Beowulf as spiritual achiever

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

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

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


Back To Top
Synopsis

Hrothgar says that Beowulf will make a good king, if he ever gets the chance to take the throne.


Back To Top
The Original Old English

“Hroðgar maþelode him on ondsware:
‘þe þa wordcwydas wigtig drihten
on sefan sende; ne hyrde ic snotorlicor
on swa geongum feore guman þingian.
þu eart mægenes strang ond on mode frod,
wis wordcwida. Wen ic talige,
gif þæt gegangeð, þæt ðe gar nymeð,
hild heorugrimme, Hreþles eaferan,
adl oþðe iren ealdor ðinne,
folces hyrde, ond þu þin feorh hafast,
þæt þe Sægeatas selran næbben
to geceosenne cyning ænigne,
hordweard hæleþa, gyf þu healdan wylt
maga rice. Me þin modsefa
licað leng swa wel, leofa Beowulf.'”
(Beowulf ll.1840-1854)


Back To Top
My Translation

“Hrothgar spoke to him in answer:
‘The Lord in his wisdom sent those words
into your mind; never have I heard wiser words
from one so young in age.
You are of powerful strength and of wise mind,
with wit in your words. I consider it something to be expected,
that if it shall happen that the spear takes him,
if fierce battle seizes the son of Hrethel,
if illness or iron edge claims your lord,
the guardian of people, and you still have your life,
then the Sea Geats will not have
anyone better to choose as king,
warrior of hoard guardians, if you will rule
the kingdom of your kin. The better I know you,
the more I like you, dear Beowulf.'”
(Beowulf ll.1840-1854)


Back To Top
A Quick Question

If this was set in a democracy, Beowulf definitely has Hrothgar’s vote. But, since the world of Beowulf is more of a feudal monarchy, Hrothgar’s words are at least a ringing endorsement of Beowulf. If (if!) he should ever be king. Since he’s not Hygelac’s son, or an heir in any other direct way, Beowulf can’t exactly bank on being king of the Geats.

The real story here, I think, is in the first few lines of this passage.

I can’t quite get over Hrothgar’s saying that “‘the Lord in his wisdom sent those words/into your mind'” (“þe þa wordcwydas wigtig drihten/on sefan sende” (l.1841-1842)). There’s something here to suggest that Beowulf was indeed written down by a Christian monk (or monks) who wasn’t afraid to add a bit of Christianity into their copying.

I mean, if Hrothgar is complimenting Beowulf on being a medium for divine wisdom, then it seems to me that he’s saying Beowulf has a direct line to the divine law that’s inscribed on the hearts of all good Christians, according to medieval theology. In other words, Beowulf is in a spiritually perfect state, despite his youth.

But I can’t really justify that reading of those few lines.

Nothing else in Hrothgar’s speech seems to have been Christianized, nor point in that direction. The list of potential killers of Hygelac just seems like a list of fatal things. There’s no “live by the sword, die by the sword” about it. But I think that, even if some meddling monks did make a few subtle changes to the poem, the Catholic Church in northern Europe saw Beowulf as a way to bridge Germanic paganism and Christianity.

After all, Beowulf was a figure that could blend the brazen machismo of figures like Odin or Thor with a righteous warrior persona who put on the armour of the holy spirit. I think that side comes out when Beowulf chalks his victory over Grendel up to god, and why the poet says things like ‘fate must decide’ or that god was on Beowulf’s side.

But where’s my proof for this interpretation?

Well, Beowulf’s battle prowess can be seen pretty plainly in his boasts and when he actually takes out Grendel and the monster’s mother. It’s something that the poet can show us as well as tell us.

But that doesn’t make him a complete person in the medieval mind.

To do that, he also need to have achieved spiritually. But that’s harder to show convincingly.

Though Beowulf’s emerging from the Grendels’ lake at around the same time as Christ is said to have given up his spirit when on the cross could get this across, if your audience or readers were familiar enough with that part of the Easter story. There’s also Beowulf’s harrowing the monster’s lair, just as Christ harrowed hell, according to the Catholic Easter story.

Yet character isn’t just revealed through actions. It’s also learned through what other people say about a person. So, as a long time and mostly successful king, Hrothgar’s saying that god put those words into Beowulf’s mind (and the implication that Beowulf was able to release them as they were) is definitely a legitimate way to show that Beowulf has obtained some level of spiritual achievement.

But that’s all just my theory. What’s your take on Hrothgar’s words to Beowulf? Is there any secret Christian meaning in them, or is Hrothgar just saying “hey Beowulf, you’ll be a good king” and nothing more?

Leave your thoughts in the comments!


Back To Top
Closing

Next week, Hrothgar gets political in his farewell speech.

Back To Top

Authority in Beowulf and scriptures

This is the first page from the Beowulf manuscript, in Old English.

The first page of the original Beowulf manuscript, in Old English. Image from http://bit.ly/2jdxSdW.

I am, at best, a lapsed Catholic/Greek Orthodox Christian. But, I still find a lot of Christianity’s source material interesting. So, when I went searching for Beowulf news and found this post from patheos.com entitled “The Use and Purposes of Scripture: Part One”, I read right through it.

