When Fate Fled Beowulf: The Beginnings of ‘One of Those Days’ [ll.2566-2580a] (Old English)

{Beowulf’s shield protects him for a time, but not for long enough! Image from shmoop.com.}

Introduction
Translation
Recordings
This Section’s Structure
Fate and the Scop’s Story
Closing

Introduction

Beowulf launches his first attack against the dragon this week:

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Translation

“He stood firmly against the towering shield
the lord of the dear people, when the serpent
coiled himself quickly together; he waited in arms.
Then it went gliding along coiled and burning,
hastening to his fate. The shield well protected
being and body of the renowned prince
for a lesser time than his purpose required,
it seemed that he for the first time that day
would have to prevail, though fate had not decreed for him
triumph in battle. The lord of the Geats swung up
his hand, the terrible one in its varied colors
was struck by the mighty heirloom, yet the edge failed
gleaming on the bone, bit less strongly
when the king of a people had need of it,
oppressed by afflictions.”
(Beowulf ll.2566-2580a, Ch.XXXV)

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Recordings

Old English:

Modern English:

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This Section’s Structure

The most interesting part of this section is its structure.

Why does the poet/scribe first say that fate ill-served Beowulf that day? Probably because In normal circumstances a wound that went to the bone would mean certain defeat. Unless the poet/scribe is presenting this work to people familiar with berserkers, who’d probably shrug that kind of cut off with a “’tis but a scratch!”

Placing the statement about Beowulf not having the favor of fate in this fight before noting that his strike cuts to the bone, makes it clear that such a wound is not what he was hoping for.

In fact, given the poor reception that his strike has, the fact that Beowulf’s sword “bit less strongly/when the king of a people had need of it,” (“bat unswiðor/þonne his ðiodcyning þearfe hæfde” (ll.2578-9)) it seems that he was aiming for one of the dragon’s vital organs, hoping to simply stick his sword up and cut the thing as it flew overhead.

What’s really remarkable about this tactic is that it’s incredibly similar to Sigurd‘s in the Völsunga Saga. In this version of his story he hides in a trench and basically sticks his sword up into the dragon’s belly as it slithers overhead, thus killing it.

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Fate and the Scop’s Story

Because the fight between Beowulf and the dragon is paralleled by the scop’s song about Sigemund and the dragon after Beowulf has defeated Grendel, it’s tempting to think that at this late part of Beowulf’s story, his fate is revealed in the Siegfried story.

In a way it is. Sigemund faces the dragon but defeats him alone. Mention is made of Fitela (Sinfjötli in the Völsunga Saga), but only to say that he isn’t present (Beowulf ll.889). Fitela’s parallel is present in Beowulf’s fight with the dragon as Wiglaf, whose parentage seems quite removed from Beowulf (unlike Fitela, who is the son by incest/nephew of Sigemund).

What differs between the two dragon stories, and where the parallel structure begins to break down, is that Beowulf does not live through the fight and the help of his companion is necessary. Perhaps that’s what happens when a mortal tries to go against fate. Or, maybe, we as listeners are meant to take the poet/scribe’s words as having a negative meaning: Fate didn’t decree triumph for Beowulf, it instead decreed defeat.

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Closing

Next week check back here on Tuesday for Isidore of Seville’s continuing description of cattle and move into buffalo, and on Thursday for the dragon’s reaction to Beowulf’s attack and its dire consequences.

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Isidore of Seville on the Nobility of Cattle [12:30] (Latin)

Introduction
Translation
Recordings
A Word on “Plows”
Oh, Noble Cattle
Closing

{With a dewlap like that, this cow’s royalty. Image from FithFath.}

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Introduction

Today’s is a short extract from the Etymology, and, with an ending that concentrates on the camaraderie between cattle, a sweet one.

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Translation

[30] “The Greeks call cattle Boun. These the Latins call plows, those which turn the earth, as the plow. Naevius (trag. 62):

The plow is the governor of the countryside.

The width of whose hide from chin to legs is called a dewlap, from the skin itself, like dewlap hide; which in cattle signifies nobility. Cattle are exceptionally dutiful in groups; for one checks with another when they are usually lead together at the plow, and they will frequently make their affection clear by lowing if the other begins to fail.”

(St. Isidore of Seville, Etymologiae 12:30)

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Recordings

Latin:

Modern English:

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A Word on “Plows”

Maybe English just isn’t as poetic as Latin (it is the root of French, Spanish, and Portuguese after all), but anything called a “plow” just brings to mind a plow. The word doesn’t exactly stir ideas of some cherished thing or animal.

