Is Hrothgar motivating Beowulf with death?

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

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

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


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Introduction

Unfortunately this week’s been a little too hectic for me to make time for a full translation post. Instead of skipping a week though, here is my translation of the next part of Beowulf.


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Synopsis

Hrothgar makes the moral of his story loud and clear for Beowulf.


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The Original Old English

“‘Bebeorh þe ðone bealonið, Beowulf leofa,
secg betsta, ond þe þæt selre geceos,
ece rædas; oferhyda ne gym,
mære cempa. Nu is þines mægnes blæd
ane hwile. Eft sona bið
þæt þec adl oððe ecg eafoþes getwæfeð,
oððe fyres feng, oððe flodes wylm,
oððe gripe meces, oððe gares fliht,
oððe atol yldo; oððe eagena bearhtm
forsiteð ond forsworceð; semninga bið
þæt ðec, dryhtguma, deað oferswyðeð.'”
(Beowulf ll.1758-1768)


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My Translation

“‘Guard against such evil hostility, dear Beowulf,
best of men, and be sure to make the better choice:
eternal gain; be not intent on pride,
oh renowned warrior! Now is your power prospering
for but a short while; soon will either
illness or the blade deprive you of that strength,
or the grip of flames, or the surging waters,
or an attack by sword, or the flight of spears,
or terrible old age, or the light of your eyes
will fail and grow dim; presently such will come
upon you, oh lord of battle, and death will overpower you.'”
(Beowulf ll.1758-1768)


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A Quick Question

A lot of people take the inevitability of their own death as a major inspiration to get on with what they want to do with their lives. Steve Jobs, for example, used his mortality as a way to figure out if what he was doing was what he truly wanted to (he suggests was “meant” to do) on what sounds like a daily basis. At least that’s the impression I get from the speech quoted in this article.

Although Hrothgar’s list of all the ways Beowulf could eventually die is a little gloomy and seems very melancholic do you think he’s doing the same thing here? Is he trying to motivate Beowulf to live each day to the fullest? Or is he just trying to remind Beowulf that he won’t live forever?

Let me know in the comments!


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Closing

Next week Hrothgar gives a recap of the whole poem so far — from his perspective.

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Wondering what makes Grendel’s mother special, compound words to put to work in the afterlife (ll.1269-1278)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
What’s the Defining Trait of Grendel’s Mother?
Important Compounds for a Visit to Death’s Dwelling
Closing

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

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

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Abstract

The poet wraps his retelling of when Grendel met Beowulf and gets to the monster’s mother.

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Translation

“There that man seized the monster;
nevertheless he was mindful of his great might,
an ample allotment of strength, that which God granted him,
and he trusted in the Ruler’s favour,
comfort and support; through that he overcame the fiend,
laid the hell beast low. Then he humiliated went,
deprived of joy and seeking the dwelling of death,
thus went the enemy of men. And his mother would yet
come, gluttonous and gloomy in mind,
on her joyless journey, all to avenge the death of her son.”
(Beowulf ll.1269-1278)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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What’s the Defining Trait of Grendel’s Mother?

Here we see the third retelling of Beowulf’s fight with Grendel come to an end. Blech. After hearing about it twice in under 500 lines you’d think the poet would be sick of telling it, right?

Well, maybe. But each time that it’s been retold so far, the story of Grendel being beaten is told with a distinct purpose.

The first time, when the poet gives us the play-by-play, the fight is purely an action sequence and a display of the incredible strength that both combatants are using.

When Beowulf retells the fight, he does so to recount fresh glory and to bolster his reputation through boasting. Here, the poet retells it as a way of giving us information about Grendel’s mother. He does this by starting and ending the story with a mention of her, and he uses this story to show us what’s motivating her attack.

So Grendel fought Heorot because he was the kin of Cain and the noise of the joyous partying inside disturbed him. But Grendel’s mother is fighting for vengeance.

Even so, information about just what makes Grendel’s mother a threat is still scant.

Grendel’s reputation as a terrible monster who was immune to weapons was established well before Beowulf encountered him. But, so far all we know of Grendel’s mother is that she’s been pushed to vengeance because of her son’s death, otherwise we know nothing about her specifically. Really, the one thing the poet’s been emphasizing is that she has a “woman’s misery” (” yrmþe gemunde” (l.1259)) in mind and comes in off the moors “gloomy in mind” (“galgmod” (l.1277)). So Grendel’s mother’s major characteristic appears to be that she’s a woman. What’s up with that?

So far the only other women that have been mentioned are mothers and sisters, women defined by their familial roles and civil duty. Of these women we saw Hildeburh weeping over her dead brother and son (ll.1076-1080), and throughout the “Heorot freed?” part of the poem we see Wealhtheow ruling with her son’s protection and advancement in mind. Those are the only named women so far, and they’ve been ladies of the court. We really know nothing about other women in this world. Though, if Hildeburh and Wealhtheow are ladies of the court, and behave in a way that’s civil within the patriarchal society of the poem, what’s that say about Grendel’s mother?

It definitely suggests that she’s a savage by comparison, but that goes without saying right? She’s some sort of wild creature living on the fen, so of course she’ll be savage. Though, the poet’s emphasizing her living amongst wild things does mark her as an outsider. This also doesn’t come as any surprise. But, really, how can you be surprised when you’ve been told so little?

Why do you think it’s such a big deal that Grendel’s mother is a woman? Is this a point in the poem that’s just plain misogynistic? Leave your thoughts in the comments.

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Important Compounds for a Visit to Death’s Dwelling

This week’s small tale told with the passage’s compound words is pretty straightforward. So I’ll get right to it.

