Back to the Beginning of the Woven Ring (ll.1-11) [Old English]

Featured

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
A Turn of Fate
Setting a Tight Sequential Tone
Closing

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Abstract

The poem begins on a rollicking note, as the poet recalls the glory of Scyld Scefing.

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Translation

“What! We Spear-Danes had heard in days of yore
of the power of the king of a people,
how heroes accomplished valorous deeds.
Often did Scyld Scefing take away
the mead benches from troops of enemies,
terrified the Erola, afterwards that first was found
to become destitute; for that he experienced solace
grew up under a cloud, his honour prospered,
until each surrounding people from over
the whale road paid obeisance,
gave tribute: that was a good king!”
(Beowulf ll.1-11)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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A Turn of Fate

Right in the middle of this excerpt, there’s a marked turn.

The poet notes that “the first was found/to become destitute” (“Syððan ærest wearð/feasceaft funden” (ll.6-7)). Rather than just saying that Scyld Scefing became prosperous, the time is taken to note that the powerful that he tore down were torn down before his rise is solidly mentioned in line 7.

This sequencing of events underlines, very early on, the importance of sequence in the Anglo-Saxon world. It also gives some insight into kingship and the belief in something like fortune’s wheel. Only one person can be a powerful king at any given time, and only on can be on the top of the wheel in any given arena at one time. It just so happened that Scyld was at the top of both at the same time.

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Setting a Tight Sequential Tone

That the poet makes a note of this power shift also sets the tone of the poem. It will be a story of changing fortunes, but it will be one in which there is no vacuum left for things to be pulled into. There will always be some definite succession of events, something will always happen at the end of something else.

Already, we’ve seen this in the death of Beowulf. The Geats lost a leader, and they will definitely be wiped out since they have none to replace Beowulf. Meanwhile the surrounding tribes will shortly be upon them.

In a sense, the open-endedness that we are left with at the end of the poem promises something that may have been considered a fate worse than death: exile. Scyld might have stolen mead benches, what people would recline on while enjoying themselves and socializing, but exile means that a person would have no mead bench at all – none to even win back.

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Closing

Next week, a batch of recordings will have been uploaded to this blog, and we’ll move onto Scefing’s further deeds.

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Is it fate, god, or a dragon from Beowulf’s past?

Recap
Synopsis
The Original Old English
My Translation
A Quick Interpretation
Closing

The hall of Beowulf in a flaming ruin because of a dragon as seen in Blogger's Beowulf and decreed by fate and god.

What Beowulf’s hall probably looked like after the dragon attacked. Image from https://pixabay.com/en/funeral-pyre-fire-may-fire-flame-232504/


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Recap

Last week, the dragon continued its attack on the countryside. It destroyed people’s homes and towns as it sought vengeance against the thief and his lord.


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Synopsis

Beowulf is told about the dragon melting his hall. This leads Beowulf to wonder what he’s done to deserve this.


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The Original Old English

“þa wæs Biowulfe broga gecyðed
snude to soðe, þæt his sylfes ham,
bolda selest, brynewylmum mealt,
gifstol Geata. þæt ðam godan wæs
hreow on hreðre, hygesorga mæst;
wende se wisa þæt he wealdende
ofer ealde riht, ecean dryhtne,
bitre gebulge. Breost innan weoll
þeostrum geþoncum, swa him geþywe ne wæs.”
(Beowulf ll.2324–2332)


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My Translation

“Then was Beowulf told of that terror,
in a voice trembling with speed and truth, he heard that his own home,
the best of buildings, had been melted in a surge of fire,
the gift seat of the Geats. That good man
was sorrowful at heart, sunken into great grief when he heard that news.
In that moment his thoughts turned to his past,
he wondered if he had acted contrary to the old laws of the Ruler,
the Eternal Lord, severely offended them; within his breast welled up
dark thoughts, as was not customary for him.”
(Beowulf ll.2324–2332)


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A Quick Interpretation

This must be the first bad thing that happens to Beowulf. Ever. Why else would he only now wonder how he offended his god?

After all, that’s the only reason anything bad would happen to him.

At least as far as we know. There is a fifty year gap in the story here, so maybe there is something that Beowulf did do that’s knocked him out of god’s favour.

Or, maybe, fate always goes as it must.

If this is the first bad thing to happen to Beowulf, then of course it’s going to cause Beowulf to look into his heart of hearts and search out the darkness. Like anyone else, he probably got comfortable with things always going his way. So when things start to move against him it seems quite natural that he would jump to some sort of supernatural cause.

Actually, this turn and Beowulf’s reaction to it could have come from a lot of incidents in the Old Testament, particularly the Books of Job or of Exodus. In fact, the latter of these was a favourite of Anglo-Saxon writers.

That might seem like a strange book of the Bible to pick as a favourite, but they had a good reason. In the Jews of Egypt the Anglo-Saxons saw people who were exiled from what had become their homeland and were forever searching for a place to call their own. That sums up how a lot of Anglo-Saxon writers and thinkers seemed to have thought of themselves.

