Danes and Frisians cool the feud, but compound words tell a different story (ll.1095-1106)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
A Roiling Blood Feud
Compounds Tell a Story
Closing

Back To Top
Abstract

Hrothgar’s poet continues his recital. In this poem within a poem, Finn and Hengest conclude their peace treaty, including a mention of what will happen should the treaty be broken.

Back To Top
Translation

“Then they with trust their two halves together
secured in a peace treaty. Finn to Hengest
with ill-fated courage oaths swore
that he the survivors of the carnage would treat
honourably as his counsellors advised, that no man
there would by word or deed break the treaty,
nor through any artful intrigue complain of it.
All this though they were forced to serve the slayer
of their ring-giver while leaderless, to him necessity bound them;
though if any of those Frisians were to remind them of that
through boldly speaking of the blood feud,
then the sword edge should settle it.”
(Beowulf ll.1095-1106)

Back To Top
Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

Back To Top
A Roiling Blood Feud

So 11 lines more and then we see the end of the negotiations between Hengest and Finn, between Dane and Frisian. There is some tension here, and it’s pretty clear that the Danes don’t want to have to sit and wait with the Frisians. But it’s still quite a mellow section of the poem as a whole. But perhaps that’s because this part of Beowulf is really reliant on knowing the history behind it.

Actually, without Hildeburh to relate to Grendel’s mother, or something else to relate to the main action of the poem, there’s nothing except history for us to really grab onto. Though we can definitely say with confidence that the “blood feud” (“morþorhetes” (l.1105)) between the Danes and Frisians that this treaty is supposed to quell will probably break out.

But maybe there’s something about the feud between Grendel and the Danes in there.

Without the historical context, but with the trope of the feud that’s gone on so long neither side can remember the reason for it, maybe the poet is telling this story to Hrothgar, Beowulf, and the assembled Danes and Geats as a kind of joke about the situation with Grendel. But to really get a handle on that we’ll need to see the conclusion of the poem first. If Dane and Frisian don’t bloodily clash in the poem’s final lines, but instead amicably part ways then this little diversionary poem is indeed mysterious.

But I don’t think the poet would include lines like 1107’s threat of any disputes with the treaty being settled with “the sword’s edge” (“sweordes ecg”) if this poem didn’t end with some sort of fight.

Anyway, the peace terms themselves (since that is what this passage of the poem is about), offer at least some insight into Anglo-Saxon culture. At least in terms of ideals.

Ideally, counsellors would be listened to, guests/hostages would be treated honourably lest a greater force come seeking to fulfill a renewed blood feud, and, ideally, those who don’t like the treaty are kept in line with the threat of harm or death. Which is kind of a funny way to enforce a peace treaty (I can’t help but visualize a parent snapping a belt as they say “now play nice – or else!” while standing over fuming siblings), but there you go. Though violence may have been the only deterrent, since I get the impression that Danes and Frisians didn’t have much in the way of trade. Plus, this is a treaty between two small sub-groups after all, not an out and out treaty between two entire peoples.

Also, it’s good to see that just who is who is cleared up. The slain ring-giver of lines 1102-1103 was the Dane’s. Even without the historical context for this story, the “them” of line 1104 suggests the Danes since it refers to the people that the Frisians are reminding, and since it’s just Danes and Frisians here, there’s no one else that “them” could refer to. Also, the poet singing this story is himself a Dane, so it makes sense that they’re the underdogs here (just as they were against Grendel, lending some weight to my idea that more than Hildeburh’s mourning relates this little story back to Beowulf at large).

So it sounds like the Danes are without a leader. But if one side’s leader remained, why not just envelop the weakened side while you hold the advantage?

Let me just take a quick look at Wikipedia’ entry on the this part of the poem (under the “Finnsburh Fragment” entry).

Ah. Here we go.

Hildeburh was Finn’s wife, and their marriage was meant to bring harmony between the Danes and the Frisians. So Finn, leader of the Frisians, obviously wanted peace. Hence, he makes a treaty with the Danes rather than just destroying them.

So Finn’s desire for peace is likely genuine (not unlike the well-meaning, but wrong-headed parent from a day dream a few paragraphs back). But that’s obviously not something that’s shared among the other Frisians, since any mention of the Danes serving their lord’s slayer is made punishable by death. And with good reason.

