A note on Beowulf 2910a

My scholarly note, “Beowulf 2910a ‘leofes ond laðes’,” appears in Notes & Queries. This note proposes a new syntactical interpretation of one verse in a problematic passage in Beowulf. I argue on the basis of this new interpretation that the Beowulf poet does not suggest an equivalence between Beowulf and the dragon to the extent that some scholars have supposed. Here’s the text of the passage in question and the opening frame of the note:

                        Wiglaf siteð
ofer Biowulfe,     byre Wihstanes,
eorl ofer oðrum     unlifigendum,
healdeð higemæðum     heafodwearde
leofes ond laðes.

(Beowulf 2906b-2910a)

Critical discussion of this passage has focused on the form and referent of the rare word higemæðum. The word is traditionally interpreted either as an adjective with the poetically understated meaning ‘weary of mind (i.e. dead)’, parallel with unlifigendum ‘not living (i.e. dead)’, or as an otherwise unattested noun higemæð(u) ‘weariness of mind’ or ‘mind-honor’, used quasi-adverbially to describe Wiglaf’s state of mind. Eduard Sievers proposed emendation to nominative singular higemeðe ‘weary of mind’, applying the adjective to Wiglaf. Sievers’s suggestion was accepted by a few editors before being withdrawn by Sievers himself. In their textual note, the editors of Klaeber’s Beowulf wisely resist the temptation to posit a hapax legomenon or engage in an ad hoc emendation in order to solve a difficult passage. The precise agreement in syntax, sense, and poetic connotation between unlifigendum and higemæðum, and the undoubted use of the same adjective elsewhere in Beowulf (2242a hygemeðe), strongly support the adjectival interpretation. In 2442a, hygemeðe must mean ‘wearying the mind’ rather than ‘weary of mind’. However, as the editors of Klaeber’s Beowulf observe, ‘many poetic compounds are nonce constructions rather than fixed terms, and thus they need not have the same meaning in all contexts’. Indeed, as the editors also note, ‘weary of mind’ would be the expected meaning for an adjective hygemeðe and ‘wearying the mind’ the more unusual one.

There is an additional difficulty in this passage which has gone unrecognized, but which affects the interpretation of higemæðum. The editors of Klaeber’s Beowulf follow previous commentators in taking leofes ond laðes to refer to Beowulf and the dragon, ‘the beloved (one) and the hated (one)’. Yet this interpretation causes at least three problems. […]


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