The Danes scheme against Finn, compound words herald spring (ll.1127b-1141)

A Feud Defined
Compounds Both Simple and Complex

The goddess of spring, Ostara, shown with her symbols and beams of light.

“Ostara by Johannes Gehrts” by Eduard Ade – Felix Dahn, Therese Dahn, Therese (von Droste-Hülshoff) Dahn, Frau, Therese von Droste-Hülshoff Dahn (1901). Walhall: Germanische Götter- und Heldensagen. Für Alt und Jung am deutschen Herd. Breitkopf und Härtel.. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons –

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The poet tells us that, as much as they’ve been wanting to head home, the Danes have been plotting against Finn all the winter long. And now, with spring in the air, the revenge is about to happen.

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Hengest there yet
dwelt, through the slaughter-stained and all ill-fated winter
with Finn; filled with thoughts of home,
though they might not sail the sea upon
a ring-prowed ship; the sea heaved with storms,
winds fought upon it; the wintry waves were locked
tight with binding ice, and would be until came
another year to the world, as it yet does,
as the seasons are still observed,
bringing gloriously bright weather. Then would winter depart,
leave the earth’s fair bosom; the exiles were eager to go,
the strangers in the hall; but then they thought more
of revenge for their injury than of putting to sea,
if they might bring about a hostile encounter,
that the son of Jutes may have his crime etched in his heart.”
(Beowulf ll.1127b-1141)

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Old English:


Modern English:


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A Feud Defined

In this passage the poet gives us the reason why Hengest and the Danes couldn’t yet leave Finn’s stronghold: the winter held them in place.

A natural phenomenon kept them from sailing home, and so they were held there at Finn’s place. Maybe this should be viewed as an act of god, or maybe that’s just how it was framed when Beowulf was put to paper.

At the very least, we can say that Hengest and his Danes had no choice in the matter. They’re definitely not sticking around because they want to. Indeed, though the poet spends a bit of time decorating this passage with the natural imagery of a storm-laden sea and a new year coming to the world (back when New Years was actually celebrated much closer to the spring equinox), we can also see Hengest an the Danes smouldering.

Hell, maybe they’re smouldering because they can’t leave and if the Danes had been able to just up and head out after the funeral there would be no hard feelings beyond the disgrace of having to submit to their lord’s slayer. But winter is just that cruel.

More than that, though, I think there’s something to be said for the Danes’ hate growing through the winter. It’s a kind of neat time lapse of a feud’s growth if you think about it. Very much in miniature, but nonetheless. Let’s get into the imagery to suss this view of feuds out.

We’re told that the seas are stormy and locked up with ice. But only after the poet tells us that the Danes can’t sail away. And then, before we get back to the Danes, we’re told about how the seas were impassable until a new year came (“as it yet does,” (“swa nu gyt deð” (l.1134)) the poet assures us for some reason), and we’re told about how the new year brings with it “gloriously bright weather” (“wuldortorhtan weder” (l.1136)).

Actually, that kind of light sounds like the sort that could refresh and renew a person — even if we consider this part of the poem to be entirely (or at least mostly) free of the Christian influence that likely came with the writing down of Beowulf.

If even this part of the poem has been Christianized, then that “bright weather” sounds like the sort of thing that redeems the world, that saves it every single spring in a grand cycle of renewal and decay. It packs the season of spring with so much rebirth that the four season cycle becomes a metaphor even for human life itself (though that would be one grand cycle of the seasons of life, starting over again, in Christian thought, with the resurrection at the next, true spring).

So renewal is really highlighted, underlined, and made a big deal of here. Even if only subtly through imagery.

And yet, the Danes’ anger persists. It is powerful enough — dark enough? — to resist this “gloriously bright weather,” which, in a way actually encourages the Danes’ plan. After all, now they can get back at Finn and make their escape, thus fleeing the consequences of their violence.

If that sort of enduring, growing anger doesn’t describe a feud I don’t know what does.

Or, as Blake would write some centuries after Beowulf was put to paper in his poem The Poison Tree:

“I was angry with my friend;
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe:
I told it not, my wrath did grow.

And I waterd it in fears,
Night & morning with my tears:
And I sunned it with smiles,
And with soft deceitful wiles.

And it grew both day and night.
Till it bore an apple bright.
And my foe beheld it shine,
And he knew that it was mine.

And into my garden stole,
When the night had veild the pole;
In the morning glad I see;
My foe outstretched beneath the tree.”

What do you think the point is of telling a story about revenge after a major victory?

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Compounds Both Simple and Complex

This week’s passage has quite a few compound words. But let me just barrel through the straightforward ones first.

These are “wael-fag,” (l.1128) “hringed-stefnan,” (l.1131) and “sae-lad” (l.1139).

