Wealhtheow, Grendel’s mother, and Hygd: The women in Beowulf

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

Aethelflaed, the anglo-saxon woman who wasn't queen but fought off vikings.

An image of Aethelflaed, fighter of vikings and the daughter of King Alfred the Great and Queen Ealhswith. Image from https://younghistorian7.wordpress.com/2014/03/18/a-look-at-some-anglo-saxon-queens/


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Synopsis

The poet takes a break from Beowulf here to share a few details of Hygelac’s kingdom with us.


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The Original Old English

“Het þa up beran æþelinga gestreon,
frætwe ond fætgold; næs him feor þanon
to gesecanne sinces bryttan,
Higelac Hreþling, þær æt ham wunað
selfa mid gesiðum sæwealle neah.
Bold wæs betlic, bregorof cyning,
heah in healle, Hygd swiðe geong,
wis, welþungen, þeah ðe wintra lyt
under burhlocan gebiden hæbbe,
Hæreþes dohtor; næs hio hnah swa þeah,
ne to gneað gifa Geata leodum,
maþmgestreona.”
(Beowulf ll.1920-1931a)


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My Translation

“Then it was commanded that the prince’s treasure be carried up,
ornaments and plated gold. It was not far from there
for him to go to the treasure bestower,
Hygelac, son of Hrethel, he who dwelled within
his own home, living near the sea-cliff with his companions.
The building there was magnificent, the king was of princely fame,
one exalted in the hall, along with Hygd, his young queen,
a woman wisely accomplished, though she had lived
within the enclosed stronghold for but a few winters,
daughter of Haereth. Yet she was not bent down by vanity,
she was not sparing in gifts to the Geatish people,
she gave a great many treasures.”
(Beowulf ll.1920-1931a)


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A Quick Interpretation

So far there have been two major women in this poem. And they are definitely at opposite ends of the spectrum of good/bad.

First, we met Wealtheow, the queen of the Danes. She was a woman who came from a group that Hrothgar or his family must have enslaved, based on her name. Despite these origins, the poet suggests that she’s a good queen who embodies all the best qualities of courtly women: quietly powerful, dominant in the hall, and a master of social niceties.

Next, we met Grendel’s mother. She is pretty much the opposite of Wealhtheow. After all, she’s supposed to be a monster. So instead of Wealhtheow’s happily fitting into a courtly setting and really shining, Grendel’s mother runs her own hall, answering to no one, and brutally striking out at those who attack her and her kin.

Now the poet introduces us to Hygd, the wife of Hygelac. The first thing we learn about her is that, much like Wealhtheow, she’s likely from a foreign people. After all, the poet notes that Hygd fits right in with the Geats, “though she had lived/within the enclosed stronghold for but a few winters” (“þeah ðe wintra lyt/under burhlocan gebiden hæbbe” (ll.1927-1928)). So Hygd is certainly a woman who wields her courtly power well and justly. Though there is a bit of a creepy note in mentioning how young she is.

Marrying women off when they would still be considered “girls” today was common practice in earlier societies, but that fed into the very purpose of marriage back then: cementing business and political deals. Love could be a factor, but more often than not I think it was hoped that it would come about after the vows were exchanged. Hence the steady popularity of love stories like those of Romeo and Juliet, Tristan and Iseult, or Lancelot and Guinevere. People were hungry for the idea of relationships built on love, even if they ran against whatever political or mercantile interests were at stake.

There’s also the issue of how Hygd fits into Hygelac’s court. She’s introduced along with the building and the talk of treasures. She’s introduced as Hygelac’s wife, sure, but there does seem to be a note of her being something Hygelac owns. Though in both Wealhtheow and Hygd’s cases there’s a sense that these women are able to create a great deal of power. And yet, there’s a hint of danger that lingers around women. In fact, the poet seems to be trying to strike a balance between good women and evil women, since the following passage describes the vanity and vice of Modthryth.

But, what do you think of the women in Beowulf? Is the poet trying to balance them out (and definitely not doing so with the men)? How does Hildeburh from the Finnsburgh section of the poem (ll.1068-1158) figure into this balance? Leave your thoughts in the comments!


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Closing

Next week, the poet tells us the story of the wicked queen Modthryth.

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Beowulf: Musical theatre as character exploration

Currently out from writer/director Aaron Sawyer at the Red Theatre is a musical simply (and a little confusingly) called Beowulf. The trailer on the show’s website grabbed my attention as tightly as a man with the strength of 30 could. But, not being able to jet down to Chicago and watch it myself, I’m only able to write about it based on reviews from Third Coast Reviews and The Chicago Reader.

