Friday, March 23, 2012

What's In A Name: The Giant Edition

     In Beowulf, one comes across several words for 'giant': eoten, ent, gigant, and þyrs. After reading Tolkien's paper called "On Translating Beowulf", I have to wonder what are the differences between them.  Are they all synonyms or are there subtle shifts in meaning between all four? Gigant should be easy; it is a loan word from Latin giganteus, which would have been used in the Biblia Sacra Vulgata in describing the Biblical giants. However, one has to wonder how people originally understood the word because it was used in classical Latin to describe the titans, some of whom were gigantic but not necessarily all.  This is similar to the Old Norse jotunn, which is cognate with the Old English eoten, since jotunn were not always of extraordinary size. Some jotunn were very human looking and intermarried with the Aesir. 
     þyrs meant ogre or troll really, but also applied to giants and had a cognate in Old Norse þurs. And then there is ent.  We know what Tolkien made of the word but it has not cognate in any other Germanic language and it did not survive into Middle English, probably being of archaic usage when the Beowulf poet was composing his poem.  He did employ other archaic language to give his poem the look of antiquity. The etymology of the word is called 'uncertain' although there are a couple of brave scholars willing to speculate. I won't relate their arguments here because I didn't find them convincing.
     So what is the difference between the various words?  Near as I can tell, þyrs means ogre or troll. The gigant is the primitive giant destroyed in Noah's flood, the eoten are the descendants of Ham, like Nimrod who built the Tower of Babel.  Giant works in stone are called the work of eoten but also of the ent.  There might be no difference but dialect between eoten and ent but no one can say at this time. This is why they are slightly different than the gigant who is just a dumb brute and incapable of the skill and craft of the eoten.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Beowulf's Sword

I should specify which sword since there are three, possibly four swords, that Beowulf carried in his tale: the one he carried to Hrothgar's court, Hrunting which Unferth lent to Beowulf, the sword in the cave that Beowulf uses to dispatch Grendel's mother, and the sword he used against the dragon. I think the sword that he carried to Hrothgar's court and the one he used against the dragon are not the same because he stated to Hrothgar that his corslet was an heirloom, the work of Weland, but did not mention the sword when he was telling him how to dispose of his property if Grendel kills him. At the end, Beowulf was carrying a sword called Nægling, a "gomele lafe"(2563) or ancient heirloom. R.D. Fulk posed the question in the back of his Klaeber's Beowulf if the two swords are the same, meaning it is not at all certain that they are.
The sword I was thinking of discussing was the one that he found in Grendel's cave, the one that is the work of giants, the 'ealdsweord eotenisc'(1558) 'giganta geweorc'(1562). Whether eoten are Jutes or giants is still debated but the consensus is that they are giants. There is no doubt about the meaning of 'giganta'. Unferth's sword does not even scratch Grendel's mother so Beowulf threw it down and prepared to fight bare-handed and die when he saw this amazing sword. It was able to pierce her magically protected hide but it melted away from the poisonous heat of her blood.
Of course in a story with sea-monsters, a dragon, Grendel and his mother and Weland, too, why should there not also be giants? In two Anglo Saxon poems, The Ruin and The Wanderer, we have the phrase again - 'work of giants'. In The Ruin (in fragments), it refers possibly to the ruins of Bath as the poet comes upon them and wonders about the builders in stone and the fate that took them. He refers to the city as 'enta geweorc' as are the ruins in The Wanderer. The Anglo Saxons did not build in stone so Roman ruins were a marvel to them and the deserted cities were the habitations of ghosts and demons. So, my thought is that, if Beowulf found a strange old sword, that was the work of giants, was it a Roman sword that he held in his hand? After all there were many heated battles between the Romans and the Germanic tribes. The Teutoburger Wald where Augustus lost three legions, one quarter of the entire Roman army, to a Cheruscan leader, Arminius, is one such place. The sites of the Batavian uprising are another. It would be an intriguing thought, since the Teutoburger Wald was a boggy place, that maybe Grendel's mere was located there but it really is too far from Leire, the site of Hrothgar's court. Anyway, Roman swords built tough to last just like their walls.