At one time or another, we all come to the “deaþ-wic,” or “dwelling of death.” This strangely fun euphemism for death comes to us from the combination of “deaþ” (“death,” “dying,” or “cause of death”) and “wic,” (“dwelling place,” “lodging,” “habitation,” “house,” “mansion,” “village,” “town,” “entrenchments,” “camp,” “castle,” “fotress,” “street,” “lane,” “bay,” or “creek”) making the literal translation stand up pretty well. Actually, I can’t help but wonder if the definitions of “wic” are so broad because death can be found “living” just about anywhere.

Anyway, once we’ve been welcomed in it’s possible that we’ll meet a “helle-gast” or two. As you might’ve guessed, this wouldn’t be the best of meetings, since a “helle-gast” is literally a “spirit of hell.” This straight-to-the-point compound sees “helle” (“hell”) and “gæst” (“breath,” “soul,” “spirit,” “life,” “good or bad spirit,” “angel,” “demon,” “Holy Ghost,” “man,” or “human being”) combined into something that’s unmistakable. Just as unmistakable as the fact that meeting a “helle-gast” would probably make you “galg-mod.”

At least, I imagine meeting a “spirit of hell” would make you “sad,” “gloomy,” or “angry.”

The compound “galg-mod” itself is made up of “galg” (“gallows,” “cross,” or “melancholy”) and “mod” (“heart,” “mind,” “spirit,” “mood,” “temper,” “courage,” “arrogance,” “pride,” “power,” or “violence”). The mix of “melancholy” and almost any of the definitions of “mod” (which I’d broadly define as “spirit” in both the ethereal sense and the will power sense) is pretty clear, but I quite like the reference to Christ in the definition of the word as “cross.” Despite the definition of “galg” as “gallows” I can’t help but feel that “galg” is weirdly uplifting, likely because it tempts me to try to translate “galg-mod” as “gallows humour.”

Though, if instead of a “helle-gast” you met the “an-walda” when Death ushered you through its dwelling, you’d likely be filled with straight up humour (maybe, depending on how many harps and angels are involved, it could be a kind of super syrupy “vanilla” humour, though). After all, “an-walda” is one of many Old English terms for “god,” though it’s usually translated simply as “Ruler.”

I think we all know where it’s coming from, though.

Especially if you look at the meanings of “an” (“one”) and “walda” (“might,” “power,” “possession,” “control,” “command,” “dominion,” “bridle,” “protection,” “subjection,” “groin,” or “pudenda”). It could be a bit of Christianization, but there’s definitely one deity here who’s trying to come out on top – in both the poet’s and Beowulf’s estimation.

But why not go with this “an-walda”? I mean, if it’s the thing that’s giving Beowulf his strength, then it’s an entity that’s quite “gim-fæst.” That is to say, it’s quite “liberal” or “ample” in its gift giving. Which makes sense since “gim” is a form of “ginn,” a word meaning “spacious,” “wide,” or “ample” and “fæst” which means “fast,” “fixed,” “firm,” “secure,” “constant,” “steadfast,” “stiff,” “heavy,” “dense,” “obstinate,” “bound,” “costive,” “enclosed,” “closed,” “watertight,” “strong,” “fortified.”

Why do you think that Old English has more than one word for god (Anwalda, Metod, Drihten, etc.)?

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Closing

Next week, Grendel’s mother arrives in Heorot.

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Grendel’s mother teased, monstrous and criminal words (ll.1251-1268)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
The Slow Reveal of Grendel’s Mother
Lady Monsters, Criminals, and Festive Bedtime Stories
Closing

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

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

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Abstract

The poet lingers on Grendel as he starts to introduce the next threat: Grendel’s mother.

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Translations

“Sank they then to sleep. One man paid a dear price
for that evening’s rest, as they went to it as they would
in the gold hall before Grendel occupied it,
ruled with terror, until his end came,
death after such dire crimes. They then became manifest,
those deeds of the widely known man, that avenger then yet
lived after that hateful one, for a long time,
while he wallowed in war wounds. Grendel’s mother,
that hag, the one with a woman’s misery in mind,
who was made to inhabit fearsome waters,
who lives in cold streams, after Cain became
the slayer by the sword of his own brother,
kin by the same father; he fled as an outlaw for that,
marked with murder, fled from the joy of companionship,
occupied the wilderness. Thence was born
that terrible fate; that was hateful Grendel,
the savage outcast, then at Heorot he found
a watchful man waiting for war.”
(Beowulf ll.1251-1268)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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The Slow Reveal of Grendel’s Mother

This passage is quite a bit longer than previous weeks’. I think the poet lengthens things here to draw out the suspense. Though he might go a little too far, teasing us with talk of Grendel’s mother only to fall back to recounting Grendel’s visits to Heorot and the night that he found Beowulf there, “waiting for war” (“wer wiges bidan” (l.1268)).

I mean, this is now the third time or so that we’ve heard tell of Beowulf’s beating Grendel. The first time being when we witnessed it through the poet’s interpretation, then through Beowulf’s retelling of the story, and now, again, we have the poet giving us a précis. What makes this regular retelling strange is that there’s at least one more: when Beowulf tells the tale again (with some embellishments) to his liege lord Hygelac.

What really confounds me here, though, isn’t that the story of Grendel’s being told yet again just a few hundred lines after he was mortally wounded (which comes on lines 814-818, and which Beowulf retells on lines 960 to 979), but that the poet feels the need to refresh us on who Grendel was while he also introduces a new character: Grendel’s mother.

And that in particular bugs me because we get so little detail about Grendel’s mother. She seems to be a dweller in the fen as her son was, but then where’s she been since the Danes built Heorot and moved in? Was Grendel sneaking out to wreak havoc by simply telling her he was “going out for a bit”? Why wasn’t she there with him?

Her absence from Grendel’s raids really makes me wonder if Grendel’s mother wasn’t somehow summoned up by his defeat. Unless she just got back from some very important business on the far side of the fen to find her son lying dead and so lashes out as she does.

But then, is she sophisticated or as beastly as Grendel himself? More modern depictions vary from the seductress of Beowulf the Musical Epic and Angelina Jolie’s portrayal of her in Robert Zemeckis’ Beowulf of 2007 to the hag in Sturla Gunnarsson’s Beowulf & Grendel (2005).

