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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