Sawyer’s adaptation of Beowulf is quite an original take, though its focus isn’t anything too new. The basic premise is that Beowulf and Grendel’s mother have been trapped together for all time by Odin. Simple enough. But their past together has not been erased. Grendel’s mother grieves for the loss of her son, and Beowulf questions his heroism as the two become romantically entangled.

These details make this show sound like quite a romp indeed, but it’s definitely playing off of themes that exist in the original poem.

Grendel’s mother is definitely charged with sexual energy in the poem itself. After all, she is the controller of dangerous femininity (giving birth to monsters, wielding a concealed dagger, overpowering Beowulf and landing on top of him (almost fatally)). And she’s certainly contrasted with the much more socially constrained queen Wealhtheow. Wealhtheow is portrayed as nothing but demure, though there are hints of her own desires for Beowulf but she never acts on them.

Grendel’s mother on the other hand acts on her desires for Beowulf so vehemently that she comes very close to killing him. I mean, she pounces on him and then tries to stab him with a dagger. An act of fury, to be sure, but it’s hard for me to not see the symbolism in what she does while on top of him. The dagger she pulls out is pretty phallic as a symbol. Stabbing is a form of penetration. And a female stabbing a male while on top of him seems (at least to me) like a pretty clear metaphor for male rape; a thing no doubt circled by shame and sorrow in the Anglo-Saxon society from whence Beowulf came.

But, interestingly enough, (and maybe this is where Sawyer got the idea for making Grendel’s mother the focus of his play and Tolkien got the idea for having fewer women in the Lord of the Rings trilogy than you could count on both hands), Beowulf never shows much interest in Grendel’s mother.

In fact, he never really shows much interest in any woman. He’s just concerned with glory and heroism (as he is in that trailer).

But maybe Beowulf’s apparent asexuality is part of the bigger picture of the poem. In keeping with medieval ideas of males somehow being closer to god than females, perhaps part of Beowulf’s manly virtue is that he’s beyond all that icky sex stuff. Even when we see him rule his own people there’s no real indication that he’s ever been married or had children. There’s not even any explicit mention or clear implication that he had some kind of mistress.

Ultimately, it sounds like Sawyer’s Beowulf is one that, though it strays pretty far from the source material in terms of story, keeps very close to its characterization of Beowulf and of Grendel’s mother. As goofy and incoherent as Jack Helbig of the Chicago Reader says it is, I think those elements are built into Sawyer’s premise. How else but farce could locking Grendel’s mother and Beowulf in a room turn out? As such, I think this take on Beowulf would be worth seeing just to get a glimpse of two of Beowulf‘s most interesting characters.

Wealhtheow speaks to Beowulf, another compound chain (ll.1215-1231)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
What’s Wealhtheow’s Speech Really all About?
A Leader and Their People Bound by Treasure
Closing

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Abstract

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

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Translation

“Wealhtheow spoke, she before the throng said this:
‘Enjoy these rings, dear Beowulf,
young warrior, be with health, and this garment use,
our people’s treasure, and prosper well;
show to these youths your strength, and to them
offer kind advice; I for this reward shall remember you.
You have brought it about, so that far and near
forever among men shall you be praised,
just as widely as the sea encompasses
the home of the wind, the jutting cliffs. Be, long as you live,
prince, blessed! I wish to you great
treasure. Be you to my sons
of kind deed and joyful!
Here each man is to the other true,
of mild heart, under our lord’s protection;
the warriors are united, a people fully prepared
these men all have drunken the pledge and do as I command.'”
(Beowulf ll.1215-1231)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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What’s Wealhtheow’s Speech Really all About?

Wealhtheow’s speech in this passage covers a lot of topics. I mean, first she formally gives Beowulf further gifts, then asks him to be a role model for her sons. Then she says that because of what he’s done Beowulf’s fame will encompass the land just as the seas do before she wraps it all up with a statement about her being in power in the hall.

Actually, that last statement strikes me as the oddest bit of her speech.

I mean, for most of this bit of dialogue she’s been talking about Beowulf, and even before it she’s been described as giving him these gifts. So…what’s the deal with her concluding statement about the order of the hall?

Maybe it’s just a speech formula. The speaker starts by praising and requesting things of the subject of their speech and then jumps right into a little “here’s how things work here” statement. I can see this formula being a useful rhetorical device solely because of the order in which things are presented.

The subject-listener, after having heard so much ego-swelling material is likely giving the speaker their full attention, waiting intently for more to feed their sense of self-worth. But then, rather than praising the subject’s pectorals or gushing about his gluteus maximus, the speaker says “hey, you’re in my hall now, and this is how you need to behave.” It’s like sneaking a PSA into a children’s cartoon so that only the parents watching notice.

But maybe there’s more still going on here, too.

