Wealhtheow addresses the hall of men, the words she uses (1169-1180a)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Wealhtheow in a World of Men
The First few Compound Words in Wealhtheow’s Speech
Closing

Back To Top
Abstract

Wealhtheow formally addresses Hrothgar, tells him to follow his joys, respect his kin and the Geats.

Back To Top
Translation

“‘Take of this fullness, my noble lord,
treasure bestower; you in joy are,
gold giving friend of men, and to the Geats
speak mild words, as anyone shall do;
be with the Geats glad, be mindful of their gift
from near and far that you now have.
My man has said, that you for a son this
warrior would have. Heorot is cleansed,
the bright ring-hall; use, while you will,
your many joys, and to your kin leave
the folk and kingdom, when you shall go forth,
as fate* foresees.'”
(Beowulf ll.1169-1180a)

Back To Top
Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

Back To Top
Wealhtheow in a World of Men

This passage sounds like a return to the highly formulaic speeches that Hrothgar and Beowulf exchanged when the Geat first arrived at Heorot. And it basically is.

Shot through with epithets tucked into subordinate clauses and a direct address to Hrothgar without actually naming him, this passage just has the ring of a very formal toast. As such, it’s a passage in which we see Wealhtheow’s public persona. This is very much the person that she is when she’s out amongst the mead benches, either offering mead or ale, or simply making an appearance to give her blessing and advice as she does here.

Though the world of Heorot remains staunchly a world of men.

Maybe there are a few women serving the men who are so raucous after the poet’s story, but there’s no way to know if there are any women joining in on the festivities. All we have is our impression of the scene, and mine is that Wealhtheow is probably the only woman on the floor right now. What’s more, it sounds like she’s well aware of this since, when she reports the rumour she’s heard of Hrothgar adopting Beowulf (as he had done with the boy’s father, Ecgtheow), Wealhtheow says that “My man said” (“Me man sægde” (l.1175)), suggesting a servant who, perhaps, is her go-to for gossip or information. But, I think it’s intentionally a male servant she refers to, since she knows that male authority is essential for being taken seriously in the hyper masculine realm she’s stepped into.

Plus, there’s no mistaking the Old English of “me man saegde,” since it’s practically identical to the Modern English “my man said” in its words and, probably, its idiomatic meaning of “my man on the inside” or, put another way, “my reliable source.”

As formal and as masculine as all of that is, though, Wealhtheow maintains her feminine grace at the end of this part of her speech when she caps off her toast with the wish that Hrothgar enjoy himself until the end of his days.

Of course, this line doesn’t sound quite so mysterious when summarized like that, but the reference to “fate” definitely feels like something enigmatic. Much more so than simply saying “the end of your life,” since at the least, that’s something definite — you’ll stop being able to enjoy yourself once you’re dead. But simply being able to indulge in joys “when you shall go forth,/as fate foresees” (“þonne ðu forð scyle/metodsceaft seon” (ll.1179-1180)), sounds like there could be something else that Wealhtheow foresees getting in the way of Hrothgar’s enjoying his wealth.

Now, she hasn’t turned to speak to Beowulf yet in this scene, but I think that this line is a great candidate for the spark that lights the flame of suspicion that Wealhtheow has the hots for Beowulf. Maybe, with the poet’s removed sense of history, her mention of fate is actually an intentional reference back to the hints that the poet’s dropped about Heorot’s own doom and demise – Wealhtheow’s been granted some sort of meta-story foresight and has seen Hrothgar’s fall from power and she hopes that Beowulf will step into the vacuum and be with her.

What do you think? Does it seem like Wealhtheow has some sort of plot for or hope that Hrothgar will fall to the side so that someone like Beowulf can step up? Or is it too early in the poem to tell?

Back To Top
The First few Compound Words in Wealhtheow’s Speech

This week’s passage doesn’t contain too many surprising compound words. There are a few – sure – but they’re all what you’d expect from a very buttoned down, formal speech like the one Wealhtheow is giving here. She’s not talking of any battles or any extreme sorrow, she’s just making a formal address.

To whom is she making this address? Well – we just need to turn to line 1171 to find out. Here, in a little epithet, she refers to Hrothgar as her “gold-wine,” which means “liberal prince, lord, or king.” The word combines the Old English “gold” (“gold”) with “wine” (“friend,” “protector,” “lord,” or “retainer”). Of course, a liberal ruler is going to be one who seems to be made out of gold, he has so much to give away. So “gold-wine” seems a very functional, if not somewhat glittery in itself, word.

Next, on line 1176, Wealhtheow uses the word “here-rinc.” This word means “warrior” and comes from a combination of “here” (“predatory band,” “troop,” “army,” “host,” “multitude”) and “rinc” (“man,” “warrior,” “hero”). So, a man or warrior from a troop – someone with decent enough social standing to be in a troop rather than just some lone wolf or exile. The latter of which having been one of the coast guard’s worries about Beowulf when the Geats first arrived in Daneland.

Then, closing off the list of compound words we’ve never seen before, is “beah-sele” (found on line 1177). This compound offers a little more wiggle room than the previous two when it comes to interpreting it. There’s not much secret meaning in it, but there is a possible implication that runs against “beah-sele”‘s general meaning of “hall in which rings are distributed.”

This implication comes from the meaning of “sele” on its own: “hall,” “house,” “dwelling,” or “prison.”

If you pick out “prison” and combine it with any of “beag”‘s meanings (so any of “ring (ornament or money),” “coil,” “bracelet,” “collar,” “crown,” or “garland”), you get the impression that a “beah-sele” isn’t necessarily just a place of wealth distribution and the joy that comes with that, but that there’s also the possibility that a person using “beah-sele” sees such a place as a prison, as a thing that impinges on their freedom because of the societal expectation that rulers distribute their wealth, and so wealth brings no true freedom, only the burden of doling it out and of ruling well with it.

I didn’t mention it here, but how much do you think using these compound words is a matter of intent and how much do you think it’s a matter of choosing a word for the alliteration or meter?

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

Back To Top
Closing

Next week, we’ll hear Wealhtheow’s further words on the succession in Heorot.

Back To Top

Unferth the reason for Grendel? A very German compound word (ll.1159b-1168)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Unferth the Cause of Heorot’s Woes?
A Collection of Compounds
Closing

Back To Top
Abstract

As we return to the hall after the story of Hildeburh, Finn, and Hengest, we’re given a brief tour of the social hierarchy in Heorot before Wealhtheow takes centre stage.

Back To Top
Translation

“Then the song was sung,
the entertainer’s tale. Revelry again arose,
the noise among the benches flashed as the cup bearer brought
joy from/the joy of the wondrous vessel. Then Wealhtheow came forth,
going under the weight of golden rings, over to where
the two sat, nephew and uncle; there yet were those kin together,
each to the other true. Also there sat spokesman Unferth
at the foot of the Scylding lord’s seat; each of them to his spirit trusted,
that he had great courage, though he to his own kin was not
merciful at the swordplay. Spoke then the Scylding lady:”
(Beowulf ll.1159b-1168)

Back To Top
Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

Back To Top
Unferth the Cause of Heorot’s Woes?

And just like that the story of Hildeburh, Hengest, and Finn is over and it’s back to the meadhall Heorot. Though I think it’s worth a quick noting that the Beowulf poet implies that everyone was quiet while his in-story counterpart sang of the Danes’ patient revenge on the slayer of their lord. The Beowulf poet (or the person who wrote it down) likely wanted to imagine a place and time when their art was more respected. Or, maybe having a quiet crowd is a way of showing how important what’s being recounted is.

Though however quiet the revellers of Heorot were while the poet sang of Hengest and Finn rekindling the age-old feud of their peoples, they’re right back to it once the poem’s over. I mean, the benches are simply flashing with the noise of it all — that’s just how close the motion of the people on the benches and the noise coming from them is. That’s really something!

But after we return to the partying atmosphere of Heorot in celebration of Beowulf’s deed and the greatness that he’s helped restore, we’re given a bit of a sombre note to carry through the procession. And, just as Hildeburh was the bearer of sorrow in the story we just heard, Wealhtheow, Hrothgar’s lady, now seems to be carrying the same. As she goes through the hall to the high seat, the poet follows her, describing along the way the relationship of Hrothgar and his nephew and how Unferth, the doubter of Beowulf, fits into the hierarchy at Heorot.

And that’s where that note of sorrow is hit the hardest.

It seems that Unferth is quite an esteemed counsellor in Heorot, “each of them to his spirit trusted” (“gehwylc hiora his ferhþe treowde” (l.1166)). And yet, the poet makes it clear that this is the case “though he to his own kin was not/merciful at the swordplay” (“þeah þe he his magum nære/arfæst æt ecga gelacum” (ll.1167-1168)).

So Unferth has committed one of the harshest crimes of all in the Anglo-Saxon world — kin-killing. We’re never given any more detail than this about the incident that the poet’s referring to, but it continues to be a constant black mark on Unferth’s reputation for as long as he plays a role in the poem. In fact, Beowulf has even heard of this, since he mentions it in his witty riposte to Unferth’s doubting his stories of valour when he first comes to help Hrothgar with his monster problem (l.587).

