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 shred peace, and three diverse compounds (ll.1150b-1159a)

A Severed Peace
Three Diverse “Compounds”

An example of a 9th-10th century Anglo-Saxon sword

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Finn is definitively slain and the Danes head back to Daneland with Hildeburh and some keepsakes along with them.

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“nor might the restless spirit
restrain itself at heart. Then was the hall made red,
red from the blood of their enemies, likewise was Finn slain,
king of the troop, and they seized the queen.
The Scyldings also bore away to their ships
all that had belonged to the lord of that land,
whatever within that hall they could find of
jewels, fine-worked gems. Then they left with that noble lady
on the sea voyage to Daneland,
lead her back to her people.”
(Beowulf ll.1150b-1159a)

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Old English:


Modern English:


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A Severed Peace

As if killing Finn in his own hall wasn’t enough, the Danes go whole hog and ransack the place, too. In fact, lines 1154-1157 make it sound like they took everything that wasn’t bolted down. Then they loaded up their ships and left, bringing Hildeburh back to Daneland with them.

Minor spoilers for next week: this is the end of the song that Hrothgar’s poet sings.

So we’ve seen, at least from this little look at the episode of the Danes’ winter with Finn, that every attempt that had been made to clear up the feud between Danes and Frisians was undone.

Maybe that’s why this episode was so well known that the Beowulf poet/scribe could just launch right into it, starting off with Hildeburh’s mourning on the battlefield. Though looking back, that mourning takes on much more meaning than a single woman’s reaction to the sight of her brother and son slain in a terribly grotesque way.

Hildeburh, as a peaceweaver, as a Danish woman sent to Finn to be his wife, sees the devastation of her family and realizes that the peace she was meant to broker has failed. Perhaps in that moment, as the sun rose over the battlefield and she saw her relatives so bloodily slain, she knew that any hope for peace between Dane and Frisian had ended.

Going ahead to the funeral, as I pointed out in this entry we’re told that the glory of both Danes and Frisians burned up together.

It’s mostly speculation (this blog’s stock and trade, after all), but where there’s glory, honour can’t be far behind, right?

So, if the Danes and Frisians’ glory was gone, honour between them was likely on the way out as well. Though it must’ve lasted the winter, since Finn’s vow to the Danes that they’d be left alone as long as they stayed with him seems to have kept the Frisian lords in line until they left in the spring. But the Danes’ sense of honour towards their host and erstwhile partner in peace must’ve seriously waned. So maybe Hengest wasn’t so sympathetic with Finn as I’d imagined. Maybe, instead of Hunlafing and Guðlaf and Oslaf shoving Hengest into action, all they did was give him a gentle push.

All I can say for sure is that when the Danes take Hildeburh back to her home country of Daneland they’ve effectively undone whatever peace Hildeburh’s marriage to Finn had woven. They tore that tapestry. Stealing the gems was likely something for their trouble (and Anglo-Saxons loved treasure, so why not throw some of it into such a well known story?), though their thorough-sounding stealing of the gems is also akin to running that torn tapestry through a shredder and then lighting what’s left on fire.

Why do you think the Danes broke their peace with the Frisians? Because their leader, Hnæf, had been killed in battle? Or because they had to endure the tense and awkward winter with Finn? Or was it both and more?

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Three Diverse “Compounds”

There are only two true compounds from this week’s passage that I want to point out. The other word is kind of a compound, but also kind of not.

This special case is the word “in-gesteald,” meaning “household goods” (found on line 1155). I think this is an older compound, or something more firmly entrenched in the language because “gesteald” itself is a modified version of of the verb “stealdan” (as far as I can tell). Let’s break it down:

The verb “stealdan” means “to possess,” or “to own.”

Meanwhile “ge” is a kind of intensifier (a weird quirk of old English grammar).

And “in” is thankfully the cognate of Modern English’s own “in,” so its meanings are similar.

So we have a word that means “in” plus an intensifier plus the verb for “to possess.” Yeah, I’d say that adds up to “household goods.” Though probably not in so far as we’d regard them as things like a coffee maker or specialized pan. I think the word refers to goods that the household had especially valued — basically, a household’s treasures.

Going from marshy murk to crystal lake clear, the next word to point out is “eorð-cyning.” This compound brings together the word “eorð” (“ground,” “soil,” “earth,” “mould,” “world,” “country,” “land,” or “district”) and “cyning” (“king,” “ruler,” or “Satan”) to make a word that means “earthly king” or “king of the country.” Not much surprising there.