Putting aside all theories that Wealhtheow has the hots for Beowulf (because she is a woman and Beowulf is this young adventuring type), maybe this ordering of topics is meant to cut off the male subject-listener’s understanding of the speaker as coming onto him before the idea can take serious seed in his mind. Just as the male listener expects another flattering comment, maybe the verbal equivalent of batting eyelashes, the female speaker says “but, hot as you are, remember — I’m queen of this place and everyone here is at my command. So don’t try anything.”

Although, taking this rhetorical ordering of topics as a means of diffusing ego tripping and perceptions of sexual advances is just one interpretation. This kind device could also invite further sexual advances. Maybe, broken down into its most basic statements, this whole speech to Beowulf is saying “Hey, you’re pretty hot, I’m pretty powerful, let’s hook up. I can just tell anyone who sees us here to look the other way.”

All of which makes understanding just what’s going on in this speech tricky.

Though, unless the Beowulf poet wanted their hero to have some sort of Oedipal thing going on, I lean a little more toward the warning explanation of this rhetorical ordering.

I mean, Wealhtheow doesn’t just mention her children once, but twice. Though, in both instances she’s asking Beowulf to be a role model for her kids through his strength and generous actions, possibly the role a father should fulfil but that Hrothgar is too old to himself. So, maybe she really is trying to get Beowulf into her bed, even through her mention of her kids.

What do you think? Is this speech proof that Wealhtheow is coming onto Beowulf, or is it just a lady and mother imploring a hero to teach the next generation how to behave? Sound off in the comments below.

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A Leader and Their People Bound by Treasure

I thought that chaining together some of last week’s compound words into a kind of story worked pretty well, so I’m doing it again. Here goes:

The word “man-dryhten” (l.1229) denotes something more than just a leader. In particular, it means “lord” or “master.” A combination of “man” (“one,” “people,” or “they”) and “dryhten” (“ruler,” “king,” “lord,” “prince,” “the Lord,” “God,” or “Christ”), there’s a sense that people described by this word aren’t just men who lead, but who are leaders of men. As such, it’s important for them to be “eal-gearo.”

That is, these leaders of men need to be “all ready,” or “prepared.”

The word “eal-gearo” (l.1230) is a great word to express an extreme preparedness because its combination of “eal” (“all,” “every,” “entire,” “whole,” “universal,” or “all men”) and “gearo” (“prepared,” “ready,” “equipped,” or “finished”) gives a clear sense of someone or something that is fully equipped or prepared, meaning that they’re ready to face just about anything. Even if what they need to do involves the emotional state of their “dryht-guman.”

Based on the idea of “man-dryhten” worrying about “dryht-guman” (l.1231), you’d be right to guess that “dryht-guman” are “warriors,” “retainers,” “followers,” “men,” or “bridesmen.” But because this isn’t just a standalone word for warrior like “beorn,” or “wiggend,” there’s something more going on here. This special connotation comes from the combination of “dryht” (“multitude,” “army,” “company,” “body of retainers,” “nation,” “people,” or “men”) and “guman” (“man”), and implies someone who isn’t just a fighter, but who is fighting for a particular cause headed by a particular figure or person. And if that person is truly worth a pack of dedicated fighters, they’ll be able to keep their “dryht-guman” “dream-healdende.”

Despite its length “dream-healdende” (l.1227) simply means “happy,” or “joyful,” and is based on the combination of “dream” (“joy,” “gladness,” “delight,” “ecstasy,” “mirth,” “rejoicing,” “melody,” “music,” “song,” or “singing”) and “healdende” (as “heald”: “keeping,” “custody,” “guard,” “protection,” “observance,” “observation,” “watch,” “protector,” or “guardian”; or as “healdan”: “hold,” “contain,” “hold fast,” “grasp,” “retain,” “possess,” “inhabit,” “curb,” “restrain,” “compel,” “control,” “rule,” “reign,” “keep,” “guard,” “preserve,” “foster,” “cherish,” “defend,” “withhold,” “detain,” “lock up,” “maintain,” “uphold,” “support,” “regard,” “observe,” “fulfil,” “do,” “practice,” “satisfy,” “pay,” “take care,” “celebrate,” “hold,” “hold out,” “last,” “proceed,” “go,” “treat,” “behave to,” “bear oneself,” or “keep in mind”).

So, running with the words compounded into “dream-healdende,” it’s clear that the word conveys an easy sense of “happiness” or “joyfulness,” but with the implication that these states are sustained or long-lasting. And what better way for a “man-dryhten” to sustain the happiness of their “dryht-guman” than with treasure?

That’s where the word “sinc-gestreona” (l.1226) comes in. This word means “treasure” or “jewel” and is a combination of “sinc” (“treasure,” “riches,” “gold,” “valuables,” or “jewel”) and “gestreon” (“gain,” “acquisition,” “property,” “treasure,” “traffic,” “usury,” or “procreation”), which pushes the literal meaning of “sinc-gestreona” beyond that of a mere trinket of treasure and into something that, like “dream-healdende,” sustains wealth over a long period of time. So, really, “sinc-gestreona” might more accurately mean a hoard of treasure or something of incredible value. Perhaps, a piece that’s treasured by a whole people.

