The threat Grendel’s mother poses, more war words (ll.1279-1291)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Grendel’s Mother’s Real Threat?
Of War-Terror and Armed Men
Closing

Grendel's mother menaces a 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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Abstract

Grendel’s mother arrives at Heorot, and even though the poet pretends like they don’t, everyone freaks out.

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Translation

“It came then to Heorot, where the ring-Danes
within that hall slept. There would soon be
a reversal among the warriors when
in came Grendel’s mother. The terror she inspired
was only lessened slightly, as a woman warrior’s might
may be against the great strength of an armed man
when with ornamented sword, hammer forged,
blade bloody and raised over the boar helm,
the sharp edge shears the opponent.
Then in the hall were swords drawn,
blades pulled over benches, many a broad shield
held firm in hand; but they paid no mind to helmets,
or the battle shirt, when terror returned to the hall.”
(Beowulf ll.1279-1291)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Grendel’s Mother’s Real Threat?

All right, I can’t let the mention of warrior women slip by me here. What’s up with the reference to warrior women in line 1283?

It sounds like the assumption is that these women warriors would be unarmed. Or is it that they’d be armed but couldn’t handle their weapon as well as men? Or is it that these woman warriors seldom used swords whereas men were used to swinging their sharpened metal sticks around and so anyone else using them was a joke?

But why is there even this assumption? Is it that a man with a sword is a natural fighter because he’s a man? Or is it that “sword” refers to what a man has between his legs, and so a woman would indeed be “unarmed”?

Yes, this part of this week’s passage really bothers me.

Seamus Heaney’s translation of “wig-gryre wifes” as “amazon [sic] warrior’s” makes it clearer, but even the Amazonian women were armed and expert in the use of their weapon of choice. But if the poet is referring to Amazons here (quite possible, given their popularity in Greek and Roman mythology, not to mention women like Boudicca who may have been a little closer to the poet’s experience if he was Germanic or Celtic), then it just sounds like he’s making the assumption that women just aren’t as skilled when it comes to fighting as men are. Well, maybe slicing through someone’s head to a palm below the neck is more spectacular than just getting hit with an arrow in the heart, but both are going to kill you.

Though that kind of thinking does make a little sense for a poet. Spectacle is a pretty important part of Beowulf after all. Though subtlety also comes in, too. I guess that part of the poet’s world was a kind of misogyny. Maybe that’s just how it is with such old writings.

Or, maybe this passage is evidence that women didn’t “know their place” back then and were trying to fight despite whatever assumption they were running up against.

As a poet who must’ve had some renown or at least patronage in some form (no matter how advance we become, writing poetry – epic poetry especially – takes time, and the human body needs nourishment during that time, and nourishment doesn’t come free), maybe this is just a reflection of the poet’s patron’s view of things. It wouldn’t be the first time certain people were propped up while others were knocked down in a long poem because of the poet’s own interests (see Dante’s Divine Comedy for a great example of this).

Though, if men are really that powerful, shouldn’t they then be able to fend off a woman even if she’s a warrior or even if she’s armed?

Maybe there is a sexual tinge to this, and perhaps that’s the true terror that Grendel’s mother brings. She’s not just another Grendel – some sort of monstrous creature bent on killing for fun or sport – but she’s an example of what all of the women in the poem so far aren’t: untamed and fierce in the face of men.

It’s a broad assumption to make, but do you think that the Beowulf poet was a misogynist?

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Of War-Terror and Armed Men

Based on this passage, it sounds like a “waepned-men” is only a “wig-gryre” when he’s armed. That might sound redundant, since “waepned” sounds liked “weaponed” which sounds like it means “armed.”

Not so.

Apparently “waepned-men” means nothing more than “male” or “man.” That’s because the word “waepned” means “male” or “male person” and “men” means “person (male or female)”, “man,” “mankind,” “brave man,” “hero,” “vassal,” “servant,” “the rune for ‘m,'” or “one.” So that is actually the only redundancy here.

Though if you have enough armed “waepned-men” of the same type together, that sort of redundancy could inspire “wig-gryre” or “war-terror.” This word comes from the combination of “wig” (“strife,” “contest,” “war,” “battle,” “valour,” “military force,” or “army”) and “gryre” (“horror,” “terror,” “fierceness,” “violence,” or “horrible thing”), which seems like it should just refer to war in general. The idea of “war-terror” itself sounds like a broken record since the two are so closely linked.

Just as “heard-ecg” and “sid-rand” are closely linked.

These words, after all, refer to a “sword” and “broad shield,” respectively. The first, “heard-ecg” is a little literal, since “heard” means “hard,” “harsh,” “severe,” “stern,” “cruel (things and persons),” “strong,” “intense,” “vigorous,” “violent,” “hardy,” “bold,” “resistant,” or “hard object” while “ecg” means “edge,” “point,” “weapon,” “sword,” or “battle axe”. Putting them together makes “sword” just as easily as putting forged steel and leather wrappings together would.

