The Feud Isn’t Over Yet: Book XX – Book XXII

Grendel's mother menaces the pinned Beowulf with a knife.

Grendel’s mother has Beowulf pinned and raises her dagger over him, ready to finish the fight! By J. R. Skelton – Marshall, Henrietta Elizabeth (1908) Stories of Beowulf, T.C. & E.C. Jack, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11001837

XX

Hrothgar spoke, protector of the Scyldings:

“Ask ye not about the night’s joy; sorrow is renewed
to the Danish people. Æschere is dead,
Yrmenlaf’s elder brother,
my counsellor and confidant, my advisor,
my shoulder companion, when we at battle
were both at the fore, when we clashed with foes,
when the boar figures were struck. So should a man be,
a warrior who has proven his worth — so Æschere was!
A deadly creature came wandering to Heorot
to kill him by hand; I know not to what secret place
that terrible one slunk to turn him to carrion,
to make of him a gore-spattered feast. She carried on our feud,
that which you the other night inflamed by killing Grendel
in your violent manner with the might of your grip,
since he had for so long a time terrified my people,
ravaged and grieved them. He fell in that fight
and forfeited his life; and now another
wicked ravager has come, looking to avenge her kin,
she who has already done much for her vengeance,
so it may seem to many thanes,
after they have seen their ring-giver weeping from the heart,
submerged in his dire distress; now that his hand lay still,
the hand that proved generous to every desire.

“I have heard the dwellers in the land, my people,
and my hall counsellors say,
that they have seen two such
mighty prowlers of the murky moors, patrolling them,
alien creatures; there one of them,
they all can say with great certainty,
has a woman’s likeness; the other unfortunate
in a man’s form treads the path of exile,
but never had they seen a bigger man;
in earlier times the dwellers in the land named
him Grendel; they knew not their lineage,
their parentage was said to be hidden among
mysterious spirits. They occupy that
strange land, living along wolf-inhabited slopes, near wind-wracked cliffs,
up the perilous fen-path, where mountain streams
fall through mists from the headlands,
water creeping from underground. It is not many miles
hence that their mere can be found,
with frost-covered groves overhanging it;
tree roots overshadow those waters with their interlocking embrace.
Each night there you can see the oddest of wonders;
the water catches fire! None among the dear wise
children of humanity know of those waters’ bottom.
Even the stag, harassed by wolves,
that hart strong of horn, would seek security in the wood,
even if it was far off, would turn to offer its horns,
lose its life on the bank, before it would enter that water,
conceal his head. That is no pleasant place.
Thence rise up surging waves
to a darkened sky, there the winds stir
hateful storms, so much so that the air becomes gloomy,
and the sky weeps.

Now as before we depend
upon you alone for help. That region is not yet known,
that perilous place. There you may find
the creature carrying the guilt of killing; seek it out if you dare.
I will reward you with great wealth for ending this feud,
award you with ancient treasures, as I did already,
give works of twisted gold, if you seek out this wretch.”

XXI

Beowulf spoke, son of Ecgtheow:

“Do not sorrow, wise lord! Better be it for each man
if he avenge his friend, than if he mourn long.
Each of us shall experience an end
to life in this world; achieve what glory you can
before death! That is the way to place among the best of warriors
after you are no longer living.
Arise, protector of the realm, head out quickly with me,
so that we can find the trail of Grendel’s kin!
I to thee promise this: it shall not escape into protection,
nor into the earth’s bosom, nor into the mountain wood,
nor to the depths of the sea, try as it might.
This day you shall have patience enough
for each misery, as I have come to expect you to.”

Then the old one leapt up, thanked God,
the mighty Lord, for what the man had said.
Hrothgar had his horse bridled,
the one with the braided hair; the wise king
rode out in fine array. His troop of shield-bearers
marched on. Tracks were widely seen
over the trails through the wood,
leading over earth, going straight
over to the darkened moor,
left by the lifeless body of the dear servant, drug along,
he who had watched over the home of Hrothgar.

