Beowulf in a state of undress, compounds-Compounds-Compounds! (ll.662-674)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Beowulf prepares himself
On “warmakers,” “bedmates,” “kings of praise,” and more
Closing

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

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

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Abstract

Hrothgar and his retinue depart the hall, and Beowulf prepares himself for the coming brawl.

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Translation

“Then from him Hrothgar went among his warrior band,
the prince of the Scyldings out from the hall;
the war chief would seek out Wealhtheow,
the queen consort. The king of heaven had
against Grendel, as people later learned by inquiry,
set a hall guard; one with a special office to fulfil
for the lord of the Danes, a steadfast guard against monsters.
Indeed that Geatish man eagerly trusted
the courage of his strength, the Measurer’s protection.
Then he did off with his iron corselet,
took the helm from his head, entrusted his ornamented sword,
servant of the best iron,
and he commanded them to keep his war gear.”
(Beowulf ll.662-674)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Beowulf prepares himself

In this week’s passage of Beowulf the main focus is on the man himself.

Hrothgar leaves with his retainers and the hall is, as far as is implied anyway, vacated by all except for the Geats. Interestingly, the language sort of signals this departure of the Danes in an interesting way. The word here used for Hrothgar as prince of the Danes is “eodur”, a word that means “boundary/limit/enclosure” along with “prince” or “lord.”

Such a combination of meanings in one word may seem strange but makes a sort of clear sense – to rule one must be the protector of his or her people, and what better way to represent that protection than a fence or a hedge growing round about them?

The association with greenery that comes in with the related meaning “hedge” may also say something about the Anglo-Saxons’ Germanic roots, but what exactly I cannot say. There’s still much more for me to learn about this period.

As per Beowulf himself, we see him her un-equipping all of his gear. He removes his equipment piece by piece and hands off his sword to his fellow Geats, who, at least literally, are nowhere to be seen. As a means of putting the spotlight squarely on Beowulf, the poet makes no mention of any of the other Geats here, instead only using an implied pronoun packed into the verb “het” (meaning “commanded,” but only in the third person singular) to refer to someone to whom Beowulf is handing off his sword.

It’s weird that it’s in the singular rather than the plural, but I suppose Beowulf has a squire of sorts with him. Maybe it’s the later named (on line 2076) Handscio?

Grammatical ticks aside, I don’t think it’s too weird that the poet would cut out the other Geats here. This is, after all, Beowulf’s time to shine. It’s just very odd that he travel with so many other men and not really use their skill at all. If Beowulf is so over-powered, then why bother with any other party members?

Honestly, the only thing I can think of is to make a parallel between this story and that of Christ and his apostles. Such an analogy certainly wouldn’t have been lost on medieval (or Early medieval) audiences, and this sort of monstrous take on a demi-god come to redeem mankind from sin (Beowulf as Christ, Grendel as sin (being the kin of Cain, the first murderer)) could well be a major reason why our copy of Beowulf was found bundled with stories about monsters in the Nowell Codex.

But moving on from the matter of the vanishing convenient Geats, Beowulf’s un-equipping himself seems to serve more purpose than just getting him to do some great deed. The word “truwode” is used in describing his mental state.

This is a curious word to use in such a context because along with the somewhat visible Modern English meaning of “trust” the word also means “persuade.” I see two ways to take its having this mixture of meanings.

One is somewhat positive: the Anglo Saxons regarded trust as something that needed to be earned, and that could be built up, but that was not, in any way, automatic.

The other way to interpret it is less so: Anglo-Saxons were far more cynical than we might realize and their perception of trust is that it was nothing more than a pretense. A pretense with real results, but a pretense nonetheless.

Since the reference to Beowulf’s trusting in his strength is paired with a mention of his faith in god’s protection (l.670), I feel like the first interpretation is probably more likely true.

It’s curious, too, though. If Paul’s mention of spiritual armour (Ephesians 6:11) was only known to people writing poetry in English after a certain time, then maybe that could help date Beowulf. Or, maybe some preacher to the Anglo-Saxons (maybe even one from the Irish Celts) mentioned the concept of faith as armour in passing and it just stuck in someone’s head, bounced around, and found its way into their big ol’ poem.

Finally, I just want to mention one weird thing about Beowulf’s sword. Actually, this ties back to the idea of a ruler being an enclosure for his or her people.

On line 673, Beowulf’s sword is literally described as “best of iron servant” (“irena cyst ombihtþegne”). I think that this means it is served by the best of iron, that its concept as a sword is brought to greatest realization through its expression in its excellent iron. But why not just express this greatness of the sword with a reference to sharpness or the sword’s origin? What should it matter that Beowulf’s sword is served by the best of iron?

