Grendel’s mother teased, monstrous and criminal words (ll.1251-1268)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
The Slow Reveal of Grendel’s Mother
Lady Monsters, Criminals, and Festive Bedtime Stories
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

The poet lingers on Grendel as he starts to introduce the next threat: Grendel’s mother.

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Translations

“Sank they then to sleep. One man paid a dear price
for that evening’s rest, as they went to it as they would
in the gold hall before Grendel occupied it,
ruled with terror, until his end came,
death after such dire crimes. They then became manifest,
those deeds of the widely known man, that avenger then yet
lived after that hateful one, for a long time,
while he wallowed in war wounds. Grendel’s mother,
that hag, the one with a woman’s misery in mind,
who was made to inhabit fearsome waters,
who lives in cold streams, after Cain became
the slayer by the sword of his own brother,
kin by the same father; he fled as an outlaw for that,
marked with murder, fled from the joy of companionship,
occupied the wilderness. Thence was born
that terrible fate; that was hateful Grendel,
the savage outcast, then at Heorot he found
a watchful man waiting for war.”
(Beowulf ll.1251-1268)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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The Slow Reveal of Grendel’s Mother

This passage is quite a bit longer than previous weeks’. I think the poet lengthens things here to draw out the suspense. Though he might go a little too far, teasing us with talk of Grendel’s mother only to fall back to recounting Grendel’s visits to Heorot and the night that he found Beowulf there, “waiting for war” (“wer wiges bidan” (l.1268)).

I mean, this is now the third time or so that we’ve heard tell of Beowulf’s beating Grendel. The first time being when we witnessed it through the poet’s interpretation, then through Beowulf’s retelling of the story, and now, again, we have the poet giving us a précis. What makes this regular retelling strange is that there’s at least one more: when Beowulf tells the tale again (with some embellishments) to his liege lord Hygelac.

What really confounds me here, though, isn’t that the story of Grendel’s being told yet again just a few hundred lines after he was mortally wounded (which comes on lines 814-818, and which Beowulf retells on lines 960 to 979), but that the poet feels the need to refresh us on who Grendel was while he also introduces a new character: Grendel’s mother.

And that in particular bugs me because we get so little detail about Grendel’s mother. She seems to be a dweller in the fen as her son was, but then where’s she been since the Danes built Heorot and moved in? Was Grendel sneaking out to wreak havoc by simply telling her he was “going out for a bit”? Why wasn’t she there with him?

Her absence from Grendel’s raids really makes me wonder if Grendel’s mother wasn’t somehow summoned up by his defeat. Unless she just got back from some very important business on the far side of the fen to find her son lying dead and so lashes out as she does.

But then, is she sophisticated or as beastly as Grendel himself? More modern depictions vary from the seductress of Beowulf the Musical Epic and Angelina Jolie’s portrayal of her in Robert Zemeckis’ Beowulf of 2007 to the hag in Sturla Gunnarsson’s Beowulf & Grendel (2005).

But I suppose that’s what makes Grendel’s mother such a mysterious figure. The poet tells us that she “inhabits fearsome waters” (“wæteregesan wunian” (l.1260)), and that she has a “woman’s misery in mind,” (“yrmþe gemunde” (l.1259)), both of which are supposed to tell us what she’s all about. Though the latter is far less than helpful.

Is this “woman’s misery” the grief that a mother feels for the death of her son? Or is it the sort of superhuman vengeance a woman wronged can direct towards the one who wronged her?

What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments.

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Lady Monsters, Criminals, and Festive Bedtime Stories

During a “man-dream” many stories would be told. And, no, those stories wouldn’t necessarily end with “and it was all a dream!” That’s because “dream” in Old English means: “joy,” “gladness,” “delight,” “ecstasy,” “mirth,” “rejoicing,” “melody,” “music,” “song,” or “singing.” Combine that with “man” (“one,” “people,” “they”), and you wind up with “man-dream” (“revelry, festivity”).

Then, as now, stories told during such a festive atmosphere, would vary from the heroic (the bread and butter of Beowulf and his poet) to the comical or frightening. A frightening story (or perhaps a heroic one if the ending’s different) might just involve an “aglæc-wif.”

This “aglæc-wif” would be a fresh twist on an old classic (and maybe extra chilling because of it), since “aglæc-wif” means “female monster.” As a compounding of “aglæc” (“wretch,” “monster,” “demon,” or “fierce enemy”) and “wif” (“woman,” “female,” or “lady”; or, as a suffix, “-wif” could mean “fate,” “fortune,” or “a disease of the eye.”), this meaning is pretty clear. Though why the sex or gender of a monster should matter, is a bit of a mystery to me. Whatever the impact, the way that the poet is slowly introducing Grendel’s mother, it seems like this kind of female monster was “wid-cuþ” among storytellers and listeners of the age.

If such tales were “widely known” (that is, wid-cuþ, literally a mix of “wid” (“wide,” “vast,” “broad,” or “long”) and “cuþ” (“known,” “plain,” “manifest,” “certain,” “well known,” “usual,” “noted,” “excellent,” “famous,” “intimate,” “familiar,” “friendly,” or “related”) to bring us here), then there’s very little mystery as to why the poet leaves so much about Grendel’s mother to his audiences’ imaginations. Though it is telling that she is referred to as a “wæter-egesan.”

As a “wæter-egesan,” perhaps she, or her kind in general, is specifically well-known as a “water terror,” that word’s translation. Just like its Modern English counterpart, this compound’s “wæter” means “water,” while “egesan” could mean “awe,” “fear,” “horror,” “peril,” “monstrous thing,” “monster,” or “horrible deed.” But put them together and you’ve got a quick way to refer to creatures strange and odd that hunt in the water.

Despite all of this vagueness around Grendel’s mother and how frustrating it might be, it’s not surprising that we know more about her than we do about Grendel’s father. After all, Beowulf comes from a cultural context in which the prevailing Christian idea of sin was that you bore the sins of your father.

So, as kin of Cain, Grendel is still marked by the sin of the first murderer. That’s what he gets as a paternal kinsmen of Cain, one of his “fæderen-mæge”; Grendel is Cain’s son, since of all murderers, the first ever would have a very hard time being redeemed.

That makes “fæderen-mæge” quite potent when referring to Grendel’s paternal lineage. Which makes sense, since, as a combination of “fæderen” (“father,” “male ancestor,” “the Father,” or “God”) and “mæge” (“male kinsmen,” “parent,” “son,” “brother,” “nephew,” “cousin,” “compatriot,” “female relation,” “wife,” “woman,” or “maiden”) the word means “paternal kinsmen.”

