26 May 2016

The blood-ice of battle, the unseen hand of God, the blind eyes of men -- Beowulf 1584-1650

In my pilgrimage through Beowulf I often encounter phrases or passages in which the skill of the poet fills me with wonder.  In the lines below he weaves together the bloody aftermath of Beowulf's battle against Grendel's mother in her underwater cave with the slow anxious waiting of the Danes and Geats on the shore. It's a bit of a long extract, but I hope you'll bear with me, first for the Old English, and then for my hellehinca translation, which I am using lest I seem to be criticizing those of scholars far more proficient than I am. I'll try to keep the howlers to a rare few.

He him þæs lean forgeald,
reþe cempa, to ðæs þe he on ræste geseah           1585
guðwerigne Grendel licgan,
aldorleasne, swa him ær gescod                            
hild æt Heorote. Hra wide sprong,
syþðan he æfter deaðe drepe þrowade,
heorosweng heardne, 7 hine þa heafde becearf.      1590
Sona þæt gesawon, snottre ceorlas,
þa ðe mid Hroðgare on holm wliton,                    
þæt wæs yðgeblond eal gemenged
brim blode fah. Blondenfeaxe,
gomele ymb godne, ongeador spræcon                   1595
þæt hig þæs æðelinges eft ne wendon,
þæt he sigehreðig secean come                            
mærne þeoden. Þa ðæs monige gewearð
þæt hine seo brimwylf abreoten hæfde.
Ða com non dæges. Næs ofgeafon                        1600
hwate Scyldingas. Gewat him ham þonon,
goldwine gumena. Gistas setan                            
modes seoce, 7 on mere staredon;
wiston, 7 ne wendon, þæt hie heora winedrihten
selfne gesawon. 
                            Þa þæt sweord ongan               1605
æfter heaþoswate hildegicelum,
wigbil wanian. Þæt wæs wundra sum,                  
þæt hit eal gemealt, ise gelicost,
ðonne forstes bend Fæder onlæteð,
onwindeð wælrapas, se geweald hafað                   1610
sæla 7 mæla. Þæt is soð Metod.
Ne nom he in þæm wicum, Weder-Geata leod,
maðmæhta ma, þeh he þær monige geseah,
buton þone hafelan 7 þa hilt somod
since fage. Sweord ær gemealt,                             1615
forbarn brodenmæl. Wæs þæt blod | to þæs hat,
ættren ellorgæst se þær inne swealt.
Sona wæs on sunde, se þe ær æt sæcce gebad,
wighryre wraðra. Wæter up þurhdeaf,
wæron yðgebland eal gefælsod,                             1620
eacne eardas, þ se ellorgast
oflet lifdagas 7 þas lænan gesceaft.
Com þa to lande, lidmanna helm,
swiðmod swymman. Sælace gefeah,
mægenbyrþenne, þara þe he him mid hæfde.          1625
Eodon him þa togeanes, Gode þancodon,
ðryðlic þegna heap þeodnes gefegon,
þæs þe hi hyne gesundne geseon moston.
Ða wæs of þæm hroran helm 7 byrne
lungre alysed. Lagu drusade,                                  1630
wæter under wolcnum, wældreore fag.
Ferdon forð þonon feþelastum
ferhþum fægne foldweg mæton,
cuþe stræte. Cyningbalde men
from þæm holmclife hafelan bæron                         1635
earfoðlice heora æghwæþrum
felamodigra. Feower scoldon
on þæm wælstenge weorcum geferian
to þæm goldsele Grendles heafod.
Oþ ðæt |semninga to sele comon,                           1640
frome fyrdhwate feowertyne
Geata gongan, 
                         gumdryhten mid,
modig on gemonge, meodowongas træd.
Ða com in gan ealdor ðegna,
dædcene mon dome gewurþad,                               1645
hæle hildedeor, Hroðgar gretan.
Þa wæs be feaxe on flet boren
Grendles heafod, þær guman druncon,
egeslic for eorlum, 7 þære idese mid,
wliteseon wrætlic. Weras onsawon.                         1650
[for his murders] the fierce warrior paid Grendel back then, as soon as he saw him lying on his bed, drained by the battle, lifeless, wounded just as their fight at Heorot had left him. Yet his body leaped once it felt Beowulf's blow in death, a hard sword blow, and Beowulf cut off his head. (1584-90)
At once the wise men, who were looking on the water with Hrothgar, saw that the surging waters were all stirred up, the lake colored with blood.  The greybeards around the king said "together" that they no longer had hope of this hero, that he would come with victory in hand to seek their renowned prince. Many of them agreed that the seawolf had done away with him. Then came the ninth hour of the day. The brave Scyldings left the steep shore; [Hrothgar] the gold-friend of men set off for home. Sick at heart the guests remained sitting and stared at the mere. They wished -- and did not expect -- that they would see their own friendly lord again. (1591-1605)
Then that sword, that battle-blade, began to melt into dripping icicles from the blood of battle. It was a thing of wonder, that it all dissolved, just as ice does when the Father who has dominion over seasons and times lets loose the bonds of frost, unwinds the death-ropes that bind ice. That is the true God. (1605-11)
Though he saw many treasures in that place, the prince of the Geats took none but the head and the sword hilt bright with jewels. Its blade of patterned steel had dissolved by now, had burned away. So hot was that blood, so venomous the otherworldly spirit which perished therein. In a moment he was in the water, he who had survived the fall of his enemies in battle. Up through the water he swam. The surging waves were now all cleansed, the immense lands cleansed, now that that otherworldly spirit had let go the days of his life and this fleeting world. (1612-22)
He came then to land, this guardian of his seamen, stouthearted at swimming. He rejoiced in the huge burden of the sea-booty he had with him. To him then, came the mighty crowd of his thegns; they thanked God, and rejoiced in their prince because they had been allowed to see him unharmed. From that bold man his helm and hauberk were soon loosed. The lake had settled down, the water shining under heaven with the blood of slaughter. Then they set off along the path from that place, glad at heart; they measured the road, the known way. Men bold as kings bore the head from the steep shore, a hard thing for any two of them. So four had to carry the head on a battle-spear, still no easy task, from there to the gold hall, until at last they came to that place, fourteen Geats, brave and ready for war. (1623-42)
Among them their lord, in high spirits with his men, trod the mead-plains. Then the prince of these thegns, a man keen for deeds, decked in glory, a warrior valiant in battle, entered the hall to greet Hrothgar. Then was Grendel's head carried by his hair onto the floor of the hall, where the men were drinking, a terrible sight for the nobles and their lady with them, an astonishing thing to behold. The men looked on. (1642-50)

