A clash of hall guards, a handful of words (ll.767-777)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Clashing Hall Wardens
A Rich Vein of Words
Closing

Beowulf, Grendel, Old English, Anglo-Saxon

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

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Abstract

In this week’s passage, Beowulf and Grendel shake Heorot to its very foundations.

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Translation

“The noble hall resounded, all of the Danes,
citizens, each violently stirred,
all in broken ale-dream distress. Both within were warring,
fierce were the hall wardens. The room resounded;
that was a great wonder, that the wine hall
held out against those boldly brawling,
that fair house; but it was yet secure
inward and outward in its iron bonds
skilfully smithed. In there from the floor
were wrenched mead benches many, as I have heard,
each gold adorned, where the hostile fought.”
(Beowulf ll.767-777)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Clashing Hall Wardens

There’s a lot to write about this week. So I’ll see what I can do.

After a few weeks in which passages were fairly dry and straightforward, save for a word or phrase on which I could hang my fan theory hat, this week’s is rich and juicy.

First up there’s the word “renweardas” (on line 777). This compound word isn’t out of place being written of in this section, since its nature as a compound is fairly unremarkable. It’s not the word itself I’m interested in so much as how it’s been conjugated.

In context, “renweardas” is the “hall wardens” of its line in this passage, it’s the word that refers to the hall wardens currently fighting in Heorot. But why is it plural?

This is puzzling because you’d think that the poet would refer to just one hall guard: Beowulf. (Unless he heard a different version of events, but I’ll get into that in a bit.) With this plural noun there are two possibilities for interpretation.

The first is the wildest: the poet is referring to both Beowulf and Grendel with this noun.

At first glance this might sound crazy, but I think it’s possible that Grendel is being regarded as a hall warden in that whenever he’s in the hall no one else can get in. And what’s the definition of a great warden or guard? One who keeps the unwanted out. And Grendel does that wonderfully in Heorot, though his definition of “unwanted” is not the same as the Danes’.

Whenever Grendel’s been on duty at any point in the last 12 years, no one has been able to get into Heorot. He’s been keeping people out, but he’s been keeping people out of a place designed for joy and companionship and socializing. He’s keeping a tight guard on a place that really requires a narrower filter on the in-flow of people. And those people need to be in it in order for its function to be fulfilled.

With this in mind, I think the poet could be having a bit of a joke here. Or he might just be upping the ante and showing the binary forces that are here — a guard who is too perfectly and senselessly a guard (like a poorly programmed machine guard might be, actually) and a guard who is human and able to properly discern between friend and foe. If this is the case, then this isn’t just a fight between Beowulf and Grendel, it’s a fight between the old guard and the new — literally.

The other explanation of why “renweardas” is plural is because the poet is referring to all of the Geats. From his description of the tumult and madness within Heorot it definitely seems like people outside would guess that it was the noise of many in combat. Of course, its being only two introduces some nice dramatic irony in that the audience will clearly know that it’s just two combatants having one hell of a brawl.

And that brings me to another of the points raised in this passage. On line 776, the poet uses the classic filler phrase: “so I have heard” (“mine gefraege”).

It’s possible that this is just a throw away phrase used to round things out and to give the poet a chance for a breath in the midst of a very intense scene. But it’s in a strange place if you look at it logically.

How does the poet mean “so I have heard”? Is this second hand information? Was he there? Did he hear it from one of the Danes? Maybe one of the Geats?

In the middle of a scene that’s defined primarily by the intensity of its noise (enough to wake drunken Danes from their sleep), it’s kind of comical to be told that the teller you’re listening to has heard about what sorts of sounds were coming from this fight.

What do you think the phrase “so I have heard” is doing in this passage? Is it just filler, or is there something more to it?

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A Rich Vein of Words

This week’s passage is rich in compound words, though they continue to be fairly straightforward. Nonetheless, the combination of words in each of these compounds does seem to suggest something that’s a little different from their modern English definitions, a shade of meaning that has since fallen away or been so well integrated into their new sense that it’s been forgotten.

The word “ceastra-buendum” is the first of these. It’s a combination of the word “ceastra” (“castle,” “fort,” “town;” “heaven” or “hell”) and the word “buendum (“dweller” or “inhabitant”). Together they make what dictionary makers agree is “citizens.” (remember how I said this week’s words are straightforward?)

But I think it’s instructive to drill down into this word’s meaning a bit. After all, if a citizen is necessarily a dweller in a town or castle but not a village why make the distinction?

I think part of the reason why is because a village or even smaller community of scattered people doesn’t have a strong central authority or clearly marked border. Speaking from my embarrassingly limited knowledge of medieval social structures at the level of government, such small organizations of people as villages or even just farms scattered across pasture land would have been related to a single lord or (later) a parish.

These institutions would act as central authorities, sure, but they’d still be ruling over a people that were few or that were scattered. Because of this, and because of these communities’ exclusion from “citizenship” in a sense, I think that to the Anglo-Saxon mind the word meant belonging to a strong amalgam of people who lived more closely together than disparate farmers or were longer than a village that even in the middle ages you might miss if you blinked while riding through on horse or in cart.

So “citizenship” isn’t just something you can apply to anywhere, it refers particularly to a strong centrally governed, populated place. There’s a certain civilized feel to the word, as if it could be placed on the opposite side of the spectrum from a word like “folk” and its implication of country people.

The people the poet’s referring to here, then, aren’t a bunch of bumpkins but instead a bunch of civilized, worldly people. In short, if you like, people you can trust to give you the facts straight without much embellishment. The sort of people you might want to “have heard” something from, in fact.

Next up is a word that I’m surprised didn’t transition more cleanly into Modern English. “Ealuscerwen” means what it may sound like: to be deprived of ale (in the sense that you are shorn of it (literally), that it is somewhat forcefully taken away from you). Clark Hall and Meritt define the word as “deprival of joy,” “distress,” or “mortal panic” and Wrenn cites many sources that suggest that the word is a metaphor for the distribution of bitter ale, suggesting that disaster follows grand celebration.

But I disagree with both. I think that “ealuscerwen” isn’t so much a word that refers to the deprival of ale or beer, but the deprival of its effects.

I think that when everyone is woken by Beowulf and Grendel’s brawl in the hall, they’re woken from a deep, drunken sleep and that is what they’re being deprived of: sweet sleep. And this is so disastrous because the sleep after drinking heavily at a party like the one thrown for Beowulf is one of the few peaceful experiences for the Danes.

