Wondering about the central feud, a treasure-giver’s compassion (ll.1333b-1344)

Synopsis
Translation
Recordings
Who’s Feud is it Anyway?
A Treasure-Giver’s Potentially Life-Changing Compassion
Closing

Beowulf, Grendel, Old English, Anglo-Saxon

An illustration of Grendel by J.R. Skelton from Stories of Beowulf. Grendel is described as “Very terrible to look upon.”Stories of beowulf grendel” by J. R. Skelton – Marshall, Henrietta Elizabeth (1908) Stories of Beowulf, T.C. & E.C. Jack. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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Synopsis

Hrothgar laments the continuation of his feud with the Grendels.

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Translation

         “‘She carried on that feud,
that you the other night enflamed by killing Grendel
in your violent manner with the might of your grip,
since he had for so long a time terrified my people,
rended and grieved them. He fell in the fight
and forfeited his life; and now another
wicked ravager has come, looking to avenge her kin,
she who has already done much for her vengeance,
so it may seem to many thanes,
after they have seen their ring-giver weeping from the heart,
his dire distress; now that the hand lay still,
the hand that proved generous to every desire.'”
(Beowulf ll.1333b-1344)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Who’s Feud is it Anyway?

This time around Hrothgar calls out Beowulf not for doing well in killing Grendel, but for calling a second, unexpected, wicked ravager down upon Heorot.

It’s not like Beowulf could know that this would happen of course. In fact, although feud terminology had been used before, since it’s only after Grendel’s killed that we hear about his kin at all really makes me wonder how apt the word “feud” (“fæhðe” l.1333) is here. I mean, a feud in Anglo-Saxon Britain consisted of two groups clashing over and over again because of a single grievance or a string of grievances.

So, is the only grievance that Grendel and his kind had with Heorot that Hrothgar put a noisy party hall up so close to their quiet and simple fen? And if this did actually cause something that could be called a feud, then why was Grendel the sole ravager of Heorot? Why did Grendel care so much to lash out against the Danes while his mother only came on the scene once Grendel was killed?

Basically, what is this feud that Beowulf “enflamed” (l.1334)?

Weren’t Hrothgar’s danes only feuding against Grendel? Or were they actually feuding against all of monsterkind and Grendel was just that side’s representative, while the Danes had no single entity to represent them?

This is a very weird moment in the poem for these reasons. Although the poet doesn’t explicitly make the situation all that more complicated by adding in the mother character and renewing the feud that Hrothgar has with the Grendels, the concept of a feud passing from one family member who is incredibly invested to another who seems unable to care any less about it is baffling. I mean, I know she lost her son to the feud, but can it really be considered the same feud if Grendel was attacking Heorot because they barged into his home while his mother attacks for vengeance? Or did Hrothgar, Dorothy Gale-like, drop Heorot on Grendel’s dad?

Maybe this is so baffling because it’s supposed to illustrate the human misunderstanding of the natural world of which it is a part. Hrothgar calls Grendel’s apparent grudge a feud only because that’s the closest thing he knows to describe the way that Grendel is acting. But maybe the reality of the situation is entirely different; there is no feud, only one creature fighting for his land and another fighting to gain vengeance for her son.

Who do you think the feud is against? Hrothgar and the Grendels? Humans and monsters?

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A Treasure-Giver’s Potentially Life-Changing Compassion

If there were ever an ideally compassionate “sinc-giefa” they would feel a great “hreþer-bealo” for “wel-hwylcra” “man-scaða.”

After all, it is the “sinc-giefa”‘s role in Anglo-Saxon society to distribute treasure. It’s right there in the name — a mix of “sinc” (“treasure,” “riches,” “gold,” “valuables,” or “jewel”) and “giefa” (“donor”).

And so an ideal “sinc-giefa” would feel a deep sadness, a heart sorrow for those they cannot given to, that their tremendous gifts cannot extend bonds of loyalty and friendship to. A good Old English name for that feeling is “hrether-bealo,” a combo of “hrether” (“breast,” “bosom,” “heart,” “mind,” “thought,” or “womb”) and “bealo” (“bale,” “harm,” “injury,” “destruction,” “ruin,” “evil,” “mischief,” “wickedness,” “malice,” “noxious thing,” “baleful,” “deadly,” “dangerous,” “wicked,” or “evil”). A “poison thought” could be another way to look at that. Though what would that mean?