As poems like the Battle of Maldon make clear, loyalty to your lord was paramount in Anglo-Saxon society. So there could be no greater insult than to dishonour your former leader by turning around and working with his killer. Working with your lord’s slayer in any capacity – whether it was simply signing a treaty or running his errands – was the ultimate slander to your fallen leader because it suggests that he inspired no loyalty in those he lead. And, though it might’ve been fuelled by gifts of treasure, a true comitatus (or warrior band) was held together with loyalty. True warriors would stick with their leader no matter what, confident that in the end they would get their reward.

But Finn’s desire for peace doesn’t really clear up why the Danes are hanging around. Are they hostages? Are they trapped by winter’s icy water? Or is there something else keeping them?

I’ve already thrown in my guess that this peace treaty between the Danes and Frisians won’t last. Do you think it’ll make a difference and bring the two groups together, or that it will end in bloodshed?

Back To Top
Compounds Tell a Story

Because of the tension the negotiation between two bitter rivals in this passage, it’s full of compound words.

But what makes these compounds really stick out is that this passage’s compounds tell a story. Here goes.

On line 1096 we find the passage’s first compound word. This is the word “frioðu-wær,” which means “treaty of peace.”

Simply enough it comes from the words “friðo” (“peace,” “safety,” “protection”) and “wær” (“true,” “correct,” “faith,” “fidelity,” “keeping,” “protection,” “agreement,” “treaty,” “compact,” “pledge,” “covenant,” “bond (of friendship)”). So right there in the constituent words you can see the meaning of “peace treaty.” It’s just as straightforward as such a treaty should be.

But things thicken on line 1101. This is where “inwit-searo” is mentioned. This word, meaning “artful intrigue,” comes from the words “inwit” (“evil,” “deceit”; or “wicked,” deceitful) and “searo” (“art,” “skill,” “cleverness,” “cunning,” “device,” “trick,” “snare,” “ambuscade,” “plot,” “treachery”; as well as “work of art,” “cunning device,” “engine (of war),” “armour,” “war-gear,” or “trappings”).

So now we’re faced with a kind of “cunning evil” or “wicked snare,” perhaps the machinations of someone or some group against the peace treaty mentioned above. But what makes these machinations plot-thickening is that they aren’t direct. This isn’t a compound word for “fight” or “sword” but instead comes from a sense of malicious intelligence that has set pieces up only to knock them down in a clever way.

In fact, “inwit-searo” describes just the kind of act that could spark a “morþor-hete,” or “blood feud” like the one on line 1105. This word combines “morþor” (“deed of violence,” “murder,” “homicide,” “manslaughter,” “mortal sin,” “crime,” “injury,” “punishment,” “torment,” or “misery”) and “hete” (“hate,” “envy,” “malice,” “hostility,” “persecution,” or “punishment”).

So at its simplest, aside from “blood feud,” morþor-hete” could simply mean hate-fuelled murder, or any violent act with malicious intent. To my eye at least, the word itself even looks like it could mean the fog that someone gets into when they commit such an act, a “murder-heat” or maybe “murder-haze.”

Without knowing exactly what the big rivalry between Dane and Frisian was, I can’t say if these three compound words tell the probably forgotten origin of the feud between these two peoples. But it is rather neat to see the compounds lined up like this. It might just foreshadow this poem’s own end, but we’ll find that out in four weeks.

Blood feuds were a common problem in Anglo-Saxon society and the early medieval period in general. But, feuds continue to be a super popular idea in TV and movies. Why do you think we still tell stories about feuds?

Back To Top
Closing

Next week, following up on forging this peace, the poet turns to tell of the funeral for all those slain in the tragic combat of Frisian and Dane.

Back To Top

Advertisements

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

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

Back To Top
Abstract

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

Back To Top
Translation

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

Back To Top
Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

Back To Top
The Legality of Hrothgar’s Giving

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

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

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

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

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

But why establish that?

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

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

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

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

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

Everything medieval’s muddy, isn’t it?

