Beowulf wrathfully awakens and Grendel as shadow skulker (ll.700b-709)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Beowulf’s waking and Grendel’s shadows
More on Grendel, a bit on righteous wrath
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

Grendel comes slinking over to Heorot, but Beowulf wakes and waits.

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Translation

“The truth is shown,
that mighty god rules humankind
always. In the deepest night
came slinking the wanderer in shadow; the warriors slept,
when they should have been holding that hall,
all but one. It was known of many people,
that they might not, as long as the Measurer allowed it not,
be brought beneath shadow by the sin-stained,
but that one woke with wrath in enmity
pledged enraged battle to the creature.”
(Beowulf ll.700b-709)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Beowulf’s waking and Grendel’s shadows

Well, although the first two lines and a bit are more suited to last week’s passage (they’re a reiteration of the idea of god’s power), they go well with this week’s too. Why? Well, because it reminds the audience that god is there and so such an ungodly thing as the Danes losing out on their hero entirely won’t happen.

In a way, I wonder if this reference to god’s power is here at all less for reiteration and more to solidify the frightening aspects of Grendel. For an enemy that humanity can’t deal with on its own must be truly terrifying. And Danes and Geats and Anglo-Saxons alike surely didn’t think so little of themselves that they needed god for every thing.

But I’m getting away from the passage. Aside from the opening sentence, the rest of this week’s passage is about Grendel’s approach and Beowulf’s being awake.

Though just how is he awake?

Last week, I got the sense that Beowulf bedded down with the rest of his thanes. So he had his bedroll down or whatever and had settled into rest before the narrator cut away to the machinations of god. But here we’re told that everyone in the hall (who was supposed to be guarding it, by the way) were asleep except for Beowulf.

So was Beowulf cunning enough to realize that he could catch Grendel by surprise if he pretended to sleep as the others did? Or was he actually asleep for a time and then stirred before Grendel arrived thanks to some sort of divine intervention?

Considering Beowulf’s fixation on the fight, I find myself leaning more towards his being woken up through god’s touch. So, in truth, all the Geats had fallen asleep, including Beowulf, and his happening to stir to wakefulness is the miracle that saved them all (well, as we’ll see in a few weeks, almost all). Thus, this is where the might of god (as the narrator describes it) is shown.

Truth be told, I like the idea that Beowulf’s waking is an act of god because it seems somehow apt that the great boaster (still in his late teens, likely) is still susceptible to sleep.

Such a reading is supported by the flow of the narration, as it moves from describing Beowulf’s pre-bed vow to the Geats settling into bed to god’s role in what’s to come to Grendel’s approach to Beowulf’s waking with a curse and a pledge of violence on his tongue. It’s like god woke Beowulf but he’s nonetheless grumpy when he first gets up, so Grendel’s not just his enemy, but likely the first thing he sees and turns his freshly woken rage to.

Anyway, the other thing that I think is of note in this passage is Grendel’s characterization. This kind of gets into the second section’s territory since it has to do with words, but bear with me.

In two instances Grendel is associated with shadows:

1) Lines 703-704: “Com on wanre niht/scriðan sceadugenga.” (“In the deepest night/came slinking the wanderer in shadow”)

2) Line 707 “…se scynscaþa under sceadu bregdan.” (“…be brought beneath shadow by the sin-stained.”)

Add to this his being sin-stained (“scynscaþa” (l.707)).

The references to shadow alone paint a picture of Grendel as this being who lives more in darkness than in light. It makes him a very mysterious figure to modern readers, but keeping in mind the way that Anglo-Saxons categorized colours (that brighter is better, brightness is the defining quality of colour), Grendel must have been a terrifying force utterly opposed to all lightness, merry-making, and friendship. That sounds kind of bad to us, but to a society where those were essential for the physical survival of individuals, relationships and social networks, such a creature could be compared to a sentient computer virus.

What’s more, Grendel’s being related to shadows makes him diametrically opposed to light, since shadows are very much light’s opposite. The fact that light makes shadows also yields something, but I think that just ties back to Grendel’s being the kin of Cain and “sin-stained.”

What really strikes me about the way Grendel’s described, though, is that those three words all have an “s” sound in them.

Shadows can be very fleeting, they shift and move as their light does. And what could be more fleeting than the letter that you sound by simply exhaling through closed teeth? The sound brings to mind steam from a kettle, smoke from a fire, or the sound of water racing down a river. All of which are fleeting and ever-shifting. That sound also gives Grendel a very slinky sort of feel, that he’s a creature that skitters about. A word that even in Modern English has disgusting connotations.

So why then, maybe you’re wondering, is he named “Grendel”? There’s not an “s” in sight in that name.

I think that, though he’s very much a creature who flits and slinks as shadows do and who dwells in them (possibly controls them?), he is called Grendel because that is his signature feature. He grinds things, destroying them, dragging them down to the insubstantiality of a shadow, reducing them to dust and powder.

It’s possible that this process would extend beyond people’s personal bodies to their reputations, their names. After all, none of the warriors who came before Beowulf to challenge Grendel are named. And why should they be?

What do you think Grendel looks like? Something like a troll? Or more of a misshapen person?

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More on Grendel, a bit on righteous wrath

Let’s start this section off with a little more about Grendel and how he’s portrayed here.

On line 709 Grendel is referred to as “geþinges” (meaning “creature,” or, more generally, “thing”).

I think that within the context of this passage, using a word that boils down to “thing” (even if it can mean “creature”) suggests that Grendel is a being of little sentience. He’s denied any sort of personality or any sort of reasoning faculty.

Just as the Anglo-Saxons probably likely believed it to be madness to try to reason with a bear, it’s pretty clear that Grendel can’t be reasoned with. This goes far to promoting his image as a being who has no other purpose than to destroy and spread fear and terror. I also think it plays into the shadow imagery that he’s so strongly associated with here.

For, going back to the Anglo-Saxon classification of colour being dependent on light/brightness, a shadow would be considered near the bottom in the kingdom of colours. Just as the phrase “deepest night” is used here to indicate the darkest, deepest part of the night (literally “wanre niht,” the “dullest night” (l.702)). So Grendel’s being associated with shadows and referred to as a thing really makes it clear that he’s a being of sheer evil and not to be pitied in the least, nor empathized with, nor really regarded at all as anything other than a monster.

I think this portrayal is here to either help forward Beowulf as god’s champion (or simply as a great warrior), or because Grendel, at one point, was something more.

It’s easy to say that Grendel represents old pagan practices that don’t work because they aren’t true (remember the bit about the Danes praying to their idols for help back on lines 175-180? completely ineffectual) and Beowulf is the bringer of the new light, of the word of god through Christ and all that. But I don’t think that’s quite right.

I think that the writer or transcriber of the poem was well aware of what Grendel was and wanted to downplay it to an incredible degree. Why? Perhaps to put what he represented into a bad light.

But really, does it matter what Grendel is? He’s so generic in his being a personification of the lowest sort of evil that he could be whatever bugbear a society who took up this poem wanted him to be.

At the emergence of Christianity as an evangelical faith, Grendel could be old religions; today he could simply be terror itself. This is what makes poems like Beowulf so transcendent. Not that they’re so open to interpretation that they can mean anything but because they’re drawn in just the right strokes to give such poems layers of meaning — some of which aren’t apparent until someone reads them hundreds, even thousands of years after they’re written.

The other word that I think is interesting is “anda.” This is a word with several meanings: “grudge,” “enmity,” “envy,” “anger,” “vexation;” “zeal;” “injury,” “mischief,” “fear,” or “horror.”

What’s curious about this word is that it, like many other words, suggests a connection between concepts that we don’t often credit to medieval societies. It combines the idea of grudges and anger with that of horror and fear. In short, it’s a word that suggests that the Anglo-Saxons were aware of the idea that we hate what we fear.

In this passage in particular this is intensified, since it’s used for Grendel in the bit about Beowulf’s waking in wrath against him. So much for being the big brave hero — it seems that part of Beowulf’s might may well be in his extreme fear. Though maybe this is more than intentional if Beowulf has any sort of explicit religious aspect to it.

It could be that the poem’s suggesting that fear tempered by faith, channelled through it (as Beowulf’s seems to be channelled through his faith that god will determine the victor in his various fights) creates strength in a person. Though, in this case, that strength seems to come from an extreme, faith-fuelled hatred or bigotry.

Well. Timeless poems aren’t without problems.

What do you make of Beowulf’s wrathful anger? Is it righteous? Is it an example of misguided faith?

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Closing

Next week, Grendel arrives at the hall and revels in what he finds there.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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Geats want to go out fighting, “alma mater” to the max (ll.688-700a)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
The dedication to die away from home
Very dear country
Closing

Beowulf, Anglo-Saxons, poetry, translation

A pillow inspired by artifacts found at the Sutton Hoo site. Design by Karen Dixon, full information available at http://www.millennia-designs.com/tapestry-cross-stitch-embroidery-kits/76/91/53/.

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Abstract

Beowulf and his fellow Geats bed down for the night while the narrator assures us that their beliefs about never again seeing home are unnecessary.

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Translation

“He Kept himself bold then, took a pillow
to his cheek with his band, and he among the many
ready seafarers gave themselves to hall-rest.
None of those thought that they should afterward
ever see their dear land again,
their people or their towns, where they had been raised;
and they had prayed, with fervour earlier, that they
in that wine hall be taken by death in battle,
those Danish people. But to them the Lord gave
woven success in war, thanks to the Weder people,
joy and help, that they the fiend there
through that one’s strength fully overcame,
by his own might.”
(Beowulf ll.688-700a)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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The dedication to die away from home

Unlike last week’s passage, there’s a fair bit more going on in this week’s. Not that it’s wall to wall action or anything, but, nonetheless, I have some things to say about it rather than just a thing.

