Beowulf and the Geats get ready for their costume change

Introduction
Synopsis
The Original Old English
My Translation
A Quick Question
Closing

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

Image found at http://bit.ly/2jumA3j


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Introduction

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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Synopsis

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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Closing

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

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

Synopsis
Translation
Recordings
Beowulf’s Flaw?
Generosity and Sharp Swords
Closing

Grendel's mother menaces the pinned Beowulf with a knife.

By J. R. Skelton – Marshall, Henrietta Elizabeth (1908) Stories of Beowulf, T.C. & E.C. Jack, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11001837

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Synopsis

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

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Translation

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

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Beowulf’s Flaw?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Generosity and Sharp Swords

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

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

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

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

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

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Closing

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

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

Synopsis
Translation
Recordings
Beowulf and Unferth Trade in Reputations
What’s Needed for Fame
Closing

Beowulf, Grendel, Old English, Anglo-Saxon

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

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Synopsis

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

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Translation

“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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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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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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Closing

Next week, Beowulf’s words for Unferth.

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

Synopsis
Translation
Recordings
A Named and Dangerous Sword
The Usefulness of an Ancient Sword on the Brutal Battlefield
Closing

Beowulf, Grendel, Old English, Anglo-Saxon

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

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Synopsis

Unferth lends Beowulf a sure-fire sword.

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Translation

“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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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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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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Closing

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

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

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Unferth the Cause of Heorot’s Woes?
A Collection of Compounds
Closing

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Abstract

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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Translation

            “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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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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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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Closing

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.

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

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Beowulf gets into the puns
Regular words that aren’t that regular
Closing

A young man makes a mead hall stand.

A young man makes a mead hall stand.

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Abstract

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

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Translation

“‘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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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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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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Closing

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

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Beowulf’s wild accusation and some “near relatives” (ll.581b-589)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Beowulf starts big
Who are these near relatives?
Closing

A young man makes a mead hall stand.

A young man makes a mead hall stand.

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Abstract

Having finished his version of the swimming contest story, Beowulf begins to properly lay into Unferth.

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Translation

              “‘I from no man of you
in such strife have heard tell,
sword terror. Neither you nor Breca
at battle-play, still neither of you two,
have done sincerely such deeds
with the stained sword – nor do I mean to boast in this –
though thou brought death to thine own brother,
near blood relation; thus thou in hell shall
suffer damnation, though thine wit thrives.'”
(Beowulf ll.581b-589)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Beowulf starts big

Perhaps it’s just a formal formulation that Beowulf is quoting at the beginning of this week’s extract, but lines 581b and 582 stand out as being the most knotted of the bunch. That is, they’re the only ones in which his word order gets twisted around for some sort of effect.

My guesses are that these lines have their word order turned about to show Beowulf shifting from narrative to outright declamation (that is, in fact, defamation). He’s now turning his attention directly to Unferth and so perhaps there’s some dramatic value in having Beowulf speak in a more convoluted way as he turns to accusing Unferth of having done no deeds of note. Maybe there’s something there, but I’m not too sure about what it could be.

What’s much more explosive and attention grabbing is the meat of Beowulf’s attack on Unferth. He doesn’t pull any punches.

He starts by saying that neither he nor (for what it’s worth, I suppose) Breca have done any great deeds of might in battle to match his own against the sea monsters. He underscores this by saying that he doesn’t “mean to boast in this” (“no ic þæs fela gylpe” (l.586))

Then Beowulf very quickly raises the stakes, saying that Unferth is going to burn in hell because he killed his kin.

Wait. Where did that come from?

Is this a commonly known thing? Is this act something that’s been published abroad with Unferth as the fiend, the villain?

Or is Beowulf maybe misinterpreting something, sharing among the Danes some piece of news that was mangled by the time it reached the Geats?

It’s possible that Beowulf’s verbal finger wagging here is based on mangled, second hand news. In that case, Beowulf’s bold statement here makes him look like an ass. Though he’d put shame into the heart of Unferth (and the rest of the Danes) with next week’s words.

If, on the other hand, Beowulf’s accusations are based on a well known story, then where does that put Unferth?

I can’t help but get the feeling that Beowulf is being something of a prig in pointing out Unferth’s killing of his own kin. If he’s in a position of honour, close to Hrothgar, then this deed must be generally ignored. Beowulf’s dredging it up could be an oversimplification of what really happened.

Perhaps Unferth slew his kin because he was bound by some sort of complex system of alliances to do so?

Or maybe Unferth has a sister and her marriage soured to such a degree that her blood relations were forced to fight her relations by marriage?