Because of Grendel’s particular paternal lineage, he is a “geosceaft-gasta,” or a “doomed spirit” This compound’s neat because it contains a compound itself since “geo-sceaft” is a combination of “geo” and “sceaft” (which I discuss here). It’s also quite straightforward since there’s no escaping that “geosceaft-gasta” means “doomed monster,” or “doomed person.” Which is pretty much perfect since “gasta” means “breath,” “soul,” “spirit,” “life,” “good or bad spirit,” “angel,” “demon,” “Holy Ghost,” “man,” or “human being.”

Such a creature could be described as a “heoru-wearh.”

A “heoru-wearh” is a “bloodthirsty wolf.” Though you wouldn’t necessarily get that sense from this compounding of heoru (sword) and wearg (“wolf,” “accursed one,” “outlaw,” “felon,” “criminal,” “wicked cursed,” or “wretched”). The word leaves me with more a sense of a someone in power (hence their possessing a sword) who is corrupt or criminal, someone who really can’t be trusted with that power since they’ll likely use it against the greater good — solely for their own gain.

A much simpler sort of criminal is contained in the word “ecg-banan.” This compound means “slayer with the sword” and comes from the mix of “ecg” (“edge,” “point,” “weapon,” “sword,” or “battle axe”) and “banan” (“killer,” “slayer,” “murderer,” “the devil,” or “murderess”). So it’s much less metaphorical than “heoru-wearh.” Though either of these beings could cause you “guþ-cear.”

“Guþ-cear” refers to “war-trouble.” As a compound of “guþ” (“combat,” “battle,” or “war”) and “cearu” (“care,” “concern,” “anxiety,” or “sorrow”) that makes good sense. “War-care” is a great way to say “wound” since it’s something you’re likely pretty concerned about in the midst of war, and well afterwards you might still make a fuss about it. Though hopefully not enough of a fuss (whether fresh or long since healed) to let yourself and others enjoy a nice “æfen-ræst.”

This word means “evening rest,” thanks to the combination of “æfen” (“even,” “evening,” or “eventide”) and “ræst” (“rest,” “quiet,” “repose,” “sleep,” “resting-place,” “bed,” “couch,” or “grave”).

Yes, a good “evening rest” after all the tales during a “man-dream” could indeed help refresh you after receiving some “gudth-cear.” Though, with “ræst”‘s meaning (quite similar to our own modern euphemism) “the grave,” your “gudth-cear” could also send you to a lengthy “æfen-ræst” indeed.

Why do you think gender gets specified in the compound “aglæc-wif”?

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Closing

Next week the poet spills more about Grendel’s mother.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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The Danes and Geats bed down with fate, the bench boards’ destiny (ll.1232-1241)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Fate’s Just What Happens to You
The Bench Boards’ Destiny
Closing

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Abstract

The poet meditates on the inescapability of fate as he tells of how Heorot quieted down for the night.

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Translation

“She went then to her seat. There was the greatest of feasts,
men drank great wine; none knew the fate that awaited,
a dolorous destiny, as it would again
and again befall the many, after evening came,
and Hrothgar had retired with his entourage to his chamber,
the ruler gone to rest. The hall was guarded
by warriors without number, as they had oft done before;
the bench boards were cleared; the floor was enlarged
with bedding and pillows. One reveller
was marked and doomed on that couch to depart.”
(Beowulf ll.1232-1241)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Fate’s Just What Happens to You

It looks like this passage is just the poet talking, filling time. But it sounds like things are about to take a dark turn in Heorot.

Of course, there isn’t much to tell of the revelry at Heorot right now. Things are quieting down for the night. But how the poet tells us this is what I find interesting.

Rather than being overly moralistic about the juxtaposition of revelry and the harshness of fate here (as is my general impression of Christian writing), the poet says the feasting in the hall went on, everyone eventually getting ready for bed and being entirely unaware of what is about to befall them. It’s a simple enough juxtaposition, the difference between an everyday thing and something out of the ordinary. But what draws my attention to this juxtaposition is that there’s no connection between the two of these things. This “dolorous destiny” (“geosceaft grimme” (l.1234)) isn’t about to be visited on Heorot because they were revelling and enjoying to excess. It’s just what happens “as it would again/and again befall the many” (“swa hit agangen wearð/eorla manegum” (l.1234-1235)).

And that line especially, “as it would again/and again befall the many” keeps having fun and being visited with some sort of terrible fate from being truly connected here. It almost sounds like the poet’s stance on destiny or fate or determinism is that bad stuff is bound to happen to people as long as they’re on this earth. But, at the same time there’s the implication that this bad stuff is balanced out with the ability and the chances that people have to enjoy themselves. Like, for example, indulging a bit in the “greatest of feasts” (“symbla cyst” (l.1232)).

Along with the poet’s revealing a bit of how they think about fate, it’s interesting from a narrative perspective that they just say “one reveller/was marked and doomed on that couch to depart” (“beorscealca sum/fus ond fæge fletræste gebeag” (ll.1240-1241)). This line builds up a little bit of tension, and the effect is amplified thanks to the line’s placement around all of this mystical talk of inexorable fate. Everyone dies sometime. Maybe this one who’s doomed to die in Heorot this night will pass quietly?

There’s no question about this person being someone other than Beowulf, since the poem is named for him, and there’s quite a bit of the poem left. Plus, the poet’s very clearly pulled out from the usual tight zoom on this epic’s titular character. Which leaves us with the question of will a Geat die this night or will it be a Dane?

Toss your guess in the comments!

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The Bench Boards’ Destiny

The Old English word “geo-sceaft” (l.1234) means “destiny,” or “fate,” and is a word that only appears in Beowulf as far as we know. This word comes from the combination of “geo” (“once,” “formerly,” “of old,” “before,” “already,” or “earlier”) and “sceaft” (“created being,” “creature,” “origin,” “creation,” “construction,” “existence,” “dispensation,” “destiny,” “fate,” “condition,” “nature”), creating a neat image of something that has happened before happening again, maybe on a karmic sort of scale, or maybe because the Anglo-Saxon sense of fate was somehow tied to habits.

But, whatever the Anglo-Saxons’ related fate to, the idea of destiny is pretty high falutin. People die for destiny, they’ll put their all into pursuing it, and they’ll feel like they were made to fulfil it. But I’d rather look at a particular thing’s destiny in this section.

I think it’s safe to say that a “bencþel” (l.1239) has a destiny. That is, a “bench board,” or “wainscotted space where benches stand,” is destined for something – it’s designed for it. In fact, in this passage, I’d say that this thing described by a word born of the union of “benc” (“bench”) and “þel” (“board,” “plank,” “metal plate”), is destined to have “beor-scealca” transform it.

These “beor-scealca” (l.1240; meaning”revellers,” or “feasters,”) are likely to transform the bencþel for a very specific purpose. As you might guess from the combination of “beor” (“strong drink,” “beer,” “mead”) and “scealca” (“servant,” “retainer,” “soldier,” “subject,” “member of a crew,” “man,” “youth”) these “beor-scealca” aren’t in any state to go to their own beds, so instead they’ll transform the “bencþel” into a “flet-ræst.”

