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}

Commentary Intro
Death and Glory
Echoes of Sigemund

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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“‘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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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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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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