A case for Danish sympathy and a sword’s name along with other words (ll.1142-1150a)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Hengest Gets Pushed over the Edge
A Sword’s Name and a few Other Compound Words
Closing

A section of the Bayeux Tapestry showing Anglo-Saxon warfare

Image found here: “Bayeux Tapestry 4” by photo by Gabriel Seah – gssq.blogspot.com. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

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Abstract

After some cajoling from his fellow Danes, Hengest kills Finn before leaving Frisia in the spring.

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Translation

“So he could not refuse the law of the world,
when to him Hunlafing gave War-Radiance,
the best of swords, placed it into his lap,
that was amidst the Jutes a known weapon.
Just so, it later befell Finn, the bold in spirit,
that he was cruelly killed in his own home,
suffered the dire attack after Guðlaf and Oslaf
spoke of the sorrow of their sea voyage,
all blamed their share of woe on Finn.”
(Beowulf ll.1142-1150a)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Hengest Gets Pushed over the Edge

I feel like finding sympathy for villains in this poem is something that I do a bit much of (see this entry in particular), but I can’t help but feel like there’s something in here regarding Finn’s feelings.

I mean, from the sounds of it, Hengest almost left without exacting revenge.

It’s not until Hunlafing gives him the famed sword, “War Radiance” (l.1143) and “Guðlaf and Oslaf/spoke of the sorrow of their sea voyage” (ll.1148-1149) that he acts. Or so it seems. These two actions turn Hengest towards killing Finn before leaving.

And rightly so, right? Finn is one of the Danes’ sworn enemies – a Frisian – and so his wreaking vengeance makes sense.

But what does it say about Hengest that he needed so much convincing?

If Hunlafing hadn’t given him the sword famed from fights with the Jutes or Guðlaf and Oslaf hadn’t complained about how sorry they’d be coming back to Daneland lord-less and leaving his slayer alive, would he have killed Finn?

I honestly don’t think so. I think Hengest, bitter as he was all winter, had started to like Finn, or at least respect him.

The Danes, after all, had been at Finn’s mercy, and yet he respected the pact that his marriage to Hildeburh represented. Finn extended a hand of friendship to the Danes, even if only out of obligation, and he did not go back on any of his terms. Hnæf and Finn’s own son were burned together, a funeral was held for all who perished in the battle we never see, and the Danes go unharassed all winter.

So it seems likely that Hengest, who must have been the second in command while Hnæf was alive (or at least shows the level headedness required of a leader), gradually had his grudge against Finn worn away through exposure. The ember of his hatred for the man and for his people would likely remain since this is a feud we’re talking about, but if Hunlafing, Guðlaf and Oslaf hadn’t fanned that ember back to life, I think the Danes would’ve left without incident.

But instead they kill Finn and run off – but not before committing another act to perpetuate the feud. Though that act is mentioned in the next part of the poem.

So let’s pull back for a second.

As a sword guy I just want to point out the significance of the sword Hunlafing shows Hengest. Because I think that’s probably more of a factor in what Hengest did than Guðlaf and Oslaf’s needling. After all, as a sword that “the Jutes knew well,” it’s safe to say that it was a battle-hardened sword.

Since this is a sword that seems to have been wrapped up or tucked away, it was probably Hnæf’s own weapon. As such, it probably rampaged through the battle that came before we see Hildeburh mourning on the battlefield, and so the memory of it would be fresh in Finn and the Frisian’s minds.

Or maybe they actually wouldn’t remember it at all.

What makes the reputation of the sword “War-Radiance” important is that the Danes perceive it has such a thing. Because more than idle talk of people back home thinking them dishonourable cowards for not killing Finn, showing a concrete artifact that represented the feud between Danes and Frisians, I think, would really get Hengest thinking about revenge.

Why?

Because it would remind him of all the conflict between the two in the past, such a reputed sword would stand as a testimony and representation of their feud and its enduring nature in steel. Plus, if “War-Radiance” was Hnæf’s, there’d be the twinge of duty Hengest would no doubt feel, the duty to avenge his lord at last, perhaps long since his initial feelings of frustration and anger had cooled.

Which do you think pushed Hengest toward killing Finn – the sword or Guðlaf and Orlaf’s telling him they’d be dishonoured back home?

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A Sword’s Name and a few Other Compound Words

This passage’s compounds are pretty clear-headed. Perhaps because of the dire nature of the act the poet sings of here. After all, it’s not a battle in which you could become ecstatic in the telling, swinging compounds about like tree trunks, it’s a revenge killing of a lord in his own hall after having been his guests for the winter. It brings a chill into springtime. So the compounds are just as cold – but not less interesting.

Especially line 1143’s “hilde-leoman.” This technically isn’t a compound word since it’s the name of a sword, but that name is two other words smashed together, so here we go!

The word “hilde-leoman” comes from the compounding of “hilde” (“war,” or “combat”) and “leoman” (“ray of light,” “beam,” “radiance,” “gleam,” “glare,” or “lighting”), and I’ve chosen to translate it as “War-Radiance” (Seamus Heaney went with “Dazzle-the-Duel”) I think both have their merits.

But what’s interesting about this compound is that it’s a sword’s name.

Let me back up.

We see other named swords in this poem. There’s Hrunting and Nægling later on, for instance. But these are actual names, not just two words a poet (or someone) slammed together.

Sure, the usual alliteration comes to play with “hilde-leoman” (“Hunlafing hilde-leoman,” with the line’s cæsura right in the middle, perfectly bridges the gap), but it’s still neat that the name is just two words combined.

Plus, naming a sword something like “War-Radiance” makes sense. As a sword’s raised over and over again in a battle it’s going to catch whatever light there is on the field, especially if it’s constantly being swung but also being kept constantly clean either with quick wipes or jerky swings that shake any blood or gore free from the blade. So “War Radiance” (or the more personable” Dazzle-the-Duel”) makes an almost onomatopoeic sense (at least in Modern English).

The word “world-rædenne” (l.1142), meaning “way of the world,” is also kind of neat. Though more for its concept than anything to do with the word’s parts, those being “worold” (“world,” “age,” “men,” “humanity,” “way of life,” “life,” “long period of time,” “cycle,” or “eternity”) and “ræd” (“advice,” “counsel,” “resolution,” “deliberation,” “plan,” “way,” “design,” “council,” “conspiracy,” “decree,” “ordinance,” “wisdom,” “sense,” “reason,” “intelligence,” “gain,” “profit,” “benefit,” “good fortune,” “remedy,” “help,” “power,” or “might”).

I mean, no matter how you slice it, it basically comes back to meaning something pertaining to life and its order. The implication being, though, that killing Finn is just the way to go, it’s just what Hengest has to do as a rule of the world.

