Beowulf Boasts, the Dragon Roasts: Book XXXIV – Book XXXV

Beowulf is protected from dragon fire by his shield while treasure awaits.

An illustration of Beowulf fighting the dragon that appears at the end of the epic poem. Illustration in the children’s book Stories of Beowulf (H. E. Marshall). Published in New York in 1908 by E. P. Dutton & Company. Image found at


Though the fall of the prince made Beowulf mindful,
worried for retribution as days dragged on, he turned to Eadgils,
a man destitute of friends. That people,
those of the sons of Ohthere, Eadgils helped
with warriors and weapons. The feud was settled after a chill cold,
a cruel campaign, when he bound old king Onela in death.

Thus Beowulf survived strife from all quarters,
savage battles and slaughter, that son of Ecgtheow,
brave doer of good deeds, until that day.
The day on which Beowulf was fated to war with the dragon.
Then it was that the scaled one, maddened with rage, knew the twelve;
the dragon recognized the Geatish lord.

Beowulf soon discovered the reason why that fiend arose,
brought adversity to his people. Into his lap fell the famed cup,
wrought of gold and set with stones, fresh from the finder’s hand.
That man made their party’s number thirteen,
he who had created this dire fate,
a captive of sorrowful heart. The thief agreed to serve
as guide for Beowulf and his men through the dragon’s place.
Against his will he went to the earthen hall which he alone knew.
The barrow beneath the earth, out by the sea billows,
where wave strove with wave, within, it was full of treasures,
both wrought and wound. But the horrible warden,
that eager ancient warrior, was bent on guarding his gold-treasures,
both as old as stones beneath the earth. It would not be easy
for Beowulf to bargain with that dragon for his people’s lives!

Sat then the veteran king upon the clifftop.
He wished his hearth companions luck,
the gold friend of the Geats. His mind was sorrowful,
he was restless and ready for death, fate had come immeasurably near,
he knew that soon he would fully face old age,
that it would soon seek his soul’s hoard, tear his life
from his body. Not long from then would that lord’s
flesh unravel from his spirit.

Beowulf spoke, the son of Ecgtheow:

“Countless were the skirmishes that I survived in youth,
numerous times of war. I can recall them all.
I was seven winters old when I fostered with our treasure lord,
the lord and friend of our people, at my father’s command.
The good king Hrethel kept me and cherished me,
he gave me treasure goods and solemn office, mindful of our kinship.
Indeed, while living in the stronghold as a boy I was not counted
less worthy than his own sons,
Herebeald and Hæthcyn, and my dear Hygelac.
The eldest son, by a deed of his brother,
was impiously spread on his deathbed,
Hæthcyn had hoisted his horn-tipped bow toward the boy,
and loosed the arrow that shattered his life.
He had aimed for a misted mark and shot his own kin,
bloodied his fatal dart with the life of his own brother.
That was a strife beyond recompense, transgression against sin itself,
a steeping of the heart in sadness. What else should be done but
to leave the offence the eldest carried out unavenged?”

“Then was the whole household like a sorrowful old man
who must live on, though his young son hangs on the gallows.
Such a man then makes a dirge, distressed singing,
while his son hangs at the mocking mercy of ravens,
birds gloating over their feast, and he can do nothing
to help his son, no water from his well of experience and age
will allow him to haul the boy down and lavish new life onto his lank body.
Reluctantly he is reminded each morning of
his son’s death. He does not care to wait
for another heir in his hall, since the
first has been found fettered, devoured, by death’s dire decree.
He looks on with tear-filled soul into his lost son’s chambers,
all hall joy now desolation, the resting place of winds,
a place bereft of all joy. The riders sleep.
The fighters lay in darkness. No harp sounds are there.
There are no men in the yard. Nothing is as it once was.”


“Then Hrethel was in bed, chanting a dirge,
alone even with himself. To him it all seemed too huge,
the fields’ roll, the halls’ stretch. Thus the Geat’s protector,
his heart suffused with sorrow for Herebeald,
set out for that far country. He never knew how he might
wreak his feud on the slayer;
in no way could he hate that warrior
for his dolorous deed, though he was not loved.
Then Hrethel, amidst that sorrow, that which sorely concerned him,
gave up on the enjoyment of life, chose God’s light.
He left all he had on earth to his sons, as any prosperous man does,
lands and towns, when he left off this life.”

