Beowulf: A growing character or diplomatic chameleon?

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

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

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


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Synopsis

Hrothgar finishes his final speech to Hrothgar and the Danes.


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The Original Old English

“‘Gif ic þæt gefricge ofer floda begang,
þæt þec ymbsittend egesan þywað,
swa þec hetende hwilum dydon,
ic ðe þusenda þegna bringe,
hæleþa to helpe. Ic on Higelac wat,
Geata dryhten, þeah ðe he geong sy,
folces hyrde, þæt he mec fremman wile
wordum ond worcum, þæt ic þe wel herige
ond þe to geoce garholt bere,
mægenes fultum, þær ðe bið manna þearf.
Gif him þonne Hreþric to hofum Geata
geþingeð, þeodnes bearn, he mæg þær fela
freonda findan; feorcyþðe beoð
selran gesohte þæm þe him selfa deah.'”
(Beowulf ll.1826-1839)


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My Translation

“‘If, while over the sea’s expanse I learn
that neighbouring peoples threaten you with terror,
as enemies formerly did to your people,
I shall bring the help of a thousand thanes,
the aid of warriors. Of Hygelac, lord of the Geats,
I know, though he is young, that,
as the protector of my people, he will support me
with words and with deeds, so that I may honour thee
and bear to you a forest of spears as help,
the strength of support, when you have need of men.
Then, if Hreþric decides to go to
the Geatish hall, your son, oh prince, he shall
find countless friends there; for far-flung countries
are most hospitable to those who are themselves worth meeting.'”
(Beowulf ll.1826-1839)


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A Quick Question

Beowulf happens across some lovely eloquence in this passage. With his “help of a thousand thanes” (“ðe þusenda þegna bringe” (l.1829)), his humbly admitting Hygelac’s youth (relative to Hrothgar, surely), and his “forest of spears” (“garholt” (l.1834)), it’s clear that he’s bringing his “A” speech game. And why not? This is Beowulf’s final big speech to the Danes, after all. So he has to leave a good impression.

More than that, though, this eloquence shows Beowulf’s growth. If you go back and read his earlier speeches to Hrothgar and the Danes he’s not much more eloquent than he is here. But his images seem to be much cleaner and clearer than his boastful stories of beating up monsters and what not. Here Beowulf is the diplomat more than the fighter. And, I think, that we can see this as Beowulf maturing into kingship.

Though it’s definitely possible that Beowulf is just matching his surroundings, as Hrothgar did early on when Beowulf had proven himself to the Danish lord.

His tidy images are just in keeping with a proper farewell speech. Concrete images are bound to land much more of a hit than vague boasts about beating up whole islands’ worth of monsters, after all.

Beyond the images, this speech also matches the occasion through Beowulf’s respectful mention of Hygelac. He is in the presence of another king, so, even though he is his immediate lord, Beowulf can’t pump Hygelac up that much. And he finishes this indirect flattery of Hrothgar off with an open invite for his son, so that Hrothgar’s court can reciprocate Hygelac’s generosity of sending Beowulf off.

This last point is especially important because it means that Hrothgar and Hygelac can be kept in balance. It is a future event, Hreþric’s hypothetical visit to Geatland, but it’s still important because it is one of the greatest ways of showing friendship: offering the same kindness that you were shown.

Do you think that this speech shows Beowulf’s growth towards maturity? Or is he still the same monster-smashing fighter he was when he arrived in Geatland some 1500 lines ago? Share your thoughts in the comments!


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Closing

Next week, Hrothgar says that Beowulf will be a great king!

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Courageous hope and a summary of the Finn and Hengest incident (ll.1600-1611)

Synopsis
Translation
Recordings
The Geat’s Hope, Beowulf’s Bewilderment, God’s Power
A Summary of What Happened to Hengest in Finn’s Hall
Closing

Beowulf and his band of Geats carrying Grendel's head.

J. R. Skelton – Marshall, Henrietta Elizabeth (1908) Stories of Beowulf, T.C. & E.C. Jack.
Image found at: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Stories_of_beowulf_head_of_grendel.jpg#/media/File:Stories_of_beowulf_head_of_grendel.jpg


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Synopsis

The Danes go while the Scyldings stay. Meanwhile, Beowulf’s sword melts.


