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.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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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.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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A tale of a torc (pt.1) and strangely simple compounds (ll.1192-1201)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Every Torc’s got a Story
Straight Ahead Compounds until the End
Closing

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Abstract

Wealhtheow brings generous words to Beowulf, along with generous gifts of golden garments.

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Translation

“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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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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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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Closing

Next week the history of the torc continues!

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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The difference between a son and a sword, functional and fantastical compound words (Beowulf ll.1020-1029)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Hrothgar as Son or as Sword
Four Functional Compounds, One That’s Nuanced
Closing

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Abstract

Beowulf is given four gifts and the poet says that he’d never seen or heard of anyone receiving such gifts ever before.

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Translation

“Then to Beowulf the sword of Halfdane
gave as reward a golden banner of victory,
an ornamented battle banner, helm and byrnie;
a famed treasure sword that many in prior times
had seen a hero use. Beowulf became very
feted on that floor; he felt no need there
to be ashamed for the largesse shown before the warriors.
Never have I heard of a friendlier gift
of four gold-adorned treasures from
such a great man in any other ale hall.”
(Beowulf ll.1020-1029)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Hrothgar as Son or as Sword

Some of you probably think that all of these commentaries making mountains out of molehills. The tiny nuances of a language long dead can hardly hold any meaning that could possibly be relevant to today, and to try and draw meaning out of Beowulf is like trying to get water from a well that’s been dry for years.

But poetry is poetry. When it’s read all the meaning packed into it comes out. Old poetry’s just in need of a few drops of water to restore it, like something dried out to preserve it. And this entry’s passage practically makes its own sauce once you’ve added a few drops of water. Because this entry’s passage is the site of a decades long controversy.

In line 1020, we’re told that “the sword of Halfdane” (“brand Healfdenes”) is the person who gives Beowulf the gifts featured in this passage. Or is it “the son of Halfdane” (“bearn Healfdenes”)? Seamus Heaney’s text (published in 2001) uses the latter reading of the original manuscript, while C.L. Wrenn’s somewhat older version (published in 1958) goes with the former.

Now, I’m not about to dive into a mess of orthography and manuscript analysis because I don’t think I’m qualified to do so after so much time away from formal academia. But I am going to point out one major thing about this discrepancy.

It’s a small detail, but whether the poem refers to Hrothgar as “the sword of Halfdane” or “the son of Halfdane” makes a big difference in the matter of the passage’s tone.

As the word “feoh-gift” (which I’ve translated as “largesse” (l.1026)) signifies, this is a very important giving of gifts since there’s a sense of a strong bond being formed (akin to marriage – then still primarily a business/financial matter more than one of love, so there’s a sense of legality, or formality here). But whether it’s “the son of Halfdane” — his heir and descendant — doing the giving or “the sword of Halfdane” — his general and foremost warrior — tells us about the nature of that bond. I think. If we take the reference to be to Hrothgar’s being the son of Halfdane, then the bond seems much more familial, as if Beowulf is being welcomed into the family of Hrothgar, whatever that might involve. At the very least, you’d think that a family would be closer than something like a war chief’s comitatus.

Also, if you read the reference to Hrothgar as “the son of Halfdane,” then the bond the gifts signify seems to be more one of strengthened trust than anything else. Beowulf was entrusted with the hall — was legally made its owner — over the course of the night and he handled it well. So he’s proven that he can measure up to his word, and as such can be trusted.

But, if Hrothgar is supposed to be the sword of Halfdane here, then it paints the giving and the bond that comes with it as something that’s much more martial. Hrothgar could be seen as one making a political alliance with a figure that has proven himself strong beyond belief and definitely a force that you wouldn’t want to face in battle. So the four gifts given by the sword of Halfdane become the basis of an alliance of Beowulf (and by extension, the Geats) with Hrothgar. Perhaps this bond is even a continuation or renewal of the older man’s relationship with Beowulf’s father.

Actually, these two readings leave us with a kind of dichotomy. On the one hand the martial alliance is made perhaps out of fear or calculation, while on the other the familial bond comes from something more personal and made out of respect and trust.

