Beowulf’s armour questioned, words on weary warriors (ll.1541-1556)

Synopsis
Translation
Recordings
Is Beowulf’s Magic Armour really just God’s Influence?
Celebrating A Well-Armoured Warrior
Closing


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Synopsis

Grendel’s mother gets Beowulf down, but he bounces back.


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Translation

“She was quickly up and payed back that blow
with a fierce grip of her own, followed through with her forward grasp.
Stumbled then the wearied warrior, though the strongest,
a true foot-soldier, so that he fell to the floor.
She sat then on her hall-guest and she drew a dagger,
broad of blade, bright of edge; she was ready to avenge her son,
her only offspring. But on his breast lay
the firm mail-coat, that protected his life,
it prevented the dagger’s point and its edge from piercing.
The son of Ecgþeow would have perished
beneath the wide earth, that Geatish man,
if his war-corslet had not provided its help,
that tough mail-coat, and holy God
controlled the victory in that battle, the wise Lord,
Ruler of Heaven, he easily decided
the right outcome for the fight, once that man stood up.”
(Beowulf ll.1541-1556)


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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}


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Is Beowulf’s Magic Armour really just God’s Influence?

Beowulf’s back, baby! Just as with the fight against Grendel, there’s explicit mention of god’s favour at the end of this passage. Though, Grendel’s mother almost had him.

Sitting astride her victim, she had a dagger at the ready, and raised. She would’ve gotten away with it, too, if it hadn’t been for that meddling mail!

In fact, Bewoulf’s mail coat gets top billing, while god is just mentioned after the fact.

I think that the poet credits the armour and then god because the mail’s turning away the dagger is the incident, while god is said to be the cause.

Though, I can’t help but think that Beowulf’s armour is more than just something he straps on before a fight. I mean, he always heaps it with importance. In fact, he goes so far as to say that if he dies, the Danes need to send his armour back to Hygelac before the fight with Grendel (ll.452-453). As far as heirlooms go, that mail’s definitely really important to him. And he makes it clear that it’s the work of Weland the Smith (l.455), so there’s some magic to it.

And thinking of magic armour brings my mind around to RPGs.

As an avid fan of RPGs I find Beowulf interesting from a character building perspective. If you think of Beowulf as a caharacter in a game of Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) or in an RPG on a video game console or PC, then his attack stat is insanely high (that handgrip’s something to reckon with, right?), but his defense most be average or worse. So to compensate he’s got this magic mail.

Looking at Beowulf this way really makes me wonder if the poet or the audience for the poem had some sense of fighters being offensive or defensive but never both, and the magic mail is a device that makes Beowulf almost invulnerable since it balances his defense with his attack power.

Though, on one hand I feel like reading eowulf as a character from an RPG like this is reading things from my life into Beowulf rather than reading things actually in the poem out of it. On the other hand, though, complex games like D&D aren’t outside the ken of people from the medieval period. Surely somebody, somewhere in medieval Europe, invented a variation on chess, or had some sort of battle simulation game that had numbers at work behind the clashes of fighters.

Anyway, getting back to the mention of god that I made above, the poet doesn’t just refer to god once in this passage. He lays down three back to back. These three epithets over the course of just two lines suggest to me that something’s up there. However, I can only guess at what exactly is up here. Maybe the poet’s trying to throw attention off of Beowulf’s magical armour – surely a heathen idea! Or maybe he’s just playing up the Christian spin on wyrd to show that magic armour or not, it isn’t the gear that a player has equipped so much as it is the DM’s rolls that save people.

Chess has been around in Europe since about 800 AD, so the poet and audience of Beowulf likely knew about it, and maybe some of them played it. How complex do you think medieval board games were? Did thanes sit around playing dice and checkers while enjoying their mead and pork, or were some of them playing games as complex as D&D?


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Celebrating A Well-Armoured Warrior

The “werig-mod”1 “feþe-cempa”2 could make a fantastic “sele-gyst.”3 Especially after he has dirtied his “breost-net”4 on the battlefield (is that rust or blood…or both?) and achieved “wig-sigor”5. Though that “heaðu-byrne”6 may have just narrowly turned the sword “brun-ecg”7 away from his vitals in the fight. But at least that means that there aren’t any holes in him, or that wondrous “breost-net”4!

1werig-mod: weary, cast down. werig (weary, tired, exhausted, miserable, sad, unfortunate) + mod (heart,mind,spirit,mood,temper;arrogance, pride,power;power, violence)

2feþe-cempa: foot soldier. feþe (power of locomotion, walking, gait, pace) + cempa (warrior, champion) [A word exclusive to Beowulf]

3sele-gyst: hall-guest. sele (hall, house, dwelling, prison) + gyst (guest, stranger) [A word exclusive to Beowulf]

4breost-net: coat of mail. breost (breast, bosom, stomach, womb, mind, thought, disposition) + net (netting, network, spider’s web)

5wig-sigor: victory in a battle. wig (strife, contest, war, battle, valour, military force, army) + sigor (victory, triumph)

6heaðu-byrne: war-corslet. heaðu (war) + byrne (corslet)

7brun-ecg: with gleaming blade. brun (brown, dark, dusky, having metallic lustre, shining) + ecg (edge, point, weapon, sword, battle-axe)


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Closing

Next week, Beowulf’s luck turns around.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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Beowulf’s borrowed sword fails, a quick guide to facing off against a water witch (ll.1518-1528)


Synopsis
Translation
Recordings
Why Hrunting Had to Fail, and Grendel’s Mother’s True Threat
How to Face a Water Witch
Closing

Grendel's mother menaces the pinned Beowulf with a knife.

