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

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

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Abstract

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

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Translation

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

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Fate’s Just What Happens to You

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

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

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

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

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

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

Toss your guess in the comments!

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The Bench Boards’ Destiny

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Closing

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

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)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
A Story Told While a Studio Audience Leers?
Some Compound Words in a Sequence
Closing

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Abstract

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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Translation

“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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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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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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Closing

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)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Every Torc’s got a Story
Straight Ahead Compounds until the End
Closing

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Abstract

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

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Translation

“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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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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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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Closing

Next week the history of the torc continues!

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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

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

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Abstract

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

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Translation

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

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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A Harp Solo Before a History Lesson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why?

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

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

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

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

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

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Words of War Mingled with Words of Mirth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Closing

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

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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

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

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Abstract

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

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Translation

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

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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The Legality of Hrothgar’s Giving

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

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

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

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

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

But why establish that?

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

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

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

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

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

Everything medieval’s muddy, isn’t it?

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

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Why the Plain Speaking Compounds?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Closing

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

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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Beowulf as storyteller, words sharp and simple (ll.957-970a)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Beowulf Embellishes Grendel
Rich and Simple Compounds
Closing

Beowulf, Old English, Anglo-Saxon, translation

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Abstract

Beowulf speaks of his fight with Grendel and the monster’s god-defying strength.

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Translation

“Beowulf spoke, the son of Ecgtheow:
‘We that brave deed did with much good will,
carried out the fight, daringly risked ourselves
against strength unknown. Wish I very much
that thee thyself might have seen it,
the enemy entangled and exhausted to the point of death!
I swiftly grasped him tight and thought
to bind him then and there to his death bed,
so that for my handgrip he should
lie struggling for life, but his body slithered out.
For I might not, though god willed it not,
prevent him from going, nor could I then firmly enough grasp him,
that deadly foe.'”
(Beowulf ll.957-970a)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Beowulf Embellishes Grendel

The first thing that struck me about this passage is Beowulf’s first word. He says that “we” defeated Grendel (l.958).

He doesn’t put the brunt of the glory on himself, but on his team of Geats. His team that was, as far as the poet told us, not even really around for the start of the fight and not really all that effective by the time that they came in to help. Yet Beowulf spreads the credit around. Almost as if, being a warrior but not yet a leader with a castle and treasure of his own, all he has to share out among his band is that glory.

It’s a curious idea, if you think about it. I mean, it’s what would happen with Anglo-Saxon social groups with treasure, so why not with glory, too? After all, the actions of the leader reflect upon that leader’s followers. So Beowulf’s defeating Grendel suggests that his fellow Geats are also quite powerful and formidable.

Though not so powerful as Grendel is made out to be.

Because as a boaster and storyteller Beowulf knows his way around suspense, we’re told by our hero that he had Grendel in a grasp designed to kill the fiend. Yet, the monster’s “body slithered out,” suggesting that he lithely escaped Beowulf (l.967). Though there’s the implication that Grendel’s morale took a serious hit. What I’ve translated as “body” is “lic”, after all, a word that is hard to disassociate from the notion of a physical form (since it generally means “body” or “corpse” and is the root of the Modern English word “lich,” referring to a sort of zombie). So Grendel’s body slithered out, but his spirit might not have escaped quite so easily.

What’s more, Beowulf doesn’t let this example of Grendel turning the tables on him work as an example of his own mortal weakness. No. Beowulf quickly moves on to the point that he didn’t want Grendel to escape and that he did so even “though god willed it not” (“þe Metod nolde” (l.967)). So, first off Grendel was a bit more of a slippery guy than Beowulf imagined. And he was strong enough to openly and effectively defy god itself. In this single line, Grendel is made into the ultimate outlaw. Even if you don’t buy the idea that Beowulf is the instrument of God’s justice in the world of the poem, at the very least Grendel’s escape from our hero is said to go against god’s own will. According to Beowulf, anyway.

He is, after all, the one retelling this story.

And that in itself is neat.

Here (and elsewhere in the poem) Beowulf is framed as a hero not just because he’s got the strength and the poise for the job, but because he’s also an experienced speaker and storyteller. So he can do the deed, sure, but he can then head back to the hall and spread the word about that deed himself. It’s like he’s a self-publishing author writing a novel and then going out and shouting about it himself rather than relying on someone else to cover marketing. Here, though, his duality of fighter and storyteller is mildly threatening to the poet writing this epic and to every poet before or since – poets after all were said to be the ones with the ultimate power, no matter what the strength of a hero, since it was the poets who made and kept the detailed records of their deeds.

Do you think that Beowulf is a reliable story teller? He’s a known boaster, sure, but does that mean that his retellings of events will always be embellished?

