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

Back To Top
Synopsis

Beowulf says that if he dies, Hrothgar is to send his treasure to Hygelac, and Unferth will get his sword.

Back To Top
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)

Back To Top
Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

Back To Top
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!

Back To Top
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)

Back To Top
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.

Back To Top

Advertisements

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.

Back To Top
Synopsis

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

Back To Top
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)

Back To Top
Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

Back To Top
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?

Back To Top
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.”

Back To Top
Closing

Next week: Beowulf’s reply!

Back To Top

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.

Back To Top
Synopsis

Hrothgar laments the continuation of his feud with the Grendels.

Back To Top
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)

Back To Top
Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

Back To Top
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?

Back To Top
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.

Back To Top
Closing

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

Back To Top

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

Back To Top
Abstract

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

Back To Top
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)

Back To Top
Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

Back To Top
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.

Back To Top
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”?

Back To Top
Closing

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

Back To Top

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

Back To Top
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.

Back To Top
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)

Back To Top
Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

Back To Top
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?

Back To Top
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.

Back To Top
Closing

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

Back To Top

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

Back To Top
Abstract

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

Back To Top
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)

Back To Top
Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

Back To Top
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?

Back To Top
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?

Back To Top
Closing

Next week the history of the torc continues!

Back To Top

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

Back To Top
Abstract

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

Back To Top
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)

Back To Top
Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

Back To Top
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?

Back To Top
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”?

Back To Top
Closing

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

Back To Top