The Danes’ deadly curiosity, life is dangerous in these waters (ll.1432b-1441a)

Synopsis
Translation
Recordings
Brutal Curiousity
The Dangers of Being a Child of the Waves
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

The Geats and Danes kill one of the monsters of the waters and drag it ashore.

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Translation

                    “One of the Geats
severed the life of one with an arrow from his bow,
than did it battle against the waves, since that war arrow stuck in
its side; it was then slower against the waters
in that sea, until death took its fight away.
It was quickly pulled from the waves
in an assault of savagely barbed boar spears,
fiercely they attacked it to tug that wondrous
traverser of the waves to the shore; the men
all gazed upon that terrible stranger.”
(Beowulf ll.1432b-1441a)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Brutal Curiousity

There is no way to soften the blow here. The Geats and Danes are downright brutal with this sea monster — be it seal or walrus or actual monster.

First, it’s struck with an arrow. Then they all watch as it goes through its death throes in the water, no doubt bloodying them up further. But then they don’t just look at each other and grunt out “huh, I guess they can die.” No. Instead they stick spears intended for hunting boars into the corpse and bring it ashore for a closer look.

At least I guess I should credit them for being curious. I mean, these guys don’t just kill the thing and then leave it there. There’s a genuine inquisitiveness present in this passage. It’s just that it’s pretty deeply cut by a brutal kind of caution. Cut so deep in fact, that the metaphorical drink it’s diluting is just about all water at this point.

Still, the assembled warriors all gawk at the corpse of this animal (monster?) that they’ve pulled to shore. Which does accomplish a few things for the story.

As I noted above, it proves that these monsters can be killed. It also proves that they aren’t likely impervious to human weapons like Grendel was. Though I’m not sure how top of mind that is and how much more likely it is that they killed the beast to make sure it didn’t attack them when they tried to get a closer look. Though, it’s still hard to set aside their letting it thrash around in the water until it dies.

It doesn’t get mentioned here, since next week’s passage will jump back to Beowulf himself, but maybe this closer observation of one of these monsters confirms something very important for the Geats and Danes around it. That it’s no monster at all.

As a sea-faring people, I have no doubts that both Geats and Danes are familiar with sea-life, whether helpful or harmful to their crossing the seas. Maybe this closer look is all it takes for them to realize that the creatures in the water here aren’t monsters at all but just creatures as common as deer. And maybe that’s why this is the moment that the poet chooses to end his general narration before getting back to the heroics of Beowulf.

Unless, this creature is indeed a monster, or just monstrous. Last week there was the mention of these creatures all around them being the same ones that were responsible for wrecking ships on their way out to sea. Maybe seeing these creatures up close didn’t lead to a revelation about their nature, it just erased the fear that all the assembled people had for these beasts as these strange and unknown creatures. But, now, at the very least, as Arnold Schwarzenegger rightly observed in a movie about another monstrous menace, Predator: “if it bleeds we can kill it.”

What do you think? Are the Geats and Danes killing, then jamming boar spears into this creature’s corpse out of fear? Or just because they want to be sure about its nature and their own safety? Let me know what you think in the comments!

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The Dangers of Being a Child of the Waves

If you’re a sea-going creature, you’ve spent your whole life in the water. You know the ebb and flow like the back of your fin. You truly are a “wæg-bora”1.

But the ways of the air are entirely foreign to you. The area above the water is where the great fiery ball lives, far off in the distance. Or it is simply quite small. None of the stories of your kind are certain. But they are certain that the space between water and fiery ball is usually clear and open. So being hit by sharp barb, or “here-stræl”2, from a “flan-boga”3 is entirely unexpected. Hard clouds sometimes pass along the surface of your waters, but stories of those sharp long barbs are few.

But they are brutal.

Especially since there are many mentions in these stories, talk of “heoru-hocyht”4 “eofer-spreot”5 being driven from an unknown enemy that lives in the space between waters and the fiery ball. Those who have witnessed such assaults with the barbs that swim through the space between often tell of these greater barbs following their smaller kin, just as certain of your own kind swim together. But instead of bringing the joy and safety of community, these barbs always cause great “yð-gewinn”6.