Whatever it meant, I’m sure that all those who declared themselves that giver’s enemy would leave such a giver of treasure feeling treacherously sad. Yes, “wel-hwylc” of those self-declared enemies would have that effect. And you can’t get much more all encompassing than “wel-hwylcra” since “wel” means “well,” “abundantly,” “very,” “very easily,” “very much,” “fully,” “quite,” or “nearly”; and “hwylc” means “each,” “any,” “every (one),” “all,” “some,” “many,” “whoever,” or “whatever”. Put them together and you have a “fully all” situation on your hands (“nearly some” notwithstanding).

Though, if all of those “mān-scaða” were to turn away from being enemies, if they were to repent as “sinners” might, then our all-compassionate treasure giver could offer quite lovely rewards. Though it would take a lot for a “mān-scaða” to turn around on their path — each word in that compound has heavy negative connotations,after all.

I mean, we’ve got “mān” (evil deed, crime, wickedness, guilt, sin; false oath; bad, criminal, false) and “sceaða” (“injurious person,” “criminal,” “thief,” “assassin,” “warrior,” “atagonist,” “fiend,” “devil,” or “injury”), so you know that such an enemy or sinner is pretty steeped in their opposition of our hypothetical compassionate ring giver.

And, unfortunately, that’s just about that. All of the “hreþer-bealo” our compassionate “sinc-giefa” feels won’t turn “wel-hwylcra” “mān-scaða” from foe to friend. Though their compassion might get a few to switch over if that compassion is truly irresistible.

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Closing

Hrothgar reveals some local lore about the Grendels, next week at A Blogger’s Beowulf.

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Beowulf’s effectiveness questioned, words for advisers (ll.1321-1333a)

Synopsis
Translation
Recordings
Beowulf a Half-Assing Hero?
Seeking Advice when faced with a Murderous Sprite
Closing

Grendel's mother menaces a pinned Beowulf with a knife.

By J. R. Skelton – Marshall, Henrietta Elizabeth (1908) Stories of Beowulf, T.C. & E.C. Jack, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11001837

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Synopsis

Hrothgar explains why Æschere was so dear, and faces the reality that now confronts his taken friend.

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Translation

“Hrothgar spoke, protector of the Scyldings:
‘Ask ye not about the night’s joy; sorrow is renewed
to the Danish people. Æschere is dead,
Yrmenlaf’s elder brother,
my counsellor and confidant, my adviser,
my shoulder companion, when we at battle
were both at the fore, when we clashed with foes,
when the boar figures were struck. So should a man be,
a warrior who has proven his worth, so Æschere was!
This deadly creature came wandering to Heorot
to kill him by hand; I know not to what secret place
that terrible one slunk to turn him to carrion,
to make of him a gladdening feast.'”
(Beowulf ll.1321-1333a)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Beowulf a Half-Assing Hero?

Hrothgar is laying it all out there. The warrior that Grendel’s mother carried off wasn’t just some thane or some hall dweller, but his dearest companion and, from the sound of it, his trusted long-time adviser. Of course, all of this comes across in Hrothgar’s relating how he and the man fought side by side in the heat of battle, as well as the statement that he “had proven his worth” (“ærgod” (l.1329)). This line is a bit difficult to swallow for me, though.

It sounds like Hrothgar might be calling Beowulf out here, only lightly and through implication, but still. Yet, hasn’t Beowulf also proven himself as a warrior in defeating Grendel? It sounds like the difference is that the foes that Hrothgar and Æschere beat in their heyday didn’t retaliate after a sound thrashing. But, being monsters (and yet, very human since she is motivated by grief for family), Grendel’s mother does so. I definitely get a strong sense that along with Hrothgar’s woe in losing Æschere there’s a sense that Beowulf did not entirely complete the job.

