Beowulf in a state of undress, compounds-Compounds-Compounds! (ll.662-674)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Beowulf prepares himself
On “warmakers,” “bedmates,” “kings of praise,” and more
Closing

A page from an illuminated manuscript. Words are important. Image from http://www.myarmoury.com/talk/viewtopic.php?t=28126&view=next.

A page from an illuminated manuscript. Words are important. Image from http://www.myarmoury.com/talk/viewtopic.php?t=28126&view=next.

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Abstract

Hrothgar and his retinue depart the hall, and Beowulf prepares himself for the coming brawl.

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Translation

“Then from him Hrothgar went among his warrior band,
the prince of the Scyldings out from the hall;
the war chief would seek out Wealhtheow,
the queen consort. The king of heaven had
against Grendel, as people later learned by inquiry,
set a hall guard; one with a special office to fulfil
for the lord of the Danes, a steadfast guard against monsters.
Indeed that Geatish man eagerly trusted
the courage of his strength, the Measurer’s protection.
Then he did off with his iron corselet,
took the helm from his head, entrusted his ornamented sword,
servant of the best iron,
and he commanded them to keep his war gear.”
(Beowulf ll.662-674)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Beowulf prepares himself

In this week’s passage of Beowulf the main focus is on the man himself.

Hrothgar leaves with his retainers and the hall is, as far as is implied anyway, vacated by all except for the Geats. Interestingly, the language sort of signals this departure of the Danes in an interesting way. The word here used for Hrothgar as prince of the Danes is “eodur”, a word that means “boundary/limit/enclosure” along with “prince” or “lord.”

Such a combination of meanings in one word may seem strange but makes a sort of clear sense – to rule one must be the protector of his or her people, and what better way to represent that protection than a fence or a hedge growing round about them?

The association with greenery that comes in with the related meaning “hedge” may also say something about the Anglo-Saxons’ Germanic roots, but what exactly I cannot say. There’s still much more for me to learn about this period.

As per Beowulf himself, we see him her un-equipping all of his gear. He removes his equipment piece by piece and hands off his sword to his fellow Geats, who, at least literally, are nowhere to be seen. As a means of putting the spotlight squarely on Beowulf, the poet makes no mention of any of the other Geats here, instead only using an implied pronoun packed into the verb “het” (meaning “commanded,” but only in the third person singular) to refer to someone to whom Beowulf is handing off his sword.

It’s weird that it’s in the singular rather than the plural, but I suppose Beowulf has a squire of sorts with him. Maybe it’s the later named (on line 2076) Handscio?

Grammatical ticks aside, I don’t think it’s too weird that the poet would cut out the other Geats here. This is, after all, Beowulf’s time to shine. It’s just very odd that he travel with so many other men and not really use their skill at all. If Beowulf is so over-powered, then why bother with any other party members?

Honestly, the only thing I can think of is to make a parallel between this story and that of Christ and his apostles. Such an analogy certainly wouldn’t have been lost on medieval (or Early medieval) audiences, and this sort of monstrous take on a demi-god come to redeem mankind from sin (Beowulf as Christ, Grendel as sin (being the kin of Cain, the first murderer)) could well be a major reason why our copy of Beowulf was found bundled with stories about monsters in the Nowell Codex.

But moving on from the matter of the vanishing convenient Geats, Beowulf’s un-equipping himself seems to serve more purpose than just getting him to do some great deed. The word “truwode” is used in describing his mental state.

This is a curious word to use in such a context because along with the somewhat visible Modern English meaning of “trust” the word also means “persuade.” I see two ways to take its having this mixture of meanings.

One is somewhat positive: the Anglo Saxons regarded trust as something that needed to be earned, and that could be built up, but that was not, in any way, automatic.

The other way to interpret it is less so: Anglo-Saxons were far more cynical than we might realize and their perception of trust is that it was nothing more than a pretense. A pretense with real results, but a pretense nonetheless.

Since the reference to Beowulf’s trusting in his strength is paired with a mention of his faith in god’s protection (l.670), I feel like the first interpretation is probably more likely true.

It’s curious, too, though. If Paul’s mention of spiritual armour (Ephesians 6:11) was only known to people writing poetry in English after a certain time, then maybe that could help date Beowulf. Or, maybe some preacher to the Anglo-Saxons (maybe even one from the Irish Celts) mentioned the concept of faith as armour in passing and it just stuck in someone’s head, bounced around, and found its way into their big ol’ poem.

Finally, I just want to mention one weird thing about Beowulf’s sword. Actually, this ties back to the idea of a ruler being an enclosure for his or her people.

On line 673, Beowulf’s sword is literally described as “best of iron servant” (“irena cyst ombihtþegne”). I think that this means it is served by the best of iron, that its concept as a sword is brought to greatest realization through its expression in its excellent iron. But why not just express this greatness of the sword with a reference to sharpness or the sword’s origin? What should it matter that Beowulf’s sword is served by the best of iron?

What’re your thoughts on all of these points? Are the other Geats just forgotten by the poet because this poem is called Beowulf and not Beowulf and the Geats? Is Hrothgar an “enclosure” of his people as much as he’s their “prince”?

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On “war makers,” “kings of praise,” “hall-wards” and more

Since this week’s passage has quite a bit going on in it, it’s also got its fair share of curious words. All of those that I’ve picked out for this section are compounds. Let’s see if I can get through them all in my fifteen minute writing time.

So first up is wigfruma, a combination of the word for “war” or “strife” (“wig”) and the word for things like “beginning/creation/originator” and “prince/chief/ruler” (“fruma”). Since “fruma” carries senses of both being the first and being the topmost, I think this appellation fits Hrothgar rather snugly.

No doubt Hrothgar started the odd war in his time and he’s described as having the fortunes of war favouring him (l.64). Actually, “wigfruma” suggests that the Danes are a put upon people, a people who have endured much strife and tribulation.

In fact, I wonder just how common it was for a people to enter into a pact with another through a peaceweaver, a woman sent over as a sort of arranged marriage to secure peace. Was this something of a last resort or was it something that happened frequently enough to not really be talked about or mentioned in literature?

Though, saying that Hrothgar is a war starter (one interpretation of “wigfruma”), I can’t help but wonder if he had started a strife with the Celts or Welsh, or wherever Wealhtheow hails from, and at the time that group perceived the Danes to be their greater, a people who could crush them, so they sent her to stop things from moving to total war.

Next up is “cyningwuldor,” a word that combines the word for “king” (“cyning”) with the word for “glory/praise/heaven” (“wuldor”). There’s not much to say here. No matter how you interpret this word it’s meaning is pretty clear: god.

Though it’s a strange way to think of a deity as the “king of praise” or the “king of thanks.” I mean, is that a title given because this particular deity is given the greatest amount of thanks and praise? Could this be referring necessarily to an early conception of the Christian god as taught by missionaries, or instead to the sort of all-god that Graves writes about in The White Goddess?

The word “seleweard” is similarly simple. But, of course, it hides a certain twist when you dig down. The word combines “sele” (hall) with “weard” (“ward/advance post/waiting for/guardian/king;possessor”).

