The fight with Grendel quickly retold (again), five more humbly amazing compound words (ll.991-1002a)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Heorot Restored, Beowulf Vs. Grendel Revisited
Pedestrian, but Nuanced, Compounds
Closing

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Abstract

The assembled crowd starts to rebuild Heorot, and the poet goes over the scars the hall won when Beowulf grappled Grendel.

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Translation

“Then came quickly the command to the people
to adorn Heorot inward; many were there
men and women, so that that wine hall,
that guest hall was bedecked. Variegated with gold,
wall tapestries shone over walls, such a wonderful sight
they all agreed as they stared upon the same.
That bright house had been swiftly broken into pieces,
all of the inside’s iron bonds no longer fast,
the hinges sprung apart; the roof alone escaped
all untouched, that fiendish foe’s wicked deed
of winding away in his escape could be seen in the damage,
despairing of his life.”
(Beowulf ll.991-1002a)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Heorot Restored, Beowulf Vs. Grendel Revisited

So this post’s passage recounts, once more, the fight between Beowulf and Grendel.

First we saw the battle play out as the poet described it. Then we got Beowulf’s retelling. And now, we have the hall’s retelling. Though this retelling is curious in light of what Beowulf’s done with Grendel’s arm. For the inside of Heorot is where they fought, where the damage of their brawl is obvious and where the action itself is all marked out. But that internalization of the heroic deed can’t stand. Instead, the inside of Heorot is restored to its former glory as things are tidied up and shining tapestries are hung from the walls. Instead of being internalized, then, Beowulf’s victory over Grendel is put on public display. After all, a good story is something to share, not keep bottled up, right?

But then what’s up with the assembled people putting Heorot back together again?

This clean up seems to be something that they do mostly to erase the destruction of Grendel. Which makes good sense, since it’s here that Heorot starts to be referred to as a social hub once more. On line 993 the hall’s describe as a “wine-hall” (“win-reced”) and one line later it’s called a “guest hall” (“giest-sele” (994)). The abstract qualities of Heorot are stripped away. It’s no longer some shining hall, or the highest hall of them all, it’s no longer an idea, but something concrete. Heorot is once more a place where people can go for wine. It’s a place to go to entertain guests. Heorot is once more the social organ of the Danes’ society under Hrothgar’s rule. No longer are the Danes to relate to the outside world only through their troubles, but now they have a legitimate place to go when they want to share stories or cups of wine or simply to host guests. Guests like the Geats.

But, as much as this passage is about Heorot being restored to some extent, the scars that were opened over the course of Beowulf’s fight with Grendel are also meditated on. Actually, in describing the damage done to Heorot through the fight, the poet adds yet another piece of information to its story.

In the pivotal moment when Grendel escaped Beowulf’s hold and fled for the fens, he didn’t just slither out of Beowulf’s grip but his wriggling free is given the brunt of the blame for the hall’s sorry state (l. 1001).

What I find really neat about this third telling of the struggle between Grendel and Beowulf is that it’s a story that places the fight into a physically bounded space. Grendel didn’t just struggle against the hold of Beowulf, but the hold of Heorot itself.

I think the poem moves in this way to make it clear that when Grendel runs out to the fens he’s escaping Heorot itself and whatever promise the place held for the kin of Cain as much as he’s escaping Beowulf. From Grendel’s perspective this means that he’s finally giving up on Heorot (a sure sign of his death, given the stick-to-itiveness we’re been told about earlier). But from Beowulf and the Danes’ perspective this physical scar of Grendel’s escape might just be laughed at as the sign that the monster had had enough of being a guest in Heorot, which adds a curious hint of hazing to their social relations. Grendel played too roughly, but Beowulf, again assuring the audience that he’s not a monster, is able to control his power and successfully overcome Grendel — the image of what Beowulf could be if he lost control.

Of course, if there was this hazing ritual in place, then the bar for Gendel’s acceptance would be set incredibly high, leaving him with no choice but to refuse any sort of guest status in Heorot. Unlike Beowulf, who, if this hazing was a thing, seems to have faced his at the hands of Unferth and successfully out-worded the man to find acceptance.

Why do you think we keep hearing about how Beowulf fought Grendel although we just saw the fight a few hundred lines ago?

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Pedestrian, but Nuanced, Compounds

The compound words in this passage are, weirdly, pedestrian. Perhaps because this is supposed to be a more descriptive than poetic passage with the poet going into the detail of Heorot’s destruction, all of the compound words on display here have simple enough definitions. Let’s start with the most straightforward.

These would, without a doubt, be “win-reced” (meaning “wine hall”) (l.993) and “giest-sele” (meaning “guest hall”) (l.994). The first of these combines “win” (“wine”) and “reced” (“building,” “house,” “palace,” “hall,” or “triclinium”) to simply mean exactly the sum of its parts. Really, the only thing that subtly changes the meaning of “win-reced” is the “triclinium” sense of “reced” since the reference to a Roman dining table with three couches around it emphasizes the hospitality and social vibrancy you’d expect from a “wine hall.”

The word “giest-sele” is similar in its mix of “giest” (“guest,”or “stranger”) and “sele” (“hall,” “house,” “dwelling,” or “prison”). But there is some nuance in “giest-sele” After all, there is the meaning of “giest” that’s “stranger” and of “sele” that’s prison.

Perhaps Anglo-Saxons, for all of their apparent defensiveness around strangers (as we glimpsed when Beowulf and his crew appeared on Daneland’s shores) have the attitude that strangers are just potential guests — even that they’re one and the same except that strangers are unexpected and likely unannounced (perhaps making them a minor annoyance, since, let’s be honest, who 100% enjoys being dropped in on unexpectedly?).

The meaning of “sele” as “prison” also makes for an interesting point since it reflects on how Anglo-Saxons perceived prisoners. Treating them well, be they guest or stranger, would be important to keeping feuds to a low boil after all.

Then we come to an even more straightforward word with “gold-fag,” meaning “variegated with gold” or “shining with gold” (l.994). This one’s so straightforward because there’s no ambiguity around either of the terms that constitute it. The Old English word “gold” means “gold” and the word “fag” means “variegated,” “spotted,” “dappled,” “stained,” “dyed,” “shining,” or “gleaming” — all of which are basically saying the same thing — whatever “fag” describes is somehow shiny.

“Wunder-seon” is similarly plain, but, weirdly, is a Beowulf exclusive. The word itself means “wonderful sight” and is a combination of “wundor” (“wonder,” “miracle,” “marvel,” “portent,” “horror” “wondrous thing,” or “monster”) and “seon” (“see,” “look,” “behold,” “observe,” “perceive,” “understand,” “know,” “inspect,” “visit,” “experience,” “suffer,” or “appear”). Both of these individual words don’t offer much in the way of nuance. There could be a bit of variation in the sense of “seon” as “suffer” but I take it to mean a more intense kind of seeing, a sort of unfiltered vision, which perhaps works with the “miracle” and “portent” senses of “wundor” to give “wundor-seon” its more supernatural connotations.