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Translation

“Then came the ninth hour of the day. To a man
the brave Scyldings left the lake, and with them went
that generous gold-friend. But the strangers stayed to wait,
though sick at heart, and stared at those waters;
they wished and yet could not believe that they would see
in the flesh once more their lord and friend. Meanwhile,
back in the cave the sword began, after the blood of battle
spattered the war-icicle, to soften and wane. It was a wondrous sight,
all the blade melting away much like ice
when the Father looses the frost bonds,
unties the waters from their cold-cords, he who has power
over the sowing and the harvest; such is truly the Measurer’s might.”
(Beowulf ll.1600-1611)


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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}


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The Geat’s Hope, Beowulf’s Bewilderment, God’s Power

At least the Geats kept faith. Sort of.

It’s pretty clear that they stayed on because of a stubborn hope that Beowulf would return. Though the poet acknowledges that this hope is tempered with the belief that the Danes must be right, that Beowulf must be dead.

Nonetheless, I think that the Geat’s sticking around is a different kind of ofermod. That the Geats don’t just get up and leave with the Danes exemplifies a kind of internal courage to wish and hope in the face of adversity. It’s the kind of hope that isn’t easy to conjure up and hold onto, so I think the Geats definitely show tremendous spirit in holding onto it, despite their belief that Beowulf is dead.

Actually, I take the Geats’ enduring faith in Beowulf as a sign that the poet believes the Geats have more life in them than the Danes. After all, the poet’s told us that Heorot will burn, but (so far) no mention of the fall of the Geats has been made.

At any rate, after that look at sorrowful hope, the poet brings us back to the man himself.

We rejoin Beowulf as he watches the sword he pulled from the Grendels’ armoury melt. Apparently because Grendel’s blood (but not his mother’s?) was too hot for the steel to handle. Which, I guess makes sense, since, Grendel would have to be the hotter blooded of the two.

I mean, he was the one who actively went out and attacked Heorot. All the while we can only guess that Grendel’s mother just did her own thing. At least, that is, until Grendel was killed. Though up until then I think it’s fair to say, as the Greeks might, that Grendel had itchy blood.

The imagery that the poet uses to explain the melting of the sword, much like Beowulf’s swordstrokes in his battles, is perfectly placed. This image demonstrates the power of god as an entity that has the ability to melt the ice, and, as I’ve translated it, is an entity that “has power/over the sowing and the harvest” (“se geweald hafað/sæla ond mæla” (ll.1610-1611)). So this god is nothing to mess around with, but also a powerful ally for one such as Beowulf.

Plus, the use of the image of melting ice is a great metaphor for the melting away of the chilly atmosphere around Heorot. Just as in a video game, the defeat of the Grendels’ has palpably restored peace to Daneland. In fact, even the waters that Beowulf swims through, which were once teeming with all sorts of monsters, are now seemingly calm.

So I don’t think it’s much of a jump to go from the image of god freeing the waters from their “frost bonds” (“forstes bend” (l.1609)) to Beowulf freeing Daneland from the Grendels’ grip of terror.

Why do you think Grendel’s blood melted Beowulf’s sword?


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A Summary of What Happened to Hengest in Finn’s Hall

After being trapped there for the winter by frozen water, Hengest was forced into an uneasy truce with his enemy Finn. Along with being untrustworthy in the past, Hengest’s lord and his lord’s nephew had just been killed in pitched battle.

Now, Hengest, that “gold-wine”1, tried to resist the “heaþo-swate”2 that called to him. But his men implored their “wine-dryhten”3 to revenge, and he could not resist the “wig-bill”4. Though he waited through a long winter to exact revenge for his lord and his son, waited until the “wæl-rap”5 were melted from the sea-ways.

At least, that’s the reason the poets give.

I think he waited to ensure that his wrath would not just be a “hild-gicel”6, melting away after the strife in the hall. Instead he wanted something surer and so waited until his hatred hardened into the kind of “wig-bill”4 that Beowulf would praise.

1gold-wine: liberal prince, lord, king. gold (gold) + wine (friend, protector, lord, retainer)

Back Up

2heaþo-swate: blood of battle. heaðu (war) + swat (sweat, perspiration, exudation, blood, foam, toil, labour)

Back Up

3wine-dryhten: friendly lord, lord and friend. wine (friend, protector, lord, retainer) + dryhten (ruler, king, prince, lord)

Back Up

4wig-bill: sword. wig (strife, contest, war, battle) + bill (chopper, battle axe, falchion, sword) [A compound word that’s exclusive to Beowulf.]

