A Study on Geogoð in Old English Poetry: Beowulf 535-538*1)

Dongill Lee

1. Introduction

  This paper deals with the meaning of geogoð and its application in Beowulf with reference to the flyting scene between Beowulf and Unferth. To a large extent, understanding the nature of Beowulf's reply to Unferth in 530-606 depends on the correct interpretation of geogoð. Many critics agree that Beowulf is quick to concede in his admission that Breca and he were mere foolish boys (at the time of the swimming-contest). I will demonstrate that the generally accepted meaning 'immaturity' or 'foolhardiness' given to geogoð is not applicable in Beowulf's reply to Unferth's verbal attack against Beowulf's participation in the swimming-contest. Beowulf's reference to geogoð is best interpreted, not as a sign of immaturity or rashness but as a confirmation of his early heroic disposition.

2. Beowulf's defence of his early achievement

2.1. The use of geogoð in Old English

     The first part of Beowulf's speech in 535-538 seems to be misunderstood mainly because geogoðfeore and cnihtwesende have misled scholars into assuming that “Beowulf is quick to concede in his admission that Breca and he were mere foolish boys at the time (of swimming contest)” (Irving 1968, 70). The same view of Beowulf's boyish immaturity is held by Kemp Malone, who says; “The implication is clear that Beowulf who has reached young manhood would not have undertaken such a match. One should not risk one's life in vain” (Malone 1948, 167). My initial response is that in referring to his youthful age Beowulf means to show he was really doing the right thing on geogoðfeore. In addition, Beowulf's speech illustrates his heroic ideology as the basis of verbal counterattack against Unferth's:

Wit Þæt gecwædon   cnihtwesende

ond gebeotedon      wæron begen þa git

on geogoðfeore       Þæt wit on garsecg ut

aldrum neðdon;      ond Þæt geæfndon swa.

                            (Beo 535-538)

[When we were young, we said to each other, and made a vow on it, we were both then still in the time of youth, that we would risk our lives out on the sea; and that we did accordingly]

This passage has remarkable similarities both syntactically and semantically to Unferth's speech. Both gecwædon and gebeotedon appear to be designed to replace Unferth's dolgilpe ('great words' or 'audacious speech') in line 509a. Aldrum neðon in line 510a and garsecg occurs in both contexts in line 515a and 537b. Lastly Beowulf's ond Þæt geæfndon swa, and that we did accordingly seems to be conceived to play down Unferth's heroic rebuke delivered in the form of verbal disguise:

                    Beot eal wið þe

sunu Beanstanes      soðe gelæste.

                            (Beo 523b-524)

[The son of Beanstan performed truly all that he had pledged against you]

In two cases semantic symmetry acurs between Beowulf's geæfndon and also between Unferth's gelæste, also between Beowulf's swa and Unferth's soðe. Unferth insinuates that Breca is a real hero because he consummated his vows in practical terms. In the exact same context Beowulf proclaims that he also carried out his pledges. So, it is assumed that just like Unferth, Beowulf may be setting out his own heroic ideology. However, the true meaning of this passage depends on the exact contexts of geogoðfeore and cnihtwesende. Two main questions are raised: are they regarded as variations or appositions indicationg the same stage of growth? Secondly, are both terms or one of them ever used to recall past heroic achievements in Old English Literature? Or, in these physical and mental states, can Beowulf be regarded as capable of carrying out heroic actions? With reference to other Old English Poetry, the state of cniht ranges from soon after birth to the period between being a child and being an adult.

(1) þa he nigonwintre cniht wæs,

(The Old English Orosius, ed. Janet Bately, EETS, ss. 6 (Oxford: Oxford University, 1980, 99. 17)

[when he was nine years old]

The following examples show that cniht is used either as a separate state of growth or as one overlapping with the concept of geogoð in gioguðhad;

(2) Ðæt we magon sweotolor ongietan, gif we Salomones cwida sumne herongemong eowiað, he cwæð: Bliðsa, cniht, on ðinum gioguðhade.

(King Alfred's West Saxon Version of Gregory's Pastoral Care, ed. Henry Sweet, EETS 45 and 50[2 vols] (London, 1871), 385. 32 (ch. 49)

[So that we may understand more clearly, if we consider one of Solomon's sayings, he said: rejoice, boy, in your youth]

(3) Ond eft Paulus cwæð to his cnihte: Bebiod ðis & lære, ne forsio nan mon ðine gioguðe,

(King Alfred's West Saxon Version of Gregory's Pastoral Care, ed. Henry Sweet, EETS 45 and 50[2 vols] (London, 1871), 385. 29-30 (ch. 49)

[And again Paul said to his youth: Announce this and exhort, let no man scorn your youth]

In the examples shown above cniht and geoguð or gioguð have the same meanings.