Then, lastly, we come to “isenbend” which is maybe the plainest word of this bunch.

Now, that’s not because there aren’t nuances to this word’s individual parts, but because the nuances that are there don’t really mix. But let’s step back for a second.

The word “isenbend” means “iron bond” or “fetter” and brings “isen” (“iron,” “iron instrument,” “fetter,” “iron weapon,” “sword,” or “ordeal of red-hot iron”) and “bend” (“bond,” “chain,” “fetter,” “band,” “ribbon,” “ornament,” “chaplet,” or “crown”) together to do it.

So with “isen” there’s the nuance of it referring to an “ordeal of red-hot iron.” But, that one just doesn’t fit, plain and simple. The others do to a better extent, in that any kind of bond or even crown could have its value, its power, reinforced by the sword or by an iron weapon. Perhaps this compound could be used to refer to particularly powerful tyrants.

But whatever you take “isenbend” to mean,and however you try to bend that meaning, I have to admit that it’s a very strong word. Maybe it’s the “s” sound in “isen” but “isenbend” sounds much stronger to me than Modern English’ “ironbound.”

How useful do you think Old English compound words are? Are they just words that were jammed together for a single purpose, or do they carry a unique set of connotations?

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Closing

The next few lines of the poem get philosophical, and tricky. But how can you not get those things when you’re writing about inevitable death?

Watch for the next post next Thursday!

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Grendel’s arm inspires awe, compound words get weird (ll.980-990)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Grendel’s Myth Grows
Five Words of Increasing Weirdness
Closing

Beowulf, Grendel, Old English, Anglo-Saxon

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

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Abstract

The poet takes ten lines to describe Grendel’s hand in more detail and to show how the assembled warriors react to the sight of it.

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Translation

Then more silent were those words, of the son of Ecglaf,
of boastful speech about warlike deeds,
after the noblemen that man’s strength
saw in that hand hung on the high roof,
the fiend’s fingers. At the tip of each was
a firm nail most like unto steel,
the heathen’s claw, the horribly dreadful
warrior. Everyone assembled said
that they had never heard of any time-tested sword
that could strike it, that would injure the wretch’s
bloodied battle hand.
(Beowulf ll.980-990)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Grendel’s Myth Grows

It’s not exactly within the purview of this top section, but I think it bears immediate wondering about: the poet has no trouble using compound words in this part of the poem. So are compounds words doled out with some sort of rhyme (or rather, alliteration) or reason? Does the poet keep most of them in the narration? Which character has the most compound words in their dialogue? Which character has the most compound rich dialogue? Who are these characters?

Anyway.

That bit of research question writing aside, this passage is weirdly mimetic of what it’s describing. That is, these 10 lines are all about awe and people being struck dumb save for a few whispers. And because this passage is fairly straightforward, even in Old English (though the vocabulary here is pretty rich), it’s just a very smooth passage in which the noise of tangled clauses or clamorous kennings aren’t issues or characteristics.

What’s more though, is that, like a movie director, as the poet moves away from Beowulf’s story, the poem moves away from Beowulf not just in terms of subject, but also in terms of perspective. I don’t get the impression from this passage that Beowulf is surveying those assembled with confident grin on his face and “I’m hot shit” running through his head.

I get the impression that this passage represents more of a sweeping shot in which we see Unferth front and centre, jaw agape, mouth maybe working but nothing coming out.

Next the camera pans around the hall’s yard to a group of lords or warriors or both that are just silent, looking up at the gable on which the arm is pinned.

Then, to finish the scene off, the camera then moves to a group that’s huddled and whispering, perhaps just loud enough for a boom mic to pick up “I’ve never heard of anything that could cut such an arm – to just tear it right off…” perhaps with the speaker going a shade or two paler, and with a look of worry on his face as he looks in the direction of Beowulf. Then the scene ends and a fresh shot comes up or we fade to black.

Stepping aside from this filming analogy, the one thing that grabs me in this passage is the extra time that the poet puts into building Grendel up after his defeat and death. Why mention that his severed hand has claws like steel now, when it’s completely disabled? Is it just part of immersing the reader or hearer in the fight with Grendel, a fight in which little details like steel claws might’ve gone unnoticed?

Actually, throughout the rest of the poem Grendel has more and more detail added to him. Later we see his body in his mother’s lair, and after that Beowulf tells again of the night and the fight and gives Grendel some sort of dragon skin bag in which he stuff his victims. Maybe it’s just that Beowulf is so long that it gets a bit meta with its myth-making and actually has characters building up their own myths and legends while they’re still being told.

It’s also neat that the onlookers’ go-to weapon is the sword, which by now would certainly be a sign of wealth and power rather than just a fighting implement. Spears would’ve been much cheaper and the standard weapon of any infantry after all. So it’s a sure sign that those looking on at Grendel’s arm are of noble lineages or prestiges of one sort or another.

Though it could also be a bit of socio-economic commentary — the old guard and established nobles wouldn’t have thought of debasing themselves by fighting such a monster barehanded. Perhaps their not considering such a tactic might even reflect on the poet’s opinion that nobles hide behind their swords (that is, their prestige and their wealth) rather than actually doing the fighting themselves and, very literally, getting their hands dirty.

Sometimes there’s just too much to this poem.

In your opinion, why does the poet give more detail about Grendel here?

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Five Words of Increasing Weirdness

Whatever the reason — if there even is one — this passage is rich in compound words. So much so in fact, that I can actually arrange them in order of ascending weirdness rather than just going at them as they appear. Here we go.

The word “beadufolm” appears in line 990 and means “battle-hand.” There’s not much to this one since it’s a very straightforward combination of “beadu” (“war,” “battle,” “fighting,” “strife”) and “folm” (“palm,” “hand”). Aside from referring to a hand that participates in combat, I think this word could also carry connotations of one who, in his or her hand, carries war in the sense that the work of their hands is strife and difficulty for all those they encounter. Since it’s describing Grendel that seems very appropriate, too. Could the same word describe Beowulf, though?

Next up is the slightly more nuanced “gielp-spræc” of line 981. This word means “boastful speech” and combines “gielp” (“boasting,” “pride,” “arrogance,” “fame,” “glory”) and “spræc” (“language,” “power of speech,” “statement,” “narrative,” “fable,” “discourse,” “conversation,” “eloquence,” “report,” “rumour,” “decision,” “judgment,” “charge,” “suit,” “point,” “question,” “place for speaking”) to come to this meaning.

