Blogging Beowulf: Fit XIX, lines 1251-1320

The Danes fall asleep in Heorot and Grendel’s mother appears to avenge her son. The fit opens with a reminder that Grendel is the spawn of Cain and a recap of Beowulf’s fight (kind of a medieval “last week on Beowulf...”). Then the poet describes her attack on the hall, telling us that she isn’t as strong or dangerous as a man—which is odd, since she turns out to be a much more formidable opponent for Beowulf than Grendel was. She kills one of the Danes—Hrothgar’s chief thane—while all the others scatter in fear. Grendel’s mother flees, taking Grendel’s hand with her. Then when morning comes, Hrothgar summons Beowulf to his chambers.

The description of the attack is worth repeating (lines 1279-95):

Cōm þā tō Heorote,      ðær Hrinġ-Dene
ġeond þæt sæld swæfun.      Þā ðær sōna wearð
edhwyrft eorlum,      siþðan inne fealh
Grendles mōdor.      Wæs se gryre læssa
efne swā micle      wā bið mæġþa cræft,
wīġgryre wifes      be wæpnedmen,
þonne heoru bunden,      hamere ġeþrūen,
sweord swāte fāh      swīn ofer helme
ecgum dyhttiġ      andweard scireð.
Þā wæs on healle      heardecg togen
sweord ofer setlum,      sīdrand maniġ
hafen handa fæst;      helm ne ġemunde,
byrnan sīde,      þā hine se brōga anġeat.
Hēo wæs on ofste,      wolde ūt þanon,
fēore beorgan,      þā hēo onfunden wæs;
hraðe hēo æþelinga      ānne hæfde
fæste befangen,      þā hēo tō fenne gang.

(She came to Heorot,      where the Ring-Danes
slept throughout the hall.      Then at once happened
a turn of fortune for the men,  after the inside reached
Grendel’s mother.      The terror was less
even as great      as is the strength of women,
the war-horror of women  compared to an armed man,
when the bound sword,      orged with a hammer,
a sword decorated with blood      strong of edge,
cuts opposite      into the swine-image on a helmet.*
Then in the hall was      drawn a hard-of-edge
sword over the seats,      many a broad-shield
was raised fast in hand; helmets were not remembered,
nor broad mail-coats,      when the terror seized him.
She was in haste,      and would be out from there
to save her life      when she was found out;
quickly she a nobleman      one had
seized fast,      then she went to the fen.)

*I changed the order of the half-lines here so it makes sense in modern English. As I’ve noted before, being an inflected language, Old English is extremely flexible with its syntax. Modern English doesn’t inflect its nouns and uses word order to convey case.

I’ve been putting off a discussion of meter, a subject I don’t know so well, but I’m starting to get a handle on it. So here goes a very simplified explanation of how meter in Anglo-Saxon poetry works. Remember that it actually has a lot more subtleties than how I’m explaining it, but this will do for now.

All Anglo-Saxon poetry is written out on the page as if it were prose. The scribes did not break the lines up on the page, instead filling the entire width of the paper with words and only starting a new line when they ran out of room. In modern editions, the poetry appears in lines consisting of two half-lines, separated by a break, called the caesura. This is a 19th century innovation to make it more obvious to the modern reader how the lines should be read.

The half-lines, or verses, are known as the a-verse and the b-verse (or the on-verse and the off-verse). Usually (but not always), each half-line contains two stressed syllables, also known as lifts, and an uncounted number of unstressed syllables. The first stress of the b-verse alliterates with one or both of the stresses in a-verse. The second stress of the b-verse does not typically alliterate, nor do any of the unstressed syllables. Example:

Cōm þā tō Heorote,      ðær Hrinġ-Dene
/ x x x / x,      x / / x

Note the first stress in the b-verse (Hrinġ) alliterates with the second in the a-verse (Heo). Traditionally, stressed syllables are marked with a slash and unstressed ones with an x.

The next line alliterates on both stresses in the a-verse:

ġeond þæt sæld swæfun.      Þā ðær sōna wearð
x x x x / / x.      x x / x /

Sæld, swæfun, and sōna all alliterate.

Consonants alliterate only with themselves, as do the consonant clusters sc, sp, and st. G can also alliterate with ġ and c can alliterate with ċ. Vowels can alliterate with any other vowel.

As I’ve said before, the meter is actually more complex. Lines are divided into five classes (A-E) and there are also half-lifts, or sort-of-stressed syllables. But this is a rough overview of the basics.

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