Hrothgar’s motives, wolves and ancient treasure (ll. 1368-1382)

Synopsis
Translation
Recordings
Hrothgar Holding Out?
Of Wolves and Ancient Treasure
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 tells Beowulf more about the terrifying surroundings of the Grendels’ home, and offers a generous reward.

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Translation

“Even the stag harassed by wolves,
that hart strong of horn would seek security in the wood,
even if it was far off, would turn to offer its horns,
lose its life on the bank, before it would enter that water,
conceal his head. That is no pleasant place;
thence rise up surging waves
to a darkened sky, there the winds stir
hateful storms, so much so that the air becomes gloomy,
and the sky weeps. Now as before we depend
upon you alone for help. That region is not yet known,
a perilous place, there thou mayst find
the very guilty creature; seek it out if thou darest.
I will reward you with great wealth for ending this feud,
award you with ancient treasures, as I did already,
works of twisted gold, if thou goest on this way.”
(Beowulf ll.1368-1382)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Hrothgar Holding Out?

In the moment, Beowulf probably didn’t think twice about Hrothgar’s offer. “More treasure? For just killing another monster? Sure!” could very well be his internal monologue.

But does Hrothgar know more than he lets on?

Considering the fact that he’s able to go on for lines about the characteristics of the mere, and yet he says “that region is not yet known” (“[e]ard git ne const” (l.1377)) really makes me wonder. Plus, I don’t think that anyone who knew nothing about a place could paint as rich a picture as Hrothgar does when he uses the example of the buck who would rather die than escape the wolves by swimming away through the mysterious burning waters.

Sure, fear could be a factor here.

Maybe Hrothgar is speaking as someone who is terrified of this place, and so his description of it is tinged with the fear of the unknown; he has released his doubts about the place in exchange for grasping whatever slivers of information there are available to him as tightly as possible. And then he’s blown them out of proportion.

Though, perhaps this description isn’t coming from a frightened old man.

As a warrior himself, and someone who had to prove himself in his earlier days just as Beowulf is doing now, maybe Hrothgar is being quite shrewd here. The description he gives, with all of its extreme dangers and air of mystery despite the details would definitely appeal to Beowulf’s sense of hunting down glory. Though, really, even if Hrothgar said that Grendel’s mother could be found in the bread wall at the local grocery store, I’m sure Beowulf would go after her. He is that kind of fighter after all.

What’s more troubling anyway is that Hrothgar’s marking the end of this feud with the death of Grendel’s mother suggests something other than rhetoric. I think that it’s the poet’s way of suggesting that gaining a reputation for fighting and slaying monsters as Beowulf did when he beat Grendel (and even before if his boasts are to be believed) leads not to an end of your struggles with the unknown but to their continuation.

In fact, if you become known as an expert monster slayer, you’ll do it until the thing fighting as the supernatural’s representative naturally overcomes you, the natural. After all, as the stakes are raised more and more the best a mere mortal can do is take down the monstrous with them.

What do you think Hrothgar knows about the Grendels that he’s not telling Beowulf?

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Of Wolves and Ancient Treasure

I feel like it’s a bit judgy, from the perspective of a people relying on crops and livestock for sustenance and trade a “hæð-stapa” would be very bad news. At least in some cases.

The word “hæð-stapa” is kind of an odd one since it can mean either “wolf” or “hart.” As strange as that sounds, it makes sense since the word’s literal translation is simply “heath-stalker.”

In fact, since “hæð-stapa is a combination of “hæð” (“heath,” “untilled land,” “waste,” or “heather”) and “stapa” (“going,” “gait,” “step,” “pace,” “spoor,” “power of locomotion,” “short distance,” or “measure of length”), it could be taken to mean just about anything that is known to wander land that is unused by humans. Perhaps that’s why adding “fela-sinnigne” to “hæð-stapa” points it towards “wolf”.

After all, I haven’t met many deer that I would call “very guilty,” the very literal meaning of “fela-sinnigne” (fela (“many,” or “much”) + sinnigne (“guilty,” “punishable,” “criminal,” or “sinful”)).

But whatever judgments are passed, such a “fela-sinnigne” “hæð-stapa” is right at home in a “holt-wudu.”

That word combines “holt” (“forest,” “wood,” “grove,” “thicket,” “wood,” or “timber”) and “wudu” (“wood,” “forest,” “grove,” “tree,” “the Cross,” “Rood,” “wood,” “timber,” “ship,” or “spear shaft”) to mean simply “forest,” “grove,” or “wood,” though I’m sure that the doubling of a similar meaning in both words means that this is the deepest of forests.

Just as “yð-geblond” could refer to the mysterious waters of casa Grendel or to the roiling waves of the open sea. I mean, this compound does literally mean “wave” (“yð”) “mix” (“blandan”) after all.