This is the first of this post’s words that’re Beowulf exclusive, meaning that, as far as we know, the Beowulf poet(s) made this word up specifically for the poem since there aren’t any other Old English texts that use it. Considering the importance of boasting and making big claims in Beowulf, I think it’s safe to say that this one was definitely handcrafted for the poem.

The “gielp” part of the word is fairly straightforward, since its meanings are logical enough and sensible enough. But, things get more vague with “spræc.” This word includes the expected things like “language” or “conversation,” but also includes “rumour,” “charge” (in the legal sense), and even “place for speaking.” Because of this versatility, I’d like to think that “gielp-spræc” would’ve been popular with the thanes and warriors who heard it in the poem, the range of places and functions of boasting it seems to encompass as well as being a more decorative way of getting the idea across really dress up the practice of boasting.

Similar to “gielp-spræc” in its mostly straightforward meaning and combination is “guð-geweorc” (also from line 981) This one means “warlike deed” and is another Beowulf exclusive compound. As a combination of “guð” (“war,” “conflict,” “strife,” “battle”) and “geweorc” (“labour,” “action,” “deed,” “exercise,” “affliction,” “suffering pain,” “trouble,” “distress,” “fortification”), it’s kind of hard to interpret it as anything other than a “warlike deed.” Even pulling something like “war fortification” out of it suggests a “warlike deed” because of the intention involved.

But I think that this is just the power of the compound word in Old English, it can get across intentionality in a way that other words just aren’t able to.

Next, a word that comes from near the passage’s end (line 988 to be exact), but is full of the surprises you’d expect from an opener. The word “ærgod” means, as you might have guessed, “good from old times.”

This word combines “ær” (“ere,” “before that,” “soon,” “fomerly,” “beforehand,” “previously,” “already,” “lately,” “til”) and “god” (“good,” “virtuous,” “desirable,” “favourable,” “salutary,” “pleasant,” “valid,” “efficient,” “suitable,” “considerable,” “sufficiently great”) to come to its august meaning and strong sense of describing something that’s withstood the test of time.

What’s surprising about this one, though, is that it’s a Beowulf exclusive. This might be explained away because it fits the line’s alliteration, but “ær-god” doesn’t really alliterate with anything on its line. So I think it’s safe to take this line to mean that the Anglo-Saxons (a people definitely not living in a disposable culture) prized things that lasted, even went so far as to give these things special meaning and status. So it’s really strange to me that “ær-god” isn’t found in any other Old English texts that have, themselves, withstood the test of time.

Now, the final word from this passage that’s worth note: “handsporu,” meaning “claw,” or “finger.” A mix of “hand” (“hand,” “side (in defining position),” “power,” “control,” “possession,” “charge,” “person regarded as holder or receiver of something”) and “sporu” (“spoor,” “track,” “trail,” “footprint,” “trace,” “vestige”), this word’s compound meaning is strange to say the least.

Why is it so strange?

Well, this word implies that, at least conceptually, Anglo-Saxons (or, perhaps their Germanic ancestors) saw fingernails as “hand poop.” After all, only the “hand” part of “handsporu” has any internal variation. No matter how you cut it, “sporu” means “leaving,” and is the root of the Modern English “spoor” which has become specialized to refer exclusively to animal poop that trackers and hunters and the like use to guess an animal’s trail or whereabouts. Though maybe this was just the poet’s own creative way of looking at fingernails, and claws since this one’s also a Beowulf exclusive. I guess no one else wanted to touch this one.

Four out of this week’s five words are exclusive to Beowulf. Do you think there’s any kind of pattern to words that are exclusive to Beowulf?

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Closing

In the next passage we’ll see the Anglo-Saxon equivalent of an 80s montage as everyone assembled at Heorot rushes around to fix up the hall.

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Beowulf as storyteller, words sharp and simple (ll.957-970a)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Beowulf Embellishes Grendel
Rich and Simple Compounds
Closing

Beowulf, Old English, Anglo-Saxon, translation

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Abstract

Beowulf speaks of his fight with Grendel and the monster’s god-defying strength.

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Translation

“Beowulf spoke, the son of Ecgtheow:
‘We that brave deed did with much good will,
carried out the fight, daringly risked ourselves
against strength unknown. Wish I very much
that thee thyself might have seen it,
the enemy entangled and exhausted to the point of death!
I swiftly grasped him tight and thought
to bind him then and there to his death bed,
so that for my handgrip he should
lie struggling for life, but his body slithered out.
For I might not, though god willed it not,
prevent him from going, nor could I then firmly enough grasp him,
that deadly foe.'”
(Beowulf ll.957-970a)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Beowulf Embellishes Grendel

The first thing that struck me about this passage is Beowulf’s first word. He says that “we” defeated Grendel (l.958).

He doesn’t put the brunt of the glory on himself, but on his team of Geats. His team that was, as far as the poet told us, not even really around for the start of the fight and not really all that effective by the time that they came in to help. Yet Beowulf spreads the credit around. Almost as if, being a warrior but not yet a leader with a castle and treasure of his own, all he has to share out among his band is that glory.

It’s a curious idea, if you think about it. I mean, it’s what would happen with Anglo-Saxon social groups with treasure, so why not with glory, too? After all, the actions of the leader reflect upon that leader’s followers. So Beowulf’s defeating Grendel suggests that his fellow Geats are also quite powerful and formidable.

Though not so powerful as Grendel is made out to be.

Because as a boaster and storyteller Beowulf knows his way around suspense, we’re told by our hero that he had Grendel in a grasp designed to kill the fiend. Yet, the monster’s “body slithered out,” suggesting that he lithely escaped Beowulf (l.967). Though there’s the implication that Grendel’s morale took a serious hit. What I’ve translated as “body” is “lic”, after all, a word that is hard to disassociate from the notion of a physical form (since it generally means “body” or “corpse” and is the root of the Modern English word “lich,” referring to a sort of zombie). So Grendel’s body slithered out, but his spirit might not have escaped quite so easily.

What’s more, Beowulf doesn’t let this example of Grendel turning the tables on him work as an example of his own mortal weakness. No. Beowulf quickly moves on to the point that he didn’t want Grendel to escape and that he did so even “though god willed it not” (“þe Metod nolde” (l.967)). So, first off Grendel was a bit more of a slippery guy than Beowulf imagined. And he was strong enough to openly and effectively defy god itself. In this single line, Grendel is made into the ultimate outlaw. Even if you don’t buy the idea that Beowulf is the instrument of God’s justice in the world of the poem, at the very least Grendel’s escape from our hero is said to go against god’s own will. According to Beowulf, anyway.

