Beowulf, Old English, poetry, translation

Beowulf’s borrowed sword fails, a quick guide to facing off against a water witch (ll.1518-1528)


Synopsis
Translation
Recordings
Why Hrunting Had to Fail, and Grendel’s Mother’s True Threat
How to Face a Water Witch
Closing

Grendel's mother menaces the pinned Beowulf with a knife.

By J. R. Skelton – Marshall, Henrietta Elizabeth (1908) Stories of Beowulf, T.C. & E.C. Jack, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11001837


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Synopsis

The sword Unferth leant to Beowulf fails him, just as Grendel’s mother advances on our shocked hero.


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Translation

Then clearly he saw that accursed woman of the deep,
the strong sea-woman; a mighty blow he gave
with his battle blade, he held nothing back in his handstroke,
so that the ring patterned sword sang out upon her head
its greedy battle dirge. Yet there that surface dweller discovered
that the flashing sword would not bite,
that it would not harm his target’s life: the sword failed
that prince in his time of need. Before it had endured many
hand to hand combats, had often shorn away helmets,
sliced through the fated ones’ war garments; that was the first time
that dear treasure failed to show forth its true glory.
(Beowulf ll.1518-1528)


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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}


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Why Hrunting Had to Fail, and Grendel’s Mother’s True Threat

A few entries back, I mentioned that Hrunting was the first named sword in the poem. Well, for all of the power and mystery and strength that’s implied for a sword when it’s given a name, Hrunting’s glory is short lived.

The sword proves useless in this fight, just as Beowulf needs it most. After all, if the sword worked as it should, then his attack should have ended the battle before it began. But, for a reason that the poet never gives (except through the audience’s assumption that Grendel’s mother shares her son’s immunity to weapons), Hrunting has no effect. It’s as if Beowulf just found an electric Pokemon to help him take out a gym leader’s ground type Pokemon, and he never realized that ground-types are immune to electric types. Unfortunately, for all of their board games and riddles, I don’t think the Anglo-Saxons had charts drawn up showing the strengths and weaknesses of various monsters to various heirloom swords.

Actually, I find the failure of Hrunting funny.

It’s supposed to be this 100% never fail, surefire thing, but then, in Beowulf’s hands, it fails.

Had it succeeded in killing Grendel’s mother in a single blow, where would the glory for a hero like Beowulf be? She’d be just like any other foe he’s faced. And that just wouldn’t do; the reputation of the sword needed to take the hit for Beowulf’s sake.

In fact, if Beowulf killed Grendel’s Mother in one strike, then she would’ve been weaker than Grendel. I mean, Beowulf had to wrestle Grendel for some time before he tore off the monster’s arm. And that’s not how this can work.

Grendel’s mother isn’t just some ghoul that comes around haunting halls, she’s a “water-wolf” (“grund-wyrgenne” (l.1518)), a “water witch” (“mere-wif” (l.1519)). So she’s still humanoid, but is, at least, given her titles (and maybe her nature in the eyes of an at times misogynistic culture), much more of an intellectual or spiritual threat than a physical one.

Sure, she grabbed Beowulf and dragged him down, but if you get into the spiritual element of the poem (read: the Christian element), it’s very easy to interpret Grendel’s mother dragging Beowulf down as tempting him. I mean, think about it, he’s this upright warrior for god who seems almost entirely chaste.

Plus, Beowulf’s beating Grendel shows that he’s nothing to be trifled with physically, and Beowulf is very pious about attributing his victory to god and fate. So where could the next big threat go except into the spiritual realm?

So it makes sense that the second threat Beowulf faces is more spiritual.

Who even knows how she “grasped” Beowulf when she was pulling him down? I’m imagining that she full on wrapped herself around him, almost like water itself.

The presence of water even adds a drowning motif, which, I’m not sure was commonly related to temptation at the time, but no doubt is now. Though, of course, there’s also the redemptive property of water in the rite of baptism, so, all’s not lost for Beowulf and his failed sword. A sword that, in Beowulf’s overly capable hands, just had to fail to increase his renown — otherwise, he’d just be another one who used Hrunting instead of the one man who used it to no effect.

How much of a threat do you think Grendel’s mother is to Beowulf? Is she more of a physical threat or a spiritual one?


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How to Face a Water Witch

When fighting a “mere-wif”1 it’s important to be prepared.