In the middle of this week’s passage, we get something that seems uncharacteristic for the sorts of warriors Beowulf and his men are said to be. We’re told that “None of those thought that they should afterward/ever see their dear land again,” (“Nænig heora þohte þæt he þanon scolde/eft eardlufan æfre gesecean”(ll.691-692)). At first, this bit of information makes it seem as though the Geats feel that theirs is a doomed project.

And why not?

Countless others have tried before them and have failed. Why should they, a band of warriors whose leader is really an unproven whelp have any better luck?

But, immediately after this fairly touching bit about never returning to where they were raised (ll.693) we’re given a little more information. The sort of information that clarifies things further and explains quite a bit about the difference between our culture and that expressed in Beowulf.

From lines 694 to 695 we’re told that the Geats had earlier prayed (the word is “gefrignan,” meaning, in general “to ask”) that they should die in battle. Again, at first you think, well, that’s probably so that they don’t have to face defeat. That they’ll be remembered as having gone down fighting. But when you put this idea with the belief that they’ll never see home again, then you get what I think is the full picture.

The Geats think that they’ll never see their homeland and loved ones again because hat’s just how resolved they are to dying in the fight with Grendel. It’s not that they’re afraid of the monster or sorrowful about a doomed fate. Instead, I think the poet/scribe is showing us the strength of the Geats’ resolve. They’re so willing to die in the service of this quest that they, in the calm before Grendel storms in, are convinced that they’ll never go back across the waters to see Geatland again.

Nevertheless, this passage closes out with a curious reassurance.

In line 698, the poet/scribe tells us that Grendel will be defeated, but by “one’s strength” (“anes cræft” (l.699)). What’s curious about this to me is that, on one hand, this seems to be about Beowulf.

But If such is the case what’s unclear is whether this means that Beowulf’s strength overcomes Grendel’s or if it’s Beowulf’s strength that convinces god to give the victory to the Danes (as mentioned on lines 698-699).

But, “one’s strength” (l.699) could also refer to god itself.

Since Beowulf is always invoking god as the one who grants him victory after victory, it wouldn’t surprise me if the poet/scribe (more so the scribe) snuck this into the poem as a reference to what the Christian version of a single omniscient and omnipotent deity was.

Based on nothing aside from his depth of knowledge, I agree with Robert Graves in his argument that the peoples of Northern Europe had the idea of a singular ruling deity, a sort of monotheism, before Christianity (as Graves outlines in The White Goddess).

But it’s possible that early Christian missionaries sold those people on the idea of Christ and God and such on its being a new, fresh deity, someone who could overcome and vanquish the old gods or their champions. With this sort of reading, “one’s strength” takes on a much more proselytizing tone, and, over all, makes the poem weirdly more Christian than it would be otherwise (that is Beowulf thanks god for victories, but those victories are by god’s grace, so the whole poem, whatever else it is, is really about god’s grace in battle).

However, where such a religious reading of this line falls apart is that there’s no clear reference to god.

It’s possible that Beowulf, at best an adaptation of a hero from an earlier story, is god as god’s champion, and so that “one alone” is both god and Beowulf simultaneously. But to expect that this meaning would get across to the audience of a poem seems far-fetched to me.

Yet, in that case, it could be that the poet/scribe intended this particular passage as a sort of coded wink or nod to those in the know. Maybe at this point in the poem, while it was being read/performed, the guy beside you who’d been pretty quiet up until then would turn to you and say “have you let Jesus Christ into your heart, brother?”

How much Christian influence do you think is in Beowulf? Are all of his references to god just references to a pre-Christian deity?

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Very dear country

This week’s passage isn’t without its compound words, but most of them are straightforward and to the point. They’re combinations of words that make sense together and don’t offer as much room for wiggling.

These are words like “hleorbolster” (“hleor” (meaning “cheek,” “face,” or “countenance”) + “bolster” (meaning “cushion”)) or “wigsped” (“wig” (meaning “war,” “strife,” “battle”) + “sped” (meaning “success”). But, as in all good poetry, this passage does have its variety.

Otherwise I’m not sure how you’d explain the presence of “eard-lufan.”

This word is, at first blush, a simple compound. It combines the word “eard” (meaning “native place,” “country,” “region,” “dwelling-place,” “estate,” “cultivated ground,” “earth,” “land,” “condition,” or “fate”) with the word “lufan” (meaning “dear,” or “beloved”).

So, very simply, we get the dictionary-prescribed “dear home” (as in Clark Hall and Meritt) or “beloved home” (as in C.L. Wrenn’s glossary). The difference here is infinitesimal, and it looks like an easy enough compound word to deal with.

But what about those weird definitions of “eard” near the end of that list up there? “Condition” and “fate” are strange words to translate a word that seems to otherwise just mean “home” or “earth.”

I think these alternate meanings of “eard” don’t alter the compound word or give it radically different meanings, though. I think that their being possible translations for “eard” just deepens the meaning of “eardlufan.”

For the most part, “eard” is a word that represents earth and home. I think the inclusion of “condition” and “fate” in this list suggests that a dear home isn’t just a place where a person grew up, but also where they hope to die. It is a place so dear to them so utterly connected to them and they to it, that they want to be raised there, live there, and die there.

I’m basing this speculation on the Biblical notion that “dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return” (Genesis 3:19) (something I imagine the Anglo-Saxons were aware of); the earth or ground isn’t just our home or where we make our dwelling, but we are the very stuff of it and return to it when we die.

I think this extra shade of “eardlufan” deepens its meaning because it suggests a connection with a country and a land so strong that a person would give all they have for it. I might even go so far as to say that a person who uses such a word implies that they themselves are a part of the country or land from which they come.

What’s more, to the Anglo-Saxons, a people who identified with the wandering, country-less Jews of Exodus, this notion of an incredible bond with a place must have been a great fantasy. It may have even driven them to settle in as much as they did in the British Isles. Perhaps it even encouraged them to establish a country for themselves, the nation of wanderers that they saw themselves as.

But that’s just some succinct speculation. Though it brings to mind a question.

When it comes to early nationhood, which do you think came first: a country big enough to sustain a large group of people or a large group of people who strongly identified as a single group?

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Closing

Next week, Grendel begins his approach to Heorot.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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Beowulf’s boast before bedtime (ll.675-687)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Beowulf’s boastful address
A compound word for “prowess”
Closing

Boasting was a sort of performance among Anglo-Saxons. Rocking the harp while telling tales of your deeds would make those tales even more convincing. Image found at http://www.comm.unt.edu/~ktaylor/scop/boasting.htm.

Boasting was a sort of performance among Anglo-Saxons. Rocking the harp while telling tales of your deeds would make those tales even more convincing. Image found at http://www.comm.unt.edu/~ktaylor/scop/boasting.htm.

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Abstract

Beowulf boasts about what he will do to defeat Grendel and invokes the judgement of god regarding who shall have the victory in the upcoming fight.

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Translation

“Spoke he then some good boast words,
Beowulf the Geat, before he went to bed down:
‘I consider my own prowess with battle work unbowed
when compared to Grendel;
as Grendel himself slays without sword,
that thief of life, nevertheless I shall do all.
He has not the advantage, that he shall slay me,
though he hew away my shield, though he be vigorous in his
evil deed: but we this night should
forego the sword, if he seeks to dare
a battle beyond weapons; and afterwards wise god
shall decide which of us, oh holy Lord,
is worthy of glory, as he deems proper.'”
(Beowulf ll.675-687)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Beowulf’s boastful address

This week’s passage is weird in that there isn’t a whole lot to pick out that hasn’t already been picked out.

Beowulf speaks a final boast before he (and likely the rest of the Geats) head to bed for the night. In this boast he covers mostly familiar ground: he won’t be bowed by Grendel, let god decide, etc, etc.

But who is he boasting to?

Hrothgar and the bulk of the Danes (all of them, perhaps, since who among them would want to stay in the hall?) have left.

The fourteen warriors that Beowulf has with him are, as always, it seems, silent extras, so if they’re listening we don’t get any impressions of what they think about their leaders’ boasts. Yet, anyway.

Then, since Beowulf appears to have no audience, the boast is likely for himself and himself alone. It’s another of his means of psyching himself up.

But then, why, I have to ask, does he make this boast with the same formal diction that he used when addressing Hrothgar?

Beowulf’s sentences in this passage are chopped up and rearranged across multiple lines, making translation trickier than usual. Perhaps Beowulf’s engaging in some apostrophe here — addressing god itself with this boast of his.

Or maybe he’s just speaking his intention so that, in a way no doubt familiar to contemporary self-help readers and motivational speakers, it’s given an existence outside of him before he performs it. That is, in speaking about his defeating Grendel, even if it comes to a “a battle beyond weapons” (“wig ofer wæpen” (l.685)), Beowulf could be putting it out there so that he has something outside of himself to hold himself to; he’s giving himself something to grasp at in the upcoming struggle. It’s also a good way to clarify, one more time, just what his intentions are — for himself and for anyone listening.

Or, based on nothing from the poem thus far, but instead on the inclusion of a bard-like character in Sturla Gunnarsson’s 2005 film Beowulf and Grendel, maybe one of the Geats that Beowulf brought with him is making a record of this adventure and Beowulf wants to make a definite statement before the action takes place?