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Rich and Simple Compounds

This passage is rich in compound words. So, let’s get right to them.

Up first is line 962’s “fyl-werigne.” This is a straightforward compound, especially if you can wrap your mind around the words “fyl” and “werigne” and sort of sense by linguistic intuition, that the compound brings together a word generally meaning “very” and another meaning “weary.” More specifically, “fyl” (a form of “fyllu” meaning “fulness (of food),” “fill,” “feast,” “satiety,” or “impregnation”) and “werig” (“weary,” “tired,” “exhausted,” “miserable,” “sad,” or “unfortunate”). The one thing to note here is that the Old English word for weary doesn’t just encompass physical weariness, as Modern English’s “weary” seems to (you can be “weary in spirit” or “weary of heart” but need to specify as much in most instances), it also includes more emotional or spiritual weariness as well. So when someone or something is “fyl-werigne” you know that they’re simply done.

Next up is another straightforward word (it seems that Beowulf is laying rhetoric on thick, but keeping it simple, too – maybe as a courtesy to a Hrothgar who’s just woken up?): “wael-bedd.” This word just means “slaughter bed.” That’s it. Even the combinations across the different senses of “wael” (“slaughter,” or “carnage”) and “bedd” (“bed,” “couch,” “resting place,” “garden bed,” or “plot”) come out to this (though there could be a bit of a horticultural slant to some combos). So, onto number three.

The word “lif-bysig” isn’t entirely what it seems. At first glance you might think that it refers to having a busy life or some such, but there’s a bit of a spin that seems to have been lost over millennia. Indeed, this word does bring “lif” (“life,” “existence,” or “lifetime”) and “bysig” (“busy,” “occupied,” or “diligent”) together, but the result is a word meaning “struggling for life.” This word is exclusive to Beowulf, and definitely sounds like something a performer could’ve come up with on the fly or to fill out a line. Either way, it’s neat how this word demonstrates the compound’s power to be more than the sum of its parts.

Actually, the next word in my list does something similar. And this one’s exclusive to Beowulf; it’s the word “feorh-geniðlan.” This word means “mortal foe.” And it comes to that meaning through a combination of “feorh” (“life,” “principle of life,” “soul,” or “spirit”) and “nið” (“strife,” “enmity,” “attack,” “war,” “evil,” “hatred,” “spite;” “oppression,” “affliction,” “trouble,” “grief”). So, much like “lif-bysig,” “feorh-geniðlan” takes its parts and twists them together to create its compound meaning rather than just sticking two concepts together. By combining the concept of life and struggle this compound refers to something or someone that is striving against the principle of life or oppressing it in a major way. Hence “mortal foe.”

Do you think that Beowulf’s going easy on the compound words because Hrothgar’s just waking up, or is there another reason for his relatively simple diction?

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Closing

In the next passage Beowulf finishes his account of the fight with Grendel, and declares his opponent painfully dead.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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Grendel as the Goddess’ champion, three neat words (ll.791-801a)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Grendel as twisted champion
Three neat words
Closing

Beowulf, Grendel, Old English, Anglo-Saxon

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

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Abstract

Beowulf is aided by his troop of Geats, who move valiantly to defend him.

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Translation

“For nothing at all would that man
allow the death-bringer to leave alive,
he did not consider that one’s life days of
any worth to anyone anywhere. Then the mobile host
moved swiftly to defend Beowulf with fathers’ swords,
they wished to defend the very soul of their leader,
those of the famed people, where they might do so.
But they knew not that their work was in vain,
the tough-spirited war men,
that each man’s looking to hew the beast in half was faulty,
their seeking his soul with the sword point unsuccessful:…”
(Beowulf ll.791-801a)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Grendel as twisted champion

This week’s passage is one half of a complete scene. As such, it ends on a bit of a cliffhanger. Just why is it that Beowulf’s men’s swords are being used in vain? All will be revealed next week.

For now, however, I think we have enough to spin some theories around. Once again, I’ll be basing my ramblings here on Robert Graves’ The White Goddess. I’m breaking this book out again because it’s what gives the most interesting reading of this passage. Though the most interesting reading isn’t always the most supported one. I’ve got to say up front that my idea here might not stand up outside of Beowulf and in our collection of known Anglo-Saxon literature.

However, in the world that the poem creates and within the poem itself, I think it’s a valid way of looking at things.

