Quoth the Beowulf [ll.2441-2449] (Old English)

Abstract
The Passage in Brief
Ravens and Ruin?
The Passage’s Words and a Modernization
Beowulf and the Raven
The Raven As Symbol of Sacrifice
Closing

Back To Top
Abstract

Things take a turn in this passage (ll.2441-2449). Not from Hæðcyn’s sorrowful act, but from Beowulf’s direct retelling of his tale to his use of a peculiar simile.

Back To Top
The Passage in Brief

On lines 2444-46 he compares Hreðel’s sorrows to those of an old man who sees his young son hanging on the gallows (“‘Swā bið geōmorlīc gomelum ceorle/to gebīdanne, þæt his byre rīde/giong on galgan.”) He goes on to expand this image by explaining that the old man can only look on helplessly while the raven rejoices over his son’s corpse (“hrefne tō hrōðre” l.2448).

Back To Top
Ravens and Ruin?

What makes the image of a raven over Hæðcyn’s corpse so striking is that it not only efficiently brings out Hreðel’s sorrow, but the emotions evoked here resemble those in the “Lay of the Last Survivor.”

This section of the poem (ll.2247-66) details how the one who originally left the dragon’s hoard must have felt, being the last of his people. It describes the futility of treasure without people to use it and with whom it can be shared. But it also emphasizes the importance of community to the Anglo-Saxons.

Back To Top
The Passage’s Words and a Modernization

The language of this passage is fairly straightforward and strangely filled with words that don’t seem to have changed much between then and now. “gefeoht” for “fight, strife,” “linnan” for “to lie,” “rīde” for “ride,” “giong” for “young,” “sārigne” for “sorrowful” “sunu” for “son,” “hangað” for “to hang,” “hrefne” for “raven,” “helpe” for “help,” and so on. As per coolness factor, one word stands out: “hyge-mēðe.”

The last word in that previous paragraph is a combination of the words “hyge” for “heart, breast, mind” and “mēðe” for “tired, worn out, dejected, sad.”

As far as modernizations go, “heart-sad” sounds both poetic and syrupy at the same time, but “mind-worn” could work for a modernization, I think. It could express a feeling of being so overwhelmed by a task or emotion that your mind is sore; just as a muscle feels sore after it’s been worked out. “mind-tired” could also work, there’d be some internal rhyme that way.

Back To Top
Beowulf and the Raven

Although it only gets cursory mention here, a little bit of explanation of the raven in Old English lit is in order since I think it plays a larger role here.

The raven is one of the three “Beasts of Battle” (along with the wolf and the eagle) and held many different meanings (check this site for a good deal of info). Just as they’re regarded as bad luck, or ill omens by some today, so too were ravens regarded before the 11th century. But some also associated the raven with victory or sacrifice, and in Old English another word for raven is wælceasega (“chooser of the slain”) linking the bird to the Valkyrie of Old Norse thought.

Aside from the raven in Beowulf’s speech clearly being an ill-omen (Hreðel becomes despondent and the realm is soon threatened by war), I think that it can also be interpreted as a symbol of sacrifice.

Back To Top
The Raven As Symbol of Sacrifice

Herebeald wasn’t sacrificed in the same way that say, Iphigenia was (by Agamemnon, for a wind to get the Greeks to Troy), but his death could still be regarded as the sacrifice of an eldest son for lasting fame.

Sacrifice is also likely at the fore of Beowulf’s mind at this point – perhaps it is even a cause of his being in such a heavy mood. He knows that he will die if he fights the dragon, but he also knows that doing so will win him fame, save his people, and land them a hefty amount of treasure.

All three of these things are necessary for a good king, as established by Beowulf‘s opening with Scyld Scēfing. He won a great amount of fame, and of treasure and was able to use both to increase his people’s prosperity (ll.4-11).

The treasure also helped his son to forge bonds and obligations with warriors who would fight for his right to succeed his father upon his death (ll.20-24).

Within the situation that Beowulf describes, Herebeald can be read as a sacrifice not just for the fame of Hreðel, but also for the fame of Beowulf.

After all, if Herebeald had lived he may have ruled well and been loved by all, giving Hæðcyn and then Hygelac no reason to rule, and thus leaving Beowulf without a kingship from which to launch his own fame.

So Herebeald’s death is also a sacrifice for the betterment of posterity – even if that eventually leads to the destruction of his people.

Back To Top
Closing

Next time, Beowulf continues to expand his comparison, detailing how the old man regards nothing in the same light again.

If you’ve got a strong argument for “heart-sad,” “mind-worn,” or “mind-tired” as a new word; if there’s anything about Beowulf that you want to ask; or if there’s anything in the poem that you want to see given special attention, then please do leave a comment.

Back To Top

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s