“After that, there was war and enmity between Swedes and Geats,
over the wide waters could be heard their cries of sorrow,
the noise of wall-hard warfare, after Hrethel perished.
From across that water came Ongeontheow’s sons,
warlike, they would not free those
they held in lamentation, they would not relent.
Near the hill of Hreosnburgh they often launched voracious
murderous attacks. My own close-kin avenged this,
feud and war-fire, as it was known,
though one of them bought it with his life,
at a hard price; Hæthcyn, Geatish lord,
was taken in the war’s assailing.
Then in the morning I heard that his kin
avenged him by the blade, laid its edge to end the slayer’s life,
where Eofor’s attack fell upon Ongeontheow.
His war-helm was split, the Swedish warlord
fell, mortally wounded, for Eofor’s hand held memory
enough of the feuding, Ongeontheow could not hold off the fatal blow.”

“The treasures that Hygelac granted me
were payment for my role in that war, all of which fortune allowed me,
I won it for him by flashing sword. For that he gave me land,
a place to be from, the joy of home. Thus, for Hygelac there was
no need, no reason to be required to seek someone from the Gifthas,
or the Spear-Danes, or the Swedes for worse war-makers, my worth was well-known.
Always would I go on foot before him,
first in the line, and so shall I do ‘til age takes me,
so shall I conduct war, as long as this sword survives,
that which has and will endure.
For this is the sword I held when I, for nobility’s sake,
became the hand-slayer of Day Raven the Frank.
No treasure at all did that warrior
bring back to the Frisian king.
No breastplate could he have carried,
for in the field he fell as standard bearer,
princely in courage. He was not slain by the sword,
but instead a hostile grip halted the surge of his heart,
broke his bone-house. Now shall the sword’s edge,
hand and hard blade, be heaved against the sentinel of the hoard.”

Beowulf spoke further after a pause, made a formal boast
for the final time.

          “In youth I
risked much in combat, yet I will once more.
Though I am now an old king of the people, I shall pursue this feud,
gain glory, if only the fiend to men
will come out from his earth-hall to face me!”

Addressed he then each warrior,
speaking true to each helm-wearer, for the last time,
every gathered dear companion:

          ‘I would not bear a sword,
bring the weapon to the wyrm, if I knew how
I might otherwise grapple gallantly against
that foe, as I once with Grendel did.
But there will be hot war-fires I expect,
stinking breath and venom. Thus I have on
both shield and byrnie. And I will not give
a foot’s length when I meet the barrow’s guard, but between us two
what is to happen later on the sea-wall, that is as fate.
The Measurer of Men is indeed to decide. I am firm of heart,
so that I may desist from boasting over this war-flyer.
Wait you all on the barrow, my armed men,
warriors ready in war-gear, while we see which
of we two can endure the wounds
after our deadly onslaught. This is not your fight,
nor any other man’s, but mine alone.
I must share my might with the foe,
indeed, I must share my courage. By that courage shall
I win the gold, or, in this battle, gain the peril of a violent death,
if the latter, may your lord be swept away!”

Arose then behind the shield that renowned warrior,
hard under helm, bore his battle shirt
beneath the stony cliffs. He trusted in the slaughter
one man alone was capable of. That was no cowardly course of action!

Then by the wall the one who had survived
with good manly virtue a great many battles,
the crash of colliding shields and spears, survived when bands on foot clashed,
saw standing a stone arch, a stream came out from there,
burst from the barrow, and soon exploded into
a raging flume of hot deadly fire. Beowulf could not be near
the hoard for any length of time without being burned up,
he could not survive in the depths of the dragon’s flame.
Standing there, watching, he allowed it from his breast, released his rage,
the lord of the Weder-Geats sent the word out,
fierce-hearted he shouted, his voice came in
clean as the clang of battle as it reverberated under the grey stone.
Hatred was aroused, the hoard guardian recognized
man speech. Then there was no more time
to ask for friendship. First came the breath
of the fierce assailant from out of the stones,
a hot vapour of battle. The earth resounded with the creature’s calling.

The warrior below the barrow, the lord of the Geats,
swung the rim of his shield against the dreadful stranger,
then the coiled creature’s heart ignited,
it became eager to seek battle. The good war-king
had already drawn his his sword, the ancient heirloom,
sharp of edges, each was in horror at the intent
to harm and rain destruction evident in the other’s eyes.

Yet, Beowulf stood firmly against the towering shield,
the lord of a dear people, when the serpent coiled himself
quickly together. Beowulf waited in arms.

Then the serpent went gliding along, still coiled and burning,
hastening toward his fate. The shield protected
Beowulf’s being and body for a lesser time
than that renowned prince required for his purpose,
that was the first time that day
that he learned he would have to prevail, though fate had not decreed
triumph for him. The lord of the Geats
swung up his hand, the one terrible in its varied colours was struck by
the mighty heirloom, yet its long-tested edge failed,
it gleamed dry, stopped by the beast’s bones, bit less strongly
just when the king of a people had need of it,
when it could have cut him free from his afflictions.