Beowulf’s being a “hall ward” or “hall lord” or “hall protector” is clear enough: Hrothgar gave him possession of the hall for the night and he’s been keen on guarding it himself since he heard of the Danes’ plight. But, the other combination of “hall” and “lurking, or “waiting for” works just as well in this instance. Beowulf is indeed waiting in ambush for Grendel since the kin of Cain has no idea whatever that this mad Geat is there to meet him this night.

Moving right along, the word “sundornytt” doesn’t seem to have much going for it. It refers to a special office or duty, but, weakly, could also mean “varied office.” Yeah, I don’t think there’s much here.

The last compound word of note in this week’s passage is “eotonweard.” It brings together the word for “giant,” “monster,” “demon” (“eoton”) and “guard,” “ward,” etc. (“weard”).

Now. In its original printing my Clark Hall and Meritt dictionary defined this word in the most tantalizing of ways: “watch against monsters?[sic]” It also lists this instance in Beowulf as the only appearance of the word in Old English.

Unfortunately (fortunately?) in the supplement that’s part of my edition “eotonweard” makes another appearance.

There it’s defined as “watch against the monster.” It’s a small difference (basically changing “monsters” to “monster,” made, perhaps, because there is just one Grendel, after all), but I still like to read this word as an echo of Hrothgar’s joking with Beowulf about not knocking the place down in the process of beating Grendel; I think it’s another hint at Beowulf’s own monstrousness. Actually, perhaps part of god’s help (whether it’s what Beowulf explicitly calls down or not) is helping him to keep his strength in check so that he doesn’t destroy the hall along with Grendel.

Since this section is often about compound words, what do you think of my being so hung up on them? Are they just words that happen to be combinations of others, is there a fixed meaning to these combinations, or do you think that they’re a fluid mix of their parts?

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Closing

Next week we get Beowulf’s pre-bedtime speech explaining why he’s un-equipped himself.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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Hrothgar maybe jokes, and compound words abound (ll.652-661)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Hrothgar’s Joke?
Compound words and a single seed
Closing

Interlaced men motif. Image from http://public.wsu.edu/~hanly/oe/503.html.

Interlaced men motif. Image from http://public.wsu.edu/~hanly/oe/503.html.

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Abstract

Hrothgar hands authority over the hall to Beowulf and promises him great riches if he survives the night.

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Translation

“Greeted the men each other then,
Hrothgar Beowulf, and to him wished health,
gave rule of the drinking hall, and these words said:
‘Never before have I to any man yielded up,
since I could raise my own hand my own shield,
the noble house of the Danes but to thee now.
Have now and hold this best of houses:
Have remembrance of fame, mighty valour’s seed,
be wakeful against the wrathful one! Thy desire shall not
lack if you this brave deed survive with your life'”
(Beowulf ll.652-661)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Hrothgar’s Joke?

The main focus of this week’s passage is Hrothgar’s handing the hall over to Beowulf for the night. This is a pretty big deal. And not just because Hrothgar says that it’s unprecedented (lines 655-657).

The lord of Heorot’s handing the hall over to Beowulf for the night suggests that he, Hrothgar, has full and utter trust in Beowulf to be successful. Beowulf isn’t just a glorified night watchman; he’s been made the ward of the hall. It is his to use as he sees fit. But what does such ownership confer?

Well, no doubt there are some things in Anglo-Saxon law that could shed some interesting tints of light on the matter, but I don’t have those to hand, nor do I have the time to chase them down just now. However, in and of itself, I think the trust that Hrothgar is putting into Beowulf is significant enough.

Hrothgar knew Beowulf’s father, so there’s a connection between them. Nonetheless, Hrothgar has only just met Beowulf, really. So his handing over his hall — the hall that he built when the Danes were powerful and prosperous — into the power of one whom he’s really only just met shows a great deal of trust.

But, of course, I think that there’s something more here, too.

After Hrothgar hands the metaphysical/figurative keys to Heorot over to Beowulf he adds something to his wishes of luck and success. He tells Beowulf to “be wakeful against the wrathful one!” (“waca wið wraþum” (l.660)).

On one level the “wrathful one” is clearly Grendel. Again, his wrath goes unexplained, but as hearers of the poem, wrath alone is really the only motivation that the marsh monster is given for the repeated raids against Heorot. Simple wrath.

But, given all of the previous points at which I found readings of the poem that take references like these and point them to Beowulf, I think it’s possible that Hrothgar is throwing a bit of a jibe the Geat’s way.

I think that Hrothgar, having never before given control of his grand hall over to someone else, is trying to coolly warn Beowulf to not get too carried away. I think he’s saying “hey, be careful and try not to bring the place down tonight, okay?” or more philosophically, “when you confront the monster don’t become monstrous yourself, all right?”

After all, Beowulf’s stories of overcoming terrible beasts have involved him becoming just as savage to overcome them.

In this passage I think reading Hrothgar’s wish of luck as a lighthearted warning against his own strength and temper gives a little more credit to Hrothgar, a character who is often depicted as being in the very dredges of despair.

That Hrothgar could crack a joke at a time like this, even one that would probably be accompanied by a slight glint of the eye and a weak half-smile, suggests that he’s got some resilience left in him. Hrothgar’s still able to rule, it’s just difficult for him to ask for help and to acknowledge that he needs it.

Though that only further supports reading this line as a crack at Beowulf as well as a warning to be vigilant against Grendel. Comedy is often a disarming way for people to assert themselves and why not give the otherwise utterly melancholic Hrothgar a bit of a joke line as he makes his way out?

Besides, later on, we’ll hear Beowulf throw a jibe right back at him.

In the meantime, I think it’s also interesting that Hrothgar feels the need to tell Beowulf he’ll be rewarded handsomely for his efforts. It’s possible that along with being just a simple incentive, mentioning the reward is also Hrothgar’s way of reminding Beowulf what’s in it for him if he doesn’t destroy the hall in the process of defeating Grendel. His stories of might and courage have painted him as being rather reckless after all.

What do you think about this situation? Is Hrothgar joking with Beowulf? Or is he just wishing Beowulf rote luck?

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Compound words and a single seed

There were a lot of words of note in this week’s passage. Some more so than others because of their placement in the poem, and some because they’re just curious words. Well, because they’re compound words.

Actually, there were two sets of compounds in Hrothgar’s speech. The first is “winærn” and “ðryþærn.” The common element between these two words (“ærn”) means “dwelling,” “house,” “building,” “store,” or “closet.” The first of the pair’s modifier is “win” which means simply “wine,” while the second’s, “ðryð” has a broader variety of meanings: “might,” “power,” “force,” “strength,” “majesty,” “glory,” “splendour;” “multitude,” “troop,” or “host.”

The first of the pair isn’t really all that interesting. It pretty much just means wine-house. I could also mean “wine-closet,” but that’s basically just a shade of the meaning of “wine-house” (that is, a house for wine) spelled out rather than left up to implication and context.

The word “ðryþærn” is slightly more interesting because of the variety of meanings for “ðryð.” Though if you look at the list of them, they all, again, kind of make sense translated as simply “great house” or “powerful house.” After all, a great house is what you’d need for a multitude of people, just as it’s what you’d need to express strength or power.