By J. R. Skelton – Marshall, Henrietta Elizabeth (1908) Stories of Beowulf, T.C. & E.C. Jack, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11001837


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Synopsis

The sword Unferth leant to Beowulf fails him, just as Grendel’s mother advances on our shocked hero.


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Translation

Then clearly he saw that accursed woman of the deep,
the strong sea-woman; a mighty blow he gave
with his battle blade, he held nothing back in his handstroke,
so that the ring patterned sword sang out upon her head
its greedy battle dirge. Yet there that surface dweller discovered
that the flashing sword would not bite,
that it would not harm his target’s life: the sword failed
that prince in his time of need. Before it had endured many
hand to hand combats, had often shorn away helmets,
sliced through the fated ones’ war garments; that was the first time
that dear treasure failed to show forth its true glory.
(Beowulf ll.1518-1528)


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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}


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Why Hrunting Had to Fail, and Grendel’s Mother’s True Threat

A few entries back, I mentioned that Hrunting was the first named sword in the poem. Well, for all of the power and mystery and strength that’s implied for a sword when it’s given a name, Hrunting’s glory is short lived.

The sword proves useless in this fight, just as Beowulf needs it most. After all, if the sword worked as it should, then his attack should have ended the battle before it began. But, for a reason that the poet never gives (except through the audience’s assumption that Grendel’s mother shares her son’s immunity to weapons), Hrunting has no effect. It’s as if Beowulf just found an electric Pokemon to help him take out a gym leader’s ground type Pokemon, and he never realized that ground-types are immune to electric types. Unfortunately, for all of their board games and riddles, I don’t think the Anglo-Saxons had charts drawn up showing the strengths and weaknesses of various monsters to various heirloom swords.

Actually, I find the failure of Hrunting funny.

It’s supposed to be this 100% never fail, surefire thing, but then, in Beowulf’s hands, it fails.

Had it succeeded in killing Grendel’s mother in a single blow, where would the glory for a hero like Beowulf be? She’d be just like any other foe he’s faced. And that just wouldn’t do; the reputation of the sword needed to take the hit for Beowulf’s sake.

In fact, if Beowulf killed Grendel’s Mother in one strike, then she would’ve been weaker than Grendel. I mean, Beowulf had to wrestle Grendel for some time before he tore off the monster’s arm. And that’s not how this can work.

Grendel’s mother isn’t just some ghoul that comes around haunting halls, she’s a “water-wolf” (“grund-wyrgenne” (l.1518)), a “water witch” (“mere-wif” (l.1519)). So she’s still humanoid, but is, at least, given her titles (and maybe her nature in the eyes of an at times misogynistic culture), much more of an intellectual or spiritual threat than a physical one.

Sure, she grabbed Beowulf and dragged him down, but if you get into the spiritual element of the poem (read: the Christian element), it’s very easy to interpret Grendel’s mother dragging Beowulf down as tempting him. I mean, think about it, he’s this upright warrior for god who seems almost entirely chaste.

Plus, Beowulf’s beating Grendel shows that he’s nothing to be trifled with physically, and Beowulf is very pious about attributing his victory to god and fate. So where could the next big threat go except into the spiritual realm?

So it makes sense that the second threat Beowulf faces is more spiritual.

Who even knows how she “grasped” Beowulf when she was pulling him down? I’m imagining that she full on wrapped herself around him, almost like water itself.

The presence of water even adds a drowning motif, which, I’m not sure was commonly related to temptation at the time, but no doubt is now. Though, of course, there’s also the redemptive property of water in the rite of baptism, so, all’s not lost for Beowulf and his failed sword. A sword that, in Beowulf’s overly capable hands, just had to fail to increase his renown — otherwise, he’d just be another one who used Hrunting instead of the one man who used it to no effect.

How much of a threat do you think Grendel’s mother is to Beowulf? Is she more of a physical threat or a spiritual one?


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How to Face a Water Witch

When fighting a “mere-wif”1 it’s important to be prepared.

Be sure to wear your best “fyrd-hrægl”2 for “hand-gemot”3. This will help you against the “mægen-ræs” that the “mere-wif”1 is bound to unleash upon you. In fact, if you’re particularly unlucky, she may show how feral she had to be to earn the epithet “grund-wyrgenne”4.

You’ll also want to bring along a “hilde-bille”5. It isn’t necessary to have a ” hring-mæl “6, nor is it recommended. These sorts of swords are fine against human opponents, but generally have no effect on your average “water witch”7. Any sword which can catch the light dramatically as you hold it aloft so that it can be your ” beado-leoma “8 while you sing your ” guð-leoð “9 will do. after all, the sword is mostly required to intimidate and parry the “mere-wif”1‘s attacks. Damaging such an opponent with any forged iron has long been thought impossible.