          Then was the barrow
guard, after that battle stroke, thrust into a fierceness of spirit –
it threw its deadly fire, wildly leapt
those battle lights. Of glorious victory the
gold-giving friend of the Geats could not boast then,
the war sword failed him while unsheathed in battle, as it should
not have, it became known as iron formerly excellent. That was no easy
journey, when the renowned kin of Ecgtheow
knew he must give up that ground,
that he should, against his wish, inhabit a dwelling place
elsewhere, but so shall each man
leave off his loaned days. Then not long was it
before the fierce warriors met each other again.

The hoard guard himself took heart — his breast began to heave
from strain — he lunged forth once again. Harsh straits were suffered,
the fires enveloped Beowulf, he who once had ruled the people.
Not any of the band of comrades were with him then.

Those sons of nobility stood around stupefied. Merely draped in martial virtues,
they fled into the woods at the sight below,
eager to save their own lives. In only one mind among them
surged sorrow. After all, kinship may never
for anything be turned away from if a man thinks rightly.

Want more Beowulf? Continue the poem here!

Beowulf and the Geats take a smooth ship trip (ll.1905-1919)

The Original Old English
My Translation
A Quick Interpretation

A Viking ship on display in a museum in Oslo.

A photo of a ship from a Viking exhibition in an Oslo Museum. Taken by Grzegorz Wysocki, from,_Oslo_01.jpg.

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Beowulf and his crew leisurely sail from Daneland to Geatland.

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The Original Old English

“þa wæs be mæste merehrægla sum,
segl sale fæst; sundwudu þunede.
No þær wegflotan wind ofer yðum
siðes getwæfde; sægenga for,
fleat famigheals forð ofer yðe,
bundenstefna ofer brimstreamas,
þæt hie Geata clifu ongitan meahton,
cuþe næssas. Ceol up geþrang
lyftgeswenced, on lande stod.
Hraþe wæs æt holme hyðweard geara,
se þe ær lange tid leofra manna
fus æt faroðe feor wlatode;
sælde to sande sidfæþme scip,
oncerbendum fæst, þy læs hym yþa ðrym
wudu wynsuman forwrecan meahte.”
(Beowulf ll.1905-1919)

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My Translation

“Then the mast was dressed with its sea garb,
the sail bound with rope; the sea wood creaked.
The wave-floater’s journey was not hindered
by wind over waves, that sea-goer swept forth
riding onwards atop foamy necked waters.
The ship with the ring-bound prow went over the sea current
so swiftly that they soon saw the Geatish cliffs,
the familiar headlands appeared, as the ship came closer
until that wind-battered boat rested upon the sands.
Swiftly the harbour guard was ready at the water,
he who for a long time had eagerly looked
far out to sea for that dear man.
He moored that roomy ship on the beach,
fixed it there with anchor ropes, lest the force of the waves
drive that beautiful boat from shore.”
(Beowulf ll.1905-1919)

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A Quick Interpretation

And with that, Beowulf and his crew are back in Geatland. To borrow a term from modern video games, the Geats definitely fast-travelled from Daneland to Geatland. But there was nothing to get in their way. As the poet says:

“The wave-floater’s journey was not hindered
by wind over waves, that sea-goer swept forth
riding onwards atop foamy necked waters.”

“No þær wegflotan wind ofer yðum
siðes getwæfde; sægenga for,
fleat famigheals forð ofer yðe.”

Since Beowulf is returning to his home turf the process of getting off the boat is much smoother than the Daneland coastguard’s inquisition.

As a matter of fact, there’s not a whole lot going on with characters here. The only human being who is mentioned is the “harbour guard” (“hyðweard” (l.1914)) of the Geats. Another character who is left unnamed and only characterized by his position. That he could be so eagerly awaiting the return of Beowulf and the Geats’ best and brightest definitely confirms that there must not be much going on with him outside of his job, too.

But, what we are told much about is the boat.

The poet doesn’t go into an opulent amount of detail, but we’re shown the ship’s mast being set up. Then the sea voyage is described in glowing terms. And the passage ends with a note about the harbour guard anchoring the boat to the shore so that “that beautiful boat” (“wudu wynsuman” (l.1919)) doesn’t float off. Though surely the weight of the treasures and horses Hrothgar gave Beowulf would keep the boat securely on the sand.

What I don’t get though, is why the poet doesn’t say anything about fate or god’s favour in the safeness of Beowulf’s sea voyage.

Perhaps it’s an implicit reference to some Anglo-Saxon superstition. Maybe they believed that praising safe sea travel would call calamity down upon the one praising it.

Or maybe it’s a call back to Beowulf beating up the sea monsters that he and Breca encountered during their race. He had cleared the seas and so there was nothing to keep Beowulf and his crew from a quick trip home.

