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.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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A mysterious start to a tale of Sig(e)mund (ll.874b-884a)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
A Promise of Mysterious Tales
Mostly Simple Compounds
Closing

Beowulf, Anglo-Saxons

King Harold out for a hunt on the Bayeux Tapestry. Image found at http://regia.org/research/misc/pastimes.htm.

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Abstract

The singer begins to tell of Sigemund and deeds hitherto little heard about.

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Translation

“Of everything he spoke,
what he of Sigemund had heard said,
deeds of courage, many not widely known,
the wrangling of Wælsing’s son, his wide wanderings,
where that warrior’s child was not often recognized
nor the feud and wicked deed, but to Fitela, the one with him,
when he would tell him of such things,
from uncle to nephew, as they were always
companions bound by need come every strife;
they had a great many of the giants race
slain with their swords.”
(Beowulf ll.874b-884a)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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A Promise of Mysterious Tales

In this passage the poem takes a break from Beowulf’s story to talk about a different hero: Sigemund (a.k.a. Sigmund). We’re not told much about this figure of mythic proportions yet, except that he travels with his nephew and has a darkened past. But is he trying to escape this past and the feuds and deeds it contains or is he just working with that as a feature of his story? The poet’s not at all clear about any of it. Actually, the poet seems to go pretty far to weave a curtain of mystery around Sigemund. And, to a lesser extent, Fitela. Or at least Fitela’s in there because the curtain’s just so damn big.

So this curtain of mystery (it’s too heavy to be a veil, I think), is made up of a few things. First the poet says that “many [of these deeds are] not widely known,” (“ellen-dædum, uncuþes fela” (l.876)). That’s straight forward enough. Maybe these stories aren’t widely known because they’re the ones that were told in the far country where Sigemund wasn’t very well known himself. No doubt he went on to make a name for himself in this country, but maybe that name was a pseudonym (maybe “Sigemund” is that pseudonym – not the cleverest, but hey, the extra syllable causes some confusion to this day). Or, maybe the locals that passed these stories on had a different angle on Sigemund’s deeds than most other tales about them. Whatever the case, this layer of the mystery curtain isn’t too far from being translucent.

But the next one is completely opaque.

When the poet moves onto the feuds and deeds that Sigemund apparently had some part in, he says that these things were as little known in the places he travelled to as he himself was. So, if these stories are coming from these countries, any information about these feuds and deeds will likely be scanty. What’s more though,is that we’re told that Sigemund only shared details about any of these things with Fitela.

Fitela is said to be Sigemund’s nephew (this checks out, the similarly named Sigmund travelled with his nephew/son (Norse mythology has some very racy bits), too). Fitela’s also said to be Sigemund’s companion in battle, maybe one who was so reliable that they always faced hardship together, or maybe one that just seemed to find Sigemund whenever he fell into difficulty. It’s hard to say. Whatever the reason for their partnering up, the fact that Sigemund only told these things to Fitela suggests that the only way the poet knows them well enough to sing about them is through Fitela. At some point, the nephew must’ve spilled it about his uncle. That is, if the poet is telling true stories or stories coming from a very close witness to these “deeds of courage” (“ellen-dædum” (l.876)).

Because this part of the poem is scant on details, maybe this poet knows these little known stories of Sigemund because he heard them not from Fitela but from this far country’s people. If that’s the case, then how far has this poet himself gone?

The question of how much the poet singing about Sigemund learned about his subject first hand is a tricky one. What do you think matters most in story telling – accurately relating facts, or action, intrigue, and suspense?

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Mostly Simple Compounds

These story telling sections of the poem are always so vivid and direct that compound words take on a completely different function in them. Instead of seeing those that I’d call “high action” compounds, we’re given those that are plainer. Like “ellen-dædum.”

The parts of this compound, “ellen” and “dædum,” literally mean “zeal,” “strength,” “courage,” “strife,” or “contention” and “deed,” or “action,” respectively. The combined meaning of “deeds of courage” isn’t far from clear. Though mixing the “contention” or “strife” sense of “ellen” with “deed” gets so clear that it upends the glorious/courageous implications of “ellen-dædum” by suggesting a pretty plain Jane sort of performance in war. Applying such a word to someone would mean that person just did a “strife deed,” which sounds like something that you just do by default in combat.

The word “eal-fela” graces line 883, just about rounding out this section. And it might be the plainest compound of them all. Though it does demonstrate the intensifying formula of Old English (combine two like words, (including negatives)), since “eal” means “all,” “many,” or “much” and “fela” means “very,” or “much.” So “eal-fela” literally means “all much,” with the sense of something that’s all-encompassing. Or, as is the case in the poem, the sense of “mostly all” of the giants.

No, this passage doesn’t really offer complexity in its compounds. It’s more about the simple word combinations.

Except for “nyd-gestealla.”

