Boasts and Beer-Drinking: Book VII – Book IX


Hrothgar spoke, protector of the Scyldings:

“For manly deeds you, friend of mine Beowulf,
and for our benefit, have you sought us.
Thy father fought his way into a terrible feud,
in time he killed Heatholaf with his own hand
while among the Wulfings. Thus he could not have
shelter with those kin for dread of war.
From thence he sought South Dane folk
over the surging waves, the Ar-Scyldings;
that was when I had just begun rule of the Danish people
and in youth governed this fierce empire,
walled and treasure-filled towns of warriors.
At that time was Heregar dead, my elder kinsmen left unliving,
son of Halfdane; alas, he was better than I!
Nonetheless, I settled your father’s feud with goods;
I sent to the Wulfings, over the water’s ridges,
old treasures; for that bold Ecgtheow swore oaths to me.
Yet it grieves me at heart to tell,
indeed, to any man, what affliction Grendel has wrought
on me and on Heorot amidst his hostile designs,
those spiteful attacks. Because of him my hall troop,
my band of warriors, is made thin; wyrd swept them
into Grendel’s terror. But God may easily
put an end to the deeds of that fell-destroyer!
Quite often ale-drunken threats
issued from warriors while belching over ale-cups,
that they would wait in the beer-hall
for Grendel’s onslaught with horrible swords raised high.
Yet when morning came to this mead hall,
this noble-hall was blood-stained, as day was lit,
all the bench space was smeared with blood,
the hall battle-bloodied. Then had I fewer loyal
dear men, death itself had carried them off.
Here and now, sit to our feast, and in the hall hear
of heroes’ glorious victories, as thine heart urges thee!”

At his final word, a space was cleared on a beer hall bench
for all the Geat men to sit together.
There the bold went to feast,
exulting in their strength. A thane bore them refreshment,
he who in hand bore the adorned ale cup,
he poured out the sweet brightness; the poet meanwhile sang
clear in Heorot. There were, as Hrothgar promised, songs of heroic joy
among the none too few noble warrior Danes and Geats.


Unferth spoke, son of Ecglaf,
he who sat at the foot of the Scylding lord.
That man unbound battle words, ready to halt Beowulf’s venture,
the deed of the courageous sea-farer, he bore the hero a great grudge,
for he would not allow that any other man
over all the earth and under heaven
could ever achieve fame to match his own:

“Are you the Beowulf, he who contended against Breca
on the wide sea in a swimming contest,
where you two for pride moved as you could
and for a foolish boast in the deep water
ventured your lives? No man whatever,
neither loved nor loathed, could dissuade you two
from that distressing journey, not even as you rowed out to sea.
Out there you two eagerly covered the waters with your arms,
traversing the sea-street, moving most quickly with your hands,
gliding over spear-like waves. Ocean ripples roiled,
the winter’s surge. You two on the waters
had toil for seven nights. He the flood overcame,
it had the greater strength, so that come the morning
the sea had carried him to the land of the Heatho-Reams.
Then he sought his dear father land
those dear to him, the land of the Brondings,
splendid strongholds against war, where he had folk,
fortress, and rings. So in truth the son of Beanstan
fully bested you by endurance in your bet with him.
As that is, I believe that you will have the worse outcome,
though thou hast thrived in combat everywhere,
bloody battle, if you will dare wait
nearly all the long night for Grendel.”

Beowulf spoke, son of Ecgtheow:

“Well, you are very much, my friend Unferth,
beer-drunken to be speaking of Breca,
telling of his victory! The truth as I reckon
is that I more swimming strength had,
endured more hardship on the waves, than any other man.
We two dared and bet with each other
since we were children — we two were then
yet in youth — that we two out on the spear-sea
would risk our lives, and so it happened.
We held our naked swords as we two rowed over the waves,
hardiness in hand. We two bore these blades against the whales,
thought to protect ourselves. Breca not at all far from me
could float on the ocean-flow,
being the swifter on the swell, I would not stray from him.
When we two together had been on the sea
for five nights’ time, then we drifted apart on the flood,
wading on the raging waves, in the coldest of weather,
the night darkened, and the north wind
blew battle-grim against us. Wild were the waves,
enraging the hearts of the sea-fish.
Then against the loathed creatures my corselet,
hard, hand-woven, was of great help,
the broad coat of mail that on my breast lay
gold adorned. Yet, in spite of that coat the hostile enemy
pulled me to the bottom, held fast
in its grim grip. I was yet given this mercy:
I could reach the fiend with sword-point,
my battle blade. In the war rush I seized the life
of the stalwart sea-deer with my own hand.”


