Going from the Guard to the Herald: Book IV – Book VI

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


Their chief answered him,
wielder of the band’s wisdom, he unlocked his word hoard:

“We are kin of the Geatish people,
we come from among Hygelac’s hearth retainers.
His people knew my father,
a noble progenitor known as Ecgtheow, –
he commanded many winters, before he went on his way,
full of years, each man of counsel
on the wide earth takes heed of his name.
We through care of the worries of your lord,
son of Halfdane, have come seeking for
the protector of your people. Your exhortation to us is great!
We have much to declare towards your people’s errand,
the freedom of the Danes, no longer shall there evil
be in this land, I believe. You know —
if it is truly as we have heard —
that against the Scyldings fights a fiend unknown to me,
a thriving ravager, that in the dark of night
threatens you with unknowable fear,
oppression, and slaughter. That I might teach Hrothgar
through the counsel of a broad mind,
how he the wise and good could overcome that fiend —
if he ever should wish to end
this ruinous trouble — relief will come after,
and his cares shall turn cool.
Else ever after shall be times of sorrow,
distress shall be only endured, all while that greatest
of houses is forced to make do, empty, in its high place.”

The guard, astride his horse, spoke to that man,
the fearless officer:

          “Everyone shall
come to know and understand your sharp skill,
words and deeds, as they shall determine.
I hear this and judge thus: that you and your warriors are true
to the Scylding lord. Come forth bearing
your weapons and armour; I will lead you.
Also, I will command my men
to guard your boat against the fiend,
relay a request to them to guard your newly tarred
ship on the shore, until it again bears
you dear men over the streaming surface
in its bound boards to the Geat’s borders;
it is my hope that such doers of good may have that fate,
to survive the battle rush in the hall.”

They went upon their way then. And as the guard promised,
the boat was bound, the capacious craft tethered with cord,
secure at anchor. Boar-shapes shone
atop the warriors’ cheek guards; ornamented gold,
glistening and firmament firm, securely they held their wearers’ life,
the pond-still thoughts of war-hearted, grim men. They all hurried onward,
going down together, until from that high hall of a home,
ornamented and gold-dappled for all to see
that it was foremost among all the human works
and buildings beneath heaven, there the ruler called for them;
the light of the people that shone over so great a land.
The coastguard took the battle-brave to the bright,
high-souled hall, that he may point out
the shortest path thither. That hero of combat turned his horse
about, spoke he these words next:

“It is time for me to go. The Almighty
Father’s grace keep you healthy
amidst your quest! I am to the sea,
to hold the shore against fiendish foes.”


The Geats’ way then was stone-paved, along the road
the warriors went together. War-byrnies shone,
hard, hand-linked, shining ring-mail from
skilled hands celebrated in song hung beneath plate.
Shortly they arrived at the hall in their horrible war gear,
sea-weary they set their shields,
battle-hard bucklers, against that hall’s outer wall;
they dropped onto the benches set there, mail-shirts ringing,
those war-skilled men. Spears stood,
bound in a seaman’s bunch, all together,
ashen shaft over grey; that iron-clad crew’s
weapons jostled as they rested against the hall.
Then a proud warrior asked after those men’s origins:

“Where come ye, ye of the anointed shields,
shirts of grey mail and visored helms,
this crowd of spears? I am Hrothgar’s
herald and officer. Never saw I this many men
from far away of such high spirits.
It seems to me that you for glory, not at all for exile,
yay, even for courage, have sought out Hrothgar.”

One man among them courageously answered,
the proud man of the Weders, spoke after those words,
bold beneath his helm:

        “We are Hygelac’s
table-companions; Beowulf is my name.
I will explain to the son of Halfdane,
that famed lord, my errand,
your prince, if he will grant us such audience,
allow us to greet him graciously.

Wulfgar spoke: a Wendel man,
well known for his heart-thought,
of war and of wisdom:

         “I, friend of Danes,
will inquire of our shield,
giver of rings, as thou art a petitioner,
of that famed lord, about your journey,
and then the answer I shall convey immediately,
that I may speak as it so pleases him.”