The prince’s thanes then rode on
over steep rocky slopes, around narrowly winding paths,
through ways that fit just single file soldiers, up trails unknown,
over precipitous headlands, lined with the homes of water monsters.
Hrothgar went on ahead with a handful of the wise,
to see that strange place; they looked about
until suddenly they found a patch of mountain trees
all growing out over grey stones,
a joy-less forest, waters stood beneath them,
blood-stained and turbid. To all the Danes gathered there,
friends of the Scyldings, the sight caused harsh suffering
at heart, bringing the same heaviness to each of the many thanes,
striking each of them with grief, once they found
the head of Æschere on the cliff by the water’s side.
Amidst the waters blood surged — clear for the men there to see —
hot with gore. At times a thane sounded a horn,
sang an urgent war-song. Those on foot all sat down;
there through the water they saw many of the race of serpents,
strange sea-dragons knew those depths,
likewise, on the headlands lay water monsters,
those that often undertake to hijack ships as they
set out on fateful voyages down the sail-road in the morning,
dragons and beasts. They rushed about the waters,
fierce and enraged; they had heard that sound,
the resounding war-horn. One of the Geats
severed the life of one with an arrow from his bow,
than did it battle against the waves, since that war arrow stuck in
its side; it was then slower against the waters
in that sea, until death took its fight away.
That beast was quickly pulled from the waves,
assaulted with savagely barbed boar spears,
fiercely the thanes attacked it to tug that wondrous
wave-traverser to the shore; the men
all gazed upon that terrible stranger.

Beowulf geared himself
in warrior’s garb, he felt no anxiety for his life then.
His hand woven war-corselet, broad and skilfully decorated,
would soon know those depths,
he was confident in its ability to protect his bone-chamber,
so that no hand-grasp could crush his chest,
that no furious foe’s malicious hand could harm him.
And on his head a shining helmet he wore,
which would soon muddy the mere’s bottom,
would soon enter the surging waters, that treasure-embellished helm,
encircled by a lordly band, made as those in elder days,
wrought by a weapon smith, wondrously formed,
set all around with boar-images, so that the wearer
would not be bitten by blade or battle sword.
Next was an item of no little service,
such was the thing that Hrothgar’s man loaned him,
it was the hilted sword named Hrunting,
an ancient treasure beyond compare.
The sword’s edge was iron, decorated like an arm full of poison,
hardened in the blood of battle. Never in combat had it failed
any of its wielders, whoever fought with it in their grip,
those who dared do perilous deeds,
who entered the battlefield full of foes. Indeed this was not
the first time the sword had been called upon for heroic deeds.
For that son of Ecglaf, strong in might,
no longer thought of what that one had said before,
while drunk on wine, when he loaned that weapon
to the better swordsman; he himself dared not
to venture beneath the turmoil of those waves
and risk his life to do a heroic deed; there he lost
his fame, his reputation for courage. But the other
showed no fear, the one already well-girded for battle.

XXII

Beowulf spoke, son of Ecgtheow:

“Now think upon it, son of Halfdane,
wise ruler, now that I am ready for this journey,
gold-giving friend of men, that which we two had spoken on:
that if I while in your service shall
lose my life, that you would go forth afterwards
always in a father’s place for me.
That you would be a preserver of my retainers,
my companions, if battle shall take me.
As for the treasure that you have given me,
dear Hrothgar, send it to Hygelac.
Thus, may the lord of the Geats gaze upon those riches,
thus the son of Hrethel will see, when he looks upon that treasure,
that I a liberal and great ring giver
had found, and enjoyed his generosity to the full.
And you, Unferth, are to have my own treasure,
my sword so forged its metal shows waves, you the wide-known
man are to have that hard edge. With Hrunting, I shall
wreak vengeance, or death shall take me.”

