Beowulf the storyteller’s idea of a great celebration

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

A scop sings his boasts, just like Beowulf does before Hrothgar.

Image found at http://bit.ly/2jumA3j


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Synopsis

Beowulf recounts the various conversations going on in Heorot’s post-Grendel celebration.


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The Original Old English

“‘Me þone wælræs wine Scildunga
fættan golde fela leanode,
manegum maðmum, syððan mergen com
ond we to symble geseten hæfdon.
þær wæs gidd ond gleo. Gomela Scilding,
felafricgende, feorran rehte;
hwilum hildedeor hearpan wynne,
gomenwudu grette, hwilum gyd awræc
soð ond sarlic, hwilum syllic spell
rehte æfter rihte rumheort cyning.
Hwilum eft ongan, eldo gebunden,
gomel guðwiga gioguðe cwiðan,
hildestrengo; hreðer inne weoll,
þonne he wintrum frod worn gemunde.'”
(Beowulf ll.2101-2014)


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My Translation

“‘Golden ornaments were awarded to me then
by the friend of the Scyldings for that mortal conflict,
countless treasures, once the morning had come
and we had sat down to feast.
There was song and sonorous entertainment there,
an elder Scylding recounted tales of things learned long ago,
one brave in battle was in harp joy,
he struck the delightful wood while retelling
tales both true and tragic, the great hearted king
correctly shared strange stories,
and an old warrior bound by age proceeded
to a lament for his youth, of strength in battle.
Within him his heart surged when
he recalled many things from the seasons of his past.'”
(Beowulf ll.2101-2014)


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A Quick Interpretation

This passage is really all about how stories and celebration are linked in early medieval Anglo-Saxon culture.

That said, I’m not surprised (but I am a little disappointed) that there aren’t any women telling stories here. I mean, Wealhtheow must have a wealth of stories to share. After all, she grew up elsewhere and probably knows some regional tales that none of the Danes would’ve heard before. Or she could share the story of her upbringing, of some court intrigue back home, or of travelling to Daneland to marry Hrothgar. There’s a lot for her to work with.

But instead this is a very masculine scene. Which is how a party in an early medieval hall would likely be.

Though Beowulf once again shows his sensitive side here. He must have been sitting back and just taking everything in. Otherwise, I’m not sure how he would’ve heard all of these different conversations and stories.

It’s this extra detail once again makes Beowulf’s account of his time in Daneland much more interesting than the poet’s version. Beowulf even includes a detail that proves that his version is probably just a differently told version of the same events.

On line 2109 Beowulf says that the tales of one of the tellers were “both true and tragic” (“soð ond sarlic”).

I think this is probably a reference to the story of Hildeburh and the slaughter of Finn’s house. But what does such a connection matter?

This connection suggests that this poem is really playing with the theme of how people shape their story.

A great example of this comes up at the end of the poem: Beowulf’s dying wish is that he be remembered as one who was always eager for glory. Further, Tolkien’s reading Beowulf as an elegy rather than an heroic epic brings it even more in line with the importance of shaping your story. After all, elegies are tragic remembrances of things now gone and such remembrances are rarely comprehensive.

And that what I think is the crux of this scene. Beowulf is shaping his story as he describes the hall full of stories to Hygelac.

Plus, though there are only male voices sharing stories, there are still several of them. One is a king, another is handy with an instrument, and at least one other is an old man well past his prime. But it’s those several voices that weave together and tell tales, and in so doing contribute to Beowulf’s own tale.

It seems that as much as Beowulf is about daring heroics and gory action, it is also a story, and passages like this one show how much its early tellers and audiences revelled in stories.

What do you think the reason Beowulf includes all of this storytelling in his description of the celebrations in Heorot? Why not just talk about how good the mead was, or how well received the other Geats were?

Share your thoughts in the comments!


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Closing

Next week, Grendel’s mother strikes!

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Did Beowulf “yes, and…” a glove?

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

Grendel terrifyingly looms with his death bag, screaming at Beowulf.

