Welcome to the Wordhoard!


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

A helmet, complete with face mask, from the Sutton-Hoo treasure hoard. Image from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sutton_Hoo_replica_(face).jpg

Welcome to A Blogger’s Beowulf!

Here you’ll find my translation of the Old English epic in it’s entirety. In fact, here you’ll find two versions of this translation. The first is one that includes commentary on certain passages and words, and the second is a straightforward poetic translation of the original.

If you want to read through the first one of these translations, you can start doing so here.

If you’d rather read through the clean version of the translation, you can start doing so here.

(And if you’re looking for a glossary that explains some of the letters and words that appear in my translation posts, check out the About page.)

But, if you’re more interested in reading about various stories, events, and articles related to Beowulf (including adaptations), they’re also here to find. Here are some good places to start:

Thanks for dropping by the blog! I hope that somewhere in this wordhoard you find what you’re looking for.

-Nicholas “NSCZach” Zacharewicz

My History with Beowulf (Podcast)

Here is episode 3 of Fate Going As It Must: A Beowulf Talk Show! On the show I talk with people who are fans of Beowulf to try to understand how they discovered the poem and why they think it’s still important. This is a monthly show, but there are some special announcements in this episode that will disrupt that for a bit. You can find the previous episode here.

This is a solo version of the podcast, so I am interviewing myself. While going through my usual questions I talk about:

  • How I got into Beowulf
  • When and where my translation started
  • What kept me translating over the years
  • Why Grendel’s mother is the best monster
  • The awesomeness of Beowulf: A Musical Epic
  • How Beowulf is both simple and layered
  • How Beowulf reflects the humanity of stories and storytelling

Feel free to leave your thoughts on the show and on the topics covered in the comments. Or, go ahead and answer this question: What is the book or story that’s most influenced your life?

The theme music for the show is:

The Pyre by Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com)
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License

Going from Hrothgar to Hygelac: Book XXV – Book XXVII

Beowulf and every Geat with him sail from Hrothgar to Hygelac.

Beowulf and the Geats sail across the “gannet-bath”. Image from http://www.mainlesson.com/display.php?author=marshall&book=beowulf&story=beowulf.


          “It is a wonder to say,
how mighty God distributes among us depths of wisdom,
land and rank; indeed It wields all power.
At times It lets the minds of men wander
toward dreams of fame to match their kin’s,
gives them a native country and earthly pleasures
to protect and enjoy, a fortified city to control and friends to help,
lets him hold sway over a region of the world,
to rule far and wide. Until, that is, unwisely, the man never thinks
of his own end or considers the limit of his life.
But a great man dwells in prosperity, not at all is he hindered
by sickness or age, neither does his mind go dark
with evil anxieties, nor does enmity bare its blade
to him anywhere, and he goes through all the world
according to his desires. He knows nothing is wrong,
but within him a measure of arrogance grows
and flourishes, while the guard sleeps,
his soul’s shepherd lounges. That sleep is too deep,
weighed down with a diet of worldly cares; the slayer then slinks near,
the psyche-dweller who wickedly notches an arrow to his bow and shoots.

“Then that sharp arrow slides beneath the great man’s defenses,
it bites into his heart — he knows no need to guard himself —
the perverse strange command of the evil in his spirit then has hold.
That man begins to think little of what he had long held:
going forth angry-minded he only covets, for pride he never gives
rings of hammered gold. What he had been destined for
is forgotten and neglected, what was shown in the Almighty’s past gifts,
God’s glory, all that was made clear in his share of honour.
Afterwards the common end comes to that man,
that prince’s transitory body declines,
what is fated to die always falls; then another takes what had been that man’s,
one who ungrudgingly shares that former prince’s ancient treasures
among their earls, fearing no retribution.

“Guard against such evil hostility, dear Beowulf,
best of men, and be sure to make the better choice:
eternal gain! Be not intent on pride,
oh renowned warrior! Now is your power prospering
for but a short while, soon will either
illness or the blade deprive you of that strength,
or the grip of flames, or the surging waters,
or an attack by sword, or the flight of spears,
or terrible old age, or the light of your eyes
will fail and grow dim. Presently such will come
upon you, oh lord of battle, and death will overpower you.

“Mindful of such I have ruled the Ring-Danes under the sky
for one hundred half-years, and have protected
them against war with many nations from across this world,
from both spears and swords, such that I see no other beneath the sky’s expanse as an adversary.

“But lo! A hard reversal came to my native land,
grief following joy, once Grendel appeared,
that ancient adversary, that invader of my peace.
At that arrival I continually bore persecution
and great sorrow of mind. Thus I now thank God,
the eternal Lord, that I might experience in my life,
after the struggle, the chance to gaze with my own eyes
upon the beast’s head blood-stained from battle.
Go now to the bench, joyously join the
mirth of feasting. We two shall share
a great many treasures when the morning comes.”

The Geat was glad-hearted at that, he descended the dais,
sought out a seat, as the wise one had commanded.
Then was it as it had been before for the bold,
the sitters in the hall spoke fairly with voices renewed.
The mantle of night fell to darken the world
outside the warriors’ hall. All that company arose,
the grey-haired one then sought his bed,
leader of the Scyldings. The Geat, renowned shield warrior,
was also eager for such rest. Soon to him,
the one wearied along the warrior’s way, a hall thane came,
one to guide the far-flung one on his way,
he who for etiquette’s sake waited on all
thane’s needs, such as should be had in those days
for far-flung seafaring warriors.

