Wild ideas about boars and words from corpses (ll.1107-1118a)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Wild Boars, Wild Boars!
Words Fit for a Corps(e)
Closing

A man hunting down a boar on a 4th century AD Roman mosaic

“Mosaico de Las Tiendas (MNAR Mérida) 01” by Helen Rickard. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mosaico_de_Las_Tiendas_(MNAR_M%C3%A9rida)_01.jpg#/media/File:Mosaico_de_Las_Tiendas_(MNAR_M%C3%A9rida)_01.jpg

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Abstract

The story of Hengest and Finn continues, as Finn makes good on his promise to treat the Danes well and begins a funeral for the fallen Danes – including Hildeburh’s brother Hnæf and her son by Finn.

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Translation

“What was promised was prepared, and treasure-gold
was raised from the horde: the Scyldings
best battler was readied on the pyre.
Mail-shirts shiny with crusted blood were easily visible
on that heap, old gold boar images,
the iron-hard boar, many wounded warriors
were piled there; those few that fell in battle.
Commanded then Hildeburh that at Hnæf’s side
her own son’s body be placed for the blaze,
that his body burn on that same pyre.
Beside his uncle the lady mourned,
lamented with dirges.”
(Beowulf ll.1107-1118a)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Wild Boars, Wild Boars!

There’s a quote attributed to J.R.R. Tolkien that says that the Anglo-Saxons ate too much boar and drank too much mead. The mead part of that equation isn’t present in this passage, but their passion for boar certainly is. Well, in the form of things blazoned on their armour at any rate.

So what’s the deal with the boar references in lines 1111 and 1112? Well, the passage almost answers that question itself.

The first reference to a boar is the “old gold boar images” on the mail and armour of the fallen (“swyn ealgylden” (l.1111)). These images of the animals sound like they were decorative, something that adorned the armour that the fallen wore rather than something worn for practical purposes. The fact that these boars are “gold” definitely suggests decoration.

But then what about the “old” part?

My thinking is that since Hnæf is a lauded hero, he travels with the best he could muster. If they’re all part of a comitatus, perhaps their insignia is a golden boar. Or maybe the boar image at that time was just the symbol for a certain sort of soldier. So its being made of gold, the most prized metal at the time, signifies that these are the best soldiers that the Danes had to offer.

So these “old gold” boars are symbols of the fallen warriors’ status as celebrated fighters and heroes.

The next line definitely suggests the same thing, since a group of seasoned and skilled soldiers would certainly have the raw power of “the iron hard boar” (“eofer irenheard” (l.1112)). And boars are definitely powerful animals, as you can see here:

So the boar could easily have been the symbol for great warriors of old, those who fought and fought and fought and always came back.

And maybe that’s why the Anglo-Saxons (at least according to J.R.R. Tolkien) ate so much boar. Being Germanic the old German saying “you are what you eat” could well have been at work in their dietary choices.

The other major thing to address in this passage is that despite the sombre tone of this funeral scene, Hrothgar’s poet still throws in some comedy.

Line 1113’s “those few that fell in battle” just has to be sarcastic understatement. After earlier describing the dawn-lit battle field as a place where she sees “the violent death of her kin” (1079), there’s got to be more than a “few” that fell in battle. How else could someone so great as the hero Hnæf fall in battle?

Why the poet injects this little joke here may be a matter of pride – “there’s no way the Frisians killed that many of us, we still got him to follow through on his oath (as stated in this passage’s opening – “What was promised was prepared” (“Ad wæs geæfned” (l.1107)).

But the joke might also be here to dampen the military tone of recounting the soldiers and their garb as they lay on the pyre so that he can bring up the woman in mourning motif more effectively. The joke makes for a bittersweet bridge between the two, I think.

Do you think the poet’s trying to lighten the mood with this joke? Is it even a joke? Let me know what you think in the comments.

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Words Fit for a Corps(e)

Because of the tonal variety of this week’s passage, and perhaps even to play down the glory angle of battle, the poet doesn’t use too many compound words. In fact, none of them relate to high falutin concepts as is usual when we hear about war and combat in Beowulf. Instead, they all relate to the body in very mundane ways.

Line 1109’s “beadu-rinc” is first, with its meaning of “warrior” or “soldier.” How this word derives this meaning from its parts is completely straightforward. The word “beadu” means “war,” “battle,” “fighting,” or “strife” and the word “rinc” means “man,” “warrior,” or “hero.”

So “beadu-rinc” refers to a warrior as literally a “battle man” or a “fighting man.” This is clearly someone who’s defined by their battle experience. Which, if the word’s modern cousins like “firefighter (or fireman) or “fisher” (or “fisherman”) are any indication, is probably quite a deep and long experience indeed. Maybe it’s even referring to people whose vocation was war.

Then we peer inside the warrior to get a compound word for what’s leaked out all over their torn and damaged armour: blood.

The word is “swat-fah” and it means “blood-stained,” or “bloody.” The word comes from “swat,” meaning “sweat,” “perspiration,” “exudation,” “blood,” “foam,” “toil,” or “labour”; and “fag” which means “variegated,” “spotted,” “dappled,” “stained,” “dyed,” “shining,” or “gleaming.”

There’s no doubt that the fallen warriors garments and arms are spotted or stained with blood. But I went a little further with my translation of “shiny with crusted blood” (l.1110) but I’d like to think that for the remaining Danes the blood-encrusted garb of their comrades had a certain gleam to it. That the blood dried on it was something that called out to those Danes still living and tore at their guts more than any Frisian barb about being in the service of their lord’s slayer.

On the other end of a slayer, you’ll likely find the slain. And a good word to describe such a person is “ban-fatu.” This word means “body, corpse” and comes to do so through combining “ban” (“bone,” “tusk,” or “the bone of a limb”) and “fæt” (“vessel,” “jar,” “cup,” “casket,” or “division”). So literally, “ban-fatu” means “bone vessel,” or “vessel for bones.”

Unfortunately, I can’t say if the Anglo-Saxons had any theological or cultural beliefs about bones being extra important to human life, but maybe there’s something about the bones as human frame in there. So that calling someone a “vessel for bones” meant that they were just a flesh vat carrying around their bone frame, which, in a way, is exactly what a corpse is.

What sort of image does the word “bone vessel” bring to mind when you hear it? Let me know in the comments.

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Closing

With the funeral of the fallen Danes under way, the poet next meditates on the sight of the pyre ablaze.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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The poem returns to the status quo, words of war and of hall life (ll.1080b-1094)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Battleground just a Board Game?
Battle Words and Hall Words
Closing

A section of the Bayeux Tapestry showing Anglo-Saxon warfare

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

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Abstract

Hrothgar’s poet continues his story, as he shifts from Hildeburh to what’s happening between the battle’s commanders, Finn and Hengest.

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Translation

“War had borne away
all of Finn’s warriors, save for a few alone,
so that he might not take to the field
to wage war against Hengest,
nor could the wretched remnant defend against hostility,
that lord’s man; but he to him offered terms,
that they for him clear the other side of the floor,
of the hall and high seat, so that he could control half
of what the sons of the Jutes possessed,
and that at the giving of gifts the son of Folcwalda
daily do honour to each Dane,
that even as generously to Hengest’s kin
he would grant those things, treasure rings
of twisted gold, as to his Frisian kin
during the giving in the beer hall.”
(Beowulf ll.1080b-1094)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Battleground just a Board Game?

Well, by now Hildeburh has fallen by the wayside, unfortunately, as the men debate and discuss what’s to be done. So the poem’s subject has returned to the status quo.

