Unferth gifts a sword to Beowulf, words tell of blades and battlefields(ll.1455-1464)

Synopsis
Translation
Recordings
A Named and Dangerous Sword
The Usefulness of an Ancient Sword on the Brutal Battlefield
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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Synopsis

Unferth lends Beowulf a sure-fire sword.

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Translation

“Next was an item of no little service,
such was the thing that Hrothgar’s man leant him,
it was the hilted sword named Hrunting;
an ancient treasure beyond compare;
its edge was iron, decorated like an arm full of poison,
hardened in the blood of battle; never in combat had it failed
any of its weilders, whomever fought with it in their grip,
those who dared do perilous deeds,
who entered the battlefield full of foes. Indeed this was not
the first time the sword had been called upon for heroic deeds”
(Beowulf ll.1455-1464)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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A Named and Dangerous Sword

Here we go!

In this passage we have the first of the named swords of the poem. And it sounds like it’s pretty badass. Not just because it’s never failed anyone who has used it (something I’ll get into a little below), but because of how it’s decorated.

My Old English dictionary, Clark Hall and Meritt’s A Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary (4th edition), suggests “with poisoned twigs or poison-stripes?[sic]” for “ater-tanum” (l.1459). It’s an entry that’s very unsure of itself.

When I think of poison and any sort of branching pattern I think of the horrific visual of poison either dilating or colouring a person’s veins as it rushes ever closer to their heart. And so “decorated like an arm full of poison” sounded like an apt translation of “ater-tanum”. My guess as to what that actually looks like is a branching pattern that was smithed into the steel. Perhaps as a sign of how many times the steel involved was folded.

Come to think of it, I wonder if “arm full of poison,” or even “twig of poison” was just a way of describing someone’s patterned tattoos. I mean, if your veins are picked out because of some sort of poison that’s entered your body you’re not going to be able to gawk at that for very long. But if someone were tattooed, which, if it was just a simple pattern could look like discoloured veins, it would be a lot easier to really contemplate the pattern and compare it to a poison-infested arm.

Anyway, stepping away from that detail about the sword’s decoration, I find it strange that the poet tells us that Hrunting has never failed its wielders. It sounds like it’s the Muramasa from Japanese lore, a sword that had to taste blood of any kind once it was unsheathed.

Though, given Unferth’s past conflict with his kin which lead to him slaying them (at least according to Beowulf) , I can’t help but wonder if he had entered into combat against them. Since Hrunting seems to be Unferth’s sword, in this battle he likely used Hrunting, and the dumb thing just did what swords do (and good swords do even better) and killed them.

That’s not to say that a well made sword removes the agency from its wielder, more that it takes an even better fighter to wield such a weapon well.

Along with the reference to Hrunting never failing could be the poet’s way of making Unferth a sympathetic character, I think it also suggests that he is not as great a warrior as Beowulf. He was unable to reign himself in while under the influence of wielding Hrunting. Kind of like how landing a series of blows in a sparring match can give you an incredible sense of power that kind of numbs your reason the first few times you experience it.

Of course, Beowulf won’t be swayed by such a thing as this sword, surely. Or will he succumb to the call of Hrunting as easily as Unferth seems to have? Leave your thoughts in the comments!

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The Usefulness of an Ancient Sword on the Brutal Battlefield

I think it goes without saying that a “hæft-mece”1 would be a “mægen-fultuma”2 on just about any “folc-stede”3. Forget those swords without hilts — they’re really just oversized knives!

Now, take that sword, though, and make it an “eald-gestreona”.4 And then have a good look at that well worn (yet still sharp!) sword and make sure that it’s decorated in an “ater-tan”5 style. That’s sure to mean that it’s been through the “heaþo-swate”6 more than once, at least.

This is the kind of sword songs are sung about, and that can only be found in RPGs after finishing a really difficult/lengthy sidequest. The kind of sword you’d want with you on a “gryre-sið”7. It’s the sort of thing you use (maybe just in those songs) to do “ellen-weorc”8!