Grendel’s being immune to swords I read not necessarily as a side effect of his being some sort of monster. Instead I see it as an effect of his being a twisted version of the goddess’ champion. I base this in the interpretation of the first part of Beowulf as a play on what Graves points out as the trifecta of goddess, god of the waning year and god of the waxing year. Grendel’s mother is the goddess in this case, though she is, perhaps a twisted and gnarled one who lacks the power she had of old since Beowulf is a predominantly masculine poem and, at least for the purposes of this reading, an artifact of a patriarchal society.

As such, a woman who may have headed her own power structure and not just occupied a high place in one defined by men (as Wealhtheow does) would be be depicted as some sort of monstrosity. As Grendel’s mother is just a little later in the poem.

If Grendel is the champion of this goddess, then he could be either the god of the waxing or waning year. However, in keeping with the idea from an earlier entry that Grendel is actually the god of the waxing year whom Hrothgar hasn’t acknowledged for a full cycle of twelve years, he has begun to wane. And now Beowulf acts the part of the king of the waxing year. This changing of roles allows Beowulf to defeat Grendel because of his position.

I also think that Beowulf beats Grendel because he challenges the otherwise slightly feminized creature with sheer masculinity. The two of them engage in a wrestling match, which from classical times was a thoroughly masculine sport, and Beowulf is said to have the strength of thirty men. And strength has always been considered one of the primary virtues of masculinity.

Of course, that means that Grendel must be feminine, at least in some ways. I don’t think these ways are obvious, however.

Looking at the poem as a whole, three things are expected of great men. They must think right thoughts, do right deeds, and speak the right words. Since Grendel does none of these he is obviously no true man.

It might be a bit of a stretch (what’s this blog for otherwise, though?) but I think that Grendel’s is aggressively feminine in his devouring of his victims. Say what you will about men’s thoughts of women’s genitalia, but I think a yonic reading of Grendel’s devouring his victims is definitely valid.

With all this in mind, as much of a cliffhanger as this passage is, I also think that it’s a commentary on the old matriarchal system of government.

Not only is the goddess that society used to worship decrepit (I am getting a little ahead of myself there still), her champion shows no proper masculine virtue and is himself feminized. My point here is that the entire matriarchal system of a cyclical kingship that Graves outlines in The White Goddess is too feminine and not as stable as the more long lasting male kingship that was coming about during the lifetime of the scribes (if not the poet(s)) of Beowulf.

But back to my jumping off point. In my reading of this week’s passage, swords don’t work against Grendel because he’s not subject to the usual ways of masculine warfare, hence Beowulf can only defeat him in hand to hand, unarmed combat.

Do you think it’s useful to use one book as a lens through which to view another book? Or should you just stick with figuring out one book at a time?

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Three neat words

This week’s passage offers up some neat words.

First among these (in their order here, and in general interesting-ness) is “cwealm-cuman.”

A combination of the word “cwealm” (“death,” “murder,” “slaughter,” “torment,” “pain,” “plague,” or “pestilence”) and “cuman” (“come,” “approach,” “get to,” or “attain”), together these words are taken to mean “death-bringer.” As you might’ve noticed, there aren’t any really crazy combinations for “cwealm-cuman”, but it’s neat because of how it’s used in the poem.

Alliteration aside, the poet’s referring to Grendel as a “death-bringer” as he struggles to escape Beowulf’s hold and the overwhelming power that the Geat wields strikes me as a clever way to talk about Grendel the death-bringer getting adose of his own fatal medicine. It seems to me that he’s saying that Beowulf wanted Grendel to leave Heorot with a taste of the same death that he had visited upon it countless times before.

Next up is “frea-drihtnes,” a combination of “frea” (“ruler,” “lord,” “king,” “master,” “the Lord,” “Christ,” “God,” or “husband”) and “drihten” (“ruler,” “king,” “lord,” “prince,” “the Lord,” “God,” or “Christ”).

What’s neat here is that this is another instance of intensification through doubling, as we’ve seen in an earlier entry. Perhaps the sentiment contained in this compound word might also have become the phrase “lord and king,” too. They are both poetic terms, after all.

And that brings us to “heard-hicgend.”

I want to say that this compound is cool because it’s intuitive, but only “heard” is probably recognizable to Modern English speakers. It is, unsurprisingly, Old English for “hard.” The word “hicgend” translates as “mind” or “spirit”.

So, literally, “heard-hicgend” is a “hard spirit” or “hard mind,” a way of expressing the idea of courage. After all, what’s courage if not a certain kind of hardness (or immovability or unwaveringness) of spirit or mind? As odd a way to express courage as saying “hard spirit” might be, it still makes sense on a kind of basic level.

Do you ever find yourself doubling negatives or adjectives to intensify what you’re saying?

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Closing

Next week, all is revealed about the enchantment that Grendel has on himself, and why Beowulf’s fellow Geats are of no help to him in this fight.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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