Then Beowulf rested his great heart. The hall towered,
gabled and gold-chased. Within the guests slept
until the black-plumed raven called out
heaven’s joy with a bright heart. Then came the shadow-shifting
morning light. The warriors hastened,
those nobles were eager to set out
for the lands of their own people; the strangers, bold in spirit,
sought out the prow of their ship.
Beowulf then commanded that hard Hrunting
be born to Ecglaf’s son, ordered that the man be given his sword,
that dear iron. He said his thanks to him for that gift,
went on with wise words to say it was a good war-friend,
a powerful battle companion, not a word was breathed
against the blade’s edge: all was said sincerely.

And those ready for a journey, they were skilfully
geared as warriors. The leader of those people went
openly to the Danish prince, to where that other worthy was.
The hale hero greeted Hrothgar.


Beowulf spoke, the son of Ecgtheow:

“Now we seafarers must say,
we who have come from far off, that we are eager to go,
to return to our lord Hygelac. Here we were received as kin,
our desires were entertained; you have indeed treated us well.
If I may do anything on earth
to earn more of your heart’s affection,
oh lord of men, beyond what I have thus far done
by warlike deeds, I will quickly be ready.
If, while over the sea’s expanse I learn
that neighbouring peoples threaten you with terror,
as enemies formerly did to your people,
I shall bring the help of a thousand thanes,
the aid of warriors. Of Hygelac, lord of the Geats,
I know, though he is young, that,
as the protector of my people, he will support me
with words and with deeds, so that I may honour thee
and bear to you a forest of spears as help,
the strength of support, when you have need of men.
Then, if Hrethric decides to go to
the Geatish hall, your son, oh prince, he shall
find countless friends there; for far-flung countries
are most hospitable to those who are themselves worth meeting.”

Hrothgar spoke to him in answer:

“The Lord in Its wisdom sent those words
into your mind; never have I heard wiser words
from one so young in age.
You are of powerful strength and of wise mind,
with wit in your words. I consider it something to be expected,
that if it shall happen that the spear takes him,
if fierce battle seizes the son of Hrethel,
if illness or iron edge claims your lord,
the guardian of the people, and you still have your life,
then the Sea Geats will not have
anyone better to choose as king,
warrior of hoard guardians, if you will rule
the kingdom of your kin. The better I know you,
the more I like you, dear Beowulf.
You have brought it about so that by all people it shall be said,
by the Geatish people and by the spear Danes,
we have a shared peace and ceased strife,
ended the enmity that we once endured,
and that it was while I ruled over a wide kingdom,
over common treasures, while I greeted with gifts
many others from across the gannet’s bath.
Our ring-prowed ships shall ever bring
gifts and love-tokens across the heaving crests. I of your people
know that you are firm with friend or with foe alike,
steadfast in every respect in the old ways.”

Then the protector of warriors, son of Halfdane,
gave him twelve treasures,
then he commanded those dear ones to
go forth in safety, and to quickly come back.
The king then kissed that one of good and noble descent,
the lord of the Scyldings embraced that best of men,
with arms about his neck; then the
grey-haired one fell to tears. Two things were known to him,
the old one of great wisdom, one of the two was clearer:
that he would never afterward see Beowulf,
meet for a heart to heart. To him that man was so beloved
that he could not restrain his surging emotion,
his heartstrings were wound tight at that thought,
he keenly felt his fondness for the man whom
he now knew as his dearest friend. From him Beowulf then went,
the warrior now proudly wound in gold walked the green earth,
exulting in his treasure. He went to where his ship waited
for its owner and lord, where it had ridden at anchor.
Thereafter the gifts of Hrothgar were often praised
as the Geats went on their way. He was a true king,
blameless in all respects, until age deprived him
of the might of joy, as it has ever oppressed a host of others.


Came they then to the sea, the very brave
and young company of Geats; they wore their ring-mail,
their shirts of interlocking rings. The coastguard observed
their coming, as he had earlier observed their arrival,
but he did not greet those guests of
the craggy promontory with insult from afar, he rode towards the band.
He said to them that they would be welcome by the Weder people,
those warriors in bright armour that went to their ship.
There on the spacious beach that craft was
laden with armour, the ring-prowed ship,
and with horses and with treasures; the mast towered
over the hoarded treasures from Hrothgar.
The lord of the Geats then gave that guard a sword
bound in gold, so that afterwards he was
honoured all the more among the mead-benches for that treasure,
the gilded heirloom. Then the ship of them plunged into the sea,
stirred up the deep waters. Thus they left Daneland.

Then the mast was dressed with its sea garb,
the sail bound with rope; the sea wood creaked.
The wave-floater’s journey was not hindered
by wind over waves, that sea-goer swept forth
riding onwards atop foamy necked waters.
The ship with the ring-bound prow went over the sea current
so swiftly that they soon saw the Geatish cliffs,
the familiar headlands appeared, as the ship came closer
until that wind-battered boat rested upon the sands.
Swiftly the harbour guard was ready at the water,
he who for a long time had eagerly looked
far out to sea for that dear man.
He moored that roomy ship on the beach,
fixed it there with anchor ropes, lest the force of the waves
drive that beautiful boat from shore.

