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.


Back To Top
Synopsis

Beowulf begins his dramatic imagining of the wedding of Hrothgar’s daughter.


Back To Top
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)


Back To Top
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)


Back To Top
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!


Back To Top
Closing

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

Back To Top

Advertisements

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.


Back To Top
Synopsis

Beowulf and the Geats leave Daneland.


Back To Top
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)


Back To Top
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)


Back To Top
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.


Back To Top
Closing

Next week, Beowulf and the Geats fight the sea.

Back To Top

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.

Back To Top

Synopsis

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

Back To Top

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)

Back To Top

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)

Back To Top

Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

Back To Top

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?

Back To Top

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.]

Back Up

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)

Back Up

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


Back To Top

Closing

Next week, Hrothgar speaks his mind about Beowulf.

Back To Top

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.


Back To Top
Synopsis

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


Back To Top
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)


Back To Top
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)


Back To Top
Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}


Back To Top
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?


Back To Top
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)

Back Up

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

Back Up

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

Back Up

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)

Back Up

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

Back Up


Back To Top
Closing

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

Back To Top

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


Back To Top
Synopsis

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


Back To Top
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)


Back To Top
Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}


Back To Top
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?


Back To Top
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)

Back Up


Back To Top
Closing

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

Back To Top

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


Back To Top
Synopsis

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


Back To Top
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)

Back To Top
Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}


Back To Top
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!


Back To Top
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.]


Back To Top
Closing

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

Back To Top

Beowulf a law breaker? And Old English tips for facing your mortal foe (ll.1529-1540)

Synopsis
Translation
Recordings
Beowulf the Law Breaker?
Things to Remember When Facing your Mortal Foe
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


Back To Top
Synopsis

Beowulf gathers himself, and then grabs and throws Grendel’s mother.


Back To Top
Translation

“He 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 lay, 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.”
(Beowulf ll.1529-1540)


Back To Top
Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}


Back To Top
Beowulf the Law Breaker?

Beowulf gathers himself after the sword that Unferth gave him falters (here’s a poem that speculates as to why it failed). And then? Well, Beowulf resolves to do things his way: the bare-handed way!

Though rather than going for some sort of karate chop or punch from a “horse” stance, Beowulf pulls a grab and throw. What exactly does he grab though?

The old English word for what he throws is “eaxl,” which means “shoulder” (l.1537). However, some translations of the poem render the word “eaxl” here into “hair” instead. They do this not because “eaxl” could also mean “hair” but because of the quick parenthetical that follows Beowulf’s grab: “feeling no sorrow at all for his violent act” (“nalas for fæhðe mearn” (l.1537)).

I think that this little phrase could be taken literally: the poet, if not also Beowulf, is respectful enough of women that to attack one by grabbing them is unfit for a warrior of any honour.

But, according to Anglo-Saxon law pulling on someone’s hair could be considered an insult, and quite a few translators believe that “eaxl” is a corruption of “feax” (the actual Old English word for “hair”). So some translators render “eaxl” into “hair”. This change makes this little phrase less about Beowulf or the poet expressing concern about being gentlemen and more about Beowulf feeling no remorse for insulting Grendel’s mother in such a crude and illegal way.

In other words, Beowulf, the upright fighter for god, feels no remorse for breaking the law.

Maybe this means that god’s law is indeed greater than that of human judges and kings. If this is how this act is meant, then of course Beowulf is all right with breaking the anti-hair pulling policy.

But maybe this phrase is more about Beowulf feeling extremely frustrated that once again a weapon doesn’t work for him. After all, when he fights the dragon at the end of the poem the poet tells us that no sword ever worked for Beowulf (ll.2682-2687). Though then I wonder why Beowulf would be frustrated about his sword not working.

Is he afraid that he doesn’t know his own strength when he’s bare-handed?

Is he afraid of fighting a woman without a weapon to keep distance between them?

Is there something dangerous about Grendel’s mother that Beowulf wants to keep away?

What do you think Beowulf is feeling as he flings Grendel’s mother to the floor? Frustration? Rage at her for resisting the sword? Rage at himself for trusting Unferth? Share your thoughts in the comments!


Back To Top
Things to Remember When Facing your Mortal Foe

If you’re facing your “feorh-geniðlan”1, then you’re probably “an-ræd”2 about things. There’s not likely a lot of grey area there.

I mean, this is your greatest foe and you are now ready to defeat them. You’ve got your “styl-ecg”3 sword that’s “wunden-mæl”4 with a lovely design and twice as deadly tight in your “mund-gripe”5 and are ready to go.

But you must be careful in this moment. If there’s even the smallest fruit fly of doubt buzzing around your brain, your foe could just lay out the slightest empathetic fact to get you to drop your guard. So be sure to have your mind “wunden-mæl”4 with your “an-ræd”2 purpose.

1feorh-geniðlan: mortal foe. feorh (life, principle of life, soul, spirit) + nið strife, enmity, attack, war, evil, hatred, spite; oppression, affliction, trouble, grief) [A word exclusive to Beowulf]

2an-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)

3styl-ecg: steel-edged. style (steel) + ecg (edge, point, weapon, sword, battle axe) [A word exclusive to Beowulf]

4wunden-mæl: etched, damescened. wunden (wind, plait, curl, twist, unwind, whirl, brandish, swing, turn, fly, leap, start, roll, slip, go) + mæl (mark, sign, ornament, cross, crucifix, armour, harness, sword, measure) [A word exclusive to Beowulf]

5mund-gripe: hand-grasp. mund (hand, palm (of the hand, as a measure), trust, security, protection, guardianship, protector, guardian, the king’s peace, fine for breach of the laws of protection or guardianship of the king’s peace) + gripe (grip, grasp, seizure, attack, shield, handful) [A word exclusive to Beowulf]

 


Back To Top
Closing

Next week, Grendel’s mother turns the tables on Beowulf!

Back To Top