What’re your thoughts on all of these points? Are the other Geats just forgotten by the poet because this poem is called Beowulf and not Beowulf and the Geats? Is Hrothgar an “enclosure” of his people as much as he’s their “prince”?

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On “war makers,” “kings of praise,” “hall-wards” and more

Since this week’s passage has quite a bit going on in it, it’s also got its fair share of curious words. All of those that I’ve picked out for this section are compounds. Let’s see if I can get through them all in my fifteen minute writing time.

So first up is wigfruma, a combination of the word for “war” or “strife” (“wig”) and the word for things like “beginning/creation/originator” and “prince/chief/ruler” (“fruma”). Since “fruma” carries senses of both being the first and being the topmost, I think this appellation fits Hrothgar rather snugly.

No doubt Hrothgar started the odd war in his time and he’s described as having the fortunes of war favouring him (l.64). Actually, “wigfruma” suggests that the Danes are a put upon people, a people who have endured much strife and tribulation.

In fact, I wonder just how common it was for a people to enter into a pact with another through a peaceweaver, a woman sent over as a sort of arranged marriage to secure peace. Was this something of a last resort or was it something that happened frequently enough to not really be talked about or mentioned in literature?

Though, saying that Hrothgar is a war starter (one interpretation of “wigfruma”), I can’t help but wonder if he had started a strife with the Celts or Welsh, or wherever Wealhtheow hails from, and at the time that group perceived the Danes to be their greater, a people who could crush them, so they sent her to stop things from moving to total war.

Next up is “cyningwuldor,” a word that combines the word for “king” (“cyning”) with the word for “glory/praise/heaven” (“wuldor”). There’s not much to say here. No matter how you interpret this word it’s meaning is pretty clear: god.

Though it’s a strange way to think of a deity as the “king of praise” or the “king of thanks.” I mean, is that a title given because this particular deity is given the greatest amount of thanks and praise? Could this be referring necessarily to an early conception of the Christian god as taught by missionaries, or instead to the sort of all-god that Graves writes about in The White Goddess?

The word “seleweard” is similarly simple. But, of course, it hides a certain twist when you dig down. The word combines “sele” (hall) with “weard” (“ward/advance post/waiting for/guardian/king;possessor”).

Beowulf’s being a “hall ward” or “hall lord” or “hall protector” is clear enough: Hrothgar gave him possession of the hall for the night and he’s been keen on guarding it himself since he heard of the Danes’ plight. But, the other combination of “hall” and “lurking, or “waiting for” works just as well in this instance. Beowulf is indeed waiting in ambush for Grendel since the kin of Cain has no idea whatever that this mad Geat is there to meet him this night.

Moving right along, the word “sundornytt” doesn’t seem to have much going for it. It refers to a special office or duty, but, weakly, could also mean “varied office.” Yeah, I don’t think there’s much here.

The last compound word of note in this week’s passage is “eotonweard.” It brings together the word for “giant,” “monster,” “demon” (“eoton”) and “guard,” “ward,” etc. (“weard”).

Now. In its original printing my Clark Hall and Meritt dictionary defined this word in the most tantalizing of ways: “watch against monsters?[sic]” It also lists this instance in Beowulf as the only appearance of the word in Old English.

Unfortunately (fortunately?) in the supplement that’s part of my edition “eotonweard” makes another appearance.

There it’s defined as “watch against the monster.” It’s a small difference (basically changing “monsters” to “monster,” made, perhaps, because there is just one Grendel, after all), but I still like to read this word as an echo of Hrothgar’s joking with Beowulf about not knocking the place down in the process of beating Grendel; I think it’s another hint at Beowulf’s own monstrousness. Actually, perhaps part of god’s help (whether it’s what Beowulf explicitly calls down or not) is helping him to keep his strength in check so that he doesn’t destroy the hall along with Grendel.

Since this section is often about compound words, what do you think of my being so hung up on them? Are they just words that happen to be combinations of others, is there a fixed meaning to these combinations, or do you think that they’re a fluid mix of their parts?

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Closing

Next week we get Beowulf’s pre-bedtime speech explaining why he’s un-equipped himself.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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Meanderings on Hrothgar and closely watching words (ll.642-651)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Meandering through analysis: Hrothgar’s departure
Delving deeply into three words
Closing

Interlaced men motif. Image from http://public.wsu.edu/~hanly/oe/503.html.

Interlaced men motif. Image from http://public.wsu.edu/~hanly/oe/503.html.

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Abstract

It’s party time in Heorot until Hrothgar, noticing the imminent falling of darkness, decides it’s time to call it a night.