So that makes me wonder.

If Unferth’s killed his own kin, a crime that really has no means of punishment (who do you ask for wergild — the monetary punishment for murder meant to cut feuds off before they can start — especially in a situation where the price was often paid by a group rather than an individual, and how could a single person’s paying into the group that he lives in be a punishment, if Anglo-Saxon society is all about distribution of wealth based on success on the battlefield?), how is he able to be such a trusted advisor?

Is he allowed this position because he’s been through the hell of having killed a relative and was left to live with the infamy?

And, in terms of the wider story of Heorot, could Unferth’s killing his kin and then Hrothgar’s bringing him on as an advisor been the thing that sparked Grendel’s feud with Heorot? After all, Grendel is “the kin of Cain” (“Caines cynne” (l.107)), and Cain was damned for killing his own brother. So is Grendel an ironic punishment in the grand tradition of ironic Christian punishments — a monster born of kin-killing that’s come to destroy a place that supports someone who killed his kin but has yet to be perceived as fully monstrous (that is, exiled or ostracized) for it?

So many questions. If you’ve got some opinions or hypotheses to share, please feel free to do so in the comments.

Back To Top
A Collection of Compounds

This week’s batch of compounds covers the range of the straightforward to the much less obvious. Let’s get right into it.

First is line 1160’s “gleo-mann,” meaning “gleeman,” “minstrel,” “player,” “jester,” or “parasite.” This word comes from the compounding of “gliw” (“glee,” “pleasure,” “mirth,” “play,” “sport,” “music,” or “mockery”) and — surprise, surprise — “man” (“person,” “man,” “mankind,” “brave man,” “hero,” “vassal,” “servant,” “name of the rune for ‘m,'” or “used indefinitely like Modern English ‘one'”).

This is a pretty clear compound that, although archaic today, remained in English for quite a while as “gleeman.” Though by the time it got to us, the word’s connotations depreciated (it became pejorated, as linguists say), as “gleo-mann” started to carry a connotation less of a poet who brought joy to people and more of a connotation of someone closer to a court jester rattling off bad rhymes and worse jokes, perhaps giving people glee more through the idiocy of his performance than what he was performing.

Then we get line 1161’s “benc-sweg.” This one brings together the near cognate “benc” (“bench”) with the word “sweg” (“sound,” “noise,” “clamour,” “tumult,” “melody,” “harmony,” “tone,” “voice,” “musical instrument,” or “persona”), to mean “bench-rejoicing,” or “sound of revelry.”

It’s not too terribly surprising a compound once you get over the Old English word for “sound” being “sweg,” but it’s still kind of neat because if you were to tell someone about the “bench sound” today, they’d probably think of a wooden bench scraping across a floor, not the sound of lively conversation, mugs clinking, and drunken singing. Oh how times have changed.

Then, as if lined up nice and neatly, on line 1162 we get the last of this week’s plainer compounds with “wunder-fatum.” The Old English word “wunder” means almost what our “wonder” does, but more in the UK English noun sense (which we don’t really hear much in North America), since “wunder” means “wonder,” “miracle,” “marvel,” “portent,” “horror,” “wondrous thing,” or “monster.” And “fatum,” since the letter “f” when it’s surrounded by vowels in Old English sounds like a “v” is the ancestor of our “vat,” though it’s got a more general meaning of “vat,” “vessel,” “jar,” “cup,” “casket,” or “division.”

Combine these two words and you get the Old English “wunder-fatum,” which means “wondrous vessel.” A little nickname for the ale pitcher or mead jug, since that’s definitely what its bearer is pouring out.

Hopefully those simpler three have you warmed up, because the next compound we come across in this passage is line 1164’s very German-seeming “suhterge-faederan.” Since this word compounds “suhterge” (“brother’s son,” “nephew,” “uncle’s son,” or “cousin”) with “faederan” (“paternal uncle”), “suhterge-faederan” itself means “uncle and nephew.”

It’s definitely not a word that we have in Modern English. And my guess is that the reason we don’t is because of family dynamics. Uncles are no longer a go-to mentor figure for children. In fact, “the creepy uncle” is a way more common trope than the informative or wise uncle, something that’s almost solely concentrated in grandparent figures in pop culture now. So here’s another sign that times have changed quite a bit from the days in which Beowulf was sung.

My guess as to why this happened (a very quick and dirty guess) is that people started to raise their own kids rather than sending them out to learn a trade or how the hierarchy within a house or hall worked, so uncles and aunts came to play less and less of a role while grandparents (perhaps because they’d actually be visited or lived with?) continued to play a role in children’s growing up. Not a perfect hypothesis, but I’m not looking for something air tight.

Or water-tight for that matter.

Which brings me around to the word “aerfaest” from line 1168 meaning “respected,” “honest,” “pious,” “virtuous,” “merciful,” “gracious,” “compassionate,” or “respectful.”

I mention water-tightness here, though because that’s one of the meanings of “faest,” along with “fast,” “fixed,” “firm,” “secure,” “constant,” “steadfast,” “stiff,” “heavy,” “dense,” “obstinate,” “bound,” “costive,” “enclosed,” “closed,” “strong,” “fortified,” “reputable,” or “standard”; while “aer” means “ere,” “before that,” “soon,” “formerly,” “beforehand,” “previously,” “already,” “lately,” or “till.”

Given what we’re told about Unferth being trustworthy because of some sort of past loyalty (a more literal interpretation of “aerfaest,” I think (maybe too literal?)) seems pretty suspect. Unless, maybe the relative that Unferth killed was in opposition to Hrothgar, and so, as unforgivable an act as it is, Unferth was brought in because his actions suggested that his loyalty to Hrothgar was greater than that between relatives (perhaps Unferth killed a nephew, or an uncle? Maybe not too far-fetched if the uncle-nephew relationship was prominent enough in Anglo-Saxon society to get its own compound).

Maybe that’s the key to all of this, Unferth, as unsavoury as his behaviour is to the rest of the world, is trusted within the realm of Heorot because of that loyalty to Hrothgar — he’s successfully and seriously set his lord over his family in an age when family was important, but not necessarily the top priority.

Though that Hrothgar would keep such a person around, one who, according to the conventions of the time was a little monstrous himself — what does that say about Hrothgar? Perhaps Hrothgar’s making Unferth a counsellor is what brought Grendel on him in the first place, not because Hrothgar harboured one who failed to fall into the binary of monster/not-monster, but because Hrothgar himself was an even greater monster in disguise.

Do you think that Unferth’s killing his kin relates to why Grendel attacked Heorot in the first place? Or was it something else that kicked off all of Hrothgar’s troubles?

Back To Top
Closing

Next week, Wealhtheow gives Hrothgar her two cents on everything that’s happened since Beowulf arrived and what the lord of the hall should do.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

Back To Top

The Danes scheme against Finn, compound words herald spring (ll.1127b-1141)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
A Feud Defined
Compounds Both Simple and Complex
Closing

The goddess of spring, Ostara, shown with her symbols and beams of light.

“Ostara by Johannes Gehrts” by Eduard Ade – Felix Dahn, Therese Dahn, Therese (von Droste-Hülshoff) Dahn, Frau, Therese von Droste-Hülshoff Dahn (1901). Walhall: Germanische Götter- und Heldensagen. Für Alt und Jung am deutschen Herd. Breitkopf und Härtel.. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ostara_by_Johannes_Gehrts.jpg#/media/File:Ostara_by_Johannes_Gehrts.jpg

Back To Top
Abstract

The poet tells us that, as much as they’ve been wanting to head home, the Danes have been plotting against Finn all the winter long. And now, with spring in the air, the revenge is about to happen.

Back To Top
Translation

Hengest there yet
dwelt, through the slaughter-stained and all ill-fated winter
with Finn; filled with thoughts of home,
though they might not sail the sea upon
a ring-prowed ship; the sea heaved with storms,
winds fought upon it; the wintry waves were locked
tight with binding ice, and would be until came
another year to the world, as it yet does,
as the seasons are still observed,
bringing gloriously bright weather. Then would winter depart,
leave the earth’s fair bosom; the exiles were eager to go,
the strangers in the hall; but then they thought more
of revenge for their injury than of putting to sea,
if they might bring about a hostile encounter,
that the son of Jutes may have his crime etched in his heart.”
(Beowulf ll.1127b-1141)

Back To Top
Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

Back To Top
A Feud Defined

In this passage the poet gives us the reason why Hengest and the Danes couldn’t yet leave Finn’s stronghold: the winter held them in place.

A natural phenomenon kept them from sailing home, and so they were held there at Finn’s place. Maybe this should be viewed as an act of god, or maybe that’s just how it was framed when Beowulf was put to paper.

At the very least, we can say that Hengest and his Danes had no choice in the matter. They’re definitely not sticking around because they want to. Indeed, though the poet spends a bit of time decorating this passage with the natural imagery of a storm-laden sea and a new year coming to the world (back when New Years was actually celebrated much closer to the spring equinox), we can also see Hengest an the Danes smouldering.

Hell, maybe they’re smouldering because they can’t leave and if the Danes had been able to just up and head out after the funeral there would be no hard feelings beyond the disgrace of having to submit to their lord’s slayer. But winter is just that cruel.

