Beowulf gives a sword to be a king

Introduction
Synopsis
The Original Old English
My Translation
A Quick Question
Closing

The decorative grip and pommel of the Gilling Sword, like Beowulf's ancient giant sword?

The grip and pommel of the Gilling Sword, found in a stream in Yorkshire in 1976. Did the giant’s sword that Beowulf found have a similar hilt? Copyright York Museums Trust http://bit.ly/2gh8HXJ. Image from http://bit.ly/2gpntKw.


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Synopsis

Beowulf and the Geats leave Daneland.


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The Original Old English

“Cwom þa to flode felamodigra,
hægstealdra heap, hringnet bæron,
locene leoðosyrcan. Landweard onfand
eftsið eorla, swa he ær dyde;
no he mid hearme of hliðes nosan
gæstas grette, ac him togeanes rad,
cwæð þæt wilcuman Wedera leodum
scaþan scirhame to scipe foron.
þa wæs on sande sægeap naca
hladen herewædum, hringedstefna,
mearum ond maðmum; mæst hlifade
ofer Hroðgares hordgestreonum.
He þæm batwearde bunden golde
swurd gesealde, þæt he syðþan wæs
on meodubence maþme þy weorþra,
yrfelafe. Gewat him on naca
drefan deop wæter, Dena land ofgeaf.”
(Beowulf ll.1888-1904)


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My Translation

“Came they then to the sea, the very brave
and young company; they wore their ring-mail,
their shirts of interlocking rings. The coastguard observed
their coming, as he had earlier observed their arrival,
but he did not greet those guests of
the craggy promontory with insult, he rode towards the band.
He said to them that they would be welcome by the Weder people,
those warriors in bright armour that went to their ship.
There on the spacious beach that ship was
laden with armour, the ring-prowed ship,
and with horses and with treasures; the mast towered
over the hoarded treasures from Hrothgar.
The lord of the Geats then gave that guard a sword
bound in gold, so that afterwards he was
honoured all the more among the mead-benches for that treasure,
the gilded heirloom. Then the ship of them plunged into the sea,
stirred up the deep waters, thus they left Daneland.”
(Beowulf ll.1888-1904)


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A Quick Interpretation

The best poetry says a lot with a little.

Beowulf’s gift of the sword to the coastguard demonstrates his magnanimity and a quality that makes him a great king: fairness. Beowulf doesn’t just toss the coastguard who, presumably, has been keeping watch over the Geats’ ship for the duration of their stay, some little trinket. He gives him a sword that’s covered in gold (or, as Seamus Heaney has it, it has “gold fittings” (l.1901) (“bunden golde/swurd” (l. 1900-1901))).

A gold-bound sword seems like a pretty good reward for watching what must have been a peaceful shore for a few days.

Though, it could be argued that out of a whole shipload of treasures a mere gold-bound sword is small change. So is Beowulf short-changing this guy?

I don’t think so.

I think that part of what the Anglo-Saxon kings considered when they divided treasure was that treasure’s usefulness to its receivers. A gold-bound sword might have questionable usage in combat. But, as the poet points out, this gift led the coastguard to be “honoured all the more among the meadbenches for that treasure” (“on meodubence maþme þy weorþra” (l.1902)). And that’s why I think it’s what an Anglo-Saxon king (like future Beowulf) would consider a perfectly fair gift for the coastguard.

After all, the poet has never left me with the impression that Daneland faced danger from outside of itself.

Grendel is a threat from within Daneland’s borders, and when the poet mentions the fall of Heorot he says that it’s a family squabble that leads to its end. So somebody guarding one of Daneland’s borders is probably not winning much glory through combat. Thus, Beowulf’s gift of the gold-bound sword is a perfect gift since it boost’s the man’s honour in the eyes of his companions.

With that, then, Beowulf leaves the land where he spent some very formative time with a final act that nods towards his being a fantastic king.


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Closing

Next week, Beowulf and the Geats fight the sea.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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A case for Danish sympathy and a sword’s name along with other words (ll.1142-1150a)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Hengest Gets Pushed over the Edge
A Sword’s Name and a few Other Compound Words
Closing

A section of the Bayeux Tapestry showing Anglo-Saxon warfare

Image found here: “Bayeux Tapestry 4” by photo by Gabriel Seah – gssq.blogspot.com. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

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Abstract

After some cajoling from his fellow Danes, Hengest kills Finn before leaving Frisia in the spring.