The Angles and the Saxons had come over from what is now Germany, after all. And they had settled into and gotten comfortable in Britain. But that’s where the Celts were at home.

Anyway, that’s just a little sidebar on some of the Beowulf poet or scribes’ possible influences.

Getting back to the concept of fate, I like to think that in his long-lived comfort Beowulf has probably not thought much about fate over the last fifty years. Saying something like “fate goes ever as it must” is really cool before a high stakes, low odds fight, but it doesn’t quite have the same impact when you say it before starting a diplomatic meeting.

Another point of interest: When he was young, Beowulf seems to have mentioned god and fate in the same breath quite often. But now he doesn’t hear about his hall being destroyed and think “huh…well, fate goes as it must” but instead he thinks only of god. Maybe this is the poet saying that it’s all well and good to think in terms of fate when young, since it rules over this world, but once you get closer to death and the next world, it’s better to turn to those with power over that.
In any case, how Beowulf reacts to this calamity says a lot about how he’s changed. His first thoughts aren’t about going after the dragon. Instead he worries about himself and his past offenses. Which brings a question to mind.

Throughout the poem Beowulf is made out to be a great guy. What do you think these offenses he mulls over are? What could those dark thoughts that well up from within be about?

My own guess is that he has a troubled past with a woman. The fact that there’s not a single named female character in this part of the poem just seems like too much of an omission to me. The poet could be leaving something out to leave room for Beowulf’s more macho ending.

But those are just my thoughts. Do you agree? Disagree? Have your own theory?

Let me know in the comments!

And if you enjoyed this post, please give it a like. Also, be sure to hit the follow button so that you never miss another part of this poem.


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Closing

Next week, we get a glimpse of the old Beowulf as he resolves to go against the dragon. And uses science (…sort of) to do so.

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Sometimes a dragon is just a dragon

Recap
Synopsis
The Original Old English
My Translation
A Quick Interpretation
Closing

The kind of dragon perfectly at home in Beowulf.

An Anglo-Saxon dragon, complete with treasure hoard. Image from http://brer-powerofbabel.blogspot.ca/2011_09_01_archive.html


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Recap

Last week, the dragon started to get furious with the man who stole the golden cup and all his ilk.


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Synopsis

The dragon exacts its revenge the only way it knows how. And things really heat up because of it!


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The Original Old English

Ða se gæst ongan gledum spiwan,
beorht hofu bærnan; bryneleoma stod
eldum on andan. No ðær aht cwices
lað lyftfloga læfan wolde.
Wæs þæs wyrmes wig wide gesyne,
nearofages nið nean ond feorran,
hu se guðsceaða Geata leode
hatode ond hynde; hord eft gesceat,
dryhtsele dyrnne, ær dæges hwile.
Hæfde landwara lige befangen,
bæle ond bronde, beorges getruwode,
wiges ond wealles; him seo wen geleah.
(Beowulf ll. 2312-2323)


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My Translation

“Then the stranger among those lands started to spew forth flames,
it burned down all the bright dwellings thereabouts, the glow of fire
turned men stone still in terror. That hateful sky-flier
left nothing there alive.
The serpent’s onslaught was widely seen,
its cruelly hostile malice was clear to all from near and far.
That war-like ravager of the Geatish people
hated and humiliated them. Afterward it hastened to its hoard,
escaped to the secret splendid hall before the sun summoned daytime.
But with that night of ruin the dragon had encircled the people of the land,
ringed them about in burning fire and [b…] fear. While it was emboldened in
the safety of its barrow, his fighting power, his walls. But by that hope he was deceived.”
(Beowulf ll. 2312-2323)


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A Quick Interpretation

Because Beowulf is studied closely by so many people there are a lot of different interpretations out there. And, because monsters were commonly used as stand-ins for various concepts, people, and events in medieval literature this dragon is no exception.

One of the louder interpretations of the dragon that I remember hearing is that it is the Swedes. Yes, those Swedes, the ones that the Geats are in the middle of a feud with.

Before putting this post together, I was never entirely convinced by this interpretation.

Yes, the dragon is the biggest, baddest monster that Beowulf faces. And yes, it does the most damage. But my Catholic-raised brain was busy at work reading the dragon as something demonic or even devilish. Something much bigger than any mere group of people.

After all, how could something as powerful and otherworldly as a dragon represent a country when representing Satan as a dragon has been popular since the middle ages themselves, if not since the conception of the whole Satan/God binary dynamic in Christianity?

I mean, you’ve got the serpent in the story of the Garden of Eden, St. Michael pinning a rather draconic looking Satan (and the myriad saintly copycats, often with actual dragons), and later examples like William Blake’s painting of the Great Red Dragon of The Book of Revelation.

St. Michael binding Satan just like Beowulf will bind the dragon in death.

St. Michael binding a mostly humanoid, but leathery-winged and horned, Satan. Image from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Le_Grand_Saint_Michel,_by_Raffaello_Sanzio,_from_C2RMF_retouched.jpg

William Blake's Great Red Dragon looming over a woman like the dragon looming over Geatland in Beowulf.