He is, after all, the one retelling this story.

And that in itself is neat.

Here (and elsewhere in the poem) Beowulf is framed as a hero not just because he’s got the strength and the poise for the job, but because he’s also an experienced speaker and storyteller. So he can do the deed, sure, but he can then head back to the hall and spread the word about that deed himself. It’s like he’s a self-publishing author writing a novel and then going out and shouting about it himself rather than relying on someone else to cover marketing. Here, though, his duality of fighter and storyteller is mildly threatening to the poet writing this epic and to every poet before or since – poets after all were said to be the ones with the ultimate power, no matter what the strength of a hero, since it was the poets who made and kept the detailed records of their deeds.

Do you think that Beowulf is a reliable story teller? He’s a known boaster, sure, but does that mean that his retellings of events will always be embellished?

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Rich and Simple Compounds

This passage is rich in compound words. So, let’s get right to them.

Up first is line 962’s “fyl-werigne.” This is a straightforward compound, especially if you can wrap your mind around the words “fyl” and “werigne” and sort of sense by linguistic intuition, that the compound brings together a word generally meaning “very” and another meaning “weary.” More specifically, “fyl” (a form of “fyllu” meaning “fulness (of food),” “fill,” “feast,” “satiety,” or “impregnation”) and “werig” (“weary,” “tired,” “exhausted,” “miserable,” “sad,” or “unfortunate”). The one thing to note here is that the Old English word for weary doesn’t just encompass physical weariness, as Modern English’s “weary” seems to (you can be “weary in spirit” or “weary of heart” but need to specify as much in most instances), it also includes more emotional or spiritual weariness as well. So when someone or something is “fyl-werigne” you know that they’re simply done.

Next up is another straightforward word (it seems that Beowulf is laying rhetoric on thick, but keeping it simple, too – maybe as a courtesy to a Hrothgar who’s just woken up?): “wael-bedd.” This word just means “slaughter bed.” That’s it. Even the combinations across the different senses of “wael” (“slaughter,” or “carnage”) and “bedd” (“bed,” “couch,” “resting place,” “garden bed,” or “plot”) come out to this (though there could be a bit of a horticultural slant to some combos). So, onto number three.

The word “lif-bysig” isn’t entirely what it seems. At first glance you might think that it refers to having a busy life or some such, but there’s a bit of a spin that seems to have been lost over millennia. Indeed, this word does bring “lif” (“life,” “existence,” or “lifetime”) and “bysig” (“busy,” “occupied,” or “diligent”) together, but the result is a word meaning “struggling for life.” This word is exclusive to Beowulf, and definitely sounds like something a performer could’ve come up with on the fly or to fill out a line. Either way, it’s neat how this word demonstrates the compound’s power to be more than the sum of its parts.

Actually, the next word in my list does something similar. And this one’s exclusive to Beowulf; it’s the word “feorh-geniðlan.” This word means “mortal foe.” And it comes to that meaning through a combination of “feorh” (“life,” “principle of life,” “soul,” or “spirit”) and “nið” (“strife,” “enmity,” “attack,” “war,” “evil,” “hatred,” “spite;” “oppression,” “affliction,” “trouble,” “grief”). So, much like “lif-bysig,” “feorh-geniðlan” takes its parts and twists them together to create its compound meaning rather than just sticking two concepts together. By combining the concept of life and struggle this compound refers to something or someone that is striving against the principle of life or oppressing it in a major way. Hence “mortal foe.”

Do you think that Beowulf’s going easy on the compound words because Hrothgar’s just waking up, or is there another reason for his relatively simple diction?

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Closing

In the next passage Beowulf finishes his account of the fight with Grendel, and declares his opponent painfully dead.

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Missionary Beowulf, propaganda, words plain and poetic (ll.928-942a)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Beowulf as Beefy Missionary or Hrothgar’s Propaganda
Poetic Compounds found in Poetry
Closing

Beowulf, Old English, Anglo-Saxon, translation

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Abstract

Hrothgar makes a speech thanking god – and so far only god – for ridding the Danes of Grendel.

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Translation

“For this sight to the almighty thanks
be given immediately! Great grief I endured,
the affliction of Grendel; always may god work
wonder after wonder, the shepherd of glory!
It was not long ago, that I expected never
to meet anyone who could soothe
my miseries, when blood-bedecked
stood the best of halls gory from battle,
wide-reaching woe knew everyone so that
none would venture near, so that for a long time
the people in their stronghold had to hold out against
hated demons and evil. Now shall we have through
the might of god this deed done,
a thing requiring skill that that none before
may have even conceived of.”
(Beowulf ll.928-942a)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Beowulf as Beefy Missionary or Hrothgar’s Propaganda

In this passage, or rather, in this the first half of Hrothgar’s speech, Beowulf is suspiciously absent. Instead, this god character gets top billing.

So what’s the deal with this?

I mean, Beowulf makes mention of god and god’s favour and help in his boasts and stories of past deeds, but Hrothgar really doesn’t say much of anything about god up until now. The way I see it, this could mean that Beowulf is an Anglo-Saxon twist on a missionary – think Rambo crossed with an evangelist – or that Hrothgar has converted (or just always been quietly Christian) and is now using Beowulf’s victory as a bit of propaganda to stir his people to conversion.

In the first instance, Beowulf makes for an archetypically macho missionary. And, the first half of the poem definitely supports this interpretation.

With the Danes you’ve got a people at their wits end. Their own gods have done nothing to help them and none who have come to deal with Grendel have succeeded for the last twelve years. Then this Beowulf fellow shows up and suddenly that Grendel problem’s dealt with. Of course, if in this analogy Grendel represents something like wrong belief or vile practices or the perceived wickedness that comes from being a non-Christian, then things are definitely sped up for dramatic effect. Though the speed at which missionary Beowulf turns his audience toward his message can be found in other stories, like that of Saint Boniface, who chopped down a sacred oak tree in one swing and replaced it with an evergreen, unwittingly setting up what would become the Christmas tree and, according to the story, converting crowds. Of course, Christianity has always brought its own host of problems to the various places it’s been taken, either because of the people bearing it or the way in which it melded or failed to meld with the target peoples’ beliefs. Still. With Beowulf as a super hero missionary who spreads the Word through his thirty-men strong grip, things getting done quickly is unsurprising.

What’s more when it comes to this missionary reading, though, is that if we jump ahead to the instance with Grendel’s mother, we can then read that as Beowulf facing off with powerful and seductive temptation. In which case Grendel’s mother represents the possible feelings that Beowulf has for Wealhtheow and/or vice versa, feelings that could lead to a terrible scandal. But, when he defeats Grendel’s mother, Beowulf proves himself to be so good at what he does that he’s able to overcome that potential scandal, too.