More than that, though, I think there’s something to be said for the Danes’ hate growing through the winter. It’s a kind of neat time lapse of a feud’s growth if you think about it. Very much in miniature, but nonetheless. Let’s get into the imagery to suss this view of feuds out.

We’re told that the seas are stormy and locked up with ice. But only after the poet tells us that the Danes can’t sail away. And then, before we get back to the Danes, we’re told about how the seas were impassable until a new year came (“as it yet does,” (“swa nu gyt deð” (l.1134)) the poet assures us for some reason), and we’re told about how the new year brings with it “gloriously bright weather” (“wuldortorhtan weder” (l.1136)).

Actually, that kind of light sounds like the sort that could refresh and renew a person — even if we consider this part of the poem to be entirely (or at least mostly) free of the Christian influence that likely came with the writing down of Beowulf.

If even this part of the poem has been Christianized, then that “bright weather” sounds like the sort of thing that redeems the world, that saves it every single spring in a grand cycle of renewal and decay. It packs the season of spring with so much rebirth that the four season cycle becomes a metaphor even for human life itself (though that would be one grand cycle of the seasons of life, starting over again, in Christian thought, with the resurrection at the next, true spring).

So renewal is really highlighted, underlined, and made a big deal of here. Even if only subtly through imagery.

And yet, the Danes’ anger persists. It is powerful enough — dark enough? — to resist this “gloriously bright weather,” which, in a way actually encourages the Danes’ plan. After all, now they can get back at Finn and make their escape, thus fleeing the consequences of their violence.

If that sort of enduring, growing anger doesn’t describe a feud I don’t know what does.

Or, as Blake would write some centuries after Beowulf was put to paper in his poem The Poison Tree:

“I was angry with my friend;
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe:
I told it not, my wrath did grow.

And I waterd it in fears,
Night & morning with my tears:
And I sunned it with smiles,
And with soft deceitful wiles.

And it grew both day and night.
Till it bore an apple bright.
And my foe beheld it shine,
And he knew that it was mine.

And into my garden stole,
When the night had veild the pole;
In the morning glad I see;
My foe outstretched beneath the tree.”

What do you think the point is of telling a story about revenge after a major victory?

Back To Top
Compounds Both Simple and Complex

This week’s passage has quite a few compound words. But let me just barrel through the straightforward ones first.

These are “wael-fag,” (l.1128) “hringed-stefnan,” (l.1131) and “sae-lad” (l.1139).

“Wael-fag” simply means “blood-stained” and comes from the combination of “wael” (“slaughter,” or carnage”) and “faeg” (“variegated,” “spotted,” “dappled,” “stained,” “dyed,” “shining,” or “gleaming”).

Likewise, “hringed-stefnan” just joins the meaning of its parts to create a quicker word. “Hringed” means “made of rings,” and “stefnan” means “prow or stern of a ship.”

And, “sae-lad” is almost close enough to Modern English to figure out with a glance — almost. This word combines “sae” (“sheet of water,” “sea,” “lake,” or “pool”) and “lad” (“course,” “journey,” “way,” “street,” “water-way,” “leading,” “carrying,” “maintenance,” “support,” “clearing from blame or accusation,” “purgation,” or “exculpation”) for its meaning. Though there’s definitely something more in this one. Something about a journey being purging and cleansing, along with the sea itself being seen as something flat, a place welcoming roads.

But now let’s get to the good stuff.

The word “wuldor-torhtan” is a fantastic compounding of “wuldor” (“glory,” “splendour,” “honour,” “praise,” “thanks,” or “heaven”) and “torht” (“clearness,” “brightness,” “bright,” “radiant,” “beautiful,” “splendid,” “noble,” “illustrious,” “brightly,” “clearly,” “beautifully,” “splendidly”) meaning “gloriously bright,” “clear,” “brilliant,” or “illustrious.”

This word is also fairly straightforward, but it’s not quite as cut and dry as just being a mix of two words for fairly concrete things. Any kind of “glorious light” is a little more than just your desk lamp being flicked on, after all.

Then on line 1138 we have “gyrn-wraece” a word based on the combination of “gyrn” (“sorrow,” or “misfortune”) and “wracu” (“revenge,” “vengeance,” “persecution,” “enmity,” “punishment,” “penalty,” “cruelty,” “misery,” “distress,” “torture,” or “pain”) that means “revenge for injury.”

I think that this compound is a little more complex than those at the top of this section because of the nuance that “wracu” brings to it.

This word’s nuances suggest that the revenge isn’t necessarily for some sorrow or misfortune, but it’s maybe a penalty for it. Which brings the perhaps selfish seeming act of revenge the flavour of something cosmic, or, at the least, something social. In that your participation in a society entitles you to lash out at another who has wronged your society.

On the one hand, this is definitely a clear motivation in whatever the Danes are planning in this passage. But on the other, it’s definitely something that can seem petty. But our first reaction to the kind of violence Finn visited upon the Danes even today is the same — to hit back, rather than to try to find the real root of the problem and go after that. As the feud with the Frisians continues after this incident, the Danes didn’t bother to attack the root of their problem with the Frisians either.

And then we come to line 1140’s “torn-gemot,” a word meaning nothing more than “battle.”

But this word combines “torn” (“anger,” “indignation,” “grief,” “misery,” “suffering,” “pain,” “bitter,” “cruel,” or “grievous”) and “gemot” (as a form of “mētan”: “meet,” “find,” “find out,” “fall in with,” “encounter,” or “obtain”) to get there, so there’s definitely more to it than battle.

In fact, I went with the literal translation in this passage because I don’t think the Danes want to initiate another battle with Finn. Sure, all of his forces have dispersed so he likely only has his own personal comitatus around him, but still. What the Danes are scheming is subtler than an all out attack — otherwise it wouldn’t outpace thoughts of homes in their minds, as we see in line 1138-1139’s “but then they thought more/of revenge for their injury than of putting to sea” (“he to gyrnwræce/swiðor þohte þonne to sælade”).

What’s really odd about the second word in this compound, mētan, though, is it’s senses of “find” and of “obtain,” combined with the anger or pain of “torn,” it sounds like the compound doesn’t just refer to “battle” as Clark Hall and Meritt suggest, but to any encounter in which “anger” or “pain” are found — so not just physical fights but also battles of words, or bloodshed-free political clashes.

Basically, then, “torn-gemot” should mean, in its plainest sense, “conflict encounter” or even just “conflict.” Though we can be quite sure that the Danes aren’t just planning to have some choice words with Finn before they sail for home.

What do you think makes the difference between compound words that are straightforward and those that have more nuance? Is it a matter of a word’s newness, or of a word’s popularity?

Back To Top
Closing

In the next passage, all of the Danes’ schemes come to a head.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

Back To Top

Words to cool a harp solo and excite for history (ll.1063-1070)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
A Harp Solo Before a History Lesson
Words of War Mingled with Words of Mirth
Closing

Back To Top
Abstract

The poet describes the joy and noise of the hall before diving into a summary of a tale that’s about to be told.

Back To Top
Translation

“There was song and clamour together there
before the Danish commanders.
The harp was played, many tales told,
when the hall joy Hrothgar’s poet
among the mead benches would recite:
He sang of Finn’s children, when calamity struck them,
when the Halfdane hero, Hnæf Scylding,
in the Frisian slaughter found death.”
(Beowulf ll.1063-1070)

Back To Top
Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

Back To Top
A Harp Solo Before a History Lesson

You know there’s not a lot happening in an old poem when there are bits like this passage. What makes this passage such a red flag for a low ebb of action? The lack of specificity for starters. Until the next part of the poem (another poem within a poem) is described, we’re just told how the Danish commanders are regaled while song and tale telling are happening all around everyone.

It’s also clear that this is a bridge sort of passage because immediately before hand we had some wisdom dropped on us. It wouldn’t surprise me if before this passage was recited there would usually be a little harp solo. It’s just the appropriate time for that sort of thing.

After all, things are going to get heavy again fairly soon, and the end of this passage is the warning for that. I mean, before we even get into the poem that’s about to be recited, the poem itself is telling us that the children of Finn will meet calamity and the Danish hero Hnæf Scylding will meet his end. So a little solo and maybe a re-enactment of the celebration would help.

But the story that follows this passage is definitely something inserted, a kind of gem embedded in the woven metal art piece that is Beowulf.

Perhaps it was a lovely poem that was much admired when Beowulf was being composed, maybe even just a piece of poetry that came to a poet’s mind after having told his audience about the gifts Beowulf and the Geats got. Whatever the case, the coming story is offset explicitly like the story of Sigmund and the dragon told the morning after Beowulf’s victory.

So we can tell that spirits are indeed high since Beowulf’s been fêted before with this kind of embedded story.

Likewise, the tale of Sigmund foreshadows Beowulf’s own fight with a dragon, and we can expect more foreshadowing from this passage. Though it’s not likely to be as clear.

Why?