Then quickly he turned to face where Hrothgar sat,
old and hoar among the throng of his thanes.
Wulfgar then went to the one of honourable deeds, shoulder to shoulder
with the Danish lord he spoke: knew he their noble customs.
Wulfgar’s words to his friend and lord were thus:

“Here are those who came, who ventured
forth going over the sea from the Geatish lands;
their chief champion
they call Beowulf, he is the petitioner,
the one asking, my lord, if he might mix
words with you. Do not propose to deny
your reply, gracious Hrothgar.
By his war-gear I think their worth is equal
to that of esteemed warriors; indeed he seems dependable,
the one warrior who has lead them so far.”


Hrothgar spoke, protector of the Scyldings:

“I knew that man when he was but a boy.
His father of old was called Ecgtheow,
he to whom Hrethel of the Geats gave
his only daughter. And now, I hear, his son
has come here, seeking favourable friendship.
Once sailors, that brought gifts
from Geatland thither as thanks,
said that this man has the might of
thirty men in his hand-grip,
is famed in war. He, Holy God,
for our support has sent him
to the West-Danes, this I believe,
against Grendel’s terror. I shall well reward
them with treasures for his courage.
Be thou in haste, go with this command,
that the peaceful host may hear it together.
Also give him word that they are welcome
in these Danish lands!”

        Then to the hall door
went Wulfgar, from within this word was called out:

“You, as commanded by word of my war-lord,
prince of the East-Danes, here have a famed family.
and you, proven brave in your coming to him
from over the sea-wave, are welcome hither.
Now you may go in wearing your armour,
under your helmets, to see Hrothgar;
yet here leave your shields unbound,
the broad boards, and deadly spears, this is a meeting for words alone.”

Arose then the hero, from amidst his many thanes,
various valiant warriors, though some remained there,
to watch the war-gear, as they were strictly ordered.
Those going in hurried together, their chief at their head,
went under Heorot’s roof. Through the hall strode the war-fierce,
under hard helmets, until they stood upon the hearth.
Beowulf spoke — on him the byrnie shone,
his corselet crafted with the smith’s skill:

“Be thou, Hrothgar, hale! I am Hygelac’s
relation and man; I have started into earning
great glory since my youth. News of Grendel
is openly known in my homeland;
it was the talk of sailors, that this hall stood,
best of buildings, idle and emptied
of each man after the evening light
becomes obscured beneath heaven’s brightness.
Then a council urged me to help,
the most esteemed, the cleverest of Geatish men,
that I thee, the ruler of Danes, Hrothgar seek,
for they all know of my strength.
They themselves saw when I cleverly overcame,
foe after foe, when I bound five,
devastated the kin of giants, and upon the sea slew
water-demons by night. Indeed I have endured dire need,
have fulfilled the Geat’s hatred — such was the hope they summoned —
it consumed those enemies. And so it shall now go against Grendel,
with this monster I will stand alone as it please,
have a singular meeting with the demon. Now, I to thee,
lord of the Bright-Danes, will make my request,
prince of the Scyldings, I will proclaim this alone:
That you do not refuse me, protector of warriors,
close friend of the people, that for which I have now come from afar,
that I might alone save for my band of warriors,
this hardy heap, cleanse Heorot.
I have also learned, by asking, that this demon
in his recklessness does not care for weapons.
I the same shall scorn, that Hygelac may be for me,
my liege-lord, blithe of heart,
that I neither sword nor the broad shield shall bear,
the linden-bound battle buckler; instead I shall grapple
against the fiend with my grasp and struggle for life,
hater against hated; in that I shall trust
in God’s judgment to take whom he will in death.
I expect that the fiend will, if he be allowed
in the hall of battle, the Geatish people
devour unafraid, as he often has,
trampling the flower of men. You need not
cover my head, but he will have me
blood-stained, if death take me.
The beast will bear away my bloodied body, thinking to taste,
without remorse will the lone-goer eat me,
staining his moor-den, so do not be long anxious
about my body’s state.
Send to Hygelac, if me battle take,
this best of battle dresses, that I bear upon my breast,
choicest of garments; that is Hraedlan’s heirloom,
the work of Wayland. For always fate shall go as it will!”