 

1hæft-mece: hilted sword. hæft (haft, handle) + mece (sword, blade) (A word exclusive to Beowulf)

2mægen-fultuma: mighty help. mægen (bodily strength, might, main, force, power, vigor, valour, virtue, efficiency, efficacy, good deed, picked men of a nation, host, troop, army, miracle) + fultum (help, support, protection, forces, army) (A word exclusive to Beowulf)

3folc-stede: dwelling-place, battlefield. folc (folk, people, nation, tribe; collection or class of persons, laity; troop, army) + stede (place, site, position, station; firmness, standing, stability, steadfastness, fixity, strangury)

4eald-gestreona: ancient treasure. eald (old, aged, ancient, antique, primeval, elder, experienced, tried, honoured, eminent, great) + streon (gain, acquisition, property, treasure, traffic, usury, procreation)

5ater-tan: with poison twigs or poison stripes?[sic] (“Looking like an arm full of poison”). ater (poison, venom, gall) + tan (twig, rod, switch, branch, rod of divination) (A word exclusive to Beowulf)

6heaþo-swate: blood of battle. heaðu (war) + swat (sweat, perspiration, exudation, blood, foam, toil, labour)

7gryre-sið: dangerous expedition. gryre (horror, terror, fierceness, violence, horrible thing) + sið (going, motion, journey, errand, departure, death, expedition, undertaking, enterprise, road, way, time, turn, occasion) (A word exclusive to Beowulf)

8ellen-weorc: heroic deed, good work. ellen (zeal, strength, courage) + weorc (work, labour, action, deed, exercise; affliction, suffering, pain, trouble, distress; fortification)

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Closing

Next week, the poet reflects on Unferth’s character further.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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The Danes scheme against Finn, compound words herald spring (ll.1127b-1141)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
A Feud Defined
Compounds Both Simple and Complex
Closing

The goddess of spring, Ostara, shown with her symbols and beams of light.

“Ostara by Johannes Gehrts” by Eduard Ade – Felix Dahn, Therese Dahn, Therese (von Droste-Hülshoff) Dahn, Frau, Therese von Droste-Hülshoff Dahn (1901). Walhall: Germanische Götter- und Heldensagen. Für Alt und Jung am deutschen Herd. Breitkopf und Härtel.. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ostara_by_Johannes_Gehrts.jpg#/media/File:Ostara_by_Johannes_Gehrts.jpg

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Abstract

The poet tells us that, as much as they’ve been wanting to head home, the Danes have been plotting against Finn all the winter long. And now, with spring in the air, the revenge is about to happen.

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Translation

Hengest there yet
dwelt, through the slaughter-stained and all ill-fated winter
with Finn; filled with thoughts of home,
though they might not sail the sea upon
a ring-prowed ship; the sea heaved with storms,
winds fought upon it; the wintry waves were locked
tight with binding ice, and would be until came
another year to the world, as it yet does,
as the seasons are still observed,
bringing gloriously bright weather. Then would winter depart,
leave the earth’s fair bosom; the exiles were eager to go,
the strangers in the hall; but then they thought more
of revenge for their injury than of putting to sea,
if they might bring about a hostile encounter,
that the son of Jutes may have his crime etched in his heart.”
(Beowulf ll.1127b-1141)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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A Feud Defined

In this passage the poet gives us the reason why Hengest and the Danes couldn’t yet leave Finn’s stronghold: the winter held them in place.

A natural phenomenon kept them from sailing home, and so they were held there at Finn’s place. Maybe this should be viewed as an act of god, or maybe that’s just how it was framed when Beowulf was put to paper.

At the very least, we can say that Hengest and his Danes had no choice in the matter. They’re definitely not sticking around because they want to. Indeed, though the poet spends a bit of time decorating this passage with the natural imagery of a storm-laden sea and a new year coming to the world (back when New Years was actually celebrated much closer to the spring equinox), we can also see Hengest an the Danes smouldering.

Hell, maybe they’re smouldering because they can’t leave and if the Danes had been able to just up and head out after the funeral there would be no hard feelings beyond the disgrace of having to submit to their lord’s slayer. But winter is just that cruel.

More than that, though, I think there’s something to be said for the Danes’ hate growing through the winter. It’s a kind of neat time lapse of a feud’s growth if you think about it. Very much in miniature, but nonetheless. Let’s get into the imagery to suss this view of feuds out.

We’re told that the seas are stormy and locked up with ice. But only after the poet tells us that the Danes can’t sail away. And then, before we get back to the Danes, we’re told about how the seas were impassable until a new year came (“as it yet does,” (“swa nu gyt deð” (l.1134)) the poet assures us for some reason), and we’re told about how the new year brings with it “gloriously bright weather” (“wuldortorhtan weder” (l.1136)).

Actually, that kind of light sounds like the sort that could refresh and renew a person — even if we consider this part of the poem to be entirely (or at least mostly) free of the Christian influence that likely came with the writing down of Beowulf.

