Is Beowulf spreading rumours about a feud?

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 predicts what will happen at the marriage of Hrothgar’s daughter and Ingeld of the Heathobards. It’s nothing good, that’s for sure.


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The Original Old English

“þonne cwið æt beore se ðe beah gesyhð,
eald æscwiga, se ðe eall geman,
garcwealm gumena (him bið grim sefa),
onginneð geomormod geongum cempan
þurh hreðra gehygd higes cunnian,
wigbealu weccean, ond þæt word acwyð:
‘Meaht ðu, min wine, mece gecnawan
þone þin fæder to gefeohte bær
under heregriman hindeman siðe,
dyre iren, þær hyne Dene slogon,
weoldon wælstowe, syððan Wiðergyld læg,
æfter hæleþa hryre, hwate Scyldungas?
Nu her þara banena byre nathwylces
frætwum hremig on flet gæð,
morðres gylpeð, ond þone maðþum byreð,
þone þe ðu mid rihte rædan sceoldest.’
Manað swa ond myndgað mæla gehwylce
sarum wordum, oððæt sæl cymeð
þæt se fæmnan þegn fore fæder dædum
æfter billes bite blodfag swefeð,
ealdres scyldig; him se oðer þonan
losað lifigende, con him land geare.
þonne bioð abrocene on ba healfe
aðsweord eorla; syððan Ingelde
weallað wælniðas, ond him wiflufan
æfter cearwælmum colran weorðað.
þy ic Heaðobeardna hyldo ne telge,
dryhtsibbe dæl Denum unfæcne,
freondscipe fæstne.
(Beowulf ll.2041-2069a)


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My Translation

“That one will then speak, while beer-drinking, about that precious object,
the elder spear-warrior, he remembers all of that treasure’s history
and those that faced death at spear-point — his mind settles on their grim fates —
then, sad of mind, he will test a young warrior’s
spirit with an assault on his heart-thought,
he will arouse the evil of war, and he will say these words:
‘Might you, my comrade, recognize that sword
which your father bore to the field,
wearing his battle mask on his last expedition,
that precious sword, the campaign where the Danes slew him,
when they seized the Heathobards and made where they lay a place of slaughter,
when all our warriors were felled by the valiant Scyldings?
Now here the sons of those slayers go about
on the hall floor, exalting in the adornments of someone else.
They boast of murder, and bear about treasures
that you by right should possess.’
Just so he urges and reminds each of that time
with bitter words, until the time comes
that one of the lady’s men sleeps in bloodstained furs,
is found sliced by a sword for his father’s deeds,
to avenge those who forfeited their lives. From there that slayer
will escape alive, for he knows the land well.
Then the oath swearing of men will be shattered
on both sides, and afterwards in Ingeld
will well up a deadly hate
and surging sorrow will cool his love for his wife.
Therefore, I consider the Heathobards of no loyalty,
their part of the peace to be made by marriage is not without deceit,
the fastness of their friendship is false.”
(Beowulf ll.2041-2069a)


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A Quick Interpretation

From an outsider’s perspective, I think this passage sums up the cyclical nature of feuds quite nicely.

For new readers and those who might not know what the flavour of early medieval feuds was, here’s a quick rundown: Group A holds a mutual grudge against Group B. Group B is living more or less peacefully near Group A until Group A decides to take revenge for that grudge. This encourages Group B to do the same with Group A. Group A then retaliates, and Group B does the same. The cycle only ends when a third group comes and sorts Group A and B out or one gradually kills the other off.

Unlike your Hatfields and McCoys. An early medieval feud wouldn’t just fizzle, it basically ends when there’s no one left to feud against.

But, put some flesh on that model, and you could very well end up with this passage. After all, the Heathobards clearly still hold some hard feelings for the Danes. All it takes for one of the next generation of them to lash out is a question.

Though the old warrior’s question is pretty loaded. He asks if the young warrior remembers his father, if he remembers the heirloom that may be his by Heathobard rights, and implies that the young man could easily take it to avenge his father and restore the honour of his family (and by extension, the Heathobards). Out of those three major notes, though, I think it’s the last one that’s the most important whisper in this young man’s ear.

Why?

Because also implied in the old warrior’s words is that the young warrior’s father must not be allowed to die in vain. Actually, there’s kind of a sense that such a slaughter as the Heathobards allegedly suffered at the hands of the Danes is unsportsmanike. Which is strange to say, but warfare has always had rules.

The most important thing about this passage as it relates to the rest of Beowulf, though, is that it contradicts something that came earlier.

Back on lines 1071 to 1158, a scop tells us the story of the Danes Hildeburh and Hengest and the winter they spent with the subject of a feud: the Frisian Finn. Here we have another situation where peace forged by marriage falls apart. There’s even a similar result. But the idea of relativism was certainly alive and well for the Beowulf poet because the Danes slaughtering the Frisians and then sailing away is seen as a victory. Told in the presence of Danes, how could it be any other way, right?

But, reading it that way, I can’t help but wonder if Beowulf is catering to some prejudice of Hygelac’s with his prediction for the future Freawearu/Ingeld wedding. Maybe he’s just drawing up these lovely word pictures for his lord to better his own position at home.

Or, since he’s back home in Geatland, is Beowulf simply being true to his feelings? Now that he’s back in Geatland, he’s just letting the truth out.

