Tolkien’s influence on Unferth? And unbinding battle runes. (ll.499-505)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Unferth’s first impression – a success?
Unpacking the battle runes
Closing

What they are: Runestones. What they mean: ...I'm not entirely sure.

What they are: Runestones. What they mean: …I’m not entirely sure.

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Abstract

Unferth is brought onto the stage and introduced as a self-important toady who can’t stand the greatness of others.

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Translation

“Unferth spoke, son of Ecglaf*
he who sat at the foot of the Scylding lord,
unbound battle words**, that venture of Beowulf’s,
the courageous sea-farer, a great grudge***,
for he would not allow that any other man
over all the earth and under heaven
could ever achieve fame to match his own:****”
(Beowulf ll.499-505)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

*”Ecglaf” – “sword-leaving/Sword-heirloom” Hm. So he’s a child of war? Or is this a ref to penis?
**onband beadu-rune: unbound his ‘secret of a quarrel’ [HALL, MERRIT]//battle words/hostile words [CL WRENN] = unbound + war/battle/fighting/strife + mystery/secrecy/secret/counsel,consultation;council;runic character, letter;writing – Is this meant to be a foil to beowulf’s “unlocked his word hoard”? Hm…
***interweaving structure starts up here. This clause refers back to the battle words.
****Gets really, really tangled in terms of regular ModE syntax here. A literal translation is
“|that any other man//ever fame compared to greater|in earth//care for under heaven| than he himself:”
-Unferth introduced as one who sits at the feet of Hrothgar, a close councilor, a coward who is close to Hrothgar to avoid fighting. Does this relate to his father’s name? Is my impression of him as wormtongue because he could be the template for wormtongue or because I encountered wormtongue first? Hm…little help, Tolkien?

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Unferth’s first impression – a success?

Beowulf is not a poem that’s full of characters or character introductions. Many of those that do appear in it are just dropped into place. Wulfgar, Hrothgar’s trusted councillor and herald is a great example of this class of character. Major characters like Hrothgar and Beowulf, on the other hand, get more of an introduction.

And then there’s Unferth.

This guy, whom I’ll forever remember as being well-played by John Malkovich in the mostly terrible Zemeckis Beowulf of 2007, is a character of a third sort.

Unferth occupies a grey middle ground between protagonist and antagonist. In this position he’s able to become a much more interesting character than most of the others in the poem. Yet these seven lines are his introduction, and set the tone for his character going forward.

So what can we say about him?

Being told that he comes from the foot of Hrothgar, tells us that he’s very close to the elder Dane. He’s probably a councillor in a similar capacity to Wulfgar.

However, his breaking into the poem with the line “Unferth spoke, son of Ecglaf,” (“Unferð maþelode, Ecglafes bearn” (l.499)) gives the impression that he’s been holding his tongue until this very moment, at which, like a coiled cobra, he strikes into the din of the partying troop.

Nonetheless, he’s saved from being entirely maligned in the reference to his father that the poet adds in for alliterative reasons.

Though what kind of a father a man named “sword heirloom” was is up for debate. Maybe he was the son of some sort of illicit, war-time love affair. Or, maybe more crudely, his name’s a play on simply being a “sword’s leavings.” Either way, it’s not him but his son (whose name in the manuscript is reported as “Hunferth”) that we’re concerned with here.

After the next line in which we’re told that he was sitting at Hrothgar’s foot the poet decides to shuffle the syntax of his line halves around. This means that, as had happened in some of Hrothgar’s dialogue, one line contains two halves that combine with the next line’s opposite halves to create full thoughts.

Making this change in descriptive poetry rather than dialogue, where we’ve mostly seen it before, leaves me with the impression that these lines are made to endure. They’re given extra care in their making, and so are meant to stand as important. Of course, the single phrase “unbound his battle words” (“onband beadu-rune” (l.501)) also marks this as important. For the poet earlier used a similar phrase to set off the first speech of the poem’s hero himself.

As a gamer immersed in the lore of The Legend of Zelda, I can’t help but take this parallel sort of setup as a cue to view Unferth as Shadow Beowulf.

This man is a reflection of Beowulf’s darker side and what he could become were he to use his powers for ill.

The poet doesn’t give much leeway for such an interpretation after this echoing phrase, though, since we’re told in some of the most tangled Old English I’ve ever read, that Unferth can’t stand the thought that anyone is considered more famous than himself.