The alternative reading, that Hrothgar is just using Beowulf’s victory as a way to do some preaching himself, digs up a thing or two, as well. Namely that Hrothgar may have been so dejected when we first meet him because he’d converted but his people hadn’t followed since it alone hadn’t rid them of Grendel. But with the defeat of Grendel at the hands of Beowulf – a warrior who entrusts himself to fate and to god – Hrothgar sees an opportunity to put Christianity into a positive light and proceeds to do so by saying that without god none of this would be possible. It wouldn’t even be conceivable (ll.941-942a).

In the light of these two possible readings of this passage I think it’s important to note that I feel I can get away with these sorts of analyses because Beowulf would’ve been written down by someone who had at least experienced the Church’s educational system. In other words, whatever this story was when it was simply being told, it took on a few Christian elements in its being written down. And maybe the possibility of reading Beowulf as a missionary or Hrothgar as a Christian propaganda opportunist are just products of it having been written that way. Maybe.

What do you think is happening with religion here? Is Beowulf a macho missionary? Is Hrothgar a propagandist? Or are both true?

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Poetic Compounds found in Poetry

I’m not sure if prolonged exposure to Beowulf has made me a little jaded when it comes to Anglo-Saxon compound words or what. But this passage’s crop of them just isn’t doesn’t stack up to previous passages’. Gone are the combinations of words with almost opposite meanings, or senses that you’d normally not put together. Instead we have stuff that’s much more straightforward, but that still carries the quirk of age.

Take for instance “un-geara.” This isn’t a compound word in the truest sense, since it’s just the word for “yore,” “formerly, “in former times,” “once,” or “long since” with the prefix “un” stuck to it. But still, it’s pretty interesting to look at. I mean, this one means “not long ago” but literally translates as “not formerly.” You can clearly see the connection there, in that if something isn’t formerly, then it’s simply “not long ago.”

The word “heoro-dreorig” gets more straightforward as it’s just a combination of “heoro” (“sword”) and “dreorig” (“bloody,” “blood-stained,” “cruel,” “grievous,” “sad,” “sorrowful,” or “headlong?[sic]”). So it means “gory from battle,” though a more literal translation would be “sword gory.” I think it gets across its sense of the messy leavings of battle quite nicely. After all, even the sharpest knife, the most battle ready, is going to catch some of the gore, some of the blood on itself, and so too would anything that was the setting for battle, such as Heorot.

The word “wide-scofen” gets a little more poetic, thankfully. A combination of “wide” (“wide,” “vast,” “broad,” or “long”) and “scufan” (“shove,” “thrust,” “push,” “push with violence,” “urge,” “impel,” “push out,” “expel,” “deliver up,” or “display”) this word means “scattered far and wide.” A simple translation of the two words gives the sense of things being shoved or pushed wide apart, though. And I think the nuance here is important because unlike the modern English “scattered far and wide” to say that something’s been shoved far apart suggests a more forceful and immediate agency to me. It’s not that some invisible force from on high has scattered these things involved, but something more immediate, something that exercised force directly on them or on their surroundings has forced these things apart. Shoving things wide apart is just so much more evocative than the seemingly random sense of being “scattered far and wide”. So it goes without saying that this is my favourite compound of the passage.

Though “land-geweorc” is a close second. Combining “land” (“earth,” “land,” “soil,” “territory,” “realm,” “province,” “district,” “landed property,” “country as opposed to town,” or “ridge in a ploughed field”) and “weorc” (“work,” “workmanship,” “labour,” “construction,” “structure,” “edifice,” “military work,” or “fortification”), this word comes out as “fortified place,” though literally translated it means something like “earth structure.” So it’s not just some sort of structure built on the land, but there’s a very real sense here that this structure or fortification is built very much with the land in mind. Whether that means that it’s built into its area’s natural features or if it means that it’s simply taking advantage of those features, this combination really makes me think of something built cleverly rather than with a lot of sweat and labour. Actually, as with “wide-scofen” there’s a certain connotation of immediacy to this word which I find really interesting. Why? Because it carries with it a sense almost of being closer to the natural world and being able to take advantage of knowledge of its rhythms and patterns.

Why do you think old words like “wide-scofen” (which looks like “wide-shoved” if you think about it) changed to different phrases with similar meanings? Does this just reflect a change in taste, or is there something more at work in these changes?

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Closing

In the next entry, Hrothgar’s speech continues and he mentions the man of the hour.

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A single half line of warning, a single word about patrimony (ll.907-915)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Sin at the end of a Story
A Single Word on Inheritance
Closing

Beowulf, Anglo-Saxons. poetry

King Harold out for a hunt on the Bayeux Tapestry, no doubt a song was sung soon after. Image found at http://regia.org/research/misc/pastimes.htm.

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Abstract

The horseback poet wraps up his singing of Sigemund, Heremod, and Beowulf.

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Translation

“That campaign was often a source of anxiety for
many wise men before the time of the king’s brash way of life,
it made those miserable who relied on him for relief,
those that wished the king’s son would prosper,
receive his patrimony, protect the people,
their stores and their strongholds, a man of might,
the ancestral home of the Scyldings. Just the same there,
the kin of Hygelac, to all man kind,
became a decorated friend; yet sin still slinked in.
(Beowulf ll.907-915)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Sin at the end of a Story

Maybe it’s because covering at least eight lines of Beowulf every week breaks some things up, but I’m not sure of what to make of this passage. It’s the end of the section of the poem that’s the horseback poet’s song about Sigemund, Heremod, and Beowulf. So, the question is, I suppose, what can we say about this ending?

Looking at the very last line of the passage, we see that it ends with a note of warning: “yet sin still slinked in” (“hine fyren onwōd” (l.915)). This half line suggests that though Beowulf is celebrated in this instance something still comes up to throw off the joy of Danes and Geats. Having read the poem a few times before, this half line could refer to a few things. First among them is the idea that Grendel’s mother, when she comes seeking revenge for her son, is the sin that still slinks in. Or it could be a reference to some sort of slip up on Beowulf’s part that lands him in the poor state he’s in when he faces the dragon at the poem’s end. More broadly, this half line warning could just be a comment that there is no perfect joy, and that there will always be some little niggling thing or other that brings down the most secure seeming happiness.

Of course, “yet sin still slinked in” is my own interpretation of this apparently crucial half line.