(4) Ic on geogoðe wearð on sið dagum syððan, acenned, cnihtgeong hæleð,  (EL 638)

[I came into my youth in after days, as a young boy born]

In the following homily, the distinctions between 'childhood', 'boyhood' and 'youth' are clear since each stage of mental growth is shown in terms of a progression.

(5) Witodlice ures andgites merigen, is ure cildhad, ure cnihthad swylce underntid on þam astihð ure geogoð.

(Ælfric's Catholic Homilies: The Second Series, ed. Malcolm Godden, EETS ss. 5 (London, 1979), 44. 92.

[Truly our morning of understanding is our childhood, our boyhood is like the third time, on which rises our youth]

Last two examples above indicate that the state of cniht precedes that of geoguð.

     Two sets of examples demonstrate that the state of cniht seems to include either some stage of geogoð or cover the whole of it. Thus it may be induced that geogoð can be used to represent a more advanced state of mind and body. Concerning mental and physical capability, cniht is used to refer to heroic deeds and glorious achievement particularly in Old English Poetry.

No hwæðre he ofer Offan    eorlscype fremede.

ac Offa geslog    ærest monna

cnihtwesende    cynerica mæst

nænig efeneald him    eorlscipe maran.

                            (Wid 37-40)

[However, he did not perform heroic achievements beyond those of Offa, but of these men Offa, in his youth, first conquered the greatest of kingdoms, no one of same age made a greater heroic achievement]

Him be healfe stod    hyse unweaxen,

cniht on gecampe,     se full caflice,

bræd of þam beorne    blodigne gar,

Wulfstanes bearn    Wulfmær se geonga;

                            (Maldon 152-155)

[By his side stood a warrior not fully grown, a youth in the battle, who very bravely drew the bloody spear out of the man, the son of Wulfstan, the young Wulfmær]

With this reference to cniht both Wulfmær and Offa are praised as ideal heroes.

     In this case it is not clear why this meaning of cniht should not apply in Beowulf's case. It can never be certain whether cnihtwesende in Beowulf refers to boyhood or youth. John Burrow assumes the word cniht 'covered the whole period between the end of infancy and the beginning of mature manhood'(Burrow 1986, 125). Concerning the state of cnihtwesende the most reasonable assumption can be drawn from the context to which Beowulf's cnihtwesende is referred and how it is dealt with.

2.2 The positive meaning of geogoð

     In fact, the poem itself provides very useful information about Beowulf's physical and mental condition. Beowulf's physical strength, illustrated by the description of his swimming for five nights in the rough sea, seems to prove that he had already reached a mature state to participate in that swimming-contest. Beowulf's physical ability is also reinforced by his mentality which was evinced through his generous kindness to Breca. It should be borne in mind that Beowulf's ability was demonstrated at the time of cnihtwesende and geogoðfeore, which was claimed by many critics to indicate Beowulf's rashness and immaturity. Also a similar swimming-contest takes place in the fourteenth century old Icelandic Egils Saga Einhenda, in which the hero Egil is 'twelve years old,' the age at which an Icelandic youth came of age' (Wentersdorf 1975, 150).

     There is some historical indication that in early Germanic society young man matured early. Tacitus in Agricola and Germania (A.D. 98) observed that in Germanic society, boys could become 'chiefs' even in their teens. This demonstrates that in such societies youth is not necessarily an obstacle to high status (Tacitus: The Agricola and the Germania). Therefore, if such historical evidence is accepted, then it would be quite natural for the youths of the classical world (or the Geats) to participate in adventures, including warlike deeds, in their early years. And consequently, their early exploits should not be regarded as a sign of rashness, but as an early heroic disposition fitting for the heroic society.