Now, maybe I’m piecing this one together wrong, but “nyd” could be a form of “neod” (meaning “desire,” “longing,” “zeal,” “earnestness,” “pleasure,” “delight”) or “nied” (meaning “need,” “necessity,” “compulsion,” “duty,” “errand,” “business,” “emergency,” “hardship,” “distress,” “difficulty,” “trouble,” “pain,” “force,” “violence,” “what is necessary,” “inevitableness,” “fetter” or just being the name of the rune for “n”). For the most part the difference between these two words is negligible. But, there are some exceptions. The word “neod” suggests a sort of leisurely need, as its meanings include “pleasure” and “delight,” while “nied” comes across as more business like as it can mean “errand,” or “duty” (or, even, “business”). But the compound that “nyd” is a part of doesn’t get any simpler in its second half.

The word “gestealla” seems to break down into “steal” or “steall.” The difference between these two lies primarily in specificity. The former word just means “structure,” even “frame,” while the latter means “standing,” “place,” or “position.”

So is the companionship that “nyd-gestealla” describes one that’s structured on duty or on pleasure? Or is it one that’s putting those involved in a position of business or of pleasure? Or is it that it’s supposed to do both, the ambiguity coming in to add a sense of reciprocity to the relationship it’s describing?

Do you think there’s a connection between the tone of sections of Beowulf and the intensity of the compound words found in them? So far, this part of the poem is very light-hearted and the compound words here have mostly been straightforward, almost relaxed. Is there a connection between the two? If so, what could using a word like “nyd-gestealla” mean for this part of the poem? Is it being used as a reminder of hard times or as something else?

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Closing

In the next passage, the poet begins to tell of Sigemund and Fitela’s victory over a dragon and the raid on its hoard.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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So relaxed, even the language reclines, and challenging a word (ll.864-874a)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Suspiciously Low-Key
Being Made of Stories
Closing

Beowulf, Anglo-Saxons

King Harold out for a hunt on the Bayeux Tapestry. Image found at http://regia.org/research/misc/pastimes.htm.

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Abstract

The warriors keep riding and racing, while stories of Beowulf are told.

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Translation

“Meanwhile the battle-reputed let the horses trot,
in contests the bay horses sped,
there they found the path quite fair,
they thought it best; around then one of the king’s thanes,
a man made of stories, mindful of many tales,
such that he was in old tradition
immersed, bound words one to the other
according to appropriate meter. The man began again
of Beowulf’s struggle to smartly sing
and quickly made a new narrative account,
wrangled words.”
(Beowulf ll.864-874a)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Suspiciously Low-Key

I’ve kind of cut things off in the middle ending this passage at the first half of line 874. But I did it with good reason. This next section of the poem is a pretty lengthy bit of storytelling. Weirdly, actually, this is the last time we hear any mention of Beowulf’s story for a while.

But that’s not the case with this passage.

The passage from line 864 to line 874 is all about the lead in to all that story telling. As such, there’s not much going on here as far as what’s described. But even the language here is pretty plain.

In previous scenes, like Beowulf’s fight against Grendel, or even the events after the fight, the lines are heavy with words and tightly jammed together. The words themselves give the impression of a lot of quick, decisive action. But here the Old English and the English translation of it have a much lighter, open air sort of quality.

Which makes sense, since this passage sees the group racing across a beach while somebody renowned for storytelling is spinning yarns, and all things are pretty cheerful. On the language side of things, all this leisure time leaves the poet’s sentences to repeat with variation. A lot of clauses in this section just wind down to their core meaning. Take for instance, the first three and a half lines. In the first of these lines we’re told about the men racing, then we’re told about the path they race on, and everything’s topped off with a generally positive comment about things being “best.” Ambiguity comes out to play again here, but in a much more light hearted way since the “it” on line 867 could be the path or the racing in general. Either way, what’s being thought “best” is pretty light stuff.

Then we come to the description of the storyteller. Of whom there’s not much to say. Though the same narrowing device seen at the start of the passage is used again: we start with a description of the teller and then wind up with a very straightforward bit about how he tells his stories.

Really, the only truly odd part of this passage is that directly after the final sentence, from the next passage onward, the poet tells of how this story teller recounts the deeds of Sigemund the dragon slayer and his partner Fitela. What I take from this is that Beowulf‘s original audience was already familiar with this other song of Beowulf, the storyteller is the poet’s self-insertion character, or to an Anglo-Saxon audience Beowulf was closely associated with Sigemund.

That last possibility stands out from the rest for me. In my thinking, for an audience to associate two characters so closely, they’d need to be familiar with each character’s story. In the case of Beowulf and Sigemund, this familiarity would mean that the audience would already know that both characters slew dragons. Sure, Beowulf beating Grendel might be reminiscent of a Nordic hero defeating a dragon, but Beowulf’s actually doing the same much later on in the poem would make the association more concrete. Plus, I think throwing in a story about dragon slaying here is too on the nose for mere foreshadowing. There’s more to why this story is told than that, especially since there’s such a shocking switch from mentioning this new song about Beowulf’s deeds to a story about someone completely different.