Back Up

5wæl-rap: flood-fetter (ice). wæl (whirlpool, eddy, pool, ocean, sea, river, flood) + rap (rope, cord, cable)

Back Up

6hild-gicel: battle-icicle (blood dripping from a sword [like water from an icicle]). hild (war, combat) + gicel (icicle, ice) [A compound word that’s exclusive to Beowulf.]


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Closing

Next week, Beowulf makes his escape.

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Hrothgar decides to leave the lake, wondering about what’s beneath the bloody waters (ll.1591-1599)

Synopsis
Translation
Recordings
What the Danes Forgot About Beowulf
What Would the Water Say?
Closing

Beowulf and his band of Geats carrying Grendel's head.

J. R. Skelton – Marshall, Henrietta Elizabeth (1908) Stories of Beowulf, T.C. & E.C. Jack.


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Synopsis

Hrothgar and his counsellors confer and conclude that Beowulf is dead.


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Translation

“Soon those wise men saw,
those who were with Hrothgar watching the water,
that the surging waves were stirred up,
that the water was red with blood. The old ones,
the grey-haired, gathered to speak clearly together
of how that prince down in the deep would not return,
how he who went seeking to be victorious would not
come back to their glorious king; thus they decided
that the she-wolf of the lake had destroyed him.”
(Beowulf ll.1591-1599)


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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}


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What the Danes Forgot About Beowulf

And so the Danes give up on Beowulf.

Since Hrothgar and his counsellors (surely “the old ones” (“gomele” l.1594)) have seen no sign of Beowulf and he’s been down there for quite a while, they conclude that he has died. And so they leave. Easy as that.

Of course, they don’t know that Beowulf is actually pretty busy beneath those bloodied waters. But, being the “ale flagon is half empty” kind of people that they are (12 years of being terrorized will do that to just about anyone), they guess that the blood is Beowulf’s.

And why not think that, right?

It would be pretty easy to just say to yourself: “this Geat was strong enough to beat Grendel, but the monster’s mother is too much for him.”

Which is a logical thing to conclude. Beowulf handily defeated Grendel, but the fight with the mother is quite different. It’s in her lair for starters, and it’s underwater, both of which are sure to be a disadvantage for any warrior.

Except that when Beowulf first met the Danes he boasted about defending himself and Breca from underwater beasts while they were swimming in the open ocean. So Beowulf’s no slouch when it comes to combat beneath the sea. But I guess the Danes are overcome with grief (or have sobered up and forgotten the tales that Beowulf told while the mead cups were being drained).

If you were in the place of the Danes and saw no sign that Beowulf was winning or won and had waited for a considerable amount of time, would you guess he was dead and leave too? Why or why not?



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What Would the Water Say?

Were the young warrior “sige-hreðig”1, beneath the water wave,
would the liquid home of the “brim-wylf”2
thrash its “yð-geblond”3 to spread her blood,
make a gift of it to every molecule?
Or would the waters be indifferent, merely lapping at the feet
of the “blanden-feax”4 ones gathered around to watch for signs?

1sige-hreðig: victorious, triumphant. sig (victory) + hreð (victory, glory)

Back Up

2brim-wylf: she-wolf of the sea or lake. brim (surf, flood, wave, sea, ocean, water, sea-edge, shore) + wylf (she-wolf)

Back Up

3yð-geblond: wave-mixture, surge. yð (wave, billow, flood, sea, liquid, water) + bland (blending, mixture, confusion) [A word that is exclusive to Beowulf.]

Back Up

4blanden-feax: grizzly-haired, grey-haired, old. bland (blending, mixture, confusion) + feax (hair, head of hair)

Back Up


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Closing

Next week, not everyone leaves the lake, and Beowulf watches something strange.

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Armour inspires thoughts on time, ad-libbing on sunken arms (ll. 1441b – 1454)

Synopsis
Translation
Recordings
Antique Armour More Effective
Armour on Sea Bottoms
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

Beowulf gets geared up, starting with his armour and helmet.

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Translation

                    “Beowulf geared himself
in warrior’s garb, he felt no anxiety for his life then;
his hand woven war-corslet, broad and skillfully decorated,
would soon know those depths,
confident in its ability to protect his bone-chamber,
so that no hand-grasp could crush his chest,
that no furious foe’s malicious hand could harm him;
and on his head a shining helmet he wore,
which would soon muddy the mere’s bottom,
would soon enter the surging waters, that treasure-embellished helm,
encircled by a lordly band, made as those in elder days,
wrought by a weapon smith, wondrously formed,
set all around with boar-images, so that he
may not be bitten by blade or battle sword.”
(Beowulf ll.1441b – 1454)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Antique Armour More Effective

Beowulf gets kitted out here. Whether one of the Geats with him (or maybe a Dane, as a sign of their good relations?) helps him into this gear as squires would knights in a few hundred years is unclear. All we know from what’s written is that Beowulf puts on his armour and then his helmet. So, much like old school JRPGs, it looks like there are just three pieces of equipment for your average warrior: armour, headgear, weapon.