After all, if you were living in a place that was regularly attacked by a monster at night who brutally killed and devoured any people he came across for a solid 12 years would you sleep soundly? I think a little nightcap might be pretty appealing then, and that parties like those thrown for Beowulf would be so enjoyed not just for the joy and fun and happiness experienced while drinking and socializing but also because of the joy of a deep sleep that you would truly enjoy because of its deepness. It would be the sort of sleep in which you’d forget all of your waking life’s problems. Being deprived of that sleep, an effect of the ale or beer you drank, but not the beer or ale itself, would be like having your greatest happiness snatched from you while you were in the middle of enjoying it. Truly a cause for great distress.

Next up is “foldbold” a word that combines “fold” (“earth,” “ground,” “soil,” “terra firma,” “land,” “country,” “region,” or “world”) with “bold” (“house,” “dwelling place,” “mansion,” “hall,” “castle,” or “temple”) to mean simply “house,” or “castle.”

There’s definitely a sense of permanence about this word. It sounds like a house or castle that’s made of the very soil or made so solidly that it’s more a feature of the landscape rather than something on it. This word, I think, carries some hubris with it, though we don’t get any true foreshadowing of Heorot’s future until next week’s passage.

Lastly, I turn to the word “searoþanc,” a word that means “sagacity,” “ingenuity,” “skill” “cunning,” or “artifice.”

This one combines the words “searo” and “þanc” to deepen the sense of sagacity and skilfulness of whatever it’s being applied to. How? By expressing the idea of a person who’s so skilful they could do something with their eyes closed but instead they’re doing that thing with their full attention — guaranteeing that whatever they’re doing it will be utterly masterful.

What do you think of this week’s words? Should (or could) a word like “ale-deprival” make its way in Modern English?

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Closing

Next week the poet dwells on Grendel’s defeat.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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Grendel squirms in Beowulf’s grip, words double up (ll.755-766)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Beowulf through Grendel’s Experience
Doubling Words
Closing

Beowulf, Grendel, Old English, Anglo-Saxon

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

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Abstract

Grendel feels the same sort of terror he’s inflicted on the Danes every night for the past twelve years as Beowulf strengthens his grip and hold on the monster’s arm.

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Translation

“In his mind [Grendel] was eager to escape, wished he could to the darkness flee,
to seek and join his devil kin; further life for him was not there,
only one like none other he had ever encountered in all his days.
The goodly kin of Hygelac was mindful then
of his evening boast, he stood sternly upright
and secured his grip; his fingers were bursting;
the beast was bounding to get out, the man stepped toward the monster.
That creature intended, whenever he might do so,
to flee to the fen-hollow; he could feel his fingers
loosening under the foe’s grip; it was a terrible journey
that the horrible fiend took to Heorot.”
(Beowulf ll.755-766)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Beowulf through Grendel’s Experience

My biggest question from this week’s passage is why is there so much focus on Grendel?

As an early medieval text, you’d expect that the monster wouldn’t get so much coverage. And yet. There it is. So what’s the deal?

Well, just how much attention does Grendel get?

Grendel’s perspective opens the section and runs for three lines before we get Beowulf’s perspective also for three lines. Then it’s back to Grendel for the remaining six lines of the passage. So, out of a total of twelve lines, nine explain Grendel’s mental state. That’s considerable.

Well, it could be because the poet/scribe is trying to create something more intimate than Beowulf’s earlier stories of prowess. Rather than focusing exclusively on the hero’s handily defeating the monster as Beowulf had done in his boasting tales, we’re given something more of what the monster’s going through. This shift in perspective definitely makes the fight more interesting — especially if you consider it a clash between good and evil.

It’s also possible that the poet/scribe wanted to really get across just how powerful Beowulf is in an indirect way. And what better way to do that than to show just how terrified Grendel is as Beowulf not only fights back but actually matches and then overpowers the creature?

I think this approach is very effective since we’re given a concrete sense of Grendel’s terror in how frequently he thinks of escape, the rhythm of which really gets across his panic. In these, he first wishes he could flee to the darkness (ll.755), he’s met someone unlike any other past opponent (ll.757), he tries to escape and backs away (ll.761), he wishes he could escape back to the fen (ll.764), and then — then — he regrets having come (ll.766). Grendel, the terror of Heorot, who has made a massacre of anyone staying overnight in the hall for the last twelve years, regrets coming to Heorot — a place that he might as well be ruler of since he has its creator and its people in thrall through his terror.

The mention of Grendel’s regretting having come also sounds like a bit of the classic Anglo-Saxon understatement. As a little narrative insert from the poet it sounds like the same sort of dry wit that’s current in English comedy today. “It sure was terrible for Grendel to come to Heorot tonight” is nothing but comical in the light of the foreshadowing of Beowulf’s victory over him through the mention of god’s favour, of Beowulf’s own boasting, of fate decreeing that no more should die by Grendel, and now by the utter terror Grendel feels as he is overpowered by the Geat before him. At this point the listeners to the poem were no doubt excited by the conflict and the fight, but a few of them probably popped wry smiles as line 766 was cracked off.

Nonetheless, the weirdest thing about the focus on Grendel in this passage is that it makes Beowulf seem, even if for just a few lines, so much less of a character than he is.

In the three lines where we get Beowulf’s perspective, he isn’t thinking of much aside from his evening boast, and then he just acts. So we have this figure who becomes a force of nature. Perhaps those three lines and the sort of perspective and mindset they convey — one of steely conviction — is a poetic expression of the action of wyrd, of fate, coming to pass.

Of course, giving so much of Grendel’s perspective might also be because the poet already knew (and maybe the listeners, too) that Beowulf would give his own version of events some 1200 lines later, when he was back in Geatland.

Variety’s always been important in fiction and poetry.

Why do you think we’re given such a look into Grendel’s mind as Beowulf tightens his hold and throws the creature into a panic?

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Doubling Words

This week’s compounds are a bit of a return to those of earlier passages. They’re still somewhat straightforward, but there’s an element of doubling to them instead of just their being plain combinations.

Take for example “hinfus” (l.755). It’s a word that combines “hin” (a form of “heonon” meaning “hence,” “from here,” “away,” or “from now”) with “fus” (“striving forward,” “eager for,” “ready for,” “inclined to,” “willing,” “prompt;” “expectant,” “brave,” “noble;” “ready to depart,” or “dying”).

On the surface these two words seem to combine to create one word that just means “eager to get away” (if you switch them around they become another straightforward construction — their current order could just be the result of word compounding convention). But if we interpret “hin” as “hienan” (“to fell,” “prostrate,” “overcome,” “weaken,” “crush,” “afflict,” “injure,” “oppress,” “abase,” “humble,” “insult,” “accuse,” or “condemn”) instead of “heonon” as we did above, then the combination means that Grendel is eager to be overcome, perhaps a more moralistic take on evil inevitably being overcome by good — just as shadows are dispersed by light, so evil seeks to be squashed by the hammer of judgement.