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

Back To Top
Why the Plain Speaking Compounds?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back To Top
Closing

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

Back To Top

The fight with Grendel quickly retold (again), five more humbly amazing compound words (ll.991-1002a)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Heorot Restored, Beowulf Vs. Grendel Revisited
Pedestrian, but Nuanced, Compounds
Closing

Back To Top
Abstract

The assembled crowd starts to rebuild Heorot, and the poet goes over the scars the hall won when Beowulf grappled Grendel.

Back To Top
Translation

“Then came quickly the command to the people
to adorn Heorot inward; many were there
men and women, so that that 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 deed
of winding away in his escape could be seen in the damage,
despairing of his life.”
(Beowulf ll.991-1002a)

Back To Top
Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

Back To Top
Heorot Restored, Beowulf Vs. Grendel Revisited

So this post’s passage recounts, once more, the fight between Beowulf and Grendel.

First we saw the battle play out as the poet described it. Then we got Beowulf’s retelling. And now, we have the hall’s retelling. Though this retelling is curious in light of what Beowulf’s done with Grendel’s arm. For the inside of Heorot is where they fought, where the damage of their brawl is obvious and where the action itself is all marked out. But that internalization of the heroic deed can’t stand. Instead, the inside of Heorot is restored to its former glory as things are tidied up and shining tapestries are hung from the walls. Instead of being internalized, then, Beowulf’s victory over Grendel is put on public display. After all, a good story is something to share, not keep bottled up, right?

But then what’s up with the assembled people putting Heorot back together again?

This clean up seems to be something that they do mostly to erase the destruction of Grendel. Which makes good sense, since it’s here that Heorot starts to be referred to as a social hub once more. On line 993 the hall’s describe as a “wine-hall” (“win-reced”) and one line later it’s called a “guest hall” (“giest-sele” (994)). The abstract qualities of Heorot are stripped away. It’s no longer some shining hall, or the highest hall of them all, it’s no longer an idea, but something concrete. Heorot is once more a place where people can go for wine. It’s a place to go to entertain guests. Heorot is once more the social organ of the Danes’ society under Hrothgar’s rule. No longer are the Danes to relate to the outside world only through their troubles, but now they have a legitimate place to go when they want to share stories or cups of wine or simply to host guests. Guests like the Geats.

But, as much as this passage is about Heorot being restored to some extent, the scars that were opened over the course of Beowulf’s fight with Grendel are also meditated on. Actually, in describing the damage done to Heorot through the fight, the poet adds yet another piece of information to its story.

In the pivotal moment when Grendel escaped Beowulf’s hold and fled for the fens, he didn’t just slither out of Beowulf’s grip but his wriggling free is given the brunt of the blame for the hall’s sorry state (l. 1001).

What I find really neat about this third telling of the struggle between Grendel and Beowulf is that it’s a story that places the fight into a physically bounded space. Grendel didn’t just struggle against the hold of Beowulf, but the hold of Heorot itself.

I think the poem moves in this way to make it clear that when Grendel runs out to the fens he’s escaping Heorot itself and whatever promise the place held for the kin of Cain as much as he’s escaping Beowulf. From Grendel’s perspective this means that he’s finally giving up on Heorot (a sure sign of his death, given the stick-to-itiveness we’re been told about earlier). But from Beowulf and the Danes’ perspective this physical scar of Grendel’s escape might just be laughed at as the sign that the monster had had enough of being a guest in Heorot, which adds a curious hint of hazing to their social relations. Grendel played too roughly, but Beowulf, again assuring the audience that he’s not a monster, is able to control his power and successfully overcome Grendel — the image of what Beowulf could be if he lost control.

Of course, if there was this hazing ritual in place, then the bar for Gendel’s acceptance would be set incredibly high, leaving him with no choice but to refuse any sort of guest status in Heorot. Unlike Beowulf, who, if this hazing was a thing, seems to have faced his at the hands of Unferth and successfully out-worded the man to find acceptance.

Why do you think we keep hearing about how Beowulf fought Grendel although we just saw the fight a few hundred lines ago?

Back To Top
Pedestrian, but Nuanced, Compounds

The compound words in this passage are, weirdly, pedestrian. Perhaps because this is supposed to be a more descriptive than poetic passage with the poet going into the detail of Heorot’s destruction, all of the compound words on display here have simple enough definitions. Let’s start with the most straightforward.

