Psychological Warfare and the Importance of Tactical Mercy (ll.2936-2945) [Old English]

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
A Differently Angled Ambush
Stories and Psychological Warfare
Closing

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Abstract

The messenger’s story of the Ravenswood continues, as the Geats are pinned by Ongeontheow’s host until a saviour is heralded.

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Translation

“‘Beset he then with an immense host the remnant
wearied by war wounds; all the night
long he twisted their tender spirits with vile boasts,
he said that he would destroy them with the
sword’s edge come morning, that he would hang them
on gallows trees to feed the birds. Yet joy again
existed in their sorrowful hearts just as day dawned,
for then came Hygelac with his horn and its call,
a sound they recognized, knew that it meant a troop
of great allies had arrived in their final moment.'”
(Beowulf ll.2936-2945)

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Recordings

Old English:

Modern English:

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A Differently Angled Ambush

The messenger’s message continues, and his story about the Ravenswood really picks up steam in this week’s extract. What could be more exciting than a situation in which a last minute arrival swings in the good guys’ favour, right?

It’s not the first time that we’ve had a story with late comers mentioned in Beowulf. After the hero himself defeats Grendel we hear about the Battle of Finnsburg (ll.1068-1158), where the Frisians have ambushed and wearied the Danes.

Since it sounds like Hygelac was completely unexpected by Ongeontheow and the Geats alike, his appearance here is definitely a kind of ambush. But rather than the tragedy that is the Battle of Finnsburg, Hygelac’s appearance is a cause for joy.

After all, in the story about Finnsburg listeners can take a side, but in the messenger’s story, we know that those listening are cheering for the Geats, and therefore it’s less a negative ambush and more of a rescue, as the phrase “at last faran” (“arrived in their final moment,” l.2945) suggests.

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Stories and Psychological Warfare

Speaking of perspective, it’s easy to see even the major players within the world of Beowulf as brutes with sharp swords, but Ongeontheow does something rather incredible when he has the troop trapped in the Ravenswood.

He doesn’t rush in and slaughter them outright. Instead he launches a psychological attack, as he bombards them with “vile boasts” (“wean oft gehet” l.2937) all through the night (“ondlong niht” l.2938). This is a strange move on Ongeontheow’s part at first glance, but if we look deeper we can see his reasons for it.

During this period of time, destroying a leaderless band outright would have been like killing a headless man. Matters of redundancy aside, it would have been dishonourable and a source of shame, rather than something that a warrior could be proud of. Besides, a terrified group of leaderless enemy soldiers would have to deal with their own shame of having outlived their lord, and would likely tell the darkest stories of their conqueror’s power.

This sense of shame explains a little bit of why Ongeontheow says he’ll leave the Geats until morning, but it doesn’t give a full picture of it.

Down the line of shame, there may have been some convention among warriors of the time to wait so many hours/watches before attacking such a disorganized rabble (perhaps to let one of them rise up as leader?), but Ongeontheow has another reason for his threats.

Multiple stories told by many terrified, shamed, and sorrowful men would grow Ongeontheow’s reputation. But a handful of stories that include his torturing them with vile boasts all night and then slaughtering most of the remaining host would make it easy for any survivors to tell stories of him that were absolutely intimidating.

And, as we saw in 2012’s last entry, Ongeontheow seems to care deeply for the safety of his family. So creating the seeds of intimidating stories would benefit him as it would deter future purpose-less raids from other groups that were looking for places to attack for arrogance’s sake.

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Closing

Next week, the story of Ravenswood continues. Don’t miss it!

And you can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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Wending through the Ravenswood (ll.2922-2935) [Old English]

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Picking at the Messenger’s Words
Biblical Arrogance
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 goes on to recount why the Swedes will also turn against the Geats once word of Beowulf’s death reaches them.

