The changing words of Beowulf (and language, too)

This is the first page from the Beowulf manuscript, in Old English.

The first page of the original Beowulf manuscript, in Old English. Image from http://bit.ly/2jdxSdW.

After I told people I was studying English in university a strange change came over them. They would start listening to me a little more closely. They would hang on my every word for a few minutes after learning that fact. And they would point out any grammatical mistakes I’d make while speaking.

Sometimes these corrections would take me aback. But I can’t say that I blame those who would, jokingly, jump down my throat when my verbs and subjects didn’t agree or I threw an “ain’t” into what I was saying to blend in with the people around me. When I was in university I was the person those who learned of my major became. I was a grammar Nazi.

That is, until I learned about things like Old English and Middle English, and the joy of learning to read languages that were different enough from Modern English to be unintelligible at first look, but that were familiar enough to grasp with a mix of knowledge and intuition. Exposure to these things, and even to the idea that the Latin ancient people spoke changed over time, really made me realize that spoken English doesn’t need to be “perfect”. Neither does written English.

In fact, correctness just comes down to authorial intent and audience. After all, language is most correct when it’s a medium for clear communication between people, so knowing your audience and tailoring your language to make your meaning as clear as possible for that audience is the best way to make it “correct”.

Anyway, the fact that languages change is something that’s pretty well known in general. As Tristin Hopper points out in this article from The National Post, things written around the second world war have totally different uses of words like “queer” and “ejaculate”. Underscoring the article’s point that all languages adapt to what modern speakers need to say about modern life, even the word “humbled” has changed from something with negative connotations to something that gets paired with “honoured”.

Where Beowulf fits in with all of this is that it stands as a marker of the starting point for English. But, it’s also something that even now is constantly changing since our understanding of it is based on best guesses rather than the insight that a native speaker could bring to it. I was pretty shocked to learn that the first word of the poem “Hwaet!” may mean “How” rather than my dearly enjoyed “Listen!” as I read Hopper’s piece.

Ultimately, if you like a language, no matter what your age, you should definitely study it. Even if it’s a dead language like Latin or Old English, there’s likely still more for us to find out about them, and there are still useful insights to pull out of old stories and poems and expression. I’d say this is especially true if the stories and written expression of today don’t speak to you. After all, one of the reasons I went into English after finishing high school was to learn more of the medieval stories that were in seriously short supply throughout my high school run.

If you could learn any language, which language would you want to learn? Why?

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Unferth gifts a sword to Beowulf, words tell of blades and battlefields(ll.1455-1464)

Synopsis
Translation
Recordings
A Named and Dangerous Sword
The Usefulness of an Ancient Sword on the Brutal Battlefield
Closing

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.

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Synopsis

Unferth lends Beowulf a sure-fire sword.

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Translation

“Next was an item of no little service,
such was the thing that Hrothgar’s man leant him,
it was the hilted sword named Hrunting;
an ancient treasure beyond compare;
its edge was iron, decorated like an arm full of poison,
hardened in the blood of battle; never in combat had it failed
any of its weilders, whomever fought with it in their grip,
those who dared do perilous deeds,
who entered the battlefield full of foes. Indeed this was not
the first time the sword had been called upon for heroic deeds”
(Beowulf ll.1455-1464)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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A Named and Dangerous Sword

Here we go!

In this passage we have the first of the named swords of the poem. And it sounds like it’s pretty badass. Not just because it’s never failed anyone who has used it (something I’ll get into a little below), but because of how it’s decorated.

My Old English dictionary, Clark Hall and Meritt’s A Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary (4th edition), suggests “with poisoned twigs or poison-stripes?[sic]” for “ater-tanum” (l.1459). It’s an entry that’s very unsure of itself.

When I think of poison and any sort of branching pattern I think of the horrific visual of poison either dilating or colouring a person’s veins as it rushes ever closer to their heart. And so “decorated like an arm full of poison” sounded like an apt translation of “ater-tanum”. My guess as to what that actually looks like is a branching pattern that was smithed into the steel. Perhaps as a sign of how many times the steel involved was folded.