If even this part of the poem has been Christianized, then that “bright weather” sounds like the sort of thing that redeems the world, that saves it every single spring in a grand cycle of renewal and decay. It packs the season of spring with so much rebirth that the four season cycle becomes a metaphor even for human life itself (though that would be one grand cycle of the seasons of life, starting over again, in Christian thought, with the resurrection at the next, true spring).

So renewal is really highlighted, underlined, and made a big deal of here. Even if only subtly through imagery.

And yet, the Danes’ anger persists. It is powerful enough — dark enough? — to resist this “gloriously bright weather,” which, in a way actually encourages the Danes’ plan. After all, now they can get back at Finn and make their escape, thus fleeing the consequences of their violence.

If that sort of enduring, growing anger doesn’t describe a feud I don’t know what does.

Or, as Blake would write some centuries after Beowulf was put to paper in his poem The Poison Tree:

“I was angry with my friend;
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe:
I told it not, my wrath did grow.

And I waterd it in fears,
Night & morning with my tears:
And I sunned it with smiles,
And with soft deceitful wiles.

And it grew both day and night.
Till it bore an apple bright.
And my foe beheld it shine,
And he knew that it was mine.

And into my garden stole,
When the night had veild the pole;
In the morning glad I see;
My foe outstretched beneath the tree.”

What do you think the point is of telling a story about revenge after a major victory?

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Compounds Both Simple and Complex

This week’s passage has quite a few compound words. But let me just barrel through the straightforward ones first.

These are “wael-fag,” (l.1128) “hringed-stefnan,” (l.1131) and “sae-lad” (l.1139).

“Wael-fag” simply means “blood-stained” and comes from the combination of “wael” (“slaughter,” or carnage”) and “faeg” (“variegated,” “spotted,” “dappled,” “stained,” “dyed,” “shining,” or “gleaming”).

Likewise, “hringed-stefnan” just joins the meaning of its parts to create a quicker word. “Hringed” means “made of rings,” and “stefnan” means “prow or stern of a ship.”

And, “sae-lad” is almost close enough to Modern English to figure out with a glance — almost. This word combines “sae” (“sheet of water,” “sea,” “lake,” or “pool”) and “lad” (“course,” “journey,” “way,” “street,” “water-way,” “leading,” “carrying,” “maintenance,” “support,” “clearing from blame or accusation,” “purgation,” or “exculpation”) for its meaning. Though there’s definitely something more in this one. Something about a journey being purging and cleansing, along with the sea itself being seen as something flat, a place welcoming roads.

But now let’s get to the good stuff.

The word “wuldor-torhtan” is a fantastic compounding of “wuldor” (“glory,” “splendour,” “honour,” “praise,” “thanks,” or “heaven”) and “torht” (“clearness,” “brightness,” “bright,” “radiant,” “beautiful,” “splendid,” “noble,” “illustrious,” “brightly,” “clearly,” “beautifully,” “splendidly”) meaning “gloriously bright,” “clear,” “brilliant,” or “illustrious.”

This word is also fairly straightforward, but it’s not quite as cut and dry as just being a mix of two words for fairly concrete things. Any kind of “glorious light” is a little more than just your desk lamp being flicked on, after all.

Then on line 1138 we have “gyrn-wraece” a word based on the combination of “gyrn” (“sorrow,” or “misfortune”) and “wracu” (“revenge,” “vengeance,” “persecution,” “enmity,” “punishment,” “penalty,” “cruelty,” “misery,” “distress,” “torture,” or “pain”) that means “revenge for injury.”

I think that this compound is a little more complex than those at the top of this section because of the nuance that “wracu” brings to it.

This word’s nuances suggest that the revenge isn’t necessarily for some sorrow or misfortune, but it’s maybe a penalty for it. Which brings the perhaps selfish seeming act of revenge the flavour of something cosmic, or, at the least, something social. In that your participation in a society entitles you to lash out at another who has wronged your society.

On the one hand, this is definitely a clear motivation in whatever the Danes are planning in this passage. But on the other, it’s definitely something that can seem petty. But our first reaction to the kind of violence Finn visited upon the Danes even today is the same — to hit back, rather than to try to find the real root of the problem and go after that. As the feud with the Frisians continues after this incident, the Danes didn’t bother to attack the root of their problem with the Frisians either.

And then we come to line 1140’s “torn-gemot,” a word meaning nothing more than “battle.”