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Translation

Nor do I expect the Swedes to hold us as kin
or remain peaceful; for it was widely known
that Ongeontheow slew Haethcyn,
son of Hrethel, in the strife at Ravenswood,
when for arrogance the Geats first
sought to strike the Scylfings.
Old and terrible, Ohthere’s wise father
gave the return assault,
destroyed the sea king, kept his bride,
deprived his aged wife of gold,
the mother of Onela and Ohthere;
then he followed the mortal foe,
until they showed themselves
in great leaderless hardship in the Ravenswood.
(Beowulf ll.2922-2935)

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Recordings

Old English:

Modern English:

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Picking at the Messenger’s Words

This passage is as complex as any path through a place called the Ravenswood might be. The Anglo-Saxon basics are here (a feud, raiding for treasure’s sake, protecting peace weavers), but the way that they’re delivered likely leaves something to be desired for most modern readers.

Particularly, the jump from the statement that the Swedes will not be the Geats’ greatest allies to the retelling of the Geats arrogantly raiding Swedish lands is not entirely clear.

There is a connection between the two, sure, but it definitely casts the Swedes in a much more negative light than the Geats. I mean, obviously any such unprovoked attack is likely to start some bitter feelings, but just as much as the Swedes hate the Geats for it, the Geats should hate the Swedes – their king was lost there, after all.

However, maybe the way that the messenger tells the story, calling the Geats arrogant and putting the Swedes in the place of the villains, is a call back to the story of Haethcyn and Herebeald. The story of fratricide leading to Haethcyn’s becoming king upon Hrethel’s death, itself brought on by Herebeald’s death.

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Biblical Arrogance

If we follow this string a little further, we can speculate that the Geats’ arrogance wasn’t to be found in fighting a greater force than themselves – but rather that the Geats were arrogant in trying to force judgment on Haethcyn (a man that none could judge nor feud with because of the nature of fratricide).

For if the Swedes were a greater force than what the Geats could muster, and though it sounds like it must have been a harsh fate for those Ongeontheow met in the Ravenswood, it’s possible that they raided Swedish lands simply to get Haethcyn, the one guilty of fratricide, killed.

If such is the case, then maybe this act itself is also a reference to the story of king David and Bathsheba, in which he sends her husband, Uriah, to the front line so that she becomes a widow and therefore available. This biblical story is definitely one of arrogance, yet, Christ is considered to be of David’s lineage, and so relating a doomed race to such a story suggests that there is hope yet for the Geats, in some small and distant way.

Following this line of thinking, and working with the hypothesis that Beowulf was written down in the 10th/11th centuries, then maybe it was popular enough to write down around this time because it reflected a large group of Anglo-Saxon society’s hopefulness in the face of great odds.

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Closing

That’s it for Tongues in Jars until the New Year. Watch for the next Beowulf entry on January 3!

Or you can jump to the next part of Beowulf here!

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Questionable Memories (ll.2910b-2921) [Old English]

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Battles and Anglo-Saxon War Codes
Behind the Scenes?
Closing

{Was the right side on the black or the red horse? Image found on jehsmith.com.}
 

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Abstract

The messenger foretells of trouble with the Franks and Frisians.

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Translation

                    “Now our people may
expect war-time, once the king’s fall
becomes widely and openly known
among Franks and Frisians. The fury of the Franks
was hard rattled, after Hygelac sailed from afar
in a war fleet to Frisian lands, there
Hetware harried him on the field, zealously came out
against him with overpowering might so that the
corsleted warrior was made to give way,
he fell amongst foot soldiers; not at all did that
lord give treasures to his troop. Ever since then
the Merovingians have shown us no mercy.”
(Beowulf ll.2910b-2921)

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Recordings

Old English:

Modern English:

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Battles and Anglo-Saxon War Codes

For a passage that tells of events which aren’t directly connected to Beowulf’s story, there’s a lot going on here. For the messenger tells of the battle in which Hygelac fell, and the grudge that the Merovingians (the pre-Pepin the Short Franks) hold against the Geats for their raid on their land. But this isn’t the first we’ve heard of a battle like this.