Very often the vile enemy
vexed me violently; I stretched out to them
my dear sword, as was suitable.
They did not have much joy in that,
the evildoers, they that would have me served up at a feast like this,
they came to permanent seats in the sea-bed.
Come morning, with sword wounds
even more were laid upon the shore,
set to sleep by the sword, so that afterward none
near the steep ford could hinder
the seafarers’ course. Light of the east,
God’s bright beacon, rose. The sea abated
so that I the sea-cliff could see,
set my eyes upon the windy shore. Wyrd oft saves
the unmarked man, when his strength thrives.
However they confined me, I, with the sword, slew
nine sea-beasts. Never have I heard of any, for all my asking,
able to fight so hard beneath heaven’s vault by night,
nor of any man so miserable on the sea.
Yet I continued to survive the hostile distance,
weary of the journey. It was then that the sea bore me up,
the waters brought me to Finland,
borne on the sea of a foreign land. I from no man
have heard tell of you set in such strife,
darkened sword terror. Neither you nor Breca
have tales of such battle-play, neither of you two
have done sincerely such deeds
with the stained sword — nor do I mean to boast in this —
though you brought death to your own brother,
near blood relation; thus in hell shall you
suffer damnation, pain your tongue cannot untie.
I tell to you the truth, son of Ecglaf:
Grendel never could such a horror perpetuate,
that dire demon, over your people,
the humiliation of Heorot, were thy courage,
your heart, so fierce as you yourself says it is.
He has discovered that he need not greatly fear the vendetta,
the terrible thronging swords of your people,
slashings from the Victory-Scyldings.
After all, against that apostle of violence none arise
from among the Danish people, so he wars as he likes,
killing and feasting, prosecution he knows comes not
from the Spear-Danes. But I shall now surprise
him with the might and strength of the Geats,
bringing him battle. Afterward whomever wants to
go to mead shall and shall heartily, once the morning light
brings another day to humanity,
when the light-clad sun shall shine once more from the south.”

These words warmed the treasure-giver in his hall,
grey-haired and battle strong; consolation lived
for the ruler of the bright Danes, he heard in Beowulf
the guardian of a people’s steadfast hope.
There followed the laughter of men, the roar of singing,
words were joyful. Then came forth Wealhtheow,
Hrothgar’s queen, mindful of her king;
she greeted the gold-ornamented warriors in the hall,
and the freeborn woman quickly gave
first to the lord of the East-Danes’ realm;
told him to be blithe at the beer-drinking,
dear to the people. At that he turned more to
the feast and the hall-goblet, a king revelling in victory.
After that that Helming woman went about
to each section of the noble and the young,
she offered the costly vessel to each and every, until that time
that she, the ring adorned queen
of distinguished mind, bore the mead cup to Beowulf.
She greeted the Geatish man, thanked god
with wise words, that he her will fulfilled,
that she could find consolation in any living warrior
against her people’s plaguing sin. He partook of that cup,
the fierce fighter, offered from Wealhtheow,
and then sang the one ever ready for war,
Beowulf spoke, son of Ecgtheow:

“I thought upon that, as I came across the sea,
seated in the sea boat amidst the multitude of my men,
that I completely for your people
would work that will, or die in the slaughter,
held fast in the fiend’s fist. I shall perform
the lordly deed, or find the end
of all my days in this mead hall!”

That lady well liked those words,
the boast-speech of the Geat; then went gold-laden
the stately queen of her people to sit with her lord.
At last it was again as it had been in the hall,
brave words were spoken, people milled about beneath the roof,
the sounds of a victorious people, until in a short time
the son of Halfdane’s will turned to seeking his
evening rest. Knew he that the wretch
against that high hall planned attack,
after the sun’s light might be seen,
when then night had grown dark over all,
draped in shade-mail the shape would come stalking
under the waning heavens. All the throng arose.
Greeted the men each other then,
Hrothgar Beowulf, and to him wished health,
gave over rule of the drinking hall, and these words said:

“Never before have I to any man yielded up,
since I could raise my own hand, my own shield,
the noble house of the Danes but to you now.
Have now and hold this best of houses:
Have remembrance of fame, mighty valour’s seed,
be wakeful against the wrathful one! Thy desire shall not
lack if you survive this brave deed with your life.”

Want more Beowulf? Continue the poem here!

Beowulf and the Geats get ready for their costume change (ll.1799-1812)

The Original Old English
My Translation
A Quick Question

A scop sings his boasts, just like Beowulf does before Hrothgar.

Image found at

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Starting with this entry, this shorter format will be the standard for translation posts. If you’ve got any thoughts about this change, please drop them in the comments!

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Beowulf and the Geats get up to get down to business.