So what was even the point of showing Hildeburh mourning her fallen family?

I still think it’s supposed to mirror Grendel’s mother’s reaction to the death of Grendel. And I think it’s supposed to bring a bit of humanity to what might otherwise be simply expressed in lines 1080-1081’s “war had borne away/all of Finn’s warriors, save for a few alone” (“Wig ealle fornam/Finnes þegnas nemne feaum anum”).

I mean, starting with Hildeburh in mourning immediately establishes the tone of this war scene as sorrow and devastation rather than glory or action or excitement. And even though it’s not really clear who has the upper hand between Finn and Hengest in this situation, I think the poet at the least wanted to get across the direness of the battle between Finn and Hengest before it turned into just another war story.

But, who is in the position of power here? Finn’s forces are apparently nearly wiped out, but from line 1090’s alliteration with “d” on “daily” and “do” and “Danes” (in the original, it’s on “dogra” and “Dene” and “weorþode”) to the end of this passage it sounds like Hengest and his Danes are at the disadvantage. They’re the ones that need to be honoured and gifted to the same degree as Finn and his Frisians.

Running with that arrangement, it seems that Finn’s forces were nearly wiped out by Hengest’s, and yet Finn is the one who’s being called on to split up his wealth evenly for the time being. If Finn’s unable to take the field, but isn’t willing to admit defeat, then maybe this part of the passage shows the Danes being good sports, settling instead for hospitality rather than utter dominance.

If such is the case, then it makes you wonder why the Danes are willing to negotiate in the first place. The poem in general sets up the Frisians as great enemies of the Danes, so maybe, in an effort to keep that rivalry alive, this negotiation is the Danes’ letting Finn go this time so that he and his Frisians can shore up their numbers and try fighting them again.

But that makes it sound like a game. And the part of the passage about dividing the floor in half between the two groups makes it sound like it could be nothing more than a reference to a board game of some kind. Maybe something like chess or checkers. Though it would have to be a game with rules that include daily ring-giving (every turn, maybe?) and different movement rules and strategies than either of those games. Especially if dividing the board in half is some sort of special condition rather than the normal starting point of the game.

But if this conflict between Finn and Hengest is just a board game memorialized in poetry, why does it begin with Hildeburh mourning her fallen son and brother? Is the poet making a joke at the expense of her grief, implying that she’s a spectator who got so involved in the game she weeps over the loss of two pieces in particular? Or is it that Hildeburh’s grieving by the morning light is another of the game’s forgotten rules? Has Hengest activated the “mourning woman” card that entitles him to these negotiations in the first place?

As you’ve probably guessed this hard turn into peace negotiations with unclear sides is where this passage becomes truly mysterious, even laying aside its starting out with Hildeburh surveying the battlefield.

So what do you think? Is this poem that Hrothgar’s poet is reciting about an actual conflict or just some board game match?

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Battle Words and Hall Words

The compound words in this passage are evenly split between matters of battle and matters of hall etiquette.

In the first category we’ve got “meðel-stede” and “weal-laf.”

Line 1082’s “meðel-stede” means “place of assembly,” or “battlefield.” It comes from the combination of “meðel” (“council,” “meeting,” “popular assembly,” “speech,” or “interview”) and “stede” (“place,” “site,” “position,” “station,” “firmness,” “standing,” “stability,” “steadfastness,” “fixity,” or “strangury”). As such, it’s pretty clear that it refers to a place where lots of people meet (or where lots of urine collects before leaving the body drop by drop, if we go with “strangury”).

The jump from “place of assembly” to the specific “battlefield” seems a bit of a leap, though. Neither of the words that make up “meðel-stede” are directly related to battle, so the meaning of the compound as “battlefield” implies that the Anglo-Saxons just regarded warfare as a different kind of council or meeting.

Maybe, like the ancient Greeks, and some early African peoples, war to the Anglo-Saxons wasn’t necessarily about killing but more about a kind of dramatic enactment of conflict, a kind of play with very real stakes (and very real injuries and deaths every now and then).

Or, maybe the use of this compound (beyond its alliterating with the line’s “m” sounds) feeds into the interpretation of this whole conflict between Finn and Hengest being some kind of board game. Maybe the two had some petty squabble so instead of putting actual people into the midst of it, they just played a round or two of whatever strategy game was popular at the time.

The other word that falls into the “war” category, line 1084’s “wea-laf,” is much more easily relatable to battle. After all, “wea” means “misfortune,” “evil,” “harm,” “trouble,” “grief,” “woe,” “misery,” “sin,” or “wickedness” and “laf” means “what is left,” “remnant,” “legacy,” “relic,” “remains,” “rest,” “relict,” or “widow.”

So the first word in “wea-laf” is a judgment of war that probably comes from the losing side rather than the winning one and the second word refers to those left behind (including the sense of a “widow,” which suits Hildeburh perfectly, and expands the meaning of the compound beyond merely those directly involved in the conflict).

Together, then, “wea-laf” implies that a small group was left over after the wickedness of war swept the rest away. So there is some small, beat up group left on the losing side of this conflict. Literally, they’re those that the battle left behind.

Then we move into the confines and mores of the hall.

The first of the hall compounds is line 1087’s “heah-setl.” Out of context it’s a bit trickier to just see the meaning of this word, but given that “heah” means “high,” “tall,” “lofty,” “high class,” “exalted,” “sublime,” “illustrious,” “important,” “proud,” “haughty,” “deep,” “right hand” and “setl” means “seat,” “stall,” “sitting place,” “residence,” “throne,” “see,” “siege,” this compound’s senses of “exalted seat,” “throne,” or “judgment seat” are quite clear.

As a “high seat,” “heah-setl” refers to the place of honour in a hall, that which the hall’s master occupies. It’s from this high seat that he would give treasure and hold audiences with guests and visitors. So splitting this power seems like a tall order, but if Hengest had really battered Finn’s forces, it might be seen as a valid request in exchange for mercy. Or as a clever stall tactic on Finn’s part.

Then comes “feoh-gyftum” on line 1089. This word means “bounty giving,” or “largesse” and comes from the combination of “feoh” (“cattle,” “herd,” “moveable goods,” “property,” “money,” “riches,” or “treasure”) and “giefan” (“give,” “bestow,” “allot,” “grant,” “commit,” “devote,” “entrust,” or “give in marriage”).

As a word that refers to the sharing of bounty and largesse, the intentions of “feoh-gyftum” are clear. So what can even be said about this word, really?

Well, I don’t think there was a treasure that an Anglo-Saxon (Beowulf‘s main audience) loved more than one given by a great figure. It’s kind of like the change of owner wasn’t a complete action in their minds, but rather the act of transferring ownership inherently shared not just the object being given but the giver’s very essence (though perhaps “residue” is more apt).

Actually, I think this sense that an object has more inherent value if it comes from someone great survived the rest of the medieval period in the veneration of saints’ relics and continues today in the high value people attach to things that celebrities have signed, used, or worn.

Why do you think an item that someone great or famous has used/signed is usually seen as more valuable than the same item that’s unused or that was just used by an average person?

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Closing

The oath between Hengest and Finn is sealed in the next part of Beowulf. And we finally get clarification as to who’s got advantage over whom.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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

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

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Abstract

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

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Translation

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

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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A Harp Solo Before a History Lesson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why?