I do think it’s kind of neat how it’s the narrator who refers to Heorot as a “winærn” and Hrothgar who refers to it as a “ðryþærn.” Alliteration is definitely at work in this, but still, there’s no real reason the poet couldn’t have composed this part so that he was left with “ðryþærn” and Hrothgar with “winærn.” Their order definitely suggests a kind of up-scaling of the house in he eyes of its owners. Though, really, even were it not for Grendel, Heorot would just be a drinking hall.

Similarly the words “ellenweorc” and “mægenweorc” star in this week’s passage. They mean “deed of courage” and “deed of might” respectively. But what’s so interesting about them is that they’re both spoken by Hrothgar. Either he’s feeling the pinch of alliteration, going for emphasis, or feeling a bit sleepy.

Maybe it’s a mix of all three. It’s definitely possible that along with his gentle jibe at Beowulf’s possibly losing control Hrothgar is trying to keep Beowulf in check with the promise of glorious deeds — something that he’s clearly after since his swimming contest story was so elaborate.

I’m not so sure, though, that there’s any special significance to the order in which these two compounds appear.

They’re both part of their respective lines’ alliterating pairs, so the poet/scribe likely just wanted to express the same idea with a bit of alliterative flexibility. In this case are deeds of might really that different from deeds of courage?

The last word that I found particularly interesting in this week’s passage is “cyð” from “mægenellen cyð” on line 659.

One interpretation of this word makes it “seed,” “germ,” “shoot,” “mote.” This makes for some neat natural imagery. Hrothgar’s comparing this great undertaking to a seed of glory puts me in mind of mythological, sacred trees — even Yggdrasil, the world tree.

But there’s also a second way to read “cyð.” It could be an altered spelling of “cyðð” meaning “kith,” “kinsfolk,” “fellow-countrymen,” “neighbours” or “acquaintance,” “friendship;” “knowledge,” or “familiarity.”

Similar to the above interpretation of “cyð,” this puts some figurative language into Hrothgar’s mouth. Though this time the imagery is more familial, more interpersonal.

This deed Beowulf is about to undertake is a close friend to glory; it’s glory’s next of kin.

I feel like this might actually be the better interpretation between the two. Why? Because it has more to do with kinship and interpersonal ties.

Hrothgar can offer all the treasures he likes, but I think that this sense of kinship is the true reward from Beowulf’s quest.

Reading the word in this way makes the store of treasure that’s waiting for Beowulf all the more meaningful, too, since all of that gold will come along with a strong bond, and that is practically invaluable in a world in which groups need to rely on other groups, either for goods, protection, or mutual peace.

Beowulf can win all the gold in Daneland, but what will really win him glory in Geatland is forging a strong alliance with the Danish tribe.

Which of the two interpretations of “cyð” do you think is better? As “seed” or as “kin”?

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Closing

Next week, Hrothgar gets into bed, Beowulf prepares for Grendel, and the poet drops spoilers.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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Meanderings on Hrothgar and closely watching words (ll.642-651)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Meandering through analysis: Hrothgar’s departure
Delving deeply into three words
Closing

Interlaced men motif. Image from http://public.wsu.edu/~hanly/oe/503.html.

Interlaced men motif. Image from http://public.wsu.edu/~hanly/oe/503.html.

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Abstract

It’s party time in Heorot until Hrothgar, noticing the imminent falling of darkness, decides it’s time to call it a night.

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Translation

“Then it was again as it had been in the hall,
brave words spoken, people milled about beneath its roof,
the sounds of a victorious people, until in a short time
the son of Healfdane’s will turned to seeking his
evening rest. Knew he that the wretch
against that high hall planned attack,
after the sun’s light might be seen,
when grown dark was the night over all,
draped in shade mail the shape would come stalking
under the waning heavens. All the throng arose.”
(Beowulf ll.642-651)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Meandering through analysis: Hrothgar’s departure

As had been the case the last time we were treated to quite a bit of expositional poetry from the poet/scribe himself, this week’s passage is rich primarily in words. And in one significant detail on which he dwells.

Near the end of this weeks’ passage we’re treated to three and a half lines about the transition from day to night and the shifting from light to darkness. I think it goes without saying that there’s something of importance here. Or at least there could be.

This transition to night begins around the middle of the passage, at which point Hrothgar begins to consider leaving the hall and heading to his evening rest. This is no doubt a reference to the first period of sleep in the usual way people slept before artificial light; he’s heading off to the first shift of sleep from sunset to about midnight. (At that point, people woke up and wrote, composed, met, talked, had sex, etc. before heading back to bed around 2 or so and then rising with the sun.)

Why is this sort of sleep pattern the pre-industrial usual? I can’t rightly say. What significance does it have here? Well, maybe not much, but it’s a fun tidbit to trot out every now and then.

As per stuff actually relevant to what’s going on in the passage, Hrothgar uses a curious word to describe what Grendel’s been doing: “geþinged.” This word comes up on line 647 and means “plan,” broadly. But specifically within the Clark Hall and Meritt dictionary I’m using, it translates as “to beg, pray, ask, intercede, covenant, conciliate, compound with, settle, prescribe; reconcile oneself with; determine, purpose, design, arrange, talk, harangue.”

Some of those words suggest “plan,” some don’t. But just about all of them suggest collaboration rather than singular action. I can’t help but get the impression that, aside from alliterative purposes (geþinged alliterates with þæm from earlier in the line), the poet put this word here to suggest one of two things about Hrothgar’s perception of Grendel.

It could suggest that Hrothgar regards Grendel as a shrewd and potent planner. He sees Grendel as a being that lays out careful plans and then follows through, as if working by committee or with the force of will of several beings.

Or, it suggests that Hrothgar is aware of Grendel’s collaboration with some other being. This doesn’t necessarily need to be Grendel’s mother. It could just as easily be a sense of some sort of spiritual communication amongst the other kin of Cain. Maybe those shunned by god just like to co-ordinate things really well.

Looking further at Hrothgar’s departure from the hall, I wonder why he leaves at all. Is it that he’s running away? Clearing the way for this Geat who’s so eager to gain glory?

Perhaps there was some kind of tradition that involved everyone belonging to a troop or band or peoples would just walk out once their leader did the same. If that’s the case, then Hrothgar could be trying to protect the Danes in this way. Though whether that’s from Grendel or from the menace of Beowulf and his seductive confidence, who can say?

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Delving deeply into three words

This week’s passage bucks the pattern that the last few have kept: it’s actually got some compound words!

There is, however, one that I noted in the entry “Beowulf gets into puns and two regular words aren’t so regular (ll.590-597).” Well, the first half of it, anyway. This is “sige-folc.” I don’t really have anything new to say about it, except that in this context it is likely meant sincerely.

After all, it isn’t necessarily calling the Danes a “victorious people,” just comparing the noise that they rose to the sort of noise that a victorious people would raise. The obvious connection is that the poet is saying that they’re celebrating before their problem has been solved.

Though, at this point, I get the impression that the original audience probably already figured out that Beowulf was going to win. But maybe there’s more dramatic tension here than I realize. I mean, we haven’t really seen much of Grendel in action. We’ve heard the aftermath of his attacks described, but we’ve never really seen him in action.