Figuring this out would be much easier, I think, if the “jewelled sword” of line 1023 were a little more specific. At least in so far as it’s the most described treasure, so if we knew if it was practical or just decorative could lend itself to either reading.

Given what Beowulf’s done for the Danes up to now, which do you think makes more sense – Hrothgar bringing Beowulf into the family, or Hrothgar making a more formal political alliance with Beowulf and the Geats?

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Four Functional Compounds, One That’s Nuanced

One of the things that makes poetry interesting is variety. Whatever the frequency of compound words might mean, Beowulf just wouldn’t be as interesting if there was a very obvious pattern to them; like if the poet always used complex compounds while characters like Beowulf and Hrothgar only did so while boasting. This passage spoken by the poet keeps the use of compounds fresh since it’s got a mix in it that leans more to the simpler side.

First up is line 1022’s “hilde-cumbor,” a “war banner” and one of the gifts given to Beowulf. This compound is a straight up combination of the words “hilde” (“war,” or “combat”) and “cumbor” (“sign,” “standard,” or “banner”) that means exactly that: a “war banner.” Not much to say here since this is very much a compound of function.

Once again, the poet throws words together simply because the poet can on line 1023. The word “maðþum-sweord” is another compound of function since its meaning of “costly sword,” or “ornate sword” comes pretty directly from the combination of “maðm” (“treasure,” “object of value,” “jewel,” “ornament,” or “gift”) and “sweord” (“sword”). Now, which of the meanings of “maðm” you go with can determine the sort of import of the sword in question, but there’s not a lot of wiggle room in interpreting this word. Maybe reading this compound as referring to a “gift” sword is the same as considering it a “jewelled sword” or a “treasure sword.” After all, praiseworthy gifts are often decked out.

Now, line 1026’s “feoh-gift” is where this passage’s words get interesting. On its own, the word “feoh” means “cattle,” “herd,” “movable goods,” “property,” “money,” “riches,” or “treasure,” and the word “gift” means “gift,” “portion,” “marriage,” “gift,” “dowry,” “nuptials,” or “marriage.” So this compound definitely refers to a very valuable gift, but the heavy implication of a bond as strong as marriage makes anything called a “feoh-gift” more than just trinkets exchanged because of a job well one. These gifts are meant to seal a bond between Hrothgar and Beowulf, to somehow ally them. So this word is quite well chosen.

Then line 1029 sends us right back to the obvious compounds with “gum-manna.” Both “gum” and “man” mean “man” and so “gum-manna” means “man.”

But, given the word’s context, the poet uses “gum-manna” to suggest that these men are exemplary. That they’re shining examples of what a man should be. That’s the sort of emphasis that word doubling usually lays on a thing in Old English, after all.

Which brings us around to a compound that’s neat for unexpected reasons. This is 1029’s “ealo-benc,” meaning “ale bench.” This compound, unsurprisingly, comes from combining the words “ealu” (“ale,” or “beer”) and “benc” (“bench”) together. What makes it neat, though is that the poet hangs quite a bit of meaning on this word. Either the poet’s using a single ale bench as a metonymy for all halls everywhere, or the poet’s getting super specific and saying that he’s never heard of anything like this happening on any ale bench – ever.

Which do you find more interesting, practical compounds like “hilde-cumbor” or more nuanced ones like “feoh-gift”?

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Closing

In the next entry, the gift giving continues as Hrothgar hands over some more gear and a few horses.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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Beowulf gets introspective, even plain words can be lovely (ll.884b-897)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Myth on Myth
Passing Judgement on Words
Closing

Beowulf, Old English, translation, poetry

Beowulf fighting the dragon. There are striking similarities between this fight and Sigemund’s. Image found at https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/6f/Beowulf_and_the_dragon.jpg.

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Abstract

The poet in the poem sings of Sigemund defeating the dragon alone and winning its treasures.