A “flet-ræst” (l.1241) is a “couch,” pure and simple (though it applies to just about anywhere soft enough to comfortably lay or bed down in).

Coming from the mix of “flet” (“floor,” “ground,” “dwelling,” “hall,” “mansion”) and “ræst” (“rest,” “quiet,” “repose,” “sleep,” “resting place,” “bed,” “couch,” “grave”), this word sounds like it specifies something more than just a box with some cushions on it. In fact, this word got so comfy for English speakers, that it became the English vernacular for “house” or “apartment”: “flat.”

But transforming an area meant for benches into a soft place to sleep isn’t just some drinking trick (have several pints, look in empty corner, see comfy couch, collapse on bare floor). The “beor-scealca” would transform the “bencþel” by using the process of “geondbrædan.”

The word “geond-bræden” (l.1239) means “to cover entirely,” or, only in Beowulf apparently, “to enlarge,” or “extend.” This word comes from the combination of “geond” (“throughout,” “through,” “over,” “up to,” “as far as,” or “during”) and “bræden” (“make broad,” “extend,” “spread,” “stretch out,” “be extended,” “rise,” “grow,” “roast,” “toast,” “bake,” “broil,” or “cook”).

So, the “beor-scealca” would fulfil the “bencþel”‘s “geo-sceaft” by fluffing the area up with pillows and such (the “geondbræd”-ing process) to make it into a “flet-ræst,” something more than just a place for benches. After the feast, these areas would become the resting place for the feasters. And for one in particular it will be his final resting place.

What do you think it’s you’re destiny to do? Do you even believe in the concept of destiny?

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Closing

The Dane’s bedtime ritual continues next week. What could the poet be building to with this talk of fate?

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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Wealhtheow speaks to Beowulf, another compound chain (ll.1215-1231)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
What’s Wealhtheow’s Speech Really all About?
A Leader and Their People Bound by Treasure
Closing

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Abstract

Amidst all of her gift giving, Wealhtheow speaks up, praises Beowulf, and (maybe) warns him.

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Translation

“Wealhtheow spoke, she before the throng said this:
‘Enjoy these rings, dear Beowulf,
young warrior, be with health, and this garment use,
our people’s treasure, and prosper well;
show to these youths your strength, and to them
offer kind advice; I for this reward shall remember you.
You have brought it about, so that far and near
forever among men shall you be praised,
just as widely as the sea encompasses
the home of the wind, the jutting cliffs. Be, long as you live,
prince, blessed! I wish to you great
treasure. Be you to my sons
of kind deed and joyful!
Here each man is to the other true,
of mild heart, under our lord’s protection;
the warriors are united, a people fully prepared
these men all have drunken the pledge and do as I command.'”
(Beowulf ll.1215-1231)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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What’s Wealhtheow’s Speech Really all About?

Wealhtheow’s speech in this passage covers a lot of topics. I mean, first she formally gives Beowulf further gifts, then asks him to be a role model for her sons. Then she says that because of what he’s done Beowulf’s fame will encompass the land just as the seas do before she wraps it all up with a statement about her being in power in the hall.

Actually, that last statement strikes me as the oddest bit of her speech.

I mean, for most of this bit of dialogue she’s been talking about Beowulf, and even before it she’s been described as giving him these gifts. So…what’s the deal with her concluding statement about the order of the hall?

Maybe it’s just a speech formula. The speaker starts by praising and requesting things of the subject of their speech and then jumps right into a little “here’s how things work here” statement. I can see this formula being a useful rhetorical device solely because of the order in which things are presented.

The subject-listener, after having heard so much ego-swelling material is likely giving the speaker their full attention, waiting intently for more to feed their sense of self-worth. But then, rather than praising the subject’s pectorals or gushing about his gluteus maximus, the speaker says “hey, you’re in my hall now, and this is how you need to behave.” It’s like sneaking a PSA into a children’s cartoon so that only the parents watching notice.

But maybe there’s more still going on here, too.

Putting aside all theories that Wealhtheow has the hots for Beowulf (because she is a woman and Beowulf is this young adventuring type), maybe this ordering of topics is meant to cut off the male subject-listener’s understanding of the speaker as coming onto him before the idea can take serious seed in his mind. Just as the male listener expects another flattering comment, maybe the verbal equivalent of batting eyelashes, the female speaker says “but, hot as you are, remember — I’m queen of this place and everyone here is at my command. So don’t try anything.”

Although, taking this rhetorical ordering of topics as a means of diffusing ego tripping and perceptions of sexual advances is just one interpretation. This kind device could also invite further sexual advances. Maybe, broken down into its most basic statements, this whole speech to Beowulf is saying “Hey, you’re pretty hot, I’m pretty powerful, let’s hook up. I can just tell anyone who sees us here to look the other way.”

All of which makes understanding just what’s going on in this speech tricky.

Though, unless the Beowulf poet wanted their hero to have some sort of Oedipal thing going on, I lean a little more toward the warning explanation of this rhetorical ordering.

I mean, Wealhtheow doesn’t just mention her children once, but twice. Though, in both instances she’s asking Beowulf to be a role model for her kids through his strength and generous actions, possibly the role a father should fulfil but that Hrothgar is too old to himself. So, maybe she really is trying to get Beowulf into her bed, even through her mention of her kids.

What do you think? Is this speech proof that Wealhtheow is coming onto Beowulf, or is it just a lady and mother imploring a hero to teach the next generation how to behave? Sound off in the comments below.

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A Leader and Their People Bound by Treasure

I thought that chaining together some of last week’s compound words into a kind of story worked pretty well, so I’m doing it again. Here goes:

The word “man-dryhten” (l.1229) denotes something more than just a leader. In particular, it means “lord” or “master.” A combination of “man” (“one,” “people,” or “they”) and “dryhten” (“ruler,” “king,” “lord,” “prince,” “the Lord,” “God,” or “Christ”), there’s a sense that people described by this word aren’t just men who lead, but who are leaders of men. As such, it’s important for them to be “eal-gearo.”

That is, these leaders of men need to be “all ready,” or “prepared.”

The word “eal-gearo” (l.1230) is a great word to express an extreme preparedness because its combination of “eal” (“all,” “every,” “entire,” “whole,” “universal,” or “all men”) and “gearo” (“prepared,” “ready,” “equipped,” or “finished”) gives a clear sense of someone or something that is fully equipped or prepared, meaning that they’re ready to face just about anything. Even if what they need to do involves the emotional state of their “dryht-guman.”

Based on the idea of “man-dryhten” worrying about “dryht-guman” (l.1231), you’d be right to guess that “dryht-guman” are “warriors,” “retainers,” “followers,” “men,” or “bridesmen.” But because this isn’t just a standalone word for warrior like “beorn,” or “wiggend,” there’s something more going on here. This special connotation comes from the combination of “dryht” (“multitude,” “army,” “company,” “body of retainers,” “nation,” “people,” or “men”) and “guman” (“man”), and implies someone who isn’t just a fighter, but who is fighting for a particular cause headed by a particular figure or person. And if that person is truly worth a pack of dedicated fighters, they’ll be able to keep their “dryht-guman” “dream-healdende.”