Though it is a bit strange that the Old English “cyning” could refer to “Satan.” This little nuance gives the word “eorð-cyning” a curious tinge of greed and possessiveness. Maybe to imply (almost sarcastically?) that any king who was an “eorð-cyning” wasn’t a very high-minded ruler, but instead one who just ruled with greed and gluttony (or perhaps was ruled by them).

Though jumping to these conclusions about the word is risky since “cyning” having the sense of “Satan” could just be the result of missionaries using “cyning” to refer to Satan. It could have been their way of trying to devalue and dishonour what the word stood for when the Anglo-Saxons used it to refer to excellent kings, turning them instead into rulers who held nothing but earthly power and happiness in high regard in an attempt to turn the Anglo-Saxons’ imaginations away from treasure hoards and towards some glittering afterlife. But who knows?

And that brings us to “searo-gimma.” This word is a compounding 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 “gimma” (“precious stone,” “gem,” “jewel,” “sun,” or “star”) that means “curious gem.”

I think the point here is that a “searo-gimma” is a gem that’s been cut in a special way, or maybe designed to be part of a larger work of art — maybe even cut into a particular shape. Whatever the case, a “searo-gimma” isn’t just some ruby or sapphire lying around, but something that’s had a bit more craft applied to it. With things like “armour, war-gear and trappings” being senses of “searo,” maybe “searo-gimma” is simply short hand for jewelled armour — stuff that would dazzle as much as it would defend.

And that’s it. I think the compound words are relatively few in these, the last few lines of the song of Hildeburh and the Danes and Frisians’ fateful battle, because it’s supposed to be conclusive. As such, it’s much more straightforward than other passages about slaughter, robbery, and making off with people and booty, would be.

Though maybe the Beowulf poet just didn’t want to write a poet character who was more artful with compound words than he was himself.

My speculation about the word “cyning” and its carrying some sense of referring to “Satan,” comes from the idea that changing words can change thoughts. Do you think changing words can actually change thoughts? Or is that just an outmoded way of looking at how language and perception interact?

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Next week we get back to the celebration in Hrothgar’s hall, since the poet’s song is over.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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The Frisians head home after a funeral full of wounding words (ll.1118b-1127a)

Heading Home, Gore Foreshadows
Wound Words Before a Shift for Home

An example of a 9th-10th century Anglo-Saxon sword

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The poet gives us some graphic details of the funeral pyre and then tells of how Finn’s troops went home.

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“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 wounds. The flames swallowed all up,
speediest of spirits, there the blaze’s belly bore away men
of both peoples; their glory together passed away.

Departed then the warriors to go to their homes
deprived of friends, scattered across Frisia,
their homes and their strongholds.”
(Beowulf ll.1118b-1127a)

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Old English:


Modern English:


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Heading Home, Gore Foreshadows

Reading this passage over again the thing that jumps out the most for me (aside from the gore) is that the poet makes a point of telling us where everyone went after the funeral. They all went back to their homes – they “scattered across Frisia” (“Frysland geseon” (l.1126)).

This kind of mass departure suggests that whatever battle was waged between Danes and Frisians must have been huge. Since soldiers are returning to their homes all across the land, Finn would have had to have brought in all of his vassals, all of those who had pledged loyalty to him in exchange for land or at the least the right to own enough property to create a home.

So this latest battle between Frisians and Danes wasn’t just one gang of Frisians fighting another gang of Danes, it sounds like it was some sort of all out offensive.

What makes this fight even more dire, though, is that we have no sense of how many Danes there were. They’re obviously not near home so we’re not told where they went after the funeral at this point. In fact, it’s even possible that Finn overpowered the Danes with force of numbers. We’ll learn next week that the Danes came by ship, so how many of them could there have been?

But even then, if you consider Hildeburh’s position as a peaceweaver between the Danes and Frisians (she’s Hnaef’s sister, after all, and had bore Finn at least one child), there must have been a very good reason for Finn to have called such a massive force together. Some incident must have re-sparked the conflict and brought it to a head in which this episode of attempted peace would come to a bloody conclusion.

Unfortunately, all I can do is offer wild speculation. But that’s just the spirit of this blog, really.

So, to the gore.

We haven’t seen many accounts of battles between human armies yet, and even Beowulf’s accounts of fighting monsters have been pretty tame in comparison to this scene. Hell, even when Beowulf pulls off Grendel’s arm, there’s nothing quite so bloody as this scene of head-melting heat. So why embellish it so?

