Beowulf the monstrous individual

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

An Anglo-Saxon helmet with face mask of the style associated with Beowulf.

A helmet, complete with face mask, from the Sutton-Hoo treasure hoard. Image from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sutton_Hoo_replica_(face).jpg


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Synopsis

Beowulf tells more of his time partying in Heorot.


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The Original Old English

“‘Weorod wæs on wynne; ne seah ic widan feorh
under heofones hwealf healsittendra
medudream maran. Hwilum mæru cwen,
friðusibb folca, flet eall geondhwearf,
bædde byre geonge; oft hio beahwriðan
secge sealde, ær hie to setle geong.
Hwilum for duguðe dohtor Hroðgares
eorlum on ende ealuwæge bær;
þa ic Freaware fletsittende
nemnan hyrde, þær hio nægled sinc
hæleðum sealde. Sio gehaten is,
geong, goldhroden, gladum suna Frodan;
hafað þæs geworden wine Scyldinga,
rices hyrde, ond þæt ræd talað,
þæt he mid ðy wife wælfæhða dæl,
sæcca gesette. Oft seldan hwær
æfter leodhryre lytle hwile
bongar bugeð, þeah seo bryd duge!'”
(Beowulf ll.2014-2031)


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My Translation

“‘The company was wrapt in joy; never have I ever seen
such celebration over mead as was amongst those in that hall
in all my life. All the while that renowned queen,
a pledge of peace for her people, went all about the hall,
urging the youths there on. Often, on her rounds, she gave
circlets to the drinkers, until, at the last, she took her seat.
Also, but only at times, before that body of retainers
Hrothgar’s daughter bore the ale cup to the men in turn.
From those sitting in the hall I learned
that this maiden’s name is Freawearu, she who there gave
those warriors studded and precious vessels. She is promised,
young and gold-adorned, to the gracious son of Froda.
The friend of the Scyldings has settled on this,
the protector of the kingdom, and he considers it wise policy
that this woman will settle a great many deadly feuds,
that she will ease the many conflicts. But too often,
when so short a time has passed after a man’s fall,
it is rare for the deadly spear to rest, even though the bride be good.'”
(Beowulf ll.2014-2031)


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A Quick Interpretation

It feels a bit like every scene that involves a leader’s hall in this poem features a young maiden. In particular, a young maiden who has been or is planned to be married off for the sake of peace. In a way, this definitely reinforces the idea that women’s primary strength in the world of Beowulf is through political marriages.

However, what I find interesting about this isn’t so much that these women don’t seem to have agency to do anything else, but that it underscores the importance of the group in early medieval European societies.

Of course, groups continue to be important today, as well. Whether you working in retail, a restaurant, a corner office in a swanky business building, or from your home office you probably have a group (of varying size) of people with whom you work. For the most part, at least on holidays, people get together in the groups we all call families. And, of course, in your day to day life you’re probably in contact with a group of people whom you consider friends.

But the kind of group that Beowulf leaves an impression of in my mind is closer to the sort of collectivist society of some Asian countries. The kinds of societies where individual success doesn’t just feed into the society’s success but comes from filling a proscribed role in the larger society.

And this is why I think Beowulf makes me think of that sort of collectivist society: There don’t seem to be very many individuals in either Daneland or Geatland. Every one of Hrothgar or Hygelac’s retainers may or may not have his own motives, but as far as we know they are simply loyal warriors in the service of their lords.

Now, the version of Beowulf that we have comes from a rather curious book. It is known as the Nowell Codex.

This book is a collection of writings about oddities. There were stories of the then mysterious east, letters between Aristotle and Alexander the Great, a bit of a life of Saint Christopher, and a poetic version of the Biblical story of Judith along with Beowulf. Each of these stories contains something monstrous or strange.

Thus, when modern critics and scholars have puzzle through why these texts were grouped together, they’ve usually concluded that Beowulf is in this collection because there are monsters (Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and the dragon).

Some have supposed that Beowulf himself, being this sword-breaking, monster-slaying superman, is the monstrous reason for its inclusion in this collection. I think these scholars are a bit closer to the mark.