These would, without a doubt, be “win-reced” (meaning “wine hall”) (l.993) and “giest-sele” (meaning “guest hall”) (l.994). The first of these combines “win” (“wine”) and “reced” (“building,” “house,” “palace,” “hall,” or “triclinium”) to simply mean exactly the sum of its parts. Really, the only thing that subtly changes the meaning of “win-reced” is the “triclinium” sense of “reced” since the reference to a Roman dining table with three couches around it emphasizes the hospitality and social vibrancy you’d expect from a “wine hall.”

The word “giest-sele” is similar in its mix of “giest” (“guest,”or “stranger”) and “sele” (“hall,” “house,” “dwelling,” or “prison”). But there is some nuance in “giest-sele” After all, there is the meaning of “giest” that’s “stranger” and of “sele” that’s prison.

Perhaps Anglo-Saxons, for all of their apparent defensiveness around strangers (as we glimpsed when Beowulf and his crew appeared on Daneland’s shores) have the attitude that strangers are just potential guests — even that they’re one and the same except that strangers are unexpected and likely unannounced (perhaps making them a minor annoyance, since, let’s be honest, who 100% enjoys being dropped in on unexpectedly?).

The meaning of “sele” as “prison” also makes for an interesting point since it reflects on how Anglo-Saxons perceived prisoners. Treating them well, be they guest or stranger, would be important to keeping feuds to a low boil after all.

Then we come to an even more straightforward word with “gold-fag,” meaning “variegated with gold” or “shining with gold” (l.994). This one’s so straightforward because there’s no ambiguity around either of the terms that constitute it. The Old English word “gold” means “gold” and the word “fag” means “variegated,” “spotted,” “dappled,” “stained,” “dyed,” “shining,” or “gleaming” — all of which are basically saying the same thing — whatever “fag” describes is somehow shiny.

“Wunder-seon” is similarly plain, but, weirdly, is a Beowulf exclusive. The word itself means “wonderful sight” and is a combination of “wundor” (“wonder,” “miracle,” “marvel,” “portent,” “horror” “wondrous thing,” or “monster”) and “seon” (“see,” “look,” “behold,” “observe,” “perceive,” “understand,” “know,” “inspect,” “visit,” “experience,” “suffer,” or “appear”). Both of these individual words don’t offer much in the way of nuance. There could be a bit of variation in the sense of “seon” as “suffer” but I take it to mean a more intense kind of seeing, a sort of unfiltered vision, which perhaps works with the “miracle” and “portent” senses of “wundor” to give “wundor-seon” its more supernatural connotations.

Then, lastly, we come to “isenbend” which is maybe the plainest word of this bunch.

Now, that’s not because there aren’t nuances to this word’s individual parts, but because the nuances that are there don’t really mix. But let’s step back for a second.

The word “isenbend” means “iron bond” or “fetter” and brings “isen” (“iron,” “iron instrument,” “fetter,” “iron weapon,” “sword,” or “ordeal of red-hot iron”) and “bend” (“bond,” “chain,” “fetter,” “band,” “ribbon,” “ornament,” “chaplet,” or “crown”) together to do it.

So with “isen” there’s the nuance of it referring to an “ordeal of red-hot iron.” But, that one just doesn’t fit, plain and simple. The others do to a better extent, in that any kind of bond or even crown could have its value, its power, reinforced by the sword or by an iron weapon. Perhaps this compound could be used to refer to particularly powerful tyrants.

But whatever you take “isenbend” to mean,and however you try to bend that meaning, I have to admit that it’s a very strong word. Maybe it’s the “s” sound in “isen” but “isenbend” sounds much stronger to me than Modern English’ “ironbound.”

How useful do you think Old English compound words are? Are they just words that were jammed together for a single purpose, or do they carry a unique set of connotations?

Back To Top
Closing

The next few lines of the poem get philosophical, and tricky. But how can you not get those things when you’re writing about inevitable death?

Watch for the next post next Thursday!

Back To Top

A single half line of warning, a single word about patrimony (ll.907-915)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Sin at the end of a Story
A Single Word on Inheritance
Closing

Beowulf, Anglo-Saxons. poetry

King Harold out for a hunt on the Bayeux Tapestry, no doubt a song was sung soon after. Image found at http://regia.org/research/misc/pastimes.htm.