William Blake’s Great Red Dragon standing over the Woman Clothed in the Sun. Image from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Reddragon.jpg

Even today, I think that the conspiracy theories involving lizard people are just the modern version of the Western idea of dragons (lizards with human-like intelligence and power) as inherently evil or dangerous.

So why limit the dragon in Beowulf to being just some tribe of people?

But while I was translating and transcribing this week’s passage that interpretation finally clicked.

The utter destruction that the dragon brings. The fire that it leaves in its wake and has encircled the Geatish people with (l.2322). The fact that it “hated and humiliated” (“hatode ond hynde” (l.2319)) the Geats.

All of this sounds like it could be the work of a bunch of warriors.

Plus, reading the dragon as an enemy group works a bit more widely than the moralistic/allegorical reading that I had in mind.

If Beowulf is the hero of good, what does it mean for him to be an old, somewhat world-weary man? And if Beowulf is the paragon of good and the dragon the ultimate evil, then how does the thief and his lord fit into things? Not to mention dealing with all of the citizens of Geatland the dragon’s attack has affected.

So that dragon could be the Swedes. This part of the poem could be about the first massive attacks that start to weaken the Geats.

Once again, more than anything I’m blown away by how many layers this poem has. It’s simply incredible.

If you had come up with a theory for what the dragon ‘really” represents in this part of the poem what would your theory be?

Share your thoughts in the comments!

And, if you enjoyed this post give it a like and consider reblogging it.


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Closing

Next week, Beowulf busts back into the poem! But he’s a changed man.

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When the Beowulf dragon wakes, strife wakes with it

Recap
Synopsis
The Original Old English
My Translation
A Quick Interpretation
Closing

The kind of dragon perfectly at home in Beowulf.

An Anglo-Saxon dragon, complete with treasure hoard. Image from http://brer-powerofbabel.blogspot.ca/2011_09_01_archive.html


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Recap

Last week, how the dragon came to be in the barrow was revealed. And we learned that the barrow thief brought the stolen cup to his lord. This man, captured by greed, commanded that the barrow treasure be dug up, and so the dragon’s wrath was woken.


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Synopsis

The dragon realizes that his treasure hoard is missing a golden cup. He sulks around his barrow and then decides to attack the countryside.


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The Original Old English

“þa se wyrm onwoc, wroht wæs geniwad;
stonc ða æfter stane, stearcheort onfand
feondes fotlast; he to forð gestop
dyrnan cræfte dracan heafde neah.
Swa mæg unfæge eaðe gedigan
wean ond wræcsið, se ðe waldendes
hyldo gehealdeþ! Hordweard sohte
georne æfter grunde, wolde guman findan,
þone þe him on sweofote sare geteode,
hat ond hreohmod hlæw oft ymbehwearf
ealne utanweardne, ne ðær ænig mon
on þære westenne; hwæðre wiges gefeh,
beaduwe weorces, hwilum on beorh æthwearf,
sincfæt sohte. He þæt sona onfand
ðæt hæfde gumena sum goldes gefandod,
heahgestreona. Hordweard onbad
earfoðlice oððæt æfen cwom;
wæs ða gebolgen beorges hyrde,
wolde se laða lige forgyldan
drincfæt dyre. þa wæs dæg sceacen
wyrme on willan; no on wealle læg,
bidan wolde, ac mid bæle for,
fyre gefysed. Wæs se fruma egeslic
leodum on lande, swa hyt lungre wearð
on hyra sincgifan sare geendod.”
(Beowulf ll.2287 – 2311)


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My Translation

“When the dragon awoke, strife stirred with him.
The drake moved quickly over the stones of his home, fierce-hearted.
He found the enemy’s track, the scent of he who had used stealth
and skill to creep close to his head, where the golden cup
had rested. Thus may he who is unfated to die easily survive
misery and exile, so it goes for the one who keeps
the Ruler’s favour. But the guardian of that hoard
searched eagerly along the ground, its fervent wish was to find
the one who had dealt so grievously with his cup as he slept.
Hot and fierce-hearted he often went all around
the outside of that barrow – yet not any man was there
in that deserted place. All the same, the dragon shook and postured
as if at war, as if he were in the midst of deeds of battle. At times he
took turns about the barrow, seeking that precious vessel. Immediately he
found that a man had tampered with his gold,
had his hands upon that rich treasure. The hoard guardian
waited with difficulty until evening came,
he was enraged and impatient, at last he decided
he would payback the precious drinking vessel
with hateful flames. As the day went by
the serpent seethed with desire; no longer could it
wait within the walls. Amidst its flames the wyrm burst forth,
ready with fire. That was but the beginning the terror the people
of that land suffered, and just so
it spelled a swift end to their quickly grieving treasure-giver.”
(Beowulf ll.2287 – 2311)


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A Quick Interpretation

Hunting down work as a freelancer is sometimes as full-time a job as the jobs you’re hunting. This is one of those times. Which means this week’s post is another poetry only piece. I do have a question, though:

If you had to a slay a dragon how would you do it?