Come to think of it, I wonder if “arm full of poison,” or even “twig of poison” was just a way of describing someone’s patterned tattoos. I mean, if your veins are picked out because of some sort of poison that’s entered your body you’re not going to be able to gawk at that for very long. But if someone were tattooed, which, if it was just a simple pattern could look like discoloured veins, it would be a lot easier to really contemplate the pattern and compare it to a poison-infested arm.

Anyway, stepping away from that detail about the sword’s decoration, I find it strange that the poet tells us that Hrunting has never failed its wielders. It sounds like it’s the Muramasa from Japanese lore, a sword that had to taste blood of any kind once it was unsheathed.

Though, given Unferth’s past conflict with his kin which lead to him slaying them (at least according to Beowulf) , I can’t help but wonder if he had entered into combat against them. Since Hrunting seems to be Unferth’s sword, in this battle he likely used Hrunting, and the dumb thing just did what swords do (and good swords do even better) and killed them.

That’s not to say that a well made sword removes the agency from its wielder, more that it takes an even better fighter to wield such a weapon well.

Along with the reference to Hrunting never failing could be the poet’s way of making Unferth a sympathetic character, I think it also suggests that he is not as great a warrior as Beowulf. He was unable to reign himself in while under the influence of wielding Hrunting. Kind of like how landing a series of blows in a sparring match can give you an incredible sense of power that kind of numbs your reason the first few times you experience it.

Of course, Beowulf won’t be swayed by such a thing as this sword, surely. Or will he succumb to the call of Hrunting as easily as Unferth seems to have? Leave your thoughts in the comments!

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The Usefulness of an Ancient Sword on the Brutal Battlefield

I think it goes without saying that a “hæft-mece”1 would be a “mægen-fultuma”2 on just about any “folc-stede”3. Forget those swords without hilts — they’re really just oversized knives!

Now, take that sword, though, and make it an “eald-gestreona”.4 And then have a good look at that well worn (yet still sharp!) sword and make sure that it’s decorated in an “ater-tan”5 style. That’s sure to mean that it’s been through the “heaþo-swate”6 more than once, at least.

This is the kind of sword songs are sung about, and that can only be found in RPGs after finishing a really difficult/lengthy sidequest. The kind of sword you’d want with you on a “gryre-sið”7. It’s the sort of thing you use (maybe just in those songs) to do “ellen-weorc”8!

1hæft-mece: hilted sword. hæft (haft, handle) + mece (sword, blade) (A word exclusive to Beowulf)

2mægen-fultuma: mighty help. mægen (bodily strength, might, main, force, power, vigor, valour, virtue, efficiency, efficacy, good deed, picked men of a nation, host, troop, army, miracle) + fultum (help, support, protection, forces, army) (A word exclusive to Beowulf)

3folc-stede: dwelling-place, battlefield. folc (folk, people, nation, tribe; collection or class of persons, laity; troop, army) + stede (place, site, position, station; firmness, standing, stability, steadfastness, fixity, strangury)

4eald-gestreona: ancient treasure. eald (old, aged, ancient, antique, primeval, elder, experienced, tried, honoured, eminent, great) + streon (gain, acquisition, property, treasure, traffic, usury, procreation)

5ater-tan: with poison twigs or poison stripes?[sic] (“Looking like an arm full of poison”). ater (poison, venom, gall) + tan (twig, rod, switch, branch, rod of divination) (A word exclusive to Beowulf)

6heaþo-swate: blood of battle. heaðu (war) + swat (sweat, perspiration, exudation, blood, foam, toil, labour)

7gryre-sið: dangerous expedition. gryre (horror, terror, fierceness, violence, horrible thing) + sið (going, motion, journey, errand, departure, death, expedition, undertaking, enterprise, road, way, time, turn, occasion) (A word exclusive to Beowulf)

8ellen-weorc: heroic deed, good work. ellen (zeal, strength, courage) + weorc (work, labour, action, deed, exercise; affliction, suffering, pain, trouble, distress; fortification)

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Closing

Next week, the poet reflects on Unferth’s character further.

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Armour inspires thoughts on time, ad-libbing on sunken arms (ll. 1441b – 1454)

Synopsis
Translation
Recordings
Antique Armour More Effective
Armour on Sea Bottoms
Closing

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.