Such are the dangers of being a child of the waves.

1wæg-bora: child of the waves?[sic]; traverser of the waves?; goer upon the waves. wæg (motion, water, wave, billow, flood, sea) + bora (ruler)

2here-stræl: arrow. here (predatory band, troop, army, host, multitude, battle, war, devastation) + stræl (arrow, dart, missile; curtain, quilt, matting, bed)

3flan-bogan: bow. flan (barb, arrow, javelin, dart) + boga (bow, arch, arched place, vault, rainbow, folded parchment)

4heoru-hocyht: savagely barbed. heoru (sword) + hocyht (with many bends?[sic]. Perhaps a clue to how it was barbed?)

5eofer-spreot: boar-spear. eofer (boar, wild boar, boar-image on a helmet) + spreot (pole, pike, spear)

6yð-gewinn: wave-strife, life on the waves. (wave, billow, flood, sea, liquid, water) + winn (toil, labour, trouble, hardship, profit, gain, conflict, strife, war)

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Closing

Next week, the poet shifts back to Beowulf. And the Geat hero gets geared up.

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Monsters on the shores, and monsters in the morning (ll.1422-1432a)

Synopsis
Translation
Recordings
Marine Mammals or Monsters?
Waking Monsters at Morning Time
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

Some of those with Hrothgar peer into the bloody depths of the waters and see monsters.

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Translation

“Amidst the waters blood surged — clear for the men there to see —
hot with gore. At times a horn sounded
an urgent war-song. Those on foot all sat down;
there through the water they saw many of the race of serpents,
strange sea-dragons knew those depths,
likewise, on the headlands lay water monsters,
those that often undertake to hijack ships as they
set out on fateful voyages down the sail-road in the morning,
dragons and beasts. They rushed about the waters,
fierce and enraged; they had heard that sound,
the resounding war-horn.”
(Beowulf ll.1422-1432a)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Marine Mammals or Monsters?

After coming just a few miles from Heorot, Hrothgar and those with him haven’t just come to a strange swampy place. They have come to the heart of the world’s monsters’ home.

The Danes and Geats that look into the choppy waters see all manner of sea serpents, and those that look across to the cliffs see the very monsters the Anglo-Saxons may have feared the most as a sea-faring people: those that wreck ships. Since, you know, gremlins, or, rather, the “nicra,” are all about smashing ships. And, apparently, lazing on rocky shores.

I remember that when we got to this passage in a class that walked us through Beowulf we stopped and dug deep. And what the professor uncovered was the notion that the monsters Hrothgar, the Danes, and the Geats see on the far shore are seals or walruses, giant sea mammals that (probably wrongly?) they assumed wrecked ships since they were protective of all the sea as humans were protective of their homes. Building on this notion, I can’t help but wonder even now if the waters are bloody and churning because some of the seals are hunting. And, perhaps the horrendous writhing of the sea serpents is just the seals mowing down on fish or other water dwellers their size or bigger, leaving people on the shore with the impression of giant flailing monsters.

Of course, that’s just speculation.

Speculation that Hrothgar and those with him misinterpreted what they saw for what they expected instead of what actually was. Or, rather, speculation that this is what the Anglo-Saxons thought of seals and/or walruses. It’s hard to say for sure since I’m not sure how violent those animals are when they’re hunting. Or if they’d be violent enough to come onto land, steal a full grown man away and leave his head on the shore completely unintentionally.

Though, I guess the Grendels, in this den of monsters, being the only clear humanoids, are supposed the poem’s audience’s way into this experience. Everything around them is so strange that the Grendels, with their upright walking and sense of family, are actually much closer to our human heroes than to the lounging (and maybe laughing?) monsters that the assembled people see all around them.

But if they’re surrounded by these strange creatures, then is it somebody among Hrothgar’s men that blows on the war horn? Or is it one of the monsters doing it? Or, is that just the poet taking some licence with a seal’s bark or a walruses’ call?

