The changing words of Beowulf (and language, too)

This is the first page from the Beowulf manuscript, in Old English.

The first page of the original Beowulf manuscript, in Old English. Image from http://bit.ly/2jdxSdW.

After I told people I was studying English in university a strange change came over them. They would start listening to me a little more closely. They would hang on my every word for a few minutes after learning that fact. And they would point out any grammatical mistakes I’d make while speaking.

Sometimes these corrections would take me aback. But I can’t say that I blame those who would, jokingly, jump down my throat when my verbs and subjects didn’t agree or I threw an “ain’t” into what I was saying to blend in with the people around me. When I was in university I was the person those who learned of my major became. I was a grammar Nazi.

That is, until I learned about things like Old English and Middle English, and the joy of learning to read languages that were different enough from Modern English to be unintelligible at first look, but that were familiar enough to grasp with a mix of knowledge and intuition. Exposure to these things, and even to the idea that the Latin ancient people spoke changed over time, really made me realize that spoken English doesn’t need to be “perfect”. Neither does written English.

In fact, correctness just comes down to authorial intent and audience. After all, language is most correct when it’s a medium for clear communication between people, so knowing your audience and tailoring your language to make your meaning as clear as possible for that audience is the best way to make it “correct”.

Anyway, the fact that languages change is something that’s pretty well known in general. As Tristin Hopper points out in this article from The National Post, things written around the second world war have totally different uses of words like “queer” and “ejaculate”. Underscoring the article’s point that all languages adapt to what modern speakers need to say about modern life, even the word “humbled” has changed from something with negative connotations to something that gets paired with “honoured”.

Where Beowulf fits in with all of this is that it stands as a marker of the starting point for English. But, it’s also something that even now is constantly changing since our understanding of it is based on best guesses rather than the insight that a native speaker could bring to it. I was pretty shocked to learn that the first word of the poem “Hwaet!” may mean “How” rather than my dearly enjoyed “Listen!” as I read Hopper’s piece.

Ultimately, if you like a language, no matter what your age, you should definitely study it. Even if it’s a dead language like Latin or Old English, there’s likely still more for us to find out about them, and there are still useful insights to pull out of old stories and poems and expression. I’d say this is especially true if the stories and written expression of today don’t speak to you. After all, one of the reasons I went into English after finishing high school was to learn more of the medieval stories that were in seriously short supply throughout my high school run.

If you could learn any language, which language would you want to learn? Why?

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Continuing adventures in philosophy via Beowulf: The root of arrogance

Synopsis
Original
Translation
Recordings
The Continuing Story of the Ruler and the Lazy Conscience
Arrogance and Jest in Warfare
Closing

A scop sings his boasts, just like Beowulf does before Hrothgar.

Image found at http://bit.ly/2jumA3j


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Synopsis

Hrothgar’s story of the hypotehtical ruler who’s handed all (thanks to the accident of his birth I’m guessing) continues.


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Original

Wunað he on wiste; no hine wiht dweleð
adl ne yldo, ne him inwit-sorh
on sefan sweorceð, ne gesacu ohwær
ecg-hete eoweð, ac him eal worold
wendeð on willan (he þæt wyrse ne con),
oðþæt him on innan ofer-hygda dæl
weaxeð ond wridað. þonne se weard swefeð,
sawele hyrde; bið se slæp to fæst,
bisgum gebunden, bona swiðe neah,
se þe of flan-bogan fyrenum sceoteð.
(Beowulf ll.1735-1744)


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Translation

“He dwells in prosperity, not at all is he hindered
by sickness or age, neither does his mind go dark
with evil anxieties, nor does enmity bare its blade
to him anywhere, and he goes through all the world
according to his desires. He knows nothing is wrong,
until within him a measure of arrogance grows
and flourishes, when the guard sleeps,
his soul’s shepherd; that sleep is too deep,
weighed down with a diet of worldly cares; the slayer then slinks near,
he who wickedly notches an arrow to his bow* and shoots.”
(Beowulf ll.1735-1744)


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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}


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The Continuing Story of the Ruler and the Lazy Conscience

In this continuation of Hrothgar’s story about the ruler who has all and lives in peace, he starts to develop a bit of a psychological theory. Namely, Hrothgar makes the point that too much mindless comfort leads a person’s conscience gets lazy, which leaves them open to arrogance and a sense that they are more than what they actually are. Here the danger that he seemed to be foreshadowing with his perfect situation in last week’s post comes to fruition. And all because god gave this person all that they could want: plenty, friends, power.