Because all of the names and roles in Anglo-Saxon society can get a little tricky. And this poem is, if nothing else, historical and political, so it’s trying to exemplify something political and social. If the story of Sigmund is like Shakespeare’s The Tempest, the story of Finn’s children and Hnæf Scylding is like Titus Andronicus or Julius Caesar. It’s a neat yarn, but only really interesting if you’re already familiar with the history or are interested in it.

And, actually, given that this is something with a little more grounding in history than Sigemund’s fight with the dragon, it’s interesting how the poet doesn’t really try to hook us with any special detail about the story.

Before the Sigemund story we’re told that the poet brought stories of Sigemund from far off lands, but here we’re explicitly told that what we’re about to hear tell of calamity and death. But I think that’s just part of mustering authority. The poet’s introduction to what’s about to be recited needs to be simple and clear to set the tone of what’s to come and also to make clear that this isn’t an embellishment or grand story, but a retelling of facts. Plus, most people hearing Beowulf, or even reading it, would probably be familiar with the calamity that befell Finn’s children and Hnæf’s end, so things are primed as being familiar rather than new. What’s to come is history rather than mythology, after all.

Though, maybe that’s why history feels boring to a lot of people. Even if we don’t know the details, the stories within history are familiar because we’ve heard the archetypal historical stories before (stories of people in war, of intrigue, of the ambitious). But works of fiction (or mythology) seem fresh and new because there’s the promise of a story we’re unfamiliar with – including twists and surprises that we aren’t expecting.

What do you think makes a good story? Something unlike anything you’ve ever come across before, a regular story with a twist at the end, or something that’s mostly familiar? Why?

Back To Top
Words of War Mingled with Words of Mirth

Well, because this passage is leading us into history, things get pretty serious by the end of it. But that doesn’t mean they don’t get the poet revved up to use a bunch of compound words.

We get four here, including one that must have been made up specifically for this occasion. However, none of these compounds are particularly deep or complex. So perhaps the excitement the poet feels as he gets ready to launch into a little history isn’t as unbridled as it’s been in the past but is more like the excitement of a professor about to lecture on her favourite subject.

Anyway, the four compounds we come across in this passage are “hilde-wisan” (l.1064), “gomen-wudu” (l.1065), “heal-gamen” (l.1066), and “Fres-wæle” (l.1070).

The word “hilde-wisan” means “commander.” Though I think “veteran” works, too.

After all, “hilde” means “war,” “combat,” “keeping,” “custody,” “guard,” “protection,” “loyalty,” “fidelity,” “observance,” “observation,” “watching,” “secret place,” “protector,” or “guardian”; while the Old English word “wisan” means “leader,” or “director.” So combining the two gives us something like “director of combat,” or “leader of protecting,” which sounds like a veteran or commander to me. Of course, I think that goes without saying since all commanders would likely have been veterans (though not all veterans would be commanders).

Line 1065’s “gomen-wudu” is probably the neatest compound of this bunch, and quite appropriately so.

This word means “harp.” It derives that meaning from “gomen” (“sport,” “joy,” “mirth,” “pastime,” “game,” or “amusement”) and “wudu” (“wood,” “forest,” “grove,” “tree,” “the Cross,” “Rood,” “wood,” “timber,” “ship,” or “spear-shaft”). So literally, this compound for “harp” means “mirth wood.” I rather like how how the mirth is focused in the wood.

Not because it takes the emphasis off of the skill of the person playing the harp. But because it suggests that the musician playing the harp is more of a medium than someone actively creating music, that they’re someone through whom the music flows rather than someone who just plays. Which makes sense since, in a joyous meadhall where its namesake alcohol is freely flowing, I imagine the harp player would get pretty into their playing. And it’s really cool how the compound reflects that.

The word “gamen” comes up again in “heal-gamen.” Though in this case it’s combined with “heal” (as a form of “healh” it could mean “corner,” “nook,” “secret place,” “small hollow in a hillside or slope”; or as “heall” it could mean “hall,” “dwelling,” “house,” “palace,” “temple,” “law court,” or “rock”) to simply mean something like “hall joy.”

Though Clark Hall and Meritt drily define this compound as “social enjoyment.” But I think that definition makes the compound sound like it’d be more comfortable in a piece of Old English sociology rather than Old English poetry.

Then, rounding things out, is a word that the poet must’ve just mashed together to fill the line and fit the alliteration: “Fres-wæle.”

This word must be unique to Beowulf because it’s just the name of a group of people – the Frisians (“Fresan” in Old English) – and “wæle,” which we’ve encountered before (which means “slaughter” or “carnage”). Hence, “the Frisian slaughter.” It’s not a very complex compound word, nor is it one that allows for a lot of misinterpretation, but it’s definitely something I take as a sign of the poet’s transcendent sort of state at this point in the poem.

What’s your take on “Fres-waele”? Is it used just because it’s a word? To alliterate? Or to show how the poet’s beside himself with excitement?

Back To Top
Closing

In the next passage we’ll start to get a sense of what this Frisian slaughter, and the matter of Hnæf Scylding are really all about.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

Back To Top

Payment for the dead and weird words with clear covers (ll.1050-1062)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Obligatory Gifts for the Living and the Dead
Sailing through a Batch of Inherited Words
Closing

Back To Top
Abstract

The poet fills us in on how Hrothgar rewarded the other Geats before telling us about “the fore-thinking mind.”

Back To Top
Translation

“Yet then the lord to each man
who had with Beowulf undertaken the sea-way,
there at the ale bench gave treasure,
bequested booty, and then commanded that immediately
gold be paid up, for to cover the one whom
Grendel earlier killed, as he surely would have killed more,
had not wise God and a single man’s
daring prevented that fate. The Measurer ruled
over all human kings then, as it now yet does.
Thus understanding is always best,
the fore-thinking mind. Much shall it endure
of love and of hate, so long as it partakes of
this world’s days of strife.”
(Beowulf ll.1050-1062)

Back To Top
Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

Back To Top
Obligatory Gifts for the Living and the Dead

What is there to say about this passage? The other Geats get rewarded, the poet shares a bit of Christian-tinged gnomic wisdom and the way is made clear for more partying.

But. I’m just gonna hold us up on our way to that with a few small things.

First, on line 1152, the word for “gave” (“gesealan”) doesn’t really come off as nicely as line 1044’s “confer” (or “onweald geteah”) in last week’s passage. That is the word used for Hrothgar’s formally giving Beowulf those great gifts we’re told all about. But the treasures given to his fellow Geats seem to be given over a greater sense of obligation.

After all, “sellan” includes such senses as “furnish,” “supply,” and “allot.” It sounds like there’s much more of a need motivating Hrothgar’s giving treasure to the Geats who were either asleep or useless in the fight with Grendel. Social custom just says that you need to pay those who come in to help you, so Hrothgar’s paying up. And I guess they all get paid the same.

Even if they die in the line of duty.

On lines 1053-1055 we’re told that after he gave the other Geats gifts, Hrothgar then “commanded that immediately/gold be paid up, for to cover the one whom/Grendel earlier killed” (“ænne heht/golde forgyldan, þone ðe Grendel ær/mane acwealde”)

This makes Hrothgar sound like a very upstanding guy. Someone who really sticks to what had been offered, what had been promised. But there’s more to this exchange than a ruler simply paying everyone who came to his rescue.

Grendel had been feuding with the Danes, at least in a sense. The reason for the feud is unclear, but earlier in the poem reference is made to Grendel acting as if he had some sort of feud with them.

I’m not sure of all the laws involved, but one of the major ones in Anglo-Saxon Britain was the concept of “wergild.” I’ve mentioned this before when talking about the word itself and when talking about Hrothgar handling Beowulf’s father. But, as a quick refresher, “wergild” was the money paid out to a rival group if your group happened to kill one of their members. The purpose of this payment was to keep a feud from breaking out so that violence between familial or clan groups could be quelled in the interest of organizing these smaller groups into something bigger.

But back to the poem.

In this mention of payment for the dead Geat we might be seeing wergild paid out. Not because the Geat was killed in some sort of feud they had with the Danes. No such feud exists in the poem. Instead, this payment’s made, I think because when Beowulf was legal owner of Heorot for that night, he also took on Grendel’s feud (or, by virtue of Heorot being the Dane’s base of operations, legal ownership of it enveloped him in the relations surrounding the building). As such, since it was the Danes that got them involved in the feud with Grendel, and Grendel can’t pay any wergild, Hrothgar takes it on himself to make up for the death of the Geat that Grendel snacked on when he first arrived at Heorot that fateful night.

Plus, paying the wergild for a man killed in a battle not his own, would help to make the message of alliance and peace between Geats and Danes deafeningly clear. So there’s another reason to pay for the fallen Geat.

What do you think of the concept of attaching a monetary value to a life? Do you think such a payment was satisfying to the Anglo-Saxons?

Back To Top
Sailing through a Batch of Inherited Words

Since this is another meditative, kind of serious and slow paced passage we don’t get much in the way of wild compounds. There are few though. At the least, I’ll point them out.