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The Original Old English

“Reste hine þa rumheort; reced hliuade
geap ond goldfah; gæst inne swæf
oþþæt hrefn blaca heofones wynne
bliðheort bodode. ða com beorht scacan
scaþan onetton,
wæron æþelingas eft to leodum
fuse to farenne; wolde feor þanon
cuma collenferhð ceoles neosan.
Heht þa se hearda Hrunting beran
sunu Ecglafes, heht his sweord niman,
leoflic iren; sægde him þæs leanes þanc,
cwæð, he þone guðwine godne tealde,
wigcræftigne, nales wordum log
meces ecge; þæt wæs modig secg.”
(Beowulf ll.1799-1812)

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My Translation

“Then he rested his great heart. The hall towered,
gabled and gold-chased; within the guests slept
until the black-plumed raven called out
heaven’s joy with a bright heart. Then came the shadow-shifting
morning light. The warriors hastened,
those nobles were eager to set out
for the lands of their own people; the strangers, bold in spirit,
sought out the prow of their ship.
Beowulf then commanded that hard Hrunting
be born to Ecglaf’s son, ordered that the man be given his sword,
that dear iron; he said his thanks to him for that gift,
went on with wise words, to say it was a good war-friend,
a powerful battle companion, not a word was breathed
against the blade’s edge: all was said sincerely.”
(Beowulf ll.1799-1812)

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A Quick Question

The quiet moment that I noted in last week’s translation continues in this week’s. This is definitely a part of the poem that seems not only more reflective than previous sections where the poet took the reins and was just describing what people were doing, but it also feels very much like connective tissue.

But beyond being easily classified with a literary label, I think that this passage does a great job of capturing that feeling that always comes over me as a trip is coming to an end.

Whether it’s something as common as the last day of visiting with family before heading back to work, or as singular as my final day in South Korea before returning to Canada, the poet captures that feeling of moving on. In particular, I think the poet manages this by skimming over certain details — the raven’s calling to the morning, Beowulf and his crew’s getting up to search for their ship, and Beowulf’s returning Hrunting to Unferth.

I think that the poet does this through moving through images fairly quickly. We’re given two lines about the hall and its inhabitants, two about the raven, two about the Geats’ eagerness, two about their search for the ship, and then only six on Beowulf returning Hrunting to Unferth.

Although it’s the longest in this passage, I think that the image of Beowulf returning Hrunting to Unferth is also the most laden with meaning. Hrunting was a gift, but it didn’t help him, and yet to maintain the honour of himself while also propping up Unferth’s reputation it’s Beowulf’s responsibility to give the sword (and thus the giver) sincere praise.

In capturing the transition in this way, I think that they really speak to that sensation of shifting from one setting with all of its social connections, familiar elements, and expectations to another. It’s like changing costumes and feeling that character leave you as take off their clothes and feel yourself become the next character as you don their get-up.

But, what does this passage evoke for you? Does it feel like a transition from one major event to another, or is there some special meaning inherent here that I’m missing? Let me know in the comments!

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Next week, Beowulf begins his farewell address to the Danes.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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

Beowulf’s Flaw?
Generosity and Sharp Swords

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,

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

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“‘As for the treasure that thou gavest me,
dear Hrothgar, send it to Hygelac.
Thus, may the lord of the Geats gaze upon those riches,
the son of Hrethel will see it, when he looks upon that treasure,
that I a liberal and great ring giver
had found, and enjoyed his generosity to the full.
And you, Unferth, are to have my own treasure,
my sword so forged its metal shows waves, you the wide-known
man are to have that hard edge. With Hrunting, I shall
wreak vengeance, or death shall take me.'”
(Beowulf ll.1482-1491)

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Old English:


Modern English:


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Beowulf’s Flaw?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Generosity and Sharp Swords

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

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


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

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

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

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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.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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Unferth’s trade with Beowulf, and the makings of a warrior’s fame (ll.1465-1472)

Beowulf and Unferth Trade in Reputations
What’s Needed for Fame

Beowulf, Grendel, Old English, Anglo-Saxon

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

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Beowulf reflects on Unferth’s loan, and the poet reflects on it, too.

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“Indeed that son of Ecglaf, strong in might,
no longer thought of what that one had said before,
while drunk on wine, when he leant that weapon
to the better swordsman; he himself dared not
to venture beneath the turmoil of those waves
and risk his life to do a heroic deed; there he lost
his fame, his reputation for courage. But the other
showed no fear, the one already well-girded for battle.”
(Beowulf ll.1465-1472)

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Old English:


Modern English:


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Beowulf and Unferth Trade in Reputations

After all of Beowulf’s gearing up, the poet now gives us a sense of what each man won and lost when Unferth loaned his sword to Beowulf.

Obviously, Beowulf’s the one who comes out of this little transaction for the better. Not only is he said to be the better swordsman (line 1468), but he’s also the one who is already “well-girded for battle” (“to guðe gegyred hæfde” (l. 1472)). Though this passage’s last line seems like it could be taken a few ways.

