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

Back To Top
Synopsis

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

Back To Top
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)

Back To Top
Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

Back To Top
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!

Back To Top
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)

Back To Top
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.

Back To Top

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

Back To Top
Synopsis

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

Back To Top
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)

Back To Top
Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

Back To Top
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!

Back To Top
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)

 

Back To Top
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.

Back To Top

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.

Back To Top
Synopsis

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

Back To Top
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)

Back To Top
Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

Back To Top
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”?

Back To Top
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)

Back To Top
Closing

Next week, Beowulf’s words for Unferth.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

Back To Top

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.

Back To Top
Synopsis

Unferth lends Beowulf a sure-fire sword.

Back To Top
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)

Back To Top
Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

Back To Top
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!

Back To Top
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)

Back To Top
Closing

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

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

Back To Top

Armour inspires thoughts on time, ad-libbing on sunken arms (ll.1441b – 1454)

Synopsis
Translation
Recordings
Antique Armour More Effective
Armour on Sea Bottoms
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.

Back To Top
Synopsis

Beowulf gets geared up, starting with his armour and helmet.

Back To Top
Translation

“Beowulf geared himself
in warrior’s garb, he felt no anxiety for his life then;
his hand woven war-corslet, broad and skillfully decorated,
would soon know those depths,
confident in its ability to protect his bone-chamber,
so that no hand-grasp could crush his chest,
that no furious foe’s malicious hand could harm him;
and on his head a shining helmet he wore,
which would soon muddy the mere’s bottom,
would soon enter the surging waters, that treasure-embellished helm,
encircled by a lordly band, made as those in elder days,
wrought by a weapon smith, wondrously formed,
set all around with boar-images, so that he
may not be bitten by blade or battle sword.”
(Beowulf ll.1441b – 1454)

Back To Top
Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

Back To Top
Antique Armour More Effective

Beowulf gets kitted out here. Whether one of the Geats with him (or maybe a Dane, as a sign of their good relations?) helps him into this gear as squires would knights in a few hundred years is unclear. All we know from what’s written is that Beowulf puts on his armour and then his helmet. So, much like old school JRPGs, it looks like there are just three pieces of equipment for your average warrior: armour, headgear, weapon.

Most interesting to me is just how important it seems to be that the armour is decorated. I mean, I’m not too familiar with the practicalities of medieval armour, but I’d imagine that it would be a great deal lighter and actually more effective if it was less decorated — not more. As far as I can guess, though, Beowulf’s not going to be guarded from harm because his outfit is so chic, rather its protective power comes from its being so old.

The armour he dons is described as “broad and skilfully decorated” (“sid ond searo-fah” (l.1443)).

Note that the phrase there isn’t “skillfully crafted” (potentially “searo-cræftig” in Old English), but “skilfully decorated” (“searo-fah”).

So, this armour must be old because it was made when people had the time to just sit back, crack into some mead and decorate their armaments. And when could you decorate armour and swords and such? When you’re living in a relative time of peace.

Or a time when fighting is so fierce that you become very skilled in making armour very quickly so that there’s time left over to embellish it.

Either way, the implication about Beowulf’s armour is that this armour is old.

And this implication is outright stated when it comes to Beowulf’s helmet.

On line 1451 the poet tells us it was “made as those in elder days” (“fyrn-dagum”). Which, if you think about it doesn’t put it into the past as much as it suggests that days don’t die, they just grow old and their influence is lessened as time moves onward. All the while, the works done in these days, the things that people made during their’ prime, carry into the future.

It’s a curious way to think about time.

Though, getting back on track,the idea that things “aren’t made like they used to be” in that their not made to last like they used to be continues to be a common sentiment.

After all, it seems like things are moving so quickly that everything made new is made fast rather than to last. For example, my uncle recently took apart an old piano (maybe from the early 20th century) to turn it into a liquor cabinet and the mechanism for the hammer looks and works as if it was made yesterday — although the only metal pieces in it are the spring and the pin that holds the thing together.

Now, there’s no denying that modern tech is growing exponentially and so on and so forth, but that the sense that “they don’t make things like they used to” existed in the time of the Beowulf poet seems to me ridiculous. It suggests that human progress has always been happening, and that however fast our times are, the present always has an element of speed to it. It’s only when we look at all of the days behind us, all gathered around the nursing home table that we just happen to see those things that happened in them much more slowly.

Do you think that spending so much time on Beowulf’s getting his armour on helps build a sense of security? Or is it just the poet stalling for time?

Back To Top
Armour on Sea Bottoms

A European “mere-grund”1 is probably the best place to find old “eorl-gewæde”2.

