Re unwearnum: A Digression

8. Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about seeking whom he may devour:     9. Whom resist, steadfast in the faith...... I Peter; V. [Epistle ordered for the 3rd Sunday after Trinity, Church of England Book of Common Prayer.]

"For fear the cruell Feends should thee vnwares deuowre". Spenser, The Faerie Queene (1590), III iii VIII. See Thomas Bulfinch (1796-1867), Age of Fable: Vol. III, 1913 edition.






This paper examines the literary and dramatic function of the sleeping warrior who is consumed by Grendel at the monster's first appearance under Beowulf's eye, and the moral that the Beowulf poet may have intended should be drawn from the incident. (ll 736-745).


The thought of presenting a short paper on this topic arises from an interpretation of The Seafarer which was started in early 1994. When well into this project an obdurate obstacle was encountered in the form of the word unwearnum, whose dictionary meaning "irresistibly" seemed impossible to reconcile with the sense of the passage containing it. After prolonged self-doubt it was concluded that unwearnum did not mean "irresistibly", in spite of its scholarly endorsement in that meaning for the last 100 years. The most accurate single Modern English equivalent of the word now seems to be "vulnerable". Or "defenceless". Or, perhaps, "unsuspecting, unanticipating --- unversehens --- unforeseen" ?

Unwearnum only appears twice in the corpus of Anglo-Saxon literature, in The Seafarer, and in Beowulf, where it occurs in the context of the passage involving Beowulf's Geatish comrade, who is torn apart and gobbled up by Grendel under the alertly watchful gaze of the hero (line 741). John Earle, 1892, has an interesting note on this situation: "It is not to be supposed that Beowulf meant to let his men be experimented upon, and so to give Grendel free scope in order that he might see a specimen of his carnage before he arrested his movements; --- and yet that is what we must imagine if under fær gripen is to mean 'in the midst of his ravenings.' " At line 2076 we learn that the victim's name was Hondsciô, ie "Glove", literally "Handshoe".

This paper investigates the significance of the incident culminating in Hondsciô's brutal end, in light of the probability of unwearnum meaning "vulnerable", while recognising that the nuances of its sense in this context may shift to "defenceless", "unprepared", "heedless", or "unaware". Although "irresistibly" is easily the most favoured translation of the word in the numerous versions of The Seafarer, translators have avoided this rendering in Beowulf. Those who have given the matter some consideration, and appreciated that "irresistibly" cannot be correct in this context, may have followed (at several removes) Benjamin Thorpe's gloss for the word in his 1842 translation of The Seafarer, and chosen "suddenly" in preference to "irresistibly". Others seem to have been misled by Klaeber's curious alternative glosses, "eagerly" or "greedily". "Suddenly" is the word used by Seamus Heaney in his best-selling translation. Although "suddenly" has some merit (though not much), and is perhaps more correct than "irresistibly", it still fails to realise the hidden implications of unwearnum. These are more strongly indicated by the context of the word as it occurs in The Seafarer, where its use and significance are, in my view, crucial to an understanding of the poem. The argument can be amplified by drawing on examples of the continuity of the Christian attitude to the powers of darkness, the Devil, and other inimical adversaries that may beset a hero of the true faith, as they occur both before and since the Beowulf poet composed his lay. While this examination will not lead to any firmer establishment of the identity of Hondsciô, it may help to elucidate the underlying purpose of his short-lived role on the epic's wider stage, help to explain why his death makes such a memorable impact, and why he is recalled by name so much later in the poem.

This table lists in chronological sequence some of the translations of unwearnum, as it occurs in Beowulf:




