystical like a “board from the cross,” a shield perhaps more emblematic than physically effective.

Simpler even than defending yourself in combat, though, is figuring out the size of your weapons and armour. Something small might not be that useful in a pitched battle or melée, but something that’s “heaþu-steap” could be very handy indeed.

Whether it’s a spear or a shield, if it’s “heaþu-steap” (l.1245), then it’s “towering in battle.” Or, more specifically it’s “steap” (“precipitous,” “deep,” “high,” “lofty,” “prominent,” “projecting,” “upright,” “bright,” or “brilliant”) in “heaþu” (war).

While “bord-wudu” sounds like a simpler shield to me, I think that even if a “bord-wudu” were to be “heaþu-steap,” it could be beautifully decorated or something more like a tower shield than a simple buckler.

If you were in a pitched battle with opponents and allies all around you would you rather have a small weapon or a big one? Leave your thoughts in the comments!

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Closing

Next week the poet goes to Biblical lengths to describe who pays a nighttime visit to Heorot.

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The Danes and Geats bed down with fate, the bench boards’ destiny (ll.1232-1241)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Fate’s Just What Happens to You
The Bench Boards’ Destiny
Closing

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Abstract

The poet meditates on the inescapability of fate as he tells of how Heorot quieted down for the night.

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Translation

“She went then to her seat. There was the greatest of feasts,
men drank great wine; none knew the fate that awaited,
a dolorous destiny, as it would again
and again befall the many, after evening came,
and Hrothgar had retired with his entourage to his chamber,
the ruler gone to rest. The hall was guarded
by warriors without number, as they had oft done before;
the bench boards were cleared; the floor was enlarged
with bedding and pillows. One reveller
was marked and doomed on that couch to depart.”
(Beowulf ll.1232-1241)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Fate’s Just What Happens to You

It looks like this passage is just the poet talking, filling time. But it sounds like things are about to take a dark turn in Heorot.

Of course, there isn’t much to tell of the revelry at Heorot right now. Things are quieting down for the night. But how the poet tells us this is what I find interesting.

Rather than being overly moralistic about the juxtaposition of revelry and the harshness of fate here (as is my general impression of Christian writing), the poet says the feasting in the hall went on, everyone eventually getting ready for bed and being entirely unaware of what is about to befall them. It’s a simple enough juxtaposition, the difference between an everyday thing and something out of the ordinary. But what draws my attention to this juxtaposition is that there’s no connection between the two of these things. This “dolorous destiny” (“geosceaft grimme” (l.1234)) isn’t about to be visited on Heorot because they were revelling and enjoying to excess. It’s just what happens “as it would again/and again befall the many” (“swa hit agangen wearð/eorla manegum” (l.1234-1235)).

And that line especially, “as it would again/and again befall the many” keeps having fun and being visited with some sort of terrible fate from being truly connected here. It almost sounds like the poet’s stance on destiny or fate or determinism is that bad stuff is bound to happen to people as long as they’re on this earth. But, at the same time there’s the implication that this bad stuff is balanced out with the ability and the chances that people have to enjoy themselves. Like, for example, indulging a bit in the “greatest of feasts” (“symbla cyst” (l.1232)).

Along with the poet’s revealing a bit of how they think about fate, it’s interesting from a narrative perspective that they just say “one reveller/was marked and doomed on that couch to depart” (“beorscealca sum/fus ond fæge fletræste gebeag” (ll.1240-1241)). This line builds up a little bit of tension, and the effect is amplified thanks to the line’s placement around all of this mystical talk of inexorable fate. Everyone dies sometime. Maybe this one who’s doomed to die in Heorot this night will pass quietly?

There’s no question about this person being someone other than Beowulf, since the poem is named for him, and there’s quite a bit of the poem left. Plus, the poet’s very clearly pulled out from the usual tight zoom on this epic’s titular character. Which leaves us with the question of will a Geat die this night or will it be a Dane?

Toss your guess in the comments!