But I suppose that’s what makes Grendel’s mother such a mysterious figure. The poet tells us that she “inhabits fearsome waters” (“wæteregesan wunian” (l.1260)), and that she has a “woman’s misery in mind,” (“yrmþe gemunde” (l.1259)), both of which are supposed to tell us what she’s all about. Though the latter is far less than helpful.

Is this “woman’s misery” the grief that a mother feels for the death of her son? Or is it the sort of superhuman vengeance a woman wronged can direct towards the one who wronged her?

What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments.

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Lady Monsters, Criminals, and Festive Bedtime Stories

During a “man-dream” many stories would be told. And, no, those stories wouldn’t necessarily end with “and it was all a dream!” That’s because “dream” in Old English means: “joy,” “gladness,” “delight,” “ecstasy,” “mirth,” “rejoicing,” “melody,” “music,” “song,” or “singing.” Combine that with “man” (“one,” “people,” “they”), and you wind up with “man-dream” (“revelry, festivity”).

Then, as now, stories told during such a festive atmosphere, would vary from the heroic (the bread and butter of Beowulf and his poet) to the comical or frightening. A frightening story (or perhaps a heroic one if the ending’s different) might just involve an “aglæc-wif.”

This “aglæc-wif” would be a fresh twist on an old classic (and maybe extra chilling because of it), since “aglæc-wif” means “female monster.” As a compounding of “aglæc” (“wretch,” “monster,” “demon,” or “fierce enemy”) and “wif” (“woman,” “female,” or “lady”; or, as a suffix, “-wif” could mean “fate,” “fortune,” or “a disease of the eye.”), this meaning is pretty clear. Though why the sex or gender of a monster should matter, is a bit of a mystery to me. Whatever the impact, the way that the poet is slowly introducing Grendel’s mother, it seems like this kind of female monster was “wid-cuþ” among storytellers and listeners of the age.

If such tales were “widely known” (that is, wid-cuþ, literally a mix of “wid” (“wide,” “vast,” “broad,” or “long”) and “cuþ” (“known,” “plain,” “manifest,” “certain,” “well known,” “usual,” “noted,” “excellent,” “famous,” “intimate,” “familiar,” “friendly,” or “related”) to bring us here), then there’s very little mystery as to why the poet leaves so much about Grendel’s mother to his audiences’ imaginations. Though it is telling that she is referred to as a “wæter-egesan.”

As a “wæter-egesan,” perhaps she, or her kind in general, is specifically well-known as a “water terror,” that word’s translation. Just like its Modern English counterpart, this compound’s “wæter” means “water,” while “egesan” could mean “awe,” “fear,” “horror,” “peril,” “monstrous thing,” “monster,” or “horrible deed.” But put them together and you’ve got a quick way to refer to creatures strange and odd that hunt in the water.

Despite all of this vagueness around Grendel’s mother and how frustrating it might be, it’s not surprising that we know more about her than we do about Grendel’s father. After all, Beowulf comes from a cultural context in which the prevailing Christian idea of sin was that you bore the sins of your father.

So, as kin of Cain, Grendel is still marked by the sin of the first murderer. That’s what he gets as a paternal kinsmen of Cain, one of his “fæderen-mæge”; Grendel is Cain’s son, since of all murderers, the first ever would have a very hard time being redeemed.

That makes “fæderen-mæge” quite potent when referring to Grendel’s paternal lineage. Which makes sense, since, as a combination of “fæderen” (“father,” “male ancestor,” “the Father,” or “God”) and “mæge” (“male kinsmen,” “parent,” “son,” “brother,” “nephew,” “cousin,” “compatriot,” “female relation,” “wife,” “woman,” or “maiden”) the word means “paternal kinsmen.”

Because of Grendel’s particular paternal lineage, he is a “geosceaft-gasta,” or a “doomed spirit” This compound’s neat because it contains a compound itself since “geo-sceaft” is a combination of “geo” and “sceaft” (which I discuss here). It’s also quite straightforward since there’s no escaping that “geosceaft-gasta” means “doomed monster,” or “doomed person.” Which is pretty much perfect since “gasta” means “breath,” “soul,” “spirit,” “life,” “good or bad spirit,” “angel,” “demon,” “Holy Ghost,” “man,” or “human being.”

Such a creature could be described as a “heoru-wearh.”

A “heoru-wearh” is a “bloodthirsty wolf.” Though you wouldn’t necessarily get that sense from this compounding of heoru (sword) and wearg (“wolf,” “accursed one,” “outlaw,” “felon,” “criminal,” “wicked cursed,” or “wretched”). The word leaves me with more a sense of a someone in power (hence their possessing a sword) who is corrupt or criminal, someone who really can’t be trusted with that power since they’ll likely use it against the greater good — solely for their own gain.

A much simpler sort of criminal is contained in the word “ecg-banan.” This compound means “slayer with the sword” and comes from the mix of “ecg” (“edge,” “point,” “weapon,” “sword,” or “battle axe”) and “banan” (“killer,” “slayer,” “murderer,” “the devil,” or “murderess”). So it’s much less metaphorical than “heoru-wearh.” Though either of these beings could cause you “guþ-cear.”

“Guþ-cear” refers to “war-trouble.” As a compound of “guþ” (“combat,” “battle,” or “war”) and “cearu” (“care,” “concern,” “anxiety,” or “sorrow”) that makes good sense. “War-care” is a great way to say “wound” since it’s something you’re likely pretty concerned about in the midst of war, and well afterwards you might still make a fuss about it. Though hopefully not enough of a fuss (whether fresh or long since healed) to let yourself and others enjoy a nice “æfen-ræst.”