lines 740-741 (Klaeber)
ms text:
ac he gefeng hraðe forman siðe
slæpendne rinc slat unwearnum
[pp. 46 & 100]
J.J.ConybeareNor long delay the murderer brook'd; for still
In other days light effort had it cost
To slay the uncautious warrior in his sleep,
[Latin] Dormientes viros, Occiderat ex improviso
improviso: unexpected / (ex improviso) suddenly.
1859 K.SimrockVielmehr erfasst' er jetzt zuvörderst Einen
Der Ruhenden und riss ihn rasch in zwei Stücke
1863M.Heyne (1st edition)un-wearnum adv. instr. pl. unversehens, plötzlich.
1875 B.Thorpe (2nd edition)for he quickly seiz'd, at the first time,
a sleeping warrior, tore him unawares,
(1st ed)
J.M.GarnettBut quickly he seized for the first time
A sleeping warrior, him tore unresisting,
[NB: "him tore unawares." Heyne 1879, 4th ed.]
1883J.A.Harrison & R.Sharp (glossary)un-wearnum, adv. instr. pl., unawares, suddenly; (unresistingly?)
(2nd ed)
H.W.LumsdenThe wicked scather wrought his will. He paused not, in his clasp,
For first adventure, swift he seized and slew a sleeping thane
(2nd ed 1914)
R.M WickbergUtan tog raskt första gången,
En sovande man, slet sönder honom ostörd,
[Prisma Swedish-English: untroubled, undisturbed]
1892J.Earlebut he seized promptly at his first move a sleeping warrior, tore him in a moment,
1892J.L.HallBut on earliest occasion he quickly laid hold of
A soldier asleep, suddenly tore him,
1894A.J.Wyatt (glossary)un-wearnum, adv., unawares, 741.
1895William Morris
with A.J.Wyatt's glossary
For speedily gat he, and at the first stour,
A warrior a-sleeping, and unaware slit him,
1897M.Heyne (translation: 3rd edition)nicht zögerte das Scheusal, schnell und plötzlich
fasst' er der Schläfer einen, schlitzt' ihn auf
1898M.Heyne/Socin (glossary: 6th edition)un-wearnum adv. instr. pl. unversehens, plötzlich.
Unversehens is given as "unexpectedly, unawares, all of a sudden; unintentionally" in Cassell, 1952.
1901 J.R. Clark Hall
(first prose edition)
but quickly grasped a sleeping warrior as a first start, rent him undisturbed
1902C.B.Tinkerbut suddenly, for his first move, he seized upon a sleeping thane, rent him in pieces unawares
1906F.Holthausenwearn fõ. [zu warnen] Weigerung, Versagen 366. D.Pl. un~um unwiderstehlich 741.
1906H.GeringMit schnellem Griff   einen Schläfer packt' er
Als ersten Raub   zerriss ihn eiligst
1910F.B.GummereStraightway he seized a sleeping warrior
for the first, and tore him fiercely asunder,
1910M.Heyne [glossary. 9th edition of text, ed. L.L. Schücking].un-wearnum adv. instr. pl. ohne Weigering, d.h. gierig (vgl. Schuchardt S.14) 741.
(glossary & note: 2nd edition.)
unwearnum adv. suddenly, when off his guard.   741 n. unwearnum, according to Schuchardt, means 'without refusing', ' eagerly.'
1913E.J.B.Kirtlanhe quickly lay hold of a sleeping warrior, and tore him to pieces all unawares
1914 J.R. Clark Hallbut quickly he seized     first victim of all
a sleeping campaigner     and ate him, unwarned, ---
1914 A.J.Wyatt, revised by R.W.Chambers (glossary)un-wearnum adv, without hindrance
1921C.K.Scott MoncrieffBut he seized swiftly / in his first swoop
A sleeping man, / unawares he slit him,
(1st ed.)
Fr.Klaeber; (glossary)un-wearnum, adv. (dp.), without hindrance, irresistibly; or: eagerly, greedily (Schuchardt L See wearn.
1923W.E.LeonardBut pounced upon a sleeping man,   starting quick enough!
Unthwartedly he slit him,   bit his bone-box, drunk
From his veins the blood of him,
1926D.H.Crawfordnay, of a sudden he seized, for beginning,
a warrior asleep, and without let tore him
1926R.K.Gordonbut first he quickly seized a sleeping warrior,
suddenly tore him asunder
1929G.H.Gerouldbut seized at once a sleeping warrior,
in his forward rush, rent him unwary
(Kommentar zum Beowulf)
unwearnum bedeutet wahrscheinlich 'ohne Weigerung, ohne sich zu weigern', dh. 'gierig' (s. R.Schuchardt, Negation im Beow. 14).
(glossary: 3rd edition.)
unwearnum irresistibly 741 n. [No further note on unwearnum]
1940C.W.KennedyThe demon delayed not, but quickly clutched
A sleeping thane in his swift assault,
Tore him in pieces,
1945G.Bone              Short while the monster remains
But took a dreaming man, rent him at will,
1949J.R.Clark Hall, 1911 edition revised by C.L.Wrenn 1949but quickly seized a sleeping warrior as a beginning, rent him greedily
1954B.Collinder (Sweden)utan fattade fort,
                          som första fång
en sovande stridsman,
                          slet sönder den värnlöse
1957D.WrightThe fiend wasted no time, but for a start snatched
up a sleeping man. He tore him apart in an instant
1963B.RaffelGrendel snatched at the first Geat
He came to, ripped him apart, cut
His body to bits with powerful jaws,
edited by J.E.Tuso 1975
but, starting his work, he suddenly seized a sleeping man, tore at him ravenously,
1967C.B.Hieattbut swiftly grasped, in his first gesture, a sleeping warrior: he tore him up furiously,
1968K.Crossley-Hollandbut, for a start, he hungrily seized
a sleeping warrior, greedily wrenched him
1973M.AlexanderAs a first step he set his hands on
a sleeping soldier, savagely tore at him
1978M.Swantonbut for a start he quickly seized a sleeping
warrior, tore him apart without resistance
1982S.A.J.Bradleybut as a start he hastily grabbed a sleeping
soldier, tore him apart without any trouble,
1983H.B.Björnsson (Iceland)fljótur greip er fyrstan náði
sofandi rekk, sem hann óvaran
beit til beins
1983M.Osborn he snatched up the first of his quarry,
a sleeping man, and slit him open,
1987G.RobertsBut quickly seized in his first foray
A sleeping warrior, tore him apart greedily,
1987J.Glover (based on M.Alexander & E.Morgan)As a first step he set his greedy hands on
A sleeping soldier, savagely tore him,
1990R.Oliver                                          So swift,
Then, was the devil, that a horror
Happened before the prince could help
1991F.Rebsamen                             snared a doomed one
in terminal rest         tore frantically,
1994 G.Jack (glossary)unwearnum --- unrestrainedly
1995 P.Grant But swiftly seized upon the first:
Slashed the sleeper unaware
1999S.HeaneyNor did the creature keep him waiting
but struck suddenly and started in;
he grabbed and mauled a man on his bench,
1999D.BreedenNor did the wretch delay,       but set about seizing
a sleeping warrior unawares       and bit into his bone locks,
(4th ed.)
Fr.Klaeber; (glossary)un-wearnum, adv. (dp.), without hindrance, irresistibly; or: eagerly, greedily (Schuchardt 1910: 14, Hoops). See wearn.