Nonetheless, “plow” is the best translation that could be found for the Latin “trionem” (the simple “trio” being nonsensical in this context).

The word “trionem” might not be the greatest term of endearment, but a rolling “r” has to stand for something. Or maybe the Latin farmers were all about using metonymy.

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Oh, Noble Cattle

At any rate, the nobility attributed to cattle, working cattle in particular here, does suggest a certain fondness for the animal. What’s curious about this fondness though is that there’s no real mention of milk or the meat taken from these animals.

Maybe these extras are simply seen as a given part of cattle’s nobility (their magnanimity, if you will) since true nobility includes true generosity. Yet there’s no comparison of cattle to Christ, so maybe the milk and meat offered by cattle simply weren’t as highly prized as the labor they could undertake.

Besides, like the lambs that can recognize their parents, cattle that apparently encourage each other while at the plow are one step closer to being human. That may just be the highest praise a 7th century church man can offer. Being called the “governor of the countryside” (12:30) must count for something, too.

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Closing

On Thursday check back here for a look at the first exchange of blows in Beowulf’s fight with the dragon.

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Quietly Boar-ish about Bulls [12:27-29] (Latin)

Introduction
Translation
Recordings
Persistent Etymologizing
Bull on Bulls?
Closing

{One of today’s featured animals, looking very much like its hide will ‘refuse all weapons.’ Image from the National Library of the Netherlands Illuminated Manuscript Collection.}

Introduction

In this special weekend make-up edition of Tongues in Jars, St. Isidore talks boars and bulls:

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Translation

“[27] The boar is named for its savagery, take away the letter F and replace it with a P. From whence and cloely the Greek Saugros, that is, wild, by which it’s called. Truly all, that are wild and irritable, we call wild marauders.
[28] A bullock it is called, which began as a help to men in cultivating the earth, or which the pagans always and everywhere sacrifice to Zeus/Jupiter, never a bull. For the age of the sacrifice is considered. Taurus is the name in Greek, as it is here.
[29] A dun colour indicates the bull, agility of a bird, its hair in opposing rows; the head they flexibly turn any way they wish; their back is quite hardy, refusing all weapons brought to bear against it.”
(St. Isidore of Seville, Etymology 12:27-29)

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Recordings

Latin:

Modern English:

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Persistent Etymologizing

Sticking true to his work’s name (Etymology, the origin of words), St. Isidore tries his darndest to relate the word “aper” (boar) to “feritate” (savagery) by replacing the “F” with a “P.” Words starting with the letter “f” could logically begin to start with “p” so maybe “aper” broke off from “feritate” at some point. Nonetheless, the connection isn’t quite as strong as some of Isidore’s other efforts.

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Bull on Bulls?

What’s really curious in this passage is Isidore’s description of the bull. Its agility would definitely be impressive given its size and its weight, but the description of its hair and flexible neck is quite odd.

Do the opposing rows of hair suggest curliness? Is the flexible neck considered something to prize – a sort of flexibility in being commanded? These are both things that we’re left to wonder, as St. Isidore does not elaborate.

The toughness of leather (being a cow’s skin, even on its back, after all) is also mentioned here, though the fact (likely the exaggeration) that it “refus[es] all weapons brought to bear against it” (“omne telum respuunt inmiti feritate” (12:29)) suggests that bulls just aren’t made like they used to be. The drying process must make the cow hide too stiff, and thus unable to be flexible enough to turn weapons any which way it pleases.

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Closing

Though he doesn’t do much of it here, St. Isidore does elaborate on cattle in this week’s regular Tuesday entry. And Beowulf strikes a blow against the dragon on Thursday, don’t miss it!

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Beowulf & the Dragon: Little Appetite for Mutual Destruction [ll.2554-2565] (Old English)

Introduction
Translation
Recordings
Shorter Sentences
Beowulf Attacks the Dragon, or Fends it Off?
Closing

{Benjamin Bagby knows well the power of shorter sentences. Image from Benjamin Bagby’s Beowulf}

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Introduction

Roused by Beowulf’s heavy metal scream at the end of last week’s passage, the dragon is angry this week. Yet neither of the two fighters are particularly pleased to be forced into battle:

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Translation

“Hatred was aroused, the hoard guardian recognized
man speech; then there was no more time
to ask for friendship. First came the
breath of the fierce assailant from out of the stones,
a hot vapour of battle; the earth resounded.
The warrior below the barrow, the lord of the Geats
swung the rim of his shield against the dreadful stranger;
then was the coiled creature incited at heart
to seek battle. The good war-king
had already drawn his sword, the ancient heirloom,
sharp of edges; each was in horror from a mutual
intent upon destruction evident in the both of them.”
(Beowulf ll.2554-2565, Ch.XXXV)

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Recordings

Old English:

Modern English:

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Shorter Sentences

One constant in narratives from all ages is that action sequences are made up of shorter sentences. Although this passage doesn’t include any that are shorter than 19 words, the sentences here are, on average, quite a bit shorter than those in previous weeks. The shorter sentence length here makes it clear that the poet/scribe is moving into the thick of the action – things are happening now, and in real time.