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Synopsis

Beowulf gets geared up, starting with his armour and helmet.

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Translation

                    “Beowulf geared himself
in warrior’s garb, he felt no anxiety for his life then;
his hand woven war-corslet, broad and skillfully decorated,
would soon know those depths,
confident in its ability to protect his bone-chamber,
so that no hand-grasp could crush his chest,
that no furious foe’s malicious hand could harm him;
and on his head a shining helmet he wore,
which would soon muddy the mere’s bottom,
would soon enter the surging waters, that treasure-embellished helm,
encircled by a lordly band, made as those in elder days,
wrought by a weapon smith, wondrously formed,
set all around with boar-images, so that he
may not be bitten by blade or battle sword.”
(Beowulf ll.1441b – 1454)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Antique Armour More Effective

Beowulf gets kitted out here. Whether one of the Geats with him (or maybe a Dane, as a sign of their good relations?) helps him into this gear as squires would knights in a few hundred years is unclear. All we know from what’s written is that Beowulf puts on his armour and then his helmet. So, much like old school JRPGs, it looks like there are just three pieces of equipment for your average warrior: armour, headgear, weapon.

Most interesting to me is just how important it seems to be that the armour is decorated. I mean, I’m not too familiar with the practicalities of medieval armour, but I’d imagine that it would be a great deal lighter and actually more effective if it was less decorated — not more. As far as I can guess, though, Beowulf’s not going to be guarded from harm because his outfit is so chic, rather its protective power comes from its being so old.

The armour he dons is described as “broad and skilfully decorated” (“sid ond searo-fah” (l.1443)).

Note that the phrase there isn’t “skillfully crafted” (potentially “searo-cræftig” in Old English), but “skilfully decorated” (“searo-fah”).

So, this armour must be old because it was made when people had the time to just sit back, crack into some mead and decorate their armaments. And when could you decorate armour and swords and such? When you’re living in a relative time of peace.

Or a time when fighting is so fierce that you become very skilled in making armour very quickly so that there’s time left over to embellish it.

Either way, the implication about Beowulf’s armour is that this armour is old.

And this implication is outright stated when it comes to Beowulf’s helmet.

On line 1451 the poet tells us it was “made as those in elder days” (“fyrn-dagum”). Which, if you think about it doesn’t put it into the past as much as it suggests that days don’t die, they just grow old and their influence is lessened as time moves onward. All the while, the works done in these days, the things that people made during their’ prime, carry into the future.

It’s a curious way to think about time.

Though, getting back on track,the idea that things “aren’t made like they used to be” in that their not made to last like they used to be continues to be a common sentiment.

After all, it seems like things are moving so quickly that everything made new is made fast rather than to last. For example, my uncle recently took apart an old piano (maybe from the early 20th century) to turn it into a liquor cabinet and the mechanism for the hammer looks and works as if it was made yesterday — although the only metal pieces in it are the spring and the pin that holds the thing together.

Now, there’s no denying that modern tech is growing exponentially and so on and so forth, but that the sense that “they don’t make things like they used to” existed in the time of the Beowulf poet seems to me ridiculous. It suggests that human progress has always been happening, and that however fast our times are, the present always has an element of speed to it. It’s only when we look at all of the days behind us, all gathered around the nursing home table that we just happen to see those things that happened in them much more slowly.

Do you think that spending so much time on Beowulf’s getting his armour on helps build a sense of security? Or is it just the poet stalling for time?

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Armour on Sea Bottoms

A European “mere-grund”1 is probably the best place to find old “eorl-gewæde”2.

I mean, no doubt several warriors perished in the “inwit-feng”3 of “sund-gebland”4 over the centuries, whether they were swimming or sailing across such waters. And those “ban-cofa”5 these warriors would leave behind, in a weird inside-out kind of way, probably made perfect caskets for such lost “here-byrne”6. We’re talking top of the line pieces of arms and armour that were “searo-fah”7 with “swin-lic”8.

Plus, if some of these warriors were always losing their purses or just wanted to have the skate punk look way before its time, maybe there’d be a few “frea-wrasn”9 with the armour, as well. Nothing like a nice chain to keep the cash close, right?