Be sure to wear your best “fyrd-hrægl”2 for “hand-gemot”3. This will help you against the “mægen-ræs” that the “mere-wif”1 is bound to unleash upon you. In fact, if you’re particularly unlucky, she may show how feral she had to be to earn the epithet “grund-wyrgenne”4.

You’ll also want to bring along a “hilde-bille”5. It isn’t necessary to have a ” hring-mæl “6, nor is it recommended. These sorts of swords are fine against human opponents, but generally have no effect on your average “water witch”7. Any sword which can catch the light dramatically as you hold it aloft so that it can be your ” beado-leoma “8 while you sing your ” guð-leoð “9 will do. after all, the sword is mostly required to intimidate and parry the “mere-wif”1‘s attacks. Damaging such an opponent with any forged iron has long been thought impossible.

It is highly recommended that you do not fight a “mere-wif”1 on her own turf. Her familiarity with and power over water and the creatures of the deep is sure to prove overwhelming. And, if she brings you into a strange underwater cave, then may the Measurer, Lord of All, have mercy upon your soul. If you find yourself in such a situation, your wyrd is clear and inescapable.


1mere-wif: water witch. mere (sea, ocean, lake, pond, pond, cistern) + wif (woman, female, lady, wife) [A word exclusive to Beowulf]

2fyrd-hrægl: corslet. fierd (national levy or army, military expedition, campaign) + hrægl (dress, clothing, vestment, cloth, sheet, armour, sail) [A word exclusive to Beowulf]

3hand-gemot: battle. hand (hand, side (in defining position), power, control, possession, charge, agency, person regarded as holder or receiver of something) + (ge)mot (conflict, encounter) [A word exclusive to Beowulf]

4mægen-ræs: mighty onslaught. mægen (bodily strength, might, main, force, power, vigour, valour, virtue, efficacy, efficiency, good deed, picked men of a nation, host, troop, army, miracle) + ræs (rush, leap, jump, running, onrush, storm, attack)

5grund-wyrgenne: water-wolf. grund (ground, bottom, foundation, abyss, hell, plain, country, land, earth, sea, water) + wyrg (wolf, accursed one, outlaw, felon, criminal) [A word exclusive to Beowulf]

6 hilde-bille: sword. hilde (war, combat) + bill (bill, chopper, battle-axe, falchion, sword)

7 hring-mæl: sword with ring-like patterns. hring (ring, link of chain, fetter, festoon; anything circular, circle, circular group, border, horizon, rings of gold, corslet, circuit (of a year), cycle, course, orb, globe) + mæl (mark, sign, ornament, cross, crucifix, armour, harness, sword, measure) [A word exclusive to Beowulf]

8beado-leoma: battle-light, sword. beadu (war, battle, fighting, strife) + leoma (ray of light, beam, radiance, gleam, glare, lightning) [A word exclusive to Beowulf]

9guð-leoð: war-song. guð (combat, battle, war) + leoð (song, lay, poem) [A word exclusive to Beowulf]


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Closing

Next week, Beowulf regroups and Grendel’s mother moves in.

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A board game built on Beowulf

The board for King Port's Beowulf game, complete with a bunch of cards and pieces.

I admit that my experience with board games is pretty limited. And I’m not too saddened by that.

There are definitely some board games I’d love to play again or pick up. But whenever I think about board games, the problem that always looms in my mind is getting the players together. Coordinating enough interested people, getting over the rules if others (or I) need to learn them, and then finally getting to a place where we can just sit and play can take a lot of time.

But I think such a commitment would be worth it to play King Post’s own Beowulf. This game came to my attention thanks to this review.

This is a board game that uses the story of Beowulf as the background for play. Instead of taking up the role of Beowulf, players step into the shoes of various Geat tribes. Players then progress systematically through turns that see Beowulf moving down the timeline of his life as monsters, events, and a trading/raiding phase unfold. It definitely sounds like a complicated game to grasp at first (kind of like Dominant Species), and even like it might take some getting used to even once you get the basics.

But because this game is more about exploring the context of the Beowulf story than about the story itself, I find it infinitely fascinating. Pairing that with the care and effort that clearly went into the game’s board, cards, and pieces makes me really consider buying the game. Not even to play it, I think it’d be neat to just read all the cards and bask in the atmosphere that this game looks like it exudes.