For such a scene, the plain language here does wonders for setting up an utterly bizarre situation. But more than that I think it does a fantastic job of building up suspense.

Here’s this group of people — all warriors outfitted for fighting — in the midst of a bunch of monsters, looking for the one who is ostensibly their queen or maybe just the most aggressive of the bunch, and they can only guess that she’s beyond Æschere’s bloodily severed head, in the depths of the unfathomable choppy red water.

Do you think the monsters all around Hrothgar and his group are just seals or walruses? Or is the poet describing some other creatures?

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Waking Monsters at Morning Time

One of the things I wonder as I read this passage again is why the monsters don’t seem to notice Hrothgar or any of those with him. They’re either chilling on another shore, or feeding in the water. It’s something that definitely strengthens the idea that they’re all just marine mammals doing their own thing, and, much like other animals of a certain size ignore people unless they get to close.

But. For the sake of this little exercise, let’s continue to consider them monsters. And how to rouse them from their lounging?

Well, “wil-deor”1, “sæ-dracan”2, and those of “wyrm-cynn”3, rush up no matter what the “næs-hleoðum”4, when the guð-horn5 plays the “fyrd-leoð”6, in the “undern-mæl”7.

Monsters love bacon, after all, especially when it comes in rashers.

1wil-deor: wild beast, deer, reindeer.
wild (wild) + deor (animal, beast (usu. wild), deer, reindeer; brave, old, ferocious, grievous, severe, violent)

2sæ-dracan: sea-dragon.
(sheet of water, sea, lake, pool) + draca (dragon, sea-monster, serpent, the devil, standard representing a dragon or serpent)

3wyrm-cynnes: serpent-kind, sort of serpent.
wyrm (reptile, serpent, snake, dragon; worm, insect, mite, poor creature) + cynn (kind, sort, rank, quality, family, generation, offspring, pedigree, race, kin, people, gender, sex, propriety, etiquette; becoming, proper, suitable)

4næs-hleoðum: declivity, slope of a headland.
næs (cliff, headland, cape, earth, ground) + hlið (cliff, precipice, slope, hill-side, hill)

5guð-horn: war-horn, trumpet.
guð (combat, battle, war) + horn (horn, musical instrument, drinking horn, cupping horn, beast’s horn, projection, pinnacle)

6fyrd-leoð: war-song.
fierd (national levy or army, military expedition, campaign, camp) + leoð (song, lay, poem)

7undern-mæl: morning-time.
undern (morning (from 9AM to Noon), the third hour (9AM, or 11AM), religious service at the third hour) + mæl (mark, sign, ornament, cross, crucifix, armour, harness, sword, measure; time, point of time, occasion, season, time for eating, meal, meals)

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Closing

Next week, a Geat brings in a monstrous catch.

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What Grendel’s mother did with Aeschere’s head, a monstrous real estate listing (ll.1408-1421)

Synopsis
Translation
Recordings
A Grisly Joke
A Monstrous Listing
Closing

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Synopsis

Hrothgar and his wisest thanes see a grisly sight at the Grendels’ doorstep.

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Translation

“The prince’s thanes then rode on
over steep rocky slopes, around narrowly winding paths,
through ways that fit just single file soldiers, up trails unknown,
precipitous headlands, lined with homes of water monsters.
He went on ahead with a handful of the wise,
to see that strange place; they looked about
until suddenly they found a patch of mountain trees
all growing out over grey stones,
a joy-less forest; waters stood beneath them,
blood-stained and turbid. To all the Danes gathered there,
friends of the Scyldings, the sight caused harsh suffering
at heart, bringing the same heaviness to each of the many thanes,
striking each of them with grief, once they found
the head of Æschere on the cliff by the water’s side.”
(Beowulf ll.1408-1421)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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A Grisly Joke

Hrothgar’s ride up to the mere is quite vivid — in a King James Version of the Bible sort of way.