Or, you might say, a “þeod-gestreona” (l.1218).

This word means “people’s treasure” or “great possession” and comes from the mixture of “þeod” (“people,” “nation,” “tribe,” “region,” “country,” “province,” “men,” “wartroop,” “retainers,” “Gentiles,” “language” or “fellowship”) and “gestreona” (the same as in the previous compound).

There’s not much more to “þeod-gestreona” than that, since “þeod” literally refers to a collective of people, even getting a little meta to include “language,” so such a treasure that’s a “þeod-gestreona” is something valued by a mass of people, perhaps even something that gains much or even all of its value because of that mass valuation.

In fact, if you went back to the peak of the Beanie Babies craze in the ’90s, those Beanie Babies that were counted the most valuable would be perfectly described by this sense of “þeod-gestreona” — pretty much any sought after collectible is a “treasure of the people,” in a sense, after all. Collecting things really does go that far back!

The Anglo-Saxons collected gold and jewelled treasure, which are still “þeod-gestreona,” but what do you collect just because it’s valuable to you? What’s something that you consider “þeod-gestreona”?

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Closing

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

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Wealhtheow notes her nephew, uses two crystalline compounds (1180b-1191)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Wealhtheow’s Nephew and Sons
Two Compounds in a Crystalline Speech
Closing

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Abstract

Wealhtheow brings up Hrothulf in her speech to Hrothgar before she turns to her sons and Beowulf.

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Translation

            “‘I myself know
how gracious Hrothulf is, that he will defend
the honour of the youth, if you before him,
friend of the Scyldings, leave this world;
I believe that he will liberally repay
our two sons, if he recalls all the care we’ve given him,
the favour and honour* that we showed him
while he was a child** and still growing up.’
She turned then from the bench, there to where her sons were,
Hreðric and Hroðmund, and to the hero’s son,
all the youths together; for there the good man sat,
Beowulf the Geat, there between the two brothers.”
(Beowulf ll.1180b-1191)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Wealhtheow’s Nephew and Sons

Wealhtheow’s speech to Hrothgar ends here, and as such she turns towards the subjects of her next few words. This is a very obvious part of this passage, but I think it’s important to note because the connotation of her very properly keeping eye contact with Hrothgar while she addresses him underlines just how controlled and prim Wealhtheow’s speech here is (despite the revelry that’s just got to be continuing on around her).

But what’s here in her mentioning Hrothulf to Hrothgar is the acknowledgement that he is not directly related to either of them. I think that’s why she points him out as she does. Not to mention, it sounds like he’s probably a little older than the sons that she turns to at the end of this passage.

So how, exactly, is Hrothulf related to Hrothgar or Wealhtheow? He’s Hrothgar’s nephew by his sister Halga. Undoubtedly Hrothulf’s at Heorot to learn the ropes of being a member of the ruling part of society away from home. And, as such, Wealhtheow doesn’t need to give much detail when she says that he’s likely to protect her children as a away of repaying them for the care and honour they showed to him while he was growing up (and presumably still is). But so much hangs on his repaying this debt.

If Hrothulf was, in fact, raised well by these foster parents of his, then repaying them by taking care to teach their children will go without saying, and the two of them will be in good care, raised the way that Hrothgar himself and Wealhtheow herself would raise them, should either of them perish before the boys are grown.

As to why Beowulf is seated between Hrothgar and Wealhtheow’s sons, I’m not entirely sure.

On the one hand, I imagine it’s a seat of honour, definitely up near the front of the room.

But at the same time, I can’t help but wonder if it’s kind of like putting an esteemed guest at the kiddie table.

Not that that’s likely to keep Wealhtheow’s sons from sampling some of the wonderful brew that’s being spread around the hall as she speaks.

The best I can come up with for Beowulf’s placement in the hall is that his status as hero is assured and as ally is almost entirely certain, but not yet entirely locked down. Maybe it even shows how great the gulf was between those who had lived at a hall for much of their lives (Unferth, presumably) but hadn’t done many great deeds, and those who showed up, performed amazing feats of strength, and then are bound to head out again. After all, it wouldn’t do to give a seat of high honour or make them a councillor if they’re basically just passing through.

Getting back to the matter of Wealhtheow and Hrothgar’s sons, I think that Wealhtheow’s talking of Hrothulf and the poet’s mention of Beowulf being seated between the two boys, is supposed to emphasize that her sons are surrounded by positive models of masculinity. These boys have their father, their cousin, and this socially productive wayfarer. There could even be some subtext here about the heirs of Heorot being so well prepared that there’s absolutely be no way for them to screw it up and wind up with the hall destroyed because of betrayal and in-fighting.