So what’s he really saying here? He very easily foists the blame for this perfectly situated person’s fall onto them themselves. But, are they really to blame?

Let’s take a step back here for a second to get a better sense of the philosophy behind this part of Hrothgar’s story.

The person that Hrothgar is talking about in his allegory is supposed to be a ruler. What I take from it then, is the idea that what sets a ruler apart from everyone else isn’t just birth or divine favour, but an inherent ability to handle everything that their position brings or to keep awake to the psychological dangers they face.

After all, in Hrothgar’s story the ruler falls victim to excessive comfort. It’s excessive cares that have lulled their conscience to sleep. In fact, the literal translation of “bið se slæp to fæst,/bisgum gebunden” on lines 1742-1743 is closer to “that sleep was to secure,/bound up with business”, which isn’t quite my “that sleep is too deep,/weighed down with a diet of worldly cares”.

But I think that the relation between a deep sleep after a big meal and the kind of deep sleep that this person’s soul’s guard undergoes are very similar. That guard (the conscience perhaps?) has glutted itself on all the fine things in life and so has let its guard down, leaving the core of the ruler’s being open to attack from arrogance or anxiety or egoism of some kind that leads this ruler down a dark path.

In the end then, is the ruler really to blame?

In Hrothgar’s philosophy (and in some people’s today), this person was merely born where they were born by divine will, in accordance with its plan. But if this ruler to be is the kind of person who is going to get a fat, lazy conscience in such circumstances should they be expected to be able to help it? They have no more control over their nature than they do over where and when they were born.

Or is a lazy conscience supposed to be the inherent state of human nature? Perhaps a “better” ruler would have learned how to avoid getting so indulgent?

But if a person isn’t naturally inclined towards things that are supposed to build “character” or toughen them up, are those faults or just strengths that aren’t in the right social setting? If so, isn’t that kind of twisted for an all powerful deity to inflict such punishment on a select few of their creation, putting them in what seems like the wrong place or time?

Such would seem especially cruel in a cosmology that doesn’t allow for reincarnation and the learning potential that such a situation provides, such as the Christian (and pagan?) context from which Beowulf comes.

But I feel that those questions drift away from Hrothgar’s main point here: don’t let the good life make you soft, either internally or externally. As we’ll see next week, the consequences of doing so are dire.

What do you make of Hrothgar’s story so far? Is he laying blame for his hypothetical ruler’s fall, or is this figure just doing what comes naturally when one isn’t aware of their own power and privilege? Leave your thoughts in the comments!


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Arrogance and Jest in Warfare

Is it “ofer-hygd”1 of the flesh that leads to “ecg-hete”2?
Leads the sons and daughters of farmers
to raise sword and shield against the foe,
to hoist “flan-boga”3 and spear against former friends?
Such fighting is like that between brothers,
like that day when Hoðr, laughing,
Drew the godly “flan-boga”3 and mistletoe arrow against Baldr, laughing.
That game ended with “inwit-sorh”4 and weeping,
the shedding of blood and of tears.

1ofer-hygd: pride, conceit, arrogance, highmindedness, haughty, proud. ofer (over, beyond, above, upon, in, across, past) + hygd (mind, thought, reflection, forethought)

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2ecg-hete: sword-hatred, war. ecg (edge, point, weapon, sword, battle-axe) + hete (hate, envy, malice, hostility, persecution, punishment)

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3flan-boga: bow. flan (barb, arrow, javelin, dart) + boga (bow (weapon), arch, arched place, vault, rainbow, folded parchment) [A word that is exclusive to Beowulf.]

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4inwit-sorh: sorrow. inwit (evil, deceit, wicked, deceitful) + sorg (sorrow, pain, grief, trouble, care, distress, anxiety)

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Closing

Next week, Hrothgar’s story comes to its close and our hypothetical ruler meets their end.

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When Beowulf tackled supercomputer tech

A Beowulf cluster supercomputer at McGill  University

Image from http://bit.ly/2j1HN7N. Copyrighted free use.