Whatever the reason behind this lack of detail is, it definitely makes it clear that sailing needs no long detailed explanation. Either the poet had little to no interest in the subject, or they didn’t want to bore their audience and so they just included a few reverent lines about dressing the ship and anchoring it. Though maybe such a tidy voyage is just supposed to foreshadow the smooth sailing that Beowulf faces in the future.

But. There are about another 1000 lines of the poem, so the going can’t be that smooth for our hero just yet.

What do you think the poet’s trying to say with this short sea voyage? Are they trying to say anything or is it just a sea voyage? Leave your thoughts in the comments!

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Next week, Beowulf and Hrothgar’s gifts go to the king of the Geats: Hygelac.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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Beowulf’s formal speech as long transition (ll.1813-1825)

The Original Old English
My Translation
A Quick Question

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

Image found at

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Beowulf and the Geats gather to say their goodbyes.

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The Original Old English

“Ond þa siðfrome, searwum gearwe
wigend wæron; eode weorð Denum
æþeling to yppan, þær se oþer wæs,
hæle hildedeor Hroðgar grette.
Beowulf maþelode, bearn Ecgþeowes:
‘Nu we sæliðend secgan wyllað,
feorran cumene, þæt we fundiaþ
Higelac secan. Wæron her tela
willum bewenede; þu us wel dohtest.
Gif ic þonne on eorþan owihte mæg
þinre modlufan maran tilian,
gumena dryhten, ðonne ic gyt dyde,
guðgeweorca, ic beo gearo sona'”
(Beowulf ll.1813-1825)

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My Translation

“And those ready for a journey, they were skillfully
geared as warriors; the leader of those people went
openly to the Danish prince, to where that other worthy was.
The hale hero greeted Hrothgar.
Beowulf spoke, the son of Ecgtheow:
‘Now we seafarers must say,
we who have come from far off, that we are eager to go,
to return to our lord Hygelac. Here we were received as kin,
our desires were entertained; you have indeed treated us well.
If I may do anything on earth
to earn more of your heart’s affection,
oh lord of men, beyond what I have thus far done
by warlike deeds, I will quickly be ready.'”
(Beowulf ll.1813-1825)

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A Quick Question

Where are the Danes and Geats meeting here? This detail, not being important, I suppose, is just tossed aside. After all, why focus on the place where the Geats don’t belong? Plus, not naming a concrete place creates more of that displaced feeling mentioned in last week’s post.

That feeling has another purpose, too.

If we’re feeling displaced, then it seems the best thing to do would be to assuage that. And so the poet does. Here it’s only a mention of “Hygelac” on line 1820, but that alone is quite a lot. It pulls our minds from the first half of the poem’s setting and gets it ready to move into the setting for its third part. Beowulf even references Hygelac, giving us a different king to think on. He is also a character whom we’ve only met through reference, so far. So meeting him is an enticing prospect.

Other than that, I don’t think there’s much going on here. Beowulf of course offers future help (if any is needed), and then it seems like the Geats should just be on their way. And yet, there’s a part two of all this next week. What more could be said? Well, check out next week’s post to find out!

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Next week, Beowulf’s farewell address…part 2 (of 2)!

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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Beowulf breaks the surface, bringing in a brave and bloodless haul (ll.1623-1631)

A Quieter Ending Grants Greater Closure?
Crab Fishers as Brave Bearers of Sea-Gifts

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

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

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Beowulf emerges from the Grendels’ lake and is gratefully met by his fellow Geats.

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“Then came the seafarer to the safety of land,
swimming stout-heartedly, joyous with his sea-spoils,
the amazing burden that he had with him then.
They all flocked to him, thanked god,
that mighty heap of thanes, took delight in their chief,
that they were able to see him safe again.
Then they were busied with the swift unbinding
of helm and byrnie. The lake’s surface stilled,
the sky was again visible within, though dappled in blood.”
(Beowulf ll.1623-1631)

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Old English:


Modern English:


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A Quieter Ending Grants Greater Closure?

As Beowulf resurfaces we see his thanes crowd around him, giving their thanks and feeling overjoyed for his safe return. Then they take his armour off as the poet reflects on how the lake is stilled. Though there is still some blood at the surface.

This little section of the poem does a lot to signal that the battle is over, and in a much more meaningful way than the parts of the poem that followed the fight with Grendel.

After that fight we saw Beowulf being loudly celebrated by the Danes and heard the story of Sigemund and the the dragon. There was feasting and festivities almost immediately after the victory.

But, here, by the side of the Grendels’ lake, we just get a man’s loyal retainers thanking god for his safe return and removing from him the garb of battle. The exuberant celebration around the defeat of Grendel is very satisfying, but the quiet reception Beowulf gets after leaving the lake is much more conclusive.

Not unlike what comes after the climax in the classical arc of a story.