How does this the tone of this entry’s passage strike you? Does it feel more open and free roaming than those of past passages, or is it just more business as usual?

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Being Made of Stories

Much as was the case in my last post, the words in this passage are pretty straightforward. In fact, from line 869 onwards, the poet stops using compounds completely. And, in keeping with last week’s post, the compounds that are used are pretty straightforward.

We’ve got “heaðo-rōfe,” meaning “famed in war, brave” (a combo of “heaþo” (“war”) and “roofe” (“vigorous,” “strong,” “brave,” “noble,” “renowned,” “array,” or “number”)). You might pull something out of mixing “war” with a word that can mean “number,” but I think, in context, this combination means the same as joining “war” with “strong” or “renowned”; the person you’re talking about has been in many wars. And, since the Anglo-Saxons fought pitched battles rather than those based in trenches or with remote arsenals, to survive many wars suggests prowess or luck. And either of those qualities could make for a famed warrior.

Then there’s “fold-weg.” As a combination of “fold” (“earth,” “ground,” “soil,” “terra firma,” “land,” “country,” “region,” or “world”) and “weg” (“way,” “direction,” “path,” “road,” “highway,” “journey,” or “course of action”), this word could be literally translated as “earthen path.” But, its general translation simplifies this to “path” or “road,” which I’m perfectly okay with.

Now, the last two compounds that appear in this passage are a little more interesting. The word “gilp-hladen” claims this status because Clark Hall and Meritt somehow completely misrepresent it as “boastful.”

If we take it apart, though, we can see that “gilp-hladen” is a combo of “gielp” (“boasting,” “pride,” “arrogance,” “fame,” or “glory”) and “laedan” (a form of “hladan” meaning “lade,” “draw,” “take in water,” “heap up,” “lay on,” “build,” “load,” or “burden”). My translation of this compound word to “made of stories” might seem overly poetic, especially because “gielp” apparently doesn’t include “story” as an interpretation. But I think that underlying all of the meanings that Clark Hall and Meritt give the word is the concept of a story. None of those attributes are possible without a story. A person who is proud or arrogant feels that way because of how they perceive their actions and abilities, and the way that they relate those things to themselves and others is their story. Likewise, fame and glory are absolutely reliant on a story (or, sometimes stories) of the famed or glorious person spreading. So I consider the stuff of all of the listed meanings of “gielp” to be story; that is their essence. Hence, “made of stories” instead of something like “boast laden.”

The final compound for this post’s passage is “eald-gesegena” (combining “eald” (“old”) and “gesegena” (a variant of “gesegen” meaning “sayings”)). The neat thing here is that the tradition (of story telling, or at least of lore) is referred to by the short hand “sayings.” Not only are these old stories that the storyteller’s familiar with, but they’re things that people often quote or relate to each other or to themselves. That sort of detail is cool because it not only works well as a short hand for tradition (what could be more traditional than things that may, at least to cynics, be clichés or tropes?) but also very lovingly conveys the down-to-earth nature of this tradition, a word which itself refers to things that are earthy and of foggy origin.

Up until now we’ve seen a lot of compound words. Do you think the poet’s using fewer compound words in this passage is supposed to reflect a change in the poem’s tone?

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Closing

In the next entry, the singer sings a song of Sigemund.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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Grendel’s end told again, and an Anglo-Saxon take on leadership (ll.837-852)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Lingering on Grendel
Leaders Tug and Monsters Trail Blood
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 turns again to Grendel, though Beowulf’s beaten him.

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Translation

“It was that morning, as I have heard,
when to that gift hall came warriors many;
chieftans marching from regions ranging
far and near to see that wonder,
the remnants of the resented one. None of those there
thought upon that one’s death sorely,
where the trail of the fame-less transgressor showed
how he went with weary-heart on his way,
that evil was overcome, to the watersprites of some pond,
the fated and fugitive leaving a trail of lifeblood.
There the water swelled with blood,
there repulsive waves surge, all mingling,
hot with gore, sword-blood tossing;
there the fated to die hid, when he, joy less,
in fen refuge laid aside his life,
his heathen soul; from there hell took him.”
(Beowulf ll.837-852)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Lingering on Grendel

I thought that this poem was called Beowulf for a reason. But it seems that here the poet’s forgotten about that temporarily as he shifts back to Grendel’s final moments. It could be that this is simply the poet waxing on about Grendel as an extended description of his severed arm and what it means. That’s definitely a part of what’s going on here since in lines 843-844 we’re told that the arm tells the story of how Grendel was beaten by Beowulf and forced to limp back to the fens.

