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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