As Aristotle put down in his Poetics, after the climax of a story there’s the denouement.

The denouement is the part of the tale where the hero settles down and the new normal (whatever that may be) sets in. It’s the part of a story where the audience can settle back into their seat after spending the previous part of it on its edge and reflect on what just happened. It’s the critical down time where you can bask in the glow of the story that’s just been told while still being in it.

Actually, most superhero movies spring to mind when I think about the ending to this adventure of Beowulf’s compared to the end of the adventure with Grendel.

By the end of the first movie in a planned trinity there’s a loose thread or two that aren’t tied up by the time the credits roll. And, now, more and more, there are even more loose ends presented after the credits. A more conclusive ending doesn’t come until the third movie.

As such, that first movie is just like the fight with Grendel, there’s much fanfare for the victory, but the savvy reader can see the signs that there’s more to come. In a way, Beowulf’s victory over Grendel was “too easy”.

After finishing the fight with Grendel’s mother, however (and taking Grendel’s head), there is no fanfare. No stories are raucously told. No gifts of gold or horses are promised and presented. Instead, Beowulf’s armour is undone not by his hand, but by those of his men.

I can’t say for sure, but to me this gesture betokens a great deal of closure. The actor, Beowulf, isn’t just taking off his costume to prepare for the next scene. His captive audience, his fellow Geats, are removing that costume, as if to say, “we, the audience, acknowledge that the story’s over, you’re free to go.”

Which denouement do you find more rewarding: that of the fight with Grendel, or of the fight with Grendel’s mother? Why?

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Crab Fishers as Brave Bearers of Sea-Gifts

As shows like Deadliest Catch illustrate, any “lid-mann”1 who goes out after crab is indeed “swið-mod”2. But you’d have to be to haul in such a “sæ-lac”3 as those crab, that “mægen-byrþen”4 taken in by net. And all without the “wæl-dreore”5 being spilled between crab and “lid-mann,” though the sea and the elements are much fiercer fighters.


1lid-mann: seafarer, sailor, pirate. lid (ship, vessel) + mann (person, man, mankind, brave man, hero, vassal, servant, name of the rune for ‘m’)

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2swið-mod: stout-hearted, brave, insolent, arrogant. swið (strong, mighty, powerful, active, severe, violent) + mod (heart, mind, spirit, mood, temper, courage, arrogance, pride, power, violence)

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3sæ-lac: sea-gift, sea-spoil. (sheet of water, sea, lake, pool) + lac (play, sport, strife, battle, sacrifice, offering, gift, present, booty, message) [A word that is exclusive to Beowulf.]

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4mægen-byrþen: huge burden. mægen (bodily strength, might, main, force, power, vigour, valour, virtue, efficacy, efficiency, good deed, picked men of a nation, host, troop, army, miracle) + byrðen (burden, load, weight, charge, duty) [A word that is exclusive to Beowulf.]

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5wæl-dreore: blood of battle, battle gore. wæl (slaughter, carnage) + dreore (blood)

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Next week, Beowulf and the Geats head back to Heorot.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Old English:


Modern English:


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

At least the Geats kept faith. Sort of.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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Next week, Beowulf makes his escape.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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

Antique Armour More Effective
Armour on Sea Bottoms

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

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

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Old English:


Modern English:


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Antique Armour More Effective

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s a curious way to think about time.

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

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

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

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

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Armour on Sea Bottoms

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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

Brutal Curiousity
The Dangers of Being a Child of the Waves

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

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

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Old English:


Modern English:


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Brutal Curiousity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Dangers of Being a Child of the Waves

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

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

But they are brutal.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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

Fate’s Just What Happens to You
The Bench Boards’ Destiny

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

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

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Old English:


Modern English:


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Fate’s Just What Happens to You

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

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

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

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

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

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

Toss your guess in the comments!

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The Bench Boards’ Destiny

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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A tale of a torc (pt. 2) and a battle sequence of compound words (ll.1202-1214)

A Story Told While a Studio Audience Leers?
Some Compound Words in a Sequence

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We hear the other half of the story of the torc that Wealhtheow is giving Beowulf and the revellers in the hall love it.

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“Then the ring had Hygelac the Geat,
Swerting’s grandson, wore it on his final raid,
during that time he defended the treasure under his banner,
protected the spoils of the slain*; but he was carried off by fate,
since he for pride’s sake sought trouble,
bore feud to the Frisians. Yet he carried those adornments away,
took the precious stones over the wide waves,
that mighty man; he fell dead beneath his shield.
Then it passed from the king’s body into the grasp of the Franks,
his mailcoat and the circlet also;
the less worthy warriors plundered the slain,
after the battle carnage; the Geatish people
occupied a city of corpses. The hall swelled with sound.
(Beowulf ll.1202-1214)

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Old English:


Modern English:


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A Story Told While a Studio Audience Leers?