Most interesting to me is just how important it seems to be that the armour is decorated. I mean, I’m not too familiar with the practicalities of medieval armour, but I’d imagine that it would be a great deal lighter and actually more effective if it was less decorated — not more. As far as I can guess, though, Beowulf’s not going to be guarded from harm because his outfit is so chic, rather its protective power comes from its being so old.

The armour he dons is described as “broad and skilfully decorated” (“sid ond searo-fah” (l.1443)).

Note that the phrase there isn’t “skillfully crafted” (potentially “searo-cræftig” in Old English), but “skilfully decorated” (“searo-fah”).

So, this armour must be old because it was made when people had the time to just sit back, crack into some mead and decorate their armaments. And when could you decorate armour and swords and such? When you’re living in a relative time of peace.

Or a time when fighting is so fierce that you become very skilled in making armour very quickly so that there’s time left over to embellish it.

Either way, the implication about Beowulf’s armour is that this armour is old.

And this implication is outright stated when it comes to Beowulf’s helmet.

On line 1451 the poet tells us it was “made as those in elder days” (“fyrn-dagum”). Which, if you think about it doesn’t put it into the past as much as it suggests that days don’t die, they just grow old and their influence is lessened as time moves onward. All the while, the works done in these days, the things that people made during their’ prime, carry into the future.

It’s a curious way to think about time.

Though, getting back on track,the idea that things “aren’t made like they used to be” in that their not made to last like they used to be continues to be a common sentiment.

After all, it seems like things are moving so quickly that everything made new is made fast rather than to last. For example, my uncle recently took apart an old piano (maybe from the early 20th century) to turn it into a liquor cabinet and the mechanism for the hammer looks and works as if it was made yesterday — although the only metal pieces in it are the spring and the pin that holds the thing together.

Now, there’s no denying that modern tech is growing exponentially and so on and so forth, but that the sense that “they don’t make things like they used to” existed in the time of the Beowulf poet seems to me ridiculous. It suggests that human progress has always been happening, and that however fast our times are, the present always has an element of speed to it. It’s only when we look at all of the days behind us, all gathered around the nursing home table that we just happen to see those things that happened in them much more slowly.

Do you think that spending so much time on Beowulf’s getting his armour on helps build a sense of security? Or is it just the poet stalling for time?

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Armour on Sea Bottoms

A European “mere-grund”1 is probably the best place to find old “eorl-gewæde”2.

I mean, no doubt several warriors perished in the “inwit-feng”3 of “sund-gebland”4 over the centuries, whether they were swimming or sailing across such waters. And those “ban-cofa”5 these warriors would leave behind, in a weird inside-out kind of way, probably made perfect caskets for such lost “here-byrne”6. We’re talking top of the line pieces of arms and armour that were “searo-fah”7 with “swin-lic”8.

Plus, if some of these warriors were always losing their purses or just wanted to have the skate punk look way before its time, maybe there’d be a few “frea-wrasn”9 with the armour, as well. Nothing like a nice chain to keep the cash close, right?

What I have to wonder though, is if ladies of lakes are willing to chuck up the odd “beado-mece”10 since “fyrn-dagum”11, why don’t they ever seem to give away armour too? They must really have it in for warriors everywhere. Or maybe Arthur hastily left after getting Excalibur and ruined getting full sets of arms for the rest of us.

1mere-grund: lake-bottom, bottom of the sea. mere (sea, ocean, lake, pond, pool, cistern) + grund (ground, bottom, foundation, abyss, hell, plain, country, land, eart, sea, water)

2eorl-gewæde: armour. eorl (brave man, warrior, leader, chief, man, earl, nobleman) + gewæde (robe, dress, apparel, clothing, garment, covering) (A word exclusive to Beowulf)

3inwit-feng: spiteful clutch. inwit (evil, deceit, wicked, deceitful) + feng (grip, grasp, embrace, capture, prey, booty) (A word exclusive to Beowulf)

4sund-gebland: commingled sea, surge. sund (swimming, capacity for swimming, sea, ocean, water) + gebland (blending, mixture, confusion) (A word exclusive to Beowulf)