Back To Top
Abstract

The horseback poet wraps up his singing of Sigemund, Heremod, and Beowulf.

Back To Top
Translation

“That campaign was often a source of anxiety for
many wise men before the time of the king’s brash way of life,
it made those miserable who relied on him for relief,
those that wished the king’s son would prosper,
receive his patrimony, protect the people,
their stores and their strongholds, a man of might,
the ancestral home of the Scyldings. Just the same there,
the kin of Hygelac, to all man kind,
became a decorated friend; yet sin still slinked in.
(Beowulf ll.907-915)

Back To Top
Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

Back To Top
Sin at the end of a Story

Maybe it’s because covering at least eight lines of Beowulf every week breaks some things up, but I’m not sure of what to make of this passage. It’s the end of the section of the poem that’s the horseback poet’s song about Sigemund, Heremod, and Beowulf. So, the question is, I suppose, what can we say about this ending?

Looking at the very last line of the passage, we see that it ends with a note of warning: “yet sin still slinked in” (“hine fyren onwōd” (l.915)). This half line suggests that though Beowulf is celebrated in this instance something still comes up to throw off the joy of Danes and Geats. Having read the poem a few times before, this half line could refer to a few things. First among them is the idea that Grendel’s mother, when she comes seeking revenge for her son, is the sin that still slinks in. Or it could be a reference to some sort of slip up on Beowulf’s part that lands him in the poor state he’s in when he faces the dragon at the poem’s end. More broadly, this half line warning could just be a comment that there is no perfect joy, and that there will always be some little niggling thing or other that brings down the most secure seeming happiness.

Of course, “yet sin still slinked in” is my own interpretation of this apparently crucial half line.

Seamus Heaney translates it simply as “But evil entered into Heremod” (l.915). Why Heaney pulled Heremod out for this line is unclear. It could be that he’s just following the poet’s example of making reference to not the most recent antecedent but to one related to the content of its clause instead. This sort of context-sensitive referring seems to be a big part of how the poets of Old English wove the language together since there have already been a few points in the poem where pronouns or implied subjects and antecedents are a few lines apart. And I can understand why Heaney would want to make this line about Heremod. The poem really does not give much context for the last half line of this passage, and leaving it vague as I did is ambiguous.

Though ambiguity does have its place in Beowulf and the bits of gnomic wisdom that crop up in the poem from time to time. The best example of these bits of wisdom being “fate goes ever as she shall!” (“Gæð a wyrd swa hio scel!” (l.455)). So a line like “yet sin still slinked in” shouldn’t necessarily be made specific just because it’s vague where scant lines earlier the poet was singing specifics. Since this is the end of the horseback poet’s song, I think a general statement, especially one that’s a warning makes sense.

Using such a statement is a great way to end off a story about someone still living, because that person’s story is still being written. Though if that’s what the poet’s going for, there are some heavy implications that to live is to sin, suggesting that already the Anglo-Saxons had adopted ideas of Catholic guilt. Or at least this poet and his audience had.

But I also think the general ending of this story makes sense because leading up to it is a bramble of clauses and words that gives the sense of the poet not so much reciting form something he knows as bringing out something based on inspiration. So capping off his ramble, from the fanned fire in his head, is a bit of prescience. Though it’s a prediction based on experience. Heremod was once grand, and yet he fell. Likewise, even though it’s not mentioned here, Sigmund ultimately falls in battle at the hands of attackers after Odin shatters his sword (inescapable divine disfavour, if ever I’ve seen it). Likewise, Beowulf, the real life mythical hero, falls in the end. Not only is this fall foreshadowed in the idea of sin still slinking in, but capping his story off with this bit of wisdom suggests that the poet is grounding his tale in reality both because of Beowulf’s being included and in its bittersweetness.

Why do you think poets in Old English bothered to make their language more complicated when describing things like battle or complex emotion?

Back To Top
A Single Word on Inheritance

This passage is sparser than any before it when it comes to compound words of interest. Even words of interest are in short supply here. But I make no promises about this section being short. I can be a bit like Rumpelstiltskin at times, spinning nearly nothing into quite a bit (though I won’t go so far as to say that I spin that nearly nothing into gold).