In this article Henry Karlson writes about how a literal reading of scripture either as a source of history or of laws is missing the point. Instead, he argues, the contradictions and various situations concerning similar events that come up in scripture need to be read together and taken as a whole rather than merely as parts. Ultimately, to back up his take on reading scripture, Karlson refers to Beowulf. In particular, he refers to the changes that Beowulf underwent between its origins and the version we have today.

Karlson then uses this analogy to say that the changes made to the scriptures didn’t undermine its authority in the same way that the transformations that the modern Beowulf underwent haven’t undermined its authority. What kept me from just saying “pshaw, whatever” when I read this, though, was that Karlson cements this point with the idea that the Church was just practicing good storytelling when it took all of the various stories and writings that became the scriptures and joined them into a single book.

Those same story-telling principles were guiding those who tinkered with Beowulf over the centuries. After all, Beowulf was restored to a mostly complete version from a single bound copy in a book of monsters and wonders that survived being worm-eaten, burned, and generally ignored as it changed hands over and over again.

Specifically, lines of the poem were clarified, different interpretations of the scribes’ handwriting were argued about, and references to other stories, history, and contemporary culture were worked out. All you need to do to see this sort of work on Beowulf in motion is to pick up an edition from the middle of the 20th century or earlier and flip through the notes. You’ll find them full of arguments about things ranging from Beowulf’s descent into and return from the Grendels’ lair paralleling the crucifixion of Christ, to the lack of clarity about what is really going on in the Finnburh episode, to the discovery that “lindbord” in reference to shields indicated that they were made of linden wood.

And yet, the debate around which version of Beowulf is the most correct isn’t based on any historical level. Most of the changes that were made to the text are largely forgotten now. Which makes sense, since claims of authority are usually based on a version’s poetic merit. The Bible, on the other hand, is only rarely judged on its literary merits. Plus, only academics, poetry, and history fans are really interested in Beowulf, whereas more religions than I could count are constantly arguing about the authority of their version of the Christian scriptures.

In fact, as a poem and not a religious text, preferences for Beowulf just come down to which one is your personal favourite.

I really enjoy Seamus Heaney’s translation, but I’m sure that once I read more editions I’ll find another that I like even more.

The elasticity of such opinions leaves me thinking that all the various branches of Christianity are just practicing the same favouritism but on a massive scale, like people who pour their free time into a particular fandom and then build a world of fanfic around themselves and friends.

But those are just my idle thoughts. What do you think about how the authority of Beowulf versions is measured? Is it even fair to compare the authority of a poem to the authority of scripture? Let me know in the comments!

Missionary Beowulf, propaganda, words plain and poetic (ll.928-942a)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Beowulf as Beefy Missionary or Hrothgar’s Propaganda
Poetic Compounds found in Poetry
Closing

Beowulf, Old English, Anglo-Saxon, translation

Back To Top
Abstract

Hrothgar makes a speech thanking god – and so far only god – for ridding the Danes of Grendel.

Back To Top
Translation

“For this sight to the almighty thanks
be given immediately! Great grief I endured,
the affliction of Grendel; always may god work
wonder after wonder, the shepherd of glory!
It was not long ago, that I expected never
to meet anyone who could soothe
my miseries, when blood-bedecked
stood the best of halls gory from battle,
wide-reaching woe knew everyone so that
none would venture near, so that for a long time
the people in their stronghold had to hold out against
hated demons and evil. Now shall we have through
the might of god this deed done,
a thing requiring skill that that none before
may have even conceived of.”
(Beowulf ll.928-942a)

Back To Top
Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

Back To Top
Beowulf as Beefy Missionary or Hrothgar’s Propaganda

In this passage, or rather, in this the first half of Hrothgar’s speech, Beowulf is suspiciously absent. Instead, this god character gets top billing.

So what’s the deal with this?

I mean, Beowulf makes mention of god and god’s favour and help in his boasts and stories of past deeds, but Hrothgar really doesn’t say much of anything about god up until now. The way I see it, this could mean that Beowulf is an Anglo-Saxon twist on a missionary – think Rambo crossed with an evangelist – or that Hrothgar has converted (or just always been quietly Christian) and is now using Beowulf’s victory as a bit of propaganda to stir his people to conversion.

In the first instance, Beowulf makes for an archetypically macho missionary. And, the first half of the poem definitely supports this interpretation.

With the Danes you’ve got a people at their wits end. Their own gods have done nothing to help them and none who have come to deal with Grendel have succeeded for the last twelve years. Then this Beowulf fellow shows up and suddenly that Grendel problem’s dealt with. Of course, if in this analogy Grendel represents something like wrong belief or vile practices or the perceived wickedness that comes from being a non-Christian, then things are definitely sped up for dramatic effect. Though the speed at which missionary Beowulf turns his audience toward his message can be found in other stories, like that of Saint Boniface, who chopped down a sacred oak tree in one swing and replaced it with an evergreen, unwittingly setting up what would become the Christmas tree and, according to the story, converting crowds. Of course, Christianity has always brought its own host of problems to the various places it’s been taken, either because of the people bearing it or the way in which it melded or failed to meld with the target peoples’ beliefs. Still. With Beowulf as a super hero missionary who spreads the Word through his thirty-men strong grip, things getting done quickly is unsurprising.