5ban-cofa: bodily frame. ban (bone, tusk, the bone of a limb) + cofa (clost, chamber, ark, cave, den)

6here-byrne: corslet. here (predatory band, troop, army, host, multitude) + byrne (corslet) (A word exclusive to Beowulf)

7searo-fah: variegated, cunningly inlaid. searo (art, skill, cleverness, cunning, device, trick, snare, ambuscade, plot, treachery, work of art, cunning device, engine of war, armour, war-gear, trappings) + fag (variegated, spotted, dappled, stained, dyed, shining, gleaming) (A word exclusive to Beowulf)

8swin-lic: boar image. swin (wild boar, pig, hog, swine, boar image) + lic (like, alike, similar, equal, suitable, likely) (A word exclusive to Beowulf)

9frea-wrasn: splendid chain. frea (lord, king, master, the Lord, Christ, God, husband) + wrasen (band, tie, chain) (A word exclusive to Beowulf)

10beado-mece: battle sword. beado (war, battle, fighting, strife) + mece (sword, blade) (A word exclusive to Beowulf)

11fyrn-dagum: days of yore. fyrn (former, ancient, formerly, of old, long ago, once) + dæg (day, lifetime, Last Day, name of the rune for “d”)

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Closing

Next week, Hrothgar’s sleazy counsellor Unferth gives Beowulf a gift.

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The Danes’ deadly curiosity, life is dangerous in these waters (ll.1432b-1441a)

Synopsis
Translation
Recordings
Brutal Curiousity
The Dangers of Being a Child of the Waves
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

The Geats and Danes kill one of the monsters of the waters and drag it ashore.

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Translation

                    “One of the Geats
severed the life of one with an arrow from his bow,
than did it battle against the waves, since that war arrow stuck in
its side; it was then slower against the waters
in that sea, until death took its fight away.
It was quickly pulled from the waves
in an assault of savagely barbed boar spears,
fiercely they attacked it to tug that wondrous
traverser of the waves to the shore; the men
all gazed upon that terrible stranger.”
(Beowulf ll.1432b-1441a)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Brutal Curiousity

There is no way to soften the blow here. The Geats and Danes are downright brutal with this sea monster — be it seal or walrus or actual monster.

First, it’s struck with an arrow. Then they all watch as it goes through its death throes in the water, no doubt bloodying them up further. But then they don’t just look at each other and grunt out “huh, I guess they can die.” No. Instead they stick spears intended for hunting boars into the corpse and bring it ashore for a closer look.

At least I guess I should credit them for being curious. I mean, these guys don’t just kill the thing and then leave it there. There’s a genuine inquisitiveness present in this passage. It’s just that it’s pretty deeply cut by a brutal kind of caution. Cut so deep in fact, that the metaphorical drink it’s diluting is just about all water at this point.

Still, the assembled warriors all gawk at the corpse of this animal (monster?) that they’ve pulled to shore. Which does accomplish a few things for the story.

As I noted above, it proves that these monsters can be killed. It also proves that they aren’t likely impervious to human weapons like Grendel was. Though I’m not sure how top of mind that is and how much more likely it is that they killed the beast to make sure it didn’t attack them when they tried to get a closer look. Though, it’s still hard to set aside their letting it thrash around in the water until it dies.

It doesn’t get mentioned here, since next week’s passage will jump back to Beowulf himself, but maybe this closer observation of one of these monsters confirms something very important for the Geats and Danes around it. That it’s no monster at all.

As a sea-faring people, I have no doubts that both Geats and Danes are familiar with sea-life, whether helpful or harmful to their crossing the seas. Maybe this closer look is all it takes for them to realize that the creatures in the water here aren’t monsters at all but just creatures as common as deer. And maybe that’s why this is the moment that the poet chooses to end his general narration before getting back to the heroics of Beowulf.

Unless, this creature is indeed a monster, or just monstrous. Last week there was the mention of these creatures all around them being the same ones that were responsible for wrecking ships on their way out to sea. Maybe seeing these creatures up close didn’t lead to a revelation about their nature, it just erased the fear that all the assembled people had for these beasts as these strange and unknown creatures. But, now, at the very least, as Arnold Schwarzenegger rightly observed in a movie about another monstrous menace, Predator: “if it bleeds we can kill it.”

What do you think? Are the Geats and Danes killing, then jamming boar spears into this creature’s corpse out of fear? Or just because they want to be sure about its nature and their own safety? Let me know what you think in the comments!