Would you go all out and risk doing more damage to the area than the dragon would? Or would you try to be precise and tactical?

I’d try to be as strategic as possible – a dagger in the dragon’s soft spot is the surest end.

Share your answer in the comments!

And if you like my translation, please like this post. You could also follow this blog to see a new translation pop up in your feed every Thursday.


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Closing

Next week, the dragon brings fire to the countryside.

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The dragon settles in (and still no Beowulf)

Recap
Synopsis
The Original Old English
My Translation
A Quick Interpretation
Closing

The kind of dragon perfectly at home in Beowulf.

An Anglo-Saxon dragon, complete with treasure hoard. Image from http://brer-powerofbabel.blogspot.ca/2011_09_01_archive.html


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Recap

In last week’s post we heard about the last survivor and the treasure he hid.


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Synopsis

The dragon finds the ancient hoard. Jump back to the present, where the man who stole the cup shows his lord and the hoard is dug up. They wake the dragon.


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The Original Old English

               “Hordwynne fond
eald uhtsceaða opene standan,
se ðe byrnende biorgas seceð,
nacod niðdraca, nihtes fleogeð
fyre befangen; hyne foldbuend
swiðe ondrædað. He gesecean sceall
hord on hrusan, þær he hæðen gold
warað wintrum frod, ne byð him wihte ðy sel.
Swa se ðeodsceaða þreo hund wintra
heold on hrusan hordærna sum,
eacencræftig, oððæt hyne an abealch
mon on mode; mandryhtne bær
fæted wæge, frioðowære bæd
hlaford sinne. ða wæs hord rasod,
onboren beaga hord, bene getiðad
feasceaftum men. Frea sceawode
fira fyrngeweorc forman siðe.”
(Beowulf ll.2270b – 2286)


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My Translation

               “The old ravager by night
later found that delightful hoard left open,
the burning one who seeks out barrows,
the slick, malicious dragon, flew into it by night,
enveloped in flame. The dwellers on the land thereabouts
greatly feared that drake. It delved deep
searching the earth for the depths of that hoard, which it guarded
through countless winters, kept watch over heathen gold,
useless treasure. That ravager of the people occupied the earth
hidden in the barricaded treasure house for three hundred years.
But then a man enraged that fire wyrm, stoked the fury of its heart.
To his lord the thief bore a gold-plated cup,
that man also offered a plea for peace with his lord —
a plea the lord heard as certainly as he saw the cup’s glint.
Then the hoard was ransacked, the piles of rings and trinkets was diminished,
that wretched man’s request was granted. His lord leered at
the ancient work of long dead men for the first time.”
(Beowulf ll.2270b – 2286)


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A Quick Interpretation

I’m short on time this week and busy over the weekend, so it’s just the poem this week. But I will leave you all with a question:

The dragon in Beowulf is just one of many versions of the mythical creature. What’s your favourite dragon from fiction, video games, or TV/Movies?

Mine would have to be Naydra from the Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. She’s just a coolly beautiful creature:

The dragon Naydra from Legend of Zelda Breath of the Wild: not quite like the dragon in Beowulf.

Link stands before the dragon Naydra. Image from http://www.letswitch.eu/en/2017/03/07/botw-journal-5/

Share your favourite dragon in the comments! And give this post a like if you enjoyed the translation.


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Closing

Next week, the dragon gets all het up.

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Forget Beowulf — what’s the Last Survivor’s story?

Introduction
Recap & Synopsis
The Original Old English
My Translation
A Quick Interpretation
Closing

A long barrow from the time of Beowulf and the Lay of the Last Survivor found in Oxfordshire.

A barrow known as Wayland’s Smithy. Perhaps the Last Survivor stowed his people’s treasures in a similar place. Image from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Wayland_Smithy_Long_barrow.jpg


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Recap & Synopsis

Last week we heard about how the dragon was terrorizing the Geats. Why? Because a cup was stolen from its hoard of treasures.

This week, we hear the Lay of the Last Survivor. These are the final words of the last living member of the tribe who lived where the Geats now live and hid their treasures there.


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The Original Old English

             “Beorh eallgearo
wunode on wonge wæteryðum neah,
niwe be næsse, nearocræftum fæst.
þær on innan bær eorlgestreona
hringa hyrde hordwyrðne dæl,
fættan goldes, fea worda cwæð:
‘Heald þu nu, hruse, nu hæleð ne moston,
eorla æhte! Hwæt, hyt ær on ðe
gode begeaton. Guðdeað fornam,
feorhbealo frecne, fyra gehwylcne
leoda minra, þara ðe þis lif ofgeaf,
gesawon seledream. Ic nah hwa sweord wege
oððe feormie fæted wæge,
dryncfæt deore; duguð ellor sceoc.
Sceal se hearda helm hyrsted golde
fætum befeallen; feormynd swefað,
þa ðe beadogriman bywan sceoldon,
ge swylce seo herepad, sio æt hilde gebad
ofer borda gebræc bite irena,
brosnað æfter beorne. Ne mæg byrnan hring
æfter wigfruman wide feran,
hæleðum be healfe. Næs hearpan wyn,
gomen gleobeames, ne god hafoc
geond sæl swingeð, ne se swifta mearh
burhstede beateð. Bealocwealm hafað
fela feorhcynna forð onsended!’
Swa giomormod giohðo mænde
an æfter eallum, unbliðe hwearf
dæges ond nihtes, oððæt deaðes wylm
hran æt heortan.”
(Beowulf ll.2241b-2270a)