But I can’t get past the way this extended description starts. The poet doesn’t preface it with something like “oh, wonder of wonders, the arm showed true/Grendel’s wretched final hours,” or “that arm hanging there, gruesomely suspended,/ told the final tale of Grendel/how the gore-spattered one limped home to hell.” Instead the poet says “None of those there/thought upon that one’s death sorely” (“No his lifgedal/sarlic þuhte secga ænegum” (ll.841-842)). The phrasing of this sentence is a little weird with “sore” being used as an adverb to describe “thought upon,” but I think the meaning here is that none of the people who came to see it thought, with sorrow at heart, about Grendel’s final hours as one defeated and fated to die. But why even mention the idea that no one felt bad about Grendel? Simply to contrast with the obvious emotions of joy or triumph that are coursing through the spectators’ minds and hearts?

I still think that this focus on Grendel amounts to a sort of lament. Maybe it’s even foreshadowing the lament over Beowulf at the end of the poem. Or, at the least, maybe it’s a lament for a fallen monster because even as a monster, Grendel was close enough to being human. And, given his demi-human nature and the Abrahamic god’s tendency to forgive when asked, maybe Grendel could have found salvation had he been able to veer away from his wickedness.

I mean, that’s what I get from where this passage ends, too. Grendel is noted as having a soul and that he went to hell. Surely, poetic license with language aside, this connection of Grendel and a soul suggests that he wasn’t supposed to just be some wild humanoid animal.

It’s been noted that Grendel is a member of the Anglo-Saxon humanoid classification of monsters (I’d give the source, but it’s lost in my Twitter feed). I think the most distinct property of this monster category is that they’re practically human beings. There’s just some minor difference in the things in this category that marks them as monstrous. So, could this sort of monster also still be human enough to have a soul?

Do you think that the poet’s constantly returning to Grendel’s plight and sorry end is meant to be taken as a call for pity for the beast? Or is it just the poet being poetic and aggrandizing the death of a foe that was equally aggrandized through wide-spread stories of his terror?

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Leaders Tug and Monsters Trail Blood

This week’s passage is full of compound words. But, most of these compounds are just combinations of two words that literally translate into their Modern English equivalences and are left at that. These simpler compounds include words like “gif-heal” (a combination of the word “gift” or “to give” and “hall” meaning “hall in which gifts were made/given”) (l.838); “guðrinc” (a combination of the word for “war” or “strife” and a word for “man” or “hero” meaning “warrior”) (l.838); “tir-leas” (a very neatly straightforward combination of the word for “fame” or “glory” with the suffix meaning “less” tacked onto it) (l.843); “heoru-dreore” (which combines words for “sword” and “blood” to mean “sword blood/gore”) (l.849); and “fen-freoðu” (a word that combines the literal words for “fen” and “refuge” to mean “fen refuge”) (l.851).

Of course, this wouldn’t be a passage of Beowulf if all the compounds were so neat and tidy. Two in particular stand out as strange and difficult.

The first of these appears on line 839, “folc-togan.” This word takes the Old English cognate of Modern English’ “folk” and jams it together with a really weird word, “togan.” As far as I can tell there are a few possibilities for this word. It could be a form of “toh” meaning “tough,” “tenacious,” or “sticky.” It could be a form of “togu” simply meaning “traces of a horse” (where “traces” refers to the straps, ropes, or chains that attached a horse to a carriage or wagon). Or this word could be a variation of “tog” meaning “tugging,” “contraction,” “spasm,” or “cramp.”

The thing is, if “folc-togan” means “chieftan” or “commander,” then all three of these interpretations of “togan” are possibly right. A leader of a people needs to be tough and tenacious, and, I guess, sticky when it comes to what they stand for and to what of their people they’re supposed to represent. But a leader could also be considered to tug their people along with them – after all, a single person isn’t going to be able to cover all of their peoples’ desires and beliefs. So these multifarious ideologies and such get tugged along behind a single leader who, hopefully, embodies at least what everyone considers the most important things among their beliefs.

Then there’s the equally mysterious “feorh-laestas,” or “step taken to preserve life, flight?[sic].” Yep, this is another one that even Clark Hall and Meritt of A Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary fame aren’t sure about.

If we take it apart we quickly find that their tentative definition works fairly well. The word “feorh” means “life,” or “principle of life” and “laestas” means “leaving,” “step,” “trail,” or “footprint.” So there’s definitely some reference to something being left behind. Maybe, in the case of Grendel, the poet’s actually referring to the trail of blood that the monster is leaving as he drags himself back to the fen. Since Grendel’s mortally wounded, it’s not just any blood he’s leaking, but it’s his very life blood, the loss of which seals his doomed fate.

Why do you think the combination of a word for “folk” and “tough” or “tugging” means “leader” in Anglo-Saxon? Does it suggest anything about what the Anglo-Saxons thought about people who lead? What about the combination of the word for “life blood” and “trail” meaning “step taken to preserve life” or “flight”?