Do you think there’s supposed to be some sort of joke in Beowulf’s being seated between Wealhtheow and Hrothgar’s sons?

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Two Compounds in a Crystalline Speech

Because this part of Wealhtheow’s speech is so straightforward and plain spoken, there are just two compound words in it. It really does seem like they’re just part of bombastic speech — maybe even male speech — rather than the kind of clear-eyed toasting that Wealhtheow’s doing.

Likewise, the compounds that are used are fairly clear. Almost, in fact, to the point of having a kind of crystalline quality.

The first of these two compounds is from line 1186, “weorð-mynd.” This word means “honour,” “dignity,” “glory,” or “mark of distinction,” thanks to the compounding of “weorð” (“worth,” “value,” “amount,” “price,” “purchase-money,” “ransom,” “worth,” “worthy,” “honoured,” “noble,” “honourable,” “of high rank,” “valued,” “dear,” “precious,” “fit,” or “capable”) and “mynd” (“memory,” “remembrance,” “memorial,” “record,” “act of commemoration,” “thought,” “purpose,” “consciousness,” “mind,” or “intellect”).

Literally translated, “weorð-mynd” means “worth remembering,” an idea that transitions pretty easily into any of the compound’s meanings. But a literal definition that helps define “honour” a little bit. Those things that bring you honour being things that are worth remembering.

Which is a simple enough definition, though also very neutral since there can sometimes be horrible events or actions that are worth remembering so that they can be avoided or prepared against. But maybe this general sense of what’s honourable encapsulated in “weorð-mynd” feeds into a medieval way of thinking about memory and its effect on behaviour.

The basic principle I’m referring to here is the idea that what you memorized or filled your brain with — be it poetry, scripture, history, whatever — would influence how you thought and acted in your day to day life. So, memorize beautiful, god-fearing things and you’ll have an easy time enjoying the positives in life, but fill your memory with hatred and darkness and your life will be miserable, your actions terrifying. So, maybe “weorð-mynd” isn’t so neutral. Maybe, baked into the idea of honourable things being those things which are worth remembering is the idea that the best things to remember are those that are good and positive. In other words, it is best to remember honourable things.

The second compound word in this part of Wealhtheow’s speech isn’t quite as exciting. It’s the compound “umbor-wesende” and is found on line 1187.

This compound, quite enticingly given its weird verbiage, means “being a child.” But, its parts offer up only an anti-climax: the Old English word “umbor” means “infant”; and the Old English word “wesende” is a form of the verb “to be.”

So.

Entirely literally, “umbor-wesende” means “being a child” or “to be a child,” or maybe, in the right context, “having been a child.” There is, after all, a sense in the word that what you’re applying it to is no longer a child — their childhood has effectively ended and is behind them. Such must be the case with Hrothulf, not necessarily because of his age, but because he’s been raised with care and honour and is now expected to help do the same with his cousins.

Do you think that there’s anything to the idea that what you memorize or fill your brain with actually has an effect on your day to day life and behaviour?

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Closing

Next week, Wealhtheow brings Beowulf a gift of gold.

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Wealhtheow addresses the hall of men, the words she uses (1169-1180a)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Wealhtheow in a World of Men
The First few Compound Words in Wealhtheow’s Speech
Closing

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Abstract

Wealhtheow formally addresses Hrothgar, tells him to follow his joys, respect his kin and the Geats.

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Translation

“‘Take of this fullness, my noble lord,
treasure bestower; you in joy are,
gold giving friend of men, and to the Geats
speak mild words, as anyone shall do;
be with the Geats glad, be mindful of their gift
from near and far that you now have.
My man has said, that you for a son this
warrior would have. Heorot is cleansed,
the bright ring-hall; use, while you will,
your many joys, and to your kin leave
the folk and kingdom, when you shall go forth,
as fate* foresees.'”
(Beowulf ll.1169-1180a)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Wealhtheow in a World of Men

This passage sounds like a return to the highly formulaic speeches that Hrothgar and Beowulf exchanged when the Geat first arrived at Heorot. And it basically is.

Shot through with epithets tucked into subordinate clauses and a direct address to Hrothgar without actually naming him, this passage just has the ring of a very formal toast. As such, it’s a passage in which we see Wealhtheow’s public persona. This is very much the person that she is when she’s out amongst the mead benches, either offering mead or ale, or simply making an appearance to give her blessing and advice as she does here.

Though the world of Heorot remains staunchly a world of men.