In my searching for a Beowulf story to cover this week, I discovered one of the ways in which the poem carries on in secret. Through a simple search for “Beowulf” I came across the website for Project Beowulf. On the “History” page of this site, it’s explained that the company specializes in multi-node computing, particularly the kind known as “Beowulf Clusters”. Multi-node computing refers to the connection of two or more commercial grade computers to create a single virtual supercomputer, and these are called “Beowulf clusters” when connected in a community-sourced, and DIY way (as defined by Wikipedia).

Reading deeper into this matter, I discovered that this style of virtual supercomputer construction was invented by Thomas Sterling and Donald Becker, in 1994 while the two were working for NASA. After that point in his career, Becker went on to found Scyld Computing Corporation, a company that specializes in Linux-based Beowulf supercomputing.

Despite the fact that Becker’s company is another reference to Old English culture (a “scyld” was a bard or poet of the time), according to Becker in this interview with Joab Jackson of GCN.com, it was actually Thomas Sterling who came up with the name. In his own words, Sterling was something of an Anglophile, and the line ‘Because my heart is pure, I have the strength of a thousand men.’ This line only appears in some translations, but it resonated with what the two wanted to do: create a supercomputer that anyone could build, and which would therefore lead to the formation of a community around its further development. So “Beowulf” fit.

I find this connection to Beowulf especially interesting because it’s a subtle way in which the poem’s legacy carries on. Sterling may have been a fan of Beowulf, but it doesn’t seem that it was just enthusiasm that led them to the name.

Like the heroic protagonist of the poem’s having the strength of 30 men, Beowulf clusters contain the power of several individual processors. They’re also able to undertake heroic feats of scientific computing, answering questions that science conjures up just as Beowulf was able to destroy the monsters which the actions of humanity stirred to life.

Beowulf is a great name for such supercomputers, and a fantastic reference that gives the ancient poem a subtle presence in our lives. After all, back in 2005 Beowulf clusters made up over half of the supercomputers on the annual list of the top 500 supercomputers. Even more recently, the ease of these clusters’ creation has allowed at least one person to build a supercomputer out of inexpensive raspberry pi processors, and Thomas Sterling, the co-creator of the Beowulf cluster is still working with it to push the boundaries of High Performance Computing (HPC).

Although I’m not much of a tech guy, and really only know a thing or two about simple programming languages like HTML, this connection between Beowulf and the modern world might just be my favourite to date. It feels like an in-joke that I can easily smirk at when it’s tossed across the cafeteria table even if I wasn’t there when it happened.

What do you think of naming modern inventions after ancient characters and stories? What’s your favourite example of a new thing having an old name?

Adventures in philosophy via Beowulf: Power and corruption

Synopsis
Original
Translation
Recordings
Hrothgar Talks Ego-Centrism
Minds like Fortified Cities
Closing

A scop sings his boasts, just like Beowulf does before Hrothgar.

Image found at http://bit.ly/2jumA3j


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Synopsis

Hrothgar’s still talking about kingship and ruling as he starts to muse on the bigger picture.


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Original

                  Wundor is to secganne
hu mihtig god manna cynne
þurh sidne sefan snyttru bryttað,
eard ond eorlscipe; he ah ealra geweald.
Hwilum he on lufan læteð hworfan
monnes modgeþonc mæran cynnes,
seleð him on eþle eorþan wynne
to healdanne, hleoburh wera,
gedeð him swa gewealdene worolde dælas,
side rice, þæt he his selfa ne mæg
for his unsnyttrum ende geþencean.
(Beowulf ll.1724b-1734)


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Translation

                  “It is a wonder to say,
how mighty God distributes amongst us the depths of wisdom,
land and rank; indeed He wields all power.
At times he lets the minds of men wander
toward dreams of fame to match their kin’s,
gives him a native country and earthly pleasures
to protect and enjoy, a fortified city to control and friends to help;
lets him hold sway over a region of the world,
to rule far and wide. until, that is, unwisely, the man never thinks
of his own end or considers the limit of his life.”
(Beowulf ll.1724b-1734)


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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}


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Hrothgar Talks Ego-Centrism

The idea that god controls all is nothing really new. But it is interesting to note that this world view that Hrothgar is speaking from here is the same one that Don Quixote adopts in Cervantes’ famed novel.