Anyway. The single stand out word in this passage is “faeder-aeþelum.” This word means “patrimony,” or “paternal kinship.” This meaning shouldn’t be too surprising since this compound is made up of the words “faeder” (“father,” “male ancestor,” “the Father,” or “God”) and “aeþeling” (“man of royal blood,” “nobleman,” “chief,” “prince,” “king,” “Christ,” “God;” “man,” “hero,” or “saint”). So the compound meaning is pretty much right there in the words involved.

But what makes this word stand out? Well, looking at the word itself, it’s interesting how self contained it is. We’ve seen our share of obvious compounds here at A Blogger’s Beowulf, but this one is neatly wrapped up in itself. This ouroboros like effect comes from both of the words being very similar in meaning. Sure, “faeder” is pretty limited to a sense of masculine power, but so too is “aeþeling.” Really, the biggest difference is that, to me at least, the latter carries a sense of youthfulness. Fathers, especially authoritative fathers, aren’t usually that young. So it’s like this word combines one part the power of youth and two parts the power of masculinity to come out with a word for male inheritance either of property and responsibility or of name and reputation or both. So, the effect of compounding “faeder” and “aeþeling” is more like an intensifying one than any sort of subtle modification.

There’s also the sense that this inheritance is something passed on only through the male parent or guardian. That it’s something that only the male parent can give to a child. That’s also something that strikes me as interesting. though not nearly as much as the sense of “faeder” as “god,” which at least hints at some notion of there being some sort of divine element to patrimony. And, maybe also to kingship itself, since that’s what’s at stake here. Though just in general, I can see it being a more divinely regarded thing, since Biblical stories about inheritance tend to be through the male line. Like the story of Jacob stealing Esau’s place as the inheritor of Isaac’s honour and divine favour, or of the parable of the prodigal son.

On the level of the word itself, there’s not much to say. It’s the first word in line 911, so there’s that, I guess. But otherwise, it looks like its primary function on the line is to alliterate with “onfōn” and “folc.” And, I’m not entirely sure of its significance, but there is the matter of the alliteration falling on the first, seventh, and eighth syllables of the line. Or its being in the first and last syllables of the first half line and the first syllable of the second half line. Whichever you prefer.

Point is, there’s some extra meaning packed into this word, and I think I’ve taken some of that out for inspection.

How much meaning do you think poets pack into single words? If we can look at a single word like I just did and pull out so much meaning, is it because the poet meant it that way, or is it just what the culture or context of the interpreter gets out of it?

Back To Top
Closing

In the next passage of Beowulf, the Danes continue their joy riding and Hrothgar steps out with a speech.

Back To Top

Feuding References (ll.99-114) [Old English]

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Referential storytelling
Justification through a feud
Closing

Back To Top
Abstract

Grendel has his first mention by name, and his origin is quickly explained.

Back To Top
Translation

“So the warriors of the hall lived in joy,
were prosperous, until one began
committing crimes, like a fiend of hell.
It was the ghastly ghoul called Grendel,
border walker from the marshlands, he that the moors held,
whose mire was his mansion; from the land held fast by
woe laden man-shaped sea beasts,
since the Shaper had condemned them
as kin of Cain – so the almighty Lord punished
him for that murder, when he slew Abel.
Cain was given no good from that, the Measurer cast him
far abroad, done for his evil, away from humankind.
Then the monsters all awoke,
ogres and elves and orcs,
also giants, those that waged long warfare
against God; until he gave them their reward.”
(Beowulf ll.99-114)

Back To Top
Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

Back To Top
Referential storytelling

To anyone familiar with Greek myth, there’s a strange mash up of origin stories happening here. The final two lines suggest some sort of war between god and monsters, specifically giants. In Greek myth, such a story would be a reference to the Gigantomachy wherein the Giants (the force of chaos) fought against the gods of Olympus (the force of order).

Taken as a reference to early parts of the Old Testament, these lines could be describing an Anglo-Saxon take on the Nephilim, the half human/half angel offspring of angels who walked the earth and cavorted amongst humanity. In the Old Testament stories, interestingly, given the Anglo-Saxons’ warrior status, these angels are allegedly the ones who showed humans how to work metal and create weapons for war.