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


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Synopsis

Beowulf tells of his fight with Grendel. But just gives Hygelac the SparkNotes summary.


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The Original Old English

“‘No ðy ær ut ða gen idelhende
bona blodigtoð, bealewa gemyndig,
of ðam goldsele gongan wolde,
ac he mægnes rof min costode,
grapode gearofolm. Glof hangode
sid ond syllic, searobendum fæst;
sio wæs orðoncum eall gegyrwed
deofles cræftum ond dracan fellum.
He mec þær on innan unsynnigne,
dior dædfruma, gedon wolde
manigra sumne; hyt ne mihte swa,
syððan ic on yrre uppriht astod.
To lang ys to reccenne hu ic ðam leodsceaðan
yfla gehwylces ondlean forgeald;
þær ic, þeoden min, þine leode
weorðode weorcum. He on weg losade,
lytle hwile lifwynna breac;
hwæþre him sio swiðre swaðe weardade
hand on Hiorte, ond he hean ðonan
modes geomor meregrund gefeoll.'”
(Beowulf ll.2081-2100)


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My Translation

“‘Not yet eager to leave empty-handed,
that slayer with bloodied teeth, intent upon evil,
pressed on to get further into the hall.
But then he came against my great strength,
as he grabbed me with a readied hand. A grotesque glove hung,
broad and strange, secured with a cunning clasp,
from his hip, it was a thing concocted through ingenuity,
a work of devil’s craft made from dragon’s skin.
He wished to shove blameless me
into that sack, press me in among the many,
that fierce perpetrator of vile deeds. But it would not be so.
Not after I stood upright, completely enraged.
It would be too long to tell how I repaid that rapacious evil
for each of his crimes, each treachery of that ravager of a people.
Let it simply be known, my lord, that there I brought honour
to our people through my deeds. Yet he managed to squirm away,
he escaped to live a little while longer, to draw the dregs of mirth from his life,
though he left a trail of lifeblood behind and his right hand with me at Heorot
as he ran from the hall, an abject creature. I can only guess that he,
sad at heart, bereft of strength, sank to the bottom of his mere that night.'”
(Beowulf ll.2081-2100)


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A Quick Interpretation

The glove that Beowulf says Grendel has is one of the great mysteries of English literature. Where did he get it from? Is it actually big enough for more than one fully grown human man to be stuffed inside? I mean, that’s what’s implied with the line “He wished to shove blameless me/into that sack, press me in among the many” (“He mec þær on innan unsynnigne,/…gedon wolde/manigra sumne” (ll.2089-2091)).

The easy answer here is that Beowulf is just making all of this up. He’s embellishing his story for the sake of his audience. Already, he has Hygelac’s attention since the stakes were raised with the graphic death of the Geat Handscio. And now Beowulf is making Grendel seem even more fiendish in that there’s some level of agency to his menace. The beast doesn’t just kill and devour on the spot, he sometimes has some tasty take out from the Danes’ golden hall. I guess, in a way, that just makes Grendel a pioneer of the relatively recent trend of fast food places having all night drive throughs — he would regularly attack Heorot and drag off a Dane or two at night after all.

But let’s set aside Grendel’s late night appetite for a second though. And let’s get back to that glove.

One of the most interesting things about this item is that it is unmistakably called a “glove” (“glof” (l.2085)). The Old English word used for it is simply “glof”, which would carry into Modern English mostly unchanged as “glove”. The catch being that while the word didn’t change much, it’s meaning did. In Old English “glof” can mean either “glove” or “pouch”. In Modern English, though, “glove” has dropped that second sense and refers exclusively to a closed and fitted piece of cloth that goes over your hand.

Despite this straightforward word use, there could be something more at work here. In last week’s translation we met the tragic Handscio. Like Beowulf, Handscio’s name is a compound noun. Specifically, though, his name is a compound noun that means “glove” quite definitively. After all, what else could a “hand-shoe” be?