We heard Beowulf himself describe another one earlier, when he’s talking to the thanes before they go up to the dragon’s hoard and describes how he killed Dayraven on the field and swam back to Geatland with 30 suits of armour. What’s curious about both of these battles is that they both involve the death of the Geats’ lord. In the battle the messenger tells of, Hygelac dies, and in the battle Beowulf tells of, Hrethel and Haethcyn (however strange the chronology) fall.

Part of the Anglo-Saxon code of battle was to fight on after the death of your lord, and if any Geatish lord died here, then Beowulf should have fought until they won or he met a similar fate.

Instead Beowulf *swam* back to Geatland, suggesting that the Geats were not victorious, even though he may have brought treasures back with him. Plus, as a raid, how could it be successful save for the gaining of the raided land? Or were the Geats more like the reavers of A Song of Ice and Fire, attacking for loot and then returning to their homes?

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Behind the Scenes?

But throughout the whole poem we don’t hear anything of Beowulf’s cowardice. Certainly, there’s no place for it in a piece that’s all about the grand deeds of one man.

Historically, since the Merovingians are mentioned, this battle would have happened in the 5th century AD. Socially, on the other hand, the sense that you ought to fight to the death – especially after your lord is killed in battle – may have waned by the time that Beowulf’s been written down.

More troubling, however, is the idea that Beowulf swam back with some hopes of claiming the throne for himself. Hygd may have been as enamoured with Beowulf as some argue Wealhtheow was, only she may also have been more successful in the wooing.

Whatever happened behind the scenes that saw Beowulf mounting the throne, the very fact that he survived the apparently lost battle against Hetware seems to work against many of the ideals of Anglo-Saxon warriors and society.

Perhaps, again, these things were what caused him to feel responsible for the dragon’s wrath. Perhaps his conscience was pricking at something deeper than disciplining some thief who stole a cup.

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Closing

Check back here next Thursday for the continuation of the messenger’s words to the Geats!

And you can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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Wiglaf’s Prognosticatings [ll.2877-2891] (Old English)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Wiglaf’s Learned Look at the Future
Early Thoughts on Early Medieval English Nationhood
Closing

{Wiglaf casts no runes, but peers into the future nonetheless. Image found on the Daily 23 blog.}
 

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Abstract

Wiglaf foretells of terrible times ahead for the Geats, but concludes on a defiant note.

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Translation

“I of life protection little could
offer him in the fray, and yet I felt my limits
lessen when I strove to help our lord.
It was ever weakening, when I landed sword blows
on the mortal enemy, the fire from his head then
grew sluggish. As he became desperate, too few rallied
around the prince, at the time of the beast’s final
thrashing. Now shall the sword-gifting and treasure
sharing, all the native-land joy of our people,
our hope, be subdued; each of us will have
our land-right become idle
among our people, afterwards princes from afar
will come seeking, driving us all to flee,
an inglorious deed. Death is better
to every warrior than a life of dishonour!”
(Beowulf ll.2877-2891)

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Recordings

Old English:

Modern English:

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Wiglaf’s Learned Look at the Future

Here Wiglaf’s rant becomes less about pure anger directed at the thanes (and perhaps redirected from himself, partially) to a bit of prognosticating.

He predicts that now the Geats are doomed because stronger neighbours will overrun them once it becomes known that the Geats have found great treasure and lost a greater leader. However, it’s not fair to pin nothing but prognostication onto Wiglaf’s words here, I think it’s fair to say that they’re simply predictions borne of observation.

Wiglaf has never fought in any battle before, but surely he’d have heard stories about them from his father, or from bards while at the court of Beowulf. With all the time the Geats spent in the meadhall it would be a wonder if their heads weren’t as full of tales as their bellies seem to be of mead and ale. So it’s safe to say that Wiglaf would know about the dangers of being without a powerful leader.