First, on line 1051, we have “brim-lade,” a word for “flood-way” or “sea-way.” This word mixes “brim” (“surf,” “flood,” “wave,” “sea,” “ocean,” “water,” “sea-edge,” or “shore”) and “lade” (“course,” “journey,” “way,” “street,” “water-way,” “leading,” “carrying,” “maintenance,” “support,” “clearing from blame or accusation,” “purgation,” or “exculpation.”) for its aquatic meaning. The senses of “lade” involved blame aren’t likely related to this compound, but it’s kind of fun to wonder if such a seafaring people as the Anglo-Saxons saw sailing or going along the “sea-way” as somehow purgative. Maybe, because of the time for all parties involved to think things over and perhaps forgive, a sea voyage was seen as a good way to ultimately have people clear each other of blame.

Though even I think that’s a bit of a stretch.

For all of its simplicity, “yrfe-lafe” (1053) is a weird word.

Combining “yrfan” (“inherit,” “leave (by will),” or “honour with a funeral feast”) and “lafe” (“what is left,” “remnant,” “legacy,” “relic,” “remains,” “rest,” “relict,” or “widow”) to leave us with a word meaning “bequest, inheritance, heir,” it’s clear where the meaning of “yrfe-lafe” comes from. Though, in its use in this passage, it seems like its context skews its meaning.

On line 1053 we’re told that the other Geats are “bequested booty,” though I’ve translated that from a simple “yrfe-lafe.” The thing here is, as mentioned above, I think that Hrothgar’s giving gifts to the rest of the Geats more out of obligation than genuine gratefulness. It’s as if they’re inheriting them as a matter of fact rather than being rewarded with them.

Line 1060’s “fore-þanc” is quite a bit more straightforward, given its place in the philosophical part of this passage.

Meaning “forethought,” “providence,” “consideration,” or “deliberation,” this word is a combination of “fore” (“before,” “in the sight of,” “in presence of,” “because of,” “for the sake of,” “through,” “on account of,” “by reason of,” “from,” or “before”) and “þanc” (“thought,” “reflection,” “sentiment,” “idea,” “mind,” “will,” “purpose,” “grace,” “mercy,” “favour,” “pardon,” “thanks,” “gratitude,” “pleasure,” “satisfaction,” “reward,” or “recompense”). So “fore-þanc” very literally means “before thought” or several variations of the same that all boil down to consideration being made before things either temporally or pseudo-physically (in that the action is given because of, or in the presence of something.

Which brings us down to the last line’s “windagum,” or “days of strife.” The “dagum” part of this word is Old English for “day” (though it could also mean “lifetime,” “Last Day,” or just be used as name of the rune for “d”), while “win” is a word for “toil,” “labour,” “trouble,” “hardship,” “profit,” “gain,” “conflict,” “strife,” or “war.” So, since “dagum” is the plural form of “daeg,” we get “days of toil.” Pretty neat, huh?

But, that’s not all. Because as terrible as “days of toil” sounds, it seems like there’s a bit of a silver lining. Possibly, anyway. The non-toil or labour-intensive definitions of “win” are “profit” and “gain.” It’s unclear if we’re supposed to understand these gains as coming from toil and labour or if it’s just a different take on what makes days full of strife. Maybe instead of battling sin, for example, “days of profit” are those in which you can embrace virtue.

In either case it’s neat to know that an alternative perspective (or even meaning) is contained in a word like “win.” Though, given modern English’s “win” it’s pretty clear which senses of the word won out. Though, again, winning can take a lot of strife and toil, so maybe this struggle of the senses isn’t over yet.

How closely can you look at a word (like “win,” for example) before it starts to temporarily lose all meaning to you?

Back To Top
Closing

After all of this talk of gifts and understanding, we’re told of how high times finally return to Heorot.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

Back To Top

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.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

Back To Top

One word with two meanings, and two words all about swords (ll.1030-1042)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Protection and Aggression
The Wicked Cravings and the Names of Swords
Closing

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

Back To Top
Abstract

The poet describes the helmet Beowulf’s given in more detail. And we see Hrothgar hand over eight horses — one of which is quite special.

Back To Top
Translation

“Around the helmet’s protective top there
was a wire-wound ridge to keep the blows out,
so that its wearer would not be imperilled
by the battle-hardened sword’s bite, when the wicked
craving comes over the blade.
The lord then ordered a man to draw eight mares
with gold-pleated bridles into the hall,
within Heorot’s bounds; among them one stood
with a saddle skilfully coloured, a worthy treasure.
That was the very battle seat of the high king,
the place in which the son of Halfdane rode forth in
to make the battle even; never was he in
wide-known wars laid low, when the ridge was overthrown.”
(Beowulf ll.1030-1042)

Back To Top
Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

Back To Top
Protection and Aggression

The poet must’ve gotten excited about the mention of the four treasures Beowulf’s given or for the opportunity to weave more words about war, because this passage is particularly rich. Despite that, I’m just going to focus on one word.

In line 1031 “walu” appears in reference to the helmet that Beowulf was given. As part of the description of this wondrous bit of headgear, the “walu” is understood as a kind of ridge which sounds like it gives a little bit of extra protection from blows. That it’s wound about with wire suggests that maybe part of this protection comes from the tightness of the bunched up wound wire in much the same way that a properly wrapped turban is supposed to protect from the downward slice of a sword. Though the wire and the ridge must be working with the basic metal hat-ness of the helmet to begin with.

Anyway, the point is that this first use of “walu” is used to refer to the helmet’s extra protective properties. It’s not just any old helmet, but one that’s specially designed to protect your head in the heat of battle (beautifully expressed as “when the wicked/craving comes over the blade” (“þonne scyldfreca/ongean gramum gangan scolde” (l.1033-1034))).

This instance of “walu” also alliterates with line 1031’s “wirum” and “bewunden.” In fact, as the first word after the caesura, “walu” bridges the two half lines, making (at least to my ear) for a faster paced line when it’s spoken.

The second instance of “walu” comes in on line 1042. Here the word takes on two meanings.

First is the geographic sense that Clark Hall and Meritt provide with their definitions of the word as “ridge,” or “bank.” I understand that this definition fits the line’s meaning because a ridge or bank could easily be the strongest part of an enemy’s (or your own) line in battle, and so the spot likely to have the most intense fighting. Even if it wasn’t the strongest, a ridge would certainly be a spot that a military force primarily made of infantry would want to capture. After all, fighting uphill is much more difficult than downhill when you’re mostly engaging in mêlée combat on foot. So, again, a ridge would likely be among the most intense sites during a battle.

The other possible meaning of “walu” (both Clark Hall and Meritt and C.L. Wrenn consider a secondary meaning, referring to the word “wael”) is “slaughter” or “carnage.” I think that this interpretation has a similar meaning, it’s just much more direct about it and there’s no subtext of why there’s slaughter or carnage.

But whatever the precise meaning of “walu” in line 1042, it’s possible that it’s also here for the purpose of alliteration. The line starts with “wid-cuþes wig” and then “walu” is the second word after the caesura, so it bridges the two parts of the line a little less strongly than in line 1031, but does so all the same.

But even though both instances of the word alliterate, and the second “walu” is possibly just a scribal error or variation for “wael,” I find its double duty in this passage interesting because of what the echoing of “walu” with its very disparate uses suggests.

The first appearance of “walu” refers to protection — specifically protection on the battle field. There’s the sense that the helmet that it’s describing provides extra protection, but hidden in there is also the sense that a ridge is a fairly safe place in a medieval battle (or so I’d guess — being higher ground and all that — arrows not withstanding). But then, on line 1042 the same word is used to denote a place that lacks safety both because it’s a hot spot during battle (definitely a place where the “wicked/craving comes over the blade” (ll.1033-1034)) and because in the context of the poem it refers to the spot where the celebrated Hrothgar is rampaging.

So “walu” is used in practically opposite ways within the same passage — within 12 lines even, and I think that this is at least the scribe trying to throw in a micro-commentary about war. Namely that war is only ever safe for the victors, but that those victors imperil themselves in the process of winning both physically (usually having to fight through the toughest spot) and also spiritually since they gain a fearful reputation for cruelty on the battlefield. It’s not as heavy handed as you might expect from a medieval Christian scribe writing out a pseudo-pagan poem, but I think it’s there.

But what’s your take on this? Is “walu” used twice just because it sounds good or is easy to alliterate with a lot of words? Or is there something about war being said here?

Back To Top
The Wicked Cravings and the Names of Swords

I haven’t been formally recording or watching the instances of compound words since wondering if there’s any sort of pattern a few posts ago, but I think it’s safe to say that war equals compounds. Something about the heat of combat or the rhythm that the poet felt was needed in verses about fighting just seems to require compound words. This passage is full of them.

They range from the simple like heafod-beorge (a mix of heafod, meaning “head,” “source,” “origin,” “chief,” “leader,” or “capital”; and “beorge” meaning “protection,” “defence,” “refuge,” or “mountain,” “hill,” “mound,” “barrow,” or “burial place” that means “prominent hill”) to “faeted-hleore” (mixing faeted “ornamented with gold” and hleore’s “cheek,” “face,” or “countenance” to mean “with cheek ornaments”) which describes the horses to things like “hilde-setl” (“war, combat” and “seat,” “stall,” “sitting,” “place,” “residence,” “throne,” “see,” “siege,” meaning “saddle”).