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The Bench Boards’ Destiny

The Old English word “geo-sceaft” (l.1234) means “destiny,” or “fate,” and is a word that only appears in Beowulf as far as we know. This word comes from the combination of “geo” (“once,” “formerly,” “of old,” “before,” “already,” or “earlier”) and “sceaft” (“created being,” “creature,” “origin,” “creation,” “construction,” “existence,” “dispensation,” “destiny,” “fate,” “condition,” “nature”), creating a neat image of something that has happened before happening again, maybe on a karmic sort of scale, or maybe because the Anglo-Saxon sense of fate was somehow tied to habits.

But, whatever the Anglo-Saxons’ related fate to, the idea of destiny is pretty high falutin. People die for destiny, they’ll put their all into pursuing it, and they’ll feel like they were made to fulfil it. But I’d rather look at a particular thing’s destiny in this section.

I think it’s safe to say that a “bencþel” (l.1239) has a destiny. That is, a “bench board,” or “wainscotted space where benches stand,” is destined for something – it’s designed for it. In fact, in this passage, I’d say that this thing described by a word born of the union of “benc” (“bench”) and “þel” (“board,” “plank,” “metal plate”), is destined to have “beor-scealca” transform it.

These “beor-scealca” (l.1240; meaning”revellers,” or “feasters,”) are likely to transform the bencþel for a very specific purpose. As you might guess from the combination of “beor” (“strong drink,” “beer,” “mead”) and “scealca” (“servant,” “retainer,” “soldier,” “subject,” “member of a crew,” “man,” “youth”) these “beor-scealca” aren’t in any state to go to their own beds, so instead they’ll transform the “bencþel” into a “flet-ræst.”

A “flet-ræst” (l.1241) is a “couch,” pure and simple (though it applies to just about anywhere soft enough to comfortably lay or bed down in).

Coming from the mix of “flet” (“floor,” “ground,” “dwelling,” “hall,” “mansion”) and “ræst” (“rest,” “quiet,” “repose,” “sleep,” “resting place,” “bed,” “couch,” “grave”), this word sounds like it specifies something more than just a box with some cushions on it. In fact, this word got so comfy for English speakers, that it became the English vernacular for “house” or “apartment”: “flat.”

But transforming an area meant for benches into a soft place to sleep isn’t just some drinking trick (have several pints, look in empty corner, see comfy couch, collapse on bare floor). The “beor-scealca” would transform the “bencþel” by using the process of “geondbrædan.”

The word “geond-bræden” (l.1239) means “to cover entirely,” or, only in Beowulf apparently, “to enlarge,” or “extend.” This word comes from the combination of “geond” (“throughout,” “through,” “over,” “up to,” “as far as,” or “during”) and “bræden” (“make broad,” “extend,” “spread,” “stretch out,” “be extended,” “rise,” “grow,” “roast,” “toast,” “bake,” “broil,” or “cook”).

So, the “beor-scealca” would fulfil the “bencþel”‘s “geo-sceaft” by fluffing the area up with pillows and such (the “geondbræd”-ing process) to make it into a “flet-ræst,” something more than just a place for benches. After the feast, these areas would become the resting place for the feasters. And for one in particular it will be his final resting place.

What do you think it’s you’re destiny to do? Do you even believe in the concept of destiny?

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Closing

The Dane’s bedtime ritual continues next week. What could the poet be building to with this talk of fate?

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Wealhtheow speaks to Beowulf, another compound chain (ll.1215-1231)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
What’s Wealhtheow’s Speech Really all About?
A Leader and Their People Bound by Treasure
Closing

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Abstract

Amidst all of her gift giving, Wealhtheow speaks up, praises Beowulf, and (maybe) warns him.

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Translation

“Wealhtheow spoke, she before the throng said this:
‘Enjoy these rings, dear Beowulf,
young warrior, be with health, and this garment use,
our people’s treasure, and prosper well;
show to these youths your strength, and to them
offer kind advice; I for this reward shall remember you.
You have brought it about, so that far and near
forever among men shall you be praised,
just as widely as the sea encompasses
the home of the wind, the jutting cliffs. Be, long as you live,
prince, blessed! I wish to you great
treasure. Be you to my sons
of kind deed and joyful!
Here each man is to the other true,
of mild heart, under our lord’s protection;
the warriors are united, a people fully prepared
these men all have drunken the pledge and do as I command.'”
(Beowulf ll.1215-1231)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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What’s Wealhtheow’s Speech Really all About?