This word means “evening rest,” thanks to the combination of “æfen” (“even,” “evening,” or “eventide”) and “ræst” (“rest,” “quiet,” “repose,” “sleep,” “resting-place,” “bed,” “couch,” or “grave”).

Yes, a good “evening rest” after all the tales during a “man-dream” could indeed help refresh you after receiving some “gudth-cear.” Though, with “ræst”‘s meaning (quite similar to our own modern euphemism) “the grave,” your “gudth-cear” could also send you to a lengthy “æfen-ræst” indeed.

Why do you think gender gets specified in the compound “aglæc-wif”?

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Closing

Next week the poet spills more about Grendel’s mother.

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Wealhtheow addresses the hall of men, the words she uses (1169-1180a)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Wealhtheow in a World of Men
The First few Compound Words in Wealhtheow’s Speech
Closing

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Abstract

Wealhtheow formally addresses Hrothgar, tells him to follow his joys, respect his kin and the Geats.

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Translation

“‘Take of this fullness, my noble lord,
treasure bestower; you in joy are,
gold giving friend of men, and to the Geats
speak mild words, as anyone shall do;
be with the Geats glad, be mindful of their gift
from near and far that you now have.
My man has said, that you for a son this
warrior would have. Heorot is cleansed,
the bright ring-hall; use, while you will,
your many joys, and to your kin leave
the folk and kingdom, when you shall go forth,
as fate* foresees.'”
(Beowulf ll.1169-1180a)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Wealhtheow in a World of Men

This passage sounds like a return to the highly formulaic speeches that Hrothgar and Beowulf exchanged when the Geat first arrived at Heorot. And it basically is.

Shot through with epithets tucked into subordinate clauses and a direct address to Hrothgar without actually naming him, this passage just has the ring of a very formal toast. As such, it’s a passage in which we see Wealhtheow’s public persona. This is very much the person that she is when she’s out amongst the mead benches, either offering mead or ale, or simply making an appearance to give her blessing and advice as she does here.

Though the world of Heorot remains staunchly a world of men.

Maybe there are a few women serving the men who are so raucous after the poet’s story, but there’s no way to know if there are any women joining in on the festivities. All we have is our impression of the scene, and mine is that Wealhtheow is probably the only woman on the floor right now. What’s more, it sounds like she’s well aware of this since, when she reports the rumour she’s heard of Hrothgar adopting Beowulf (as he had done with the boy’s father, Ecgtheow), Wealhtheow says that “My man said” (“Me man sægde” (l.1175)), suggesting a servant who, perhaps, is her go-to for gossip or information. But, I think it’s intentionally a male servant she refers to, since she knows that male authority is essential for being taken seriously in the hyper masculine realm she’s stepped into.

Plus, there’s no mistaking the Old English of “me man saegde,” since it’s practically identical to the Modern English “my man said” in its words and, probably, its idiomatic meaning of “my man on the inside” or, put another way, “my reliable source.”

As formal and as masculine as all of that is, though, Wealhtheow maintains her feminine grace at the end of this part of her speech when she caps off her toast with the wish that Hrothgar enjoy himself until the end of his days.

Of course, this line doesn’t sound quite so mysterious when summarized like that, but the reference to “fate” definitely feels like something enigmatic. Much more so than simply saying “the end of your life,” since at the least, that’s something definite — you’ll stop being able to enjoy yourself once you’re dead. But simply being able to indulge in joys “when you shall go forth,/as fate foresees” (“þonne ðu forð scyle/metodsceaft seon” (ll.1179-1180)), sounds like there could be something else that Wealhtheow foresees getting in the way of Hrothgar’s enjoying his wealth.

Now, she hasn’t turned to speak to Beowulf yet in this scene, but I think that this line is a great candidate for the spark that lights the flame of suspicion that Wealhtheow has the hots for Beowulf. Maybe, with the poet’s removed sense of history, her mention of fate is actually an intentional reference back to the hints that the poet’s dropped about Heorot’s own doom and demise – Wealhtheow’s been granted some sort of meta-story foresight and has seen Hrothgar’s fall from power and she hopes that Beowulf will step into the vacuum and be with her.

What do you think? Does it seem like Wealhtheow has some sort of plot for or hope that Hrothgar will fall to the side so that someone like Beowulf can step up? Or is it too early in the poem to tell?

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The First few Compound Words in Wealhtheow’s Speech

This week’s passage doesn’t contain too many surprising compound words. There are a few – sure – but they’re all what you’d expect from a very buttoned down, formal speech like the one Wealhtheow is giving here. She’s not talking of any battles or any extreme sorrow, she’s just making a formal address.

To whom is she making this address? Well – we just need to turn to line 1171 to find out. Here, in a little epithet, she refers to Hrothgar as her “gold-wine,” which means “liberal prince, lord, or king.” The word combines the Old English “gold” (“gold”) with “wine” (“friend,” “protector,” “lord,” or “retainer”). Of course, a liberal ruler is going to be one who seems to be made out of gold, he has so much to give away. So “gold-wine” seems a very functional, if not somewhat glittery in itself, word.

Next, on line 1176, Wealhtheow uses the word “here-rinc.” This word means “warrior” and comes from a combination of “here” (“predatory band,” “troop,” “army,” “host,” “multitude”) and “rinc” (“man,” “warrior,” “hero”). So, a man or warrior from a troop – someone with decent enough social standing to be in a troop rather than just some lone wolf or exile. The latter of which having been one of the coast guard’s worries about Beowulf when the Geats first arrived in Daneland.

Then, closing off the list of compound words we’ve never seen before, is “beah-sele” (found on line 1177). This compound offers a little more wiggle room than the previous two when it comes to interpreting it. There’s not much secret meaning in it, but there is a possible implication that runs against “beah-sele”‘s general meaning of “hall in which rings are distributed.”

This implication comes from the meaning of “sele” on its own: “hall,” “house,” “dwelling,” or “prison.”