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Translation

“Then it was again as it had been in the hall,
brave words spoken, people milled about beneath its roof,
the sounds of a victorious people, until in a short time
the son of Healfdane’s will turned to seeking his
evening rest. Knew he that the wretch
against that high hall planned attack,
after the sun’s light might be seen,
when grown dark was the night over all,
draped in shade mail the shape would come stalking
under the waning heavens. All the throng arose.”
(Beowulf ll.642-651)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Meandering through analysis: Hrothgar’s departure

As had been the case the last time we were treated to quite a bit of expositional poetry from the poet/scribe himself, this week’s passage is rich primarily in words. And in one significant detail on which he dwells.

Near the end of this weeks’ passage we’re treated to three and a half lines about the transition from day to night and the shifting from light to darkness. I think it goes without saying that there’s something of importance here. Or at least there could be.

This transition to night begins around the middle of the passage, at which point Hrothgar begins to consider leaving the hall and heading to his evening rest. This is no doubt a reference to the first period of sleep in the usual way people slept before artificial light; he’s heading off to the first shift of sleep from sunset to about midnight. (At that point, people woke up and wrote, composed, met, talked, had sex, etc. before heading back to bed around 2 or so and then rising with the sun.)

Why is this sort of sleep pattern the pre-industrial usual? I can’t rightly say. What significance does it have here? Well, maybe not much, but it’s a fun tidbit to trot out every now and then.

As per stuff actually relevant to what’s going on in the passage, Hrothgar uses a curious word to describe what Grendel’s been doing: “geþinged.” This word comes up on line 647 and means “plan,” broadly. But specifically within the Clark Hall and Meritt dictionary I’m using, it translates as “to beg, pray, ask, intercede, covenant, conciliate, compound with, settle, prescribe; reconcile oneself with; determine, purpose, design, arrange, talk, harangue.”

Some of those words suggest “plan,” some don’t. But just about all of them suggest collaboration rather than singular action. I can’t help but get the impression that, aside from alliterative purposes (geþinged alliterates with þæm from earlier in the line), the poet put this word here to suggest one of two things about Hrothgar’s perception of Grendel.

It could suggest that Hrothgar regards Grendel as a shrewd and potent planner. He sees Grendel as a being that lays out careful plans and then follows through, as if working by committee or with the force of will of several beings.

Or, it suggests that Hrothgar is aware of Grendel’s collaboration with some other being. This doesn’t necessarily need to be Grendel’s mother. It could just as easily be a sense of some sort of spiritual communication amongst the other kin of Cain. Maybe those shunned by god just like to co-ordinate things really well.

Looking further at Hrothgar’s departure from the hall, I wonder why he leaves at all. Is it that he’s running away? Clearing the way for this Geat who’s so eager to gain glory?

Perhaps there was some kind of tradition that involved everyone belonging to a troop or band or peoples would just walk out once their leader did the same. If that’s the case, then Hrothgar could be trying to protect the Danes in this way. Though whether that’s from Grendel or from the menace of Beowulf and his seductive confidence, who can say?

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Delving deeply into three words

This week’s passage bucks the pattern that the last few have kept: it’s actually got some compound words!

There is, however, one that I noted in the entry “Beowulf gets into puns and two regular words aren’t so regular (ll.590-597).” Well, the first half of it, anyway. This is “sige-folc.” I don’t really have anything new to say about it, except that in this context it is likely meant sincerely.

After all, it isn’t necessarily calling the Danes a “victorious people,” just comparing the noise that they rose to the sort of noise that a victorious people would raise. The obvious connection is that the poet is saying that they’re celebrating before their problem has been solved.

Though, at this point, I get the impression that the original audience probably already figured out that Beowulf was going to win. But maybe there’s more dramatic tension here than I realize. I mean, we haven’t really seen much of Grendel in action. We’ve heard the aftermath of his attacks described, but we’ve never really seen him in action.

The opposite is also true. We’ve never seen Beowulf do anything. He’s boasted plenty, but done little aside from wearing his armour with a lordly air.

So what’s the conclusion here?

I don’t think the poet is trying for much beyond the surface reading of sige-folc. There’s a subtle reminder that the Danes are pre-empting their victory with a celebration here. Maybe there was an Anglo-Saxon sense of karma or cosmic irony and so this reminder could work as foreshadowing for Grendel’s mother’s attack after Beowulf has defeated Grendel. Though, I really can’t say what the poem’s earliest audiences thought and anticipated.

The other two compounds are unique (so far) to this passage. The first is from line 643: “þryðword.”

This word is a combination of “þryð” (meaning “might,” “power,” “force,” “strength,” “majesty,” “glory,” “splendour;” “multitude,” “troop,” or “host”) and “word” (meaning “word,” “speech,” “sentence,” “statement;” “command,” “order,” “subject of talk;” “story,” “news,” “report;” “fame;” “promise,” or “verb.”)

“Word” can also refer to “rod,” “(possibly) gooseberry bush” or “the word incarnate.” Why that last trio of meanings includes “rod” and possibly “gooseberry bush,” I can’t really say.