Nonetheless, Beowulf’s key characteristic up to this point is his optimism. His boasts are claims of great power and the ability to defeat Grendel despite the odds. He willingly faces death with high hopes for glory.

Here, though, we’re shown that Unferth’s outlook is inherently pessimistic since he refuses to acknowledge anything great from outside of himself. To some extent, this portrayal makes him Beowulf’s foil. It also makes him a character that forces Beowulf to reflect on his own goals and aspirations. This gives Beowulf some room to grow spiritually, perhaps something that’s required of him to overcome Grendel.

It’s also got to be said of Unferth that I can’t decide if I view him as a slimy toady sort of character because I first encountered a similar type in Tolkien’s Wormtongue or if I see him as such because Tolkien used him as a template for Wormtongue.

What do you think is more likely? What came first in terms of impressions – the slimy underling Wormtongue or the shady and suspect Unferth?

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Unpacking the battle runes

Carrying on from something mentioned above, let’s take a look at the phrase “onband beadu-rune” (“onband beadu-rune” (l.501)) Starting, of course, with the definitions of each word.

The verb here, “onband,” is quite close to its Modern English equivalent: “unbound.” It could also mean “untie,” “loosen,” “release,” or “disclose.”

The word “beadu” translates as “war,” “battle,” “fighting,” “strife.”

And, finally, the word “rune,” along with its less than helpful translation to the Modern English “rune” could also mean “mystery,” “secrecy,” “secret,” “counsel,” “consultation;” “secret council;” “runic character,” “letter,” or “writing.” Translating it as “words” is kind of a stretch, but it’s one that fits well and makes clear sense of the phrase.

But those first four definitions of the word are tempting. The word “rune” is clearly one that’s quite coloured by things unknown, unseen.

Perhaps it’s the poet’s use of this word rather than something more straightforward like, well, “word” that puts me in mind of Tolkien’s Wormtongue as I read this passage.

The word “rune” is definitely not used for reasons of alliteration, since it’s the only word that starts with “r” in the line. In fact, people who know more about Old English prosody than I could probably argue that “rune” could be substituted for with “word” with only a small change to the quality of the line.

So then why is it there? Why choose the word “rune” if it has these associations with the mysterious rather than a straightforward word?

I think it’s used here because it suggests that Unferth is about to say things that Beowulf would rather have hidden. He is about to challenge Beowulf not with swords but with facts to undercut his boasts.

In a metaphorical sense, this makes Unferth a representation of Beowulf’s doubt.

A hero of so clear a purpose and one-track a mind can’t be clouded by complex internal strife, and so the self-doubt that a normal person would feel in Beowulf’s position is placed in another character all together. Personifying Beowulf’s doubts like this allows him to overcome and disprove them, basically to work through them, in the forum that Heorot provides. It gives Beowulf a chance to speak through the secrets and possibly less-than-heroic facts of his past.

That Unferth would utter such secrets does nothing for his character, though. The idea that he can’t stand the existence or idea of there being people more famous than himself around boldly paints him as a schemer and underhanded coward. He’s a cad who would sooner undercut a boaster than suffer him to try to actually fulfil his boasts.

I think that quality in his character – an apparent desire to impose his own limits on other people – is what gives the lasting impression of Unferth’s villainy. He is made to personify the antithesis of the idea of grasping beyond what you expect is your reach.

As a people interested in treasure and in venturing off to new locales, I think it goes without saying that the Anglo-Saxons prized such a characteristic in people. It’s definitely a strong one in Beowulf and he’s the poem’s hero after all.

So maybe my reaction to Unferth is less learned and more cultural.

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Closing

But just what are the secrets that Unferth lets out of the bag? Well, find out in next week’s extract!

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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Psychological Warfare and the Importance of Tactical Mercy (ll.2936-2945) [Old English]

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
A Differently Angled Ambush
Stories and Psychological Warfare
Closing

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Abstract

The messenger’s story of the Ravenswood continues, as the Geats are pinned by Ongeontheow’s host until a saviour is heralded.

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Translation

“‘Beset he then with an immense host the remnant
wearied by war wounds; all the night
long he twisted their tender spirits with vile boasts,
he said that he would destroy them with the
sword’s edge come morning, that he would hang them
on gallows trees to feed the birds. Yet joy again
existed in their sorrowful hearts just as day dawned,
for then came Hygelac with his horn and its call,
a sound they recognized, knew that it meant a troop
of great allies had arrived in their final moment.'”
(Beowulf ll.2936-2945)

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Recordings

Old English:

Modern English:

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A Differently Angled Ambush

The messenger’s message continues, and his story about the Ravenswood really picks up steam in this week’s extract. What could be more exciting than a situation in which a last minute arrival swings in the good guys’ favour, right?