Likewise, a “sid-rand” could draw its strength from the simple yet powerful connection that exists between its parts. After all, the word “sid” means “ample,” “wide,” “broad,” “large,” or “vast” and “rand” means “border,” “edge,” “boss of shield,” “rim of shield,” “shield,” or “buckler.” So it’s pretty clear what the deal is there.

Actually, now that I think of it, a lot of Old English words for war and its implements are pretty tightly constructed. Not too surprising coming from a culture mad for war and fighting, though they also had enough people willing to war with words to create things like Beowulf.

What do you think of the word “war-terror” (“wig-gryre”)? Is it just a synonym for war, or do you think the Anglo-Saxons thought that some wars were not at all terrible or terrifying?

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Closing

The poet briefly turns to Grendel’s mother’s perspective in next week’s passage.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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A theory on Anglo-Saxon soldiers’ motives, a primer on compound word combat (ll.1242-1250)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Serial-Inspired Thoughts on the Military of Beowulf
Defense Through Compound Words
Closing

A shield from the Anglo-Saxons' Britain, likely what would be called "bord-wudu."

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Abstract

The poet details how those left in the hall arranged their weapons before bed.

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Translation

“They set at their heads their battle-shields,
the bright shield-wood. On the benches behind the
princes who’d watched the waves
were the helmets that towered in battle, ringed mailshirts,
glorious spears. Such was their custom,
to be always ready for war,
whether at home or out plundering, or at any time
that their lord showed signs of
need for rallying; that was a brave people.”
(Beowulf ll.1242-1250)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Serial-Inspired Thoughts on the Military of Beowulf

This passage, though brief, tells how the people it’s referring to are a brave and war-ready people. They’re constantly ready to defend their safety and repel danger. But, more interesting is their being ready to rally around their lord.

I’ve been listening to the second season of Serial, and recently heard of how this season’s subject, Bowe Bergdahl, saw himself as an idealistic soldier, as someone who was supposed to be fighting for a noble cause that he himself believed in. However, as Sarah Koenig (serial’s host) points out, modern armies don’t work like the armies of old on which Bowe had modelled his ideas of soldiering. Modern day privates aren’t individuals fighting for a single cause that brings them together, but are instead tools for the higher ups to send out and fight for them and for their ideas — whether or not the individuals agree with them.

There’s definitely still the mist of nobility around the martial sentiments presented in Beowulf. Whether Anglo-Saxons actually regarded being a warrior as fighting for a single ideal or not, I can’t help but think of these men, “always ready for war” (“oft wæron an wig gearwe” (l.1247)), being like Bowe. Not because they’re fighting for some uniting ideal, but because they’re fighting for individual reasons that happen to align with what their lord can offer them. After all, when society’s on the level of clans and groups (or even city states) rather than centralized massive populations, it’s hard to imagine that the greater good extends beyond defending what you have and maintaining order within the group.

Ultimately, the better a warrior in a lord’s comitatus fought, the better his reward would be either because of merit or just because there’d be more spoils — so it would have been directly in warriors’ (soldiers’) best interests to fight well for their lord. Plus, in a sense, warriors paid their lord in kind, returning the favour of a lord’s political or social protection with physical protection on the battlefield. But even then, squaring up such a deal would be a way of clearing individual (*maybe* familial) indebtedness. But in the end, the warriors in Beowulf seem to fight for individualistic to a greater extent than those from later in history who are remembered for fighting for entire nations or the fates of mass political movements.

That’s not to say that Anglo-Saxon warriors were petty.

The Anglo-Saxons themselves, as unsure of their identity as most teens are, probably saw a grat deal of good in fighting to defend the integrity of what they regarded as theirs and as meaningful to them. Hence the emphasis on honour in Beowulf, and on fighting bravely in this poem and in other major Anglo-Saxon works (like the Battle of Maldon).

But the Anglo-Saxons were, nonetheless, a people who’d left their native Anglia and Saxony, who’d mixed with Celts and met and mingled with Romans, both of which I’d expect had a huge impact on how they saw themselves and how they subtly changed before ultimately being melded with the French, Spanish, and countless other world cultures to become the English that we know today.

So what’s my point here? Simply that among Anglo-Saxon warriors I think there was a strange and unique sense that protecting your individual needs and wants was somehow more in line with, if not entirely synchronized with, the greater good of the group. After all, if all Anglo-Saxons kept up their own business and concerns, then surely the mass of them together would be Anglo-Saxon, right?

Leave your thoughts in the comments!

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Defense Through Compound Words

Whatever the ideals or orders behind it, war-time combat’s always been fairly simple at its heart.