The opposite is also true. We’ve never seen Beowulf do anything. He’s boasted plenty, but done little aside from wearing his armour with a lordly air.

So what’s the conclusion here?

I don’t think the poet is trying for much beyond the surface reading of sige-folc. There’s a subtle reminder that the Danes are pre-empting their victory with a celebration here. Maybe there was an Anglo-Saxon sense of karma or cosmic irony and so this reminder could work as foreshadowing for Grendel’s mother’s attack after Beowulf has defeated Grendel. Though, I really can’t say what the poem’s earliest audiences thought and anticipated.

The other two compounds are unique (so far) to this passage. The first is from line 643: “þryðword.”

This word is a combination of “þryð” (meaning “might,” “power,” “force,” “strength,” “majesty,” “glory,” “splendour;” “multitude,” “troop,” or “host”) and “word” (meaning “word,” “speech,” “sentence,” “statement;” “command,” “order,” “subject of talk;” “story,” “news,” “report;” “fame;” “promise,” or “verb.”)

“Word” can also refer to “rod,” “(possibly) gooseberry bush” or “the word incarnate.” Why that last trio of meanings includes “rod” and possibly “gooseberry bush,” I can’t really say.

Unless, it’s a reference to words relating to Ogham alphabets. But so far in my reading, Graves hasn’t said anything about gooseberry bushes. He has put forth the idea that the burning bush was some loranthus (a kind of mistletoe) growing on a wild acacia, but other than designating this wood to Sunday and equating it with the Celtic broom, he hasn’t said much about it (The White Goddess 264)

Anyway, the thing that makes this combination of words interesting to me is that it could be a reference to armies being stereotyped as talking about manly, powerful things.

The literal translation of the compound is “power words,” and so I suppose it’s aptly applied to a bunch of warriors excitedly talking and drinking. It’s as if their confidence were returning to the Danes. For, even if a boast is empty, a boast is still something spoken from a place of confidence – even if that confidence is just an act.

Now, we come to what I think could be the coolest compound word in the passage. Maybe even up to this point in the poem. “Scadu-helm”

This word combines the Old English word for “shade,” “shadow,” “darkness,” “shady” “place,” “arbour;” “shelter,” or “scene,” “scadu,” and the word for “protection,” “defense,” “covering,” “crown,” “summit,” “top (of trees);” “helmet,” “protector,” “lord;” or “elm,” “helm.”

So the compound’s literal meaning is something like “cover of darkness.” Though that’s a bit plain. I think that something like “shade covering” or “shade mail” is a better fit — something that suggests that Grendel comes clothed in the darkness, not just under it.

I prefer that sort of interpretation because it suggests that he was civilized, but not in the civil ways of man — no — rather in the ways that kin of Cain understand civility.

Now, since elm and arbour are involved, what’s Robert Graves got to say?

(By the way, I’m referring to Robert Graves so much because I’m reading his The White Goddess right now for my blog Going Box by Box.)

On page 190 of that book, graves simply says that the elm became the alma mater (pun intended, I think) of the wine god because it was used to support grape vines. Other than that, there’s not much. So, it’s a supportive tree, and so that may well be why it’s connected to the word “helm” and all of its implications of protection.

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Closing

Next week, check back to read about how Hrothgar hands things over to Beowulf on his way out.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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Beowulf, Wealhtheow, and the two words that reveal much (ll.631-641)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
One Word Says much about Beowulf’s Song
Another Word, and More of just What Wealhtheow Is
Closing

An illuminated Chad Gospel. Image from http://events.nationalgeographic.com/ events/special-events/2011/11/13/saint-spinners/.

An illuminated Chad Gospel, just one place where words matter. Image from http://events.nationalgeographic.com/
events/special-events/2011/11/13/saint-spinners/.

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Abstract

Beowulf sings his reply to Wealhtheow’s praises, and she, well-pleased, returns to Hrothgar’s side.

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Translation

“Beowulf spoke, son of Ecgtheow:
‘I thought upon that, as I came across the sea,
seated in the sea boat amidst the multitude of my men,
that I completely for your people
would that will work, or die in the slaughter,
held fast in the fiend’s fist. I shall perform
the lordly deed, or my end days
find in this mead hall!’
That woman/lady well liked those words,
the boast-speech of the Geat; then went gold-laden
the stately queen of her people to sit with her lord.”
(Beowulf ll.631-641)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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One Word Says much about Beowulf’s Song

When last week’s passage ended with the poet/scribe possibly saying that Beowulf sang his response to Wealhtheow, I thought I knew what was coming. I figured that we’d get more of the same artful and rhetorical language that we saw when he was talking to Hrothgar. A few ‘thee”s and ‘thou”s, rhetorical separation of related clauses, all of that.

Instead, Beowulf’s dialogue here is some of the most straightforward text I’ve come across in the poem yet.

There aren’t any structural acrobatics. There aren’t any strange combinations of words. Even when it comes to compound words there are only two. These are “feondgrapum,” “endedæg” and “meoduhealle.”

All of these words are straightforwardly translated as “fiend-grip,” “end days,” and “mead hall.” There don’t seem to be any shades of morality hiding in multiple meanings, nor does Beowulf seem to be putting any of them to tricky use here.

It’s almost enough to make me think that when formal speech is delivered to a man it is a thicket, whereas when a formal speech is delivered to a woman it is a bouquet.

Though there are some rare words at play in Beowulf’s dialogue.

In line 634 Beowulf uses the word “anunga” and in line 635 he uses “crunge” (a form of “cringan”). These words aren’t often used, but there’s nothing really special about them aside from their being highly specialized.

The word “anunga” refers to something done quickly and thoroughly if taken as a whole word (my Clark Hall & Meritt dictionary separates these senses). Yet it makes sense that Beowulf use this word here since it alliterates with the word that follows, which just so happens to be on the other side of the line’s caesura: “eowra.”

“Crunge” isn’t used for alliterative purposes, but it is highly specialized, having but three meanings: “yield, fall (in battle), die.” Using any three of these fits the meaning of Beowulf’s punchy ending, but he could have simply used “acwelan” or “sweltan” (both mean “to die”).

It’s telling, then, that Beowulf dresses up his language as he sings his reply to Wealhtheow.

Perhaps this was part of formal speech, though. Perhaps when speaking to a woman the decorum was to avoid innuendo so that there would be no misunderstandings between the genders. So that there would be no young thanes lasciviously speaking to their lord’s wife about sheathing swords or venturing into mystically warm caves.

If that’s the case, though, then Beowulf slips up in being one hundred percent crystal clear. As Robert Graves might put it, he fails in speaking to Wealhtheow in plain prose; some poetry sneaks into his singing.

In line 633 Beowulf refers to his entourage as “minra secg gedriht.” This translates to “the multitude of my men.” The important word here, as far as poetry goes, is “secg.”

Why?

Because this word can mean “reed, rush, flag; sword; ocean.”

We can probably discount “ocean” right away since it’s not likely that Beowulf was thinking about defeating Grendel as he was sailing over and in the midst of ‘his multitude of oceans.’

However, he could be, whether intentionally or unintentionally, referring to his men as reeds, rushes, or flags — things that bend and twist in the wind. Maybe he’s doing this to try to raise his own esteem in Wealhtheow’s eyes. His men look tough, but they’re nothing to him. He could be using this word to add to his boast, then.