It’s not the first time that we’ve had a story with late comers mentioned in Beowulf. After the hero himself defeats Grendel we hear about the Battle of Finnsburg (ll.1068-1158), where the Frisians have ambushed and wearied the Danes.

Since it sounds like Hygelac was completely unexpected by Ongeontheow and the Geats alike, his appearance here is definitely a kind of ambush. But rather than the tragedy that is the Battle of Finnsburg, Hygelac’s appearance is a cause for joy.

After all, in the story about Finnsburg listeners can take a side, but in the messenger’s story, we know that those listening are cheering for the Geats, and therefore it’s less a negative ambush and more of a rescue, as the phrase “at last faran” (“arrived in their final moment,” l.2945) suggests.

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Stories and Psychological Warfare

Speaking of perspective, it’s easy to see even the major players within the world of Beowulf as brutes with sharp swords, but Ongeontheow does something rather incredible when he has the troop trapped in the Ravenswood.

He doesn’t rush in and slaughter them outright. Instead he launches a psychological attack, as he bombards them with “vile boasts” (“wean oft gehet” l.2937) all through the night (“ondlong niht” l.2938). This is a strange move on Ongeontheow’s part at first glance, but if we look deeper we can see his reasons for it.

During this period of time, destroying a leaderless band outright would have been like killing a headless man. Matters of redundancy aside, it would have been dishonourable and a source of shame, rather than something that a warrior could be proud of. Besides, a terrified group of leaderless enemy soldiers would have to deal with their own shame of having outlived their lord, and would likely tell the darkest stories of their conqueror’s power.

This sense of shame explains a little bit of why Ongeontheow says he’ll leave the Geats until morning, but it doesn’t give a full picture of it.

Down the line of shame, there may have been some convention among warriors of the time to wait so many hours/watches before attacking such a disorganized rabble (perhaps to let one of them rise up as leader?), but Ongeontheow has another reason for his threats.

Multiple stories told by many terrified, shamed, and sorrowful men would grow Ongeontheow’s reputation. But a handful of stories that include his torturing them with vile boasts all night and then slaughtering most of the remaining host would make it easy for any survivors to tell stories of him that were absolutely intimidating.

And, as we saw in 2012’s last entry, Ongeontheow seems to care deeply for the safety of his family. So creating the seeds of intimidating stories would benefit him as it would deter future purpose-less raids from other groups that were looking for places to attack for arrogance’s sake.

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Closing

Next week, the story of Ravenswood continues. Don’t miss it!

And you can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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All About Beowulf’s Final "Boast-Words" [ll.2510-2528] (Old English)

Translation
Recordings
Initial Thoughts
Why so Compounded?
Three Possibilities
Closing

{What Beowulf imagines his fight with the dragon will look like – war-fire, breath, venom, shield, and all. Image from eKits.}

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Translation

This week’s section of Beowulf sees him boast for the last time, before turning and addressing his thanes. Let’s listen in:

“Beowulf spoke, gave form to boast-words
for the final time: ‘In youth I
risked much in combat; yet I will once more
though an old king of the people, pursue the feud,
gain glory, if only the fiend to men
will come out from his earth-hall to face me!’
Addressed he then each warrior,
each helm-wearer for truly the final time,
each dear companion: ‘I would not bear a sword,
bring the weapon to the worm, if I knew how
I might otherwise gloriously grapple against
that foe, as I once with Grendel did;
but there will be hot war-fires, I expect,
breath and venom; thus I have on
both shield and byrnie. Nor will I give a foot’s length
when I meet the barrow’s guard, but between us two
what is to happen later on this sea wall, that is as fate,
measurer of men, is drawn to decide. I am firm of heart,
so that I may cease from boasting over this war-flyer.'”
(Beowulf ll.2510-2528)

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Recordings
Now, to give you a sense of how that would sound:

And in Modern English:

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Initial Thoughts

This passage, for all of its high boast density, is quite straightforward. Beowulf says that he will fight the dragon as long as he comes out of the barrow, and then turns to his men to tell them why he’s carrying a shield and wearing armor. Then, he closes it all off by saying that he is “firm of heart,/so that I may desist from boasting over this war-flyer” (“Ic eom on mōde from/þæt ic wið þone guð-flogan gylp ofersitte” ll.2527-8)

That’s it.