In fact, it could even be argued that the shorter sentences here are the natural Old English mode of the reportage of action as it is happening. Whenever the poet describes things such as passages of time, or the interaction of characters, various details tend to be lingered upon, providing extra information that’s really ornamental rather than practical.

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Beowulf Attacks the Dragon, or Fends it Off?

The action that’s currently taking place, however, takes on a different dimension when considered alongside the other major fights in the poem.

Unlike when Grendel comes to Beowulf or when Beowulf seeks out Grendel’s mother to continue their feud, Beowulf is pure interloper in regards to the dragon. In fact, had it not been for the thief that stole the cup, the dragon may never have left its barrow and may never have caused the Geats any distress.

So, in a sense, this is a new kind of fighting for Beowulf. Rather than being the avenging hero who is reacting to something that has happened to him or to his retainer, he is taking the initiative.

In his youth, Beowulf fought battles for others, now in his old age he fights them for himself. Perhaps this aspect of the fight is meant to reflect the simplicity in fighting for another, a person from whom you can sever yourself if it happens to be necessary to do so. On the other hand, fighting the battles made necessary to fight because of being a king are made out to be all the more difficult since you can no longer defer to some ring-lord or other but are ultimately answerable to yourself.

Perhaps Beowulf’s having a “sorrowful heart” (as noted in last week’s entry) is not just because of some direct feeling of his impending death, but the feeling that he has become the cause of the problem, and in order to defeat the problem, he also needs to destroy its cause: himself.

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Closing

As will be seen in next week’s entry, that is indeed a valid reading of the fight.

Also on Saturday hear St. Isidore talk more of boar, and next Tuesday he’ll move onto bull and oxen.

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Beowulf’s ‘Barbaric Yawp’ to Dragonkind [ll.2542-2553] (Old English)

Translation
Recordings
Back to the “grey stone”
On Dragons and the Need for Weapons
Beowulf’s Persistent Youth
Closing

{Old Beowulf in a pose befitting his bellow. Image from Sandra Effinger’s “BEOWULF: Still a Hero” website.}

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Translation

“Then by the wall, the man who had survived
with good manly virtue a great many battles,
the crash of combat, when the band on foot clashed,
saw standing a stone arch, a stream out from there
burst from the barrow; there it was a surging stream
of hot deadly fire; he could not be near the hoard
for any length of time without being burned up
could not survive in the depths of the dragon’s flame.
Then he allowed it from his breast, when he was enraged,
the lord of the Weder-Geats sent the word out,
fierce-hearted he shouted; his voice came in
clear as in battle as it roared under the grey stone.”
(Beowulf Ch. XXXV, ll.2542-2553)

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Recordings

Old English:

Modern English:

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Back to the “grey stone”

The first thing that jumps from this passage is the mention of “grey stone” (hārne stān) in line 2553. Where last week’s section seemed to nod to the story of Sigemund as it’s told earlier in Beowulf, this phrase is practically quoted from the story (“under hārne stān” appears in line 2553 and line 887).

This repetition is evidence of a kind of narrative inverse parabola within the poem, where events in the first part are mirrored by events in the third, with the descent into the mire (lines 1492-1631) being the “depths” of the poem as it were.

What’s most curious here though is that since the precedence is a celebratory story about a victorious dragon slayer, expectations seem to be running against Beowulf’s own disposition. His heart is heavy, and he’s ready for whatever fate has in store for him (“Him wæs geōmor sefa,/wǣfre ond wæl-fūs[;]” “He was of a sorrowful mind,/restless and ready for death” ll.2419-2420).

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On Dragons and the Need for Weapons

The previous presence of a dragon was in a story nested in a story (the scop’s song in celebration of Beowulf defeating Grendel, ll.884-915) whereas the dragon is now as ‘real’ as the story’s main character.