What’s more when it comes to this missionary reading, though, is that if we jump ahead to the instance with Grendel’s mother, we can then read that as Beowulf facing off with powerful and seductive temptation. In which case Grendel’s mother represents the possible feelings that Beowulf has for Wealhtheow and/or vice versa, feelings that could lead to a terrible scandal. But, when he defeats Grendel’s mother, Beowulf proves himself to be so good at what he does that he’s able to overcome that potential scandal, too.

The alternative reading, that Hrothgar is just using Beowulf’s victory as a way to do some preaching himself, digs up a thing or two, as well. Namely that Hrothgar may have been so dejected when we first meet him because he’d converted but his people hadn’t followed since it alone hadn’t rid them of Grendel. But with the defeat of Grendel at the hands of Beowulf – a warrior who entrusts himself to fate and to god – Hrothgar sees an opportunity to put Christianity into a positive light and proceeds to do so by saying that without god none of this would be possible. It wouldn’t even be conceivable (ll.941-942a).

In the light of these two possible readings of this passage I think it’s important to note that I feel I can get away with these sorts of analyses because Beowulf would’ve been written down by someone who had at least experienced the Church’s educational system. In other words, whatever this story was when it was simply being told, it took on a few Christian elements in its being written down. And maybe the possibility of reading Beowulf as a missionary or Hrothgar as a Christian propaganda opportunist are just products of it having been written that way. Maybe.

What do you think is happening with religion here? Is Beowulf a macho missionary? Is Hrothgar a propagandist? Or are both true?

Back To Top
Poetic Compounds found in Poetry

I’m not sure if prolonged exposure to Beowulf has made me a little jaded when it comes to Anglo-Saxon compound words or what. But this passage’s crop of them just isn’t doesn’t stack up to previous passages’. Gone are the combinations of words with almost opposite meanings, or senses that you’d normally not put together. Instead we have stuff that’s much more straightforward, but that still carries the quirk of age.

Take for instance “un-geara.” This isn’t a compound word in the truest sense, since it’s just the word for “yore,” “formerly, “in former times,” “once,” or “long since” with the prefix “un” stuck to it. But still, it’s pretty interesting to look at. I mean, this one means “not long ago” but literally translates as “not formerly.” You can clearly see the connection there, in that if something isn’t formerly, then it’s simply “not long ago.”

The word “heoro-dreorig” gets more straightforward as it’s just a combination of “heoro” (“sword”) and “dreorig” (“bloody,” “blood-stained,” “cruel,” “grievous,” “sad,” “sorrowful,” or “headlong?[sic]”). So it means “gory from battle,” though a more literal translation would be “sword gory.” I think it gets across its sense of the messy leavings of battle quite nicely. After all, even the sharpest knife, the most battle ready, is going to catch some of the gore, some of the blood on itself, and so too would anything that was the setting for battle, such as Heorot.

The word “wide-scofen” gets a little more poetic, thankfully. A combination of “wide” (“wide,” “vast,” “broad,” or “long”) and “scufan” (“shove,” “thrust,” “push,” “push with violence,” “urge,” “impel,” “push out,” “expel,” “deliver up,” or “display”) this word means “scattered far and wide.” A simple translation of the two words gives the sense of things being shoved or pushed wide apart, though. And I think the nuance here is important because unlike the modern English “scattered far and wide” to say that something’s been shoved far apart suggests a more forceful and immediate agency to me. It’s not that some invisible force from on high has scattered these things involved, but something more immediate, something that exercised force directly on them or on their surroundings has forced these things apart. Shoving things wide apart is just so much more evocative than the seemingly random sense of being “scattered far and wide”. So it goes without saying that this is my favourite compound of the passage.

Though “land-geweorc” is a close second. Combining “land” (“earth,” “land,” “soil,” “territory,” “realm,” “province,” “district,” “landed property,” “country as opposed to town,” or “ridge in a ploughed field”) and “weorc” (“work,” “workmanship,” “labour,” “construction,” “structure,” “edifice,” “military work,” or “fortification”), this word comes out as “fortified place,” though literally translated it means something like “earth structure.” So it’s not just some sort of structure built on the land, but there’s a very real sense here that this structure or fortification is built very much with the land in mind. Whether that means that it’s built into its area’s natural features or if it means that it’s simply taking advantage of those features, this combination really makes me think of something built cleverly rather than with a lot of sweat and labour. Actually, as with “wide-scofen” there’s a certain connotation of immediacy to this word which I find really interesting. Why? Because it carries with it a sense almost of being closer to the natural world and being able to take advantage of knowledge of its rhythms and patterns.