But I wonder if part of this editorializing on the part of Hrothgar’s poet sheds some light on the Anglo-Saxons’ view of history. Namely that history wasn’t something fluid that changes with every teller, but that it was something solid, and that since history was solid and fixed, so too what was to come. Though, obviously, what was to come couldn’t be read by people. So maybe there’s some determinism in that word, Hengest not being able to resist killing Finn simply because Danes and Frisians feud, and Finn’s murder would keep that going. It offers some insight into how a deterministic view of the past can lead to a deterministic view of the present and future, too, I think.

The next two compounds, “sweord-bealo” (l.1147) and “sæ-sið” (l.1149), just aren’t as interesting as “world-rædenne” and “hilde-leoman.”

Nonetheless, “sweord-bealo” brings together the unmistakable “sword” (“sword”) and “bealu” (“bale,” “harm,” “injury,” “destruction,” “rain,” “evil,” “mischief,” “wickedness,” “malice,” “a noxious thing” “baleful,” “deadly,” “dangerous,” “wicked,” or “evil”) to make a word that unmistakingly means “sword injury” or even more literally, “a grievous injury inflicted by a sword.”

And “sæ-sið” combines the nearly Modern English “sæ” (“sheet of water,” “sea,” “lake,” or “pool”) and “sið” (“going,” “motion,” “journey,” “errand,” “departure,” “death,” “expedition,” “undertaking,” “enterprise,” “road,” “way,” “time,” “turn,” “occasion,” “late,” “afterwards”) to give us “sea voyage” and almost nothing else. Though there is an implication that any kind of “sið” could be a euphemism for death since that is one of the word’s definitions according to Clark Hall and Meritt.

Do you think that the sword’s name, “hilde-leoman,” is something the poet came up with entirely for alliteration or because it was actually a sword’s name? Maybe both?

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Closing

Next week we hear the rest of the story of Hengest and Finn, and see what the Danes do before they leave Frisia.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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Words to cool a harp solo and excite for history (ll.1063-1070)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
A Harp Solo Before a History Lesson
Words of War Mingled with Words of Mirth
Closing

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Abstract

The poet describes the joy and noise of the hall before diving into a summary of a tale that’s about to be told.

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Translation

“There was song and clamour together there
before the Danish commanders.
The harp was played, many tales told,
when the hall joy Hrothgar’s poet
among the mead benches would recite:
He sang of Finn’s children, when calamity struck them,
when the Halfdane hero, Hnæf Scylding,
in the Frisian slaughter found death.”
(Beowulf ll.1063-1070)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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A Harp Solo Before a History Lesson

You know there’s not a lot happening in an old poem when there are bits like this passage. What makes this passage such a red flag for a low ebb of action? The lack of specificity for starters. Until the next part of the poem (another poem within a poem) is described, we’re just told how the Danish commanders are regaled while song and tale telling are happening all around everyone.

It’s also clear that this is a bridge sort of passage because immediately before hand we had some wisdom dropped on us. It wouldn’t surprise me if before this passage was recited there would usually be a little harp solo. It’s just the appropriate time for that sort of thing.

After all, things are going to get heavy again fairly soon, and the end of this passage is the warning for that. I mean, before we even get into the poem that’s about to be recited, the poem itself is telling us that the children of Finn will meet calamity and the Danish hero Hnæf Scylding will meet his end. So a little solo and maybe a re-enactment of the celebration would help.

But the story that follows this passage is definitely something inserted, a kind of gem embedded in the woven metal art piece that is Beowulf.

Perhaps it was a lovely poem that was much admired when Beowulf was being composed, maybe even just a piece of poetry that came to a poet’s mind after having told his audience about the gifts Beowulf and the Geats got. Whatever the case, the coming story is offset explicitly like the story of Sigmund and the dragon told the morning after Beowulf’s victory.

So we can tell that spirits are indeed high since Beowulf’s been fêted before with this kind of embedded story.

Likewise, the tale of Sigmund foreshadows Beowulf’s own fight with a dragon, and we can expect more foreshadowing from this passage. Though it’s not likely to be as clear.

Why?

Because all of the names and roles in Anglo-Saxon society can get a little tricky. And this poem is, if nothing else, historical and political, so it’s trying to exemplify something political and social. If the story of Sigmund is like Shakespeare’s The Tempest, the story of Finn’s children and Hnæf Scylding is like Titus Andronicus or Julius Caesar. It’s a neat yarn, but only really interesting if you’re already familiar with the history or are interested in it.

And, actually, given that this is something with a little more grounding in history than Sigemund’s fight with the dragon, it’s interesting how the poet doesn’t really try to hook us with any special detail about the story.

Before the Sigemund story we’re told that the poet brought stories of Sigemund from far off lands, but here we’re explicitly told that what we’re about to hear tell of calamity and death. But I think that’s just part of mustering authority. The poet’s introduction to what’s about to be recited needs to be simple and clear to set the tone of what’s to come and also to make clear that this isn’t an embellishment or grand story, but a retelling of facts. Plus, most people hearing Beowulf, or even reading it, would probably be familiar with the calamity that befell Finn’s children and Hnæf’s end, so things are primed as being familiar rather than new. What’s to come is history rather than mythology, after all.

Though, maybe that’s why history feels boring to a lot of people. Even if we don’t know the details, the stories within history are familiar because we’ve heard the archetypal historical stories before (stories of people in war, of intrigue, of the ambitious). But works of fiction (or mythology) seem fresh and new because there’s the promise of a story we’re unfamiliar with – including twists and surprises that we aren’t expecting.

What do you think makes a good story? Something unlike anything you’ve ever come across before, a regular story with a twist at the end, or something that’s mostly familiar? Why?

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Words of War Mingled with Words of Mirth

Well, because this passage is leading us into history, things get pretty serious by the end of it. But that doesn’t mean they don’t get the poet revved up to use a bunch of compound words.

We get four here, including one that must have been made up specifically for this occasion. However, none of these compounds are particularly deep or complex. So perhaps the excitement the poet feels as he gets ready to launch into a little history isn’t as unbridled as it’s been in the past but is more like the excitement of a professor about to lecture on her favourite subject.

Anyway, the four compounds we come across in this passage are “hilde-wisan” (l.1064), “gomen-wudu” (l.1065), “heal-gamen” (l.1066), and “Fres-wæle” (l.1070).

The word “hilde-wisan” means “commander.” Though I think “veteran” works, too.

After all, “hilde” means “war,” “combat,” “keeping,” “custody,” “guard,” “protection,” “loyalty,” “fidelity,” “observance,” “observation,” “watching,” “secret place,” “protector,” or “guardian”; while the Old English word “wisan” means “leader,” or “director.” So combining the two gives us something like “director of combat,” or “leader of protecting,” which sounds like a veteran or commander to me. Of course, I think that goes without saying since all commanders would likely have been veterans (though not all veterans would be commanders).

