Vocabulary in Beowulf

Vocabulary Examples in Beowulf:

I 4

"welkin..."   (I)

An Old English word, “welkin” is frequently found in poetry and used to refer to the clouds, the sky, or the vault of heaven, the home of the gods, above the earth. Scyld “waxed ‘neath the welkin,” which means that he not only gained fame among his people, but also he grew in fame under the eyes of the heavens.

"outward..."   (I)

The use of this word in the context of Scyld's burial at sea contains an extra connotation that the ship isn't just moving away from the shore, but that it is carrying the deceased leader towards an unknown destination for his afterlife.

"atheling..."   (I)

This historical, obscure word is from the Old English æðeling, which means a member of a noble family, such as a king, prince, or baron. In Old English poetry, it is often used to refer to those of royal blood, heirs to the throne, or to the king. In other translations of Beowulf, this line reads "that was a good king!"

"Scyld the Scefing..."   (I)

Scyld of Scefing translates from Old English to "Shield, son of Sheaf." In Old English (Anglo-Saxon), an -ing after a name indicates "son of." In honor of Scyld's leadership, the Spear-Danes are also called "Scyldings."

"the moor-fens, the marsh and the fastness..."   (II)

Swamps, marshes, and bogs are often depicted as the lairs or habitats of evil creatures in stories. Such landscapes are sparsely populated by humans and full of unseen dangers from animals, disease, and the terrain. The addition of the word “fastness”—meaning secure refuge—suggests that Grendel’s land is difficult to enter, and therefore perilous to would-be adventurers.

"winsome wold..."   (II)

Derived from the Old English “wald,” the noun “wold” refers to forest or wooded upland. The “winsome wold” refers to all the land of the earth, “encircled” as it is by water. This duality between land and sea directly resembles the Christian creation story laid out in the opening passages of the biblical book of Genesis.

"Heorot..."   (II)

Heorot loosely translates to "Hall of the Hart." A hart is a male red deer, a much larger species of deer than seen in North America. To Scandinavian and Anglo-Saxon cultures, the hart symbolizes strength, bravery, and aggressiveness.

"save..."   (II)

The meaning of the verb “save” here actually means “except.” So, Hrothgar willingly shares all the blessings he can with his people except for his life and property. Additionally, earlier in this line the text read "than men of the era / Ever had heard of." During the time this tale was told, and translated, it was common to use the word men to refer to all people. This has fallen out of favor in recent years, as more inclusive words are preferred.

"bairn..."   (II)

The earlier section “List of Words and Phrases not in General Use” states that a “bairn” is a son or child. The Oxford English Dictionary clarifies this to state that a “bairn” simply refers to any offspring, a son or a daughter.

"Goes Weird as she must go!..."   (VII)

The term “Weird,” often written as “Wyrd,” expresses the Norse conception of personal destiny. Having declared his intentions, Beowulf concludes his speech by stating that whatever happens will proceed according to his predetermined destiny, reinforcing his stoic and brave image in the face of danger.

"this single petition..."   (VII)

The noun “petition” refers to an entreaty or formal request. So, when Beowulf asks Hrothgar for a petition, he is asking for permission to kill Grendel himself, an act which will greatly benefit himself and Hrothgar, because Hrothgar's people will be saved and Beowulf's reputation as a fighter will be greatly enhanced.

"I remember this man as the merest of striplings..."   (VII)

Hrothgar suggests that a “stripling”—meaning youthful and, literally, slim—Beowulf visited his court. While possible that Ecgtheow brought a young Beowulf to visit, it is interesting to note that Beowulf himself never indicates that he has previously been to Hrothgar's hall. Nonetheless Hrothgar remembers the hero and thus more readily welcomes Beowulf and his fellow Geatmen.

"wight..."   (X)

While this word simply means a living being or creature (See the List of Words and Phrases not in General Use), very often it is associated with evil or malice in tales of fantasy and fiction. The fact that it is associated with Grendel adds to this connotation.

"That by might and main-strength a man under heaven..."   (XII)

The nouns “might” and “main” here use a nuanced and older definition. The former refers to an ability or power to do something; the latter refers to the physical force or power itself. With this in mind, the poet means that the battle between Grendel and Beowulf is so fierce that the foundations of Hrothgar's Hall are shaken, something thought impossible by the Danes, who believed the hall to be able to withstand any assault except for fire.

"(a good king he)..."   (XIV)

Recall that the poet used a similar phrase at the beginning of the poem to refer to the great king Scyld Scefing (An excellent atheling!). While it's possible that this line might be slightly ironic considering Hrothgar's inability to protect his own territory, it's more likely that this is meant in earnest considering Beowulf's praise and loyalty to Hrothgar.

"His heathenish spirit, where hell did receive him...."   (XIV)

While we know that Grendel was evil and doomed to hell regardless, the poet uses the word heathen (which means having a faith that is considered primitive or pagan) here to illustrate the early Christian belief that anyone not baptized goes to hell, a subtle reminder to the audience that even pagans who led good lives had no chance of entering heaven.