Is Beowulf spreading rumours about a feud?

Introduction
Synopsis
The Original Old English
My Translation
A Quick Interpretation
Closing

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

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


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Synopsis

Beowulf predicts what will happen at the marriage of Hrothgar’s daughter and Ingeld of the Heathobards. It’s nothing good, that’s for sure.


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The Original Old English

“þonne cwið æt beore se ðe beah gesyhð,
eald æscwiga, se ðe eall geman,
garcwealm gumena (him bið grim sefa),
onginneð geomormod geongum cempan
þurh hreðra gehygd higes cunnian,
wigbealu weccean, ond þæt word acwyð:
‘Meaht ðu, min wine, mece gecnawan
þone þin fæder to gefeohte bær
under heregriman hindeman siðe,
dyre iren, þær hyne Dene slogon,
weoldon wælstowe, syððan Wiðergyld læg,
æfter hæleþa hryre, hwate Scyldungas?
Nu her þara banena byre nathwylces
frætwum hremig on flet gæð,
morðres gylpeð, ond þone maðþum byreð,
þone þe ðu mid rihte rædan sceoldest.’
Manað swa ond myndgað mæla gehwylce
sarum wordum, oððæt sæl cymeð
þæt se fæmnan þegn fore fæder dædum
æfter billes bite blodfag swefeð,
ealdres scyldig; him se oðer þonan
losað lifigende, con him land geare.
þonne bioð abrocene on ba healfe
aðsweord eorla; syððan Ingelde
weallað wælniðas, ond him wiflufan
æfter cearwælmum colran weorðað.
þy ic Heaðobeardna hyldo ne telge,
dryhtsibbe dæl Denum unfæcne,
freondscipe fæstne.
(Beowulf ll.2041-2069a)


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My Translation

“That one will then speak, while beer-drinking, about that precious object,
the elder spear-warrior, he remembers all of that treasure’s history
and those that faced death at spear-point — his mind settles on their grim fates —
then, sad of mind, he will test a young warrior’s
spirit with an assault on his heart-thought,
he will arouse the evil of war, and he will say these words:
‘Might you, my comrade, recognize that sword
which your father bore to the field,
wearing his battle mask on his last expedition,
that precious sword, the campaign where the Danes slew him,
when they seized the Heathobards and made where they lay a place of slaughter,
when all our warriors were felled by the valiant Scyldings?
Now here the sons of those slayers go about
on the hall floor, exalting in the adornments of someone else.
They boast of murder, and bear about treasures
that you by right should possess.’
Just so he urges and reminds each of that time
with bitter words, until the time comes
that one of the lady’s men sleeps in bloodstained furs,
is found sliced by a sword for his father’s deeds,
to avenge those who forfeited their lives. From there that slayer
will escape alive, for he knows the land well.
Then the oath swearing of men will be shattered
on both sides, and afterwards in Ingeld
will well up a deadly hate
and surging sorrow will cool his love for his wife.
Therefore, I consider the Heathobards of no loyalty,
their part of the peace to be made by marriage is not without deceit,
the fastness of their friendship is false.”
(Beowulf ll.2041-2069a)


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A Quick Interpretation

From an outsider’s perspective, I think this passage sums up the cyclical nature of feuds quite nicely.

For new readers and those who might not know what the flavour of early medieval feuds was, here’s a quick rundown: Group A holds a mutual grudge against Group B. Group B is living more or less peacefully near Group A until Group A decides to take revenge for that grudge. This encourages Group B to do the same with Group A. Group A then retaliates, and Group B does the same. The cycle only ends when a third group comes and sorts Group A and B out or one gradually kills the other off.

Unlike your Hatfields and McCoys. An early medieval feud wouldn’t just fizzle, it basically ends when there’s no one left to feud against.

But, put some flesh on that model, and you could very well end up with this passage. After all, the Heathobards clearly still hold some hard feelings for the Danes. All it takes for one of the next generation of them to lash out is a question.