     In addition, geogoð is never used as an indication of youthful immaturity in the poem. Instead, this term is frequently used as a stock expression evoking past achievements of glory: Fela ic on giogoðe guð-ræsa genæs, 'I survived many battle-charges in my youth'(Beo 2426); gomel guðwiga gioguð cwiðan, 'old warrior(Hrothgar) would speak of his youth(Beo 2112); Ic geneðde fela guða on geogoðe, 'I ventured into many a battle in my youth'(Beo: 2511-2512); hæbbe ic mærða fela ongunnen on geogoðe, 'I have in my youth undertaken many glorious deeds'(Beo 408-409); ða ic furþum weold folce Denigna ond on geogo-ðe heold ginne rice, 'I had just begun to rule the people of Danes, held in my youth the spacious kingdom'(Beo 465-466)

2.3. Alliteration and geogoð

     One remarkable feature in these examples is the consistent application of alliteration between geogoð and its contigious words. Those alliterated terms guðræsa, genæs, guðwiga, guða, ongunnen, and ginne rice symbolize one way or another the heroic world and heroic action. In particular the verb ongunnen is used to evoke direct heroic actions, though it is often used periphrastically to denote the action of other verbs. In addition, the choice and form of verbs in lines 535-538 accentuates both Beowulf's heroic ideology and his pride in recollecting the swimming-contest. The verbs gecwædon, 'said'(Beo 535), gebeotedon, 'made a vow'(Beo 536), geæfndon, 'did'(Beo 538) follow the pattern of heroic action, namely to make a boast and then act upon it (Kaske 1974, 312). T.P Dunning and A.J. Bliss observed the difference in the etymological meanings between gielp and beot. They suggest that 'beot is from an earlier behat, and therefore means "promise"; gielp on the other hand, is related to giellan, and originally means "a loud noise'"(Dunning and Bliss 1969, 54). According to this view beot in gebeotedon in Beowulf's speech is contrasted with gilp in dolgilp in Unferth's speech, in that Beowulf uses the former to justify his early expedition whilst Unferth cynically uses the latter to degrade Beowulf's youthful adventure with 'a loud voice'. In addition, all three verbs gecw-ædon, gebeotedon and geæfndon are prefixed with the perfective particle ge- is a deliberate means of emphasizing the completeness of his actions, demonstrating his ability to fulfill his boasts. The close relation between the boast and its fulfillment is mirrored in the textual closeness of the verbs, which appear over only four lines.

2.4. The meaning of geogoðfeorh

     So far, I have shown that geoguð is used as a sign of Beowulf's early heroic disposition. But the actual term used for Beowulf's early adventure is geogoðfeore, dative singular of geogoðfeorh. According to BT, geogoðfeorh is rendered as 'youthful life, youth', so there is no change of meaning in general. And in Wiglaf's speech on geogoðfeore is again used to imply a proper time of youth in which heroic disposition is revealed. Wiglaf reminds Beowulf of what he vowed in his youthful time and encourages him to fulfil that pledge:

Leofa Biowulf,    læst eall tela,

swa ðu on geoguðfeore    geara gecwæde,

þæt ðu ne alæte    be ðe lifigendum

dom gedreosan;         (Beo 2663-2666)

[Beloved Beowulf, perform your whole task well just as you declared long ago, in the days of your youth, that you would never let your glory dwindle while you were alive]

     As shown above, although making a vow in the days of youth is hardly blameworthy, failing to fulfil a pledge made in youth is blameworthy in heroic society. Though there is no convincing evidence that on geoguðfeore in 2664 corresponds to on geogoðfeore in 537 in terms of the exact period of youth, the semantic congruence in these two occasions suggests these two periods overlap. It means the idea of 'making a vow or pledge in days of youth' is equally expressed on two occasions within the same semantic structures:

gebeotedon.... on geogoðfeore (Beo 536-537)

on geoguðfeore... gecwæde, (Beo 2664)

I do not think this semantic agreement is accidental but is deliberately contrived by the poet, who intends to stress the idea of 'making a vow in youth' as a sign of a heroic disposition.

     However, as regards the semantic value of -feore in the two cases, if its meaning is confined to the sense of 'days or period', then it is used otiosely, since geogoð alone completes the sense of 'days or periods', as is shown in other cases. BT shows that feorh has several meanings such as 'life, soul, spirit, a living being, person'. But such meanings do not make sense in the following passage, which is extracted from the scop's description of Finn's hall after the slaughter:

                    Ða wæs heal roden

feonda feorum,       swilce Fin slægen, (Beo 1151-1152)

[Then the hall was reddened with the life-blood of foes, Finn too was slain]

I agree with Garmonsway's rendering of feorum as 'with the life-blood' rather than 'with corpses'. This sense of 'life-blood' is also supported by Klaeber (1950: 328-329). In a sense, the image of blood is brought out in this passage to convey the idea of the transience of human life, which is one of the motifs of the Finn Episode. At the same time, the blood-image, conveyed in feonda feorum, 'with the life-blood of foes', is used to evoke a fierce batle scene. The violent battle scene serves to conjure the idea of true warriorship, the value of which is largely measured by actual deeds, regardless of the results of the battle. Thus while the spilling of blood is inevitable in the course of keeping up the duty of warriorship, more importantly it is the proof of the exercise of true warriorship and in this sense blood itself is regarded as a symbol of heroic spirit.