“Wael-fag” simply means “blood-stained” and comes from the combination of “wael” (“slaughter,” or carnage”) and “faeg” (“variegated,” “spotted,” “dappled,” “stained,” “dyed,” “shining,” or “gleaming”).

Likewise, “hringed-stefnan” just joins the meaning of its parts to create a quicker word. “Hringed” means “made of rings,” and “stefnan” means “prow or stern of a ship.”

And, “sae-lad” is almost close enough to Modern English to figure out with a glance — almost. This word combines “sae” (“sheet of water,” “sea,” “lake,” or “pool”) and “lad” (“course,” “journey,” “way,” “street,” “water-way,” “leading,” “carrying,” “maintenance,” “support,” “clearing from blame or accusation,” “purgation,” or “exculpation”) for its meaning. Though there’s definitely something more in this one. Something about a journey being purging and cleansing, along with the sea itself being seen as something flat, a place welcoming roads.

But now let’s get to the good stuff.

The word “wuldor-torhtan” is a fantastic compounding of “wuldor” (“glory,” “splendour,” “honour,” “praise,” “thanks,” or “heaven”) and “torht” (“clearness,” “brightness,” “bright,” “radiant,” “beautiful,” “splendid,” “noble,” “illustrious,” “brightly,” “clearly,” “beautifully,” “splendidly”) meaning “gloriously bright,” “clear,” “brilliant,” or “illustrious.”

This word is also fairly straightforward, but it’s not quite as cut and dry as just being a mix of two words for fairly concrete things. Any kind of “glorious light” is a little more than just your desk lamp being flicked on, after all.

Then on line 1138 we have “gyrn-wraece” a word based on the combination of “gyrn” (“sorrow,” or “misfortune”) and “wracu” (“revenge,” “vengeance,” “persecution,” “enmity,” “punishment,” “penalty,” “cruelty,” “misery,” “distress,” “torture,” or “pain”) that means “revenge for injury.”

I think that this compound is a little more complex than those at the top of this section because of the nuance that “wracu” brings to it.

This word’s nuances suggest that the revenge isn’t necessarily for some sorrow or misfortune, but it’s maybe a penalty for it. Which brings the perhaps selfish seeming act of revenge the flavour of something cosmic, or, at the least, something social. In that your participation in a society entitles you to lash out at another who has wronged your society.

On the one hand, this is definitely a clear motivation in whatever the Danes are planning in this passage. But on the other, it’s definitely something that can seem petty. But our first reaction to the kind of violence Finn visited upon the Danes even today is the same — to hit back, rather than to try to find the real root of the problem and go after that. As the feud with the Frisians continues after this incident, the Danes didn’t bother to attack the root of their problem with the Frisians either.

And then we come to line 1140’s “torn-gemot,” a word meaning nothing more than “battle.”

But this word combines “torn” (“anger,” “indignation,” “grief,” “misery,” “suffering,” “pain,” “bitter,” “cruel,” or “grievous”) and “gemot” (as a form of “mētan”: “meet,” “find,” “find out,” “fall in with,” “encounter,” or “obtain”) to get there, so there’s definitely more to it than battle.

In fact, I went with the literal translation in this passage because I don’t think the Danes want to initiate another battle with Finn. Sure, all of his forces have dispersed so he likely only has his own personal comitatus around him, but still. What the Danes are scheming is subtler than an all out attack — otherwise it wouldn’t outpace thoughts of homes in their minds, as we see in line 1138-1139’s “but then they thought more/of revenge for their injury than of putting to sea” (“he to gyrnwræce/swiðor þohte þonne to sælade”).

What’s really odd about the second word in this compound, mētan, though, is it’s senses of “find” and of “obtain,” combined with the anger or pain of “torn,” it sounds like the compound doesn’t just refer to “battle” as Clark Hall and Meritt suggest, but to any encounter in which “anger” or “pain” are found — so not just physical fights but also battles of words, or bloodshed-free political clashes.

Basically, then, “torn-gemot” should mean, in its plainest sense, “conflict encounter” or even just “conflict.” Though we can be quite sure that the Danes aren’t just planning to have some choice words with Finn before they sail for home.

What do you think makes the difference between compound words that are straightforward and those that have more nuance? Is it a matter of a word’s newness, or of a word’s popularity?

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In the next passage, all of the Danes’ schemes come to a head.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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Beowulf [ll.2409-2419] (Old English)

Section Summary
A Word Wanted
A Difficult Word
Speculation on Hengest and Horsa


Thursday is here again, and so I’ll continue with my work on Beowulf.