Sure, the Geat killed Grendel, but he didn’t manage to rid Heorot of its monster problem. Though, of course Beowulf and everyone else had no idea that Grendel had a mother, or a family.

In fact, leading up to his appearance, Grendel is only ever referred to as the “kin of Cain.” We’re never really told anything else about his other relations. It’s almost as if Grendel wasn’t born through sex and conception, but instead sprang fully formed from Cain’s murdering Abel; as if he himself is a physical manifestation of a terrible sin. One that would have a lot of resonance with people like the Anglo-Saxons because of their familiarity with stories like Hod’s killing his brother Balder. Though that is a story of accidental fratricide.

What do you think? Is Hrothgar about to lay into Beowulf for not realizing that Grendel’s mother would come crashing in on Heorot’s new “peace”? Or was Grendel’s mother a surprise to everyone and Hrothgar is struggling through his grief and shock to try to say “Beowulf, do it again!”?

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Seeking Advice when faced with a Murderous Sprite

If you’re ever about to encounter a “wæl-gæst,” you’d likely want to get some advice. Why? Because running into a “murderous sprite” (from “wæl” (“slaughter,” or “carnage”) and “gæst” (“breath,” “soul,” “spirit,” “life,” “good or bad spirit,” “angel,” “demon,” “Holy Ghost,” “man,” or “human being”)) is no small thing.

You’d definitely want to go and seek a “run-wita.”

Such a person is someone who could be considered an adviser. After all, “wita” means “sage,” “philosopher,” “wise man,” “adviser,” “councillor,” “elder,” “senator,” “witness,” or “accomplice”); and run means “mystery,” “secrecy,” “secret,” “counsel,” “consultation,” “council,” “runic character,” “letter,” or “writing”. So such a person would be able to tell you much that is mysterious or secret.

Though your adviser should also be someone whom you could trust indefinitely because of the mysteriousness of your situation (how else can you be sure of their secretive information?).

So you’d want someone whom you could (or, hopefully already do) consider a person that you’ve been to shoulder to shoulder with before – whether it was in a tight shield wall formation on the battle field or it was waiting together in a packed line at some government office. The kind of person whom you could call an “eaxl-gestealla” with confidence, a person who indeed was a “shoulder-companion” (from the combination of “eaxl” (“shoulder”) and “steall” (“standing,” “place,” “position,” “state,” “stall (for cattle),” “stable,” or “fishing ground”)).

This sort of adviser would, in that way, be more than just someone giving you some pointers, they would be a veritable “ræd-bora.” That is, someone whom you consider a ruler (bora, or “ruler”) of wisdom (ræd (that is: “advice,” “counsel,” “resolution,” “deliberation,” “plan,” “way,” “design,” “council,” “conspiracy,” “decree,” “ordinance,” “wisdom,” “sense,” “reason,” “intelligence,” “gain,” “profit,” “benefit,” “good fortune,” “remedy,” “help,” “power,” or “might”)).

And, of course, given the fact that people might think you’re crazy if you come to them asking for help with a murderous sprite problem, your chosen adviser should be someone whom you knew was good at sharing tips from way back, or, as the Anglo-Saxons would say, was “ær-god.” This word comes from the combination of “ær” (“ere,” “before that,” “soon,” “formerly,” “beforehand,” “previously,” “already,” “lately,” or “’til”) and “god” (“good (of persons or things),” “virtuous,” “desirable,” “favourable,” “salutary,” “pleasant,” “valid,” “efficient,” “suitable,” “considerable,” “sufficiently great,” “good thing,” “advantage,” “benefit,” or “gift”) to mean “good from old times.”

With such an “ær-god” person on your team, you could definitely survive the quest to the murderous sprite and the “eft-sið,” or “journey back” (from “eft” (“again,’ “anew,” “a second time,” “then,” “thereupon,” “afterwards,” “hereafter,” “thereafter,” “back,” “likewise,” or “moreover”) combined with “sið” (“going,” “motion,” “journey,” “errand,” “departure,” “death,” “expedition,” “undertaking,” “enterprise,” “road,” “way,” “time,” “turn,” or “occasion”)).

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Closing

Next week Hrothgar talks Beowulf.