Seamus Heaney translates it simply as “But evil entered into Heremod” (l.915). Why Heaney pulled Heremod out for this line is unclear. It could be that he’s just following the poet’s example of making reference to not the most recent antecedent but to one related to the content of its clause instead. This sort of context-sensitive referring seems to be a big part of how the poets of Old English wove the language together since there have already been a few points in the poem where pronouns or implied subjects and antecedents are a few lines apart. And I can understand why Heaney would want to make this line about Heremod. The poem really does not give much context for the last half line of this passage, and leaving it vague as I did is ambiguous.

Though ambiguity does have its place in Beowulf and the bits of gnomic wisdom that crop up in the poem from time to time. The best example of these bits of wisdom being “fate goes ever as she shall!” (“Gæð a wyrd swa hio scel!” (l.455)). So a line like “yet sin still slinked in” shouldn’t necessarily be made specific just because it’s vague where scant lines earlier the poet was singing specifics. Since this is the end of the horseback poet’s song, I think a general statement, especially one that’s a warning makes sense.

Using such a statement is a great way to end off a story about someone still living, because that person’s story is still being written. Though if that’s what the poet’s going for, there are some heavy implications that to live is to sin, suggesting that already the Anglo-Saxons had adopted ideas of Catholic guilt. Or at least this poet and his audience had.

But I also think the general ending of this story makes sense because leading up to it is a bramble of clauses and words that gives the sense of the poet not so much reciting form something he knows as bringing out something based on inspiration. So capping off his ramble, from the fanned fire in his head, is a bit of prescience. Though it’s a prediction based on experience. Heremod was once grand, and yet he fell. Likewise, even though it’s not mentioned here, Sigmund ultimately falls in battle at the hands of attackers after Odin shatters his sword (inescapable divine disfavour, if ever I’ve seen it). Likewise, Beowulf, the real life mythical hero, falls in the end. Not only is this fall foreshadowed in the idea of sin still slinking in, but capping his story off with this bit of wisdom suggests that the poet is grounding his tale in reality both because of Beowulf’s being included and in its bittersweetness.

Why do you think poets in Old English bothered to make their language more complicated when describing things like battle or complex emotion?

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A Single Word on Inheritance

This passage is sparser than any before it when it comes to compound words of interest. Even words of interest are in short supply here. But I make no promises about this section being short. I can be a bit like Rumpelstiltskin at times, spinning nearly nothing into quite a bit (though I won’t go so far as to say that I spin that nearly nothing into gold).

Anyway. The single stand out word in this passage is “faeder-aeþelum.” This word means “patrimony,” or “paternal kinship.” This meaning shouldn’t be too surprising since this compound is made up of the words “faeder” (“father,” “male ancestor,” “the Father,” or “God”) and “aeþeling” (“man of royal blood,” “nobleman,” “chief,” “prince,” “king,” “Christ,” “God;” “man,” “hero,” or “saint”). So the compound meaning is pretty much right there in the words involved.

But what makes this word stand out? Well, looking at the word itself, it’s interesting how self contained it is. We’ve seen our share of obvious compounds here at A Blogger’s Beowulf, but this one is neatly wrapped up in itself. This ouroboros like effect comes from both of the words being very similar in meaning. Sure, “faeder” is pretty limited to a sense of masculine power, but so too is “aeþeling.” Really, the biggest difference is that, to me at least, the latter carries a sense of youthfulness. Fathers, especially authoritative fathers, aren’t usually that young. So it’s like this word combines one part the power of youth and two parts the power of masculinity to come out with a word for male inheritance either of property and responsibility or of name and reputation or both. So, the effect of compounding “faeder” and “aeþeling” is more like an intensifying one than any sort of subtle modification.

There’s also the sense that this inheritance is something passed on only through the male parent or guardian. That it’s something that only the male parent can give to a child. That’s also something that strikes me as interesting. though not nearly as much as the sense of “faeder” as “god,” which at least hints at some notion of there being some sort of divine element to patrimony. And, maybe also to kingship itself, since that’s what’s at stake here. Though just in general, I can see it being a more divinely regarded thing, since Biblical stories about inheritance tend to be through the male line. Like the story of Jacob stealing Esau’s place as the inheritor of Isaac’s honour and divine favour, or of the parable of the prodigal son.

On the level of the word itself, there’s not much to say. It’s the first word in line 911, so there’s that, I guess. But otherwise, it looks like its primary function on the line is to alliterate with “onfōn” and “folc.” And, I’m not entirely sure of its significance, but there is the matter of the alliteration falling on the first, seventh, and eighth syllables of the line. Or its being in the first and last syllables of the first half line and the first syllable of the second half line. Whichever you prefer.

Point is, there’s some extra meaning packed into this word, and I think I’ve taken some of that out for inspection.

How much meaning do you think poets pack into single words? If we can look at a single word like I just did and pull out so much meaning, is it because the poet meant it that way, or is it just what the culture or context of the interpreter gets out of it?

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Closing

In the next passage of Beowulf, the Danes continue their joy riding and Hrothgar steps out with a speech.

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The subversive power of the poet’s song, people and sadnesses (ll.898-906)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
All Hail the King of the Danes
Peoples and Sorrows
Closing

Beowulf, Anglo-Saxons. poetry

King Harold out for a hunt on the Bayeux Tapestry, no doubt a song was sung soon after. Image found at http://regia.org/research/misc/pastimes.htm.

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Abstract

The poet’s song turns from Sigemund and his glorious victory to look instead at a man defeated: Heremod.

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Translation

“His fame was pushed most widely
among the nations, protector of warriors,
for deeds of courage — he prospered from then after —
after Heremod retired from war,
his strength and courage; he against the Jutes
had his power stolen in ambush and his force
was quickly slain. His sorrow oppressed him
far too long; to his people he waned,
to all his nobles his life grew too full of care.”
(Beowulf ll.898-906)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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All Hail the King of the Danes

Although there’s no poet interjecting here to keep things from getting messy, this passage is dangerous.

Earlier, before this poet on horseback started to sing of Sigemunde, there was some noise made about everyone praising Beowulf, but being happy with Hrothgar as their king. In fact, the poet goes so far as to give Hrothgar one of the highest epithets: “that was a good king!” (“þæt wæs god cyning” (l.863)).

In light of this passage, though, there could be some sarcasm in that earlier statement.

Here we’re told how Sigemund’s fame grew after he beat the dragon and stole away its treasure, bringing it to his own people. In fact, it even sounds like Sigemund had some sort of happy homecoming because of his courageous deed. In fact, it sounds like he might have been in that far country where the poet alleged his story of the hero came from because of some sort of exile. And, what’s more, possibly exile at the hands of king Heremod. After the first three lines, the poet shifts over to this figure of lore.

