13 September 2018

Waiting for Aeschere's Head -- Beowulf 1419b-1423

I've been re-reading Beowulf lately, my second time through the poem in Old English. It brings joy and laughter to my geeky soul, not least because somehow it got easier between the first and second readings. Of the many things that have delighted me, I wanted to mention lines 1419b-1423. Not only are they a great example of the things you can do with word order in an inflected language, but what they do here in particular is funny. 

Just a bit of background first. Beowulf has killed Grendel and Grendel's mother has come looking for revenge. She breaks into Heorot in the middle of the night and carries off Ӕschere, one of king Hrothgar's most trusted advisers. The next morning a posse of Danes (Hrothgar's folk) and Geats (Beowulf's) sets out for the lair of Grendel and his mother.

                                Denum eallum wæs,
winum Scyldinga,   weorce on mode
to geþolianne,   ðegne monegum,
oncyð eorla gehwæm,   syðþan Æscheres
on þam holmclife   hafelan metton.
                               For all the Danes it was,
for the friends of the Scyldings*, a pain in their hearts
to endure, for many a thane,
a grief for every warrior, once they
found Ӕschere's head on the sea-cliff. 

Richard Rohlin was just talking the other day over at Blog on the Barrow-Downs about ways in which the Beowulf poet builds tension in a story that most of his audience would have known. It's an excellent post which I encourage you to read for its discussion of shifting perspectives within the story. Here and now, we're on a much smaller scale, an elegant and balanced little sentence that withholds the crucial piece of information until the very end, poor Ӕschere's head, the twenty-first of twenty-two words.

Here's what you might call an exploded view, which aims to make clear how nice a sentence this is:

For all the Danes
it was
for the friends of the Scyldings
a pain in their hearts to endure
for many a thane
a grief
for every warrior
once they found Ӕschere's head on the sea-cliff.

All of the phrases beginning 'for' are interlaced with the verbal structure of the sentence, while 'grief' is in apposition with 'a pain...endure.' 

It's like a walk down a long dark hallway in a horror movie. You know something bad is coming, just around the next corner, and somehow it still takes you by surprise when you finally get there. Richard Rohlin and I also both got a laugh out of the fact that in the Old English Ӕschere is quite literally separated from his head. 

And if this kind of humor appeals to you, you should take a long look at Tom Shippey's Laughing Shall I Die: Lives and Deaths of the Great Vikings.

*The Scyldings were the dynasty that ruled the Danes in Beowulf. 'Friends of the Scyldings' is synonymous with Danes.


  1. The technique survives to this day in books that teach how to write stand-up comedy. This must be what Tom Shippey is talking about, when he says Viking humor takes a bit of getting used to.

  2. I also like how Æschere is literally separated from his head, by the sea cliffs, in that sentence.

  3. So in OE, the phrasing is "separated from his head"?