With these two things in mind, Grendel’s “glof” and Handscio’s name, I can’t help but wonder if the poet was improvising this bit, saw a glove and just ran with it. Or, maybe, the implication is that Beowulf is improvising his story, having been so hopped up on adrenaline that he doesn’t remember a single second from his fight with the monster. Or, maybe this is just yet another reason why Beowulf was put in a collection with other works about monstrous things: it’s take on the truth and what really happened is just too muddied by all of the differing accounts of past events.

But what do you think about the “glof”/”Handscio” connection? Is it just coincidence at work, or is it the work of a poet thinking on their feet? Share your thoughts in the comments!


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Closing

Next week, Beowulf shares how the Danes celebrated his victory over Grendel.

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Telling tall tales? Beowulf gives Grendel a greater role

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

Grendel terrifyingly looms with his death bag, screaming at Beowulf.

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


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Synopsis

Beowulf restarts the story of the fight with Grendel. And adds a character while he’s at it.


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The Original Old English

          Ic sceal forð sprecan
gen ymbe Grendel, þæt ðu geare cunne,
sinces brytta, to hwan syððan wearð
hondræs hæleða. Syððan heofones gim
glad ofer grundas, gæst yrre cwom,
eatol, æfengrom, user neosan,
ðær we gesunde sæl weardodon.
þær wæs Hondscio hild onsæge,
feorhbealu fægum; he fyrmest læg,
gyrded cempa; him Grendel wearð,
mærum maguþegne to muðbonan,
leofes mannes lic eall forswealg.”
(Beowulf ll.2069b-2080)


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My Translation

            “I shall now speak
further about Grendel, so that you may know the matter well,
bestower of treasures, and of what happened after
the hand to hand struggle between warriors. After heaven’s gem
had glided out beyond the earth’s rim the enraged creature came,
that dreadful one sought us out for its evening hostilities,
while we stood guard, still unharmed, in the hall.
There battle proved fatal for Hondscio,
he had been fated to die by the deadly evil; he was the first laid low,
that girded warrior. Grendel swallowed him up,
took his whole body into his mouth and snapped
through mail and bone and sinew until that renowned thane was gone.”
(Beowulf ll.2069b-2080)


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A Quick Interpretation

Either Beowulf or the poet recording his life in this poem is a terrible journalist. But one (maybe both) are fantastic storytellers.

After all, the poet left out Hondscio and his being eaten whole while the Geats looked on and Beowulf thought it best to include that detail.

Though why would anyone want to add such a gruesome thing in?

Perhaps Beowulf wanted to punch the story up a little bit. He hadn’t been sent out after a nest of monsters, and so couldn’t say he beat all of them up. Nor had he been out swimming alone for hours so he couldn’t exactly say that he defeated a bunch of water beasts. So he includes a demonstration of Grendel’s terrifying strength and appetite.

But then, shouldn’t Hygelac say “Hondscio? Who’s Hondscio?” Or “Oh, poor Hondscio!”

Beowulf names one of his otherwise nameless retinue here. And Hygelac says nothing. Which just confuses things further.

But maybe I’m demanding too much realism from such an old poem. Maybe this is why Beowulf was included along with the other strange and monstrous writings in the Nowell Codex. The events and characters of the poem are monstrous, but the things left out are even more so. In other words, even medieval monks thought it terrifying that characters lacked awareness and their interactions were so formulaic that they couldn’t speak up in the middle of them.

I mean, Beowulf is reporting to the man who is his social superior. If Hygelac had some questions, Beowulf would be silenced while those questions were asked and addressed.

Beyond those questions, though, is the poet’s word choice on line 2072. It’s here that the word “hæleða,” appears. This word means “fighter” or “man” or “hero”. Because of English’s quirks, just about any of those definitions could work in this passage since Beowulf could be talking about his and his troop’s struggles rather than the collective struggles of them and Grendel.

Even so, the use of this word as a plural makes me think. Is the poet humanizing Grendel again? At the very least, he is acknowledged as another warrior, rather than just as some crazed beast.

Journalist or storyteller or both, I think that it’s this consistent ambiguity that makes Beowulf and Grendel’s struggle so timeless.