Line 1065’s “gomen-wudu” is probably the neatest compound of this bunch, and quite appropriately so.

This word means “harp.” It derives that meaning from “gomen” (“sport,” “joy,” “mirth,” “pastime,” “game,” or “amusement”) and “wudu” (“wood,” “forest,” “grove,” “tree,” “the Cross,” “Rood,” “wood,” “timber,” “ship,” or “spear-shaft”). So literally, this compound for “harp” means “mirth wood.” I rather like how how the mirth is focused in the wood.

Not because it takes the emphasis off of the skill of the person playing the harp. But because it suggests that the musician playing the harp is more of a medium than someone actively creating music, that they’re someone through whom the music flows rather than someone who just plays. Which makes sense since, in a joyous meadhall where its namesake alcohol is freely flowing, I imagine the harp player would get pretty into their playing. And it’s really cool how the compound reflects that.

The word “gamen” comes up again in “heal-gamen.” Though in this case it’s combined with “heal” (as a form of “healh” it could mean “corner,” “nook,” “secret place,” “small hollow in a hillside or slope”; or as “heall” it could mean “hall,” “dwelling,” “house,” “palace,” “temple,” “law court,” or “rock”) to simply mean something like “hall joy.”

Though Clark Hall and Meritt drily define this compound as “social enjoyment.” But I think that definition makes the compound sound like it’d be more comfortable in a piece of Old English sociology rather than Old English poetry.

Then, rounding things out, is a word that the poet must’ve just mashed together to fill the line and fit the alliteration: “Fres-wæle.”

This word must be unique to Beowulf because it’s just the name of a group of people – the Frisians (“Fresan” in Old English) – and “wæle,” which we’ve encountered before (which means “slaughter” or “carnage”). Hence, “the Frisian slaughter.” It’s not a very complex compound word, nor is it one that allows for a lot of misinterpretation, but it’s definitely something I take as a sign of the poet’s transcendent sort of state at this point in the poem.

What’s your take on “Fres-waele”? Is it used just because it’s a word? To alliterate? Or to show how the poet’s beside himself with excitement?

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Closing

In the next passage we’ll start to get a sense of what this Frisian slaughter, and the matter of Hnæf Scylding are really all about.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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One word with two meanings, and two words all about swords (ll.1030-1042)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Protection and Aggression
The Wicked Cravings and the Names of Swords
Closing

An example of a 9th-10th century Anglo-Saxon sword

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Abstract

The poet describes the helmet Beowulf’s given in more detail. And we see Hrothgar hand over eight horses — one of which is quite special.

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Translation

“Around the helmet’s protective top there
was a wire-wound ridge to keep the blows out,
so that its wearer would not be imperilled
by the battle-hardened sword’s bite, when the wicked
craving comes over the blade.
The lord then ordered a man to draw eight mares
with gold-pleated bridles into the hall,
within Heorot’s bounds; among them one stood
with a saddle skilfully coloured, a worthy treasure.
That was the very battle seat of the high king,
the place in which the son of Halfdane rode forth in
to make the battle even; never was he in
wide-known wars laid low, when the ridge was overthrown.”
(Beowulf ll.1030-1042)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Protection and Aggression

The poet must’ve gotten excited about the mention of the four treasures Beowulf’s given or for the opportunity to weave more words about war, because this passage is particularly rich. Despite that, I’m just going to focus on one word.

In line 1031 “walu” appears in reference to the helmet that Beowulf was given. As part of the description of this wondrous bit of headgear, the “walu” is understood as a kind of ridge which sounds like it gives a little bit of extra protection from blows. That it’s wound about with wire suggests that maybe part of this protection comes from the tightness of the bunched up wound wire in much the same way that a properly wrapped turban is supposed to protect from the downward slice of a sword. Though the wire and the ridge must be working with the basic metal hat-ness of the helmet to begin with.

Anyway, the point is that this first use of “walu” is used to refer to the helmet’s extra protective properties. It’s not just any old helmet, but one that’s specially designed to protect your head in the heat of battle (beautifully expressed as “when the wicked/craving comes over the blade” (“þonne scyldfreca/ongean gramum gangan scolde” (l.1033-1034))).

This instance of “walu” also alliterates with line 1031’s “wirum” and “bewunden.” In fact, as the first word after the caesura, “walu” bridges the two half lines, making (at least to my ear) for a faster paced line when it’s spoken.

The second instance of “walu” comes in on line 1042. Here the word takes on two meanings.

First is the geographic sense that Clark Hall and Meritt provide with their definitions of the word as “ridge,” or “bank.” I understand that this definition fits the line’s meaning because a ridge or bank could easily be the strongest part of an enemy’s (or your own) line in battle, and so the spot likely to have the most intense fighting. Even if it wasn’t the strongest, a ridge would certainly be a spot that a military force primarily made of infantry would want to capture. After all, fighting uphill is much more difficult than downhill when you’re mostly engaging in mêlée combat on foot. So, again, a ridge would likely be among the most intense sites during a battle.

The other possible meaning of “walu” (both Clark Hall and Meritt and C.L. Wrenn consider a secondary meaning, referring to the word “wael”) is “slaughter” or “carnage.” I think that this interpretation has a similar meaning, it’s just much more direct about it and there’s no subtext of why there’s slaughter or carnage.

But whatever the precise meaning of “walu” in line 1042, it’s possible that it’s also here for the purpose of alliteration. The line starts with “wid-cuþes wig” and then “walu” is the second word after the caesura, so it bridges the two parts of the line a little less strongly than in line 1031, but does so all the same.

But even though both instances of the word alliterate, and the second “walu” is possibly just a scribal error or variation for “wael,” I find its double duty in this passage interesting because of what the echoing of “walu” with its very disparate uses suggests.

The first appearance of “walu” refers to protection — specifically protection on the battle field. There’s the sense that the helmet that it’s describing provides extra protection, but hidden in there is also the sense that a ridge is a fairly safe place in a medieval battle (or so I’d guess — being higher ground and all that — arrows not withstanding). But then, on line 1042 the same word is used to denote a place that lacks safety both because it’s a hot spot during battle (definitely a place where the “wicked/craving comes over the blade” (ll.1033-1034)) and because in the context of the poem it refers to the spot where the celebrated Hrothgar is rampaging.

So “walu” is used in practically opposite ways within the same passage — within 12 lines even, and I think that this is at least the scribe trying to throw in a micro-commentary about war. Namely that war is only ever safe for the victors, but that those victors imperil themselves in the process of winning both physically (usually having to fight through the toughest spot) and also spiritually since they gain a fearful reputation for cruelty on the battlefield. It’s not as heavy handed as you might expect from a medieval Christian scribe writing out a pseudo-pagan poem, but I think it’s there.

But what’s your take on this? Is “walu” used twice just because it sounds good or is easy to alliterate with a lot of words? Or is there something about war being said here?