The dagger, †, designates words (or meanings) found in poetry only..............                                                     [back to Klaeber]


In analysing these versions some complication arises because of the presence in the ms text of the word hraðe, which at its simplest is glossed "quickly" (Klaeber). The word survives in Modern English as "rather", with only a very tenuous sense-connection, and a more closely related cognate would be German gerade (geradeswegs), meaning "straight" or "straightaway". In any case, the distinction between the meanings perceived in hraðe, glossed "quickly", and unwearnum, glossed "suddenly", becomes blurred, which possibly accounts for the mounting tendency of the later translators to inflate what I see as the spurious readings of "eagerly" or "greedily" for unwearnum. Conybeare does well with "uncautious" in 1826, but, after 1910, we are offered "greedily" (Clark Hall/Wrenn; Crossley-Holland; Roberts), "fiercely" (Gummere), "ravenously" (Donaldson), "furiously" (Hieatt), "frantically" (Rebsamen), "savagely" (Alexander, Glover). Glover and Crossley-Holland merge haste with hunger and savagery. The exclusive sense of surprise is retained by Hall and Gordon ("suddenly"), Kennedy ("in his swift assault"), Wright ("in an instant"); and the idea of overcoming a barrier --- Wyatt and Klaeber's "without hindrance" --- by Garnett ("unresistingly"), Crawford ("without let"), Bone ("at will"), Swanton ("without resistance"), and Bradley ("without any trouble").

The virtually correct "unawares" (Thorpe, Garnett -- after Heyne's variation from Grein, -- Tinker, Kirtlan, Scott Moncrieff) was discarded after 1921 (except in the case of Gerould's "unwary", 1929), and the temptation to detect the magisterial authority of Klaeber's 1922 edition of Beowulf in this shift is irresistible. Klaeber refers to Schuchardt as the authority for the glosses "eagerly, greedily", although this name is first mentioned earlier by Heyne in 1910, at least on the above list. Sedgefield in 1913 gives "eagerly" as "according to Schuchardt", and Schuchardt's name, giving "eagerly, greedily", is repeated in Klaeber, 2009, with the addition of what is apparently a second authority, Hoops. Hoops is also mentioned on page 110 of Klaeber 4, but not included among the works cited. However, this must be Johannes Hoops, author of Kommentar zum Beowulf, Heidelberg, 1932, and Beowulfstudien, same year. Richard Schuchardt, from whom the concept of unwearnum meaning "greedily" seems exclusively to derive, produced a doctoral dissertation entitled "Die Negation im Beowulf" in 1910 at the Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität zu Berlin, but I have not so far been able to locate a copy of his text.