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Translation

“Sigemund’s fame saw
no small surge after his death day,
after ward in cruel combat he killed the dragon,
the hoard’s guardian. Under the grey stone,
the nobleman’s son, alone he dared to do
the dangerous deed; Fitela was not with him then;
without that comrade, he plunged his sword through
the wondrous wyrm, so that it stuck in the wall,
that lordly iron; the dragon died its death.
His courage over the foe won him its treasure fully,
so that he the ring hoards had to give
as he saw fit; a boat they loaded,
they bore in the ship’s bosom bright treasures,
Waels’ son; the hot wyrm melted.”
(Beowulf ll.884b-897)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Myth on Myth

We’ve got another simple, straightforward type passage here. Though it begs an important question: what’s the story of Sigemund doing here? It’s something that the poet on horseback has conjured up out of his knowledge of the hero, and there are definitely analogues to Beowulf. Though these analogues are really only present if you’re already familiar with Beowulf. Otherwise, all of the talk of Sigemund fighting the dragon and winning is just foreshadowing. Weirdly, though, the exact phrase “under the grey stone” (“under harne stan” (l.887)) comes up when Beowulf faces the dragon in the last third of Beowulf. Anyway, I think what’s going on here with the analogues to Beowulf — his slaying a dragon, driving the sword through a dragon who guarded a bunch of treasure,and the dragon being liquid in some way — is a bit of play with the nature of myth and legend.

Where Sigemund beats the dragon and lives, Beowulf beats his dragon but dies in the process. Nonetheless, as spoils Beowulf gains control over the dragon’s hoard much like Sigemunde does. Though this control passes from Beowulf to his own Fitela figure: Wiglaf. These twists on the events of the Sigemunde story — Beowulf’s death, his Fitela being with him — I think are the poet trying to make the myth of Beowulf more realistic. Maybe it’s even the product of an imagination that knew that the age of deathless heroes who earned great glory forever was past. So, perhaps with Sigemund foreshadowing or contrasting with Beowulf the poet is trying to make sense of what a mythic figure might look like in a world with a new religious system that overturned much of what went before and in an era in which law and order were starting to centralize. Heroes were still needed in this new world, they were still craved, but the shifting realities of the Anglo-Saxons (or maybe their blending Germanic, Roman, and Celtic traditions and ideas into a single culture) forced them to create a hero who followed the mythic formula of fighting a dragon and triumphing, but whose glorious victory cost him his life. The point perhaps being: “glory comes at a great cost these days. Be wary of glory.”

It’s also interesting that when the ring hoard of the dragon comes into Sigemund’s possession it’s not a cause for celebration because he has the treasure for himself. Instead, it’s a great event because Sigemund’s able to spread the wealth among his closest relations. Beowulf also celebrates the gain of the treasure not as a personal victory but as one for his people.

How much do you think is going on with this story of Sigemund? Is it here because the poet’s trying to say something about heroes? Or just something sung while the people of Heorot rejoice?

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Passing Judgement on Words

I’m starting to wonder if the language of the poem is getting simpler as this other poet sings because of how the actual poet wants this in-tale poet to look. If the actual poet of Beowulf is trying to put his all into it, then there can’t be a poet in the story who’s use of language is more complex or descriptive, right?

Anyway, the simplicity of the language throughout this section means that there aren’t many compound words. And generally when there are, they’re pretty simple.

The word “beah-hordes” meaning “ring hoard” is the only compound of note in the passage for this entry. It’s a combination of the word “beah” (meaning “ring,” “coil,” “bracelet,” “collar,” “crown,” or “garland”) and “hord” (meaning “hoard,” or “treasure”). And that’s really all there is to it. Combining these two words really does nothing more than specify the kinds of rings that you’re dealing with. Not much more fantastical stuff beyond that, really.

But, there are two words in the passage for this entry that do offer a little more. Even if they’re perfectly normal, singular words.