Why do you think old words like “wide-scofen” (which looks like “wide-shoved” if you think about it) changed to different phrases with similar meanings? Does this just reflect a change in taste, or is there something more at work in these changes?

Back To Top
Closing

In the next entry, Hrothgar’s speech continues and he mentions the man of the hour.

Back To Top

Grendel, Beowulf, and Graves’ Goddess, plus Grendel’s dark masses (ll.731-738)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Finding The White Goddess in Beowulf
Grendel’s Dark Masses
Closing

Beowulf, Grendel, Old English, Anglo-Saxon

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

Back To Top
Abstract

Grendel’s glee is given clear reason, fate rushes in, and Beowulf looks on — waiting.

Back To Top
Translation

“…intended he to sever, before the day returned,
the terrible fierce assailant, from each one
limb and life, expected he a lavish feast
to come about. Yet such was not set as fate,
that he would be allowed more of mankind
to taste during that night. The mighty looked on,
kin of Higelac, to see how the enemy
with his calamitous grip would fare.”
(Beowulf ll.731-739)

Back To Top
Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

Back To Top
Finding The White Goddess in Beowulf

Grendel’s glee continues into this passage and we’re given the reason for it: Grendel believes he’s in for a feast since there’s an entire group of young warriors sleeping in the hall.

But then we’re told that such wasn’t set as fate on line 734. I think that this line is central to this passage and the scene in which it occurs. As such, I think it serves a few purposes.

First off, I think that line 734 helps to being the focus back to Beowulf. As fate’s agent in so far as Beowulf is the one fated to bring about the end of Grendel’s feasting (as is fated), this line is like a group of heralding trumpets announcing his arrival. Along similar lines, this line marks Beowulf as fate’s agent.

Actually, in light of what I’ve read in Robert Graves’ The White Goddess, the triangle that line 734 sets up is rather interesting.

Central to Graves’ book is the idea that the single poetic theme, the one thing that all true poetry is about in infinite variation, is the struggle between the king of the waning year and the king of the waxing year for the hand or approval of the goddess (in her form as maid).

In the scenario in this passage we have the god of the waning year in Grendel. And we have the god of the waxing year in Beowulf. But then, where is the female element?

Well, in chapter 25 of The White Goddess Graves writes that before patriarchal religion took over from matriarchal religion the idea of religious freedom was non-existent. During that time it was believed that whatever happened, happened, and people had no choice but to accept the good and the bad that the goddess at the centre of this matriarchal faith doled out. What happened was locked into happening — it was fated.

If Beowulf is a work reflective of the change from paganism to Christianity among the Anglo-Saxons, or even if it’s just a story steeped in pre-Christian lore that has a Christian gloss over it (the constant references to “The Lord,” “The Measurer,” “Almighty God,” etc.), then it makes sense that “wyrd” or “fate” would be a feminine concept. As such, in this scenario where we have Grendel, Beowulf, and Fate, we have the complete trinity of waning king, waxing king, and woman.

But how does this fit into Beowulf, and why does it matter? What about your reading of Beowulf does it change?

Well, it does an awful lot of foreshadowing. It also suggests a good reason why Beowulf is still around outside of its being the only example of Old English long form poetry that we have. It does the latter by fitting very neatly into the template of the singular poetic theme. It does the former because it fits so well into that theme.

It fits so well into the theme because the trinity of waning king, waxing king, and woman is cyclical. Within the scope of a cycle the waxing king becomes the waning king, the woman gives birth to a new champion and he becomes the waxing king who ousts the now waning king. And things just continue onward with that cycle forever.

With this in mind, it’s obvious that Beowulf will triumph here, but that he will fall later on. What’s interesting about his fall is that as he dies he passes things along to his successor himself, without any sort of female presence.

Thus, going along with Graves, Beowulf could be read as a story of how patriarchal faith ousted matriarchal faith. Such a reading also puts an interesting spin on Beowulf’s defeating Grendel’s mother, since it suggests that at some point the king or god of the waxing year killed not only his rival but also the woman for whom he fought.

Stepping back from this reading of the poem, the line about fate also foreshadows things in the way that it’s worded. Grendel’s not going to feast on many again, but nothing’s said about one or two.

Do you think that there’s anything more going on in the struggle between Beowulf and Grendel beyond an action scene? Is Beowulf really invested with the judgement of fate or are these two just savages?

Back To Top
Grendel’s Dark Masses

This week’s passage has three words that I think are worth writing about. They are “wist-fylle,” “þryð-swyð,” and “fær-gripum.”

The first of these, “wist-fylle,” means “lavish feast.” It’s a word made up of the word for “being,” “existence,” “well-being,” “abundance,” “plenty,” “provision,” “nourishment,” “subsistence,” “food,” “meal,” “feast,” “delicacy,” — “wist” — and the word for “complete,” “fill up,” “perfect,” — “fullian” — which can also mean “to baptize.”

Hold on a second.

I can see the connection between “complete, fill up, perfect” and “baptize,” especially in a Christian context. But pairing that up with the word for feast in such a context really strikes me as weird.