Or is the only honesty that he knows a sword-point? Maybe this is simply another part of Beowulf’s monstrous qualities. He’s just too well adapted to fitting around every suggestion he faces like his sheath fits around his sword.

Ultimately, the question that really needs to be asked (and with your tongue nowhere near your cheek) is this: Why is this passage included in Beowulf’s story about his time in Daneland?

Is a slightly informed prophecy of a doomed alliance through marriage somehow relevant to the poem as a whole? Or is Beowulf just telling Hygelac what he wants to hear? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments!


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Closing

Next week, Beowulf continues his story of his adventures in Heorot. Specifically, he talks Grendel.

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Beowulf leaves the underwater haul, and a summary of his time in the Grendels’ hall (ll.1612-1622)

Synopsis
Translation
Recordings
Take only What’s Needed, Leave only Slaughter?
A Treasure Never Lost
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: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Stories_of_beowulf_head_of_grendel.jpg#/media/File:Stories_of_beowulf_head_of_grendel.jpg


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Synopsis

Beowulf grabs a couple of things and then leaves the Grendels’ hall.


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Translation

“Nothing more did he take from that place, the lord of Weder-Geats,
any valuable things, though he there many did see,
except for the head and the hilt both,
the shining treasure; the blade before it melted
was a fire-hardened damescened edge, but its blood was too hot,
that alien spirit’s poison, the one which died there.
Soon he was safe and swimming, he who in earlier strife
had called down defeat in his wrath, he climbed through the waters;
the churning waters had been purified,
likewise was the land thereabouts, when that alien spirit
left off her life days and lost her loaned life.”
(Beowulf ll.1612-1622)


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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}


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Take only What’s Needed, Leave only Slaughter?

Beowulf must want to travel light. Otherwise, I can’t see why he doesn’t take more from the strange hall of the Grendels. Practically speaking, anyway.

Poetically, there’s a parallel here between the dragon and the thief who steals the cup. There’s even a parallel between Beowulf’s taking little and Wiglaf taking only a single item from the dragon’s hoard after it’s defeated. But after having seen the armoury of the Grendels’ I still don’t quite see why Beowulf doesn’t go back and grab a complete sword. I guess he’s already carrying Hrunting though, since he owes Unferth that sword.

Stepping back, Beowulf’s choice to not raid the Grendels’ armoury like someone who’s just teamed up with a bunch of other players and headed to a dungeon in World of Warcraft makes a little more sense when you think about the figurative weight of what he took.

Grendel’s head is the symbol of the end of the Grendels’ reign of terror. There is a very old belief that to cut the head off of an enemy ensures the loss of their power. Aside from physiology, the idea that the head is the central part of something lives on in things like the word “capital” (from the Latin “caput”, or “head”). After all, a capital is where a country’s government is based, and therefore one of the most symbolically significant places in any sort of major conflict.

The sword hilt that Beowulf doesn’t just pitch into the water but takes with him also has its significance.

As we’ll learn later, there’s a story engraved on the hilt. And though Beowulf comes from a vibrant oral tradition, I’m sure that the notion of writing was held in very high esteem. I’m not sure what kind of script would be on the hilt, but the importance that’s ascribed to this hilt with its engraved story of the great flood really plays into the idea that a written story gained even more reverence than a remembered one.

Actually, maybe this little trinket suggests (at least in part) why Beowulf was eventually written down. It was simply well regarded enough to justify all of the effort that went into writing something down before the age of widely available pulp-based paper and ballpoint pens.

Would you have just taken what Beowulf took, or would you have tried to take all the treasure out of the Grendels’ hall as the spoils of victory?


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A Treasure Never Lost

It sounds like something out of a video game, but Beowulf did it first. He went down to a hall of monsters, where he fought an “ellor-gast”1 or two. And during the strife he found a “maðm-æht”2, a giant’s sword. A weapon that guaranteed the monster’s “wig-hryre”3. And though after beheading the other “ellor-gast”1 that giant’s “broden-mæl”4 had melted away he still had the hilt and the story of how he got it.

Along with Grendel’s head, he pulled the hilt out with him, too, as he swam through a “yð-geblond”5 that had now calmed. Though of the three things he hauled out of the underwater hall, it’s the story that he’ll have for the rest of his “lif-dæg”6.

1ellor-gast: alien spirit. ellor (elsewhere, elsewhither, to some other place) + gast (spirit, ghost) [A word that is exclusive to Beowulf.]

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2maðm-æht: valuable thing, treasure. maðum (treasure, object of value, jewel, ornament) + æht (possessions, goods, lands, wealth, cattle, serf, ownership, control) [A word that is exclusive to Beowulf.]

Back Up

3wig-hryre: slaughter, defeat. wig (strife, contest, war, battle, valour, military force, army) + hryre (fall, descent, ruin, destruction, decay) [A word that is exclusive to Beowulf.]

Back Up

4broden-mæl: damescened sword. broden (surface, board, plank, tablet) + mæl (mark, sign, ornament, cross, crucifix, armour, harness, sword, measure; time, point of time, occasion, season, time for eating, meal, meals)

Back Up

5yð-geblond: wave mixture, surge. yð (wave, billow, flood, sea, liquid, water) + blandan (blend, mix, mingle, trouble, disturb, corrupt)

Back Up

6lif-dæg: life-day, lifetime. lif (life, existence, life-time) + dæg (day, life-time, Last Day, name of the rune for ‘d’)

Back Up


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Closing

Next week, Beowulf returns to the surface.