Despite its length “dream-healdende” (l.1227) simply means “happy,” or “joyful,” and is based on the combination of “dream” (“joy,” “gladness,” “delight,” “ecstasy,” “mirth,” “rejoicing,” “melody,” “music,” “song,” or “singing”) and “healdende” (as “heald”: “keeping,” “custody,” “guard,” “protection,” “observance,” “observation,” “watch,” “protector,” or “guardian”; or as “healdan”: “hold,” “contain,” “hold fast,” “grasp,” “retain,” “possess,” “inhabit,” “curb,” “restrain,” “compel,” “control,” “rule,” “reign,” “keep,” “guard,” “preserve,” “foster,” “cherish,” “defend,” “withhold,” “detain,” “lock up,” “maintain,” “uphold,” “support,” “regard,” “observe,” “fulfil,” “do,” “practice,” “satisfy,” “pay,” “take care,” “celebrate,” “hold,” “hold out,” “last,” “proceed,” “go,” “treat,” “behave to,” “bear oneself,” or “keep in mind”).

So, running with the words compounded into “dream-healdende,” it’s clear that the word conveys an easy sense of “happiness” or “joyfulness,” but with the implication that these states are sustained or long-lasting. And what better way for a “man-dryhten” to sustain the happiness of their “dryht-guman” than with treasure?

That’s where the word “sinc-gestreona” (l.1226) comes in. This word means “treasure” or “jewel” and is a combination of “sinc” (“treasure,” “riches,” “gold,” “valuables,” or “jewel”) and “gestreon” (“gain,” “acquisition,” “property,” “treasure,” “traffic,” “usury,” or “procreation”), which pushes the literal meaning of “sinc-gestreona” beyond that of a mere trinket of treasure and into something that, like “dream-healdende,” sustains wealth over a long period of time. So, really, “sinc-gestreona” might more accurately mean a hoard of treasure or something of incredible value. Perhaps, a piece that’s treasured by a whole people.

Or, you might say, a “þeod-gestreona” (l.1218).

This word means “people’s treasure” or “great possession” and comes from the mixture of “þeod” (“people,” “nation,” “tribe,” “region,” “country,” “province,” “men,” “wartroop,” “retainers,” “Gentiles,” “language” or “fellowship”) and “gestreona” (the same as in the previous compound).

There’s not much more to “þeod-gestreona” than that, since “þeod” literally refers to a collective of people, even getting a little meta to include “language,” so such a treasure that’s a “þeod-gestreona” is something valued by a mass of people, perhaps even something that gains much or even all of its value because of that mass valuation.

In fact, if you went back to the peak of the Beanie Babies craze in the ’90s, those Beanie Babies that were counted the most valuable would be perfectly described by this sense of “þeod-gestreona” — pretty much any sought after collectible is a “treasure of the people,” in a sense, after all. Collecting things really does go that far back!

The Anglo-Saxons collected gold and jewelled treasure, which are still “þeod-gestreona,” but what do you collect just because it’s valuable to you? What’s something that you consider “þeod-gestreona”?

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Closing

Next week, things quiet down for the night in Heorot, and the poet talks of fate.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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A tale of a torc (pt. 2) and a battle sequence of compound words (ll.1202-1214)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
A Story Told While a Studio Audience Leers?
Some Compound Words in a Sequence
Closing

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Abstract

We hear the other half of the story of the torc that Wealhtheow is giving Beowulf and the revellers in the hall love it.

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Translation

“Then the ring had Hygelac the Geat,
Swerting’s grandson, wore it on his final raid,
during that time he defended the treasure under his banner,
protected the spoils of the slain*; but he was carried off by fate,
since he for pride’s sake sought trouble,
bore feud to the Frisians. Yet he carried those adornments away,
took the precious stones over the wide waves,
that mighty man; he fell dead beneath his shield.
Then it passed from the king’s body into the grasp of the Franks,
his mailcoat and the circlet also;
the less worthy warriors plundered the slain,
after the battle carnage; the Geatish people
occupied a city of corpses. The hall swelled with sound.
(Beowulf ll.1202-1214)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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A Story Told While a Studio Audience Leers?

This passage continues the story of the torc that Wealhtheow has just given to Beowulf. Though, honestly, this half of the story is the much more relevant one, I think. After all, it opens with a mention of a Hygelac who is a Geat.

And we’ve already heard of a Hygelac who’s a Geat in this poem, he’s the one who’s the Geat’s (and therefore Beowulf’s) current ruler. Though, since this part of the torc’s story includes Hygelac’s death, it’s pretty clear that the Hygelac of the poem’s present is a descendant of, or at least named for, this famed Hygelac of old.

And why not? This historical (well, at least in that he lived in the past, whether that past the poem talks about is real or not isn’t too important within the poem itself, really) Hygelac was a true badass. He seized the torc, wore it into many battles, fought fiercely against the Franks, and died protecting it and other treasures. That last detail might sound like a waste, but I think the point is that these other treasures were so precious to the Geats that one of their greats was willing to protect them. No doubt, so little is said about these treasures though because they were fairly well known to the audience of Beowulf, or at the very least the concept of treasures — things — that you’d actually want to die for wasn’t as strange as it might be to modern day readers of Beowulf.

Anyway, in this part of the story, it’s mentioned that this Hygelac also had a very special mail coat with him. On line 452 of Beowulf, we’re told that Beowulf himself wears a mail coat that once belonged to a Hygelac.

Maybe this is Beowulf’s lord, but it’d be much more meaningful and exciting if it was this historical Hygelac’s mail coat. If it is, then Beowulf’s being granted the torc is like his receiving the second half of an ancient heirloom, or like Aragorn getting Andúril when it’s reforged from the shards of Narsil that were saved from The War of The Last Alliance of Elves and Men in Tolkien’s Middle Earth lore. If the mailcoat Beowulf has (allegedly forged by the mystical, mythological smith Wade) is this historical Hygelac’s, then Beowulf has just been doubly blessed as a warrior and only really needs an ancient sword to complete his ancestral outfit (three is a magical number after all).

Beyond the significance of a former Geat and Hygelac’s having the torc before Beowulf (its rightful owner?) has it again, this passage has a curious final half line.

After Wealhtheow has related the story of the torc we’re told “The hall swelled with sound” (“Heal swege onfeng” (l.1214)).

If this raucous cheering is because of the story of the torc that Wealhtheow just told in a bizarre non-dialogue way (given the rest of the poem’s being perfectly okay with running long), then it almost seems like the hall is cheering because the Geats lost in that battle against the Franks, the survivors, as we’re told, were left “a city of corpses” (“hreawic” (l.1214)).