It is highly recommended that you do not fight a “mere-wif”1 on her own turf. Her familiarity with and power over water and the creatures of the deep is sure to prove overwhelming. And, if she brings you into a strange underwater cave, then may the Measurer, Lord of All, have mercy upon your soul. If you find yourself in such a situation, your wyrd is clear and inescapable.

1mere-wif: water witch. mere (sea, ocean, lake, pond, pond, cistern) + wif (woman, female, lady, wife) [A word exclusive to Beowulf]

2fyrd-hrægl: corslet. fierd (national levy or army, military expedition, campaign) + hrægl (dress, clothing, vestment, cloth, sheet, armour, sail) [A word exclusive to Beowulf]

3hand-gemot: battle. hand (hand, side (in defining position), power, control, possession, charge, agency, person regarded as holder or receiver of something) + (ge)mot (conflict, encounter) [A word exclusive to Beowulf]

4mægen-ræs: mighty onslaught. mægen (bodily strength, might, main, force, power, vigour, valour, virtue, efficacy, efficiency, good deed, picked men of a nation, host, troop, army, miracle) + ræs (rush, leap, jump, running, onrush, storm, attack)

5grund-wyrgenne: water-wolf. grund (ground, bottom, foundation, abyss, hell, plain, country, land, earth, sea, water) + wyrg (wolf, accursed one, outlaw, felon, criminal) [A word exclusive to Beowulf]

6 hilde-bille: sword. hilde (war, combat) + bill (bill, chopper, battle-axe, falchion, sword)

7 hring-mæl: sword with ring-like patterns. hring (ring, link of chain, fetter, festoon; anything circular, circle, circular group, border, horizon, rings of gold, corslet, circuit (of a year), cycle, course, orb, globe) + mæl (mark, sign, ornament, cross, crucifix, armour, harness, sword, measure) [A word exclusive to Beowulf]

8beado-leoma: battle-light, sword. beadu (war, battle, fighting, strife) + leoma (ray of light, beam, radiance, gleam, glare, lightning) [A word exclusive to Beowulf]

9guð-leoð: war-song. guð (combat, battle, war) + leoð (song, lay, poem) [A word exclusive to Beowulf]


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Closing

Next week, Beowulf regroups and Grendel’s mother moves in.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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The light seen after Beowulf’s drug home, and encounters of the fishy kind (ll.1506-1517)

Synopsis
Translation
Recordings
What is that Gleaming and Bright Light?
Encounters with Lake Monsters
Closing

Grendel's mother menaces the pinned Beowulf with a knife.

By J. R. Skelton – Marshall, Henrietta Elizabeth (1908) Stories of Beowulf, T.C. & E.C. Jack, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11001837


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Synopsis

Grendel’s mother drags Beowulf into her lair.


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Translation

“That she-wolf of the water bore him away, once they came to the bottom,
carried the ring mailed prince to her dwelling,
so that he was unable to weild his weapon,
though he had his fill of courage. A rushing horde of wondrous creatures
pressed upon him in those waters, many a sea-beast
tore with its tusks at his war-shirt,
gave a fierce pursuit. Than that prince perceived
that he was in some hostile hall,
where water harmed him not at all,
saw that the roof of the place held back the current,
the sudden pull of the waters:
there a gleaming light shone bright within.”
(Beowulf ll.1506-1517)


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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}


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What is that Gleaming and Bright Light?

Beowulf’s struggle with Grendel’s mother continues.

In this week’s passage he’s drug along the bottom of this mysterious lake as Grendel’s mother tears at him. But then, and it’s unclear if she’s still holding him at this point, a rush of sea creatures whiz by and tear at Beowulf. After travelling through a hole, Beowulf finds himself in a dry place. Given the description that there’s a roof overhead, my guess is that it’s a cave of some kind that extends under the lake.

I think of this place as kind of like a beaver’s den, at least in terms of how the entrance connects this dry place to the lake that Beowulf, and supposedly, Grendel’s mother have just left. Though there’s no mention of Grendel’s mother, and so it’s hard to say if she’s still clutching Beowulf in her claws or if she’s standing a little ways away, banking on his being dumbfounded by being rocketed through the entrance to her lair and attacked by a school of angry sea life.

And, after all of that action, the poet tells us that this cave was lit from within by some sort of gleaming, bright light (l.1517). Which raises a simple question for me: why?

We’ve just heard about a warrior jumping into a lake fully outfitted for war. He’s then grabbed by a humanoid sea monster, drug across a lake bottom, assaulted by a bunch of tusked sea creatures, and ultimately ends up in some sort of underwater cave. Is it necessary to tell us that the place is lit? I feel that if the last line of this section were taken out I’d be too caught up in the action and the weirdness of what’s come immediately before to worry about how Beowulf could see in the cave.

So why mention this light?

Well, I think in part it’s supposed to hearken back to the mention of Grendel’s eyes giving off a weird light (ll.726-727). They do this just before he sets upon the Geats he finds in the Heorot. So maybe that light is some important trait of Grendel and his mother, some sort of emblem of their kind.

Or, maybe there was a certain kind of light associated with monsters in the Anglo-Saxon imagination. Maybe there was a belief that light, for all of its heavenly aspects, also indicated the presence of the supernatural and a means of transportation between worlds for things like monsters and fairies and elves.