But wolves (guilty or otherwise) are in short supply on the open sea, while something much more valuable is there for the taking thanks to shipwrecks and Viking burials. Yes, the ocean is home to much “eald-gestreon.”

Once again (seems there’s a trend in this passage’s compound words) the word “eald-gestreon” literally means “ancient treasure” (being a mix of “eald” (“aged,” “ancient,” “antique,” “primeval,” “elder,” “experienced,” “tried,” “honoured,” “eminent,” or “great”) and “streon” (“gain,” “acquisition,” “property,” “treasure,” “traffic,” “usury,” or “procreation”)).

So, in a sense you could say that the “fela-sinnigne hæð-stapa” is to the “holt-wudu” as the “eald-gestreona” is to the “yð-geblond.”

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Closing

Next week: Beowulf’s reply!

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Where Beowulf meets baseball

Whoops, it’s Friday, isn’t it?

Since I was getting over a nasty cold earlier in the week and then had a job to finish off for the end of the week (and a podcast to edit in between), I didn’t get to finish this week’s Beowulf entry.

As a bit of a fill-in for this week, I found a neat news piece related to Beowulf. Surprisingly, baseball, Beowulf, and J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit cross over.

Click through to find out how:

http://www.forbes.com/sites/maurybrown/2016/05/11/remembering-the-epic-new-york-times-correction-on-the-hobbit-name-of-r-a-dickeys-baseball-bat/#57d50a4f25e8

Flaming waters and who measures out miles anyway? (ll.1357b-1367)

Synopsis
Translation
Recordings
A Weird Home with Flaming Water
The Wondrous Life of a Mile Measurer
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 tells Beowulf (and us) about where the Grendels live.

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Translation

&nbsp:&nbsp:&nbsp:&nbsp:&nbsp:&nbsp:&nbsp:&nbsp:&nbsp:&nbsp:&nbsp:&nbsp:&nbsp:”They occupy that
strange land, along wolf-inhabited slopes, near wind-wracked cliffs,
up the perilous fen-path, where mountain streams
fall through mists from the headlands,
water creeping from underground. It is not many miles
hence that their mere can be found,
with frost-covered groves overhanging it;
tree roots overshadow those waters with their interlocking embrace.
Each night there you can see the oddest of wonders,
the water catches fire; none among the dear wise
children of humanity know of those waters’ bottom.”
(Beowulf ll.1357b-1367)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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A Weird Home with Flaming Water

Wonder upon wonder! After telling us that Grendel and Grendel’s mother were known to the people living on his lands, Hrothgar goes on to describe where the two live. And it doesn’t sound very hospitable.

Wolves on the slopes (“wulfhleoþu” l.1358), paths that cut through the marsh (“fengelad” l.1359), and everything is covered in mist (“genipu” l.1360). It sounds downright swampy.

Given this description of the monstrous Grendels’ home it’s no wonder it’s the Anglo-Saxon (read British) default to ascribe brutality and low intelligence to people who live in the backwoods and hills. If the presentation of Grendel and Grendel’s mother are anything to go on, making these people monsters (as we still do in horror movies to this day), is one of the oldest stereotypes carried down by speakers of English.

But that’s not the worst of it.

Along with being in such a perilous place, the water there burns by night. Water’s not supposed to burn. And especially not at night. And yet this stuff does.

Maybe it’s marsh gas (viewers of the Jon Pertwee Doctor Who story “Carnival of Monsters” might know how flammable the stuff can be).

Or maybe it’s just the light of the moon rippling off the water between tree branches in such a way that it looks like the water is glowing.

Or, weirdest of all, maybe the fires that dance upon the lake’s surface at night are lights for those below. Maybe this is the site of an anti-Heorot, a place where monsters kick back, drink their malts and eat strictly vegetarian meals.

It sounds crazy, but, as we’ll learn later on, the Grendels do have a rather mysterious cave/hall to call their own.

And why not introduce an anti-Heorot here?

So few people adapt the poem beyond the confrontation with Grendel’s mother. But, if you look at the poem as a thing divided into thirds based on the three major fights something interesting appears. Along with three monsters (Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and the dragon) there are three halls that are featured (Heorot, the Grendel’s, and Beowulf’s). So why shouldn’t the water on fire be lights coming up from the deep, where monsters play and frolic, while one of them plays an old rib cage like a xylophone?

What do you think is causing the water of this strange lair to look like it’s burning by night?

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The Wondrous Life of a Mile Measurer

The area that Hrothgar talks about in this passage seems quite remote. It contrasts quite a bit with the tame paths and meadows around Heorot. At some point though, he must have asked someone to “mil-gemearc” the distance between Heorot and this place.