Assurances to end a story, or just an act?

The Original Old English
My Translation
A Quick Question

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

J. R. Skelton – Marshall, Henrietta Elizabeth (1908) Stories of Beowulf, T.C. & E.C. Jack.
Image found at: http://bit.ly/2frmbiU

Back To Top

This is another busy week for me, but I still want to post something here. So, since I wrote up a new news piece for last week, here is a new translation post. However, this is just a translation. To make it more interesting I’ll first post the original Old English from lines 1665 – 1676. My translation is underneath that.

Back To Top

Beowulf completes the story of how he defeated Grendel’s mother, and he assures Hrothgar that Heorot is now safe.

Back To Top
The Original Old English

“‘Ofsloh ða æt þære sæcce, þa me sæl ageald,
huses hyrdas. þa þæt hildebil
forbarn brogdenmæl, swa þæt blod gesprang,
hatost heaþoswata. Ic þæt hilt þanan
feondum ætferede, fyrendæda wræc,
deaðcwealm Denigea, swa hit gedefe wæs.
Ic hit þe þonne gehate, þæt þu on Heorote most
sorhleas swefan mid þinra secga gedryht
ond þegna gehwylc þinra leoda,
duguðe ond iogoþe, þæt þu him ondrædan ne þearft,
þeoden Scyldinga, on þa healfe,
aldorbealu eorlum, swa þu ær dydest.'”

(Beowulf ll.1665-1676)

Back To Top
My Translation

“‘Then I slew her in that fight, as the hall began to glow around me,
a strangely fortified house. than that battle blade
burned, the damascened sword, as the creature’s blood struck it,
hottest of battle bloods. I took the hilt out
from the fiend’s remains, the wicked deed avenged,
the death by violence of Danes, as was befitting.
Thence I swear this to thee, that you may now
sleep without sorrow in Heorot hall with all your company,
and each thane of your people,
old nobles and youths, that they all now have no need to fear,
lord of the Scyldings, for your own portion,
the lives of your folk, as you did before.'”

(Beowulf ll.1665-1676)

Back To Top
A Quick Question

Beowulf has confirmed that the threat to Heorot is over, and he assures Hrothgar of that pretty thoroughly here. Does this part of the story leave you feeling a strong sense of closure? Or, knowing that there’s still a dragon out there somewhere, do you feel like Beowulf’s words are just leading to an act break in the story?

Back To Top

Next week, Beowulf gives Hrothgar another gift.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

Back To Top

Beowulf hauls Grendel’s head in, spectacles of the war-fierce (ll.1644-1650)

The Wondrous Beowulf and His Spectacle of a Head
Spectacles of the Bold in Deed

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

J. R. Skelton – Marshall, Henrietta Elizabeth (1908) Stories of Beowulf, T.C. & E.C. Jack.
Image found at: http://bit.ly/2frmbiU

Back To Top

Beowulf and the Geats stride into Heorot, heaving Grendel’s head.

Back To Top

“Then that weathered warrior strode in,
the man bold in deeds had grown authoritative,
a war-fierce man, he greeted Hrothgar.
By the hair was Grendel’s head then borne
into the middle of the floor, where the warriors drank,
the terror dropped amidst the men and their queen;
a wondrous spectacle in the sight of men.”
(Beowulf ll.1644-1650)

Back To Top

Old English:


Modern English:


Back To Top
The Wondrous Beowulf and His Spectacle of a Head

I wonder what the people assembled in Heorot are more shocked by: Grendel’s head or the return of Beowulf?

The Danes had lost hope for the young Geat, after all (ll.1601-1602). So it must be a wonder that he’s back.

Even more so that he’s back with the head of Grendel.

But why should hauling the head into the hall matter?

I think it’s because the head is an important symbol of the seat of power in early medieval minds. That the head is drug in by the hair might also have some symbolic significance since the people that the Anglo-Saxons encountered when they first came to Britain grew their hair long – both men and women. In this sense, Grendel’s monstrosity doesn’t just come from being cursed by god, but by being the other, the thing that needed to be purged from the land to make it pure and good.

