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

The Man Grendel’s Mother Seized
An Anglo-Saxon Syllogism

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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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“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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Old English:


Modern English:


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

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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

  1. Pingback: A great Danish warrior? And compact reward words (ll.1292-1301) | A Blogger's Beowulf

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