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Beowulf’s humour gets dry, and words on wishing for victory (ll.1310-1320)

Synopsis
Translation
Recordings
Beowulf’s Big Question
Wishes for Victory bring Party Halls
Closing

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Synopsis

The poet describes Beowulf coming into Heorot, and explains how he asks Hrothgar a single question.

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Translation

“Quickly Beowulf was called from his chamber,
the man blessed with victory in battle. At daybreak
came the one man, that noble warrior,
himself among companions, where the wise one was,
he who wondered whether the All-Ruler would ever
reverse his sorrowful fortunes in the future.
Went then over the floor the man renowned in battle
amidst his hand-picked troop — the hall’s timbers resounded —
so that he could address the wise one with words,
the lord of the Ingwins; asked him how he was,
if the night had fulfilled his wishes.”
(Beowulf ll.1310-1320)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Beowulf’s Big Question

Beowulf shows off some wit here, when he asks Hrothgar how the night went. No doubt he and the Geats have heard of what happened already, and yet he decides to approach the situation with comedy.

Perhaps he does so because Beowulf’s already seen how low Hrothgar can get and he sees asking the man “if his night had been agreeable” (“gif him wære/æfter neodlaðum niht getæse” (ll.1319-1320)) as an attempt to lift the old ruler’s spirits.

I think the poet’s introduction of Beowulf really backs this reading up, too.

From lines 1310 to 1313 and then with lines 1316 and 1317 we’re reminded of Beowulf’s prowess, of how he stands alone among the other Geats, and how Heorot itself seems to shiver when he and his crew enter. Which makes Beowulf’s statement all the funnier since the build up of Beowulf as this powerful figure only to pay off with some indirect dialogue plays quite a bit with expectations. Though I have to wonder why the poet didn’t bother with any direct dialogue for Beowulf here.

Perhaps Beowulf’s exact words weren’t included to keep his words enigmatic. Or maybe it’s because being facetious is something that’s hard to get across with the written word. Context clues are essential, and since none of the dialogue anywhere in the poem has descriptive tags introducing it, just going with description of Beowulf’s words instead of his actual words is probably what made the most sense.

Although, maybe the last line and a half of this passage were completely made up by the people who wrote Beowulf down in an attempt to make Beowulf’s facetiousness clearer. After all, sarcastic writing happened in the medieval period, but it’s not always easy to pick out.

What do you think the deal is with Beowulf’s words to Hrothgar? Is Beowulf sincerely asking how the night went, completely ignorant of what happened in the hall? Or is Beowulf trying to lift the ruler’s spirits with some levity?

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Wishes for Victory bring Party Halls

When facing down defeat, you should try to become “sigor-eadig” in spite of your circumstances. Being “victorious” is a very fine thing, after all. And “sigor-eadig” is a fine word to express that state of being. The word “sigor” meaning “victory” or “triumph” and the word “eadig” meaning “wealthy,” “prosperous,” “fortunate,” “happy,” “blessed,” or “perfect.” So, if you’re “sigor-eadig,” you are a person who is “wealthy with victories”

One way to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat is to muster your forces and concentrate a neod-laðu or two on doing so. Of course, just wishing won’t make it so, but doing so wouldn’t hurt.

At least not as much as trying to decipher “neod-laðu” has hurt me: the word simply means “wish,” but only appears in Beowulf. Which isn’t too uncommon; there are a few words with singular meanings that are exclusive to Beowulf.

What makes “neod-laðu” difficult to understand is what “laðu” actually refers to. The word “lað” is the Old English form of Modern English’s “loathe” and so it means “hated,” “hateful,” “hostile,” “malignant,” “evil,” “loathsome,” “noxious,” “unpleasant,” “pain,” “harm,” “injury,” “misfortune,” “insult,” “annoyance,” or “harmful thing.” Not exactly things you’d associate with a wish or needing something. Unless the point of the word is that a wish is nothing more than an extreme hatred of a need expressed positively. Not so much “I hate being so helpless here in Heorot!” as “I hate being helpless here in Heorot and that needs to end!” I mean, “neod” does mean “desire,” “longing,” “zeal,” “earnestness,” “pleasure,” or “delight,” after all.