That makes me think that Wealhtheow’s story of the torc is more likely the poet interjecting with a quick explanation of the torc’s significance, something that someone like Wealhtheow wouldn’t really have much reason to know. After all, based on her name, she’s likely a British Celt of some kind, or at the very least somehow related to the peoples that the Anglo-Saxons regarded as slaves (since “wealh” can mean “slave,” “foreigner” or “stranger”). So she’s not likely to know much about what to her is a foreign people’s history.

So, if this story is the poet interjecting, then the hall must just be rejoicing because Wealhtheow is giving Beowulf this torc and the other rich treasures mentioned. It must be some torc then, or, at the least, the hall must be in a merry mood if they’re willing to loudly cheer the lady of the hall giving the guest a gift. Unless “The hall swelled with sound” is just Old English equivalent of the modern day sitcom soundtrack’s “oooo!” while two characters kiss.

Do you think Beowulf’s wearing old Hygelac’s mailcoat? Or, do you think the whole hall is “whoo”-ing at Wealhtheow being so generous to Beowulf?

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Some Compound Words in a Sequence

Well, because there’s a battle in this week’s passage, there’s a pretty good mix of compounds. To do something a little different with this section, this week I’m going to weave some of them into a bit of a sequence. But I’ll start with those that I didn’t fit into the sequence.

So, on line 1211 we find “breost-gewædu,” the Old English word for “corslet,” or “mailcoat,” either word being more or less interchangeable.

If we break “breost-gewædu” into it’s compounded words we’re left with “breost” (meaning “breast,” “bosom,” “stomach,” “womb,” “mind,” “thought,” or “disposition”) and “gewædu” (meaning “robe,” “dress,” “apparel,” “clothing,” “garment,” or “covering”). Since a this kind of armour covers the breast primarily, it makes sense that it’d be called a “breast robe,” though that’s a bit silly to say.

Then, on line 1214 we have “hreaa-wic” meaning “place of corpses.” This word is a compounding of “hræw” (“living body” “corpse,” “carcase,” or “carrion”) and “wic” (“dwelling place,” “lodging,” “habitation,” “house,” “mansion,” “village,” or “town,”). So it literally means “corpse dwelling place,” an apt name for a battle field, especially one on which battle has involved “guðsceare.”

The word “guðsceare” means simply “slaughter in battle.” But, looking at the words that combine to make this term fleshes it out (if you will).

With “guð” meaning “combat,” “battle,” or “war” and “sceare” meaning “shearing,” “shaving,” or “tonsure,” the word “guðsceare” seems like it’s expressing an idea similar to the Modern English idiom “to be mowed down.” It sounds very much like the word refers to a battle in which one side wasn’t just beaten, but they were absolutely trounced.

In such a battle as that, you’d definitely want to be something more than a warrior, perhaps one who fought with the might and audacity of two warriors? You might say, then, that you’d want to be a “wig-frecan.”

Line 1212’s “wig-frecan” simply means “warrior.” But, coming from a compounding of “wig” (“strife,” “contest,” “war,” “battle,” “valour,” “military force,” “army,” “idol,” or “image”) and “frecan” (“warrior,” or “hero”), it’s clear that this is one of Old English’s doubling or intensifying compounds. After all a “strife warrior” could just be a specialized fighter, but really it’s redundant.

What makes “wiig-frecan” cooler than the compounds that come before it in this entry though, is “wig”‘s possible meaning of “idol,” or “image.” I can’t back up this bit of speculation with any solid evidence, but this interpretation of “wig” leaves me wondering if its “idol” or “image” senses refer to “wig” being used as a shorthand for the eagles that the Roman army used as their sacred standards.

Those standards were often quite plain aside from the eagle at their top, but that’s probably for the better. If they’d had any precious stones — or “eorclan-stanas” — the Anglo-Saxons would’ve likely wanted to steal them more than fear them or associate them with strife and war.

Speaking of, though, the compound “eorclan-stanas” (from line 1208) combines “eorclan” (“chest,” “coffer,” or “ark”) and “stan” (“stone,” “rock,” “gem,” “calculus,” or “milestone”). This compound word’s neatness comes from its communicating its meaning not through just calling the stones “shiny” or “valuable” but making clear that these are stones worthy of being put into a chest or ark — they’re the sorts of things you want to keep protected and therefore, must be precious.

So you definitely wouldn’t want to have any “eorclan-stanas” on you if you were facing “guðsceare,” since those stones would likely become “wæl-reaf”. This word combines “wæl” (“slaughter,” “carnage”) and “reaf” (“plunder,” “booty,” “spoil,” “garment,” “armour,” or “vestment”) to mean “spoil from the slain,” or “act of spoiling the slain.” Which just makes sense since it’s a mix of words meaning “slaughter” and “booty.” I just wonder how the Anglo-Saxons would feel about item drops in modern day RPGs.

What’s you’re favourite of this week’s words? “Wig-frecan” is definitely mine.

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Closing

Next week Wealhtheow wishes Beowulf well, and makes a special request of him.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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A tale of a torc (pt.1) and strangely simple compounds (ll.1192-1201)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Every Torc’s got a Story
Straight Ahead Compounds until the End
Closing

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Abstract

Wealhtheow brings generous words to Beowulf, along with generous gifts of golden garments.

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Translation

“To him the cup was carried and cordial invitations
offered in words, along with wound gold
bestowed with good will, armbands two,
garments and rings, the greatest neckring
in all the earth, as I have heard.
Not anywhere else under the sky have I heard of a finer
hero’s hoard treasure, not since Hama bore away to there
the magnificent necklace of Brosing,
jewels fixed in precious setting; when he fled
the cunning enmity of Eormenric; chose eternal gain.”
(Beowulf ll.1192 – 1201)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Every Torc’s got a Story

This passage reads like it’s written by someone who’s easily distracted by shiny things like jewels. It starts off sensibly enough with Beowulf being given “cordial invitations” (“freondlaþu” (l.1192)), then jumps into the history of the torc (a kind of tight, almost collar like necklace, sometimes with bits that hang over the chest) that Wealhtheow gives him. But why does she give him such gifts in the first place?

It looks like it’s just her way of saying thanks for getting rid of Grendel. After all, shiny and precious things are one thing to an Anglo-Saxon, shiny and precious things with a history are entirely another. That is, entirely another, more valuable, thing.

So when Wealhtheow gives Beowulf this torc that’s like the one whose history the poet starts to recite, there’s a lot of significance there. Slight spoilers, this particular necklace may have been worn by an earlyer Hygelac the Geat (likely the namesake of Beowulf’s lord, Hygelac), so, at least in part, the preciousness of this torc comes from its history and Beowulf’s history intersecting.