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Translation

“So he could not refuse the law of the world,
when to him Hunlafing gave War-Radiance,
the best of swords, placed it into his lap,
that was amidst the Jutes a known weapon.
Just so, it later befell Finn, the bold in spirit,
that he was cruelly killed in his own home,
suffered the dire attack after Guðlaf and Oslaf
spoke of the sorrow of their sea voyage,
all blamed their share of woe on Finn.”
(Beowulf ll.1142-1150a)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Hengest Gets Pushed over the Edge

I feel like finding sympathy for villains in this poem is something that I do a bit much of (see this entry in particular), but I can’t help but feel like there’s something in here regarding Finn’s feelings.

I mean, from the sounds of it, Hengest almost left without exacting revenge.

It’s not until Hunlafing gives him the famed sword, “War Radiance” (l.1143) and “Guðlaf and Oslaf/spoke of the sorrow of their sea voyage” (ll.1148-1149) that he acts. Or so it seems. These two actions turn Hengest towards killing Finn before leaving.

And rightly so, right? Finn is one of the Danes’ sworn enemies – a Frisian – and so his wreaking vengeance makes sense.

But what does it say about Hengest that he needed so much convincing?

If Hunlafing hadn’t given him the sword famed from fights with the Jutes or Guðlaf and Oslaf hadn’t complained about how sorry they’d be coming back to Daneland lord-less and leaving his slayer alive, would he have killed Finn?

I honestly don’t think so. I think Hengest, bitter as he was all winter, had started to like Finn, or at least respect him.

The Danes, after all, had been at Finn’s mercy, and yet he respected the pact that his marriage to Hildeburh represented. Finn extended a hand of friendship to the Danes, even if only out of obligation, and he did not go back on any of his terms. Hnæf and Finn’s own son were burned together, a funeral was held for all who perished in the battle we never see, and the Danes go unharassed all winter.

So it seems likely that Hengest, who must have been the second in command while Hnæf was alive (or at least shows the level headedness required of a leader), gradually had his grudge against Finn worn away through exposure. The ember of his hatred for the man and for his people would likely remain since this is a feud we’re talking about, but if Hunlafing, Guðlaf and Oslaf hadn’t fanned that ember back to life, I think the Danes would’ve left without incident.

But instead they kill Finn and run off – but not before committing another act to perpetuate the feud. Though that act is mentioned in the next part of the poem.

So let’s pull back for a second.

As a sword guy I just want to point out the significance of the sword Hunlafing shows Hengest. Because I think that’s probably more of a factor in what Hengest did than Guðlaf and Oslaf’s needling. After all, as a sword that “the Jutes knew well,” it’s safe to say that it was a battle-hardened sword.

Since this is a sword that seems to have been wrapped up or tucked away, it was probably Hnæf’s own weapon. As such, it probably rampaged through the battle that came before we see Hildeburh mourning on the battlefield, and so the memory of it would be fresh in Finn and the Frisian’s minds.

Or maybe they actually wouldn’t remember it at all.

What makes the reputation of the sword “War-Radiance” important is that the Danes perceive it has such a thing. Because more than idle talk of people back home thinking them dishonourable cowards for not killing Finn, showing a concrete artifact that represented the feud between Danes and Frisians, I think, would really get Hengest thinking about revenge.

Why?

Because it would remind him of all the conflict between the two in the past, such a reputed sword would stand as a testimony and representation of their feud and its enduring nature in steel. Plus, if “War-Radiance” was Hnæf’s, there’d be the twinge of duty Hengest would no doubt feel, the duty to avenge his lord at last, perhaps long since his initial feelings of frustration and anger had cooled.

Which do you think pushed Hengest toward killing Finn – the sword or Guðlaf and Orlaf’s telling him they’d be dishonoured back home?

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A Sword’s Name and a few Other Compound Words

This passage’s compounds are pretty clear-headed. Perhaps because of the dire nature of the act the poet sings of here. After all, it’s not a battle in which you could become ecstatic in the telling, swinging compounds about like tree trunks, it’s a revenge killing of a lord in his own hall after having been his guests for the winter. It brings a chill into springtime. So the compounds are just as cold – but not less interesting.

Especially line 1143’s “hilde-leoman.” This technically isn’t a compound word since it’s the name of a sword, but that name is two other words smashed together, so here we go!