There’s definitely something to say for its directness. This quality might even be the result of Beowulf’s melancholic belief that this will be his last fight, and the poet’s own admission of the same. But, as always, there is one curious thing to poke at – like a sleeping dragon coiled around a heap of gold.

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Why so Compounded?

This passage uses a fair number of compound nouns: “Bēot-wordum” for “boast-words;” “mān-sceaða,” for “fiend to men;” “eorð-sele” for “earth-hall;” “helm-berende;” for “helm-wearers;” “heaðu-fyres,” for “war-fires;” “guð-floga” for “war-flyer.”

All of these compound words share two characteristics. They’re all related to war, and they’re all direct , straightforward terms. Though it might be contentious, none of them are the fancier type of compound words known as kennings (like “līchama” for “body” (literally “body-raiment”) or “heofon-candel” for “sun” (literally “sky-candle”).

Maybe Beowulf isn’t in the mood for speeches wrought with fine words like cups studded with jewels. Maybe the poet is trying to just skate on through this section being straight to the point and direct. Or maybe, there’s something more going on here – something at the level of connotation and association.

Maybe direct, clear compound words, are those that are related to war specifically. Granted, you might be able to come up with more elaborate compounds that are used to describe battles and what not, but at least here, it’s curious that they’re so streamlined. If this is indicative of something about the poem that’s one thing. But what if it’s pointing to something present in all of Anglo-Saxon poetry, maybe even the culture itself?

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Three Possibilities

If we run with the idea that this compounding cluster relates to Anglo-Saxon culture, then the compound words/phrases relating to war being straightforward and direct could mean a number of things. It could be meant to reflect the manly nature of war, men being more direct and active. Though this is a little bit anachronistic, since Anglo-Saxon women could rise to the same level of martial power as men.

Alternatively, this straightforwardness of war-related compounds could mean that war itself was something that the Anglo-Saxons regarded as straightforward. Or, maybe they saw it as something that need not be embellished when its reality is about to be brought home.

For all of Beowulf’s boasting up to this point has been about the past, only now does he actually boast about what he is going to do next. Maybe the rough drafts of boasts, boasts for deeds undone, are underplayed so that they can be elevated to ecstatically glorious places after the deeds they describe are done.

Or, again, maybe this straightforward language on the part of Beowulf (and the poet) is meant to be taken as a deference to fate.

Everything is cold and windy on the promontory. Beowulf is about to face the dragon, and talking to his men before the worm comes from its underground lair. Things are tense. Things are heavy. Beowulf knows that he’s an old man, “an old king of the people” (“frōd folces weard” l.2513). He knows that the dragon’s breath and venom are to be feared, to be protected against. So maybe his direct boasting, and its firm, resolute ending, are meant to show his humility before fate. After all, for our two combatants, it will be as fate decides, “swā…wyrd getēoð” (l. 2526).

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Closing

What do you make of this crowd of compound words, these straightforward and unassuming combinations? Let me know down in the comments.

Next week, be ready for more of St. Isidore’s writing on deer, and Beowulf gives his final commands to the men before heading off to draw the dragon from its den.

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Beowulf’s Boasts – Dayraven’s and Dragon’s Bane [2496-2509] (Old English)

Translation
A Word and a Name
Compounded Words
Conclusion and Wrap Up

There’s more boasting from Beowulf today, as he recalls the turning point in his career and then starts to talk some smack about the dragon’s hoard.

{Perhaps the younger Beowulf that our hero has in mind. Image created by Sandra Effinger}

Translation

“Always would I go on foot before him,
first in the line, and so ’til age takes me
shall I conduct war, so long as this sword survives,
that which has and will endure;
ever since before the hosts I became the
hand slayer of Dayraven,the Frankish warrior
No treasure at all did he
bring back to the Frisian king,
No breast plate could he have carried,
for, in the field as standard bearer, he fell,
princely in courage; he was not slain by the sword
but by hostile grip I halted the surge of his heart,
broke his bone-house. Now shall the sword’s edge,
hand and hard blade, be heaved against the hoard.”
(Beowulf ll.2496-2509)

As with any passage that concentrates so much on warfare there are some bits here that are so loud that they can’t be ignored.

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A Word and a Name

One such bit is the word “feðan.” It looks like it should be a verb because of its “an” ending, but the Clarke Hall & Meritt dictionary isn’t quite so sure about it.