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The Dangers of Being a Child of the Waves

If you’re a sea-going creature, you’ve spent your whole life in the water. You know the ebb and flow like the back of your fin. You truly are a “wæg-bora”1.

But the ways of the air are entirely foreign to you. The area above the water is where the great fiery ball lives, far off in the distance. Or it is simply quite small. None of the stories of your kind are certain. But they are certain that the space between water and fiery ball is usually clear and open. So being hit by sharp barb, or “here-stræl”2, from a “flan-boga”3 is entirely unexpected. Hard clouds sometimes pass along the surface of your waters, but stories of those sharp long barbs are few.

But they are brutal.

Especially since there are many mentions in these stories, talk of “heoru-hocyht”4 “eofer-spreot”5 being driven from an unknown enemy that lives in the space between waters and the fiery ball. Those who have witnessed such assaults with the barbs that swim through the space between often tell of these greater barbs following their smaller kin, just as certain of your own kind swim together. But instead of bringing the joy and safety of community, these barbs always cause great “yð-gewinn”6.

Such are the dangers of being a child of the waves.

1wæg-bora: child of the waves?[sic]; traverser of the waves?; goer upon the waves. wæg (motion, water, wave, billow, flood, sea) + bora (ruler)

2here-stræl: arrow. here (predatory band, troop, army, host, multitude, battle, war, devastation) + stræl (arrow, dart, missile; curtain, quilt, matting, bed)

3flan-bogan: bow. flan (barb, arrow, javelin, dart) + boga (bow, arch, arched place, vault, rainbow, folded parchment)

4heoru-hocyht: savagely barbed. heoru (sword) + hocyht (with many bends?[sic]. Perhaps a clue to how it was barbed?)

5eofer-spreot: boar-spear. eofer (boar, wild boar, boar-image on a helmet) + spreot (pole, pike, spear)

6yð-gewinn: wave-strife, life on the waves. (wave, billow, flood, sea, liquid, water) + winn (toil, labour, trouble, hardship, profit, gain, conflict, strife, war)

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Closing

Next week, the poet shifts back to Beowulf. And the Geat hero gets geared up.

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A great Danish warrior? And compact reward words (ll.1292-1301)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
How Great is this “Famed Fighter”?
Treasure for Glory
Closing

Grendel's mother menaces a pinned Beowulf with a knife.

By J. R. Skelton – Marshall, Henrietta Elizabeth (1908) Stories of Beowulf, T.C. & E.C. Jack, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11001837

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Abstract

Grendel’s mother grabs a Dane for the road.

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Translation

“She was in haste, she wished to be away from there,
to save her life, since she had been discovered.
Quickly, before she went, she seized one
man fast, as she fled to the fens.
That man was Hrothgar’s dearest warrior,
his closest companion of all people living between the seas,
a powerful shield-warrior, that was the man she killed while at rest,
that famed fighter. Beowulf was not there,
he had been assigned a different resting place earlier,
during the gift giving for that renowned Geat.”
(Beowulf ll.1292-1301)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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How Great is this “Famed Fighter”?

Grendel’s mother flees now, but takes one with her. Why, exactly she grabbed anyone isn’t entirely clear. I mean, I guess she came for revenge, was frightened by all the clamour and such that met her and then just grabbed someone in lieu of killing several. I guess it’s just her luck that she grabbed one so dear to Hrothgar. First her son’s killed, now she’s unwittingly called down the wrath of the Danish fighting force (and Beowulf, too, since he’s still around somewhere).

If he was such a renowned warrior, though, then why was this Dane so easily carried off?

Perhaps, like Hrothgar, this warrior was past his prime but was quite a fighter in his day? That seems most likely, though if that was the case, I just don’t understand the blocking of the scene.

I mean. at this point in Grendel’s mother’s attack, everyone in the hall has grabbed their swords and shields. They’ve left behind their helmets and mail shirts, so that’s how you know that they’re in haste. In a sense, they’ve forgone the proper defensive measures (putting on armour) in favour of just getting right to their offense. Like someone who slinks down to the kitchen and grabs their biggest knife when they hear someone breaking in, the Danes here aren’t thinking of their own personal safety but are more interested in getting the intruder out.

I can understand that.

But why, then, is this one guy taken away?