I mean, no doubt several warriors perished in the “inwit-feng”3 of “sund-gebland”4 over the centuries, whether they were swimming or sailing across such waters. And those “ban-cofa”5 these warriors would leave behind, in a weird inside-out kind of way, probably made perfect caskets for such lost “here-byrne”6. We’re talking top of the line pieces of arms and armour that were “searo-fah”7 with “swin-lic”8.

Plus, if some of these warriors were always losing their purses or just wanted to have the skate punk look way before its time, maybe there’d be a few “frea-wrasn”9 with the armour, as well. Nothing like a nice chain to keep the cash close, right?

What I have to wonder though, is if ladies of lakes are willing to chuck up the odd “beado-mece”10 since “fyrn-dagum”11, why don’t they ever seem to give away armour too? They must really have it in for warriors everywhere. Or maybe Arthur hastily left after getting Excalibur and ruined getting full sets of arms for the rest of us.

1mere-grund: lake-bottom, bottom of the sea. mere (sea, ocean, lake, pond, pool, cistern) + grund (ground, bottom, foundation, abyss, hell, plain, country, land, eart, sea, water)

2eorl-gewæde: armour. eorl (brave man, warrior, leader, chief, man, earl, nobleman) + gewæde (robe, dress, apparel, clothing, garment, covering) (A word exclusive to Beowulf)

3inwit-feng: spiteful clutch. inwit (evil, deceit, wicked, deceitful) + feng (grip, grasp, embrace, capture, prey, booty) (A word exclusive to Beowulf)

4sund-gebland: commingled sea, surge. sund (swimming, capacity for swimming, sea, ocean, water) + gebland (blending, mixture, confusion) (A word exclusive to Beowulf)

5ban-cofa: bodily frame. ban (bone, tusk, the bone of a limb) + cofa (clost, chamber, ark, cave, den)

6here-byrne: corslet. here (predatory band, troop, army, host, multitude) + byrne (corslet) (A word exclusive to Beowulf)

7searo-fah: variegated, cunningly inlaid. searo (art, skill, cleverness, cunning, device, trick, snare, ambuscade, plot, treachery, work of art, cunning device, engine of war, armour, war-gear, trappings) + fag (variegated, spotted, dappled, stained, dyed, shining, gleaming) (A word exclusive to Beowulf)

8swin-lic: boar image. swin (wild boar, pig, hog, swine, boar image) + lic (like, alike, similar, equal, suitable, likely) (A word exclusive to Beowulf)

9frea-wrasn: splendid chain. frea (lord, king, master, the Lord, Christ, God, husband) + wrasen (band, tie, chain) (A word exclusive to Beowulf)

10beado-mece: battle sword. beado (war, battle, fighting, strife) + mece (sword, blade) (A word exclusive to Beowulf)

11fyrn-dagum: days of yore. fyrn (former, ancient, formerly, of old, long ago, once) + dæg (day, lifetime, Last Day, name of the rune for “d”)

Back To Top
Closing

Next week, Hrothgar’s sleazy counsellor Unferth gives Beowulf a gift.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

Back To Top

The Danes’ deadly curiosity, life is dangerous in these waters (ll.1432b-1441a)

Synopsis
Translation
Recordings
Brutal Curiousity
The Dangers of Being a Child of the Waves
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.

Back To Top
Synopsis

The Geats and Danes kill one of the monsters of the waters and drag it ashore.

Back To Top
Translation

“One of the Geats
severed the life of one with an arrow from his bow,
than did it battle against the waves, since that war arrow stuck in
its side; it was then slower against the waters
in that sea, until death took its fight away.
It was quickly pulled from the waves
in an assault of savagely barbed boar spears,
fiercely they attacked it to tug that wondrous
traverser of the waves to the shore; the men
all gazed upon that terrible stranger.”
(Beowulf ll.1432b-1441a)

Back To Top
Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

Back To Top
Brutal Curiousity

There is no way to soften the blow here. The Geats and Danes are downright brutal with this sea monster — be it seal or walrus or actual monster.

First, it’s struck with an arrow. Then they all watch as it goes through its death throes in the water, no doubt bloodying them up further. But then they don’t just look at each other and grunt out “huh, I guess they can die.” No. Instead they stick spears intended for hunting boars into the corpse and bring it ashore for a closer look.

At least I guess I should credit them for being curious. I mean, these guys don’t just kill the thing and then leave it there. There’s a genuine inquisitiveness present in this passage. It’s just that it’s pretty deeply cut by a brutal kind of caution. Cut so deep in fact, that the metaphorical drink it’s diluting is just about all water at this point.

Still, the assembled warriors all gawk at the corpse of this animal (monster?) that they’ve pulled to shore. Which does accomplish a few things for the story.