That last one, though possible, seems unlikely, -since Beowulf is fairly well-spoken himself and presents his adventures at great length to Hygelac when he returns to Geatland. Though, even Anglo-Saxons (or their folktale analogue, the Geats) probably appreciated the importance of back-up plans. Especially of things that could lead a person to great glory.

Nonetheless, I don’t think Beowulf is boasting here for the sake of a bard in his party.

Beowulf’s addressing god is definitely possible, and the constant recourse he makes to god as the agent of his victories suggests a certain kind of devotion on the Geat’s part.

Maybe Beowulf is even addressing god here to garner some of the deity’s favour — something that Grendel, as kin of Cain, surely has no access to. Though, with such a reputation, maybe it was thought that Grendel had the help of Satan (I’m pretty sure that concept had made its way into Christianity by the sixth century, the earliest date for Beowulf‘s composition) and so Beowulf calls on god to judge the victor as a counter to his opponent’s demonic support. Addressing a deity would definitely be reason for Beowulf to speak with the diction that he does.

Though it’s possible that he’s also just being overly eloquent because of a buzz or his being slightly drunk. I mean, he has been drinking all evening, right?

Matters of record or prayer/deity acknowledgement aside, I think it’s most likely that Beowulf makes this boast for his own good.

I think he puts his aspirations into words to make them more real so that he can have something to reach for beyond the abstract idea of beating some sort of hitherto unseen monster. It could be argued that even if Beowulf is addressing god here, that too is done as a way of psyching himself up. Though whether or not such ideas would be current among the Anglo-Saxons is another question all together. They may still have totally thought that prayer pierced the firmament of immutable stars overhead and made an inroad for god’s power to enter the realm of mortals.

Do you think giving yourself pep talks before you face major challenges helps make them easier to overcome?

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A compound word for “prowess”

Just as Beowulf’s boasting doesn’t bring much new to the table thematically, this passage is pretty light on new words that are awesome. Easy puzzles like “gylp-word” (“boast word) and “guþ-weorca” (“war work”) make appearances, but those words are too straightforward to easily go into depth with.

However, one word stands out (as always seems to be the case in this section, right?). This word is “herewæsmun” — a word that looks like a compound (and, I’m convinced, is one), but, at first look, defies being broken into its constituent parts.

The “here” part is pretty straightforward: “predatory band, troop, army, host, multitude.” Easy enough.

But there’s no entry in my Clark Hall and Merrit dictionary for “wæsma.” The closest thing is an entry for “-wæsma” (acknowledging that it is only a suffix) which redirects you to “here-w” and the compounds definition: “prowess.”

The word “wæstm” is pretty close to “wæsmun”/”wæsma,” so I think that it’s a good candidate for defining the latter half of herewæsmun. Though wæstm’s meaning “growth,” increase,” “plant,” “produce,” “offspring,” “fruit;” “result,” “benefit,” “product;” “interest,” “usury;” “abundance,” “stature,” “form,” or “figure” doesn’t mesh neatly with a word for “army” to give us a compound that means “prowess.”

However, in the glossary included with my copy of C.L. Wrenn’s second edition of the Old English Beowulf (published in 1958 by Harrap & Co.), “herewæsma” appears as “herewæs(t)m.” The inclusion of the “t” (even in parentheses) suggests that, though Wrenn doesn’t include “wæstm” in his glossary, “herewæsma” is indeed a compound of “here” and “wæstm.” Wrenn’s definition of the compound as “vigour in war” also makes a little more sense than Clark Hall and Meritt’s generalized “prowess.”

Plus, “vigour in war” isn’t that difficult to arrive at given the combination of words presented.

For, if you take a word meaning “troop” or “army” and combine it with another meaning “fruit” or “stature” then you get a word with the sense of something that is the fruit of a war band or one of great stature in such a band. And, if you think about what it’d be like to fight in a band of warriors, something that’s likely to come to mind is how you and the group might coalesce into one unit and be rallied by each other in the heat of battle. What would come from such rallying? Vigour in war — or, more generally, prowess.

Neat, huh?

Though passages like this might be light on interesting words, this is the stuff I love about readin Old English literature. It gives me a chance to really stick my hands into the muck of words (even if that muck is already pre-sifted by people like C.L. Wrenn and John R. Clark Hall and Herbert D. Merrit). Actually, this depth of language is one of the reasons why I think Beowulf is so rich; its language is much more sensitive to context than much of Modern English seems to be.

Which language do you think has more fluidity: Old English or Modern English?

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Closing

Next week, check back here for a run down of the passage wherein the narrator tells of how none of the Geats thought they’d ever see home again.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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Beowulf in a state of undress, compounds-Compounds-Compounds! (ll.662-674)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Beowulf prepares himself
On “warmakers,” “bedmates,” “kings of praise,” and more
Closing

A page from an illuminated manuscript. Words are important. Image from http://www.myarmoury.com/talk/viewtopic.php?t=28126&view=next.

A page from an illuminated manuscript. Words are important. Image from http://www.myarmoury.com/talk/viewtopic.php?t=28126&view=next.

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Abstract

Hrothgar and his retinue depart the hall, and Beowulf prepares himself for the coming brawl.

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Translation

“Then from him Hrothgar went among his warrior band,
the prince of the Scyldings out from the hall;
the war chief would seek out Wealhtheow,
the queen consort. The king of heaven had
against Grendel, as people later learned by inquiry,
set a hall guard; one with a special office to fulfil
for the lord of the Danes, a steadfast guard against monsters.
Indeed that Geatish man eagerly trusted
the courage of his strength, the Measurer’s protection.
Then he did off with his iron corselet,
took the helm from his head, entrusted his ornamented sword,
servant of the best iron,
and he commanded them to keep his war gear.”
(Beowulf ll.662-674)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Beowulf prepares himself

In this week’s passage of Beowulf the main focus is on the man himself.

Hrothgar leaves with his retainers and the hall is, as far as is implied anyway, vacated by all except for the Geats. Interestingly, the language sort of signals this departure of the Danes in an interesting way. The word here used for Hrothgar as prince of the Danes is “eodur”, a word that means “boundary/limit/enclosure” along with “prince” or “lord.”

Such a combination of meanings in one word may seem strange but makes a sort of clear sense – to rule one must be the protector of his or her people, and what better way to represent that protection than a fence or a hedge growing round about them?

The association with greenery that comes in with the related meaning “hedge” may also say something about the Anglo-Saxons’ Germanic roots, but what exactly I cannot say. There’s still much more for me to learn about this period.

As per Beowulf himself, we see him her un-equipping all of his gear. He removes his equipment piece by piece and hands off his sword to his fellow Geats, who, at least literally, are nowhere to be seen. As a means of putting the spotlight squarely on Beowulf, the poet makes no mention of any of the other Geats here, instead only using an implied pronoun packed into the verb “het” (meaning “commanded,” but only in the third person singular) to refer to someone to whom Beowulf is handing off his sword.

It’s weird that it’s in the singular rather than the plural, but I suppose Beowulf has a squire of sorts with him. Maybe it’s the later named (on line 2076) Handscio?

Grammatical ticks aside, I don’t think it’s too weird that the poet would cut out the other Geats here. This is, after all, Beowulf’s time to shine. It’s just very odd that he travel with so many other men and not really use their skill at all. If Beowulf is so over-powered, then why bother with any other party members?

Honestly, the only thing I can think of is to make a parallel between this story and that of Christ and his apostles. Such an analogy certainly wouldn’t have been lost on medieval (or Early medieval) audiences, and this sort of monstrous take on a demi-god come to redeem mankind from sin (Beowulf as Christ, Grendel as sin (being the kin of Cain, the first murderer)) could well be a major reason why our copy of Beowulf was found bundled with stories about monsters in the Nowell Codex.

But moving on from the matter of the vanishing convenient Geats, Beowulf’s un-equipping himself seems to serve more purpose than just getting him to do some great deed. The word “truwode” is used in describing his mental state.

This is a curious word to use in such a context because along with the somewhat visible Modern English meaning of “trust” the word also means “persuade.” I see two ways to take its having this mixture of meanings.

One is somewhat positive: the Anglo Saxons regarded trust as something that needed to be earned, and that could be built up, but that was not, in any way, automatic.

The other way to interpret it is less so: Anglo-Saxons were far more cynical than we might realize and their perception of trust is that it was nothing more than a pretense. A pretense with real results, but a pretense nonetheless.

Since the reference to Beowulf’s trusting in his strength is paired with a mention of his faith in god’s protection (l.670), I feel like the first interpretation is probably more likely true.

It’s curious, too, though. If Paul’s mention of spiritual armour (Ephesians 6:11) was only known to people writing poetry in English after a certain time, then maybe that could help date Beowulf. Or, maybe some preacher to the Anglo-Saxons (maybe even one from the Irish Celts) mentioned the concept of faith as armour in passing and it just stuck in someone’s head, bounced around, and found its way into their big ol’ poem.

Finally, I just want to mention one weird thing about Beowulf’s sword. Actually, this ties back to the idea of a ruler being an enclosure for his or her people.

On line 673, Beowulf’s sword is literally described as “best of iron servant” (“irena cyst ombihtþegne”). I think that this means it is served by the best of iron, that its concept as a sword is brought to greatest realization through its expression in its excellent iron. But why not just express this greatness of the sword with a reference to sharpness or the sword’s origin? What should it matter that Beowulf’s sword is served by the best of iron?