Does it mean that Beowulf is simply prepared for what they all knew that they would have to face? Or is the suggestion on line 1472 that Beowulf is some sort of bloodthirsty warrior who, at the slightest chance of a fight, is all decked out and fully prepared? Maybe it’s just that Beowulf is young and eager, after all, he “showed no fear” (“Ne wæs þæm oðrum swa” (l.1472)) despite being in a place that seems to have put everyone else on edge.

What’s really strange to me about this passage, though, is that the poet gives Unferth a heroic reputation seemingly out of nowhere. He seems to do so only to transfer it to Beowulf, though. It’s as if this poem is suddenly Highlander, and Unferth’s giving Beowulf his sword is the same as Beowulf beheading the man and experiencing a quickening. Now Unferth’s reputation for bravery is no longer his, but has been added to Beowulf’s considerable store of such rep.

The sad thing about this transaction, though is that it underscores the sense that the Danes are in decline.

Hrothgar is an old king with only young sons who seem to have neither battle experience nor diplomatic know-how (though, to be fair, we know nothing of his sons, really).

Wealhtheow’s marriage to the king is one of political convenience, which, isn’t terribly uncommon during the period, but that it happened at all suggests that Hrothgar is trying to broker a peace for his successors to rule in — and at the time peace was a very fragile thing.

Then Hrothgar’s chief advisor is killed.

And now, the apparent champion of the Danes essentially hands off his reputation to this newcomer from a completely different social group. It’s almost as if the Danes are doing just what the Beowulf poet did: passing on their greatness and their glory so that others can hear of them and tell stories even after they’re long gone.

What do you think of Unferth suddenly having this “reputation for courage”?

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What’s Needed for Fame

Any “sweord-frecan”1 who enjoys “ellen-mærð”2 must have done “drihtscype”3. Just as any “drihtscype”3 done would guarantee “ellen-mærð”2 for the “sweord-frecan”1 responsible.


1sweord-frecan: swordsman, warrior. sweord (sword) + freca (warrior, hero) (A compound word that’s exclusive to Beowulf)

2ellen-mærð: fame of courage. ellen (zeal, strength, courage, strife, contention) + mærð (glory, fame, famous exploit) (A compound word that’s exclusive to Beowulf)

3drihtscype: lordship, rulership, dignity, virtue, valour, heroic deeds. driht (multitude, army, company, body of retainers, nation, people) + scype (ship)

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Next week, Beowulf’s words for Unferth.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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Unferth gifts a sword to Beowulf, words tell of blades and battlefields(ll.1455-1464)

A Named and Dangerous Sword
The Usefulness of an Ancient Sword on the Brutal Battlefield

Beowulf, Grendel, Old English, Anglo-Saxon

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

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Unferth lends Beowulf a sure-fire sword.

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“Next was an item of no little service,
such was the thing that Hrothgar’s man leant him,
it was the hilted sword named Hrunting;
an ancient treasure beyond compare;
its edge was iron, decorated like an arm full of poison,
hardened in the blood of battle; never in combat had it failed
any of its weilders, whomever fought with it in their grip,
those who dared do perilous deeds,
who entered the battlefield full of foes. Indeed this was not
the first time the sword had been called upon for heroic deeds”
(Beowulf ll.1455-1464)

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Old English:


Modern English:


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A Named and Dangerous Sword

Here we go!

In this passage we have the first of the named swords of the poem. And it sounds like it’s pretty badass. Not just because it’s never failed anyone who has used it (something I’ll get into a little below), but because of how it’s decorated.

My Old English dictionary, Clark Hall and Meritt’s A Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary (4th edition), suggests “with poisoned twigs or poison-stripes?[sic]” for “ater-tanum” (l.1459). It’s an entry that’s very unsure of itself.

When I think of poison and any sort of branching pattern I think of the horrific visual of poison either dilating or colouring a person’s veins as it rushes ever closer to their heart. And so “decorated like an arm full of poison” sounded like an apt translation of “ater-tanum”. My guess as to what that actually looks like is a branching pattern that was smithed into the steel. Perhaps as a sign of how many times the steel involved was folded.

Come to think of it, I wonder if “arm full of poison,” or even “twig of poison” was just a way of describing someone’s patterned tattoos. I mean, if your veins are picked out because of some sort of poison that’s entered your body you’re not going to be able to gawk at that for very long. But if someone were tattooed, which, if it was just a simple pattern could look like discoloured veins, it would be a lot easier to really contemplate the pattern and compare it to a poison-infested arm.

Anyway, stepping away from that detail about the sword’s decoration, I find it strange that the poet tells us that Hrunting has never failed its wielders. It sounds like it’s the Muramasa from Japanese lore, a sword that had to taste blood of any kind once it was unsheathed.

Though, given Unferth’s past conflict with his kin which lead to him slaying them (at least according to Beowulf) , I can’t help but wonder if he had entered into combat against them. Since Hrunting seems to be Unferth’s sword, in this battle he likely used Hrunting, and the dumb thing just did what swords do (and good swords do even better) and killed them.