Or, even with its original definition of “heonon,” “hinfus” could mean “ready to depart hence” which seems like a very genteel way of expressing Grendel’s frantic desire to escape from his opponent’s hold.

“Fenhop” (l.764) is a similarly basic combination in some ways, but it could have deep connotations.

“Fen” means “mud,” “mire,” “dirt;” “marsh,” “moor,” “fen,” or “the fen country” and “hop” means “enclosed land in a marsh” or possibly “privet” (a kind of shrub used to enclose property). Simply enough, these two combine to mean a marked off area of marsh. But that suggests that Grendel isn’t so unsophisticated; he may live in the marsh, but he has a nice bit of property there. You could even take the implication of Grendel having some sort of marsh house as a kind of play on Heorot. The two words do have a kind of feminine rhyme. This sort of thinking does make it seem like Grendel lives in a mud and muck made parody of Heorot. Although that makes Grendel a little more bizarro Hrothgar than is necessary, I think.

And then there’s “hearm-scaþa” (l.766), which means pretty much what you’d expect.

“Hearm” is the Old English root of our word “harm” and shares meanings with it across the board (though the Old English “hearm” is so generalized as to also mean “malignant,” “evil,” and “vile”) and “scaþa” means “injurious person,” “criminal,” “thief,” “assassin;” “warrior,” “antagonist,” “fiend,” “devil,” or “injury.” So there’s not a whole lot of room for interpretation, though this is another instance of doubling, as with “hinfus.”

The effect of the doubling with “hinfus” and “hearm-scaþa” is an intensifying one. As intensified words, they’re perfectly placed in this passage. Grendel’s eagerness to get away is no secret and his place as the terror of Heorot is magnified as he struggles in Beowulf’s grip; it’s as if all of his twelve years of sinning against humanity are coming back to him in this one hold, this singular grip.

The conventional way to add emphasis in Old English is to double a word. For example, if you wanted to express an extreme repulsion to doing something you would be understood perfectly if you said “there’s no no way I’m doing that!” Do you think this meaning of doubling words (even negative words) to intensify their meaning is clearer than the Modern English convention of adding an adverb to intensify the same sort of statement (like “there is absolutely no way I’ll do that!”)?

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Closing

Next week the fight continues as the poet makes a lengthy aside about Heorot itself.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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Beowulf and Grendel’s brawl begins (ll.739-754)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
On Feet and Hands
Going Against the Group
Closing

Beowulf, Grendel, Old English, Anglo-Saxon

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

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Abstract

Beowulf watches as Grendel seizes one of the Geats. Then Grendel goes for Beowulf and things get real.

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Translation

“That fierce foe gave no thought to yielding,
but he swiftly seized at his first chance
a sleeping warrior, slit through him heedlessly,
bit through bone-locks, drank blood from the veins,
swallowed sinful morsels; soon he had
consumed all of that one,
feet and hands. Forward and near he stepped,
as his hand grazed against the strong-hearted
warrior at rest — the fiend’s fingers reached
for him; he hastily took the arm
and sat up to strengthen his hold.
Soon that master of the wicked deed found one
like none he’d ever met in all the earth,
no other in any region of the world
had so great a hand grip; at heart he grew
panicked in spirit, feared he might never break free.”
(Beowulf ll.739-754)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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On Feet and Hands

This week’s passage is pretty straightforward. Beowulf looks on as Grendel devours one of his fellow Geats (at least, I think it’s safe to guess that it’s a fellow Geat), and then Grendel goes for him.

But the creature is surprised by Beowulf’s counter attack.

From the way the poet describes it, Beowulf’s counter seems to be some sort of arm hold, maybe even an arm bar. It definitely sounds like a classic grappling move at any rate. Although the description is minimal, I can see Beowulf grabbing Grendel’s arm and then using it to leverage himself to a seated position while also strengthening his grip on that arm.

But that’s all part of the straightforward nature of this passage. It’s as if the poet wrote it to be streamlined so that the combat that’s beginning would start smoothly — as smoothly as if it were being played out in front of his listeners.

Really, though, the element mentioned in this week’s passage that grabs me most is the brief, subordinate clause modifying “soon he had/consumed all of that one” (“sona hæfde/unlyfigendes eal gefeormod” (ll.743-744)): “feet and hands” (“fet ond folma” (l.745)).

This is a weird thing to point out, I think.

On one of those hands, it could just be that the poet/scribe is playing on the use of “bottom” as a term for the human butt and so the logical top are the hands and feet as they’re forced together in a kind of mid-air folded position. So Grendel eats his victims butt first, going from the bottom up.

On the other of those now devoured hands, the phrase “feet and hands” could be a metonymy for the whole person. That is, in the Anglo-Saxon mind, a person’s feet and hands were representatives of the whole person.

If you think about it, this might not be too far fetched if you apply it only to the person’s body. That is, if you read “feet and hands” as a metonymy for the body alone. This becomes clear if you look at the feet as being necessary to carry the body around (remember, most mead halls at this time wouldn’t be wheelchair accessible — nor would there even be wheelchairs) and view the hands as being necessary for the body to act on the world around it and to feed itself to perpetuate its motion and its action.

In that sense, saying that Grendel devoured the man “feet and hands” expresses how completely Grendel devoured the man. Though maybe his body alone, implying that his soul or spirit was still somehow untouched. Which I suppose makes sense since an evil figure like Grendel devouring a soul seems like it would be a transformative metaphor for the corruption of that soul. The Geat who was sleeping so deeply as to be devoured might not have been perfect, but it’s safe to say that he wasn’t corrupt either.

Or, the explicit mention of “feet and hands” could just be a phrase added for emphasis. Losing their hands and feet was probably a terrible fear among early medieval peoples because it meant you could not act and might be considered a burden on your community or family. So noting that the hands and feet had been devoured would probably cement the vileness of Grendel in listeners’ minds.

Or it could have to do with Anglo-Saxons not eating the hoofs of animals like deer or the paws of creatures like rabbits. Grendel’s doing so thus marks him as disgusting other.

Why do you think the poet mentions the devoured warrior’s hands and feet? What’s your fan theory?
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Going Against the Group

Just as this week’s opening lines of the Beowulf/Grendel fight are straightforward and clear cut, so too is much of the language used. I guess those two kind of go hand in hand.

There are two compounds that are kind of neat, though. So here we go.