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The Wicked Cravings and the Names of Swords

I haven’t been formally recording or watching the instances of compound words since wondering if there’s any sort of pattern a few posts ago, but I think it’s safe to say that war equals compounds. Something about the heat of combat or the rhythm that the poet felt was needed in verses about fighting just seems to require compound words. This passage is full of them.

They range from the simple like heafod-beorge (a mix of heafod, meaning “head,” “source,” “origin,” “chief,” “leader,” or “capital”; and “beorge” meaning “protection,” “defence,” “refuge,” or “mountain,” “hill,” “mound,” “barrow,” or “burial place” that means “prominent hill”) to “faeted-hleore” (mixing faeted “ornamented with gold” and hleore’s “cheek,” “face,” or “countenance” to mean “with cheek ornaments”) which describes the horses to things like “hilde-setl” (“war, combat” and “seat,” “stall,” “sitting,” “place,” “residence,” “throne,” “see,” “siege,” meaning “saddle”).

There’s also “heah-cyninges” (meaning “high king,” or “God” — a mix of “heah,” meaning ” high” “tall,” “lofty,” “high-class,” “exalted,” “sublime,” “illustrious,” “important,” “proud,” “haughty,” “deep,” “right (hand)” and “cyning” meaning “king,” “ruler,” “God,” “Christ,” or “Satan”) and wid-cuþes (simply “widely known,” or “celebrated” from “wid” (“wide,” “vast,” “broad,” or “long”) and “cuþ” (“known,” “plain,” “manifest,” “certain,” “well-known,” “usual,” “noted,” “excellent,” “famous,” “intimate,” “familiar,” “friendly,” or “related”)).

But two of the compounds encountered in this passage stand out — even from the usual crowd of compounds I’ve been coming across lately.

The first of these is “scyld-frecu” from line 1033. This word takes “scyld,” (which means “offence,” “fault,” “crime,” “guilt,” “sin,” “obligation,” “liability,” “due,” “debt”; or as “scield”: “shield,” “protector,” “protection,” “defence,” “part of a bird’s plumage(?)”) and combines it with “frecu” (meaning “greedy,” “eager,” “bold,” “daring” or “dangerous”; or as “freca”: “warrior” or “hero”) to come out with “wicked craving.”

At first glance this looks like a logical combination, a word for “sin” and a word for “greedy” — you’ve got all the necessary parts. But then “frecu” could mean “warrior” or “hero” if it’s read as “freca.” A stretch perhaps, but synonyms and puns are wordplay staples in Modern English, so there must’ve at last been some awareness of these uses of language in Old English.

Take the name “Heorot” itself for instance. It sounds like the Old English term for a stag (“heort”) and also the term for the centre of human feeling (and thought as well, according to some classical natural philosophers), the “heorte.” This three way meeting of meanings can’t just be coincidental. That’s why I see something curious in the “freca” connection to “scyld-frecu.” (Not to mention it sounds an awful lot like this compound could simply mean “shield man”…and maybe it does — but that’s the beauty of poetry!)

So perhaps there’s a connection between the “greedy craving” which you could simplify to “bloodlust,” and being a warrior or hero. This could be acknowledgement of the cost of working in either of these roles.

But as a compound word “scyld-frecu” is completely overshadowed by “scur-heard.”

This compound is completely new to me, and possibly of a type that’s rare even in Beowulf. As Clark Hall and Meritt explain in the entry, this word means “made hard by blows (an epithet for a sword).”

So this compound word doesn’t just bring two terms together to create some other word, it’s an epithet for a sword. The Anglo-Saxons were so into swords that it wasn’t enough to have almost as many words for them as the Inuit have for snow, they had to also have words that were recognized as names for swords — not just words to refer to them (like “hildebill” or “gramum”).

But I digress, the parts of “scur-heard” are “scur” (“shower,” “storm,” “tempest,” “trouble,” “commotion,” “breeze,” or “shower of blows or missiles”) and “heard” (“hard,” “harsh,” “severe,” “stern,” “cruel,” “strong,” “intense,” “vigorous,” “violent,” “hardy,” “bold,” “resistant,” or “hard object”).

So literally read, you could take this one to mean something like “hardened in the shower of blows” or even “violent amidst the many blows.” On the one hand, maybe this is just referring to swords in general. Or. Maybe it’s referring to things a little more broadly. Maybe this is even evidence that the Anglo-Saxons attributed actions or personalities to swords.

Calling a sword (or swords in general) “hardened in the shower of blows” definitely makes me think that some of the power and agency of the sword in question are taken away from the wielder and given to the sword itself. Perhaps this denotes the Anglo-Saxons foisting something like “luck,” or even the intense violence of battle, off on the sword itself.

Or, maybe “scur-heard” contains the sense that the sword is so keen (being modified by that “wicked craving,” remember) that it’s just doing the work of slashing and parrying and drawing away attacks on its own. Perhaps the name’s a hint at an early longing for an inanimate object with a mind of its own.

Sounds crazy, perhaps. But legends and stories of magicians and mystics bringing statues to life (Jewish stories of the golem, the Greek myth of Pygmalion) go back quite a ways into recorded history.

If you could give an inanimate object life, or foist some characteristic of yours off on one (and not be thought crazy) what object would you choose?

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Closing

In the next post’s passage, Hrothgar formally bestows these gifts and horses on Beowulf. And the poet comments.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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On Grendel’s soul and joyous but plain compound words (ll.853-863)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Getting to Grendel’s Soul
Three Not Weird Words
Closing

Beowulf, Anglo-Saxons

King Harold out for a hunt on the Bayeux Tapestry. Image found at http://regia.org/research/misc/pastimes.htm.

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Abstract

Beowulf, the visiting chiefs, and the young warriors of Heorot go out for a celebratory ride. Along the way tales of Beowulf’s glory are told.

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Translation

Afterwards the old war-wagers went out,
so too did many youths go on that merry journey,
from the sea high spirited horses they rode,
warriors on their steeds. There was Beowulf’s
glory retold; many oft spoke of it,
that in neither north nor south between the two seas
there was no other on all the face of the earth
and under the sky’s expanse was no better
shield bearer, one worthy of kingship.
Though they indeed found no blame with their lord and friend,
gracious Hrothgar, for he was a good king.
(Beowulf ll.853-863)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Getting to Grendel’s Soul

Okay. Two things.

First off, in line 855, it’s really unclear if the horses that Beowulf and the gang are riding are high spirited or if the riders are. Admittedly, my Old English grammar isn’t perfect, but I think this ambiguity (mostly from word order, as far as I can tell, as little importance as that usually has in Old English) says something important about the spirit of this ride.