Unless, it’s a reference to words relating to Ogham alphabets. But so far in my reading, Graves hasn’t said anything about gooseberry bushes. He has put forth the idea that the burning bush was some loranthus (a kind of mistletoe) growing on a wild acacia, but other than designating this wood to Sunday and equating it with the Celtic broom, he hasn’t said much about it (The White Goddess 264)

Anyway, the thing that makes this combination of words interesting to me is that it could be a reference to armies being stereotyped as talking about manly, powerful things.

The literal translation of the compound is “power words,” and so I suppose it’s aptly applied to a bunch of warriors excitedly talking and drinking. It’s as if their confidence were returning to the Danes. For, even if a boast is empty, a boast is still something spoken from a place of confidence – even if that confidence is just an act.

Now, we come to what I think could be the coolest compound word in the passage. Maybe even up to this point in the poem. “Scadu-helm”

This word combines the Old English word for “shade,” “shadow,” “darkness,” “shady” “place,” “arbour;” “shelter,” or “scene,” “scadu,” and the word for “protection,” “defense,” “covering,” “crown,” “summit,” “top (of trees);” “helmet,” “protector,” “lord;” or “elm,” “helm.”

So the compound’s literal meaning is something like “cover of darkness.” Though that’s a bit plain. I think that something like “shade covering” or “shade mail” is a better fit — something that suggests that Grendel comes clothed in the darkness, not just under it.

I prefer that sort of interpretation because it suggests that he was civilized, but not in the civil ways of man — no — rather in the ways that kin of Cain understand civility.

Now, since elm and arbour are involved, what’s Robert Graves got to say?

(By the way, I’m referring to Robert Graves so much because I’m reading his The White Goddess right now for my blog Going Box by Box.)

On page 190 of that book, graves simply says that the elm became the alma mater (pun intended, I think) of the wine god because it was used to support grape vines. Other than that, there’s not much. So, it’s a supportive tree, and so that may well be why it’s connected to the word “helm” and all of its implications of protection.

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Closing

Next week, check back to read about how Hrothgar hands things over to Beowulf on his way out.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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Beowulf gets mytho-poetic and words reveal more than meanings (feat. Robert Graves) (ll.598-606)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Finding the goddess in Beowulf
Words with mythical connotations
Closing

A piece of Anglo-Saxon ornamentation. Image from http://research.uvu.edu/mcdonald/Anglo-Saxon/Art.html.

A piece of Anglo-Saxon ornamentation. Image from http://research.uvu.edu/mcdonald/Anglo-Saxon/Art.html.

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Abstract

Beowulf finishes off his reply to Unferth with another boast.

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Translation

“‘After all, against that apostle of violence none arise
from among the Danish people, so he wars as he likes,
killing and feasting, prosecution he knows comes not
from the spear-Danes. But I shall now surprise
him with the might and strength of the Geats,
bringing him battle. Afterward whomever wants to
go to mead shall and heartily, once the morning light
brings another day to humanity,
when the light-clad sun shall shine once more from the south.'”
(Beowulf ll.598-606)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Finding the goddess in Beowulf

Since I’m reading Robert Graves’ The White Goddess over on my reading and gaming log Going Box by Box, I feel like I might have some insight into the meaning of Beowulf’s language here.

After all, this is the end of his speech to Unferth and the Danes. As such, he’d not want to waste any words getting his point across. He will defeat Grendel because he will do things in a way that the Danes never yet have. Such a statement is impressively logical.

But impressive enough to complete steam roll all of the Danes and get away with it? Well. Apparently. I still think he says things like “none arise/from among the Danish people” (“nænegum arað/leode Deniga” (l.598-599)) to stir them up to some extent. And to show that where they failed, he will not.

Though, using what I’ve gleaned from The White Goddess, I think that Beowulf isn’t just boasting about strength and power and the ever important element of surprise. I think he’s also speaking in a poetic language. Since I’ve not absorbed everything from The White Goddess like some sort of giant sponge, I won’t be covering all of the poetically sealed things that Beowulf has to say in this passage, but I will be speculating about the two that are the most apparent to me.

In line 602 when Beowulf speaks of the “power and might” (“eafoð ond ellen”) of the Geats, the second word he uses in his alliteration stands out. This word is fairly commonly used in the poem Beowulf, and, although my reading’s limited, probably other Old English writing as well. It stands out here, though, because one of the definitions that my Clark Hall & Meritt dictionary offers is “elder-tree; elder-wood.” A large part of The White Goddess is about Graves deciphering the Druidic tree alphabet, and elder is amidst its letters.

I think that there might be a connection between that alphabet and Beowulf’s speech here.

According to Graves, the elder tree is the one that stands for the last month of the Druidic calendar. It signifies death and is said to have been the crucifixion tree. Graves backs this connection up with the mention of elder-leaf shaped funerary flints found in megalithic long-barrows.