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

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

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

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

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

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Words of War Mingled with Words of Mirth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Closing

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

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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Payment for the dead and weird words with clear covers (ll.1050-1062)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Obligatory Gifts for the Living and the Dead
Sailing through a Batch of Inherited Words
Closing

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Abstract

The poet fills us in on how Hrothgar rewarded the other Geats before telling us about “the fore-thinking mind.”

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Translation

“Yet then the lord to each man
who had with Beowulf undertaken the sea-way,
there at the ale bench gave treasure,
bequested booty, and then commanded that immediately
gold be paid up, for to cover the one whom
Grendel earlier killed, as he surely would have killed more,
had not wise God and a single man’s
daring prevented that fate. The Measurer ruled
over all human kings then, as it now yet does.
Thus understanding is always best,
the fore-thinking mind. Much shall it endure
of love and of hate, so long as it partakes of
this world’s days of strife.”
(Beowulf ll.1050-1062)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Obligatory Gifts for the Living and the Dead

What is there to say about this passage? The other Geats get rewarded, the poet shares a bit of Christian-tinged gnomic wisdom and the way is made clear for more partying.

But. I’m just gonna hold us up on our way to that with a few small things.

First, on line 1152, the word for “gave” (“gesealan”) doesn’t really come off as nicely as line 1044’s “confer” (or “onweald geteah”) in last week’s passage. That is the word used for Hrothgar’s formally giving Beowulf those great gifts we’re told all about. But the treasures given to his fellow Geats seem to be given over a greater sense of obligation.

After all, “sellan” includes such senses as “furnish,” “supply,” and “allot.” It sounds like there’s much more of a need motivating Hrothgar’s giving treasure to the Geats who were either asleep or useless in the fight with Grendel. Social custom just says that you need to pay those who come in to help you, so Hrothgar’s paying up. And I guess they all get paid the same.

Even if they die in the line of duty.

On lines 1053-1055 we’re told that after he gave the other Geats gifts, Hrothgar then “commanded that immediately/gold be paid up, for to cover the one whom/Grendel earlier killed” (“ænne heht/golde forgyldan, þone ðe Grendel ær/mane acwealde”)

This makes Hrothgar sound like a very upstanding guy. Someone who really sticks to what had been offered, what had been promised. But there’s more to this exchange than a ruler simply paying everyone who came to his rescue.

Grendel had been feuding with the Danes, at least in a sense. The reason for the feud is unclear, but earlier in the poem reference is made to Grendel acting as if he had some sort of feud with them.

I’m not sure of all the laws involved, but one of the major ones in Anglo-Saxon Britain was the concept of “wergild.” I’ve mentioned this before when talking about the word itself and when talking about Hrothgar handling Beowulf’s father. But, as a quick refresher, “wergild” was the money paid out to a rival group if your group happened to kill one of their members. The purpose of this payment was to keep a feud from breaking out so that violence between familial or clan groups could be quelled in the interest of organizing these smaller groups into something bigger.

But back to the poem.

In this mention of payment for the dead Geat we might be seeing wergild paid out. Not because the Geat was killed in some sort of feud they had with the Danes. No such feud exists in the poem. Instead, this payment’s made, I think because when Beowulf was legal owner of Heorot for that night, he also took on Grendel’s feud (or, by virtue of Heorot being the Dane’s base of operations, legal ownership of it enveloped him in the relations surrounding the building). As such, since it was the Danes that got them involved in the feud with Grendel, and Grendel can’t pay any wergild, Hrothgar takes it on himself to make up for the death of the Geat that Grendel snacked on when he first arrived at Heorot that fateful night.

Plus, paying the wergild for a man killed in a battle not his own, would help to make the message of alliance and peace between Geats and Danes deafeningly clear. So there’s another reason to pay for the fallen Geat.

What do you think of the concept of attaching a monetary value to a life? Do you think such a payment was satisfying to the Anglo-Saxons?

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Sailing through a Batch of Inherited Words

Since this is another meditative, kind of serious and slow paced passage we don’t get much in the way of wild compounds. There are few though. At the least, I’ll point them out.

First, on line 1051, we have “brim-lade,” a word for “flood-way” or “sea-way.” This word mixes “brim” (“surf,” “flood,” “wave,” “sea,” “ocean,” “water,” “sea-edge,” or “shore”) and “lade” (“course,” “journey,” “way,” “street,” “water-way,” “leading,” “carrying,” “maintenance,” “support,” “clearing from blame or accusation,” “purgation,” or “exculpation.”) for its aquatic meaning. The senses of “lade” involved blame aren’t likely related to this compound, but it’s kind of fun to wonder if such a seafaring people as the Anglo-Saxons saw sailing or going along the “sea-way” as somehow purgative. Maybe, because of the time for all parties involved to think things over and perhaps forgive, a sea voyage was seen as a good way to ultimately have people clear each other of blame.

Though even I think that’s a bit of a stretch.

For all of its simplicity, “yrfe-lafe” (1053) is a weird word.

Combining “yrfan” (“inherit,” “leave (by will),” or “honour with a funeral feast”) and “lafe” (“what is left,” “remnant,” “legacy,” “relic,” “remains,” “rest,” “relict,” or “widow”) to leave us with a word meaning “bequest, inheritance, heir,” it’s clear where the meaning of “yrfe-lafe” comes from. Though, in its use in this passage, it seems like its context skews its meaning.

On line 1053 we’re told that the other Geats are “bequested booty,” though I’ve translated that from a simple “yrfe-lafe.” The thing here is, as mentioned above, I think that Hrothgar’s giving gifts to the rest of the Geats more out of obligation than genuine gratefulness. It’s as if they’re inheriting them as a matter of fact rather than being rewarded with them.

Line 1060’s “fore-þanc” is quite a bit more straightforward, given its place in the philosophical part of this passage.

Meaning “forethought,” “providence,” “consideration,” or “deliberation,” this word is a combination of “fore” (“before,” “in the sight of,” “in presence of,” “because of,” “for the sake of,” “through,” “on account of,” “by reason of,” “from,” or “before”) and “þanc” (“thought,” “reflection,” “sentiment,” “idea,” “mind,” “will,” “purpose,” “grace,” “mercy,” “favour,” “pardon,” “thanks,” “gratitude,” “pleasure,” “satisfaction,” “reward,” or “recompense”). So “fore-þanc” very literally means “before thought” or several variations of the same that all boil down to consideration being made before things either temporally or pseudo-physically (in that the action is given because of, or in the presence of something.

Which brings us down to the last line’s “windagum,” or “days of strife.” The “dagum” part of this word is Old English for “day” (though it could also mean “lifetime,” “Last Day,” or just be used as name of the rune for “d”), while “win” is a word for “toil,” “labour,” “trouble,” “hardship,” “profit,” “gain,” “conflict,” “strife,” or “war.” So, since “dagum” is the plural form of “daeg,” we get “days of toil.” Pretty neat, huh?

But, that’s not all. Because as terrible as “days of toil” sounds, it seems like there’s a bit of a silver lining. Possibly, anyway. The non-toil or labour-intensive definitions of “win” are “profit” and “gain.” It’s unclear if we’re supposed to understand these gains as coming from toil and labour or if it’s just a different take on what makes days full of strife. Maybe instead of battling sin, for example, “days of profit” are those in which you can embrace virtue.

In either case it’s neat to know that an alternative perspective (or even meaning) is contained in a word like “win.” Though, given modern English’s “win” it’s pretty clear which senses of the word won out. Though, again, winning can take a lot of strife and toil, so maybe this struggle of the senses isn’t over yet.

How closely can you look at a word (like “win,” for example) before it starts to temporarily lose all meaning to you?