     If feorh, ‘life-blood', with the connotation of heroic spirit, is combined with geoguð, then the new compound geoguð-feorh will further stress an early heroic spirit, which is quite naturally expected in heroic society.

2.5. Evidences of Beowulf's maturity in geogo(u)ð

The other evidence to support the view that Beowulf's repetitive use of cniht and geoguð is not designed to signal regret can be drawn from the stylistic features adopted by Beowulf in narrating his version of the swimming-contest and in declaring his superiority in martial prowess. In the description of Beowulf's struggle with sea-monsters and his subsequent victory over them, the audience's attention is drawn to an eulogy evoked by Beowulf himself:

ac on mergenne    mecum wunde

be yðlafe    uppe lægon,

sweordum aswefede,    þæt syðþan na

ymb brontne ford    brimliðende

lade ne letton.        (Beo 565-569)

[but at morning they lay wounded by swords, along the sand by the shore, killed by the swords, so that never again would they hinder sea-farers from their voyage across the high seas]

     In the subsequent speech furthermore, which is centred on enhancing his martial superiority, Beowulf takes advantage of the fierce struggle against the sea-monsters under the water:

                            No ic on niht gefrægn

under heofones hwealf         heardran feohtan,

ne on egstreamum            earmran mannon;

hwæþere ic fara feng         feore gedigde

siþes werig.                          (Beo 575-579)

[Never have I been told of harder struggle at night under the vault of heaven, nor of a man more wretched in the ocean streams. Yet I escaped the grip of the monsters with my life, weary of my enterprise]

In this passage it should not be missed that the central meaning of Beowulf's physical strength is reinforced by the use of two comparative adjectives combined with the negative particle no or ne. This combination of a negative and a comparative is conceived to substitute the effect of a superlative and becomes a characteristic feature of Beowulf's speech. It must be kept in mind that there is a comparison between the hardship suffered by young Beowulf and those suffered in all the heroic adventures known to Beowulf. In other words, Beowulf declares that he, at the time of geoguð, exceeded any kind of martial strength even including that shown by mature warriors. This picture of Beowulf's willingness to impose his position of superiority over his adversary appears to correspond with the Homeric tradition of winning glory in public. In the face of verbal provocation from Euryalus, for example, Odysseus defends his position by saying that he has been 'in the first rank so long as I was able to rely on the strength of my youth'. Soon after demonstrating his unmatched strength in the game of discus-throwing, Odysseus goes on to list his superiority as a bowman and a javelin-thrower: 'Of all others now alive and eating their bread on the face of the earth, I claim to be by far the best, ... As for the javelin, I can throw it farther than anyone else can shoot an arrow'. Such an inclination of Odysseus to excessive boasting should not be interpreted as a sign of mental weakness as long as he proves his real capability. Thus, in the light of Homeric tradition, Beowulf's declaration of his superior martial strength can hardly be blamed for his excessive pride. Instead, he is regarded as doing something perfectly appropriate for the customs of his world by recalling proudly his adventure of geogoð.