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Closing

In the next entry Beowulf and the visiting chieftans go for a celebratory ride.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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Grendel loses an arm, but gains humanity (809-818a)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Grendel and Beowulf, Monsters Both
Brutal words
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

As Beowulf tears Grendel’s arm off, we’re told more from the monster’s point of view.

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Translation

Then the one who in earlier days had
completely changed the heartfelt mirth of man
for transgression — the one who sinned against god —
realized that his body would not endure,
for the spirited kin of Hygelac
had him firm in hand; as long as each was living
he was hateful to the other. What a wound
endured the terrible creature; his shoulder split
into an open and immense wound; sinews sprung loose,
bone joints split.
(Beowulf ll.809-818a)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Grendel and Beowulf, Monsters Both

This week’s passage is all about the wound at the centre of the fight between Beowulf and Grendel. And that makes sense, since it is the thing that ultimately proves Beowulf’s mastery, though, as has been the case up until now, we still get the story from Grendel’s side of things. We’re not yet let into Beowulf’s mind to see what’s going on with him as he pulls Grendel’s arm from his body.

Instead we’re told that Grendel realizes that he’s not going to survive this fight (“realized that his body would not endure” (“þæt him se lichoma læstan nolde” (l.812)) and that’s about that.

Except for lines 814 to 815.

Here the poet gives us another taste of how he shapes Old English into a mimetic experience of what he’s describing.

Just like two people grappling, this sentence’s reflexive nature shows how the two combatants mutually hate each other, seemingly just as part of their fight. In doing so, the fight gains an emotional aspect that we’ve never really had from Beowulf’s own descriptions of previous bouts.

In his stories, Beowulf has fought monsters and men alike, but we’re never given the poet’s perspective on those he fights. Is this intensity from Grendel’s side of the hand grip just a device common to Germanic heroic poetry? Or is it actually the poet trying to show some pity for Grendel?

Whatever the case, acknowledging that Grendel is at least able to direct his hate suggests to me that he’s more than just some monster.

Actually, it kind of makes them both monstrous since that’s basically what the line says. That is, both Beowulf and Grendel have mutually directed their hate to each other “as long as each was living” (“wæs gehwæþer oðrum/lifigende lað” (l.814-815)).

This line, for me, conjures the image of two figures emanating massive waves of energy toward each other simply because they’re fighting. In this scenario neither of the fighters have much say in this, these immense waves are more a by product of the fight than something intentional. It’s like Beowulf and Grendel are two AI-controlled monsters in a game like Shadow of Mordor who’ve been tricked into fighting each other, and since fighting’s all they know, they’re just locked in combat until it resolves itself — until one of them is beaten.

For Grendel this confirms his monstrosity. But for Beowulf it turns him into one. But what does this reading of Beowulf as temporary monster mean for the poem as a whole, or at least for Beowulf’s character?

Well, Beowulf has the whole poem to be shown to be human, while Grendel gets just a few hundred lines. So maybe the poet’s focus on his emotions and thoughts during this fight is merely a reminder that, despite behaviour and appearances, Grendel is a thinking creature and not just some monster. Grendel, though given much less credit for it (as indicated by his brief characterization primarily during the fight (the setting for this characterization could be indicative of how little humanity Grendel has left), is still, well, maybe not human, but a being with sentience greater than that of an animal.

Quick question:

Over the last few entries I’ve mentioned the idea that Grendel’s characterization during the fight with Beowulf makes him seem more sympathetic, almost human at some points. What do you think, though — is the poet’s point here to drum up sympathy for a misunderstood monster, or is the poet just trying to make Beowulf’s assault all the more brutal by putting us in the perspective of his target?

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Brutal Words

The language of this week’s passage is brutal. Particularly rough among the words the poet slings are “lic-sar” and “syn-dohl.”

Slightly familiar, or at least looking like one of those words you could probably correctly guess at, “lic-sar” means “wound.” It combines the words “lic” (body, corpse (origin of “lich”)) and “sar” (“bodily pain,” “sickness,” “wound,” “sore,” “raw place,” “suffering,” “sorrow,” “affliction,” “sore,” “sad,” “grievous,” “painful,” “wounding” (the origin of “sore”)). So literally “lic-sar” means “body sore,” something open and obvious on the body.

This word is pretty gruesome at the literal level, but if we punch it up by looking at the words stored in “sar” we get sentiments like “raw place on the body,” “body suffering,” “sickness of body.” The implication, I think, being that the wound “lic-sar” describes isn’t just a cut or a scrape, but something that you feel your whole body over. Not that it’s felt all over because it’s a particularly huge wound, but because it’s the sort of wound that makes you aware of your body, that brings attention to the fact that you have this physical form that can be struck and opened in ways that cause pain.

I once had a two inch-wide slit in my forearm and I think “lic-sar” works well to describe it.

The other brutal word I wanted to point out is “syn-dohl.” The meaning of this one is less obvious, but it’s closely related to “lic-sar.”