This passage continues the story of the torc that Wealhtheow has just given to Beowulf. Though, honestly, this half of the story is the much more relevant one, I think. After all, it opens with a mention of a Hygelac who is a Geat.

And we’ve already heard of a Hygelac who’s a Geat in this poem, he’s the one who’s the Geat’s (and therefore Beowulf’s) current ruler. Though, since this part of the torc’s story includes Hygelac’s death, it’s pretty clear that the Hygelac of the poem’s present is a descendant of, or at least named for, this famed Hygelac of old.

And why not? This historical (well, at least in that he lived in the past, whether that past the poem talks about is real or not isn’t too important within the poem itself, really) Hygelac was a true badass. He seized the torc, wore it into many battles, fought fiercely against the Franks, and died protecting it and other treasures. That last detail might sound like a waste, but I think the point is that these other treasures were so precious to the Geats that one of their greats was willing to protect them. No doubt, so little is said about these treasures though because they were fairly well known to the audience of Beowulf, or at the very least the concept of treasures — things — that you’d actually want to die for wasn’t as strange as it might be to modern day readers of Beowulf.

Anyway, in this part of the story, it’s mentioned that this Hygelac also had a very special mail coat with him. On line 452 of Beowulf, we’re told that Beowulf himself wears a mail coat that once belonged to a Hygelac.

Maybe this is Beowulf’s lord, but it’d be much more meaningful and exciting if it was this historical Hygelac’s mail coat. If it is, then Beowulf’s being granted the torc is like his receiving the second half of an ancient heirloom, or like Aragorn getting Andúril when it’s reforged from the shards of Narsil that were saved from The War of The Last Alliance of Elves and Men in Tolkien’s Middle Earth lore. If the mailcoat Beowulf has (allegedly forged by the mystical, mythological smith Wade) is this historical Hygelac’s, then Beowulf has just been doubly blessed as a warrior and only really needs an ancient sword to complete his ancestral outfit (three is a magical number after all).

Beyond the significance of a former Geat and Hygelac’s having the torc before Beowulf (its rightful owner?) has it again, this passage has a curious final half line.

After Wealhtheow has related the story of the torc we’re told “The hall swelled with sound” (“Heal swege onfeng” (l.1214)).

If this raucous cheering is because of the story of the torc that Wealhtheow just told in a bizarre non-dialogue way (given the rest of the poem’s being perfectly okay with running long), then it almost seems like the hall is cheering because the Geats lost in that battle against the Franks, the survivors, as we’re told, were left “a city of corpses” (“hreawic” (l.1214)).

That makes me think that Wealhtheow’s story of the torc is more likely the poet interjecting with a quick explanation of the torc’s significance, something that someone like Wealhtheow wouldn’t really have much reason to know. After all, based on her name, she’s likely a British Celt of some kind, or at the very least somehow related to the peoples that the Anglo-Saxons regarded as slaves (since “wealh” can mean “slave,” “foreigner” or “stranger”). So she’s not likely to know much about what to her is a foreign people’s history.

So, if this story is the poet interjecting, then the hall must just be rejoicing because Wealhtheow is giving Beowulf this torc and the other rich treasures mentioned. It must be some torc then, or, at the least, the hall must be in a merry mood if they’re willing to loudly cheer the lady of the hall giving the guest a gift. Unless “The hall swelled with sound” is just Old English equivalent of the modern day sitcom soundtrack’s “oooo!” while two characters kiss.

Do you think Beowulf’s wearing old Hygelac’s mailcoat? Or, do you think the whole hall is “whoo”-ing at Wealhtheow being so generous to Beowulf?

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Some Compound Words in a Sequence

Well, because there’s a battle in this week’s passage, there’s a pretty good mix of compounds. To do something a little different with this section, this week I’m going to weave some of them into a bit of a sequence. But I’ll start with those that I didn’t fit into the sequence.

So, on line 1211 we find “breost-gewædu,” the Old English word for “corslet,” or “mailcoat,” either word being more or less interchangeable.

If we break “breost-gewædu” into it’s compounded words we’re left with “breost” (meaning “breast,” “bosom,” “stomach,” “womb,” “mind,” “thought,” or “disposition”) and “gewædu” (meaning “robe,” “dress,” “apparel,” “clothing,” “garment,” or “covering”). Since a this kind of armour covers the breast primarily, it makes sense that it’d be called a “breast robe,” though that’s a bit silly to say.

Then, on line 1214 we have “hreaa-wic” meaning “place of corpses.” This word is a compounding of “hræw” (“living body” “corpse,” “carcase,” or “carrion”) and “wic” (“dwelling place,” “lodging,” “habitation,” “house,” “mansion,” “village,” or “town,”). So it literally means “corpse dwelling place,” an apt name for a battle field, especially one on which battle has involved “guðsceare.”