Though the old warrior’s question is pretty loaded. He asks if the young warrior remembers his father, if he remembers the heirloom that may be his by Heathobard rights, and implies that the young man could easily take it to avenge his father and restore the honour of his family (and by extension, the Heathobards). Out of those three major notes, though, I think it’s the last one that’s the most important whisper in this young man’s ear.

Why?

Because also implied in the old warrior’s words is that the young warrior’s father must not be allowed to die in vain. Actually, there’s kind of a sense that such a slaughter as the Heathobards allegedly suffered at the hands of the Danes is unsportsmanike. Which is strange to say, but warfare has always had rules.

The most important thing about this passage as it relates to the rest of Beowulf, though, is that it contradicts something that came earlier.

Back on lines 1071 to 1158, a scop tells us the story of the Danes Hildeburh and Hengest and the winter they spent with the subject of a feud: the Frisian Finn. Here we have another situation where peace forged by marriage falls apart. There’s even a similar result. But the idea of relativism was certainly alive and well for the Beowulf poet because the Danes slaughtering the Frisians and then sailing away is seen as a victory. Told in the presence of Danes, how could it be any other way, right?

But, reading it that way, I can’t help but wonder if Beowulf is catering to some prejudice of Hygelac’s with his prediction for the future Freawearu/Ingeld wedding. Maybe he’s just drawing up these lovely word pictures for his lord to better his own position at home.

Or, since he’s back home in Geatland, is Beowulf simply being true to his feelings? Now that he’s back in Geatland, he’s just letting the truth out.

Or is the only honesty that he knows a sword-point? Maybe this is simply another part of Beowulf’s monstrous qualities. He’s just too well adapted to fitting around every suggestion he faces like his sheath fits around his sword.

Ultimately, the question that really needs to be asked (and with your tongue nowhere near your cheek) is this: Why is this passage included in Beowulf’s story about his time in Daneland?

Is a slightly informed prophecy of a doomed alliance through marriage somehow relevant to the poem as a whole? Or is Beowulf just telling Hygelac what he wants to hear? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments!


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Closing

Next week, Beowulf continues his story of his adventures in Heorot. Specifically, he talks Grendel.

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The unearned title that exposes Anglo-Saxon gold for glory scheme

Introduction
Synopsis
The Original Old English
My Translation
A Quick Interpretation
Closing

A scop sings his boasts, just like Beowulf does before Hrothgar.

Image found at http://bit.ly/2jumA3j


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Synopsis

Beowulf and his crew make their way to Hygelac.


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The Original Old English

“Gewat him ða se hearda mid his hondscole
sylf æfter sande sæwong tredan,
wide waroðas. Woruldcandel scan,
sigel suðan fus. Hi sið drugon,
elne geeodon, to ðæs ðe eorla hleo,
bonan Ongenþeoes burgum in innan,
geongne guðcyning godne gefrunon
hringas dælan. Higelace wæs
sið Beowulfes snude gecyðed,
þæt ðær on worðig wigendra hleo,
lindgestealla, lifigende cwom,
heaðolaces hal to hofe gongan.
Hraðe wæs gerymed, swa se rica bebead,
feðegestum flet innanweard.”
(Beowulf ll.1963-1976)


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My Translation

“Went he then, along with his retinue,
down the beachhead, treading over the sandy seashore,
over the broad beach. The world candle shone overhead,
the sun strove from the south. They had endured,
bravely gone, to where stood that hall of lords,
the place where Ongentheow’s killer ruled,
went to where they had heard that the young king
was doling out rings. Hygelac was quickly told then
of Beowulf’s journey there, in that word it was said
that Beowulf was in the burgh, that his lifelong
shield companion had come, that the stalwart
warrior walked within the hall, hale and hearty.
Space was cleared, as the king commanded,
those who had travelled far by foot came in.”
(Beowulf ll.1963-1976)


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A Quick Interpretation

Most of this passage is just standard stuff. Beowulf and his crew of Geats are coming to the Geats’ stronghold, and they hear that Hygelac must be in since “the young king/was doling out rings” (“geongne guðcyning godne gefrunon
hringas dælan” (ll.1969-1970)). But what catches my eye is the reference to “Ongentheow’s killer” (“bonan Ongenþeoes” (l.1968)).