That’s not to say that a well made sword removes the agency from its wielder, more that it takes an even better fighter to wield such a weapon well.

Along with the reference to Hrunting never failing could be the poet’s way of making Unferth a sympathetic character, I think it also suggests that he is not as great a warrior as Beowulf. He was unable to reign himself in while under the influence of wielding Hrunting. Kind of like how landing a series of blows in a sparring match can give you an incredible sense of power that kind of numbs your reason the first few times you experience it.

Of course, Beowulf won’t be swayed by such a thing as this sword, surely. Or will he succumb to the call of Hrunting as easily as Unferth seems to have? Leave your thoughts in the comments!

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The Usefulness of an Ancient Sword on the Brutal Battlefield

I think it goes without saying that a “hæft-mece”1 would be a “mægen-fultuma”2 on just about any “folc-stede”3. Forget those swords without hilts — they’re really just oversized knives!

Now, take that sword, though, and make it an “eald-gestreona”.4 And then have a good look at that well worn (yet still sharp!) sword and make sure that it’s decorated in an “ater-tan”5 style. That’s sure to mean that it’s been through the “heaþo-swate”6 more than once, at least.

This is the kind of sword songs are sung about, and that can only be found in RPGs after finishing a really difficult/lengthy sidequest. The kind of sword you’d want with you on a “gryre-sið”7. It’s the sort of thing you use (maybe just in those songs) to do “ellen-weorc”8!


1hæft-mece: hilted sword. hæft (haft, handle) + mece (sword, blade) (A word exclusive to Beowulf)

2mægen-fultuma: mighty help. mægen (bodily strength, might, main, force, power, vigor, valour, virtue, efficiency, efficacy, good deed, picked men of a nation, host, troop, army, miracle) + fultum (help, support, protection, forces, army) (A word exclusive to Beowulf)

3folc-stede: dwelling-place, battlefield. folc (folk, people, nation, tribe; collection or class of persons, laity; troop, army) + stede (place, site, position, station; firmness, standing, stability, steadfastness, fixity, strangury)

4eald-gestreona: ancient treasure. eald (old, aged, ancient, antique, primeval, elder, experienced, tried, honoured, eminent, great) + streon (gain, acquisition, property, treasure, traffic, usury, procreation)

5ater-tan: with poison twigs or poison stripes?[sic] (“Looking like an arm full of poison”). ater (poison, venom, gall) + tan (twig, rod, switch, branch, rod of divination) (A word exclusive to Beowulf)

6heaþo-swate: blood of battle. heaðu (war) + swat (sweat, perspiration, exudation, blood, foam, toil, labour)

7gryre-sið: dangerous expedition. gryre (horror, terror, fierceness, violence, horrible thing) + sið (going, motion, journey, errand, departure, death, expedition, undertaking, enterprise, road, way, time, turn, occasion) (A word exclusive to Beowulf)

8ellen-weorc: heroic deed, good work. ellen (zeal, strength, courage) + weorc (work, labour, action, deed, exercise; affliction, suffering, pain, trouble, distress; fortification)

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Next week, the poet reflects on Unferth’s character further.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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Unferth the reason for Grendel? A very German compound word (ll.1159b-1168)

Unferth the Cause of Heorot’s Woes?
A Collection of Compounds

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As we return to the hall after the story of Hildeburh, Finn, and Hengest, we’re given a brief tour of the social hierarchy in Heorot before Wealhtheow takes centre stage.

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“Then the song was sung,
the entertainer’s tale. Revelry again arose,
the noise among the benches flashed as the cup bearer brought
joy from/the joy of the wondrous vessel. Then Wealhtheow came forth,
going under the weight of golden rings, over to where
the two sat, nephew and uncle; there yet were those kin together,
each to the other true. Also there sat spokesman Unferth
at the foot of the Scylding lord’s seat; each of them to his spirit trusted,
that he had great courage, though he to his own kin was not
merciful at the swordplay. Spoke then the Scylding lady:”
(Beowulf ll.1159b-1168)

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Old English:


Modern English:


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Unferth the Cause of Heorot’s Woes?

And just like that the story of Hildeburh, Hengest, and Finn is over and it’s back to the meadhall Heorot. Though I think it’s worth a quick noting that the Beowulf poet implies that everyone was quiet while his in-story counterpart sang of the Danes’ patient revenge on the slayer of their lord. The Beowulf poet (or the person who wrote it down) likely wanted to imagine a place and time when their art was more respected. Or, maybe having a quiet crowd is a way of showing how important what’s being recounted is.