After those words the Geatish lord
was quickened by courage, no answer
would he wait for, into the sea-wave he
threw himself. It was nearly the length of a full day
before he could see the bottom of that lake.
Soon that one sensed him, she who that underwater expanse
had occupied for a fiercely ravenous fifty years,
grim and greedy, she knew that a man,
an alien being, one from above had come exploring.
With claw outstretched she grasped towards him, wrapped the warrior
in her terrible grip. Yet nowhere on his body
was he at all injured, his mail protected him all around,
she could not pierce through his war coat,
the linked mail shirt was locked against her loathsome fingers.
That she-wolf of the water bore him away, once they came to the bottom,
carried the ring mailed prince to her dwelling,
so that he was unable to wield his weapon,
though he had his fill of courage. A rushing horde of wondrous creatures
pressed upon him in those waters, many a sea-beast
tore with its tusks at his war-shirt,
gave a fierce pursuit. Than that prince perceived
that he was in some hostile hall,
a dry place where water harmed him not at all,
he saw that the roof of the place held back the current,
the sudden pull of the waters:
there a gleaming light shone bright within.
Then he saw that accursed woman of the deep clearly,
the strong sea-woman. A mighty blow he gave
with his battle blade, he held nothing back in his hand-stroke,
so that the ring patterned sword sang out upon her head,
howled its greedy battle dirge. Yet there that surface dweller discovered
that the flashing sword would not bite,
that it would not harm his target’s life: the sword failed
that prince in his time of need. Before it had endured many
hand to hand combats, had often shorn away helmets,
sliced through the fated ones’ war garments. That was the first time
that dear treasure failed to show its true glory.

But Beowulf was yet resolute, not at all did his courage wane,
mindful of the glorious deed at hand was that kin of Hygelac,
that angry warrior threw the sword with curved markings,
inlaid with ornamentation, so that it clattered, useless, on the ground,
hard and steel-edged. He then trusted to his own might,
the strength of his hand-grip. So shall a man do
when he thinks to gain long-lasting fame in the midst
of combat, not at all is he anxious about his own life.
He grabbed her by the shoulder — feeling no sorrow for his violent act —
the man of the warrior Geats pressed against Grendel’s mother,
then flung the fiend from where she stood, enraged
against the deadly foe, so that she fell to the floor.
She was quickly up and payed back that blow
with a fierce grip of her own, followed through with her forward grasp.
Stumbled then the wearied warrior, though the strongest,
a true foot-soldier, so that he fell to the floor.
She sat then on her hall-guest and drew a dagger,
broad of blade, bright of edge. She was ready to avenge her son,
her only offspring. But on Beowulf’s breast lay
the firm mail-coat, the protector of his life,
it prevented the dagger’s point and its edge from piercing.
The son of Ecgtheow would have perished
beneath the wide earth, that Geatish man,
if his war-corselet had not provided its help,
that tough mail-coat. And if holy God
had not controlled the victory in that battle, the wise Lord,
Ruler of Heaven; the Ruler easily decided
the right outcome for the fight, once that man stood up.

Want more Beowulf? Continue the poem here!

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The plundered sword: Anglo-Saxons and encoding meaning

Introduction
Synopsis
The Original Old English
My Translation
A Quick Interpretation
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 begins his dramatic imagining of the wedding of Hrothgar’s daughter.


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The Original Old English

“Mæg þæs þonne ofþyncan ðeodne Heaðobeardna
ond þegna gehwam þara leoda,
þonne he mid fæmnan on flett gæð,
dryhtbearn Dena, duguða biwenede;
on him gladiað gomelra lafe,
heard ond hringmæl Heaðabeardna gestreon
þenden hie ðam wæpnum wealdan moston,
oððæt hie forlæddan to ðam lindplegan
swæse gesiðas ond hyra sylfra feorh.”
(Beowulf ll.2032-2040)


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My Translation

“It may be displeasing to the prince of the Heathobards
and to the thanes of the people of the prince Ingeld
when he with his new bride strides onto the hall floor
while the Danish wedding attendants are nobly entertained.
One will point to the shining of an old heirloom on them,
a time-hardened, ring-patterned treasure of the Heathobards,
recognized from the time when they were able to wield such weapons,
a time that ended when they came to destruction at the shield-play
that scarred their lives and laid low their dear companions.”
(Beowulf ll.2032-2040)


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A Quick Interpretation

This passage is prime proof of how important material culture was to the Anglo-Saxons.