The first lines here (1584-90) set the tone for what follows. The stillness of Grendel's corpse and the violence of the blow that makes even the dead leap prefigure the activity of Beowulf and the passivity of those who wait for him above. The hero says nothing -- he strikes -- while the grey-haired wise men say too much, and draw the wrong conclusions from the blood they see in the troubled waters. Not unreasonably, they despair of the hero's chances against the otherworldly 'seawolf' (brimwylf, 1599) in her own element.  But the 'brave Scyldings' tarry a while yet before they go, presumably waiting for Hrothgar who had been most forward in his welcome of Beowulf and generous in the rewards he bestowed on him, a generosity of which goldwine ('gold-friend', 1602) reminds us. 

'Gæð a wyrd swa hio scel­­' -- 'fate goes ever as it must' -- Hrothgar might have said here, echoing Beowulf himself, as he now turned for hearth and hall, and, presumably, for the renewed vengeance of Grendel's mother that night. The story of the Scyldings seems to loop back to where it began, with the life of the hall as usual by day, and death expected by night. But it is with the faithful Geats that our attention and sympathies abide: though 'sick at heart' (modes seoce, 1603) and expecting never to see their lord again, they stay behind abandoned by their hosts -- a relationship to which gistas ('guests', 1602),  juxtaposed with goldwine, also bears witness.

Returning to Beowulf then, we encounter one of the most vivid and foreign images I have ever come across, a metaphor that reaches so far beyond my experience that it seems to inhabit those endless strange vistas of 'pure northernness' that C. S. Lewis speaks of in Surprised by Joy (73). The sword began to melt æfter heaþoswate hildegicelum, literally 'in battle icicles after the sweat of war' (1606). As odd as heaþoswat 'the sweat of war' might have seemed at first, it took scarcely a moment to recognize that it meant 'blood shed in battle', but hildegicelum drove me first to the glossary at the back of Klaeber's Beowulf, where it was defined as 'battle-icicle'. What? Battle-icicle? Here was a gloss that shed light without illumination.

The North Cape of Norway and the Midnight Sun
Then I looked to the commentary to see what it had to say: not a word -- which serves only to prove further what I have long held, that the likelihood of a note is inversely proportional to the need for one. Bosworth-Toller was slightly more helpful with its definition, 'a drop of blood', which I think is strictly wrong, but useful in conjuring the image of something dripping, as water does from a melting icicle, or blood from a sword. It at least helped me to begin to see the image the poet was invoking with such clarity and force for his intended audience. The discovery that there was an Old Norse word, blóðiss, 'blood-ice', meaning 'sword', in the later poem Liðsmannaflokkr showed me a sword viewed in similar terms. (My thanks to Eleanor Parker, The Clerk of Oxford, for this word.) And so the image took shape in my mind, of the bloody sword itself beginning to melt in Beowulf's hand, dripping like an icicle. Of all the strange images I've met so far in Beowulf this one has struck me as perhaps the strangest and most memorable.