Reading the passage again, it sounds like the Dane Grendel’s mother grabbed was probably out front, being such a renowned fighter and all of that. Which does make sense, though it also shows just how hasty everyone was in the face of this new terror. Unless the one that Grendel’s mother carried off was well in front of everyone else, I don’t see why those around him didn’t struggle against her or somehow try to wrench him from her grasp.

Though if any of the Danes had the wits about them to do that, I suppose that they wouldn’t have had much need for Beowulf in the first place.

Do you think Grendel’s mother plucked the Dane she took from a crowd, or just from the front of the Danes’ group?

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Treasure for Glory

This week’s passage doesn’t have many compound words, but here’s a short sort of sentence all the same.

A truly worthy “rand-wiga” would enjoy great “blaed-faestne” on the battlefield. And rightfully so, since fighting well with a spear or sword and shield, as a “rand-wiga,” (combining “rand” (“border,” “edge,” “boss of a shield,” “rim of a shield,” “shield,” or “buckler”) and “wiga” (“fighter,” or “man”)) or “shield-warrior” (or “man at arms,” more generally), would require a lot of skill.

Though that skill would help such a “rand-wiga” to be “blaed-fastne,” (“blaed” (“blowing,” “blast,” “inspiration,” “breath,” “spirit,” “life,” “mind,” “glory,” “dignity,” “splendour,” “prosperity,” “riches,” or “success”) and “faeste” (“fast,” “firmly,” “securely,” “straitly,” “strictly,” “heavily,” or “speedily”)). And being “blaed-faestne” is a great thing, since the word means “glorious,” “prosperous,” or “[a] success.”

Plus, based on the meanings of “blaed,” it sounds like just about anyone could be “blaed-faestne” if they were well practiced enough. You’d just need to hold securely enough your spirit, or inspiration.

And, in the world of Beowulf, if you were “blaed-faestne” with anything that was relevant to someone with wealth, you’d no doubt be given a “maþðum-gife,” or “gift of treasure.” Perhaps because it was such a common practice to reward good work with treasure, this word combines “maþðum” (“treasure,” “object of value,” “jewel,” or “ornament”) and “giefu” (“giving,” or “gift”) to mean just what those words together suggest: a gift of treasure, whether that treasure is just something valuable or something shiny.

One other thing to note about the compounds in this week’s passage is that they’re all concentrated around the Dane that Grendel’s mother seized and Beowulf. Given how the poet tends to use more compounds in war scenes, I’d have thought they’d be more spread out in this passage, but I guess he’d used enough to talk about Grendel’s mother and wanted to put the spotlight back on male glory.

Maybe all that time on monstrous femininity was a bit too much for the poem’s early audiences.

What do you think about the distribution of compound words in this week’s passage?

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Closing

Next week, more on what Grendel’s mother stole from Heorot.

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The Danes and Geats bed down with fate, the bench boards’ destiny (ll.1232-1241)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Fate’s Just What Happens to You
The Bench Boards’ Destiny
Closing

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Abstract

The poet meditates on the inescapability of fate as he tells of how Heorot quieted down for the night.

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Translation

“She went then to her seat. There was the greatest of feasts,
men drank great wine; none knew the fate that awaited,
a dolorous destiny, as it would again
and again befall the many, after evening came,
and Hrothgar had retired with his entourage to his chamber,
the ruler gone to rest. The hall was guarded
by warriors without number, as they had oft done before;
the bench boards were cleared; the floor was enlarged
with bedding and pillows. One reveller
was marked and doomed on that couch to depart.”
(Beowulf ll.1232-1241)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Fate’s Just What Happens to You

It looks like this passage is just the poet talking, filling time. But it sounds like things are about to take a dark turn in Heorot.

Of course, there isn’t much to tell of the revelry at Heorot right now. Things are quieting down for the night. But how the poet tells us this is what I find interesting.

Rather than being overly moralistic about the juxtaposition of revelry and the harshness of fate here (as is my general impression of Christian writing), the poet says the feasting in the hall went on, everyone eventually getting ready for bed and being entirely unaware of what is about to befall them. It’s a simple enough juxtaposition, the difference between an everyday thing and something out of the ordinary. But what draws my attention to this juxtaposition is that there’s no connection between the two of these things. This “dolorous destiny” (“geosceaft grimme” (l.1234)) isn’t about to be visited on Heorot because they were revelling and enjoying to excess. It’s just what happens “as it would again/and again befall the many” (“swa hit agangen wearð/eorla manegum” (l.1234-1235)).