But I don’t think that Beowulf is monstrous because of his strength. I think that what makes Beowulf the character monstrous is his individuality.

There are other stories of great heroes and warriors from around the same time and later in the medieval period, sure. There’s at least one epic about Alexander the Great, there are the stories of Roland and Charlemagne, there’s the story of El Cid. But what sets Beowulf apart from all of these characters is that he’s not a knight or in the service of any lord.

Beowulf doesn’t go to Daneland because Hygelac commands it. As we found out two weeks ago, Hygelac was against Beowulf’s journey. And yet he set out on his own. And Beowulf is no knight, trying to right the wrongs of the world in some quest for the service of a lady.

In fact, when we first meet him, Beowulf is basically just an arrogant (probably) teenager who thinks that he’s invincible, tells stories to back that up, and actually turns out to be as strong as all the rumours say. But until he becomes the king of the Geats, he doesn’t act in the service of anyone but himself, really. Sure, helping the Danes cements a Geat/Dane alliance, but Beowulf didn’t set out to do that. He just wanted to increase his own fame and glory.

In short, he may have wanted to help others, but he does that by helping himself first. Which sounds a lot like an altruistic individual or entrepreneur. Which, in a time like the early middle ages, with its uncertain politics and fragmented states struggling to join together into nations, would be the last thing that any major authority like the Roman Catholic Church (the organization we can probably thank for keeping Beowulf safe for us) would want. Therefore they would label it as monstrous.

But that’s just my take. What are your thoughts and feelings on how individualism fits into Beowulf? Why do you think Beowulf was included in a collection of strange stories? Let me know in the comments!


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Closing

Next week, Beowulf imagines what will happen at the wedding party of Freawearu and Froda’s son.

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Wealhtheow notes her nephew, uses two crystalline compounds (1180b-1191)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Wealhtheow’s Nephew and Sons
Two Compounds in a Crystalline Speech
Closing

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Abstract

Wealhtheow brings up Hrothulf in her speech to Hrothgar before she turns to her sons and Beowulf.

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Translation

            “‘I myself know
how gracious Hrothulf is, that he will defend
the honour of the youth, if you before him,
friend of the Scyldings, leave this world;
I believe that he will liberally repay
our two sons, if he recalls all the care we’ve given him,
the favour and honour* that we showed him
while he was a child** and still growing up.’
She turned then from the bench, there to where her sons were,
Hreðric and Hroðmund, and to the hero’s son,
all the youths together; for there the good man sat,
Beowulf the Geat, there between the two brothers.”
(Beowulf ll.1180b-1191)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Wealhtheow’s Nephew and Sons

Wealhtheow’s speech to Hrothgar ends here, and as such she turns towards the subjects of her next few words. This is a very obvious part of this passage, but I think it’s important to note because the connotation of her very properly keeping eye contact with Hrothgar while she addresses him underlines just how controlled and prim Wealhtheow’s speech here is (despite the revelry that’s just got to be continuing on around her).

But what’s here in her mentioning Hrothulf to Hrothgar is the acknowledgement that he is not directly related to either of them. I think that’s why she points him out as she does. Not to mention, it sounds like he’s probably a little older than the sons that she turns to at the end of this passage.

So how, exactly, is Hrothulf related to Hrothgar or Wealhtheow? He’s Hrothgar’s nephew by his sister Halga. Undoubtedly Hrothulf’s at Heorot to learn the ropes of being a member of the ruling part of society away from home. And, as such, Wealhtheow doesn’t need to give much detail when she says that he’s likely to protect her children as a away of repaying them for the care and honour they showed to him while he was growing up (and presumably still is). But so much hangs on his repaying this debt.

If Hrothulf was, in fact, raised well by these foster parents of his, then repaying them by taking care to teach their children will go without saying, and the two of them will be in good care, raised the way that Hrothgar himself and Wealhtheow herself would raise them, should either of them perish before the boys are grown.

As to why Beowulf is seated between Hrothgar and Wealhtheow’s sons, I’m not entirely sure.

On the one hand, I imagine it’s a seat of honour, definitely up near the front of the room.

But at the same time, I can’t help but wonder if it’s kind of like putting an esteemed guest at the kiddie table.