Though however quiet the revellers of Heorot were while the poet sang of Hengest and Finn rekindling the age-old feud of their peoples, they’re right back to it once the poem’s over. I mean, the benches are simply flashing with the noise of it all — that’s just how close the motion of the people on the benches and the noise coming from them is. That’s really something!

But after we return to the partying atmosphere of Heorot in celebration of Beowulf’s deed and the greatness that he’s helped restore, we’re given a bit of a sombre note to carry through the procession. And, just as Hildeburh was the bearer of sorrow in the story we just heard, Wealhtheow, Hrothgar’s lady, now seems to be carrying the same. As she goes through the hall to the high seat, the poet follows her, describing along the way the relationship of Hrothgar and his nephew and how Unferth, the doubter of Beowulf, fits into the hierarchy at Heorot.

And that’s where that note of sorrow is hit the hardest.

It seems that Unferth is quite an esteemed counsellor in Heorot, “each of them to his spirit trusted” (“gehwylc hiora his ferhþe treowde” (l.1166)). And yet, the poet makes it clear that this is the case “though he to his own kin was not/merciful at the swordplay” (“þeah þe he his magum nære/arfæst æt ecga gelacum” (ll.1167-1168)).

So Unferth has committed one of the harshest crimes of all in the Anglo-Saxon world — kin-killing. We’re never given any more detail than this about the incident that the poet’s referring to, but it continues to be a constant black mark on Unferth’s reputation for as long as he plays a role in the poem. In fact, Beowulf has even heard of this, since he mentions it in his witty riposte to Unferth’s doubting his stories of valour when he first comes to help Hrothgar with his monster problem (l.587).

So that makes me wonder.

If Unferth’s killed his own kin, a crime that really has no means of punishment (who do you ask for wergild — the monetary punishment for murder meant to cut feuds off before they can start — especially in a situation where the price was often paid by a group rather than an individual, and how could a single person’s paying into the group that he lives in be a punishment, if Anglo-Saxon society is all about distribution of wealth based on success on the battlefield?), how is he able to be such a trusted advisor?

Is he allowed this position because he’s been through the hell of having killed a relative and was left to live with the infamy?

And, in terms of the wider story of Heorot, could Unferth’s killing his kin and then Hrothgar’s bringing him on as an advisor been the thing that sparked Grendel’s feud with Heorot? After all, Grendel is “the kin of Cain” (“Caines cynne” (l.107)), and Cain was damned for killing his own brother. So is Grendel an ironic punishment in the grand tradition of ironic Christian punishments — a monster born of kin-killing that’s come to destroy a place that supports someone who killed his kin but has yet to be perceived as fully monstrous (that is, exiled or ostracized) for it?

So many questions. If you’ve got some opinions or hypotheses to share, please feel free to do so in the comments.

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A Collection of Compounds

This week’s batch of compounds covers the range of the straightforward to the much less obvious. Let’s get right into it.

First is line 1160’s “gleo-mann,” meaning “gleeman,” “minstrel,” “player,” “jester,” or “parasite.” This word comes from the compounding of “gliw” (“glee,” “pleasure,” “mirth,” “play,” “sport,” “music,” or “mockery”) and — surprise, surprise — “man” (“person,” “man,” “mankind,” “brave man,” “hero,” “vassal,” “servant,” “name of the rune for ‘m,'” or “used indefinitely like Modern English ‘one'”).

This is a pretty clear compound that, although archaic today, remained in English for quite a while as “gleeman.” Though by the time it got to us, the word’s connotations depreciated (it became pejorated, as linguists say), as “gleo-mann” started to carry a connotation less of a poet who brought joy to people and more of a connotation of someone closer to a court jester rattling off bad rhymes and worse jokes, perhaps giving people glee more through the idiocy of his performance than what he was performing.

Then we get line 1161’s “benc-sweg.” This one brings together the near cognate “benc” (“bench”) with the word “sweg” (“sound,” “noise,” “clamour,” “tumult,” “melody,” “harmony,” “tone,” “voice,” “musical instrument,” or “persona”), to mean “bench-rejoicing,” or “sound of revelry.”

It’s not too terribly surprising a compound once you get over the Old English word for “sound” being “sweg,” but it’s still kind of neat because if you were to tell someone about the “bench sound” today, they’d probably think of a wooden bench scraping across a floor, not the sound of lively conversation, mugs clinking, and drunken singing. Oh how times have changed.

Then, as if lined up nice and neatly, on line 1162 we get the last of this week’s plainer compounds with “wunder-fatum.” The Old English word “wunder” means almost what our “wonder” does, but more in the UK English noun sense (which we don’t really hear much in North America), since “wunder” means “wonder,” “miracle,” “marvel,” “portent,” “horror,” “wondrous thing,” or “monster.” And “fatum,” since the letter “f” when it’s surrounded by vowels in Old English sounds like a “v” is the ancestor of our “vat,” though it’s got a more general meaning of “vat,” “vessel,” “jar,” “cup,” “casket,” or “division.”

