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

A Weird Home with Flaming Water
The Wondrous Life of a Mile Measurer

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 tells Beowulf (and us) about where the Grendels live.

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&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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Old English:


Modern English:


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

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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

  1. Pingback: Hrothgar tells tales of the Grendels, idyllic country-dwellers risk exile (ll.1345-1357a) | A Blogger's Beowulf

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