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Closing

After all of this talk of gifts and understanding, we’re told of how high times finally return to Heorot.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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A fair and square exchange and the simple words for it (ll.1043-1049)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
The Legality of Hrothgar’s Giving
Why the Plain Speaking Compounds?
Closing

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Abstract

The poet describes how Hrothgar gives Beowulf all of the stuff that was described in the last two passages.

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Translation

“And then the lord there, descendant of Ing,
conferred both those gifts unto Beowulf,
horses and weapons; commanded/entreated him to use them well.
Thus the famed lord nobly,
The guardian of those treasures rewarded the warrior for the storm of battle
with treasures and steeds, so that no man might ever find fault with
the two, for what those words exchanged were rightly aligned with truth.”
(Beowulf ll.1043-1049)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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The Legality of Hrothgar’s Giving

Since the last two passages pretty much covered Beowulf getting the gifts, there’s more to this passage than simply restating that Hrothgar gave him the horses and four weapons. This little cap off for this part of the poem could just be a formality, or part of the poetic practice of making things just a bit longer than they need to be. But there’s a reason for the poet to say that Hrothgar, then and there, “conferred both those gifts unto Beowulf” (“Ond ða Beowulfe bega gehwæþres/…onweald geteah” (ll.1043-1044)).

The crux of this passage comes at its end, and I think it’s directly related to the poet’s foreshadowing Heorot’s doom on line 1018-1019 (discussed in this post).

Just as that passage ended with the poet saying that treachery would not yet tear Heorot apart, the poet’s statement here that Beowulf and Hrothgar acted in such a way that “no man might ever find fault with/the two” (“swa hy næfre man lyhð,” (l.1048)) is meant to make it clear that the Geats played no part in the treachery that does Heorot in.

Just as I discussed two posts ago, whether Hrothgar is first referred to as Halfdane’s sword or his son makes no difference when it comes to the substance of the gifts themselves – whether it’s familial or political, the gifts are given to solidify an alliance.

And here, since the “words exchanged were rightly aligned with truth” (“se þe secgan wile soð æfter rihte” (l.1049)), that alliance is definitely a clear and forthright one. It’s not the sort of agreement where one part misinterprets the other’s intention or aim (which was a fairly common cause of tricksters justifying their treacherous deeds in some of the Norse sagas and no doubt in similar Germanic stories). So this passage firmly establishes that the Geats and the Danes are perfect friends. There is no bad blood between them whatever.

But why establish that?

Well, without knowing a lot of the history of the actual interactions between the Geats and the Danes (so long as the Geats actually were a people at the same time Hrothgar’s Danes were around), it’s hard to say. This whole passage could be sarcastic and the Geats, in actual fact, could be a central player in the downfall of Heorot. But I don’t think that’s why this passage is here.

I think it’s a sincere expression of an actual state of the alliance between Geats and Danes. Maybe it’s overstating the strength of the bond between real life Geats and Danes, but I think it’s here mostly to underscore Beowulf’s success. He’s defeated Grendel handily (*ahem*), brought peace back to Heorot, and didn’t let too much damage mar Heorot while it was legally his. Hence Hrothgar’s legally handing these things over to Beowulf (as the word “conferred” (“onweald geteah” (l.1044)) implies).

Everything is fair, square, and above board because that’s the kind of clean acting hero Beowulf is. He’s uncomplicated as far as his deeds go because that’s just who he is.

And perhaps it’s just how young he is. As we’ll see later in the poem, the older Beowulf we find in the poem’s latter half is a more complicated hero. But for now, he and his dealings are straightforward and simple. Singing out the legal transference of goods is part of expressing that, I think.

And, maybe this singing is a clue to the poem’s age since the early Scandinavian “skalds” were responsible for poetry as well as preserving and chanting the laws (mostly from memory). This repetition for legality’s sake could refer to that Scandinavian legal singing and so suggest that the Beowulf scribes were familiar with the practice. Though maybe only through books about it.

Everything medieval’s muddy, isn’t it?

What’s your theory on why the poet repeats Hrothgar’s giving Beowulf the arms and horses?

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Why the Plain Speaking Compounds?

After having been indulged these last few weeks I feel a little cheated by what the poet’s left me in this passage. There’s a serious shortage of compound words. But, as always, I think there’s a purpose behind that lack.

The two compound words that are given are “hord-weard” and “heaþo-raesas.” Both of these compounds are very straightforward. If you’ve been following this blog for a while you might even be able to translate their parts on sight.

The first of these, “hord-weard,” means “guardian of treasure,” “king,” “heir,” or “firstborn.” To get to this meaning, it combines “hord” (“hoard” or “treasure”) and “weard” (“watching,” “ward,” “protection,” “guardianship,” “advance post,” “waiting for,” “lurking,” “ambuscade,” “keeper,” “watchman,” “guard,” “guardian,” “protector,” “lord,” “king,” or “possessor”). So all together, the word means, “guardian of treasure” pretty plainly.

Though, there’s some interesting stuff in the meanings of “weard” that lean more toward stealth or even sneak attacks rather than outright guarding of something, But the two are still related within those senses, I think. If you’re setting traps, you’re guarding your life after all. The same goes for “waiting for” or “lurking”; you’re present in a place and in an active state of watching for something or someone. So the sense of “guardian of treasure” is pretty consistent throughout.

The next word in this pair is “heaþo-raesas.” This one means “onrush,” “attack,” or “storm of battle,” and comes to use from the union of “heaþo” (“war”) and “raes” (“rush,” “leap”, “jump,” “running,” “onrush,” “storm,” or “attack”). And, just like with “hord-weard” that meaning, “storm of battle,” is consistent throughout combinations. The word basically means a fierce, sudden attack.

At the top of this section, though, I mentioned that I think having only these two compound words in this passage is intentional.

In past entries it’s been clear that the complicated compound words come out when the poet (or the poet’s subjects) become excited. When big speeches with rhetorical flourishes are made, or wise asides, or descriptions of action and battle – those are the times when the compounds come out in full force. And the complexity of those compound words matches the level of excitement to some extent. These speakers (or the poet themselves) don’t have time to come up with common compound words – they need to make up their own!

And there’s no saying that the calm, clear giving of gifts for a job well done is anything but heart pounding in the same way as a battle or a rousing speech. So there being no complex compounds fits the tone of this part of the poem.

But, I also think the poet keeps the compounds toned down here because of the legality of this little recap. Yeah, this kind of turns on the legal implications of “confer” (which I’ve translated from “onweald geteah” (l.1044)), but I think that’s enough. Simply giving us a summary of the goods exchanged practically stands in as a kind of receipt after all. And what’s a receipt except a record of a transaction that can later be used for bureaucratic stuff like taxes. And what’s the language of bureaucracy? Law.

So I think we can consider any kind of legal passage or bit of the poem that’s a formality as a stretch where the compound words that are used will be pretty straightforward to keep confusion to a minimum. Like a receipt, this section of the poem is probably meant to be as bare bones as an alliterative poem can be.

But so what? Well, the idea that clarity of language is important to this sort of legal passage suggests that the Anglo-Saxons liked their laws simple, or at least the poet wanted to promote the clean dealing of a trade of gifts for services rendered. Perhaps it’s a bit of anti-feuding, anti-treachery propaganda – give gifts plainly instead of with malicious machinations!

Plus, that simple compounds appear at all in such a straightforward passage suggests that compounds are so important to Old English that they’re simply everywhere – even in legalese.