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Beowulf gives his last will and testament (ll.1482-1491)

Synopsis
Translation
Recordings
Beowulf’s Flaw?
Generosity and Sharp Swords
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 says that if he dies, Hrothgar is to send his treasure to Hygelac, and Unferth will get his sword.

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Translation

“‘As for the treasure that thou gavest me,
dear Hrothgar, send it to Hygelac.
Thus, may the lord of the Geats gaze upon those riches,
the son of Hrethel will see it, 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.'”
(Beowulf ll.1482-1491)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Beowulf’s Flaw?

Last week, Beowulf’s speech to Hrothgar was all about the people in the young man’s life: his lord, Hygelac, and his fellow young warriors. But now things get material. Sort of.

Beowulf starts out the second part of his speech with a call for the gifting of the treasure that he’s won to Hygelac. As we’ll find out in a few hundred lines, this is where the treasure ends up anyway, but I think it’s important for Beowulf to make clear what he wants to do with the treasure. I mean, this speech is basically his last will and testament as far as many of those thronging around him are concerned right now.

After all, they’ve come deep into the heart of monster country (hence all of those beasts on the slopes and dragons in the waters), and Beowulf is now about to dive into the home of the Grendels. In other words, the tables have turned and now all of the Danes and Geats are fearful wretches invading turf that isn’t theirs.

The imminent danger of all of this really drives home for me how the poet is trying to frame Beowulf as an ideal man.

Beowulf has physical strength (that hand grip of thirty men), but is humble and gives almost all the credit for his victory to god or fate’s favour. He’s also young and vigorous, and yet cautious and responsible enough to very dramatically tell everyone what to do if he doesn’t come back as he’s strapping on his armour.

As I think about it, I can see why this sort of character was so popular for so long. Beowulf’s inherent flaw isn’t any one thing but being as balanced as he appears to be. If you look at Beowulf later in the poem, he’s an old man whose personality has fallen out of step with his physicality.

At this point in the poem, though, Beowulf’s body and mind are perfectly in sync, and yet he’s being set up for a fall. The poet is using him to make clear that such a balance is unsustainable. Perhaps the few days that Beowulf is with the Danes are the ones he remembers the most fondly simply because they were those where he was able to show off a balanced nature between warlike rage and diplomatic humility.

He even pledges his sword to Unferth if he dies fighting Grendel’s mother. That is some serious diplomacy on Beowulf’s part.

But what does he hope to get out of all of this? Is Beowulf just being honourable so that he’ll be remembered as such, or do you think this is a show of the genuine Beowulf? Leave your thoughts in the comments!

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Generosity and Sharp Swords

Maybe it seems a little paradoxical, but I think that in the early medieval world a “gum-cyst”1 lord would have a mighty weapon.

Yes, such a lord would need to be known for generosity, but how would the treasure he’d share be won? How would he keep other clans at bay? Surely it would be with a “heard-ecg”2 sword. Perhaps it’d even be something like Beowulf’s wondrous “waeg-sweord”3. Plentiful treasure could probably buy such a weapon, after all.

1gum-cyst: excellence, bravery, virtue, liberality. guma (man, lord, hero) + cyst (free-will, choice, election, the best of anything, the choicest, picked host, moral excellence, virtue, goodness, generosity, munificence)

2heard-ecg: sharp of edge, sword. heard (hard, harsh, severe, stern, cruel (things and persons), strong, intense, vigorous,violent, hardy,bold) + ecg (edge, point, weapon, sword, battle ax)

3waeg-sweord: sword with wavy pattern. waeg (motion, water, wave, billow, flood, sea) + sweord (sword)

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Closing

Next week Beowulf drops the mic and plunges into the mire. But it’s not long before a certain mother of a certain monster launches her attack.

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Hrothgar’s motives, wolves and ancient treasure (ll. 1368-1382)

Synopsis
Translation
Recordings
Hrothgar Holding Out?
Of Wolves and Ancient Treasure
Closing

Beowulf, Grendel, Old English, Anglo-Saxon

An illustration of Grendel by J.R. Skelton from Stories of Beowulf. Grendel is described as “Very terrible to look upon.”Stories of beowulf grendel” by J. R. Skelton – Marshall, Henrietta Elizabeth (1908) Stories of Beowulf, T.C. & E.C. Jack. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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Synopsis

Hrothgar tells Beowulf more about the terrifying surroundings of the Grendels’ home, and offers a generous reward.

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Translation

“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,
a perilous place, there thou mayst find
the very guilty creature; seek it out if thou darest.
I will reward you with great wealth for ending this feud,
award you with ancient treasures, as I did already,
works of twisted gold, if thou goest on this way.”
(Beowulf ll.1368-1382)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Hrothgar Holding Out?

In the moment, Beowulf probably didn’t think twice about Hrothgar’s offer. “More treasure? For just killing another monster? Sure!” could very well be his internal monologue.

But does Hrothgar know more than he lets on?

Considering the fact that he’s able to go on for lines about the characteristics of the mere, and yet he says “that region is not yet known” (“[e]ard git ne const” (l.1377)) really makes me wonder. Plus, I don’t think that anyone who knew nothing about a place could paint as rich a picture as Hrothgar does when he uses the example of the buck who would rather die than escape the wolves by swimming away through the mysterious burning waters.

Sure, fear could be a factor here.

