Heorot’s Makeover: Book XIV – Book XVI

An ale house like a mead hall from Beowulf that's in Sweden.

An ale house just north of Göteborg in Sweden, but a pretty good approximation of what Heorot would look like (except for the lack of gold). Image from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Viking_house_Ale_Sweden.jpg


Hrothgar spoke — he stood upon the steps
once he reached the hall, saw the lofty roof
with its gold decor and Grendel’s hand aloft:

“For this sight to the Almighty may thanks
be given immediately! Great grief I endured,
the affliction of Grendel; always may God work
wonder after wonder, the Shepherd of glory!
It was not long ago that I expected never
to meet anyone who could soothe
my miseries, when blood-bedecked
stood the best of halls, gory from battle.
Everyone knew wide-reaching woe so that
none would venture near, so that for a long time
the people in their stronghold had to hold out against
hated demons and evil. Now shall we have, through
the might of God this deed done,
a thing requiring skill that that none before
may have even conceived of. Indeed let us say
to the singular woman who gave birth to such a son
among the human race, if she yet lives,
that the God of old was gracious to her
in her child-bearing. Now I, Beowulf, accept you,
best of warriors. I shall see you as a son
in heart and in hand! Keep well this
new kinship. And be thee never wanting for
any desirable thing in the world, that I have power to give.
Quite often I’ve given rewards for less,
honouring with gifts men more lowly,
weaker in battle. You yourself have
done this deed, that thy fame may
endure well into the future. The Ruler of All
reward you with good, as It has to now done!”

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 you yourself might have seen it,
witnessed 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 hand-grip he should
lie struggling for life, but his body slithered out.
For I could not, God willed it not,
prevent him from going, nor could I then firmly enough grasp him,
that deadly foe. Nevertheless he relinquished his hand
to protection his cowering life, hideous proof to leave behind,
an arm complete with shoulder. Not in any way did that
wretched being find comfort here.
Nor will the hateful attacker be afflicted
with a long life of sin, but he knew pain
while tightly squeezed in my inexorable grip,
the deadly fetter. Where he goes he shall await
the great judgment with men be-speckled with crimes,
what for them resplendent God will allot.”

Then more silent were those words, of the son of Ecglaf,
of boastful speech about warlike deeds,
after the noblemen saw that man’s strength
proven in the hand hung on the high roof,
the fiend’s fingers. At the tip of each was
set a firm nail like steel,
the heathen’s claw, chosen weapon of the horribly dreadful
warrior. Everyone assembled said
that they had never heard of any time-tested sword
that could properly strike it, that would injure the wretch’s
bloodied battle hand.


Then came quickly the command to the people
to adorn Heorot inward; many were there,
men and women, so that the wine hall,
that guest hall, was bedecked. Variegated with gold,
wall tapestries shone over walls, such a wonderful sight
they all agreed as they stared upon the same.
That bright house had been swiftly broken into pieces,
all of the inside’s iron bonds no longer fast,
the hinges sprung apart; the roof alone escaped
all untouched. That fiendish foe’s wicked final deed,
winding away in his escape, could be seen in the damage,
his thrashing while despairing of his life. That wave cannot be
fled — no matter what one does to avail themselves —
but seeking shall be all humankind,
those desirous of need, the sons of men,
earth-dwellers, hopeful to escape the place eager for us,
the place where this body holds fast to its bed,
gains sleep after the feast. Then came the due time
that Hrothgar’s son come to the recast hall;
and Hrothgar himself would come to enjoy the feast.
I have no need to ask if ever a greater group of assembled peoples
has gathered around their revered ring-giver.
The renowned then bowed onto the benches,
filling the host with joy; they tore into the fare
and went round after round through cups of mead,
becoming bold minded, in that high hall,
Hrothgar and Hrothulf among them. Within Heorot were
many friends; not at all was treachery
yet made among the Scyldings.

Then to Beowulf, Hrothgar, the sword of Halfdane,
gave as reward a golden banner of victory,
an ornamented battle banner, helm and byrnie.
And he also gave a famed treasure sword that many past peoples
had seen a hero use. Beowulf was indeed duly
feted on that floor; he felt no need there
to be ashamed for the largesse shown before the warriors.
And, to be sure, never have I heard of a friendlier gift
of four gold-adorned treasures from
such a great man in any other ale hall.
Around the given helmet’s protective top there
was a wire-wound ridge to keep the blows out,
so that its wearer would not be imperilled
by the battle-hardened sword’s bite when the wicked
craving comes over blade and battler.
The lord then ordered a man to draw eight mares
with gold-pleated bridles into the hall,
within Heorot’s bounds; among them one stood
with a saddle skilfully coloured, a worthy treasure.
That was the very battle seat of the high king,
the place in which the son of Halfdane rode forth
to make the battle even — never was he in
wide-known wars laid low, even when the ridge was overthrown.
And then the lord there, descendant of Ing,
conferred both those gifts upon Beowulf,
horses and weapons. He entreated him to use them well.
Thus the famed lord, the guardian of those treasures,
nobly rewarded the warrior for the storm of battle
with treasures and steeds, so that no man might ever find fault with
the two, for those words they had exchanged were rightly aligned with truth.


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

After that 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.
Indeed, Hildeburh had no need to praise
Jutish loyalty; guiltlessly she became bereft
of loved ones at the shield play.
He sang of her son and of her brother, how both were burdened
with ruinous spear wounds. He sang of how she was made a mournful woman.
Not without reason was Hoc’s daughter
then fated to mourn, after morning came,
when she might under the sky see
the violent death of her kin, where they earlier
had held the great joy of the world. War had borne away
all of Finn’s warriors, save for a few alone,
so that he might not take to the field
to wage war against Hengest,
nor could the wretched remnant defend against hostility,
that lord’s man. But Hengest to Finn offered terms,
that they for him would clear the other side of the floor,
of the hall and high seat, so that he could control half
of what the sons of the Jutes possessed,
and that at the giving of gifts the son of Folcwalda
daily do honour to each Dane,
that even as generously to Hengest’s kin
he would grant those things, treasure rings
of twisted gold, as to his Frisian kin
during the giving in the beer hall.
Then they with trust their two halves together
secured in a peace treaty. Finn to Hengest
with ill-fated courage swore oaths
that he would treat the survivors of the carnage
honourably as his counsellors advised, ensure that no man
there would by word or deed break the treaty,
nor through any artful intrigue complain of it.
All this the Danes agreed to though they were forced to serve the slayer
of their ring-giver while leaderless, bound to him by necessity.
Though if any of the Frisians were to remind them of that
through boldly speaking of the blood feud,
then the sword edge should settle it.

What was promised was prepared, and treasure-gold
was raised from the horde: the Scyldings’
best battler was readied on the pyre.
Mail-shirts shiny with crusted blood were easily visible
on that heap, old gold boar images,
the iron-hard boar, many wounded warriors
were piled there; those few that fell in battle.
Commanded then Hildeburh that at Hnæf’s side
her own son’s body be placed for the blaze,
that his body burn on that same pyre.
Beside her son’s uncle the lady mourned,
lamented them both with dirges. The warrior went up;
the great funeral fire wound into the sky,
the burial mound roared with it; heads melted,
gaping wounds burst anew, then blood gushed out,
the bodies’ grievous hurts. Yet the flames swallowed all up,
speediest of spirits, there the blaze’s belly bore away men
of both peoples; together their glory passed away.

Want more Beowulf? Continue the poem here!

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 – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ostara_by_Johannes_Gehrts.jpg#/media/File:Ostara_by_Johannes_Gehrts.jpg

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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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