There’s also “heah-cyninges” (meaning “high king,” or “God” — a mix of “heah,” meaning ” high” “tall,” “lofty,” “high-class,” “exalted,” “sublime,” “illustrious,” “important,” “proud,” “haughty,” “deep,” “right (hand)” and “cyning” meaning “king,” “ruler,” “God,” “Christ,” or “Satan”) and wid-cuþes (simply “widely known,” or “celebrated” from “wid” (“wide,” “vast,” “broad,” or “long”) and “cuþ” (“known,” “plain,” “manifest,” “certain,” “well-known,” “usual,” “noted,” “excellent,” “famous,” “intimate,” “familiar,” “friendly,” or “related”)).

But two of the compounds encountered in this passage stand out — even from the usual crowd of compounds I’ve been coming across lately.

The first of these is “scyld-frecu” from line 1033. This word takes “scyld,” (which means “offence,” “fault,” “crime,” “guilt,” “sin,” “obligation,” “liability,” “due,” “debt”; or as “scield”: “shield,” “protector,” “protection,” “defence,” “part of a bird’s plumage(?)”) and combines it with “frecu” (meaning “greedy,” “eager,” “bold,” “daring” or “dangerous”; or as “freca”: “warrior” or “hero”) to come out with “wicked craving.”

At first glance this looks like a logical combination, a word for “sin” and a word for “greedy” — you’ve got all the necessary parts. But then “frecu” could mean “warrior” or “hero” if it’s read as “freca.” A stretch perhaps, but synonyms and puns are wordplay staples in Modern English, so there must’ve at last been some awareness of these uses of language in Old English.

Take the name “Heorot” itself for instance. It sounds like the Old English term for a stag (“heort”) and also the term for the centre of human feeling (and thought as well, according to some classical natural philosophers), the “heorte.” This three way meeting of meanings can’t just be coincidental. That’s why I see something curious in the “freca” connection to “scyld-frecu.” (Not to mention it sounds an awful lot like this compound could simply mean “shield man”…and maybe it does — but that’s the beauty of poetry!)

So perhaps there’s a connection between the “greedy craving” which you could simplify to “bloodlust,” and being a warrior or hero. This could be acknowledgement of the cost of working in either of these roles.

But as a compound word “scyld-frecu” is completely overshadowed by “scur-heard.”

This compound is completely new to me, and possibly of a type that’s rare even in Beowulf. As Clark Hall and Meritt explain in the entry, this word means “made hard by blows (an epithet for a sword).”

So this compound word doesn’t just bring two terms together to create some other word, it’s an epithet for a sword. The Anglo-Saxons were so into swords that it wasn’t enough to have almost as many words for them as the Inuit have for snow, they had to also have words that were recognized as names for swords — not just words to refer to them (like “hildebill” or “gramum”).

But I digress, the parts of “scur-heard” are “scur” (“shower,” “storm,” “tempest,” “trouble,” “commotion,” “breeze,” or “shower of blows or missiles”) and “heard” (“hard,” “harsh,” “severe,” “stern,” “cruel,” “strong,” “intense,” “vigorous,” “violent,” “hardy,” “bold,” “resistant,” or “hard object”).

So literally read, you could take this one to mean something like “hardened in the shower of blows” or even “violent amidst the many blows.” On the one hand, maybe this is just referring to swords in general. Or. Maybe it’s referring to things a little more broadly. Maybe this is even evidence that the Anglo-Saxons attributed actions or personalities to swords.

Calling a sword (or swords in general) “hardened in the shower of blows” definitely makes me think that some of the power and agency of the sword in question are taken away from the wielder and given to the sword itself. Perhaps this denotes the Anglo-Saxons foisting something like “luck,” or even the intense violence of battle, off on the sword itself.

Or, maybe “scur-heard” contains the sense that the sword is so keen (being modified by that “wicked craving,” remember) that it’s just doing the work of slashing and parrying and drawing away attacks on its own. Perhaps the name’s a hint at an early longing for an inanimate object with a mind of its own.

Sounds crazy, perhaps. But legends and stories of magicians and mystics bringing statues to life (Jewish stories of the golem, the Greek myth of Pygmalion) go back quite a ways into recorded history.

If you could give an inanimate object life, or foist some characteristic of yours off on one (and not be thought crazy) what object would you choose?

Back To Top
Closing

In the next post’s passage, Hrothgar formally bestows these gifts and horses on Beowulf. And the poet comments.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

Back To Top

The difference between a son and a sword, functional and fantastical compound words (Beowulf ll.1020-1029)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Hrothgar as Son or as Sword
Four Functional Compounds, One That’s Nuanced
Closing

Back To Top
Abstract

Beowulf is given four gifts and the poet says that he’d never seen or heard of anyone receiving such gifts ever before.

Back To Top
Translation

“Then to Beowulf the sword of Halfdane
gave as reward a golden banner of victory,
an ornamented battle banner, helm and byrnie;
a famed treasure sword that many in prior times
had seen a hero use. Beowulf became very
feted on that floor; he felt no need there
to be ashamed for the largesse shown before the warriors.
Never have I heard of a friendlier gift
of four gold-adorned treasures from
such a great man in any other ale hall.”
(Beowulf ll.1020-1029)

Back To Top
Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

Back To Top
Hrothgar as Son or as Sword

Some of you probably think that all of these commentaries making mountains out of molehills. The tiny nuances of a language long dead can hardly hold any meaning that could possibly be relevant to today, and to try and draw meaning out of Beowulf is like trying to get water from a well that’s been dry for years.

But poetry is poetry. When it’s read all the meaning packed into it comes out. Old poetry’s just in need of a few drops of water to restore it, like something dried out to preserve it. And this entry’s passage practically makes its own sauce once you’ve added a few drops of water. Because this entry’s passage is the site of a decades long controversy.

In line 1020, we’re told that “the sword of Halfdane” (“brand Healfdenes”) is the person who gives Beowulf the gifts featured in this passage. Or is it “the son of Halfdane” (“bearn Healfdenes”)? Seamus Heaney’s text (published in 2001) uses the latter reading of the original manuscript, while C.L. Wrenn’s somewhat older version (published in 1958) goes with the former.

Now, I’m not about to dive into a mess of orthography and manuscript analysis because I don’t think I’m qualified to do so after so much time away from formal academia. But I am going to point out one major thing about this discrepancy.

It’s a small detail, but whether the poem refers to Hrothgar as “the sword of Halfdane” or “the son of Halfdane” makes a big difference in the matter of the passage’s tone.

As the word “feoh-gift” (which I’ve translated as “largesse” (l.1026)) signifies, this is a very important giving of gifts since there’s a sense of a strong bond being formed (akin to marriage – then still primarily a business/financial matter more than one of love, so there’s a sense of legality, or formality here). But whether it’s “the son of Halfdane” — his heir and descendant — doing the giving or “the sword of Halfdane” — his general and foremost warrior — tells us about the nature of that bond. I think. If we take the reference to be to Hrothgar’s being the son of Halfdane, then the bond seems much more familial, as if Beowulf is being welcomed into the family of Hrothgar, whatever that might involve. At the very least, you’d think that a family would be closer than something like a war chief’s comitatus.

Also, if you read the reference to Hrothgar as “the son of Halfdane,” then the bond the gifts signify seems to be more one of strengthened trust than anything else. Beowulf was entrusted with the hall — was legally made its owner — over the course of the night and he handled it well. So he’s proven that he can measure up to his word, and as such can be trusted.

But, if Hrothgar is supposed to be the sword of Halfdane here, then it paints the giving and the bond that comes with it as something that’s much more martial. Hrothgar could be seen as one making a political alliance with a figure that has proven himself strong beyond belief and definitely a force that you wouldn’t want to face in battle. So the four gifts given by the sword of Halfdane become the basis of an alliance of Beowulf (and by extension, the Geats) with Hrothgar. Perhaps this bond is even a continuation or renewal of the older man’s relationship with Beowulf’s father.

Actually, these two readings leave us with a kind of dichotomy. On the one hand the martial alliance is made perhaps out of fear or calculation, while on the other the familial bond comes from something more personal and made out of respect and trust.

Figuring this out would be much easier, I think, if the “jewelled sword” of line 1023 were a little more specific. At least in so far as it’s the most described treasure, so if we knew if it was practical or just decorative could lend itself to either reading.

Given what Beowulf’s done for the Danes up to now, which do you think makes more sense – Hrothgar bringing Beowulf into the family, or Hrothgar making a more formal political alliance with Beowulf and the Geats?

Back To Top
Four Functional Compounds, One That’s Nuanced

One of the things that makes poetry interesting is variety. Whatever the frequency of compound words might mean, Beowulf just wouldn’t be as interesting if there was a very obvious pattern to them; like if the poet always used complex compounds while characters like Beowulf and Hrothgar only did so while boasting. This passage spoken by the poet keeps the use of compounds fresh since it’s got a mix in it that leans more to the simpler side.

First up is line 1022’s “hilde-cumbor,” a “war banner” and one of the gifts given to Beowulf. This compound is a straight up combination of the words “hilde” (“war,” or “combat”) and “cumbor” (“sign,” “standard,” or “banner”) that means exactly that: a “war banner.” Not much to say here since this is very much a compound of function.