First up is “unwearnum.” This word is a combination of the negating prefix “un” and the word “wearnum,” meaning “reluctance,” “repugnance,” “refusal,” “denial,” or “resistance,” “reproaches,” or “abuse.” How these two elements combine to make the word “heedlessly” is pretty clear since the negation of the core meaning of “wearnum,” “reluctance,” suggests an adverb meaning “without any reluctance,” or “having no feeling against the action.”

But, this is Old English, so varying spellings invariably enter the picture. In this case, the word “wearn” could be spelled “worn.”

If spelled as “worn,” then the compound (so long as the two can still compound) could mean the negation of a “large “amount,” “number,” “troop,” “company,” “multitude,” “crowd,” or “progeny.”

In a fairly loose way, the negation of something like a large group could give you a similar meaning to the original “unwearnum” since doing something heedlessly or without reluctance seems like it’d be an act that violates a taboo. And really, what’s a taboo if no something that a group has a strong negative feeling (like reluctance or repugnance) towards?

Using such a word, whichever of the roots you use (“wearn” or “worn”), to describe Grendel’s actions is really well suited. After all, Grendel is framed as this lonely creature living on the absolute fringe of society, and so it makes perfect sense that he act against that society’s firmly held beliefs.

The other compound word of note this week is “syn-snaedum.” It’s a combination of “syn” (meaning “sin”) and “snaedum” (meaning “handle of a scythe,” “detached area of woodland,” “piece,” “morsel,” “slice,” or “portion of food”) — perfect for describing the raw flesh of a human being.

Though, the more geographical meaning of “snaedum” make for an interesting variation, or metaphor even: In breaking in and destroying Danes (and now Geats), Grendel is making large swaths of land sinful in so far as he is keeping humanity, biblically appointed stewards of creation, from being able to rein nature in. Though that reading is quite a stretch, even by the standards of an English major.

Actually, the poet’s use of this word (aside from alliterative reasons) hearkens back to last week’s idea of Grendel’s visits being profane masses or gruesome parodies of Catholic Christian mass in that the “sinful morsel” could be considered the profane counterpart to what might be considered the “sacred snack” that is the Christian Eucharist.

This is the second week in which Grendel’s actions at Heorot could be considered dark parodies of a Christian mass. Do you think there’s anything to that theory? Or is Grendel’s feasting just the way the poet chose to describe the actions of a monster? Maybe there’s some sort of criticism of Christianity here?

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Closing

Next week Grendel’s struggle with Beowulf starts in earnest.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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How Grendel contrasts with Heorot, and an exalted humbling (ll.710-719)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Grendel and Heorot contrasted
Cliffs as lids, and an exalted humbling
Closing

Beowulf, Grendel, Old English, Anglo-Saxon

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

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Abstract

Grendel and Heorot are described as Grendel makes his way towards it.

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Translation

“Then came from the moor under misty cliff
Grendel bounding, he bore god’s ire,
meant the sinner against humankind
some to ensnare in that humbled hall.
Raging beneath the heavens, he headed to that wine hall,
the gold hall best known to men,
shimmering with ornaments. That was not the first time
that he the home of Hrothgar sought out.
Never had he in earlier days nor afterwards
found a thane so hard in the hall.”
(Beowulf ll.710-719)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Grendel and Heorot contrasted

This week’s passage is at odds with last week’s. Not in that it’s written in a completely different style or anything like that, but because it takes the emphasis on Grendel’s appearance and shifts it onto his intent.

However, this passage does include some description of Heorot itself that sets up a contrast between it and its attacker.

Last week, Grendel was described as a being who moves in the shadows, who slinks around. As a result, I think the Anglo-Saxons imagined Grendel as the antithesis of brightness.

Now, it only gets about a line and a half of description here, as opposed to the three we had for Grendel last week. But in those one and a half lines, Heorot is described, quite simply, as “shimmering with ornaments” (“fættum fahne” (l.716)). It is also referred to as a “gold hall” literally, since “goldsele” translates handily from Old English to Modern English with little change (l.715). So Heorot, in very short order, is clearly made out to be the pinnacle of colour, of brightness.

Perhaps that’s why it’s given so little description here. I mean, it could just be that way because the poet has already described the hall on earlier occasions, but I think that what’s happening here goes beyond being mere shorthand by which the poet intends to remind people that Heorot is bright and shiny.

I think that this description is less lingered on than that of Grendel because the hall’s brightness makes itself apparent. Just how the eye worked wasn’t likely to have entirely worked out when Beowulf was being set down in writing, but the Anglo-Saxons would definitely have been aware of how the eye’s drawn to light. Thus, they probably had some sense that bright things are immediately bright while dull things are dull over time.

In other words, I think that Heorot is being characterized here as a flash to Grendel’s dull wall. The former is so bright it overcomes you, while the latter is so not bright that you can stare at it for hours.

So why set up this contrast? I think it’s to show how diametrically opposed Grendel is to the Danes. He’s there to steal them because they are his opposite, not only in the eyes of god or whatever, but simply in how they are perceived.

Or, if you like, the Anglo-Saxons may have had some concept of darkness swallowing light as much as light creating darkness. It’s possible that this idea may also have come in with Christianity, since the metaphor of darkness eating light sounds like something that any zealous missionary would bust out to frame Christianity as the underdog in a perpetual struggle not between the forces of nature or great heroes, but between the Anglo-Saxon’s two poles of perception: darkness and light.

One other thing that struck me about this passage, though it’s less thought out, is the line “he bore god’s ire” (“godes yrre bær” (l.711)).

This one is pretty easily a reference to Grendel bearing the mark of Cain and all of that, but it also ties neatly into an idea that I brought up in my entry two weeks ago.

What if, if Beowulf is god’s champion or god’s representative on earth in some way, Grendel’s bearing god’s ire isn’t just some poetic phrasing, but is actually a reference to his being marked for death by Beowulf? After all, if Beowulf’s stories and oaths are true, he seems very much to be the worker of that wrath. It’d be a neat bit of foreshadowing, I think

One other thing about Heorot as it’s described here.

In line 713 the poet notes that the hall itself is “humbled” (“hean”). Given Heorot’s glory and grandeur in its description here, this seems odd. But I think that it’s the poet/scribe tying off the contrast that I’ve noted. I think that it’s their way of saying that Heorot wasn’t just deteriorating because it was so often empty since Grendel started attacking, but it was actually losing its lustre because it had fallen under the shadow that is Grendel.

On the one hand this might sound like a simple reading of the contrast of light and dark and the notion that the darkness is overpowering the light. But think about it for a second. Grendel’s not just dimming brightness or being shadow incarnate — he is taking the lustre from the brightest thing of all: gold.

How can any one — Geat, Dane, or even god — stand up to that? Grendel is a darkness so powerful that it is stripping away the characteristic property of an object.