However, the translation of “marched” or “go on foot” makes sense since the entry right before it is feða, meaning “footsoldier.” It might not be a perfect translation, but just turning that word into a verb might be an all right way to go. Sense be damned, right?

Speaking of sense, the name Dayraven (originally Dæghrefne) could carry an odd one. As came up in an earlier entry, the raven is one of the three beasts of battle. But the significance of the raven isn’t finished there.

Based on the appearance of a raven at daybreak earlier in the poem (l.1801, during the celebration of Beowulf defeating Grendel’s mother), the bird is definitely a bringer of joy. So what could it mean for Beowulf to kill a warrior named for this good omen-bearing bird?

Moreover, should we take the suggestion that Beowulf has killed a symbol of joy to mean that he has doomed himself, or is this joy only that of the Franks who have lost their standard bearer and a man that is “princely in courage” (“æþeling on elne,” l.2506)?

Dayraven’s being identified with the Franks twice within two consecutive lines suggests that if he is to be understood as some sort of embodiment of joy he is definitely the Franks’ joy only. But given what happens to Beowulf when he faces the dragon, one wonders.

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Compounded Words

As this passage is one of the climaxes of Beowulf’s boasting there are some cool compound words in it. Among them are “brēost-weorðunge,” “hilde-grāp” and “bān-hūs.” None of these yield any crazy literal translations, being breast-ornament, hostile grip, and bone-house respectively, but they’re all compounds that hint at bits of the poem’s culture.

“Brēost-weorðunge” is possibly the most nebulous. A breast ornament could be decorative plate armor, but maybe it refers to something like a heavy necklace, or something that you could hang off of armor – medals, maybe. But that such an accessory was important enough to have its own name (poetic or otherwise) implies that the Anglo-Saxons took their bling seriously.

“Hilde-grāp” and “bān-hūs” are clearer and more direct, but no less curious. Why? Because they’re both readily translatable into words/phrases that could easily transfer into today’s English.

Also, that “hilde-grāp” specifies a certain kind of grip makes it clear that grappling was pretty important to Anglo-Saxons. Beowulf’s feats earlier in the poem also back up this implication about their culture.

With “bān-hūs” the implication seems to be more metaphysical, or at the least spiritual. Referring to a body as a “bone-house” might hint at there being something not of flesh dwelling within that house. That Clark Hall & Meritt translate it as “body, chest, breast” supports this idea that it hints at a belief in a soul of in-dwelling life force, since the “chest” or “breast” contains the heart.

All of this connotation puts me in mind of another Old English compound: “word-hoard.”

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Conclusion and Wrap Up

Since Beowulf has talked up his sword skill with all of this boasting the dragon definitely needs to fear what’s coming to it. But – it won’t be coming just yet. Beowulf still has some more boasting to get out of the way before he’s ready to head over to the beast’s den. And, at the opposite end of things, Isidore gets into talk of ibexes next week.

So, be sure to check back next week for those two entries. In the meantime, what do you make of Beowulf’s killing Dayraven? Feel free to leave your thoughts in a comment.
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Credits in a Comitatus and Boasts Filled with Wonder Words [ll.2484-2495] (Old English)


The Translation
Ongentheow’s Killer and the Comitatus
“heoro-blāc”
“ēðel-wynn”
“Gifðum”
Wrap-up

{a younger Beowulf, perhaps, flashing his gams and doing some boasting. From “Gayle’s Bard Blog.”}

The Translation

We return to Beowulf now, as he rounds out his history lesson and starts to verbally fist pump. Let’s listen in:

“Then in the morning I heard that his kin
avenged him by the blade, plunged its edge to end
the slayer’s life where Eofor’s attack fell upon Ongenþēow;
his war-helm split, the Swedish warlord
fell sword-wan; his hand held memory enough
of feuding, he could not hold off that fatal blow.

“The treasure, which Hygelac gave to me,
I won for him by flashing sword; he gave to me land,
a native place, land joy. For him there was no need,
no reason to be required to seek some worse warrior
from the gifthouse or the spear-danes or the swedes,
my worth was well known.”
(Beowulf ll.2484-2495)

Some interesting stuff is going on in this passage.

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Ongentheow’s Killer and the Comitatus

First, there’s the question of who killed Ongenþēow. The text suggests that it was Hygelac who killed him “by the sword’s edge” (“billes ecgum” l.2485), but it also mentions an Eofor who is credited with splitting his helmet (“thǣr Ongenþēow Eofores nīosað;/gūð-helm tōglād” ll.2486-7). So who’s the real hero, Beowulf?