Like Hrothgar, Don Quixote is an old man who has done much and risen to local prominence. Unlike Hrothgar (depending on what you think of his character), though, Don Quixote is obsessed with the fantasy stories of his day to the point of recreating them and endangering himself and those around him. It’s a story all about longing so strongly for the idealized stories of yesterday to be real that you lose your mind and start living them.

Hrothgar, I think, still has enough control of his senses for this to not happen (besides, what’s the far off paradisaical time for someone ruling in the early middle ages?).

Yet here we see Hrothgar start to speak as if he’s staring past Beowulf and all of his retainers and those who people his hall. And what is he talking about? Ego. Plain and simple.

Hrothgar’s hypothetical person who’s given all by god and then gets so wrapped up in their privilege and power that they forget it’s all a gift (or at the least, temporary) is ego-tripping hard.

To me this kind of ruler recalls the stories of kings from nearly every culture who paid great sums of money for the development of an elixir that could grant eternal life. They’ve forgotten that, as powerful as they are, they’re still just people. And people die.

Hrothgar’s words, then, aren’t just for those who rule. I think that his words can extend out to any who enjoy privilege but ignore the responsibilities that come with it. One of those being sharing the much more tangible benefits that come with such privilege.

And that’s what keeps Hrothgar’s words relevant. They’re about one of the most poisoning aspects of power: alienation.

As we see on line 1731, Hrothgar’s hypothetical ruler has friends. But this ruler forgets about them, they start to see themselves as separate from those friends and those whom they don’t know directly but may see suffer. At this point in Hrothgar’s little hypothetical situation, this ruler has lost his humanity. And that is the greatest threat of the power of which Hrothgar speaks.

A neat summary of what Hrothgar’s saying here is “power corrupts”. The companion part of a version of this saying is “poetry cleanses”. What do you think is a means to countering power’s corrupting quality? What’s a great way to remind the powerful of their humanity? Leave your thoughts in the comments!



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Minds like Fortified Cities

The “hleo-byrig”1 were the centre of old philosophy
Just as sure as those credited with the thoughts
that after centuries of debate we’ve come to scorn or admire
had “mod-geþancas”2 built like wall and gate.

1hleo-burh: protecting city, fortified city. hleo (covering, refuge, defence, shelter, protection, protector, lord) + burh (a dwelling or dwellings within a fortified enclosure, fort, castle; borough, walled town.) [A word that is exclusive to Beowulf.]

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2mod-geþanc: thought, understanding, mind. mod (heart, mind, spirit, mood, temper; arrogance, pride, power, violence) + ðanc (thought, reflection, sentiment, idea, mind, will, purpose, grace, mercy, favour, pardon, thanks, gratitude, pleasure, satisfaction; reward, recompense)

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Closing

Next week Hrothgar dives deeper as he reflects on life and death.

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Spanish Beowulf Graphic Novel Gets Translation

Beowulf fights Grendel as depicted by Santiago Garcia and David Rubin's graphic novel adaptation of Beowulf.

Beowulf battles Grendel in Santiago Garcia and David Rubin’s Beowulf. Image from http://bit.ly/2jVrgOn.

It’s not often that I get to post about things as they’re happening on this blog. After all, that’s just not what you come to expect when you write about a poem from over 1000 years ago. But I’ve just lucked out.

Late last year I came across mention of a new graphic novel adaptation of Beowulf. It was touted as the work of writer and translator Santiago Garcia and artist David Rubin. But that short teaser-style mention didn’t say anything about this new graphic novel being a translation. However, that fact is what made it possible for me to post about it on the day that this “new” graphic novel comes out.

At least, according to Amazon. So if you’re reading this today or later, the English translation of this Beowulf adaptation is now available!

Unfortunately though this seems to be the least publicized graphic novel that I’ve come across (is that common for translations in the comics world? Let me know!). The most informative piece I could find about it was from 2014.

In this Comics and Cola article by Zainab, we’re told that this adaptation is a straight retelling of the Beowulf story with modern comics techniques. Also, it’s not just a retelling of the often covered Beowulf vs. Grendel section of the poem, but all three sections are retold. What’s more, along with the violent and at times brutish art style, Zainab suggests (via a Google-translated description of the comic from an unnamed source) that Santiago and Rubin have brought the melancholic resonances of the poem to their version as well.