I mean, the Heathobard hall dwellers’ problem isn’t the mere presence of the wicked Danes. Rather, it’s the sight of swords and treasures that they used to wield. This detail really drives home the idea that whole lineages were encoded in such objects. Which I think is one of the harder things for modern readers to relate to.

Speaking mostly from my own experience, I can’t think of a single heirloom that any grandparent or relative has left to me, let alone one with any kind of practical use. Of course, that could be just because I’m the second son, and in the hierarchy of traditional inheritance I would not get things simply handed to me unless there were a lot of them.

But even then, when I think about stories of inheritances set in the modern day, I tend to think of things like watches or plate collections rather than, say, swords. These objects have some practical use, perhaps, but more often then not it seems to me that people try as hard as they can to preserve objects that they’ve inherited rather than use them.

If it’s a watch, it’s in a special case so that it doesn’t get lost.

If it’s plates, they’re on display so as to stand as a memorial perhaps, or at the least to protect them from wear.

I guess a part of this push for preservation could be a desire to pass the object in question onto the next generation as well.

But then again, my experience is pretty limited, since I’m just one person. What have your experiences been with inheriting items from previous generations of your family? Did you hold onto them? Were they practical items, or things you’d just put on a shelf and look at to remember the giver? Has anyone out there inherited a sword? Feel free to share in the comments!


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Closing

Next week, Beowulf shows off his flair for the dramatic.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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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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Struggling against giants: A sword’s story

Synopsis

Original

Translation

Recordings

Europe and its Giants

A Retelling of the Flood: Poetic Fragment

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

Hrothgar hefts the sword hilt that Beowulf hands him and then marvels at the wondrous story told on it.

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Original

“Hroðgar maðelode, hylt sceawode,
ealde lafe, on ðæm wæs or writen
fyrngewinnes, syðþan flod ofsloh,
gifen geotende, giganta cyn
(frecne geferdon); þæt wæs fremde þeod
ecean dryhtne; him þæs endelean
þurh wæteres wylm waldend sealde.
Swa wæs on ðæm scennum sciran goldes
þurh runstafas rihte gemearcod,
geseted ond gesæd hwam þæt sweord geworht,
irena cyst, ærest wære,
wreoþenhilt ond wyrmfah. ða se wisa spræc
sunu Healfdenes (swigedon ealle):”
(Beowulf ll.1687-1699)

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Translation

“Hrothgar spoke, as he was shown the hilt,
that old treasure. On it was written the origins
of a great struggle, after the flood had slain many,
sloshed through in torrents, a struggle with giant-kind;
peril was brought to all; that was a people
estranged from the eternal Lord; from the Almighty
came the final retribution of rising waters.
Thus was the pommel work written upon in gold
with runes properly inscribed,
inset and incarved, by the one who worked that sword,
the best of blades, first among weapons,
with wire-wound hilt and edge damescened like snakes. Then
the wise one spoke, the son of Healfdane — the hall hushed:”
(Beowulf ll.1687-1699)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Europe and its Giants

I’m glad that the poet gives us this description. It’s all too easy to imagine a sword hilt as just a piece of metal used to hold a sword, and depending on the design, maybe to help catch or parry incoming blows. But here we’re told that there’s a full blown story printed across what I imagine is the crossbar of the sword. In the picture at the top of this entry, the Gilling sword’s crossbar is just outside of the lower right corner of the frame.

The how of this story on a sword isn’t quite my strong suit. There’re runes describing the events, and they’re inlaid with gold. But what the poet means when they say that these runes are “properly inscribed” (“rihte gemearcod” (l.1695)) is quite a mystery to me. Maybe they were neatly made, unlike the chicken scratch of the poet’s day.

What I do know about is just how prevalent wars against giants are in the European imagination.

There are the Greek myths that detail the fight between the Olympian gods and the Titans.

In the Brut, an epic poem about people travelling to Britain to settle there, the travellers must first defeat a giant or two to make the land safe for themselves.

Even much much later, there are still stories of giants in things like fairy tales (“Jack and the Beanstalk”) and Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels.