What’re your thoughts on all of these points? Are the other Geats just forgotten by the poet because this poem is called Beowulf and not Beowulf and the Geats? Is Hrothgar an “enclosure” of his people as much as he’s their “prince”?

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On “war makers,” “kings of praise,” “hall-wards” and more

Since this week’s passage has quite a bit going on in it, it’s also got its fair share of curious words. All of those that I’ve picked out for this section are compounds. Let’s see if I can get through them all in my fifteen minute writing time.

So first up is wigfruma, a combination of the word for “war” or “strife” (“wig”) and the word for things like “beginning/creation/originator” and “prince/chief/ruler” (“fruma”). Since “fruma” carries senses of both being the first and being the topmost, I think this appellation fits Hrothgar rather snugly.

No doubt Hrothgar started the odd war in his time and he’s described as having the fortunes of war favouring him (l.64). Actually, “wigfruma” suggests that the Danes are a put upon people, a people who have endured much strife and tribulation.

In fact, I wonder just how common it was for a people to enter into a pact with another through a peaceweaver, a woman sent over as a sort of arranged marriage to secure peace. Was this something of a last resort or was it something that happened frequently enough to not really be talked about or mentioned in literature?

Though, saying that Hrothgar is a war starter (one interpretation of “wigfruma”), I can’t help but wonder if he had started a strife with the Celts or Welsh, or wherever Wealhtheow hails from, and at the time that group perceived the Danes to be their greater, a people who could crush them, so they sent her to stop things from moving to total war.

Next up is “cyningwuldor,” a word that combines the word for “king” (“cyning”) with the word for “glory/praise/heaven” (“wuldor”). There’s not much to say here. No matter how you interpret this word it’s meaning is pretty clear: god.

Though it’s a strange way to think of a deity as the “king of praise” or the “king of thanks.” I mean, is that a title given because this particular deity is given the greatest amount of thanks and praise? Could this be referring necessarily to an early conception of the Christian god as taught by missionaries, or instead to the sort of all-god that Graves writes about in The White Goddess?

The word “seleweard” is similarly simple. But, of course, it hides a certain twist when you dig down. The word combines “sele” (hall) with “weard” (“ward/advance post/waiting for/guardian/king;possessor”).

Beowulf’s being a “hall ward” or “hall lord” or “hall protector” is clear enough: Hrothgar gave him possession of the hall for the night and he’s been keen on guarding it himself since he heard of the Danes’ plight. But, the other combination of “hall” and “lurking, or “waiting for” works just as well in this instance. Beowulf is indeed waiting in ambush for Grendel since the kin of Cain has no idea whatever that this mad Geat is there to meet him this night.

Moving right along, the word “sundornytt” doesn’t seem to have much going for it. It refers to a special office or duty, but, weakly, could also mean “varied office.” Yeah, I don’t think there’s much here.

The last compound word of note in this week’s passage is “eotonweard.” It brings together the word for “giant,” “monster,” “demon” (“eoton”) and “guard,” “ward,” etc. (“weard”).

Now. In its original printing my Clark Hall and Meritt dictionary defined this word in the most tantalizing of ways: “watch against monsters?[sic]” It also lists this instance in Beowulf as the only appearance of the word in Old English.

Unfortunately (fortunately?) in the supplement that’s part of my edition “eotonweard” makes another appearance.

There it’s defined as “watch against the monster.” It’s a small difference (basically changing “monsters” to “monster,” made, perhaps, because there is just one Grendel, after all), but I still like to read this word as an echo of Hrothgar’s joking with Beowulf about not knocking the place down in the process of beating Grendel; I think it’s another hint at Beowulf’s own monstrousness. Actually, perhaps part of god’s help (whether it’s what Beowulf explicitly calls down or not) is helping him to keep his strength in check so that he doesn’t destroy the hall along with Grendel.

Since this section is often about compound words, what do you think of my being so hung up on them? Are they just words that happen to be combinations of others, is there a fixed meaning to these combinations, or do you think that they’re a fluid mix of their parts?

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Closing

Next week we get Beowulf’s pre-bedtime speech explaining why he’s un-equipped himself.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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Hrothgar maybe jokes, and compound words abound (ll.652-661)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Hrothgar’s Joke?
Compound words and a single seed
Closing

Interlaced men motif. Image from http://public.wsu.edu/~hanly/oe/503.html.

Interlaced men motif. Image from http://public.wsu.edu/~hanly/oe/503.html.

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Abstract

Hrothgar hands authority over the hall to Beowulf and promises him great riches if he survives the night.

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Translation

“Greeted the men each other then,
Hrothgar Beowulf, and to him wished health,
gave rule of the drinking hall, and these words said:
‘Never before have I to any man yielded up,
since I could raise my own hand my own shield,
the noble house of the Danes but to thee now.
Have now and hold this best of houses:
Have remembrance of fame, mighty valour’s seed,
be wakeful against the wrathful one! Thy desire shall not
lack if you this brave deed survive with your life'”
(Beowulf ll.652-661)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Hrothgar’s Joke?

The main focus of this week’s passage is Hrothgar’s handing the hall over to Beowulf for the night. This is a pretty big deal. And not just because Hrothgar says that it’s unprecedented (lines 655-657).

The lord of Heorot’s handing the hall over to Beowulf for the night suggests that he, Hrothgar, has full and utter trust in Beowulf to be successful. Beowulf isn’t just a glorified night watchman; he’s been made the ward of the hall. It is his to use as he sees fit. But what does such ownership confer?

Well, no doubt there are some things in Anglo-Saxon law that could shed some interesting tints of light on the matter, but I don’t have those to hand, nor do I have the time to chase them down just now. However, in and of itself, I think the trust that Hrothgar is putting into Beowulf is significant enough.

Hrothgar knew Beowulf’s father, so there’s a connection between them. Nonetheless, Hrothgar has only just met Beowulf, really. So his handing over his hall — the hall that he built when the Danes were powerful and prosperous — into the power of one whom he’s really only just met shows a great deal of trust.

But, of course, I think that there’s something more here, too.

After Hrothgar hands the metaphysical/figurative keys to Heorot over to Beowulf he adds something to his wishes of luck and success. He tells Beowulf to “be wakeful against the wrathful one!” (“waca wið wraþum” (l.660)).

On one level the “wrathful one” is clearly Grendel. Again, his wrath goes unexplained, but as hearers of the poem, wrath alone is really the only motivation that the marsh monster is given for the repeated raids against Heorot. Simple wrath.

But, given all of the previous points at which I found readings of the poem that take references like these and point them to Beowulf, I think it’s possible that Hrothgar is throwing a bit of a jibe the Geat’s way.

I think that Hrothgar, having never before given control of his grand hall over to someone else, is trying to coolly warn Beowulf to not get too carried away. I think he’s saying “hey, be careful and try not to bring the place down tonight, okay?” or more philosophically, “when you confront the monster don’t become monstrous yourself, all right?”

After all, Beowulf’s stories of overcoming terrible beasts have involved him becoming just as savage to overcome them.

In this passage I think reading Hrothgar’s wish of luck as a lighthearted warning against his own strength and temper gives a little more credit to Hrothgar, a character who is often depicted as being in the very dredges of despair.

That Hrothgar could crack a joke at a time like this, even one that would probably be accompanied by a slight glint of the eye and a weak half-smile, suggests that he’s got some resilience left in him. Hrothgar’s still able to rule, it’s just difficult for him to ask for help and to acknowledge that he needs it.

Though that only further supports reading this line as a crack at Beowulf as well as a warning to be vigilant against Grendel. Comedy is often a disarming way for people to assert themselves and why not give the otherwise utterly melancholic Hrothgar a bit of a joke line as he makes his way out?

Besides, later on, we’ll hear Beowulf throw a jibe right back at him.

In the meantime, I think it’s also interesting that Hrothgar feels the need to tell Beowulf he’ll be rewarded handsomely for his efforts. It’s possible that along with being just a simple incentive, mentioning the reward is also Hrothgar’s way of reminding Beowulf what’s in it for him if he doesn’t destroy the hall in the process of defeating Grendel. His stories of might and courage have painted him as being rather reckless after all.

What do you think about this situation? Is Hrothgar joking with Beowulf? Or is he just wishing Beowulf rote luck?

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Compound words and a single seed

There were a lot of words of note in this week’s passage. Some more so than others because of their placement in the poem, and some because they’re just curious words. Well, because they’re compound words.

Actually, there were two sets of compounds in Hrothgar’s speech. The first is “winærn” and “ðryþærn.” The common element between these two words (“ærn”) means “dwelling,” “house,” “building,” “store,” or “closet.” The first of the pair’s modifier is “win” which means simply “wine,” while the second’s, “ðryð” has a broader variety of meanings: “might,” “power,” “force,” “strength,” “majesty,” “glory,” “splendour;” “multitude,” “troop,” or “host.”

The first of the pair isn’t really all that interesting. It pretty much just means wine-house. I could also mean “wine-closet,” but that’s basically just a shade of the meaning of “wine-house” (that is, a house for wine) spelled out rather than left up to implication and context.

The word “ðryþærn” is slightly more interesting because of the variety of meanings for “ðryð.” Though if you look at the list of them, they all, again, kind of make sense translated as simply “great house” or “powerful house.” After all, a great house is what you’d need for a multitude of people, just as it’s what you’d need to express strength or power.