In short, the elder tree is deeply associated with death.

It’s also quite deeply connected with witches and the devil itself. Though, because of its white flowers that are “at their best at midsummer” (185), the elder is also an aspect of the white goddess herself, the ruling triple deity of Graves’ Indo-European religion.

Setting this into the context of Beowulf’s speech, specifically his boasting that Geatish “might and strength” ((“eafoð ond ellen”) l.60) will prevail, does actually make sense.

The word “eafoð” specifically means “power,” “strength,” or “might,” and “ellen” means “zeal,” “strength,” “courage;” “strife,” “contention.” As a noun or adjective “ellen” means “elder-tree” or “elder-wood” respectively.

Pairing both words up is, thus, a little redundant. Though this apparent redundancy could be emphasizing the power of which Beowulf speaks. Combining the strength of eafoð with the death connotations of ellen as “elder wood,” though, I think that Beowulf is pushing his claim that he’ll beat Grendel with brand new tactics even further. He’s really saying that with the strength of death he will overcome the fiend that has been terrorizing the Danes for years.

Maybe that sounds a little far-fetched, even for something on the blog of someone who studied literature up to the graduate level. But hear me out.

The Geats have so far been characterized as a warlike people. Anyone who is so warlike will likely invest a lot of importance in their armour and arms.

The Anglo-Saxons clearly do this, as a good portion of the poem to this point has been about this or that bit of armour. Beowulf even gives Hrothgar explicit instructions to send his armour back to Hygelac should he fail.

In a sense, then, Beowulf identifies with his armour, as any culture that puts hereditary significance onto arms will. (Passing a sword down from father to son, I think, signifies a passing of a sort of family spirit, something that identifies the rightful wielder as a true member of the tradition and therefore of the family.)

When push comes to shove, Beowulf’s tactic for defeating Grendel is to fight him at his own game. Beowulf knows that conventional weapons have no effect on the fiend and so he strips away his armour and wrestles with him. Removing his armour signifies a death of sorts, and I think that (along, of course with alliteration), that’s why Beowulf refers to the might of the Geats with eafoð and ellen. I think that he’s definitely pulling on the alternate interpretation of “ellen” as “elder” and all that the tree connotes.

Jumping down to the bottom of the excerpt, I think that Beowulf completes very intentionally ends his speech about defeating Grendel and restoring Heorot with a reference to the sun rising and shining from the south.

Again, turning to Graves, he gathers quite a bit of evidence for the conception of the most terrible place on earth in many European myths being the far reaches of the north (it’s basically the whole point of chapter six). Thus, the sun’s shining from the south signifies a complete turn around in which the Danes’ troubles are over and the light of the sun (already equated to the light of god elsewhere in Beowulf) will shine down on them with all of its might.

Ultimately, then, I think that Beowulf’s not just boasting about taking a new tack against Grendel to beat him, I think he’s making the extreme claim (at least in the connotation of his full boast from lines 601 to 606) that he will defeat Grendel by dying and resurrecting.

If this is the case, then I have no idea what to make of the reference to one of the most important events in the pre-Christian year (the festival celebrating the death and rebirth of the year) in a poem that was very clearly written in its current form in a post-Christian time. The reference’s not being a direct one does suggest the sort of subterfuge that Graves writes about poets using to avoid church persecution, but I’m not entirely sure that’s at work here.

Though I could push my analyses of these references further by pulling one more thing from Graves.

In chapter three he writes that in the old poetic language, the roebuck signifies something hiding. A hart (the animal on whose name “Heorot” puns) isn’t exactly a roebuck, but again, maybe the poet/scribe was just covering himself.

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Words with mythical connotations

Unsurprisingly for a passage that contains the sort of arcana that I pointed out in the first part of this entry, this one has some doozies so far as words go.

In its first line, for example, is the mysterious word “nyd-bade.”

The Clark Hall & Meritt dictionary I have defines it as “messenger of evil?[sic]” and grabs this definition from the word’s context in the Old English Exodus. Breaking down the word doesn’t give us a clear definition, but it might shed some light on just what it means.

The word “nyd” is an alternate spelling of “neod” meaning any one of “desire,” “longing,” “zeal,” “earnestness,” “pleasure,” or “delight” or of “nied” meaning “need,” “necessity,” “compulsion,” “duty,” “errand,” “business;” “emergency,” “hardship,” “distress,” “difficulty,” “trouble,” “pain;” “force,” “violence,” “what is necessary;” “inevitableness,” or “fetter.” This word could also signify the name for the rune “n.”

Notwithstanding the possible rune reference, the common denominator in the various meanings of “nyd” is urgency. Drawing urgency out of “fetter” might be a stretch, but something that’s fettered is usually so bound quickly to prevent it from doing any unnecessary harm.

