A theory on Anglo-Saxon soldiers’ motives, a primer on compound word combat (ll.1242-1250)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Serial-Inspired Thoughts on the Military of Beowulf
Defense Through Compound Words
Closing

A shield from the Anglo-Saxons' Britain, likely what would be called "bord-wudu."

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Abstract

The poet details how those left in the hall arranged their weapons before bed.

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Translation

“They set at their heads their battle-shields,
the bright shield-wood. On the benches behind the
princes who’d watched the waves
were the helmets that towered in battle, ringed mailshirts,
glorious spears. Such was their custom,
to be always ready for war,
whether at home or out plundering, or at any time
that their lord showed signs of
need for rallying; that was a brave people.”
(Beowulf ll.1242-1250)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Serial-Inspired Thoughts on the Military of Beowulf

This passage, though brief, tells how the people it’s referring to are a brave and war-ready people. They’re constantly ready to defend their safety and repel danger. But, more interesting is their being ready to rally around their lord.

I’ve been listening to the second season of Serial, and recently heard of how this season’s subject, Bowe Bergdahl, saw himself as an idealistic soldier, as someone who was supposed to be fighting for a noble cause that he himself believed in. However, as Sarah Koenig (serial’s host) points out, modern armies don’t work like the armies of old on which Bowe had modelled his ideas of soldiering. Modern day privates aren’t individuals fighting for a single cause that brings them together, but are instead tools for the higher ups to send out and fight for them and for their ideas — whether or not the individuals agree with them.

There’s definitely still the mist of nobility around the martial sentiments presented in Beowulf. Whether Anglo-Saxons actually regarded being a warrior as fighting for a single ideal or not, I can’t help but think of these men, “always ready for war” (“oft wæron an wig gearwe” (l.1247)), being like Bowe. Not because they’re fighting for some uniting ideal, but because they’re fighting for individual reasons that happen to align with what their lord can offer them. After all, when society’s on the level of clans and groups (or even city states) rather than centralized massive populations, it’s hard to imagine that the greater good extends beyond defending what you have and maintaining order within the group.

Ultimately, the better a warrior in a lord’s comitatus fought, the better his reward would be either because of merit or just because there’d be more spoils — so it would have been directly in warriors’ (soldiers’) best interests to fight well for their lord. Plus, in a sense, warriors paid their lord in kind, returning the favour of a lord’s political or social protection with physical protection on the battlefield. But even then, squaring up such a deal would be a way of clearing individual (*maybe* familial) indebtedness. But in the end, the warriors in Beowulf seem to fight for individualistic to a greater extent than those from later in history who are remembered for fighting for entire nations or the fates of mass political movements.

That’s not to say that Anglo-Saxon warriors were petty.

The Anglo-Saxons themselves, as unsure of their identity as most teens are, probably saw a grat deal of good in fighting to defend the integrity of what they regarded as theirs and as meaningful to them. Hence the emphasis on honour in Beowulf, and on fighting bravely in this poem and in other major Anglo-Saxon works (like the Battle of Maldon).

But the Anglo-Saxons were, nonetheless, a people who’d left their native Anglia and Saxony, who’d mixed with Celts and met and mingled with Romans, both of which I’d expect had a huge impact on how they saw themselves and how they subtly changed before ultimately being melded with the French, Spanish, and countless other world cultures to become the English that we know today.

So what’s my point here? Simply that among Anglo-Saxon warriors I think there was a strange and unique sense that protecting your individual needs and wants was somehow more in line with, if not entirely synchronized with, the greater good of the group. After all, if all Anglo-Saxons kept up their own business and concerns, then surely the mass of them together would be Anglo-Saxon, right?

Leave your thoughts in the comments!

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Defense Through Compound Words

Whatever the ideals or orders behind it, war-time combat’s always been fairly simple at its heart.

For example, When someone strikes out with their “þræc-wudu” (l.1246), or spear, you need to defend yourself. Especially if you consider what’s gone into make that “þræc-wudu”: “þræc” (“throng,” “pressure,” “force,” “violence,” “equipment”) and “wudu” (“wood,” “forest,” “grove,” “tree,” “the cross,” “Rood,” “wood,” “timber,” “ship,” or “spear shaft”), turning the component parts into a kind of “force wood.”