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My Translation

        ”The barrow stood ready
in open ground near the sea-waves.
It was newly made at the headland, made secure with the art of secrecy.
Within there the keeper of the ancient earls’ ringed treasure
carried that share of worthy treasures,
the hoard of plated gold; these few words he spoke:
‘Hold you now, oh earth, that which men and women cannot,
enjoy these warriors’ possessions! Indeed it was
obtained from you at the first, dug up
by worthy men. But death in battle bore those delvers away.
Now that terrible mortal harm has carried off each and every one of my people.
They have left this life where they knew and looked back longingly
at the joy had in the hall. I now have no-one to bear the sword
or bring the plated cup, that precious drinking vessel.
That group of tried warriors has since passed elsewhere.
Their hard helmets with gold adornment shall be bereft of their gold plate;
the burnishers sleep the sleep of death, those who should polish the battle mask.
So too the battle garbs, that had endured in battle
through the clash of shields and cut of swords,
they now decay upon the warriors’ husks; nor may the mailcoats of rings
go with the war-leader on his long journey,
they may not be kept at their bloodied sides. No harp joy,
no delight of musical instruments, nor any good hawk
flies through the hall, nor any swift mare
stops in the flowered courtyard. Destructive death
has sent forth all others of my race, as it has with countless others.’
Just so, sad at heart, this one followed his kin.
He expressed his sorrow, he moved about joyless,
for unlit days and for fevered nights, until death’s surging
reached his heart.”
(Beowulf ll.2241b-2270a)


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A Quick Interpretation

This is one of the big deal parts of the poem. Much like Hrothgar’s speeches to Beowulf about being a good king, it delivers the other of the poem’s major messages: riches are useless without others to enjoy them with.

I mean, this Twilight Zone-esque last survivor has no hope of enjoying or using all this treasure. He can’t strum the harp while polishing helmets and swinging a sword as he waits for his hawk to come to rest on his hand. Not because he doesn’t have those things, but because he has no one to do those things in tandem with.

Though it’s kind of strange. I really wonder about this last survivor and the sort of society that he comes from.

How did they amass all these treasures? It doesn’t sound like they were won necessarily. Instead it sounds more like his people dug up the raw materials, and then created the helmets and cups and mail and swords themselves.

So is this some sort of advanced ancient society situation?

Or, since the Geats, this sea-faring people, are anchored in their homeland, is this situation the fantasy of finding a land completely bereft of settlers but still home to their treasures?

Is this a metaphor for the Anglo-Saxons coming to Britain and then just kind of sweeping the Britons under the rug?

And why is this one guy the lone survivor? Did some sort of disease sweep through his group and he was the only one with immunities against it?

Was he the only one who was out hunting when a wild band of raiders slaughtered everyone else?

There aren’t really any answers to these questions unfortunately.

But that’s just what seems to happen when you try to logic through Beowulf.

What’s more important to the poet or their audience is that the theme of this passage fits with the rest of the poem. It has a melancholic tone and really emphasizes the idea that possessions are both incredible and incredibly useless without others to enjoy them with.

Unless, of course, you’re a dragon. But we’ll see more of that in coming weeks.

Tabletop games were big throughout the middle ages, and the Last Survivor reminds me of The Lost Tribes from the game Small World. What’s your favourite tabletop game?

Mine would have to be Time Stories. (I still haven’t played the Beowulf game, after all 😉 )

Share your favourite board game in the comments!


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Closing

Next week, we learn what happened to the thief who stole the cup and kicked all this off.

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The stories embodied in the Beowulf manuscript

Introduction
Synopsis
The Original Old English
My Translation
A Quick Interpretation
Closing

Beowulf is protected from dragon fire by his shield while treasure awaits.

An illustration of Beowulf fighting the dragon that appears at the end of the epic poem. Illustration in the children’s book Stories of Beowulf (H. E. Marshall). Published in New York in 1908 by E. P. Dutton & Company. Image found at https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Beowulf_and_the_dragon.jpg


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Synopsis

The dragon appears and we hear its story.