The first few lines of this passage (and the last few of last week’s) are sparse in their description. And yet, somehow these lines say a lot in their handful of words. It certainly sounds like the mere is incredibly isolated, almost as if the journey there (though it’s “not many miles” away (“Nis þæt feor heonon/milgemearces” (l.1361-1362)), as Hrothgar’s said earlier in the poem) has taken them to an entirely new world. A world of crooked trees growing over stony ground that’s also swampy and saturated with ever-churning waters. It does indeed sound like a grim place. But topping it all off is the discovery of Æschere’s head.

As we’ll find out once the poem gets to Beowulf’s pursuing Grendel’s mother, the Grendels’ home is in this water. And so, since this cliff is at the water’s side, I can’t help but think that it is the Grendels’ equivalent of Heorot’s gables.

After Beowulf defeated Grendel he hoisted his opponent’s arm up into those gables as a prize and a sign of triumph. Of course, taking that trophy was fatal for our 12-year terror, Grendel. Likewise, taking off Æschere’s head would have been fatal for him. Also likewise, his head is being similarly displayed as a trophy and as a sign of triumph in the feud.

But now, since it’s Æschere’s head and not the limb of some miscellaneous monster, we’re meant to feel just as sad at heart as the Danes who look upon the grim sight with Hrothgar. And it’s easy to feel it. I mean, from the time that Grendel’s mother takes him it’s pretty clear that Æschere is dead. But even so, seeing such grisly proof that he is indeed gone is still pretty devastating.

And yet, the parallel to Grendel’s arm makes me wonder what the poet was trying to say here.

Maybe the poet’s driving home what I’ve pointed out before, that Grendel and Grendel’s mother, for all of their monstrousness, are still beings with reason and with a capacity for empathy and a strong sense of family. A sense strong enough to inspire Grendel’s mother to barge in on a hall full of armed warriors with nothing but the fear of her they feel for protection.

Maybe giving such a quality to monsters was meant to show how much the idea of family, an often elevated and ennobled feeling, is really just an animalistic instinct. And that the preyed upon and the hated feel it just as much as those who are in an elevated position of privilege.

Maybe the poet is exercising some dark humour. Æschere’s head being on display is a little elbow in the ribs, a little flip of the bird from monster kind.

What do you make of this scene? Is it just a grisly display of how low the Grendels will go or is it a little wink from the poet in some way?

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A Monstrous Listing

Speaking of Old English humour, I think you could probably find a joke real estate listing like this if real estate listings were a thing in the days of Beowulf and Hrothgar:

Make your way along the “an-pað”1, up the “stan-hlið”2, and you’ll find a terrible “nicor-husa”3. This “nicor-husa” comes complete with a “wyn-leas”4 “fyrgen-beam”5 out front and an abysmal “holm-clif”6 view. Starting at three severed thanes’ heads or best offer.

Or, in Modern English:

Make your way along the narrow path, up the rocky slope and you’ll find a terrible sea-monster’s dwelling. This sea-monster’s dwelling comes with a joyless mountain-tree out front and an abysmal sea-cliff view. Starting at three severed thanes’ heads or best offer.

1an-pað: narrow path. an (one, each, every one, all) + pað (path, track)
2stan-hlið: rocky slope, cliff, rock. stan (stone, rock, gem, calculus, milestone) + hlið (cliff, precipice, slope, hill-side, hill)
3nicor-husa: sea monster’s dwelling. nicor (water-sprite, sea-monster, hippopotamus, walrus) + husa (house, temple, tabernacle, dwelling-place, inn, household, race)
4wyn-leas: joyless. wyn (friend, protector, lord, retainer) + leas (without, free from, devoid of, bereft of, false, faithless, untruthful, deceitful, lax, vain, worthless, falsehood, lying, untruth, mistake)
5fyrgen-beam: mountain tree. fyrgen (mountain) + beam (tree, beam, rafter, piece of wood, cross, gallows, ship, column, pillar, sunbeam, metal girder)
6holm-clif: sea-cliff, rocky shore. holm (wave, sea, ocean, water) + clif (cliff, rock, promontory, steep slope)

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Closing

Next week, everyone in the party is entranced by the beasts in the water.