Once again, the poet throws words together simply because the poet can on line 1023. The word “maðþum-sweord” is another compound of function since its meaning of “costly sword,” or “ornate sword” comes pretty directly from the combination of “maðm” (“treasure,” “object of value,” “jewel,” “ornament,” or “gift”) and “sweord” (“sword”). Now, which of the meanings of “maðm” you go with can determine the sort of import of the sword in question, but there’s not a lot of wiggle room in interpreting this word. Maybe reading this compound as referring to a “gift” sword is the same as considering it a “jewelled sword” or a “treasure sword.” After all, praiseworthy gifts are often decked out.

Now, line 1026’s “feoh-gift” is where this passage’s words get interesting. On its own, the word “feoh” means “cattle,” “herd,” “movable goods,” “property,” “money,” “riches,” or “treasure,” and the word “gift” means “gift,” “portion,” “marriage,” “gift,” “dowry,” “nuptials,” or “marriage.” So this compound definitely refers to a very valuable gift, but the heavy implication of a bond as strong as marriage makes anything called a “feoh-gift” more than just trinkets exchanged because of a job well one. These gifts are meant to seal a bond between Hrothgar and Beowulf, to somehow ally them. So this word is quite well chosen.

Then line 1029 sends us right back to the obvious compounds with “gum-manna.” Both “gum” and “man” mean “man” and so “gum-manna” means “man.”

But, given the word’s context, the poet uses “gum-manna” to suggest that these men are exemplary. That they’re shining examples of what a man should be. That’s the sort of emphasis that word doubling usually lays on a thing in Old English, after all.

Which brings us around to a compound that’s neat for unexpected reasons. This is 1029’s “ealo-benc,” meaning “ale bench.” This compound, unsurprisingly, comes from combining the words “ealu” (“ale,” or “beer”) and “benc” (“bench”) together. What makes it neat, though is that the poet hangs quite a bit of meaning on this word. Either the poet’s using a single ale bench as a metonymy for all halls everywhere, or the poet’s getting super specific and saying that he’s never heard of anything like this happening on any ale bench – ever.

Which do you find more interesting, practical compounds like “hilde-cumbor” or more nuanced ones like “feoh-gift”?

Back To Top
Closing

In the next entry, the gift giving continues as Hrothgar hands over some more gear and a few horses.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

Back To Top

Foreshadowing history, words with secrets (ll.1008b-1019)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
The Poem gets Historical
Words with Secrets to Unlock
Closing

Wealhtheow serving Hrothgar

Back To Top
Abstract

It’s party time in Heorot once again, though the poet reminds us that this high hall won’t be standing high forever.

Back To Top
Translation

“Then came the due time
that Hrothgar’s son come to the hall;
and Hrothgar himself would come to enjoy the feast.
I have no need to ask if ever a greater group of assembled peoples
has gathered around their revered ring-giver.
The renowned then bowed onto the benches,
filling them with joy; they tore into the fare
and went round after round through cups of mead,
becoming bold minded, in that high hall,
Hrothgar and Hrothulf among them. Within Heorot were
many friends; not at all was treachery
yet made amongst the Scyldings.”
(Beowulf ll.1008b-1019)

Back To Top
Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

Back To Top
The Poem gets Historical

Okay, so the big thing to take away from this passage is that Heorot has been restored to normal! Huzzah!

But, the Anglo-Saxons must’ve collectively been a Taurus because as soon as the poet establishes that everyone’s enjoying the feast and slugging back mug after mug of mead he decides its time to foreshadow how Heorot meets its ultimate end. He decides that it’s time to lay some history on us. Though only in a way that people who’d have been incredibly familiar with their history (perhaps in the same way that Americans are familiar with their history) would understand it.

After all of this talk of friendship and happiness, even of a level of comfort that allows Hrothgar to bring out his son and heir Hrothulf, the poet says “not at all was treachery/yet made amongst the Scyldings” (“nalles facenstafas/þeodscyldingas þenden fremedon” (ll.1018-1019)).

This passage and even the one about death from last week, but to a lesser extent, really make it seem that these parts of the poem are all about relating to the very specific audience that Beowulf would’ve been initially performed for. Not even written down for (that’s a totally different kettle of fish) but written down for. People who knew about the history of Heorot and the Scyldings.

So what?

Well, it means that this poem must’ve been written a fair bit after all of this stuff happened with the Scyldings. Long enough for it to have become part of the historical record, but not so long before that it would’ve been forgotten. Though I get the feeling that by the time Beowulf was completed (likely as an oral performance piece), this bit of history had passed into legend to some degree. That it was the stuff of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of England. So it was historical in that it happened some time before the writer/performer lived, but as factually accurate as our stories of Arthur and his knights. Things have been muddied. But then maybe that’s why the poet goes for a vaguely prophetic sort of reference to these future hardships here. Instead of diverting the audience’s attention away from the story that’s being woven over these 3182 lines, the poet’s instead just riveting the story down into the realm of past facts, of history, with references like this one.

In another form of speaking of the future, the poet trots out Hrothulf here. I think Hrothgar might’ve referred to his son earlier, but this is the first time that we see him mentioned by name. I take this action of Hrothgar’s as a sign that he believes the hall is truly saved, and that the Danes’ troubles are over at last. So the young prince, his heir and successor, can come to the hall without any tragedy befalling the Danes.

Getting back to the reference to history, though, I find it interesting that the poet just says that the hall was full of friends and that treachery wasn’t there quite yet. Putting it like that makes it sound like treachery itself is a guest that wouldn’t visit just yet, and that Heorot would host some wild parties before treachery comes calling to totally destroy Heorot later. It seems like treachery is just another house guest.

I feel like this sense of future ruin is a lot of the Norse influence on Anglo-Saxon culture coming through, since sagas of great families falling into ruin account for quite a few of the older legendary ones we still have. There’s definitely not just a sense that whatever goes up must come down but that nothing great lasts because this is a world of change, set below the influence of the ever changing moon and not within what later poets would refer to as the immutable heavens.

Couched within a story that’s very much about a culture shifting from non-Christian to Christian what could such a reference to the fall of a great house mean? Maybe the poet and the others along with them thought that this limit to great things, great families, extended to religion, and believed that just as the Germanic religions gave way to Christianity someday Christianity would also wane? Who knows?

Isn’t literature great?

Back To Top
Words with Secrets to Unlock

The two (yep, just two) standout words from this entry’s passage are “blæd-agende” and “facen-stafas.”

The first of these, coming to us on line 1013, is a combination of “blæd” (“blowing,” “blast,” “inspiration,” “breath,” “spirit,” “life,” “mind,” “glory,” “dignity,” “splendour,” “prosperity,” “riches,” or “success”; or it’s a form of the word “bled” meaning “shoot,” “branch,” “flower,” “blossom,” “leaf,” “foliage,” “fruit,” “harvest,” or “crops”) and “agende” (“owner,” “possessor,” “master,” “lord,” or “the lord”).

Even with its second possible meaning as “bled,” the word “blæd” is undeniably a word of great prosperity (that is, in fact, even one of the original word’s senses). So it’s not very surprising to see that combined with the Old English word for things like “owner” and “master” we get a word that means “renowned.” Such a person is a lord of inspiration, or dignity, or splendour, or success – take your pick, they all really boil down to the same thing: a thing to be renowned for. Though we could get into chicken and egg questions here in that are these people renowned for the splendour that they’ve built up or are they renowned for having reached such a level of success? It’s hard to say from this compound word alone.

The second word has its own secrets to unlock.

The word “facen-stafas” as a combination of “facen” (“deceit,” “fraud,” “treachery,” “sin,” “evil,” “crime;” “blemish,” or “fault (in an object)”) and “stæf” (“staff,” “stick,” “rod,” “pastoral staff”; or, when “stæf” is in the plural form, as it is in this passage, it usually means “letter,” “character,” “writing,” “document,” “letters,” “literature,” or “learning”) curiously means “treachery” or “deceit.”

Obviously the Anglo-Saxons respected the intelligence required for a good bit of intrigue (and if the continuation of the mystery genre of storytelling in the northern parts of Europe’s anything to go by, they still do) since this word essentially combines the idea of treachery with some sense of command, of having power over it as represented by the image of the pastoral staff, or by the control required for things like writing, letters, or literature.

What’s more, the word “stæf” is a part of another compound word, “stæfcraft,” meaning “grammar” or “learning.” So, somewhat unsurprisingly since education still followed the classical model of literally beating concepts into students through corporal punishment and rote memorization, that same staff which I think stands as a controlling influence in “facen-stafas” is essential to learning the basics in a classical education. But this association doesn’t just buttress the idea that “stafas” in this compound refers to some sort of control through intelligence, it builds on the idea that treachery was respected (at least in some way) inherently in Anglo-Saxon culture. Maybe not on the surface, there’s probably no epic poem about a liar who makes their way to the top (unless those lies are stories) left for us to find, but definitely under it. Maybe it could stem from an interest in gossip since rumours are often convoluted and largely constructed to falsely damage reputations at some point over their lifespans.