Now, I know that the poet probably didn’t create most of the compound words that he uses, but “wist-fylle” is still a weird pairing. In fact, I wonder if at some point (maybe even when Beowulf was being put to paper or even just composed) the word had connotations of a sacred meal or maybe even a Eucharistic mass. You know, the sort celebrated each Sunday by practicing Christians with readings and songs and the wafer (or actual piece of bread) served up around the end.

On the one hand, given its context as what Grendel’s expecting at the sight of so much youthful flesh, “wiste-fylle” seems like it could be sacrilege. But, I think that on the other hand even with such connotations, this word is a perfect fit.

Grendel certainly came to Heorot with enough regularity for it to be considered a ritual. Like Christian mass. He also always supped on flesh before going away. Like at Christian mass (metaphorically, of course, unless you’re a strict Catholic and believe that the Eucharist undergoes transubstantiation once blessed and then is the body of Christ, as they say). So maybe the word’s meant to suggest that Grendel’s visits are a kind of mass for him.

With these things in mind, I don’t think it’s far off the mark to see Grendel as not only the representation of the evil of the world but also of the pagan religion that was being supplanted by Christianity. The old religion of ritual sacrifice and bloodshed was being replaced by one with righteous bloodshed in the name of a true god — perhaps a small irony that didn’t escape the erudite among the Anglo-Saxons (such as their “scops” or poets).

Though also at the heart of Christianity is the idea that such sacrifices are no longer necessary because Christ’s dying on the cross stands as a sacrifice for and across all time — making any others unnecessary, even insulting to god if you want to look at it that way.

Unfortunately, that’s where this reading of the word sort of falls apart. Beowulf does eventually die. And, in doing so he saves his people, but only for a very short time. Otherwise, there really isn’t a permanent sacrifice that comes in to replace that which Grendel takes during his dark visits. Ah well, good run. Unless the whole thing’s meant as a criticism of Christianity. But that’s something for another entry.

The second word worth looking at doesn’t really lend itself to much analysis. The word “þryð-swyð” is weird because it literally translates out to something like “strong strength” or “severely strong.” It’s like two words meaning powerful things being bashed together into something even more powerful. A kind of linguistic Masa and Mune, if you will.

And, to be honest, “fær-gripum” doesn’t have much to it either (I should probably work at organizing these sections more strictly).

The first half of this word means “calamity,” “sudden danger,” “peril,” “sudden attack,” or “terrible sight” and the second half means “grip,” “grasp,” “seizure,” “attack.” It’s not the most compelling combination, essentially meaning “sudden attack” or more specifically “sudden grip.”

However, a bit of the Anglo-Saxon (Beowulfian?) love of violence creeps into the word if you dig down into “fær.” This is because “fær” is an alternate spelling of the word “fæger,” meaning “fair,” “beautiful,” or “pleasant.”

With this new first element in place, the word becomes “beautiful grip” or “fair attack.” Such a word combination might sound more like it belongs in the mouth of a pro wrestling commentator, but really, Beowulf is kind of a pro wrestler-type character if you think about it. And Grendel’s quite a heel.

Or, the Anglo-Saxons just really could appreciate beautiful violence, the sort of thing that puts you in awe of how graceful — yet painful — it looks. For examples of what I mean, go check out The Raid: Redemption. There’s a ton of beautiful violence in that film. Beautiful, horrifying violence.

Do you think that Beowulf could be a long tongue-in-cheek anti-Christian tale?

Or, do you think that there is such a thing as “beautiful violence”?

Back To Top
Closing

Next week, Grendel goes after Beowulf.

Back To Top

Hrothgar prefaces Grendel and a word combines “foolish” and “fiend” (ll.473-479)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Why preface the massacre?
A terrible jester
Closing

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

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

Back To Top
Abstract

Hrothgar prefaces his relation of the terror of Grendel’s attacks with a brief summary.

Back To Top
Translation

It grieves me at heart to tell,
to any man, what affliction Grendel has wrought
on me and and Heorot amidst his hostile designs,
those spiteful attacks; by these is my hall troop,
my band of warriors, made thin; wyrd swept them
into Grendel’s terror. God easily may
put an end to the deeds of that fell-destroyer!
(Beowulf ll.473-479)

Back To Top
Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

Back To Top
Why preface the massacre?

This short passage is what Hrothgar uses as a preface to the retelling of Grendel’s attacks. In it he summarizes what he’s about to say next. But why?

Beowulf already knows about Grendel and the terror that he’s wreaked upon Heorot and the Danes. So why does Hrothgar feel the need to preface the relation of the same?

Maybe it’s because this is a first hand account of the story, and as such its details will be more vivid than those in news that has been blown afar by sailor and wanderer alike.

Maybe it’s not supposed to be taken in the same way as the modern newscasters’ “Now, we must warn viewers that some people may find some of the images in the following report graphic.”

Maybe, instead, it’s supposed to get Beowulf and his crew into the right mindset to hear the story of Grendel’s attacks.

In short, it’s meant to give context rather than to scare or warn.

Giving such a relation context makes fine sense. But I can’t help but think that there’s something more at work here.