For example, When someone strikes out with their “þræc-wudu” (l.1246), or spear, you need to defend yourself. Especially if you consider what’s gone into make that “þræc-wudu”: “þræc” (“throng,” “pressure,” “force,” “violence,” “equipment”) and “wudu” (“wood,” “forest,” “grove,” “tree,” “the cross,” “Rood,” “wood,” “timber,” “ship,” or “spear shaft”), turning the component parts into a kind of “force wood.”

And how better to defend yourself than with a “hilderand” (l.1242)? This kind of shield would be especially helpful in combat in general, at least if you translate “hiderand” literally. Doing so combines “hilde” (“war” or “combat”) and “rand” (“border,” “edge,” “boss of shield,” “rim of shield,” “shield,” or “buckler”), giving you “war shield.”

Though if you’re trying to escape a mortal wounding from a “þræc-wudu” in particular, why not block wood with wood and use a “bord-wudu” (l.1243)? The word “bord-wudu” also means “shield,” but as a compounding of “bord” (“board,” “plank,” “table,” “side of a ship,” “ship,” or “shield”) and “wudu” (“wood,” “forest,” “grove,” “tree,” “the cross,” “Rood,” “wood,” “timber,” “ship,” or “spear shaft”) it sounds much more natural, like a simple “wood shield,” though maybe it’s so simple it’s mystical like a “board from the cross,” a shield perhaps more emblematic than physically effective.

Simpler even than defending yourself in combat, though, is figuring out the size of your weapons and armour. Something small might not be that useful in a pitched battle or melée, but something that’s “heaþu-steap” could be very handy indeed.

Whether it’s a spear or a shield, if it’s “heaþu-steap” (l.1245), then it’s “towering in battle.” Or, more specifically it’s “steap” (“precipitous,” “deep,” “high,” “lofty,” “prominent,” “projecting,” “upright,” “bright,” or “brilliant”) in “heaþu” (war).

While “bord-wudu” sounds like a simpler shield to me, I think that even if a “bord-wudu” were to be “heaþu-steap,” it could be beautifully decorated or something more like a tower shield than a simple buckler.

If you were in a pitched battle with opponents and allies all around you would you rather have a small weapon or a big one? Leave your thoughts in the comments!

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Closing

Next week the poet goes to Biblical lengths to describe who pays a nighttime visit to Heorot.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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The poem returns to the status quo, words of war and of hall life (ll.1080b-1094)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Battleground just a Board Game?
Battle Words and Hall Words
Closing

A section of the Bayeux Tapestry showing Anglo-Saxon warfare

Image found here: “Bayeux Tapestry 4” by photo by Gabriel Seah – gssq.blogspot.com. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

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Abstract

Hrothgar’s poet continues his story, as he shifts from Hildeburh to what’s happening between the battle’s commanders, Finn and Hengest.

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Translation

“War had borne away
all of Finn’s warriors, save for a few alone,
so that he might not take to the field
to wage war against Hengest,
nor could the wretched remnant defend against hostility,
that lord’s man; but he to him offered terms,
that they for him clear the other side of the floor,
of the hall and high seat, so that he could control half
of what the sons of the Jutes possessed,
and that at the giving of gifts the son of Folcwalda
daily do honour to each Dane,
that even as generously to Hengest’s kin
he would grant those things, treasure rings
of twisted gold, as to his Frisian kin
during the giving in the beer hall.”
(Beowulf ll.1080b-1094)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Battleground just a Board Game?

Well, by now Hildeburh has fallen by the wayside, unfortunately, as the men debate and discuss what’s to be done. So the poem’s subject has returned to the status quo.

So what was even the point of showing Hildeburh mourning her fallen family?

I still think it’s supposed to mirror Grendel’s mother’s reaction to the death of Grendel. And I think it’s supposed to bring a bit of humanity to what might otherwise be simply expressed in lines 1080-1081’s “war had borne away/all of Finn’s warriors, save for a few alone” (“Wig ealle fornam/Finnes þegnas nemne feaum anum”).

I mean, starting with Hildeburh in mourning immediately establishes the tone of this war scene as sorrow and devastation rather than glory or action or excitement. And even though it’s not really clear who has the upper hand between Finn and Hengest in this situation, I think the poet at the least wanted to get across the direness of the battle between Finn and Hengest before it turned into just another war story.

But, who is in the position of power here? Finn’s forces are apparently nearly wiped out, but from line 1090’s alliteration with “d” on “daily” and “do” and “Danes” (in the original, it’s on “dogra” and “Dene” and “weorþode”) to the end of this passage it sounds like Hengest and his Danes are at the disadvantage. They’re the ones that need to be honoured and gifted to the same degree as Finn and his Frisians.