The first of these is “dōm” a word meaning “doom,” “judgement,” “ordeal,” “sentence,” “decree,” “law,” “ordinance,” “custom,” “justice,” “equity,” “opinion,” “advice,” “choice,” “option,” “free will,” “condition” “authority,” “supremacy,” “majesty,” “power,” “might,” “reputation,” “dignity,” “glory,” “honour,” “splendour,” “court,” “tribunal,” “assembly,” “meaning,” or “interpretation.”

What makes “dōm” stand out is that in the context of the passage it means “glory” or “reputation,” meanings that are kind of a ways down the list. But even so, it’s not an interesting word because its in-context meaning is low on its list of meanings. The word itself seems to really express what underpins reputation, and therefore fame, in a very neutral way.

Judgement underlies fame, after all. And, weirdly, in Modern English the connotations have shifted, since to us “fame” generally seems like a good thing while “judgement” feels like it’s the face of a beast called guilt. Maybe there’s something to say here about the perceptions of judgement and the cultural influence of Christianity, a religion promising judgement with eternal consequences.

But in Old English, the sense of “dōm” meaning judgement and its forms and offshoots is much more neutral. Simply put, you need to be judged to have a reputation or fame, so “dōm” covers a lot of this area of meaning. Maybe because it also seems to be a general sort of word. It’s used as it is here to mean” reputation or “fame” and it’s used elsewhere to refer to divine judgement and elsewhere still to refer to the day the world ends in judgement (so I guess its appearances in Old English are soaked in Christianity, too). But maybe more than anything it all just comes from the Old English “dōm” being narrowly cognate with our own “doom,” a much much more streamlined term for having been judged and found wanting, or for hopeless consequences.

The other weird word in this passage is much lighter. In line 887, the poet describes the dragon as the “hierde” of his hoard of treasure. The use for the sake of alliteration here is supremely obvious, but I still find it neat that the word for “shepherd,” “herdsman,” “guardian,” “keeper,” or “pastor” could be stretched in this way.

A “guardian” makes sense in reference to gold, as does a “keeper.” But what about the sense of guidance in “shepherd,” “herdsman,” and “pastor”? How could you guide a hoard of treasure, especially if you weren’t sharing or spending it, but just sitting on it as dragons do? Maybe there’s a bit of foreshadowing in this sense of the word, or even a judgement passed on the dragon, since when Sigemund becomes master of the treasure he does much more to guide it into the hands of his people. There’s a Christ analogy here, too, with the dragon as Satan or a pre-Christian deity, while Sigemund, going it alone under the grey stone (itself perhaps a reference to Jesus going into the sealed tomb after the crucifixion, or even a reference to the harrowing of hell) is the Christ figure and the treasure is salvation, which Sigemund gives freely.

Old English words have a lot of different shades of meaning to them. Do you think the same is still true with Modern English, or, as English has changed over the years its vocabulary has become specialized?

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Closing

In the next passage, we hear how Sigemund’s victory affected his home and old king Heremod’s court.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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Speculation along the way to Heorot (ll.301-311) [Old English]

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Gold as guardian
Of ships and mothers
Closing

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Abstract

The coastguard leads Beowulf and his entourage to Heorot.

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Translation

“They went upon their way. The boat was bound,
the capacious craft tethered with cord,
secure at anchor. Boar-shapes shone
atop their cheek guards; ornamented gold,
glistening and firmament firm, securely held life:
war-hearted grim men. They all hurried onward,
going down together, until from that high hall of a building,
ornamented and gold-dappled for all to see
that it was foremost among humanity of all
the buildings beneath heaven, the ruler called for them;
light of the people over so great a land.”
(Beowulf ll.301-311)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Gold as guardian

Gold is pretty prevalent in this passage. It’d be easy just to dismiss the metal’s shining presence in the Geats’ helmets and on Heorot as indicators of wealth and prestige, but I think there’s more to it than that. Of course.

In both of these instances I think that the gold is present in the helmet and the hall as a ward against harm. Or maybe as an outward show of the value of the people under the helmets and in the hall.