What I have to wonder though, is if ladies of lakes are willing to chuck up the odd “beado-mece”10 since “fyrn-dagum”11, why don’t they ever seem to give away armour too? They must really have it in for warriors everywhere. Or maybe Arthur hastily left after getting Excalibur and ruined getting full sets of arms for the rest of us.

1mere-grund: lake-bottom, bottom of the sea. mere (sea, ocean, lake, pond, pool, cistern) + grund (ground, bottom, foundation, abyss, hell, plain, country, land, eart, sea, water)

2eorl-gewæde: armour. eorl (brave man, warrior, leader, chief, man, earl, nobleman) + gewæde (robe, dress, apparel, clothing, garment, covering) (A word exclusive to Beowulf)

3inwit-feng: spiteful clutch. inwit (evil, deceit, wicked, deceitful) + feng (grip, grasp, embrace, capture, prey, booty) (A word exclusive to Beowulf)

4sund-gebland: commingled sea, surge. sund (swimming, capacity for swimming, sea, ocean, water) + gebland (blending, mixture, confusion) (A word exclusive to Beowulf)

5ban-cofa: bodily frame. ban (bone, tusk, the bone of a limb) + cofa (clost, chamber, ark, cave, den)

6here-byrne: corslet. here (predatory band, troop, army, host, multitude) + byrne (corslet) (A word exclusive to Beowulf)

7searo-fah: variegated, cunningly inlaid. searo (art, skill, cleverness, cunning, device, trick, snare, ambuscade, plot, treachery, work of art, cunning device, engine of war, armour, war-gear, trappings) + fag (variegated, spotted, dappled, stained, dyed, shining, gleaming) (A word exclusive to Beowulf)

8swin-lic: boar image. swin (wild boar, pig, hog, swine, boar image) + lic (like, alike, similar, equal, suitable, likely) (A word exclusive to Beowulf)

9frea-wrasn: splendid chain. frea (lord, king, master, the Lord, Christ, God, husband) + wrasen (band, tie, chain) (A word exclusive to Beowulf)

10beado-mece: battle sword. beado (war, battle, fighting, strife) + mece (sword, blade) (A word exclusive to Beowulf)

11fyrn-dagum: days of yore. fyrn (former, ancient, formerly, of old, long ago, once) + dæg (day, lifetime, Last Day, name of the rune for “d”)

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Closing

Next week, Hrothgar’s sleazy counsellor Unferth gives Beowulf a gift.

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What Grendel’s mother did with Aeschere’s head, a monstrous real estate listing (ll.1408-1421)

Synopsis
Translation
Recordings
A Grisly Joke
A Monstrous Listing
Closing

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Synopsis

Hrothgar and his wisest thanes see a grisly sight at the Grendels’ doorstep.

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Translation

“The prince’s thanes then rode on
over steep rocky slopes, around narrowly winding paths,
through ways that fit just single file soldiers, up trails unknown,
precipitous headlands, lined with homes of water monsters.
He went on ahead with a handful of the wise,
to see that strange place; they looked about
until suddenly they found a patch of mountain trees
all growing out over grey stones,
a joy-less forest; waters stood beneath them,
blood-stained and turbid. To all the Danes gathered there,
friends of the Scyldings, the sight caused harsh suffering
at heart, bringing the same heaviness to each of the many thanes,
striking each of them with grief, once they found
the head of Æschere on the cliff by the water’s side.”
(Beowulf ll.1408-1421)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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A Grisly Joke

Hrothgar’s ride up to the mere is quite vivid — in a King James Version of the Bible sort of way.

The first few lines of this passage (and the last few of last week’s) are sparse in their description. And yet, somehow these lines say a lot in their handful of words. It certainly sounds like the mere is incredibly isolated, almost as if the journey there (though it’s “not many miles” away (“Nis þæt feor heonon/milgemearces” (l.1361-1362)), as Hrothgar’s said earlier in the poem) has taken them to an entirely new world. A world of crooked trees growing over stony ground that’s also swampy and saturated with ever-churning waters. It does indeed sound like a grim place. But topping it all off is the discovery of Æschere’s head.

As we’ll find out once the poem gets to Beowulf’s pursuing Grendel’s mother, the Grendels’ home is in this water. And so, since this cliff is at the water’s side, I can’t help but think that it is the Grendels’ equivalent of Heorot’s gables.