This wikipedia article makes the point that this epithet for Hygelac is a bit of an extrapolation. As the article points out (and as we learn later in Beowulf itself), Ongentheow had a few run-ins with the Geats, including Hygelac.

But it was not Hygelac who killed him. Eofor did, with the help of Wulf.

I guess part of being a king in the Anglo-Saxon style was sharing in your retainers’ accomplishments as much as it was sharing out your gold with them. Which is pretty interesting if you think of it as a glory for gold kind of equation. In such a situation, the king’s reputation swells with every great victory his retainers win while those retainers only see gold for the deeds they do.

In some ways, this system of glory funnelling up and gold funnelling down is a dim mirror of the sort of corporate system that’s in place now.

Today’s workers are faceless and ill-remembered by history, but are paid for their labour (mental, physical, emotional), while the glory of their accomplishments adds another page to history’s book in the name of their employer.

Kind of shines a new light on copyright and patents doesn’t it?

I only wish that there were more accounts of how warriors in early medieval Anglo-Saxon communities felt about having their physical needs met and station raised at the cost of their being remembered for their own deeds.

Though, I guess, then, as now, if someone wanted to make a place for themselves in history they would grin and bear losing the glory earned for their lord/employer while saving enough gold to start their own comitatus/business and strive for their place in history.

But if you grew up in a society where the greatest service was service to your lord, would you even consider stepping out from his shadow? Were there people who strove for their own individual goals back then? What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments.


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Closing

Next week, Hygelac asks how things went in Daneland.

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

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

Beowulf, Grendel, Old English, Anglo-Saxon

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

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Synopsis

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

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Translation

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

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Marine Mammals or Monsters?

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

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

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

Of course, that’s just speculation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Waking Monsters at Morning Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Closing

Next week, a Geat brings in a monstrous catch.

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Flaming waters and who measures out miles anyway? (ll.1357b-1367)

Synopsis
Translation
Recordings
A Weird Home with Flaming Water
The Wondrous Life of a Mile Measurer
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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Synopsis

Hrothgar tells Beowulf (and us) about where the Grendels live.

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Translation

&nbsp:&nbsp:&nbsp:&nbsp:&nbsp:&nbsp:&nbsp:&nbsp:&nbsp:&nbsp:&nbsp:&nbsp:&nbsp:”They occupy that
strange land, along wolf-inhabited slopes, near wind-wracked cliffs,
up the perilous fen-path, where mountain streams
fall through mists from the headlands,
water creeping from underground. It is not many miles
hence that their mere can be found,
with frost-covered groves overhanging it;
tree roots overshadow those waters with their interlocking embrace.
Each night there you can see the oddest of wonders,
the water catches fire; none among the dear wise
children of humanity know of those waters’ bottom.”
(Beowulf ll.1357b-1367)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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A Weird Home with Flaming Water

Wonder upon wonder! After telling us that Grendel and Grendel’s mother were known to the people living on his lands, Hrothgar goes on to describe where the two live. And it doesn’t sound very hospitable.

Wolves on the slopes (“wulfhleoþu” l.1358), paths that cut through the marsh (“fengelad” l.1359), and everything is covered in mist (“genipu” l.1360). It sounds downright swampy.

Given this description of the monstrous Grendels’ home it’s no wonder it’s the Anglo-Saxon (read British) default to ascribe brutality and low intelligence to people who live in the backwoods and hills. If the presentation of Grendel and Grendel’s mother are anything to go on, making these people monsters (as we still do in horror movies to this day), is one of the oldest stereotypes carried down by speakers of English.

But that’s not the worst of it.

Along with being in such a perilous place, the water there burns by night. Water’s not supposed to burn. And especially not at night. And yet this stuff does.

Maybe it’s marsh gas (viewers of the Jon Pertwee Doctor Who story “Carnival of Monsters” might know how flammable the stuff can be).

Or maybe it’s just the light of the moon rippling off the water between tree branches in such a way that it looks like the water is glowing.