As I noted above, it proves that these monsters can be killed. It also proves that they aren’t likely impervious to human weapons like Grendel was. Though I’m not sure how top of mind that is and how much more likely it is that they killed the beast to make sure it didn’t attack them when they tried to get a closer look. Though, it’s still hard to set aside their letting it thrash around in the water until it dies.

It doesn’t get mentioned here, since next week’s passage will jump back to Beowulf himself, but maybe this closer observation of one of these monsters confirms something very important for the Geats and Danes around it. That it’s no monster at all.

As a sea-faring people, I have no doubts that both Geats and Danes are familiar with sea-life, whether helpful or harmful to their crossing the seas. Maybe this closer look is all it takes for them to realize that the creatures in the water here aren’t monsters at all but just creatures as common as deer. And maybe that’s why this is the moment that the poet chooses to end his general narration before getting back to the heroics of Beowulf.

Unless, this creature is indeed a monster, or just monstrous. Last week there was the mention of these creatures all around them being the same ones that were responsible for wrecking ships on their way out to sea. Maybe seeing these creatures up close didn’t lead to a revelation about their nature, it just erased the fear that all the assembled people had for these beasts as these strange and unknown creatures. But, now, at the very least, as Arnold Schwarzenegger rightly observed in a movie about another monstrous menace, Predator: “if it bleeds we can kill it.”

What do you think? Are the Geats and Danes killing, then jamming boar spears into this creature’s corpse out of fear? Or just because they want to be sure about its nature and their own safety? Let me know what you think in the comments!

Back To Top
The Dangers of Being a Child of the Waves

If you’re a sea-going creature, you’ve spent your whole life in the water. You know the ebb and flow like the back of your fin. You truly are a “wæg-bora”1.

But the ways of the air are entirely foreign to you. The area above the water is where the great fiery ball lives, far off in the distance. Or it is simply quite small. None of the stories of your kind are certain. But they are certain that the space between water and fiery ball is usually clear and open. So being hit by sharp barb, or “here-stræl”2, from a “flan-boga”3 is entirely unexpected. Hard clouds sometimes pass along the surface of your waters, but stories of those sharp long barbs are few.

But they are brutal.

Especially since there are many mentions in these stories, talk of “heoru-hocyht”4 “eofer-spreot”5 being driven from an unknown enemy that lives in the space between waters and the fiery ball. Those who have witnessed such assaults with the barbs that swim through the space between often tell of these greater barbs following their smaller kin, just as certain of your own kind swim together. But instead of bringing the joy and safety of community, these barbs always cause great “yð-gewinn”6.

Such are the dangers of being a child of the waves.

 

1wæg-bora: child of the waves?[sic]; traverser of the waves?; goer upon the waves. wæg (motion, water, wave, billow, flood, sea) + bora (ruler)

2here-stræl: arrow. here (predatory band, troop, army, host, multitude, battle, war, devastation) + stræl (arrow, dart, missile; curtain, quilt, matting, bed)

3flan-bogan: bow. flan (barb, arrow, javelin, dart) + boga (bow, arch, arched place, vault, rainbow, folded parchment)

4heoru-hocyht: savagely barbed. heoru (sword) + hocyht (with many bends?[sic]. Perhaps a clue to how it was barbed?)

5eofer-spreot: boar-spear. eofer (boar, wild boar, boar-image on a helmet) + spreot (pole, pike, spear)

6yð-gewinn: wave-strife, life on the waves. (wave, billow, flood, sea, liquid, water) + winn (toil, labour, trouble, hardship, profit, gain, conflict, strife, war)

Back To Top
Closing

Next week, the poet shifts back to Beowulf. And the Geat hero gets geared up.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

Back To Top

Monsters on the shores, and monsters in the morning (ll.1422-1432a)

Synopsis
Translation
Recordings
Marine Mammals or Monsters?
Waking Monsters at Morning Time
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.

Back To Top
Synopsis

Some of those with Hrothgar peer into the bloody depths of the waters and see monsters.

Back To Top
Translation

“Amidst the waters blood surged — clear for the men there to see —
hot with gore. At times a horn sounded
an urgent war-song. Those on foot all sat down;
there through the water they saw many of the race of serpents,
strange sea-dragons knew those depths,
likewise, on the headlands lay water monsters,
those that often undertake to hijack ships as they
set out on fateful voyages down the sail-road in the morning,
dragons and beasts. They rushed about the waters,
fierce and enraged; they had heard that sound,
the resounding war-horn.”
(Beowulf ll.1422-1432a)

Back To Top
Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

Back To Top
Marine Mammals or Monsters?

After coming just a few miles from Heorot, Hrothgar and those with him haven’t just come to a strange swampy place. They have come to the heart of the world’s monsters’ home.