It’s not exactly related, but what’s your favourite weird law? I’m not sure if it’s on the books any more, but in 19th century Canada it was illegal to wear a mask in the woods – a pretty good weird law.

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Closing

After all of this gift giving, there’s more still to come in the next passage. Hrothgar’s rewarded Beowulf, but that doesn’t mean he’s forgotten the other Geats.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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Missionary Beowulf, propaganda, words plain and poetic (ll.928-942a)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Beowulf as Beefy Missionary or Hrothgar’s Propaganda
Poetic Compounds found in Poetry
Closing

Beowulf, Old English, Anglo-Saxon, translation

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Abstract

Hrothgar makes a speech thanking god – and so far only god – for ridding the Danes of Grendel.

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Translation

“For this sight to the almighty thanks
be given immediately! Great grief I endured,
the affliction of Grendel; always may god work
wonder after wonder, the shepherd of glory!
It was not long ago, that I expected never
to meet anyone who could soothe
my miseries, when blood-bedecked
stood the best of halls gory from battle,
wide-reaching woe knew everyone so that
none would venture near, so that for a long time
the people in their stronghold had to hold out against
hated demons and evil. Now shall we have through
the might of god this deed done,
a thing requiring skill that that none before
may have even conceived of.”
(Beowulf ll.928-942a)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Beowulf as Beefy Missionary or Hrothgar’s Propaganda

In this passage, or rather, in this the first half of Hrothgar’s speech, Beowulf is suspiciously absent. Instead, this god character gets top billing.

So what’s the deal with this?

I mean, Beowulf makes mention of god and god’s favour and help in his boasts and stories of past deeds, but Hrothgar really doesn’t say much of anything about god up until now. The way I see it, this could mean that Beowulf is an Anglo-Saxon twist on a missionary – think Rambo crossed with an evangelist – or that Hrothgar has converted (or just always been quietly Christian) and is now using Beowulf’s victory as a bit of propaganda to stir his people to conversion.

In the first instance, Beowulf makes for an archetypically macho missionary. And, the first half of the poem definitely supports this interpretation.

With the Danes you’ve got a people at their wits end. Their own gods have done nothing to help them and none who have come to deal with Grendel have succeeded for the last twelve years. Then this Beowulf fellow shows up and suddenly that Grendel problem’s dealt with. Of course, if in this analogy Grendel represents something like wrong belief or vile practices or the perceived wickedness that comes from being a non-Christian, then things are definitely sped up for dramatic effect. Though the speed at which missionary Beowulf turns his audience toward his message can be found in other stories, like that of Saint Boniface, who chopped down a sacred oak tree in one swing and replaced it with an evergreen, unwittingly setting up what would become the Christmas tree and, according to the story, converting crowds. Of course, Christianity has always brought its own host of problems to the various places it’s been taken, either because of the people bearing it or the way in which it melded or failed to meld with the target peoples’ beliefs. Still. With Beowulf as a super hero missionary who spreads the Word through his thirty-men strong grip, things getting done quickly is unsurprising.

What’s more when it comes to this missionary reading, though, is that if we jump ahead to the instance with Grendel’s mother, we can then read that as Beowulf facing off with powerful and seductive temptation. In which case Grendel’s mother represents the possible feelings that Beowulf has for Wealhtheow and/or vice versa, feelings that could lead to a terrible scandal. But, when he defeats Grendel’s mother, Beowulf proves himself to be so good at what he does that he’s able to overcome that potential scandal, too.

The alternative reading, that Hrothgar is just using Beowulf’s victory as a way to do some preaching himself, digs up a thing or two, as well. Namely that Hrothgar may have been so dejected when we first meet him because he’d converted but his people hadn’t followed since it alone hadn’t rid them of Grendel. But with the defeat of Grendel at the hands of Beowulf – a warrior who entrusts himself to fate and to god – Hrothgar sees an opportunity to put Christianity into a positive light and proceeds to do so by saying that without god none of this would be possible. It wouldn’t even be conceivable (ll.941-942a).

In the light of these two possible readings of this passage I think it’s important to note that I feel I can get away with these sorts of analyses because Beowulf would’ve been written down by someone who had at least experienced the Church’s educational system. In other words, whatever this story was when it was simply being told, it took on a few Christian elements in its being written down. And maybe the possibility of reading Beowulf as a missionary or Hrothgar as a Christian propaganda opportunist are just products of it having been written that way. Maybe.

What do you think is happening with religion here? Is Beowulf a macho missionary? Is Hrothgar a propagandist? Or are both true?

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Poetic Compounds found in Poetry

I’m not sure if prolonged exposure to Beowulf has made me a little jaded when it comes to Anglo-Saxon compound words or what. But this passage’s crop of them just isn’t doesn’t stack up to previous passages’. Gone are the combinations of words with almost opposite meanings, or senses that you’d normally not put together. Instead we have stuff that’s much more straightforward, but that still carries the quirk of age.

Take for instance “un-geara.” This isn’t a compound word in the truest sense, since it’s just the word for “yore,” “formerly, “in former times,” “once,” or “long since” with the prefix “un” stuck to it. But still, it’s pretty interesting to look at. I mean, this one means “not long ago” but literally translates as “not formerly.” You can clearly see the connection there, in that if something isn’t formerly, then it’s simply “not long ago.”

The word “heoro-dreorig” gets more straightforward as it’s just a combination of “heoro” (“sword”) and “dreorig” (“bloody,” “blood-stained,” “cruel,” “grievous,” “sad,” “sorrowful,” or “headlong?[sic]”). So it means “gory from battle,” though a more literal translation would be “sword gory.” I think it gets across its sense of the messy leavings of battle quite nicely. After all, even the sharpest knife, the most battle ready, is going to catch some of the gore, some of the blood on itself, and so too would anything that was the setting for battle, such as Heorot.

The word “wide-scofen” gets a little more poetic, thankfully. A combination of “wide” (“wide,” “vast,” “broad,” or “long”) and “scufan” (“shove,” “thrust,” “push,” “push with violence,” “urge,” “impel,” “push out,” “expel,” “deliver up,” or “display”) this word means “scattered far and wide.” A simple translation of the two words gives the sense of things being shoved or pushed wide apart, though. And I think the nuance here is important because unlike the modern English “scattered far and wide” to say that something’s been shoved far apart suggests a more forceful and immediate agency to me. It’s not that some invisible force from on high has scattered these things involved, but something more immediate, something that exercised force directly on them or on their surroundings has forced these things apart. Shoving things wide apart is just so much more evocative than the seemingly random sense of being “scattered far and wide”. So it goes without saying that this is my favourite compound of the passage.

Though “land-geweorc” is a close second. Combining “land” (“earth,” “land,” “soil,” “territory,” “realm,” “province,” “district,” “landed property,” “country as opposed to town,” or “ridge in a ploughed field”) and “weorc” (“work,” “workmanship,” “labour,” “construction,” “structure,” “edifice,” “military work,” or “fortification”), this word comes out as “fortified place,” though literally translated it means something like “earth structure.” So it’s not just some sort of structure built on the land, but there’s a very real sense here that this structure or fortification is built very much with the land in mind. Whether that means that it’s built into its area’s natural features or if it means that it’s simply taking advantage of those features, this combination really makes me think of something built cleverly rather than with a lot of sweat and labour. Actually, as with “wide-scofen” there’s a certain connotation of immediacy to this word which I find really interesting. Why? Because it carries with it a sense almost of being closer to the natural world and being able to take advantage of knowledge of its rhythms and patterns.

