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Wealhtheow brings generous words to Beowulf, along with generous gifts of golden garments.
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“To him the cup was carried and cordial invitations
offered in words, along with wound gold
bestowed with good will, armbands two,
garments and rings, the greatest neckring
in all the earth, as I have heard.
Not anywhere else under the sky have I heard of a finer
hero’s hoard treasure, not since Hama bore away to there
the magnificent necklace of Brosing,
jewels fixed in precious setting; when he fled
the cunning enmity of Eormenric; chose eternal gain.”
(Beowulf ll.1192 – 1201)
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Every Torc’s got a Story
This passage reads like it’s written by someone who’s easily distracted by shiny things like jewels. It starts off sensibly enough with Beowulf being given “cordial invitations” (“freondlaþu” (l.1192)), then jumps into the history of the torc (a kind of tight, almost collar like necklace, sometimes with bits that hang over the chest) that Wealhtheow gives him. But why does she give him such gifts in the first place?
It looks like it’s just her way of saying thanks for getting rid of Grendel. After all, shiny and precious things are one thing to an Anglo-Saxon, shiny and precious things with a history are entirely another. That is, entirely another, more valuable, thing.
So when Wealhtheow gives Beowulf this torc that’s like the one whose history the poet starts to recite, there’s a lot of significance there. Slight spoilers, this particular necklace may have been worn by an earlyer Hygelac the Geat (likely the namesake of Beowulf’s lord, Hygelac), so, at least in part, the preciousness of this torc comes from its history and Beowulf’s history intersecting.
Actually, in a sense, this item may be seen as being destined for Beowulf. Or, at least, it might seem that he is meant to be the next owner with the understanding that such a privilege is only temporary – such an item being impossible to actually own. Rather, such an artifact is supposed to be understood as having a history that’s somehow above other objects, a history in which it isn’t owned by anyone but rather passed along, it’s not so much an object and accessory for one person, as it is an accessory for an entire ancestral history or, in this case, line of Geats.
That last interpretation is a bit of a stretch, and I feel like it strains against just what such an item may have been perceived as among the Anglo-Saxons. Still, the obvious capstone for the bridge that the poet builds back through the ages via this torc is that it is meant to pass through Beowulf’s hands either as his right or as the object’s inscrutable history.
Both of these interpretations might sound crazy, but the importance of an ancestral sword’s previous wielders wouldn’t be so great if the Anglo-Saxons had a more present-based sense of the value of objects. So, surely the same goes for this torc that fell out of Geatish hands only to come back to them after such an heroic deed as Beowulf’s.
How do you think the added history of this torc makes it more valuable? Does a warrior like Beowulf even care about such things as objects’ histories?
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Straight Ahead Compounds until the End
The compound words in this week’s passage vary pretty wildly. From the simple “earm-read” to the straightforward, but detailed “searo-niðas, they cover quite the range. Still, I’ll run through them in the order of their appearance.
First is “freond-laðu” (l.1192), the perfectly innocuous Old English word for “friendly invitation.” This one comes from the combination of “freond” (friend, relative, lover) and “laðian” (to ivnite, summon, call upon, ask).
Now, direcly related to this word there’s the curious point of “freond”‘s including the interpretation of “lover.” Also, there’s the weirdness of the coincidence that most other words in Old English that start with the syllable “lað” mean “hated” or “despised” (this is the root from which Modern English gets the word “loathe,” after all). I don’t think there’s much to make of this coincidence, except that “laðian” must come from a different language or region than the rest of the words it’s alongside in the dictionary.
But, when it comes to “freond” meaning “lover,” we see the ambiguity of the word “friend” was a thing even back in early Medieval Europe. Of course, the word’s ambiguity makes it hard to judge for certain, but maybe Wealhtheow just can’t control herself around this swarthy hunk. Or, maybe she’s letting some shreds of her true feelings slip through her proper persona. Or, of course, she’s just being gregarious as a good host should be.
Line 1194 offers the next compound word with “earm-read.” This word means “arm ornament” and comes from the Old English “earm” (“arm,” “foreleg,” or “power”) compounding with “hread” (“ornament” or “shielding”). Just as with Modern English’s “arm-band,” this word’s just a plain description.
Next up, line 1195’s “heals-beaga.” Much like “earm-read,” this combination of Old English “heals” (“neck” or “prow of a ship”) and “beaga” (“ring (as ornament or money),” “coil,” “bracelet,” “collar,” “crown,” or “garland”) just means “collar,” “necklace,” or “torc.”
Likewise, line 1198’s “hord-maððum” just means “hoarded treasure,” which comes as no surprise since “hord” means “hoard,” or “treasure” and “maððum” means “treasure,” “object of value,” “jewel,” “ornament,” or “gift.” Though there is this word’s conceptual doubling to consider. I guess whatever you use “hord-maððum” to describe is extra special and extra precious – a treasure even among a treasure hoard.
Actually, this trend of straight ahead compounds continues through line 1200’s “sinc-fæt.” This one means “precious vessel” or “precious setting.” Coming from the combination of “sinc” (“treasure,” “riches,” “gold,” “valuables,” or “jewels”) and “fæt” (“vat,” “vessel,” “jar,” “cup,” “casket,” or “division”) this meaning isn’t at all surprising.
However, that trend ends with “searo-niðas.” Not entirely a word that means something more than the combination of its parts, this one is just a step up from “hord-maððum”‘s doubling.
“Searo-niðas” means “treachery,” “strife,” or “battle” and comes from the combination of “searo” (“art,” “skill,” “cleverness,” “cunning,” “device,” “trick,” “snare,” “ambuscade,” “plot,” “treachery,” “work of art,” “cunning device,” “engine of war,” “armour,” “war gear,” or “trappings”) and “niðas” (“stife,” “enmity,” “attack,” “war,” “evil,” “hatred,” “spite,” “oppression,” “affliction,” “trouble,” or “grief”).
This combination of terms is curious mostly because they’re similar, but while “nið” basically means straight up “strife” or “hatred,” “searo” implies that there’s a certain level of thought or consideration that goes into its brand of offensiveness. So this combination is like a mix of two parts offense with one part clever, the result being “treachery,” “strife,” or all out “battle.”
This section is the poet speaking, so why do you think he continues to use somewhat restrained compound words? Is it to suit the atmosphere of the hall or the character of Wealhtheow?
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Next week the history of the torc continues!
You can find the next part of Beowulf here.