The Danes and Geats that look into the choppy waters see all manner of sea serpents, and those that look across to the cliffs see the very monsters the Anglo-Saxons may have feared the most as a sea-faring people: those that wreck ships. Since, you know, gremlins, or, rather, the “nicra,” are all about smashing ships. And, apparently, lazing on rocky shores.

I remember that when we got to this passage in a class that walked us through Beowulf we stopped and dug deep. And what the professor uncovered was the notion that the monsters Hrothgar, the Danes, and the Geats see on the far shore are seals or walruses, giant sea mammals that (probably wrongly?) they assumed wrecked ships since they were protective of all the sea as humans were protective of their homes. Building on this notion, I can’t help but wonder even now if the waters are bloody and churning because some of the seals are hunting. And, perhaps the horrendous writhing of the sea serpents is just the seals mowing down on fish or other water dwellers their size or bigger, leaving people on the shore with the impression of giant flailing monsters.

Of course, that’s just speculation.

Speculation that Hrothgar and those with him misinterpreted what they saw for what they expected instead of what actually was. Or, rather, speculation that this is what the Anglo-Saxons thought of seals and/or walruses. It’s hard to say for sure since I’m not sure how violent those animals are when they’re hunting. Or if they’d be violent enough to come onto land, steal a full grown man away and leave his head on the shore completely unintentionally.

Though, I guess the Grendels, in this den of monsters, being the only clear humanoids, are supposed the poem’s audience’s way into this experience. Everything around them is so strange that the Grendels, with their upright walking and sense of family, are actually much closer to our human heroes than to the lounging (and maybe laughing?) monsters that the assembled people see all around them.

But if they’re surrounded by these strange creatures, then is it somebody among Hrothgar’s men that blows on the war horn? Or is it one of the monsters doing it? Or, is that just the poet taking some licence with a seal’s bark or a walruses’ call?

For such a scene, the plain language here does wonders for setting up an utterly bizarre situation. But more than that I think it does a fantastic job of building up suspense.

Here’s this group of people — all warriors outfitted for fighting — in the midst of a bunch of monsters, looking for the one who is ostensibly their queen or maybe just the most aggressive of the bunch, and they can only guess that she’s beyond Æschere’s bloodily severed head, in the depths of the unfathomable choppy red water.

Do you think the monsters all around Hrothgar and his group are just seals or walruses? Or is the poet describing some other creatures?

Back To Top
Waking Monsters at Morning Time

One of the things I wonder as I read this passage again is why the monsters don’t seem to notice Hrothgar or any of those with him. They’re either chilling on another shore, or feeding in the water. It’s something that definitely strengthens the idea that they’re all just marine mammals doing their own thing, and, much like other animals of a certain size ignore people unless they get to close.

But. For the sake of this little exercise, let’s continue to consider them monsters. And how to rouse them from their lounging?

Well, “wil-deor”1, “sæ-dracan”2, and those of “wyrm-cynn”3, rush up no matter what the “næs-hleoðum”4, when the guð-horn5 plays the “fyrd-leoð”6, in the “undern-mæl”7.

Monsters love bacon, after all, especially when it comes in rashers.

1wil-deor: wild beast, deer, reindeer.
wild (wild) + deor (animal, beast (usu. wild), deer, reindeer; brave, old, ferocious, grievous, severe, violent)

2sæ-dracan: sea-dragon.
(sheet of water, sea, lake, pool) + draca (dragon, sea-monster, serpent, the devil, standard representing a dragon or serpent)

3wyrm-cynnes: serpent-kind, sort of serpent.
wyrm (reptile, serpent, snake, dragon; worm, insect, mite, poor creature) + cynn (kind, sort, rank, quality, family, generation, offspring, pedigree, race, kin, people, gender, sex, propriety, etiquette; becoming, proper, suitable)

4næs-hleoðum: declivity, slope of a headland.
næs (cliff, headland, cape, earth, ground) + hlið (cliff, precipice, slope, hill-side, hill)

5guð-horn: war-horn, trumpet.
guð (combat, battle, war) + horn (horn, musical instrument, drinking horn, cupping horn, beast’s horn, projection, pinnacle)

6fyrd-leoð: war-song.
fierd (national levy or army, military expedition, campaign, camp) + leoð (song, lay, poem)

7undern-mæl: morning-time.
undern (morning (from 9AM to Noon), the third hour (9AM, or 11AM), religious service at the third hour) + mæl (mark, sign, ornament, cross, crucifix, armour, harness, sword, measure; time, point of time, occasion, season, time for eating, meal, meals)

Back To Top
Closing

Next week, a Geat brings in a monstrous catch.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

Back To Top