The word “syn-dohl” means “deadly wound” (Clark Hall and Meritt also include a note suggesting that it means “sin,” an apt definition in a Christian context). The different combinations you could make based on the alternate meanings of these two words don’t deviate much from the sense of “deadly wound,” but they definitely add more colour.

After all, syn can mean “perpetual,” “permanent,” “lasting,” “infinite,” “immense,” and dohl can mean “wound,” “scar,” “cut,” “sore,” “boil,” “tumour.”

So, taken together this compound could mean “perpetual wound,” or “lasting tumour” or “infinite sore.” I actually quite like the last one since it sounds like it’d be right at home in Shakespeare (“It strikes me infinite sore” seems like the perfect line for a foiled Shakespearean villain).

But likeable language aside, all of the different combinations come back to “deadly wound.”

On a bit of a side note, although “dohl” as “tumour” probably refers to an external tumour, it’s interesting that “deadly” was ascribed to tumours then since the association of the two still holds true in many cases today. We might not wander around bashing each other over the head with old swords any more, but we’re still helpless before some of the same “deadly wounds” that have always affected the body.

Quick question:

Old English is a language in which double negatives are actually a more intense form of a negation. Do you think the same principle is at work in these compound words for “wound,” or are “sar-lic” and “syn-dohl” just the poet’s way of using different words for “wound”?

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Closing

Next week, Beowulf is triumphant.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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The spell on Grendel, and a bit about bird swords (ll.801b-808)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
The Spell on Grendel
Bird Swords and Weird Death
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 explains the enchantment put on Grendel and describes what will happen upon his death.

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Translation

801b – 808

“that sin-laden wretch,
by even the best iron in or on the earth,
by any battle bill could not be at all touched,
for he had forsworn the use of any weapon of war,
each and every edge. His share of eternity
in the days of this life
would agonizing be, and the alien spirit
into the grasp of fiends would journey far.”
(Beowulf ll.801b-808)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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The Spell on Grendel

So the answer to last week’s burning question about Grendel and weapons is that they don’t affect him because he’s “forsworn” them.

The actual word used here is “forsworen,” a form of the verb “forswerian,” which means “to swear falsely” (as the modern “forsworn” does) and “make useless by a spell” (which, according to Clark Hall and Meritt only appears in Beowulf). So there’s some sort of magic going on here.

Now, though we only have an example of the “spell” sense of “forswerian” in Beowulf, I think that the same word’s having the sense of “to swear falsely” is important. I think that it suggests that this isn’t just any magic, but dark magic based on some sort of demonic, or evil power. Or, at the very least, some sort of power based on negation.

Big surprise, I know.

Grendel has been the only who’s said to bear the mark of Cain and be the offspring of giants and all that. But I think that this line about having somehow forsworn weapons in particular is a good piece of evidence for Grendel as the enchanted champion of a fallen goddess.

Demons, after all, are often the new religion’s take on the old faith’s gods. So if Beowulf is coming from a culture that once had a pair of deities that were mother and son or even goddess and champion, I think this line about Grendel being enchanted by dark magic seals the connection.

But, once again turning to Robert Graves’ The White Goddess (here’s my first entry on it, from my other blog), there’s even more here than just the implication that Grendel is some sort of old and outdated deity or demi-deity made monstrous.

In the chapter that Graves dedicates to Llew Llaw Gyffes, Graves tells the story of this early Welsh hero. Ultimately, Graves comes to the death of this hero, but the thing with him is that he can only be killed in a very particular way.

And it’s not just that he has to be hit in his heel or struck with a certain sword, he’s got to be balancing between the lip of a cauldron and the back of a goat, beside a stream, under a tree, holding particular items and so on. The conditions are ridiculous (so much so Graves readily looks into them for their iconographic meaning).

The conditions on Grendel’s death aren’t quite so ridiculous, but in the context of Beowulf I think the idea of someone being impervious to weapons would be pretty incredible. I mean — they’re weapons. They’re designed to kill and maim and hurt. To not be affected by a thing’s defining purpose almost gives Grendel a weird metaphysical power over the world around him. Almost.

At any rate, I think that the spell on Grendel is a similar one to that one on Llew Llaw Gyffes.

Perhaps Grendel, as rude and slovenly as he is, is just such a hero viewed through a Christian lens — none of his powers or virtues are won in a straightforward manner and so how could he be anything other than a monster, something outside the proper realm of society, and therefore banished to its borders with his monstrously powerful mother?

The other thing I want to pick at here is why the poet gives half of this passage to describing Grendel’s flight and death.

Actually, I take it to be more than just a description of whatever track Grendel’s going to make as he runs home mortally wounded. Just as heroes die and have the arms of angels to look forward to once their soul ascends, I get the feeling that the poet is using Grendel’s flight from Heorot as a metaphor for his soul’s transmigration to hell (“the grasp of fiends” (“on feonda geweald” (l.808))). But why even mention this?