I think the idea isn’t that either the horses or the men are in high spirits, but that both are. I think this is a bit of pathetic fallacy before Shakespeare and other giants of English literature put the device to wide use. You see, in my mind the horses are in high spirits because the defeat of Grendel has restored the natural order; there’s nothing binding the horses’ spirits, there’s no shadow of the fens holding them back. Further, as part of this restoration of the balance the connection between man and beast has been restored. There’s no more conflict between the two because Grendel the freak has been killed and is no longer able to terrorize either.

Of course, this interpretation being subtextual adds a layer to it. After all, implying the restoration of what might have been understood as the natural order of things (including a belief in humanity’s having a place over animals) with the death of Grendel seems harsh. After all, not but a few lines ago the poet suggested that Grendel was a creature that may well have had a soul like a human’s and that seemed to have been empathized with by the poet. I’m no Anglo-Saxon philosophy expert, but maybe this relates to an idea of a soul being granted or manifesting at the time of death. Maybe the poet’s even getting at an idea that the soul boils down to a matter of will power.

Perhaps those who die honourably within the social structure of Anglo-Saxon civilization do so knowing full well that they’ve died honourably and so they die willingly. They willingly let go of their life, of their consciousness, of their soul. On the opposite end of things, those who die dishonourably, assuming that they know that they’re dying in such circumstances and they’re aware of the consequences might struggle more against death, though their body can no longer sustain it. Then, maybe the knowingly dishonourable person’s unwillingness to die or their rejection of it forms a sort of makeshift soul. Maybe that’s all that Grendel’s was, a manifestation of the pain he endured as he struggled back to the fen.

The other thing that’s important to mention in this passage comes in the last few lines. As you probably noticed, one line after the poet mentions that Beowulf is truly worthy of being king in line 861, he goes back on it faster than someone married to a jealous partner caught flirting with a super model. This is perhaps less metaphysical than the matter touched on above, but I still think it bears mentioning, since it shows the Danes’ loyalty to Hrothgar, since there’s no greater endorsement of something than turning something that seems better down, right? Though later on, we’ll have a similar pro-King Beowulf sentiment from Hrothgar himself.

What do you think the nature of the soul is? Is it something you’re born with? something you earn? Or is it something that only manifests itself in the way you die?

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Three Not Weird Words

In his joyous revelry, the poet doesn’t use many compound words. And, really, even those that he does use don’t really have any weird hidden meanings.

Still.

First up, on line 853, the poet gives us “eald-gesið meaning “old comrade.” Though I’ve translated it as “old war-wagers” because of the alliteration and the weirdly light lilt of a noun for combative folk fits the jaunty tone of this passage.

The “old” part of this compound is definitely straightforward, since “eald” translates directly and literally to “old”. And, likewise, “sið” (the root of “gesið)” just means “comrade,” “companion,” “follower,” “retainer,” “warrior,” “count,” “thane.” So there’s no realy surprise there. This compound is just a handy combo that can be busted out for purposes of alliteration and convenience.

Line 854’s “gamen-waþe” is kind of similar.

Combining the word “gamen” (“sport,” “joy,” “mirth,” “pastime,” “game,” “amusement”) and the word “wað” (meaning “wandering,” “journey,” “pursuit,” “hunt,” “hunting,” “chase”), we get “merry journey.” Yes, it almost sounds like a town in Newfoundland. But there’s not a whole lot more to say here. Even though the Old English “wað” includes meanings like “pursuit,” “hunt,” “hunting,” “chase,” and the Modern English “merry journey” doesn’t really get that part of the word’s meaning across, I think it still works. Why? Well, maybe it’s a bit of a romantic notion on my part, but I really think that part of any merry journey in Anglo-Saxon England would be a casual hunt. After all, if you were a noble out joy riding on your estate and you happened across a boar or a stag – even a rabbit – I’m sure you’d probably chalk the encounter up to your continuing good fortune and then put arrow to bow and take aim. It’s almost as if a “gamen-waþe” encompassed hunting as well as just riding in high spirits, while Modern English has separated the two concepts out into separate words.

Then we get to “eormen-grund” (l.859). Like the other two compound words for this entry, there’s nothing really all that weird here. Sure, you could try to bring “abyss” or “hell” into your interpretation, but I can’t see that getting too far. Though I like the sound of “between hell and here,” which, loosely, might work in a really liberal translation. But I stand by my own “face of the earth” because of the wideness implied in “eormen” since thinking about ears of corn or waves immediately puts images of expanses of corn swaying in a breeze or waters from horizon to horizon chopped with waves.

Honestly, the weird thing here is that “eormen” seems to be a conjugation of the word “ēar” which is a name of the rune for “ea.” It seems that none of the Old English words derived from rune names are very clear, which, in my mind (well, maybe more so my imagination) makes it seem like a mysterious word that has secrets even Clark Hall and Meritt haven’t dreamed of.

What do you think of Old English compound words? Are they a thing because the Anglo-Saxons liked the convenience of combining words to come up with new ones with varied meanings, or are they just useful for poets trying to alliterate?

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Closing

In the next entry, one of the riders begins to tell a tale of yore.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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Beowulf’s fame grows while words do curious things (ll.825-836)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Beowulf Unnamed, but Still Widely Famed
Looking at Regular Compounds Three
Closing

Beowulf, Grendel, Old English, Anglo-Saxon

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

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Abstract

Grendel has been defeated and Beowulf (as well as the Danes) get ready to celebrate.

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Translation

“That place had been cleansed, after that one from afar arrived,
clever and brash, at the hall of Hrothgar,
rescued it from strife. Gladdened by his night work,
fodder for the flame of fame for courage. That man of Geatish
folk had fulfilled his boast to the Danes,
had cured a great wound,
parasitical sorrow, that had earlier been a daily part
of the misery they were to suffer —
no little grief. It was an open token,
when the war-fierce one placed the hand,
arm and shoulder — there was all together
Grendel’s grip — under the broad roof.”
(Beowulf ll.825-836)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Beowulf Unnamed, but Still Widely Famed

Getting back to the Danes’ wishes, in this entry’s passage we see that Beowulf’s wishes are also fulfilled in his deed. After all, in Anglo-Saxon culture it was one thing to boast and completely another to make good on a boast. Doing the former without the latter cost people dearly. Obviously Beowulf’s made good on his boast. So now, like a self-publishing author whose audience draws big publishers’ attention, he’s got a sure fire reputation.

And, actually, that’s pretty much it for this passage. Really. Beowulf wins, he gets what he wanted (well-earned fame) and the Danes get what they wanted (a Grendel-free Heorot).

Except something curious is happening around the passage’s third line (line 827).

On this line we finally get a bit of what’s going on inside Beowulf’s head. We’re told that he was “gladdened by his night work/fodder for the flame of fame for courage.” (“nihtweorce gefeh” (ll.827-828)). But that’s it. The rest of the passage states that Beowulf rid the Danes of their sadness, describes the Danes’ reactions, and then explains how Beowulf hung Grendel’s arm under the roof of Heorot for all to see.