Just like the struggle of someone against the crueller side of their nature, it could be read as a person fighting a monster. Or it could be read as a more intimate struggle, one between a person and some ugly aspect of themselves.

Actually, I think this fight does one better than Nietzsche’s warning about becoming a monster when you battle them. Because this fight really shows how close the monster and the human are to one another. There is no becoming the monster, only acknowledging it, accepting it, and moving beyond it. Or, perhaps, acquiescing to it.

What do you think of Beowulf’s addition of Hondscio to his story? Is he trying to make it more interesting for Hygelac? To demonstrate how terrifying Grendel is? Or is Beowulf just trying to make himself sound greater for destroying such a monster? Do you think this addition makes the fight and its participants even more frightening and monstrous?

As always, add your thoughts in the comments!


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Closing

Next week, Beowulf’s one man show “The Terrors of Grendel” continues!

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Is Beowulf spreading rumours about a feud?

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

An Anglo-Saxon helmet with face mask of the style associated with Beowulf.

A helmet, complete with face mask, from the Sutton-Hoo treasure hoard. Image from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sutton_Hoo_replica_(face).jpg


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Synopsis

Beowulf predicts what will happen at the marriage of Hrothgar’s daughter and Ingeld of the Heathobards. It’s nothing good, that’s for sure.


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The Original Old English

“þonne cwið æt beore se ðe beah gesyhð,
eald æscwiga, se ðe eall geman,
garcwealm gumena (him bið grim sefa),
onginneð geomormod geongum cempan
þurh hreðra gehygd higes cunnian,
wigbealu weccean, ond þæt word acwyð:
‘Meaht ðu, min wine, mece gecnawan
þone þin fæder to gefeohte bær
under heregriman hindeman siðe,
dyre iren, þær hyne Dene slogon,
weoldon wælstowe, syððan Wiðergyld læg,
æfter hæleþa hryre, hwate Scyldungas?
Nu her þara banena byre nathwylces
frætwum hremig on flet gæð,
morðres gylpeð, ond þone maðþum byreð,
þone þe ðu mid rihte rædan sceoldest.’
Manað swa ond myndgað mæla gehwylce
sarum wordum, oððæt sæl cymeð
þæt se fæmnan þegn fore fæder dædum
æfter billes bite blodfag swefeð,
ealdres scyldig; him se oðer þonan
losað lifigende, con him land geare.
þonne bioð abrocene on ba healfe
aðsweord eorla; syððan Ingelde
weallað wælniðas, ond him wiflufan
æfter cearwælmum colran weorðað.
þy ic Heaðobeardna hyldo ne telge,
dryhtsibbe dæl Denum unfæcne,
freondscipe fæstne.
(Beowulf ll.2041-2069a)


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My Translation

“That one will then speak, while beer-drinking, about that precious object,
the elder spear-warrior, he remembers all of that treasure’s history
and those that faced death at spear-point — his mind settles on their grim fates —
then, sad of mind, he will test a young warrior’s
spirit with an assault on his heart-thought,
he will arouse the evil of war, and he will say these words:
‘Might you, my comrade, recognize that sword
which your father bore to the field,
wearing his battle mask on his last expedition,
that precious sword, the campaign where the Danes slew him,
when they seized the Heathobards and made where they lay a place of slaughter,
when all our warriors were felled by the valiant Scyldings?
Now here the sons of those slayers go about
on the hall floor, exalting in the adornments of someone else.
They boast of murder, and bear about treasures
that you by right should possess.’
Just so he urges and reminds each of that time
with bitter words, until the time comes
that one of the lady’s men sleeps in bloodstained furs,
is found sliced by a sword for his father’s deeds,
to avenge those who forfeited their lives. From there that slayer
will escape alive, for he knows the land well.
Then the oath swearing of men will be shattered
on both sides, and afterwards in Ingeld
will well up a deadly hate
and surging sorrow will cool his love for his wife.
Therefore, I consider the Heathobards of no loyalty,
their part of the peace to be made by marriage is not without deceit,
the fastness of their friendship is false.”
(Beowulf ll.2041-2069a)


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A Quick Interpretation

From an outsider’s perspective, I think this passage sums up the cyclical nature of feuds quite nicely.