Putting a monetary value on a life or a major injury isn’t something modern. The Anglo-Saxons had a law covering the same thing that required the perpetrator to pay their victim (or, in the case of murder, the victim’s next of kin) a fee called “wergild.” The major purpose of this fee was to stem the outbreak of feuds and to bring disparate groups together into a group that extended beyond family ties.

It’s a bit broad, but literally translated, “wergild” becomes “man price.”

This is where this theory gets a little crazy, mostly because of timing issues. If the concept of we-gild had been around for a few generations before Beowulf was put together/originally written, then what would stop payments from becoming a preventative measure? Once it was so established, it’s not much further to get to a point where the association of gold with prevention of harm takes on a magical or superstitious flavour.

With such perception of gold as a protective metal in the culture, it would make good sense for it to adorn helmet and horn alike. Thus, pointing out the gold in the helmets and in Heorot’s exterior firmly establishes the protective properties of both.

However, in this passage, I think that a contrast is implied.

If gold is a metal that the Anglo-Saxons of Beowulf’s time believed to have protective properties then it’s already clear to the audience that it hasn’t worked so well for Heorot. The mention of gold being in the Geats’ helmets, then, calls into question just how effective they’ll be in guarding their lives. It’s also possible to read the failure of Heorot’s golden exterior as evidence for Grendel’s chaotic influence. His presence as a kin of Cain causes the proper function of gold to cease.

If all of this rang true for the poem’s original audience, then it’s hard to believe how much more anticipation there would have been for the fight once Beowulf reveals that he’ll faced Grendel completely unarmed. Heck, you could even say that if all this is true and Grendel’s power to negate weapons extends to negating the protective properties of gold, then Beowulf’s facing him with his bare hands alone evens the field all the more.

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Of ships and mothers

“Capacious” of line 302 is, in Old English, “wide-bosomed,” or “sidfæþmed.”

While a modern interpretation of “wide-bosomed” might be simply “large breasted,” the two definitions of “sidfæþmed” suggest that the Anglo-Saxons regarded it as more a matter of volume than size. Considering that all children of the period were nursed, this is hardly surprising. The greater capacity a mother had for milk the more nourishment her child would get, giving that child a better chance to make it through childhood and come into healthy adolescence.

How that relates to a ship is beyond me, except for the idea that travelling in comfort is better than travelling in a cramped space. Plus, a boat with some room would make rowing much easier. Easier rowing means faster travel. So a capacious boat is definitely optimal.

Getting back to this passage in particular, what can be made of the repeat mentions of Beowulf’s boat being securely tethered?

Running with the connection between mothers and boats via “sidfæþmed,” and taking along for the jog the tradition of referring to boats with feminine pronouns, Beowulf’s boat could be regarded as his anima being securely left behind, enabling him to act without sentiment, if necessary. If you want to take the Jungian tack.

Much more straightforward is the interpretation that Beowulf’s ship is his only means of getting him back to his homeland. As such, its security is of the utmost importance.

Or, it could symbolize his identity as a true Geat. If he had no way of getting back home, his liege Hygelac could think him dead or gone native, erasing his status as outsider among the Danes and making him a quasi-exile.

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Closing

Next week, the coastguard takes the Geats to Heorot’s doors and then takes his leave.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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Heorot’s rise and fall (ll.74-85) [Old English]

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Self sabotage and suspense
Heorot and Hubris
Closing

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Abstract

Heorot is raised, named, and has its end prophesied.

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Translation

Then heard I that work a summons went widely,
to many peoples from throughout this earth,
to adorn that dwelling place. After their first meeting,
immediately amidst those assembled, it was made ready,
the greatest of all halls; the poets named it Heorot,
he whose word has widespread influence.
That boast did not lie, rings were doled out,
a continuous treasure flow. That hall rose high,
towering and wide-gabled, made to resist fierce fire,
loathe of lightning; yet it was not as such for long,
since woken sword-hate would later swallow it
after war broke out between son in law and father in law.
(Beowulf ll.74-85)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Self sabotage and suspense

For an epic poem, Beowulf has some moments where it seems to sabotage its own scope. At least on the surface. This excerpt is a prime example of such apparent sabotage, as it takes the grand idea of the world’s greatest mead hall and condenses its history into just over 10 lines.