Or, weirdest of all, maybe the fires that dance upon the lake’s surface at night are lights for those below. Maybe this is the site of an anti-Heorot, a place where monsters kick back, drink their malts and eat strictly vegetarian meals.

It sounds crazy, but, as we’ll learn later on, the Grendels do have a rather mysterious cave/hall to call their own.

And why not introduce an anti-Heorot here?

So few people adapt the poem beyond the confrontation with Grendel’s mother. But, if you look at the poem as a thing divided into thirds based on the three major fights something interesting appears. Along with three monsters (Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and the dragon) there are three halls that are featured (Heorot, the Grendel’s, and Beowulf’s). So why shouldn’t the water on fire be lights coming up from the deep, where monsters play and frolic, while one of them plays an old rib cage like a xylophone?

What do you think is causing the water of this strange lair to look like it’s burning by night?

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The Wondrous Life of a Mile Measurer

The area that Hrothgar talks about in this passage seems quite remote. It contrasts quite a bit with the tame paths and meadows around Heorot. At some point though, he must have asked someone to “mil-gemearc” the distance between Heorot and this place.

Literally, such a request would have been to “mark the miles” between the two, though “measure by miles” is far less imperative. Not that it’d be difficult to make these two words sound like a command when put together. They’re quite straightforward. “Mil” means “mile” and “gemearc” means “mark,” “sign,” “line of division,” “standard,” “boundary,” “limit,” “term,” “border,” “defined area,” “district,” or “province.”

What I wonder, though, is whether or not Hrothgar sent the same person or another to measure out the “fen-gelad.” Measuring out a “marsh-path” would be a bit more treacherous, since I doubt the ground would be very solid. I mean the two words “fen” (“mud,” “mire,” “dirt,” “fen,” “marsh,” “moor,” or “the fen country”) and “gelad” (“course,” “journey,” “way,” “street,” “water-way,” “leading,” “carrying,” “maintenance,” or “support”) going together don’t really give the sense of a path around the marsh, but rather directly through it. “Fen-gelad” sounds like it describes a path that is itself marshy.

It’d be all the worse for our measurer if they were told to go all the way to where the “fyrgen-stream” drop down into the marsh. Those “mountain streams” would be pretty deep into the fen, I’d wager. After all, the only interpretation for “fyrgen” in this context is “mountain,” so whatever sense of “stream” you went with (“stream,” “flood,” “current,” “river,” or “sea”), would need to be coming off of a mountain. And it sounds like Heorot is quite far from most mountains.

As hard a task as all this measuring out would be, I imagine that the person doing it would see some “nið-wundor.” How could they not see a “dire wonder” or “portent” along such a path? Though seeing such a thing wouldn’t necessarily uplift their spirits. “Wundor” is at least neutral, meaning simply “wonder,” “miracle,” “marvel,” “portent,” “horror,” “wondrous thing,” or “monster”. But “nið” refers to “abyss,” “strife,” “enmity,” “attack,” “war,” “evil hatred,” “spite,” “oppression,” “affliction,” “trouble,” or “grief.” So these sights may leave whatever measurer of miles that sees them with grief.

Indeed, such “nið-wundor” likely include sights like a “wulf-hleothu.” I’d be pretty distressed if I had to pass by a hillside where wolves lived after all. They’d have the higher ground and all sorts of advantages. Though, they might also be devils in disguise since “wulf” can translate as “wolf,” “wolfish person,” or “devil”. They’d definitely be on a hillside, though: “hleoþu” only means “cliff,” “precipice,” “slope,” “hillside,” or “hill”.

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Closing

Next week, Hrothgar further describes this strange place and promises Beowulf a great reward.

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Wondering about the central feud, a treasure-giver’s compassion (ll.1333b-1344)

Synopsis
Translation
Recordings
Who’s Feud is it Anyway?
A Treasure-Giver’s Potentially Life-Changing Compassion
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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Synopsis

Hrothgar laments the continuation of his feud with the Grendels.

