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

Beowulf’s Big Question
Wishes for Victory bring Party Halls

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

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“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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Old English:


Modern English:


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

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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

  1. Pingback: Hrothgar’s renewed sorrow, an Anglo-Saxon syllogism (ll.1302-1309) | A Blogger's Beowulf

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