Or, Beowulf could be practicing a bit more artistry in his song. He could be referring to his men as swords.

This bit of metonymy is especially fitting since it would mean that Beowulf’s saying he wasn’t just sitting amongst his men thinking about beating Grendel, but he was sitting amongst swords thinking about it. He was having his warlike, tumultuous thoughts surrounded by warlike, tumultuous gents.

If this is the sense that the poet wants us to take away it opens up the possibility that Bewoulf is once more trying to put across the idea that he can switch between war and peace states. That he isn’t just a warrior or some sort of lunkhead, but that he is adaptable — perhaps his most useful characteristic. And perhaps it is his adaptability is what he’s really been boasting about all along.

Perhaps Wealhtheow picks up on this adaptability and can respect it as Hrothgar seems unable to adapt, unable to try a new way to kill Grendel himself and so he must rely on the help of outsiders. Because of his adaptability, however, Beowulf has no need for such help.

What do you think about the idea that a single word could hold so much importance? Is the word “secg” just there to alliterate with “sae-bat” (sea boat) and “gesaet” (“sat”)?

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Another Word, and More of just What Wealhtheow Is

This week’s passage is mostly Beowulf’s speech, but the last little bit is just as rich. Thanks in large part (again) to a single word: “freolic.”

This word is used to describe Wealhtheow as she goes back to her seat beside Hrothgar. In the text it’s in the nominative case, so it very clearly goes with “folccwen” (folk queen, also in the nominative case). It’s also one of the three alliterating words in the line along with “folc-cwen and “frean.”

But what does “freolic” mean?

The Clark Hall & Meritt dictionary offers a list of definitions: “free, freeborn, glorious, stately, magnificent, noble, beautiful, charming.”

The dictionary in the back of the C.L. Wrenn edition of Beowulf I have simply gives two definitions: “excellent” and “noble.”

Now, to be totally honest, the C.L. Wrenn definitions are no doubt right on, exactly what is meant. After all, the dictionary included in his edition of Beowulf is specifically for Beowulf. Clark Hall & Meritt’s dictionary is more general, a dictionary for all of Old English.

But. Simply going with C.L. Wrenn’s take on the word wouldn’t be any fun. And besides, as much as a modern reader knows that a “fan” could refer to a fanatic or a device that cools off its target, surely Old English speakers were aware of the same nuance in their language.

As such, let’s speculate a bit.

There’s no doubt that Wealhtheow is merely being described as stately, magnificent, noble, beautiful, and definitely charming. Any of the definitions of “freolic” fit her.

Especially that last one, since she seems to have charmed Beowulf. I mean, he’s never sung in the poem before now. Nor has he spoken so plainly when speaking formally. I’m interpreting that as a sign of his being smitten, the strange decorous informality of his reply.

But then what about the “free” and “freeborn” meanings of the word?

Well, I think that the poet is pointing to the similar word use in last week’s passage. I think that he’s trying to suggest, however subtly, that part of what makes Wealhtheow magnificent and noble is that she resists whatever sort of behaviours one in her position tends to fall into.

It needs to be remembered, after all, that Wealhtheow is very probably the queen of her people by force rather than by birth or (pre)arranged marriage. That’s not to say she’s Hrothgar’s spoils, but rather a peace-weaver, a woman given by one group to another as a means of creating peace between the two.

Yet, despite being away from home and amidst these foreign peoples, Wealhtheow retains the mien and attitude of a freeborn woman. I think it’s this that the poet is getting at and, aside from the ever-present convenience of alliteration, he used “freolic” with the full intention of getting this across.

Going on the fairly thin theory that Wealhtheow is specifically Welsh or more broadly a Celt, I think this is also supposed to meant that she, like her brethren in the British Isles, remain culturally cool under fire. Even when their culture has been overrun (just as, in a way, the Anglo-Saxon culture implied by Beowulf‘s being in Old English has been overrun by its being about Norse peoples), they remain proud and true to that original culture beneath the trappings of the new or imposed.

In this sort of captive situation, the captured culture creates a kind of kernel of true identity around which they weave something more acceptable to the group in which they currently find themselves.

Beowulf’s being young and adventuresome, I think appeals to this kernel of true identity within Wealhtheow and that is why she goes away well pleased from him — not just because he boasts once more about beating the monster. Maybe that’s even why she “well liked his words,/the boast-speech of the Geat” (“þa word wel licodon,/gilpcwide Geates” (ll.639-640)). Wealhtheow recognized in Beowulf’s words the sort of power and mastery of her own people over their own arts and knowledge.

Not to mention, that “secg.”

This interpretation pretty much entirely turns on its being layered in its meaning and Beowulf’s slipping it in there either intentionally to get Wealhtheow’s attention or unintentionally as a reflection of his own true nature of adaptability, his own true identity.

For when an old word has many senses in a modern language, why would that same word not have multiple sense in the old?

Has Modern English just diversified more than Old English ever did, so where they had but the word “freolic” we have the nine that it can be defined as?

Or was it that in older languages words just pulled double (triple, quadruple, etc.) duty more often, coming to be used in multiple senses, the one intended being suggested by delivery or gesture or tone — something that is, unfortunately, lost when written out?

We’ll probably never know any of those answers. But that’s what makes this Old English stuff fun to me. We’ll never really know about it, but at the same time, we know enough for there to be a structure from within which we can look out and speculate about that which is unknown.

What do you think of the idea that Wealhtheow represents the Briton Celts as they were under Anglo-Saxon rule? Am I putting way too much stress on just one word?

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Closing

Though Beowulf’s undoubtedly left an impression on Wealhtheow we won’t see it manifest again right away. Instead, we get a glimpse of things as they were before the night of revelry comes to an end in next week’s passage.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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Further thoughts on Wealhtheow, Beowulf tries to pick her up? (ll.620-630)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
What’s Wealhtheow, Heorot’s layout, Beowulf’s fierceness
Two Compounds and a Dialogue Tag
Closing

The lady of Heorot serving Hrothgar. It looks genial enough.

The lady of Heorot serving Hrothgar. It looks genial enough.

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Abstract

Wealhtheow makes her way to Beowulf, who graciously takes of the mead she offers before addressing her formally.

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Translation

“Then went about that Helming woman
to each section of the noble and the young,
she offered/offering the costly vessel,until the time came
that to Beowulf she, the ring adorned queen
of distinguished mind/heart, bore the mead cup.
She greeted the Geatish man, thanked god
with wise words, that he her will fulfilled,
that she could find consolation in any living warrior
against that sin. He partook of that cup,
the fierce fighter, from Wealhtheow,
and then sang the one ever ready for war;”
(Beowulf ll.620-630)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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What’s Wealhtheow, Heorot’s layout, Beowulf’s fierceness

Where to start? This passage has a lot happening in it. Since choosing just one to write on this week would mean skimming over some curious speculation, let’s just go through the major points.

For the curious, these are Wealhtheow’s position in light of her being referred to as “ides;” what we can deduce about the layout of Heorot’s interior from this passage; and Beowulf’s being referred to as, basically, “bloodthirsty.”