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Translation

         “‘She carried on that feud,
that you the other night enflamed by killing Grendel
in your violent manner with the might of your grip,
since he had for so long a time terrified my people,
rended and grieved them. He fell in the fight
and forfeited his life; and now another
wicked ravager has come, looking to avenge her kin,
she who has already done much for her vengeance,
so it may seem to many thanes,
after they have seen their ring-giver weeping from the heart,
his dire distress; now that the hand lay still,
the hand that proved generous to every desire.'”
(Beowulf ll.1333b-1344)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Who’s Feud is it Anyway?

This time around Hrothgar calls out Beowulf not for doing well in killing Grendel, but for calling a second, unexpected, wicked ravager down upon Heorot.

It’s not like Beowulf could know that this would happen of course. In fact, although feud terminology had been used before, since it’s only after Grendel’s killed that we hear about his kin at all really makes me wonder how apt the word “feud” (“fæhðe” l.1333) is here. I mean, a feud in Anglo-Saxon Britain consisted of two groups clashing over and over again because of a single grievance or a string of grievances.

So, is the only grievance that Grendel and his kind had with Heorot that Hrothgar put a noisy party hall up so close to their quiet and simple fen? And if this did actually cause something that could be called a feud, then why was Grendel the sole ravager of Heorot? Why did Grendel care so much to lash out against the Danes while his mother only came on the scene once Grendel was killed?

Basically, what is this feud that Beowulf “enflamed” (l.1334)?

Weren’t Hrothgar’s danes only feuding against Grendel? Or were they actually feuding against all of monsterkind and Grendel was just that side’s representative, while the Danes had no single entity to represent them?

This is a very weird moment in the poem for these reasons. Although the poet doesn’t explicitly make the situation all that more complicated by adding in the mother character and renewing the feud that Hrothgar has with the Grendels, the concept of a feud passing from one family member who is incredibly invested to another who seems unable to care any less about it is baffling. I mean, I know she lost her son to the feud, but can it really be considered the same feud if Grendel was attacking Heorot because they barged into his home while his mother attacks for vengeance? Or did Hrothgar, Dorothy Gale-like, drop Heorot on Grendel’s dad?

Maybe this is so baffling because it’s supposed to illustrate the human misunderstanding of the natural world of which it is a part. Hrothgar calls Grendel’s apparent grudge a feud only because that’s the closest thing he knows to describe the way that Grendel is acting. But maybe the reality of the situation is entirely different; there is no feud, only one creature fighting for his land and another fighting to gain vengeance for her son.

Who do you think the feud is against? Hrothgar and the Grendels? Humans and monsters?

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A Treasure-Giver’s Potentially Life-Changing Compassion

If there were ever an ideally compassionate “sinc-giefa” they would feel a great “hreþer-bealo” for “wel-hwylcra” “man-scaða.”

After all, it is the “sinc-giefa”‘s role in Anglo-Saxon society to distribute treasure. It’s right there in the name — a mix of “sinc” (“treasure,” “riches,” “gold,” “valuables,” or “jewel”) and “giefa” (“donor”).

And so an ideal “sinc-giefa” would feel a deep sadness, a heart sorrow for those they cannot given to, that their tremendous gifts cannot extend bonds of loyalty and friendship to. A good Old English name for that feeling is “hrether-bealo,” a combo of “hrether” (“breast,” “bosom,” “heart,” “mind,” “thought,” or “womb”) and “bealo” (“bale,” “harm,” “injury,” “destruction,” “ruin,” “evil,” “mischief,” “wickedness,” “malice,” “noxious thing,” “baleful,” “deadly,” “dangerous,” “wicked,” or “evil”). A “poison thought” could be another way to look at that. Though what would that mean?

Whatever it meant, I’m sure that all those who declared themselves that giver’s enemy would leave such a giver of treasure feeling treacherously sad. Yes, “wel-hwylc” of those self-declared enemies would have that effect. And you can’t get much more all encompassing than “wel-hwylcra” since “wel” means “well,” “abundantly,” “very,” “very easily,” “very much,” “fully,” “quite,” or “nearly”; and “hwylc” means “each,” “any,” “every (one),” “all,” “some,” “many,” “whoever,” or “whatever”. Put them together and you have a “fully all” situation on your hands (“nearly some” notwithstanding).