12/12/09. Pursuit of Schuchardt has now led to the incidental discovery of "The un- Prefix: A Means of Germanic Irony in 'Beowulf'", by Schuman & Hutchings, Modern Philology, Vol 57, No 4 (May, 1960). This contains, p 220, a long list of words which use the un- prefix to achieve "a high level of understatement", but the list ends with an exception, quote: "unwearnum (l.741), literally 'unhindered', from wearn, 'hindrance'. All but the last of these undergo amelioration in connotation through the addition of the un- prefix." The singular exception of unwearnum might have alerted the authors to appreciate that wearn actually means "defence", rather than "hindrance"; and unwearn means "an undefended man, or person". For Wright on un-, see here.

All authority abides our question, however, for the price of truth is eternal vigilance, and it remained for a free-minded spirit, Paula Grant, in her 1995 maverick Aldfrith's Beowulf, to resuscitate "unawares". Heaney contrives to have it all ways, except the precisely right way, with "suddenly", "started", "grabbed" and "mauled"; but, as would be expected, the word translates neatly and naturally into Swedish (Collinder, 1954): den värnlöse, "the defenceless man"; and Icelandic (Björnsson, 1983), óvar-an, "unaware, unwary". Sigurðsson's Íslensk-Ensk Orðabók, 1994, makes the current usages of óvar very clear. A not impossible Swedish translation would be den ovärne.

The purpose of this nit-picking is not trivial. The epigraph heading this page had been knocking at my mind for some time, the result of having had it thoroughly drummed into me at Bradfield College chapel services on countless Sundays between 1950 and 1955. Chapter and verse once checked, a re-reading of Andrew Galloway's paper I Peter and The Seafarer, in English Language Notes, XXV, 4, June 1988, became essential. Although, if goaded, I might quibble with his article on certain counts, and must curb my inclination to muse at length on the position occupied by Peter in the history of the English church and people, I agree with Galloway's premise that the influence of the claviger's epistle is perfectly discernible in The Seafarer. So, too, in Beowulf, especially in the Hondsciô incident.

Just as telling is the saint's enjoinder to: "Be sober". John Gardner makes this point in a glancing aside, "....a man like Beowulf who never gets drunk....", on page 84 of The Construction of Christian Poetry in Old English, (Southern Illinois UP, 1975). Earlier, on the eve of Grendel's descent on the mead-hall, Beowulf had been taunted by the drunken troublemaker, Unferth, very probably wlonc and wingal ------ "thy brother's killer", says Beowulf, and therefore akin to Cain. Unferth's slurs had been silenced by the hero's sobriety, just as Grendel,

Scan by Mark Harden
"Saturn" by Goya.

Cain's direct descendant, would be defeated by his vigilance and valour. Hondsciô, the slæpendne rinc, whose sleep would have been the deeper for drink, whose wit was dulled before death's sudden descent, thus exemplifies a type that Bunyan might have called Heedless. He was unwearn, where scoutlike Beowulf was loin-girt and prepared, ie wearn. No man, moreover, in any age, would be aware of his own mortality had he not seen, or at least known, that others die. The message was urged upon Anglo-Saxon society by stick as well as carrot, and the gospel was spread by OT fear as effectively as by NT love. God needed Grendel as sure as cops need robbers. Our bare, forked animal is congenitally bifurcate. But I digress, and someone else will have to explain the symbolism of Hondsciô's unusual name.


see note, below


Gardner's excellent book is, for my money, one of the few genuinely sensitive and perceptive surveys of the allegorical mind-set pervading certain kinds of Anglo-Saxon poetic composition. Is it remotely possible that, in the two cases under discussion, this mind-set is not collective, but singular? For more about John Gardner, see this website: Even Gardner, however, renders this passage: "I seize up a sleeping man, tear at him hungrily, bite through his bone-locks and suck hot, slippery blood......", in Grendel, 1971, last chapter.

Psalm 91 was also often sung in chapel. It followed the text of the Church of England's Book of Common Prayer, 1549, and contains several phrases which leap to mind when pondering the implications of wearn, unwearnum, Grendel, and the end of Hondsciô; eg: "Whoso dwelleth under the defence of the most High, shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty ...... For he shall deliver thee from the snare of the hunter (AV fowler), and from the noisome pestilence. He shall defend thee under his wings, and thou shall be safe under his feathers, his faithfulness and truth shall be thy shield and buckler. Thou shalt not be afraid of any terror by night, nor for the arrow that flieth by day. For the pestilence that walketh in darkness, nor for the sickness that destroyeth in the noon-day. A thousand shall fall beside thee, and ten thousand at thy right hand, but it shall not come nigh thee. Yea, with thine eyes shalt thou behold, and see the reward of the ungodly (AV wicked) ....... neither shall any plague come nigh thy dwelling ....... etc." See also Seafarer annotation, stanza 18, section e, (N.Kershaw's note on Psalm 9); and also Bird, Ship, Sun, Sea, passim. F.C.Robinson's essay, The Significance of Names in Old English Literature, op cit, has some indirect bearing on the burden of Hondsciô. Perhaps the name signifies spiritual emptiness, a fleshly form without inner substance. The Geats, if Dr. Ingemar Nordgren's intriguing theory, that their names (Getae, Jutes, Goths et al) embrace a cultic rather than an ethnic or tribal identity, has any purchase, would have been seen by Christians as not irredeemably wicked, but certainly ungodly.