What do you make of the contrast between Heorot and Grendel that seems to be set up in this passage?

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Cliffs as lids and an exalted humbling

Okay, so there’s not much to write about when it comes to words that stand out in this week’s passage.

I’m actually starting to wonder if there’s some sort of pattern to watch for in these stretches where the poet is describing physical things.

For the most part, it’s these descriptive, geographical parts of the poem (as far as I can tell, and from memory) that contain the straightforward compounds — those compound words that, even when defined as separate words and then recombined, mean simply what they’d mean paired up otherwise.

For example, “mist-hloþum” sounds like it could be something really badass — maybe about the way that Grendel moves or his villainous intent. But, taken together these words just mean “misty cliff.” Apart they mean “mist, misty” (mist) and “cliff, precipice, slop, hillside, hill” (hlið). So, again, “misty cliff.”

Now, Old English would be far more straightforward if each word only had one meaning. But, because spelling was far from being standardized, some Old English words have various spellings, which makes Old English dictionaries networks of meaning.

For instance, in the Clark Hall and Meritt dictionary entry for “hlið” there’s a note that redirects you to “hlid,” a word that can mean “lid, covering, door,gate, opening” — basically a word with the sense of there being an opening that is also covered.

Now this definition of “hlið” could combine with mist to a similar effect.

If you think of the mist as enveloping a space, then the cliff jutting out from it is a covering for what would otherwise be open: the hole in the mist.

But that doesn’t open much up aside from a discussion of Anglo-Saxon metaphysics and their take on the nature of holes and openings. A topic that I know nothing about.

So instead let’s turn away from compounds and write about the word “hean.” As mentioned above, it’s used in this passage to describe Heorot.

Now, what’s neat about this word’s use here is that it’s not just a matter of its being another weird word with two, practically opposite meanings. As it appears here either of its meanings could work without any sort of linguistic stretching.

So, here’s how the word appears in the passage: “…in sele þam hean” (713).

And here’s what the word “hean” can mean: “lowly,” “despised,” “poor,” “man,” “bar,” and “abject” or “raise,” “exalt,” and “extol”

So, in that context, since the poet’s talking about Heorot, he could be praising it. It could be the “exalted hall.” Or it could be a reference to the hall’s current, fallen state: “that humbled hall.” I’ve chosen the latter because I think it best fits the situation and were it supposed to be “exalted hall,” I think that “hean” would be “hiēhst,” the superlative form of the Old English word for “high.”

Though I have to say that it’s fairly clever of the poet to use this word. Not just because it fits in with the alliterative line but because I think it is supposed to carry both meanings simultaneously. It was indeed the most exalted of halls but it is now humbled.

What do you think of the idea that simple compound words generally refer to geographical features?

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Closing

Next week, Grendel arrives at Heorot and peeks in on his prey.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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Beowulf wrathfully awakens and Grendel as shadow skulker (ll.700b-709)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Beowulf’s waking and Grendel’s shadows
More on Grendel, a bit on righteous wrath
Closing

Beowulf, Grendel, Old English, Anglo-Saxon

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

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Abstract

Grendel comes slinking over to Heorot, but Beowulf wakes and waits.

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Translation

“The truth is shown,
that mighty god rules humankind
always. In the deepest night
came slinking the wanderer in shadow; the warriors slept,
when they should have been holding that hall,
all but one. It was known of many people,
that they might not, as long as the Measurer allowed it not,
be brought beneath shadow by the sin-stained,
but that one woke with wrath in enmity
pledged enraged battle to the creature.”
(Beowulf ll.700b-709)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Beowulf’s waking and Grendel’s shadows

Well, although the first two lines and a bit are more suited to last week’s passage (they’re a reiteration of the idea of god’s power), they go well with this week’s too. Why? Well, because it reminds the audience that god is there and so such an ungodly thing as the Danes losing out on their hero entirely won’t happen.

In a way, I wonder if this reference to god’s power is here at all less for reiteration and more to solidify the frightening aspects of Grendel. For an enemy that humanity can’t deal with on its own must be truly terrifying. And Danes and Geats and Anglo-Saxons alike surely didn’t think so little of themselves that they needed god for every thing.

But I’m getting away from the passage. Aside from the opening sentence, the rest of this week’s passage is about Grendel’s approach and Beowulf’s being awake.

Though just how is he awake?

Last week, I got the sense that Beowulf bedded down with the rest of his thanes. So he had his bedroll down or whatever and had settled into rest before the narrator cut away to the machinations of god. But here we’re told that everyone in the hall (who was supposed to be guarding it, by the way) were asleep except for Beowulf.

So was Beowulf cunning enough to realize that he could catch Grendel by surprise if he pretended to sleep as the others did? Or was he actually asleep for a time and then stirred before Grendel arrived thanks to some sort of divine intervention?

Considering Beowulf’s fixation on the fight, I find myself leaning more towards his being woken up through god’s touch. So, in truth, all the Geats had fallen asleep, including Beowulf, and his happening to stir to wakefulness is the miracle that saved them all (well, as we’ll see in a few weeks, almost all). Thus, this is where the might of god (as the narrator describes it) is shown.

Truth be told, I like the idea that Beowulf’s waking is an act of god because it seems somehow apt that the great boaster (still in his late teens, likely) is still susceptible to sleep.

Such a reading is supported by the flow of the narration, as it moves from describing Beowulf’s pre-bed vow to the Geats settling into bed to god’s role in what’s to come to Grendel’s approach to Beowulf’s waking with a curse and a pledge of violence on his tongue. It’s like god woke Beowulf but he’s nonetheless grumpy when he first gets up, so Grendel’s not just his enemy, but likely the first thing he sees and turns his freshly woken rage to.

Anyway, the other thing that I think is of note in this passage is Grendel’s characterization. This kind of gets into the second section’s territory since it has to do with words, but bear with me.

In two instances Grendel is associated with shadows:

1) Lines 703-704: “Com on wanre niht/scriðan sceadugenga.” (“In the deepest night/came slinking the wanderer in shadow”)

2) Line 707 “…se scynscaþa under sceadu bregdan.” (“…be brought beneath shadow by the sin-stained.”)

Add to this his being sin-stained (“scynscaþa” (l.707)).

The references to shadow alone paint a picture of Grendel as this being who lives more in darkness than in light. It makes him a very mysterious figure to modern readers, but keeping in mind the way that Anglo-Saxons categorized colours (that brighter is better, brightness is the defining quality of colour), Grendel must have been a terrifying force utterly opposed to all lightness, merry-making, and friendship. That sounds kind of bad to us, but to a society where those were essential for the physical survival of individuals, relationships and social networks, such a creature could be compared to a sentient computer virus.