Why do you think old words like “wide-scofen” (which looks like “wide-shoved” if you think about it) changed to different phrases with similar meanings? Does this just reflect a change in taste, or is there something more at work in these changes?

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Closing

In the next entry, Hrothgar’s speech continues and he mentions the man of the hour.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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A single half line of warning, a single word about patrimony (ll.907-915)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Sin at the end of a Story
A Single Word on Inheritance
Closing

Beowulf, Anglo-Saxons. poetry

King Harold out for a hunt on the Bayeux Tapestry, no doubt a song was sung soon after. Image found at http://regia.org/research/misc/pastimes.htm.

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Abstract

The horseback poet wraps up his singing of Sigemund, Heremod, and Beowulf.

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Translation

“That campaign was often a source of anxiety for
many wise men before the time of the king’s brash way of life,
it made those miserable who relied on him for relief,
those that wished the king’s son would prosper,
receive his patrimony, protect the people,
their stores and their strongholds, a man of might,
the ancestral home of the Scyldings. Just the same there,
the kin of Hygelac, to all man kind,
became a decorated friend; yet sin still slinked in.
(Beowulf ll.907-915)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Sin at the end of a Story

Maybe it’s because covering at least eight lines of Beowulf every week breaks some things up, but I’m not sure of what to make of this passage. It’s the end of the section of the poem that’s the horseback poet’s song about Sigemund, Heremod, and Beowulf. So, the question is, I suppose, what can we say about this ending?

Looking at the very last line of the passage, we see that it ends with a note of warning: “yet sin still slinked in” (“hine fyren onwōd” (l.915)). This half line suggests that though Beowulf is celebrated in this instance something still comes up to throw off the joy of Danes and Geats. Having read the poem a few times before, this half line could refer to a few things. First among them is the idea that Grendel’s mother, when she comes seeking revenge for her son, is the sin that still slinks in. Or it could be a reference to some sort of slip up on Beowulf’s part that lands him in the poor state he’s in when he faces the dragon at the poem’s end. More broadly, this half line warning could just be a comment that there is no perfect joy, and that there will always be some little niggling thing or other that brings down the most secure seeming happiness.

Of course, “yet sin still slinked in” is my own interpretation of this apparently crucial half line.

Seamus Heaney translates it simply as “But evil entered into Heremod” (l.915). Why Heaney pulled Heremod out for this line is unclear. It could be that he’s just following the poet’s example of making reference to not the most recent antecedent but to one related to the content of its clause instead. This sort of context-sensitive referring seems to be a big part of how the poets of Old English wove the language together since there have already been a few points in the poem where pronouns or implied subjects and antecedents are a few lines apart. And I can understand why Heaney would want to make this line about Heremod. The poem really does not give much context for the last half line of this passage, and leaving it vague as I did is ambiguous.

Though ambiguity does have its place in Beowulf and the bits of gnomic wisdom that crop up in the poem from time to time. The best example of these bits of wisdom being “fate goes ever as she shall!” (“Gæð a wyrd swa hio scel!” (l.455)). So a line like “yet sin still slinked in” shouldn’t necessarily be made specific just because it’s vague where scant lines earlier the poet was singing specifics. Since this is the end of the horseback poet’s song, I think a general statement, especially one that’s a warning makes sense.

Using such a statement is a great way to end off a story about someone still living, because that person’s story is still being written. Though if that’s what the poet’s going for, there are some heavy implications that to live is to sin, suggesting that already the Anglo-Saxons had adopted ideas of Catholic guilt. Or at least this poet and his audience had.

But I also think the general ending of this story makes sense because leading up to it is a bramble of clauses and words that gives the sense of the poet not so much reciting form something he knows as bringing out something based on inspiration. So capping off his ramble, from the fanned fire in his head, is a bit of prescience. Though it’s a prediction based on experience. Heremod was once grand, and yet he fell. Likewise, even though it’s not mentioned here, Sigmund ultimately falls in battle at the hands of attackers after Odin shatters his sword (inescapable divine disfavour, if ever I’ve seen it). Likewise, Beowulf, the real life mythical hero, falls in the end. Not only is this fall foreshadowed in the idea of sin still slinking in, but capping his story off with this bit of wisdom suggests that the poet is grounding his tale in reality both because of Beowulf’s being included and in its bittersweetness.

Why do you think poets in Old English bothered to make their language more complicated when describing things like battle or complex emotion?

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A Single Word on Inheritance

This passage is sparser than any before it when it comes to compound words of interest. Even words of interest are in short supply here. But I make no promises about this section being short. I can be a bit like Rumpelstiltskin at times, spinning nearly nothing into quite a bit (though I won’t go so far as to say that I spin that nearly nothing into gold).

Anyway. The single stand out word in this passage is “faeder-aeþelum.” This word means “patrimony,” or “paternal kinship.” This meaning shouldn’t be too surprising since this compound is made up of the words “faeder” (“father,” “male ancestor,” “the Father,” or “God”) and “aeþeling” (“man of royal blood,” “nobleman,” “chief,” “prince,” “king,” “Christ,” “God;” “man,” “hero,” or “saint”). So the compound meaning is pretty much right there in the words involved.

But what makes this word stand out? Well, looking at the word itself, it’s interesting how self contained it is. We’ve seen our share of obvious compounds here at A Blogger’s Beowulf, but this one is neatly wrapped up in itself. This ouroboros like effect comes from both of the words being very similar in meaning. Sure, “faeder” is pretty limited to a sense of masculine power, but so too is “aeþeling.” Really, the biggest difference is that, to me at least, the latter carries a sense of youthfulness. Fathers, especially authoritative fathers, aren’t usually that young. So it’s like this word combines one part the power of youth and two parts the power of masculinity to come out with a word for male inheritance either of property and responsibility or of name and reputation or both. So, the effect of compounding “faeder” and “aeþeling” is more like an intensifying one than any sort of subtle modification.

There’s also the sense that this inheritance is something passed on only through the male parent or guardian. That it’s something that only the male parent can give to a child. That’s also something that strikes me as interesting. though not nearly as much as the sense of “faeder” as “god,” which at least hints at some notion of there being some sort of divine element to patrimony. And, maybe also to kingship itself, since that’s what’s at stake here. Though just in general, I can see it being a more divinely regarded thing, since Biblical stories about inheritance tend to be through the male line. Like the story of Jacob stealing Esau’s place as the inheritor of Isaac’s honour and divine favour, or of the parable of the prodigal son.

On the level of the word itself, there’s not much to say. It’s the first word in line 911, so there’s that, I guess. But otherwise, it looks like its primary function on the line is to alliterate with “onfōn” and “folc.” And, I’m not entirely sure of its significance, but there is the matter of the alliteration falling on the first, seventh, and eighth syllables of the line. Or its being in the first and last syllables of the first half line and the first syllable of the second half line. Whichever you prefer.

Point is, there’s some extra meaning packed into this word, and I think I’ve taken some of that out for inspection.

How much meaning do you think poets pack into single words? If we can look at a single word like I just did and pull out so much meaning, is it because the poet meant it that way, or is it just what the culture or context of the interpreter gets out of it?

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Closing

In the next passage of Beowulf, the Danes continue their joy riding and Hrothgar steps out with a speech.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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The Beowulf poet gets frugal, plus cunning, antlers, and fear (778-790)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Heorot’s Two Weaknesses, The Poet’s Economy
Cunning, Antlers, Fear
Closing

Beowulf, Grendel, Old English, Anglo-Saxon

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

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Abstract

The poet continues his break from covering the fight directly and gives more detail about the Danes’ reactions before cutting back to a smugly secure Beowulf.