I mean, to this day, interdimensional portals are accompanied by flashes of light. Maybe that’s just a left over from an early film, or maybe there’s some old trope with long forgotten origins behind it. And maybe Beowulf is one of the works that uses this trope.

I find this line about the light as mysterious as the light itself, is what I’m getting at here. But what about you? Is this light a source of mystification for you, or is it just another part of the story? Why do you think the poet mentions it? Were people heckling him when he’d tell earlier versions of the story but not explain how Beowulf could see?

Leave your thoughts in the comments!


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Encounters with Lake Monsters

I imagine that the “fær-gripe”1 of terror would clutch your heart quite tightly if you encountered a “sæ-deor”2 while in a hall. Especially if it was wielding its “hilde-tux”3, and seemed to be controlled by the “brim-wylf”4 who kept it in an aquarium in her hall.

Even if you were wearing your best “here-syrcan”5 you’d probably sustain a few wounds, and the hall you were in would come to be known as a “nið-sele”6. Even if otherwise you thought it was a pretty nice place, especially considering that it was a “hrof-sele”7 and keeping out the sun and rain were important to you. Being attacked by a “sæ-deor”2 kept in an aquarium would be just that upsetting.

1fær-gripe: sudden grip. fær (calamity, sudden danger, peril, sudden attack, terrible sight) + gripe (grip, grasp, seizure, attack)

2sæ-deor: sea monster. (sheet of water, sea, lake, pool) + deor (animal, beast, deer, reindeer)

3hilde-tux: tusk (as a weapon). hilde (war, combat) + tusc (grinder, canine tooth, tusk)

4brim-wylf: she wolf of the lake/sea. brim (surf, flood, wave, sea, ocean, water, sea-edge, shore) + wylf (she-wolf) [A word exclusive to Beowulf]

5here-syrcan: corslet. here (predatory band, troop,army, host, multitude, battle, war, devastation) + syrc (sark, shirt, corslet, coat of mail)

6nið-sele: hall of conflict. nið (strife, enmity, attack, war, evil, hatred, spite, oppression, affliction, trouble, grief) + sele (hall, house, dwelling, prison)

7hrof-sele: roofed hall. hrof (roof, ceiling, summit, heaven, sky) + sele (hall, house, dwelling, prison) [A word exclusive to Beowulf]


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Closing

Next week, Beowulf takes a swing at Grendel’s mother.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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Beowulf trespasses in Grendel waters, and over preparing for alien encounters (ll.1492-1505)

Synopsis
Translation
Recordings
Beowulf, Youth Culture, Wary Welcomes
Possibly Over-Preparing to Encounter Alien Beings
Closing

Grendel's mother menaces the pinned Beowulf with a knife.

By J. R. Skelton – Marshall, Henrietta Elizabeth (1908) Stories of Beowulf, T.C. & E.C. Jack, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11001837


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Synopsis

Beowulf dives into the Grendel’s watery lair, and is attacked by Grendel’s mother.


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Translation

“After those words the Geatish lord
was quickened by courage, no answer
would he wait for, into the sea-wave he
threw himself. It was nearly the length of a full day
before he could see the bottom of that lake.
Soon that one sensed him, she who that underwater expanse
had occupied for a fiercely ravenous fifty years,
grim and greedy, she knew that a man,
an alien being, one from above had come exploring.
With claw outstretched she grasped towards him, wrapped the warrior
in her terrible grip. Yet nowhere on his body
was at all injured, his mail protected him all around,
she could not pierce through his war coat,
the linked mail shirt was locked against her loathsome fingers.”
(Beowulf ll.1492-1505)


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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}


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Beowulf, Youth Culture, Wary Welcomes

Beowulf cuts the “good lucks” short here, as he just dives right into the mere where Grendel’s mother waits. No doubt part of him wants to get this experience over with, while another part is excited for the challenge.

But as he’s diving into the water and since he knows he’ll be facing a monster as strong as, if not stronger than, Grendel on its own turf, I wonder if he’s nervous?

Being a young man, Beowulf probably isn’t doubting his ability to do the same thing twice. That’s something that’s definitely an advantage of youth…says the guy who’s only 30, though had I been 30 three decades ago I’d be past the age where I could be trusted by mainstream youth culture…now I am youth culture.

Perhaps that little tangent is unrelated, but it brings to mind a curious question: Is Beowulf representative of the era’s youth culture?

Did Beowulf diving into the water after the monster that killed Hrothgar’s councillor Æschere inspire kids all over the northern parts of Europe to dive into strange lakes, looking for supernatural beasts? Or did the Anglo-Saxon audiences of Beowulf regard him as a supernatural being himself?

I think, since he is a hero (and therefore already different from most), that Beowulf would’ve been regarded as a supernatural being. in a way, after all, having the strength of 30 men isn’t exactly as common as blue eyes and brown hair. It’s also definitely not normal to be able to hold your breath for half a day. And yet that’s how long it took Beowulf to get to the bottom of this lake.

Personally, I don’t think Beowulf had much doubt in his mind as he dove into the lake. He seems like he’s pretty keen on getting to the bottom of things.

Just as Grendel’s mother is keen to eliminate those who intrude in her domains. And the poet even acknowledges that, to Grendel’s mother, Beowulf is doing just that. He’s regarded as a man by this woman of the deep, and therefore as “an alien being” (“ælwihta” (l.1500)).