The word “hilde-leoman” comes from the compounding of “hilde” (“war,” or “combat”) and “leoman” (“ray of light,” “beam,” “radiance,” “gleam,” “glare,” or “lighting”), and I’ve chosen to translate it as “War-Radiance” (Seamus Heaney went with “Dazzle-the-Duel”) I think both have their merits.

But what’s interesting about this compound is that it’s a sword’s name.

Let me back up.

We see other named swords in this poem. There’s Hrunting and Nægling later on, for instance. But these are actual names, not just two words a poet (or someone) slammed together.

Sure, the usual alliteration comes to play with “hilde-leoman” (“Hunlafing hilde-leoman,” with the line’s cæsura right in the middle, perfectly bridges the gap), but it’s still neat that the name is just two words combined.

Plus, naming a sword something like “War-Radiance” makes sense. As a sword’s raised over and over again in a battle it’s going to catch whatever light there is on the field, especially if it’s constantly being swung but also being kept constantly clean either with quick wipes or jerky swings that shake any blood or gore free from the blade. So “War Radiance” (or the more personable” Dazzle-the-Duel”) makes an almost onomatopoeic sense (at least in Modern English).

The word “world-rædenne” (l.1142), meaning “way of the world,” is also kind of neat. Though more for its concept than anything to do with the word’s parts, those being “worold” (“world,” “age,” “men,” “humanity,” “way of life,” “life,” “long period of time,” “cycle,” or “eternity”) and “ræd” (“advice,” “counsel,” “resolution,” “deliberation,” “plan,” “way,” “design,” “council,” “conspiracy,” “decree,” “ordinance,” “wisdom,” “sense,” “reason,” “intelligence,” “gain,” “profit,” “benefit,” “good fortune,” “remedy,” “help,” “power,” or “might”).

I mean, no matter how you slice it, it basically comes back to meaning something pertaining to life and its order. The implication being, though, that killing Finn is just the way to go, it’s just what Hengest has to do as a rule of the world.

But I wonder if part of this editorializing on the part of Hrothgar’s poet sheds some light on the Anglo-Saxons’ view of history. Namely that history wasn’t something fluid that changes with every teller, but that it was something solid, and that since history was solid and fixed, so too what was to come. Though, obviously, what was to come couldn’t be read by people. So maybe there’s some determinism in that word, Hengest not being able to resist killing Finn simply because Danes and Frisians feud, and Finn’s murder would keep that going. It offers some insight into how a deterministic view of the past can lead to a deterministic view of the present and future, too, I think.

The next two compounds, “sweord-bealo” (l.1147) and “sæ-sið” (l.1149), just aren’t as interesting as “world-rædenne” and “hilde-leoman.”

Nonetheless, “sweord-bealo” brings together the unmistakable “sword” (“sword”) and “bealu” (“bale,” “harm,” “injury,” “destruction,” “rain,” “evil,” “mischief,” “wickedness,” “malice,” “a noxious thing” “baleful,” “deadly,” “dangerous,” “wicked,” or “evil”) to make a word that unmistakingly means “sword injury” or even more literally, “a grievous injury inflicted by a sword.”

And “sæ-sið” combines the nearly Modern English “sæ” (“sheet of water,” “sea,” “lake,” or “pool”) and “sið” (“going,” “motion,” “journey,” “errand,” “departure,” “death,” “expedition,” “undertaking,” “enterprise,” “road,” “way,” “time,” “turn,” “occasion,” “late,” “afterwards”) to give us “sea voyage” and almost nothing else. Though there is an implication that any kind of “sið” could be a euphemism for death since that is one of the word’s definitions according to Clark Hall and Meritt.

Do you think that the sword’s name, “hilde-leoman,” is something the poet came up with entirely for alliteration or because it was actually a sword’s name? Maybe both?

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Closing

Next week we hear the rest of the story of Hengest and Finn, and see what the Danes do before they leave Frisia.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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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

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Abstract

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

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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)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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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?

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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”?

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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.

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Beowulf finds his footing in public speaking and thoughts on a “whale” of a word (ll.539-549)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Understanding Beowulf’s interjections
A word on “whale”
Closing

St. Brendan and his crew celebrating Easter on the back of a whale. Found at http://saintsbridge.wordpress.com/2013/12/20/celts-to-the-creche-st-brendan-the-navigator/.

St. Brendan and his crew celebrating Easter on the back of a whale.
Found at http://saintsbridge.wordpress.com/2013/12/20/celts-to-the-creche-st-brendan-the-navigator/.