I think that the Beowulf poet is referring specifically to a race of giants called the Nephilim here. These were the offspring of fallen angels and human women, which fits since the mention of the flood seems to circle around it being a destructive force that god sent out. And the note that the sword this hilt came from was one of the first weapons (“ærest wære” (l.1697)) gels with the idea that the fallen angels who fathered those giants taught humanity about things like smithing and warfare.

What’s unclear about this story, though is if the flood came after or before the great struggle with the giants. It seems like a torrential flood would be a pretty good way to deal with oversized earth dwellers, so my guess is before, but it’s left a little ambiguous.

Why do you think this story was written on the sword’s hilt?

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A Retelling of the Flood: Poetic Fragment

Before the “primeval struggle”1, when the world was yet young,
God on high inscribed a “rune”2 in the sky, a letter of unbinding,
That tore a hole between the clouds, as that word was sung
By angels standing all around, with ancient garment winding

around their firm frames, robes “adorned with figures of snakes”3,
Suiting costume for the “final retribution”4‘s sake.

 

 

1fyrn-gewin: primeval struggle. fyrn (former, ancient, formerly, of old, long ago, once) + winn (toil, labour, trouble, hardship, profit, gain, conflict, strife, war) [A word that is exclusive to Beowulf.]

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2run-stæf: runic letter, rune. run (mystery, secrecy, secret, counsel, consultation, council, runic character, letter, writing) + stæf (staff, stick, rod, pastoral staff, letter, character, writing, document, letters, literature, learning)

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3wyrm-fah: adorned with figures of snakes, damescened. wyrm (reptile, serpent, snake, dragon, work, inset, mite, poor creature) + fag (variegated, spotted, dappled, stained, dyed, shining, gleaming) [A word that is exclusive to Beowulf.]

Back Up

4ende-lean: final retribution. ende (end, conclusion, boundary, border, limit) + lean (reward, gift, loan, compensation, remuneration, retribution)

Back Up

 


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Closing

Next week, Hrothgar speaks his mind about Beowulf.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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A Connection between The Odyssey and Beowulf?

Synopsis
Original
Translation
Recordings
Really Zooming in on Gift-Giving
The Value of a Skilled Smith
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

The poet describes Beowulf’s gifting the hilt of his found giant sword to Hrothgar, and reiterates the Grendels’ defeat.


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Original

Ða wæs gylden hilt gamelum rince,
harum hildfruman, on hand gyfen,
enta ærgeweorc; hit on æht gehwearf
æfter deofla hryre Denigea frean,
wundorsmiþa geweorc, ond þa þas worold ofgeaf
gromheort guma, godes ondsaca,
morðres scyldig, ond his modor eac,
on geweald gehwearf woroldcyninga
ðæm selestan be sæm tweonum
ðara þe on Scedenigge sceattas dælde.

(Beowulf ll.1677-1686)


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Translation

“Then was the golden hilt given into the hand
of the old battle-chief, an ancient work of giants
for the aged ruler. It became the possession
of the Danish prince after those devils perished,
the craft of a skilled smith; when the hostile-hearted,
the enemies of god, gave up this world,
guilty of murder, he and and his mother as well.
Thus the hilt came into the power of the worldly king
judged to be the best between the two seas,
a treasure freely given to the Danes.”
(Beowulf ll.1677-1686)


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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}


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Really Zooming in on Gift-Giving

This passage is weird. I mean, why spend so many words on the simple act of Beowulf giving Hrothgar the hilt of the sword that Grendel’s mother’s blood melted? It’s a strange thing to dwell on, and I can’t help but feel like it might have been a late addition.

Or, maybe like Homer’s asides and flashbacks in the Odyssey, this is meant to be a moment outside of and within time simultaneously. I’m thinking particularly of when Odysseus gets back to Ithaca and the nurse who raised him recognizes him because of a scar on his thigh. Homer uses her seeing the scar as an in to explain its origin in a brief aside.