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The Original Old English

          “he geheold tela
fiftig wintra (wæs ða frod cyning,
eald eþelweard), oððæt an ongan
deorcum nihtum draca ricsian,
se ðe on heaum hofe hord beweotode,
stanbeorh steapne; stig under læg,
eldum uncuð. þær on innan giong
niða nathwylc, se ðe neh gefeng
hæðnum horde, hond ……,
since fahne. He þæt syððan ……,
þeah ðe he slæpende besyred wurde
þeofes cræfte; þæt sie ðiod onfand,
bufolc beorna, þæt he gebolgen wæs.
Nealles mid gewealdum wyrmhord abræc
sylfes willum, se ðe him sare gesceod,
ac for þreanedlan þeow nathwylces
hæleða bearna heteswengeas fleah,
ærnes þearfa, ond ðær inne fealh,
secg synbysig, sona onfunde
þæt þær ðam gyste gryrebroga stod;
hwæðre earmsceapen
…sceapen
þa hyne se fær begeat.
Sincfæt ……; þær wæs swylcra fela
in ðam eorðhuse ærgestreona,
swa hy on geardagum gumena nathwylc,
eormenlafe æþelan cynnes,
þanchycgende þær gehydde,
deore maðmas. Ealle hie deað fornam
ærran mælum, ond se an ða gen
leoda duguðe, se ðær lengest hwearf,
weard winegeomor, wende þæs ylcan,
þæt he lytel fæc longgestreona
brucan moste.”
(Beowulf ll.2209-2241a)


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My Translation

“He ruled them well for fifty winters,
indeed Beowulf became a wise king,
an aged lord of the realm — until one began to trouble them;
in the dark of night a prowling dragon appeared.
The wyrm held a treasure in his high hall,
all beneath a steep stone roof, led to by a narrow footpath
unknown to men. There into the abyss stumbled
someone or other … who seized by hand from that heathen hoard …
a gleaming treasure that he afterward …
though the dragon slept he had outwitted
it with a thief’s wiles. Soon the people thereabouts,
those under the shield of the local lord, discovered
that the thief’s act unlocked the serpent’s rage. Though
not at all with evil intent did the thief break into the dragon’s hoard,
it was not for his own greedy desire, he had been sorely opressed.
For three nights that slave turned thief
had fled the blows of a prince of men,
he delved into the dragon’s den by need, then entering in
as a man ridden with guilt. Shortly he discovered
that … the man stood terror struck,
which the miserable …
… made … that fed his own fear, treasure piece
… there were many such pieces
of ancient heirlooms in that earthen house.
For there in earlier times some man or other,
had left a huge legacy of noble kin,
thoughtfully buried the treasures there,
those precious pieces of their story. He and all his kin
had since been carried off by death in former times.
But the last one left of that noble people, he who was the eldest,
a barrow guard grieving for lost friends buried them, knowing indeed
that he would little enjoy those grand and
beautiful treasures apart from all his kin.”
(Beowulf ll.2209-2241a)


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A Quick Interpretation

Once the dragon comes front and center, the poem itself takes a beating. Every one of the ellipses seen in this week’s passage represents an illegible part of the original text of Beowulf.

I’m not sure what exactly caused this crop of ellipses, but there are a few possibilities. As with all old books, it’s possible that these pages are worm-eaten. Or they may have just decayed because the Nowell Codex was sometimes kept in damp conditions. Or, since the Nowell Codex survived a fire, those missing bits of the poem may have been, appropriately, burned up.

Even setting aside everything that happened to it, it’s impressive that the Nowell Codex (and the copy of Beowulf within) survived for so long. It would be incredible to be able to go see the thing in person, but living on the other side of the Atlantic makes that kind of hard.

Though, what would make seeing the Beowulf manuscript in person special would be the chance to interact with the story’s physical embodiment. I mean, the Beowulf manuscript is a physical copy of a story that’s proliferated like its own species of animal. Going to see it manuscript in person would be like meeting with the first primate that walked upright (though with much less growling, I’d think).

Plus it would give me a new appreciation of all the work that went into bringing the Nowell Codex together.

After all, the poet didn’t just get lucky and find someone willing to publish them, give a fat advance, and send them out on a book tour.

The Beowulf poet got lucky enough to have their work written down on material that would last centuries. And that material came from several sheep and could take days, maybe weeks, to prepare. Beowulf was committed to bound paper at a time when books were truly treasured. So, to see that kind of labour of love up close would be fascinating.

And who knows. Maybe, even through the white gloves I’d need to wear to be in the room with it, contact with the pages of the Nowell Codex would trigger a psychic link to one of its scribes. And through that link I’d gain a greater understanding of why Beowulf was bunched together with letters about far away places and a homily on St. Christopher.

But that fan-fic is for another time. (Is there even such a thing as fanfiction about books?)

I guess for now I’ll just have to check out the digital version on the British Library’s site.

What’s your favourite old book? If you’re a book collector, do you have any first editions? What makes them special to you?

Feel free to share your answers in the comments.


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Closing

Next week, the grieving barrow guard gives a speech.

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Twin Peaks and Beowulf!?

Bobby Briggs from Twin Peaks stunned by Beowulf.