Though I can’t help but feel like admiring the game is all I’d get to do.

As mentioned above, it’s always seemed difficult to me to bring together enough interested people to try out a new game. Mind you, I’ve never coordinated a board game night before (I’d sooner just read or play video games or, thanks in part to Pokemon GO, go for a walk until my phone dies in my free time). But reading about King Port’s Beowulf board game makes me reconsider that. It definitely sounds like a game that I’d love to learn and play.

I might also stand a decent chance of getting the first turn advantage, since the game dictates that the “hairiest” player gets to go first. Finally a game where Eastern-European genes pay off!

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Beowulf, Old English, poetry, translation

The light seen after Beowulf’s drug home, and encounters of the fishy kind (ll.1506-1517)

Synopsis
Translation
Recordings
What is that Gleaming and Bright Light?
Encounters with Lake Monsters
Closing

Grendel's mother menaces the pinned Beowulf with a knife.

By J. R. Skelton – Marshall, Henrietta Elizabeth (1908) Stories of Beowulf, T.C. & E.C. Jack, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11001837


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Synopsis

Grendel’s mother drags Beowulf into her lair.


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Translation

“That she-wolf of the water bore him away, once they came to the bottom,
carried the ring mailed prince to her dwelling,
so that he was unable to weild his weapon,
though he had his fill of courage. A rushing horde of wondrous creatures
pressed upon him in those waters, many a sea-beast
tore with its tusks at his war-shirt,
gave a fierce pursuit. Than that prince perceived
that he was in some hostile hall,
where water harmed him not at all,
saw that the roof of the place held back the current,
the sudden pull of the waters:
there a gleaming light shone bright within.”
(Beowulf ll.1506-1517)


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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}


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What is that Gleaming and Bright Light?

Beowulf’s struggle with Grendel’s mother continues.

In this week’s passage he’s drug along the bottom of this mysterious lake as Grendel’s mother tears at him. But then, and it’s unclear if she’s still holding him at this point, a rush of sea creatures whiz by and tear at Beowulf. After travelling through a hole, Beowulf finds himself in a dry place. Given the description that there’s a roof overhead, my guess is that it’s a cave of some kind that extends under the lake.

I think of this place as kind of like a beaver’s den, at least in terms of how the entrance connects this dry place to the lake that Beowulf, and supposedly, Grendel’s mother have just left. Though there’s no mention of Grendel’s mother, and so it’s hard to say if she’s still clutching Beowulf in her claws or if she’s standing a little ways away, banking on his being dumbfounded by being rocketed through the entrance to her lair and attacked by a school of angry sea life.

And, after all of that action, the poet tells us that this cave was lit from within by some sort of gleaming, bright light (l.1517). Which raises a simple question for me: why?

We’ve just heard about a warrior jumping into a lake fully outfitted for war. He’s then grabbed by a humanoid sea monster, drug across a lake bottom, assaulted by a bunch of tusked sea creatures, and ultimately ends up in some sort of underwater cave. Is it necessary to tell us that the place is lit? I feel that if the last line of this section were taken out I’d be too caught up in the action and the weirdness of what’s come immediately before to worry about how Beowulf could see in the cave.

So why mention this light?

Well, I think in part it’s supposed to hearken back to the mention of Grendel’s eyes giving off a weird light (ll.726-727). They do this just before he sets upon the Geats he finds in the Heorot. So maybe that light is some important trait of Grendel and his mother, some sort of emblem of their kind.

Or, maybe there was a certain kind of light associated with monsters in the Anglo-Saxon imagination. Maybe there was a belief that light, for all of its heavenly aspects, also indicated the presence of the supernatural and a means of transportation between worlds for things like monsters and fairies and elves.

I mean, to this day, interdimensional portals are accompanied by flashes of light. Maybe that’s just a left over from an early film, or maybe there’s some old trope with long forgotten origins behind it. And maybe Beowulf is one of the works that uses this trope.

I find this line about the light as mysterious as the light itself, is what I’m getting at here. But what about you? Is this light a source of mystification for you, or is it just another part of the story? Why do you think the poet mentions it? Were people heckling him when he’d tell earlier versions of the story but not explain how Beowulf could see?

Leave your thoughts in the comments!