I do think it’s kind of neat how it’s the narrator who refers to Heorot as a “winærn” and Hrothgar who refers to it as a “ðryþærn.” Alliteration is definitely at work in this, but still, there’s no real reason the poet couldn’t have composed this part so that he was left with “ðryþærn” and Hrothgar with “winærn.” Their order definitely suggests a kind of up-scaling of the house in he eyes of its owners. Though, really, even were it not for Grendel, Heorot would just be a drinking hall.

Similarly the words “ellenweorc” and “mægenweorc” star in this week’s passage. They mean “deed of courage” and “deed of might” respectively. But what’s so interesting about them is that they’re both spoken by Hrothgar. Either he’s feeling the pinch of alliteration, going for emphasis, or feeling a bit sleepy.

Maybe it’s a mix of all three. It’s definitely possible that along with his gentle jibe at Beowulf’s possibly losing control Hrothgar is trying to keep Beowulf in check with the promise of glorious deeds — something that he’s clearly after since his swimming contest story was so elaborate.

I’m not so sure, though, that there’s any special significance to the order in which these two compounds appear.

They’re both part of their respective lines’ alliterating pairs, so the poet/scribe likely just wanted to express the same idea with a bit of alliterative flexibility. In this case are deeds of might really that different from deeds of courage?

The last word that I found particularly interesting in this week’s passage is “cyð” from “mægenellen cyð” on line 659.

One interpretation of this word makes it “seed,” “germ,” “shoot,” “mote.” This makes for some neat natural imagery. Hrothgar’s comparing this great undertaking to a seed of glory puts me in mind of mythological, sacred trees — even Yggdrasil, the world tree.

But there’s also a second way to read “cyð.” It could be an altered spelling of “cyðð” meaning “kith,” “kinsfolk,” “fellow-countrymen,” “neighbours” or “acquaintance,” “friendship;” “knowledge,” or “familiarity.”

Similar to the above interpretation of “cyð,” this puts some figurative language into Hrothgar’s mouth. Though this time the imagery is more familial, more interpersonal.

This deed Beowulf is about to undertake is a close friend to glory; it’s glory’s next of kin.

I feel like this might actually be the better interpretation between the two. Why? Because it has more to do with kinship and interpersonal ties.

Hrothgar can offer all the treasures he likes, but I think that this sense of kinship is the true reward from Beowulf’s quest.

Reading the word in this way makes the store of treasure that’s waiting for Beowulf all the more meaningful, too, since all of that gold will come along with a strong bond, and that is practically invaluable in a world in which groups need to rely on other groups, either for goods, protection, or mutual peace.

Beowulf can win all the gold in Daneland, but what will really win him glory in Geatland is forging a strong alliance with the Danish tribe.

Which of the two interpretations of “cyð” do you think is better? As “seed” or as “kin”?

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Closing

Next week, Hrothgar gets into bed, Beowulf prepares for Grendel, and the poet drops spoilers.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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Meanderings on Hrothgar and closely watching words (ll.642-651)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Meandering through analysis: Hrothgar’s departure
Delving deeply into three words
Closing

Interlaced men motif. Image from http://public.wsu.edu/~hanly/oe/503.html.

Interlaced men motif. Image from http://public.wsu.edu/~hanly/oe/503.html.

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Abstract

It’s party time in Heorot until Hrothgar, noticing the imminent falling of darkness, decides it’s time to call it a night.

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Translation

“Then it was again as it had been in the hall,
brave words spoken, people milled about beneath its roof,
the sounds of a victorious people, until in a short time
the son of Healfdane’s will turned to seeking his
evening rest. Knew he that the wretch
against that high hall planned attack,
after the sun’s light might be seen,
when grown dark was the night over all,
draped in shade mail the shape would come stalking
under the waning heavens. All the throng arose.”
(Beowulf ll.642-651)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Meandering through analysis: Hrothgar’s departure

As had been the case the last time we were treated to quite a bit of expositional poetry from the poet/scribe himself, this week’s passage is rich primarily in words. And in one significant detail on which he dwells.

Near the end of this weeks’ passage we’re treated to three and a half lines about the transition from day to night and the shifting from light to darkness. I think it goes without saying that there’s something of importance here. Or at least there could be.

This transition to night begins around the middle of the passage, at which point Hrothgar begins to consider leaving the hall and heading to his evening rest. This is no doubt a reference to the first period of sleep in the usual way people slept before artificial light; he’s heading off to the first shift of sleep from sunset to about midnight. (At that point, people woke up and wrote, composed, met, talked, had sex, etc. before heading back to bed around 2 or so and then rising with the sun.)

Why is this sort of sleep pattern the pre-industrial usual? I can’t rightly say. What significance does it have here? Well, maybe not much, but it’s a fun tidbit to trot out every now and then.

As per stuff actually relevant to what’s going on in the passage, Hrothgar uses a curious word to describe what Grendel’s been doing: “geþinged.” This word comes up on line 647 and means “plan,” broadly. But specifically within the Clark Hall and Meritt dictionary I’m using, it translates as “to beg, pray, ask, intercede, covenant, conciliate, compound with, settle, prescribe; reconcile oneself with; determine, purpose, design, arrange, talk, harangue.”

Some of those words suggest “plan,” some don’t. But just about all of them suggest collaboration rather than singular action. I can’t help but get the impression that, aside from alliterative purposes (geþinged alliterates with þæm from earlier in the line), the poet put this word here to suggest one of two things about Hrothgar’s perception of Grendel.

It could suggest that Hrothgar regards Grendel as a shrewd and potent planner. He sees Grendel as a being that lays out careful plans and then follows through, as if working by committee or with the force of will of several beings.

Or, it suggests that Hrothgar is aware of Grendel’s collaboration with some other being. This doesn’t necessarily need to be Grendel’s mother. It could just as easily be a sense of some sort of spiritual communication amongst the other kin of Cain. Maybe those shunned by god just like to co-ordinate things really well.

Looking further at Hrothgar’s departure from the hall, I wonder why he leaves at all. Is it that he’s running away? Clearing the way for this Geat who’s so eager to gain glory?

Perhaps there was some kind of tradition that involved everyone belonging to a troop or band or peoples would just walk out once their leader did the same. If that’s the case, then Hrothgar could be trying to protect the Danes in this way. Though whether that’s from Grendel or from the menace of Beowulf and his seductive confidence, who can say?

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Delving deeply into three words

This week’s passage bucks the pattern that the last few have kept: it’s actually got some compound words!

There is, however, one that I noted in the entry “Beowulf gets into puns and two regular words aren’t so regular (ll.590-597).” Well, the first half of it, anyway. This is “sige-folc.” I don’t really have anything new to say about it, except that in this context it is likely meant sincerely.

After all, it isn’t necessarily calling the Danes a “victorious people,” just comparing the noise that they rose to the sort of noise that a victorious people would raise. The obvious connection is that the poet is saying that they’re celebrating before their problem has been solved.

Though, at this point, I get the impression that the original audience probably already figured out that Beowulf was going to win. But maybe there’s more dramatic tension here than I realize. I mean, we haven’t really seen much of Grendel in action. We’ve heard the aftermath of his attacks described, but we’ve never really seen him in action.

The opposite is also true. We’ve never seen Beowulf do anything. He’s boasted plenty, but done little aside from wearing his armour with a lordly air.

So what’s the conclusion here?

I don’t think the poet is trying for much beyond the surface reading of sige-folc. There’s a subtle reminder that the Danes are pre-empting their victory with a celebration here. Maybe there was an Anglo-Saxon sense of karma or cosmic irony and so this reminder could work as foreshadowing for Grendel’s mother’s attack after Beowulf has defeated Grendel. Though, I really can’t say what the poem’s earliest audiences thought and anticipated.

The other two compounds are unique (so far) to this passage. The first is from line 643: “þryðword.”

This word is a combination of “þryð” (meaning “might,” “power,” “force,” “strength,” “majesty,” “glory,” “splendour;” “multitude,” “troop,” or “host”) and “word” (meaning “word,” “speech,” “sentence,” “statement;” “command,” “order,” “subject of talk;” “story,” “news,” “report;” “fame;” “promise,” or “verb.”)

“Word” can also refer to “rod,” “(possibly) gooseberry bush” or “the word incarnate.” Why that last trio of meanings includes “rod” and possibly “gooseberry bush,” I can’t really say.

Unless, it’s a reference to words relating to Ogham alphabets. But so far in my reading, Graves hasn’t said anything about gooseberry bushes. He has put forth the idea that the burning bush was some loranthus (a kind of mistletoe) growing on a wild acacia, but other than designating this wood to Sunday and equating it with the Celtic broom, he hasn’t said much about it (The White Goddess 264)

Anyway, the thing that makes this combination of words interesting to me is that it could be a reference to armies being stereotyped as talking about manly, powerful things.

The literal translation of the compound is “power words,” and so I suppose it’s aptly applied to a bunch of warriors excitedly talking and drinking. It’s as if their confidence were returning to the Danes. For, even if a boast is empty, a boast is still something spoken from a place of confidence – even if that confidence is just an act.

Now, we come to what I think could be the coolest compound word in the passage. Maybe even up to this point in the poem. “Scadu-helm”

This word combines the Old English word for “shade,” “shadow,” “darkness,” “shady” “place,” “arbour;” “shelter,” or “scene,” “scadu,” and the word for “protection,” “defense,” “covering,” “crown,” “summit,” “top (of trees);” “helmet,” “protector,” “lord;” or “elm,” “helm.”