But there’s some purpose behind doing things this way.

In speaking of the end of Heorot, the poet gives it a finite existence. On the one hand doing so could be the poetical version of the mistakes that artisans would make in their intricate weavings and carvings so as to not offend what they believed to be god’s perfect creation. On the other, it lets readers know that Heorot will not be destroyed until the time that is appointed.

To the poem’s original audience (maybe even in its written version) the reference to a feud erupting between father in law and son in law could actually be meaningful; including this detail could root this story further in history. The poet alludes to something real and gives it enough detail to frame it as the real thing. Then he is free to embellish Heorot’s history with the wild story of Beowulf and Grendel.

From a purely narrative standpoint, delineating Heorot’s existence like this also lets the reader know that Grendel isn’t the one to destroy Heorot. Once more, on the surface this seems like self sabotage. However, this moment in the poem doesn’t undercut the suspense of Beowulf’s struggle with Grendel, it strengthens it. An attentive reader knows that Beowulf must succeed for Heorot to survive to be destroyed in the manner described here. What generates much of the suspense during the lead up to and during his fight with Grendel is the question of how he does it.

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Heorot and Hubris

Continuing in that vein, Heorot sounds like a classic embodiment of hubris. Not only is it a grand building where great treasures are doled out, it’s also built “to resist fierce fire,/loathe of lightning” (“heaðowylma bad,/laðan liges” (ll.82-83)). Its very construction is supposed to negate the natural things that are the banes of other buildings. So it sounds like something that by its nature is calling down the anger of the gods.

Yet, aside from drawing it out of a classically informed narrative analysis placed onto the poem, it’s hard to tell if the Anglo-Saxons themselves saw things this way. This sense of hubris that I’m pulling out of the poem could even be a subtle insertion on the part of the Christian scribe who put Beowulf to paper, something to show the wrong-headedness of the Anglo-Saxons before the missions came and all of that.

Regardless, Heorot’s description is definitely something over the top. And if that’s something that calls down the attention of the gods, then maybe it would foreshadow some sort of supernatural intervention for the poem’s early audiences. Perhaps then, the reference to the hall’s being destroyed in a feud is meant to turn readers’ suspicions away from the supernatural. Grendel still has to be introduced, after all.

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Closing

Next week, in fact, Grendel gets introduced. And the context of this introduction sets up quite the contrast.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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Gilding the greats (ll.43-52) [Old English]

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Homeward bound Scyld?
Imposing a word and why
Closing

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Abstract

Scyld is sent off with his boat of treasure as his living comrades are plagued by heavy hearts.

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Translation

“By no means did they leave a lack of gifts,
treasures of the people, when that was done,
when they sent him forth to his origin,
for he was one who came over the waves as a child.
Then they established a golden sign for him
high overhead, they let the waves bear him,
their gift to the raging ocean; they were
sorrowful at heart, mourning souls. Men cannot
say for certain, hall rulers,
heroes under heaven, who that horde discovered.”
(Beowulf ll.43-52)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Homeward bound Scyld?

Initially, it’s tempting to say that the first sentence of this excerpt is very familiar. Not in that everyone sends their dead out to sea laden with treasure, but in that ‘going to see your maker’ is a fairly popular euphemism for death. However, as the sentence ends we get an extra layer is added to Scyld’s story.

Like so many other “chosen heroes” (or figures like them), it’s revealed that Scyld’s origins are shrouded in mystery. On one hand this is definitely a trope, but considering the patriarchal society in which Beowulf was composed/sung, it’s also a curious quality in a great leader.

If there’s one thing that’s important in Anglo-Saxon society it’s a person’s connection to their lineage and heritage. Later in the poem, when Beowulf appears before Hrothgar, there’s no question that Hrothgar’s helping Beowulf’s father in the past goes far in getting Hrothgar to feel secure in entrusting Heorot to the travelling Geat. Scyld’s lack of any connection, since he’s an orphan from across the sea, makes his rise to power all the more impressive.

