A marathon inspired by Beowulf?

Ben de Rivaz and Tom Burton train for the Breca Wanaka SwimRun, inspired by Beowulf.

Breca Wanaka SwimRun race organiser Ben de Rivaz, of the UK, right, trains with friend Tom Burton in Lake Wanaka in front of Ruby Island. Image from http://www.stuff.co.nz/sport/85042363/new-multisport-concept-launches-in-wanaka-in-march

Earlier in this blog I found a connection between Beowulf and baseball. That connection of the ancient poem to modern sport was pretty unexpected. The latest connection between Beowulf and sports is much clearer, but no less surprising.

This connection is the sport known as “swimrun”. You can read all about an English enthusiast’s setting up a new course in Australia, and get a quick summary of the sport here.

With its start in Sweden, and a slow spread throughout Europe (so far mostly England, it sounds like), “swimrun” is a marathon that involves (unsurprisingly) swimming and running. The twist comes in with the condition that competitors must wear running shoes and a wetsuit for the entire race and carry certain gear as well.

Unfortunately, this article doesn’t specify what kind of gear needs to be carried, but given the analog to Beowulf’s swimming race with Breca, it wouldn’t surprise me if the gear was something that tried to replicate the weight and feel of a sword. Interestingly, though, given the fact that Beowulf is an Old English poem about Nordic peoples, the only explicit reference to Beowulf and Breca’s swimming race associated with swimruns (as far as I know) is the name of English enthusiast Ben de Rivaz’s new course. That name is, quite simply, the Breca Wanaka SwimRun.

Though the name of his course isn’t the only reference to the swimming race in Beowulf. De Rivaz’s also requires competitors to race in pairs.

Movie, book, theatrical, and TV adaptations are one thing, but it’s great to see that Beowulf is inspiring people in other spheres as well. It just shows that fans of Beowulf have diverse interests, which suggests to me that the poem really has a broad appeal.

Though, I think Beowulf has a few advantages over other literature when it comes to broad appeal. I mean, how can you go wrong with something that’s literature but also includes magic, monsters, and even a dragon?

Along with Breca and Beowulf’s swimming race, Quidditch and other sports from books have been adapted to real life settings. If you could put together a club or league based on a game from any book which would you choose? Let me know in the comments!

Courageous hope and a summary of the Finn and Hengest incident (ll.1600-1611)

Synopsis
Translation
Recordings
The Geat’s Hope, Beowulf’s Bewilderment, God’s Power
A Summary of What Happened to Hengest in Finn’s Hall
Closing

Beowulf and his band of Geats carrying Grendel's head.

J. R. Skelton – Marshall, Henrietta Elizabeth (1908) Stories of Beowulf, T.C. & E.C. Jack.
Image found at: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Stories_of_beowulf_head_of_grendel.jpg#/media/File:Stories_of_beowulf_head_of_grendel.jpg


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Synopsis

The Danes go while the Scyldings stay. Meanwhile, Beowulf’s sword melts.


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Translation

“Then came the ninth hour of the day. To a man
the brave Scyldings left the lake, and with them went
that generous gold-friend. But the strangers stayed to wait,
though sick at heart, and stared at those waters;
they wished and yet could not believe that they would see
in the flesh once more their lord and friend. Meanwhile,
back in the cave the sword began, after the blood of battle
spattered the war-icicle, to soften and wane. It was a wondrous sight,
all the blade melting away much like ice
when the Father looses the frost bonds,
unties the waters from their cold-cords, he who has power
over the sowing and the harvest; such is truly the Measurer’s might.”
(Beowulf ll.1600-1611)


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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}


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The Geat’s Hope, Beowulf’s Bewilderment, God’s Power

At least the Geats kept faith. Sort of.

It’s pretty clear that they stayed on because of a stubborn hope that Beowulf would return. Though the poet acknowledges that this hope is tempered with the belief that the Danes must be right, that Beowulf must be dead.