And how better to defend yourself than with a “hilderand” (l.1242)? This kind of shield would be especially helpful in combat in general, at least if you translate “hiderand” literally. Doing so combines “hilde” (“war” or “combat”) and “rand” (“border,” “edge,” “boss of shield,” “rim of shield,” “shield,” or “buckler”), giving you “war shield.”

Though if you’re trying to escape a mortal wounding from a “þræc-wudu” in particular, why not block wood with wood and use a “bord-wudu” (l.1243)? The word “bord-wudu” also means “shield,” but as a compounding of “bord” (“board,” “plank,” “table,” “side of a ship,” “ship,” or “shield”) and “wudu” (“wood,” “forest,” “grove,” “tree,” “the cross,” “Rood,” “wood,” “timber,” “ship,” or “spear shaft”) it sounds much more natural, like a simple “wood shield,” though maybe it’s so simple it’s mystical like a “board from the cross,” a shield perhaps more emblematic than physically effective.

Simpler even than defending yourself in combat, though, is figuring out the size of your weapons and armour. Something small might not be that useful in a pitched battle or melée, but something that’s “heaþu-steap” could be very handy indeed.

Whether it’s a spear or a shield, if it’s “heaþu-steap” (l.1245), then it’s “towering in battle.” Or, more specifically it’s “steap” (“precipitous,” “deep,” “high,” “lofty,” “prominent,” “projecting,” “upright,” “bright,” or “brilliant”) in “heaþu” (war).

While “bord-wudu” sounds like a simpler shield to me, I think that even if a “bord-wudu” were to be “heaþu-steap,” it could be beautifully decorated or something more like a tower shield than a simple buckler.

If you were in a pitched battle with opponents and allies all around you would you rather have a small weapon or a big one? Leave your thoughts in the comments!

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Closing

Next week the poet goes to Biblical lengths to describe who pays a nighttime visit to Heorot.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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Danes and Frisians cool the feud, but compound words tell a different story (ll.1095-1106)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
A Roiling Blood Feud
Compounds Tell a Story
Closing

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Abstract

Hrothgar’s poet continues his recital. In this poem within a poem, Finn and Hengest conclude their peace treaty, including a mention of what will happen should the treaty be broken.

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Translation

“Then they with trust their two halves together
secured in a peace treaty. Finn to Hengest
with ill-fated courage oaths swore
that he the survivors of the carnage would treat
honourably as his counsellors advised, that no man
there would by word or deed break the treaty,
nor through any artful intrigue complain of it.
All this though they were forced to serve the slayer
of their ring-giver while leaderless, to him necessity bound them;
though if any of those Frisians were to remind them of that
through boldly speaking of the blood feud,
then the sword edge should settle it.”
(Beowulf ll.1095-1106)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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A Roiling Blood Feud

So 11 lines more and then we see the end of the negotiations between Hengest and Finn, between Dane and Frisian. There is some tension here, and it’s pretty clear that the Danes don’t want to have to sit and wait with the Frisians. But it’s still quite a mellow section of the poem as a whole. But perhaps that’s because this part of Beowulf is really reliant on knowing the history behind it.

Actually, without Hildeburh to relate to Grendel’s mother, or something else to relate to the main action of the poem, there’s nothing except history for us to really grab onto. Though we can definitely say with confidence that the “blood feud” (“morþorhetes” (l.1105)) between the Danes and Frisians that this treaty is supposed to quell will probably break out.

But maybe there’s something about the feud between Grendel and the Danes in there.

Without the historical context, but with the trope of the feud that’s gone on so long neither side can remember the reason for it, maybe the poet is telling this story to Hrothgar, Beowulf, and the assembled Danes and Geats as a kind of joke about the situation with Grendel. But to really get a handle on that we’ll need to see the conclusion of the poem first. If Dane and Frisian don’t bloodily clash in the poem’s final lines, but instead amicably part ways then this little diversionary poem is indeed mysterious.

But I don’t think the poet would include lines like 1107’s threat of any disputes with the treaty being settled with “the sword’s edge” (“sweordes ecg”) if this poem didn’t end with some sort of fight.

Anyway, the peace terms themselves (since that is what this passage of the poem is about), offer at least some insight into Anglo-Saxon culture. At least in terms of ideals.