But this word combines “torn” (“anger,” “indignation,” “grief,” “misery,” “suffering,” “pain,” “bitter,” “cruel,” or “grievous”) and “gemot” (as a form of “mētan”: “meet,” “find,” “find out,” “fall in with,” “encounter,” or “obtain”) to get there, so there’s definitely more to it than battle.

In fact, I went with the literal translation in this passage because I don’t think the Danes want to initiate another battle with Finn. Sure, all of his forces have dispersed so he likely only has his own personal comitatus around him, but still. What the Danes are scheming is subtler than an all out attack — otherwise it wouldn’t outpace thoughts of homes in their minds, as we see in line 1138-1139’s “but then they thought more/of revenge for their injury than of putting to sea” (“he to gyrnwræce/swiðor þohte þonne to sælade”).

What’s really odd about the second word in this compound, mētan, though, is it’s senses of “find” and of “obtain,” combined with the anger or pain of “torn,” it sounds like the compound doesn’t just refer to “battle” as Clark Hall and Meritt suggest, but to any encounter in which “anger” or “pain” are found — so not just physical fights but also battles of words, or bloodshed-free political clashes.

Basically, then, “torn-gemot” should mean, in its plainest sense, “conflict encounter” or even just “conflict.” Though we can be quite sure that the Danes aren’t just planning to have some choice words with Finn before they sail for home.

What do you think makes the difference between compound words that are straightforward and those that have more nuance? Is it a matter of a word’s newness, or of a word’s popularity?

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Closing

In the next passage, all of the Danes’ schemes come to a head.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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Geats want to go out fighting, “alma mater” to the max (ll.688-700a)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
The dedication to die away from home
Very dear country
Closing

Beowulf, Anglo-Saxons, poetry, translation

A pillow inspired by artifacts found at the Sutton Hoo site. Design by Karen Dixon, full information available at http://www.millennia-designs.com/tapestry-cross-stitch-embroidery-kits/76/91/53/.

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Abstract

Beowulf and his fellow Geats bed down for the night while the narrator assures us that their beliefs about never again seeing home are unnecessary.

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Translation

“He Kept himself bold then, took a pillow
to his cheek with his band, and he among the many
ready seafarers gave themselves to hall-rest.
None of those thought that they should afterward
ever see their dear land again,
their people or their towns, where they had been raised;
and they had prayed, with fervour earlier, that they
in that wine hall be taken by death in battle,
those Danish people. But to them the Lord gave
woven success in war, thanks to the Weder people,
joy and help, that they the fiend there
through that one’s strength fully overcame,
by his own might.”
(Beowulf ll.688-700a)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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The dedication to die away from home

Unlike last week’s passage, there’s a fair bit more going on in this week’s. Not that it’s wall to wall action or anything, but, nonetheless, I have some things to say about it rather than just a thing.

In the middle of this week’s passage, we get something that seems uncharacteristic for the sorts of warriors Beowulf and his men are said to be. We’re told that “None of those thought that they should afterward/ever see their dear land again,” (“Nænig heora þohte þæt he þanon scolde/eft eardlufan æfre gesecean”(ll.691-692)). At first, this bit of information makes it seem as though the Geats feel that theirs is a doomed project.

And why not?

Countless others have tried before them and have failed. Why should they, a band of warriors whose leader is really an unproven whelp have any better luck?

But, immediately after this fairly touching bit about never returning to where they were raised (ll.693) we’re given a little more information. The sort of information that clarifies things further and explains quite a bit about the difference between our culture and that expressed in Beowulf.

From lines 694 to 695 we’re told that the Geats had earlier prayed (the word is “gefrignan,” meaning, in general “to ask”) that they should die in battle. Again, at first you think, well, that’s probably so that they don’t have to face defeat. That they’ll be remembered as having gone down fighting. But when you put this idea with the belief that they’ll never see home again, then you get what I think is the full picture.

The Geats think that they’ll never see their homeland and loved ones again because hat’s just how resolved they are to dying in the fight with Grendel. It’s not that they’re afraid of the monster or sorrowful about a doomed fate. Instead, I think the poet/scribe is showing us the strength of the Geats’ resolve. They’re so willing to die in the service of this quest that they, in the calm before Grendel storms in, are convinced that they’ll never go back across the waters to see Geatland again.

Nevertheless, this passage closes out with a curious reassurance.

In line 698, the poet/scribe tells us that Grendel will be defeated, but by “one’s strength” (“anes cræft” (l.699)). What’s curious about this to me is that, on one hand, this seems to be about Beowulf.