Literally, such a request would have been to “mark the miles” between the two, though “measure by miles” is far less imperative. Not that it’d be difficult to make these two words sound like a command when put together. They’re quite straightforward. “Mil” means “mile” and “gemearc” means “mark,” “sign,” “line of division,” “standard,” “boundary,” “limit,” “term,” “border,” “defined area,” “district,” or “province.”

What I wonder, though, is whether or not Hrothgar sent the same person or another to measure out the “fen-gelad.” Measuring out a “marsh-path” would be a bit more treacherous, since I doubt the ground would be very solid. I mean the two words “fen” (“mud,” “mire,” “dirt,” “fen,” “marsh,” “moor,” or “the fen country”) and “gelad” (“course,” “journey,” “way,” “street,” “water-way,” “leading,” “carrying,” “maintenance,” or “support”) going together don’t really give the sense of a path around the marsh, but rather directly through it. “Fen-gelad” sounds like it describes a path that is itself marshy.

It’d be all the worse for our measurer if they were told to go all the way to where the “fyrgen-stream” drop down into the marsh. Those “mountain streams” would be pretty deep into the fen, I’d wager. After all, the only interpretation for “fyrgen” in this context is “mountain,” so whatever sense of “stream” you went with (“stream,” “flood,” “current,” “river,” or “sea”), would need to be coming off of a mountain. And it sounds like Heorot is quite far from most mountains.

As hard a task as all this measuring out would be, I imagine that the person doing it would see some “nið-wundor.” How could they not see a “dire wonder” or “portent” along such a path? Though seeing such a thing wouldn’t necessarily uplift their spirits. “Wundor” is at least neutral, meaning simply “wonder,” “miracle,” “marvel,” “portent,” “horror,” “wondrous thing,” or “monster”. But “nið” refers to “abyss,” “strife,” “enmity,” “attack,” “war,” “evil hatred,” “spite,” “oppression,” “affliction,” “trouble,” or “grief.” So these sights may leave whatever measurer of miles that sees them with grief.

Indeed, such “nið-wundor” likely include sights like a “wulf-hleothu.” I’d be pretty distressed if I had to pass by a hillside where wolves lived after all. They’d have the higher ground and all sorts of advantages. Though, they might also be devils in disguise since “wulf” can translate as “wolf,” “wolfish person,” or “devil”. They’d definitely be on a hillside, though: “hleoþu” only means “cliff,” “precipice,” “slope,” “hillside,” or “hill”.

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Closing

Next week, Hrothgar further describes this strange place and promises Beowulf a great reward.

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Hrothgar tells tales of the Grendels, idyllic country-dwellers risk exile (ll.1345-1357a)

Synopsis
Translation
Recordings
Hrothgar Lays his Land Claims
The Rise and Fall of a Country-Dweller
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 shares what his people have told him about Grendel and his mother.

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Translation

“I have heard the dwellers in the land, my people,
and my hall counsellors say,
that they have seen two such
mighty prowlers of the murky moors protecting them,
alien creatures; there one of them,
they all can say with great certainty,
has a woman’s likeness; the other unfortunate
in a man’s form treads the path of exile,
but never had they seen a bigger man;
in earlier times the dwellers in the land named
him Grendel; they knew not their lineage,
their parentage was said to be hidden among
mysterious spirits.”
(Beowulf ll.1345-1357a)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Hrothgar Lays his Land Claims

After Hrothgar has questioned Beowulf’s effectiveness, the hall ruler changes his approach. He starts to finally tell us more about Grendel and Grendel’s mother. And it sounds like there are things that Hrothgar can tell us — even if they are just hearsay.

It’s definitely important that there are only two of these creatures. Though it’s curious that the way that all of Hrothgar’s people go when wondering about their origins is down the road of “mysterious spirits” (“dyrnra gasta” (l.1357)). None of Hrothgar’s people say that these two are just two exiles from long ago.

In fact, since in earlier times people would often cast out children who were born with physical defects, maybe that’s what Grendel is: a person with a physical disability of some kind. His mother, then, is indeed a woman but, since Grendel’s as big as he is, in this scenario she probably went out into the wilderness with him. Then the two were away from human society for so long that they’ve forgotten how to talk and express themselves in a recognizable way.

Whatever the case is, Hrothgar’s sharing these mysterious stories of Grendel sightings call into question just how objectively the two are monsters after all. As I’ve said before, maybe the “monster” label is just Hrothgar’s label for two people that were exiled so long ago that all they share with his people are their shapes and likenesses.

I also really wonder about the use of “land-buend” (l.1345) and “fold-buend” (l.1355) in this passage.

Both words basically mean “someone living in the land” as opposed to someone living in a more populated settlement like the one that’s undoubtedly around Heorot. So not only does Hrothgar not recognize these two monsters as long exiled and unfamiliar people, it also sounds like he’s asserting his ownership of the land via possession pretty hard here. Almost as if he (or maybe just the poet) is well aware of how he encroached on the land that Grendel and his mother once had to themselves.