And that line especially, “as it would again/and again befall the many” keeps having fun and being visited with some sort of terrible fate from being truly connected here. It almost sounds like the poet’s stance on destiny or fate or determinism is that bad stuff is bound to happen to people as long as they’re on this earth. But, at the same time there’s the implication that this bad stuff is balanced out with the ability and the chances that people have to enjoy themselves. Like, for example, indulging a bit in the “greatest of feasts” (“symbla cyst” (l.1232)).

Along with the poet’s revealing a bit of how they think about fate, it’s interesting from a narrative perspective that they just say “one reveller/was marked and doomed on that couch to depart” (“beorscealca sum/fus ond fæge fletræste gebeag” (ll.1240-1241)). This line builds up a little bit of tension, and the effect is amplified thanks to the line’s placement around all of this mystical talk of inexorable fate. Everyone dies sometime. Maybe this one who’s doomed to die in Heorot this night will pass quietly?

There’s no question about this person being someone other than Beowulf, since the poem is named for him, and there’s quite a bit of the poem left. Plus, the poet’s very clearly pulled out from the usual tight zoom on this epic’s titular character. Which leaves us with the question of will a Geat die this night or will it be a Dane?

Toss your guess in the comments!

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The Bench Boards’ Destiny

The Old English word “geo-sceaft” (l.1234) means “destiny,” or “fate,” and is a word that only appears in Beowulf as far as we know. This word comes from the combination of “geo” (“once,” “formerly,” “of old,” “before,” “already,” or “earlier”) and “sceaft” (“created being,” “creature,” “origin,” “creation,” “construction,” “existence,” “dispensation,” “destiny,” “fate,” “condition,” “nature”), creating a neat image of something that has happened before happening again, maybe on a karmic sort of scale, or maybe because the Anglo-Saxon sense of fate was somehow tied to habits.

But, whatever the Anglo-Saxons’ related fate to, the idea of destiny is pretty high falutin. People die for destiny, they’ll put their all into pursuing it, and they’ll feel like they were made to fulfil it. But I’d rather look at a particular thing’s destiny in this section.

I think it’s safe to say that a “bencþel” (l.1239) has a destiny. That is, a “bench board,” or “wainscotted space where benches stand,” is destined for something – it’s designed for it. In fact, in this passage, I’d say that this thing described by a word born of the union of “benc” (“bench”) and “þel” (“board,” “plank,” “metal plate”), is destined to have “beor-scealca” transform it.

These “beor-scealca” (l.1240; meaning”revellers,” or “feasters,”) are likely to transform the bencþel for a very specific purpose. As you might guess from the combination of “beor” (“strong drink,” “beer,” “mead”) and “scealca” (“servant,” “retainer,” “soldier,” “subject,” “member of a crew,” “man,” “youth”) these “beor-scealca” aren’t in any state to go to their own beds, so instead they’ll transform the “bencþel” into a “flet-ræst.”

A “flet-ræst” (l.1241) is a “couch,” pure and simple (though it applies to just about anywhere soft enough to comfortably lay or bed down in).

Coming from the mix of “flet” (“floor,” “ground,” “dwelling,” “hall,” “mansion”) and “ræst” (“rest,” “quiet,” “repose,” “sleep,” “resting place,” “bed,” “couch,” “grave”), this word sounds like it specifies something more than just a box with some cushions on it. In fact, this word got so comfy for English speakers, that it became the English vernacular for “house” or “apartment”: “flat.”

But transforming an area meant for benches into a soft place to sleep isn’t just some drinking trick (have several pints, look in empty corner, see comfy couch, collapse on bare floor). The “beor-scealca” would transform the “bencþel” by using the process of “geondbrædan.”

The word “geond-bræden” (l.1239) means “to cover entirely,” or, only in Beowulf apparently, “to enlarge,” or “extend.” This word comes from the combination of “geond” (“throughout,” “through,” “over,” “up to,” “as far as,” or “during”) and “bræden” (“make broad,” “extend,” “spread,” “stretch out,” “be extended,” “rise,” “grow,” “roast,” “toast,” “bake,” “broil,” or “cook”).

So, the “beor-scealca” would fulfil the “bencþel”‘s “geo-sceaft” by fluffing the area up with pillows and such (the “geondbræd”-ing process) to make it into a “flet-ræst,” something more than just a place for benches. After the feast, these areas would become the resting place for the feasters. And for one in particular it will be his final resting place.

What do you think it’s you’re destiny to do? Do you even believe in the concept of destiny?

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Closing

The Dane’s bedtime ritual continues next week. What could the poet be building to with this talk of fate?

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