Hrothgar’s old fashioned formality is certainly a factor. Someone like Beowulf would probably just rush right into the story and not really establish much beforehand.

Yet, such a formal system of expression seems strange given that Hrothgar’s just confessed openly to Beowulf that he’s not as great a man as his brother was. Normally someone in his position wouldn’t just come out and admit something like that, I think.

So perhaps that was something of a slip on his part, emotionally wrought as he’d been made by meeting Ecgtheow’s son and at last having a hero in whom he firmly believes.

If Hrothgar’s admission of weakness to Beowulf was a slip, then this little preface could well be his way of recovering himself and his manner.

After all, the poet wouldn’t want to waste time with lines about how Hrothgar’s look drooped and then slowly, like a trumpet vine, climbed and bloomed, ready to dispense the sweet nectar of the situation. Instead, the poet/scribe would be better off simply including this shift back to formality in the man’s dialogue. This poem thing has to keep a vigorous pace, right?

One other thing makes me think that this preface is more about context than being a warning.

Within the passage, Hrothgar makes a reference to the power of wyrd (kind of like fate, but beyond any notion of destiny) sweeping away his men (ll.477-478) and he also makes reference to god, whom he believes can put an end to Grendel all together (ll.478-479). This shows a man in transition on the spiritual level, since the concept of “wyrd” predates that of the Christian god among Anglo-Saxons. Hrothgar still holds to the old idea of wyrd while also investing hope in this new “god” figure. That is, so long as the “god” of line 478 is the Christian god and not just some vague reference to Odin or the Norse gods in general.

It’s also curious to note that wyrd and god appear in Hrothgar’s preface in the reverse order that they appear in Beowulf’s earlier speech. Pinning any real meaning on this kind of structure isn’t really worth the effort, since it could just be coincidence. But, Hrothgar’s repetition of these two things could relate to his hope that god will, without any real struggle, choose Beowulf to win. Hrothgar’s ending his preface with “God easily may/put an end to the deeds of that fell-destroyer” (“God eaþe mæg/þone dolsceaðan dæda getwæfan.”(ll.478-479)) definitely suggests this.

Back To Top
A terrible jester

Brief as this passage is there is one word in particular that I want to break down. This word is “dolsceaða” (l.479). As a compound it means “fell destroyer.”

Broken into its constituent parts, though, we’re left with “dol” (meaning “foolish,” “silly;” “presumptuous;” and “folly”) and “sceaða” (meaning “injurious person,” “criminal,” “thief,” “assassin;” “warrior,” “atagonist,” “fiend,” “devil,” and “injury”).

At first glance a combination of a word for things like “foolish,” “presumptuous,” etc. with one for “criminal,” “thief,” “fiend” probably seems strange. How exactly can someone be a “foolish fiend”?

Within the context of Anglo-Saxon society, though, the reason that these two words combine to mean “fell destroyer” becomes clear.

As we saw in last week’s post, Ecgtheow started a feud with the Wulfings when he killed one of them. Along with the feud, Ecgtheow was also exiled from his people. And in Anglo-Saxon culture exile is a fate worse than death.

Death is final. Exile is an ongoing punishment in which the exiled was cut off from their community. Since Anglo-Saxons relied on their community for physical and emotional well being, such separation would leave one leading a solitary, vulnerable life. In exile, a person would cease being a Geat or a Dane and become simply an exile.

Therefore, killing indiscriminately as Grendel does would be foolish. Anyone who carried out such action would definitely be considered as grave a thing as a “fell destroyer” because they would be acting outside of all societal norms. What’s more, such a person would certainly be exiled and would gather all the rage of the slain’s kith and kin would be directed squarely at you. Gathering together so much hatred would surely, and rightly, be seen as a thing of folly.

Thus, combining the word for foolish and the word for criminal to create a third word meaning “fell destroyer” makes perfect sense. Applying it to Grendel makes even more, since his killing is indeed foolishly criminal.

Yet, you could argue that such is his nature as the kin of Cain. So Grendel’s actions aren’t so much mad or foolish as they are natural. He’s killing without any sort of sense of “feud” or “exile.” That’s really only if you take the monster’s perspective, though. From within the Danes and Geats’ frame of reference, in which feuds are a legal means for reparations, Grendel’s actions are indeed insane, those of a “fell destroyer.”

Back To Top
Closing

Next week, Hrothgar goes into gory detail in his telling of Grendel’s visits to Heorot.

Back To Top

Beowulf’s forceful resumé and multi-purpose words (ll.407-418)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Words of force or forced words?
Multipurpose words
Closing

Back To Top
Abstract

Beowulf’s speech continues. Picking up from last week’s speech about who he is and how he heard of Heorot’s distress, Beowulf now shares the highlights of his deeds.