Maybe there are a few women serving the men who are so raucous after the poet’s story, but there’s no way to know if there are any women joining in on the festivities. All we have is our impression of the scene, and mine is that Wealhtheow is probably the only woman on the floor right now. What’s more, it sounds like she’s well aware of this since, when she reports the rumour she’s heard of Hrothgar adopting Beowulf (as he had done with the boy’s father, Ecgtheow), Wealhtheow says that “My man said” (“Me man sægde” (l.1175)), suggesting a servant who, perhaps, is her go-to for gossip or information. But, I think it’s intentionally a male servant she refers to, since she knows that male authority is essential for being taken seriously in the hyper masculine realm she’s stepped into.

Plus, there’s no mistaking the Old English of “me man saegde,” since it’s practically identical to the Modern English “my man said” in its words and, probably, its idiomatic meaning of “my man on the inside” or, put another way, “my reliable source.”

As formal and as masculine as all of that is, though, Wealhtheow maintains her feminine grace at the end of this part of her speech when she caps off her toast with the wish that Hrothgar enjoy himself until the end of his days.

Of course, this line doesn’t sound quite so mysterious when summarized like that, but the reference to “fate” definitely feels like something enigmatic. Much more so than simply saying “the end of your life,” since at the least, that’s something definite — you’ll stop being able to enjoy yourself once you’re dead. But simply being able to indulge in joys “when you shall go forth,/as fate foresees” (“þonne ðu forð scyle/metodsceaft seon” (ll.1179-1180)), sounds like there could be something else that Wealhtheow foresees getting in the way of Hrothgar’s enjoying his wealth.

Now, she hasn’t turned to speak to Beowulf yet in this scene, but I think that this line is a great candidate for the spark that lights the flame of suspicion that Wealhtheow has the hots for Beowulf. Maybe, with the poet’s removed sense of history, her mention of fate is actually an intentional reference back to the hints that the poet’s dropped about Heorot’s own doom and demise – Wealhtheow’s been granted some sort of meta-story foresight and has seen Hrothgar’s fall from power and she hopes that Beowulf will step into the vacuum and be with her.

What do you think? Does it seem like Wealhtheow has some sort of plot for or hope that Hrothgar will fall to the side so that someone like Beowulf can step up? Or is it too early in the poem to tell?

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The First few Compound Words in Wealhtheow’s Speech

This week’s passage doesn’t contain too many surprising compound words. There are a few – sure – but they’re all what you’d expect from a very buttoned down, formal speech like the one Wealhtheow is giving here. She’s not talking of any battles or any extreme sorrow, she’s just making a formal address.

To whom is she making this address? Well – we just need to turn to line 1171 to find out. Here, in a little epithet, she refers to Hrothgar as her “gold-wine,” which means “liberal prince, lord, or king.” The word combines the Old English “gold” (“gold”) with “wine” (“friend,” “protector,” “lord,” or “retainer”). Of course, a liberal ruler is going to be one who seems to be made out of gold, he has so much to give away. So “gold-wine” seems a very functional, if not somewhat glittery in itself, word.

Next, on line 1176, Wealhtheow uses the word “here-rinc.” This word means “warrior” and comes from a combination of “here” (“predatory band,” “troop,” “army,” “host,” “multitude”) and “rinc” (“man,” “warrior,” “hero”). So, a man or warrior from a troop – someone with decent enough social standing to be in a troop rather than just some lone wolf or exile. The latter of which having been one of the coast guard’s worries about Beowulf when the Geats first arrived in Daneland.

Then, closing off the list of compound words we’ve never seen before, is “beah-sele” (found on line 1177). This compound offers a little more wiggle room than the previous two when it comes to interpreting it. There’s not much secret meaning in it, but there is a possible implication that runs against “beah-sele”‘s general meaning of “hall in which rings are distributed.”

This implication comes from the meaning of “sele” on its own: “hall,” “house,” “dwelling,” or “prison.”

If you pick out “prison” and combine it with any of “beag”‘s meanings (so any of “ring (ornament or money),” “coil,” “bracelet,” “collar,” “crown,” or “garland”), you get the impression that a “beah-sele” isn’t necessarily just a place of wealth distribution and the joy that comes with that, but that there’s also the possibility that a person using “beah-sele” sees such a place as a prison, as a thing that impinges on their freedom because of the societal expectation that rulers distribute their wealth, and so wealth brings no true freedom, only the burden of doling it out and of ruling well with it.

I didn’t mention it here, but how much do you think using these compound words is a matter of intent and how much do you think it’s a matter of choosing a word for the alliteration or meter?

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Closing

Next week, we’ll hear Wealhtheow’s further words on the succession in Heorot.

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Further thoughts on Wealhtheow, Beowulf tries to pick her up? (ll.620-630)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
What’s Wealhtheow, Heorot’s layout, Beowulf’s fierceness
Two Compounds and a Dialogue Tag
Closing

The lady of Heorot serving Hrothgar. It looks genial enough.

