The plundered sword: Anglo-Saxons and encoding meaning

The Original Old English
My Translation
A Quick Interpretation

The decorative grip and pommel of the Gilling Sword, like Beowulf's ancient giant sword?

The grip and pommel of the Gilling Sword, found in a stream in Yorkshire in 1976. Did the giant’s sword that Beowulf found have a similar hilt? Copyright York Museums Trust Image from

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Beowulf begins his dramatic imagining of the wedding of Hrothgar’s daughter.

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The Original Old English

“Mæg þæs þonne ofþyncan ðeodne Heaðobeardna
ond þegna gehwam þara leoda,
þonne he mid fæmnan on flett gæð,
dryhtbearn Dena, duguða biwenede;
on him gladiað gomelra lafe,
heard ond hringmæl Heaðabeardna gestreon
þenden hie ðam wæpnum wealdan moston,
oððæt hie forlæddan to ðam lindplegan
swæse gesiðas ond hyra sylfra feorh.”
(Beowulf ll.2032-2040)

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My Translation

“It may be displeasing to the prince of the Heathobards
and to the thanes of the people of the prince Ingeld
when he with his new bride strides onto the hall floor
while the Danish wedding attendants are nobly entertained.
One will point to the shining of an old heirloom on them,
a time-hardened, ring-patterned treasure of the Heathobards,
recognized from the time when they were able to wield such weapons,
a time that ended when they came to destruction at the shield-play
that scarred their lives and laid low their dear companions.”
(Beowulf ll.2032-2040)

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A Quick Interpretation

This passage is prime proof of how important material culture was to the Anglo-Saxons.

I mean, the Heathobard hall dwellers’ problem isn’t the mere presence of the wicked Danes. Rather, it’s the sight of swords and treasures that they used to wield. This detail really drives home the idea that whole lineages were encoded in such objects. Which I think is one of the harder things for modern readers to relate to.

Speaking mostly from my own experience, I can’t think of a single heirloom that any grandparent or relative has left to me, let alone one with any kind of practical use. Of course, that could be just because I’m the second son, and in the hierarchy of traditional inheritance I would not get things simply handed to me unless there were a lot of them.

But even then, when I think about stories of inheritances set in the modern day, I tend to think of things like watches or plate collections rather than, say, swords. These objects have some practical use, perhaps, but more often then not it seems to me that people try as hard as they can to preserve objects that they’ve inherited rather than use them.

If it’s a watch, it’s in a special case so that it doesn’t get lost.

If it’s plates, they’re on display so as to stand as a memorial perhaps, or at the least to protect them from wear.

I guess a part of this push for preservation could be a desire to pass the object in question onto the next generation as well.

But then again, my experience is pretty limited, since I’m just one person. What have your experiences been with inheriting items from previous generations of your family? Did you hold onto them? Were they practical items, or things you’d just put on a shelf and look at to remember the giver? Has anyone out there inherited a sword? Feel free to share in the comments!

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Next week, Beowulf shows off his flair for the dramatic.

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Beowulf the monstrous individual

The Original Old English
My Translation
A Quick Interpretation

An Anglo-Saxon helmet with face mask of the style associated with Beowulf.

A helmet, complete with face mask, from the Sutton-Hoo treasure hoard. Image from

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Beowulf tells more of his time partying in Heorot.

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The Original Old English

“‘Weorod wæs on wynne; ne seah ic widan feorh
under heofones hwealf healsittendra
medudream maran. Hwilum mæru cwen,
friðusibb folca, flet eall geondhwearf,
bædde byre geonge; oft hio beahwriðan
secge sealde, ær hie to setle geong.
Hwilum for duguðe dohtor Hroðgares
eorlum on ende ealuwæge bær;
þa ic Freaware fletsittende
nemnan hyrde, þær hio nægled sinc
hæleðum sealde. Sio gehaten is,
geong, goldhroden, gladum suna Frodan;
hafað þæs geworden wine Scyldinga,
rices hyrde, ond þæt ræd talað,
þæt he mid ðy wife wælfæhða dæl,
sæcca gesette. Oft seldan hwær
æfter leodhryre lytle hwile
bongar bugeð, þeah seo bryd duge!'”
(Beowulf ll.2014-2031)