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Abstract

Beowulf tells a more detailed version of his swimming contest with Breca.

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Translation

“‘We had swords naked, as we two rowed over the waves,
hardiness in hand; we two against the whales
thought to protect ourselves; he not at all far from me
could float on the ocean-waves,
the swifter on the swell, I would not float from him.
When we two together had been on the sea
for five nights’ time, then we two drifted apart on the flood,
wading on the raging waves, in the coldest of weather,
the night darkened, and the north wind
battle-grim blew against us. Wild were the waves,
enraging the hearts of the sea-fish.'”
(Beowulf ll.539-549)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Understanding Beowulf’s interjections

In this part of Beowulf’s version of the swimming contest story, we see a return to an old form.

Once more Beowulf is setting descriptions within his narrative, dropping short descriptive phrases between points of action. And he’s doing it an awful lot. So much so that I can’t help but wonder if the poet is deliberately having Beowulf chew the scenery.

Or maybe this is just what Beowulf, brash and bold, is like when he tells a story. Perhaps working through each of his little description digressions will help shed some light on what exactly is going on.

The first one comes in line 540: “hardiness in hand” (“heard on handa”). In reference to the swords that they held in their hands as they swam, this line seems like it’s mostly a space-filler.

It reiterates that the swords they held to guard themselves are hard, and therefore useful weapons. Not to mention, within the alliterative scheme of the line, the original Old English alliterates entirely with itself.

This alliterative scheme separates the first half of line 540 from the second, which in turn suggests the semi-colon that divides the line in Heaney’s text, and the comma that does something similar in the text found on the McMaster University site I link to beneath the extract.

So would Beowulf the speaker run one of his sentiments into another line like this, overflowing his expression in such a way?

Maybe.

I mean it is the beginning of the passage, and it’s not unlikely that he’d feel impassioned as he told of yet more of his wondrous feats.

So, maybe in putting this half line here and having it link directly with the previous one the poet is showing Beowulf’s near loss of control over his own story and his own boasting. Or, maybe at this point Beowulf’s starting to feel all that ale he’s no doubt been drinking.

The next among Beowulf’s additional phrases is line 543’s “the swifter on the swell” (“hraþor on holme”).

Definitely Beowulf’s way of making sure that everyone knows that he’s the stronger swimmer between he and Breca, this half line fits perfectly with its surroundings. It doesn’t seem to be overflow or anything like that.

So what’s it mean for it to be compartmentalized like it is?

I think, if anything, because this statement is a boast. Beowulf’s been boasting since he was a child, he knows his way around such things and is able to smoothly fit it into his description of their swimming. It almost naturally flows with what’s around it, too.

It’s sort of difficult to pin down the next extraneous descriptive phrase, because after line 543 they all become necessary.

Beowulf’s description of his and Breca’s “wading on the raging waves,” how the atmosphere shifted to “the coldest of weather,” how “the night darkened” and the storm winds picked up around them, all feed into each other.

This part of the extract practically imitates the storm it describes. The shuffling of four distinct and independent half-lines simulates the way in which everything around Beowulf and Breca at this point came crashing into them.

This analysis runs a bit short of something you’d find in an academic journal, but I think the main thing to take away from it is that Beowulf, for all his prowess on the battle field, is not so great in front of a crowd. He’s only truly comfortable speaking about the battles in which he fares so well.

We can see this as his interjections move from the strangely extraneous feeling, through to a boast, and ending with a series of short clauses that themselves descriptively crash against themselves.

Before he starts into the threat of the “sea-fishes.”

But that’s in next week’s extract.

What do you think of Beowulf’s speechifying? Is this part of his reply to Unferth perfectly smooth or is it as craggy as I seem to think? In either case, what do you make of it?

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A word on “whale”

Okay everyone. There are, as always, more words than one that are notable for one weirdness or another in this week’s passage.

However.

One stands out from the rest. Technically two. (They both carry one word that could unlock them both.)

This word is “fiscas,” as it’s found in the compounds “hron-fixas” and “mere-fixas.”

The first of these combines the word for “whale” and for “fish” to make the word “whale.” Seamus Heaney translates the instance of “hron-fixas” on line 540 as “whale-beasts;” Francis Gummere translates it as “whales;” and C.L. Wrenn offers “whale.” So it sounds like there’s agreement across the board.

