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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