Actually, if Grendel is seen as a reference to the Celtic peoples that the Anglo-Saxons encountered, then maybe there was a sense that they were cursed by god. After all, the Irish retained an earlier variety of Christianity even after the second wave of missions came in. No doubt there would have been differences in doctrine, however, leading the British locals’ ideas of Christianity being considered heretical, a people whom god had turned its back on.

Whatever it might have meant to early audiences, the fact that Beowulf managed to separate Grendel’s head from his vile body shows that, with line 1645, he has indeed “grown authoritative” (“dóme gewurþad”). His deeds now match his words. After all, he had promised Hrothgar to rid Heorot of Grendel, and up until this moment it was a promise unfulfilled.

Yes, Beowulf killed Grendel when they fought in Heorot, but then Grendel’s mother came raging in. And who knows what Grendel’s body was doing on that altar in her hall. Perhaps he was just being prepared for burial, perhaps that’s where their tribe laid people out for a set number of days after death.

Or, maybe Grendel was such an angry creature because he had died and been revived before on that altar, the catch being that with each revival, he lost a bit of whatever humanity he had in him. In this case, maybe her mourning wasn’t for Grendel’s death but for the fact that with each revival she lost a little bit of the sweet, playful son whom she had raised years ago.

Why do you think Beowulf plonks Grendel’s head down in the middle of Heorot? Is it just done for dramatic effect? Or is there something more to it?

Back To Top
Spectacles of the Bold in Deed

At medieval festivals you could go see the “bold in deed”1. Yes, there would be all manner of performers, competitions, and carousing, but there would also be games for the “war fierce”2. Things like one-on-one tournament sword and shield fights, jousts, wrestling. Activities which would have been the “spectacle”3 of the day.


1daed-cene: bold in deed. daed (deed, action, transaction, event) + cene (bold, brave, fierce, powerful, learned, clever) [A word that is exclusive to Beowulf.]

Back Up

2hilde-deor: war fierce, brave. hilde (war, combat) + deor (animal, beast, deer, reindeer; brave, bold, ferocious, grievous, severe, violent)

Back Up

3wlite-seon: sight, spectacle. wlite (brightness, appearance, form, aspect, look, countenance, beauty, splendour, adornment) + seon (look, behold, observe, perceive, understand, know, inspect, visit, experience, suffer, appear, seem, provide) [A word that is exclusive to Beowulf.]

Back Up


Back To Top

Next week, Beowulf speaks!

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

Back To Top

Flaming waters and who measures out miles anyway? (ll.1357b-1367)

A Weird Home with Flaming Water
The Wondrous Life of a Mile Measurer

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.

Back To Top

Hrothgar tells Beowulf (and us) about where the Grendels live.

Back To Top

&nbsp:&nbsp:&nbsp:&nbsp:&nbsp:&nbsp:&nbsp:&nbsp:&nbsp:&nbsp:&nbsp:&nbsp:&nbsp:”They occupy that
strange land, along wolf-inhabited slopes, near wind-wracked cliffs,
up the perilous fen-path, where mountain streams
fall through mists from the headlands,
water creeping from underground. It is not many miles
hence that their mere can be found,
with frost-covered groves overhanging it;
tree roots overshadow those waters with their interlocking embrace.
Each night there you can see the oddest of wonders,
the water catches fire; none among the dear wise
children of humanity know of those waters’ bottom.”
(Beowulf ll.1357b-1367)

Back To Top

Old English:


Modern English:


Back To Top
A Weird Home with Flaming Water

Wonder upon wonder! After telling us that Grendel and Grendel’s mother were known to the people living on his lands, Hrothgar goes on to describe where the two live. And it doesn’t sound very hospitable.

Wolves on the slopes (“wulfhleoþu” l.1358), paths that cut through the marsh (“fengelad” l.1359), and everything is covered in mist (“genipu” l.1360). It sounds downright swampy.

Given this description of the monstrous Grendels’ home it’s no wonder it’s the Anglo-Saxon (read British) default to ascribe brutality and low intelligence to people who live in the backwoods and hills. If the presentation of Grendel and Grendel’s mother are anything to go on, making these people monsters (as we still do in horror movies to this day), is one of the oldest stereotypes carried down by speakers of English.

