Blogging Beowulf: Fit VII, Lines 456-498

This is a very short fit, only 42 lines. It opens with Hrothgar responding to Beowulf’s boast by recounting his personal history with the hero. Beowulf’s father, Ecgtheow, started a feud with a neighboring people, the Wylfings, by killing one of their warriors. The Geats forced Ecgtheow to flee, as harboring him would be too dangerous. Ecgtheow fled to Denmark, where Hrothgar was a young king. Hrothgar paid the blood money to end the feud and Ecgtheow became one of his thanes for a number of years—it was not unusual for men from different nations to serve a king; Wulfgar, Hrothgar’s advisor who welcomed Beowulf to Heorot is a Wendle (Vandal?). Presumably, Hrothgar knew Beowulf as a boy during this period. Hrothgar goes on to tell, in gory detail, about Grendel’s predations and, with that appetizing thought, invites Beowulf and his men to feast. The fit ends with a round of drinking.

The fit starts with what is an intractable scribal error:

Hrōðgār maþelode,      helm Scyldinga:
“Fere fyhtum þū,      wine mīn Bēowulf,
ond for ārstafum      ūsiċ sōhtest.”

(Hrothgar declaimed,      the protector of the Scyldings,
“You [????] fights,      my friend Beowulf,
and because of favors,      have sought us.”)

There are lots of hypotheses about what the poet intended, but two are leading contenders. One hypothesis amends the fere to read for, meaning on account of, and replaces fyhtum, fights, with ġewyrhtum, meaning service, so the line would translate as “you, on account of service...” In other words, because of the debt Beowulf’s father owed Hrothgar. To the modern reader, it seems strange to confuse Ws, Rs, and Fs, but in Old English script these letters are very similar and it is plausible that a scribe could have confused them.

The second leading hypothesis replaces the fere fyhtum with werefyhtum, a fight caused by a feud, wer (literally, man) being the payment for a wrongful death. In this case, the for is implied by the dative ending, -um, and is not strictly required. Again, this would be reference to the service owed to Hrothgar by Beowulf’s father.

The other passage worthy of note is lines 480-487a, simply for the gory imagery:

Ful oft ġebēotedon      bēore druncne
ofer ealowæġe      ōretmecgas
þæt hīe in bēorsele      bīdan woldon
Grendles gūþe      mid gryrum ecga.
Ðonne wæs þēos medoheal      on morgentīd,
drihtsele drēorfāh      þonne dæġ līxte,
eal benċþelu      blōde besty¯med,
heall heorudrēore.

(Very often boasted,      drunk with beer
over ale-cups,      the warriors
that they in the beer-hall      would await
Grendel’s attack      with terrors of swords.
Then was this mead-hall      in the morning hours,
the splendid hall gore-stained   when the day gleamed,
all the bench-planks      were suffused with blood,
the hall with battle-blood.)

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