If you pick out “prison” and combine it with any of “beag”‘s meanings (so any of “ring (ornament or money),” “coil,” “bracelet,” “collar,” “crown,” or “garland”), you get the impression that a “beah-sele” isn’t necessarily just a place of wealth distribution and the joy that comes with that, but that there’s also the possibility that a person using “beah-sele” sees such a place as a prison, as a thing that impinges on their freedom because of the societal expectation that rulers distribute their wealth, and so wealth brings no true freedom, only the burden of doling it out and of ruling well with it.

I didn’t mention it here, but how much do you think using these compound words is a matter of intent and how much do you think it’s a matter of choosing a word for the alliteration or meter?

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Closing

Next week, we’ll hear Wealhtheow’s further words on the succession in Heorot.

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The poet meditates on death, and four words that come of it (ll.1002b-1008a)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Reasons to Meditate on Death and Four Names for People
Four Compound Words from the Wave of Death
Closing

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Abstract

The poet steps away from Grendel, Beowulf, and the assembly at Heorot to mediate briefly, but deeply, on death.

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Translation

                    “That wave cannot be
fled – no matter what one does to avail themselves –
but seeking shall all humans,
those desirous of need, the sons of men,
earth-dwellers, in a place eager for us
where this body holds fast to its bed,
sleep after the feast.”
(Beowulf ll.1002b – 1008)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Reasons to Meditate on Death and Four Names for People

To cap off the section of the poem that’s primarily about Beowulf fighting Grendel, the poet meditates on death. I think this section is here for a few reasons.

Chief among these reasons is all of the death that Grendel caused. This passage shows that those deaths aren’t necessarily something to mourn for too long. After all, there’s an inevitability to death, since all people come to it in their ends. But also presented is the idea that death is rest, that after the feast that, in this metaphor I think is life, the souls of the dead are sent to rest. So death puts those in its care to rest.

There’s also the obvious reason of this passage: Grendel is, at this point in time, bleeding out somewhere in the fen. His death, too, is inevitable. Even after a 12 year reign of terror, there’s an end to it. There’s change to be had, and perhaps it’s not so much a matter of whether there will be change when your main meeting space is a place of terror and your mighty reputation is ruined, but a matter of whether or not you’ll be around to see it. Though even if it’s missed, at least, keeping with the poet’s metaphor, there is rest to be found in death.

Then, the other, big picture sort of reason I think the poet meditates on death here is that Beowulf itself is a poem that always has death hanging over it. Not necessarily the death of central, or even named characters, but the death on the battlefield, or death in the family, or death as the end of all of the soldiers and monsters a figure like Beowulf has killed. The poem is drenched in blood and cloaked in death. So the poet’s meditation on the inevitability of death calls to mind that though Beowulf is victorious now, he too is ultimately heading to death. It’s a kind of reminder that he’s a mortal man, despite whatever divine favour – or even divine role – he may or may not have.

But the thing with this meditation on death isn’t so much its “why?” as its “what?”

There’s a lot to these few lines, but I’ll do what I can, picking at the bigger stuff in it. Namely the idea of death as a wave and the tangle of titles for humanity around the passage’s end.

I think the poet describes death as a wave because in a world of seafarers and adventurers like the Anglo-Saxons, a wave is the perfect symbol of inevitability. On the sea, in a wind- or muscle-powered boat, there wouldn’t be much control to avoid waves that weren’t seen well in advance. Besides that, in a truly stormy sea – or even in just a choppy one – slowly avoiding one wave would probably just leave your vessel facing another one. So being hit by waves while on the sea would be seen as inevitable.

Add to that the use of a lone sailor out on the sea as a metaphor for exile (in the poem The Seafarer), and there’s something to be said for the Anglo-Saxons associating ships with people, or more accurately (I think) bodies. So saying that death is an inevitable wave fits into the imagination of the Anglo-Saxon world quite nicely, I think.

Related to the idea that the Anglo-Saxons used boats or other vessels as metaphors for bodies, is the word “sawl-berendra” (l.1004), meaning, literally, “soul bearer,” but taken to simply mean “human being.” So it’s safe to say that the Anglo-Saxons had a sense of the soul being separate from the body.

“So what?” you may well ask.

Well, I think the flurry of human epithets in this passage is meant as a reminder of mortality. After all, the terms for humanity go from literally “soul-bearer” to noting how people are beings of need and desire (unlike classical ideas of angels, beings without need or want, kind of like pre-robot robots), then “the sons of men,” putting emphasis on humanity’s being a bunch that reproduce themselves, nesting themselves deep into the body, then, finally, “earth-dwellers,” making it clear that these people are bound to the earth, they walk on the ground.

So on the one hand, this cluster of terms for humanity could just be a poetic burst, but there’s also a descending order to it. You could even say that this whole passage works its way from a high concept of death as a wave and a high concept of people as “soul-bearers” down to the very basic ideas that humans are things that walk the earth and death is the big sleep.

What do you think about the idea of death as a wave? Does that imagery still hold up today, or are we (for the most part) too landlocked for it to work?

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Four Compound Words from the Wave of Death

What sort of meditation on a heavy philosophical topic would be complete without a cadre of compound words? Let’s get right into those the poet used here.

First up is line 1004’s “sawl-berendra” meaning “human being.” This word literally means “soul bearer” and its constituent parts mean the same – “sawl” is Old English for “soul,” “life,” “spirit,” or “living being” and “berendra” means “bearer,” or “carrier” in the language. Now, normally a straightforward compound is a straightforward compound. But here it seems like the plainness of this combination helps strengthen its literal meaning. It’s just a clean descriptor of a concept that cleanly splits the soul and the body in two, making for the foundation of a whole school of thought.