But If such is the case what’s unclear is whether this means that Beowulf’s strength overcomes Grendel’s or if it’s Beowulf’s strength that convinces god to give the victory to the Danes (as mentioned on lines 698-699).

But, “one’s strength” (l.699) could also refer to god itself.

Since Beowulf is always invoking god as the one who grants him victory after victory, it wouldn’t surprise me if the poet/scribe (more so the scribe) snuck this into the poem as a reference to what the Christian version of a single omniscient and omnipotent deity was.

Based on nothing aside from his depth of knowledge, I agree with Robert Graves in his argument that the peoples of Northern Europe had the idea of a singular ruling deity, a sort of monotheism, before Christianity (as Graves outlines in The White Goddess).

But it’s possible that early Christian missionaries sold those people on the idea of Christ and God and such on its being a new, fresh deity, someone who could overcome and vanquish the old gods or their champions. With this sort of reading, “one’s strength” takes on a much more proselytizing tone, and, over all, makes the poem weirdly more Christian than it would be otherwise (that is Beowulf thanks god for victories, but those victories are by god’s grace, so the whole poem, whatever else it is, is really about god’s grace in battle).

However, where such a religious reading of this line falls apart is that there’s no clear reference to god.

It’s possible that Beowulf, at best an adaptation of a hero from an earlier story, is god as god’s champion, and so that “one alone” is both god and Beowulf simultaneously. But to expect that this meaning would get across to the audience of a poem seems far-fetched to me.

Yet, in that case, it could be that the poet/scribe intended this particular passage as a sort of coded wink or nod to those in the know. Maybe at this point in the poem, while it was being read/performed, the guy beside you who’d been pretty quiet up until then would turn to you and say “have you let Jesus Christ into your heart, brother?”

How much Christian influence do you think is in Beowulf? Are all of his references to god just references to a pre-Christian deity?

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Very dear country

This week’s passage isn’t without its compound words, but most of them are straightforward and to the point. They’re combinations of words that make sense together and don’t offer as much room for wiggling.

These are words like “hleorbolster” (“hleor” (meaning “cheek,” “face,” or “countenance”) + “bolster” (meaning “cushion”)) or “wigsped” (“wig” (meaning “war,” “strife,” “battle”) + “sped” (meaning “success”). But, as in all good poetry, this passage does have its variety.

Otherwise I’m not sure how you’d explain the presence of “eard-lufan.”

This word is, at first blush, a simple compound. It combines the word “eard” (meaning “native place,” “country,” “region,” “dwelling-place,” “estate,” “cultivated ground,” “earth,” “land,” “condition,” or “fate”) with the word “lufan” (meaning “dear,” or “beloved”).

So, very simply, we get the dictionary-prescribed “dear home” (as in Clark Hall and Meritt) or “beloved home” (as in C.L. Wrenn’s glossary). The difference here is infinitesimal, and it looks like an easy enough compound word to deal with.

But what about those weird definitions of “eard” near the end of that list up there? “Condition” and “fate” are strange words to translate a word that seems to otherwise just mean “home” or “earth.”

I think these alternate meanings of “eard” don’t alter the compound word or give it radically different meanings, though. I think that their being possible translations for “eard” just deepens the meaning of “eardlufan.”

For the most part, “eard” is a word that represents earth and home. I think the inclusion of “condition” and “fate” in this list suggests that a dear home isn’t just a place where a person grew up, but also where they hope to die. It is a place so dear to them so utterly connected to them and they to it, that they want to be raised there, live there, and die there.

I’m basing this speculation on the Biblical notion that “dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return” (Genesis 3:19) (something I imagine the Anglo-Saxons were aware of); the earth or ground isn’t just our home or where we make our dwelling, but we are the very stuff of it and return to it when we die.

I think this extra shade of “eardlufan” deepens its meaning because it suggests a connection with a country and a land so strong that a person would give all they have for it. I might even go so far as to say that a person who uses such a word implies that they themselves are a part of the country or land from which they come.

What’s more, to the Anglo-Saxons, a people who identified with the wandering, country-less Jews of Exodus, this notion of an incredible bond with a place must have been a great fantasy. It may have even driven them to settle in as much as they did in the British Isles. Perhaps it even encouraged them to establish a country for themselves, the nation of wanderers that they saw themselves as.

But that’s just some succinct speculation. Though it brings to mind a question.

When it comes to early nationhood, which do you think came first: a country big enough to sustain a large group of people or a large group of people who strongly identified as a single group?

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Closing

Next week, Grendel begins his approach to Heorot.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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