For new readers and those who might not know what the flavour of early medieval feuds was, here’s a quick rundown: Group A holds a mutual grudge against Group B. Group B is living more or less peacefully near Group A until Group A decides to take revenge for that grudge. This encourages Group B to do the same with Group A. Group A then retaliates, and Group B does the same. The cycle only ends when a third group comes and sorts Group A and B out or one gradually kills the other off.

Unlike your Hatfields and McCoys. An early medieval feud wouldn’t just fizzle, it basically ends when there’s no one left to feud against.

But, put some flesh on that model, and you could very well end up with this passage. After all, the Heathobards clearly still hold some hard feelings for the Danes. All it takes for one of the next generation of them to lash out is a question.

Though the old warrior’s question is pretty loaded. He asks if the young warrior remembers his father, if he remembers the heirloom that may be his by Heathobard rights, and implies that the young man could easily take it to avenge his father and restore the honour of his family (and by extension, the Heathobards). Out of those three major notes, though, I think it’s the last one that’s the most important whisper in this young man’s ear.

Why?

Because also implied in the old warrior’s words is that the young warrior’s father must not be allowed to die in vain. Actually, there’s kind of a sense that such a slaughter as the Heathobards allegedly suffered at the hands of the Danes is unsportsmanike. Which is strange to say, but warfare has always had rules.

The most important thing about this passage as it relates to the rest of Beowulf, though, is that it contradicts something that came earlier.

Back on lines 1071 to 1158, a scop tells us the story of the Danes Hildeburh and Hengest and the winter they spent with the subject of a feud: the Frisian Finn. Here we have another situation where peace forged by marriage falls apart. There’s even a similar result. But the idea of relativism was certainly alive and well for the Beowulf poet because the Danes slaughtering the Frisians and then sailing away is seen as a victory. Told in the presence of Danes, how could it be any other way, right?

But, reading it that way, I can’t help but wonder if Beowulf is catering to some prejudice of Hygelac’s with his prediction for the future Freawearu/Ingeld wedding. Maybe he’s just drawing up these lovely word pictures for his lord to better his own position at home.

Or, since he’s back home in Geatland, is Beowulf simply being true to his feelings? Now that he’s back in Geatland, he’s just letting the truth out.

Or is the only honesty that he knows a sword-point? Maybe this is simply another part of Beowulf’s monstrous qualities. He’s just too well adapted to fitting around every suggestion he faces like his sheath fits around his sword.

Ultimately, the question that really needs to be asked (and with your tongue nowhere near your cheek) is this: Why is this passage included in Beowulf’s story about his time in Daneland?

Is a slightly informed prophecy of a doomed alliance through marriage somehow relevant to the poem as a whole? Or is Beowulf just telling Hygelac what he wants to hear? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments!


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Closing

Next week, Beowulf continues his story of his adventures in Heorot. Specifically, he talks Grendel.

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The plundered sword: Anglo-Saxons and encoding meaning

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

The decorative grip and pommel of the Gilling Sword, like Beowulf's ancient giant sword?

The grip and pommel of the Gilling Sword, found in a stream in Yorkshire in 1976. Did the giant’s sword that Beowulf found have a similar hilt? Copyright York Museums Trust http://bit.ly/2gh8HXJ. Image from http://bit.ly/2gpntKw.


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Synopsis

Beowulf begins his dramatic imagining of the wedding of Hrothgar’s daughter.