Ideally, counsellors would be listened to, guests/hostages would be treated honourably lest a greater force come seeking to fulfill a renewed blood feud, and, ideally, those who don’t like the treaty are kept in line with the threat of harm or death. Which is kind of a funny way to enforce a peace treaty (I can’t help but visualize a parent snapping a belt as they say “now play nice – or else!” while standing over fuming siblings), but there you go. Though violence may have been the only deterrent, since I get the impression that Danes and Frisians didn’t have much in the way of trade. Plus, this is a treaty between two small sub-groups after all, not an out and out treaty between two entire peoples.

Also, it’s good to see that just who is who is cleared up. The slain ring-giver of lines 1102-1103 was the Dane’s. Even without the historical context for this story, the “them” of line 1104 suggests the Danes since it refers to the people that the Frisians are reminding, and since it’s just Danes and Frisians here, there’s no one else that “them” could refer to. Also, the poet singing this story is himself a Dane, so it makes sense that they’re the underdogs here (just as they were against Grendel, lending some weight to my idea that more than Hildeburh’s mourning relates this little story back to Beowulf at large).

So it sounds like the Danes are without a leader. But if one side’s leader remained, why not just envelop the weakened side while you hold the advantage?

Let me just take a quick look at Wikipedia’ entry on the this part of the poem (under the “Finnsburh Fragment” entry).

Ah. Here we go.

Hildeburh was Finn’s wife, and their marriage was meant to bring harmony between the Danes and the Frisians. So Finn, leader of the Frisians, obviously wanted peace. Hence, he makes a treaty with the Danes rather than just destroying them.

So Finn’s desire for peace is likely genuine (not unlike the well-meaning, but wrong-headed parent from a day dream a few paragraphs back). But that’s obviously not something that’s shared among the other Frisians, since any mention of the Danes serving their lord’s slayer is made punishable by death. And with good reason.

As poems like the Battle of Maldon make clear, loyalty to your lord was paramount in Anglo-Saxon society. So there could be no greater insult than to dishonour your former leader by turning around and working with his killer. Working with your lord’s slayer in any capacity – whether it was simply signing a treaty or running his errands – was the ultimate slander to your fallen leader because it suggests that he inspired no loyalty in those he lead. And, though it might’ve been fuelled by gifts of treasure, a true comitatus (or warrior band) was held together with loyalty. True warriors would stick with their leader no matter what, confident that in the end they would get their reward.

But Finn’s desire for peace doesn’t really clear up why the Danes are hanging around. Are they hostages? Are they trapped by winter’s icy water? Or is there something else keeping them?

I’ve already thrown in my guess that this peace treaty between the Danes and Frisians won’t last. Do you think it’ll make a difference and bring the two groups together, or that it will end in bloodshed?

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Compounds Tell a Story

Because of the tension the negotiation between two bitter rivals in this passage, it’s full of compound words.

But what makes these compounds really stick out is that this passage’s compounds tell a story. Here goes.

On line 1096 we find the passage’s first compound word. This is the word “frioðu-wær,” which means “treaty of peace.”

Simply enough it comes from the words “friðo” (“peace,” “safety,” “protection”) and “wær” (“true,” “correct,” “faith,” “fidelity,” “keeping,” “protection,” “agreement,” “treaty,” “compact,” “pledge,” “covenant,” “bond (of friendship)”). So right there in the constituent words you can see the meaning of “peace treaty.” It’s just as straightforward as such a treaty should be.

But things thicken on line 1101. This is where “inwit-searo” is mentioned. This word, meaning “artful intrigue,” comes from the words “inwit” (“evil,” “deceit”; or “wicked,” deceitful) and “searo” (“art,” “skill,” “cleverness,” “cunning,” “device,” “trick,” “snare,” “ambuscade,” “plot,” “treachery”; as well as “work of art,” “cunning device,” “engine (of war),” “armour,” “war-gear,” or “trappings”).

So now we’re faced with a kind of “cunning evil” or “wicked snare,” perhaps the machinations of someone or some group against the peace treaty mentioned above. But what makes these machinations plot-thickening is that they aren’t direct. This isn’t a compound word for “fight” or “sword” but instead comes from a sense of malicious intelligence that has set pieces up only to knock them down in a clever way.

In fact, “inwit-searo” describes just the kind of act that could spark a “morþor-hete,” or “blood feud” like the one on line 1105. This word combines “morþor” (“deed of violence,” “murder,” “homicide,” “manslaughter,” “mortal sin,” “crime,” “injury,” “punishment,” “torment,” or “misery”) and “hete” (“hate,” “envy,” “malice,” “hostility,” “persecution,” or “punishment”).