Heremod is king of the Danes, and when we meet him here he is the very picture of melancholy. Having suffered a great loss when fighting the Jutes (maybe the giants? the word used is “eotena” which could mean either), Heremod falls into a depression and loses his warlike demeanour. He must’ve been some battler since his entire court is thrown into disarray when he no longer steps out to campaign or bring in treasure from raids.

As a reader of Anglo-Saxon culture as much as Anglo-Saxon poetry, this passage — the poet’s song on horseback in general — is supposed to show the two examples of great man that stand before Beowulf — the man triumphant in Sigemund and the leader who is shackled by shame and fear in Heremod. Later on, Hrothgar talks more explicitly about Heremod as a bad king (the kind Beowulf should not be), but right now this whole thing being an example for Beowulf is just implied.

But it’s really hard to not see it as a subversion of the poet’s saying “the people thought Beowulf was great! But, oh yeah, they still like Hrothgar, too.” I mean, you’ve got the young hero Sigemund who’s just reversed his fortunes by defeating the dragon and winning the treasure and that’s pretty much Beowulf. Sure, our hero hasn’t fought a dragon yet, but he’s beaten Grendel and won great fame that’s quickly spread thanks to the treasure that Grendel left: his arm and claw. Then you’ve got Heremod, the man who sits in his court and bemoans his defeat. Isn’t that too much like the Hrothgar of the last 12 years for any sort of analogy or parallel to be made?

So I think this passage is the poet insinuating that Beowulf could become the new ruler of the Danes. But we can’t know for sure until we get the rest of the story in the next part of the poem.

How subversive do you think the poem Beowulf is? Is it just some light entertainment? Or is it about the young overtaking the old? Or is Beowulf a Christianized Germanic hero bringing new vibrancy to an old tradition?

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Peoples and Sorrows

Maybe it’s because sorrow and pitched battle are involved in this passage, but compound words are coming back! Actually, it wouldn’t surprise me if their reappearance was due more to the depression and sorrow of Heremod. If Anglo-Saxon poets wove their words into tangles to accurately represent war, then surely they could do the same to represent the complexities of the deep sadness the old king’s experiencing.

Anyway. Onto the words.

First in the passage, on line 899, is “wer-þeod,” a combination of “wer” (meaning “male being,” “man,” “husband,” “legal money-equivalent of a person’s life,” “a man’s legal value,” “dam,” “fish-trap,” “catch,” “draught,” “troop,” or “band”) and þeod (meaning “people,” “nation,” “tribe,” “region,” “country,” “province,” “men,” “war-troop,” “retainers,” “Gentiles,” “language,” or “fellowship”). This compound is taken to mean “folk,” “people,” or “nation,” and I can see why. It could literally be translated as “people of men.”

But, of course, there are some very interesting nuances to both of these words.

With “wer” we get a look into the Anglo-Saxon idea of the value of life in that the word can mean the “legal money-equivalent of a person’s life,” or “a man’s legal value.” Of course, it has to be noted that a monetary value was attached to human life in Anglo-Saxon society because of law makers’ attempts to control rampant feuding. So, if you happened to kill someone from that group over there, they wouldn’t have to come and kill you, you could just pay that group the value of the life you took and the feud would be called off (legally, anyway). This bunch of laws is an unfortunate imposition since it might’ve been used to turned a few lives into bits of silver, but still. This concept helped to keep people from endlessly feuding so they could do other things. Plus, I bet these laws had some repercussions on ideas of manliness that have resonated down through the centuries, too.

The other half of this compound similarly has some neat meanings. Like “Gentiles” or “language.” In combination with the former, the compound could mean the collection of those who weren’t Jewish, those who weren’t chosen by God. In light of the Anglo-Saxons trying to identify with the Jews of Exodus, a people in search of a homeland, referring to the Danes as Gentiles even through vague implication is interesting. And as a story about pre-Christian times, this meaning seems unlikely to be a coincidence. At the least, I can see the poet smiling after the fact and considering himself very clever indeed for using “wer-þeod where he has.

But combining “wer” with the “language” sense of “þeod” is where things really pick up. The sense of such a combination is that all of those who speak the same language are one group. That’s a really cool idea!

But I digress, since there’re other compounds to get to.

Like the less mysterious “sorh-wylmas.” This combination of “sorg” (“sorrow,” “pain,” “grief,” “trouble,” “care,” “distress,” or “anxiety”) and “wielm” (“boiling,” “swelling,” “surge,” “billow,” “current,” “stream,” “burning,” “flame,” “inflammation,” “fervour,” “ardour,” or “zeal”) means “wave of sorrow.” And its constituent parts don’t really make that meaning a secret. Though I suppose there’s a bit more colour to the idea of a wave of sorrow if you add in the sense of that wave being arduous or zealous. It’s not just a lazy lolling mass of sadness washing over you, but the sort of wave a ship in the middle of the sea might encounter while in a storm’s clutches.

Then, rounding out the bunch but being strangest of the three is “aldor-cearu” of line 906. Meaning “great sorrow,” this one combines “ealdor” (“elder,” “parent,” “ancestors,” “civil or religious authority,” “chief,” “leader,” “master,” “lord,” “prince,” “king,” “source,” “primitive,” “life,” “vital part,” “age,” “old age,” or “eternity”) with “cearu” (a form of “carig” carrying meanings like “sorrowful,” “anxious,” or “grievous”).

“Cearu” is pretty straightforward. But “ealdor” much less so. This one could combine with the former to mean a few shades of “great sorrow.” It could be old sorrow, implying that it’s the sort of sorrow that’s sat and festered for years; it could mean that it is a princely sorrow, a sorrow that comes with the responsibility of ruling over a people; or it could be seen as the sorrow that simply comes with age, the regret and feelings of inadequacy a person experiences as they inevitably compare their present selves to their younger, remembered as happier and stronger, selves. It’s definitely a worthy companion to the much simpler “sorh-wylmas,” though, since both carry a heavy weight with them.

If you agree that the language of the poem is intentionally more complex around descriptions of battles and of sorrow, what do you make of it? Is treating sorrow as the same sort of complex ordered mess as a battle accurate, or just a weak comparison? What do you think of all of this if you don’t agree that the language’s complexity is intentional?

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Closing

In the next post, the story of Heremod wraps up.

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Beowulf gets introspective, even plain words can be lovely (ll.884b-897)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Myth on Myth
Passing Judgement on Words
Closing

Beowulf, Old English, translation, poetry

Beowulf fighting the dragon. There are striking similarities between this fight and Sigemund’s. Image found at https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/6f/Beowulf_and_the_dragon.jpg.

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Abstract

The poet in the poem sings of Sigemund defeating the dragon alone and winning its treasures.