Contrasted with Grendel, Beowulf has very little of his mind and motivation examined; it’s almost as though Beowulf’s such a stock hero that the poet doesn’t see the need to elaborate on him or to flesh him out at all. Beowulf’s gladdened and that’s it. Perhaps this can be chalked up to some sort of stoic element in what the ideal Anglo-Saxon man was. Maybe emotions were to be kept to a minimum and thoughts were to be minimized over deeds. That certainly makes Grendel all the more wretched for all of his fear and his long thinking about his final moments.

What’s weirder, though, is that Beowulf isn’t even mentioned by name in this passage. It might kind of odd if the poet just slammed down a line like “Then Beowulf was gladdened by/his victory over Grendel, kin of Cain,” but not once do we get his name in this celebratory section. But the absence of his name is conspicuous.

When someone becomes famous – especially for doing something – they become associated with that deed that made them famous. In the minds of the public you could say that they become “[whatever their name is], doer of [that deed].”

In Beowulf’s case, his name might be omitted because the poet is trying to emphasize that Beowulf has specific desirable traits by establishing three attributes.

In line 825 the poet calls Beowulf “that one from afar” (“se þe ær feorran com”) This epithet builds the mystery around Beowulf by moving his origin to some far away place. In doing so, the poet gives him the power of being an outsider, a risky power that Beowulf managed quite well since people hearing the full story would also hear of how he got Hrothgar to trust him enough to legally grant him Heorot for the night.

Then, in lines 828-829, Beowulf’s ancestry is roughly given (“that man of Geatish/folk” (“Geatmecga leod”)), establishing Beowulf as a member of a group and removing any possible mislabelling of him as some sort of exile.

Most important of these attributes, perhaps is that Beowulf is identified as the “war-fierce one” (“hildedeor” (l.834)). Though along with being important, its placement as the final of these epithets for our hero is just as important. Assured of Beowulf’s identity, the poem’s audience is then free to feel secure in his war fierceness. He’s not some kin-less mercenary who’s fighting for the wrong reasons, nor is he an established enemy of the Danes. Plus, being war-fierce was pretty much the only thing on Beowulf’s CV when he first appeared among the Danes. Repeating this attribute here cements that part of his reputation.

Thus, I think the poet’s dropping “Beowulf” from the text here is his way of establishing what makes Beowulf a stable hero (and maybe gives audiences some epithets for the Geat).

Also, in keeping with the importance of tying boasts to deeds, it’s interesting to note that all of these attributes are tied to actions (more or less): Beowulf is “that one from afar,” implying that he’s hearty and savvy enough to travel long distances; he is “of the Geatish folk,” establishing that he’s a representative member of a whole people (and implying that the Geats themselves have enough faith in him to let him go and be such a representative); and he is “war-fierce,” an adjective that is entirely active.

What do you make of the poet’s leaving Beowulf’s name out of this passage? Is he trying to bring more variety to his alliterations? Working to show Beowulf’s reputation growing? Or something else entirely?

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Looking at Regular Compounds Three

To try to keep this section from running too long, I’ve chosen three compound words to wonder about in this entry.

First up is line 827’s “niht-weorc.” This word, as it looks and sounds, just means “night work,” as in work done at night. Maybe, if you stretch it, the word could also be used to describe the amount of work that can be done in a night.

So. Why am I picking on this word when there are other compounds in this entry’s passage?

Well, because according to Clark Hall and Meritt’s dictionary “niht-weorc,” a compound that seems like it should have pretty wide applications, appears only in Beowulf. If you look at the line on which it appears, it seems like the poet may have made it up for the occasion, since it mirrors the first half of the line’s “wið niðe” as far as initial consonants go, making for a sort of reflective alliteration. But, even so, why doesn’t “niht-weorc” show up elsewhere? I mean, surely people picked up on this word, saw its practical application and used it to describe things fairly frequently. Perhaps this one word is definitive evidence for Beowulf‘s being written down (or at all) at some point in the eleventh century, making it too late for such a word to really get into everyday use since the conquering Norman’s Old French terms were already coming into vogue.

This entry’s second word is “ellen-maerðu”. Again, this word’s fairly straightforward since ellen means “zeal,” “strength,” “courage” “strife,” or “contention,” and “maerðu” means “glory,” “fame,” or “famous exploit.” So the word’s general meaning is just a reversal of the Old English words’ order, really. What makes this word noteworthy, though is that it’s the only word in its half line, which is why I embellished my translation of it so much. After all, I feel like an appropriate image for being famed for anything is a fire since it gives off a great light and some smoke, both of which draw people’s attention. But fame is also something that needs to be tended to, lest it go out.

Third is another somewhat lacklustre compound. This word is the combination “inwit-sorge” meaning “sorrow.” But that translation misses the mark.

The word “inwit” means “evil,” “deceit,” “wicked,” or “deceitful” and “sorge” means simply “sorrow.” So there’s more to “inwit-sorge” than just “sorrow.” I get the impression that this word refers specifically to the kind of sorrow that isn’t just a temporary, passing thing, but that’s almost parasitical. It’s the kind of sorrow that lingers and poisons all that you do. It’s not quite depression, but it’s close. After all, to my mind, depression is more about a negative outlook and just a general negative feeling without much awareness as to why. But an “evil sorrow” is something that is more active and that you probably know the cause of and are aware of but can’t shake. That’s why I’ve punched the simple “sorrow” that “inwit-sorge” is translated as in Clark Hall and Meritt to “parasitical sorrow.”

How much alteration do you think is necessary when it comes to translating things like compound words from one language to another? Are literal translations better than figurative ones? Or vice versa?

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Closing

In the next entry the Danes party as people come from afar to see Grendel’s arm and the beast itself meets his end.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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Grendel loses an arm, but gains humanity (809-818a)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Grendel and Beowulf, Monsters Both
Brutal words
Closing

Beowulf, Grendel, Old English, Anglo-Saxon

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

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Abstract

As Beowulf tears Grendel’s arm off, we’re told more from the monster’s point of view.

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Translation

Then the one who in earlier days had
completely changed the heartfelt mirth of man
for transgression — the one who sinned against god —
realized that his body would not endure,
for the spirited kin of Hygelac
had him firm in hand; as long as each was living
he was hateful to the other. What a wound
endured the terrible creature; his shoulder split
into an open and immense wound; sinews sprung loose,
bone joints split.
(Beowulf ll.809-818a)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Grendel and Beowulf, Monsters Both

This week’s passage is all about the wound at the centre of the fight between Beowulf and Grendel. And that makes sense, since it is the thing that ultimately proves Beowulf’s mastery, though, as has been the case up until now, we still get the story from Grendel’s side of things. We’re not yet let into Beowulf’s mind to see what’s going on with him as he pulls Grendel’s arm from his body.