So at its simplest, aside from “blood feud,” morþor-hete” could simply mean hate-fuelled murder, or any violent act with malicious intent. To my eye at least, the word itself even looks like it could mean the fog that someone gets into when they commit such an act, a “murder-heat” or maybe “murder-haze.”

Without knowing exactly what the big rivalry between Dane and Frisian was, I can’t say if these three compound words tell the probably forgotten origin of the feud between these two peoples. But it is rather neat to see the compounds lined up like this. It might just foreshadow this poem’s own end, but we’ll find that out in four weeks.

Blood feuds were a common problem in Anglo-Saxon society and the early medieval period in general. But, feuds continue to be a super popular idea in TV and movies. Why do you think we still tell stories about feuds?

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Closing

Next week, following up on forging this peace, the poet turns to tell of the funeral for all those slain in the tragic combat of Frisian and Dane.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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Unferth doubly damns a doomed Beowulf (ll.520-528)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Unferth’s biting conclusion
Normal words spiced with speculation
Closing

A medieval depiction of a donkey. An apt animal for Unferth.

A medieval depiction of a donkey. An apt animal for Unferth.

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Abstract

Unferth finishes his account of Beowulf and Breca’s swimming match before predicting Beowulf’s doom at the hands of Grendel.

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Translation

“‘Then he sought his dear father land
those dear to him, the land of the Brondings,
splendid strongholds against war, where he had folk
fortress and rings. So in truth the son of Beanstan
fully bested you by endurance in your bet with him.
Then I believe that you will have the worse outcome,
though thou hast thrived in combat everywhere,
bloody battle, if thou darest wait
nearly all the long night for Grendel'”
(Beowulf ll.520-528)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Unferth’s biting conclusion

Haters are gonna hate. Doubters are gonna doubt. But Unferth, really, seems to be neither of these things.

There’s no two ways about it: he doesn’t like Beowulf. And his account of the swimming match between Beowulf and Breca does not put the poem’s titular character in a good light.

But, I don’t think Unferth’s being entirely dismissive of Beowulf either last week’s or this week’s half of his outburst. I think he’s being a little more precise with his heckling.

I’m grounding this idea of Unferth’s being more subtle in his line “though thou hast thrived in combat everywhere,/bloody battle” (“ðeah þu heaðoræsa gehwær dohte,/grimre guðe” (l.526-527)). It’s sarcastic, sure. But Unferth isn’t just being smarmy, he’s saying that Beowulf lacks individual prowess.

Battles, such as they were in the early medieval period, were free for alls. Melees.

As such, there would be individual bouts, sure, but these would be surrounded by other fights. Within the mesh of warriors mashing each other to pulp archers could have your back. Fellow warriors, spearmen or swordmen, could have your back. So as long as you were quick enough and didn’t get in the way of your support team, you could no doubt do quite well and be quite the celebrated warrior.

After all, the Anglo-Saxons recognized that team work was an essential thing both on and off the battlefield. They were well aware that if you completely isolated yourself socially, you would have no means of understanding what was going on outside of your hall or hovel.

So I think that Unferth presents his account of Breca to say that Beowulf, for all of his boasting about beating Grendel, isn’t likely to come off well because his usual strategy of working in a tight team (he does have what is basically a comitatus of 12 Geats with him after all) won’t work because it hasn’t worked for the Danes.

Moreover, I think Unferth’s using the swimming match to illustrate Beowulf’s individual incompetence is meant to underline his inability to cope with things alone. It was he who floated off and wound up washed ashore in some foreign land, after all.

Breca, on the other hand, according to Unferth (or rather, the version of events that he heard – or maybe is making up on the spot), won their match handily. As such Beowulf is bound to get “the worst outcome” (“wyrsan geþingea” (l.525)) if he waits for Grendel.

As to why Unferth bothers specifying the difference in Beowulf’s team and solo performances in this subtle way, I think it’s because it’s more biting than just saying “hey, you work well in a team but stink on your own.”

Unferth is supposed to pose a threat to Beowulf’s state of mind and the way in which he’s perceived by the other Danes. Thus, he damns him directly and then follows up with further damning via faint praise. At least poetically (and in my own opinion), this is the best way to do so.