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Hrothgar leaps into action, words to find an empty vassal by (ll.1397-1407)

Synopsis
Translation
Recordings
Hrothgar on the Move
Tracking an Empty Vassal
Closing

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Synopsis

Hrothgar responds immediately to Beowulf’s egging on and sets out after Grendel’s mother.

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Translation

“Then the old one leapt up, thanked God,
the mighty Lord, for what the man had said.
Then Hrothgar’s horse was bridled,
the one with the braided hair; the wise king
rode out in fine array; the troop of shield-bearers
marched on. Tracks were widely seen
over the trails through the wood,
leading over earth, going straight
over to the darkened moor, where the
lifeless body of the dear servant had been drug,
he who had watched over the home of Hrothgar.”
(Beowulf ll.1397-1407)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Hrothgar on the Move

Now we’re on the hunt! And the trail is fresh!

Though it’s hard to say which trail exactly Hrothgar and his gang are following.

At first, it sounds like it must be Grendel’s Mother’s tracks. But then we’re told that Æschere’s “lifeless body…had been drug” (“magoþegna bær/…sawolleasne” (ll.1405-1406)), so maybe the furrow left behind by his feet or head are what they’re following. If that’s the case, then the humans here involved are sowing the seeds of destruction! After all, it sounds like Hrothgar’s riding out with quite a bit of force; he is in his finest array and riding out on a horse that has a braided mane. Though the detail of the horse makes me wonder if it’s more of a show horse — perhaps even making it a reflection of Hrothgar’s own existence as more of a figurehead than the machismo-dripping leader he had been in younger days. All the while accompanied by a “troop of shield-bearers” (“gumfeþa…/lindhæbbendra” (ll.1401-1402)). So, despite appearances (maybe because of them?), Hrothgar’s serious in his ride out to the mere.

And, of course, at the head of all of this forward momentum is Beowulf. The lad’s jab about Hrothgar’s needing to be the ruler Beowulf expects him to be was likely particularly stinging.

Still, it’s telling that Beowulf is able to inspire the old king like this. It makes it pretty clear, I think, that he’s not only some great monster slayer, but he’s got charisma and diplomatic skill as well — he can slay supernatural foes with the sword (or handgrip) and he can slay human ones with his tongue.

Actually, that makes it pretty neat and tidy when it comes to the morality of Beowulf himself. There’s no weird amorality to him despite the death that he’s steeped in because all of the stories of his fights we’ve heard so far involve fights with monsters. Yes, later Beowulf tells stories of fights against armies, but there the foes are far from humanized. The old trick of making enemies into monsters being well practiced well beyond the medieval period and into antiquity. Though thinking about that practice makes me wonder what Grendel and Grendel’s mother were before they were constantly called “kin of Cain.”

Do you think that Grendel and Grendel’s mother are monsters or people whom the Danes just want to exterminate?

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Tracking an Empty Vassal

A bunch of “lind-hæbbendra,” a “gum-fetha” of them you might even say, is on the march. Such a bunch of “lind-hæbbendra” sounds rather intimidating. And no doubt the sight of a group of “shield-bearers” or “warriors” heading somewhere would be, after all they literally “have” (“hæbben”) “shields of wood” (“lind”). So you know just by looking at them that they’re serious business. Particularly because of that “gum-feþa” formation

But what else, if not a “gum-feþa” would warriors move in? The word “troop” just feels too appropriate. All the more so, since it’s a mix of “gums” (“man,” “lord,” or “hero”) and “feþa” (“foot-man,” “foot-soldier,” “band of foot-soldiers,” or “troops”).

Just for fun now, imagine each warrior in this troop having “wunden-feax”. Such “braided hair” might make them fulfil a lot of popular conceptions of what Vikings looked like, and why not?