Though, if all of those “mān-scaða” were to turn away from being enemies, if they were to repent as “sinners” might, then our all-compassionate treasure giver could offer quite lovely rewards. Though it would take a lot for a “mān-scaða” to turn around on their path — each word in that compound has heavy negative connotations,after all.

I mean, we’ve got “mān” (evil deed, crime, wickedness, guilt, sin; false oath; bad, criminal, false) and “sceaða” (“injurious person,” “criminal,” “thief,” “assassin,” “warrior,” “atagonist,” “fiend,” “devil,” or “injury”), so you know that such an enemy or sinner is pretty steeped in their opposition of our hypothetical compassionate ring giver.

And, unfortunately, that’s just about that. All of the “hreþer-bealo” our compassionate “sinc-giefa” feels won’t turn “wel-hwylcra” “mān-scaða” from foe to friend. Though their compassion might get a few to switch over if that compassion is truly irresistible.

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Closing

Hrothgar reveals some local lore about the Grendels, next week at A Blogger’s Beowulf.

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Hrothgar’s renewed sorrow, an Anglo-Saxon syllogism (ll.1302-1309)

Synopsis
Translation
Recordings
The Man Grendel’s Mother Seized
An Anglo-Saxon Syllogism
Closing

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Synopsis

After a week off from the blog we return to the poet showing us how Hrothgar takes the news of Grendel’s Mother’s visit.

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Translation

“Uproar burst forth from Heorot; in blood she’d seized
the best known hand; sorrow was renewed,
it had happened again in that hall. Their trade was harsh,
both parties had to pay a steep price
with the lives of friends. Hrothgar was now an old king,
a grey-haired battle-ruler, troubled at heart,
when he had heard his chief retainer was lifeless,
when he learned his dearest follower was dead.”
(Beowulf ll.1302-1309)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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The Man Grendel’s Mother Seized

Since Grendel’s mother has left the poet returns his focus to Heorot itself. But, he does so only to find it awash in all of the emotions that Beowulf had supposedly rid it of. As the brief half-line 1303b has it: “sorrow was renewed” (“cearu wæs geniwod”).

That might sound like quite an extreme escalation, but it’s clearer than crystal that the man Grendel’s mother took was an important one.

First off there’s the word “ealdor-þegn” on line 1308. I’ve defined this word as “chief retainer,” but one of the definitions of the word “þegn” is “noble” with the clarification that it refers to nobles who are officially so rather than noble by birth. So, this man that Grendel’s mother carried off had truly distinguished himself in the past. We never have the details revealed to us, but he definitely must have done something great to be elevated to a status that’s referred to with a word that means, at least in a sense, “noble by deed rather than by birth.”

Though it is possible that this man was noble by birth and his deed only confirmed this status.

Nonetheless, another word that tells a lot about this man whose death has plummeted Hrothgar into the pit of despair is the incredibly straightforward “freond.” One of the few words that makes it from Old English to Modern English with little modification (aside from the simplifying of the dipthong “eo” into “e”), this word means in Old English what it does in Modern English: friend. It can also mean “relative” or “lover.”

But in the context that we find it here, “freond” refers to Grendel and this taken man.

Grendel is his mother’s son, sure, but what then is this taken man to Hrothgar?

Clearly he’s as close as family since his death causes Hrothgar to lose all the vigour he’d regained upon hearing of Beowulf’s triumph over Grendel. Maybe the two were even lovers, though there don’t seem to be many homoerotic undertones in the poem. Unless, of course, homo-eroticism was just something that happened when Beowulf was being put together and so the signals of it are subtler than I’m used to.

What do you think this taken man was to Hrothgar? Simply a noble friend and advisor? Someone as close as a brother? Or were the two men long-time lovers?

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An Anglo-Saxon Syllogism

In this week’s brief passage, there’re only two compound words. So this week’s attempt to string its passage’s compound words together will be brief. And built on what I know of the Anglo-Saxon social hierarchy (which, admittedly, isn’t much).