What do you think? Is Unferth just being sarcastic when he talks of Beowulf having “thrived in combat everywhere”? Or is there a bit of faint praise there?

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Normal words spiced with speculation

What to say about the words in this extract, this passage? Well, there aren’t many strange compounds. Actually, there really aren’t any at all.

There’s the word “eðel,” meaning “country,” “native land,” “ancestral home.” This word is completely straightforward when it comes to translating (though some might argue its implications that Anglo-Saxons had a sense of nationality or some grander unity beyond their immediate group are anachronistic).

But in this word’s dictionary entry, you can find that it combines with the word for whales (“hwales”) to make a compound word for “sea.” Of course, this makes sense, since the sea is the whales’ ancestral home and native land.

Though I can’t help but read this combination and think that the Anglo-Saxons had some crazy ideas about the origins of whales and just what they were. It’s not very likely, but maybe some had over developed vestigial legs and so the very early Anglo-Saxons regarded the whales as being somewhat like them?

Or maybe because of the whales’ incredible strength and size and sociability they were regarded as being powerful denizens of the sea in a kind of spiritual way.

Maybe they were just big creatures that captured the imaginations of the Anglo-Saxons and fired up many a tale around a hearth fire.

There’s also the phrase “þaer he folk ahte.” Unferth uses this to describe Breca’s homeland. It more than likely means that he just had kinsmen there. But, because the word “ahte” means “to have, possess,” and combines with “folc,” could it be a reference to Breca’s having slaves or servants in that country?

It’s incredibly unlikely that that’s what’s intended, but it is something to think about. Maybe “having slaves there” was a kind of short hand for “has a well-established home there.” But that’s some deep speculation on my part. So deep in fact, that it’s pretty much groundless.

Rounding out the collection of words to at least stop and sniff at in this week’s passage is “freoð-burh.”

A combination of “friðu” meaning “peace, safety, protection; refuge, asylum” and “burh” meaning “stronghold,” “enclosed area,” this word strikes me as notable for its redundancy.

You’d hope that a stronghold or enclosed area would offer safety and protection. Though, maybe it’s like Old English’s use of double negatives for emphasis. Doubling up on words that imply protection means that this fortress of Breca’s is nigh unto impenetrable and so well-supplied that none could successfully lay siege to it or capture it in all out war.

If this Breca is the same Breca who later became a ruler of the strategic Swedish island of Brännö, then such a fortress may well have been there. Any strategic site in medieval Europe would need to be well fortified, after all.

What do you think of my interpretations of these words and phrase? Am I onto anything, or just filling space with groundless speculation?

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Closing

Well, we’ve heard Unferth’s heckling of Beowulf. It kind of splutters near the end, though. Next week we’ll get the main man’s reply.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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Quest-lust (ll.3076-3086) [Old English]

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Quest-lust and Wyrd
The Repercussions of a Lost Act
Closing

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Abstract

Wiglaf speaks to the assembled Geats, recounting Beowulf’s unquenchable fervour for striking out against the dragon.

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Translation

“Wiglaf spoke, Weohstan’s son:
‘Oft it happens that one warrior’s wish makes
the many endure misery, just so it has happened with us.
We could not persuade that dear prince,
this guardian of the people would not accept any counsel,
to not attack the gold guardian then,
to let him lay where he long was,
in that dwelling place remain until the world’s end,
to keep his exalted destiny. The hoard is
bitterly won; it was fate that impelled
that king of a people to that hard place.'”
(Beowulf ll.3076-3086)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Quest-lust and Wyrd

It sounds like Geatish kings could be total jerks. Or, at the least, self-centred power trippers.

Whatever the case, Wiglaf’s words are a grand reminder that the system of the comitatus is hardly an equal thing. Based on his opening here, it seems that from time to time one warrior would become obsessed with some impossible goal, and cause the rest of the group to suffer through it. What Wiglaf leaves unsaid though, is whether or not these impossible quests would cost the whole group their lives or only the warrior who proposed them.

In either case, this periodic obsession becomes a curious way that wyrd comes into people’s lives, welling up from within like some sort of fatal disease. However, at least in the case of Beowulf, fate or wyrd‘s presence in the mad desire felt by warriors is able to be read out of the experience. Fate is at the least recognizable in hindsight.