Running with that arrangement, it seems that Finn’s forces were nearly wiped out by Hengest’s, and yet Finn is the one who’s being called on to split up his wealth evenly for the time being. If Finn’s unable to take the field, but isn’t willing to admit defeat, then maybe this part of the passage shows the Danes being good sports, settling instead for hospitality rather than utter dominance.

If such is the case, then it makes you wonder why the Danes are willing to negotiate in the first place. The poem in general sets up the Frisians as great enemies of the Danes, so maybe, in an effort to keep that rivalry alive, this negotiation is the Danes’ letting Finn go this time so that he and his Frisians can shore up their numbers and try fighting them again.

But that makes it sound like a game. And the part of the passage about dividing the floor in half between the two groups makes it sound like it could be nothing more than a reference to a board game of some kind. Maybe something like chess or checkers. Though it would have to be a game with rules that include daily ring-giving (every turn, maybe?) and different movement rules and strategies than either of those games. Especially if dividing the board in half is some sort of special condition rather than the normal starting point of the game.

But if this conflict between Finn and Hengest is just a board game memorialized in poetry, why does it begin with Hildeburh mourning her fallen son and brother? Is the poet making a joke at the expense of her grief, implying that she’s a spectator who got so involved in the game she weeps over the loss of two pieces in particular? Or is it that Hildeburh’s grieving by the morning light is another of the game’s forgotten rules? Has Hengest activated the “mourning woman” card that entitles him to these negotiations in the first place?

As you’ve probably guessed this hard turn into peace negotiations with unclear sides is where this passage becomes truly mysterious, even laying aside its starting out with Hildeburh surveying the battlefield.

So what do you think? Is this poem that Hrothgar’s poet is reciting about an actual conflict or just some board game match?

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Battle Words and Hall Words

The compound words in this passage are evenly split between matters of battle and matters of hall etiquette.

In the first category we’ve got “meðel-stede” and “weal-laf.”

Line 1082’s “meðel-stede” means “place of assembly,” or “battlefield.” It comes from the combination of “meðel” (“council,” “meeting,” “popular assembly,” “speech,” or “interview”) and “stede” (“place,” “site,” “position,” “station,” “firmness,” “standing,” “stability,” “steadfastness,” “fixity,” or “strangury”). As such, it’s pretty clear that it refers to a place where lots of people meet (or where lots of urine collects before leaving the body drop by drop, if we go with “strangury”).

The jump from “place of assembly” to the specific “battlefield” seems a bit of a leap, though. Neither of the words that make up “meðel-stede” are directly related to battle, so the meaning of the compound as “battlefield” implies that the Anglo-Saxons just regarded warfare as a different kind of council or meeting.

Maybe, like the ancient Greeks, and some early African peoples, war to the Anglo-Saxons wasn’t necessarily about killing but more about a kind of dramatic enactment of conflict, a kind of play with very real stakes (and very real injuries and deaths every now and then).

Or, maybe the use of this compound (beyond its alliterating with the line’s “m” sounds) feeds into the interpretation of this whole conflict between Finn and Hengest being some kind of board game. Maybe the two had some petty squabble so instead of putting actual people into the midst of it, they just played a round or two of whatever strategy game was popular at the time.

The other word that falls into the “war” category, line 1084’s “wea-laf,” is much more easily relatable to battle. After all, “wea” means “misfortune,” “evil,” “harm,” “trouble,” “grief,” “woe,” “misery,” “sin,” or “wickedness” and “laf” means “what is left,” “remnant,” “legacy,” “relic,” “remains,” “rest,” “relict,” or “widow.”

So the first word in “wea-laf” is a judgment of war that probably comes from the losing side rather than the winning one and the second word refers to those left behind (including the sense of a “widow,” which suits Hildeburh perfectly, and expands the meaning of the compound beyond merely those directly involved in the conflict).

Together, then, “wea-laf” implies that a small group was left over after the wickedness of war swept the rest away. So there is some small, beat up group left on the losing side of this conflict. Literally, they’re those that the battle left behind.

Then we move into the confines and mores of the hall.

The first of the hall compounds is line 1087’s “heah-setl.” Out of context it’s a bit trickier to just see the meaning of this word, but given that “heah” means “high,” “tall,” “lofty,” “high class,” “exalted,” “sublime,” “illustrious,” “important,” “proud,” “haughty,” “deep,” “right hand” and “setl” means “seat,” “stall,” “sitting place,” “residence,” “throne,” “see,” “siege,” this compound’s senses of “exalted seat,” “throne,” or “judgment seat” are quite clear.

As a “high seat,” “heah-setl” refers to the place of honour in a hall, that which the hall’s master occupies. It’s from this high seat that he would give treasure and hold audiences with guests and visitors. So splitting this power seems like a tall order, but if Hengest had really battered Finn’s forces, it might be seen as a valid request in exchange for mercy. Or as a clever stall tactic on Finn’s part.

