By Kora Addington
Old English can present many moments during translation which may seem at first appearance to be simple games of definition conversion from the OE Dictionary to Modern English; but after working with this, or many other languages, long enough, it becomes quickly evident that context and cultural differences make these apparently simple conversions much more complicated. The work of Beowulf is filled with these instances. Here we will look at a passage which includes the Old English word ealuscerwen in line 769 of the poem, which has one meaning in the literal sense and quite another in the contextual sense.
Ealuscerwen is a compound word – a kenning – which is generally taken to mean “deprivation of ale.” The translation of ealu is easy enough; Clark-Hall’s dictionary equates it with “ale” or “beer.” It makes its appearance in various other non-contested, simple words too, like ealubenc (“ale-bench”), ealuclyfa (“ale cellar”), ealuhus (“ale house”), and even ealugafol, which takes the meaning of a tax or tribute paid in ale.
There does come some difficulty, however, when it comes to the translation of scerwen. Clark-Hall’s dictionary only lists it as a suffix for ealu and medu, as in ealuscerwan and meduscerwan (meoduscerwan). Klaeber’s commentary presumes that scerwen is in some way related to scerwan, which means to “grant,” “allot,” or “dispense.” Tolkien’s commentary guesses that scerwen is “an abstract noun derived from a verb scerwan” but that this is “recorded only in a compound form bescerwan ‘deprive.’ Probably related verbs without the w-element, as OW scerian, scirian, have the meaning ‘allot, assign.'” The writer of Tolkien’s commentary continues with this:
“[N]oting that words that have the sense “Take away, deprive, rob” can add the prefix be- with change of construction rather than of sense, he [J.R.R. Tolkien] concluded that a possible meaning of the element scerwen was ‘tearing away, robbing, depriving’ and gave it as his opinion that ealuscerwen and meoduscerwen both basically mean ‘cutting off, deprivation of ale or mead.'”
… on each of the brave there was ealuscerwan
Translation becomes even stickier when the realization that “deprivation of ale” doesn’t at all fit in with the context arrives. The passage in question reads “Denum eallum wearð, ceasterbuendem, cenra gehwylcum, eorlum ealuscerwen.”
Let’s piece this together: first we encounter Denum eallum, which are both dative plural, so we may set them aside to pick up for later, since they cannot be the subject of the sentence. The next word we see is wearð which is third preterite singular, acts as our verb for the sentence, and narrows what our subject can be. Next comes the word ceasterbuendum, another dative plural word that we can put off to the side for now. The same goes for eorlum toward the end of the sentence. Cenra gehwylcum operates slightly differently: cenra is genitive plural, while gehwylcum is dative singular, so here we get “on each of the brave,” which we can fit in with our pile of other dative constructions. Since we have not encountered any nominatives thus far, and our only word left is ealuscerwen, we can assume this is the subject and translate the sentence as such: “On all the Danes, on all the town-dwellers, on each of the brave, on the men, there was deprivation of ale.”
This sentence might make sense by itself, but let’s look at the bigger picture. This sentence is part of the larger scene wherein Beowulf and Grendel are fighting uproariously in the hall of Heorot. Benches are being thrown, glass is being shattered. People hear their screaming and feel great fear, heightened even more by the memories of all the attacks Grendel has waged against these people for the last twelve years. So, why then, would the author suddenly throw in, after building up this list of people, i.e. the Danes, the townspeople, the brave warriors, every soul there, some comment about there being a lack of ale? What does that have to do with anything? How does that make sense? But, at the same time, how can a translator argue against it when that is clearly the dictionary meaning of the word as previously explored?
At this point, the real meaning behind ealuscerwen has to come down to some cultural expression that we in our time simply don’t understand. For the Anglo-Saxons there must have been some equation between “deprivation of ale” and “horror” or “fear,” as the word typically gets translated into modern English. Klaeber’s commentary mentions a possible connection to “a cup of death metaphor… where the ominous significance of mead standing ready in the hall is… impending death… not for the Danes, but for Grendel.” This offering seems to assume too widely; Tolkien’s commentary takes a slightly different bend on the connection between fear and lack of beer:
“They [the Anglo-Saxons] got their sense of ‘horror and woe’ not just crudely because an announcement in an ancient English hall ‘no beer tonight’ would have caused horror and woe (or even panic), but because ealu… [was a symbol] of the mirth and pleasure of peace, and life at its brief and passing best. Thus at the opening of the poem Scyld is said to have ‘denied the mead-benches’ to his foes. This does not mean that he marched in and pulled away the seats from under his enemies; but that the whole life and peace and honor, each in their separate halls, of the kings and lords that opposed him were overthrown.”
Based on these comments, it could be easily thought that for the Anglo-Saxons, the loss of ale meant the preceding loss of stability, peace, and treasure-giving. It meant the sort of fear and horror of the unknown that the Danes, the townspeople, and the brave warriors must have felt that night as Beowulf and Grendel tore at each other in Heorot. On this night, the future of the town’s peace and stability was at stake. Would Beowulf win, and thus for the first time in a dozen years ensure peace and life in their society? Or would Grendel win, continuing the terror and slaughter that many of them can seem never to forget? In this moment of crossroads, these people feel the “deprivation of ale” as an idiom for “horror” or “woe” because the drinking of ale is what signifies to them that their worries are behind them, and the lack thereof means worry and grief aplenty.