But, maybe because the Beowulf poet’s story is about people who see themselves as a little rougher around the edges than the ancient Greeks saw themselves, scars don’t matter. And so this aside comes from an act of giving. After all, the act of giving in early British cultures was huge. It was through giving that wealth was distributed and people were meant to feel that things were given fairly. So, perhaps, along with defeating the monsters terrorizing Heorot, this hilt is meant as a tangible gift that Beowulf gives in return for all that Hrothgar gives him.

Which is kind of suiting since, although the poet calls Hrothgar a “battle-chief” (“hild-fruma” (l.1678)), he is also called “old” twice in close succession (“gamelum” on line 1677, and “harum” on line 1678). These mentions make it clear that Hrothgar’s fighting days are over.

With that in mind, how better to mark the ending of the need for such a strong leader to fight than with the hilt of an ancient sword? It too can no longer be used to fight effectively, but it also has much to say and old stories to share — as we’ll see in next week’s post.

What do you think the poet meant by going on for so long about Beowulf giving Hrothgar the hilt of the sword he found in the Grendels’ hall?


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The Value of a Skilled Smith

It is the wish of every leader, every “battle-chief”1,
who finds themselves standing tall as an “earthly king”2,
that they have a “skilled smith”3 in their midst,
one familiar with the methods and means of “ancient works”4.
If such a smith is truly skilled and willing, then that ruler
May wield power and style against the “hostile minded”5.

1hild-fruma: battle-chief, prince, emperor. hild (war, combat) + frum (prince, king, chief, ruler)

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2woruld-cyning: earthly king. woruld (world, age) + cyning (king, ruler, God, Christ, Satan)

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3wundor-smiþ: skilled smith. wundor (wonder, miracle, marvel, portent, horror, wondrous thing, monster) + smiþ (handicraftsman, smith, blacksmith, armourer, carpenter)

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4aer-geweorc: work of olden times. aer (before that, soon, formerly, beforehand, previously, already, lately, till) + geweorc (work, workmanship, labour, construction, structure, edifice, military work, fortification)

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5gram-heort: hostile-minded. gram (angry, cruel, fierce, oppressive, hostile, enemy) + heorte (heart, breast, soul, spirit, will, desire, courage, mind, intellect, affections)

Back Up

 


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Closing

Next week, Hrothgar handles the hilt and reveals its meaning.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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Is Beowulf an introvert?

Synopsis
Translation
Recordings
Beowulf’s Struggle with Story
It’s Just a Simple Ancient Sword
Closing

Beowulf and his band of Geats carrying Grendel's head.

J. R. Skelton – Marshall, Henrietta Elizabeth (1908) Stories of Beowulf, T.C. & E.C. Jack.
Image found at: http://bit.ly/2frmbiU


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Synopsis

Beowulf tells the story of his fight against Grendel’s mother. This is his rough draft performance.


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Translation

“Beowulf spoke, son of Ecgtheow:
‘Harken unto me, son of Halfdane,
lord of the Scyldings, we who have been to the sea-lake
have brought back booty, a mark of fame, for all here to look upon.
I escaped that choppy conflict,
the war beneath the waters, ventured through
the risky deed; the fight was nearly taken from me,
but God shielded me.
In that struggle I could not bring Hrunting
to bear, though it is a noble weapon;
but the lord of men allowed
that I might see hanging on the cave wall
a shining magnificent sword of elder-craft — often
will the wise aid the friendless — that I seized and brandished as my own.'”
(Beowulf ll.1651-1664)


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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}


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Beowulf’s Struggle with Story

Beowulf has told many stories before. And he’s been called a boaster. That’s a label that fits quite well since his stories of fighting off sea monsters to protect Breca, or of taking out groups of monsters definitely seem embellished. But now he’s telling a story about an event that we witnessed. Well, witnessed the original telling of, anyway.

So what?

Well, one of the things that I’ve noticed on rereading this passage is that Beowulf’s telling of the fight with Grendel’s mother is that it’s very straightforward. It’s almost as if he’s shrinking away from the center of attention, as an introvert might.