Then comes “feoh-gyftum” on line 1089. This word means “bounty giving,” or “largesse” and comes from the combination of “feoh” (“cattle,” “herd,” “moveable goods,” “property,” “money,” “riches,” or “treasure”) and “giefan” (“give,” “bestow,” “allot,” “grant,” “commit,” “devote,” “entrust,” or “give in marriage”).

As a word that refers to the sharing of bounty and largesse, the intentions of “feoh-gyftum” are clear. So what can even be said about this word, really?

Well, I don’t think there was a treasure that an Anglo-Saxon (Beowulf‘s main audience) loved more than one given by a great figure. It’s kind of like the change of owner wasn’t a complete action in their minds, but rather the act of transferring ownership inherently shared not just the object being given but the giver’s very essence (though perhaps “residue” is more apt).

Actually, I think this sense that an object has more inherent value if it comes from someone great survived the rest of the medieval period in the veneration of saints’ relics and continues today in the high value people attach to things that celebrities have signed, used, or worn.

Why do you think an item that someone great or famous has used/signed is usually seen as more valuable than the same item that’s unused or that was just used by an average person?

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Closing

The oath between Hengest and Finn is sealed in the next part of Beowulf. And we finally get clarification as to who’s got advantage over whom.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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Battlefield mourning and measured compound words (1071-1080a)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Two Mothers Mourning
Measured Compound Words
Closing

A section of the Bayeux Tapestry showing Anglo-Saxon warfare

Image found here: “Bayeux Tapestry 4” by photo by Gabriel Seah – gssq.blogspot.com. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

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Abstract

Hrothgar’s poet begins a recitation of the story of Hildeburh, a woman in mourning.

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Translation

“Indeed, Hildeburh had no need to praise
Jutish loyalty; guiltlessly she became bereft
of loved ones at the shield play,
of her son and of her brother; they were burdened
with ruinous spear wounds; she was made a mournful woman.
Not without reason was Hoc’s daughter
then fated to mourn, after morning came,
when she might under the sky see
the violent death of her kin, where they earlier
had held the great joy of the world.”
(Beowulf ll.1071-1080a)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Two Mothers Mourning

The most remarkable thing about this passage is that it’s coming from a woman’s perspective.

Hildeburh, the mother of a warrior, and sister to another, is, for some reason, near enough to the battlefield to go and see her fallen family the morning after a night battle. Her closeness suggests that this battle was probably a siege of some sort. If this is so, then she, distraught as she’s heard no word about her men, has left the city’s walls to see if she can find them herself.

Though it’s also possible that Hildeburh was along with the war party as some sort of supporter.

But I think that the line about “Jutish loyalty” (“Eotena treowe” (l.1072)) suggests that there’s been some treachery afoot, and so a siege is more likely. Or at least some sort of fortification.

Why?

Because when I think about treachery in what’s obviously some sort of war situation, I think of a betrayal that’s resulted in the fall of a fortification or castle that was hitherto impregnable. But Hildeburh’s exact situation isn’t important.

After all, the poet just launches into the story. This cold open likely comes from Hildeburh’s having been understood as a specific figure to the poem’s original audience. She’s someone who’s known to fit in with the context of the children of Finn and Hnaef Scylding, as mentioned in last week’s passage. So there’d be enough information for the poem’s early audience(s), but there definitely is not enough for us.

So, instead of trying to pull more information about the situation from this I just want to jump ahead a bit in the poem. After I’ve jumped back.

Grendel was defeated the night before the celebration at which this poet is singing. The monster’s arm was torn off, and he was left to wander, bleeding, back to his lair on the fens.

Later in the poem (about 200 lines from now) Grendel’s mother shows up to seek revenge for her son’s death.

I like to imagine that the poet’s giving us this episode from history (or common lore) about a woman going out to find her brother and son dead is supposed to parallel what Grendel’s mother is now doing (or has recently done) in the timeline of the poem.

As the Danes and Geats celebrate, Grendel’s mother is mourning. In the harsh light of dawn she’s found her son mangled and dead, having been dealt “ruinous/…wounds” (“hruron/…wunde” (l.1075-1076)). And so I can’t help but think that this part of the poem, a different version of the story found in the “Finnsburh Fragment,” is supposed to be showing us the other side of Beowulf’s great victory.

Grendel, to the Danes, and to the Geats who came to stop him, was monstrous. But Grendel is nonetheless the “kin of Cain.” He’s monstrous and some sort of abomination in the eyes of god, but he still has a family – a mother. And now that mother is grieving, angry.

But her rage comes out 200 lines down the road. Right now we just have Hildeburh. Who, even on her own, makes a curious statement about all of the war and violence in the poem so far. Showing the mourning side of battle adds the dimension of empathy for the fallen and their living relations that up to now hasn’t really been that big a deal.