Thankfully, “boda” is much more straightforward; it means “messenger, herald, apostle, angel; prophet”

Taken together, then, these words seem to refer to someone who brings something urgent.

In that general sense, they don’t need to bring something evil.

It could even be interpreted as referring to someone who is a forerunner for some important piece of information. Actually, following that interpretation could lead to reading Grendel not as some godless monster, but perhaps as a pagan priest who continually visits the freshly converted Heorot in an effort to bring them back to the old beliefs.

Grendel’s only known relation being his mother makes this a very curious interpretation indeed, since that could make Grendel the final, faded champion of a now perverted great goddess. Or perhaps even the champion only of the death aspect of Graves’ triple goddess.

Looking at it that way really casts the whole poem into a new light – it’s not just about a vaguely Christian warrior claiming victories over monsters in god’s name and ruling his people well, but about the decay of the old religion and the revitalizing force of this new one. As well as how the new one is integrating aspects of the old.

A comparative study of Grendel’s mom and the as yet unintroduced Wealhtheow of Heorot could be quite curious in this light. But that’s a project for another day.

Another word worthy of note (and another compound!) is “sweglwered.” This word’s parts are much clearer than those of “nyd-boda.”

The word “swegl” means “sky,” “heavens,” “ether,” “the sun;” or possibly “music” while “wered” means “throng,” “company,” “band,” “multitude;” “host,” “army,” “troop,” or “legion.”

The combination of these two words creates a fairly vivid picture of the other things in the sky forming a sort of comitatus with the sun at its head.

Closing on this reference of a bright and shining lord and retinue really brings out the hope in Beowulf’s claim. He’s not just claiming that a new day will dawn on Heorot, bringing them all their old happiness, but that the sun will be out in all its grand array to herald this day, truly an omen of great things ahead.

Now, one more thing.

Something that’s clear to me from my reading of Graves is that the goddess of whom he writes is associated with the moon. The rising of the sun from its poetically strongest quarter, and with its full retinue then suggests something opposing the goddess.

In a general sense it could be the more aggressive, patriarchal religion that Graves believes overtook an older matriarchal one. This would make Beowulf’s claim all the grander, but it’s not as if his wrestling a terrible monster to death and then later facing a dragon were stories told with mind numbing regularity when one Anglo-Saxon asked another “how was your day?”

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Closing

Next week there’s an interlude in the dialogue. Hrothgar takes in what Beowulf says and Wealhtheow, his queen, appears.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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An end to Geatish sailing (ll.217-228) [Old English]

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Leaving the sea mysterious
Beowulf as historical allegory (a sketch)
Closing

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Abstract

The Geats swiftly arrive on Daneland’s bright shores.

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Translation

The ship then knew the ocean’s motion, was wind-hastened,
became foamy-necked, became seabird like,
until near the time of day they had left,
after their ship with curved prow had glided,
when those well-travelled ones saw land,
dazzling sea cliffs, steep hills,
an ample headland; then was sailing simple,
the journey at an end. From that ship sprang
the Geats onto the sands,
their boat they bound there – they shook their mailcoats,
war gear; they thanked God then,
the one that made their ship’s going smooth.
(Beowulfll.217-228)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Leaving the sea mysterious

For a poem about sea-faring peoples, the poet’s definitely not spinning out what you’d expect. Every time that someone travels by sea it’s usually glossed over. There’s often something about it being swift, or sailors being lucky with conditions, but no real detail about it is given.

Maybe, in this poem for a people looking to settle into a fixed identity, the idea was to keep transitory acts (like sailing) to a minimum. If that’s the case, then the poet definitely did his/her job: there’s not a true sailing scene in the whole poem. Though, there is the matter of Beowulf and Breca’s swimming match.

Perhaps the Geats’ trip over to Daneland is not shown because it would interfere with the importance of the swimming match. After all, the sea would hold no mystery or power or be able to inspire as much of a response if details about safe passage across it were given. With the sailing scenes (and even Beowulf’s swimming back to Geatland after a major battle later in the poem) as short as they are, the sea retains its mystery. And with that mystery can come monsters, like those that Beowulf fights as he defends his friend.

Perhaps the power of this mystery was meant to extend further, as well. For, if the Anglo-Saxons of the British Isles wanted to feel like a grounded, rooted people, then making something as transitional as the sea a mystery could help them do so. For mysterious things are usually alienated or alien things.

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Beowulf as historical allegory (a sketch)

An interesting detail is contained in line 222: “brimclifu blican.” I translated that second word, “blican,” to dazzling (in line with the Clark Hall & Meritt Anglo-Saxon Dictionary’s definition). Perhaps most of northern Europe had the white cliffs that are now associated with Britain (thanks in no small part to Matthew Arnold). So, is Daneland, in all things but figures and fealties, another Britain?