Back To Top
Translation

“‘They themselves saw, when I cleverly overcame,
foe after foe, when I bound five,
devastated the kin of giants, and upon the sea slew
water-demons by night, I have endured dire need,
have fulfilled the Geat’s hatred – such was the hope they summoned –
it consumed those enemies. And so it shall now against Grendel,
against this monster I will stand alone as it please
in such a meeting with the demon. I to thee now then,
lord of the Bright-Danes, will make my request,
prince of the Scyldings, will proclaim this alone:'”
(Beowulf ll.419-428)

Back To Top
Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

Back To Top
Words of force or forced words?

The Anglo-Saxons were fond of woven patterns and intricate knotted designs. You can see it in their art (this blog’s header image for example), and poetry (Beowulf‘s interlace structure, is a prime example).

But Beowulf’s speech is a true show of what it means to weave words. Hrothgar has his “thee”‘s and “thou”‘s and the diction of an august figure. But Beowulf brings much more artifice to his speech. As a result, it’s hard to say how seriously we can take his words.

Now, as always when analyzing word use in Old English poetry, it must be noted that alliteration held considerable sway over which words made it to the page or performance. Beowulf’s speech is certainly no exception.

First among its more rhetorical flourishes is the use of ðing on line 426. This word has the same meaning as Modern English “thing,” but it can also mean “lawsuit,” “court of justice” or “meeting.” In this instance the word appears to be chosen for its alliterative properties (line 426’s alliterative sound being the dental fricative “th,”) yet its use gives me pause.

Should Beowulf’s use of this word be taken to mean that Grendel bears more than a mindless hatred toward Heorot?

Or is he just trying to say that Grendel has pursued this hatred of his with all the furor of a legal battle – a fight between two parties with wildly differing opinions about what’s fair?

Though it’s another example of something used for the sake of alliteration, line 428’s “bene” translates as “summon, command, proclaim.” These are strong words for a guest to use to indicate an upcoming request. Not to mention that this is the first time that Beowulf is addressing Hrothgar. As such, using such a forceful word comes across as rude. At the same time, though, the word’s force makes me wonder.

Beowulf is famed for having the might of many men in his grip. His deeds are all deeds of overcoming great odds against (mostly?) supernatural opponents. Beowulf is, at least in some ways, brute force personified. So then is he (or is the poet/scribe) trying to make that forcefulness come across in his speech as well?

Following the conventions of poetry is one thing, and a thing that Beowulf does more than the poet/scribe seems to as far as word-weaving’s concerned (he makes much greater use of interlacing his clauses), but surely words that carry such deep shades of force as “ðing” and “bene” indicate more than the speaker’s (and the poet/scribe’s) awareness of poetic convention.

As far as I know, there’s no pattern to the sounds used for alliteration. Perhaps it’s generally seen as poor form to have two consecutive lines with the same alliterating sound. But there are no hard and fast rules about ordering your alliteration scheme in Old English poetry as there are for, say, Renaissance or Victorian rhyme schemes. As such, any sound could have been chosen for these lines.

Although such interpretations of “ðing” and “bene” goes far too deep into authorial process (as well as authorial intent), I’m left wondering: What came first? Was it a word that gave rise to the line or the line that forced the poet/scribe into using a word that just sort of fit his/her intended meaning?

Since it’s nearly impossible to know for sure, I’ll choose to think that Beowulf is opting more for force than accuracy, more for strength than finesse. After all, Anglo-Saxons aren’t known for their lithe forms, erudite reasoning and appreciation of fine art and music.

Back To Top
Multipurpose words

As is to be expected in such a rhetorical passage as this, some words are curious cases.

The word that Beowulf uses when he talks about the kin of giants to say he’s “devastated” them for example, is “yðde” (a variation of the past form of “ieðan”).

But this word, like so many others in Old English doesn’t have just one meaning.

Along with meanings like “lay waste,” “ravage,” “devastate,” and “destroy,” this word means “to alleviate,” “be merciful.” Having such diverse meanings could be the result of the word’s appearing in different contexts in different Old English works.

However, it’s more interesting to wonder if the Anglo-Saxons had the idea that sometimes being merciful meant devastating something or someone. Monsters for instance. Surely, an existence outside of the love and purview of god was something that any thinking creature would want ended, right?

Such reasoning might stand for inhuman enemies, but, getting back to the previous section’s point about Beowulf brute-forcing his way through his speech, I can’t help but wonder if his using such a strong, double-edged word, leads him to qualify his devastating deeds (particularly those possibly against human enemies, the general “enemies of the Geats,”) as having been deserved (“such was the hope they summoned” (“wean ahsodon” (l.423))). If he is indeed qualifying his acts of violence, then perhaps Beowulf comes from a time of greater tolerance, a time in which the poem’s audience was less interested in wiping out those different from them.

Though there would always be plenty of room for enmity with giants, demons and wizards. In fact, why not roll them all into one word? The term “þyrse” would do nicely.

Yes, Old English has a single word that can mean “giant,” “demon,” or “wizard.” Now, these three things might seem distinct to us, but to a medieval mind (particularly an early medieval mind) they were likely much closer together.

Giants were believed to be enemies of god, a and the word could be a general term for the race of monsters that were the kin of Cain. It was also a handy term for unknown, powerful forces or enemies. In Layamon’s Brut, for example, the original settlers of Britain defeat the native giants before they claim the land.