Setting aside that mystery for now, such wishes could dispel the “wea-spell” that defeat could weave around you. That is, hating your need in a positive way could help you get over or around “wea-spell”‘s “evil tidings” (“wea” meaning “misfortune,” “evil,” “harm,” “trouble,” “grief,” “woe,” “misery,” “sin,” or “wickedness” and “spell” meaning “narrative,” “history,” “story,” “fable,” “speech,” “discourse,” “homily,” “message,” “news,” “statement,” or “observation”).

Thanks to the good fortune that a “wea-spell” vanquishing “neod-laðe” can bring, you’re sure to be “fyrd-wyrðe,” or “distinguished in war.” Interestingly, despite the individual will needed to overcome distressing odds, this word literally means something along the lines of “honoured national army” since it’s made up of “fyrd” (“national army or levy,” “military expedition,” “campaign,” or “camp”) and “wyrðe” (“worth,” “value,” “amount,” “price,” “purchase-money,” “ransom;” (or, as an adjective) “worth,” “worthy,” “honoured,” “noble,” “honourable,” “of high rank,” “valued,” “dear,” “precious;” “fit, “capable”).

But this emphasis isn’t misplaced. I think the importance of a “hand-scale” is pretty major in any victory. After all, (aside from personal ones) most victories are won by teams of people in one way or another, even if there’s a clear leader and the rest of the group are her or his “retinue.” Which is exactly what “hand-scale” means.

This meaning comes from the combination of “hand” (“hand,” “side (in defining position),” “power,” “control,” “possession,” “charge,” “agency,” or “person regarded as holder or receiver of something”) and “scale” (“be obliged (as in “shall,” “have to,” “must,” “must needs,” “am bound to,” “ought to”),” or “owe”), a mix that evokes a sense of something owed to a single person who is in power. Like a group of people rallying around someone to whom they feel they owe loyalty or respect.

But after all the hard work that a “hand-scale” puts in, what’s their reward? Well, any leader worth his or her salt when Old English was still a living language would raise some “heal-wudu,” that is, the “woodwork of a hall.”

In other words, just as Hrothgar did with Heorot, a victorious leader who didn’t already have a hall set up, would set about doing so. And, even if it’s technically metonymy to use “heal-wudu” to stand for a finished hall, the word is perfectly suited to referring to what were meeting and party buildings. Why? Simply because the combination of “heal” (“hall,” “dwelling,” “house,” “palace,” “temple,” or “law court”) and “wudu” (“wood,” “forest,” “grove,” “tree,” “the Cross,” “Rood,” “wood,” “timber,” or “ship”) is just so straightforward.

So, to be “sigor-eadig” in the face of defeat, sending off a “neod-laðu” against any “wea-spell” could bring about “fyrd-wyrðe.” And any victorious leader actually worth celebrating would bring his or her “hand-scalu” into the celebration with the raising of a hall, starting with its “heal-wudu.”

What do you think of being rewarded with a building dedicated to partying?

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Closing

Next week, we hear Hrothgar tell Beowulf how his night went.

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Hrothgar’s renewed sorrow, an Anglo-Saxon syllogism (ll.1302-1309)

Synopsis
Translation
Recordings
The Man Grendel’s Mother Seized
An Anglo-Saxon Syllogism
Closing

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Synopsis

After a week off from the blog we return to the poet showing us how Hrothgar takes the news of Grendel’s Mother’s visit.

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Translation

“Uproar burst forth from Heorot; in blood she’d seized
the best known hand; sorrow was renewed,
it had happened again in that hall. Their trade was harsh,
both parties had to pay a steep price
with the lives of friends. Hrothgar was now an old king,
a grey-haired battle-ruler, troubled at heart,
when he had heard his chief retainer was lifeless,
when he learned his dearest follower was dead.”
(Beowulf ll.1302-1309)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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The Man Grendel’s Mother Seized

Since Grendel’s mother has left the poet returns his focus to Heorot itself. But, he does so only to find it awash in all of the emotions that Beowulf had supposedly rid it of. As the brief half-line 1303b has it: “sorrow was renewed” (“cearu wæs geniwod”).