Actually, in a sense, this item may be seen as being destined for Beowulf. Or, at least, it might seem that he is meant to be the next owner with the understanding that such a privilege is only temporary – such an item being impossible to actually own. Rather, such an artifact is supposed to be understood as having a history that’s somehow above other objects, a history in which it isn’t owned by anyone but rather passed along, it’s not so much an object and accessory for one person, as it is an accessory for an entire ancestral history or, in this case, line of Geats.

That last interpretation is a bit of a stretch, and I feel like it strains against just what such an item may have been perceived as among the Anglo-Saxons. Still, the obvious capstone for the bridge that the poet builds back through the ages via this torc is that it is meant to pass through Beowulf’s hands either as his right or as the object’s inscrutable history.

Both of these interpretations might sound crazy, but the importance of an ancestral sword’s previous wielders wouldn’t be so great if the Anglo-Saxons had a more present-based sense of the value of objects. So, surely the same goes for this torc that fell out of Geatish hands only to come back to them after such an heroic deed as Beowulf’s.

How do you think the added history of this torc makes it more valuable? Does a warrior like Beowulf even care about such things as objects’ histories?

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Straight Ahead Compounds until the End

The compound words in this week’s passage vary pretty wildly. From the simple “earm-read” to the straightforward, but detailed “searo-niðas, they cover quite the range. Still, I’ll run through them in the order of their appearance.

First is “freond-laðu” (l.1192), the perfectly innocuous Old English word for “friendly invitation.” This one comes from the combination of “freond” (friend, relative, lover) and “laðian” (to ivnite, summon, call upon, ask).

Now, direcly related to this word there’s the curious point of “freond”‘s including the interpretation of “lover.” Also, there’s the weirdness of the coincidence that most other words in Old English that start with the syllable “lað” mean “hated” or “despised” (this is the root from which Modern English gets the word “loathe,” after all). I don’t think there’s much to make of this coincidence, except that “laðian” must come from a different language or region than the rest of the words it’s alongside in the dictionary.

But, when it comes to “freond” meaning “lover,” we see the ambiguity of the word “friend” was a thing even back in early Medieval Europe. Of course, the word’s ambiguity makes it hard to judge for certain, but maybe Wealhtheow just can’t control herself around this swarthy hunk. Or, maybe she’s letting some shreds of her true feelings slip through her proper persona. Or, of course, she’s just being gregarious as a good host should be.

Line 1194 offers the next compound word with “earm-read.” This word means “arm ornament” and comes from the Old English “earm” (“arm,” “foreleg,” or “power”) compounding with “hread” (“ornament” or “shielding”). Just as with Modern English’s “arm-band,” this word’s just a plain description.

Next up, line 1195’s “heals-beaga.” Much like “earm-read,” this combination of Old English “heals” (“neck” or “prow of a ship”) and “beaga” (“ring (as ornament or money),” “coil,” “bracelet,” “collar,” “crown,” or “garland”) just means “collar,” “necklace,” or “torc.”

Likewise, line 1198’s “hord-maððum” just means “hoarded treasure,” which comes as no surprise since “hord” means “hoard,” or “treasure” and “maððum” means “treasure,” “object of value,” “jewel,” “ornament,” or “gift.” Though there is this word’s conceptual doubling to consider. I guess whatever you use “hord-maððum” to describe is extra special and extra precious – a treasure even among a treasure hoard.

Actually, this trend of straight ahead compounds continues through line 1200’s “sinc-fæt.” This one means “precious vessel” or “precious setting.” Coming from the combination of “sinc” (“treasure,” “riches,” “gold,” “valuables,” or “jewels”) and “fæt” (“vat,” “vessel,” “jar,” “cup,” “casket,” or “division”) this meaning isn’t at all surprising.

However, that trend ends with “searo-niðas.” Not entirely a word that means something more than the combination of its parts, this one is just a step up from “hord-maððum”‘s doubling.

“Searo-niðas” means “treachery,” “strife,” or “battle” and comes from the combination of “searo” (“art,” “skill,” “cleverness,” “cunning,” “device,” “trick,” “snare,” “ambuscade,” “plot,” “treachery,” “work of art,” “cunning device,” “engine of war,” “armour,” “war gear,” or “trappings”) and “niðas” (“stife,” “enmity,” “attack,” “war,” “evil,” “hatred,” “spite,” “oppression,” “affliction,” “trouble,” or “grief”).

This combination of terms is curious mostly because they’re similar, but while “nið” basically means straight up “strife” or “hatred,” “searo” implies that there’s a certain level of thought or consideration that goes into its brand of offensiveness. So this combination is like a mix of two parts offense with one part clever, the result being “treachery,” “strife,” or all out “battle.”

This section is the poet speaking, so why do you think he continues to use somewhat restrained compound words? Is it to suit the atmosphere of the hall or the character of Wealhtheow?

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Closing

Next week the history of the torc continues!

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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Wealhtheow addresses the hall of men, the words she uses (1169-1180a)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Wealhtheow in a World of Men
The First few Compound Words in Wealhtheow’s Speech
Closing

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Abstract

Wealhtheow formally addresses Hrothgar, tells him to follow his joys, respect his kin and the Geats.

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Translation

“‘Take of this fullness, my noble lord,
treasure bestower; you in joy are,
gold giving friend of men, and to the Geats
speak mild words, as anyone shall do;
be with the Geats glad, be mindful of their gift
from near and far that you now have.
My man has said, that you for a son this
warrior would have. Heorot is cleansed,
the bright ring-hall; use, while you will,
your many joys, and to your kin leave
the folk and kingdom, when you shall go forth,
as fate* foresees.'”
(Beowulf ll.1169-1180a)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Wealhtheow in a World of Men

This passage sounds like a return to the highly formulaic speeches that Hrothgar and Beowulf exchanged when the Geat first arrived at Heorot. And it basically is.

Shot through with epithets tucked into subordinate clauses and a direct address to Hrothgar without actually naming him, this passage just has the ring of a very formal toast. As such, it’s a passage in which we see Wealhtheow’s public persona. This is very much the person that she is when she’s out amongst the mead benches, either offering mead or ale, or simply making an appearance to give her blessing and advice as she does here.

Though the world of Heorot remains staunchly a world of men.

Maybe there are a few women serving the men who are so raucous after the poet’s story, but there’s no way to know if there are any women joining in on the festivities. All we have is our impression of the scene, and mine is that Wealhtheow is probably the only woman on the floor right now. What’s more, it sounds like she’s well aware of this since, when she reports the rumour she’s heard of Hrothgar adopting Beowulf (as he had done with the boy’s father, Ecgtheow), Wealhtheow says that “My man said” (“Me man sægde” (l.1175)), suggesting a servant who, perhaps, is her go-to for gossip or information. But, I think it’s intentionally a male servant she refers to, since she knows that male authority is essential for being taken seriously in the hyper masculine realm she’s stepped into.