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My Translation

“‘The company was wrapt in joy; never have I ever seen
such celebration over mead as was amongst those in that hall
in all my life. All the while that renowned queen,
a pledge of peace for her people, went all about the hall,
urging the youths there on. Often, on her rounds, she gave
circlets to the drinkers, until, at the last, she took her seat.
Also, but only at times, before that body of retainers
Hrothgar’s daughter bore the ale cup to the men in turn.
From those sitting in the hall I learned
that this maiden’s name is Freawearu, she who there gave
those warriors studded and precious vessels. She is promised,
young and gold-adorned, to the gracious son of Froda.
The friend of the Scyldings has settled on this,
the protector of the kingdom, and he considers it wise policy
that this woman will settle a great many deadly feuds,
that she will ease the many conflicts. But too often,
when so short a time has passed after a man’s fall,
it is rare for the deadly spear to rest, even though the bride be good.'”
(Beowulf ll.2014-2031)

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A Quick Interpretation

It feels a bit like every scene that involves a leader’s hall in this poem features a young maiden. In particular, a young maiden who has been or is planned to be married off for the sake of peace. In a way, this definitely reinforces the idea that women’s primary strength in the world of Beowulf is through political marriages.

However, what I find interesting about this isn’t so much that these women don’t seem to have agency to do anything else, but that it underscores the importance of the group in early medieval European societies.

Of course, groups continue to be important today, as well. Whether you working in retail, a restaurant, a corner office in a swanky business building, or from your home office you probably have a group (of varying size) of people with whom you work. For the most part, at least on holidays, people get together in the groups we all call families. And, of course, in your day to day life you’re probably in contact with a group of people whom you consider friends.

But the kind of group that Beowulf leaves an impression of in my mind is closer to the sort of collectivist society of some Asian countries. The kinds of societies where individual success doesn’t just feed into the society’s success but comes from filling a proscribed role in the larger society.

And this is why I think Beowulf makes me think of that sort of collectivist society: There don’t seem to be very many individuals in either Daneland or Geatland. Every one of Hrothgar or Hygelac’s retainers may or may not have his own motives, but as far as we know they are simply loyal warriors in the service of their lords.

Now, the version of Beowulf that we have comes from a rather curious book. It is known as the Nowell Codex.

This book is a collection of writings about oddities. There were stories of the then mysterious east, letters between Aristotle and Alexander the Great, a bit of a life of Saint Christopher, and a poetic version of the Biblical story of Judith along with Beowulf. Each of these stories contains something monstrous or strange.

Thus, when modern critics and scholars have puzzle through why these texts were grouped together, they’ve usually concluded that Beowulf is in this collection because there are monsters (Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and the dragon).

Some have supposed that Beowulf himself, being this sword-breaking, monster-slaying superman, is the monstrous reason for its inclusion in this collection. I think these scholars are a bit closer to the mark.

But I don’t think that Beowulf is monstrous because of his strength. I think that what makes Beowulf the character monstrous is his individuality.

There are other stories of great heroes and warriors from around the same time and later in the medieval period, sure. There’s at least one epic about Alexander the Great, there are the stories of Roland and Charlemagne, there’s the story of El Cid. But what sets Beowulf apart from all of these characters is that he’s not a knight or in the service of any lord.

Beowulf doesn’t go to Daneland because Hygelac commands it. As we found out two weeks ago, Hygelac was against Beowulf’s journey. And yet he set out on his own. And Beowulf is no knight, trying to right the wrongs of the world in some quest for the service of a lady.

In fact, when we first meet him, Beowulf is basically just an arrogant (probably) teenager who thinks that he’s invincible, tells stories to back that up, and actually turns out to be as strong as all the rumours say. But until he becomes the king of the Geats, he doesn’t act in the service of anyone but himself, really. Sure, helping the Danes cements a Geat/Dane alliance, but Beowulf didn’t set out to do that. He just wanted to increase his own fame and glory.

In short, he may have wanted to help others, but he does that by helping himself first. Which sounds a lot like an altruistic individual or entrepreneur. Which, in a time like the early middle ages, with its uncertain politics and fragmented states struggling to join together into nations, would be the last thing that any major authority like the Roman Catholic Church (the organization we can probably thank for keeping Beowulf safe for us) would want. Therefore they would label it as monstrous.

But that’s just my take. What are your thoughts and feelings on how individualism fits into Beowulf? Why do you think Beowulf was included in a collection of strange stories? Let me know in the comments!

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Next week, Beowulf imagines what will happen at the wedding party of Freawearu and Froda’s son.