I know I touched on this last week, but what, exactly, is Wealhtheow?

Up to this point in the poem she’s been introduced as Hrothgar’s queen and her name makes it abundantly clear that she is likely in that relationship for the sake of political expediency rather than any strong, all-conquering love.

Later in this passage she’s also referred to as a queen. So that makes it pretty clear.

But before that, in line 620 Wealhtheow is referred to as simply “ides.”

This word translates to “virgin;” “woman,” “wife,” “lady,” or “queen.” I get that this is probably just here for the alliteration of the line (phonetically the Old English reads: “iumb-eh e-o-deh tha e-dez hel-min-ga”), but even so, using that word simply for alliteration’s sake feels like a stretch. Almost as much a one as my reading into this word.

Though, alliteration and overreaching aside, I think there’s something sane and kind of obvious at work in the use of “ides.”

At this point in the poem, the poet puts his focus squarely onto Wealhtheow. As such, it’s possible that a vague word like “ides” is used here to reflect the variety of perceptions the men in the hall have of her. Some see her as mother, others as their lord’s wife or queen, and to others still she was a woman or a lady, possibly even a virgin (at least figuratively, unless the apparent marital strife between them is about more than Hrothgar being able to raise his sword against Grendel).

Of course, it’s hard to say how the person who wrote or composed Beowulf worked. Did they ever come up with an alliteration before a line was written out, or even have a sense of which letter would be that’s line’s sound and then build the line out from there?

Perhaps with this line in particular the poet/scribe may have simply wanted to use “i” or “ides” (or “eode”) here and then built outward.

Whatever the case, figuring out just who Wealhtheow is as a person is made even more difficult by the line below describing her as having a “distinguished heart.” Is she an incredibly early expression of the idea of a noble savage? Did the Anglo-Saxons maybe consider the Celts in the same way that later Europeans considered First Nations?

Onto the arrangement of the hall. Line 621 states that Wealhtheow “went about the hall to the experienced and the young alike” (“duguþe ond geogoþe dæl æghwylcne”). What’s unclear about this line is whether those in the hall are all young and experienced (kind of a strange combination) or if the experienced sit together and the young do the same.

My guess is that it’s more the former, mostly because it makes sense that these two words represent two distinct groups and because the Geats’ needing to be let into some sort of inner chamber to see Hrothgar suggests that rank (won through experience, and therefore, age) is reflected in where your seat is.

I think that these divisions of young and experienced aren’t as you might expect, though. I don’t think “young” denotes someone who has not been alive for very long. Instead, I think that it refers to someone young in the way of battle. Why? Because the word that I’ve translated as “experienced” is also commonly used to describe or denote warriors. As such I think the poet is working in a dichotomy and though young and experienced could be seen as opposites, I think it’s a very specific sort of “young” that the poet has in mind.

Besides, Beowulf himself at this point in the story can’t be more than 20. Yet he is, at least according to his own stories, vastly experienced. Again, there are probably some in Hrothgar’s retinue that aren’t grey about the temples but have nonetheless seen plenty of combat. So it looks to me like Heorot’s seating reflects the Danes’ various skill levels.

After Wealhtheow has thanked Beowulf (for his boasts, at this point), the poet launches into a description of the warrior before he breaks into a speech.

For the most part this description of Beowulf seems fitting except that in the first part of line 629 Beowulf is described as a “fierce fighter”. The original word for “fierce” is “wælreow” which means “cruel, fierce, savage, blood-thirsty.”

Why is Beowulf characterized by such an adjective as this?

I suppose it’s possible that the poet is exulting in Beowulf’s deeds in combat or is trying to give the impression that Beowulf has seen this attractive (“ring adorned” (“beaghroden” (l.623))) lady and is trying to puff himself up to impress her.

Even so, using a word that carries “bloodthirsty” among its definitions seems like overkill to me. Unless, the word “wælreow” started off with more positive connotations (maybe as another way to refer to berserkers?) but then slowly deteriorated over time. Though, perhaps this is also part of Beowulf’s puffing up for Wealhtheow, maybe his animalistic nature is expressed sexually as well as in battle? Or maybe her thanking him has revved him up to fight Grendel?

What do you think about anything I’ve raised in this section? Leave your thoughts in the comments!

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Two Compounds and a Dialogue Tag

Although I mentioned it in the above section, the word that seemed a bit extreme to describe Beowulf’s fierceness, “wælreow” bears further investigation.

This word is one of my favourite types of words – a compound. As a such, what are its parts?

Well, there’s “wael” meaning “slaughter” or “carnage” and there’s “hreoh,” meaning “rough,” “fierce,” “wild,” “angry;” “disturbed,” “troubled,” “sad;” “stormy,” or “tempestuous.”

Interestingly, though I don’t think it’s the exact same word, there’s also an entry in the Clark Hall & Meritt dictionary for “hreoh” (“hreow”) that defines it as “sorrow,” “regret,” “penitence,” “repentance,” “penance;” “sorrowful,” or “repentant.”

Combining these two words obviously intensifies the sense of carnage and wildness that both convey. Yet, it’s curious that “wael” is a word that just describes something like a scene while “hreow” conveys a little more emotion, reflecting perhaps on the state of mind that a person is in to create a scene that could be described with “wael.”

Bringing the other possible meaning of “hreow” into the picture makes things even more curious since a slaughter that a warlike person regrets or is sorrowful over suggests that they were not themselves in their rage.

Perhaps, as I suggested in an earlier entry, Beowulf’s fighting style or battle prowess somehow relates to the practice of going berserk. If so, here, as Beowulf primes himself for his fight with Grendel, we see him starting to get into his battle frenzy.

And no doubt, Beowulf would fight in a battle frenzy. One example doesn’t make a strong case, but one of the central players in Celtic myth, Cuchulain entered into a battle frenzy in which his entire body convulsed and became grotesquely changed. Maybe Beowulf does the same or is feared for being capable of doing the same?

Another compound word worth mentioning from this week’s passage is “wisfæst” (l.626)

It’s the simple combination of “wis” meaning “wise,” “learned,” “sagacious,” “cunning,” “sane,” “prudent,” “discreet,” “experienced” and “fæst,” meaning “fast,” “fixed,” “firm,” “secure;” “constant,” “steadfast,” “stiff,” “heavy,” “dense;” “obstinate,” “bound,” “costive;” “enclosed,” “closed,” “watertight;” “strong,” or “fortified.” The word “fæst” might also mean “reputable” or “standard.”

That “wis” and “fæst” combine to simply make “wise” is incredibly straightforward. Though, I think the modern English word “wise” loses some of the original’s oomf.

After all, it’s not just the word wise, there’s a sense that the wisdom that the compound describes is something tried and true, a sort of wisdom not born merely of experience, but also from those who have gone before. Although there’s no mention of learning or reading, I get the sense that it could be the sort of wisdom that comes from instruction and experience. Or, if “reputable and standard” work as defintions of “fæst,” wisfæst” could be a sort of common sense – suggesting that even in the early medieval period those who had such sense weren’t so common and were this considered wise.

Though maybe it’s because Wealhtheow doesn’t seem to get high off of her own supply that she and her common sense seem indeed marvellous. Though, again, what exactly is her position and character?