Every “ealdor-þegn” is a “hilde-rinc,” but not every “hilde-rinc” is an “ealdor-þegn.”

I’ll explain.

The word “ealdor-þegn” means “chief attendant,” “retainer,” “distinguished courtier,” “chieftan,” or “chief apostle.” Since I don’t think the taken man in this passage was just an attendant, I’ve combined a few senses of this compound to translate it as “chief retainer.”

This word comes to its meaning through the combination of “ealdor” (“elder,” “parent,” “ancestors,” “civil or religious authority,” “chief,” “leader,” “master,” “lord,” “prince,” “king,” “source,” “primitive,” or, it could also mean “life,” “vital part,” “age,” “old age,” or “eternity”) and “þegn” (“servant,” “minister,” “retainer,” “vassal,” “follower,” “disciple,” “freeman,” “master (as opposed to slave),” “courtier,” “noble (official as distinguished from hereditary),” “military attendant,” “warrior,” or “hero”).

So the idea behind this compound is that it describes someone in the role of a follower/fighter who has distinguished themselves through long service. In fact, as mentioned above, such a person could even earn a noble standing, which, as far as I know, could be how new noble families got started.

The word “hilde-rinc,” a combination of “hilde” (“war” or “combat”) and “rinc” (“man,” “warrior,” or “hero”), means “warrior” or “hero.”

This word is much more specific, and I’m sure that “hilde-rinc” was sometimes used generally and sometimes used as an emphatic (think of someone today thinking they’re a writer when they’ve written something but they’re a writer when they’ve published something people are buying and reading).

These two are so closely connected because combat was one of the main arenas in which an Anglo-Saxon could show their worth. And, after having been through several combats, their advice (in matters of battle and politics, I imagine) would likely take on more and more weight.

Hence, every chief retainer is a warrior but not every warrior is a chief retainer.

War and battle were a pretty big part of Anglo-Saxon life, so it makes sense that experienced warriors were regarded as authority figures. But war and battle are the expertise of just a few today, so what do you think is the defining job of Western society that gives people authority just because they do that job for long enough?

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Closing

In next week’s passage Beowulf is summoned and comes marching in to see Hrothgar.

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The threat Grendel’s mother poses, more war words (ll.1279-1291)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Grendel’s Mother’s Real Threat?
Of War-Terror and Armed Men
Closing

Grendel's mother menaces a pinned Beowulf with a knife.

By J. R. Skelton – Marshall, Henrietta Elizabeth (1908) Stories of Beowulf, T.C. & E.C. Jack, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11001837

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Abstract

Grendel’s mother arrives at Heorot, and even though the poet pretends like they don’t, everyone freaks out.

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Translation

“It came then to Heorot, where the ring-Danes
within that hall slept. There would soon be
a reversal among the warriors when
in came Grendel’s mother. The terror she inspired
was only lessened slightly, as a woman warrior’s might
may be against the great strength of an armed man
when with ornamented sword, hammer forged,
blade bloody and raised over the boar helm,
the sharp edge shears the opponent.
Then in the hall were swords drawn,
blades pulled over benches, many a broad shield
held firm in hand; but they paid no mind to helmets,
or the battle shirt, when terror returned to the hall.”
(Beowulf ll.1279-1291)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Grendel’s Mother’s Real Threat?

All right, I can’t let the mention of warrior women slip by me here. What’s up with the reference to warrior women in line 1283?

It sounds like the assumption is that these women warriors would be unarmed. Or is it that they’d be armed but couldn’t handle their weapon as well as men? Or is it that these woman warriors seldom used swords whereas men were used to swinging their sharpened metal sticks around and so anyone else using them was a joke?

But why is there even this assumption? Is it that a man with a sword is a natural fighter because he’s a man? Or is it that “sword” refers to what a man has between his legs, and so a woman would indeed be “unarmed”?

Yes, this part of this week’s passage really bothers me.