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Early Thoughts on Early Medieval English Nationhood

Anyway, the bigger thing here, at least, as far as I’m concerned, is the compound word “londrihtes” (l.2887). In modern English, this literally translates as “joy of land ownership” or “native land joy.”

The importance of this word, and its connotation appearing earlier in the use of words like “leodscip” (meaning “nation,” “people,” “country,” or “region”) is great. It suggests that the Geats, or the Anglo-Saxons who composed and refined and listened to and watched this poem, had more than just a concept of land ownership – they had a concept of their belonging to the land as much as they did of the land belonging to them.

What makes this so important is that it implies that they weren’t just roving bands of mercenaries, but felt some kind of connection to the land that they occupied, much in the same way that Wiglaf feels a connection to the land that he fears and predicts the Geats will be forced to flee. This isn’t a major aspect of the story, by any means, but its being mentioned and its being used as a threat of future doom buttresses its importance.

Follow me here. Earlier in the poem, speeches to inspire have involved the prospect of treasure or of glory of one kind or another. Even Wiglaf’s speech to the thanes involves reminding them of Beowulf’s generosity with his war spoils, themselves a kind of treasure (in the same way that an iPhone might be considered a treasure today – something ubiquitous that could also have a great deal of sentimental or personal meaning).

However, when Wiglaf starts his doom-saying about the entirety of the Geats he doesn’t say that their war gear will be snatched away, or even that they’ll lose the hoard of treasure – instead he says that they’ll be forced from the land. They’ll be forced to flee. In my mind, and I think, throughout this poem, this is the absolute worst thing that could happen to an Anglo-Saxon because it’s a form of exile.

Yes, the Geats will be forced to flee together, but they’ll still have to flee from the place that they call home. And if being exiled is such a big deal, and it can be expressed through a reference to land, then it seems to me that these Geats have at least some sense of living in a country – in Geatland.

That this is mentioned in this poem matters because its Anglo-Saxon creators wouldn’t waste their breath composing something meaningless. Even setting matters of structure and oratorial decoration aside, the word is there, and it comes at the climax of Wiglaf’s prediction. Therefore, the threat of land-loss must be things that strike a chord in medieval Anglo-Saxon minds. And if the notion of losing one’s country strikes a chord, then there needs to be a concept of even having a country for it to do so.

Thus, these references are important because they point to the importance of a nascent sort of nationalism that, admittedly needs to be expressed (or at least is only expressed as far as we can tell from surviving records/literature) through the story of another nation. It needs to be projected, in other words, which suggests that the nation doing the projecting might not be fully defined as yet, but nonetheless has some sense of nationhood.

Of course, for the reference to concepts of nationhood within Beowulf to suggest some nascent sense of nationalism, the poem would need to have been written (or at least first composed) around the time of Alfred the Great (ninth century) or earlier. All the same, there’s something to be said for the poem’s implications about nationhood.

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Closing

Tomorrow, watch for a review of The Room – it’s coming!

And you can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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Swedish Retribution "from over wide water" [ll.2472-2483] (Old English)

Abstract
Translation
On Swedes and Geats
Compounding New Words
Closing

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Abstract

We get the history hard and fast in this week’s passage of Beowulf (ll.2472-2483, Chapter XXXV).

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Translation

“‘Then between Swedes and Geats was war and enmity;
from over wide water causing laments,
wall-hard warfare, after Hrethel had perished,
Ongeonðēow’s sons to them came,
warlike; they would not free
those they held under sorrow’s sway, and near Hrēosnahill
they oft launched voracious ambushes.
My close-kin avenged this,
feud and war-fire, as it is known,
though one of them bought the victory, at a hard price,
with his life; Haethcyn, Geatish lord,
was taken in the war’s assailing.'”
(Beowulf ll.2472-2483)

{Approximation of the Hrēosnahill fight offered by a mural of the Battle of Maldon. From the Braintree collection of murals.}

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On Swedes and Geats

Questions bubble up like air in a flagon of ale upon reading this passage. Who was Ongeonðēow? What’s important about Hrēosnahill? What liberties were taken with the translation?