Though, maybe, just maybe, the obsessed warrior was one way in which people thought fate could be seen, they were an expected anomaly that gave the game away, so to speak. That fate could be seen in such a way suggests that preparations could be made for the inevitable, but it needs to be wondered if they were.

Would such preparations tip off fate that its path was known and force it to change?

Or could planning for that inevitability merely be considered as fated as the warrior’s tragic heroic effort?

It seems that no matter how it was construed, this madness could spell the end for whole peoples if the wrong fighter was infected. If, of course, it was a people’s leader who came down with it.

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The Repercussions of a Lost Act

Though, going back a ways in the poem, it needs to be wondered if Beowulf’s fervour for fighting the dragon was less random than some disease can seem.

Beowulf mentions his dark thoughts during the time when the dragon first attacks, how he wonders if he did something wrong in his past and is now paying for it.

So,fate or not, there may also have been some prior causation in Beowulf’s obsession with the dragon. Perhaps, since his obsession is enough to destroy the dragon’s “exalted destiny” (“wicum wunian” l.3084), that earlier causation gave Beowulf the momentum to change destiny. That’s definitely something to create a 3000+ line poem about.

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Closing

Wiglaf’s speech to the assembled Geats continues next week, as he speaks of his time in the hoard and Beowulf’s final wish.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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Wiglaf looks back in Anger [ll.2864-2876] (Old English)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Venting Frustrations
Invocations as Self-Summonings
Closing

{What Wiglaf may’ve looked like, with sword drawn and shield ready – here, as in his speech, his own spirit is his armour. Image found on The Wall Machine.}
 

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Abstract

Wiglaf lays into the thanes, but calms when he speaks more specifically of Beowulf.

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Translation

“‘Lo! That it may be said, by he who will speak truth,
that the liege lord, he who gave you that treasure,
that military gear, that you there stand in,
when he at ale-bench oft gave
to sitters in the hall helms and byrnies,
the prince over his retainers, the strongest that he could
find either far or near, all that he may
as well have furiously tossed away, that war gear
that he from battle won.
Not at all did that folk-king have cause to boast
of comrades in arms; yet god allowed him, the
victorious ruler, so that he himself could drive forward
with his sword alone, when he had need for courage.'”
(Beowulf ll.2864-2876)

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Recordings

Old English:

Modern English:

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Venting Frustrations

The first thing that you most likely noted when reading this week’s translation is that the first sentence is both long and syntactically awkward.

In an effort to keep the dialogue as accurate as possible, I tried to keep this opening in the same order in which it appeared in my version of the original text. What this opening sentence boils down to is the idea that Beowulf wasted his generous gifts on the thanes that ran away.

But the way in which Wiglaf expresses this, with a series of subordinate clauses, underscores his anger. However, it’s not necessarily that he’s shouting these lines, he could just as easily be letting the words slide from between clenched teeth as he stands over Beowulf’s body.

Using such a tangle of words makes Wiglaf’s anger clear not only in that it gives his words the sense that they’re tumbling out in a torrent of emotion, but also because it’s a way to verbally represent the clashing emotions that Wiglaf feels in the moment. After all, he currently stands close to the dear lord he has just lost while those whom he considers little better than social leeches are crowding near.

Since the following sentences see Wiglaf delve more into Beowulf and move away from directly addressing the thanes, they become much clearer.

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Invocations as Self-Summonings

Nonetheless, his rage is not lost as Wiglaf moves on to talk of Beowulf. Although we have nothing more than words on a page to run with, it’s not difficult to imagine any scop worth his salt giving a slightly sarcastic ring to “Not at all did that folk-king have cause/To boast of comrades in arms” (“Nealles folccyning fyrdgesteallum/gylpan þorfte” ll.2873-74). And, just as with anyone speaking from the heart, or while in a passion, Wiglaf says some curious things in this last sentence of this week’s excerpt.

The reference to god may seem old hat by now, but what’s curious about it is the immediate shift from it to what Beowulf could pull from himself because of his recourse to god.

On the one hand Wiglaf is saying, god helped him when you guys didn’t, but on the other he’s also saying that god helped him to see what he had all along and to use it when he found himself in his great need.

Although as faint as sections of the Noel codex itself (the manuscript in which Beowulf was found), there’s a slight mysticism that can be found in these words of Wiglaf’s, as he seems to be expressing the idea that a person’s true self can be found only in god and that this true self can help them to accomplish supernatural deeds.