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The Original Old English

“Mæg þæs þonne ofþyncan ðeodne Heaðobeardna
ond þegna gehwam þara leoda,
þonne he mid fæmnan on flett gæð,
dryhtbearn Dena, duguða biwenede;
on him gladiað gomelra lafe,
heard ond hringmæl Heaðabeardna gestreon
þenden hie ðam wæpnum wealdan moston,
oððæt hie forlæddan to ðam lindplegan
swæse gesiðas ond hyra sylfra feorh.”
(Beowulf ll.2032-2040)


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My Translation

“It may be displeasing to the prince of the Heathobards
and to the thanes of the people of the prince Ingeld
when he with his new bride strides onto the hall floor
while the Danish wedding attendants are nobly entertained.
One will point to the shining of an old heirloom on them,
a time-hardened, ring-patterned treasure of the Heathobards,
recognized from the time when they were able to wield such weapons,
a time that ended when they came to destruction at the shield-play
that scarred their lives and laid low their dear companions.”
(Beowulf ll.2032-2040)


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A Quick Interpretation

This passage is prime proof of how important material culture was to the Anglo-Saxons.

I mean, the Heathobard hall dwellers’ problem isn’t the mere presence of the wicked Danes. Rather, it’s the sight of swords and treasures that they used to wield. This detail really drives home the idea that whole lineages were encoded in such objects. Which I think is one of the harder things for modern readers to relate to.

Speaking mostly from my own experience, I can’t think of a single heirloom that any grandparent or relative has left to me, let alone one with any kind of practical use. Of course, that could be just because I’m the second son, and in the hierarchy of traditional inheritance I would not get things simply handed to me unless there were a lot of them.

But even then, when I think about stories of inheritances set in the modern day, I tend to think of things like watches or plate collections rather than, say, swords. These objects have some practical use, perhaps, but more often then not it seems to me that people try as hard as they can to preserve objects that they’ve inherited rather than use them.

If it’s a watch, it’s in a special case so that it doesn’t get lost.

If it’s plates, they’re on display so as to stand as a memorial perhaps, or at the least to protect them from wear.

I guess a part of this push for preservation could be a desire to pass the object in question onto the next generation as well.

But then again, my experience is pretty limited, since I’m just one person. What have your experiences been with inheriting items from previous generations of your family? Did you hold onto them? Were they practical items, or things you’d just put on a shelf and look at to remember the giver? Has anyone out there inherited a sword? Feel free to share in the comments!


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Closing

Next week, Beowulf shows off his flair for the dramatic.

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Beowulf the monstrous individual

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

An Anglo-Saxon helmet with face mask of the style associated with Beowulf.

A helmet, complete with face mask, from the Sutton-Hoo treasure hoard. Image from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sutton_Hoo_replica_(face).jpg


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Synopsis

Beowulf tells more of his time partying in Heorot.


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The Original Old English

“‘Weorod wæs on wynne; ne seah ic widan feorh
under heofones hwealf healsittendra
medudream maran. Hwilum mæru cwen,
friðusibb folca, flet eall geondhwearf,
bædde byre geonge; oft hio beahwriðan
secge sealde, ær hie to setle geong.
Hwilum for duguðe dohtor Hroðgares
eorlum on ende ealuwæge bær;
þa ic Freaware fletsittende
nemnan hyrde, þær hio nægled sinc
hæleðum sealde. Sio gehaten is,
geong, goldhroden, gladum suna Frodan;
hafað þæs geworden wine Scyldinga,
rices hyrde, ond þæt ræd talað,
þæt he mid ðy wife wælfæhða dæl,
sæcca gesette. Oft seldan hwær
æfter leodhryre lytle hwile
bongar bugeð, þeah seo bryd duge!'”
(Beowulf ll.2014-2031)


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My Translation

“‘The company was wrapt in joy; never have I ever seen
such celebration over mead as was amongst those in that hall
in all my life. All the while that renowned queen,
a pledge of peace for her people, went all about the hall,
urging the youths there on. Often, on her rounds, she gave
circlets to the drinkers, until, at the last, she took her seat.
Also, but only at times, before that body of retainers
Hrothgar’s daughter bore the ale cup to the men in turn.
From those sitting in the hall I learned
that this maiden’s name is Freawearu, she who there gave
those warriors studded and precious vessels. She is promised,
young and gold-adorned, to the gracious son of Froda.
The friend of the Scyldings has settled on this,
the protector of the kingdom, and he considers it wise policy
that this woman will settle a great many deadly feuds,
that she will ease the many conflicts. But too often,
when so short a time has passed after a man’s fall,
it is rare for the deadly spear to rest, even though the bride be good.'”
(Beowulf ll.2014-2031)


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A Quick Interpretation

It feels a bit like every scene that involves a leader’s hall in this poem features a young maiden. In particular, a young maiden who has been or is planned to be married off for the sake of peace. In a way, this definitely reinforces the idea that women’s primary strength in the world of Beowulf is through political marriages.

