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

Hrothgar on the Move
Tracking an Empty Vassal

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

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“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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Old English:


Modern English:


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

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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

  1. Pingback: Beowulf offers comfort and who’s hiding in the mountain wood? (ll.1383-1396) | A Blogger's Beowulf

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