But now we get to see just how that empathy plays out as Hildeburh’s part continues.

What do you make of a battle-celebrating poem like Beowulf‘s having a character mourn those freshly lost in battle? Is it a balancing element, just a token inclusion, or something else entirely?

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Measured Compound Words

This is definitely a passage about battle. Though it’s coming from the side more familiar to most of us – that of the spectator, the person who doesn’t fight but has to live with what comes of fighting. Nonetheless, there are quite a few compound words used here, considering the length of the passage.

What’s particularly notable about these compound words, though is that their use is fairly measured.

For instance, the poet doesn’t throw down a few compounds for the same thing or concept in short succession, nor do these compounds appear in parenthetical clauses that aren’t really part of the passage’s main ideas.

In fact, in this passage, the compound words generally are the main ideas of the sentences, or at least integral to understanding those ideas. I think this measured use suggests a more focused sort of intensity than that which we’ve seen when the poet is simply slamming down compounds. But let’s take a look at these words.

On line 1073 we’re given “lind-plegan,” an innocent sounding word for “battle” that literally means “shield play” (since it combines “lind” (“shield (of wood)”) and “plegan” (“quick motion,” “movement,” “exercise,” “play,” “festivity,” “drama,” “game,” “sport,” “battle,” “gear for games,” or “applause”)).

This word is used for alliteration, but I think it’s also a reference to the sort of close combat that Beowulf and Grendel engaged in just some 300 lines ago.

Next, on line 1077 “metodsceaft” appears. This one means “decree of fate,” “doom,” or “death” and comes from the mix of “metod” (“Measurer,” “Creator,” “God,” or “Christ”) and “sceaft.”

It’s tempting to read the “sceaft” in “metod-sceaft” as the usually prefix-less “sceaft” meaning “staff,” “pole,” “shaft,” “spear-shaft,” or “spear.” I mean, this reading gives us a word that would mean something like “the spear of God,” an apt sounding metaphor for fate. Not to mention taking this compound to mean “spear of God” sees Hildeburh suffering the same sort of wound that killed her brother and son. But, I don’t think that pre-fix resistant “sceaft” is the word meant here.

Instead, there’s a similarly written word that does take prefixes, “sceaft” (“created being,” “creature,” “origin,” “creation,” “construction,” “existence,” “dispensation,” “destiny,” “fate,” “condition,” or “nature”). When this word combines with “metod,” we get the much clearer “God fate,” or “decree of fate” (extrapolated from “Measurer of fate”). Though I’m not sure what the mixture of a name of god and a word for “creature” or “fate” really implies in Old English.

Finally, the third compound word in this passage goes in for emphasis rather than some sort of new concept. The word “morthor-bealu” is already implicit in the two men dying from spear wounds, as it means “violent death,” or “murder.”

And breaking down “morthor-bealu” doesn’t do much to make the word’s implications less violent. On its own, the word “morthor” means “deed of violence,” “murder,” “homicide,” “manslaughter,” “mortal sin,” “crime,” “injury,” “punishment,” “torment,” or “misery”; while the word “bealu” means “bale,” “harm,” “injury,” “destruction,” “ruin,” “evil,” “mischief,” “wickedness,” “malice,” “a noxious thing,” “baleful,” “deadly,” “dangerous,” “wicked,” or “evil.” So we’re left with a double whammy of “murder” on the one hand and “destruction” on the other. It’s definitely a compound word that connotes inescapable violence.

But, just in case we weren’t sure about the fate of Hildeburh’s kin, we’re told through “morthor-bealu” that they met a “violent death” or “murder,” suggesting that even within the realm of warfare, their deaths were particularly grisly. Unless the poet, along with keeping up with alliterating, also wanted to give us a sense of the shock and horror that Hildeburh is likely feeling when she sees them in the dawn’s light, rather than the stoic male perspective we’ve seen the poem through up to this point.

All three of this week’s compound words alliterate with the major sound in their lines (“lind-plegan” with “l”; “metod-sceaft” with “m”; “morthor-bealu” with “m”). Do you think that’s important at all?

