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When we last left Beowulf, he was sitting on a cliff, looking out to sea. His mind was heavy with thoughts of his impending death, and this week’s section gives us an idea of what those thoughts were like.
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Beowulf’s Greatest Foe?
We’re told that Beowulf knows that he would soon “encounter old age,” (“gomelan grētan sceolde,” l. 2421) that it would seek his “hoarded (?) soul,” (“sēcean sāwle hord,” l. 2422). And before Beowulf at last addresses the 12 with him the poet offers the elaborations of Beowulf’s life being rent from his body (“sundur gedǣlan/līf wið līce,” l. 2422-3) and of his “flesh…soon unravel[ing] from his spirit” (“nō þon lange wæs/feorh æþelinges flǣsce bewunden,” l. 2423-4).
Death is definitely violent, but very firmly not the end, and Beowulf knows this well. But all of this is mentioned in the context of Beowulf sitting in “sorrowful mind” (“geōmor sefa,” 2419). There’s definitely a strong sense of the elegy that J.R.R. Tolkien detected in the poem here (see page 14 of this article). And there’s also the sense that Beowulf feels some remorse. But why?
Because his kingdom has been ruined by the dragon and, upon seeing its lair, he realizes that he will die fighting it? Because he feels that those he has taken with him, the leaders of the next generation, surely, are not capable of the glory that he achieved? Perhaps he regrets the conquests and triumphs of his youth? Or is it merely an expression of the extreme anxiety around death?
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Beowulf’s Opening Lines
The first line and a half of the section set the atmosphere by telling us that Beowulf was “restless and ready for death,” that he could feel “fate immeasurably near” (“wǣfra ond wæl-fūs, wyrd ungemete nēah,” l. 2420). Then the poet/scribe offers things more concrete.
Beowulf’s ensuing speech is about his youth and accomplishments, but I’ll get more into that next week. This week, I just want to focus on the first two lines (one sentence) of it.
Beowulf opens by saying that he “survived” (genæs) countless battles and war-times in his youth. His choice of words here is curious, since, according to my dictionary, all senses of “genæs” suggest the last-minute removal from a dire situation (survive, escape from, be saved).
Why doesn’t Beowulf (or the scribe/poet) simply use “won glory,” or “succeeded”? Is this a sign that Beowulf is well aware of the horrors of war and that the poem itself can be read not as a document glorifying it, but maybe the first recorded account in English of someone who has experienced Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)? Or, is it just the only word that would fit the line’s meter and/or alliteration?
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Genæs: Further Analysis
Following the line of reasoning that the poet/scribe could have used another word in place of “genæs,” here’s my analysis.
“Survived” makes it sound as though all of the battles that Beowulf has seen were trials or hardships sent by some greater entity, or merely as a part of life. “Escaped from” makes armed conflict seem like some terrible, impersonal machine or happening.
And, “been saved” makes it seem as though Beowulf got lucky each time he fought and was spared from the sword or arrow by the intervention of his fellow warriors or some sort of supernatural being. This last meaning of “genæs” perhaps gels the best with the laggard that everyone at the Geatish court believed Beowulf to be until he returned from Daneland with stories of slaying Grendel and his mother.
So then did Beowulf actually change from a weakling boy into a fierce warrior, or was his original softness just masked by luck – is this a propagandic Christian twist that suggests that trusting in god will keep you safe in skirmishes and war time?
Beowulf at this point is 50 years old – the same age as Hrothgar and Grendel’s mother when he was in Daneland. Rulers in the world of Beowulf seem to last their 50 winters and then tip off the mortal coil in one way or another. Though in such a world, living to see 50 does seem remarkable.
Whatever the case may be, modern interpretations of “genæs” all come with this connotation of getting through something larger than an individual human’s machination.
At the least, I feel secure in saying that this word suggests that human conflict is something outside of the control of individual people and possibly even groups of people. In fact, the word could be read as the poet/scribe suggesting that war is another kind of natural disaster. The cosmological implications are fascinating.
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The next sentence of Beowulf’s speech begins his auto-biography. At the age of seven he went to his treasure lord (“sinca baldor,” l. 2428) for fostering at his father’s command. This treasure lord, “leader and friend of the people” (“frēa-wine folca,” l. 2429), seems benevolent enough, and the practice of fostering is evident throughout the middle ages. Even Chaucer was fostered.
The transition from the first sentence of his speech and the second is where these two get interesting.
Beowulf ends his first sentence with the bold statement that he “remembers all of [the conflicts]” (“ic þaet eall gemon,” l. 2427). And from what comes next it seems that he also remembered much of his youth. He specifically recalls a story from his youth that may well be the earliest political strife he encountered. But I’ll get into that next week.
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Think I’m a little too loose with my translations of words or phrases? Or that I dig too deep for meaning? Or do you think that I’m right on and should just write a book about it all already? Let me know in the comments.