Along with horned helmets, braids have always been a favourite of Viking cartoonists, but what’s really surprising is how straightforward the compound “wunden-feax” is. “Wunden” just means “wind,” “plait,” “curl,” “twist,” “unwind,” “whirl,” “brandish,” “swing,” “turn,” “fly,” “leap,” “start,” “roll,” “slip,” or “go,” and “feax” just means “hair,” or “head of hair”.

What’s more, this word is exclusive to Beowulf as far as we know, so there’s got to be a pretty good understanding of what “wound hair” is. And such an understanding is most likely to come out of braided hair being a familiar sight.

Now imagine this troop of warriors with braided hair heading down a “weald-swaþu.” Somehow knowing that “weald-swaþu” means “” (weald (“forest,” “wood,” “grove,” “bushes,” or “foliage”) + swaþu (“footstep,” “track,” “pathway,” “trace,” “vestige,” or “scar”)) doesn’t make this too much easier. I mean, it’s really hard to tell how deep this forest is.

But they are tracking the “sawol-leas” “mago-þegna,” so there might be more than one track to follow.

Not that anything “lifeless” (or soul-less) would be moving much (hence the very visceral “sawol” (“soul,” “life,” “spirit,” or “living being”) + “leas” (“without,” “free from,” “devoid of,” “bereft of,” “false,” “faithless,” “untruthful,” “deceitful,” “lax,” “vein,” “worthless,” “falsehood,” “lying,” “untruth,” or “mistake”)).

And, much like the near sound alike “vessel,” a “vassal” is pretty empty if you remove its life or its soul, so our mago-þegna (“mago” (“male kinsman,” “son,” “descendant,” “young man,” “servant,” or “warrior”) + “þegna” (“servant,” “minister,” “retainer,” “vassal,” “follower,” “disciple,” “freeman,” “master,” “courtier,” “noble (official rather than hereditary),” “military attendant,” “warrior,” or “hero”)) likely did nothing but drag as it was carried off.

Though the empty furrow formed from the empty body’s dragging could be what fills our braided troop of shield-bearers with hope.

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Closing

Next week, the trip toward the home of the Grendels continues.

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Beowulf offers comfort and who’s hiding in the mountain wood? (ll.1383-1396)

Synopsis
Translation
Recordings
Beowulf as Comforter
Warriors and Thieves
Closing

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Synopsis

Beowulf tells Hrothgar to stiffen his upper lip and to get out there and get vengeance.

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Translation

“Beowulf spoke, son of Ecgtheow:
‘Do not sorrow, wise lord! Better be it for each man
if he avenge his friend, than if he mourn long.
Each of us shall experience an end
to life in this world; achieve what glory you can
before death; that way you may be among the best of warriors
after you are no longer living.
Arise, protector of the realm, head out quickly,
so that we can find the trail of Grendel’s kin!
I to thee promise this: it shall not escape into protection,
nor into the earth’s bosom, nor into the mountain wood,
nor to the depths of the sea, try as it might.
This day you shall have patience enough
for each misery, as I have come to expect you to.'”
(Beowulf ll.1383-1396)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Beowulf as Comforter

Before heroically avenging the death of his dearest counsellor and fellow warrior, Beowulf sets out to relieve Hrothgar’s sorrow and worry. This whole speech is nothing more than Beowulf saying “buck up” with the most genuine of tones. Though he manages to slip a reference to his own prowess in here in the form of a pledge to let no form of escape work for Grendel’s mother.

Looked at in comparison to the strange and nebulous descriptions of the land that the Grendels call home found in previous entries, this direct and simple affirmation makes sense.

In Hrothgar’s words as he tells Beowulf about the swampy mere you can feel the fear and the uncertainty that haunt his heart. If Grendel shook Hrothgar’s resolve and lead him to despair, then all the more the reprieve of that hell ghast’s terrifying hold on Heorot. Like the kid who sees his parents hide away the exact toy that he wanted for Christmas only for Christmas morning to yeild nothing but socks.

And so Beowulf’s hopeful tone is just what’s needed here. Though why he should bother cheering Hrothgar up instead of just saying “I’m here to kill your monster” needs some explaining, I think.