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Closing

In the next passage we’ll find out what happens in the aftermath of the battle in which Hildeburh lost her son and brother.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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Leadership and Laughs (ll.2982-2998) [Old English]

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Of Reflections and Leaders
A Shot of Comedy
Closing

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Abstract

The Geats survey their victory in the aftermath of battle, and Hygelac grants Eofor and Wulf various gifts

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Translation

“‘Then were there many, those who bandaged Wulf,
swiftly raised him up, since it had been cleared,
since they ruled that bloodied field.
At the same time winning warriors stripped those who lost,
from Ongeontheow went his iron mail,
his hard sword hilt and his helmet also;
these old ornaments were brought to Hygelac.
He accepted these treasures and himself fairly stated
among the people that reward would be had, and so he did;
he paid them for their battle-rush, the Geat lord,
Hrethel’s son, when they arrived home,
Eofor and Wulf were overloaded with gifts;
he gave them lands and linked rings
of great value in gold – no man on earth
need reproach him for that reward – after they
forged their glorious deed;
and to Eofor he also gave his only daughter,
a tender home-shaper, his loyalty to lock.'”
(Beowulf ll.2982-2998)

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Recordings

I’ve fallen behind in my recordings, partially because my day job’s been hectic lately. However, I still plan to record and post readings of what I’ve translated, though I may wait until I’ve reached the end of the poem before getting back to recording. Why not bookmark this blog so you can easily keep an eye on this recording situation?

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Of Reflections and Leaders

At last, the story of the Geats’ incursion into Sweden ends – but not on a long-term happy note.

Sure, the Geats are saved, the Swedes are defeated, and treasure is shared, but the future still holds the bleak prospect of the Swedes sweeping in, now that the Geats of the present are leaderless.

Actually, the past few entries have been full of speculation about just what the messenger is trying to do with this story, and one thing that’s gone un-noted so far is how the story sets up a situation in opposition to the one currently facing the Geats.

Hygelac’s appearance renews their spirits when they’re pinned in the Ravenswood. Hygelac replaces the leader of the first group of Geats. And Hygelac gives the Geats a single figure to focus their loyalty on.

Of course, the Geats in the present of the poem have no such focal point. Their leader is dead and gone. Which means that they are like those Geats trapped in the Ravenswood, their fate is already sealed.

But then, a question comes up: why not elect a new leader? Nobility is still an issue to choosing new leaders in early medieval Europe, but Wiglaf is no slouch. Unless all of the military know-how has gone along with Beowulf, Wiglaf’s inexperience could be remedied with wise counsel. In fact, it seems that a much worse choice could be made for the new head of the Geats.

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A Shot of Comedy

Along with this wrap up, we’re also treated to a quick summary of the various gifts that Hygelac bestows upon Eofor and Wulf. We’re not given a great amount of information about them, but the giving is punctuated with a strange sentence: “no man on earth
need reproach him [Hygelac] for that reward” (“ne ðorfte him ða lean oðwitan
mon on middangearde,” ll.2995-6).

After such a heavy tale, and given the Anglo-Saxon propensity for comedic irony, it’s clear that this is a prime example of their sense of humour at work.

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Closing

Next week, check back here for the rest of the messenger’s message!

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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Ongoing Ongeontheow (ll.2961-2970) [Old English]

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Teaching by Analogues?
Against Anger, About a Word
Closing

<!–

 

{Wiglaf shown landing the distracting blow, or Beowulf landing the fatal one – that’s just how much of a team this duo is. Image found on Weird Worm.}
 

–>

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Abstract

In the messenger’s story, Ongeontheow is captured and attacks Wulf, son of Wonred, in self defense.

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Translation

“‘There by the sword’s edge Ongeontheow,
the grey-haired lord, was left to suffer at
Eofor’s command alone. Angrily against him
Wulf son of Wonred reached with a weapon,
so that his sword swing struck, sending blood
forth from under his hair. Yet he was
not frightened, the old Scylfing,
he paid him back double for that blow,
turning a far worse death strike against that one,
after that the king turned thither.'”
(Beowulf ll.2961-2970)

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Recordings

I’m currently without a recording microphone, and so have no way to record these. However, I should be picking one up over the coming weekend.

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Teaching by Analogues?

As the messenger’s story continues, so too does his focus on Ongeontheow. Here we see him, gray-haired, retaliate against one of the Geats who was too angry to wait for Eofor’s decision.

Actually, it’s a curious detail to add that Ongeontheow is “grey-haired” (“blonden-fexa” l.2962). Obviously we should take it to mean that he is an old man, but as such it’s difficult to not think of Hrothgar, another old man encountered in the poem.

Or, to even think of Beowulf himself.

After all, the messenger must have a point for telling the story of the Ravenswood at such length. I mean, if he just wanted to remind everyone of their feud with the Swedes he could have cut things off with his statement about them not showing any mercy (l.2922-2923). Instead, he launches into a story that runs for 75 lines (ll.2923-2998), involves detailed descriptions of events, and focuses not on a Geat, but the chief of the Swedes.

Apart from using this story to get the Geats to recognize their current situation (as noted in last week’s entry), Ongeontheow could be a stand in for Beowulf.

Perhaps the messenger is warning the Geats of the Swedes, but also, for some strange reason, he’s trying to remind them of themselves. He’s trying to show them how their own laziness and their own cowardice – represented by Wulf’s inabiity to contain his anger – is what caused the trouble stirred by the dragon, just as the same lead to the death of Wulf (and of Beowulf).