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Translation

“Never before thought the wise of the Scyldings
that any man or means ever could be found
who might the grand and antlered hall bring down,
destroy by cunning, unless in the hottest embrace
it was swallowed by flame. Sounds newly rose up
often, over the Danes came
horrible fear, each and every of them
outside the wall wailing heard,
a chant of terror uttered by god’s adversary,
it sang of defeat, a wound bewailed
the captive of hell. He held him tight,
that man was the greatest in might
all the days of this life.”
(Beowulf ll.778-790)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Heorot’s Two Weaknesses, The Poet’s Economy

First up this week is a bit of a nod back to last week’s passage.

Last week I pointed out the word “foldbold” (l.773) and how it suggested that Heorot wasn’t just some building but a part of the landscape. Similarly, this week the poet states that it was inconceivable that Heorot could be destroyed.

The only two exceptions that the wisemen of the Scyldings make, so we’re told, are cunning and fire. Either the greatest destroyer of all, a thing the Anglo-Saxons no doubt witnessed changing whole landscapes or perhaps had stories recording such incidents, or the sort of potent social disintegration that could bring down great dynasties and families. Fire or cunning.

This hearkens back to last week’s passage simply in that it bolsters the idea that Heorot is this indestructible thing; only the strongest forces in nature or society could bring it down.

Though, as many an academic note will tell you, this is just what happened to Heorot in the end. After various parties’ infighting and striving against each other, Heorot burned to the ground. So there’s definitely some foreshadowing here. There could even be a clever wink at actual events since there is a Hrothgar on historical record.

In fact, maybe while Beowulf was being sung audiences and listeners would’ve been well aware of Heorot and its eventual fall, once more bringing them a richer description of the fight since the force of Beowulf and Grendel, despite the deafening din of their battle, weren’t enough to bring the mighty hall down.

The other thing to mention this week is the last line. It’s rather ambiguous. Particularly the word “þysses” (790).

If this word translates as “his” then the line simply marks Beowulf as the strongest man alive during his time. But if it’s the broader and more general “this” then the poet’s throwing down the gauntlet and saying that Beowulf was the strongest ever. Period. It’s a neat little ambiguity, really.

And that’s just about it.

I mean, so much of this week’s passage is straightforward as far as the description of the fight goes. However, I can’t help but think that much of this is because the poet isn’t describing the actual fight. There’s no primal tumble of body over body or grip against pull to record. There’s no struggle to try to encapsulate in verse, no titanic conflict to alliterate all over.

So the poet’s able to just say the Danes heard some noise, they thought that maybe Heorot would be destroyed, then they heard wailing, were terribly afraid and that’s that. Let’s cut back to Beowulf who’s now got the situation under control.

Actually, it’s almost like the poet doesn’t want to describe the fight any more than he has so he’s cleverly cut away to the outside perspective of the fight. He’s still recording it, but without having to spend so much of his time on all of the special effects that would be involved in reporting on it directly. Perhaps that’s why, at the end of the passage, we’re just brought right back to Beowulf as he is sure and steady in his terrible hold on Grendel.

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Cunning, Antlers, Fear

This week, first up is a word that’s nothing like a compound. It is, in fact, a verb. This is the word in line 781 that refers to the destruction of Heorot, “tolucgan.” I’m picking on this word this week because I think one of its meanings builds on the apparent foreshadowing that a lot of scholars have pointed out on lines 778 to 782a.

In Clark Hall and Meritt, “tolucgan” is defined as “pull apart,” “desolate,” or “destroy.” The last two definitions aren’t very specific in the method used to effect the destruction that they denote. But the first definition, “pull apart,” adds what I think is a social dimension to the idea that Heorot could be destroyed by cunning.

I see this sense of “tolucgan” bringing in a social angle to the destruction to which it refers because what could be more cunning than orchestrating social strife and in-fighting? Pulling the socially tight knit group within a hall apart in this way could definitely destroy a place meant for merriment and sealing friendships over mead. And not just metaphorically.

Sure, the break down of social structures within the hall would warp its intended function and operation, but that sort of conflict could lead to someone going and setting it on fire.

Back to the compounds. First off is “banfag.” This word is a straight combination of “ban” (bone) and “fag” (dappled, decorated, decked, adorned).

Though on the surface this word combination sounds pretty grim and gruesome for a place as cheerful as Heorot’s supposed to be, I think there’s definitely merit in Clark Hall and Merrit’s translation of the compound as “adorned with bone work. (deer antlers?)” (33). Antlers are, after all, a trophy of the hunt and any successful hunt would be cause for celebration. Perhaps enough of one to hoist high the inedible antlers and hang them over a doorway. Not to mention, putting antlers on a place called “Heorot” completes the name’s pun.

Though I suppose it’s possible to also take this compound more literally and see Heorot as being hung with the bones of all of those whom Grendel has slain over his 12 year reign. Actually, Robert Graves, in his The White Goddess, said the cycle of sacred kings once ran for 12 years. So maybe Grendel is supposed to be the next sacred king, but Hrothgar stands for the patriarchal system of lifelong kingship and the poet/scribe is writing at a time when that patriarchal system was prevalent so Grendel’s framed as the villain.

Maybe.

The other compound to look at this week is similarly simple: “gryre-leoð.” A mix of “gryre” (“horror,” “terror,” “fierceness,” “violence,” or “horrible thing”) and “leoð” (“song,” “lay,” or “poem”), this one means “terror song” or, my translation: “chant of terror.”

So what makes this one so interesting? Hm…good question. I guess I just find it neat how the Anglo-Saxons would describe the sound of someone (something?) wailing out in fear as a song or poem or lay of terror or horror.

I mean, putting a poetic spin on something like fear just really suggests that the Anglo-Saxons understood it to be a multifaceted emotion, that there were many things packed into fear and a sort of manic-ness, a sort of schizophrenic quality to it in that one can be afraid of so many things in a single moment and fear can easily shift focus once it kicks in.

Fear is all the more terrifying when it’s described this way, too, since you can’t help but get the sense that along with all of the musicality and variety implied in a poetry-based metaphor for a fearful cry, it’s also regarded as all the more bewildering. This poem of fear is like a wad of pure horror that’s being cast about willy-nilly.

In fact, maybe this cry’s given this poetic status because of the power it has over people in its area of effect. The Danes are terrified out of their wits, after all. They’ve just been woken from their ale dreams by all this banging and crashing about and now there’s this terrifying scream from their hall. It’s just so much and it’s all packed into a single, poetic compound.

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Closing

Next week, Beowulf’s fellow Geats join the brawl.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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

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

Beowulf, Grendel, Old English, Anglo-Saxon

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

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Abstract

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

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Translation

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

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Clashing Hall Wardens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Rich Vein of Words

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Closing

Next week the poet dwells on Grendel’s defeat.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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Hrothgar maybe jokes, and compound words abound (ll.652-661)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Hrothgar’s Joke?
Compound words and a single seed
Closing

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

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

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Abstract

Hrothgar hands authority over the hall to Beowulf and promises him great riches if he survives the night.

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Translation

“Greeted the men each other then,
Hrothgar Beowulf, and to him wished health,
gave rule of the drinking hall, and these words said:
‘Never before have I to any man yielded up,
since I could raise my own hand my own shield,
the noble house of the Danes but to thee now.
Have now and hold this best of houses:
Have remembrance of fame, mighty valour’s seed,
be wakeful against the wrathful one! Thy desire shall not
lack if you this brave deed survive with your life'”
(Beowulf ll.652-661)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Hrothgar’s Joke?