We can all share in Bobby’s shock. Image from http://www.gramunion.com/robotbeowulf.tumblr.com/155345786712

Spoilers abound below. If you’re not done with Twin Peaks The Return (or the entire series) just yet, read on at your own risk.

Introduction

It’s human nature to see patterns where there might not be any. It’s also human nature to want to combine the things you love even if they don’t seem likely to mix. That’s where today’s post is coming from.

Having seen and mostly digested Twin Peaks The Return, and being quite familiar with Beowulf, I noticed a few similarities. Especially when it comes to the monsters featured in both works.

Now, I don’t think that these similarities point to any answers in the Twin Peaks universe. Nor do I think that David Lynch is a secret Beowulf fan who wanted to work through the poem’s themes and motifs in his own art. I just noticed that there are some similarities between the oldest piece of English literature and the newest piece of television art.

And I want to share them with my readers.

This comparison will go through the monsters of Beowulf since that’s where the meat of this is. Though a case could be made that Lynch’s at times directionless-seeming storytelling is quite similar to Beowulf‘s asides and loosely related side stories.

There is one Twin Peaks theory at work in this comparison. This is the idea that the ancient evil force that Gordon Cole calls Judy in part 17 of The Return is the same as The Experiment that we see in parts 1 and 8.

Now, let’s get right into those monsters!

The Monsters in General

Beowulf fights Grendel as depicted by Santiago Garcia and David Rubin's graphic novel adaptation of Beowulf.

Beowulf battles Grendel in Santiago Garcia and David Rubin’s Beowulf. Image from http://bit.ly/2jVrgOn.

Beowulf features some sort of unidentified troll-like monster, its mother, and a dragon. Twin Peaks has two monsters, essentially: Killer BOB and Judy (Jao De). I’m not sure how evil spirits from other dimensions or outside of time trace their lineage, but I think it’s safe to say that Judy is Killer BOB’s mother. So there’s one parallel.

But there’s more to the BeowulfTwin Peaks monster connection than mere surface similarity.

Like Grendel and his mother, BOB and Judy are encouraged by human action. In the case of the Grendels, the construction of Heorot disturbs them and provokes Grendel to attack. Heorot, however, is no military barracks but a place meant for peaceful gatherings and where new friendships could be forged or old ones strengthened. For BOB and Judy, the human action that gets them into action is the nuclear testing at the Hanford site. A nuclear bomb is not really much like a drinking hall, though it is interesting to think about it in terms of its ultimate goal: to ensure, through either use or mere presence, the continuation of peace. As part of this comparison,

I think it’s also neat to think of the hall, a place of peace, inciting the Grendels in a world rife with everyday conflict, whereas the bomb is a weapon of destruction in a world that enjoys everyday peace.

Grendel/Killer BOB

Beowulf, Grendel, Old English, Anglo-Saxon

An illustration of Grendel by J.R. Skelton from Stories of Beowulf. Grendel is described as “Very terrible to look upon.” From: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Stories_of_beowulf_grendel.jpg

Moving on from that rabbit hole, though, we come to Grendel as an agent of terror. Likewise, BOB terrorizes those he inhabits and the lives of those around his hosts. Also, how Grendel and how Killer BOB are defeated is similar.

In Beowulf, the poem’s hero wrestles Grendel into submission with his bare hands. He even goes so far as to tear off the monster’s arm with just his hands since his grip has the strength of 30 men. In Twin Peaks something similar happens: Through a strange sequence of events Freddie ends up buying and putting on a green gardening glove that lets him punch with the power of a pile driver. This strength overcomes Killer BOB when he’s in his ball form, shattering him to pieces.

Freddie's Beowulf-like gardening gloved hand, Killer BOB Killer in Twin Peaks.

The arm.

Those pieces, like Grendel in the poem, then run away. And it seems likely that after the events of part 17 of The Return, BOB is as dead as Grendel is by the end of Beowulf.

The BOB Bubble that Freddie beats, Beowulf-like, in Twin Peaks.

The BOB bubble that Freddie bursts.

Grendel’s Mother/Judy

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

Grendel’s mother also shares general traits with how Judy operates. When Grendel is killed Grendel’s mother shows a level of calculated intelligence when she only kills and carries off one of Hrothgar’s men. Not only does this action show that she has a concept of “an eye for an eye”, it suggests that she is aware of the nature of feuds.

Judy, a being of supreme evil, operates with similar careful calculation. She does not just let Cooper walk Laura to the white lodge when he plucks her from death in the original timeline/dimension of the series. Instead she plucks her away from him and brings her to another timeline/dimension entirely. But Judy doesn’t just hide Laura anyway. She brings the girl to a place where she holds sway (and runs a coffee shop apparently).

Judys Cafe in Twin Peaks The Return, no parallel in Beowulf.

Judy’s has it all — breakfast, homestyle cooking, and a slick white horse ride.

Cooper ventures into the place that Judy has made, where she seems to have some sort of dominion in an effort to get Laura back. Similarly, Beowulf dives into a lake to get to the Grendel’s underwater hall where Grendel’s mother holds power.