So the compound’s literal meaning is something like “cover of darkness.” Though that’s a bit plain. I think that something like “shade covering” or “shade mail” is a better fit — something that suggests that Grendel comes clothed in the darkness, not just under it.

I prefer that sort of interpretation because it suggests that he was civilized, but not in the civil ways of man — no — rather in the ways that kin of Cain understand civility.

Now, since elm and arbour are involved, what’s Robert Graves got to say?

(By the way, I’m referring to Robert Graves so much because I’m reading his The White Goddess right now for my blog Going Box by Box.)

On page 190 of that book, graves simply says that the elm became the alma mater (pun intended, I think) of the wine god because it was used to support grape vines. Other than that, there’s not much. So, it’s a supportive tree, and so that may well be why it’s connected to the word “helm” and all of its implications of protection.

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Closing

Next week, check back to read about how Hrothgar hands things over to Beowulf on his way out.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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Beowulf, Wealhtheow, and the two words that reveal much (ll.631-641)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
One Word Says much about Beowulf’s Song
Another Word, and More of just What Wealhtheow Is
Closing

An illuminated Chad Gospel. Image from http://events.nationalgeographic.com/ events/special-events/2011/11/13/saint-spinners/.

An illuminated Chad Gospel, just one place where words matter. Image from http://events.nationalgeographic.com/
events/special-events/2011/11/13/saint-spinners/.

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Abstract

Beowulf sings his reply to Wealhtheow’s praises, and she, well-pleased, returns to Hrothgar’s side.

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Translation

“Beowulf spoke, son of Ecgtheow:
‘I thought upon that, as I came across the sea,
seated in the sea boat amidst the multitude of my men,
that I completely for your people
would that will work, or die in the slaughter,
held fast in the fiend’s fist. I shall perform
the lordly deed, or my end days
find in this mead hall!’
That woman/lady well liked those words,
the boast-speech of the Geat; then went gold-laden
the stately queen of her people to sit with her lord.”
(Beowulf ll.631-641)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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One Word Says much about Beowulf’s Song

When last week’s passage ended with the poet/scribe possibly saying that Beowulf sang his response to Wealhtheow, I thought I knew what was coming. I figured that we’d get more of the same artful and rhetorical language that we saw when he was talking to Hrothgar. A few ‘thee”s and ‘thou”s, rhetorical separation of related clauses, all of that.

Instead, Beowulf’s dialogue here is some of the most straightforward text I’ve come across in the poem yet.

There aren’t any structural acrobatics. There aren’t any strange combinations of words. Even when it comes to compound words there are only two. These are “feondgrapum,” “endedæg” and “meoduhealle.”

All of these words are straightforwardly translated as “fiend-grip,” “end days,” and “mead hall.” There don’t seem to be any shades of morality hiding in multiple meanings, nor does Beowulf seem to be putting any of them to tricky use here.

It’s almost enough to make me think that when formal speech is delivered to a man it is a thicket, whereas when a formal speech is delivered to a woman it is a bouquet.

Though there are some rare words at play in Beowulf’s dialogue.

In line 634 Beowulf uses the word “anunga” and in line 635 he uses “crunge” (a form of “cringan”). These words aren’t often used, but there’s nothing really special about them aside from their being highly specialized.

The word “anunga” refers to something done quickly and thoroughly if taken as a whole word (my Clark Hall & Meritt dictionary separates these senses). Yet it makes sense that Beowulf use this word here since it alliterates with the word that follows, which just so happens to be on the other side of the line’s caesura: “eowra.”

“Crunge” isn’t used for alliterative purposes, but it is highly specialized, having but three meanings: “yield, fall (in battle), die.” Using any three of these fits the meaning of Beowulf’s punchy ending, but he could have simply used “acwelan” or “sweltan” (both mean “to die”).

It’s telling, then, that Beowulf dresses up his language as he sings his reply to Wealhtheow.

Perhaps this was part of formal speech, though. Perhaps when speaking to a woman the decorum was to avoid innuendo so that there would be no misunderstandings between the genders. So that there would be no young thanes lasciviously speaking to their lord’s wife about sheathing swords or venturing into mystically warm caves.

If that’s the case, though, then Beowulf slips up in being one hundred percent crystal clear. As Robert Graves might put it, he fails in speaking to Wealhtheow in plain prose; some poetry sneaks into his singing.

In line 633 Beowulf refers to his entourage as “minra secg gedriht.” This translates to “the multitude of my men.” The important word here, as far as poetry goes, is “secg.”

Why?

Because this word can mean “reed, rush, flag; sword; ocean.”

We can probably discount “ocean” right away since it’s not likely that Beowulf was thinking about defeating Grendel as he was sailing over and in the midst of ‘his multitude of oceans.’

However, he could be, whether intentionally or unintentionally, referring to his men as reeds, rushes, or flags — things that bend and twist in the wind. Maybe he’s doing this to try to raise his own esteem in Wealhtheow’s eyes. His men look tough, but they’re nothing to him. He could be using this word to add to his boast, then.

Or, Beowulf could be practicing a bit more artistry in his song. He could be referring to his men as swords.

This bit of metonymy is especially fitting since it would mean that Beowulf’s saying he wasn’t just sitting amongst his men thinking about beating Grendel, but he was sitting amongst swords thinking about it. He was having his warlike, tumultuous thoughts surrounded by warlike, tumultuous gents.

If this is the sense that the poet wants us to take away it opens up the possibility that Bewoulf is once more trying to put across the idea that he can switch between war and peace states. That he isn’t just a warrior or some sort of lunkhead, but that he is adaptable — perhaps his most useful characteristic. And perhaps it is his adaptability is what he’s really been boasting about all along.

Perhaps Wealhtheow picks up on this adaptability and can respect it as Hrothgar seems unable to adapt, unable to try a new way to kill Grendel himself and so he must rely on the help of outsiders. Because of his adaptability, however, Beowulf has no need for such help.

What do you think about the idea that a single word could hold so much importance? Is the word “secg” just there to alliterate with “sae-bat” (sea boat) and “gesaet” (“sat”)?

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Another Word, and More of just What Wealhtheow Is

This week’s passage is mostly Beowulf’s speech, but the last little bit is just as rich. Thanks in large part (again) to a single word: “freolic.”

This word is used to describe Wealhtheow as she goes back to her seat beside Hrothgar. In the text it’s in the nominative case, so it very clearly goes with “folccwen” (folk queen, also in the nominative case). It’s also one of the three alliterating words in the line along with “folc-cwen and “frean.”

But what does “freolic” mean?

The Clark Hall & Meritt dictionary offers a list of definitions: “free, freeborn, glorious, stately, magnificent, noble, beautiful, charming.”

The dictionary in the back of the C.L. Wrenn edition of Beowulf I have simply gives two definitions: “excellent” and “noble.”

Now, to be totally honest, the C.L. Wrenn definitions are no doubt right on, exactly what is meant. After all, the dictionary included in his edition of Beowulf is specifically for Beowulf. Clark Hall & Meritt’s dictionary is more general, a dictionary for all of Old English.

But. Simply going with C.L. Wrenn’s take on the word wouldn’t be any fun. And besides, as much as a modern reader knows that a “fan” could refer to a fanatic or a device that cools off its target, surely Old English speakers were aware of the same nuance in their language.

As such, let’s speculate a bit.

There’s no doubt that Wealhtheow is merely being described as stately, magnificent, noble, beautiful, and definitely charming. Any of the definitions of “freolic” fit her.

Especially that last one, since she seems to have charmed Beowulf. I mean, he’s never sung in the poem before now. Nor has he spoken so plainly when speaking formally. I’m interpreting that as a sign of his being smitten, the strange decorous informality of his reply.

But then what about the “free” and “freeborn” meanings of the word?

Well, I think that the poet is pointing to the similar word use in last week’s passage. I think that he’s trying to suggest, however subtly, that part of what makes Wealhtheow magnificent and noble is that she resists whatever sort of behaviours one in her position tends to fall into.

It needs to be remembered, after all, that Wealhtheow is very probably the queen of her people by force rather than by birth or (pre)arranged marriage. That’s not to say she’s Hrothgar’s spoils, but rather a peace-weaver, a woman given by one group to another as a means of creating peace between the two.

Yet, despite being away from home and amidst these foreign peoples, Wealhtheow retains the mien and attitude of a freeborn woman. I think it’s this that the poet is getting at and, aside from the ever-present convenience of alliteration, he used “freolic” with the full intention of getting this across.

Going on the fairly thin theory that Wealhtheow is specifically Welsh or more broadly a Celt, I think this is also supposed to meant that she, like her brethren in the British Isles, remain culturally cool under fire. Even when their culture has been overrun (just as, in a way, the Anglo-Saxon culture implied by Beowulf‘s being in Old English has been overrun by its being about Norse peoples), they remain proud and true to that original culture beneath the trappings of the new or imposed.

In this sort of captive situation, the captured culture creates a kind of kernel of true identity around which they weave something more acceptable to the group in which they currently find themselves.

Beowulf’s being young and adventuresome, I think appeals to this kernel of true identity within Wealhtheow and that is why she goes away well pleased from him — not just because he boasts once more about beating the monster. Maybe that’s even why she “well liked his words,/the boast-speech of the Geat” (“þa word wel licodon,/gilpcwide Geates” (ll.639-640)). Wealhtheow recognized in Beowulf’s words the sort of power and mastery of her own people over their own arts and knowledge.

Not to mention, that “secg.”