Beowulf says that it was a close fight, that Hrunting wasn’t living up to its quality, and that he found a giant’s weapon to finish the job. All of that checks out, since that’s a pretty accurate summary of the fight with Grendel’s mother. Though it’s interesting to note that Beowulf doesn’t go into any details. He doesn’t admit that Grendel’s mother pinned him to the ground, or stabbed at him with a knife. If “specificity is the soul of narrative,” as John Hodgman is so fond of saying on his internet court show, Judge John Hodgman, then it seems like Beowulf is mangling the soul of his story.

Why?

Maybe because it’s so fresh in Beowulf’s mind. Coming so close to death, facing such terrifying enemies and circumstances, it’s fair to say that it’ll take more than a few hours to fully process what he’s been through. If that’s the case, then perhaps Beowulf is scanty on the details in this retelling because so little time has past and he’s still reeling.

Or maybe it has nothing to do with processing the events.

Instead, maybe Beowulf just needs more time to come up with embellishments that will hang together and keep the story coherent while elevating it to the tale of a grand heroic deed. Beowulf is a warrior and not a poet after all.

Thus, it might take some time for him to come up with the best way to phrase things like “she mounted me” or “I was almost stabbed to death but my mail saved my life.” Both details are important for the story’s full impact, but could come off as a little less than all-conquering. And, if you think about it, any story about a close call needs to maintain a sense that the hero isn’t really doomed, despite the circumstances. But being pinned by a woman and nearly stabbed to death are a little too dire to be brushed off as events on the way to a heroic close.

In other words, without embellishing those parts of the fight, Beowulf’s victory could be seen as less a victory from skill and more one from luck.

Why do you think Beowulf’s retelling of his fight is so general when it comes to the actual events of the fight? Why doesn’t he just give the play-by-play?


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It’s Just a Simple Ancient Sword

Normally, descriptions of battles and speeches are full of compound words. This is something I noted back in October 2015, while working through lines 1043 to 1049. Beowulf’s speech in this week’s passage is both, but there is only one compound word: “eald-sweord”1.

This lack of compound words is strange, but I think it links back to the events being so fresh in Beowulf’s mind. His use of simpler language reflects either his raw impressions of events or his need for more time to really embellish things as much as he might like to.

But what I wonder is why “eald-sweord”1 is the compound in this passage.

It stumped Clark Hall and Meritt since it doesn’t even appear in the edition of their dictionary that I’m using. Even C.L. Wrenn glosses the word simply as “ancient sword,” though there’s a dagger beside it, indicating that such interpretation is uncertain.

Wrenn’s definition is intuitive, since that’s exactly what the two words mean when combined, but “eald-sweord”1 doesn’t seem to be attested to anywhere other than this instance in Beowulf. So, it must have been a word that was made up especially for the occasion.

Which makes it all the more interesting to me since it’s such an intuitive combination of words for “ancient sword”. There are no strange, culture-specific senses of the words combining together, it’s just “old” and “sword” smashed together. The spontaneity of which, leaves me even more convinced that Beowulf, as much of a storyteller as he is, is struggling to improvise one about his fight with Grendel’s mother.

1eald-sweord: ancient sword (?). eald (old, aged, ancient, antique, primeval, elder, experienced, tried, honoured, eminent, great) + sweord (sword)

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Closing

Next week, Beowulf assures Hrothgar that he’s finally taken care of his monster problem.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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Beowulf beats Grendel (again), of woundings and loyalty (ll.1570-1590)

Synopsis
Translation
Recordings
What was Grendel’s Mother Thinking?
A Wound for a Wound, a Sword-Stroke for a Sword-Stroke
Closing

Grendel's mother menaces the pinned Beowulf with a knife.

By J. R. Skelton – Marshall, Henrietta Elizabeth (1908) Stories of Beowulf, T.C. & E.C. Jack, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11001837


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Synopsis

Beowulf uses the sword that slew Grendel’s mother to finish off his wounded body.