Instead we’re told that Grendel realizes that he’s not going to survive this fight (“realized that his body would not endure” (“þæt him se lichoma læstan nolde” (l.812)) and that’s about that.

Except for lines 814 to 815.

Here the poet gives us another taste of how he shapes Old English into a mimetic experience of what he’s describing.

Just like two people grappling, this sentence’s reflexive nature shows how the two combatants mutually hate each other, seemingly just as part of their fight. In doing so, the fight gains an emotional aspect that we’ve never really had from Beowulf’s own descriptions of previous bouts.

In his stories, Beowulf has fought monsters and men alike, but we’re never given the poet’s perspective on those he fights. Is this intensity from Grendel’s side of the hand grip just a device common to Germanic heroic poetry? Or is it actually the poet trying to show some pity for Grendel?

Whatever the case, acknowledging that Grendel is at least able to direct his hate suggests to me that he’s more than just some monster.

Actually, it kind of makes them both monstrous since that’s basically what the line says. That is, both Beowulf and Grendel have mutually directed their hate to each other “as long as each was living” (“wæs gehwæþer oðrum/lifigende lað” (l.814-815)).

This line, for me, conjures the image of two figures emanating massive waves of energy toward each other simply because they’re fighting. In this scenario neither of the fighters have much say in this, these immense waves are more a by product of the fight than something intentional. It’s like Beowulf and Grendel are two AI-controlled monsters in a game like Shadow of Mordor who’ve been tricked into fighting each other, and since fighting’s all they know, they’re just locked in combat until it resolves itself — until one of them is beaten.

For Grendel this confirms his monstrosity. But for Beowulf it turns him into one. But what does this reading of Beowulf as temporary monster mean for the poem as a whole, or at least for Beowulf’s character?

Well, Beowulf has the whole poem to be shown to be human, while Grendel gets just a few hundred lines. So maybe the poet’s focus on his emotions and thoughts during this fight is merely a reminder that, despite behaviour and appearances, Grendel is a thinking creature and not just some monster. Grendel, though given much less credit for it (as indicated by his brief characterization primarily during the fight (the setting for this characterization could be indicative of how little humanity Grendel has left), is still, well, maybe not human, but a being with sentience greater than that of an animal.

Quick question:

Over the last few entries I’ve mentioned the idea that Grendel’s characterization during the fight with Beowulf makes him seem more sympathetic, almost human at some points. What do you think, though — is the poet’s point here to drum up sympathy for a misunderstood monster, or is the poet just trying to make Beowulf’s assault all the more brutal by putting us in the perspective of his target?

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Brutal Words

The language of this week’s passage is brutal. Particularly rough among the words the poet slings are “lic-sar” and “syn-dohl.”

Slightly familiar, or at least looking like one of those words you could probably correctly guess at, “lic-sar” means “wound.” It combines the words “lic” (body, corpse (origin of “lich”)) and “sar” (“bodily pain,” “sickness,” “wound,” “sore,” “raw place,” “suffering,” “sorrow,” “affliction,” “sore,” “sad,” “grievous,” “painful,” “wounding” (the origin of “sore”)). So literally “lic-sar” means “body sore,” something open and obvious on the body.

This word is pretty gruesome at the literal level, but if we punch it up by looking at the words stored in “sar” we get sentiments like “raw place on the body,” “body suffering,” “sickness of body.” The implication, I think, being that the wound “lic-sar” describes isn’t just a cut or a scrape, but something that you feel your whole body over. Not that it’s felt all over because it’s a particularly huge wound, but because it’s the sort of wound that makes you aware of your body, that brings attention to the fact that you have this physical form that can be struck and opened in ways that cause pain.

I once had a two inch-wide slit in my forearm and I think “lic-sar” works well to describe it.

The other brutal word I wanted to point out is “syn-dohl.” The meaning of this one is less obvious, but it’s closely related to “lic-sar.”

The word “syn-dohl” means “deadly wound” (Clark Hall and Meritt also include a note suggesting that it means “sin,” an apt definition in a Christian context). The different combinations you could make based on the alternate meanings of these two words don’t deviate much from the sense of “deadly wound,” but they definitely add more colour.

After all, syn can mean “perpetual,” “permanent,” “lasting,” “infinite,” “immense,” and dohl can mean “wound,” “scar,” “cut,” “sore,” “boil,” “tumour.”

So, taken together this compound could mean “perpetual wound,” or “lasting tumour” or “infinite sore.” I actually quite like the last one since it sounds like it’d be right at home in Shakespeare (“It strikes me infinite sore” seems like the perfect line for a foiled Shakespearean villain).

But likeable language aside, all of the different combinations come back to “deadly wound.”

On a bit of a side note, although “dohl” as “tumour” probably refers to an external tumour, it’s interesting that “deadly” was ascribed to tumours then since the association of the two still holds true in many cases today. We might not wander around bashing each other over the head with old swords any more, but we’re still helpless before some of the same “deadly wounds” that have always affected the body.

Quick question:

Old English is a language in which double negatives are actually a more intense form of a negation. Do you think the same principle is at work in these compound words for “wound,” or are “sar-lic” and “syn-dohl” just the poet’s way of using different words for “wound”?

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Closing

Next week, Beowulf is triumphant.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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A clash of hall guards, a handful of words (ll.767-777)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Clashing Hall Wardens
A Rich Vein of Words
Closing

Beowulf, Grendel, Old English, Anglo-Saxon

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

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Abstract

In this week’s passage, Beowulf and Grendel shake Heorot to its very foundations.

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Translation

“The noble hall resounded, all of the Danes,
citizens, each violently stirred,
all in broken ale-dream distress. Both within were warring,
fierce were the hall wardens. The room resounded;
that was a great wonder, that the wine hall
held out against those boldly brawling,
that fair house; but it was yet secure
inward and outward in its iron bonds
skilfully smithed. In there from the floor
were wrenched mead benches many, as I have heard,
each gold adorned, where the hostile fought.”
(Beowulf ll.767-777)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Clashing Hall Wardens

There’s a lot to write about this week. So I’ll see what I can do.

After a few weeks in which passages were fairly dry and straightforward, save for a word or phrase on which I could hang my fan theory hat, this week’s is rich and juicy.

First up there’s the word “renweardas” (on line 777). This compound word isn’t out of place being written of in this section, since its nature as a compound is fairly unremarkable. It’s not the word itself I’m interested in so much as how it’s been conjugated.

In context, “renweardas” is the “hall wardens” of its line in this passage, it’s the word that refers to the hall wardens currently fighting in Heorot. But why is it plural?

This is puzzling because you’d think that the poet would refer to just one hall guard: Beowulf. (Unless he heard a different version of events, but I’ll get into that in a bit.) With this plural noun there are two possibilities for interpretation.