The last full graphic novel adaptation of Beowulf that I’d seen was Gareth Hinds’ three part retelling. In that version, Hinds did a decent job focussing on Beowulf himself, but the Santiago and Rubin effort seems like it’s got more of a focus on the broader themes of the story while also drawing distinct characters.

José Luis del Río Fortich echoes that sense of the Santiago and Rubin adaptation in his article on bleedingcool.com. Unfortunately, though, the biggest difference between his coverage and Zainab’s is mostly in the different panels that he showcases (aside from a direct comparison between the graphic novel’s violence with Quentin Tarantino and Sam Peckinpah’s movies).

Nonetheless, despite the lack of information about it, the Santiago and Rubin Beowulf adaptation is something that I want to see more of. The words of the poem convey its melancholy and energy quite easily, but seeing those words rendered mostly into dialogue (which the original is relatively scant on) and the monsters and their lairs imagined in full colour is always a treat.

What’s more important to you in a graphic novel: Story or art style? Let me know in comments.

The lessons of bad king Heremod and Hrothgar’s bluster

Synopsis
Original
Translation
Recordings
Hrothgar’s Anti-Heremod Bluster and Compounds that Sing Beowulf’s Praises
A Cruel Heart and its Cure
Closing


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Synopsis

Having told Beowulf how to be a good king, Hrothgar shares the story of bad king Heremod.


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Original

                 Ne wearð Heremod swa
eaforum Ecgwelan, Arscyldingum;
ne geweox he him to willan, ac to wæl-fealle
ond to deað-cwalum Deniga leodum;
breat bolgen-mod beod-geneatas,
eaxl-gesteallan, oþþæt he ana hwearf,
mære þeoden, mon-dreamum from.
ðeah þe hine mihtig god mægenes wynnum,
eafeþum stepte, ofer ealle men
forð gefremede, hwæþere him on ferhþe greow
breost-hord blod-reow. Nallas beagas geaf
Denum æfter dome; dream-leas gebad
þæt he þæs gewinnes weorc þrowade,
leod-bealo longsum. ðu þe lær be þon,
gum-cyste ongit; ic þis gid be þe
awræc wintrum frod.
(Beowulf ll.1709b-1724a)


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Translation

                  “‘Heremod was not so
to the sons of Ecgwelan, the Ar-Scyldings;
he did not grow into joy, but to slaughter,
a death dealer to the Danish people.
With enraged heart he killed table companions
and shoulder comrades alike, until he was truly alone,
he of renown, of power, was away from human joy,
though mighty God had given him all,
raised him in strength, put him ahead of
all other men in all things. Yet in his heart he harboured
secret and cruel bloodthirsty thoughts; never gave he
any rings to the Danes who strove for fame. He lived joylessly,
such that his struggles made him suffer misery,
his life was a long-lasting affliction to his people. By this be taught,
see what is manly virtue! That is why I, wise from many winters,
tell you this tale.'”
(Beowulf ll.1709b-1724a)


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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}


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Hrothgar’s Anti-Heremod Bluster and Compounds that Sing Beowulf’s Praises

One of the elements of Hrothgar’s short story that catches my eye is the compound words. A little harder to pick up on in Modern English, these are the words that are hyphenated in the Old English original above.

Hrothgar is no stranger to using these verbal embellishments, but there’re a lot of them clustered around the height of Heremod’s cruelty.

In fact, when Hrothgar tells of how he treated those closest to him, from lines 1711-1715, we get six of them.

That’s six compounds out of a total of 11 in four lines out of a total of 15. So more than half of this passage’s compounds are concentrated in less than 1/3 of its lines.

This clustering of compounds makes me think that Hrothgar is getting particularly agitated as he shares this part of the story. His anger at recalling this terrible king working his words into the much more artful compounds, perhaps expressing something that singular words just can’t reach. Indeed, Heremod’s reckless slaughtering of those close to him sounds like something that defies words.

Which is maybe the poet’s point here, putting aside matters of alliteration and prosody.

I mean, before there were widespread written records (so, snugly in the time of Beowulf‘s oral original), heroes and villains alike were memorialized through shared stories and poetic performances. So, if everyday words couldn’t capture a person’s deeds, then they must be quite extreme.

