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

Hrothgar Holding Out?
Of Wolves and Ancient Treasure

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 more about the terrifying surroundings of the Grendels’ home, and offers a generous reward.

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“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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Old English:


Modern English:


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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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Next week: Beowulf’s reply!

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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

  1. Pingback: Flaming waters and who measures out miles anyway? (ll.1357b-1367) | A Blogger's Beowulf

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