Going back to the Anglo-Saxons as a sea-faring people, they’re sure to have noticed the white cliffs of Britain facing France. So if Beowulf was written by the Anglo-Saxons, and not just translated from a language you might expect given peoples’ and places’ names, then maybe that’s a detail signalling that Daneland represents Britain.

If Daneland is understood as Britain, then perhaps Grendel is the Celts, or some sort of spirit or genius of the Celts that the Anglo-Saxons didn’t care for. Reading Grendel in this metaphorical way, it then becomes possible to interpret Beowulf himself within the same historical framework. Where Grendel is the embodiment of what is wrong with the place that the Anglo-Saxons (the Danes) have chosen to settle, Beowulf represents what is just and what is good – Beowulf is god’s instrument for the creation on earth of what is to be harmonious and perfect. Like the Anglo-Saxons he came from elsewhere, but frees those that he meets and is elevated to kingship because of his prowess and own merits rather than inheritance.

In fact, he becomes king because of the people’s accord when a new ruler has to be found after Hygelac’s line is ended. Ultimately, though, what Beowulf’s death could mean in this metaphorical interpretation of the hero gets tricky. Perhaps it is a kind of prophecy of what would come next for the Anglo-Saxons, after they had waned like their other heroic peoples, the Jews of the book of Exodus, had.

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Closing

This entry wraps things up for 2013. Check back for the first post of 2014 on the third Thursday of January!

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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On Wiglaf’s Weapons (Pt. 2) [ll.2620-2630] (Old English)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Two Possibilities for “mid Geatum”
Medieval Shorthand?
A Curious Word
Closing

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Abstract

The story of Weohstan and the arms winds down here, and things move back to Wiglaf, as he is on the verge of breaking from the host to go help Beowulf.

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Translation

“He kept those adornments for many half-years,
sword and mail shirt, until his son could
perform heroic deeds as his late father did;
then he gave to him among the Geats war garbs
in countless number, when he departed from life,
old and on his way forth. Then was the first time
for the young warrior, to himself advance into
the battle onslaught with his noble lord. His spirit
did not melt away then, nor did his kinsman’s
heirloom fail in the conflict; this the serpent
discovered, after they had come together.”
(Beowulf ll.2620-2630)

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Recordings

Old English:

Modern English:

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Two Possibilities for “mid Geatum”

Just as with so many other sets of equipment in Beowulf, Wiglaf’s arms were passed onto him by his father. However, the poet/scribe also sees fit to add that these things were passed onto Wiglaf when father and son were “among the Geats,” (“mid Geatum” (l.2623)).

Since Weohstan had previously been in exile (as the poem made plain when describing his slaying of Eanmunde), this added detail is rather significant for one reason or another.

On the one hand, this detail suggests the importance of community. Possibly, even, this small prepositional phrase implies an underlying belief of the poet’s/scribe’s that communal memory is better than individual memory. At the least, with the constant references to friendship, kin ties, and the sound of the raucous joy of groups in halls, a community is regarded as being better than being alone.

On the other hand, it might just be another detail. Something to add to the colour of the story and not really a thread that’s woven around or with something else in the poem as so many things are.

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Medieval Shorthand?

Actually, It’s easy to wonder then if the phrase “among the Geats” is shorthand for a more detailed setting. But the marker of community might just be setting enough for the sort of transitional act that passing on war garb is in Anglo-Saxon culture.

For there was a firm belief among the Anglo-Saxons that a person’s belongings carried a part of his or her essence even after he or she died. So, passing these things on is as much a passing on of the physical objects as it is of the memory held within them, the things they used to make their mark on the world.

To pass these weapons, these memories, on, within the structures of a community, to make it an event within that community and thus set it into that community’s memory, would ensure that it definitely becomes entrenched there. It becomes as much a community act as a family act.

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A Curious Word

The other highlight of the passage is the original Old English verb used on line 2628: “gemealt.”

According to the Clark Hall & Merritt dictionary of Old English, the verb can be translated as “to consume by fire,” “melt,” “burn up,” “dissolve,” or “digest.” Since it’s referring to Wiglaf’s spirit, it seems most appropriate to go with melt. That way the words invoke an image of the young warrior envisioning his attack on the dragon and the aid that he’ll give his lord and having this vision stand firm rather than melting away (like a Jello mold in the heat of the sun).

{Possibly how Wiglaf imagines himself fighting the dragon. Image from Lady, That’s My Skull}

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Closing

That’s all for this week, but check back next for Isidore’s continuing look at horses, and for Wiglaf’s stirring speech to his fellow thanes.

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Credits in a Comitatus and Boasts Filled with Wonder Words [ll.2484-2495] (Old English)


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

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

The Translation

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

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

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

Some interesting stuff is going on in this passage.