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Encounters with Lake Monsters

I imagine that the “fær-gripe”1 of terror would clutch your heart quite tightly if you encountered a “sæ-deor”2 while in a hall. Especially if it was wielding its “hilde-tux”3, and seemed to be controlled by the “brim-wylf”4 who kept it in an aquarium in her hall.

Even if you were wearing your best “here-syrcan”5 you’d probably sustain a few wounds, and the hall you were in would come to be known as a “nið-sele”6. Even if otherwise you thought it was a pretty nice place, especially considering that it was a “hrof-sele”7 and keeping out the sun and rain were important to you. Being attacked by a “sæ-deor”2 kept in an aquarium would be just that upsetting.


1fær-gripe: sudden grip. fær (calamity, sudden danger, peril, sudden attack, terrible sight) + gripe (grip, grasp, seizure, attack)

2sæ-deor: sea monster. (sheet of water, sea, lake, pool) + deor (animal, beast, deer, reindeer)

3hilde-tux: tusk (as a weapon). hilde (war, combat) + tusc (grinder, canine tooth, tusk)

4brim-wylf: she wolf of the lake/sea. brim (surf, flood, wave, sea, ocean, water, sea-edge, shore) + wylf (she-wolf) [A word exclusive to Beowulf]

5here-syrcan: corslet. here (predatory band, troop,army, host, multitude, battle, war, devastation) + syrc (sark, shirt, corslet, coat of mail)

6nið-sele: hall of conflict. nið (strife, enmity, attack, war, evil, hatred, spite, oppression, affliction, trouble, grief) + sele (hall, house, dwelling, prison)

7hrof-sele: roofed hall. hrof (roof, ceiling, summit, heaven, sky) + sele (hall, house, dwelling, prison) [A word exclusive to Beowulf]


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Closing

Next week, Beowulf takes a swing at Grendel’s mother.

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news

All about a legendary new Beowulf album

The cover art for LMAW's Beowulf album.

Art by Paolo Puggioni. Follow this link for more details: https://lmaw.bandcamp.com/

Full disclosure: I am in no way affiliated with the Legends, Myths, and Whiskey podcast. I’m just a big fan and want their Beowulf album to be a huge success so that they can give similar treatment to other epic stories from other cultures.

The world of podcasts is a very densely populated one. Since the medium’s rise to popularity among people with things to say, characters to share, or stories to tell, around 2009 (when over 1/5 of the population of the US over 12 became listeners), just about everyone of those sorts of people has launched a podcast. In terms of topics, these podcasts cover a range of things: politics, pop culture, science, serial radio dramas — there are even a few about history!

But one area that you don’t hear much about when it comes to podcasts is the stories that people have told for millennia. There aren’t very many podcasts about mythology or folklore.

There are some shows that are like excellent creepy pasta come to life (Welcome to Night Vale), but there aren’t many that focus exclusively on retelling old myths, legends, and folklore. Thankfully, there is one podcast that covers all three of these kinds of stories and does so expertly: The Legends, Myths, and Whiskey podcast.

On each episode of the show, hosts Tanner Campbell and Eric DeMott take two stories and one whiskey. They read translations of the stories, sample the whiskey and tell listeners what they think of both. Thanks to these gents I’ve learned about stories like The Faithlessness of Sinogo or A Parrot Named Hiraman. And although I’m not much of a whiskey drinker, their commentary on what they’re drinking for the episode consistently leaves me feeling intrigued.

But this isn’t just an entry to share one of my new favourite podcasts with you all. I’m writing about the LMAW podcast because after hours and hours of work they’ve put together their first album: Beowulf: A Mythosymphony. This album features Tanner and Eric reading J.B. Kirtlan’s 1913 prose translation of Beowulf and adding their summaries, commentary, and analysis after finishing each of the story’s sections.

Beowulf facing off against Grendel in art for "Beowulf: A Mythosymphony".

Original art from Paolo Puggioni for the upcoming “Beowulf: A Mythosymphony” album. https://lmaw.bandcamp.com/

Along with the hosts reading and reflecting on Beowulf, this extended version of the LMAW podcast features brand new music that composer Nico Vettese (https://wetalkofdreams.com/) made specifically for this reading. It also features original art by Paolo Puggioni (http://www.paolopuggioni.com/).

If you’re at all curious about this album and want to find out more, I highly recommend that you check out the LMAW podcast’s bandcamp page. There you can listen to a couple of sample tracks. You can also put in a pre-order for the Beowulf: A Mythosymphony, which is set to be released on September 15.