In turn Wiglaf’s implication suggests that the thanes are not just cowards, but also ungodly – a curious thing of which to accuse warriors, but it must be remembered that if nothing else, Beowulf always made reference to god in his stories of his own feats, and though the only feat of Wiglaf’s that we know of is his helping with the dragon, it seems that he is now doing the same.

However, as we’ll see next week, Wiglaf’s emphasis on himself may foreshadow more than his valiant leadership of the Geats.

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Closing

Tomorrow, at A Glass Darkly be sure to read all about the good and the bad in the b-horror movie The Convent as the fourth and final part of my Shocktober set of movie reviews!

And you can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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The Second Half of Wiglaf’s Speech to the Thanes: Rhetoric [ll.2646b-2660] (Old English)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Anglo-Saxon Understatement
On Fate and Rhetoric
Closing

{The sort of sheild that Wiglaf brings to the fight – hopefully his sword proves sturdier! Image from the blog Beowulfian, hosted by wikimedia.org.}

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Abstract

Wiglaf completes his speech, and in doing so presents himself as the shining example that the other thanes should follow.

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Translation

Now is the day come
that our liege lord strength needs
good warriors. Let us go to,
to help the leader in battle while it is possible,
against the fierce terror from fire. God knows
that it is much dearer to me that my body
be with my gold-giving lord while fire should enfold him.
Nor does it seem to me fitting that we shields
bear back to home unless we first may
the foe kill, by life defend
the Weder’s prince. I know well
that it is not merited by past deeds, that he alone must
without the Geatish host affliction suffer,
fall at the battle; both of us shall sword and helm,
mail coat and battle garment together share.”
(Beowulf ll.2646b-2660)

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Recordings

Old English:

Modern English:

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Anglo-Saxon Understatement

Wiglaf really gives it to his fellow thanes in this part of his speech. How can you tell such a thing? Because he uses token Anglo-Saxon sense of understatement. Not very liberally, but in such a way that it remains obvious even to this day.

So, we hear Wiglaf start a sentence with “God knows,” (“God wāt” (l.2650)), and it’s quite clear that he’s either being incredibly genuine or relying on a higher power to embolden himself. The understatement comes next when he moves from citing god to state that it wouldn’t be fitting to go home as warriors if they didn’t even fight.

The understatement in this sentence is clear from Wiglaf’s beginning it with “nor” (“ne”(l.2653)). This negative start undercuts his own position (“…seem to me…” ( “…þynceð me…”(l.2653))) and puts it squarely in contrast with his previous reference to god. And so the young warrior cunningly sets himself up for a verbal finger wagging as he calls his fellow warriors on even thinking about calling themselves warriors without even fighting the dragon.

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On Fate and Rhetoric

Wiglaf’s statement “I know well/that it is not merited by past deeds” (“Ic wāt geare,/þæt nǣron eald-gewyrht”(ll.2656-2657)) that Beowulf should suffer alone sets human knowledge and the unknowable power of fate at an incredible contrast.

Earlier in the poem we’ve been told that fate has left Beowulf’s side (ll.2574-2575), that it is indeed his fate to die, but Wiglaf, because of his dedication to kin, is not deterred by this, however obvious it might be given the state of the fight.

As the one who is set up to succeed Beowulf as king of the Geats, it seems that Wiglaf has an uncanny way of seeing how to make the best of fate, since he does indirectly acknowledge the fact that Beowulf is doomed while at the same time he calls for all the Geats to rally around him so that Beowulf will not be alone when he falls. It’s a nice emphasis of the importance of community to Anglo-Saxon life and culture.

However, where all of Wiglaf’s rhetoric falls flat is in his final sentence. Old English pronouns included some that were just for two people, but the one used here, “bām,” is definitely of the dual sense. So, just as Wiglaf is acutely aware of the fact that Beowulf should be attended because of his great stature as a warrior, it also seems that by the speech’s end he’s acutely aware of the fact that he is the only one about to rush off to help.

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Closing

Next week, St. Isidore starts to wrap up coverage of horses, and concludes the overview of the last two characteristics of a great horse. In Beowulf, Wiglaf rushes to Beowulf and says some more words before we’re all reminded that the dragon’s still about.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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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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