This tale of a war between god and monsters could also be a reference to the story of the Roman de Brut, an epic poem about the first settling of what’s now England, and the giant that the settlers had to overcome to claim the land for their own. But the version of that poem written by Wace is dated to 1150-1155 with much more certainly than Beowulf’s own dating. As a result of this late date, Beowulf would have had to have been written/composed later in the twelfth century. Alternatively, it could well have influenced Wace (along with his major source for his Roman de Brut, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regium Britanniae).

Nevertheless, the story about a war between god and giants could be construed in a number of historical ways, too. Perhaps it’s a Christian insertion into the poem, meant to represent how Christian monotheism overtook pagan polytheism (something that is quite active in this leg of the poem, actually). Or maybe there’s more of an historical/allegorical bent at work, the figures on either side standing for certain factions that faced off in the poets/writers’ distant past.

Whatever the case, this event is definitely something that took place far into the past. After all, it’s clearly stated that the monsters all awoke after the condemnation of Cain (ll.109-112). Likely this is how the story goes because Biblically Cain is the first human outcast. Surely, Adam and Eve had their own losses from being cast out of the garden, but to be cast out from the cast outs would make Cain particularly damned. Especially in the eyes of the Anglo-Saxons, for whom community and social inclusion were integral for survival.

Back To Top
Justification through a feud

The whole “kin of Cain” (“Caines cynne” (l.107)) thing is interesting. It takes something that is by its nature as a creature of the borderlands mysterious and other and gives it a lineage. Grendel isn’t just some monster that no one knows anything about, but is instead related to the first murderer and, curiously, an early farmer. A cheeky reading of the Cain and Abel story, could, in fact, be that god, with childish aplomb, prefers meat to vegetables.

Anyway, giving Grendel a lineage and taking the mystery out of him thereby, makes him more approachable. It feeds into the feud culture of the Anglo-Saxons as well. After all, without a hereditary feud to conclude/perpetuate, Grendel would be somewhat in the right, since the Danes are encroaching on his territory. What’s more, Grendel only attacks Heorot once he’s provoked by the noise from within. Giving Grendel a clear ancestor, though, brings the feud element into play, which makes who’s in the right and who’s in the wrong muddier. After all, any godly person would surely take the side of god in a war with the monsters. Surely.

Running with the idea that Beowulf was substantially altered when written down for the sake of Christianizing the Anglo-Saxons, any feud element would be an incredible asset. From the perspective of a missionary such elements would be their “in;” to the Anglo-Saxons feuds were eminently familiar.

This familiarity would help make the Christian parts of the story seem more understandable. Particularly helpful in this area is the final line of this extract. The climactic sarcasm to be found there makes it prime for Anglo-Saxon appreciation, and could be there as a kind of medieval fan service.

Back To Top
Closing

Grendel ventures into the hall next week, and there wreaks his first reported havoc.

Back To Top

The Ward on the Huge Hoard (ll.3047-3057) [Old English]

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
The Problem of Entering the Gold Hoard
A Big, Strong Word
Closing

Back To Top
Abstract

The poet reflects further on the dragon, and reveals some interesting facts about the serpent’s hoard.

Back To Top
Translation

“Beside him stood beakers and cups,
plates laid about and dear swords,
rusty, eaten through, as only those who live
in the embrace of earth for a thousand winters
can be. Yet that huge cache,
the hold of gold of men of old, was spell-bound,
so that no man might enter
that ring-hall, save god itself,
Ruler of Triumph, give its approval
– for god is humanity’s handler – to open that hoard,
even then only for such a man as god thought fit.”
(Beowulf ll.3047-3057)

Back To Top
Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

Back To Top
The Problem of Entering the Gold Hoard

Only someone with god’s stamp of approval can enter the hoard.

Does that mean Wiglaf has god’s approval? For he entered the hoard and saw its vast richness, reported it to Beowulf and showed a small fraction of it. The implications of such a thing are a little confusing though. If Wiglaf had god’s approval, then why isn’t he leading the Geats through the coming hardships? Why are they a people consigned to nothing more than utter annhilation?

The only really good reason I can come up with is that the poem’s named Beowulf, not A History of the Geats, or the Geatilliad. Which begs the question: why would the Anglo-Saxons tell such an elegiac story? And why would it later be considered important enough to write down?