* * *

See further notes on anfloga and unwearnum

* * *

Unferð. This name has been the subject of some scholarly discussion, and because it came up at a recent (September 2001) conference it seems worth commenting on again here. In Swedish Sprachgefühl I made the risky assertion that the Modern Swedish cognate of an Anglo-Saxon word is invariably closer to its meaning than its Modern English counterpart. There are two possible modern Swedish cognates with unferð: ofärd, and, metathetically, ofred. The modern Swedish prefix o- is uniformly the equivalent of the Anglo-Saxon prefix un-. Ofred means "discord, dissension, strife"; and ofärd means "misfortune, destruction, ruin". Ofärd could convert into a verb, whose infinitive would be att ofärda, which translates nicely as "to miscarry". A simple dictionary translation of färd is "journey", but the deeper sense of the word approximates to "action outwards", as a verb "to get going", or "to put in motion". The Swedish word färdig crudely translates as "ready", but the underlying sense implication is "ready for a journey", "prepared to set off". Something of this concept, in my view, still survives in the English word "forth", as in "going forth". Beowulf is a type of hero consistently idealised in the western canon for many centuries: forthright, upright, downright; in a word, straightforward. Unferth is his opposite, the anti-hero, and a possible translation of his name might be "untoward", which accurately describes his nature and conduct. An English dictionary gives "forward, perverse, refractory" as early meanings of "untoward". See Seafarer annotation: ferð, lines 26a and 37a. See also The Meaning of Ferð; click.

Michael Swanton, 1978, notes: "Unferð. Literally 'Discordia, Lacking-spirit'; the son of Ecglaf, and an officer (þyle) at the Danish court; responsible for the death of his brother." In 1926 D.H.Crawford had noted that Unferth "is jealous of Beowulf and provokes him to wild and whirling words. He had slain his own brothers. He lent his sword, Hrunting, to Beowulf, but it failed against Grendel's mother. It was probably he who later stirred up strife between Hrothgar and Hrothulf."

13 September, 2009. It has today been generously pointed out to me, in no uncertain terms, that Unferð's name is not Unferð, but Hunferð. Please adjust all comments accordingly. Also, that he is not a nasty anti-hero, but a very decent Royal administrator, dutifully performing his duties. Back to the drawing-board.

* * *

Note: In August, 2000, I found Dr David Breeden's version of Beowulf (1999), at his website [here], and have now included it in the table above. He also prefers "unawares", and his translation is among the best:

Nor did the wretch delay,
but set about seizing
a sleeping warrior unawares
and bit into his bone locks,
drinking the streams of blood,
then swallowing huge morsels
of flesh.

I was directed to David Breeden's site from Syd Allan's site [no longer to be found], via Paul Deane's site [no longer to be found]. My table, above, listed 34 translations of unwearnum in 2000, but a few more have been added since then. At the same time I discovered that Syd Allan was aiming to collect maybe 50 versions of Beowulf, so I felt I didn't need do too much more in that area. Truly, as Karl Young remarked, the web is a tissue on which the ink never dries.

Here is a more relaxed portrait of Grendel:

Doré: giant in Orlando Furioso from datadesigns

Beowulf (or Wiglaf) faces the dragon:

but this one lives in a tulgey wood

The summary and abstract preceding these notes were prepared in response to a call for papers across the internet, but their submission was judged unacceptable. Where one door closes another may open, and the mood to wonder continues to mill on. Why not stravaig yet further afield by clicking:

Re unwearnum: A Digression 2
See also cruxnotes on "wearn", click
See further notes on anfloga and unwearnum

essays and papers
main index

© Charles Harrison Wallace 2000/2009/2014
all rights reserved

And here is a useful list
compiled by Jno Lesslie Hall in 1892

"The original was written in the 8th century, with an historical base. It has become something of an English national epic, in spite of the fact that the hero is Swedish, and the events take place in Denmark." Amusing comment from Wickberg's translation.

Illustrator: J.H.F.Bacon, 1868-1914

The only correct translation of unwearnum is den värnlöse --- the defenceless man. See Collinder, 1954.