Actually, if you’ll excuse the spoilers, if we look at the last lines of the poem, Beowulf isn’t remembered with a bunch of compound words after his death, he’s simply remembered as the one who was “the mildest among men and most gracious, the/kindest to people and most eager for fame” (“manna mildust ond mon-ðwærust,/leodum liðost ond lof-geornost” (l.3181-3182)). That phrase “most eager for glory” is encapsulated in the compound “lof-geornost”. The word “mon-ðwærust” is also a compound, which literally means “most gracious of men”.

But that’s just two compounds in two lines.

Even looking at the preceding lines from the end of the poem, there’s no more than one compound per line of the poem. Contrasted with Hrothgar’s apopleptic barrage of compound words, the much more regular rhythm of compound words when the poet is memorializing Beowulf seems calmer, even melodious in comparison.

Thus, maybe the compound words Hrothgar concentrates around Heremod’s cruelty reflects how his memory is an onerous one, and something that can only be to teach. Actually, I can’t help but think that Hrothgar explicitly tells Beowulf he shares this tale to teach him how to be a good king is a bit of classic English understatement, a bit of comedic relief after the heavy telling of the cruel and stingy king Heremod.

What do you think of the words Hrothgar uses to describe Heremod’s cruelty to his companions? Are they embellished to highlight the cruelty as the story’s main lesson? Let me know in the comments.


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A Cruel Heart and its Cure

Any ruler who holds “blod-hreow”1 thoughts in their “breost-hord”2
freezes the fountain that flows from their heart.
So “bolgen-mod”3, they are always ready to dole out “wæl-feall”4,
to call for “deað-cwalu”5 whether for prisoner or “beod-geneatas”6.
In their “dream-leas”7 soul they bristle with the weapons needed to be
the “leod-bealu”8. To these rulers, and to all,
“man-dream”9 with “eaxl-gestealla”10 is “gum-cyst”11, a way
to pour the warmth of joy over the ice-lock of cruelty
that numbs their magnanimity and threatens their people and themselves.

1blod-hreow: sanguinary, cruel. blod (blood, vein) + hreow (sorrow, regret, penitence, repentance, penance, sorrowful, repentent)

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2breost-hord: thought, mind. breost (breast, bosom, stomach, womb, mind, thought, disposition, ubertas) + hord (hoard, treasure)

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3bolgen-mod: enraged. belgan (to be or become angry, offend, provoke) + mod (heart, mind, spirit, mood, temper, courage, arrogance, pride, power, violence)

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4wæl-feall: slaughter, death, destruction. wæl (slaughter, carnage) + fiell (fall, destruction, death, slaughter, precipice, case, inflection)

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5deað-cwalu: death by violence. deað (death, dying, cause of death) + cwalu (killing, murder, violent death, destruction) [A word that is exclusive to Beowulf.]

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6beod-geneatas: table companion. beod (table, bowl, dish) + geneata (companion, follower (especially in war), dependant, vassal, tenant who works for a lord)

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7dream-leas: joyless, sad. dream (joy, gladness, delight, ecstasy, mirth, rejoicing, melody, music, song, singing) + lease (without, free from, devoid of, bereft of,(+/-) false, faithless, untruthful, deceitful, lax, vain, worthless falsehood, lying, untruth, mistake)

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8leod-bealu: calamity to a people. leod (man) + bealu (bale, harm, injury, destruction, ruin, evil, mischief, wickedness, malice, a noxious thing, baleful, deadly, dangerous, wicked, evil)

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9man-dream: revelry, festivity. man (one, people, they) + dream (joy, gladness, delight, ecstasy, mirth, rejoicing, melody, music, song, singing)

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10eaxl-gestealla: shoulder-companion, comrade, counsellor, competitor. eaxl (shoulder) + steall (standing, place, position, state, stall (for cattle), stable, fishing ground)

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11gum-cyst: excellence, bravery, virtue, liberality. guma (man, lord, hero) + cyst (free-will, choice, election, picked host, moral excellence, virtue, goodness, generosity, munificence)

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Closing

Next week Hrothgar stares off into the distance as he talks about humanity’s place in the world, fate, and god.