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Ongentheow’s Killer and the Comitatus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“heoro-blāc”

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

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

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

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

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“ēðel-wynn”

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

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

But that’s just not true.

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

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

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“Gifðum”

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

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

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

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

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Wrap-up

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

Next week, St. Isidore talks of the goat, we get some more medieval lore, and Beowulf starts into more boasting. Don’t miss it!
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Beowulf – In Media Res [ll.2401-2409] (Old English)

Introduction
Background to the Project
Old English Appreciation
Section Summary
Two Words
Closing

Introduction

Today I’m breaking out the glittering armour, gift from the ring-giver, a tight-knit coat in the battle-storm.

Yep. Today’s entry is the first about Beowulf.

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Background to the Project

It’s a project that started in my third year of studying for my BA, though it didn’t really take off until just after I had finished that degree. I’m using the bilingual edition of Seamus Heaney’s translation that has the Anglo Saxon original on the left and the poet’s translation on the right (an online version of the original can be found here).

Heaney’s arrangement is great, but the running glossary in George Jack’s student edition is even more helpful – when I borrowed it from the library for a graduate class I barely used my dictionary.

However, now that Jack’s edition is back in Victoria and I’m over in Ontario, I make good use of my copy of the Fourth Edition of the Anglo-Saxon Dictionary as edited by Hall and Meritt. If I can’t find a word in the dictionary then I’ll usually look it up in the website Old English Made Easy’s dictionary.

The weight of this project hasn’t crushed me just yet, but it is something that has provided an ongoing struggle. Not just because of the size of the poem, but because its use of multiple adjectival clauses can really cloud sense and make things seem obtuse.

However, when things get grammatical, my Magic Sheet is never out of sight. This handy little chart from the English Faculty at the University of Virigina summarizes the declensions and conjugations of everything in Old English, so it’s super useful.

So armed, I’ve been able to translate 5/6 of the poem over the years and once I’m finished my plan is to bring a consistent voice to the whole thing (possibly by re-writing), type it up, and try to get it published. A bold move perhaps, but this is something that I’m passionate about. Maybe it’s just a bunch of barbarians hitting each other (and monsters) over the head with pointy sticks to some, but to me it’s a piece of grand old art.

And it’s something that’s fun to translate.

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Old English Appreciation

Sure, the grammar can get sticky and there are points that scholars still contend to this day (was Beowulf swimming until nightfall to get to the bottom of the mire? Why does the Danish bard sing such a sad song after Beowulf’s victory?). But there’s a joie de vivre in the poet/scribes’ language that isn’t really present in a lot of Modern English.

And no, I’m not a snob. I think that Middle English (Chaucerian English) and Early Modern (Shakespearean English) are just as lovely. But when all of the grammarians stuck their fingers in the delicious hot pie that was English in the 17th and 18th centuries they sucked a lot of life out of it. They set it up to become a reliable and powerful lingua franca for all, but they made it a little bit dull in the process.

Now when somebody drops a consonant and replaces it with an apostrophe people are all up ins. And slang is slang. Before the grammarians came about (I’m looking at you Samuel Johnson) all of English (all the dialects) were pretty slang-laden. It’s just the way that the language was.

And it was grand.

Not so great for national or international communication maybe, but the plays, treatises, and poems that remain are all excellent examples of what a language can do.

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Section Summary

Anyway, I don’t want this entry to be fully derailed by a rant. Right now I’m working through the scene where Beowulf fights the dragon, so I’m really sticking to the story-telling principle of starting in media res.

But, true to most modern novels, I’m starting just where the action is picking up – Beowulf has just gotten his band of 11 fellow Geats together and has compelled the slave that brought him the dragon’s cup to guide them the the lizard’s lair.

All of this happens in lines 2401-2409.

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Two Words

Two words really struck me in section:

First, “gebolgen” on l. 2401. It reminds me of the “Gáe Bolga,” the mysterious, foot-held spear that Cuchulain was trained in by the warrior woman Scáthach, and with which he killed his friend and rival Ferdiad in the Táin Bó Cuailnge.

The other word that caught my eye was “meldan,” from l.2405. This one means finder according to Heaney. The dictionary definition is “tell, reveal, accuse” – but I’m guessing that Heaney let his translation lean on “cwom” (come) the combination of which with “tell, reveal, accuse” suggests a kind of giving – like coming with tales or news, things which are only useful if given.

Plus, a shiny cup from a whole pile of treasure would indeed be welcome news to any Geat (or Anglo-Saxon listener).

Though, I do admit that combining words in this way is kind of like trying to stretch a single ox hide over an acre of land.

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Closing

If you’ve got any suggestions/corrections for me, leave them in a comment. I’ll be back next week with Beowulf’s arrival at the cave.

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