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Translation

      “Sigemund’s fame saw
no small surge after his death day,
after ward in cruel combat he killed the dragon,
the hoard’s guardian. Under the grey stone,
the nobleman’s son, alone he dared to do
the dangerous deed; Fitela was not with him then;
without that comrade, he plunged his sword through
the wondrous wyrm, so that it stuck in the wall,
that lordly iron; the dragon died its death.
His courage over the foe won him its treasure fully,
so that he the ring hoards had to give
as he saw fit; a boat they loaded,
they bore in the ship’s bosom bright treasures,
Waels’ son; the hot wyrm melted.”
(Beowulf ll.884b-897)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Myth on Myth

We’ve got another simple, straightforward type passage here. Though it begs an important question: what’s the story of Sigemund doing here? It’s something that the poet on horseback has conjured up out of his knowledge of the hero, and there are definitely analogues to Beowulf. Though these analogues are really only present if you’re already familiar with Beowulf. Otherwise, all of the talk of Sigemund fighting the dragon and winning is just foreshadowing. Weirdly, though, the exact phrase “under the grey stone” (“under harne stan” (l.887)) comes up when Beowulf faces the dragon in the last third of Beowulf. Anyway, I think what’s going on here with the analogues to Beowulf — his slaying a dragon, driving the sword through a dragon who guarded a bunch of treasure,and the dragon being liquid in some way — is a bit of play with the nature of myth and legend.

Where Sigemund beats the dragon and lives, Beowulf beats his dragon but dies in the process. Nonetheless, as spoils Beowulf gains control over the dragon’s hoard much like Sigemunde does. Though this control passes from Beowulf to his own Fitela figure: Wiglaf. These twists on the events of the Sigemunde story — Beowulf’s death, his Fitela being with him — I think are the poet trying to make the myth of Beowulf more realistic. Maybe it’s even the product of an imagination that knew that the age of deathless heroes who earned great glory forever was past. So, perhaps with Sigemund foreshadowing or contrasting with Beowulf the poet is trying to make sense of what a mythic figure might look like in a world with a new religious system that overturned much of what went before and in an era in which law and order were starting to centralize. Heroes were still needed in this new world, they were still craved, but the shifting realities of the Anglo-Saxons (or maybe their blending Germanic, Roman, and Celtic traditions and ideas into a single culture) forced them to create a hero who followed the mythic formula of fighting a dragon and triumphing, but whose glorious victory cost him his life. The point perhaps being: “glory comes at a great cost these days. Be wary of glory.”

It’s also interesting that when the ring hoard of the dragon comes into Sigemund’s possession it’s not a cause for celebration because he has the treasure for himself. Instead, it’s a great event because Sigemund’s able to spread the wealth among his closest relations. Beowulf also celebrates the gain of the treasure not as a personal victory but as one for his people.

How much do you think is going on with this story of Sigemund? Is it here because the poet’s trying to say something about heroes? Or just something sung while the people of Heorot rejoice?

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Passing Judgement on Words

I’m starting to wonder if the language of the poem is getting simpler as this other poet sings because of how the actual poet wants this in-tale poet to look. If the actual poet of Beowulf is trying to put his all into it, then there can’t be a poet in the story who’s use of language is more complex or descriptive, right?

Anyway, the simplicity of the language throughout this section means that there aren’t many compound words. And generally when there are, they’re pretty simple.

The word “beah-hordes” meaning “ring hoard” is the only compound of note in the passage for this entry. It’s a combination of the word “beah” (meaning “ring,” “coil,” “bracelet,” “collar,” “crown,” or “garland”) and “hord” (meaning “hoard,” or “treasure”). And that’s really all there is to it. Combining these two words really does nothing more than specify the kinds of rings that you’re dealing with. Not much more fantastical stuff beyond that, really.

But, there are two words in the passage for this entry that do offer a little more. Even if they’re perfectly normal, singular words.

The first of these is “dōm” a word meaning “doom,” “judgement,” “ordeal,” “sentence,” “decree,” “law,” “ordinance,” “custom,” “justice,” “equity,” “opinion,” “advice,” “choice,” “option,” “free will,” “condition” “authority,” “supremacy,” “majesty,” “power,” “might,” “reputation,” “dignity,” “glory,” “honour,” “splendour,” “court,” “tribunal,” “assembly,” “meaning,” or “interpretation.”

What makes “dōm” stand out is that in the context of the passage it means “glory” or “reputation,” meanings that are kind of a ways down the list. But even so, it’s not an interesting word because its in-context meaning is low on its list of meanings. The word itself seems to really express what underpins reputation, and therefore fame, in a very neutral way.

Judgement underlies fame, after all. And, weirdly, in Modern English the connotations have shifted, since to us “fame” generally seems like a good thing while “judgement” feels like it’s the face of a beast called guilt. Maybe there’s something to say here about the perceptions of judgement and the cultural influence of Christianity, a religion promising judgement with eternal consequences.

But in Old English, the sense of “dōm” meaning judgement and its forms and offshoots is much more neutral. Simply put, you need to be judged to have a reputation or fame, so “dōm” covers a lot of this area of meaning. Maybe because it also seems to be a general sort of word. It’s used as it is here to mean” reputation or “fame” and it’s used elsewhere to refer to divine judgement and elsewhere still to refer to the day the world ends in judgement (so I guess its appearances in Old English are soaked in Christianity, too). But maybe more than anything it all just comes from the Old English “dōm” being narrowly cognate with our own “doom,” a much much more streamlined term for having been judged and found wanting, or for hopeless consequences.

The other weird word in this passage is much lighter. In line 887, the poet describes the dragon as the “hierde” of his hoard of treasure. The use for the sake of alliteration here is supremely obvious, but I still find it neat that the word for “shepherd,” “herdsman,” “guardian,” “keeper,” or “pastor” could be stretched in this way.

A “guardian” makes sense in reference to gold, as does a “keeper.” But what about the sense of guidance in “shepherd,” “herdsman,” and “pastor”? How could you guide a hoard of treasure, especially if you weren’t sharing or spending it, but just sitting on it as dragons do? Maybe there’s a bit of foreshadowing in this sense of the word, or even a judgement passed on the dragon, since when Sigemund becomes master of the treasure he does much more to guide it into the hands of his people. There’s a Christ analogy here, too, with the dragon as Satan or a pre-Christian deity, while Sigemund, going it alone under the grey stone (itself perhaps a reference to Jesus going into the sealed tomb after the crucifixion, or even a reference to the harrowing of hell) is the Christ figure and the treasure is salvation, which Sigemund gives freely.

Old English words have a lot of different shades of meaning to them. Do you think the same is still true with Modern English, or, as English has changed over the years its vocabulary has become specialized?

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Closing

In the next passage, we hear how Sigemund’s victory affected his home and old king Heremod’s court.

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