Though, it’s not out outlandish to guess that having no earthly origin might have as much clout as regal or warrior origins would. After all, a leader’s story and reputation could be as powerful as any army – having such mysterious origins could only bolster such power. So long as they were properly maintained.

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Imposing a word and why

Though there’s no connection between the hoard sent out with Scylde and that of the dragon later in the poem, I’ve chosen to suggest one. This centers around the word “hlæste” (l.52).

Commonly, this word means “burden,” “load,” or “freight,” but I went with “hoard.” It’s true that the treasure is the boat’s freight, with the implication that Scyld is as much a treasure as the glittering armour or piled gold, but “hoard” doesn’t subtract from this implication. Thus, it’s a variant translation, but still a valid one.

For, using “hoard” associates Scyld with the treasure that has been sent off in the same way as the more common translations of “hlæste.” It’s possible that Anglo-Saxons might regard “hoard” as more negative in its connotations, though. Hoarding treasure means that it isn’t shared, and unshared treasure is more often than not the undoing of a ruler.

Actually, this raises a curious point. In the person of Scyld literal treasure and a valued figure are joined into one thing; both of them become regarded as treasure. Then, later in the poem, we get the stories of Heremod (who hoarded his treasure, much to the dissatisfaction of his thanes), and of Modthryth (who hoarded her beauty to herself, and punished men simply for looking at her). So, after a great person has been gilded we then see examples of the extreme opposites – a man who refuses to share his treasure in an expected way and a woman who refuses to share her person in an expected way (as skeezy as that might sound).

This establishing of the true value of a great man and then its deconstruction makes for a grand set up for the end of the poem. After all, the tension between valued figures and valued things is resolved in Beowulf’s death and funeral.

Like Scyld he is buried with a great deal of treasure, and like Scyld he is a greatly valued figure among his people. The major difference – Beowulf’s being buried rather than set off to sea – does two things. It gives closure for the poem, but it’s a much more definitive kind of closure since Beowulf returns to the dust of his home rather than mere dust in general.

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Closing

Next week, the focus returns to Beow, and we hear the first mention of Hrothgar.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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A funeral ship and far foreign lands (ll.32-42) [Old English]

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
The matter of the treasure ship
Far away may as well be undiscovered
Closing

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Abstract

Scyld’s funeral procession and the description of his final ship feature this week.

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Translation

“There at the landing place stood a ring-prowed ship
icy and eager to start, ready for that nobleman’s passage;
the dear lords lead him to
the brightly ringed wealth ship,
treasure filled it to the mast; there was plentiful loot
from foreign lands, booty, loaded into it.
Never heard I of a more splendidly adorned ship
war-ready and armoured,
blade and byrnie; upon his lap was lain
a multifarious fortune, among which
he was to go to far foreign lands.”
(Beowulf ll.32-42)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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The matter of the treasure ship

Scyld’s ship would make a cracking archaeological find. All of that treasure, some of which coming from foreign lands, would have so much to say about the range of the early medieval Danes (and maybe Anglo-Saxons?).

Outside of such a find, though, the big thing here is that the ship is characterized as “icy” (“isig” l.33).

What would the use of an icy ship be?

Would it more effectively cut through the water?

Or is it supposed to mean that it’s an old ship, one that’s been so covered with hoarfrost from travelling in the chill north that it’s become discoloured? Maybe barnacled?

The safest bet is that it’s an old ship. It’d be one thing to use a new one for a Viking burial, but it’d be something else entirely to use a new ship and to laden it with so much treasure.

Speaking of which, aside from the immense wealth on board, the time is taken to mention that the ship is “war-ready and armoured” (“hildewæpnum ond heaðowædum” l.39). Beliefs in some sort of struggle that one must go through to get to the afterlife are fairly common around this time, and they may have coupled with ideas traditionally ascribed to the Norse. Particularly, I refer to the Norse idea that only those who go to death armed will be able to join the ranks of Valhalla. Perhaps there’s also some of the Celtic belief that the afterlife is another life similar to the one in which readers of this entry find themselves.