But why append “fixas” to the word for whale? Well, if you guess “for alliteration” you would be sort of right.

As I mention above, line 540 is neatly divided by its caesura. On the left side of the line “h” is definitely the alliterative sound. But on the right side of that caesura, where “hron-fixas” is found, the alliterative sound is “w.”

So another alliterative pair stands between it and its alliterating brethren. It’s safe, then, I think, to say that “hron-fixas” isn’t there to add music to the poetry of Beowulf’s speech.

Maybe, then, the dictionary will have some answers.

Looking at the definition of “fixas” in Clark Hall and Meritt only yields up “fish” (after pointing us to “fisc”).

So that doesn’t really tell us much about why the poet didn’t just use “hron” either.

Perhaps, then, looking at “mere-fixas” will shed some light on why “hron-fixas” has that extra “fixas.”

In Seamus Heaney’s translation, the “mere-fixas” of line 549 is translated as “sea-brutes.” Gummere gives us “sea-fish.” C.L. Wrenn gives us the straightforward variation “fish of the sea.”

What other sort of “fish” were the Anglo-Saxons writing about?

But that brings up a good point. Especially with “mere-fixas,” both of these compounds are redundant. That is, “hron-fixas” and “mere-fixas,” combine words that are so alike that they easily reduce into one word when translated. But why compound them in the first place?

Well, since both involve “fixas,” which we’ve already established means “fish,” maybe it’s to emphasize their being in the sea. These aren’t land or sky beasts or brutes – they’re “sea-beasts” and “sea-brutes.” At least according to Seamus Heaney.

But, then why does Beowulf even bother calling these beasts “whales”?

My guess is that “whale” was just the Anglo-Saxon word for any enormous sea creature, whether it was actually what we know today as a whale or something else entirely (a giant squid or now extinct dinosaur-like creature).

Some have theorized, based on x-rays, that whales carry vestigial legs. It’s possible (though unlikely?) that the whales that Beowulf fought still had these legs and they were recognizable as legs. If that’s the case, then maybe these legs lead the Anglo-Saxons to seeing them as the sea’s guardians just as dragons were the guardians of caves and hoards.

Of course, because we don’t have Anglo-Saxons to pull aside and ask just what was meant by “hron-fixas” specifically, we may never know exactly what Beowulf means when he uses the word.

It could, after all, just be a general word for a general application that the poet felt was the best fit.

It should also be said that two men swimming in stormy waters aren’t likely to get a good look at such creatures. That they were swimming armed suggests that they weren’t worried about getting a good look, either.

How do you understand Beowulf’s use of “whale” and “sea-fishes”? Do you think he’s referring to things that we would refer to with these words, or some other class of animal entirely?

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Closing

Next week, the action continues as Beowulf recounts his bout with one of these mysterious sea creatures.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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Montage meanings imagined and interpreted (ll.210-216) [Old English]

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Prime or time
Burrowing into a word
Closing

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Abstract

Beowulf and crew prep their ship and ready themselves, too.

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Translation

“The foremost knew motion; the ship was on the sea,
the boat that sat before barrows. The warriors
roaringly rose a cry – the current carried them on,
bringing the sea against sand; the men bore
bright treasures upon their chests,
magnificent in martial-gear; they all shoved off,
men bound for an expected expedition trip by boat.”
(Beowulf ll.210-216)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Prime or time

Once again, we see some summarized action at work. The poet is speeding us along here, giving the barest detail about Beowulf and his crew boarding their ship and putting out to sea. No doubt the strangeness of Grendel (and maybe the fame of Beowulf?) had audiences eager to hear what happened once the Geats reached the Danes.

But, despite the clear sense of forward motion in this passage, the first clause of this section is vague.

The three words that kick it all off (“Fyrst forð gewat”) form a complete thought with a subject, object, and verb in that order. But at the level of literal translation into modern English, they don’t really work together. They come out to something like “the first knew forwardness/awayness.” Although, this isn’t the only place in the poem where a literal translation just won’t do.

Looking at this clause’s general sense, I think that it’s communicating the idea that the foremost member of the group (that is, Beowulf) was in a state of mind for travel as they set out. He had full understanding of his physical purpose, and so body and mind were joined in his undertaking. A sense of such unity could be used to foreshadow Beowulf’s prowess and success against Grendel and Grendel’s mother.

