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

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

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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Hrothgar laments the continuation of his feud with the Grendels.

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“‘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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Old English:


Modern English:


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

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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

  1. Pingback: Beowulf’s effectiveness questioned, words for advisers (ll.1321-1333a) | A Blogger's Beowulf

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