Not that that’s likely to keep Wealhtheow’s sons from sampling some of the wonderful brew that’s being spread around the hall as she speaks.

The best I can come up with for Beowulf’s placement in the hall is that his status as hero is assured and as ally is almost entirely certain, but not yet entirely locked down. Maybe it even shows how great the gulf was between those who had lived at a hall for much of their lives (Unferth, presumably) but hadn’t done many great deeds, and those who showed up, performed amazing feats of strength, and then are bound to head out again. After all, it wouldn’t do to give a seat of high honour or make them a councillor if they’re basically just passing through.

Getting back to the matter of Wealhtheow and Hrothgar’s sons, I think that Wealhtheow’s talking of Hrothulf and the poet’s mention of Beowulf being seated between the two boys, is supposed to emphasize that her sons are surrounded by positive models of masculinity. These boys have their father, their cousin, and this socially productive wayfarer. There could even be some subtext here about the heirs of Heorot being so well prepared that there’s absolutely be no way for them to screw it up and wind up with the hall destroyed because of betrayal and in-fighting.

Do you think there’s supposed to be some sort of joke in Beowulf’s being seated between Wealhtheow and Hrothgar’s sons?

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Two Compounds in a Crystalline Speech

Because this part of Wealhtheow’s speech is so straightforward and plain spoken, there are just two compound words in it. It really does seem like they’re just part of bombastic speech — maybe even male speech — rather than the kind of clear-eyed toasting that Wealhtheow’s doing.

Likewise, the compounds that are used are fairly clear. Almost, in fact, to the point of having a kind of crystalline quality.

The first of these two compounds is from line 1186, “weorð-mynd.” This word means “honour,” “dignity,” “glory,” or “mark of distinction,” thanks to the compounding of “weorð” (“worth,” “value,” “amount,” “price,” “purchase-money,” “ransom,” “worth,” “worthy,” “honoured,” “noble,” “honourable,” “of high rank,” “valued,” “dear,” “precious,” “fit,” or “capable”) and “mynd” (“memory,” “remembrance,” “memorial,” “record,” “act of commemoration,” “thought,” “purpose,” “consciousness,” “mind,” or “intellect”).

Literally translated, “weorð-mynd” means “worth remembering,” an idea that transitions pretty easily into any of the compound’s meanings. But a literal definition that helps define “honour” a little bit. Those things that bring you honour being things that are worth remembering.

Which is a simple enough definition, though also very neutral since there can sometimes be horrible events or actions that are worth remembering so that they can be avoided or prepared against. But maybe this general sense of what’s honourable encapsulated in “weorð-mynd” feeds into a medieval way of thinking about memory and its effect on behaviour.

The basic principle I’m referring to here is the idea that what you memorized or filled your brain with — be it poetry, scripture, history, whatever — would influence how you thought and acted in your day to day life. So, memorize beautiful, god-fearing things and you’ll have an easy time enjoying the positives in life, but fill your memory with hatred and darkness and your life will be miserable, your actions terrifying. So, maybe “weorð-mynd” isn’t so neutral. Maybe, baked into the idea of honourable things being those things which are worth remembering is the idea that the best things to remember are those that are good and positive. In other words, it is best to remember honourable things.

The second compound word in this part of Wealhtheow’s speech isn’t quite as exciting. It’s the compound “umbor-wesende” and is found on line 1187.

This compound, quite enticingly given its weird verbiage, means “being a child.” But, its parts offer up only an anti-climax: the Old English word “umbor” means “infant”; and the Old English word “wesende” is a form of the verb “to be.”

So.

Entirely literally, “umbor-wesende” means “being a child” or “to be a child,” or maybe, in the right context, “having been a child.” There is, after all, a sense in the word that what you’re applying it to is no longer a child — their childhood has effectively ended and is behind them. Such must be the case with Hrothulf, not necessarily because of his age, but because he’s been raised with care and honour and is now expected to help do the same with his cousins.

Do you think that there’s anything to the idea that what you memorize or fill your brain with actually has an effect on your day to day life and behaviour?

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Closing

Next week, Wealhtheow brings Beowulf a gift of gold.

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