Then it was commanded that the prince’s treasure be carried up,
ornaments and plated gold. It was not far from there
for Beowulf to go to the treasure bestower,
Hygelac, son of Hrethel, he who dwelled within
his own home, living near the sea-cliff with his companions.
The building there was magnificent, the king was of princely fame,
one exalted in the hall, along with Hygd, his young queen,
a woman wisely accomplished, though she had lived
within the enclosed stronghold for but a few winters,
daughter of Haereth. Yet she was not bent down by vanity,
she was not sparing in gifts to the Geatish people,
she gave a great many treasures.

          Not so Modthryth, the noble
people’s queen, she committed terrible crimes.
For not anyone of that brave, dear company,
save for her husband, would venture to look upon her
during the day or even meet her eye,
lest they be bound in deadly bonds
thorny and twisted by hand, then made to wait for the mercy
of a sword held tight in their tormentor’s hand,
a blade with branching patterns that must settle their debt,
must slake its thirst for public blood. Such acts cannot compare
to the true custom of queens, even if she be peerless in beauty.
For such women are peace-weavers, and must not steal away life
from dear men for imagined insults.
Indeed, Hemming’s kinsman put an end to that.

The ale drinkers in the hall told another tale:
that Modthryth caused much less trouble to her people,
favoured fewer malicious acts, as soon as she was
given to the young lord while gowned in gold,
a man of noble descent, as soon as she boarded a boat
to cross the pale waters to marry Offa
according to her father’s counsel. Once there
the woman worked well on the throne, renowned for goodness,
she made the most of her destined life-span while alive;
she maintained her deep love with the prince of warriors
among all kingdoms, as I have heard,
the best between the two seas
of all mankind. As such, Offa was foremost
in gifts and in wars, a spear-bold man,
one honoured widely, who ruled his nature
and lands with wisdom. Then Eomer was born,
a help to warriors, Hemming’s kinsman,
grandson of Garmund, powerful in battle.

Want more Beowulf? Continue the poem here!

Beowulf wakes the dragon (ll.2538-2558)

The Original Old English
My Translation
A Quick Interpretation

Beowulf is protected from dragon fire by his shield while treasure awaits.

An illustration of Beowulf fighting the dragon that appears at the end of the epic poem. Illustration in the children’s book Stories of Beowulf (H. E. Marshall). Published in New York in 1908 by E. P. Dutton & Company. Image found at https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Beowulf_and_the_dragon.jpg.

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Last week, Beowulf made his final boast and said that if he had to die at the dragon’s claws, he wanted to do so alone and gloriously.

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Beowulf goes down to the barrow and calls out the dragon. And the dragon calls back.

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The Original Old English

“Aras ða bi ronde rof oretta,
heard under helme, hiorosercean bær
under stancleofu, strengo getruwode
anes mannes. Ne bið swylc earges sið!
Geseah ða be wealle se ðe worna fela,
gumcystum god, guða gedigde,
hildehlemma, þonne hnitan feðan,
stondan stanbogan, stream ut þonan
brecan of beorge. Wæs þære burnan wælm
heaðofyrum hat; ne meahte horde neah
unbyrnende ænige hwile
deop gedygan for dracan lege.
Let ða of breostum, ða he gebolgen wæs,
Wedergeata leod word ut faran,
stearcheort styrmde; stefn in becom
heaðotorht hlynnan under harne stan.
Hete wæs onhrered, hordweard oncniow
mannes reorde; næs ðær mara fyrst
freode to friclan. From ærest cwom
oruð aglæcean ut of stane,
hat hildeswat. Hruse dynede.”
(Beowulf ll.2538-2558)

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My Translation

“Arose then behind the shield that renowned warrior,
hard under helm, bore his battle shirt
beneath the stony cliffs. He trusted in the slaughter
one man alone was capable of. That was no cowardly course of action!
Then by the wall the one who had survived
with good manly virtue a great many battles,
the crash of colliding shields and spears, when bands on foot clashed,
saw standing a stone arch, a stream out from there
burst from the barrow, and soon exploded into
a raging flume of hot deadly fire. Beowulf could not be near
the hoard for any length of time without being burned up,
he could not survive in the depths of the dragon’s flame.
Then he allowed it from his breast, released his rage,
the lord of the Weder-Geats sent the word out,
fierce-hearted he shouted, his voice came in
clean as the clang of battle as it reverberated under the grey stone.
Hatred was aroused, the hoard guardian recognized
man speech. Then there was no more time
to ask for friendship. First came the breath
of the fierce assailant from out of the stones,
a hot vapour of battle. The earth resounded with the creature’s calling.”
(Beowulf ll.2538-2558)

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A Quick Interpretation

Beowulf’s yell is one thing. His barbaric yawp is probably a mix of sword and shield being bashed together and the loudest yell a human could muster.

But the dragon’s call? When I read about that, I can’t help but hear this:

Quite clearly Beowulf’s shout is yet another way he psyches himself up. It makes me wonder if he ever felt the fear that seems to be behind all of his boasting about fighting the dragon when he was about to face down an army of men.

Based on how quickly Hygelac took him on as one of his chief warriors, and how he described himself as being the baddest dude in the north, I doubt Beowulf ever felt fear when getting ready for warfare. But now he’s old. And now he’s fighting a monster out of the sorts of stories told to children and drinking men in the hall. Something unreal.