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Beowulf and the Creationist: A lesson in critical thinking

Maybe it’s possible that, ceolocanth-like, one or two species of dinosaur lived on into the ancient Greek world. Maybe one even made it far enough to meet a knight or medieval king. Although, if the stories are to be taken literally, any dinosaur in such a situation would be summarily slain.

As an explanation for the dragon in fiction, the idea that some giant lizard from a long lost age doesn’t seem too far fetched if you limit it to the stories that early sailors no doubt told about giant sea serpents. These kinds of stories could have easily inspired the the water-based dragons of stories like Perseus and Andromeda. From there, poets and artists could have easily added their own twist to the terrible monster of the deep by bringing it onto land, letting it breathe fire, and having it fly on enormous leathery wings.

But to think that the flying dragon of medieval Europe was itself a dinosaur is a little too much. And claiming that the dragon that terrorizes the Geats in the last third of Beowulf is an eye-witness account of a dinosaur is downright dumb. Yet, according to this article, that’s exactly what geologist Andrew Snelling claimed when reporter Charles Wolford asked about the matter.

Now, Snelling is a staunch creationist. Wolford caught up with him at the Noah’s Ark theme park in Williamstown, Kentucky. So Snelling’s understanding of the world’s history is necessarily compressed. But to think that a dragon’s being in Beowulf is eye-witness proof is problematic on two levels.

First, there are no fossils (as far as I know) for a dinosaur that’s long and serpentine like a Chinese dragon but that also has wings like the dragon on the Welsh flag. Even setting that aside in the “physical evidence category,” I also know of now dinosaur which paleontologists believe could breathe fire. There are a lot of “what if” books about this point of dragon physiology, and many of them try to be as “scientific” as possible. But these books, like Beowulf, are fiction.

Which brings me to my second point. The use of Beowulf‘s dragon as evidence that humans and dinosaurs lived together at some point in the past is a fantastic example of people picking and choosing what they want to get out of a story. Because if the dragon is a real monster, then so too must Grendel and Grendel’s mother be based on real monsters.

Now, I’ve spent a lot of time making the case that Grendel and Grendel’s mother are sympathetic characters, maybe even the remnants of a displaced clan of people. But even if they were inspired by such, the details that we’re given about them in the poem are far from being based in reality.

Grendel is immune to weapons made of iron. But I can guarantee that 10 out of 10 people who try to nick themselves with an iron knife will bleed – humans are not iron resistant.

Along similar lines, Grendel’s blood melted the blade of an ancient sword. I’m guessing that most people who are reading this have bled before, and probably didn’t have the bandage or tissue they used to staunch the bleeding melt away as the red stuff spilled out onto these pads.

So if people like Snelling want to say that Beowulf is proof that humans and dinosaurs co-existed, then they must also believe that there are humanoids on earth that bleed a kind of acid and who are immune to iron weapons.

Now, I feel like I’ve come down a little hard on Snelling. And I kind of mean to.

After all, I think that there is some truth both philosophical and historical in Beowulf.

The prevalence of trolls and dragons in stories suggests that they were popular for a reason, though I don’t think that it’s because they were ever real in the way that ancestral swords were. I understand Beowulf as being historically reflective of tropes and metaphors and ideas that were popular when it was written.

It’s one thing to say that, for example, Beowulf took on the people of early Sweden and died in a pyrrhic victory, but it’s much more interesting and hardcore to say that he fought a dragon that was terrorizing his people and died doing so. Making a battle with a dragon the climax of a story about a man whose power makes him as monstrous as the monsters he fights is just far more suiting than saying that he died fighting some war.

Likewise, let’s say that there’s a historical analogy for the first two thirds of the poem. If so, then it’s much more heroic and exciting to read about a man defeating two monsters that no one has even got close to scratching for twelve years than to read about a bully from Geatland coming in and killing off the last two of a tribe of people who have an ancestral claim to the lands where Heorot stands.

Part of the power of fiction is embellishment, and when we forget that, we leave ourselves open to looking very foolish indeed.

But that’s also what makes knowing the difference between fiction and fact and knowing how fiction can be given the sheen of fact (think fake news) that makes thinking critically about what we read incredibly important. And what Snelling’s interpretation of Beowulf teaches us here is that it’s important to think just as critically about what gets written today as what was written 1000 and more years ago.