Ongeonðēow [On-g’in-thou] was the king of the Swedes who launched an attack on the Geats to recover his daughter and his gold, both of which had been taken by the Geats on an earlier raid. He was famed as a powerful king, and two Geats (Eofor and Wulf) had to work together to defeat him (read more here). Though, as we’ll see in next week’s entry, Beowulf makes it sound like Hygelac himself lands the deathblow.

Hrēosnahill [Heh-res-na-hill] is where Hæðcyn had taken Ongeonðēow’s daughter, and is apparently a real place (modern Swedish:”Ramshult”), as well as a place that is traditionally within Geatish territory. Go to this Wikipedia page for more info.

So, what’s happening here is a little bit of old fashioned early medieval back and forth. The Geats stole Ongeonðēow’s daughter and gold (according to Wikipedia), and now the Swedes are coming for rescue and revenge – which they (again, from Wikipedia) only half exact. The Swedes recover the woman, but not the gold.

Two liberties were taken in the above translation. In the third line (l.2474) “wall-hard warfare” is altered from the literal “hard warfare” since the alliteration makes it sound more Anglo-Saxon and “hard warfare” isn’t as evocative as the original “here-nīð hearda.”

The phrase “under sorrow’s sway” was also altered from the literal “lamentation holding” since it doesn’t have enough punch in Modern English. It also confuses the metaphor of being held under extreme emotion, which is clarified by “under sorrow’s sway.”

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Compounding New Words

The words “here-nīð,” and “inwit-scearo” are both compound words worthy of elaboration.

The first combines the word for “predatory band, troop, army; war, devastation” (“here”) and for “strife, enmity, attack, spite, affliction,” (“nīð”). Literally, then, it could be rendered “war-strife” or “troop-enmity” and so warfare is a clear translation of it. The redundancy of a literal translation also makes the standard translation of the phrase more efficient than a literal rendering.

The word “inwit-scearo” on the other hand, is more worthy. The term is a mix of “inwit,” meaning “evil, deceit, wicked, deceitful,” and “scearo,” a form of “scieran,” meaning “to cleave, hew, cut; receive tonsure; abrupt.”

Literally, the word could be rendered as “evil-cleave” or “abrupt-deceit” which sound like they could still be productive words among modern counterparts. “Evil-cleave” at least sounds like a technique in an RPG, while “abrupt-deceit” could be a spicier way to describe an ambush or surprise attack.

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Closing

To let me know what you think about these compound words (or this entry in general) just post a comment below. And feel free to follow this blog, I’ll follow yours back.

Next week, Isidore elaborates on the workings of sheep and rams, and Beowulf tells of Hygelac’s revenge, all the while bolstering his own warrior-like image.

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Beowulf [ll.2419-2429] (Old English)

Introduction
Summary
Beowulf’s Greatest Foe?
Beowulf’s Opening Lines
Genæs: Further Analysis
Briefly Autobiographical
Closing

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Introduction

When we last left Beowulf, he was sitting on a cliff, looking out to sea. His mind was heavy with thoughts of his impending death, and this week’s section gives us an idea of what those thoughts were like.

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Beowulf’s Greatest Foe?

We’re told that Beowulf knows that he would soon “encounter old age,” (“gomelan grētan sceolde,” l. 2421) that it would seek his “hoarded (?) soul,” (“sēcean sāwle hord,” l. 2422). And before Beowulf at last addresses the 12 with him the poet offers the elaborations of Beowulf’s life being rent from his body (“sundur gedǣlan/līf wið līce,” l. 2422-3) and of his “flesh…soon unravel[ing] from his spirit” (“nō þon lange wæs/feorh æþelinges flǣsce bewunden,” l. 2423-4).

Death is definitely violent, but very firmly not the end, and Beowulf knows this well. But all of this is mentioned in the context of Beowulf sitting in “sorrowful mind” (“geōmor sefa,” 2419). There’s definitely a strong sense of the elegy that J.R.R. Tolkien detected in the poem here (see page 14 of this article). And there’s also the sense that Beowulf feels some remorse. But why?