After having listened to the two tracks that Tanner and Eric have made available, it sounds like the complete Beowulf album will be amazing. Tanner nails reading Kirtlan’s translation and the musical accompaniment fits the tone and content of Beowulf’s boasting beautifully.

If this album sounds like something you’d enjoy, definitely check it out!

What are your thoughts on podcasts as a way to tell stories?

Leave your thoughts in the comments!

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Beowulf, Old English, translation

Beowulf trespasses in Grendel waters, and over preparing for alien encounters

Synopsis
Translation
Recordings
Beowulf, Youth Culture, Wary Welcomes
Possibly Over-Preparing to Encounter Alien Beings
Closing

Grendel's mother menaces the pinned Beowulf with a knife.

By J. R. Skelton – Marshall, Henrietta Elizabeth (1908) Stories of Beowulf, T.C. & E.C. Jack, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11001837


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Synopsis

Beowulf dives into the Grendel’s watery lair, and is attacked by Grendel’s mother.


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Translation

“After those words the Geatish lord
was quickened by courage, no answer
would he wait for, into the sea-wave he
threw himself. It was nearly the length of a full day
before he could see the bottom of that lake.
Soon that one sensed him, she who that underwater expanse
had occupied for a fiercely ravenous fifty years,
grim and greedy, she knew that a man,
an alien being, one from above had come exploring.
With claw outstretched she grasped towards him, wrapped the warrior
in her terrible grip. Yet nowhere on his body
was at all injured, his mail protected him all around,
she could not pierce through his war coat,
the linked mail shirt was locked against her loathsome fingers.”
(Beowulf ll.1492-1505)


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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}


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Beowulf, Youth Culture, Wary Welcomes

Beowulf cuts the “good lucks” short here, as he just dives right into the mere where Grendel’s mother waits. No doubt part of him wants to get this experience over with, while another part is excited for the challenge.

But as he’s diving into the water and since he knows he’ll be facing a monster as strong as, if not stronger than, Grendel on its own turf, I wonder if he’s nervous?

Being a young man, Beowulf probably isn’t doubting his ability to do the same thing twice. That’s something that’s definitely an advantage of youth…says the guy who’s only 30, though had I been 30 three decades ago I’d be past the age where I could be trusted by mainstream youth culture…now I am youth culture.

Perhaps that little tangent is unrelated, but it brings to mind a curious question: Is Beowulf representative of the era’s youth culture?

Did Beowulf diving into the water after the monster that killed Hrothgar’s councillor Æschere inspire kids all over the northern parts of Europe to dive into strange lakes, looking for supernatural beasts? Or did the Anglo-Saxon audiences of Beowulf regard him as a supernatural being himself?

I think, since he is a hero (and therefore already different from most), that Beowulf would’ve been regarded as a supernatural being. in a way, after all, having the strength of 30 men isn’t exactly as common as blue eyes and brown hair. It’s also definitely not normal to be able to hold your breath for half a day. And yet that’s how long it took Beowulf to get to the bottom of this lake.

Personally, I don’t think Beowulf had much doubt in his mind as he dove into the lake. He seems like he’s pretty keen on getting to the bottom of things.

Just as Grendel’s mother is keen to eliminate those who intrude in her domains. And the poet even acknowledges that, to Grendel’s mother, Beowulf is doing just that. He’s regarded as a man by this woman of the deep, and therefore as “an alien being” (“ælwihta” (l.1500)).

So Beowulf is very clearly intruding into the space of another, perhaps looking to exact the “wergild” that Grendel’s mother owes for Æschere from her very body. Curiously, though, the poet doesn’t make it seem like Grendel’s mother is waiting for anyone; she’s not sitting out on the porch with a shotgun in her lap saying “you shouldn’t’ve come out here, surface dweller.” She’s just attacking Beowulf because he’s “come exploring” (“cunnode” (l.1500)).

Is Beowulf in the right, intruding in Grendel’s mother’s domain to seek vengeance for the man she killed? Or does Grendel’s mother have the upper hand since she’s defending her home from an intruder (much as Beowulf did earlier in the poem)?

Leave your thoughts in the comments!