Wealhtheow’s speech in this passage covers a lot of topics. I mean, first she formally gives Beowulf further gifts, then asks him to be a role model for her sons. Then she says that because of what he’s done Beowulf’s fame will encompass the land just as the seas do before she wraps it all up with a statement about her being in power in the hall.

Actually, that last statement strikes me as the oddest bit of her speech.

I mean, for most of this bit of dialogue she’s been talking about Beowulf, and even before it she’s been described as giving him these gifts. So…what’s the deal with her concluding statement about the order of the hall?

Maybe it’s just a speech formula. The speaker starts by praising and requesting things of the subject of their speech and then jumps right into a little “here’s how things work here” statement. I can see this formula being a useful rhetorical device solely because of the order in which things are presented.

The subject-listener, after having heard so much ego-swelling material is likely giving the speaker their full attention, waiting intently for more to feed their sense of self-worth. But then, rather than praising the subject’s pectorals or gushing about his gluteus maximus, the speaker says “hey, you’re in my hall now, and this is how you need to behave.” It’s like sneaking a PSA into a children’s cartoon so that only the parents watching notice.

But maybe there’s more still going on here, too.

Putting aside all theories that Wealhtheow has the hots for Beowulf (because she is a woman and Beowulf is this young adventuring type), maybe this ordering of topics is meant to cut off the male subject-listener’s understanding of the speaker as coming onto him before the idea can take serious seed in his mind. Just as the male listener expects another flattering comment, maybe the verbal equivalent of batting eyelashes, the female speaker says “but, hot as you are, remember — I’m queen of this place and everyone here is at my command. So don’t try anything.”

Although, taking this rhetorical ordering of topics as a means of diffusing ego tripping and perceptions of sexual advances is just one interpretation. This kind device could also invite further sexual advances. Maybe, broken down into its most basic statements, this whole speech to Beowulf is saying “Hey, you’re pretty hot, I’m pretty powerful, let’s hook up. I can just tell anyone who sees us here to look the other way.”

All of which makes understanding just what’s going on in this speech tricky.

Though, unless the Beowulf poet wanted their hero to have some sort of Oedipal thing going on, I lean a little more toward the warning explanation of this rhetorical ordering.

I mean, Wealhtheow doesn’t just mention her children once, but twice. Though, in both instances she’s asking Beowulf to be a role model for her kids through his strength and generous actions, possibly the role a father should fulfil but that Hrothgar is too old to himself. So, maybe she really is trying to get Beowulf into her bed, even through her mention of her kids.

What do you think? Is this speech proof that Wealhtheow is coming onto Beowulf, or is it just a lady and mother imploring a hero to teach the next generation how to behave? Sound off in the comments below.

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A Leader and Their People Bound by Treasure

I thought that chaining together some of last week’s compound words into a kind of story worked pretty well, so I’m doing it again. Here goes:

The word “man-dryhten” (l.1229) denotes something more than just a leader. In particular, it means “lord” or “master.” A combination of “man” (“one,” “people,” or “they”) and “dryhten” (“ruler,” “king,” “lord,” “prince,” “the Lord,” “God,” or “Christ”), there’s a sense that people described by this word aren’t just men who lead, but who are leaders of men. As such, it’s important for them to be “eal-gearo.”

That is, these leaders of men need to be “all ready,” or “prepared.”

The word “eal-gearo” (l.1230) is a great word to express an extreme preparedness because its combination of “eal” (“all,” “every,” “entire,” “whole,” “universal,” or “all men”) and “gearo” (“prepared,” “ready,” “equipped,” or “finished”) gives a clear sense of someone or something that is fully equipped or prepared, meaning that they’re ready to face just about anything. Even if what they need to do involves the emotional state of their “dryht-guman.”