After Beowulf defeated Grendel he hoisted his opponent’s arm up into those gables as a prize and a sign of triumph. Of course, taking that trophy was fatal for our 12-year terror, Grendel. Likewise, taking off Æschere’s head would have been fatal for him. Also likewise, his head is being similarly displayed as a trophy and as a sign of triumph in the feud.

But now, since it’s Æschere’s head and not the limb of some miscellaneous monster, we’re meant to feel just as sad at heart as the Danes who look upon the grim sight with Hrothgar. And it’s easy to feel it. I mean, from the time that Grendel’s mother takes him it’s pretty clear that Æschere is dead. But even so, seeing such grisly proof that he is indeed gone is still pretty devastating.

And yet, the parallel to Grendel’s arm makes me wonder what the poet was trying to say here.

Maybe the poet’s driving home what I’ve pointed out before, that Grendel and Grendel’s mother, for all of their monstrousness, are still beings with reason and with a capacity for empathy and a strong sense of family. A sense strong enough to inspire Grendel’s mother to barge in on a hall full of armed warriors with nothing but the fear of her they feel for protection.

Maybe giving such a quality to monsters was meant to show how much the idea of family, an often elevated and ennobled feeling, is really just an animalistic instinct. And that the preyed upon and the hated feel it just as much as those who are in an elevated position of privilege.

Maybe the poet is exercising some dark humour. Æschere’s head being on display is a little elbow in the ribs, a little flip of the bird from monster kind.

What do you make of this scene? Is it just a grisly display of how low the Grendels will go or is it a little wink from the poet in some way?

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A Monstrous Listing

Speaking of Old English humour, I think you could probably find a joke real estate listing like this if real estate listings were a thing in the days of Beowulf and Hrothgar:

Make your way along the “an-pað”1, up the “stan-hlið”2, and you’ll find a terrible “nicor-husa”3. This “nicor-husa” comes complete with a “wyn-leas”4 “fyrgen-beam”5 out front and an abysmal “holm-clif”6 view. Starting at three severed thanes’ heads or best offer.

Or, in Modern English:

Make your way along the narrow path, up the rocky slope and you’ll find a terrible sea-monster’s dwelling. This sea-monster’s dwelling comes with a joyless mountain-tree out front and an abysmal sea-cliff view. Starting at three severed thanes’ heads or best offer.

1an-pað: narrow path. an (one, each, every one, all) + pað (path, track)
2stan-hlið: rocky slope, cliff, rock. stan (stone, rock, gem, calculus, milestone) + hlið (cliff, precipice, slope, hill-side, hill)
3nicor-husa: sea monster’s dwelling. nicor (water-sprite, sea-monster, hippopotamus, walrus) + husa (house, temple, tabernacle, dwelling-place, inn, household, race)
4wyn-leas: joyless. wyn (friend, protector, lord, retainer) + leas (without, free from, devoid of, bereft of, false, faithless, untruthful, deceitful, lax, vain, worthless, falsehood, lying, untruth, mistake)
5fyrgen-beam: mountain tree. fyrgen (mountain) + beam (tree, beam, rafter, piece of wood, cross, gallows, ship, column, pillar, sunbeam, metal girder)
6holm-clif: sea-cliff, rocky shore. holm (wave, sea, ocean, water) + clif (cliff, rock, promontory, steep slope)

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Closing

Next week, everyone in the party is entranced by the beasts in the water.

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Hrothgar leaps into action, words to find an empty vassal by (ll.1397-1407)

Synopsis
Translation
Recordings
Hrothgar on the Move
Tracking an Empty Vassal
Closing

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Synopsis

Hrothgar responds immediately to Beowulf’s egging on and sets out after Grendel’s mother.

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Translation

“Then the old one leapt up, thanked God,
the mighty Lord, for what the man had said.
Then Hrothgar’s horse was bridled,
the one with the braided hair; the wise king
rode out in fine array; the troop of shield-bearers
marched on. Tracks were widely seen
over the trails through the wood,
leading over earth, going straight
over to the darkened moor, where the
lifeless body of the dear servant had been drug,
he who had watched over the home of Hrothgar.”
(Beowulf ll.1397-1407)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Hrothgar on the Move

Now we’re on the hunt! And the trail is fresh!