Running with that understanding of this clause’s general sense, I then pieced together a clause that gets it across as economically as possible. “The foremost knew motion” is as close as I’ve gotten so far to my interpretation of the sense of the original.

For the sake of comparison, Seamus Heaney translates the line from a completely different understanding of its sense. He turns “Fyrst forð gewat” into “Time went by.” There’s still some motion in this version of the clause, maybe even more of it than in mine if you take time to be the motion of god (perhaps what Heaney took from “Fyrst” and left only implied in his translation). The difference between our clauses is also important, since Heaney chose the interpretation of “Fyrst” as “time” rather than as the premier cardinal number.

Looking back, that makes the clause as a whole quite clearer at the literal level. But, I’ve chosen to stick with my own translation because it allows for more interpretation. Very little is lost in doing so. Both convey a sense of motion, after all, and that is this clause’s purpose as it comes at the start of a passage all about kicking off travel.

Actually, Heaney’s interpretation slows down time in that it calls attention to time itself passing by. Taking “Fyrst” as a reference to Beowulf instead puts the focus on the Geats and their eagerness to be off on their “expected expedition” (l.216).

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Burrowing into a word

A cleaner curiousity (from an academic angle) is the use of “beorge” (l.211). This word has several interpretations, including “mountain,” “hill,” and “barrow.” The sense that I pulled from it and its context is that this “beorge” indicates the boundary of Geatish territory, or, since Beowulf and company find their boat safe, maybe it’s the final land marker of Geatish territory. If it’s meant to indicate mountains, then maybe the Geats cleverly set up where mountains sheltered them from naval assaults.

The more fantastical explanation that sprang to my mind (with no help from any facts that I know) is that the word means just what it sounds like: a barrow. I’m not sure about the practices of the Geats and how much they were like those of other groups around them, but it makes sense to bury your dead on the outskirts of your settlement. Doing so allows those in mourning to move on, and keeps those still living free from any disease that might propagate or reside in a corpse.

Stepping into the realm of superstition, maybe a barrow on the edge of your settlement also acted as an enemy deterrent. If not regarded as an out-and-out hazardous field of ghosts, perhaps it could stand as a reminder of the finality of death and demotivate those who sought to add to it.

Also, and who knows since the geographical detail is so sketchy here, perhaps this “beorge” is a reference to Hronesness, the place where Beowulf is buried at the poem’s end. Maybe it even is that place. We’re never told much about Hronesness after all, other than the fact that it’s high enough to mount a beacon for ships on it. Perhaps generations before Beowulf there was another hero buried there, and in the ultimate show of the vanity of human pride the elements wore down his great barrow until it was just a low mound – the same fate that awaits Beowulf’s.

If this whole “beorge” business has anything to do with Hronesness, then maybe it’s even the poet/scribe stepping in to imply the importance of written history and records. Words record deeds and memory much better than monuments left exposed to the cruel elements of nature’s erasing power.

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Closing

Next week Beowulf and crew get out to sea, and, very quickly, come to Daneland.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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Credits in a Comitatus and Boasts Filled with Wonder Words [ll.2484-2495] (Old English)


The Translation
Ongentheow’s Killer and the Comitatus
“heoro-blāc”
“ēðel-wynn”
“Gifðum”
Wrap-up

{a younger Beowulf, perhaps, flashing his gams and doing some boasting. From “Gayle’s Bard Blog.”}

The Translation

We return to Beowulf now, as he rounds out his history lesson and starts to verbally fist pump. Let’s listen in:

“Then in the morning I heard that his kin
avenged him by the blade, plunged its edge to end
the slayer’s life where Eofor’s attack fell upon Ongenþēow;
his war-helm split, the Swedish warlord
fell sword-wan; his hand held memory enough
of feuding, he could not hold off that fatal blow.

“The treasure, which Hygelac gave to me,
I won for him by flashing sword; he gave to me land,
a native place, land joy. For him there was no need,
no reason to be required to seek some worse warrior
from the gifthouse or the spear-danes or the swedes,
my worth was well known.”
(Beowulf ll.2484-2495)

Some interesting stuff is going on in this passage.

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Ongentheow’s Killer and the Comitatus

First, there’s the question of who killed Ongenþēow. The text suggests that it was Hygelac who killed him “by the sword’s edge” (“billes ecgum” l.2485), but it also mentions an Eofor who is credited with splitting his helmet (“thǣr Ongenþēow Eofores nīosað;/gūð-helm tōglād” ll.2486-7). So who’s the real hero, Beowulf?