Maybe this confrontation between the ‘real’ and what was heretofore imagined is meant to show the way in which the real world twists things – even imagined things – about, but it’s hard to say with certainty just what the poet/scribe is up to here.

Something that any reading of these parallel events also needs to deal with is the fact that the story of Sigemund and the dragon is about a young man fighting a dragon, whereas Beowulf is by no means young any longer. Perhaps his boasts of his youthful exploits are meant to be invocations of his youthful strength, but they’re too tempered by an awareness of his own mortal reality. This awareness is made clear in his admission that if he knew another way to face the dragon he would do so unarmed.

So then, what does it mean for Beowulf, a warrior and king who relied on his natural body for glory so much in the past, to now need to add weapons to that body to win glory?

Is Beowulf cursed in an opposite sense to Grendel – where the monster can’t be harmed by metal, the hero can’t wield metal? The giant’s sword he uses to finish off Grendel’s Mother and Grendel himself could be an exception, but perhaps whatever enchantment it was under nullified his curse?

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Beowulf’s Persistent Youth

Given what’s present in the passage, it seems that Beowulf, at least in calling out the dragon, is still as wild as he was when he wrestled Grendel. He doesn’t unsheathe his sword and bang it against his shield or otherwise use what he’s wearing to call out the dragon, but instead shouts. And he shouts so that it “roared under the grey stone” (“hlynnan under hārne stān” l.2553).

The word “hlynnan” could be translated as “resounded” or “reverberated” instead of “roared,” but with what’s come before, and Beowulf’s feeling of unease (brought on, perhaps, because he knows he can’t fight the dragon with his bare hands, and that makes him incredibly nervous), the primal connotations of “roared” makes it seem the best fit.

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Closing

Next Tuesday Isidore talks Bull, and the dragon rushes into the open where he and Beowulf stare each other down.

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Pigging Out on Early Medieval Animal Notions [12:23-26] (Latin)

Translation
Recordings
First Thoughts
On Connections
On Pigs
Closing

{A curious scene for a curious animal. Image from the Medieval Illuminated Manuscript Collection at the National Library of the Netherlands}

Translation

This week, Isidore’s focus is on names. Quite a bit more than usual:

[23] “The hare (lepus), from light-footed (levipes), are those that run quickly. And they are called from the Greek for running “Lagos”; truly, fast is this animal, and very timid.
[24] The rabbit is a type of wild animal as is the wild dog, that which dogs entrap to capture or that they draw out from their warrens.
[25] Sows they are called, which root in the pastures, they dig in the earth in search of food. Boars (verres), those that have power (vires) when older. Pigs (porcus), since they are as filth (spurcus). Truly they pour in their own filth, they immerse in mires, they cover themselves with mud. As per Horace (Letters 1.2.26):

And the friend of filth, pigs.

[26] This is also smut or foulness. Pigs’ hair is called bristly and hair of the sow: it is called this especially by shoemakers, the likes of which hair and hide they are used to, that is accustomed to, working with.”
(St Isidore of Seville, Etymologiae 12:23-26)

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Recordings

Latin:

Modern English:

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First Thoughts

So, what we have here is a quick write up about the hare and its habits, launching into the pig and its thorough association with filth. Knowing that these sorts of medieval encyclopedias were a mash-up of original and “borrowed” material does something to explain the order in which Isidore is treating animals, but it remains curious.

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On Connections

The connection between deer and rabbits is their timidity. This makes good sense, as the end of the passage on deer is indeed a quotation about that very quality.

But, then what’s the connection between the rabbit and the sow or pig? Is it that the pig roots around in the ground for food as the dog does for the rabbit? It seems like that’s the case – unless the connection (if there even is one) is based on the fact that both animals live quite a bit of their lives in the dirt.

What’s also curious is that only the pig’s skin is mentioned as something used by a profession. Rabbits would’ve been fairly plentiful in Isidore’s part of the world, but it seems the fur didn’t have much value. Certainly, no one was “accustomed to” (“suant” or “consuant” (12:26)) using it.

I guess pigskin wasn’t so much what was kicked in those days as it was that with which you kicked.

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On Pigs

The association between pigs and filth, mud, and smut is something that St. Isidore seems particularly intent on getting across. Why exactly is unclear. Though, if the animal itself is so filthy, then why is its skin so commonly used for leather?

Inhering in his entry on pigs is there some kind of commentary on the commoner’s choice of footwear material? Or is it just that St. Isidore is emphasizing the pig’s uncleanliness in order to make it more obvious that all creatures have a purpose when he reveals that the pig is what the shoemaker is used to using?