But that’s not the worst of it.

Along with being in such a perilous place, the water there burns by night. Water’s not supposed to burn. And especially not at night. And yet this stuff does.

Maybe it’s marsh gas (viewers of the Jon Pertwee Doctor Who story “Carnival of Monsters” might know how flammable the stuff can be).

Or maybe it’s just the light of the moon rippling off the water between tree branches in such a way that it looks like the water is glowing.

Or, weirdest of all, maybe the fires that dance upon the lake’s surface at night are lights for those below. Maybe this is the site of an anti-Heorot, a place where monsters kick back, drink their malts and eat strictly vegetarian meals.

It sounds crazy, but, as we’ll learn later on, the Grendels do have a rather mysterious cave/hall to call their own.

And why not introduce an anti-Heorot here?

So few people adapt the poem beyond the confrontation with Grendel’s mother. But, if you look at the poem as a thing divided into thirds based on the three major fights something interesting appears. Along with three monsters (Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and the dragon) there are three halls that are featured (Heorot, the Grendel’s, and Beowulf’s). So why shouldn’t the water on fire be lights coming up from the deep, where monsters play and frolic, while one of them plays an old rib cage like a xylophone?

What do you think is causing the water of this strange lair to look like it’s burning by night?

Back To Top
The Wondrous Life of a Mile Measurer

The area that Hrothgar talks about in this passage seems quite remote. It contrasts quite a bit with the tame paths and meadows around Heorot. At some point though, he must have asked someone to “mil-gemearc” the distance between Heorot and this place.

Literally, such a request would have been to “mark the miles” between the two, though “measure by miles” is far less imperative. Not that it’d be difficult to make these two words sound like a command when put together. They’re quite straightforward. “Mil” means “mile” and “gemearc” means “mark,” “sign,” “line of division,” “standard,” “boundary,” “limit,” “term,” “border,” “defined area,” “district,” or “province.”

What I wonder, though, is whether or not Hrothgar sent the same person or another to measure out the “fen-gelad.” Measuring out a “marsh-path” would be a bit more treacherous, since I doubt the ground would be very solid. I mean the two words “fen” (“mud,” “mire,” “dirt,” “fen,” “marsh,” “moor,” or “the fen country”) and “gelad” (“course,” “journey,” “way,” “street,” “water-way,” “leading,” “carrying,” “maintenance,” or “support”) going together don’t really give the sense of a path around the marsh, but rather directly through it. “Fen-gelad” sounds like it describes a path that is itself marshy.

It’d be all the worse for our measurer if they were told to go all the way to where the “fyrgen-stream” drop down into the marsh. Those “mountain streams” would be pretty deep into the fen, I’d wager. After all, the only interpretation for “fyrgen” in this context is “mountain,” so whatever sense of “stream” you went with (“stream,” “flood,” “current,” “river,” or “sea”), would need to be coming off of a mountain. And it sounds like Heorot is quite far from most mountains.

As hard a task as all this measuring out would be, I imagine that the person doing it would see some “nið-wundor.” How could they not see a “dire wonder” or “portent” along such a path? Though seeing such a thing wouldn’t necessarily uplift their spirits. “Wundor” is at least neutral, meaning simply “wonder,” “miracle,” “marvel,” “portent,” “horror,” “wondrous thing,” or “monster”. But “nið” refers to “abyss,” “strife,” “enmity,” “attack,” “war,” “evil hatred,” “spite,” “oppression,” “affliction,” “trouble,” or “grief.” So these sights may leave whatever measurer of miles that sees them with grief.

Indeed, such “nið-wundor” likely include sights like a “wulf-hleothu.” I’d be pretty distressed if I had to pass by a hillside where wolves lived after all. They’d have the higher ground and all sorts of advantages. Though, they might also be devils in disguise since “wulf” can translate as “wolf,” “wolfish person,” or “devil”. They’d definitely be on a hillside, though: “hleoþu” only means “cliff,” “precipice,” “slope,” “hillside,” or “hill”.

Back To Top

Next week, Hrothgar further describes this strange place and promises Beowulf a great reward.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

Back To Top