So Beowulf is very clearly intruding into the space of another, perhaps looking to exact the “wergild” that Grendel’s mother owes for Æschere from her very body. Curiously, though, the poet doesn’t make it seem like Grendel’s mother is waiting for anyone; she’s not sitting out on the porch with a shotgun in her lap saying “you shouldn’t’ve come out here, surface dweller.” She’s just attacking Beowulf because he’s “come exploring” (“cunnode” (l.1500)).

Is Beowulf in the right, intruding in Grendel’s mother’s domain to seek vengeance for the man she killed? Or does Grendel’s mother have the upper hand since she’s defending her home from an intruder (much as Beowulf did earlier in the poem)?

Leave your thoughts in the comments!


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Possibly Over-Preparing to Encounter Alien Beings

If you met an “æl-wihta”1 out on the “brim-wylm”2 you might not jump to the conclusion that it was “heoro-gifre”3.

Unless you were a “guð-rinc”4 of some kind.

And, if you were a “warrior” who met such a creature out on the open waters, you’d probably be prepared with a “fyrd-hom”5 or “leoðo-syrcan”6 to “ymb-bearh”7 your body entirely. Maybe some sort of kevlar wet suit.

But boy oh boy, would there be egg on your face if it turned out that the “æl-wihta”1 was just a walrus or something entirely peaceful.

 

1æl-wihta: strange creature, monster, alien being. el (foreign, strange) + wihta (wight, person, creature, being, whit, thing, something, anything)

2brim-wylm: ocean surge. sea-wave. brim (surf, flood, wave, sea, ocean, water, sea-edge, shore) + wielm (boiling, swelling, surf, billow, current, stream, burning, flame, inflammation, fervour, ardour, zeal) (a word exclusive to Beowulf)

3heoro-gifre: fierce, greedy for slaughter. heoru (sword) + gifre (greedy, rapacious, ravenous, desirous of)

4guð-rinc: warrior, hero. guð (combat, battle, war) + rinc (man, warrior, hero)

5fyrd-hom: corslet. fyrd (national levy or army, military expedition, campaign, camp) + hama (covering, dress, garment, womb, puerperium [period between child birth and a woman’s reproductive organs return to their original, non-pregnant state], slough of a snake)

6leoðo-syrcan: corslet. leoðo (retinue, following; limb, member, joint) + serc (sark, shirt, corslet, coat of mail)

7ymb-bearh: to run round, surround. ymb (around, about, at, upon, near, along, about, at, after, before) + beorg (protection, defense, refuge)


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Closing

Next week, the struggle between Beowulf and Grendel’s mother continues.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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Beowulf gives his last will and testament (ll.1482-1491)

Synopsis
Translation
Recordings
Beowulf’s Flaw?
Generosity and Sharp Swords
Closing

Grendel's mother menaces the pinned Beowulf with a knife.

By J. R. Skelton – Marshall, Henrietta Elizabeth (1908) Stories of Beowulf, T.C. & E.C. Jack, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11001837

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Synopsis

Beowulf says that if he dies, Hrothgar is to send his treasure to Hygelac, and Unferth will get his sword.

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Translation

“‘As for the treasure that thou gavest me,
dear Hrothgar, send it to Hygelac.
Thus, may the lord of the Geats gaze upon those riches,
the son of Hrethel will see it, when he looks upon that treasure,
that I a liberal and great ring giver
had found, and enjoyed his generosity to the full.
And you, Unferth, are to have my own treasure,
my sword so forged its metal shows waves, you the wide-known
man are to have that hard edge. With Hrunting, I shall
wreak vengeance, or death shall take me.'”
(Beowulf ll.1482-1491)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Beowulf’s Flaw?

Last week, Beowulf’s speech to Hrothgar was all about the people in the young man’s life: his lord, Hygelac, and his fellow young warriors. But now things get material. Sort of.

Beowulf starts out the second part of his speech with a call for the gifting of the treasure that he’s won to Hygelac. As we’ll find out in a few hundred lines, this is where the treasure ends up anyway, but I think it’s important for Beowulf to make clear what he wants to do with the treasure. I mean, this speech is basically his last will and testament as far as many of those thronging around him are concerned right now.

After all, they’ve come deep into the heart of monster country (hence all of those beasts on the slopes and dragons in the waters), and Beowulf is now about to dive into the home of the Grendels. In other words, the tables have turned and now all of the Danes and Geats are fearful wretches invading turf that isn’t theirs.

The imminent danger of all of this really drives home for me how the poet is trying to frame Beowulf as an ideal man.

Beowulf has physical strength (that hand grip of thirty men), but is humble and gives almost all the credit for his victory to god or fate’s favour. He’s also young and vigorous, and yet cautious and responsible enough to very dramatically tell everyone what to do if he doesn’t come back as he’s strapping on his armour.

As I think about it, I can see why this sort of character was so popular for so long. Beowulf’s inherent flaw isn’t any one thing but being as balanced as he appears to be. If you look at Beowulf later in the poem, he’s an old man whose personality has fallen out of step with his physicality.

At this point in the poem, though, Beowulf’s body and mind are perfectly in sync, and yet he’s being set up for a fall. The poet is using him to make clear that such a balance is unsustainable. Perhaps the few days that Beowulf is with the Danes are the ones he remembers the most fondly simply because they were those where he was able to show off a balanced nature between warlike rage and diplomatic humility.