The main focus of this week’s passage is Hrothgar’s handing the hall over to Beowulf for the night. This is a pretty big deal. And not just because Hrothgar says that it’s unprecedented (lines 655-657).

The lord of Heorot’s handing the hall over to Beowulf for the night suggests that he, Hrothgar, has full and utter trust in Beowulf to be successful. Beowulf isn’t just a glorified night watchman; he’s been made the ward of the hall. It is his to use as he sees fit. But what does such ownership confer?

Well, no doubt there are some things in Anglo-Saxon law that could shed some interesting tints of light on the matter, but I don’t have those to hand, nor do I have the time to chase them down just now. However, in and of itself, I think the trust that Hrothgar is putting into Beowulf is significant enough.

Hrothgar knew Beowulf’s father, so there’s a connection between them. Nonetheless, Hrothgar has only just met Beowulf, really. So his handing over his hall — the hall that he built when the Danes were powerful and prosperous — into the power of one whom he’s really only just met shows a great deal of trust.

But, of course, I think that there’s something more here, too.

After Hrothgar hands the metaphysical/figurative keys to Heorot over to Beowulf he adds something to his wishes of luck and success. He tells Beowulf to “be wakeful against the wrathful one!” (“waca wið wraþum” (l.660)).

On one level the “wrathful one” is clearly Grendel. Again, his wrath goes unexplained, but as hearers of the poem, wrath alone is really the only motivation that the marsh monster is given for the repeated raids against Heorot. Simple wrath.

But, given all of the previous points at which I found readings of the poem that take references like these and point them to Beowulf, I think it’s possible that Hrothgar is throwing a bit of a jibe the Geat’s way.

I think that Hrothgar, having never before given control of his grand hall over to someone else, is trying to coolly warn Beowulf to not get too carried away. I think he’s saying “hey, be careful and try not to bring the place down tonight, okay?” or more philosophically, “when you confront the monster don’t become monstrous yourself, all right?”

After all, Beowulf’s stories of overcoming terrible beasts have involved him becoming just as savage to overcome them.

In this passage I think reading Hrothgar’s wish of luck as a lighthearted warning against his own strength and temper gives a little more credit to Hrothgar, a character who is often depicted as being in the very dredges of despair.

That Hrothgar could crack a joke at a time like this, even one that would probably be accompanied by a slight glint of the eye and a weak half-smile, suggests that he’s got some resilience left in him. Hrothgar’s still able to rule, it’s just difficult for him to ask for help and to acknowledge that he needs it.

Though that only further supports reading this line as a crack at Beowulf as well as a warning to be vigilant against Grendel. Comedy is often a disarming way for people to assert themselves and why not give the otherwise utterly melancholic Hrothgar a bit of a joke line as he makes his way out?

Besides, later on, we’ll hear Beowulf throw a jibe right back at him.

In the meantime, I think it’s also interesting that Hrothgar feels the need to tell Beowulf he’ll be rewarded handsomely for his efforts. It’s possible that along with being just a simple incentive, mentioning the reward is also Hrothgar’s way of reminding Beowulf what’s in it for him if he doesn’t destroy the hall in the process of defeating Grendel. His stories of might and courage have painted him as being rather reckless after all.

What do you think about this situation? Is Hrothgar joking with Beowulf? Or is he just wishing Beowulf rote luck?

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Compound words and a single seed

There were a lot of words of note in this week’s passage. Some more so than others because of their placement in the poem, and some because they’re just curious words. Well, because they’re compound words.

Actually, there were two sets of compounds in Hrothgar’s speech. The first is “winærn” and “ðryþærn.” The common element between these two words (“ærn”) means “dwelling,” “house,” “building,” “store,” or “closet.” The first of the pair’s modifier is “win” which means simply “wine,” while the second’s, “ðryð” has a broader variety of meanings: “might,” “power,” “force,” “strength,” “majesty,” “glory,” “splendour;” “multitude,” “troop,” or “host.”

The first of the pair isn’t really all that interesting. It pretty much just means wine-house. I could also mean “wine-closet,” but that’s basically just a shade of the meaning of “wine-house” (that is, a house for wine) spelled out rather than left up to implication and context.

The word “ðryþærn” is slightly more interesting because of the variety of meanings for “ðryð.” Though if you look at the list of them, they all, again, kind of make sense translated as simply “great house” or “powerful house.” After all, a great house is what you’d need for a multitude of people, just as it’s what you’d need to express strength or power.

I do think it’s kind of neat how it’s the narrator who refers to Heorot as a “winærn” and Hrothgar who refers to it as a “ðryþærn.” Alliteration is definitely at work in this, but still, there’s no real reason the poet couldn’t have composed this part so that he was left with “ðryþærn” and Hrothgar with “winærn.” Their order definitely suggests a kind of up-scaling of the house in he eyes of its owners. Though, really, even were it not for Grendel, Heorot would just be a drinking hall.

Similarly the words “ellenweorc” and “mægenweorc” star in this week’s passage. They mean “deed of courage” and “deed of might” respectively. But what’s so interesting about them is that they’re both spoken by Hrothgar. Either he’s feeling the pinch of alliteration, going for emphasis, or feeling a bit sleepy.

Maybe it’s a mix of all three. It’s definitely possible that along with his gentle jibe at Beowulf’s possibly losing control Hrothgar is trying to keep Beowulf in check with the promise of glorious deeds — something that he’s clearly after since his swimming contest story was so elaborate.

I’m not so sure, though, that there’s any special significance to the order in which these two compounds appear.

They’re both part of their respective lines’ alliterating pairs, so the poet/scribe likely just wanted to express the same idea with a bit of alliterative flexibility. In this case are deeds of might really that different from deeds of courage?

The last word that I found particularly interesting in this week’s passage is “cyð” from “mægenellen cyð” on line 659.

One interpretation of this word makes it “seed,” “germ,” “shoot,” “mote.” This makes for some neat natural imagery. Hrothgar’s comparing this great undertaking to a seed of glory puts me in mind of mythological, sacred trees — even Yggdrasil, the world tree.

But there’s also a second way to read “cyð.” It could be an altered spelling of “cyðð” meaning “kith,” “kinsfolk,” “fellow-countrymen,” “neighbours” or “acquaintance,” “friendship;” “knowledge,” or “familiarity.”

Similar to the above interpretation of “cyð,” this puts some figurative language into Hrothgar’s mouth. Though this time the imagery is more familial, more interpersonal.

This deed Beowulf is about to undertake is a close friend to glory; it’s glory’s next of kin.

I feel like this might actually be the better interpretation between the two. Why? Because it has more to do with kinship and interpersonal ties.

Hrothgar can offer all the treasures he likes, but I think that this sense of kinship is the true reward from Beowulf’s quest.

Reading the word in this way makes the store of treasure that’s waiting for Beowulf all the more meaningful, too, since all of that gold will come along with a strong bond, and that is practically invaluable in a world in which groups need to rely on other groups, either for goods, protection, or mutual peace.

Beowulf can win all the gold in Daneland, but what will really win him glory in Geatland is forging a strong alliance with the Danish tribe.

Which of the two interpretations of “cyð” do you think is better? As “seed” or as “kin”?

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Closing

Next week, Hrothgar gets into bed, Beowulf prepares for Grendel, and the poet drops spoilers.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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