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Section Summary

The next section of my Beowulf translation covers line 2409-2419: The part at which the thrall is forced to guide Beowulf and his eleven chosen warriors to the place where he found the stolen cup that Beowulf believes is the cause of the dragon’s rage. They reach the cave (hleaw, 2411) and discover that it is full of wondrous treasures (“wraetta ond wira,” or “wrought and wound,” as I translate it, 2413).

But, they also know that the treasure’s guardian is the dragon and, as the poet points out, no man is able to extract that treasure cheaply because of the dragon’s eagerness to guard it (“gearo guð-freca gold-maðmas heold” 2414) (2416). The passage ends when Beowulf sits down on the cliff-top overlooking the sea and wishes all of his warriors health and luck (haelo abead, 2418). For he already seems to know that his loan of days is due.

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A Word Wanted

I always have a lot of fun with this language. Maybe it’s because the expression seems so fancy free or because it’s from a time before there was really a formalized register and diction that could be learned in school (since English wasn’t taught in school back then, it was just the common tongue – what people spoke to communicate with each other. Latin, Celtic, and probably even some Old French would have been used for business, since native Old English speakers would trade with those peoples).

Whatever the case, this degree of enjoyment tends to turn me onto a word that should still be around in one form or another.

In the case of this passage, the word that I want to see come back is heorð-geneat (hearth-companion). The origin of the term probably came from the practice of those fighting wars/feuds together sitting down and talking/eating/relaxing by a fire. The same sort of bonding happens today with MMORPGS or online forums. Flickering lights still help us to bond with one another.

But not too many people actually sit around fires on a regular basis. Sure, some people go camping, and maybe some use wood furnaces to heat their living space. But, it’s generally not a daily occurrence to wind up beside friends in front of a roaring blaze. But, it is a daily occurrence for people to bond while playing MMORPGS and other such online games (sorry TV, but high speed internet and wi-fi have done to you what you did to radio).

So, as a modernized version of heorð-geneat, I propose that we bring in the term connection companion. Or, for short, conn-comp. Think about it.

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A Difficult Word

Within the passage the only word completely unfamiliar to me was “unhiore,” on line 2413. The word translates as terrible, a shuffle that is easy enough, but it’s parts are a little bit curious to me.

A hearty little particle, “un” meant then what it still means now – a negation of what follows (such as unsure for not sure). The rest of the word, “hiore,” as best as I can figure is a variant of “hearra,” meaning lord, master, or it is a variant of “heorra,” meaning “hinge, cardinal point.”

The latter actually makes a little bit more sense to me, since something that is “not a hinge/cardinal point” would mean that it is not tied into the world in an extremely structured way (perhaps not subject to wyrd/fate like everything else).

Basically, this combination makes the word “unhiore” seem like it refers to an anomaly in the system. Such a variation is a truly terrifying thing when your system is there to help navigate life in a world full of strife. Especially since that strife was not of the life-choice kind we face today (seriously think through grad school if it be among your choices, oh ye bright eyed senior undergraduate) but of the wayward sword cutting open an artery kind.

Of course, this interpretation of “unhiore” is primarily supported by my trusty Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary.

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Speculation on Hengest and Horsa

Since we’re in the realm of speculation already, here’s some more.

While looking up “yð-gewinne” (“wave-strife”) I came across the word “yð-hengest” (“sea horse,” a kenning for “ship”). This got me thinking.

Recently I listened to the Anglo Saxon podcast by frederic and he mentioned that Gildas calls only Hengest and Horsa by name among all of those Angles called in by the king of the Britons to help fend off the other Celtic tribes. On the podcast frederic noted that these names translate as horse and mare respectively. But what if Gildas meant yð-hengest instead of just Hengest? Then it would be ship and mare.

Further, what if this is an old saying signifying men and supplies? Or families and rations? I mean, it’s clear that the Angles didn’t just bring two guys and a few ships over when they came, there were much more than that coming to the Britons’ aid.

Old English idioms like this are notoriously difficult to figure out because there are so few sources, but I think that this could be something. I mean, until England became the major super power, English was just a bunch of dialects that at times could pose some difficulty to each other.

Hundreds of years earlier, when the only permanent media was the written word, idiom would have traveled at a snail’s pace and probably would have taken years, if not decades, to work its way into everyday use between dialects.

So maybe horse and mare or ship and mare is an example of a dialect from Gildas’ region. Already clear is that ships are super important to Anglo-Saxons – they can be treasure houses, the means to travel for adventure and conquest, and potentially the final resting place for warriors. But what are horses to them? A means of transit? A thing to gamble on?

Maybe if I can establish what a horse *was* to the Anglo-Saxons of 800-1100 AD, then I can write more about what a mare by itself might signify beyond the animal. And what something like “ship and mare” might mean.

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Anyway, with that question, and that quest, I leave off with Beowulf until next Thursday. Leave any suggestions, contentions or comments in the text box below.

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