Though it definitely doesn’t seem that Beowulf and the Geats have any trouble believing in a dragon. It’s like a cockroach in a tidy house — a rarity, but definitely not an impossibility.

Actually, bearing the clip above in mind, the Geats’ apparent attitude towards dragons is like the apparent situation in most Godzilla movies.

One way or another, the modern world in these movies just accepts Godzilla not as an impossibility that needs to be comprehended but as some sort of rarely seen animal capable of great destruction. It’s existence is forever floating around in the back of everyone’s minds, it seems, so that when Godzilla finally appears, he doesn’t inspire disbelief, he’s just a terrifying force of nature like a typhoon or hurricane coming to land.

And so I think that along with dealing with his age, Beowulf is also wrestling with his bad luck in having to encounter this monster. His various attempts to psych himself up are his way of covering those emotions, or pushing them out of his mind so that it can be filled with nothing but the slaying of dragons. Where’s a bard with songs of Sigmund when you need one?

If you were to read or hear that a clutch of dragons had been discovered in some remote location would you be surprised or just brush it off as a kind of “of course!” fact?

Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments!

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Next week, Beowulf makes the first move in this fight.

If you enjoyed this post, please give it a like. And, if you want to keep up with my translations, please do follow this blog!

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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A quick update

Hi, everyone! Unfortunately between work and Valentine’s day/weekend plans, I don’t have enough time to put together two posts for this week. So instead of a news post today and a translation post Thursday, I’ll only be putting up a short translation post on Thursday. I should have enough time for both posts again starting next week.

Since the end goal of this blog is to be an archive of my translation of Beowulf before I bring it all together into a book format of some kind (that’s still being figured out), I figure that translation posts are more important to keep putting out.

So, apologies for not being able to get a post about Beowulf news/Beowulf in pop culture this week, but watch for a short translation post Thursday at 6pm EST.

Beowulf offers comfort, and who’s hiding in the mountain wood? (ll.1383-1396)

Beowulf as Comforter
Warriors and Thieves

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Beowulf tells Hrothgar to stiffen his upper lip and to get out there and get vengeance.

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“Beowulf spoke, son of Ecgtheow:
‘Do not sorrow, wise lord! Better be it for each man
if he avenge his friend, than if he mourn long.
Each of us shall experience an end
to life in this world; achieve what glory you can
before death; that way you may be among the best of warriors
after you are no longer living.
Arise, protector of the realm, head out quickly,
so that we can find the trail of Grendel’s kin!
I to thee promise this: it shall not escape into protection,
nor into the earth’s bosom, nor into the mountain wood,
nor to the depths of the sea, try as it might.
This day you shall have patience enough
for each misery, as I have come to expect you to.'”
(Beowulf ll.1383-1396)

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Old English:


Modern English:


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Beowulf as Comforter

Before heroically avenging the death of his dearest counsellor and fellow warrior, Beowulf sets out to relieve Hrothgar’s sorrow and worry. This whole speech is nothing more than Beowulf saying “buck up” with the most genuine of tones. Though he manages to slip a reference to his own prowess in here in the form of a pledge to let no form of escape work for Grendel’s mother.

Looked at in comparison to the strange and nebulous descriptions of the land that the Grendels call home found in previous entries, this direct and simple affirmation makes sense.

In Hrothgar’s words as he tells Beowulf about the swampy mere you can feel the fear and the uncertainty that haunt his heart. If Grendel shook Hrothgar’s resolve and lead him to despair, then all the more the reprieve of that hell ghast’s terrifying hold on Heorot. Like the kid who sees his parents hide away the exact toy that he wanted for Christmas only for Christmas morning to yeild nothing but socks.

And so Beowulf’s hopeful tone is just what’s needed here. Though why he should bother cheering Hrothgar up instead of just saying “I’m here to kill your monster” needs some explaining, I think.

Beowulf could be buttering Hrothgar up with these words of assurance and his vow to track Grendel’s mother to the ends of the earth. But, I don’t think that Beowulf is capable of that sort of calculation just yet. Sure, he knows how to spin a story and how to phrase his speech when he’s talking to nobility, but to just simply coo at Hrothgar with pleasant words sounds like something Unferth is more likely to do than Beowulf. There’s a certain sliminess to it that I just don’t see in the teenage Beowulf’s capacity, however much he might alter even the retelling of his fight with Grendel to suit his audience.

Instead I think that Beowulf looks up to Hrothgar to some extent. We have no idea what his life among the Geats was like. Not to mention if he was singled out or maligned because (as far as I know) only his father was a Geat. Beowulf’s unnamed, though praised mother (ll.942-946), could have been from any clan.

Yet here this young man is, coming across the sea to valiantly defend a people whom he’s only met once before, and maybe at an age from which no memory survives even into the teenage years.

With Hrothgar being an older man in a place of authority, possibly the third that Beowulf has encountered in his life (including Ecghteow and Hygelac), I think it makes sense that the young man would want to comfort the old one. Doing so would help all three of these figures to align with each other. After all, there wasn’t much variety in the form that authority took in early medieval Anglo-Saxon society.

A person (usually male) had their authority either from their deeds (or well known stories of them) or from their knowledge (which would need to be enough to convince people that they had some connection with a greater entity, whether that be a god or a demon). Such were the ultimate authorities.