Lastly, I just want to bring up the word “gieddan” (l.630).

It’s not a compound word, but it is one that hasn’t shown up in the poem before.

It’s another word for “said,” basically, though its dictionary entry offers “speak formally, discuss, speak with alliteration, recite, sing.” The implication of this word’s use being that what Beowulf is about to speak formally (maybe even musically?).

The word fits perfectly with line 630’s alliterating “g” sounds, but I still like to think that the poet expresses the idea that Beowulf is about to speak (before, weirdly, using the formulaic “Beowulf spoke, son of Ecgtheow” in next week’s first line) by saying he’s about to speak formally to round off the image of this young (possibly still teenaged) Beowulf seeing the lovely Wealhtheow and puffing himself up to attract her attention.

What do you think is up with Wealhtheow? Is she just Hrothgar’s queen and nothing more? Or is she somehow working behind the scenes, keeping the Danes going?

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Closing

Next week, Beowulf sings to Wealhtheow an assurance of his boast about beating Grendel and she goes to sit with Hrothgar, fully contented — for the moment.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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Beowulf gets into puns and two regular words aren’t so regular (ll.590-597)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Beowulf gets into the puns
Regular words that aren’t that regular
Closing

A young man makes a mead hall stand.

A young man makes a mead hall stand.

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Abstract

In a rather round about way, Beowulf attacks Unferth for his cowardice.

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Translation

“‘I tell to you the truth, son of Ecglaf,
that Grendel never could such a horror perpetuate,
that dire demon, over your people,
the humiliation of Heorot, were thy courage,
your heart, so fierce as thou thyself sayest it is;
but he has discovered that he need not the vendetta,
the terrible thronging swords of your people,
greatly fear, the Victory-Scyldings.'”
(Beowulf ll.590-597)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Beowulf gets into the puns

All neat and tidy, Beowulf really covers it up here. He gets to the meat of the issue and makes his point very succinctly:

“Unferth, because of your cowardice, Grendel is terrorizing Heorot.”

Bang. Boom. Oof.

Though the actual poetry isn’t quite so straightforward.

However, I really think that Beowulf’s scattered sentence structure is the result of his being livid while he speaks. This emotional state would explain to some extent why he dives into apposition as often as he does, and why things are quite so lively. He’s just tearing into Unferth at this point.

But does Beowulf maybe lose control at the end of this rant? Is his referring to the Danes as a whole (the “Victory-Scyldings” (“Sige-Scyldinga” (l.597))) pushing things too far, and unfairly spreading the blame that Unferth must bear to the rest of Hrothgar’s people?

I’d say that he’s definitely going a bit far. But I think that it’s necessary for Beowulf to sort of gently call out all of Hrothgar’s men in this instance. After all, Beowulf will be doing things differently. Spreading the blame to all of them is no doubt a keen way to show that their approach simply isn’t working and so an outsider’s approach is necessary.

Beowulf’s upending the mead benches, as it were.

Though taking a look at his epithet for Unferth and Hrothgar’s Danes, the “Victory-Scyldings,” suggests that a little bit more than merely spreading the blame might be at work.

The latter part of this compound name means, simply refers to a group of people. But the word used before it, “sige” can mean “victory,” “success,” “triumph” or “sinking,” or the “setting of the sun.”

Is Beowulf playing the prophet here, sarcastically referring to the Danes as the “Victory-Scyldings” while implying that their power is waning?

Maybe it’s not all that prophetic to say so, since for the last seven years Grendel has been tormenting them and has made their house of joy into the home of sorrow.

Yet, I think the wordplay to be found in “Sige-Scylding” is definitely intentional. The Anglo-Saxons liked a bit of sarcasm in their writing, and puns have been around since the Epic of Gligamesh.

Plus, a word for something like “victory” would likely be one well-travelled over the tongues of Anglo-Saxon audiences. It stands to reason then, that the wise among them would also be well aware of the words referring to things that are waning in some way.

Beowulf may pun earlier in this passage, as well, when he uses the compound word “searo-grim” to describe Unferth’s heart and spirit. The first part of the compound is straightforward enough, it usually means something like “art,” skill, or cleverness. But the word “grim” is rather ambiguous. (Ain’t that always the way?)

This word can be interpreted as grimman: terrible sin, along with the more literal, “grimm” meaning “fierce,” “savage,” or “severe.”

Beowulf mentioned Unferth’s killing his own kin in last week’s passage. Such a deed is truly a terrible sin, so I think it’s entirely possible that (aside form reasons of alliteration) the poet/scribe went with “searo-grim” for the little punning wink it puts on Beowulf’s sarcastic burn against Unferth’s frosty courage.

What do you think – is Beowulf making puns along with pointing out Unferth’s failings? Why would he throw such things into so serious a part of his speech?

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Regular words that aren’t that regular

To mix things up further this week, this part will still deal with words, but will entirely avoid discussing compounds.

Instead, there’re two regular, old words in this week’s passage that I think are worthy of discussion.

First up is the verb “onsittan” (from line 597). This one means “to seat oneself in,” “occupy,” “oppress,” “fear,” “dread.” Though sharing verbal real estate might not necessarily mean that those doing the sharing have much in common, “onsittan” offers a curious combination. The sort of combination that I like to read into. So read into it I shall!

Since the concepts of occupation and fear are paired together in this verb, I wonder if it implies a certain variety of fear. Not necessarily a sort of intensity of fear, but rather a certain quality of fear. One that doesn’t envelop you or creep up on you, but instead one that you set yourself into, like laying back on a nice massage bed – only to realize that the massaging fingers are thousands of squirming cockroaches.

Such a conception of fear, as something that you occupy rather than something that comes over you, may seem strange, but if you think about the larger implications it starts to make sense.

The Anglo-Saxons weren’t the most optimistic of people and so perhaps the more negative, primal emotions (such as fear) were conceptualized not as things that came from you but things that you encountered and entered into. Hence, you could come to occupy fear or dread just as you could occupy a room.

On the topic of different conceptions of things that we might take for granted, the Anglo-Saxons had a curious idea about colour.

Rather than defining it by hue, they had a tendency to define colour by its lustre. The brighter the colour, the better and more favourable it was. The darker, the more dim and drear. This might not sound too strange, but when you run into a bunch of colour descriptions only to find that they continually include light, it’s hard not to see how it differs from our modern ideas of colour.

With the word “atol” (from line 592), meaning “dire,” “terrible,” “ugly,” “deformed,” “repulsive,” “unchaste” “horror,” “evil,” I think something similar is happening. I don’t think appearance is necessarily being equated with moral uprightness as we might understand the old trope.

Instead, I think that ugliness is being related to evil simply because it lacks symmetry, it lacks the brightness that might define beauty or an incredibly valuable item or colour (like gold, for instance).

Further, I think that it’s possible that this is at the root of the old appearance/morality trope, or at least why it persisted in so much British culture and English literature.

What do you think about the Anglo-Saxons’ differing conceptions of things like fear and appearance? Are they so different from our own?

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Closing

Next week, Beowulf finishes haranguing Unferth and confidently assures that Danes that he will kill their monster.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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Beowulf’s wild accusation and some “near relatives” (ll.581b-589)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Beowulf starts big
Who are these near relatives?
Closing

A young man makes a mead hall stand.