Line 1006’s “grund-buend” isn’t quite so exciting. The word’s mix of “grund” (“ground,” “bottom,” “foundation,” “abyss,” “hell,” “plain,” “country,” “land,” “earth,” “sea,” or “water”) and buend (“dweller,” or “inhabitant”) gives us “earth-dweller” pretty readily. It’s curious how “sea” and “water” are part of this word that has so many connotations of solid ground or foundation . But I think that’s supposed to signal that the aquatic sense of the word doesn’t necessarily mean a body of water. Instead I think those sense of the word refer to water as a fundamental thing, as something essential to life – maybe even as a reference to the primordial waters in the Biblical creation story.

But put even that sense of “grund” together with “buend” and you just get the sense that it refers to “dwellers in creation.” Still not very exciting, right?

Thankfully, the word “lic-homa” (found on line 1007) is weird.

(Yeah, I throw that word around a bit much on this blog, but this one’s definitely worthy.)

Instead of combining two words to make another like most compounds, this is one of those intensifying kinds of compounds. But it’s one in which I think a lot is lost in translation. The first part of the compound, “lic” means “body,” or “corpse,” while “homa” means “village,” “hamlet,” “manor,” “estate,” “home,” “dwelling,” “house,” “region,” or “country.”

So with a literal combination like “body house” or “body estate” you’d think that you’d get a word meaning something like “graveyard” or “corpse dwelling” y’know, somewhere that’s a home to corpses. Instead, we just get “body,” “corpse,” or “trunk.” But I think, if this is an intensifying kind of compound, that “lic-homa” has connotations of referring to the bodily portion of a living person, that is, to a corpse that has the energy and liveliness of a “village” or a “home.” Or, at the least, that this intensified version of “body” refers to the body of a dearly departed person. So maybe there’s not an inherent vibrancy, but there’s at least some life in the body this word refers to.

Capping of this passage’s compound words is line 1007’s “leger-bedde.” This word mixes “leger” (“lying,” “illness,” “lair,” “couch,” “bed,” or “grave”) and “bedde” (“bed,” “couch,” “resting-place,” “garden-bed,” or “plot”) to mean “bed,” “sick bed,” or “grave.” Not too surprising. Nor is there much room for interpretations to wiggle with this word. Though I guess you could say that the death subtext is baked into it since a “garden-bed” or a “plot” could make for a good spot for a “grave.” Though when I hear the word I think of a slab more than a bed, the sort of thing sacrifices might be laid on.

Or monstrous but dead sons – but that’s not going to come up for another few hundred lines.

What do you think of the idea that we as humans are a combination of body and spirit/soul/mind/self? Is it a solid notion, or is it more accurate to think of ourselves as more of a singular being that just happens to have a mental/spiritual manifestation and a physical one somehow working in harmony? Does thinking of ourselves as a distinct and separate body and spirit/mind make death easier to think about or deal with?

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Closing

In the next passage, the poet sets us up for more good times in Heorot, though some of the sparkle of history is put into the air.

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Beowulf explains Grendel’s escape, keeps speaking plainly

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Beowulf Covers his Tracks with Grendel’s
Just Three Simple Words
Closing

Beowulf, Old English, Anglo-Saxon, translation

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Abstract

Beowulf wraps up his story of the struggle with Grendel, excusing himself from killing the creature by saying that god will deal with him.

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Translation

          “‘Nevertheless he relinquished his hand
as a protection of life and as a thing to leave behind,
arm and shoulder; not in any way did that
wretched being find comfort here;
nor will the hateful attacker be afflicted
with a long life of sin, but he knew pain
while tightly squeezed in my inexorable grip,
the deadly fetter; where he goes he shall await
with men bespeckled with crimes the great judgment,
what for them resplendent God will allot.'”
(Beowulf ll.970b-979)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Beowulf Covers his Tracks with Grendel’s

The conclusion of Beowulf’s version of his fight with Grendel is fitting for one who’s trying to be more than just some slaughterer himself. Beowulf’s story of how Grendel escaped, but was mortally wounded, works so well because it takes Beowulf out of the role of killer and leaves that to god. This is important because it suggests that Beowulf’s strong enough to beat these monsters, but simply defeating them isn’t enough to fully vanquish them. As such it’s better to leave that to god itself, the one who sits in judgment over all those “bespeckled with crimes” (“maga mane fah” (l.978)).

But that’s not to say that deferring responsibility for Grendel’s death to god is a way for Beowulf to get out of blame if Grendel comes back. I think he’s well aware that he needs to cover for having let Grendel escape. But the fact that Grendel left his arm behind as a memento (“as a thing to leave behind” (“last weardian”(l.971))), really works in Beowulf’s favour. After all, what kind of creature could survive having its arm — including the shoulder — torn off?

Though, weirdly, Beowulf also sounds like one who’s aware that Grendel should have a more long lasting punishment when he says

“nor will the hateful attacker be afflicted
with a long life of sin, but he knew pain
while tightly squeezed in my inexorable grip”

“no þy leng leofað laðgeteona,
synnum geswenced, ac hyne sar hafað
mid nydgripe nearwe befongen”
(ll.974-976)

Here Beowulf’s basically saying “look, he won’t suffer for very long, but while I held him in my grip he knew the meaning of the word pain, so don’t worry about it.” I’m sure that as Beowulf said this audiences would imagine him gesturing up to the arm and maybe saying something like “after all, no one’s going to survive after that – have any of you ever had your arm torn off?”

So, as before we really see Beowulf flex his rhetorical muscle here, as he addresses the major concerns that the Danes might have with his performance since there’s no body to show for his victory (unlike that time when he fought sea monsters by night and woke up surrounded by corpses, perhaps something closer to what some Danes wanted). Grendel suffered, and though he ran off, he’s definitely doomed to die. Very soon, as Beowulf’s speech ends, Grendel will face the ultimate death at the judgment of god, where the wretch will have just punishment doled out to him. As if death wasn’t just enough, right?