Though it’s hard to say which trail exactly Hrothgar and his gang are following.

At first, it sounds like it must be Grendel’s Mother’s tracks. But then we’re told that Æschere’s “lifeless body…had been drug” (“magoþegna bær/…sawolleasne” (ll.1405-1406)), so maybe the furrow left behind by his feet or head are what they’re following. If that’s the case, then the humans here involved are sowing the seeds of destruction! After all, it sounds like Hrothgar’s riding out with quite a bit of force; he is in his finest array and riding out on a horse that has a braided mane. Though the detail of the horse makes me wonder if it’s more of a show horse — perhaps even making it a reflection of Hrothgar’s own existence as more of a figurehead than the machismo-dripping leader he had been in younger days. All the while accompanied by a “troop of shield-bearers” (“gumfeþa…/lindhæbbendra” (ll.1401-1402)). So, despite appearances (maybe because of them?), Hrothgar’s serious in his ride out to the mere.

And, of course, at the head of all of this forward momentum is Beowulf. The lad’s jab about Hrothgar’s needing to be the ruler Beowulf expects him to be was likely particularly stinging.

Still, it’s telling that Beowulf is able to inspire the old king like this. It makes it pretty clear, I think, that he’s not only some great monster slayer, but he’s got charisma and diplomatic skill as well — he can slay supernatural foes with the sword (or handgrip) and he can slay human ones with his tongue.

Actually, that makes it pretty neat and tidy when it comes to the morality of Beowulf himself. There’s no weird amorality to him despite the death that he’s steeped in because all of the stories of his fights we’ve heard so far involve fights with monsters. Yes, later Beowulf tells stories of fights against armies, but there the foes are far from humanized. The old trick of making enemies into monsters being well practiced well beyond the medieval period and into antiquity. Though thinking about that practice makes me wonder what Grendel and Grendel’s mother were before they were constantly called “kin of Cain.”

Do you think that Grendel and Grendel’s mother are monsters or people whom the Danes just want to exterminate?

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Tracking an Empty Vassal

A bunch of “lind-hæbbendra,” a “gum-fetha” of them you might even say, is on the march. Such a bunch of “lind-hæbbendra” sounds rather intimidating. And no doubt the sight of a group of “shield-bearers” or “warriors” heading somewhere would be, after all they literally “have” (“hæbben”) “shields of wood” (“lind”). So you know just by looking at them that they’re serious business. Particularly because of that “gum-feþa” formation

But what else, if not a “gum-feþa” would warriors move in? The word “troop” just feels too appropriate. All the more so, since it’s a mix of “gums” (“man,” “lord,” or “hero”) and “feþa” (“foot-man,” “foot-soldier,” “band of foot-soldiers,” or “troops”).

Just for fun now, imagine each warrior in this troop having “wunden-feax”. Such “braided hair” might make them fulfil a lot of popular conceptions of what Vikings looked like, and why not?

Along with horned helmets, braids have always been a favourite of Viking cartoonists, but what’s really surprising is how straightforward the compound “wunden-feax” is. “Wunden” just means “wind,” “plait,” “curl,” “twist,” “unwind,” “whirl,” “brandish,” “swing,” “turn,” “fly,” “leap,” “start,” “roll,” “slip,” or “go,” and “feax” just means “hair,” or “head of hair”.

What’s more, this word is exclusive to Beowulf as far as we know, so there’s got to be a pretty good understanding of what “wound hair” is. And such an understanding is most likely to come out of braided hair being a familiar sight.

Now imagine this troop of warriors with braided hair heading down a “weald-swaþu.” Somehow knowing that “weald-swaþu” means “” (weald (“forest,” “wood,” “grove,” “bushes,” or “foliage”) + swaþu (“footstep,” “track,” “pathway,” “trace,” “vestige,” or “scar”)) doesn’t make this too much easier. I mean, it’s really hard to tell how deep this forest is.

But they are tracking the “sawol-leas” “mago-þegna,” so there might be more than one track to follow.

