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Unferth lends Beowulf a sure-fire sword.
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“Next was an item of no little service,
such was the thing that Hrothgar’s man leant him,
it was the hilted sword named Hrunting;
an ancient treasure beyond compare;
its edge was iron, decorated like an arm full of poison,
hardened in the blood of battle; never in combat had it failed
any of its weilders, whomever fought with it in their grip,
those who dared do perilous deeds,
who entered the battlefield full of foes. Indeed this was not
the first time the sword had been called upon for heroic deeds”
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A Named and Dangerous Sword
Here we go!
In this passage we have the first of the named swords of the poem. And it sounds like it’s pretty badass. Not just because it’s never failed anyone who has used it (something I’ll get into a little below), but because of how it’s decorated.
My Old English dictionary, Clark Hall and Meritt’s A Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary (4th edition), suggests “with poisoned twigs or poison-stripes?[sic]” for “ater-tanum” (l.1459). It’s an entry that’s very unsure of itself.
When I think of poison and any sort of branching pattern I think of the horrific visual of poison either dilating or colouring a person’s veins as it rushes ever closer to their heart. And so “decorated like an arm full of poison” sounded like an apt translation of “ater-tanum”. My guess as to what that actually looks like is a branching pattern that was smithed into the steel. Perhaps as a sign of how many times the steel involved was folded.
Come to think of it, I wonder if “arm full of poison,” or even “twig of poison” was just a way of describing someone’s patterned tattoos. I mean, if your veins are picked out because of some sort of poison that’s entered your body you’re not going to be able to gawk at that for very long. But if someone were tattooed, which, if it was just a simple pattern could look like discoloured veins, it would be a lot easier to really contemplate the pattern and compare it to a poison-infested arm.
Anyway, stepping away from that detail about the sword’s decoration, I find it strange that the poet tells us that Hrunting has never failed its wielders. It sounds like it’s the Muramasa from Japanese lore, a sword that had to taste blood of any kind once it was unsheathed.
Though, given Unferth’s past conflict with his kin which lead to him slaying them (at least according to Beowulf) , I can’t help but wonder if he had entered into combat against them. Since Hrunting seems to be Unferth’s sword, in this battle he likely used Hrunting, and the dumb thing just did what swords do (and good swords do even better) and killed them.
That’s not to say that a well made sword removes the agency from its wielder, more that it takes an even better fighter to wield such a weapon well.
Along with the reference to Hrunting never failing could be the poet’s way of making Unferth a sympathetic character, I think it also suggests that he is not as great a warrior as Beowulf. He was unable to reign himself in while under the influence of wielding Hrunting. Kind of like how landing a series of blows in a sparring match can give you an incredible sense of power that kind of numbs your reason the first few times you experience it.
Of course, Beowulf won’t be swayed by such a thing as this sword, surely. Or will he succumb to the call of Hrunting as easily as Unferth seems to have? Leave your thoughts in the comments!
Now, take that sword, though, and make it an “eald-gestreona”.4 And then have a good look at that well worn (yet still sharp!) sword and make sure that it’s decorated in an “ater-tan”5 style. That’s sure to mean that it’s been through the “heaþo-swate”6 more than once, at least.
This is the kind of sword songs are sung about, and that can only be found in RPGs after finishing a really difficult/lengthy sidequest. The kind of sword you’d want with you on a “gryre-sið”7. It’s the sort of thing you use (maybe just in those songs) to do “ellen-weorc”8!
2mægen-fultuma: mighty help. mægen (bodily strength, might, main, force, power, vigor, valour, virtue, efficiency, efficacy, good deed, picked men of a nation, host, troop, army, miracle) + fultum (help, support, protection, forces, army) (A word exclusive to Beowulf)
3folc-stede: dwelling-place, battlefield. folc (folk, people, nation, tribe; collection or class of persons, laity; troop, army) + stede (place, site, position, station; firmness, standing, stability, steadfastness, fixity, strangury)
4eald-gestreona: ancient treasure. eald (old, aged, ancient, antique, primeval, elder, experienced, tried, honoured, eminent, great) + streon (gain, acquisition, property, treasure, traffic, usury, procreation)
5ater-tan: with poison twigs or poison stripes?[sic] (“Looking like an arm full of poison”). ater (poison, venom, gall) + tan (twig, rod, switch, branch, rod of divination) (A word exclusive to Beowulf)
7gryre-sið: dangerous expedition. gryre (horror, terror, fierceness, violence, horrible thing) + sið (going, motion, journey, errand, departure, death, expedition, undertaking, enterprise, road, way, time, turn, occasion) (A word exclusive to Beowulf)
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Next week, the poet reflects on Unferth’s character further.