But how could such an interpretation be backed up? Well, with the idea that the messenger like all of those bearing news and facts some might not like, needs to add a spin to what he says. His spin is to use a story that everyone can relate to but present it in a way that is different.

Or, perhaps everyone was familiar with Ongeontheow’s actions from a poem or story the Geats told amongst themselves. As of now we can’t really say for sure.

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Against Anger, About a Word

In a much more direct fashion, this excerpt from the messenger’s story is clearly an admonition against anger, against acting when a passion is in you.

Instead, at least through implication, the messenger is telling the people that they must be cautious, just as Eofor was in deciding Ongeontheow’s fate rather than just lashing out at him as Wulf did. Just as an army that has captured their opponent’s leader must think things throw and step carefully into the future, so too must the Geats if they’re to navigate the difficult, leaderless times that lay ahead of them.

For the Geats it is a time that is likely to be noisy with deathblows. A concept perhaps strange to us, but familiar to Anglo-Saxons since the Old English compound “wael-hlem,” meaning “death-blow,” literally translates to “carnage-sound.”

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Closing

That’s it for this week, but the messenger’s story continues next week, as Eofor steps into the fray.

And you can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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A Geat Teller and Swedish Main (ll.2946-2960) [Old English]

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Tales of Brave Hygelac
Stories’ Stretchability
Closing

 

{Wiglaf shown landing the distracting blow, or Beowulf landing the fatal one – that’s just how much of a team this duo is. Image found on Weird Worm.}
 

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Abstract

The messenger recounts how Hygelac’s horde turned the tide of the battle with Ongeontheow.

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Translation

“‘The gory track Geats and Swedes left there,
from the widely seen onslaught,
was easy to follow back to the erupting feud.
Then he knew the good men amongst his comrades,
the old sorrowful man sought to secure his soldiers,
Ongeontheow the chief turned to higher ground;
he had learned first hand of Hygelac’s battlecraft,
his splendid war strength; he trusted not to resistance,
the hope that he might rout those sea-farers,
those sea-borne warriors, resist that horde,
protect his son and wife; after that the aged one’s
banners went behind the earthen wall. Then the
persecution of the Swedish people was commanded,
Hygelac’s sign rushed forward into the peaceful plain,
afterward the Hrethlings thronged around that fortified
enclosure.'”
(Beowulf ll.2946-2960)

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Recordings

I’m currently without a recording microphone, and so have no way to record these. However, I should be picking one up over the coming weekend.

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Tales of Brave Hygelac

The messenger gives his story of the battling Geats and Swedes a very unexpected spin in this week’s excerpt.

Although Hygelac has appeared to save the Geats trapped in the forest, the story continues to focus on Ongeontheow. Why? Well, there are a few possibilities.

Among these, there’s the simple explanation that the messenger’s audience is already intimately familiar with Hygelac’s exploits in this battle.

The Geats have no doubt regaled each other with tales of the battle and its hero since they returned from the raid. Heck, there might even be a lost epic poem (or maybe just a short piece like the “Battle of Maldon”) about it – written down or maintained orally. Because of this familiarity the messenger thus skips over Hygelac’s role and instead gives the spotlight over to Ongeontheow.

It’s also possible that the story is told with the focus on Ongeontheow to stir up a sense of the direness of the Geats’ current leaderlessness. They have just lost their great hero, and another is not likely to appear as Hygelac did. Telling this same story, but putting Hygelac front and center would make it into a story to inspire pride and possibly even an early form of nationalism. Switching things around, though, telling the story with more of an eye to what Ongeontheow does, could help to show his listeners that the Swedes are warriors that have indeed been wronged.

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Stories’ Stretchability

This second possibility definitely underlines the importance of perspective in stories, but more importantly, it also suggests the elasticity of narratives. The messenger is, in essence telling the story of the battle of the Ravenswood, but the point of view that he uses will determine its spin. Giving his listeners more information about Ongeontheow’s tactics and motives than Hygelac’s is definitely a way to communicate the idea that the Swedes have been wronged.

Of course, for that sort of thing to get across it would be necessary for the messenger’s audience to have some sense of The Golden Rule. Definitely not something exclusive to Christianity, it’s nonetheless tempting to see the messenger’s using this particular spin on the story of the Battle of Ravenswood to encourage sympathy for the Swedes’ position as a result of this raid/attack.

Then, although not made explicit in the poem, the listeners could take their sympathy for the Swedes’ plight to understand the seriousness of the threat they now pose: The Swedes were attacked openly by a great hero, now we have no great hero, therefore we are also open to attack.

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Closing

Check back here next week for more of Beowulf as this very verbose messenger continues on with his story.

And you can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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