This interpretation pretty much entirely turns on its being layered in its meaning and Beowulf’s slipping it in there either intentionally to get Wealhtheow’s attention or unintentionally as a reflection of his own true nature of adaptability, his own true identity.

For when an old word has many senses in a modern language, why would that same word not have multiple sense in the old?

Has Modern English just diversified more than Old English ever did, so where they had but the word “freolic” we have the nine that it can be defined as?

Or was it that in older languages words just pulled double (triple, quadruple, etc.) duty more often, coming to be used in multiple senses, the one intended being suggested by delivery or gesture or tone — something that is, unfortunately, lost when written out?

We’ll probably never know any of those answers. But that’s what makes this Old English stuff fun to me. We’ll never really know about it, but at the same time, we know enough for there to be a structure from within which we can look out and speculate about that which is unknown.

What do you think of the idea that Wealhtheow represents the Briton Celts as they were under Anglo-Saxon rule? Am I putting way too much stress on just one word?

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Closing

Though Beowulf’s undoubtedly left an impression on Wealhtheow we won’t see it manifest again right away. Instead, we get a glimpse of things as they were before the night of revelry comes to an end in next week’s passage.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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

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

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

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

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Abstract

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

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Translation

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

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why is Beowulf characterized by such an adjective as this?

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

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

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

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Two Compounds and a Dialogue Tag

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Closing

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

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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Hrothgar’s gloom and Heorot’s hall cup (ll.607-619)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Hall joy and Hrothgar’s mood swing
Straightforward compounds and the “hall cup”
Closing

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

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

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Abstract

Heorot revels in Beowulf’s promise. The beer-drinking commences!

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Translation

“Then in the hall was the treasure-giver joyed,
grey-haired and battle strong; consolation lived
for the ruler of the bright Danes, he heard in Beowulf
the guardian of the people’s steadfast hope.
There was the laughter of men, the roar of singing,
words were joyful. Then came forth Wealhtheow,
Hrothgar’s queen, mindful of her king;
she greeted the gold-ornamented warriors in the hall,
and the freeborn woman dearly/quickly gave
first to the lord of the East-Danes’ realm;
told him to be blithe at the beer-drinking,
dear to the people; he then turned more to
the feast and the hall-goblet, a victorious king.”
(Beowulf ll.607-619)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Hall joy and Hrothgar’s mood swing

In this week’s passage of Beowulf we take a break from all that dialogue and get some good old fashioned descriptive narrative. Hoo yeah!

So, in the passage Hrothgar responds incredibly positively to Beowulf and his boastful promise to destroy Grendel. I use “boastful” because, well, that’s still what his promise is.

Beowulf has shared stories of past victories with the Danes, but none of his fellow Geats have stepped up to back him nor has he shown any proof of these past victories. So far, Beowulf has just boasted expertly and looked the part of a warlike leader.

And that’s enough for Hrothgar. At the beginning of this passage he seems to be smiling benevolently at Beowulf. The poet even goes so far to say that Hrothgar saw in Beowulf “the guardian of the people’s steadfast hope” (“folces hyrde fæstrædne geþoht” (l.610)). It seems that after months, probably even years, of feeling utterly defeated at the hands of Grendel, this monster that listens neither to reason nor responds to human valour, he will finally find relief in this Geat.

This sense of joy and happiness then disperses itself throughout the hall and washes over the poet.

I’m not sure if the poem’s suddenly simple sentences (ex 1; ex 2) are a reflection of this joy or not, but I can see how they could be. In extreme happiness (especially that of the drunken variety that seems likely in the hall once the festivities start) it’s probable that the Anglo-Saxons abandoned their usual poetic wordiness in favour of more straightforward three word statements.

But then Wealhtheow, queen of the Danes, comes into the poem.

And for a brief second, for the space of maybe a line at most, it seems like that joy drains out of Hrothgar.

Already, unless I’m missing something, he seemed to be blithe and happy as he recognized in Beowulf the hero on which his people had waited. Yet Wealhtheow, when she serves him first from the beer jug, tells him “to be blithe at the beer-drinking” (“bæd hine bliðne æt þære beorþege,” (l.617)). Did Hrothgar slip back into his depression while the poet went off and described the general feeling in the hall?

I’ll cut right to it. I think he did.

But I don’t think gloomy thoughts stormed back in on him once the poet turned from him to the hall at large. I think the renewed furrow in Hrothgar’s brow is the result of Wealhtheow’s appearing. I think that she and Hrothgar are in the middle of some sort of spat.

I can’t say that the particulars can be sussed out from such a short appearance, but the poet (for reasons of alliteration, mind) mentions that she is a “freeborn woman” (“freolic wif”). Such a description directly contradicts Wealhtheow’s name, both parts of which (“wealh” and “theow”) translate as “slave”.

Interestingly, though, the first part of her name could also translate as “Welsh,” or “Briton.”

In the context of Beowulf‘s being an Anglo-Saxon poem it could just be that she represents the people of the British Isles that the Anglo-Saxons subjugated. So as pleasant as Wealhtheow appears at this point, I can’t help but wonder if she harbours some sort of resentment for Hrothgar. That is, of course, if the Danes represent the ruling Anglo-Saxons.

Whether representatives of something larger, or simply husband and wife, there’s definitely a tension between Hrothgar and Wealhtheow in this scene. But, that said, it wouldn’t surprise me if the poet/scribe created Wealhtheow and the tension based on the plight of the Britons who were under Anglo-Saxon rule.

Of course, there wouldn’t even need to be marital difficulties or any deeper meaning behind the tension I feel in this scene. Wealhtheow is, after all, in the position of being a sort of peace offering between the Danes and another tribe. That could be reason enough for tension, I think.

But what does it mean, though, having the ostensibly only actually British character in a poem from Britain be a woman and a wife to the king of a fading people who hold a grand old palace of a hall?

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Straightforward compounds and the “hall cup”

Because so much of this passage is straightforward, there aren’t too many words of great interest.

Of the few compounds that are used, gamolfeax and guðrof seem like they should stick out. But the former literally means old hair or old head of hair. The latter compound, likewise has a straightforward translation as war renowned or strong in battle. There’s not really much room to wiggle around in either of these cases.

In the last part of the passage that describes Hrothgar’s reaction to Beowulf’s pledge (line 610, specifically), we’re given one compound that’s kind of neat.

The word “faest-raedne” means “steadfast.” Taken apart, translators got to this meaning by combining the security of “faest” with a word that generally means “counsel.”

That is, the word “raedne” means (aside from counsel) things like “resolution,” “deliberation,” “plan,” “way,” “design;” “decree,” “ordinance;” “wisdom,” “reason,” “intelligence;” “gain,” “profit,” “benefit,” “good fortune,” “remedy;” “help,” “power,” “might.” All of those concepts do sort of relate back to advice and advisers to some extent, but there are nuances. None of them are so far out of step as past parts of compounds, however.

Taken as a part of the larger sentence, though, “faest-raedne” as “steadfast” works with “geþoht” to shift the meaning of the clause away from simply “the people’s fervent thought” to the “people’s steadfast hope.” It’s a slight difference, but it’s still a curious one considering the elements that the poet put into place to achieve it (or, more large scale, considering how Anglo-Saxon developed to where it could express such things with this sort of nuance).

Oh, and there’s one more word that defies a simple breakdown but is still fun to speculate about. It’s the word “hall goblet” (“seleful”) on line 619.

The word “sele” is taken to mean “hall,” “house,” “dwelling, “prison,” or “tabernacle.” Given the importance placed on Heorot, this part of “hall goblet” fits most of those definitions quite nicely.

But add in “prison,” and the word fits Heorot almost like a glove. Since Grendel’s imposition, it’s a place that, for the Danes at least, is definitely prison-like.

The word “ful” is also pretty clear, meaning only “beaker, cup.”

So, taken together, “hall goblet” is just one sense of the word, the more general expression of which would be something like “sacred cup” or “exalted cup.” Basically, the sense that I get of the cup referred to with “seleful” is that it’s the one that the lord of the hall gets to use.

This cup may well have a ceremonial function, too, it being necessary for the lord of the hall to drink from this cup before any festivity or celebration really gets under way. There could also be a belief that any invited to drink from that cup shares in that lord’s glory.

More relevant to the poem, though, is the wondering that I got up to about the cup that’s stolen from the dragon in the latter half of the poem.

It’s just one cup, and it’s rust covered, but maybe it’s the hall cup of the forgotten people who used to live where the dragon took up residence. And maybe, since halls were generally places to go to be social and to drink, the hall cup represents the spirit of its hall.

As such, when the thief steals what could be the same cup from the dragon’s hoard, it recognizes the loss of this object with value beyond its physical worth and attempts to retrieve it to restore order to its hoard.

Or, when Wealhtheow fills Heorot’s “hall goblet” for Hrothgar maybe the act signifies the reinvigoration of Heorot and the Danes.

What do you think of a steadfast thought being a hope? Or of the hall cup having so much significance?

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Closing

Next week we watch as Wealhtheow travels around the assembled host, doling out beer until she gets to Beowulf.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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Beowulf gets mytho-poetic and words reveal more than meanings (feat. Robert Graves) (ll.598-606)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Finding the goddess in Beowulf
Words with mythical connotations
Closing

A piece of Anglo-Saxon ornamentation. Image from http://research.uvu.edu/mcdonald/Anglo-Saxon/Art.html.