Beowulf could be buttering Hrothgar up with these words of assurance and his vow to track Grendel’s mother to the ends of the earth. But, I don’t think that Beowulf is capable of that sort of calculation just yet. Sure, he knows how to spin a story and how to phrase his speech when he’s talking to nobility, but to just simply coo at Hrothgar with pleasant words sounds like something Unferth is more likely to do than Beowulf. There’s a certain sliminess to it that I just don’t see in the teenage Beowulf’s capacity, however much he might alter even the retelling of his fight with Grendel to suit his audience.

Instead I think that Beowulf looks up to Hrothgar to some extent. We have no idea what his life among the Geats was like. Not to mention if he was singled out or maligned because (as far as I know) only his father was a Geat. Beowulf’s unnamed, though praised mother (ll.942-946), could have been from any clan.

Yet here this young man is, coming across the sea to valiantly defend a people whom he’s only met once before, and maybe at an age from which no memory survives even into the teenage years.

With Hrothgar being an older man in a place of authority, possibly the third that Beowulf has encountered in his life (including Ecghteow and Hygelac), I think it makes sense that the young man would want to comfort the old one. Doing so would help all three of these figures to align with each other. After all, there wasn’t much variety in the form that authority took in early medieval Anglo-Saxon society.

A person (usually male) had their authority either from their deeds (or well known stories of them) or from their knowledge (which would need to be enough to convince people that they had some connection with a greater entity, whether that be a god or a demon). Such were the ultimate authorities.

Since, as far as I know, all three of the authoritative men in Beowulf’s life were warriors, it makes sense that Beowulf would hold each to a similar standard. Ecgtheow, I can only guess, was a competent enough dad, one who at the least inspired Beowulf to become a brawler himself, and this tendency would have been further nurtured by Hygelac. So seeing Hrothgar in such a state, I think it’s just Beowulf’s natural response to try to build the man back up.

And this response is encapsulated in the passage’s final line, in which Beowulf mentions his own expectation for Hrothgar to be able to put sorrow aside and endure it through patience. Patience, a key characteristic of the strong and strategy-minded warrior as much as the faithful and thoughtful religious. How could Beowulf, someone who seems to be in the middle of the Venn diagram for these things expect anything less than patience from someone whom he sees as authoritative?

Wealhtheow is neither a man nor a warrior, but do you think that she has some authority in Heorot? Or is she just Hrothgar’s wife?

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Warriors and Thieves

Even in Old English, a “firgen-holt” would not hold “driht-guma.” Such a place as a mountain-wood (firgen (mountain) + holt (“forest,” “wood,” “grove,” “thicket,” “wood,” or “timber”)) would only contain þéof-mann.

The difference between “driht-guman” and “þéof-mann” being essential.

After all, “driht-guma” or “warriors” carry the connotation of someone in step with those around them.

Such a person is one who fights for those that he or she loves rather than just to fight for the sake of fighting or for themselves. Which only makes sense when you have a word that combines “driht” (“multitude,” “army,” “company,” “body of retainers,” “nation,” or “people”) and “guma” (“man,” “lord,” or “hero”). This mix suggests someone very much fighting for their fellow people, or at least someone who is part of a group of organized fighters in some sense.

Meanwhile, a “þéof-mann,” a “robber” or “brigand,” is singled out in Old English. Both of this word’s parts endure into Modern English, with “[dth]eof” meaning “criminal,” “thief,” or “robber,” and “mann” meaning “person,” “man,” “mankind,” “brave man,” “hero,” vassal,” “servant.”

But this word is very solitary. Only in “mann’s” indefinite sense or as “mankind” does it suggest a group of people, and one that is strangely more anonymizing than any of those general terms included in the definition of “driht”. So such a brigand is alone, without a clan or a lord. Which is exactly why you’d find such a “þéof-mann” in the “firgen-holt” but would have to look elsewhere for a “driht-guma.”

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Closing

Next week, Hrothgar, the Danes, Beowulf, and the Geats head out to the Grendels’ mere.

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