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Beowulf’s boasts, pro wrestling, and fame

The Original Old English
My Translation
A Quick Interpretation

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

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Beowulf begins the story of his time at Heorot.

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The Original Old English

“Biowulf maðelode, bearn Ecgðioes:
‘þæt is undyrne, dryhten Higelac,
micel gemeting, monegum fira,
hwylc orleghwil uncer Grendles
wearð on ðam wange, þær he worna fela
Sigescyldingum sorge gefremede,
yrmðe to aldre. Ic ðæt eall gewræc,
swa begylpan ne þearf Grendeles maga
ænig ofer eorðan uhthlem þone,
se ðe lengest leofað laðan cynnes,
facne bifongen. Ic ðær furðum cwom
to ðam hringsele Hroðgar gretan;
sona me se mæra mago Healfdenes,
syððan he modsefan minne cuðe,
wið his sylfes sunu setl getæhte.'”
(Beowulf ll.1999-2013)

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My Translation

“Beowulf spoke, son of Ecgtheow:
‘That is all widely known, lord Hygelac,
that journey’s fame has spread to many among mankind,
how Grendel and I grappled
at the very place where he was used to
terrorizing the Victory-Shieldings with terrible sorrow,
where we battled for life with bare limb. There I avenged all,
so that no kin of Grendel’s would have need
to boast to any over earth when the crash of dawn came,
no matter how long any of his dark brood may last,
all that treacherous and trembling bunch. But when at first
I arrived at that ring hall I greeted Hrothgar.
Soon he trusted to my reputation, the son of Halfdane,
after he came to know the wish of my heart,
then he presented me with a seat between his own sons.'”
(Beowulf ll.1999-2013)

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A Quick Interpretation

This passage is Beowulf’s prologue for his own story. He entices Hygelac’s attention with his boast about his adventure in Daneland already being well-known, and then gives a preview of the match between himself and Grendel. And maybe this gives a little too much away.

Nonetheless, I find it pretty funny how similar Beowulf’s delivery is to what you’d hear from late 20th century pro wrestlers. The hyperbole, the extremity and slight contrivance of describing his victory over Grendel as reason for Grendel’s relatives to have nothing to boast about. For an example of what I mean, here’s a clip of the most extreme 80’s/90’s pro wrestler: The Ultimate Warrior:

Of course, Beowulf’s words make a little more sense, but that’s what sets literature apart from pro wrestling promos.

But aside from Beowulf’s rhetoric matching (appropriately?) the modern day male soap opera that is pro wrestling, he also subscribes to #8 in Kurt Vonnegut’s list of writing rules.

In just five lines (lines 2005-2009) he tells Hygelac the most important information from his story: that he beat up Grendel. Not how, so much, but he’s given away the ending. Granted, Beowulf’s presence does mean that he beat Grendel (or ran away), but he probably wouldn’t be so haughty about it if he ran away. Unless it turned out that Beowulf was actually going to turn into the Unferth of the Geat kingdom. But that would be a very different epic poem.

This passage also reminds us of the importance of boasts in Anglo-Saxon culture.

It’s not just that Beowulf uses this device once again to say how quickly his incredible story has become widely known (tying boasting to reputation). He also demonstrates how not being able to boast (and therefore bolster your reputation) is a bad thing. Even if you’re being barred from boasting about a relative.

Though when it comes to boasting about relatives’ accomplishments, I pretty much immediately think of schoolyard boasts about uncles who work at Nintendo.

Of course, people today don’t generally introduce themselves as “Beowulf, son of Ecgtheow” (“Biowulf maðelode, bearn Ecgðioes” (l.1999)), so it seems like boasting about your family’s accomplishments went the same way. Actually, all of this kind of makes me wonder how Beowulf would go if his father wasn’t notable. No doubt there would be some retroactive fame for his parents since they would become known as the parents of the great Beowulf. Curious how fame spreads forward and backward in time like that, isn’t it?

Actually, it makes me wonder how Beowulf would do on social media. Would we get a Twitter feed full of baseless boasts or would he rock Instagram with pictures of all of his latest victories, stunningly hashtagged and captioned? What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments!

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Next week, Beowulf shares some otherwise unknown information about Heorot.

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Not trusting in his journey: Beowulf the storyteller?

The Original Old English
My Translation
A Quick Interpretation

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

Image found at

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Beowulf and his fellow Geats meet with Hygelac and he asks how things went.

