Is Beowulf’s outward loyalty true loyalty?

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

A vassal pledging loyalty to a lord via homage.

A miniature from a French manuscript depicting the homage ritual. How loyalty was pledged to a superior. Click for source.


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Synopsis

Beowulf gives Hygelac three gifts and a message from Hrothgar.


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The Original Old English

Ða ic ðe, beorncyning, bringan wylle,
estum geywan. Gen is eall æt ðe
lissa gelong; ic lyt hafo
heafodmaga nefne, Hygelac, ðec.”
Het ða in beran eaforheafodsegn,
heaðosteapne helm, hare byrnan,
guðsweord geatolic, gyd æfter wræc:
“Me ðis hildesceorp Hroðgar sealde,
snotra fengel, sume worde het
þæt ic his ærest ðe est gesægde;
cwæð þæt hyt hæfde Hiorogar cyning,
leod Scyldunga lange hwile;
no ðy ær suna sinum syllan wolde,
hwatum Heorowearde, þeah he him hold wære,
breostgewædu. Bruc ealles well!”
(Beowulf ll.2148-2162)


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My Translation

“‘These to you, oh noble king, I will bring
and point out the delicate points of each. After all,
all my grace still relies on you. I have few
kin — indeed there are none but you!’
He commanded then that the boar helm, head-topper for battle,
a war-steeped hat, the ancient mail shirt, and the precious war sword
be brought forth, saying thus after all this garb was brought out:
‘Hrothgar gave me this battle-keened gear,
oh wise lord. And along with them he commanded me
to first tell thee of these treasure’s journey.
He said that they had been Heorogar’s, the king,
lord of the Scyldings, for a long while.
Yet Heorogar did not bequeath them to his son,
the one called Heremod, though he was loyal,
a true wanderer through his father’s heart. Enjoy each of them well!'”
(Beowulf ll.2148-2162)


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A Quick Interpretation

When we think of the medieval world we tend to think in absolutes. Heroes are not just people who do some grand deed once and have that mark their reputation forever. Medieval heroes are people who always do the right thing (King Arthur). Villains are the exact opposite (Bad King John). Modern scholarship has made a lot of hay from complicating these figures, but in the popular imagination the medieval world is one where people’s morality is almost naively black and white.

But in this passage we have a clear example of a character adapting to his context.

Beowulf is maybe one of the most clear-cut characters in the popular imagination. Or at least as he’s experienced in high school and introductory university courses. And yet, this part of his speech to Hygelac includes him reassuring this king of his loyalty.

But mention of that loyalty is almost entirely absent while Beowulf is in Daneland. The only mention we get of Hygelac at all during that part of the poem is in Beowulf’s funeral instructions. If he should die trying to rid Daneland of the Grendels, his armour must be sent back to Hygelac.

So his pledge of loyalty (“all my grace still relies on you” (“Gen is eall æt ðe/lissa gelong” (ll.2149-50))) to his king could just be here out of convenience.

That said, though, I don’t think that Beowulf is disloyal to Hygelac. I think it’s just that this aspect of his character is just now being highlighted because of his context. After all, it would make for a very different character if Beowulf couldn’t shut up about how great Hygelac is from the time he introduces himself to the Danish coastguard.

Now, standing before him and ready to offer gifts, It makes sense that Beowulf reaffirms his loyalty to Hygelac. But, as with a real person, his loyalty is not always at the surface of Beowulf’s personality.

Which isn’t to say that Beowulf is just putting it on for Hygelac. I think that the few mentions of Hygelac that are made while Beowulf is in Daneland show that this loyalty is an aspect of Beowulf’s character. But at that time Beowulf had some more immediate things to be worried about (one named Grendel, the another known as Grendel’s mother). But, now that he’s back in Geatland this loyalty has a place to be expressed and so is on full display.