Plus, there’s no mistaking the Old English of “me man saegde,” since it’s practically identical to the Modern English “my man said” in its words and, probably, its idiomatic meaning of “my man on the inside” or, put another way, “my reliable source.”

As formal and as masculine as all of that is, though, Wealhtheow maintains her feminine grace at the end of this part of her speech when she caps off her toast with the wish that Hrothgar enjoy himself until the end of his days.

Of course, this line doesn’t sound quite so mysterious when summarized like that, but the reference to “fate” definitely feels like something enigmatic. Much more so than simply saying “the end of your life,” since at the least, that’s something definite — you’ll stop being able to enjoy yourself once you’re dead. But simply being able to indulge in joys “when you shall go forth,/as fate foresees” (“þonne ðu forð scyle/metodsceaft seon” (ll.1179-1180)), sounds like there could be something else that Wealhtheow foresees getting in the way of Hrothgar’s enjoying his wealth.

Now, she hasn’t turned to speak to Beowulf yet in this scene, but I think that this line is a great candidate for the spark that lights the flame of suspicion that Wealhtheow has the hots for Beowulf. Maybe, with the poet’s removed sense of history, her mention of fate is actually an intentional reference back to the hints that the poet’s dropped about Heorot’s own doom and demise – Wealhtheow’s been granted some sort of meta-story foresight and has seen Hrothgar’s fall from power and she hopes that Beowulf will step into the vacuum and be with her.

What do you think? Does it seem like Wealhtheow has some sort of plot for or hope that Hrothgar will fall to the side so that someone like Beowulf can step up? Or is it too early in the poem to tell?

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The First few Compound Words in Wealhtheow’s Speech

This week’s passage doesn’t contain too many surprising compound words. There are a few – sure – but they’re all what you’d expect from a very buttoned down, formal speech like the one Wealhtheow is giving here. She’s not talking of any battles or any extreme sorrow, she’s just making a formal address.

To whom is she making this address? Well – we just need to turn to line 1171 to find out. Here, in a little epithet, she refers to Hrothgar as her “gold-wine,” which means “liberal prince, lord, or king.” The word combines the Old English “gold” (“gold”) with “wine” (“friend,” “protector,” “lord,” or “retainer”). Of course, a liberal ruler is going to be one who seems to be made out of gold, he has so much to give away. So “gold-wine” seems a very functional, if not somewhat glittery in itself, word.

Next, on line 1176, Wealhtheow uses the word “here-rinc.” This word means “warrior” and comes from a combination of “here” (“predatory band,” “troop,” “army,” “host,” “multitude”) and “rinc” (“man,” “warrior,” “hero”). So, a man or warrior from a troop – someone with decent enough social standing to be in a troop rather than just some lone wolf or exile. The latter of which having been one of the coast guard’s worries about Beowulf when the Geats first arrived in Daneland.

Then, closing off the list of compound words we’ve never seen before, is “beah-sele” (found on line 1177). This compound offers a little more wiggle room than the previous two when it comes to interpreting it. There’s not much secret meaning in it, but there is a possible implication that runs against “beah-sele”‘s general meaning of “hall in which rings are distributed.”

This implication comes from the meaning of “sele” on its own: “hall,” “house,” “dwelling,” or “prison.”

If you pick out “prison” and combine it with any of “beag”‘s meanings (so any of “ring (ornament or money),” “coil,” “bracelet,” “collar,” “crown,” or “garland”), you get the impression that a “beah-sele” isn’t necessarily just a place of wealth distribution and the joy that comes with that, but that there’s also the possibility that a person using “beah-sele” sees such a place as a prison, as a thing that impinges on their freedom because of the societal expectation that rulers distribute their wealth, and so wealth brings no true freedom, only the burden of doling it out and of ruling well with it.

I didn’t mention it here, but how much do you think using these compound words is a matter of intent and how much do you think it’s a matter of choosing a word for the alliteration or meter?

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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Closing

Next week, we’ll hear Wealhtheow’s further words on the succession in Heorot.

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Unferth the reason for Grendel? A very German compound word (ll.1159b-1168)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Unferth the Cause of Heorot’s Woes?
A Collection of Compounds
Closing

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Abstract

As we return to the hall after the story of Hildeburh, Finn, and Hengest, we’re given a brief tour of the social hierarchy in Heorot before Wealhtheow takes centre stage.

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Translation

“Then the song was sung,
the entertainer’s tale. Revelry again arose,
the noise among the benches flashed as the cup bearer brought
joy from/the joy of the wondrous vessel. Then Wealhtheow came forth,
going under the weight of golden rings, over to where
the two sat, nephew and uncle; there yet were those kin together,
each to the other true. Also there sat spokesman Unferth
at the foot of the Scylding lord’s seat; each of them to his spirit trusted,
that he had great courage, though he to his own kin was not
merciful at the swordplay. Spoke then the Scylding lady:”
(Beowulf ll.1159b-1168)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Unferth the Cause of Heorot’s Woes?

And just like that the story of Hildeburh, Hengest, and Finn is over and it’s back to the meadhall Heorot. Though I think it’s worth a quick noting that the Beowulf poet implies that everyone was quiet while his in-story counterpart sang of the Danes’ patient revenge on the slayer of their lord. The Beowulf poet (or the person who wrote it down) likely wanted to imagine a place and time when their art was more respected. Or, maybe having a quiet crowd is a way of showing how important what’s being recounted is.

Though however quiet the revellers of Heorot were while the poet sang of Hengest and Finn rekindling the age-old feud of their peoples, they’re right back to it once the poem’s over. I mean, the benches are simply flashing with the noise of it all — that’s just how close the motion of the people on the benches and the noise coming from them is. That’s really something!

But after we return to the partying atmosphere of Heorot in celebration of Beowulf’s deed and the greatness that he’s helped restore, we’re given a bit of a sombre note to carry through the procession. And, just as Hildeburh was the bearer of sorrow in the story we just heard, Wealhtheow, Hrothgar’s lady, now seems to be carrying the same. As she goes through the hall to the high seat, the poet follows her, describing along the way the relationship of Hrothgar and his nephew and how Unferth, the doubter of Beowulf, fits into the hierarchy at Heorot.

And that’s where that note of sorrow is hit the hardest.

It seems that Unferth is quite an esteemed counsellor in Heorot, “each of them to his spirit trusted” (“gehwylc hiora his ferhþe treowde” (l.1166)). And yet, the poet makes it clear that this is the case “though he to his own kin was not/merciful at the swordplay” (“þeah þe he his magum nære/arfæst æt ecga gelacum” (ll.1167-1168)).

So Unferth has committed one of the harshest crimes of all in the Anglo-Saxon world — kin-killing. We’re never given any more detail than this about the incident that the poet’s referring to, but it continues to be a constant black mark on Unferth’s reputation for as long as he plays a role in the poem. In fact, Beowulf has even heard of this, since he mentions it in his witty riposte to Unferth’s doubting his stories of valour when he first comes to help Hrothgar with his monster problem (l.587).