He even pledges his sword to Unferth if he dies fighting Grendel’s mother. That is some serious diplomacy on Beowulf’s part.

But what does he hope to get out of all of this? Is Beowulf just being honourable so that he’ll be remembered as such, or do you think this is a show of the genuine Beowulf? Leave your thoughts in the comments!

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Generosity and Sharp Swords

Maybe it seems a little paradoxical, but I think that in the early medieval world a “gum-cyst”1 lord would have a mighty weapon.

Yes, such a lord would need to be known for generosity, but how would the treasure he’d share be won? How would he keep other clans at bay? Surely it would be with a “heard-ecg”2 sword. Perhaps it’d even be something like Beowulf’s wondrous “waeg-sweord”3. Plentiful treasure could probably buy such a weapon, after all.

 

1gum-cyst: excellence, bravery, virtue, liberality. guma (man, lord, hero) + cyst (free-will, choice, election, the best of anything, the choicest, picked host, moral excellence, virtue, goodness, generosity, munificence)

2heard-ecg: sharp of edge, sword. heard (hard, harsh, severe, stern, cruel (things and persons), strong, intense, vigorous,violent, hardy,bold) + ecg (edge, point, weapon, sword, battle ax)

3waeg-sweord: sword with wavy pattern. waeg (motion, water, wave, billow, flood, sea) + sweord (sword)

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Closing

Next week Beowulf drops the mic and plunges into the mire. But it’s not long before a certain mother of a certain monster launches her attack.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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The dangers Beowulf could be facing & how to earn devoted vassals (ll.1473-1481)

Synopsis
Translation
Recordings
The Possible Dangers of Grendel’s Mother
How Liberal Lords Earn Devoted Vassals
Closing

Grendel's mother menaces the pinned Beowulf with a knife.

By J. R. Skelton – Marshall, Henrietta Elizabeth (1908) Stories of Beowulf, T.C. & E.C. Jack, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11001837

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Synopsis

Beowulf reminds Hrothgar of what he promised he would do for the Geat if he dies fighting Grendel’s mother.

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Translation

“Beowulf spoke, son of Ecgtheow:
‘Now think upon it, son of Half-Danes,
wise ruler, now I am ready for this journey,
gold-giving friend of men, that which we two had spoken on:
that if I while in your service shall
lose my life, that you would go forth afterwards
always in a father’s place for me.
That you would be a preserver of my retainers,
my companions, if battle shall take me.'”
(Beowulf ll.1473-1481)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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The Possible Dangers of Grendel’s Mother

The battle that Beowulf is heading off for is not the same as the one he had in Heorot. That’s what this passage is really all about.

In the lead up to the fight with Grendel we heard Beowulf boasting about past victories and the greatness of his strength. We heard confidence bordering on pride that’s tempered with the simple sentiment that fate or god will decide the outcome of the fight. In other words, going into the fight with Grendel, Beowulf felt that his strength and Grendel’s were probably equal. At least, I think that’s fair to say.

I mean, as you can see in this passage, Beowulf is making a much bigger deal out of diving into this lake and fighting Grendel’s mother.

There are a lot of assumptions that could be going into the sense of danger that Beowulf seems to be feeling here.

Grendel’s mother has lost a child, and all animals — including humans — fight tenaciously when the life of their young is in peril or has recently been lost.

Perhaps there’s an underlying assumption here that since this particular parent is a mother, Grendel’s mother’s rage will be tempered with the fury that only women can seem to muster. In particular I’m thinking of the difference that Patton Oswalt points out in Talking for Clapping when he says that when little boys are mad at each other they just punch each other until the dispute’s over, whereas when little girls are made at each other they try to destroy each other emotionally. No doubt all of these men are hesitant to approach a thing with woman’s form that’s doubly provoked in this sense (lost her child, and is its mother).

Also, since this poem would have been written down by Christian monks, perhaps there’re also some assumption about women as temptresses and being spiritually dangerous. I mean, the strictly Judeo-Christian religious tend to see danger for the soul in the form of women (possibly because those organized religions are primarily run by men). So I can’t even imagine the kind of spiritual danger such a religious person would see in the primal sexuality that something as wild as Grendel’s mother could command. In fact, the image at the top of this entry is a depiction of a scene that could easily be read in a very sexually charged way.

Of all of the assumptions and givens that could be roiling through Beowulf’s mind at this point though, the sharpest is probably that he does not have home field advantage in this fight.

Whether or not Beowulf believed his strength to truly equal Grendel’s, Hrothgar legally gave him Heorot for that night. Since it was temporally his, Beowulf probably fought all the fiercer to protect it. And, just as with animals and their young, animals are protective of their territory. So, since he’s about to dive into the Grendels’ realm, Beowulf is clearly at a disadvantage.

And that is where I think the biggest sense of danger comes from for the hero of this poem.

Of course, there’s also the simple escalation of the threat as is necessary in any multi-part story. So if Beowulf and Grendel were equals, he is now at a lower level, so to speak, than Grendel’s mother. And yet he has to face her all the same. So he’s reminding Hrothgar of his promises.