That might sound like quite an extreme escalation, but it’s clearer than crystal that the man Grendel’s mother took was an important one.

First off there’s the word “ealdor-þegn” on line 1308. I’ve defined this word as “chief retainer,” but one of the definitions of the word “þegn” is “noble” with the clarification that it refers to nobles who are officially so rather than noble by birth. So, this man that Grendel’s mother carried off had truly distinguished himself in the past. We never have the details revealed to us, but he definitely must have done something great to be elevated to a status that’s referred to with a word that means, at least in a sense, “noble by deed rather than by birth.”

Though it is possible that this man was noble by birth and his deed only confirmed this status.

Nonetheless, another word that tells a lot about this man whose death has plummeted Hrothgar into the pit of despair is the incredibly straightforward “freond.” One of the few words that makes it from Old English to Modern English with little modification (aside from the simplifying of the dipthong “eo” into “e”), this word means in Old English what it does in Modern English: friend. It can also mean “relative” or “lover.”

But in the context that we find it here, “freond” refers to Grendel and this taken man.

Grendel is his mother’s son, sure, but what then is this taken man to Hrothgar?

Clearly he’s as close as family since his death causes Hrothgar to lose all the vigour he’d regained upon hearing of Beowulf’s triumph over Grendel. Maybe the two were even lovers, though there don’t seem to be many homoerotic undertones in the poem. Unless, of course, homo-eroticism was just something that happened when Beowulf was being put together and so the signals of it are subtler than I’m used to.

What do you think this taken man was to Hrothgar? Simply a noble friend and advisor? Someone as close as a brother? Or were the two men long-time lovers?

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An Anglo-Saxon Syllogism

In this week’s brief passage, there’re only two compound words. So this week’s attempt to string its passage’s compound words together will be brief. And built on what I know of the Anglo-Saxon social hierarchy (which, admittedly, isn’t much).

Every “ealdor-þegn” is a “hilde-rinc,” but not every “hilde-rinc” is an “ealdor-þegn.”

I’ll explain.

The word “ealdor-þegn” means “chief attendant,” “retainer,” “distinguished courtier,” “chieftan,” or “chief apostle.” Since I don’t think the taken man in this passage was just an attendant, I’ve combined a few senses of this compound to translate it as “chief retainer.”

This word comes to its meaning through the combination of “ealdor” (“elder,” “parent,” “ancestors,” “civil or religious authority,” “chief,” “leader,” “master,” “lord,” “prince,” “king,” “source,” “primitive,” or, it could also mean “life,” “vital part,” “age,” “old age,” or “eternity”) and “þegn” (“servant,” “minister,” “retainer,” “vassal,” “follower,” “disciple,” “freeman,” “master (as opposed to slave),” “courtier,” “noble (official as distinguished from hereditary),” “military attendant,” “warrior,” or “hero”).

So the idea behind this compound is that it describes someone in the role of a follower/fighter who has distinguished themselves through long service. In fact, as mentioned above, such a person could even earn a noble standing, which, as far as I know, could be how new noble families got started.

The word “hilde-rinc,” a combination of “hilde” (“war” or “combat”) and “rinc” (“man,” “warrior,” or “hero”), means “warrior” or “hero.”

This word is much more specific, and I’m sure that “hilde-rinc” was sometimes used generally and sometimes used as an emphatic (think of someone today thinking they’re a writer when they’ve written something but they’re a writer when they’ve published something people are buying and reading).

These two are so closely connected because combat was one of the main arenas in which an Anglo-Saxon could show their worth. And, after having been through several combats, their advice (in matters of battle and politics, I imagine) would likely take on more and more weight.

Hence, every chief retainer is a warrior but not every warrior is a chief retainer.

War and battle were a pretty big part of Anglo-Saxon life, so it makes sense that experienced warriors were regarded as authority figures. But war and battle are the expertise of just a few today, so what do you think is the defining job of Western society that gives people authority just because they do that job for long enough?

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Closing

In next week’s passage Beowulf is summoned and comes marching in to see Hrothgar.

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