Whatever the case, Scyld could very easily buy a king out of ransom, and fend off a horde of demons on his way to the “far foreign lands” (“æht feor” l.42).

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Far away may as well be undiscovered

Is the “far foreign land” of line 42 a predecessor to Shakespeare’s “he undiscover’d country” (from 3.i.81)? Outside of going into a lengthy historical/literary analysis, let’s just look at the two lines within the context of internet writing.

One tips for writing for the internet found in many books/articles/heads of experts is to use Anglo-Saxon words, rather than Latinate or Greek-derived words. It’s supposed to be best to use words that have been in English since the days of the Beowulf bard(s). Keeping this in mind, and remembering that the key here is simplicity maintaining itself throughout history, “the foreign country” as a euphemism for death should have some staying power.

After all, in the days when travel between points was difficult and most people stayed where they were born, anything outside of the village and its surroundings would seem distant and hard to reach. This difficulty of travelling abroad persisted from the time of Beowulf‘s composition (whether you peg it in the 7th or 11th century), to the time of Shakespeare (despite theories about his own wide travelling). With travel abroad being so difficult, round trips were even more so, and thus travelling to a “far foreign” land would mean a person may as well be dead – or vice versa.

Thus, though Shakespeare probably never read Beowulf, the sentiment of his “undiscover’d country,” and of Beowulf’s “far foreign land” is undoubtedly the same.

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Closing

That’s it for this week. Recordings continue to be delayed, in fact, at this point the “Recording” section of each entry will continue to be included, but they will be filled only when I can find the time.

Next week, we get into part two of Scyld’s funeral, in which his body and its adornments are described.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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Back to the Beginning of the Woven Ring (ll.1-11) [Old English]

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
A Turn of Fate
Setting a Tight Sequential Tone
Closing

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Abstract

The poem begins on a rollicking note, as the poet recalls the glory of Scyld Scefing.

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Translation

“What! We Spear-Danes had heard in days of yore
of the power of the king of a people,
how heroes accomplished valorous deeds.
Often did Scyld Scefing take away
the mead benches from troops of enemies,
terrified the Erola, afterwards that first was found
to become destitute; for that he experienced solace
grew up under a cloud, his honour prospered,
until each surrounding people from over
the whale road paid obeisance,
gave tribute: that was a good king!”
(Beowulf ll.1-11)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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A Turn of Fate

Right in the middle of this excerpt, there’s a marked turn.

The poet notes that “the first was found/to become destitute” (“Syððan ærest wearð/feasceaft funden” (ll.6-7)). Rather than just saying that Scyld Scefing became prosperous, the time is taken to note that the powerful that he tore down were torn down before his rise is solidly mentioned in line 7.

This sequencing of events underlines, very early on, the importance of sequence in the Anglo-Saxon world. It also gives some insight into kingship and the belief in something like fortune’s wheel. Only one person can be a powerful king at any given time, and only on can be on the top of the wheel in any given arena at one time. It just so happened that Scyld was at the top of both at the same time.

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Setting a Tight Sequential Tone

That the poet makes a note of this power shift also sets the tone of the poem. It will be a story of changing fortunes, but it will be one in which there is no vacuum left for things to be pulled into. There will always be some definite succession of events, something will always happen at the end of something else.

Already, we’ve seen this in the death of Beowulf. The Geats lost a leader, and they will definitely be wiped out since they have none to replace Beowulf. Meanwhile the surrounding tribes will shortly be upon them.

In a sense, the open-endedness that we are left with at the end of the poem promises something that may have been considered a fate worse than death: exile. Scyld might have stolen mead benches, what people would recline on while enjoying themselves and socializing, but exile means that a person would have no mead bench at all – none to even win back.

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Closing

Next week, a batch of recordings will have been uploaded to this blog, and we’ll move onto Scefing’s further deeds.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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