It is, however, strange that Beowulf should refer to Grendel’s leaving his hand behind as a “protection of life” (ll.971). The entire first two lines are tricky to translate into Modern English, but the sense seems to be that Grendel left his arm behind in the same way that a lizard might leave its tail behind when a predator grabs onto it. Though there was definitely more pain and trauma in Grendel’s losing his arm than a lizard’s losing its tail. I get the feeling from these lines that Beowulf refers to the arm as a “protection of life” to imply that Grendel was a coward ultimately and just couldn’t stand up to the Geat’s own incredible power.

Why do you think Beowulf makes such a big deal of Grendel’s continuing to suffer after he escaped from Heorot?

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Just Three Simple Words

Beowulf’s diction doesn’t drastically change from the first half of his speech to the second. So we still get a bunch of compounds, though they’re still pretty grounded. All three of those I’m writing about here are exclusive to Beowulf, too.

On line 971, we meet the first of the bunch: “lifwraðu.” This word means “protection of life” and combines “lif” (“life,” “existence,” “life time”) and “wraðu” (“prop,” “help,” “support,” “maintenance”) to get there. It seems that “protection of life” might not be 100% what you’d expect these two words combined to mean, but I think that’s what’s meant to come out of the word’s context.

After all, the implication is that Grendel left his arm behind so that he could escape. His fate is sealed, and he will die (even after he escapes to the fens), but the idea that Beowulf’s trying to get across here is that rather than face the judgment of death, Grendel fled his sure quick death at Beowulf’s hands to go and suffer through a few more hours of life out in the wilds. So not only is Grendel a terrible monster, he doesn’t even die honourably. Or rather, he doesn’t even have the decency to die with grace.

The word laðgeteona (from line 974), meaning “hateful attacker,” “hateful giant,” or “enemy” is next up.

This combination of “lað” (“hated,” “hateful,” “hostile,” “malignant,” “evil,” “loathsome,” “noxious,” “unpleasant,” “pain,” “harm,” “injury,” “misfortune,” “insult,” “annoyance,” or “harmful thing”) and “geteona” (“giant,” “monster,” or “enemy”) speaks for itself. Another compound that is more about intensifying a single meaning rather than combining meanings to create a hybrid, “laðgeteona” is definitely an Old English word that loses little to nothing being translated into Modern English. Sure, the reference to giants (“geteona”) might not work today, but “hated enemy” is still a clear concept, even across the variations that combining these two words might afford you.

As far as weird words go, this last one’s not quite there, either.

Line 976’s “nid-gripe” means “coercive grip.” Simple enough. So, too, are its constituent parts.

This third compound combines “nyd” (from “nied,” meaning “need,” “necessity,” “compulsion,” “duty,” “errand,” “business,” “emergency,” “hardship,” “distress,” “difficulty,” “trouble,” “pain,” “force,” “violence,” “what is necessary,” “inevitableness,” “fetter,” or the “name for the rune ‘n'”) and “grip” (“grip,” “grasp,” “seizure,” or “attack”).

One neat thing that jumps out at me about “nid-gripe” is that one of the senses of “nyd” is “fetter” and Beowulf refers to his grip as “the deadly fetter” (“balwon bendum” (ll.977)). Just a little thing to notice. But, otherwise, the only thing I can really say about this compound is that it carries the weight of being inevitable not just because that’s one of the senses of “nyd,” but because many of the senses of the word carry urgency. So Beowulf sees his grip’s power as inevitable, perhaps as the power of inevitability that ultimately brings all mortals what they deserve.

Anyway, it’s not a bad crop of words. There’s just nothing stand out about any of them to me.

Weigh in in the comments: Do this passage’s words stand out from your usual Old English? Or do you think they’re just the standard for one of Beowulf’s speeches?

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Closing

In the next part of the poem, the poet dwells on the silence that falls after Beowulf’s speech and the arm he refers to.

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Grendel, Beowulf, and Graves’ Goddess, plus Grendel’s dark masses (ll.731-738)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Finding The White Goddess in Beowulf
Grendel’s Dark Masses
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

Grendel’s glee is given clear reason, fate rushes in, and Beowulf looks on — waiting.

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Translation

“…intended he to sever, before the day returned,
the terrible fierce assailant, from each one
limb and life, expected he a lavish feast
to come about. Yet such was not set as fate,
that he would be allowed more of mankind
to taste during that night. The mighty looked on,
kin of Higelac, to see how the enemy
with his calamitous grip would fare.”
(Beowulf ll.731-739)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Finding The White Goddess in Beowulf

Grendel’s glee continues into this passage and we’re given the reason for it: Grendel believes he’s in for a feast since there’s an entire group of young warriors sleeping in the hall.

But then we’re told that such wasn’t set as fate on line 734. I think that this line is central to this passage and the scene in which it occurs. As such, I think it serves a few purposes.

First off, I think that line 734 helps to being the focus back to Beowulf. As fate’s agent in so far as Beowulf is the one fated to bring about the end of Grendel’s feasting (as is fated), this line is like a group of heralding trumpets announcing his arrival. Along similar lines, this line marks Beowulf as fate’s agent.

Actually, in light of what I’ve read in Robert Graves’ The White Goddess, the triangle that line 734 sets up is rather interesting.

Central to Graves’ book is the idea that the single poetic theme, the one thing that all true poetry is about in infinite variation, is the struggle between the king of the waning year and the king of the waxing year for the hand or approval of the goddess (in her form as maid).

In the scenario in this passage we have the god of the waning year in Grendel. And we have the god of the waxing year in Beowulf. But then, where is the female element?

Well, in chapter 25 of The White Goddess Graves writes that before patriarchal religion took over from matriarchal religion the idea of religious freedom was non-existent. During that time it was believed that whatever happened, happened, and people had no choice but to accept the good and the bad that the goddess at the centre of this matriarchal faith doled out. What happened was locked into happening — it was fated.