What’s more, Grendel’s being related to shadows makes him diametrically opposed to light, since shadows are very much light’s opposite. The fact that light makes shadows also yields something, but I think that just ties back to Grendel’s being the kin of Cain and “sin-stained.”

What really strikes me about the way Grendel’s described, though, is that those three words all have an “s” sound in them.

Shadows can be very fleeting, they shift and move as their light does. And what could be more fleeting than the letter that you sound by simply exhaling through closed teeth? The sound brings to mind steam from a kettle, smoke from a fire, or the sound of water racing down a river. All of which are fleeting and ever-shifting. That sound also gives Grendel a very slinky sort of feel, that he’s a creature that skitters about. A word that even in Modern English has disgusting connotations.

So why then, maybe you’re wondering, is he named “Grendel”? There’s not an “s” in sight in that name.

I think that, though he’s very much a creature who flits and slinks as shadows do and who dwells in them (possibly controls them?), he is called Grendel because that is his signature feature. He grinds things, destroying them, dragging them down to the insubstantiality of a shadow, reducing them to dust and powder.

It’s possible that this process would extend beyond people’s personal bodies to their reputations, their names. After all, none of the warriors who came before Beowulf to challenge Grendel are named. And why should they be?

What do you think Grendel looks like? Something like a troll? Or more of a misshapen person?

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More on Grendel, a bit on righteous wrath

Let’s start this section off with a little more about Grendel and how he’s portrayed here.

On line 709 Grendel is referred to as “geþinges” (meaning “creature,” or, more generally, “thing”).

I think that within the context of this passage, using a word that boils down to “thing” (even if it can mean “creature”) suggests that Grendel is a being of little sentience. He’s denied any sort of personality or any sort of reasoning faculty.

Just as the Anglo-Saxons probably likely believed it to be madness to try to reason with a bear, it’s pretty clear that Grendel can’t be reasoned with. This goes far to promoting his image as a being who has no other purpose than to destroy and spread fear and terror. I also think it plays into the shadow imagery that he’s so strongly associated with here.

For, going back to the Anglo-Saxon classification of colour being dependent on light/brightness, a shadow would be considered near the bottom in the kingdom of colours. Just as the phrase “deepest night” is used here to indicate the darkest, deepest part of the night (literally “wanre niht,” the “dullest night” (l.702)). So Grendel’s being associated with shadows and referred to as a thing really makes it clear that he’s a being of sheer evil and not to be pitied in the least, nor empathized with, nor really regarded at all as anything other than a monster.

I think this portrayal is here to either help forward Beowulf as god’s champion (or simply as a great warrior), or because Grendel, at one point, was something more.

It’s easy to say that Grendel represents old pagan practices that don’t work because they aren’t true (remember the bit about the Danes praying to their idols for help back on lines 175-180? completely ineffectual) and Beowulf is the bringer of the new light, of the word of god through Christ and all that. But I don’t think that’s quite right.

I think that the writer or transcriber of the poem was well aware of what Grendel was and wanted to downplay it to an incredible degree. Why? Perhaps to put what he represented into a bad light.

But really, does it matter what Grendel is? He’s so generic in his being a personification of the lowest sort of evil that he could be whatever bugbear a society who took up this poem wanted him to be.

At the emergence of Christianity as an evangelical faith, Grendel could be old religions; today he could simply be terror itself. This is what makes poems like Beowulf so transcendent. Not that they’re so open to interpretation that they can mean anything but because they’re drawn in just the right strokes to give such poems layers of meaning — some of which aren’t apparent until someone reads them hundreds, even thousands of years after they’re written.

The other word that I think is interesting is “anda.” This is a word with several meanings: “grudge,” “enmity,” “envy,” “anger,” “vexation;” “zeal;” “injury,” “mischief,” “fear,” or “horror.”

What’s curious about this word is that it, like many other words, suggests a connection between concepts that we don’t often credit to medieval societies. It combines the idea of grudges and anger with that of horror and fear. In short, it’s a word that suggests that the Anglo-Saxons were aware of the idea that we hate what we fear.

In this passage in particular this is intensified, since it’s used for Grendel in the bit about Beowulf’s waking in wrath against him. So much for being the big brave hero — it seems that part of Beowulf’s might may well be in his extreme fear. Though maybe this is more than intentional if Beowulf has any sort of explicit religious aspect to it.

It could be that the poem’s suggesting that fear tempered by faith, channelled through it (as Beowulf’s seems to be channelled through his faith that god will determine the victor in his various fights) creates strength in a person. Though, in this case, that strength seems to come from an extreme, faith-fuelled hatred or bigotry.

Well. Timeless poems aren’t without problems.

What do you make of Beowulf’s wrathful anger? Is it righteous? Is it an example of misguided faith?

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Closing

Next week, Grendel arrives at the hall and revels in what he finds there.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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Geats want to go out fighting, “alma mater” to the max (ll.688-700a)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
The dedication to die away from home
Very dear country
Closing

Beowulf, Anglo-Saxons, poetry, translation

A pillow inspired by artifacts found at the Sutton Hoo site. Design by Karen Dixon, full information available at http://www.millennia-designs.com/tapestry-cross-stitch-embroidery-kits/76/91/53/.

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Abstract

Beowulf and his fellow Geats bed down for the night while the narrator assures us that their beliefs about never again seeing home are unnecessary.

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Translation

“He Kept himself bold then, took a pillow
to his cheek with his band, and he among the many
ready seafarers gave themselves to hall-rest.
None of those thought that they should afterward
ever see their dear land again,
their people or their towns, where they had been raised;
and they had prayed, with fervour earlier, that they
in that wine hall be taken by death in battle,
those Danish people. But to them the Lord gave
woven success in war, thanks to the Weder people,
joy and help, that they the fiend there
through that one’s strength fully overcame,
by his own might.”
(Beowulf ll.688-700a)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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The dedication to die away from home

Unlike last week’s passage, there’s a fair bit more going on in this week’s. Not that it’s wall to wall action or anything, but, nonetheless, I have some things to say about it rather than just a thing.

In the middle of this week’s passage, we get something that seems uncharacteristic for the sorts of warriors Beowulf and his men are said to be. We’re told that “None of those thought that they should afterward/ever see their dear land again,” (“Nænig heora þohte þæt he þanon scolde/eft eardlufan æfre gesecean”(ll.691-692)). At first, this bit of information makes it seem as though the Geats feel that theirs is a doomed project.

And why not?

Countless others have tried before them and have failed. Why should they, a band of warriors whose leader is really an unproven whelp have any better luck?