In short, Beowulf’s already strapped on his physical armour, and now in this passage he’s donning his emotional/psychological armour.

What danger do you think is Beowulf’s greatest concern at this point in the poem? Leave your thoughts in the comments!

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How Liberal Lords Earn Devoted Vassals

For a protector1 who is a liberal lord2, vassals3 would go forth4 as if they and their liberal lord2 were companions5.

 

1mund-bora: protector, preserver, guardian, advocate. mund (hand, palm, (of the hand, as a measure), trust, security, protection, guardianship, protector, guardian, the king’s peace, fine for bread of the laws of protection or guardianship of the king’s peace; II.money paid by bridegroom to bride’s father, bridegroom’s gift to bride) + bora (ruler)

2gold-wine: liberal prince, lord, king. gold (gold) + winn (toil, labour, trouble, hardship, profit, gain, conflict, strife, war)

3mago-þegnum: vassal, retainer, warrior, man, servant, minister. mago (male kinsman, son, descendant, young man, servant, man, warrior) + ðegn (servant, minister, retainer, vassal, follower, disciple, freeman, master (as opposed to slave), courtier, noble (official rather than hereditary), military attendant, warrior, hero)

4forð-gewitan: to go forth, pass, proceed, go by, depart, die. forð (forth, forwards, onwards, further, hence, thence, away, continually, still, continuously, henceforth, thenceforward, simultaneously) + witan (I.guard, keep, look after; II. impute or ascribe to, accuse, reproach, blame; III.depart, go, go out, leave off, pass away, die)

5hond-gesella: companion. hand (hand, side (in defining position), power, control, possession, charge, agency, person regarded as holder or receiver of something) + sellan (to give, furnish, supply, lend, surrender, give up, betray, entrust, deliver to, appoint, allot, lay by, hide, sell, promise)

 

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Closing

Next week, Beowulf continues to remind Hrothgar of his promises. And, he makes a new promise that shakes up what happened when everyone was drunk in Heorot.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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Beowulf finds new life as chamber opera

The news: Hannah Lash's Beowulf Opera.

Brian Church (Beowulf) and Aliana de la Guardia (Beowulf’s mother), in Hannah Lash’s new opera, Beowulf.

Beowulf has found expression as a chamber opera.

I guess there’s life in this old story yet.

Setting aside whatever your impression of opera may be, it sounds like this opera (also named Beowulf) is most entertaining. This is a glowing review, but I’d like to think that just as some people might approach opera with rolling eyes and negative preconceptions, a reviewer might approach something based on Beowulf (even if its in a form that they’re generally fans of) with the same rolling eyes and negative preconceptions. So I think that this adaptation must legitimately be good.

Though this opera sounds like it’s not just a straight adaptation of Beowulf to the same kind of stage that might see Madama Butterfly or Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen.

The story in this opera is that the character named Beowulf has come back from a war with PTSD and so can’t quite reconcile the home of here and now with what happened in his past. This Beowulf’s nursing home-bound mother has similar troubles reconciling aspects of her past home with her current home and is also harassed by a wicked nurse (who seems to be this take’s version of Grendel). After a confrontation between Beowulf and the nurse, he and his mother reach an understanding and the story ends.

All in all, how the creator of this piece, Hannah Lash, took all of the war and PTSD-related themes from the original and splashed them over a modern canvas makes for an interesting sounding piece.

Unfortunately, the performance’s somewhat limited showing means that only a few people will ever see it. Nonetheless, I wanted to share this article because it shows how old stories can still be useful as jumping off points for new tales and new ways to try to make sense of our present.

You can read Christian Gentry’s full review of the chamber opera Beowulf here:

Hannah Lash’s Beowulf Premiered by Guerilla Opera

Unferth’s trade with Beowulf, and the makings of a warrior’s fame (ll.1465-1472)

Synopsis
Translation
Recordings
Beowulf and Unferth Trade in Reputations
What’s Needed for Fame
Closing

Beowulf, Grendel, Old English, Anglo-Saxon

An illustration of Grendel by J.R. Skelton from Stories of Beowulf. Grendel is described as “Very terrible to look upon.”Stories of beowulf grendel” by J. R. Skelton – Marshall, Henrietta Elizabeth (1908) Stories of Beowulf, T.C. & E.C. Jack. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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Synopsis

Beowulf reflects on Unferth’s loan, and the poet reflects on it, too.

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Translation

“Indeed that son of Ecglaf, strong in might,
no longer thought of what that one had said before,
while drunk on wine, when he leant that weapon
to the better swordsman; he himself dared not
to venture beneath the turmoil of those waves
and risk his life to do a heroic deed; there he lost
his fame, his reputation for courage. But the other
showed no fear, the one already well-girded for battle.”
(Beowulf ll.1465-1472)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Beowulf and Unferth Trade in Reputations

After all of Beowulf’s gearing up, the poet now gives us a sense of what each man won and lost when Unferth loaned his sword to Beowulf.

Obviously, Beowulf’s the one who comes out of this little transaction for the better. Not only is he said to be the better swordsman (line 1468), but he’s also the one who is already “well-girded for battle” (“to guðe gegyred hæfde” (l. 1472)). Though this passage’s last line seems like it could be taken a few ways.