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Translation

“A light shone, brightened the hall from within,
made it as bright as the great candle
set in the heavens. He looked about the hall;
turned toward the far wall, with weapon raised,
its hilt hard up against ambush, Hygelac’s thane,
emboldened and resolute. That edge had proven
all but useless to that fighter, and he sought to use it
to avenge all of Grendel’s awful attacks,
each of the monster’s missions against the West-Danes,
many more than one occasion when he alone
slunk into Heorot to slay Hrothgar’s hearth-companions
who were all were asleep, devoured fifteen Danes
while all slept as if dead,
and made off with as many others,
a loathsome booty. Beowulf paid him his reward,
the fierce fighter, for there he saw laid out
the wounded body of Grendel,
now life-less, his grim energy drained through the injury
he bore from the fight in Heorot. His body was wide open
since he endured that death blow.
One hard sword-stroke severed his head from his body.”
(Beowulf ll.1570-1590)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}


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What was Grendel’s Mother Thinking?

All revved up from killing Grendel’s mother, Beowulf’s bloodlust draws him to take Grendel out, too. Why was Grendel there in the first place? I can only imagine that his mother had been tending to his wounds. Or, maybe she was just mourning him. Or maybe she tried to save him, but couldn’t, and she had been in the midst of preparing Grendel’s body for its final send off when Beowulf dove into their lake. However I can think to explain it, it comes back to Grendel’s mother doing something with Grendel’s body because she recognized it as more than just some thing. Like a human mother she valued her son’s life and his dismembered body was her last reminder of that. So, chalk up another one in the “human” column for the Grendels.

I kind of wish the poet went into more detail here, though. I mean, even if they were put into exile because they were the original inhabitants of where Heorot now stands, or because Grendel was rejected from society at birth, or because they’re the last remnants of a long since defeated tribe, I’m really fascinated by what’s going on in this underwater hall.

You’ve got two people living in this hall who tend to stay out of sight, there’s an armoury with a giant’s (or Roman?) sword, and a ceremoniously placed body of a dead loved one. What’s the story here in casa (or cueva) Grendel?

Unfortunately, we’re left guessing as Beowulf pays no mind at all to any of this. Nope, he’s got heads to lop off and places to go, a thane on the rise, this one.

Speaking of, even though it might seem like literally adding injury to injury, Beowulf’s taking Grendel’s head isn’t too weird. I’m not sure if this is a reason for trophy hunters taking animal heads as well, but I think Beowulf’s actions here come back to an ancient (Northern) European belief. This is the idea that the head is where everything important to a person (what some might call the soul) is housed. So in cutting off Grendel’s head, he’s laying claim on the beast’s very soul.

Do you think Grendel’s mother was trying to help heal her son, or was his body laid out to be mourned? Leave your thoughts in the comments!


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A Wound for a Wound, a Sword-Stroke for a Sword-Stroke

A “an-ræd”1 “hilde-rinc”2 in the midst of the “guð-ræs”3, though “guð-werig”4 by many a “heoro-sweng”5, is sure to be mindful that he is a “heorð-geneat”6 and to leave several “guð-werig”4 thanks to his own “heoro-sweng”5.

At least, if The Battle of Maldon and what it says about “heorð-geneatum”6 and their loyalty to their lords holds any water.

1an-ræd: of one mind, unanimous, constant, firm, persevering, resolute. an (one) + ræd (advice, counsel, resolution, deliberation, plan, way, design; council, conspiracy; decree, ordinance; wisdom, sense, reason, intelligence; gain, profit, benefit, good fortune, remedy; help, power, might)

2hilde-rinc: warrior, hero. hilde (war, combat) + rinc (man, warrior, hero)

3guð-ræs: battle-rush, onslaught. guð (combat, battle, war) + ræs (rush, leap, jump, running, onrush, storm, attack) [A word that is exclusive to Beowulf.]

4guð-werig: wounded. guð (combat, battle, war) + werig (weary, tired, exhausted, miserable, sad, unfortunate) [A word that is exclusive to Beowulf.]

5heoro-sweng: sword-stroke. heoru (sword) + sweng (stroke, blow, cut, thrust)

6heorð-geneat: retainer. heorð (hearth, fire, house, home) + neat (companion, follower, (esp. in war), dependent, vassal, tenant who works for a lord) [A word that is exclusive to Beowulf.]


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Closing

Next week, the story shifts back to the Geats and Danes waiting around the shore of the lake.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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