The word “heafod-mægum” does, after all, merely mean “close kin.” And it can mean anything from wife to husband to uncle to aunt.

Whatever the case, I think that Beowulf is glossing over something major in his outright defamation of Unferth as a kinslayer.

I think there’s something here in Beowulf’s saying that even Unferth’s wits won’t be able to save him from burning in hell could be a reference to Unferth’s having reasoned his way out of whatever moral quandary lead him to kill his kin.

The weirdest part of this whole passage to me, though, is that no one interrupts.

No one steps in to say “Hey, Beowulf, lay off.”

It’s not as though dialogue gets interrupted elsewhere in the poem, but the way that things are presented here it feels as though Beowulf and Unferth are utterly alone rather than in a packed mead hall.

One way to read this whole bit is that it’s might calling out brains. Beowulf is very clearly might, and so it could be argued that his moral understanding is simplified to “good guys” and “bad guys.”

Whereas, Unferth, if he really is as witty as he’s said to be, represents the brainier side of things. He is perhaps, a coward at battle, but quick in his mind and able to evade the judgment of his peers because of this. Though, in true Christian fashion (and pre-Christian Anglo-Saxon beliefs, too?) Beowulf states that Unferth will face up to his crime in the day of judgment.

Perhaps, then, what Beowulf’s getting at is that his wits will save Unferth from the judgment of his peers, but not from the final judgment of god itself.

Do you think Beowulf is really being as religious as his reminding Unferth of his final judgment suggests?

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Who are these “near relatives”?

Not to kick a dead brother, but this week, the second section is going to repeat the subject of the first.

The word that Beowulf uses to further describe Unferth’s slain kinsmen, “heafod-mægum,” is just too weird to pass up.

On its surface, the word meaning “near relatives.” It’s a combination of the Old English for “head,” “source,” “origin,” “chief,” or “leader” on the left side of its hyphen and the Old English for “male kinsman,” parent,” “son,” “brother,” “nephew,” “cousin,” “compatriot,” “female relation,” “wife,” “woman,” or “maiden” on its hyphen’s right side.

What we can take away from dissecting this one is that a near relative isn’t necessarily a blood relation (the only occurrences of blood relations in “mægum”‘s definition are “parent, son, nephew, cousin,” just 4 out of 11 total possibilities). It could be something as intimate as a spouse or fellow member of a close group that identifies as a singular unit.

I think that it’s also possible to see “mægum” being combing with “heafod” as a way to express that the connection implied by “near relatives” is something established through reasoning. The connection it describes relies on someone’s wits to understand it. Figuring out degrees of relation isn’t simple arithmetic after all.

Given the need for wits to understand the relationship denoted by “heafod-mægum,” could Beowulf be making a joke when he says that Unferth’s wits won’t save him from his hellish fate?

My thinking here is that if wits make this close connection, if the relationship between people joined through marriage or common membership in a certain group was regarded as being a connection based on understanding rather than anything physical, then it’s possible for such a connection to be cast aside using that same understanding. Wits can unbind what they have bound, though, if Beowulf’s right in saying Unferth is still damned, god does not forget what has been bound.

Disposing of a connection would mean forfeiting of whatever rights and privileges went with the connection. Reasoning your way out of a non-blood relationship also wouldn’t erase any heinous acts done to those near relatives. Acts like, say, murdering them. And it does sound like Unferth killed more than one of his close kin since both “broðrum” and “heafod-mægum” are in their plural forms.

Given all of this, I think Beowulf is speaking figuratively when he says that Unferth killed his own brothers. Rather than being blood relations, I think he’s going more towards the “compatriots” sense of “heafod-mægum.”

Why?

Because if someone were to slaughter his actual brothers, he would not end up in the inner circle of someone like Hrothgar.

However, it’s possible that Unferth is a turncoat, that he betrayed his birth tribe or group for the position that he now enjoys and Beowulf places the slaughter of his people squarely on his shoulders because if not for his betrayal they would have managed to overcome whatever was assailing them – even if that happened to be the Danes themselves as I’m guessing it was.

Because of the slithering sort of vibe I get from Unferth, I think it’s likely that he did betray the kin he slew. And that he probably did it for a place of honour with another group. However tarnished that place might be by a past that he has reasoned his way out of.

What do you think Unferth’s story is? Is he a stone-cold killer as Beowulf’s accusation suggests, or is he simply misunderstood by the Geatish hero?

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Closing

Next week, Beowulf continues his haranguing of Unferth, laying the blame for Grendel’s terror on his cowardice.

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