Not that anything “lifeless” (or soul-less) would be moving much (hence the very visceral “sawol” (“soul,” “life,” “spirit,” or “living being”) + “leas” (“without,” “free from,” “devoid of,” “bereft of,” “false,” “faithless,” “untruthful,” “deceitful,” “lax,” “vein,” “worthless,” “falsehood,” “lying,” “untruth,” or “mistake”)).

And, much like the near sound alike “vessel,” a “vassal” is pretty empty if you remove its life or its soul, so our mago-þegna (“mago” (“male kinsman,” “son,” “descendant,” “young man,” “servant,” or “warrior”) + “þegna” (“servant,” “minister,” “retainer,” “vassal,” “follower,” “disciple,” “freeman,” “master,” “courtier,” “noble (official rather than hereditary),” “military attendant,” “warrior,” or “hero”)) likely did nothing but drag as it was carried off.

Though the empty furrow formed from the empty body’s dragging could be what fills our braided troop of shield-bearers with hope.

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Closing

Next week, the trip toward the home of the Grendels continues.

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

Synopsis
Translation
Recordings
A Weird Home with Flaming Water
The Wondrous Life of a Mile Measurer
Closing

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.

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Synopsis

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

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Translation

&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)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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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?

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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”.

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Closing

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

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Hrothgar tells tales of the Grendels, idyllic country-dwellers risk exile (ll.1345-1357a)

Synopsis
Translation
Recordings
Hrothgar Lays his Land Claims
The Rise and Fall of a Country-Dweller
Closing

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.

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Synopsis

Hrothgar shares what his people have told him about Grendel and his mother.

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Translation

“I have heard the dwellers in the land, my people,
and my hall counsellors say,
that they have seen two such
mighty prowlers of the murky moors protecting them,
alien creatures; there one of them,
they all can say with great certainty,
has a woman’s likeness; the other unfortunate
in a man’s form treads the path of exile,
but never had they seen a bigger man;
in earlier times the dwellers in the land named
him Grendel; they knew not their lineage,
their parentage was said to be hidden among
mysterious spirits.”
(Beowulf ll.1345-1357a)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Hrothgar Lays his Land Claims

After Hrothgar has questioned Beowulf’s effectiveness, the hall ruler changes his approach. He starts to finally tell us more about Grendel and Grendel’s mother. And it sounds like there are things that Hrothgar can tell us — even if they are just hearsay.

It’s definitely important that there are only two of these creatures. Though it’s curious that the way that all of Hrothgar’s people go when wondering about their origins is down the road of “mysterious spirits” (“dyrnra gasta” (l.1357)). None of Hrothgar’s people say that these two are just two exiles from long ago.

In fact, since in earlier times people would often cast out children who were born with physical defects, maybe that’s what Grendel is: a person with a physical disability of some kind. His mother, then, is indeed a woman but, since Grendel’s as big as he is, in this scenario she probably went out into the wilderness with him. Then the two were away from human society for so long that they’ve forgotten how to talk and express themselves in a recognizable way.

Whatever the case is, Hrothgar’s sharing these mysterious stories of Grendel sightings call into question just how objectively the two are monsters after all. As I’ve said before, maybe the “monster” label is just Hrothgar’s label for two people that were exiled so long ago that all they share with his people are their shapes and likenesses.

I also really wonder about the use of “land-buend” (l.1345) and “fold-buend” (l.1355) in this passage.

Both words basically mean “someone living in the land” as opposed to someone living in a more populated settlement like the one that’s undoubtedly around Heorot. So not only does Hrothgar not recognize these two monsters as long exiled and unfamiliar people, it also sounds like he’s asserting his ownership of the land via possession pretty hard here. Almost as if he (or maybe just the poet) is well aware of how he encroached on the land that Grendel and his mother once had to themselves.

The matter of land ownership and identifying yourself with the land and the people living on it with the land is the angle that hooks me to tightest when I’m reading through Beowulf. It’s so interesting to me because I’m thoroughly convinced that politics of land ownership and identification as a singular people are major themes in Beowulf. And here Hrothgar’s pushing pretty hard to put the beings that he’s feuding with in the “not us” category otherwise known as “monsters” dwelling on the borders of his territory while also working to convince Beowulf that the people living on the land are indeed his people.