Demons could have been giants. After all, they were the servants of Satan, the enemies of god, and therefore quite closely related to the kin of Cain. Save that, of course, they weren’t necessarily Cain’s kin. More like the family friend that Cain, in more modern times, might refer to as “uncle” or “aunt.”

And wizards famously enslaved demons to their wills. Surely someone who controlled demons must be somewhat demonic him or herself, right?

Also, wizards are wizards, so they could make themselves appear as giants or be cloaked in reputations of being unknown foes. Maybe they could even be referred to as giants in the general sense since they could be considered adopted members of the Cain family, those who have opted out of being sons of Seth and knowing god’s favour.

Back To Top
Closing

Next week, Beowulf proclaims his intent and explains just how he plans to deal with Grendel.

Back To Top

The coastguard’s farewell (ll.312-319) [Old English]

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
A boastful coastguard?
Meet the new god, same as the old god
Closing

Back To Top
Abstract

The coastguard takes his leave of the Geats, wishing them god’s protection.

Back To Top
Translation

“He took the battle brave to the bright
high-souled hall, that he may thither them
go; that hero of combat turned his horse
about, spoke he these words next:
‘It is time for me to go. The almighty
father’s grace keep you healthy
amidst your quest! I am to the sea,
to hold the shore against fiendish foes.'”
(Beowulf ll.312-319)

Back To Top
Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

Back To Top
A boastful coastguard?

The coastguard’s being called “hero of combat” (“guðbeorna”) seems strange. That is, until you notice that it’s the third word in an alliterative sequence. But is it only there to hold up a preferred Old English poetic form?

Yeah, probably.

I mean, the coastguard does mention that he has to go back to the coast to guard against “fiendish foes” (“wrað werod” (l.319)). So there could be some verity to his being a “hero of combat.” But that term seems a little inflated to me.

Could the poet be having a laugh at the coastguard’s expense? “guðbeorna” fit the line that he had written and so he just ran with that and made the coastguard into a bit of a boaster at the end of his speech?

Maybe.

I mean, on the one hand, as much of an exile such a person might feel (even if he does have a crew out there), it definitely wouldn’t be wise to send some fop out to guard your coast.

The Danes wouldn’t have had the troops to keep a barracks there or anything like that. His crew included, the Danish coastguard in Beowulf probably wouldn’t exceed ten men. Tops. So he, the lead coastguard if you will, would definitely need to have proven his mettle in combat.

Though, it’s also possible that the position of coastguard is reserved for warriors who are past their prime. No longer able to perform as vigourously on the battlefield they’re charged to put their skills and battle-sharpened wits to the test in judging new comers and putting on a fearsome face. With a coast as quiet as the Dane’s must be (who, aside from heroes would want to come to a monster-terrorized-golden-hall party?), the job of coastguard definitely seems like something that would get filled by a veteran.

And maybe that’s what the poet was going for with the narrative riff on the coastguard’s past and then his own seemingly over-zealous admission of what he was heading off to do.

Back To Top
Meet the new god, same as the old god

Throughout Beowulf, people give thanks to a generic male, father god. Many translations (and some instances in the original text) make many of these references into “lord.” As such, it’s very easy to read these instances of reference to god as references to the Christian god. Since “lord” is frequently used as a deific pronoun in Christianity.

However.

Christianity wasn’t the only religion to have a wise, solemn, wrathful, and benevolent patriarchical deity.

The Norse peoples (who definitely had some influence on Beowulf since it’s set largely in Daneland of all places) had Odin. The Germanic people had Woden. The Anglo-Saxon creators or audience for this poem were themselves Germanic.

So who’s to say that these generic references to god aren’t to these pagan gods? The Geats and Danes aren’t exactly quoting Old or New Testament verses at each other. Though there is that lengthy reference to Grendel as the kin of Cain and god’s war with the giants. That could be a reference to the apparently standard stories told among the peoples of northern Europe about unexplored places.

Knowing with certainty who the deity is that’s constantly being referred to is an impossibility. But the idea that it could be either the Christian god or one of the chief Pagan gods isn’t just a neat alternative. That could well have been the intention.

No matter where you place our version of Beowulf‘s composition within the 400 year window generally agreed upon (between 600 and 1000 AD) contemporary Christianity had yet to really spread over all of Europe. As such this story that’s ostensibly about a hero’s quests and fights with the supernatural could have been used as a way to infiltrate and convert.

Or, any male deity could be read into it as a way of making sure that the epic simply wasn’t too preachy.

Beowulf‘s being bundled with a collection of fantastic tales from the east in the Noel codex could in fact be the book creator’s way of sort of sweeping it under the rug because these god references weren’t clear then either. That book maker would have been a Christian monk of some sort or another after all.

So, when you’re reading Beowulf and come across a reference to the “alwalda” don’t just think surfer dude with a long white robe and beard, but think one-eyed, helmeted warrior god, too.

Back To Top
Closing

Next week, the Geats step into Heorot and duly unequip themselves.

Back To Top