The matter of land ownership and identifying yourself with the land and the people living on it with the land is the angle that hooks me to tightest when I’m reading through Beowulf. It’s so interesting to me because I’m thoroughly convinced that politics of land ownership and identification as a singular people are major themes in Beowulf. And here Hrothgar’s pushing pretty hard to put the beings that he’s feuding with in the “not us” category otherwise known as “monsters” dwelling on the borders of his territory while also working to convince Beowulf that the people living on the land are indeed his people.

What do you think Hrothgar’s history with Grendel and Grendel’s mother is? Are the two creatures exiles or monsters? Could Grendel be an illegitimate son of Hrothgar whom he threw out to secure his power?

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The Rise and Fall of a Country-Dweller

Being a person who “lives on the land” sounds like a rough life. But, I think even when Beowulf was being dreamed up there was a sense that such a life was simpler. After all, if you were a “land-buend,” you literally were a “dweller” or “inhabitant” (buend) on the “land” (the Old English word “land” meaning “earth,” “land,” “soil,” “territory,” “realm,” “province,” “district,” “landed property,” “country (not town),” or “ridge in a ploughed field”).

That there’s an almost identical word with similar meaning convinces me that country life was idealized even more.

“Fold-buend” after all, just means “earth-dweller” or “man” or “inhabitant of a country” — it’s the more concrete cousin of “land-buend” no doubt because the one word that makes the difference between the two, “fold” means “earth,” “ground,” “soil,” “terra firma,” “land,” “country,” “region,” or “world”. But really, it’s just a difference of degrees. “Land” is somehow more abstract (with its meanings of “territory,” or “province” or “country (as opposed to town)”), while “fold” is more about the dirt and soil themselves.

But aside from understanding those who lived on the land as country-dwellers and also as people living somehow more in tune with the earth (living capital “o” “On it”), country people might’ve been regarded as more fortunate because they had the protection of a “sele-raedend” without having much to do with them.

Sure farmers would have to go to war with their “sele-raedend,” he is the “hall ruler or possessor” after all, but they wouldn’t have been expected to perform great deeds or distinguish themselves in battle. That would be the duty of the hall ruler’s closest posse (the “comitatus”).

Although, since “sele-raedend” breaks down into “sele” (“hall,” “house,” “dwelling,” or “prison”) and “raedend” (“controller,” “disposer,” “ruler,” or “diviner”) it’s quite possible that simple household owners or heads of families would regard themselves as the “sele-raedend” of their own dwelling.

Which is all fine and good until one of these heads of an outlying family got it into their heads that they could do a better job of ruling the people. If their plot succeeded, great! But if it failed, they’d either be killed on the spot or forced onto the “wraec-lastas” or “path of exile.”

The word comes from the mix of “wraec” (“misery,” “vengeance,” “persecution,” “enmity,” “punishment,” “penalty,” “cruelty,” “misery,” “distress,” “torture,” or “pain”) and “lastas” (“sole of foot,” “spoor,” “footprint,” “track,” “trace,” “gait,” or “step”), which outlines quite nicely what exile is all about: a path of punishment, torture, and misery.

I mean, in a time when everyone in a community relied on each other not just for niceties and a sense of connectedness but for food and protection, being forced out on your own would indeed make you “earm-sceapan.” You would be left “unfortunate” or “miserable.”

Such is the outcome of failed rebellion and such is the meaning of that mix of “earm” (“arm,” “foreleg,” “power,” “poor,” “wretched,” “pitiful,” “destitute,” or “miserable”) and “sceapan” (“shape,” “form,” “created being,” “creature,” “creation,” “dispensation,” “fate,” “condition,” “sex,” or “genitalia”).

Although, perhaps all hope would not be lost. If you managed to survive long enough to say that your being forced into exile happened in “gear-dagum” you could then call yourself (perhaps with pride) a “mearc-stapa.”

Although, if you were living outside of society for so long that you’d think of your exile as having happened in “the days of yore,” then maybe you’d have lost touch with reality enough to come up with the combination of “mearc” (“mark,” “sign,” “line of division,” “standard,” “boundary,” “limit,” “term,” “border,” “defined area,” “district,” or “province”) and “stapa” (“going,” “gait,” “step,” “pace,” “spoor,” “power of locomotion,” “short distance,” “measure of length,” “step,” “stair,” “pedestal,” “socket,” “grade,” or “degree”) to mean “march-haunter.”

Perhaps, if he or his mother were given any dialogue, that’s what Grendel or Grendel’s mother would be calling themselves.

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Closing

Next week, Hrothgar tells us more about Grendel and his mother, and about where the duo live.

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