Combine these two words and you get the Old English “wunder-fatum,” which means “wondrous vessel.” A little nickname for the ale pitcher or mead jug, since that’s definitely what its bearer is pouring out.

Hopefully those simpler three have you warmed up, because the next compound we come across in this passage is line 1164’s very German-seeming “suhterge-faederan.” Since this word compounds “suhterge” (“brother’s son,” “nephew,” “uncle’s son,” or “cousin”) with “faederan” (“paternal uncle”), “suhterge-faederan” itself means “uncle and nephew.”

It’s definitely not a word that we have in Modern English. And my guess is that the reason we don’t is because of family dynamics. Uncles are no longer a go-to mentor figure for children. In fact, “the creepy uncle” is a way more common trope than the informative or wise uncle, something that’s almost solely concentrated in grandparent figures in pop culture now. So here’s another sign that times have changed quite a bit from the days in which Beowulf was sung.

My guess as to why this happened (a very quick and dirty guess) is that people started to raise their own kids rather than sending them out to learn a trade or how the hierarchy within a house or hall worked, so uncles and aunts came to play less and less of a role while grandparents (perhaps because they’d actually be visited or lived with?) continued to play a role in children’s growing up. Not a perfect hypothesis, but I’m not looking for something air tight.

Or water-tight for that matter.

Which brings me around to the word “aerfaest” from line 1168 meaning “respected,” “honest,” “pious,” “virtuous,” “merciful,” “gracious,” “compassionate,” or “respectful.”

I mention water-tightness here, though because that’s one of the meanings of “faest,” along with “fast,” “fixed,” “firm,” “secure,” “constant,” “steadfast,” “stiff,” “heavy,” “dense,” “obstinate,” “bound,” “costive,” “enclosed,” “closed,” “strong,” “fortified,” “reputable,” or “standard”; while “aer” means “ere,” “before that,” “soon,” “formerly,” “beforehand,” “previously,” “already,” “lately,” or “till.”

Given what we’re told about Unferth being trustworthy because of some sort of past loyalty (a more literal interpretation of “aerfaest,” I think (maybe too literal?)) seems pretty suspect. Unless, maybe the relative that Unferth killed was in opposition to Hrothgar, and so, as unforgivable an act as it is, Unferth was brought in because his actions suggested that his loyalty to Hrothgar was greater than that between relatives (perhaps Unferth killed a nephew, or an uncle? Maybe not too far-fetched if the uncle-nephew relationship was prominent enough in Anglo-Saxon society to get its own compound).

Maybe that’s the key to all of this, Unferth, as unsavoury as his behaviour is to the rest of the world, is trusted within the realm of Heorot because of that loyalty to Hrothgar — he’s successfully and seriously set his lord over his family in an age when family was important, but not necessarily the top priority.

Though that Hrothgar would keep such a person around, one who, according to the conventions of the time was a little monstrous himself — what does that say about Hrothgar? Perhaps Hrothgar’s making Unferth a counsellor is what brought Grendel on him in the first place, not because Hrothgar harboured one who failed to fall into the binary of monster/not-monster, but because Hrothgar himself was an even greater monster in disguise.

Do you think that Unferth’s killing his kin relates to why Grendel attacked Heorot in the first place? Or was it something else that kicked off all of Hrothgar’s troubles?

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Next week, Wealhtheow gives Hrothgar her two cents on everything that’s happened since Beowulf arrived and what the lord of the hall should do.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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Beowulf gets into puns and two regular words aren’t so regular (ll.590-597)

Beowulf gets into the puns
Regular words that aren’t that regular

A young man makes a mead hall stand.

A young man makes a mead hall stand.

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In a rather round about way, Beowulf attacks Unferth for his cowardice.

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“‘I tell to you the truth, son of Ecglaf,
that Grendel never could such a horror perpetuate,
that dire demon, over your people,
the humiliation of Heorot, were thy courage,
your heart, so fierce as thou thyself sayest it is;
but he has discovered that he need not the vendetta,
the terrible thronging swords of your people,
greatly fear, the Victory-Scyldings.'”
(Beowulf ll.590-597)

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Old English:


Modern English:


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Beowulf gets into the puns

All neat and tidy, Beowulf really covers it up here. He gets to the meat of the issue and makes his point very succinctly:

“Unferth, because of your cowardice, Grendel is terrorizing Heorot.”

Bang. Boom. Oof.

Though the actual poetry isn’t quite so straightforward.

However, I really think that Beowulf’s scattered sentence structure is the result of his being livid while he speaks. This emotional state would explain to some extent why he dives into apposition as often as he does, and why things are quite so lively. He’s just tearing into Unferth at this point.