Because his kingdom has been ruined by the dragon and, upon seeing its lair, he realizes that he will die fighting it? Because he feels that those he has taken with him, the leaders of the next generation, surely, are not capable of the glory that he achieved? Perhaps he regrets the conquests and triumphs of his youth? Or is it merely an expression of the extreme anxiety around death?

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Beowulf’s Opening Lines

The first line and a half of the section set the atmosphere by telling us that Beowulf was “restless and ready for death,” that he could feel “fate immeasurably near” (“wǣfra ond wæl-fūs, wyrd ungemete nēah,” l. 2420). Then the poet/scribe offers things more concrete.

Beowulf’s ensuing speech is about his youth and accomplishments, but I’ll get more into that next week. This week, I just want to focus on the first two lines (one sentence) of it.

Beowulf opens by saying that he “survived” (genæs) countless battles and war-times in his youth. His choice of words here is curious, since, according to my dictionary, all senses of “genæs” suggest the last-minute removal from a dire situation (survive, escape from, be saved).

Why doesn’t Beowulf (or the scribe/poet) simply use “won glory,” or “succeeded”? Is this a sign that Beowulf is well aware of the horrors of war and that the poem itself can be read not as a document glorifying it, but maybe the first recorded account in English of someone who has experienced Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)? Or, is it just the only word that would fit the line’s meter and/or alliteration?

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Genæs: Further Analysis

Following the line of reasoning that the poet/scribe could have used another word in place of “genæs,” here’s my analysis.

“Survived” makes it sound as though all of the battles that Beowulf has seen were trials or hardships sent by some greater entity, or merely as a part of life. “Escaped from” makes armed conflict seem like some terrible, impersonal machine or happening.

And, “been saved” makes it seem as though Beowulf got lucky each time he fought and was spared from the sword or arrow by the intervention of his fellow warriors or some sort of supernatural being. This last meaning of “genæs” perhaps gels the best with the laggard that everyone at the Geatish court believed Beowulf to be until he returned from Daneland with stories of slaying Grendel and his mother.

So then did Beowulf actually change from a weakling boy into a fierce warrior, or was his original softness just masked by luck – is this a propagandic Christian twist that suggests that trusting in god will keep you safe in skirmishes and war time?

Beowulf at this point is 50 years old – the same age as Hrothgar and Grendel’s mother when he was in Daneland. Rulers in the world of Beowulf seem to last their 50 winters and then tip off the mortal coil in one way or another. Though in such a world, living to see 50 does seem remarkable.

Whatever the case may be, modern interpretations of “genæs” all come with this connotation of getting through something larger than an individual human’s machination.

At the least, I feel secure in saying that this word suggests that human conflict is something outside of the control of individual people and possibly even groups of people. In fact, the word could be read as the poet/scribe suggesting that war is another kind of natural disaster. The cosmological implications are fascinating.

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Briefly Autobiographical

The next sentence of Beowulf’s speech begins his auto-biography. At the age of seven he went to his treasure lord (“sinca baldor,” l. 2428) for fostering at his father’s command. This treasure lord, “leader and friend of the people” (“frēa-wine folca,” l. 2429), seems benevolent enough, and the practice of fostering is evident throughout the middle ages. Even Chaucer was fostered.

The transition from the first sentence of his speech and the second is where these two get interesting.

Beowulf ends his first sentence with the bold statement that he “remembers all of [the conflicts]” (“ic þaet eall gemon,” l. 2427). And from what comes next it seems that he also remembered much of his youth. He specifically recalls a story from his youth that may well be the earliest political strife he encountered. But I’ll get into that next week.

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Closing

Think I’m a little too loose with my translations of words or phrases? Or that I dig too deep for meaning? Or do you think that I’m right on and should just write a book about it all already? Let me know in the comments.

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