It’s a curious question, but one that can’t be grasped if we look only at the words of the Etymologiae. Nonetheless, a guess is that St. Isidore is just reporting what he’s found here, perhaps trying to make people remember their humble connections to this humble animal.

What’s most surprising, though, is that he doesn’t even mention how tasty the pig can be. Ah well, probably not a lot of room in the life of a bishop to have copious amounts of an animal sliced into strips and fried up to celebrate the birth of a savior.

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Closing

Check back here Thursday evening for the telling of Beowulf’s rousing the dragon (Ch.XXXV, ll.2542-2553).

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Beowulf’s is no "cowardly course of action!" [ll.2529-2541] (Old English)

{The sort of shield Beowulf may’ve borne off with him. Image from the Lighthouse Journal}

Translation
Recording
Commentary Intro
Death and Glory
Echoes of Sigemund
Closing

At last in this week’s reading of Beowulf, the hero becomes a man of action once more. Since deeds speak louder than words, let’s check in with the poet/scribe’s own deeds, which, ironically, are words.

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Translation

“‘Wait you on the barrow, my armed men,
warriors in war gear, while we see which of
we two can endure the wounds
after the deadly onslaught. This is not your fight,
nor any other man’s, but mine alone
to share my might with the foe,
indeed my courage. By that courage shall
I win the gold, or, in battle,
peril of a violent death, may your lord be taken away!’
Arose then behind the shield that renowned warrior,
hard under helm, bore his battle shirt beneath
the stony cliffs, trusted in the strength of one
man alone. That was no such cowardly course of action!”
(Beowulf ll.2529-2541)

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Recordings

Old English:

Modern English:

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Commentary Intro

So here we have Beowulf announcing that this is his fight, and then heading off to the dragon’s den. Even the poet/scribe notes that he “trusted in the strength of a single man” (“strengo getruwode/ānes mannes” ll.2541-42). But what’s this all about?

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Death and Glory

If Beowulf knows that he is likely to die in this fight it could be argued that he wants to minimize the danger to his thanes by rushing into battle alone. However, that’s a bit of an anachronistic way of looking at the passage.

All puns pardoned, it’s more likely that Beowulf specifically orders his men to stay out of the fray so that he can go out in a blaze of glory. What better way to die than in battle, let alone battle with a dragon – the very embodiment of the greed that all good kings must eschew in order to be good kings.

The passage could also be analyzed as the poet/scribe taking a bit of a jab at a system where a mere man calls the shots in a society that runs on glory and heroic deeds, since it is the doing of such deeds that gets Beowulf killed and ultimately leads to the Geats’ being leaderless, and shortly after war-ravaged.

So, is this merely the vehicle to set up the main character for his triumphant death as hero and dragon slayer, or a Christian twist that’s supposed to undermine the old pagan Germanic way?

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Echoes of Sigemund

One thing can definitely be agreed on, there’s an echo of the story of Sigemund and Fafnir in the description of Beowulf’s approach to the barrow’s entrance. It’s only in the phrase “stony cliffs” (“stān-cleofu” l.2540), but the inclusion of “stān” makes this phrase too close to “grey stone” (“hārne-stān”) to be mere coincidence.

Unless dragons are somehow related to these sorts of rocky outcrops, it seems that the poet/scribe is trying to hint at some connection between the Sigemund story and this. Perhaps he is merely foreshadowing the victory (and the curse that comes with it), or trying to suggest that such old stories have no basis in reality. After all, this is Beowulf whose moving under these rocks to kill a dragon, not some distant mythological figure like Sigemund.

Nonetheless, for a passage that’s full of bravado these lines provide a lot more than mere introspection on the part of Beowulf. It really speaks to his own desire to show himself that he’s still as good as he was when he was young.

As the hero of the story he has internalized the very ethos of the Germanic pagan heroic tradition, and it is that which will ultimately cause his downfall. He feels that he is going to die, he’s got that heavy heart, and he constantly talks of how fate is the only one who can decide which of the two will live or die. But yet he still goes on, and his final words to his men suggest a tone of “don’t bother me, I need to show you (and myself) that I can still do this.”

Beowulf needs to validate himself within the system that he has so successfully internalized, first as the celebrated slayer of Grendel and Grendel’s Mother, then as king of the Geats, and then finally (and hopefully, in his current frame of mind), as the slayer of the dragon. But only time will tell.

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Closing

Come back next week for Isidore’s brief take on rabbits and longer musing on pigs, and for Beowulf’s final approach to the dragon.

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