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Possibly Over-Preparing to Encounter Alien Beings

If you met an “æl-wihta”1 out on the “brim-wylm”2 you might not jump to the conclusion that it was “heoro-gifre”3.

Unless you were a “guð-rinc”4 of some kind.

And, if you were a “warrior” who met such a creature out on the open waters, you’d probably be prepared with a “fyrd-hom”5 or “leoðo-syrcan”6 to “ymb-bearh”7 your body entirely. Maybe some sort of kevlar wet suit.

But boy oh boy, would there be egg on your face if it turned out that the “æl-wihta”1 was just a walrus or something entirely peaceful.

1æl-wihta: strange creature, monster, alien being. el (foreign, strange) + wihta (wight, person, creature, being, whit, thing, something, anything)

2brim-wylm: ocean surge. sea-wave. brim (surf, flood, wave, sea, ocean, water, sea-edge, shore) + wielm (boiling, swelling, surf, billow, current, stream, burning, flame, inflammation, fervour, ardour, zeal) (a word exclusive to Beowulf)

3heoro-gifre: fierce, greedy for slaughter. heoru (sword) + gifre (greedy, rapacious, ravenous, desirous of)

4guð-rinc: warrior, hero. guð (combat, battle, war) + rinc (man, warrior, hero)

5fyrd-hom: corslet. fyrd (national levy or army, military expedition, campaign, camp) + hama (covering, dress, garment, womb, puerperium [period between child birth and a woman’s reproductive organs return to their original, non-pregnant state], slough of a snake)

6leoðo-syrcan: corslet. leoðo (retinue, following; limb, member, joint) + serc (sark, shirt, corslet, coat of mail)

7ymb-bearh: to run round, surround. ymb (around, about, at, upon, near, along, about, at, after, before) + beorg (protection, defense, refuge)


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Closing

Next week, the struggle between Beowulf and Grendel’s mother continues.

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Thoughts on Beowulf’s new rock musical adaptation

So, come September, Beowulf will be getting the musical treatment!

And not just any sort of musical treatment, but the rock ‘n’ roll musical treatment!

Though, according to this article, this musical isn’t going to be a straight telling of Beowulf. Not entirely, anyway.

The twist with Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage is that while the events of Beowulf unfold (simplified so that all three monsters attack Heorot), a panel of academics criticizes and unpacks what’s going on in the story.

This sounds like a really cool concept, especially because of the “rock” label that’s being applied to it. Musicals with the flavour of rock music are some of my favourite operas, after all. From prog rock concept albums to early attempts like The Phantom of the Paradise — the rock musical is a solid genre.

But what sticks out about this to me more than anything is that a new Beowulf musical suggests that history does indeed repeat itself.

Back in the 70s there was a musical version of Beowulf, simply called Beowulf: A Musical Epic. It might have slipped under the radar of many because it was a Canadian production, and I don’t think it had much of a run south of the border. But this production’s varied (too varied for “Rock” alone to suit, I think) musical score by Victor Davies and the lyrics by Betty Jane Wylie make for a fantastic retelling of the story.

But what I like most about the 70s adaptation is that there really aren’t any changes to the story.

Some of the digressions in the original are cut out or reworked, and at least one character is renamed, but other than that, Beowulf: A Musical Epic stays true to the poem: Beowulf goes to Heorot to fight Grendel, fights Grendel’s mother, then goes back to Geatland where he eventually becomes king, has to fend off a dragon, and leaves his warrior legacy in the hands of Wiglaf. For its fidelity alone, I think Beowulf: A Musical Epic is worth listening to, since so few adaptations let Beowulf grow old and show us his end.

In the popular culture (all of the movie, and book adaptations) Beowulf is usually seen only defeating Grendel and maybe Grendel’s mother, but we never really see Beowulf fighting the dragon as an old man and his death, and I think this is an essential part of the poem. The fact that the poem covers it suggests that the early audience of the poem thought much differently (maybe more complexly?) about heroes than many of us do today, and certainly more so than most modern people would give early medieval people credit for.

So I’m excited for this new musical, but, whenever (and however) I manage to engage with it, I know to approach it as something more than just an adaptation. Though, that said, I’m hoping for some raucous academic commentary to go along with the brutal physicality of so much of the story.

How do you think this new Beowulf musical will work out? Will it be the next Hamilton, or just enjoy a small run in Providence, Rhode Island? Leave your thoughts in the comments!