Maybe Hrothgar is speaking as someone who is terrified of this place, and so his description of it is tinged with the fear of the unknown; he has released his doubts about the place in exchange for grasping whatever slivers of information there are available to him as tightly as possible. And then he’s blown them out of proportion.

Though, perhaps this description isn’t coming from a frightened old man.

As a warrior himself, and someone who had to prove himself in his earlier days just as Beowulf is doing now, maybe Hrothgar is being quite shrewd here. The description he gives, with all of its extreme dangers and air of mystery despite the details would definitely appeal to Beowulf’s sense of hunting down glory. Though, really, even if Hrothgar said that Grendel’s mother could be found in the bread wall at the local grocery store, I’m sure Beowulf would go after her. He is that kind of fighter after all.

What’s more troubling anyway is that Hrothgar’s marking the end of this feud with the death of Grendel’s mother suggests something other than rhetoric. I think that it’s the poet’s way of suggesting that gaining a reputation for fighting and slaying monsters as Beowulf did when he beat Grendel (and even before if his boasts are to be believed) leads not to an end of your struggles with the unknown but to their continuation.

In fact, if you become known as an expert monster slayer, you’ll do it until the thing fighting as the supernatural’s representative naturally overcomes you, the natural. After all, as the stakes are raised more and more the best a mere mortal can do is take down the monstrous with them.

What do you think Hrothgar knows about the Grendels that he’s not telling Beowulf?

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Of Wolves and Ancient Treasure

I feel like it’s a bit judgy, from the perspective of a people relying on crops and livestock for sustenance and trade a “hæð-stapa” would be very bad news. At least in some cases.

The word “hæð-stapa” is kind of an odd one since it can mean either “wolf” or “hart.” As strange as that sounds, it makes sense since the word’s literal translation is simply “heath-stalker.”

In fact, since “hæð-stapa is a combination of “hæð” (“heath,” “untilled land,” “waste,” or “heather”) and “stapa” (“going,” “gait,” “step,” “pace,” “spoor,” “power of locomotion,” “short distance,” or “measure of length”), it could be taken to mean just about anything that is known to wander land that is unused by humans. Perhaps that’s why adding “fela-sinnigne” to “hæð-stapa” points it towards “wolf”.

After all, I haven’t met many deer that I would call “very guilty,” the very literal meaning of “fela-sinnigne” (fela (“many,” or “much”) + sinnigne (“guilty,” “punishable,” “criminal,” or “sinful”)).

But whatever judgments are passed, such a “fela-sinnigne” “hæð-stapa” is right at home in a “holt-wudu.”

That word combines “holt” (“forest,” “wood,” “grove,” “thicket,” “wood,” or “timber”) and “wudu” (“wood,” “forest,” “grove,” “tree,” “the Cross,” “Rood,” “wood,” “timber,” “ship,” or “spear shaft”) to mean simply “forest,” “grove,” or “wood,” though I’m sure that the doubling of a similar meaning in both words means that this is the deepest of forests.

Just as “yð-geblond” could refer to the mysterious waters of casa Grendel or to the roiling waves of the open sea. I mean, this compound does literally mean “wave” (“yð”) “mix” (“blandan”) after all.

But wolves (guilty or otherwise) are in short supply on the open sea, while something much more valuable is there for the taking thanks to shipwrecks and Viking burials. Yes, the ocean is home to much “eald-gestreon.”

Once again (seems there’s a trend in this passage’s compound words) the word “eald-gestreon” literally means “ancient treasure” (being a mix of “eald” (“aged,” “ancient,” “antique,” “primeval,” “elder,” “experienced,” “tried,” “honoured,” “eminent,” or “great”) and “streon” (“gain,” “acquisition,” “property,” “treasure,” “traffic,” “usury,” or “procreation”)).

So, in a sense you could say that the “fela-sinnigne hæð-stapa” is to the “holt-wudu” as the “eald-gestreona” is to the “yð-geblond.”

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Closing

Next week: Beowulf’s reply!

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Wondering about the central feud, a treasure-giver’s compassion (ll.1333b-1344)

Synopsis
Translation
Recordings
Who’s Feud is it Anyway?
A Treasure-Giver’s Potentially Life-Changing Compassion
Closing

Beowulf, Grendel, Old English, Anglo-Saxon

An illustration of Grendel by J.R. Skelton from Stories of Beowulf. Grendel is described as “Very terrible to look upon.”Stories of beowulf grendel” by J. R. Skelton – Marshall, Henrietta Elizabeth (1908) Stories of Beowulf, T.C. & E.C. Jack. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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Synopsis

Hrothgar laments the continuation of his feud with the Grendels.

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Translation

         “‘She carried on that feud,
that you the other night enflamed by killing Grendel
in your violent manner with the might of your grip,
since he had for so long a time terrified my people,
rended and grieved them. He fell in the 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,
his dire distress; now that the hand lay still,
the hand that proved generous to every desire.'”
(Beowulf ll.1333b-1344)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Who’s Feud is it Anyway?

This time around Hrothgar calls out Beowulf not for doing well in killing Grendel, but for calling a second, unexpected, wicked ravager down upon Heorot.

It’s not like Beowulf could know that this would happen of course. In fact, although feud terminology had been used before, since it’s only after Grendel’s killed that we hear about his kin at all really makes me wonder how apt the word “feud” (“fæhðe” l.1333) is here. I mean, a feud in Anglo-Saxon Britain consisted of two groups clashing over and over again because of a single grievance or a string of grievances.