I think that it’s a pretty clear metaphor that the violence between Danes and Frisians is going to burst anew in the fires of rage. The poet just phrases it in such burning red lines to underline the searing fury underlying this restarting of an apparently age old feud.

But amidst the very graphic foreshadowing that violence is going to break out between Frisian and Dane once more, I think there’s a quiet call for peace. Or at least a condemnation of war.

After all, the poet says “there the blaze’s belly bore away men/of both peoples” (“þara ðe þær guð fornam/bega folces” (ll.1123-1124) The rage or anger that fuels the next outbreak of violence won’t satisfy either side because it will be motivated by a passion that’s gotten into the offender. Just like the actual fire, such indignation will be indiscriminate, and burn all alike.

That’s my theory anyway. What do you think of all the gore and fire here? Feel free to leave them in the comments

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Wound Words Before a Shift for Home

Well, in keeping with the pattern we’ve noticed when it comes to the Beowulf poet talking about war, this passage has some choice compound words.

First among them is line 1119’s “wael-fyra” meaning “deadly fire.” This one is incredibly straightforward, since “wael-fyra” comes from the combination of “wael” (“slaughter,” or “carnage”) and “fyr” (“fire”).

So this word is, literally, a “slaughter fire” or “carnage fire.” A bit more evocative in its literal form, though maybe not quite so clear as the old adjective-noun combo that is “deadly fire.”

Next we have a compound word that reminds me of Mercutio’s line in Romeo and Juliet: “No, ’tis not so deep as a well, nor so wide as a church door, but ’tis enough. ‘Twill serve” (III.i.96-97).

This is the word “ben-geato,” which means “wound-gash” (l.1121). Though this word comes to use from the compounding of “ben” (“wound,” or “mortal injury”) and “geat” (“gate,” “door,” or “opening”).

So, again, the literal form is quite evocative (if a bit clunky), as it comes out as “wound door.”

What I find especially evocative here is that the wound isn’t just gaping, or deep, or serious. It is literally a “door” or “gate” into the body.

These are wounds that’s definitely not closing any time soon, especially if the flames have anything to say about it – the fact that these wounds bursts suggests to me (with my limited medical knowledge when it comes to wounds) that the bodies and their damage is so fresh that the wounds had just lightly scabbed over, but were still raw underneath. So when the scabs melted in the flames, the fallen bled anew. Perhaps not something an audience rapt with the description of a funeral pyre would pick up on, but maybe something extra intended as further foreshadowing of friction between Danes and Frisians.

In a similar vein, we then get “lað-bite” on line 1122. This word means, simply, “wound.”

At least in translation. In a more literal form, it’s a combination of “lað” (“hated,” “hateful,” “hostile,” “malignant,” “evil,” “loathsome,” “noxious,” “unpleasant,” “pain,” “harm,” “injury,” “misfortune,” “insult,” “annoyance,” or “harmful thing”) and “bite” (“bite,” “sting,” “sword-cut,” or “cancer”), so something like “malignant sting” or “noxious sword-cut” is probably more in line with what the word intends. Again, definitely not something particularly pleasant.

Then, stepping away from war, there’s the word “heah-burg,” meaning “chief city,” or “town on a height” (l.1127). It comes from a combo of “heah” (“high,” “tall,” “lofty,” “high class,” “exalted,” “sublime,” “illustrious,” “important,” “proud,” “haughty,” “deep,” or “right (hand)”) and “burg” (“dwelling or dwellings within a fortified enclosure,” “fort,” “castle,” “borough,” or “walled town”), unsurprisingly.

This word signifies a major tonal shift from the graphic gore and blood of the funeral pyre, giving a sense of something very removed from such things. A sense that leaves me with the impression that, at least within the poem of Beowulf, there is an idea that war and life in general are separate.

It’s the idea that war is something to do far away from your high town, your home. It’s an idea that we definitely share with the culture from which Beowulf came. After all, wars in foreign lands often don’t seem real until they’ve touched us personally, or come to involve some threat to the “homeland.” Even if those threats are exaggerated or blown out of proportion for the sake of eyes on screens/pages/ads.

What do you think of the shift from the funeral to the talk of homes?

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In the next part of the poem we’ll see what happened to Hengest and his Danes after the funeral. After a little poetic flourish, of course.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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