The first is the wildest: the poet is referring to both Beowulf and Grendel with this noun.

At first glance this might sound crazy, but I think it’s possible that Grendel is being regarded as a hall warden in that whenever he’s in the hall no one else can get in. And what’s the definition of a great warden or guard? One who keeps the unwanted out. And Grendel does that wonderfully in Heorot, though his definition of “unwanted” is not the same as the Danes’.

Whenever Grendel’s been on duty at any point in the last 12 years, no one has been able to get into Heorot. He’s been keeping people out, but he’s been keeping people out of a place designed for joy and companionship and socializing. He’s keeping a tight guard on a place that really requires a narrower filter on the in-flow of people. And those people need to be in it in order for its function to be fulfilled.

With this in mind, I think the poet could be having a bit of a joke here. Or he might just be upping the ante and showing the binary forces that are here — a guard who is too perfectly and senselessly a guard (like a poorly programmed machine guard might be, actually) and a guard who is human and able to properly discern between friend and foe. If this is the case, then this isn’t just a fight between Beowulf and Grendel, it’s a fight between the old guard and the new — literally.

The other explanation of why “renweardas” is plural is because the poet is referring to all of the Geats. From his description of the tumult and madness within Heorot it definitely seems like people outside would guess that it was the noise of many in combat. Of course, its being only two introduces some nice dramatic irony in that the audience will clearly know that it’s just two combatants having one hell of a brawl.

And that brings me to another of the points raised in this passage. On line 776, the poet uses the classic filler phrase: “so I have heard” (“mine gefraege”).

It’s possible that this is just a throw away phrase used to round things out and to give the poet a chance for a breath in the midst of a very intense scene. But it’s in a strange place if you look at it logically.

How does the poet mean “so I have heard”? Is this second hand information? Was he there? Did he hear it from one of the Danes? Maybe one of the Geats?

In the middle of a scene that’s defined primarily by the intensity of its noise (enough to wake drunken Danes from their sleep), it’s kind of comical to be told that the teller you’re listening to has heard about what sorts of sounds were coming from this fight.

What do you think the phrase “so I have heard” is doing in this passage? Is it just filler, or is there something more to it?

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A Rich Vein of Words

This week’s passage is rich in compound words, though they continue to be fairly straightforward. Nonetheless, the combination of words in each of these compounds does seem to suggest something that’s a little different from their modern English definitions, a shade of meaning that has since fallen away or been so well integrated into their new sense that it’s been forgotten.

The word “ceastra-buendum” is the first of these. It’s a combination of the word “ceastra” (“castle,” “fort,” “town;” “heaven” or “hell”) and the word “buendum (“dweller” or “inhabitant”). Together they make what dictionary makers agree is “citizens.” (remember how I said this week’s words are straightforward?)

But I think it’s instructive to drill down into this word’s meaning a bit. After all, if a citizen is necessarily a dweller in a town or castle but not a village why make the distinction?

I think part of the reason why is because a village or even smaller community of scattered people doesn’t have a strong central authority or clearly marked border. Speaking from my embarrassingly limited knowledge of medieval social structures at the level of government, such small organizations of people as villages or even just farms scattered across pasture land would have been related to a single lord or (later) a parish.

These institutions would act as central authorities, sure, but they’d still be ruling over a people that were few or that were scattered. Because of this, and because of these communities’ exclusion from “citizenship” in a sense, I think that to the Anglo-Saxon mind the word meant belonging to a strong amalgam of people who lived more closely together than disparate farmers or were longer than a village that even in the middle ages you might miss if you blinked while riding through on horse or in cart.

So “citizenship” isn’t just something you can apply to anywhere, it refers particularly to a strong centrally governed, populated place. There’s a certain civilized feel to the word, as if it could be placed on the opposite side of the spectrum from a word like “folk” and its implication of country people.

The people the poet’s referring to here, then, aren’t a bunch of bumpkins but instead a bunch of civilized, worldly people. In short, if you like, people you can trust to give you the facts straight without much embellishment. The sort of people you might want to “have heard” something from, in fact.

Next up is a word that I’m surprised didn’t transition more cleanly into Modern English. “Ealuscerwen” means what it may sound like: to be deprived of ale (in the sense that you are shorn of it (literally), that it is somewhat forcefully taken away from you). Clark Hall and Meritt define the word as “deprival of joy,” “distress,” or “mortal panic” and Wrenn cites many sources that suggest that the word is a metaphor for the distribution of bitter ale, suggesting that disaster follows grand celebration.

But I disagree with both. I think that “ealuscerwen” isn’t so much a word that refers to the deprival of ale or beer, but the deprival of its effects.

I think that when everyone is woken by Beowulf and Grendel’s brawl in the hall, they’re woken from a deep, drunken sleep and that is what they’re being deprived of: sweet sleep. And this is so disastrous because the sleep after drinking heavily at a party like the one thrown for Beowulf is one of the few peaceful experiences for the Danes.

After all, if you were living in a place that was regularly attacked by a monster at night who brutally killed and devoured any people he came across for a solid 12 years would you sleep soundly? I think a little nightcap might be pretty appealing then, and that parties like those thrown for Beowulf would be so enjoyed not just for the joy and fun and happiness experienced while drinking and socializing but also because of the joy of a deep sleep that you would truly enjoy because of its deepness. It would be the sort of sleep in which you’d forget all of your waking life’s problems. Being deprived of that sleep, an effect of the ale or beer you drank, but not the beer or ale itself, would be like having your greatest happiness snatched from you while you were in the middle of enjoying it. Truly a cause for great distress.

Next up is “foldbold” a word that combines “fold” (“earth,” “ground,” “soil,” “terra firma,” “land,” “country,” “region,” or “world”) with “bold” (“house,” “dwelling place,” “mansion,” “hall,” “castle,” or “temple”) to mean simply “house,” or “castle.”

There’s definitely a sense of permanence about this word. It sounds like a house or castle that’s made of the very soil or made so solidly that it’s more a feature of the landscape rather than something on it. This word, I think, carries some hubris with it, though we don’t get any true foreshadowing of Heorot’s future until next week’s passage.

Lastly, I turn to the word “searoþanc,” a word that means “sagacity,” “ingenuity,” “skill” “cunning,” or “artifice.”

This one combines the words “searo” and “þanc” to deepen the sense of sagacity and skilfulness of whatever it’s being applied to. How? By expressing the idea of a person who’s so skilful they could do something with their eyes closed but instead they’re doing that thing with their full attention — guaranteeing that whatever they’re doing it will be utterly masterful.

What do you think of this week’s words? Should (or could) a word like “ale-deprival” make its way in Modern English?

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Closing

Next week the poet dwells on Grendel’s defeat.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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