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The Original Old English

“Gesæt þa wið sylfne se ða sæcce genæs,
mæg wið mæge, syððan mandryhten
þurh hleoðorcwyde holdne gegrette,
meaglum wordum. Meoduscencum hwearf
geond þæt healreced Hæreðes dohtor,
lufode ða leode, liðwæge bær
hæleðum to handa. Higelac ongan
sinne geseldan in sele þam hean
fægre fricgcean (hyne fyrwet bræc,
hwylce Sægeata siðas wæron):
‘Hu lomp eow on lade, leofa Biowulf,
þa ðu færinga feorr gehogodest
sæcce secean ofer sealt wæter,
hilde to Hiorote? Ac ðu Hroðgare
widcuðne wean wihte gebettest,
mærum ðeodne? Ic ðæs modceare
sorhwylmum seað, siðe ne truwode
leofes mannes; ic ðe lange bæd
þæt ðu þone wælgæst wihte ne grette,
lete Suðdene sylfe geweorðan
guðe wið Grendel. Gode ic þanc secge
þæs ðe ic ðe gesundne geseon moste.'”
(Beowulf ll.1977-1998)

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My Translation

“He sat there with his own, a survivor of battle amidst veterans,
kin with kin, once the lord there
had graciously greeted him with singing tones
and great words. Bearing the mead jug
around the hall was Hygd, Haereth’s daughter,
loved by the people, filling the offered cups
with plenty. Hygelac then began
to ask fair questions of the man
in that high hall. He burst with curiosity,
sought to know how all the sea-going Geat’s journey went:
‘How fared you on your journey, dear Beowulf,
when you suddenly strove to travel far
over the salt sea to seek strife,
battle, at Heorot? And were you a help
to the widely known best of men,
to that famed prince? I have had sorrow
sitting upon my heart, I did not trust in your
journey, dear man. Long had I told you,
do not go to meet this monster at the hall,
let the South Danes work war against Grendel
themselves. Thus I say thanks to god,
that I am able to see you hale and whole here.'”
(Beowulf ll.1977-1998)

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A Quick Interpretation

I decided to go for a longer passage this week since the description before Hygelac’s questions is pretty ho-hum. The poet tells us that Beowulf and the Geats are in the hall, Hygd is pouring them mead, and everyone’s happy to see each other. On the one hand it’s sort of notable that Hygd is called “Haerath’s daughter” (“Hæreðes dohtor” (l.1981)). But on the other seeing that as an attempt to keep named women from the poem overlooks the poet’s penchant for referring to people by their parentage. Which is still a popular device today (look no further than the popularity of family tree websites).

So I wanted to get right into Hygelac’s dialogue. Unfortunately, much like the passage before it, it sounds like what you’d expect.

Hygelac is indeed ‘bursting with curiosity’ (“hyne fyrwet bræc” (l.1985)). But amidst these rapid fire questions comes a confession: “I did not trust in your/journey” (“siðe ne truwode” (ll.1993-1994)). This sentence is very telling. For all of Beowulf’s bluster while in Daneland, he did not have the full support of his fellow Geats.

What’s more surprising is how effective that bluster was, since it not only impressed the coastguard that Beowulf and his crew first met, but the man’s boasts also won Hrothgar over to his side. What’s more, though, is that maybe those boasts were a little exaggerated. Beowulf seems to do well enough (maybe) relying entirely on his improv skills to explain away losing to Breca in their swimming match, but, if Hygelac’s doubt is anything to go by, then it sounds as if Beowulf was a better storyteller than fighter before he set out. Though he certainly put his fists where his mouth was.

If you look at this section as a whole, actually, it looks as if Beowulf is being coddled. The queen is serving everyone generous portions of mead, the king is tripping over himself with questions for the lately returned wanderer. It’s a scene that, to me, evokes the return of a dearly loved but somehow frail child who is just back from flying across the country for the first time with a relative.

What’s more, as the next 163 lines will show, Beowulf is quite the storyteller. I don’t think the poet included Beowulf’s retelling of the fight with Grendel to Hrothgar or the brief flashes of the fight with Grendel’s mother he shares just for the sake of reminding his audience of what happened hundreds of lines earlier.

So the big question is this: Is Beowulf really that great a fighter, or is he more of a storyteller? Or is he both? Sure, he beat up Grendel and then Grendel’s mother. But maybe those giants he boasted about beating up were just his childhood bullies. What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments!

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Next week, Beowulf begins his version of his story.

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