But what do you think about Beowulf’s obvious statements of loyalty in this passage (and earlier)? Is Beowulf as loyal to Hygelac as a modern person is loyal to their boss? Or is he as loyal as all the true warriors in old stories are to their liege lords?

As always, you can share your thoughts in the comments.


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Closing

Next week, Beowulf gives more gifts!

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Beowulf gets brief when talking of the Grendels’ hall

Introduction

Synopsis

The Original Old English

My Translation

A Quick Interpretation

Closing

Beowulf and his band of Geats carrying Grendel's head.

J. R. Skelton – Marshall, Henrietta Elizabeth (1908) Stories of Beowulf, T.C. & E.C. Jack.
Image found at: http://bit.ly/2frmbiU

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Synopsis

Beowulf ends his story with his account of fighting Grendel’s mother and then explains his reward.

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The Original Old English

“‘þæt wæs Hroðgare hreowa tornost
þara þe leodfruman lange begeate.
þa se ðeoden mec ðine life
healsode hreohmod, þæt ic on holma geþring
eorlscipe efnde, ealdre geneðde,
mærðo fremede; he me mede gehet.
Ic ða ðæs wælmes, þe is wide cuð,
grimne gryrelicne grundhyrde fond;
þær unc hwile wæs hand gemæne,
holm heolfre weoll, ond ic heafde becearf
in ðam guðsele Grendeles modor
eacnum ecgum, unsofte þonan
feorh oðferede. Næs ic fæge þa gyt,
ac me eorla hleo eft gesealde
maðma menigeo, maga Healfdenes.
Swa se ðeodkyning þeawum lyfde.
Nealles ic ðam leanum forloren hæfde,
mægnes mede, ac he me maðmas geaf,
sunu Healfdenes, on minne sylfes dom.'”
(Beowulf ll.2129-2147)

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My Translation

“‘That was Hrothgar’s most grievous of those sorrows
that had long befallen that leader of a people.
Then that prince implored me while troubled in mind
to perform another heroic deed in the tumult
of the darkened waters, to venture my life;
in short, perform a glorious deed. He promised me proper reward.
I found in those surging waters, as it is well-known,
the grim and terrible guardian of the deep.
There we two were locked in hand-to-hand combat.
But soon the water seethed with blood, and I had cut off
the head of Grendel’s mother in her battle hall
with a mighty sword edge. With difficulty
I carried my life from that place, but it was not yet fated
for me to die, and so the protector of warriors gave me
a multitude of treasures, the son of Half-Danes.
Just so, that king of his people acted in accord with custom,
never had I any want for reward while with him,
he gave me great gains, granted me beautiful treasures,
the true Son of Half-Dane, and ever were they of my choosing.'”
(Beowulf ll.2129-2147)

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A Quick Interpretation

Beowulf keeps his story very tidy. There’s no crossover between his encounter with Grendel and his encounter with Grendel’s mother. There isn’t any mention of the Grendels’ underwater hall, or their armory full of ancient weapons either. Beowulf doesn’t even note how he saw Grendel’s body on some sort of alter and then chopped off his head.

Of course, his account of these fights is quite a bit more precise than the poet’s version. Though leaving these things out seems like a weird omission. Why not share how he took Grendel’s head and an ancient sword hilt as a prize? Or, for that matter, why not mention nailing Grendel’s arm to the eaves of Heorot?

I think that Beowulf leaves these things out because of Hygelac. The Geats’ king is, after all, supposed to be a giant. So using monstrous body parts as trophies is probably not something Hygelac wants to hear about.

Also, I have no way to confirm it, but it would be fascinating if this is the same reason why Beowulf doesn’t go into detail about the giant’s sword he found.

Which makes me wonder: What would the Anglo-Saxon people have thought of living giants if there are all of these ancient weapons allegedly made by their ancestors? Why aren’t these real life giants celebrated as smiths or designers and hoisted up as the best of artisans?