If Beowulf is a work reflective of the change from paganism to Christianity among the Anglo-Saxons, or even if it’s just a story steeped in pre-Christian lore that has a Christian gloss over it (the constant references to “The Lord,” “The Measurer,” “Almighty God,” etc.), then it makes sense that “wyrd” or “fate” would be a feminine concept. As such, in this scenario where we have Grendel, Beowulf, and Fate, we have the complete trinity of waning king, waxing king, and woman.

But how does this fit into Beowulf, and why does it matter? What about your reading of Beowulf does it change?

Well, it does an awful lot of foreshadowing. It also suggests a good reason why Beowulf is still around outside of its being the only example of Old English long form poetry that we have. It does the latter by fitting very neatly into the template of the singular poetic theme. It does the former because it fits so well into that theme.

It fits so well into the theme because the trinity of waning king, waxing king, and woman is cyclical. Within the scope of a cycle the waxing king becomes the waning king, the woman gives birth to a new champion and he becomes the waxing king who ousts the now waning king. And things just continue onward with that cycle forever.

With this in mind, it’s obvious that Beowulf will triumph here, but that he will fall later on. What’s interesting about his fall is that as he dies he passes things along to his successor himself, without any sort of female presence.

Thus, going along with Graves, Beowulf could be read as a story of how patriarchal faith ousted matriarchal faith. Such a reading also puts an interesting spin on Beowulf’s defeating Grendel’s mother, since it suggests that at some point the king or god of the waxing year killed not only his rival but also the woman for whom he fought.

Stepping back from this reading of the poem, the line about fate also foreshadows things in the way that it’s worded. Grendel’s not going to feast on many again, but nothing’s said about one or two.

Do you think that there’s anything more going on in the struggle between Beowulf and Grendel beyond an action scene? Is Beowulf really invested with the judgement of fate or are these two just savages?

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Grendel’s Dark Masses

This week’s passage has three words that I think are worth writing about. They are “wist-fylle,” “þryð-swyð,” and “fær-gripum.”

The first of these, “wist-fylle,” means “lavish feast.” It’s a word made up of the word for “being,” “existence,” “well-being,” “abundance,” “plenty,” “provision,” “nourishment,” “subsistence,” “food,” “meal,” “feast,” “delicacy,” — “wist” — and the word for “complete,” “fill up,” “perfect,” — “fullian” — which can also mean “to baptize.”

Hold on a second.

I can see the connection between “complete, fill up, perfect” and “baptize,” especially in a Christian context. But pairing that up with the word for feast in such a context really strikes me as weird.

Now, I know that the poet probably didn’t create most of the compound words that he uses, but “wist-fylle” is still a weird pairing. In fact, I wonder if at some point (maybe even when Beowulf was being put to paper or even just composed) the word had connotations of a sacred meal or maybe even a Eucharistic mass. You know, the sort celebrated each Sunday by practicing Christians with readings and songs and the wafer (or actual piece of bread) served up around the end.

On the one hand, given its context as what Grendel’s expecting at the sight of so much youthful flesh, “wiste-fylle” seems like it could be sacrilege. But, I think that on the other hand even with such connotations, this word is a perfect fit.

Grendel certainly came to Heorot with enough regularity for it to be considered a ritual. Like Christian mass. He also always supped on flesh before going away. Like at Christian mass (metaphorically, of course, unless you’re a strict Catholic and believe that the Eucharist undergoes transubstantiation once blessed and then is the body of Christ, as they say). So maybe the word’s meant to suggest that Grendel’s visits are a kind of mass for him.

With these things in mind, I don’t think it’s far off the mark to see Grendel as not only the representation of the evil of the world but also of the pagan religion that was being supplanted by Christianity. The old religion of ritual sacrifice and bloodshed was being replaced by one with righteous bloodshed in the name of a true god — perhaps a small irony that didn’t escape the erudite among the Anglo-Saxons (such as their “scops” or poets).

Though also at the heart of Christianity is the idea that such sacrifices are no longer necessary because Christ’s dying on the cross stands as a sacrifice for and across all time — making any others unnecessary, even insulting to god if you want to look at it that way.

Unfortunately, that’s where this reading of the word sort of falls apart. Beowulf does eventually die. And, in doing so he saves his people, but only for a very short time. Otherwise, there really isn’t a permanent sacrifice that comes in to replace that which Grendel takes during his dark visits. Ah well, good run. Unless the whole thing’s meant as a criticism of Christianity. But that’s something for another entry.

The second word worth looking at doesn’t really lend itself to much analysis. The word “þryð-swyð” is weird because it literally translates out to something like “strong strength” or “severely strong.” It’s like two words meaning powerful things being bashed together into something even more powerful. A kind of linguistic Masa and Mune, if you will.

And, to be honest, “fær-gripum” doesn’t have much to it either (I should probably work at organizing these sections more strictly).

The first half of this word means “calamity,” “sudden danger,” “peril,” “sudden attack,” or “terrible sight” and the second half means “grip,” “grasp,” “seizure,” “attack.” It’s not the most compelling combination, essentially meaning “sudden attack” or more specifically “sudden grip.”

However, a bit of the Anglo-Saxon (Beowulfian?) love of violence creeps into the word if you dig down into “fær.” This is because “fær” is an alternate spelling of the word “fæger,” meaning “fair,” “beautiful,” or “pleasant.”

With this new first element in place, the word becomes “beautiful grip” or “fair attack.” Such a word combination might sound more like it belongs in the mouth of a pro wrestling commentator, but really, Beowulf is kind of a pro wrestler-type character if you think about it. And Grendel’s quite a heel.

Or, the Anglo-Saxons just really could appreciate beautiful violence, the sort of thing that puts you in awe of how graceful — yet painful — it looks. For examples of what I mean, go check out The Raid: Redemption. There’s a ton of beautiful violence in that film. Beautiful, horrifying violence.

Do you think that Beowulf could be a long tongue-in-cheek anti-Christian tale?

Or, do you think that there is such a thing as “beautiful violence”?

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Closing

Next week, Grendel goes after Beowulf.

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