So, is the only grievance that Grendel and his kind had with Heorot that Hrothgar put a noisy party hall up so close to their quiet and simple fen? And if this did actually cause something that could be called a feud, then why was Grendel the sole ravager of Heorot? Why did Grendel care so much to lash out against the Danes while his mother only came on the scene once Grendel was killed?

Basically, what is this feud that Beowulf “enflamed” (l.1334)?

Weren’t Hrothgar’s danes only feuding against Grendel? Or were they actually feuding against all of monsterkind and Grendel was just that side’s representative, while the Danes had no single entity to represent them?

This is a very weird moment in the poem for these reasons. Although the poet doesn’t explicitly make the situation all that more complicated by adding in the mother character and renewing the feud that Hrothgar has with the Grendels, the concept of a feud passing from one family member who is incredibly invested to another who seems unable to care any less about it is baffling. I mean, I know she lost her son to the feud, but can it really be considered the same feud if Grendel was attacking Heorot because they barged into his home while his mother attacks for vengeance? Or did Hrothgar, Dorothy Gale-like, drop Heorot on Grendel’s dad?

Maybe this is so baffling because it’s supposed to illustrate the human misunderstanding of the natural world of which it is a part. Hrothgar calls Grendel’s apparent grudge a feud only because that’s the closest thing he knows to describe the way that Grendel is acting. But maybe the reality of the situation is entirely different; there is no feud, only one creature fighting for his land and another fighting to gain vengeance for her son.

Who do you think the feud is against? Hrothgar and the Grendels? Humans and monsters?

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A Treasure-Giver’s Potentially Life-Changing Compassion

If there were ever an ideally compassionate “sinc-giefa” they would feel a great “hreþer-bealo” for “wel-hwylcra” “man-scaða.”

After all, it is the “sinc-giefa”‘s role in Anglo-Saxon society to distribute treasure. It’s right there in the name — a mix of “sinc” (“treasure,” “riches,” “gold,” “valuables,” or “jewel”) and “giefa” (“donor”).

And so an ideal “sinc-giefa” would feel a deep sadness, a heart sorrow for those they cannot given to, that their tremendous gifts cannot extend bonds of loyalty and friendship to. A good Old English name for that feeling is “hrether-bealo,” a combo of “hrether” (“breast,” “bosom,” “heart,” “mind,” “thought,” or “womb”) and “bealo” (“bale,” “harm,” “injury,” “destruction,” “ruin,” “evil,” “mischief,” “wickedness,” “malice,” “noxious thing,” “baleful,” “deadly,” “dangerous,” “wicked,” or “evil”). A “poison thought” could be another way to look at that. Though what would that mean?

Whatever it meant, I’m sure that all those who declared themselves that giver’s enemy would leave such a giver of treasure feeling treacherously sad. Yes, “wel-hwylc” of those self-declared enemies would have that effect. And you can’t get much more all encompassing than “wel-hwylcra” since “wel” means “well,” “abundantly,” “very,” “very easily,” “very much,” “fully,” “quite,” or “nearly”; and “hwylc” means “each,” “any,” “every (one),” “all,” “some,” “many,” “whoever,” or “whatever”. Put them together and you have a “fully all” situation on your hands (“nearly some” notwithstanding).

Though, if all of those “mān-scaða” were to turn away from being enemies, if they were to repent as “sinners” might, then our all-compassionate treasure giver could offer quite lovely rewards. Though it would take a lot for a “mān-scaða” to turn around on their path — each word in that compound has heavy negative connotations,after all.

I mean, we’ve got “mān” (evil deed, crime, wickedness, guilt, sin; false oath; bad, criminal, false) and “sceaða” (“injurious person,” “criminal,” “thief,” “assassin,” “warrior,” “atagonist,” “fiend,” “devil,” or “injury”), so you know that such an enemy or sinner is pretty steeped in their opposition of our hypothetical compassionate ring giver.

And, unfortunately, that’s just about that. All of the “hreþer-bealo” our compassionate “sinc-giefa” feels won’t turn “wel-hwylcra” “mān-scaða” from foe to friend. Though their compassion might get a few to switch over if that compassion is truly irresistible.

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Closing

Hrothgar reveals some local lore about the Grendels, next week at A Blogger’s Beowulf.

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Wealhtheow speaks to Beowulf, another compound chain (ll.1215-1231)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
What’s Wealhtheow’s Speech Really all About?
A Leader and Their People Bound by Treasure
Closing

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Abstract

Amidst all of her gift giving, Wealhtheow speaks up, praises Beowulf, and (maybe) warns him.

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Translation

“Wealhtheow spoke, she before the throng said this:
‘Enjoy these rings, dear Beowulf,
young warrior, be with health, and this garment use,
our people’s treasure, and prosper well;
show to these youths your strength, and to them
offer kind advice; I for this reward shall remember you.
You have brought it about, so that far and near
forever among men shall you be praised,
just as widely as the sea encompasses
the home of the wind, the jutting cliffs. Be, long as you live,
prince, blessed! I wish to you great
treasure. Be you to my sons
of kind deed and joyful!
Here each man is to the other true,
of mild heart, under our lord’s protection;
the warriors are united, a people fully prepared
these men all have drunken the pledge and do as I command.'”
(Beowulf ll.1215-1231)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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What’s Wealhtheow’s Speech Really all About?