My only guess is that the idea of the giants (“eoten” in Old English) is somehow influenced by the Biblical account of the Nephilim. According to Genesis 6:2 and 6:4, these creatures were the offspring of human women and angels from the time before the great flood. Which placement only deepens the potential influence on Beowulf‘s creator since the found sword’s hilt tells of the flood.

But, then again, giants are a fairly common creature in European folklore and story. Even in the various versions of the mythical story of Britain’s origins, the Brut, giants make a few appearances.

Why do you think Beowulf cuts out mentions of Grendel’s arm and head being treated like trophies?

Share your thoughts in the comments!

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Closing

Next week, Beowulf gives Hygelac his treasures.

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The trouble with Beowulf humanizing Grendel’s mother

Introduction
Synopsis
The Original Old English
My Translation
A Quick Interpretation
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 tells of Grendel’s mother’s late night visit.


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The Original Old English

“‘Swa we þær inne ondlangne dæg
niode naman, oððæt niht becwom
oðer to yldum. þa wæs eft hraðe
gearo gyrnwræce Grendeles modor,
siðode sorhfull; sunu deað fornam,
wighete Wedra. Wif unhyre
hyre bearn gewræc, beorn acwealde
ellenlice; þær wæs æschere,
frodan fyrnwitan, feorh uðgenge.
Noðer hy hine ne moston, syððan mergen cwom,
deaðwerigne, Denia leode,
bronde forbærnan, ne on bæl hladan
leofne mannan; hio þæt lic ætbær
feondes fæðmum under firgenstream.'”
(Beowulf ll.2115-2128)


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My Translation

“‘So we took pleasure in that place
all the day long until another night came upon men.
Late within that dark Grendel’s mother appeared,
ready for revenge for the injury she suffered;
she made a journey full of grief. Death had carried off her son,
death egged on by grim faced Geats. That monstrous woman
avenged her son, schemed to boldly steal a hall dweller for her loss.
There on the floor was Aeschere for the taking,
the wise old counsellor departed from this life at her touch.
But, when the morning came, none could
burn up the dead of the Danish people by fire,
nor could that dear man be lain upon a pyre —
she bore the body in her fiend’s embrace to her home beneath her mountain stream.'”

(Beowulf ll.2115-2128)


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A Quick Interpretation

Whoever the Beowulf poet or poets were one thing is clear. They cared a whole lot more about Grendel’s mother than Beowulf does.

The poet took pains to build her up as this malevolent force that was smaller and perhaps more timid than Grendel but far more fierce and intelligent. Here, though, she just appears.

This retelling makes it very tempting to think that Beowulf simply doesn’t need to explain Grendel’s mother to Hygelac. Beowulf definitely doesn’t need to explain her to the poem’s audience. After all, there’s no need for Beowulf to try to swirl some mystery around her, since that mystery is already solved.

But why would he not need to explain what she is to Hygelac? As we’ll find out next week, it’s because Beowulf’s exploits have already been heard of.

But I think there could be more to it.

As someone who was apparently monstrous himself, Hygelac could no doubt understand a mother’s sympathy for her monstrous child and her seeking revenge for him. I think that’s why Beowulf goes directly to the more human elements of her character.

But Beowulf almost skips over the monstrous elements of Grendel’s mother entirely.

I mean, his description of Grendel’s mother makes her out to just be a mother seeking revenge. Aside from living “beneath her mountain stream” (“under firgenstream” (l.2128)), there’s nothing here that suggests that she’s a monster. Instead, she sounds like she’s just a mother driven to murder by the death of her child. Which is troubling because Beowulf does kind of kill her in the end. Even if, as we’ll see, he shortens that part of his story to just a few lines and skips over a lot of the grisly details of their fight.

But, what do you think is going on with Beowulf’s description of Grendel’s mother? Is she too humanized? Is Beowulf making this easier for Hygelac? Or for himself?

Share your thoughts in the comments!


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Closing

Next week, Beowulf shares a very condensed version of his fight with Grendel’s mother.

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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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