But does Beowulf maybe lose control at the end of this rant? Is his referring to the Danes as a whole (the “Victory-Scyldings” (“Sige-Scyldinga” (l.597))) pushing things too far, and unfairly spreading the blame that Unferth must bear to the rest of Hrothgar’s people?

I’d say that he’s definitely going a bit far. But I think that it’s necessary for Beowulf to sort of gently call out all of Hrothgar’s men in this instance. After all, Beowulf will be doing things differently. Spreading the blame to all of them is no doubt a keen way to show that their approach simply isn’t working and so an outsider’s approach is necessary.

Beowulf’s upending the mead benches, as it were.

Though taking a look at his epithet for Unferth and Hrothgar’s Danes, the “Victory-Scyldings,” suggests that a little bit more than merely spreading the blame might be at work.

The latter part of this compound name means, simply refers to a group of people. But the word used before it, “sige” can mean “victory,” “success,” “triumph” or “sinking,” or the “setting of the sun.”

Is Beowulf playing the prophet here, sarcastically referring to the Danes as the “Victory-Scyldings” while implying that their power is waning?

Maybe it’s not all that prophetic to say so, since for the last seven years Grendel has been tormenting them and has made their house of joy into the home of sorrow.

Yet, I think the wordplay to be found in “Sige-Scylding” is definitely intentional. The Anglo-Saxons liked a bit of sarcasm in their writing, and puns have been around since the Epic of Gligamesh.

Plus, a word for something like “victory” would likely be one well-travelled over the tongues of Anglo-Saxon audiences. It stands to reason then, that the wise among them would also be well aware of the words referring to things that are waning in some way.

Beowulf may pun earlier in this passage, as well, when he uses the compound word “searo-grim” to describe Unferth’s heart and spirit. The first part of the compound is straightforward enough, it usually means something like “art,” skill, or cleverness. But the word “grim” is rather ambiguous. (Ain’t that always the way?)

This word can be interpreted as grimman: terrible sin, along with the more literal, “grimm” meaning “fierce,” “savage,” or “severe.”

Beowulf mentioned Unferth’s killing his own kin in last week’s passage. Such a deed is truly a terrible sin, so I think it’s entirely possible that (aside form reasons of alliteration) the poet/scribe went with “searo-grim” for the little punning wink it puts on Beowulf’s sarcastic burn against Unferth’s frosty courage.

What do you think – is Beowulf making puns along with pointing out Unferth’s failings? Why would he throw such things into so serious a part of his speech?

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Regular words that aren’t that regular

To mix things up further this week, this part will still deal with words, but will entirely avoid discussing compounds.

Instead, there’re two regular, old words in this week’s passage that I think are worthy of discussion.

First up is the verb “onsittan” (from line 597). This one means “to seat oneself in,” “occupy,” “oppress,” “fear,” “dread.” Though sharing verbal real estate might not necessarily mean that those doing the sharing have much in common, “onsittan” offers a curious combination. The sort of combination that I like to read into. So read into it I shall!

Since the concepts of occupation and fear are paired together in this verb, I wonder if it implies a certain variety of fear. Not necessarily a sort of intensity of fear, but rather a certain quality of fear. One that doesn’t envelop you or creep up on you, but instead one that you set yourself into, like laying back on a nice massage bed – only to realize that the massaging fingers are thousands of squirming cockroaches.

Such a conception of fear, as something that you occupy rather than something that comes over you, may seem strange, but if you think about the larger implications it starts to make sense.

The Anglo-Saxons weren’t the most optimistic of people and so perhaps the more negative, primal emotions (such as fear) were conceptualized not as things that came from you but things that you encountered and entered into. Hence, you could come to occupy fear or dread just as you could occupy a room.

On the topic of different conceptions of things that we might take for granted, the Anglo-Saxons had a curious idea about colour.

Rather than defining it by hue, they had a tendency to define colour by its lustre. The brighter the colour, the better and more favourable it was. The darker, the more dim and drear. This might not sound too strange, but when you run into a bunch of colour descriptions only to find that they continually include light, it’s hard not to see how it differs from our modern ideas of colour.

With the word “atol” (from line 592), meaning “dire,” “terrible,” “ugly,” “deformed,” “repulsive,” “unchaste” “horror,” “evil,” I think something similar is happening. I don’t think appearance is necessarily being equated with moral uprightness as we might understand the old trope.

Instead, I think that ugliness is being related to evil simply because it lacks symmetry, it lacks the brightness that might define beauty or an incredibly valuable item or colour (like gold, for instance).

Further, I think that it’s possible that this is at the root of the old appearance/morality trope, or at least why it persisted in so much British culture and English literature.

What do you think about the Anglo-Saxons’ differing conceptions of things like fear and appearance? Are they so different from our own?

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Next week, Beowulf finishes haranguing Unferth and confidently assures that Danes that he will kill their monster.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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