Wealhtheow’s speech in this passage covers a lot of topics. I mean, first she formally gives Beowulf further gifts, then asks him to be a role model for her sons. Then she says that because of what he’s done Beowulf’s fame will encompass the land just as the seas do before she wraps it all up with a statement about her being in power in the hall.

Actually, that last statement strikes me as the oddest bit of her speech.

I mean, for most of this bit of dialogue she’s been talking about Beowulf, and even before it she’s been described as giving him these gifts. So…what’s the deal with her concluding statement about the order of the hall?

Maybe it’s just a speech formula. The speaker starts by praising and requesting things of the subject of their speech and then jumps right into a little “here’s how things work here” statement. I can see this formula being a useful rhetorical device solely because of the order in which things are presented.

The subject-listener, after having heard so much ego-swelling material is likely giving the speaker their full attention, waiting intently for more to feed their sense of self-worth. But then, rather than praising the subject’s pectorals or gushing about his gluteus maximus, the speaker says “hey, you’re in my hall now, and this is how you need to behave.” It’s like sneaking a PSA into a children’s cartoon so that only the parents watching notice.

But maybe there’s more still going on here, too.

Putting aside all theories that Wealhtheow has the hots for Beowulf (because she is a woman and Beowulf is this young adventuring type), maybe this ordering of topics is meant to cut off the male subject-listener’s understanding of the speaker as coming onto him before the idea can take serious seed in his mind. Just as the male listener expects another flattering comment, maybe the verbal equivalent of batting eyelashes, the female speaker says “but, hot as you are, remember — I’m queen of this place and everyone here is at my command. So don’t try anything.”

Although, taking this rhetorical ordering of topics as a means of diffusing ego tripping and perceptions of sexual advances is just one interpretation. This kind device could also invite further sexual advances. Maybe, broken down into its most basic statements, this whole speech to Beowulf is saying “Hey, you’re pretty hot, I’m pretty powerful, let’s hook up. I can just tell anyone who sees us here to look the other way.”

All of which makes understanding just what’s going on in this speech tricky.

Though, unless the Beowulf poet wanted their hero to have some sort of Oedipal thing going on, I lean a little more toward the warning explanation of this rhetorical ordering.

I mean, Wealhtheow doesn’t just mention her children once, but twice. Though, in both instances she’s asking Beowulf to be a role model for her kids through his strength and generous actions, possibly the role a father should fulfil but that Hrothgar is too old to himself. So, maybe she really is trying to get Beowulf into her bed, even through her mention of her kids.

What do you think? Is this speech proof that Wealhtheow is coming onto Beowulf, or is it just a lady and mother imploring a hero to teach the next generation how to behave? Sound off in the comments below.

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A Leader and Their People Bound by Treasure

I thought that chaining together some of last week’s compound words into a kind of story worked pretty well, so I’m doing it again. Here goes:

The word “man-dryhten” (l.1229) denotes something more than just a leader. In particular, it means “lord” or “master.” A combination of “man” (“one,” “people,” or “they”) and “dryhten” (“ruler,” “king,” “lord,” “prince,” “the Lord,” “God,” or “Christ”), there’s a sense that people described by this word aren’t just men who lead, but who are leaders of men. As such, it’s important for them to be “eal-gearo.”

That is, these leaders of men need to be “all ready,” or “prepared.”

The word “eal-gearo” (l.1230) is a great word to express an extreme preparedness because its combination of “eal” (“all,” “every,” “entire,” “whole,” “universal,” or “all men”) and “gearo” (“prepared,” “ready,” “equipped,” or “finished”) gives a clear sense of someone or something that is fully equipped or prepared, meaning that they’re ready to face just about anything. Even if what they need to do involves the emotional state of their “dryht-guman.”

Based on the idea of “man-dryhten” worrying about “dryht-guman” (l.1231), you’d be right to guess that “dryht-guman” are “warriors,” “retainers,” “followers,” “men,” or “bridesmen.” But because this isn’t just a standalone word for warrior like “beorn,” or “wiggend,” there’s something more going on here. This special connotation comes from the combination of “dryht” (“multitude,” “army,” “company,” “body of retainers,” “nation,” “people,” or “men”) and “guman” (“man”), and implies someone who isn’t just a fighter, but who is fighting for a particular cause headed by a particular figure or person. And if that person is truly worth a pack of dedicated fighters, they’ll be able to keep their “dryht-guman” “dream-healdende.”

Despite its length “dream-healdende” (l.1227) simply means “happy,” or “joyful,” and is based on the combination of “dream” (“joy,” “gladness,” “delight,” “ecstasy,” “mirth,” “rejoicing,” “melody,” “music,” “song,” or “singing”) and “healdende” (as “heald”: “keeping,” “custody,” “guard,” “protection,” “observance,” “observation,” “watch,” “protector,” or “guardian”; or as “healdan”: “hold,” “contain,” “hold fast,” “grasp,” “retain,” “possess,” “inhabit,” “curb,” “restrain,” “compel,” “control,” “rule,” “reign,” “keep,” “guard,” “preserve,” “foster,” “cherish,” “defend,” “withhold,” “detain,” “lock up,” “maintain,” “uphold,” “support,” “regard,” “observe,” “fulfil,” “do,” “practice,” “satisfy,” “pay,” “take care,” “celebrate,” “hold,” “hold out,” “last,” “proceed,” “go,” “treat,” “behave to,” “bear oneself,” or “keep in mind”).