The lady of Heorot serving Hrothgar. It looks genial enough.

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Abstract

Wealhtheow makes her way to Beowulf, who graciously takes of the mead she offers before addressing her formally.

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Translation

“Then went about that Helming woman
to each section of the noble and the young,
she offered/offering the costly vessel,until the time came
that to Beowulf she, the ring adorned queen
of distinguished mind/heart, bore the mead cup.
She greeted the Geatish man, thanked god
with wise words, that he her will fulfilled,
that she could find consolation in any living warrior
against that sin. He partook of that cup,
the fierce fighter, from Wealhtheow,
and then sang the one ever ready for war;”
(Beowulf ll.620-630)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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What’s Wealhtheow, Heorot’s layout, Beowulf’s fierceness

Where to start? This passage has a lot happening in it. Since choosing just one to write on this week would mean skimming over some curious speculation, let’s just go through the major points.

For the curious, these are Wealhtheow’s position in light of her being referred to as “ides;” what we can deduce about the layout of Heorot’s interior from this passage; and Beowulf’s being referred to as, basically, “bloodthirsty.”

I know I touched on this last week, but what, exactly, is Wealhtheow?

Up to this point in the poem she’s been introduced as Hrothgar’s queen and her name makes it abundantly clear that she is likely in that relationship for the sake of political expediency rather than any strong, all-conquering love.

Later in this passage she’s also referred to as a queen. So that makes it pretty clear.

But before that, in line 620 Wealhtheow is referred to as simply “ides.”

This word translates to “virgin;” “woman,” “wife,” “lady,” or “queen.” I get that this is probably just here for the alliteration of the line (phonetically the Old English reads: “iumb-eh e-o-deh tha e-dez hel-min-ga”), but even so, using that word simply for alliteration’s sake feels like a stretch. Almost as much a one as my reading into this word.

Though, alliteration and overreaching aside, I think there’s something sane and kind of obvious at work in the use of “ides.”

At this point in the poem, the poet puts his focus squarely onto Wealhtheow. As such, it’s possible that a vague word like “ides” is used here to reflect the variety of perceptions the men in the hall have of her. Some see her as mother, others as their lord’s wife or queen, and to others still she was a woman or a lady, possibly even a virgin (at least figuratively, unless the apparent marital strife between them is about more than Hrothgar being able to raise his sword against Grendel).

Of course, it’s hard to say how the person who wrote or composed Beowulf worked. Did they ever come up with an alliteration before a line was written out, or even have a sense of which letter would be that’s line’s sound and then build the line out from there?

Perhaps with this line in particular the poet/scribe may have simply wanted to use “i” or “ides” (or “eode”) here and then built outward.

Whatever the case, figuring out just who Wealhtheow is as a person is made even more difficult by the line below describing her as having a “distinguished heart.” Is she an incredibly early expression of the idea of a noble savage? Did the Anglo-Saxons maybe consider the Celts in the same way that later Europeans considered First Nations?

Onto the arrangement of the hall. Line 621 states that Wealhtheow “went about the hall to the experienced and the young alike” (“duguþe ond geogoþe dæl æghwylcne”). What’s unclear about this line is whether those in the hall are all young and experienced (kind of a strange combination) or if the experienced sit together and the young do the same.

My guess is that it’s more the former, mostly because it makes sense that these two words represent two distinct groups and because the Geats’ needing to be let into some sort of inner chamber to see Hrothgar suggests that rank (won through experience, and therefore, age) is reflected in where your seat is.

I think that these divisions of young and experienced aren’t as you might expect, though. I don’t think “young” denotes someone who has not been alive for very long. Instead, I think that it refers to someone young in the way of battle. Why? Because the word that I’ve translated as “experienced” is also commonly used to describe or denote warriors. As such I think the poet is working in a dichotomy and though young and experienced could be seen as opposites, I think it’s a very specific sort of “young” that the poet has in mind.

Besides, Beowulf himself at this point in the story can’t be more than 20. Yet he is, at least according to his own stories, vastly experienced. Again, there are probably some in Hrothgar’s retinue that aren’t grey about the temples but have nonetheless seen plenty of combat. So it looks to me like Heorot’s seating reflects the Danes’ various skill levels.

After Wealhtheow has thanked Beowulf (for his boasts, at this point), the poet launches into a description of the warrior before he breaks into a speech.

For the most part this description of Beowulf seems fitting except that in the first part of line 629 Beowulf is described as a “fierce fighter”. The original word for “fierce” is “wælreow” which means “cruel, fierce, savage, blood-thirsty.”

Why is Beowulf characterized by such an adjective as this?