Nonetheless, I think that the Geat’s sticking around is a different kind of ofermod. That the Geats don’t just get up and leave with the Danes exemplifies a kind of internal courage to wish and hope in the face of adversity. It’s the kind of hope that isn’t easy to conjure up and hold onto, so I think the Geats definitely show tremendous spirit in holding onto it, despite their belief that Beowulf is dead.

Actually, I take the Geats’ enduring faith in Beowulf as a sign that the poet believes the Geats have more life in them than the Danes. After all, the poet’s told us that Heorot will burn, but (so far) no mention of the fall of the Geats has been made.

At any rate, after that look at sorrowful hope, the poet brings us back to the man himself.

We rejoin Beowulf as he watches the sword he pulled from the Grendels’ armoury melt. Apparently because Grendel’s blood (but not his mother’s?) was too hot for the steel to handle. Which, I guess makes sense, since, Grendel would have to be the hotter blooded of the two.

I mean, he was the one who actively went out and attacked Heorot. All the while we can only guess that Grendel’s mother just did her own thing. At least, that is, until Grendel was killed. Though up until then I think it’s fair to say, as the Greeks might, that Grendel had itchy blood.

The imagery that the poet uses to explain the melting of the sword, much like Beowulf’s swordstrokes in his battles, is perfectly placed. This image demonstrates the power of god as an entity that has the ability to melt the ice, and, as I’ve translated it, is an entity that “has power/over the sowing and the harvest” (“se geweald hafað/sæla ond mæla” (ll.1610-1611)). So this god is nothing to mess around with, but also a powerful ally for one such as Beowulf.

Plus, the use of the image of melting ice is a great metaphor for the melting away of the chilly atmosphere around Heorot. Just as in a video game, the defeat of the Grendels’ has palpably restored peace to Daneland. In fact, even the waters that Beowulf swims through, which were once teeming with all sorts of monsters, are now seemingly calm.

So I don’t think it’s much of a jump to go from the image of god freeing the waters from their “frost bonds” (“forstes bend” (l.1609)) to Beowulf freeing Daneland from the Grendels’ grip of terror.

Why do you think Grendel’s blood melted Beowulf’s sword?


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A Summary of What Happened to Hengest in Finn’s Hall

After being trapped there for the winter by frozen water, Hengest was forced into an uneasy truce with his enemy Finn. Along with being untrustworthy in the past, Hengest’s lord and his lord’s nephew had just been killed in pitched battle.

Now, Hengest, that “gold-wine”1, tried to resist the “heaþo-swate”2 that called to him. But his men implored their “wine-dryhten”3 to revenge, and he could not resist the “wig-bill”4. Though he waited through a long winter to exact revenge for his lord and his son, waited until the “wæl-rap”5 were melted from the sea-ways.

At least, that’s the reason the poets give.

I think he waited to ensure that his wrath would not just be a “hild-gicel”6, melting away after the strife in the hall. Instead he wanted something surer and so waited until his hatred hardened into the kind of “wig-bill”4 that Beowulf would praise.

 

1gold-wine: liberal prince, lord, king. gold (gold) + wine (friend, protector, lord, retainer)

Back Up

2heaþo-swate: blood of battle. heaðu (war) + swat (sweat, perspiration, exudation, blood, foam, toil, labour)

Back Up

3wine-dryhten: friendly lord, lord and friend. wine (friend, protector, lord, retainer) + dryhten (ruler, king, prince, lord)

Back Up

4wig-bill: sword. wig (strife, contest, war, battle) + bill (chopper, battle axe, falchion, sword) [A compound word that’s exclusive to Beowulf.]

Back Up

5wæl-rap: flood-fetter (ice). wæl (whirlpool, eddy, pool, ocean, sea, river, flood) + rap (rope, cord, cable)

Back Up

6hild-gicel: battle-icicle (blood dripping from a sword [like water from an icicle]). hild (war, combat) + gicel (icicle, ice) [A compound word that’s exclusive to Beowulf.]