Based on the idea of “man-dryhten” worrying about “dryht-guman” (l.1231), you’d be right to guess that “dryht-guman” are “warriors,” “retainers,” “followers,” “men,” or “bridesmen.” But because this isn’t just a standalone word for warrior like “beorn,” or “wiggend,” there’s something more going on here. This special connotation comes from the combination of “dryht” (“multitude,” “army,” “company,” “body of retainers,” “nation,” “people,” or “men”) and “guman” (“man”), and implies someone who isn’t just a fighter, but who is fighting for a particular cause headed by a particular figure or person. And if that person is truly worth a pack of dedicated fighters, they’ll be able to keep their “dryht-guman” “dream-healdende.”

Despite its length “dream-healdende” (l.1227) simply means “happy,” or “joyful,” and is based on the combination of “dream” (“joy,” “gladness,” “delight,” “ecstasy,” “mirth,” “rejoicing,” “melody,” “music,” “song,” or “singing”) and “healdende” (as “heald”: “keeping,” “custody,” “guard,” “protection,” “observance,” “observation,” “watch,” “protector,” or “guardian”; or as “healdan”: “hold,” “contain,” “hold fast,” “grasp,” “retain,” “possess,” “inhabit,” “curb,” “restrain,” “compel,” “control,” “rule,” “reign,” “keep,” “guard,” “preserve,” “foster,” “cherish,” “defend,” “withhold,” “detain,” “lock up,” “maintain,” “uphold,” “support,” “regard,” “observe,” “fulfil,” “do,” “practice,” “satisfy,” “pay,” “take care,” “celebrate,” “hold,” “hold out,” “last,” “proceed,” “go,” “treat,” “behave to,” “bear oneself,” or “keep in mind”).

So, running with the words compounded into “dream-healdende,” it’s clear that the word conveys an easy sense of “happiness” or “joyfulness,” but with the implication that these states are sustained or long-lasting. And what better way for a “man-dryhten” to sustain the happiness of their “dryht-guman” than with treasure?

That’s where the word “sinc-gestreona” (l.1226) comes in. This word means “treasure” or “jewel” and is a combination of “sinc” (“treasure,” “riches,” “gold,” “valuables,” or “jewel”) and “gestreon” (“gain,” “acquisition,” “property,” “treasure,” “traffic,” “usury,” or “procreation”), which pushes the literal meaning of “sinc-gestreona” beyond that of a mere trinket of treasure and into something that, like “dream-healdende,” sustains wealth over a long period of time. So, really, “sinc-gestreona” might more accurately mean a hoard of treasure or something of incredible value. Perhaps, a piece that’s treasured by a whole people.

Or, you might say, a “þeod-gestreona” (l.1218).

This word means “people’s treasure” or “great possession” and comes from the mixture of “þeod” (“people,” “nation,” “tribe,” “region,” “country,” “province,” “men,” “wartroop,” “retainers,” “Gentiles,” “language” or “fellowship”) and “gestreona” (the same as in the previous compound).

There’s not much more to “þeod-gestreona” than that, since “þeod” literally refers to a collective of people, even getting a little meta to include “language,” so such a treasure that’s a “þeod-gestreona” is something valued by a mass of people, perhaps even something that gains much or even all of its value because of that mass valuation.

In fact, if you went back to the peak of the Beanie Babies craze in the ’90s, those Beanie Babies that were counted the most valuable would be perfectly described by this sense of “þeod-gestreona” — pretty much any sought after collectible is a “treasure of the people,” in a sense, after all. Collecting things really does go that far back!

The Anglo-Saxons collected gold and jewelled treasure, which are still “þeod-gestreona,” but what do you collect just because it’s valuable to you? What’s something that you consider “þeod-gestreona”?

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Closing

Next week, things quiet down for the night in Heorot, and the poet talks of fate.

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A tale of a torc (pt. 2) and a battle sequence of compound words (ll.1202-1214)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
A Story Told While a Studio Audience Leers?
Some Compound Words in a Sequence
Closing

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Abstract

We hear the other half of the story of the torc that Wealhtheow is giving Beowulf and the revellers in the hall love it.