So, running with the words compounded into “dream-healdende,” it’s clear that the word conveys an easy sense of “happiness” or “joyfulness,” but with the implication that these states are sustained or long-lasting. And what better way for a “man-dryhten” to sustain the happiness of their “dryht-guman” than with treasure?

That’s where the word “sinc-gestreona” (l.1226) comes in. This word means “treasure” or “jewel” and is a combination of “sinc” (“treasure,” “riches,” “gold,” “valuables,” or “jewel”) and “gestreon” (“gain,” “acquisition,” “property,” “treasure,” “traffic,” “usury,” or “procreation”), which pushes the literal meaning of “sinc-gestreona” beyond that of a mere trinket of treasure and into something that, like “dream-healdende,” sustains wealth over a long period of time. So, really, “sinc-gestreona” might more accurately mean a hoard of treasure or something of incredible value. Perhaps, a piece that’s treasured by a whole people.

Or, you might say, a “þeod-gestreona” (l.1218).

This word means “people’s treasure” or “great possession” and comes from the mixture of “þeod” (“people,” “nation,” “tribe,” “region,” “country,” “province,” “men,” “wartroop,” “retainers,” “Gentiles,” “language” or “fellowship”) and “gestreona” (the same as in the previous compound).

There’s not much more to “þeod-gestreona” than that, since “þeod” literally refers to a collective of people, even getting a little meta to include “language,” so such a treasure that’s a “þeod-gestreona” is something valued by a mass of people, perhaps even something that gains much or even all of its value because of that mass valuation.

In fact, if you went back to the peak of the Beanie Babies craze in the ’90s, those Beanie Babies that were counted the most valuable would be perfectly described by this sense of “þeod-gestreona” — pretty much any sought after collectible is a “treasure of the people,” in a sense, after all. Collecting things really does go that far back!

The Anglo-Saxons collected gold and jewelled treasure, which are still “þeod-gestreona,” but what do you collect just because it’s valuable to you? What’s something that you consider “þeod-gestreona”?

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Closing

Next week, things quiet down for the night in Heorot, and the poet talks of fate.

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A tale of a torc (pt. 2) and a battle sequence of compound words (ll.1202-1214)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
A Story Told While a Studio Audience Leers?
Some Compound Words in a Sequence
Closing

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Abstract

We hear the other half of the story of the torc that Wealhtheow is giving Beowulf and the revellers in the hall love it.

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Translation

“Then the ring had Hygelac the Geat,
Swerting’s grandson, wore it on his final raid,
during that time he defended the treasure under his banner,
protected the spoils of the slain*; but he was carried off by fate,
since he for pride’s sake sought trouble,
bore feud to the Frisians. Yet he carried those adornments away,
took the precious stones over the wide waves,
that mighty man; he fell dead beneath his shield.
Then it passed from the king’s body into the grasp of the Franks,
his mailcoat and the circlet also;
the less worthy warriors plundered the slain,
after the battle carnage; the Geatish people
occupied a city of corpses. The hall swelled with sound.
(Beowulf ll.1202-1214)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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A Story Told While a Studio Audience Leers?

This passage continues the story of the torc that Wealhtheow has just given to Beowulf. Though, honestly, this half of the story is the much more relevant one, I think. After all, it opens with a mention of a Hygelac who is a Geat.

And we’ve already heard of a Hygelac who’s a Geat in this poem, he’s the one who’s the Geat’s (and therefore Beowulf’s) current ruler. Though, since this part of the torc’s story includes Hygelac’s death, it’s pretty clear that the Hygelac of the poem’s present is a descendant of, or at least named for, this famed Hygelac of old.

And why not? This historical (well, at least in that he lived in the past, whether that past the poem talks about is real or not isn’t too important within the poem itself, really) Hygelac was a true badass. He seized the torc, wore it into many battles, fought fiercely against the Franks, and died protecting it and other treasures. That last detail might sound like a waste, but I think the point is that these other treasures were so precious to the Geats that one of their greats was willing to protect them. No doubt, so little is said about these treasures though because they were fairly well known to the audience of Beowulf, or at the very least the concept of treasures — things — that you’d actually want to die for wasn’t as strange as it might be to modern day readers of Beowulf.

Anyway, in this part of the story, it’s mentioned that this Hygelac also had a very special mail coat with him. On line 452 of Beowulf, we’re told that Beowulf himself wears a mail coat that once belonged to a Hygelac.

Maybe this is Beowulf’s lord, but it’d be much more meaningful and exciting if it was this historical Hygelac’s mail coat. If it is, then Beowulf’s being granted the torc is like his receiving the second half of an ancient heirloom, or like Aragorn getting Andúril when it’s reforged from the shards of Narsil that were saved from The War of The Last Alliance of Elves and Men in Tolkien’s Middle Earth lore. If the mailcoat Beowulf has (allegedly forged by the mystical, mythological smith Wade) is this historical Hygelac’s, then Beowulf has just been doubly blessed as a warrior and only really needs an ancient sword to complete his ancestral outfit (three is a magical number after all).

Beyond the significance of a former Geat and Hygelac’s having the torc before Beowulf (its rightful owner?) has it again, this passage has a curious final half line.

After Wealhtheow has related the story of the torc we’re told “The hall swelled with sound” (“Heal swege onfeng” (l.1214)).