Since, as far as I know, all three of the authoritative men in Beowulf’s life were warriors, it makes sense that Beowulf would hold each to a similar standard. Ecgtheow, I can only guess, was a competent enough dad, one who at the least inspired Beowulf to become a brawler himself, and this tendency would have been further nurtured by Hygelac. So seeing Hrothgar in such a state, I think it’s just Beowulf’s natural response to try to build the man back up.

And this response is encapsulated in the passage’s final line, in which Beowulf mentions his own expectation for Hrothgar to be able to put sorrow aside and endure it through patience. Patience, a key characteristic of the strong and strategy-minded warrior as much as the faithful and thoughtful religious. How could Beowulf, someone who seems to be in the middle of the Venn diagram for these things expect anything less than patience from someone whom he sees as authoritative?

Wealhtheow is neither a man nor a warrior, but do you think that she has some authority in Heorot? Or is she just Hrothgar’s wife?

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Warriors and Thieves

Even in Old English, a “firgen-holt” would not hold “driht-guma.” Such a place as a mountain-wood (firgen (mountain) + holt (“forest,” “wood,” “grove,” “thicket,” “wood,” or “timber”)) would only contain þéof-mann.

The difference between “driht-guman” and “þéof-mann” being essential.

After all, “driht-guma” or “warriors” carry the connotation of someone in step with those around them.

Such a person is one who fights for those that he or she loves rather than just to fight for the sake of fighting or for themselves. Which only makes sense when you have a word that combines “driht” (“multitude,” “army,” “company,” “body of retainers,” “nation,” or “people”) and “guma” (“man,” “lord,” or “hero”). This mix suggests someone very much fighting for their fellow people, or at least someone who is part of a group of organized fighters in some sense.

Meanwhile, a “þéof-mann,” a “robber” or “brigand,” is singled out in Old English. Both of this word’s parts endure into Modern English, with “[dth]eof” meaning “criminal,” “thief,” or “robber,” and “mann” meaning “person,” “man,” “mankind,” “brave man,” “hero,” vassal,” “servant.”

But this word is very solitary. Only in “mann’s” indefinite sense or as “mankind” does it suggest a group of people, and one that is strangely more anonymizing than any of those general terms included in the definition of “driht”. So such a brigand is alone, without a clan or a lord. Which is exactly why you’d find such a “þéof-mann” in the “firgen-holt” but would have to look elsewhere for a “driht-guma.”

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Next week, Hrothgar, the Danes, Beowulf, and the Geats head out to the Grendels’ mere.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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Beowulf’s humour gets dry, and words on wishing for victory (ll.1310-1320)

Beowulf’s Big Question
Wishes for Victory bring Party Halls

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The poet describes Beowulf coming into Heorot, and explains how he asks Hrothgar a single question.

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“Quickly Beowulf was called from his chamber,
the man blessed with victory in battle. At daybreak
came the one man, that noble warrior,
himself among companions, where the wise one was,
he who wondered whether the All-Ruler would ever
reverse his sorrowful fortunes in the future.
Went then over the floor the man renowned in battle
amidst his hand-picked troop — the hall’s timbers resounded —
so that he could address the wise one with words,
the lord of the Ingwins; asked him how he was,
if the night had fulfilled his wishes.”
(Beowulf ll.1310-1320)

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Old English:


Modern English:


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Beowulf’s Big Question

Beowulf shows off some wit here, when he asks Hrothgar how the night went. No doubt he and the Geats have heard of what happened already, and yet he decides to approach the situation with comedy.

Perhaps he does so because Beowulf’s already seen how low Hrothgar can get and he sees asking the man “if his night had been agreeable” (“gif him wære/æfter neodlaðum niht getæse” (ll.1319-1320)) as an attempt to lift the old ruler’s spirits.

I think the poet’s introduction of Beowulf really backs this reading up, too.

From lines 1310 to 1313 and then with lines 1316 and 1317 we’re reminded of Beowulf’s prowess, of how he stands alone among the other Geats, and how Heorot itself seems to shiver when he and his crew enter. Which makes Beowulf’s statement all the funnier since the build up of Beowulf as this powerful figure only to pay off with some indirect dialogue plays quite a bit with expectations. Though I have to wonder why the poet didn’t bother with any direct dialogue for Beowulf here.

Perhaps Beowulf’s exact words weren’t included to keep his words enigmatic. Or maybe it’s because being facetious is something that’s hard to get across with the written word. Context clues are essential, and since none of the dialogue anywhere in the poem has descriptive tags introducing it, just going with description of Beowulf’s words instead of his actual words is probably what made the most sense.

Although, maybe the last line and a half of this passage were completely made up by the people who wrote Beowulf down in an attempt to make Beowulf’s facetiousness clearer. After all, sarcastic writing happened in the medieval period, but it’s not always easy to pick out.

What do you think the deal is with Beowulf’s words to Hrothgar? Is Beowulf sincerely asking how the night went, completely ignorant of what happened in the hall? Or is Beowulf trying to lift the ruler’s spirits with some levity?

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Wishes for Victory bring Party Halls

When facing down defeat, you should try to become “sigor-eadig” in spite of your circumstances. Being “victorious” is a very fine thing, after all. And “sigor-eadig” is a fine word to express that state of being. The word “sigor” meaning “victory” or “triumph” and the word “eadig” meaning “wealthy,” “prosperous,” “fortunate,” “happy,” “blessed,” or “perfect.” So, if you’re “sigor-eadig,” you are a person who is “wealthy with victories”

One way to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat is to muster your forces and concentrate a neod-laðu or two on doing so. Of course, just wishing won’t make it so, but doing so wouldn’t hurt.