To a modern reader this double crediting of Ongenþēow’s kill (something that might lead to another killing if it happened in a MMORPG), might seem confused. But, to an Anglo-Saxon sensibility, it makes perfect sense.

Consider for a minute the fact that Hygelac is, at the point when Ongenþēow’s killed, the leader of the Geat forces against the Swedes at this battle since Hæðcyn has been killed. Thus, Eofor is fighting as Hygelac’s thane – Eofor is part of Hygelac’s group.

In Anglo-Saxon terms, such a group could be called a “comitatus,” a band of warriors held together by mutual quid pro quo. If a warrior pledges his life and sword to a lord, he fights until his death – even if that lord should die before he does. In return, the lord provides the warrior with treasure and land.

“The Battle of Maldon” is a perfect example of the comitatus style of loyalty because it tells of a band of warriors that fights on after their lord dies, even though they all know that they are doomed to die.

What’s happening in Beowulf, then, is that Hygelac is being credited with Eofor’s kill because Hygelac is the head of the Geats, of the Geatish comitatus, and likewise, all of the warriors within Hygelac’s comitatus are his swords. So it’s fair to say that Hygelac had his vengeance on Ongenþeow by the edge of the sword, in the sense that he was killed by one of Hygelac’s men.

At the level of words within the passage, there are indeed a few that are quite curious.

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“heoro-blāc”

The word “heoro-blāc”, meaning “mortal wound” is unique among these curious words since it is a somewhat mysterious combination of “heoru” meaning “sword” and “blāc” meaning “pallid, pale, wan.” So, literally, someone who is “heoro-blāc” is “sword-pale.”

Unfortunately, the literal translation doesn’t work quite so well, since “sword-pale” suggests that something is as pale as a sword. Depending on what it’s made of, a corpse might get to a similar pallor as a clean, shiny sword, but it’s a rather fantastical comparison.

“Mortal wound” is a little on the nose, though, so “sword-wan” is what was used above. The term is used in the senses that Ongenþēow is weakened by the sword, and about as strong as a sword without a wielder. He is mighty, yet useless, as he lay where Eofor split his helmet.

Moving into Beowulf’s boast about his own accomplishments yields more tricky and wondrous words.

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“ēðel-wynn”

First up there’s “ēðel-wynn” meaning “joy of ownership,” but made up of “ēðel” (native land, country, home) and “wynn” (joy). So translating the term as “joy of ownership” does work, in that there will be a joy in a native owning their own land, but at the same time “joy of ownership” falls short by generalizing the original word too much.

Nonetheless, what’s telling about the translation is that it completely ignores the fact that “ēðel-wynn” contains a specific reference to land (“ēðel”). There might not be an exact and precise equivalent term in English, but by cutting out any reference to land, it seems like that there’s a desire to deny a sense of landed-ness in Anglo-Saxon at play.

But that’s just not true.

The fact that a compound word with “ēðel” is used here is important because it shows that whenever Beowulf was written (or maybe even when it was still being sung) land ownership was a big deal to Anglo-Saxons. This means that they might have had a sense of nationhood as we do today, since it wasn’t something nebulous or abstract.

Words like “ēðel-wynn” allow you to make a case that there was a sense among Anglo-Saxons that a place defined a people and that if a certain people was given a certain space then that people would be joyous. So, it seems that Seamus Heaney’s translation of the word as “the security that land brings” is better, though still wanting for the implied sense of nationhood.

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“Gifðum”

The other word is “Gifðum,” which is not in the Clark Hall & Meritt Anglo-Saxon Dictionary. However, Seamus Heaney translates it as “gift house.”

Heaney’s translation might just be in a newer dictionary, or it could be derived from the idea that “Gifðum” is a corruption of “giefu-hus.” A stretch, maybe, but the poem Beowulf isn’t beyond having a few textual ticks here and there.

For example, in the original Anglo-Saxon, there’s a consistent difference in spelling between the first and second halves of the poem, suggesting that there were two scribes involved in making the copy of the poem that we still have today.

Of course, textual ticks or no, that still leaves the nature of “Gifðum” a mystery.

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Wrap-up

If you’ve got your own theory about what “Gifðum” could mean, I want to know, just leave it in a comment for me.