To a modern reader this double crediting of Ongenþēow’s kill (something that might lead to another killing if it happened in a MMORPG), might seem confused. But, to an Anglo-Saxon sensibility, it makes perfect sense.

Consider for a minute the fact that Hygelac is, at the point when Ongenþēow’s killed, the leader of the Geat forces against the Swedes at this battle since Hæðcyn has been killed. Thus, Eofor is fighting as Hygelac’s thane – Eofor is part of Hygelac’s group.

In Anglo-Saxon terms, such a group could be called a “comitatus,” a band of warriors held together by mutual quid pro quo. If a warrior pledges his life and sword to a lord, he fights until his death – even if that lord should die before he does. In return, the lord provides the warrior with treasure and land.

“The Battle of Maldon” is a perfect example of the comitatus style of loyalty because it tells of a band of warriors that fights on after their lord dies, even though they all know that they are doomed to die.

What’s happening in Beowulf, then, is that Hygelac is being credited with Eofor’s kill because Hygelac is the head of the Geats, of the Geatish comitatus, and likewise, all of the warriors within Hygelac’s comitatus are his swords. So it’s fair to say that Hygelac had his vengeance on Ongenþeow by the edge of the sword, in the sense that he was killed by one of Hygelac’s men.

At the level of words within the passage, there are indeed a few that are quite curious.

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“heoro-blāc”

The word “heoro-blāc”, meaning “mortal wound” is unique among these curious words since it is a somewhat mysterious combination of “heoru” meaning “sword” and “blāc” meaning “pallid, pale, wan.” So, literally, someone who is “heoro-blāc” is “sword-pale.”

Unfortunately, the literal translation doesn’t work quite so well, since “sword-pale” suggests that something is as pale as a sword. Depending on what it’s made of, a corpse might get to a similar pallor as a clean, shiny sword, but it’s a rather fantastical comparison.

“Mortal wound” is a little on the nose, though, so “sword-wan” is what was used above. The term is used in the senses that Ongenþēow is weakened by the sword, and about as strong as a sword without a wielder. He is mighty, yet useless, as he lay where Eofor split his helmet.

Moving into Beowulf’s boast about his own accomplishments yields more tricky and wondrous words.

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“ēðel-wynn”

First up there’s “ēðel-wynn” meaning “joy of ownership,” but made up of “ēðel” (native land, country, home) and “wynn” (joy). So translating the term as “joy of ownership” does work, in that there will be a joy in a native owning their own land, but at the same time “joy of ownership” falls short by generalizing the original word too much.

Nonetheless, what’s telling about the translation is that it completely ignores the fact that “ēðel-wynn” contains a specific reference to land (“ēðel”). There might not be an exact and precise equivalent term in English, but by cutting out any reference to land, it seems like that there’s a desire to deny a sense of landed-ness in Anglo-Saxon at play.

But that’s just not true.

The fact that a compound word with “ēðel” is used here is important because it shows that whenever Beowulf was written (or maybe even when it was still being sung) land ownership was a big deal to Anglo-Saxons. This means that they might have had a sense of nationhood as we do today, since it wasn’t something nebulous or abstract.

Words like “ēðel-wynn” allow you to make a case that there was a sense among Anglo-Saxons that a place defined a people and that if a certain people was given a certain space then that people would be joyous. So, it seems that Seamus Heaney’s translation of the word as “the security that land brings” is better, though still wanting for the implied sense of nationhood.

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“Gifðum”

The other word is “Gifðum,” which is not in the Clark Hall & Meritt Anglo-Saxon Dictionary. However, Seamus Heaney translates it as “gift house.”

Heaney’s translation might just be in a newer dictionary, or it could be derived from the idea that “Gifðum” is a corruption of “giefu-hus.” A stretch, maybe, but the poem Beowulf isn’t beyond having a few textual ticks here and there.

For example, in the original Anglo-Saxon, there’s a consistent difference in spelling between the first and second halves of the poem, suggesting that there were two scribes involved in making the copy of the poem that we still have today.

Of course, textual ticks or no, that still leaves the nature of “Gifðum” a mystery.

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Wrap-up

If you’ve got your own theory about what “Gifðum” could mean, I want to know, just leave it in a comment for me.

Next week, St. Isidore talks of the goat, we get some more medieval lore, and Beowulf starts into more boasting. Don’t miss it!
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