I think it goes back to the poet’s shifting the focus to Grendel to indirectly show just how strong and powerful Beowulf is.

Rather than just praising his hero unendingly, the poet decided to mix things up and show how terrified Beowulf’s enemies become as they fight him. Interestingly, actually, this is the only fight in which we get a sense of Beowulf’s opponent’s mind as the poem’s hero lands the fatal blow.

Perhaps this shift in perspective is also because, as much as Grendel is the twisted and monstrous champion of the old, Beowulf is the champion of the new?

What do you think?

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Bird Swords and Weird Death

This week’s selection of curious words is rather limited. Still, two stand out: “guð-bill” and “aldor-gedal.”

The first of these means “sword,” and is one of many creative words for the weapon in Beowulf.

This word’s two parts come out as “guð” (“war,” “conflict,” “strife,” or “battle”) and “bill” (“bill,” “axe,” “falchion,” “blade,” or “sword”). So it’s a pretty straightforward concept and even more so a straightforward compound.

But it does make me wonder about what kind of “bill” the sword’s being compared to.

It’s not out of the question that the Anglo-Saxons were into cock-fighting, and part of that is definitely the roosters’ pecking at each other. Though even more likely is that the Anglo Saxons would have observed something like chickens pecking a newcomer nearly to death or other birds fighting and using their beaks primarily to drive their point home.

Though the thing with that is, at least in Modern English, “bill” refers specifically to a longer, often broad, sort of beak, like the kind you’d see on a duck or a stork. So maybe, if “bill” was just as restrictive among the Anglo-Saxons, it fit what the poet was going for since it’s a broad or long bit of a body that an animal uses as a weapon.

Good martial artists of all sorts treat weapons in the same way, as extensions of their bodies rather than separate things. So maybe “guðbill” carries more weight than just “sword,” instead implying a sword that’s wielded as well as any other limb (or maybe specific to a single person, an heirloom sword, perhaps).

The second word, “aldor-gedal,” means death.

Split into its pieces we get “aldor” (“elder,” “parent,” “ancestors,” “civil/religious authority,” “chief,” “leader,” “master,” “lord,” “prince,” “king” “source,” “primitive,” “life,” “vital part,” “age,” “old age,” or “eternity”) and “gedal” (“division,” “separation,” “sharing,” “giving out,” “distinction,” “difference,” “destruction,” “share,” or “lot”).

The tricky thing here is that it’s not entirely clear how these words combine to mean death.

Perhaps it’s because it’s the lot of all living things to one day die, or because death is the share that all living things have in eternity. Death commemorates the formerly alive in a way beyond the memories of the living, and somehow adds them into eternity.

Though that reasoning might give the Anglo-Saxons more credit in the realm of quantum physics, or at least ideas of corpses dissipating into the soil and re-entering the natural world.

The “lot of old age” or the “share of old age” makes a little more sense, without attributing too much philosophy to the Anglo-Saxons, but I think it’s a little too plain. If the Anglo-Saxons were into nothing else, they were definitely into death and elegies. Beowulf itself, in fact, has been considered an elegy by no less a scholar than J.R.R. Tolkien. As a whole it does seem to be about the loss of a whole people (within an Anglo-Saxon context, perhaps the Geats are the Celts?).

As with all old poetry that’s stood the test of time, it’s not at all clear. So, what do you think the reasoning is behind sticking “aldor” and “gedal” together to make a word for “death”? How does that equation work?

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Closing

Next week, Grendel gets a reprieve as the poet waxes poetic ends and we’re told just how Beowulf wins it all.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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Grendel as the Goddess’ champion, three neat words (ll.791-801a)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Grendel as twisted champion
Three neat words
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

Beowulf is aided by his troop of Geats, who move valiantly to defend him.

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Translation

“For nothing at all would that man
allow the death-bringer to leave alive,
he did not consider that one’s life days of
any worth to anyone anywhere. Then the mobile host
moved swiftly to defend Beowulf with fathers’ swords,
they wished to defend the very soul of their leader,
those of the famed people, where they might do so.
But they knew not that their work was in vain,
the tough-spirited war men,
that each man’s looking to hew the beast in half was faulty,
their seeking his soul with the sword point unsuccessful:…”
(Beowulf ll.791-801a)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Grendel as twisted champion

This week’s passage is one half of a complete scene. As such, it ends on a bit of a cliffhanger. Just why is it that Beowulf’s men’s swords are being used in vain? All will be revealed next week.

For now, however, I think we have enough to spin some theories around. Once again, I’ll be basing my ramblings here on Robert Graves’ The White Goddess. I’m breaking this book out again because it’s what gives the most interesting reading of this passage. Though the most interesting reading isn’t always the most supported one. I’ve got to say up front that my idea here might not stand up outside of Beowulf and in our collection of known Anglo-Saxon literature.

However, in the world that the poem creates and within the poem itself, I think it’s a valid way of looking at things.