However, what I find interesting about this isn’t so much that these women don’t seem to have agency to do anything else, but that it underscores the importance of the group in early medieval European societies.

Of course, groups continue to be important today, as well. Whether you working in retail, a restaurant, a corner office in a swanky business building, or from your home office you probably have a group (of varying size) of people with whom you work. For the most part, at least on holidays, people get together in the groups we all call families. And, of course, in your day to day life you’re probably in contact with a group of people whom you consider friends.

But the kind of group that Beowulf leaves an impression of in my mind is closer to the sort of collectivist society of some Asian countries. The kinds of societies where individual success doesn’t just feed into the society’s success but comes from filling a proscribed role in the larger society.

And this is why I think Beowulf makes me think of that sort of collectivist society: There don’t seem to be very many individuals in either Daneland or Geatland. Every one of Hrothgar or Hygelac’s retainers may or may not have his own motives, but as far as we know they are simply loyal warriors in the service of their lords.

Now, the version of Beowulf that we have comes from a rather curious book. It is known as the Nowell Codex.

This book is a collection of writings about oddities. There were stories of the then mysterious east, letters between Aristotle and Alexander the Great, a bit of a life of Saint Christopher, and a poetic version of the Biblical story of Judith along with Beowulf. Each of these stories contains something monstrous or strange.

Thus, when modern critics and scholars have puzzle through why these texts were grouped together, they’ve usually concluded that Beowulf is in this collection because there are monsters (Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and the dragon).

Some have supposed that Beowulf himself, being this sword-breaking, monster-slaying superman, is the monstrous reason for its inclusion in this collection. I think these scholars are a bit closer to the mark.

But I don’t think that Beowulf is monstrous because of his strength. I think that what makes Beowulf the character monstrous is his individuality.

There are other stories of great heroes and warriors from around the same time and later in the medieval period, sure. There’s at least one epic about Alexander the Great, there are the stories of Roland and Charlemagne, there’s the story of El Cid. But what sets Beowulf apart from all of these characters is that he’s not a knight or in the service of any lord.

Beowulf doesn’t go to Daneland because Hygelac commands it. As we found out two weeks ago, Hygelac was against Beowulf’s journey. And yet he set out on his own. And Beowulf is no knight, trying to right the wrongs of the world in some quest for the service of a lady.

In fact, when we first meet him, Beowulf is basically just an arrogant (probably) teenager who thinks that he’s invincible, tells stories to back that up, and actually turns out to be as strong as all the rumours say. But until he becomes the king of the Geats, he doesn’t act in the service of anyone but himself, really. Sure, helping the Danes cements a Geat/Dane alliance, but Beowulf didn’t set out to do that. He just wanted to increase his own fame and glory.

In short, he may have wanted to help others, but he does that by helping himself first. Which sounds a lot like an altruistic individual or entrepreneur. Which, in a time like the early middle ages, with its uncertain politics and fragmented states struggling to join together into nations, would be the last thing that any major authority like the Roman Catholic Church (the organization we can probably thank for keeping Beowulf safe for us) would want. Therefore they would label it as monstrous.

But that’s just my take. What are your thoughts and feelings on how individualism fits into Beowulf? Why do you think Beowulf was included in a collection of strange stories? Let me know in the comments!


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Closing

Next week, Beowulf imagines what will happen at the wedding party of Freawearu and Froda’s son.

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Beowulf’s boasts, pro wrestling, and fame

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

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.


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Synopsis

Beowulf begins the story of his time at Heorot.