In considering the answer, the place of the elegy in Anglo-Saxon literature and narrative is incredibly important.

Quite possibly, the fall of the Geats did not happen in the way the poem describes, but has been accelerated for the sake of the form. Or maybe for the sake of the lesson. Though what the lesson of Beowulf is, is rather ambiguous. Its moral could be any number of things.

Christianity is the way to go?

Even the smallest transgression – something so tiny that you can only remember it as a vague feeling – can lead to your downfall?

Wyrd is cruel and unknowable?

The poem’s a bit longer than your average fable, so narrowing it down to something concrete isn’t quite so straightforward.

Back To Top
A Big, Strong Word

The difficulty of interpretation aside, the word used to describe the hoard, eacencraeftig, has a crystal clear meaning. Sure, it means “huge,” but broken down into its component parts it means “augmented strength” (“eacen”+”craeftig”).

Since it’s used to describe the hoard, eacencraeftig clearly means immense or huge. The sense of the word’s components together gives a similar affect, since physical strength has always been linked to physical size, and augmenting that strength means increasing that size. There isn’t necessarily anything crafty about the word otherwise, but it’s neat to know what little there is.

Back To Top
Closing

Next week the poet returns to the poem’s namesake. Watch for it on Thursday!

Back To Top

Scavenging Field and Page Alike (ll.3021b-3032) [Old English]

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
A Beastly Finish
A Curious Death March
Closing

Back To Top
Abstract

The messenger’s premonition ends with the beasts of battle, and the troop of Geats heads to where Beowulf and the dragon lay.

Back To Top
Translation

“‘The future will see hands habituated to hoisting
morning-cold spears,heaved by hand, not at all shall
the harp’s sweep stir warriors, but wan on the wing
the raven flying over the doomed will speak,
tell the eagle how he vomited and ate,
when he and the wolf reaved the dead.’
Such was the sentence of that speaker’s
dire speech; he did not deceive in
what he told and read of fate. The troop all arose,
went without joy beneath Eagle Cliff,
faces tear-torn, the terrible scene to see.”
(Beowulf ll.3021b-3032)

Back To Top
Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

Back To Top
A Beastly Finish

The messenger at last finishes his speech to those Geats gathered to hear word of their dear leader. And, as if he hadn’t been clear enough, he closes with mention of the emblematic beasts of battle.

These animals were closely associated with war in Anglo-Saxon culture because of their established presence on the battlefield. These are, after all, the animals that would swoop or scrounge in and savour the leavings of a battle. Except, perhaps, for the eagle. I mean, it seems more likely that the eagle would fly over a battle field in the hopes of finding a small rodent that’s a bit too curious.

Closing with these animals, which were neutral in and of themselves (they merely represented the destruction of war and nature’s way of restoring things to their former states), makes clear the slaughter that the Geats are in for. They can march away, forever in exile, but even then their lives will be ones of constant vigilance. For human armies can tire of such a chase, whereas nature never can, and the beasts are a symbol of that relentless power.

Back To Top
A Curious Death March

Up until this point, those to whom the messenger is speaking were some small distance from the cliffs where the battle took pace, and their march towards the awful spectacle can be nothing more than a heavy-footed trek. They already know what they will see, and it will not prove to be overwhelmingly positive.

Yet, this points towards something interesting. The Geats already know what happened, and still a troop of them go to see what are the ruins of their leader and their foe.

Perhaps the Anglo-Saxons had some belief around funerals that friends and family needed to see the corpse before it was buried or burned. Why would such a belief exist?

To allow people to confirm things, maybe. Or perhaps to offer people one final chance to see the deceased’s face. Or, still possible, the Geats go to see Beowulf because they believe a part of their soul is bestowed upon him, maybe making the afterlife an easier place for him to navigate.

Whatever the reason, next week they find Beowulf and the dragon. One is regarded with sorrow and the other with wonder – check out the next entry to find out which is which!

Back To Top
Closing

This coming week, watch for the next entry on Thursday. I’ll be done with the big draw on my freetime – editing an episode of the Doctor Who podcast TelosAM – by then. As a result, getting back to this blog’s regular schedule will not be an issue.

Back To Top