At least not as much as trying to decipher “neod-laðu” has hurt me: the word simply means “wish,” but only appears in Beowulf. Which isn’t too uncommon; there are a few words with singular meanings that are exclusive to Beowulf.

What makes “neod-laðu” difficult to understand is what “laðu” actually refers to. The word “lað” is the Old English form of Modern English’s “loathe” and so it means “hated,” “hateful,” “hostile,” “malignant,” “evil,” “loathsome,” “noxious,” “unpleasant,” “pain,” “harm,” “injury,” “misfortune,” “insult,” “annoyance,” or “harmful thing.” Not exactly things you’d associate with a wish or needing something. Unless the point of the word is that a wish is nothing more than an extreme hatred of a need expressed positively. Not so much “I hate being so helpless here in Heorot!” as “I hate being helpless here in Heorot and that needs to end!” I mean, “neod” does mean “desire,” “longing,” “zeal,” “earnestness,” “pleasure,” or “delight,” after all.

Setting aside that mystery for now, such wishes could dispel the “wea-spell” that defeat could weave around you. That is, hating your need in a positive way could help you get over or around “wea-spell”‘s “evil tidings” (“wea” meaning “misfortune,” “evil,” “harm,” “trouble,” “grief,” “woe,” “misery,” “sin,” or “wickedness” and “spell” meaning “narrative,” “history,” “story,” “fable,” “speech,” “discourse,” “homily,” “message,” “news,” “statement,” or “observation”).

Thanks to the good fortune that a “wea-spell” vanquishing “neod-laðe” can bring, you’re sure to be “fyrd-wyrðe,” or “distinguished in war.” Interestingly, despite the individual will needed to overcome distressing odds, this word literally means something along the lines of “honoured national army” since it’s made up of “fyrd” (“national army or levy,” “military expedition,” “campaign,” or “camp”) and “wyrðe” (“worth,” “value,” “amount,” “price,” “purchase-money,” “ransom;” (or, as an adjective) “worth,” “worthy,” “honoured,” “noble,” “honourable,” “of high rank,” “valued,” “dear,” “precious;” “fit, “capable”).

But this emphasis isn’t misplaced. I think the importance of a “hand-scale” is pretty major in any victory. After all, (aside from personal ones) most victories are won by teams of people in one way or another, even if there’s a clear leader and the rest of the group are her or his “retinue.” Which is exactly what “hand-scale” means.

This meaning comes from the combination of “hand” (“hand,” “side (in defining position),” “power,” “control,” “possession,” “charge,” “agency,” or “person regarded as holder or receiver of something”) and “scale” (“be obliged (as in “shall,” “have to,” “must,” “must needs,” “am bound to,” “ought to”),” or “owe”), a mix that evokes a sense of something owed to a single person who is in power. Like a group of people rallying around someone to whom they feel they owe loyalty or respect.

But after all the hard work that a “hand-scale” puts in, what’s their reward? Well, any leader worth his or her salt when Old English was still a living language would raise some “heal-wudu,” that is, the “woodwork of a hall.”

In other words, just as Hrothgar did with Heorot, a victorious leader who didn’t already have a hall set up, would set about doing so. And, even if it’s technically metonymy to use “heal-wudu” to stand for a finished hall, the word is perfectly suited to referring to what were meeting and party buildings. Why? Simply because the combination of “heal” (“hall,” “dwelling,” “house,” “palace,” “temple,” or “law court”) and “wudu” (“wood,” “forest,” “grove,” “tree,” “the Cross,” “Rood,” “wood,” “timber,” or “ship”) is just so straightforward.

So, to be “sigor-eadig” in the face of defeat, sending off a “neod-laðu” against any “wea-spell” could bring about “fyrd-wyrðe.” And any victorious leader actually worth celebrating would bring his or her “hand-scalu” into the celebration with the raising of a hall, starting with its “heal-wudu.”

What do you think of being rewarded with a building dedicated to partying?

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Next week, we hear Hrothgar tell Beowulf how his night went.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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I don’t think the poet’s letting up on Hrothgar, more words of mild note (ll.916-927)

Persistently Satirizing Hrothgar
Thoughtful Brides on the Mead Hall Path are Marvelling

Beowulf, Anglo-Saxons. poetry

King Harold out for a hunt on the Bayeux Tapestry, no doubt a song was sung soon after. Image found at http://regia.org/research/misc/pastimes.htm.

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The beach front horse races continue, and Hrothgar steps into the crowd.

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“Meanwhile the contending continued among
the tawny mares racing on the sand. By then the morning light
shoved and rushed over the horizon. Came retainers many,
all bold-minded, to that high hall,
to see that strange object; the king himself
from the bed chamber, guardian of the ring-hoard,
walked with a sense of leading an army,
of renowned virtue, and his queen with him
tread the path to the mead hall with her maiden troop.
Hrothgar spoke – he stood upon the steps
once he reached the hall, saw the lofty roof
with its gold decor and Grendel’s hand alike:”
(Beowulf ll.916-927)

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Old English:


Modern English:


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Persistently Satirizing Hrothgar

What I’m fixated on in this passage is how the poet describes Hrothgar. Sure, there’s the stuff about the men still racing on the sand and the sun light rushing out over the horizon and all that, but I think that there’s more to be said about Hrothgar here.