But, immediately after this fairly touching bit about never returning to where they were raised (ll.693) we’re given a little more information. The sort of information that clarifies things further and explains quite a bit about the difference between our culture and that expressed in Beowulf.

From lines 694 to 695 we’re told that the Geats had earlier prayed (the word is “gefrignan,” meaning, in general “to ask”) that they should die in battle. Again, at first you think, well, that’s probably so that they don’t have to face defeat. That they’ll be remembered as having gone down fighting. But when you put this idea with the belief that they’ll never see home again, then you get what I think is the full picture.

The Geats think that they’ll never see their homeland and loved ones again because hat’s just how resolved they are to dying in the fight with Grendel. It’s not that they’re afraid of the monster or sorrowful about a doomed fate. Instead, I think the poet/scribe is showing us the strength of the Geats’ resolve. They’re so willing to die in the service of this quest that they, in the calm before Grendel storms in, are convinced that they’ll never go back across the waters to see Geatland again.

Nevertheless, this passage closes out with a curious reassurance.

In line 698, the poet/scribe tells us that Grendel will be defeated, but by “one’s strength” (“anes cræft” (l.699)). What’s curious about this to me is that, on one hand, this seems to be about Beowulf.

But If such is the case what’s unclear is whether this means that Beowulf’s strength overcomes Grendel’s or if it’s Beowulf’s strength that convinces god to give the victory to the Danes (as mentioned on lines 698-699).

But, “one’s strength” (l.699) could also refer to god itself.

Since Beowulf is always invoking god as the one who grants him victory after victory, it wouldn’t surprise me if the poet/scribe (more so the scribe) snuck this into the poem as a reference to what the Christian version of a single omniscient and omnipotent deity was.

Based on nothing aside from his depth of knowledge, I agree with Robert Graves in his argument that the peoples of Northern Europe had the idea of a singular ruling deity, a sort of monotheism, before Christianity (as Graves outlines in The White Goddess).

But it’s possible that early Christian missionaries sold those people on the idea of Christ and God and such on its being a new, fresh deity, someone who could overcome and vanquish the old gods or their champions. With this sort of reading, “one’s strength” takes on a much more proselytizing tone, and, over all, makes the poem weirdly more Christian than it would be otherwise (that is Beowulf thanks god for victories, but those victories are by god’s grace, so the whole poem, whatever else it is, is really about god’s grace in battle).

However, where such a religious reading of this line falls apart is that there’s no clear reference to god.

It’s possible that Beowulf, at best an adaptation of a hero from an earlier story, is god as god’s champion, and so that “one alone” is both god and Beowulf simultaneously. But to expect that this meaning would get across to the audience of a poem seems far-fetched to me.

Yet, in that case, it could be that the poet/scribe intended this particular passage as a sort of coded wink or nod to those in the know. Maybe at this point in the poem, while it was being read/performed, the guy beside you who’d been pretty quiet up until then would turn to you and say “have you let Jesus Christ into your heart, brother?”

How much Christian influence do you think is in Beowulf? Are all of his references to god just references to a pre-Christian deity?

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Very dear country

This week’s passage isn’t without its compound words, but most of them are straightforward and to the point. They’re combinations of words that make sense together and don’t offer as much room for wiggling.

These are words like “hleorbolster” (“hleor” (meaning “cheek,” “face,” or “countenance”) + “bolster” (meaning “cushion”)) or “wigsped” (“wig” (meaning “war,” “strife,” “battle”) + “sped” (meaning “success”). But, as in all good poetry, this passage does have its variety.

Otherwise I’m not sure how you’d explain the presence of “eard-lufan.”

This word is, at first blush, a simple compound. It combines the word “eard” (meaning “native place,” “country,” “region,” “dwelling-place,” “estate,” “cultivated ground,” “earth,” “land,” “condition,” or “fate”) with the word “lufan” (meaning “dear,” or “beloved”).

So, very simply, we get the dictionary-prescribed “dear home” (as in Clark Hall and Meritt) or “beloved home” (as in C.L. Wrenn’s glossary). The difference here is infinitesimal, and it looks like an easy enough compound word to deal with.

But what about those weird definitions of “eard” near the end of that list up there? “Condition” and “fate” are strange words to translate a word that seems to otherwise just mean “home” or “earth.”

I think these alternate meanings of “eard” don’t alter the compound word or give it radically different meanings, though. I think that their being possible translations for “eard” just deepens the meaning of “eardlufan.”

For the most part, “eard” is a word that represents earth and home. I think the inclusion of “condition” and “fate” in this list suggests that a dear home isn’t just a place where a person grew up, but also where they hope to die. It is a place so dear to them so utterly connected to them and they to it, that they want to be raised there, live there, and die there.

I’m basing this speculation on the Biblical notion that “dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return” (Genesis 3:19) (something I imagine the Anglo-Saxons were aware of); the earth or ground isn’t just our home or where we make our dwelling, but we are the very stuff of it and return to it when we die.

I think this extra shade of “eardlufan” deepens its meaning because it suggests a connection with a country and a land so strong that a person would give all they have for it. I might even go so far as to say that a person who uses such a word implies that they themselves are a part of the country or land from which they come.

What’s more, to the Anglo-Saxons, a people who identified with the wandering, country-less Jews of Exodus, this notion of an incredible bond with a place must have been a great fantasy. It may have even driven them to settle in as much as they did in the British Isles. Perhaps it even encouraged them to establish a country for themselves, the nation of wanderers that they saw themselves as.

But that’s just some succinct speculation. Though it brings to mind a question.

When it comes to early nationhood, which do you think came first: a country big enough to sustain a large group of people or a large group of people who strongly identified as a single group?

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Closing

Next week, Grendel begins his approach to Heorot.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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Beowulf’s boast before bedtime (ll.675-687)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Beowulf’s boastful address
A compound word for “prowess”
Closing

Boasting was a sort of performance among Anglo-Saxons. Rocking the harp while telling tales of your deeds would make those tales even more convincing. Image found at http://www.comm.unt.edu/~ktaylor/scop/boasting.htm.

Boasting was a sort of performance among Anglo-Saxons. Rocking the harp while telling tales of your deeds would make those tales even more convincing. Image found at http://www.comm.unt.edu/~ktaylor/scop/boasting.htm.

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Abstract

Beowulf boasts about what he will do to defeat Grendel and invokes the judgement of god regarding who shall have the victory in the upcoming fight.