Grendel’s being immune to swords I read not necessarily as a side effect of his being some sort of monster. Instead I see it as an effect of his being a twisted version of the goddess’ champion. I base this in the interpretation of the first part of Beowulf as a play on what Graves points out as the trifecta of goddess, god of the waning year and god of the waxing year. Grendel’s mother is the goddess in this case, though she is, perhaps a twisted and gnarled one who lacks the power she had of old since Beowulf is a predominantly masculine poem and, at least for the purposes of this reading, an artifact of a patriarchal society.

As such, a woman who may have headed her own power structure and not just occupied a high place in one defined by men (as Wealhtheow does) would be be depicted as some sort of monstrosity. As Grendel’s mother is just a little later in the poem.

If Grendel is the champion of this goddess, then he could be either the god of the waxing or waning year. However, in keeping with the idea from an earlier entry that Grendel is actually the god of the waxing year whom Hrothgar hasn’t acknowledged for a full cycle of twelve years, he has begun to wane. And now Beowulf acts the part of the king of the waxing year. This changing of roles allows Beowulf to defeat Grendel because of his position.

I also think that Beowulf beats Grendel because he challenges the otherwise slightly feminized creature with sheer masculinity. The two of them engage in a wrestling match, which from classical times was a thoroughly masculine sport, and Beowulf is said to have the strength of thirty men. And strength has always been considered one of the primary virtues of masculinity.

Of course, that means that Grendel must be feminine, at least in some ways. I don’t think these ways are obvious, however.

Looking at the poem as a whole, three things are expected of great men. They must think right thoughts, do right deeds, and speak the right words. Since Grendel does none of these he is obviously no true man.

It might be a bit of a stretch (what’s this blog for otherwise, though?) but I think that Grendel’s is aggressively feminine in his devouring of his victims. Say what you will about men’s thoughts of women’s genitalia, but I think a yonic reading of Grendel’s devouring his victims is definitely valid.

With all this in mind, as much of a cliffhanger as this passage is, I also think that it’s a commentary on the old matriarchal system of government.

Not only is the goddess that society used to worship decrepit (I am getting a little ahead of myself there still), her champion shows no proper masculine virtue and is himself feminized. My point here is that the entire matriarchal system of a cyclical kingship that Graves outlines in The White Goddess is too feminine and not as stable as the more long lasting male kingship that was coming about during the lifetime of the scribes (if not the poet(s)) of Beowulf.

But back to my jumping off point. In my reading of this week’s passage, swords don’t work against Grendel because he’s not subject to the usual ways of masculine warfare, hence Beowulf can only defeat him in hand to hand, unarmed combat.

Do you think it’s useful to use one book as a lens through which to view another book? Or should you just stick with figuring out one book at a time?

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Three neat words

This week’s passage offers up some neat words.

First among these (in their order here, and in general interesting-ness) is “cwealm-cuman.”

A combination of the word “cwealm” (“death,” “murder,” “slaughter,” “torment,” “pain,” “plague,” or “pestilence”) and “cuman” (“come,” “approach,” “get to,” or “attain”), together these words are taken to mean “death-bringer.” As you might’ve noticed, there aren’t any really crazy combinations for “cwealm-cuman”, but it’s neat because of how it’s used in the poem.

Alliteration aside, the poet’s referring to Grendel as a “death-bringer” as he struggles to escape Beowulf’s hold and the overwhelming power that the Geat wields strikes me as a clever way to talk about Grendel the death-bringer getting adose of his own fatal medicine. It seems to me that he’s saying that Beowulf wanted Grendel to leave Heorot with a taste of the same death that he had visited upon it countless times before.

Next up is “frea-drihtnes,” a combination of “frea” (“ruler,” “lord,” “king,” “master,” “the Lord,” “Christ,” “God,” or “husband”) and “drihten” (“ruler,” “king,” “lord,” “prince,” “the Lord,” “God,” or “Christ”).

What’s neat here is that this is another instance of intensification through doubling, as we’ve seen in an earlier entry. Perhaps the sentiment contained in this compound word might also have become the phrase “lord and king,” too. They are both poetic terms, after all.

And that brings us to “heard-hicgend.”

I want to say that this compound is cool because it’s intuitive, but only “heard” is probably recognizable to Modern English speakers. It is, unsurprisingly, Old English for “hard.” The word “hicgend” translates as “mind” or “spirit”.

So, literally, “heard-hicgend” is a “hard spirit” or “hard mind,” a way of expressing the idea of courage. After all, what’s courage if not a certain kind of hardness (or immovability or unwaveringness) of spirit or mind? As odd a way to express courage as saying “hard spirit” might be, it still makes sense on a kind of basic level.

Do you ever find yourself doubling negatives or adjectives to intensify what you’re saying?

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Closing

Next week, all is revealed about the enchantment that Grendel has on himself, and why Beowulf’s fellow Geats are of no help to him in this fight.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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