     In this context in which Beowulf uses words in a sophisticated way to their maximum rhetorical effect, Beowulf is probably boasting about his undisputed martial prowess. A clear sense of Beowulf's boasting can be found in his own statement: no ic þæs fela gylpe, 'I do not boast much of that'(Beo: 586). This seemingly humble statement confirms that he was deeply conscious of the swimming contest which he had undertaken at the time of cniht or geogoð as a sigh of early heroic quality. This statement entails he has been boasting about his swimming-contest with Breca. Thus the swimming-contest is considered by Beowulf as a fit subject for boasting. The fact that Beowulf talks of his youthful boast in gebeotedon, 'made a vow'(Beo: 536), as the subject for his present boast, shows that his early vow was not an idle one motivated by boyish foolishness. As A. Leslie Harris observes, Beowulf claimed he fulfilled his boast by endurance and courage in swimming and by his ability as a monster-killer'(Harris 1988: 5). The other evidence that Beowulf and Breca were sufficiently well grown up to venture their early heroic prowess at the time of the swimming-contest comes from Unferth's comment on Breca's position. During his flyting with Beowulf, Unferth makes a comment which seems to suggest that Breca, and by implication Beowulf, were not so young at the time of their swimming-contest as is usually believed. Unferth says that Breca folc ahte, burh ond beagas, 'had subjects, a stronghold and treasures'(Beo 522-523). Breca and Beowulf were both in the state of geogoð at the time of this contest. The fact that a youth could have 'subjects', 'treasures' and 'a stronghold' illustrates how a youth has a status above that of a mere youth. Thus Beowulf's reference to cniht and geogoð is best interpreted, not as a sign of immaturity or rashness, but as a confirmation of his early heroic disposition.

(Hankuk University of Foreign Studies)

Works Cited

Bosworth, Joseph and T. Northcote Toller, eds. An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1882-98.

Burrow, J. A., The Ages of Man: A Study in Medieval Writing and Thought. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986.

Dunning, T. P. and Bliss, A. J., eds. The Wanderer. London: Methuen, 1969.

Godden, Malcolm, ed. Ælfric's Catholic Homilies: The Second Series EETS ss. 5. London, 1979.

Harris, A. Leslie, "Litotes and Superative in Beowulf" ES, 69, 1988.

Howlett, David. R., "Form and Genre in Beowulf" SN 46, 1974.

Irving, Edward B Jr., A Reading of Beowulf. New Heaven and London: Yale University Press, 1968.

Kaske, R. E., "Sapientia et Fortitudo" SP, 55, 1958.

Kemp Malone, "Beowulf" ES, 29, 1948.

Klaeber, Fr., Beowulf and the Fight at Finnsburg. 3rd edition with 1st and 2nd supplement. Boston, MA, and London: Heath, 1950.

Sweet, Henry. ed. King Alfred's West Saxon Version of Gregory's Pastoral Care, EETS, 45 and 50[2 vols.] 385. 32 (ch. 49).

Wentersdorf, Karl P., "Beowulf's Adventure with Breca" SP 72, 1975.


고대영어 Geogoð에 관한 연구: ꡔ베오울프ꡕ 535-538

이 동 일

  ‘청년, 소년, 젊은이, 어린시절’을 뜻하는 고대영어 Geogoð는 고대영시에서 매우 광범위하게 쓰이며 특히 ꡔ베오울프ꡕ에서는 시의 주제인 영웅주의 도덕관과 맞물려 중대한 문맥상의 의미를 형성한다. 대부분의 학자들은 베오울프와 운페르드 사이에 벌어지는 설전(flyting)에서 베오울프가 언급한 Geogoð를 예로 들어 베오울프가 어린시절 성급한 판단하에 브레카와 무모한 수영시합을 시도했다고 보고 있다. 이러한 해석은 Geogoð에 대한 문맥상의 의미를 도외시한 결과이며 동시에 시의 주된 요소인 영웅주의 도덕관을 고려하지 않은 편협한 견해에 지나지 않는다. Geogoð는 ꡔ베오울프ꡕ 외에도 많은 고대영시와 산문에서 부정적인 의미와 더불어 긍정적인 의미로 쓰이고 있다. 특히 ꡔ베오울프ꡕ에서는 부정적인 의미보다는 긍정적인 의미로 더 많이 쓰이고 있다. ꡔ베오울프ꡕ의 주된 인물들은 자신들의 영웅적 업적을 과시할 때 주저없이 Geogoð를 언급하고 있다. 특히 운페르드와의 설전 부분에서 베오울프가 언급한 Geogoð는 베오울프 자신의 미숙한 판단과 성급함을 인정했다기보다는 자신의 영웅적 기질이 남보다 앞서 어린 나이에 발휘됐음을 과시하고 있으며 동시에 뛰어난 업적을 어린 나이에 성취했음을 자랑스럽게 알리고 있는 것이다. 이런 맥락에서 Geogoð는 영웅주의 도덕관을 규명하는 중요한 어휘로 자리잡게 된다.

Key Words: geogoth, heroism, cniht, -feore

*1) This paper was supported by 2002 Hankuk University of Foreign Studies Research Fund and its first draft was presented at the 2001 International Congress in Medieval Studies (Kalamazoo. U.S.A)