The word “guðsceare” means simply “slaughter in battle.” But, looking at the words that combine to make this term fleshes it out (if you will).

With “guð” meaning “combat,” “battle,” or “war” and “sceare” meaning “shearing,” “shaving,” or “tonsure,” the word “guðsceare” seems like it’s expressing an idea similar to the Modern English idiom “to be mowed down.” It sounds very much like the word refers to a battle in which one side wasn’t just beaten, but they were absolutely trounced.

In such a battle as that, you’d definitely want to be something more than a warrior, perhaps one who fought with the might and audacity of two warriors? You might say, then, that you’d want to be a “wig-frecan.”

Line 1212’s “wig-frecan” simply means “warrior.” But, coming from a compounding of “wig” (“strife,” “contest,” “war,” “battle,” “valour,” “military force,” “army,” “idol,” or “image”) and “frecan” (“warrior,” or “hero”), it’s clear that this is one of Old English’s doubling or intensifying compounds. After all a “strife warrior” could just be a specialized fighter, but really it’s redundant.

What makes “wiig-frecan” cooler than the compounds that come before it in this entry though, is “wig”‘s possible meaning of “idol,” or “image.” I can’t back up this bit of speculation with any solid evidence, but this interpretation of “wig” leaves me wondering if its “idol” or “image” senses refer to “wig” being used as a shorthand for the eagles that the Roman army used as their sacred standards.

Those standards were often quite plain aside from the eagle at their top, but that’s probably for the better. If they’d had any precious stones — or “eorclan-stanas” — the Anglo-Saxons would’ve likely wanted to steal them more than fear them or associate them with strife and war.

Speaking of, though, the compound “eorclan-stanas” (from line 1208) combines “eorclan” (“chest,” “coffer,” or “ark”) and “stan” (“stone,” “rock,” “gem,” “calculus,” or “milestone”). This compound word’s neatness comes from its communicating its meaning not through just calling the stones “shiny” or “valuable” but making clear that these are stones worthy of being put into a chest or ark — they’re the sorts of things you want to keep protected and therefore, must be precious.

So you definitely wouldn’t want to have any “eorclan-stanas” on you if you were facing “guðsceare,” since those stones would likely become “wæl-reaf”. This word combines “wæl” (“slaughter,” “carnage”) and “reaf” (“plunder,” “booty,” “spoil,” “garment,” “armour,” or “vestment”) to mean “spoil from the slain,” or “act of spoiling the slain.” Which just makes sense since it’s a mix of words meaning “slaughter” and “booty.” I just wonder how the Anglo-Saxons would feel about item drops in modern day RPGs.

What’s you’re favourite of this week’s words? “Wig-frecan” is definitely mine.

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Next week Wealhtheow wishes Beowulf well, and makes a special request of him.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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A tale of a torc (pt.1) and strangely simple compounds (ll.1192-1201)

Every Torc’s got a Story
Straight Ahead Compounds until the End

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Wealhtheow brings generous words to Beowulf, along with generous gifts of golden garments.

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“To him the cup was carried and cordial invitations
offered in words, along with wound gold
bestowed with good will, armbands two,
garments and rings, the greatest neckring
in all the earth, as I have heard.
Not anywhere else under the sky have I heard of a finer
hero’s hoard treasure, not since Hama bore away to there
the magnificent necklace of Brosing,
jewels fixed in precious setting; when he fled
the cunning enmity of Eormenric; chose eternal gain.”
(Beowulf ll.1192 – 1201)

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Old English:


Modern English:


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Every Torc’s got a Story

This passage reads like it’s written by someone who’s easily distracted by shiny things like jewels. It starts off sensibly enough with Beowulf being given “cordial invitations” (“freondlaþu” (l.1192)), then jumps into the history of the torc (a kind of tight, almost collar like necklace, sometimes with bits that hang over the chest) that Wealhtheow gives him. But why does she give him such gifts in the first place?

It looks like it’s just her way of saying thanks for getting rid of Grendel. After all, shiny and precious things are one thing to an Anglo-Saxon, shiny and precious things with a history are entirely another. That is, entirely another, more valuable, thing.

So when Wealhtheow gives Beowulf this torc that’s like the one whose history the poet starts to recite, there’s a lot of significance there. Slight spoilers, this particular necklace may have been worn by an earlyer Hygelac the Geat (likely the namesake of Beowulf’s lord, Hygelac), so, at least in part, the preciousness of this torc comes from its history and Beowulf’s history intersecting.