A young man makes a mead hall stand.

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Abstract

Having finished his version of the swimming contest story, Beowulf begins to properly lay into Unferth.

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Translation

“‘I from no man of you
in such strife have heard tell,
sword terror. Neither you nor Breca
at battle-play, still neither of you two,
have done sincerely such deeds
with the stained sword – nor do I mean to boast in this –
though thou brought death to thine own brother,
near blood relation; thus thou in hell shall
suffer damnation, though thine wit thrives.'”
(Beowulf ll.581b-589)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Beowulf starts big

Perhaps it’s just a formal formulation that Beowulf is quoting at the beginning of this week’s extract, but lines 581b and 582 stand out as being the most knotted of the bunch. That is, they’re the only ones in which his word order gets twisted around for some sort of effect.

My guesses are that these lines have their word order turned about to show Beowulf shifting from narrative to outright declamation (that is, in fact, defamation). He’s now turning his attention directly to Unferth and so perhaps there’s some dramatic value in having Beowulf speak in a more convoluted way as he turns to accusing Unferth of having done no deeds of note. Maybe there’s something there, but I’m not too sure about what it could be.

What’s much more explosive and attention grabbing is the meat of Beowulf’s attack on Unferth. He doesn’t pull any punches.

He starts by saying that neither he nor (for what it’s worth, I suppose) Breca have done any great deeds of might in battle to match his own against the sea monsters. He underscores this by saying that he doesn’t “mean to boast in this” (“no ic þæs fela gylpe” (l.586))

Then Beowulf very quickly raises the stakes, saying that Unferth is going to burn in hell because he killed his kin.

Wait. Where did that come from?

Is this a commonly known thing? Is this act something that’s been published abroad with Unferth as the fiend, the villain?

Or is Beowulf maybe misinterpreting something, sharing among the Danes some piece of news that was mangled by the time it reached the Geats?

It’s possible that Beowulf’s verbal finger wagging here is based on mangled, second hand news. In that case, Beowulf’s bold statement here makes him look like an ass. Though he’d put shame into the heart of Unferth (and the rest of the Danes) with next week’s words.

If, on the other hand, Beowulf’s accusations are based on a well known story, then where does that put Unferth?

I can’t help but get the feeling that Beowulf is being something of a prig in pointing out Unferth’s killing of his own kin. If he’s in a position of honour, close to Hrothgar, then this deed must be generally ignored. Beowulf’s dredging it up could be an oversimplification of what really happened.

Perhaps Unferth slew his kin because he was bound by some sort of complex system of alliances to do so?

Or maybe Unferth has a sister and her marriage soured to such a degree that her blood relations were forced to fight her relations by marriage?

The word “heafod-mægum” does, after all, merely mean “close kin.” And it can mean anything from wife to husband to uncle to aunt.

Whatever the case, I think that Beowulf is glossing over something major in his outright defamation of Unferth as a kinslayer.

I think there’s something here in Beowulf’s saying that even Unferth’s wits won’t be able to save him from burning in hell could be a reference to Unferth’s having reasoned his way out of whatever moral quandary lead him to kill his kin.

The weirdest part of this whole passage to me, though, is that no one interrupts.

No one steps in to say “Hey, Beowulf, lay off.”

It’s not as though dialogue gets interrupted elsewhere in the poem, but the way that things are presented here it feels as though Beowulf and Unferth are utterly alone rather than in a packed mead hall.

One way to read this whole bit is that it’s might calling out brains. Beowulf is very clearly might, and so it could be argued that his moral understanding is simplified to “good guys” and “bad guys.”

Whereas, Unferth, if he really is as witty as he’s said to be, represents the brainier side of things. He is perhaps, a coward at battle, but quick in his mind and able to evade the judgment of his peers because of this. Though, in true Christian fashion (and pre-Christian Anglo-Saxon beliefs, too?) Beowulf states that Unferth will face up to his crime in the day of judgment.

Perhaps, then, what Beowulf’s getting at is that his wits will save Unferth from the judgment of his peers, but not from the final judgment of god itself.

Do you think Beowulf is really being as religious as his reminding Unferth of his final judgment suggests?

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Who are these “near relatives”?

Not to kick a dead brother, but this week, the second section is going to repeat the subject of the first.

The word that Beowulf uses to further describe Unferth’s slain kinsmen, “heafod-mægum,” is just too weird to pass up.

On its surface, the word meaning “near relatives.” It’s a combination of the Old English for “head,” “source,” “origin,” “chief,” or “leader” on the left side of its hyphen and the Old English for “male kinsman,” parent,” “son,” “brother,” “nephew,” “cousin,” “compatriot,” “female relation,” “wife,” “woman,” or “maiden” on its hyphen’s right side.

What we can take away from dissecting this one is that a near relative isn’t necessarily a blood relation (the only occurrences of blood relations in “mægum”‘s definition are “parent, son, nephew, cousin,” just 4 out of 11 total possibilities). It could be something as intimate as a spouse or fellow member of a close group that identifies as a singular unit.

I think that it’s also possible to see “mægum” being combing with “heafod” as a way to express that the connection implied by “near relatives” is something established through reasoning. The connection it describes relies on someone’s wits to understand it. Figuring out degrees of relation isn’t simple arithmetic after all.

Given the need for wits to understand the relationship denoted by “heafod-mægum,” could Beowulf be making a joke when he says that Unferth’s wits won’t save him from his hellish fate?

My thinking here is that if wits make this close connection, if the relationship between people joined through marriage or common membership in a certain group was regarded as being a connection based on understanding rather than anything physical, then it’s possible for such a connection to be cast aside using that same understanding. Wits can unbind what they have bound, though, if Beowulf’s right in saying Unferth is still damned, god does not forget what has been bound.

Disposing of a connection would mean forfeiting of whatever rights and privileges went with the connection. Reasoning your way out of a non-blood relationship also wouldn’t erase any heinous acts done to those near relatives. Acts like, say, murdering them. And it does sound like Unferth killed more than one of his close kin since both “broðrum” and “heafod-mægum” are in their plural forms.

Given all of this, I think Beowulf is speaking figuratively when he says that Unferth killed his own brothers. Rather than being blood relations, I think he’s going more towards the “compatriots” sense of “heafod-mægum.”

Why?

Because if someone were to slaughter his actual brothers, he would not end up in the inner circle of someone like Hrothgar.

However, it’s possible that Unferth is a turncoat, that he betrayed his birth tribe or group for the position that he now enjoys and Beowulf places the slaughter of his people squarely on his shoulders because if not for his betrayal they would have managed to overcome whatever was assailing them – even if that happened to be the Danes themselves as I’m guessing it was.

Because of the slithering sort of vibe I get from Unferth, I think it’s likely that he did betray the kin he slew. And that he probably did it for a place of honour with another group. However tarnished that place might be by a past that he has reasoned his way out of.

What do you think Unferth’s story is? Is he a stone-cold killer as Beowulf’s accusation suggests, or is he simply misunderstood by the Geatish hero?

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Closing

Next week, Beowulf continues his haranguing of Unferth, laying the blame for Grendel’s terror on his cowardice.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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