What do you think Hrothgar’s history with Grendel and Grendel’s mother is? Are the two creatures exiles or monsters? Could Grendel be an illegitimate son of Hrothgar whom he threw out to secure his power?

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The Rise and Fall of a Country-Dweller

Being a person who “lives on the land” sounds like a rough life. But, I think even when Beowulf was being dreamed up there was a sense that such a life was simpler. After all, if you were a “land-buend,” you literally were a “dweller” or “inhabitant” (buend) on the “land” (the Old English word “land” meaning “earth,” “land,” “soil,” “territory,” “realm,” “province,” “district,” “landed property,” “country (not town),” or “ridge in a ploughed field”).

That there’s an almost identical word with similar meaning convinces me that country life was idealized even more.

“Fold-buend” after all, just means “earth-dweller” or “man” or “inhabitant of a country” — it’s the more concrete cousin of “land-buend” no doubt because the one word that makes the difference between the two, “fold” means “earth,” “ground,” “soil,” “terra firma,” “land,” “country,” “region,” or “world”. But really, it’s just a difference of degrees. “Land” is somehow more abstract (with its meanings of “territory,” or “province” or “country (as opposed to town)”), while “fold” is more about the dirt and soil themselves.

But aside from understanding those who lived on the land as country-dwellers and also as people living somehow more in tune with the earth (living capital “o” “On it”), country people might’ve been regarded as more fortunate because they had the protection of a “sele-raedend” without having much to do with them.

Sure farmers would have to go to war with their “sele-raedend,” he is the “hall ruler or possessor” after all, but they wouldn’t have been expected to perform great deeds or distinguish themselves in battle. That would be the duty of the hall ruler’s closest posse (the “comitatus”).

Although, since “sele-raedend” breaks down into “sele” (“hall,” “house,” “dwelling,” or “prison”) and “raedend” (“controller,” “disposer,” “ruler,” or “diviner”) it’s quite possible that simple household owners or heads of families would regard themselves as the “sele-raedend” of their own dwelling.

Which is all fine and good until one of these heads of an outlying family got it into their heads that they could do a better job of ruling the people. If their plot succeeded, great! But if it failed, they’d either be killed on the spot or forced onto the “wraec-lastas” or “path of exile.”

The word comes from the mix of “wraec” (“misery,” “vengeance,” “persecution,” “enmity,” “punishment,” “penalty,” “cruelty,” “misery,” “distress,” “torture,” or “pain”) and “lastas” (“sole of foot,” “spoor,” “footprint,” “track,” “trace,” “gait,” or “step”), which outlines quite nicely what exile is all about: a path of punishment, torture, and misery.

I mean, in a time when everyone in a community relied on each other not just for niceties and a sense of connectedness but for food and protection, being forced out on your own would indeed make you “earm-sceapan.” You would be left “unfortunate” or “miserable.”

Such is the outcome of failed rebellion and such is the meaning of that mix of “earm” (“arm,” “foreleg,” “power,” “poor,” “wretched,” “pitiful,” “destitute,” or “miserable”) and “sceapan” (“shape,” “form,” “created being,” “creature,” “creation,” “dispensation,” “fate,” “condition,” “sex,” or “genitalia”).

Although, perhaps all hope would not be lost. If you managed to survive long enough to say that your being forced into exile happened in “gear-dagum” you could then call yourself (perhaps with pride) a “mearc-stapa.”

Although, if you were living outside of society for so long that you’d think of your exile as having happened in “the days of yore,” then maybe you’d have lost touch with reality enough to come up with the combination of “mearc” (“mark,” “sign,” “line of division,” “standard,” “boundary,” “limit,” “term,” “border,” “defined area,” “district,” or “province”) and “stapa” (“going,” “gait,” “step,” “pace,” “spoor,” “power of locomotion,” “short distance,” “measure of length,” “step,” “stair,” “pedestal,” “socket,” “grade,” or “degree”) to mean “march-haunter.”

Perhaps, if he or his mother were given any dialogue, that’s what Grendel or Grendel’s mother would be calling themselves.

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Closing

Next week, Hrothgar tells us more about Grendel and his mother, and about where the duo live.

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