Seamus Heaney’s translation of “wig-gryre wifes” as “amazon [sic] warrior’s” makes it clearer, but even the Amazonian women were armed and expert in the use of their weapon of choice. But if the poet is referring to Amazons here (quite possible, given their popularity in Greek and Roman mythology, not to mention women like Boudicca who may have been a little closer to the poet’s experience if he was Germanic or Celtic), then it just sounds like he’s making the assumption that women just aren’t as skilled when it comes to fighting as men are. Well, maybe slicing through someone’s head to a palm below the neck is more spectacular than just getting hit with an arrow in the heart, but both are going to kill you.

Though that kind of thinking does make a little sense for a poet. Spectacle is a pretty important part of Beowulf after all. Though subtlety also comes in, too. I guess that part of the poet’s world was a kind of misogyny. Maybe that’s just how it is with such old writings.

Or, maybe this passage is evidence that women didn’t “know their place” back then and were trying to fight despite whatever assumption they were running up against.

As a poet who must’ve had some renown or at least patronage in some form (no matter how advance we become, writing poetry – epic poetry especially – takes time, and the human body needs nourishment during that time, and nourishment doesn’t come free), maybe this is just a reflection of the poet’s patron’s view of things. It wouldn’t be the first time certain people were propped up while others were knocked down in a long poem because of the poet’s own interests (see Dante’s Divine Comedy for a great example of this).

Though, if men are really that powerful, shouldn’t they then be able to fend off a woman even if she’s a warrior or even if she’s armed?

Maybe there is a sexual tinge to this, and perhaps that’s the true terror that Grendel’s mother brings. She’s not just another Grendel – some sort of monstrous creature bent on killing for fun or sport – but she’s an example of what all of the women in the poem so far aren’t: untamed and fierce in the face of men.

It’s a broad assumption to make, but do you think that the Beowulf poet was a misogynist?

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Of War-Terror and Armed Men

Based on this passage, it sounds like a “waepned-men” is only a “wig-gryre” when he’s armed. That might sound redundant, since “waepned” sounds liked “weaponed” which sounds like it means “armed.”

Not so.

Apparently “waepned-men” means nothing more than “male” or “man.” That’s because the word “waepned” means “male” or “male person” and “men” means “person (male or female)”, “man,” “mankind,” “brave man,” “hero,” “vassal,” “servant,” “the rune for ‘m,'” or “one.” So that is actually the only redundancy here.

Though if you have enough armed “waepned-men” of the same type together, that sort of redundancy could inspire “wig-gryre” or “war-terror.” This word comes from the combination of “wig” (“strife,” “contest,” “war,” “battle,” “valour,” “military force,” or “army”) and “gryre” (“horror,” “terror,” “fierceness,” “violence,” or “horrible thing”), which seems like it should just refer to war in general. The idea of “war-terror” itself sounds like a broken record since the two are so closely linked.

Just as “heard-ecg” and “sid-rand” are closely linked.

These words, after all, refer to a “sword” and “broad shield,” respectively. The first, “heard-ecg” is a little literal, since “heard” means “hard,” “harsh,” “severe,” “stern,” “cruel (things and persons),” “strong,” “intense,” “vigorous,” “violent,” “hardy,” “bold,” “resistant,” or “hard object” while “ecg” means “edge,” “point,” “weapon,” “sword,” or “battle axe”. Putting them together makes “sword” just as easily as putting forged steel and leather wrappings together would.

Likewise, a “sid-rand” could draw its strength from the simple yet powerful connection that exists between its parts. After all, the word “sid” means “ample,” “wide,” “broad,” “large,” or “vast” and “rand” means “border,” “edge,” “boss of shield,” “rim of shield,” “shield,” or “buckler.” So it’s pretty clear what the deal is there.

Actually, now that I think of it, a lot of Old English words for war and its implements are pretty tightly constructed. Not too surprising coming from a culture mad for war and fighting, though they also had enough people willing to war with words to create things like Beowulf.

What do you think of the word “war-terror” (“wig-gryre”)? Is it just a synonym for war, or do you think the Anglo-Saxons thought that some wars were not at all terrible or terrifying?

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Closing

The poet briefly turns to Grendel’s mother’s perspective in next week’s passage.

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