Do you think it takes a smart person to be successfully treacherous? Or does treachery depend on a trait other than smarts?

Back To Top
Closing

Next up, Beowulf is rewarded for his victory over Grendel with some shiny new armour – which he does not equip at all over the course of the poem. So far as we see, anyway.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

Back To Top

Grendel’s arm inspires awe, compound words get weird (ll.980-990)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Grendel’s Myth Grows
Five Words of Increasing Weirdness
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.

Back To Top
Abstract

The poet takes ten lines to describe Grendel’s hand in more detail and to show how the assembled warriors react to the sight of it.

Back To Top
Translation

Then more silent were those words, of the son of Ecglaf,
of boastful speech about warlike deeds,
after the noblemen that man’s strength
saw in that hand hung on the high roof,
the fiend’s fingers. At the tip of each was
a firm nail most like unto steel,
the heathen’s claw, the horribly dreadful
warrior. Everyone assembled said
that they had never heard of any time-tested sword
that could strike it, that would injure the wretch’s
bloodied battle hand.
(Beowulf ll.980-990)

Back To Top
Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

Back To Top
Grendel’s Myth Grows

It’s not exactly within the purview of this top section, but I think it bears immediate wondering about: the poet has no trouble using compound words in this part of the poem. So are compounds words doled out with some sort of rhyme (or rather, alliteration) or reason? Does the poet keep most of them in the narration? Which character has the most compound words in their dialogue? Which character has the most compound rich dialogue? Who are these characters?

Anyway.

That bit of research question writing aside, this passage is weirdly mimetic of what it’s describing. That is, these 10 lines are all about awe and people being struck dumb save for a few whispers. And because this passage is fairly straightforward, even in Old English (though the vocabulary here is pretty rich), it’s just a very smooth passage in which the noise of tangled clauses or clamorous kennings aren’t issues or characteristics.

What’s more though, is that, like a movie director, as the poet moves away from Beowulf’s story, the poem moves away from Beowulf not just in terms of subject, but also in terms of perspective. I don’t get the impression from this passage that Beowulf is surveying those assembled with confident grin on his face and “I’m hot shit” running through his head.

I get the impression that this passage represents more of a sweeping shot in which we see Unferth front and centre, jaw agape, mouth maybe working but nothing coming out.

Next the camera pans around the hall’s yard to a group of lords or warriors or both that are just silent, looking up at the gable on which the arm is pinned.

Then, to finish the scene off, the camera then moves to a group that’s huddled and whispering, perhaps just loud enough for a boom mic to pick up “I’ve never heard of anything that could cut such an arm – to just tear it right off…” perhaps with the speaker going a shade or two paler, and with a look of worry on his face as he looks in the direction of Beowulf. Then the scene ends and a fresh shot comes up or we fade to black.

Stepping aside from this filming analogy, the one thing that grabs me in this passage is the extra time that the poet puts into building Grendel up after his defeat and death. Why mention that his severed hand has claws like steel now, when it’s completely disabled? Is it just part of immersing the reader or hearer in the fight with Grendel, a fight in which little details like steel claws might’ve gone unnoticed?

Actually, throughout the rest of the poem Grendel has more and more detail added to him. Later we see his body in his mother’s lair, and after that Beowulf tells again of the night and the fight and gives Grendel some sort of dragon skin bag in which he stuff his victims. Maybe it’s just that Beowulf is so long that it gets a bit meta with its myth-making and actually has characters building up their own myths and legends while they’re still being told.

It’s also neat that the onlookers’ go-to weapon is the sword, which by now would certainly be a sign of wealth and power rather than just a fighting implement. Spears would’ve been much cheaper and the standard weapon of any infantry after all. So it’s a sure sign that those looking on at Grendel’s arm are of noble lineages or prestiges of one sort or another.

Though it could also be a bit of socio-economic commentary — the old guard and established nobles wouldn’t have thought of debasing themselves by fighting such a monster barehanded. Perhaps their not considering such a tactic might even reflect on the poet’s opinion that nobles hide behind their swords (that is, their prestige and their wealth) rather than actually doing the fighting themselves and, very literally, getting their hands dirty.

Sometimes there’s just too much to this poem.

In your opinion, why does the poet give more detail about Grendel here?

Back To Top
Five Words of Increasing Weirdness

Whatever the reason — if there even is one — this passage is rich in compound words. So much so in fact, that I can actually arrange them in order of ascending weirdness rather than just going at them as they appear. Here we go.

The word “beadufolm” appears in line 990 and means “battle-hand.” There’s not much to this one since it’s a very straightforward combination of “beadu” (“war,” “battle,” “fighting,” “strife”) and “folm” (“palm,” “hand”). Aside from referring to a hand that participates in combat, I think this word could also carry connotations of one who, in his or her hand, carries war in the sense that the work of their hands is strife and difficulty for all those they encounter. Since it’s describing Grendel that seems very appropriate, too. Could the same word describe Beowulf, though?

Next up is the slightly more nuanced “gielp-spræc” of line 981. This word means “boastful speech” and combines “gielp” (“boasting,” “pride,” “arrogance,” “fame,” “glory”) and “spræc” (“language,” “power of speech,” “statement,” “narrative,” “fable,” “discourse,” “conversation,” “eloquence,” “report,” “rumour,” “decision,” “judgment,” “charge,” “suit,” “point,” “question,” “place for speaking”) to come to this meaning.

This is the first of this post’s words that’re Beowulf exclusive, meaning that, as far as we know, the Beowulf poet(s) made this word up specifically for the poem since there aren’t any other Old English texts that use it. Considering the importance of boasting and making big claims in Beowulf, I think it’s safe to say that this one was definitely handcrafted for the poem.

The “gielp” part of the word is fairly straightforward, since its meanings are logical enough and sensible enough. But, things get more vague with “spræc.” This word includes the expected things like “language” or “conversation,” but also includes “rumour,” “charge” (in the legal sense), and even “place for speaking.” Because of this versatility, I’d like to think that “gielp-spræc” would’ve been popular with the thanes and warriors who heard it in the poem, the range of places and functions of boasting it seems to encompass as well as being a more decorative way of getting the idea across really dress up the practice of boasting.

Similar to “gielp-spræc” in its mostly straightforward meaning and combination is “guð-geweorc” (also from line 981) This one means “warlike deed” and is another Beowulf exclusive compound. As a combination of “guð” (“war,” “conflict,” “strife,” “battle”) and “geweorc” (“labour,” “action,” “deed,” “exercise,” “affliction,” “suffering pain,” “trouble,” “distress,” “fortification”), it’s kind of hard to interpret it as anything other than a “warlike deed.” Even pulling something like “war fortification” out of it suggests a “warlike deed” because of the intention involved.

But I think that this is just the power of the compound word in Old English, it can get across intentionality in a way that other words just aren’t able to.

Next, a word that comes from near the passage’s end (line 988 to be exact), but is full of the surprises you’d expect from an opener. The word “ærgod” means, as you might have guessed, “good from old times.”

This word combines “ær” (“ere,” “before that,” “soon,” “fomerly,” “beforehand,” “previously,” “already,” “lately,” “til”) and “god” (“good,” “virtuous,” “desirable,” “favourable,” “salutary,” “pleasant,” “valid,” “efficient,” “suitable,” “considerable,” “sufficiently great”) to come to its august meaning and strong sense of describing something that’s withstood the test of time.

What’s surprising about this one, though, is that it’s a Beowulf exclusive. This might be explained away because it fits the line’s alliteration, but “ær-god” doesn’t really alliterate with anything on its line. So I think it’s safe to take this line to mean that the Anglo-Saxons (a people definitely not living in a disposable culture) prized things that lasted, even went so far as to give these things special meaning and status. So it’s really strange to me that “ær-god” isn’t found in any other Old English texts that have, themselves, withstood the test of time.

Now, the final word from this passage that’s worth note: “handsporu,” meaning “claw,” or “finger.” A mix of “hand” (“hand,” “side (in defining position),” “power,” “control,” “possession,” “charge,” “person regarded as holder or receiver of something”) and “sporu” (“spoor,” “track,” “trail,” “footprint,” “trace,” “vestige”), this word’s compound meaning is strange to say the least.

Why is it so strange?

Well, this word implies that, at least conceptually, Anglo-Saxons (or, perhaps their Germanic ancestors) saw fingernails as “hand poop.” After all, only the “hand” part of “handsporu” has any internal variation. No matter how you cut it, “sporu” means “leaving,” and is the root of the Modern English “spoor” which has become specialized to refer exclusively to animal poop that trackers and hunters and the like use to guess an animal’s trail or whereabouts. Though maybe this was just the poet’s own creative way of looking at fingernails, and claws since this one’s also a Beowulf exclusive. I guess no one else wanted to touch this one.

Four out of this week’s five words are exclusive to Beowulf. Do you think there’s any kind of pattern to words that are exclusive to Beowulf?

Back To Top
Closing

In the next passage we’ll see the Anglo-Saxon equivalent of an 80s montage as everyone assembled at Heorot rushes around to fix up the hall.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

Back To Top