If this raucous cheering is because of the story of the torc that Wealhtheow just told in a bizarre non-dialogue way (given the rest of the poem’s being perfectly okay with running long), then it almost seems like the hall is cheering because the Geats lost in that battle against the Franks, the survivors, as we’re told, were left “a city of corpses” (“hreawic” (l.1214)).

That makes me think that Wealhtheow’s story of the torc is more likely the poet interjecting with a quick explanation of the torc’s significance, something that someone like Wealhtheow wouldn’t really have much reason to know. After all, based on her name, she’s likely a British Celt of some kind, or at the very least somehow related to the peoples that the Anglo-Saxons regarded as slaves (since “wealh” can mean “slave,” “foreigner” or “stranger”). So she’s not likely to know much about what to her is a foreign people’s history.

So, if this story is the poet interjecting, then the hall must just be rejoicing because Wealhtheow is giving Beowulf this torc and the other rich treasures mentioned. It must be some torc then, or, at the least, the hall must be in a merry mood if they’re willing to loudly cheer the lady of the hall giving the guest a gift. Unless “The hall swelled with sound” is just Old English equivalent of the modern day sitcom soundtrack’s “oooo!” while two characters kiss.

Do you think Beowulf’s wearing old Hygelac’s mailcoat? Or, do you think the whole hall is “whoo”-ing at Wealhtheow being so generous to Beowulf?

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Some Compound Words in a Sequence

Well, because there’s a battle in this week’s passage, there’s a pretty good mix of compounds. To do something a little different with this section, this week I’m going to weave some of them into a bit of a sequence. But I’ll start with those that I didn’t fit into the sequence.

So, on line 1211 we find “breost-gewædu,” the Old English word for “corslet,” or “mailcoat,” either word being more or less interchangeable.

If we break “breost-gewædu” into it’s compounded words we’re left with “breost” (meaning “breast,” “bosom,” “stomach,” “womb,” “mind,” “thought,” or “disposition”) and “gewædu” (meaning “robe,” “dress,” “apparel,” “clothing,” “garment,” or “covering”). Since a this kind of armour covers the breast primarily, it makes sense that it’d be called a “breast robe,” though that’s a bit silly to say.

Then, on line 1214 we have “hreaa-wic” meaning “place of corpses.” This word is a compounding of “hræw” (“living body” “corpse,” “carcase,” or “carrion”) and “wic” (“dwelling place,” “lodging,” “habitation,” “house,” “mansion,” “village,” or “town,”). So it literally means “corpse dwelling place,” an apt name for a battle field, especially one on which battle has involved “guðsceare.”

The word “guðsceare” means simply “slaughter in battle.” But, looking at the words that combine to make this term fleshes it out (if you will).

With “guð” meaning “combat,” “battle,” or “war” and “sceare” meaning “shearing,” “shaving,” or “tonsure,” the word “guðsceare” seems like it’s expressing an idea similar to the Modern English idiom “to be mowed down.” It sounds very much like the word refers to a battle in which one side wasn’t just beaten, but they were absolutely trounced.

In such a battle as that, you’d definitely want to be something more than a warrior, perhaps one who fought with the might and audacity of two warriors? You might say, then, that you’d want to be a “wig-frecan.”

Line 1212’s “wig-frecan” simply means “warrior.” But, coming from a compounding of “wig” (“strife,” “contest,” “war,” “battle,” “valour,” “military force,” “army,” “idol,” or “image”) and “frecan” (“warrior,” or “hero”), it’s clear that this is one of Old English’s doubling or intensifying compounds. After all a “strife warrior” could just be a specialized fighter, but really it’s redundant.

What makes “wiig-frecan” cooler than the compounds that come before it in this entry though, is “wig”‘s possible meaning of “idol,” or “image.” I can’t back up this bit of speculation with any solid evidence, but this interpretation of “wig” leaves me wondering if its “idol” or “image” senses refer to “wig” being used as a shorthand for the eagles that the Roman army used as their sacred standards.

Those standards were often quite plain aside from the eagle at their top, but that’s probably for the better. If they’d had any precious stones — or “eorclan-stanas” — the Anglo-Saxons would’ve likely wanted to steal them more than fear them or associate them with strife and war.

Speaking of, though, the compound “eorclan-stanas” (from line 1208) combines “eorclan” (“chest,” “coffer,” or “ark”) and “stan” (“stone,” “rock,” “gem,” “calculus,” or “milestone”). This compound word’s neatness comes from its communicating its meaning not through just calling the stones “shiny” or “valuable” but making clear that these are stones worthy of being put into a chest or ark — they’re the sorts of things you want to keep protected and therefore, must be precious.

So you definitely wouldn’t want to have any “eorclan-stanas” on you if you were facing “guðsceare,” since those stones would likely become “wæl-reaf”. This word combines “wæl” (“slaughter,” “carnage”) and “reaf” (“plunder,” “booty,” “spoil,” “garment,” “armour,” or “vestment”) to mean “spoil from the slain,” or “act of spoiling the slain.” Which just makes sense since it’s a mix of words meaning “slaughter” and “booty.” I just wonder how the Anglo-Saxons would feel about item drops in modern day RPGs.

What’s you’re favourite of this week’s words? “Wig-frecan” is definitely mine.

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Closing

Next week Wealhtheow wishes Beowulf well, and makes a special request of him.

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