Does it mean that Beowulf is simply prepared for what they all knew that they would have to face? Or is the suggestion on line 1472 that Beowulf is some sort of bloodthirsty warrior who, at the slightest chance of a fight, is all decked out and fully prepared? Maybe it’s just that Beowulf is young and eager, after all, he “showed no fear” (“Ne wæs þæm oðrum swa” (l.1472)) despite being in a place that seems to have put everyone else on edge.

What’s really strange to me about this passage, though, is that the poet gives Unferth a heroic reputation seemingly out of nowhere. He seems to do so only to transfer it to Beowulf, though. It’s as if this poem is suddenly Highlander, and Unferth’s giving Beowulf his sword is the same as Beowulf beheading the man and experiencing a quickening. Now Unferth’s reputation for bravery is no longer his, but has been added to Beowulf’s considerable store of such rep.

The sad thing about this transaction, though is that it underscores the sense that the Danes are in decline.

Hrothgar is an old king with only young sons who seem to have neither battle experience nor diplomatic know-how (though, to be fair, we know nothing of his sons, really).

Wealhtheow’s marriage to the king is one of political convenience, which, isn’t terribly uncommon during the period, but that it happened at all suggests that Hrothgar is trying to broker a peace for his successors to rule in — and at the time peace was a very fragile thing.

Then Hrothgar’s chief advisor is killed.

And now, the apparent champion of the Danes essentially hands off his reputation to this newcomer from a completely different social group. It’s almost as if the Danes are doing just what the Beowulf poet did: passing on their greatness and their glory so that others can hear of them and tell stories even after they’re long gone.

What do you think of Unferth suddenly having this “reputation for courage”?

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What’s Needed for Fame

Any “sweord-frecan”1 who enjoys “ellen-mærð”2 must have done “drihtscype”3. Just as any “drihtscype”3 done would guarantee “ellen-mærð”2 for the “sweord-frecan”1 responsible.

 

1sweord-frecan: swordsman, warrior. sweord (sword) + freca (warrior, hero) (A compound word that’s exclusive to Beowulf)

2ellen-mærð: fame of courage. ellen (zeal, strength, courage, strife, contention) + mærð (glory, fame, famous exploit) (A compound word that’s exclusive to Beowulf)

3drihtscype: lordship, rulership, dignity, virtue, valour, heroic deeds. driht (multitude, army, company, body of retainers, nation, people) + scype (ship)

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Closing

Next week, Beowulf’s words for Unferth.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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Author writes novel series called: The Women of Beowulf

Though there are women in the poem Beowulf, they’re entirely on the sidelines. Wealhtheow, the queen of the Danes, has a few lines, but she’s quite tightly sewn into her diplomatic role of peaceweaver. Otherwise, women are mothers or sisters or daughters, and they generally have few to no lines of dialogue. And yet they’re present in the poem’s asides about morality and honour, but none of them take centre stage.

Donnita L. Rogers has changed the state of women in the world of Beowulf by writing a series of novels called The Women of Beowulf. This series tells a story that shares its setting with Beowulf but that follows a priestess named Freawearu.

A character with the same name appears in the poem, but she, like her mother Wealhtheow, is a peaceweaver, a daughter married to the son of a rival group’s leader in an effort to foster peace between the two groups. So the connection to Beowulf via Freawearu seems tenuous.

But Rogers isn’t writing an adaptation of the epic poem. Instead, she’s taking another look at the scenario of the poem and its setting through the lens of the powerful women active in it.

Though Rogers released the first book in this series, Faces in the Fire back in 2013 and wrapped it up in 2015, it could still prove an interesting read. You can find a full review of Donnita L. Rogers’ series here:

http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/annie-martirosyan/beowulf-women_b_10638604.html

What do you think of the idea of using an old story’s setting and some of its characters to tell a new tale? Leave your thoughts in the comments!

Unferth gifts a sword to Beowulf, words tell of blades and battlefields(ll.1455-1464)

Synopsis
Translation
Recordings
A Named and Dangerous Sword
The Usefulness of an Ancient Sword on the Brutal Battlefield
Closing

Beowulf, Grendel, Old English, Anglo-Saxon

An illustration of Grendel by J.R. Skelton from Stories of Beowulf. Grendel is described as “Very terrible to look upon.”Stories of beowulf grendel” by J. R. Skelton – Marshall, Henrietta Elizabeth (1908) Stories of Beowulf, T.C. & E.C. Jack. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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Synopsis

Unferth lends Beowulf a sure-fire sword.

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Translation

“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”
(Beowulf ll.1455-1464)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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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!

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The Usefulness of an Ancient Sword on the Brutal Battlefield

I think it goes without saying that a “hæft-mece”1 would be a “mægen-fultuma”2 on just about any “folc-stede”3. Forget those swords without hilts — they’re really just oversized knives!

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!

 

1hæft-mece: hilted sword. hæft (haft, handle) + mece (sword, blade) (A word exclusive to Beowulf)

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)

6heaþo-swate: blood of battle. heaðu (war) + swat (sweat, perspiration, exudation, blood, foam, toil, labour)

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)

8ellen-weorc: heroic deed, good work. ellen (zeal, strength, courage) + weorc (work, labour, action, deed, exercise; affliction, suffering, pain, trouble, distress; fortification)

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Closing

Next week, the poet reflects on Unferth’s character further.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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