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Beowulf, Old English, poetry, translation

Beowulf gives his last will and testament (ll.1482-1491)

Synopsis
Translation
Recordings
Beowulf’s Flaw?
Generosity and Sharp Swords
Closing

Grendel's mother menaces the pinned Beowulf with a knife.

By J. R. Skelton – Marshall, Henrietta Elizabeth (1908) Stories of Beowulf, T.C. & E.C. Jack, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11001837

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Synopsis

Beowulf says that if he dies, Hrothgar is to send his treasure to Hygelac, and Unferth will get his sword.

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Translation

“‘As for the treasure that thou gavest me,
dear Hrothgar, send it to Hygelac.
Thus, may the lord of the Geats gaze upon those riches,
the son of Hrethel will see it, when he looks upon that treasure,
that I a liberal and great ring giver
had found, and enjoyed his generosity to the full.
And you, Unferth, are to have my own treasure,
my sword so forged its metal shows waves, you the wide-known
man are to have that hard edge. With Hrunting, I shall
wreak vengeance, or death shall take me.'”
(Beowulf ll.1482-1491)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Beowulf’s Flaw?

Last week, Beowulf’s speech to Hrothgar was all about the people in the young man’s life: his lord, Hygelac, and his fellow young warriors. But now things get material. Sort of.

Beowulf starts out the second part of his speech with a call for the gifting of the treasure that he’s won to Hygelac. As we’ll find out in a few hundred lines, this is where the treasure ends up anyway, but I think it’s important for Beowulf to make clear what he wants to do with the treasure. I mean, this speech is basically his last will and testament as far as many of those thronging around him are concerned right now.

After all, they’ve come deep into the heart of monster country (hence all of those beasts on the slopes and dragons in the waters), and Beowulf is now about to dive into the home of the Grendels. In other words, the tables have turned and now all of the Danes and Geats are fearful wretches invading turf that isn’t theirs.

The imminent danger of all of this really drives home for me how the poet is trying to frame Beowulf as an ideal man.

Beowulf has physical strength (that hand grip of thirty men), but is humble and gives almost all the credit for his victory to god or fate’s favour. He’s also young and vigorous, and yet cautious and responsible enough to very dramatically tell everyone what to do if he doesn’t come back as he’s strapping on his armour.

As I think about it, I can see why this sort of character was so popular for so long. Beowulf’s inherent flaw isn’t any one thing but being as balanced as he appears to be. If you look at Beowulf later in the poem, he’s an old man whose personality has fallen out of step with his physicality.

At this point in the poem, though, Beowulf’s body and mind are perfectly in sync, and yet he’s being set up for a fall. The poet is using him to make clear that such a balance is unsustainable. Perhaps the few days that Beowulf is with the Danes are the ones he remembers the most fondly simply because they were those where he was able to show off a balanced nature between warlike rage and diplomatic humility.

He even pledges his sword to Unferth if he dies fighting Grendel’s mother. That is some serious diplomacy on Beowulf’s part.

But what does he hope to get out of all of this? Is Beowulf just being honourable so that he’ll be remembered as such, or do you think this is a show of the genuine Beowulf? Leave your thoughts in the comments!

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Generosity and Sharp Swords

Maybe it seems a little paradoxical, but I think that in the early medieval world a “gum-cyst”1 lord would have a mighty weapon.

Yes, such a lord would need to be known for generosity, but how would the treasure he’d share be won? How would he keep other clans at bay? Surely it would be with a “heard-ecg”2 sword. Perhaps it’d even be something like Beowulf’s wondrous “waeg-sweord”3. Plentiful treasure could probably buy such a weapon, after all.

1gum-cyst: excellence, bravery, virtue, liberality. guma (man, lord, hero) + cyst (free-will, choice, election, the best of anything, the choicest, picked host, moral excellence, virtue, goodness, generosity, munificence)

2heard-ecg: sharp of edge, sword. heard (hard, harsh, severe, stern, cruel (things and persons), strong, intense, vigorous,violent, hardy,bold) + ecg (edge, point, weapon, sword, battle ax)

3waeg-sweord: sword with wavy pattern. waeg (motion, water, wave, billow, flood, sea) + sweord (sword)

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Closing

Next week Beowulf drops the mic and plunges into the mire. But it’s not long before a certain mother of a certain monster launches her attack.

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