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Translation

“Then the ring had Hygelac the Geat,
Swerting’s grandson, wore it on his final raid,
during that time he defended the treasure under his banner,
protected the spoils of the slain*; but he was carried off by fate,
since he for pride’s sake sought trouble,
bore feud to the Frisians. Yet he carried those adornments away,
took the precious stones over the wide waves,
that mighty man; he fell dead beneath his shield.
Then it passed from the king’s body into the grasp of the Franks,
his mailcoat and the circlet also;
the less worthy warriors plundered the slain,
after the battle carnage; the Geatish people
occupied a city of corpses. The hall swelled with sound.
(Beowulf ll.1202-1214)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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A Story Told While a Studio Audience Leers?

This passage continues the story of the torc that Wealhtheow has just given to Beowulf. Though, honestly, this half of the story is the much more relevant one, I think. After all, it opens with a mention of a Hygelac who is a Geat.

And we’ve already heard of a Hygelac who’s a Geat in this poem, he’s the one who’s the Geat’s (and therefore Beowulf’s) current ruler. Though, since this part of the torc’s story includes Hygelac’s death, it’s pretty clear that the Hygelac of the poem’s present is a descendant of, or at least named for, this famed Hygelac of old.

And why not? This historical (well, at least in that he lived in the past, whether that past the poem talks about is real or not isn’t too important within the poem itself, really) Hygelac was a true badass. He seized the torc, wore it into many battles, fought fiercely against the Franks, and died protecting it and other treasures. That last detail might sound like a waste, but I think the point is that these other treasures were so precious to the Geats that one of their greats was willing to protect them. No doubt, so little is said about these treasures though because they were fairly well known to the audience of Beowulf, or at the very least the concept of treasures — things — that you’d actually want to die for wasn’t as strange as it might be to modern day readers of Beowulf.

Anyway, in this part of the story, it’s mentioned that this Hygelac also had a very special mail coat with him. On line 452 of Beowulf, we’re told that Beowulf himself wears a mail coat that once belonged to a Hygelac.

Maybe this is Beowulf’s lord, but it’d be much more meaningful and exciting if it was this historical Hygelac’s mail coat. If it is, then Beowulf’s being granted the torc is like his receiving the second half of an ancient heirloom, or like Aragorn getting Andúril when it’s reforged from the shards of Narsil that were saved from The War of The Last Alliance of Elves and Men in Tolkien’s Middle Earth lore. If the mailcoat Beowulf has (allegedly forged by the mystical, mythological smith Wade) is this historical Hygelac’s, then Beowulf has just been doubly blessed as a warrior and only really needs an ancient sword to complete his ancestral outfit (three is a magical number after all).

Beyond the significance of a former Geat and Hygelac’s having the torc before Beowulf (its rightful owner?) has it again, this passage has a curious final half line.

After Wealhtheow has related the story of the torc we’re told “The hall swelled with sound” (“Heal swege onfeng” (l.1214)).

If this raucous cheering is because of the story of the torc that Wealhtheow just told in a bizarre non-dialogue way (given the rest of the poem’s being perfectly okay with running long), then it almost seems like the hall is cheering because the Geats lost in that battle against the Franks, the survivors, as we’re told, were left “a city of corpses” (“hreawic” (l.1214)).

That makes me think that Wealhtheow’s story of the torc is more likely the poet interjecting with a quick explanation of the torc’s significance, something that someone like Wealhtheow wouldn’t really have much reason to know. After all, based on her name, she’s likely a British Celt of some kind, or at the very least somehow related to the peoples that the Anglo-Saxons regarded as slaves (since “wealh” can mean “slave,” “foreigner” or “stranger”). So she’s not likely to know much about what to her is a foreign people’s history.

So, if this story is the poet interjecting, then the hall must just be rejoicing because Wealhtheow is giving Beowulf this torc and the other rich treasures mentioned. It must be some torc then, or, at the least, the hall must be in a merry mood if they’re willing to loudly cheer the lady of the hall giving the guest a gift. Unless “The hall swelled with sound” is just Old English equivalent of the modern day sitcom soundtrack’s “oooo!” while two characters kiss.