Actually, in a sense, this item may be seen as being destined for Beowulf. Or, at least, it might seem that he is meant to be the next owner with the understanding that such a privilege is only temporary – such an item being impossible to actually own. Rather, such an artifact is supposed to be understood as having a history that’s somehow above other objects, a history in which it isn’t owned by anyone but rather passed along, it’s not so much an object and accessory for one person, as it is an accessory for an entire ancestral history or, in this case, line of Geats.

That last interpretation is a bit of a stretch, and I feel like it strains against just what such an item may have been perceived as among the Anglo-Saxons. Still, the obvious capstone for the bridge that the poet builds back through the ages via this torc is that it is meant to pass through Beowulf’s hands either as his right or as the object’s inscrutable history.

Both of these interpretations might sound crazy, but the importance of an ancestral sword’s previous wielders wouldn’t be so great if the Anglo-Saxons had a more present-based sense of the value of objects. So, surely the same goes for this torc that fell out of Geatish hands only to come back to them after such an heroic deed as Beowulf’s.

How do you think the added history of this torc makes it more valuable? Does a warrior like Beowulf even care about such things as objects’ histories?

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Straight Ahead Compounds until the End

The compound words in this week’s passage vary pretty wildly. From the simple “earm-read” to the straightforward, but detailed “searo-niðas, they cover quite the range. Still, I’ll run through them in the order of their appearance.

First is “freond-laðu” (l.1192), the perfectly innocuous Old English word for “friendly invitation.” This one comes from the combination of “freond” (friend, relative, lover) and “laðian” (to ivnite, summon, call upon, ask).

Now, direcly related to this word there’s the curious point of “freond”‘s including the interpretation of “lover.” Also, there’s the weirdness of the coincidence that most other words in Old English that start with the syllable “lað” mean “hated” or “despised” (this is the root from which Modern English gets the word “loathe,” after all). I don’t think there’s much to make of this coincidence, except that “laðian” must come from a different language or region than the rest of the words it’s alongside in the dictionary.

But, when it comes to “freond” meaning “lover,” we see the ambiguity of the word “friend” was a thing even back in early Medieval Europe. Of course, the word’s ambiguity makes it hard to judge for certain, but maybe Wealhtheow just can’t control herself around this swarthy hunk. Or, maybe she’s letting some shreds of her true feelings slip through her proper persona. Or, of course, she’s just being gregarious as a good host should be.

Line 1194 offers the next compound word with “earm-read.” This word means “arm ornament” and comes from the Old English “earm” (“arm,” “foreleg,” or “power”) compounding with “hread” (“ornament” or “shielding”). Just as with Modern English’s “arm-band,” this word’s just a plain description.

Next up, line 1195’s “heals-beaga.” Much like “earm-read,” this combination of Old English “heals” (“neck” or “prow of a ship”) and “beaga” (“ring (as ornament or money),” “coil,” “bracelet,” “collar,” “crown,” or “garland”) just means “collar,” “necklace,” or “torc.”

Likewise, line 1198’s “hord-maððum” just means “hoarded treasure,” which comes as no surprise since “hord” means “hoard,” or “treasure” and “maððum” means “treasure,” “object of value,” “jewel,” “ornament,” or “gift.” Though there is this word’s conceptual doubling to consider. I guess whatever you use “hord-maððum” to describe is extra special and extra precious – a treasure even among a treasure hoard.

Actually, this trend of straight ahead compounds continues through line 1200’s “sinc-fæt.” This one means “precious vessel” or “precious setting.” Coming from the combination of “sinc” (“treasure,” “riches,” “gold,” “valuables,” or “jewels”) and “fæt” (“vat,” “vessel,” “jar,” “cup,” “casket,” or “division”) this meaning isn’t at all surprising.

However, that trend ends with “searo-niðas.” Not entirely a word that means something more than the combination of its parts, this one is just a step up from “hord-maððum”‘s doubling.

“Searo-niðas” means “treachery,” “strife,” or “battle” and comes from the combination of “searo” (“art,” “skill,” “cleverness,” “cunning,” “device,” “trick,” “snare,” “ambuscade,” “plot,” “treachery,” “work of art,” “cunning device,” “engine of war,” “armour,” “war gear,” or “trappings”) and “niðas” (“stife,” “enmity,” “attack,” “war,” “evil,” “hatred,” “spite,” “oppression,” “affliction,” “trouble,” or “grief”).

This combination of terms is curious mostly because they’re similar, but while “nið” basically means straight up “strife” or “hatred,” “searo” implies that there’s a certain level of thought or consideration that goes into its brand of offensiveness. So this combination is like a mix of two parts offense with one part clever, the result being “treachery,” “strife,” or all out “battle.”

This section is the poet speaking, so why do you think he continues to use somewhat restrained compound words? Is it to suit the atmosphere of the hall or the character of Wealhtheow?

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Next week the history of the torc continues!

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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