So, let’s look at his intro. He’s said to be coming from the bedchamber “with a sense of leading an army” (“tryddode tirfæst getrume micle” (l.922)). This is my interpretation of the phrase, which Heaney (the main translation I’m using as my base since it’s poetic yet strives to be “Anglo-Saxon” where it can) seems to just gloss over. Heaney renders the same Old English (as far as I can tell) as “Walked in majesty…with a numerous train” (ll.921-922). The sense of these two is definitely similar, but I think that mine is hitting on a bit more of the satire or caricaturization that might be going on here. Maybe I just can’t believe that Hrothgar still holds power despite his failing to oust Grendel over the course of 12 years. Not to mention the poet’s chiming in twice now that the stories of Sigemund and Beowulf aren’t meant to bring down Hrothgar’s authority.

Anyway, Heaney’s rendering of that bit of line 922 shares in attributing majesty to Hrothgar, and I think that’s definitely what’s going on here. But I think that what’s important but missing from Heaney’s translation is what gives Hrothgar the sense of majesty: being at the head of an army (“getrume micle”). This is important because with it in place, Hrothgar’s character as the fallen warlord is given more detail.

Indeed, Hrothgar once walked at the head of armies on the field, but now he merely walks at the head of a train of women coming from the bedchamber. In short, he’s been put out to stud and, not unlike Heremod, has pulled away from battle after being greatly discouraged by Grendel. The overly melancholic Hrothgar of “Beowulf: A Musical Epic” is a bit much, but I think what Victor Davis and Betty Jayne Wylie really picked up on (and emphasized for the stage and the speaker) is Hrothgar’s sense of despair. Though, unlike Heremod, Hrothgar hasn’t become so glum as to put the rest of his court at risk. He’s still able to ask for help and to put out a call, even if it takes twelve years for that call t be answered.

More than anything, though, I can’t help but read these few short lines of Hrothgar coming out with Wealhtheow and her attendants as emasculating. I see it this way because there’s just so much contrast with what we’ve just heard about conquest and battle. And not even about the pitched group battle that Hrothgar’s army of old would’ve fought in, but single combat – and single combat with a mythical creature no less. And yet, here we have the formerly glorious warrior king coming out from his bedchamber at the head of a troop of women. It’s definitely still majestic, but I think the poet is really emphasizing what can happen to even the greatest warriors in their old age. Part of this is definitely giving the audience ideas of what could happen to Beowulf down the road.

And, yeah, there’s the matter, of the sunlight, too (on line 918). I think that’s just the poet’s way of saying that this, the first post-Grendel dawn, is eagerly awaited because it signifies the real and definite defeat of the monster (light shines again on Heorot!). Plus, the way the light’s said to shove and rush over the horizon suggests to me that this sunrise is a symbol of an aggressive reassertion of the natural order that Grendel had disrupted.

Do you think the poet meant to sarcastically glorify Hrothgar here? And do you think the early audiences of Beowulf would pick up on this?

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Thoughtful Brides on the Mead Hall Path are Marvelling

In this passage there are a few more compound words than in the past few weeks’. These words’re cool and all that, but none of them are that complex. No doubt this is because the description of the men riding around after the story’s finished is supposed to be a light moment. Not to mention, the sight of a war proud lord leading his wife and her handmaids from their chambers is also probably meant to bring out some smirks before things get serious again with Hrothgar’s speech.

That said, here are this week’s compounds:

The word “swið-hicgende” (l.919) combines “swið” (meaning “strong,” “mighty,” “powerful,” “active,” “severe,” or “violent”) with “hycgan” (meaning “think,” “consider,” “meditate,” “study,” “understand,” “resolve upon,” “determine,” “purpose,” “remember,” or “hope”) to mean bold-minded, or literally “strong thinker.” Though I think the concept is more about having strong thoughts than being one who thinks a lot. Those that this word describes on line 919 are the ones who are leaders because of their ground breaking ideas (no doubt mostly martial, but so what?).

Then there’s the compound “bryd-bure” meaning “bride-chamber.” How this combination gets to “bride-chamber” is pretty straight forward since it’s a combination of “bryd” (meaning “bride,” “betrothed,” “newly married woman,” “wife,” or “consort”) and “būr” (meaning “bower,” “apartment,” “chamber,” “storehouse,” “cottage,” or “dwelling”). There are a few little things with this one. Like the idea that a bed chamber could be thought of (maybe exclusively through our perspective) as a storehouse for brides or wives (unless the word’s where the idea for the story of Bluebeard came from). I really like the idea of a bridal cottage, it ties in neatly with the very European-seeming idea of the rural couples retreat, the sense that in a natural setting a man and a woman who are married will be able to rekindle their spark or reconnect. Though that idea itself could go back even to Homer and Odysseus and Penelope’s bed being made of a carved tree that was also what the entire house was built around.

Also, a fun fact here is that “bryd” is also how the Old English forerunner of the modern word “bird” used to be pronounced (and, therefore, spelled), so that’s probably one reason why women are sometimes regarded as flighty in Anglo-Saxon derived cultures.