I suppose it’s possible that the poet is exulting in Beowulf’s deeds in combat or is trying to give the impression that Beowulf has seen this attractive (“ring adorned” (“beaghroden” (l.623))) lady and is trying to puff himself up to impress her.

Even so, using a word that carries “bloodthirsty” among its definitions seems like overkill to me. Unless, the word “wælreow” started off with more positive connotations (maybe as another way to refer to berserkers?) but then slowly deteriorated over time. Though, perhaps this is also part of Beowulf’s puffing up for Wealhtheow, maybe his animalistic nature is expressed sexually as well as in battle? Or maybe her thanking him has revved him up to fight Grendel?

What do you think about anything I’ve raised in this section? Leave your thoughts in the comments!

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Two Compounds and a Dialogue Tag

Although I mentioned it in the above section, the word that seemed a bit extreme to describe Beowulf’s fierceness, “wælreow” bears further investigation.

This word is one of my favourite types of words – a compound. As a such, what are its parts?

Well, there’s “wael” meaning “slaughter” or “carnage” and there’s “hreoh,” meaning “rough,” “fierce,” “wild,” “angry;” “disturbed,” “troubled,” “sad;” “stormy,” or “tempestuous.”

Interestingly, though I don’t think it’s the exact same word, there’s also an entry in the Clark Hall & Meritt dictionary for “hreoh” (“hreow”) that defines it as “sorrow,” “regret,” “penitence,” “repentance,” “penance;” “sorrowful,” or “repentant.”

Combining these two words obviously intensifies the sense of carnage and wildness that both convey. Yet, it’s curious that “wael” is a word that just describes something like a scene while “hreow” conveys a little more emotion, reflecting perhaps on the state of mind that a person is in to create a scene that could be described with “wael.”

Bringing the other possible meaning of “hreow” into the picture makes things even more curious since a slaughter that a warlike person regrets or is sorrowful over suggests that they were not themselves in their rage.

Perhaps, as I suggested in an earlier entry, Beowulf’s fighting style or battle prowess somehow relates to the practice of going berserk. If so, here, as Beowulf primes himself for his fight with Grendel, we see him starting to get into his battle frenzy.

And no doubt, Beowulf would fight in a battle frenzy. One example doesn’t make a strong case, but one of the central players in Celtic myth, Cuchulain entered into a battle frenzy in which his entire body convulsed and became grotesquely changed. Maybe Beowulf does the same or is feared for being capable of doing the same?

Another compound word worth mentioning from this week’s passage is “wisfæst” (l.626)

It’s the simple combination of “wis” meaning “wise,” “learned,” “sagacious,” “cunning,” “sane,” “prudent,” “discreet,” “experienced” and “fæst,” meaning “fast,” “fixed,” “firm,” “secure;” “constant,” “steadfast,” “stiff,” “heavy,” “dense;” “obstinate,” “bound,” “costive;” “enclosed,” “closed,” “watertight;” “strong,” or “fortified.” The word “fæst” might also mean “reputable” or “standard.”

That “wis” and “fæst” combine to simply make “wise” is incredibly straightforward. Though, I think the modern English word “wise” loses some of the original’s oomf.

After all, it’s not just the word wise, there’s a sense that the wisdom that the compound describes is something tried and true, a sort of wisdom not born merely of experience, but also from those who have gone before. Although there’s no mention of learning or reading, I get the sense that it could be the sort of wisdom that comes from instruction and experience. Or, if “reputable and standard” work as defintions of “fæst,” wisfæst” could be a sort of common sense – suggesting that even in the early medieval period those who had such sense weren’t so common and were this considered wise.

Though maybe it’s because Wealhtheow doesn’t seem to get high off of her own supply that she and her common sense seem indeed marvellous. Though, again, what exactly is her position and character?

Lastly, I just want to bring up the word “gieddan” (l.630).

It’s not a compound word, but it is one that hasn’t shown up in the poem before.

It’s another word for “said,” basically, though its dictionary entry offers “speak formally, discuss, speak with alliteration, recite, sing.” The implication of this word’s use being that what Beowulf is about to speak formally (maybe even musically?).

The word fits perfectly with line 630’s alliterating “g” sounds, but I still like to think that the poet expresses the idea that Beowulf is about to speak (before, weirdly, using the formulaic “Beowulf spoke, son of Ecgtheow” in next week’s first line) by saying he’s about to speak formally to round off the image of this young (possibly still teenaged) Beowulf seeing the lovely Wealhtheow and puffing himself up to attract her attention.

What do you think is up with Wealhtheow? Is she just Hrothgar’s queen and nothing more? Or is she somehow working behind the scenes, keeping the Danes going?

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Closing

Next week, Beowulf sings to Wealhtheow an assurance of his boast about beating Grendel and she goes to sit with Hrothgar, fully contented — for the moment.

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