The North Cape of Norway and the Midnight Sun

As A. G. Brodeur said in The Art of Beowulf:
The unique compound hildegicel .... has no specific referent: 'the sword began ... to diminish in battle-icicles.'  The poet imagined the blade as melting in the she-tred as in the skaldic kenning; it is visualized and communicated in a clear and lovely image. oll's blood as icicles melt in the sun. This is an implied simile, projecting before the mind's eye the aspect of metal melting into the fingered shapes of melting ice. Curiously enough, hildegicel, though it is not a kenning, was evoked by an imagination working in a manner resembling the processes of thought behind the skaldic kenning diguljökull, 'ice of the crucible,' for the concept 'silver.'  As silver melts in the crucible, so ice melts in the sun. In hildegicel the thought is similar, but it is not concealed and strained as in the skaldic kenning; it is visualized and communicated in a clear and lovely image. The first element of the compound directly links with the image of steel dissolving like icicles with the warlike function of the sword itself.
(Brodeur, 21-22, emphases original)

But the poet does more. He uses this 'clear and lovely image' to reach beyond that vast northern world. The implied simile of hildegicel leads into an explicit comparison to real ice that reveals the hand of the 'true God' who is the master of nature and the enemy of otherworldly creatures like Grendel and his mother, identified long since in the poem as belonging to the race of Cain (in Caines cynne, 107). And since the poet has also recently told us that Beowulf had the favor of God in his fight with Grendel's mother (1550-56), the mention of God here, final and emphatic in 'This is the true God', is an affirmation of his belief in the moral as well as natural order of the universe. Beyond 'the huge, clear spaces hanging above the Atlantic in the endless twilight of northern summer' (Lewis, 73) is a power both immanent and transcendent.

From the true God we return to the true hero who seems to disdain any 'treasure' that is more than a proof of his victory. We return also to the sword, but the image is now of heat. All but the hilt of the sword has 'burned away' (forbarn, 1616) in the 'hot' blood and venomous 'otherworldly spirit' (ellorgæst, 1619) of the monster. These lines even contain an echo of the prior lines on the sword through the poet's use of the related compound verbs, onlætan and oflætan. Just as God 'lets loose' (onlæteð, 1611) the bonds of frost -- thus, presumably, releasing the Spring -- so now the 'otherworldly spirit' (ellorgast, 1623) 'let go' (oflet, 1624) its life, thus purifying the lands and waters its existence had polluted.  And the word I have rendered as 'fleeting' (lænan, 1622) identifies this world as a 'loan' (læn), an image frequently found in biblical contexts. As such it, too, points to God. 

With that the hero returns to the land and is reunited with his thegns, who were no more hopeful than Hrothgar and his counselors, just more faithful. They had also looked upon the turbulent, bloody waters, misunderstood what they were seeing, and despaired. That Beowulf has both conquered his enemies and survived his battle with them transforms the 'sick at heart' (modes seoce, 1603), waiting deedless on the shore, into men as brave and active as he is. 'Glad in spirit' (ferhþum fægne, 1635) and 'bold as kings' (cyningbalde, 1636), they begin their reunion with their prince by thanking God -- whom they clearly regard as to some degree responsible for his return -- and end it by relieving him of the burden of Grendel's head, which four of them have difficulty carrying. No longer are they Hrothgar's gistas ('guests', 1602) who stare rather pathetically at the mere, but change as they 'measure the road' back to Heorot from a ðryðlic þegna heap, a powerful but undifferentiated 'lot' or 'heap' of thegns, to fourteen individual Geats, unnamed to be sure, yet eager and ready for war (1627). 

Finally, though Beowulf's thegns are invigorated by his return, Hrothgar's Danes experience nothing of the kind. Just as they were drinking before Beowulf first arrived (480-95), so they are drinking now; and just as before they could only look at the mere, so, too, now they can only look at the head in terror and astonishment. As I noted above, they seem to have lapsed back into the resignation that they showed at first. It is tempting, with all the emphasis in this passage on the decisive role of the true God in nature and in Beowulf's cause, to see a contrast between the old beliefs and the new. This is especially so since Beowulf himself immediately attributes his victory and survival to God's intervention, and assures Hrothgar that now, unlike before, he can sleep the night through without fear for his men (1654-78).

The study of Christian elements in Beowulf is a road long and well travelled, a cuþe stræte if you will, but it is not my road here today, however often the two might intersect (see Klaeber, lxvii-lxxix for an excellent summary).  Rather I have tried to illustrate the poet's use of single, clear, and striking image to help weave together the different scenes and levels of the tale he is telling, of events and interventions seen and unseen, and of misunderstandings of what is seen that are as poignant and revealing as Helen, standing upon the walls of Troy and thinking that she does not see her brothers in the field among the Achaeans because her faithlessness has so shamed them that they dare not show their faces (Iliad 3.280-91, trans. Fagles). Thanks to the poets, however, the audience knows better. Castor and Pollux are long dead; but Beowulf, by the grace of God, still lives.




  1. The battle-icicle calls to mind Aeglos, the spear of Gil-Galad, which could be translated as "snow-point" or more simply "icicle".

  2. Good catch. I like that connection. It makes sense.