Do you think Beowulf’s wearing old Hygelac’s mailcoat? Or, do you think the whole hall is “whoo”-ing at Wealhtheow being so generous to Beowulf?

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Some Compound Words in a Sequence

Well, because there’s a battle in this week’s passage, there’s a pretty good mix of compounds. To do something a little different with this section, this week I’m going to weave some of them into a bit of a sequence. But I’ll start with those that I didn’t fit into the sequence.

So, on line 1211 we find “breost-gewædu,” the Old English word for “corslet,” or “mailcoat,” either word being more or less interchangeable.

If we break “breost-gewædu” into it’s compounded words we’re left with “breost” (meaning “breast,” “bosom,” “stomach,” “womb,” “mind,” “thought,” or “disposition”) and “gewædu” (meaning “robe,” “dress,” “apparel,” “clothing,” “garment,” or “covering”). Since a this kind of armour covers the breast primarily, it makes sense that it’d be called a “breast robe,” though that’s a bit silly to say.

Then, on line 1214 we have “hreaa-wic” meaning “place of corpses.” This word is a compounding of “hræw” (“living body” “corpse,” “carcase,” or “carrion”) and “wic” (“dwelling place,” “lodging,” “habitation,” “house,” “mansion,” “village,” or “town,”). So it literally means “corpse dwelling place,” an apt name for a battle field, especially one on which battle has involved “guðsceare.”

The word “guðsceare” means simply “slaughter in battle.” But, looking at the words that combine to make this term fleshes it out (if you will).

With “guð” meaning “combat,” “battle,” or “war” and “sceare” meaning “shearing,” “shaving,” or “tonsure,” the word “guðsceare” seems like it’s expressing an idea similar to the Modern English idiom “to be mowed down.” It sounds very much like the word refers to a battle in which one side wasn’t just beaten, but they were absolutely trounced.

In such a battle as that, you’d definitely want to be something more than a warrior, perhaps one who fought with the might and audacity of two warriors? You might say, then, that you’d want to be a “wig-frecan.”

Line 1212’s “wig-frecan” simply means “warrior.” But, coming from a compounding of “wig” (“strife,” “contest,” “war,” “battle,” “valour,” “military force,” “army,” “idol,” or “image”) and “frecan” (“warrior,” or “hero”), it’s clear that this is one of Old English’s doubling or intensifying compounds. After all a “strife warrior” could just be a specialized fighter, but really it’s redundant.

What makes “wiig-frecan” cooler than the compounds that come before it in this entry though, is “wig”‘s possible meaning of “idol,” or “image.” I can’t back up this bit of speculation with any solid evidence, but this interpretation of “wig” leaves me wondering if its “idol” or “image” senses refer to “wig” being used as a shorthand for the eagles that the Roman army used as their sacred standards.

Those standards were often quite plain aside from the eagle at their top, but that’s probably for the better. If they’d had any precious stones — or “eorclan-stanas” — the Anglo-Saxons would’ve likely wanted to steal them more than fear them or associate them with strife and war.

Speaking of, though, the compound “eorclan-stanas” (from line 1208) combines “eorclan” (“chest,” “coffer,” or “ark”) and “stan” (“stone,” “rock,” “gem,” “calculus,” or “milestone”). This compound word’s neatness comes from its communicating its meaning not through just calling the stones “shiny” or “valuable” but making clear that these are stones worthy of being put into a chest or ark — they’re the sorts of things you want to keep protected and therefore, must be precious.

So you definitely wouldn’t want to have any “eorclan-stanas” on you if you were facing “guðsceare,” since those stones would likely become “wæl-reaf”. This word combines “wæl” (“slaughter,” “carnage”) and “reaf” (“plunder,” “booty,” “spoil,” “garment,” “armour,” or “vestment”) to mean “spoil from the slain,” or “act of spoiling the slain.” Which just makes sense since it’s a mix of words meaning “slaughter” and “booty.” I just wonder how the Anglo-Saxons would feel about item drops in modern day RPGs.

What’s you’re favourite of this week’s words? “Wig-frecan” is definitely mine.

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Closing

Next week Wealhtheow wishes Beowulf well, and makes a special request of him.

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