A piece of Anglo-Saxon ornamentation. Image from http://research.uvu.edu/mcdonald/Anglo-Saxon/Art.html.

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Abstract

Beowulf finishes off his reply to Unferth with another boast.

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Translation

“‘After all, against that apostle of violence none arise
from among the Danish people, so he wars as he likes,
killing and feasting, prosecution he knows comes not
from the spear-Danes. But I shall now surprise
him with the might and strength of the Geats,
bringing him battle. Afterward whomever wants to
go to mead shall and heartily, once the morning light
brings another day to humanity,
when the light-clad sun shall shine once more from the south.'”
(Beowulf ll.598-606)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Finding the goddess in Beowulf

Since I’m reading Robert Graves’ The White Goddess over on my reading and gaming log Going Box by Box, I feel like I might have some insight into the meaning of Beowulf’s language here.

After all, this is the end of his speech to Unferth and the Danes. As such, he’d not want to waste any words getting his point across. He will defeat Grendel because he will do things in a way that the Danes never yet have. Such a statement is impressively logical.

But impressive enough to complete steam roll all of the Danes and get away with it? Well. Apparently. I still think he says things like “none arise/from among the Danish people” (“nænegum arað/leode Deniga” (l.598-599)) to stir them up to some extent. And to show that where they failed, he will not.

Though, using what I’ve gleaned from The White Goddess, I think that Beowulf isn’t just boasting about strength and power and the ever important element of surprise. I think he’s also speaking in a poetic language. Since I’ve not absorbed everything from The White Goddess like some sort of giant sponge, I won’t be covering all of the poetically sealed things that Beowulf has to say in this passage, but I will be speculating about the two that are the most apparent to me.

In line 602 when Beowulf speaks of the “power and might” (“eafoð ond ellen”) of the Geats, the second word he uses in his alliteration stands out. This word is fairly commonly used in the poem Beowulf, and, although my reading’s limited, probably other Old English writing as well. It stands out here, though, because one of the definitions that my Clark Hall & Meritt dictionary offers is “elder-tree; elder-wood.” A large part of The White Goddess is about Graves deciphering the Druidic tree alphabet, and elder is amidst its letters.

I think that there might be a connection between that alphabet and Beowulf’s speech here.

According to Graves, the elder tree is the one that stands for the last month of the Druidic calendar. It signifies death and is said to have been the crucifixion tree. Graves backs this connection up with the mention of elder-leaf shaped funerary flints found in megalithic long-barrows.

In short, the elder tree is deeply associated with death.

It’s also quite deeply connected with witches and the devil itself. Though, because of its white flowers that are “at their best at midsummer” (185), the elder is also an aspect of the white goddess herself, the ruling triple deity of Graves’ Indo-European religion.

Setting this into the context of Beowulf’s speech, specifically his boasting that Geatish “might and strength” ((“eafoð ond ellen”) l.60) will prevail, does actually make sense.

The word “eafoð” specifically means “power,” “strength,” or “might,” and “ellen” means “zeal,” “strength,” “courage;” “strife,” “contention.” As a noun or adjective “ellen” means “elder-tree” or “elder-wood” respectively.

Pairing both words up is, thus, a little redundant. Though this apparent redundancy could be emphasizing the power of which Beowulf speaks. Combining the strength of eafoð with the death connotations of ellen as “elder wood,” though, I think that Beowulf is pushing his claim that he’ll beat Grendel with brand new tactics even further. He’s really saying that with the strength of death he will overcome the fiend that has been terrorizing the Danes for years.

Maybe that sounds a little far-fetched, even for something on the blog of someone who studied literature up to the graduate level. But hear me out.

The Geats have so far been characterized as a warlike people. Anyone who is so warlike will likely invest a lot of importance in their armour and arms.

The Anglo-Saxons clearly do this, as a good portion of the poem to this point has been about this or that bit of armour. Beowulf even gives Hrothgar explicit instructions to send his armour back to Hygelac should he fail.

In a sense, then, Beowulf identifies with his armour, as any culture that puts hereditary significance onto arms will. (Passing a sword down from father to son, I think, signifies a passing of a sort of family spirit, something that identifies the rightful wielder as a true member of the tradition and therefore of the family.)

When push comes to shove, Beowulf’s tactic for defeating Grendel is to fight him at his own game. Beowulf knows that conventional weapons have no effect on the fiend and so he strips away his armour and wrestles with him. Removing his armour signifies a death of sorts, and I think that (along, of course with alliteration), that’s why Beowulf refers to the might of the Geats with eafoð and ellen. I think that he’s definitely pulling on the alternate interpretation of “ellen” as “elder” and all that the tree connotes.

Jumping down to the bottom of the excerpt, I think that Beowulf completes very intentionally ends his speech about defeating Grendel and restoring Heorot with a reference to the sun rising and shining from the south.

Again, turning to Graves, he gathers quite a bit of evidence for the conception of the most terrible place on earth in many European myths being the far reaches of the north (it’s basically the whole point of chapter six). Thus, the sun’s shining from the south signifies a complete turn around in which the Danes’ troubles are over and the light of the sun (already equated to the light of god elsewhere in Beowulf) will shine down on them with all of its might.

Ultimately, then, I think that Beowulf’s not just boasting about taking a new tack against Grendel to beat him, I think he’s making the extreme claim (at least in the connotation of his full boast from lines 601 to 606) that he will defeat Grendel by dying and resurrecting.

If this is the case, then I have no idea what to make of the reference to one of the most important events in the pre-Christian year (the festival celebrating the death and rebirth of the year) in a poem that was very clearly written in its current form in a post-Christian time. The reference’s not being a direct one does suggest the sort of subterfuge that Graves writes about poets using to avoid church persecution, but I’m not entirely sure that’s at work here.

Though I could push my analyses of these references further by pulling one more thing from Graves.

In chapter three he writes that in the old poetic language, the roebuck signifies something hiding. A hart (the animal on whose name “Heorot” puns) isn’t exactly a roebuck, but again, maybe the poet/scribe was just covering himself.

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Words with mythical connotations

Unsurprisingly for a passage that contains the sort of arcana that I pointed out in the first part of this entry, this one has some doozies so far as words go.

In its first line, for example, is the mysterious word “nyd-bade.”

The Clark Hall & Meritt dictionary I have defines it as “messenger of evil?[sic]” and grabs this definition from the word’s context in the Old English Exodus. Breaking down the word doesn’t give us a clear definition, but it might shed some light on just what it means.

The word “nyd” is an alternate spelling of “neod” meaning any one of “desire,” “longing,” “zeal,” “earnestness,” “pleasure,” or “delight” or of “nied” meaning “need,” “necessity,” “compulsion,” “duty,” “errand,” “business;” “emergency,” “hardship,” “distress,” “difficulty,” “trouble,” “pain;” “force,” “violence,” “what is necessary;” “inevitableness,” or “fetter.” This word could also signify the name for the rune “n.”

Notwithstanding the possible rune reference, the common denominator in the various meanings of “nyd” is urgency. Drawing urgency out of “fetter” might be a stretch, but something that’s fettered is usually so bound quickly to prevent it from doing any unnecessary harm.

Thankfully, “boda” is much more straightforward; it means “messenger, herald, apostle, angel; prophet”

Taken together, then, these words seem to refer to someone who brings something urgent.

In that general sense, they don’t need to bring something evil.

It could even be interpreted as referring to someone who is a forerunner for some important piece of information. Actually, following that interpretation could lead to reading Grendel not as some godless monster, but perhaps as a pagan priest who continually visits the freshly converted Heorot in an effort to bring them back to the old beliefs.

Grendel’s only known relation being his mother makes this a very curious interpretation indeed, since that could make Grendel the final, faded champion of a now perverted great goddess. Or perhaps even the champion only of the death aspect of Graves’ triple goddess.

Looking at it that way really casts the whole poem into a new light – it’s not just about a vaguely Christian warrior claiming victories over monsters in god’s name and ruling his people well, but about the decay of the old religion and the revitalizing force of this new one. As well as how the new one is integrating aspects of the old.

A comparative study of Grendel’s mom and the as yet unintroduced Wealhtheow of Heorot could be quite curious in this light. But that’s a project for another day.

Another word worthy of note (and another compound!) is “sweglwered.” This word’s parts are much clearer than those of “nyd-boda.”

The word “swegl” means “sky,” “heavens,” “ether,” “the sun;” or possibly “music” while “wered” means “throng,” “company,” “band,” “multitude;” “host,” “army,” “troop,” or “legion.”

The combination of these two words creates a fairly vivid picture of the other things in the sky forming a sort of comitatus with the sun at its head.

Closing on this reference of a bright and shining lord and retinue really brings out the hope in Beowulf’s claim. He’s not just claiming that a new day will dawn on Heorot, bringing them all their old happiness, but that the sun will be out in all its grand array to herald this day, truly an omen of great things ahead.

Now, one more thing.

Something that’s clear to me from my reading of Graves is that the goddess of whom he writes is associated with the moon. The rising of the sun from its poetically strongest quarter, and with its full retinue then suggests something opposing the goddess.

In a general sense it could be the more aggressive, patriarchal religion that Graves believes overtook an older matriarchal one. This would make Beowulf’s claim all the grander, but it’s not as if his wrestling a terrible monster to death and then later facing a dragon were stories told with mind numbing regularity when one Anglo-Saxon asked another “how was your day?”

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Closing

Next week there’s an interlude in the dialogue. Hrothgar takes in what Beowulf says and Wealhtheow, his queen, appears.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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