Heroes’ journeys to strange places to face powerful foes isn’t anything all that new or rare in stories. But I find it fascinating that both heroes venture into what is essentially enemy territory in similar ways. Beowulf dives until the currents pull him into a strangely lit cavern. Cooper travels down a road until he passes under electrical lines and ends up in this strange, yet familiar, new place.

Further, Beowulf goes into his trial with the sword of the enemy-turned friend Unferth. Cooper goes into it with a friend whom we’ve seen as being untrustworthy and manipulated throughout the season in Diane. In both cases, these helps prove useless in the confrontation with the power that they are fighting. Unferth’s sword does no damage to Grendel’s mother, and Diane forgets who she was as she settles into her new role as Linda in this new timeline/dimension.

Twin Peaks' Cooper reads a note - a missing page of Beowulf.

Cooper reads Linda’s weird note.

The Dragon/The Experiment/Judy

A dragon and its hoard like the one in Beowulf.

A dragon and its hoard.

Now, there is no dragon in Twin Peaks. Something so blatant or obvious just isn’t David Lynch and Marc Frost’s style. But. I think that there are more similarities between Beowulf‘s story and Twin Peaks The Return‘s main conflict. Though they require some mental squinting to see.

Up until the end of The Return, what exactly the vaguely female creature credited as “Experiment” was was unclear. I think it’s fair that this creature fits the role of Grendel’s mother quite perfectly. But. I also think that this creature fills the role of the dragon as well. She doesn’t transform into some sort of giant scaly creature for Cooper to shoot at or anything like that, but what the Experiment comes to be by the end of The Return is on the same level as the dragon in Beowulf.

In the poem, the dragon is not just the final foe that Beowulf faces. It is an ancient thing, greedy and prideful, that starts to terrorize Beowulf’s lands when one of its treasures is stolen. Of course, this dragon doesn’t spend any of its treasures, it merely hoards them. It is the inspiration for the vain and greedy Smaug from the Hobbit. Likewise, Judy seems to hoard whatever those bubbles that she and The Fireman sent out around the mid point of The Return. Once she wins them over to her pile that is. As she does with Laura.

I think that Judy is much more than the vaguely female shape we see in parts 1 and 8. The Experiment, with its ability to blend people’s faces faster than a Blendtec mashes diamonds, is just an embodiment, just a shell. It could be argued that that isn’t even correct, and the Experiment as Judy is merely a perception of the kind of evil force that simply cannot be embodied.

In short, Judy is bad news.

In Beowulf the dragon is bad news.

It burns down Beowulf’s meeting hall, terrorizes his people, and threatens their very existence. Just like Judy.

But, just like the dragon, I think that Judy only flexes its true muscle, shows off its true power as an evil force, when its most prized possession is stolen away from it. When Coop saves Laura from ending up in plastic on the beach in Twin Peaks, it’s like someone just stole something from the dragon’s hoard. From that moment on in The Return, I think that Judy transcends (if that makes sense) into its true self and is able to create all new realities (timelines/dimensions) in which to hide Laura.

Meanwhile, having passed through the lodge twice now, Cooper is somehow older, perhaps more wizened. This comes across in the diner scene where he takes down the three cowboys. Yet, he warns the fry cook that the oil he just dropped the cowboys’ guns into may be hot enough to set them off. Like Beowulf when the dragon attacks, this is an older, more tired hero that we’re looking at. Yet he is certain of himself and confident enough to find Carrie Paige (Laura), bring her back to Twin Peaks, and try to remind her of who she really is. Just as Beowulf is confident enough in his own abilities to fight the dragon.

Both stories then end.

Twin Peaks' experiment, much like Grendel's mother in Beowulf.

The eerie Experiment from the glass box.

Conclusion

With Beowulf, the dragon is defeated but Beowulf is mortally wounded. And the future of the Geatish people, and the whole way of life that the poem portrays, is unclear.

With Twin Peaks, Carrie Paige remembers who she is, and Cooper seems to wake up — which should be a victory. But instead we hear the same scream that filled the woods when Laura was swept away from Cooper earlier in the episode. We then hear a faint ethereal “Laura” and the electricity flickers. The house where Laura lives goes dark. Then the entire screen goes dark.

Thematically, these endings have much in common. Both are bittersweet, yes. But more than that both endings demonstrate the ending of something incredible. Whether the Geats survive without their king, or whether Cooper and Laura triumphed over that wave of evil they were up against are unclear. Both are unwritten. But both are certainly art.

Twin Peaks' Palmer house has its lights go out, like Beowulf's punching Grendel's lights out.

The dimmed Palmer (?) house.

And that’s my attempt to bring these two disparate bits of media together. An early medieval epic poem and a surreal detective/supernatural television show. To me it all makes some kind of sense.

But what do you think about this comparison? Is it even possible to compare two things that are so different in time and place and content? What are your own pet theories about the ending of Twin Peaks?

Share your thoughts in the comments!