Then we stagger onto “medo-stigge” on line 924. This compound for “path to the mead hall” comes from a cocktail of “medu” (simply “mead”) and “stigge” (meaning “narrow path,” “way,” “footpath,” “track,” “road,” “course,” “line”). There’s some sense of the “path to the mead hall” being a little well worn here, but I think that the variety of roads that “stigge” covers simply opens up that possibility rather than actually reflecting anything really meaningful.

And, the last of the bunch is the marvelous “searo-wundor” or “strange object.” This one has a little bit more to show.

A combination of searo (meaning “art,” “skill,” “cleverness,” “cunning,” “device,” “trick,” “snare,” “ambuscade,” “plot,” “treachery,” “work of art,” “cunning,” “device,” “engine (of war),” “armour,” “war-gear,” or “trappings”) and “wundor” (meaning “wonder,” “miracle,” “marvel,” “portent,” “horror,” “wondrous thing,” or “monster”), this compound holds the secret of how the Anglo-Saxons viewed the world.

If “searo-wundor” is any indication, then, just as we still do today, the Anglo-Saxons regarded things that were out of the ordinary both “marvels” and “portents.” I don’t find this interesting because it suggests a connection from the Old English world to the Modern English world via superstition. Superstition is something that every culture has. The thing here is that the doubling of “wundor” suggests that the Anglo-Saxons had some idea that exceptions to the established rules must mean that there are other higher rules we don’t know about. Those, of course, to the Anglo-Saxons would be god’s rules. The funny thing is that even now there’s still a great deal of things that we just can’t account for. A millennium later and we’re still seeking rules when the ones we know are broken.

Do you think medieval people had some idea of world order or structure beyond their religious beliefs?

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In the next passage Hrothgar thanks god and Beowulf alike.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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On mythical smiths and plundered gear (ll.399-406) [Old English]

Vague words and allusions
Plundered gear

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Wulfgar having given him the okay, Beowulf strides in to Hrothgar with his thanes in tow.

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“Arose then the hero, from amidst his many thanes,
various valiant warriors, some remained there,
to watch the war-gear, as they were strictly ordered.
They hurried together, their chief going first,
under Heorot’s roof; on went the war-fierce,
under hard helmets, until they stood upon the hearth.
Beowulf spoke – on him the byrnie shone,
his corslet crafted with the smith’s skill:”
(Beowulf ll.399-406)

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Old English:


Modern English:


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Vague words and allusions

Although the poet/scribe here describes Beowulf’s walking “under Heorot’s roof” (“under Heorotes hrof” (l.403)) we’re no closer to figuring out whether he and his fellow Geats have been waiting outside or in some sort of antechamber. Even the Old English is of no help since it literally means “under Heorot’s roof.” Either Beowulf has walked in to be under it, or is striding (no doubt manfully) beneath Heorot’s golden eaves.

Though really, what sort of hall could be called “great” without some sort of antechamber?

Moving from one vague phrase to another, at the end of this passage we encounter “smiþes.”

This word translates easily into “smith,” but the question is: is it plural or singular?

A quick look at the University of Virginia’s famed Magic Sheet reveals that “smiþes” is in fact singular.

So what?

It’s possible that this word is an allusion. In Norse myth there is a famous smith named Wayland who crafted many wondrous things (like the incredible, instantly-travelling “Wade’s boat” referenced in Chaucer’s “The Merchant’s Tale”). Normally it would be ridiculous to pick this reference out of a throwaway use of the word “smiþes.” But the end of this passage is special.

After we’re told that Beowulf speaks, the poet/scribe decides to go on and describe the armour that Beowulf is wearing.

We’re told that Beowulf’s byrnie (waist-length maille shirt) shone and that his corslet (breastplate) was made “with the smith’s skill” (l.406). All of this talk of armour, however brief, opens up the possibility of “smiþes” being a reference to Wayland. This description being the set up for Beowulf’s speech also suggests a reference because reading even the first line of the Geat’s gab shows that it is a formal, carefully worded address. It’s not every day (even during the lifetime of the poet/scribe) that you use “þu,” (“thou”) after all.

Now, if “smiþes” is a reference to Wayland, it doesn’t necessarily mean that Wayland made Beowulf’s armour. Though that would fit in well with why Beowulf (not to mention the poet/scribe) prizes it so highly. It could just be a reference that is idiomatic in that the real live smith who fashioned the Geat’s battle gear seemed to have channelled the mythical skill of the smith when making it. It’s just that good.

Mythological reference or not, as we’ll see soon, whoever the smith was that made Beowulf’s armour, he made it to last.

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Plundered gear

Along with a bizarre, translation-blocking typo in the Old English text of the bilingual edition of Heaney’s translation (the apparently non-existent “pryðlic” for “þryðlic” (l.400)), this passage has a word of note.

Yet another word for “war-gear,” “heaðo-reaf,” has a curious meaning when pulled apart and patched back together.

Separately, its words translate as “war” and “plunder, booty, spoil; garment, armour, vestment.” These don’t exactly come together like “Wig/laf” (literally “war legacy/relic”), there’s a definite implication that this armour is directly related to combat. Beowulf has pulled it from the battle field.

But in what sense?

Could it simply refer to its being plundered from a battlefield?

Or should the reference be taken to mean that it’s seen many close scrapes and yet been “plundered” from each one in that its wearer has survived to wear it again?

Either way, it’s not used here to avoid some sort of reference to genitalia, but instead, to simply alliterate in the first half of the line.

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Next week, Beowulf to Hrothgar speaks.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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