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Translation

“Spoke he then some good boast words,
Beowulf the Geat, before he went to bed down:
‘I consider my own prowess with battle work unbowed
when compared to Grendel;
as Grendel himself slays without sword,
that thief of life, nevertheless I shall do all.
He has not the advantage, that he shall slay me,
though he hew away my shield, though he be vigorous in his
evil deed: but we this night should
forego the sword, if he seeks to dare
a battle beyond weapons; and afterwards wise god
shall decide which of us, oh holy Lord,
is worthy of glory, as he deems proper.'”
(Beowulf ll.675-687)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Beowulf’s boastful address

This week’s passage is weird in that there isn’t a whole lot to pick out that hasn’t already been picked out.

Beowulf speaks a final boast before he (and likely the rest of the Geats) head to bed for the night. In this boast he covers mostly familiar ground: he won’t be bowed by Grendel, let god decide, etc, etc.

But who is he boasting to?

Hrothgar and the bulk of the Danes (all of them, perhaps, since who among them would want to stay in the hall?) have left.

The fourteen warriors that Beowulf has with him are, as always, it seems, silent extras, so if they’re listening we don’t get any impressions of what they think about their leaders’ boasts. Yet, anyway.

Then, since Beowulf appears to have no audience, the boast is likely for himself and himself alone. It’s another of his means of psyching himself up.

But then, why, I have to ask, does he make this boast with the same formal diction that he used when addressing Hrothgar?

Beowulf’s sentences in this passage are chopped up and rearranged across multiple lines, making translation trickier than usual. Perhaps Beowulf’s engaging in some apostrophe here — addressing god itself with this boast of his.

Or maybe he’s just speaking his intention so that, in a way no doubt familiar to contemporary self-help readers and motivational speakers, it’s given an existence outside of him before he performs it. That is, in speaking about his defeating Grendel, even if it comes to a “a battle beyond weapons” (“wig ofer wæpen” (l.685)), Beowulf could be putting it out there so that he has something outside of himself to hold himself to; he’s giving himself something to grasp at in the upcoming struggle. It’s also a good way to clarify, one more time, just what his intentions are — for himself and for anyone listening.

Or, based on nothing from the poem thus far, but instead on the inclusion of a bard-like character in Sturla Gunnarsson’s 2005 film Beowulf and Grendel, maybe one of the Geats that Beowulf brought with him is making a record of this adventure and Beowulf wants to make a definite statement before the action takes place?

That last one, though possible, seems unlikely, -since Beowulf is fairly well-spoken himself and presents his adventures at great length to Hygelac when he returns to Geatland. Though, even Anglo-Saxons (or their folktale analogue, the Geats) probably appreciated the importance of back-up plans. Especially of things that could lead a person to great glory.

Nonetheless, I don’t think Beowulf is boasting here for the sake of a bard in his party.

Beowulf’s addressing god is definitely possible, and the constant recourse he makes to god as the agent of his victories suggests a certain kind of devotion on the Geat’s part.

Maybe Beowulf is even addressing god here to garner some of the deity’s favour — something that Grendel, as kin of Cain, surely has no access to. Though, with such a reputation, maybe it was thought that Grendel had the help of Satan (I’m pretty sure that concept had made its way into Christianity by the sixth century, the earliest date for Beowulf‘s composition) and so Beowulf calls on god to judge the victor as a counter to his opponent’s demonic support. Addressing a deity would definitely be reason for Beowulf to speak with the diction that he does.

Though it’s possible that he’s also just being overly eloquent because of a buzz or his being slightly drunk. I mean, he has been drinking all evening, right?

Matters of record or prayer/deity acknowledgement aside, I think it’s most likely that Beowulf makes this boast for his own good.

I think he puts his aspirations into words to make them more real so that he can have something to reach for beyond the abstract idea of beating some sort of hitherto unseen monster. It could be argued that even if Beowulf is addressing god here, that too is done as a way of psyching himself up. Though whether or not such ideas would be current among the Anglo-Saxons is another question all together. They may still have totally thought that prayer pierced the firmament of immutable stars overhead and made an inroad for god’s power to enter the realm of mortals.

Do you think giving yourself pep talks before you face major challenges helps make them easier to overcome?

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A compound word for “prowess”

Just as Beowulf’s boasting doesn’t bring much new to the table thematically, this passage is pretty light on new words that are awesome. Easy puzzles like “gylp-word” (“boast word) and “guþ-weorca” (“war work”) make appearances, but those words are too straightforward to easily go into depth with.

However, one word stands out (as always seems to be the case in this section, right?). This word is “herewæsmun” — a word that looks like a compound (and, I’m convinced, is one), but, at first look, defies being broken into its constituent parts.

The “here” part is pretty straightforward: “predatory band, troop, army, host, multitude.” Easy enough.

But there’s no entry in my Clark Hall and Merrit dictionary for “wæsma.” The closest thing is an entry for “-wæsma” (acknowledging that it is only a suffix) which redirects you to “here-w” and the compounds definition: “prowess.”

The word “wæstm” is pretty close to “wæsmun”/”wæsma,” so I think that it’s a good candidate for defining the latter half of herewæsmun. Though wæstm’s meaning “growth,” increase,” “plant,” “produce,” “offspring,” “fruit;” “result,” “benefit,” “product;” “interest,” “usury;” “abundance,” “stature,” “form,” or “figure” doesn’t mesh neatly with a word for “army” to give us a compound that means “prowess.”

However, in the glossary included with my copy of C.L. Wrenn’s second edition of the Old English Beowulf (published in 1958 by Harrap & Co.), “herewæsma” appears as “herewæs(t)m.” The inclusion of the “t” (even in parentheses) suggests that, though Wrenn doesn’t include “wæstm” in his glossary, “herewæsma” is indeed a compound of “here” and “wæstm.” Wrenn’s definition of the compound as “vigour in war” also makes a little more sense than Clark Hall and Meritt’s generalized “prowess.”

Plus, “vigour in war” isn’t that difficult to arrive at given the combination of words presented.

For, if you take a word meaning “troop” or “army” and combine it with another meaning “fruit” or “stature” then you get a word with the sense of something that is the fruit of a war band or one of great stature in such a band. And, if you think about what it’d be like to fight in a band of warriors, something that’s likely to come to mind is how you and the group might coalesce into one unit and be rallied by each other in the heat of battle. What would come from such rallying? Vigour in war — or, more generally, prowess.

Neat, huh?

Though passages like this might be light on interesting words, this is the stuff I love about readin Old English literature. It gives me a chance to really stick my hands into the muck of words (even if that muck is already pre-sifted by people like C.L. Wrenn and John R. Clark Hall and Herbert D. Merrit). Actually, this depth of language is one of the reasons why I think Beowulf is so rich; its language is much more sensitive to context than much of Modern English seems to be.

Which language do you think has more fluidity: Old English or Modern English?

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Closing

Next week, check back here for a run down of the passage wherein the narrator tells of how none of the Geats thought they’d ever see home again.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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