So that makes me wonder.

If Unferth’s killed his own kin, a crime that really has no means of punishment (who do you ask for wergild — the monetary punishment for murder meant to cut feuds off before they can start — especially in a situation where the price was often paid by a group rather than an individual, and how could a single person’s paying into the group that he lives in be a punishment, if Anglo-Saxon society is all about distribution of wealth based on success on the battlefield?), how is he able to be such a trusted advisor?

Is he allowed this position because he’s been through the hell of having killed a relative and was left to live with the infamy?

And, in terms of the wider story of Heorot, could Unferth’s killing his kin and then Hrothgar’s bringing him on as an advisor been the thing that sparked Grendel’s feud with Heorot? After all, Grendel is “the kin of Cain” (“Caines cynne” (l.107)), and Cain was damned for killing his own brother. So is Grendel an ironic punishment in the grand tradition of ironic Christian punishments — a monster born of kin-killing that’s come to destroy a place that supports someone who killed his kin but has yet to be perceived as fully monstrous (that is, exiled or ostracized) for it?

So many questions. If you’ve got some opinions or hypotheses to share, please feel free to do so in the comments.

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A Collection of Compounds

This week’s batch of compounds covers the range of the straightforward to the much less obvious. Let’s get right into it.

First is line 1160’s “gleo-mann,” meaning “gleeman,” “minstrel,” “player,” “jester,” or “parasite.” This word comes from the compounding of “gliw” (“glee,” “pleasure,” “mirth,” “play,” “sport,” “music,” or “mockery”) and — surprise, surprise — “man” (“person,” “man,” “mankind,” “brave man,” “hero,” “vassal,” “servant,” “name of the rune for ‘m,'” or “used indefinitely like Modern English ‘one'”).

This is a pretty clear compound that, although archaic today, remained in English for quite a while as “gleeman.” Though by the time it got to us, the word’s connotations depreciated (it became pejorated, as linguists say), as “gleo-mann” started to carry a connotation less of a poet who brought joy to people and more of a connotation of someone closer to a court jester rattling off bad rhymes and worse jokes, perhaps giving people glee more through the idiocy of his performance than what he was performing.

Then we get line 1161’s “benc-sweg.” This one brings together the near cognate “benc” (“bench”) with the word “sweg” (“sound,” “noise,” “clamour,” “tumult,” “melody,” “harmony,” “tone,” “voice,” “musical instrument,” or “persona”), to mean “bench-rejoicing,” or “sound of revelry.”

It’s not too terribly surprising a compound once you get over the Old English word for “sound” being “sweg,” but it’s still kind of neat because if you were to tell someone about the “bench sound” today, they’d probably think of a wooden bench scraping across a floor, not the sound of lively conversation, mugs clinking, and drunken singing. Oh how times have changed.

Then, as if lined up nice and neatly, on line 1162 we get the last of this week’s plainer compounds with “wunder-fatum.” The Old English word “wunder” means almost what our “wonder” does, but more in the UK English noun sense (which we don’t really hear much in North America), since “wunder” means “wonder,” “miracle,” “marvel,” “portent,” “horror,” “wondrous thing,” or “monster.” And “fatum,” since the letter “f” when it’s surrounded by vowels in Old English sounds like a “v” is the ancestor of our “vat,” though it’s got a more general meaning of “vat,” “vessel,” “jar,” “cup,” “casket,” or “division.”

Combine these two words and you get the Old English “wunder-fatum,” which means “wondrous vessel.” A little nickname for the ale pitcher or mead jug, since that’s definitely what its bearer is pouring out.

Hopefully those simpler three have you warmed up, because the next compound we come across in this passage is line 1164’s very German-seeming “suhterge-faederan.” Since this word compounds “suhterge” (“brother’s son,” “nephew,” “uncle’s son,” or “cousin”) with “faederan” (“paternal uncle”), “suhterge-faederan” itself means “uncle and nephew.”

It’s definitely not a word that we have in Modern English. And my guess is that the reason we don’t is because of family dynamics. Uncles are no longer a go-to mentor figure for children. In fact, “the creepy uncle” is a way more common trope than the informative or wise uncle, something that’s almost solely concentrated in grandparent figures in pop culture now. So here’s another sign that times have changed quite a bit from the days in which Beowulf was sung.

My guess as to why this happened (a very quick and dirty guess) is that people started to raise their own kids rather than sending them out to learn a trade or how the hierarchy within a house or hall worked, so uncles and aunts came to play less and less of a role while grandparents (perhaps because they’d actually be visited or lived with?) continued to play a role in children’s growing up. Not a perfect hypothesis, but I’m not looking for something air tight.

Or water-tight for that matter.

Which brings me around to the word “aerfaest” from line 1168 meaning “respected,” “honest,” “pious,” “virtuous,” “merciful,” “gracious,” “compassionate,” or “respectful.”

I mention water-tightness here, though because that’s one of the meanings of “faest,” along with “fast,” “fixed,” “firm,” “secure,” “constant,” “steadfast,” “stiff,” “heavy,” “dense,” “obstinate,” “bound,” “costive,” “enclosed,” “closed,” “strong,” “fortified,” “reputable,” or “standard”; while “aer” means “ere,” “before that,” “soon,” “formerly,” “beforehand,” “previously,” “already,” “lately,” or “till.”

Given what we’re told about Unferth being trustworthy because of some sort of past loyalty (a more literal interpretation of “aerfaest,” I think (maybe too literal?)) seems pretty suspect. Unless, maybe the relative that Unferth killed was in opposition to Hrothgar, and so, as unforgivable an act as it is, Unferth was brought in because his actions suggested that his loyalty to Hrothgar was greater than that between relatives (perhaps Unferth killed a nephew, or an uncle? Maybe not too far-fetched if the uncle-nephew relationship was prominent enough in Anglo-Saxon society to get its own compound).

Maybe that’s the key to all of this, Unferth, as unsavoury as his behaviour is to the rest of the world, is trusted within the realm of Heorot because of that loyalty to Hrothgar — he’s successfully and seriously set his lord over his family in an age when family was important, but not necessarily the top priority.

Though that Hrothgar would keep such a person around, one who, according to the conventions of the time was a little monstrous himself — what does that say about Hrothgar? Perhaps Hrothgar’s making Unferth a counsellor is what brought Grendel on him in the first place, not because Hrothgar harboured one who failed to fall into the binary of monster/not-monster, but because Hrothgar himself was an even greater monster in disguise.

Do you think that Unferth’s killing his kin relates to why Grendel attacked Heorot in the first place? Or was it something else that kicked off all of Hrothgar’s troubles?

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Closing

Next week, Wealhtheow gives Hrothgar her two cents on everything that’s happened since Beowulf arrived and what the lord of the hall should do.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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