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The Original Old English

“Biowulf maðelode, bearn Ecgðioes:
‘þæt is undyrne, dryhten Higelac,
micel gemeting, monegum fira,
hwylc orleghwil uncer Grendles
wearð on ðam wange, þær he worna fela
Sigescyldingum sorge gefremede,
yrmðe to aldre. Ic ðæt eall gewræc,
swa begylpan ne þearf Grendeles maga
ænig ofer eorðan uhthlem þone,
se ðe lengest leofað laðan cynnes,
facne bifongen. Ic ðær furðum cwom
to ðam hringsele Hroðgar gretan;
sona me se mæra mago Healfdenes,
syððan he modsefan minne cuðe,
wið his sylfes sunu setl getæhte.'”
(Beowulf ll.1999-2013)


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My Translation

“Beowulf spoke, son of Ecgtheow:
‘That is all widely known, lord Hygelac,
that journey’s fame has spread to many among mankind,
how Grendel and I grappled
at the very place where he was used to
terrorizing the Victory-Shieldings with terrible sorrow,
where we battled for life with bare limb. There I avenged all,
so that no kin of Grendel’s would have need
to boast to any over earth when the crash of dawn came,
no matter how long any of his dark brood may last,
all that treacherous and trembling bunch. But when at first
I arrived at that ring hall I greeted Hrothgar.
Soon he trusted to my reputation, the son of Halfdane,
after he came to know the wish of my heart,
then he presented me with a seat between his own sons.'”
(Beowulf ll.1999-2013)


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A Quick Interpretation

This passage is Beowulf’s prologue for his own story. He entices Hygelac’s attention with his boast about his adventure in Daneland already being well-known, and then gives a preview of the match between himself and Grendel. And maybe this gives a little too much away.

Nonetheless, I find it pretty funny how similar Beowulf’s delivery is to what you’d hear from late 20th century pro wrestlers. The hyperbole, the extremity and slight contrivance of describing his victory over Grendel as reason for Grendel’s relatives to have nothing to boast about. For an example of what I mean, here’s a clip of the most extreme 80’s/90’s pro wrestler: The Ultimate Warrior:

Of course, Beowulf’s words make a little more sense, but that’s what sets literature apart from pro wrestling promos.

But aside from Beowulf’s rhetoric matching (appropriately?) the modern day male soap opera that is pro wrestling, he also subscribes to #8 in Kurt Vonnegut’s list of writing rules.

In just five lines (lines 2005-2009) he tells Hygelac the most important information from his story: that he beat up Grendel. Not how, so much, but he’s given away the ending. Granted, Beowulf’s presence does mean that he beat Grendel (or ran away), but he probably wouldn’t be so haughty about it if he ran away. Unless it turned out that Beowulf was actually going to turn into the Unferth of the Geat kingdom. But that would be a very different epic poem.

This passage also reminds us of the importance of boasts in Anglo-Saxon culture.

It’s not just that Beowulf uses this device once again to say how quickly his incredible story has become widely known (tying boasting to reputation). He also demonstrates how not being able to boast (and therefore bolster your reputation) is a bad thing. Even if you’re being barred from boasting about a relative.

Though when it comes to boasting about relatives’ accomplishments, I pretty much immediately think of schoolyard boasts about uncles who work at Nintendo.

Of course, people today don’t generally introduce themselves as “Beowulf, son of Ecgtheow” (“Biowulf maðelode, bearn Ecgðioes” (l.1999)), so it seems like boasting about your family’s accomplishments went the same way. Actually, all of this kind of makes me wonder how Beowulf would go if his father wasn’t notable. No doubt there would be some retroactive fame for his parents since they would become known as the parents of the great Beowulf. Curious how fame spreads forward and backward in time like that, isn’t it?

Actually, it makes me wonder how Beowulf would do on social media. Would we get a Twitter feed full of baseless boasts or would he rock Instagram with pictures of all of his latest victories, stunningly hashtagged and captioned? What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments!


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Closing

Next week, Beowulf shares some otherwise unknown information about Heorot.

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