Next week, St. Isidore talks of the goat, we get some more medieval lore, and Beowulf starts into more boasting. Don’t miss it!
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Beowulf – In Media Res [ll.2401-2409] (Old English)

Introduction
Background to the Project
Old English Appreciation
Section Summary
Two Words
Closing

Introduction

Today I’m breaking out the glittering armour, gift from the ring-giver, a tight-knit coat in the battle-storm.

Yep. Today’s entry is the first about Beowulf.

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Background to the Project

It’s a project that started in my third year of studying for my BA, though it didn’t really take off until just after I had finished that degree. I’m using the bilingual edition of Seamus Heaney’s translation that has the Anglo Saxon original on the left and the poet’s translation on the right (an online version of the original can be found here).

Heaney’s arrangement is great, but the running glossary in George Jack’s student edition is even more helpful – when I borrowed it from the library for a graduate class I barely used my dictionary.

However, now that Jack’s edition is back in Victoria and I’m over in Ontario, I make good use of my copy of the Fourth Edition of the Anglo-Saxon Dictionary as edited by Hall and Meritt. If I can’t find a word in the dictionary then I’ll usually look it up in the website Old English Made Easy’s dictionary.

The weight of this project hasn’t crushed me just yet, but it is something that has provided an ongoing struggle. Not just because of the size of the poem, but because its use of multiple adjectival clauses can really cloud sense and make things seem obtuse.

However, when things get grammatical, my Magic Sheet is never out of sight. This handy little chart from the English Faculty at the University of Virigina summarizes the declensions and conjugations of everything in Old English, so it’s super useful.

So armed, I’ve been able to translate 5/6 of the poem over the years and once I’m finished my plan is to bring a consistent voice to the whole thing (possibly by re-writing), type it up, and try to get it published. A bold move perhaps, but this is something that I’m passionate about. Maybe it’s just a bunch of barbarians hitting each other (and monsters) over the head with pointy sticks to some, but to me it’s a piece of grand old art.

And it’s something that’s fun to translate.

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Old English Appreciation

Sure, the grammar can get sticky and there are points that scholars still contend to this day (was Beowulf swimming until nightfall to get to the bottom of the mire? Why does the Danish bard sing such a sad song after Beowulf’s victory?). But there’s a joie de vivre in the poet/scribes’ language that isn’t really present in a lot of Modern English.

And no, I’m not a snob. I think that Middle English (Chaucerian English) and Early Modern (Shakespearean English) are just as lovely. But when all of the grammarians stuck their fingers in the delicious hot pie that was English in the 17th and 18th centuries they sucked a lot of life out of it. They set it up to become a reliable and powerful lingua franca for all, but they made it a little bit dull in the process.

Now when somebody drops a consonant and replaces it with an apostrophe people are all up ins. And slang is slang. Before the grammarians came about (I’m looking at you Samuel Johnson) all of English (all the dialects) were pretty slang-laden. It’s just the way that the language was.

And it was grand.

Not so great for national or international communication maybe, but the plays, treatises, and poems that remain are all excellent examples of what a language can do.

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Section Summary

Anyway, I don’t want this entry to be fully derailed by a rant. Right now I’m working through the scene where Beowulf fights the dragon, so I’m really sticking to the story-telling principle of starting in media res.

But, true to most modern novels, I’m starting just where the action is picking up – Beowulf has just gotten his band of 11 fellow Geats together and has compelled the slave that brought him the dragon’s cup to guide them the the lizard’s lair.

All of this happens in lines 2401-2409.

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Two Words

Two words really struck me in section:

First, “gebolgen” on l. 2401. It reminds me of the “Gáe Bolga,” the mysterious, foot-held spear that Cuchulain was trained in by the warrior woman Scáthach, and with which he killed his friend and rival Ferdiad in the Táin Bó Cuailnge.

The other word that caught my eye was “meldan,” from l.2405. This one means finder according to Heaney. The dictionary definition is “tell, reveal, accuse” – but I’m guessing that Heaney let his translation lean on “cwom” (come) the combination of which with “tell, reveal, accuse” suggests a kind of giving – like coming with tales or news, things which are only useful if given.

Plus, a shiny cup from a whole pile of treasure would indeed be welcome news to any Geat (or Anglo-Saxon listener).

Though, I do admit that combining words in this way is kind of like trying to stretch a single ox hide over an acre of land.

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Closing

If you’ve got any suggestions/corrections for me, leave them in a comment. I’ll be back next week with Beowulf’s arrival at the cave.

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