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Closing

Next week, Beowulf makes his escape.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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How “Northern Courage” and ofermōde help Beowulf stand out

A simple drawing of old Beowulf reflecting on heroes of the past.

Image found at: http://mseffie.com/assignments/beowulf/beowulf.html. (If you are, or know, the artist, please get in touch so I can give proper credit.)

In my wanderings to find something to write about for this week’s news post, I came across this article from A Tolkienist Perspective: Northern Courage, Ofermōde and Thorin Oakenshield’s last stand.

In this article, James (the author) offers a fairly in depth look at J.R.R. Tolkien’s conception of “Northern courage,” and his interpretation of the tricky Old English word “ofermōde.” The former of these is a sort of boldness that Tolkien explained as maintaining a persistent spirit despite terrible odds. And, according to this article, Tolkien understood “ofermōde” as that Northern courage going too far. In a sense, Northern courage is the kind of spirit that buoys you towards your goal through stormy waters, where ofermōde catapults you across those waters and clear past your goal.

Stepping outside of the realm of Beowulf and into one of the most popular creative worlds that it inspired, gives me a bit of perspective on the original poem. As such, reading James’ article got me thinking that one of the things that I really appreciate about Beowulf is that it is indeed a story with consequences. Unlike other poems that might be described as “epic,” though, those consequences aren’t national rivalries or divine wrath. Instead they are the end of the hero and his people. Thus, Beowulf is really more of an elegiac epic (or an epic elegy).

But what does that have to do with this article about J.R.R. Tolkien’s ideas of Northern courage and foolhardiness?

Well, something that’s always fascinated me is people’s comparing themselves to the characters of the great stories of their times.

Throughout the classical period and the Renaissance (unfortunately, the stars of a lot of medieval epics were saints or Christ himself, so comparisons weren’t quite so welcome), people would make these comparisons to famed heroes for rhetorical purposes. But these heroes always have some fatal flaw, and it often seemed to me that saying “I’m just like Hercules!” was foolish because of Hercules’ sufferings (killing his own family in a fit of divine rage, dying when he dons a coat that burned away all of his skin).

Sure, it’s easy to compare yourself to a hero in their prime, and maybe that’s all that was intended with these comparisons. But to my mind there was a kind of hubris, a kind of overstepping of the speakers’ bounds just in the comparison alone. These heroes are something beyond human already. I mean, with my above example, Hercules is the son of Zeus and, after his agonizing death he rises to Olympus.

Nonetheless, the superstitious part of me winces when these kinds of comparisons are made since they’re like the point in so many cartoons where one character says “things are better than ever!” and the situation quickly turns around.

But, although the idea of hubris is pretty widespread, Tolkien’s understanding of Northern courage and ofermōde as counterparts (as James explains) goes a long way into expressing why Beowulf stands out for me.

Beowulf isn’t a form like a Greek drama or a Homeric epic with strict rules for dramatists and poets to follow. Instead, it’s a single story that embodies its culture’s greatest attribute (the courage to stand and defend your community against all others and the harsh Northern European elements) and its greatest downfall (the extreme of courage, where actions quickly become more and more foolish) in a single story and a single character.

After all, Beowulf himself oversteps his courage and exhibits too much spiritedness when he insists on fighting the dragon on his own despite his age and despite the danger. This closing of the loop of action and consequence in a single story and in a very human way just seems utterly unique to me, like it’s something that no other story of Beowulf‘s scope manages to do. Beowulf lives, fights monsters, displaying more and more courage each time, until finally that courage becomes too much and he (and his people) die. It’s a sorrowful story, for sure. But it’s complete in a way that nothing else I’ve come across is.

James’ article helped to clarify that for me. Maybe it’ll do something similar for you, so go give it a read.

What do you think of the idea of separating courage into something to be celebrated (Tolkien’s Northern courage) and something that’s just stupid (“ofermōde”, or “foolhardiness,” as it could be translated)? Is all courage stupidity or is there necessary courage that’s actually kind of wise?

Leave your thoughts in the comments!

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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