Beowulf’s Battle Flame…Fading? [ll.2580b-2592] (Old English)

Introduction
Translation
Recordings
With a Sword and a Will
Foreshadowing a Shift in Perspective
Closing

{Inaccuracies aside, a depiction of The Battle of Maldon, a poem concerning another failing battle–could the Beowulf poet/scribe be alluding to this battle in this section of the epic? Image from A Cunning Plan.}

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Introduction

This week, in Beowulf, our hero reaps the results of last week’s blow against the dragon. Sadly they aren’t quite what he had hoped for.

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Translation

          Then was the barrow guard
after that battle stroke feeling fierce at heart;
casted about deadly fire; wildly leapt
those battle lights. Of glorious victory the gold-giving
friend of the Geats could not boast then; the
war sword failed unsheathed at the battle, as it
should not have, iron formerly excellent. That was
no easy journey, when the renowned kin of Ecgtheow
wanted to give up that ground;
should against his will inhabit a dwelling place
elsewhere, so shall each man
leave off his loaned days. Then not long was it
before the fierce warriors met each other again.
(Beowulf ll.2580b-2592)

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Recordings

Old English:

Modern English:

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With a Sword and a Will

So, the fight with the dragon sounds like it’s going south rather quickly.

An obvious connection to make in the passage is between Beowulf’s will and his failing sword. The fact that it failed him and as a result he must give ground when before he’d never have done so gives strong ground to relate the two.

What’s curious about the connection between Beowulf’s will and his sword though is, if you take the sword as an external marker of his will, it is that external marker which needs to flag before his internal one wanes.

Now, does he become discouraged at the failure of his sword because that’s the method that he’s set for himself? Does he fail some sort of self-appointed test because he can’t kill the dragon with the sword? This is a troubling point, but with what’s come before – namely Beowulf’s telling his thanes to leave this fight to him – it sounds as if it is indeed a self-appointed test. So what’s it mean that he’s failed it?

The poet/scribe’s reflection on the idea of the loan of days being up suggests that Beowulf has faced the fact that he is going to die and that his feeling heavy-hearted earlier is indeed something palpable.

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Foreshadowing a Shift in Perspective

What makes Beowulf’s realization absolutely clear is the fact that instead of getting a line about the two combatants meeting again we get the neutral “Then not long was it/before the fierce warriors met each other again” ((2591-2592)).

What this line suggests is that Beowulf, though still very much the center of the story, is no longer the focus of the story as far as perspective is concerned. The poet/scribe has never really written from Beowulf’s perspective ala George R.R. Martin in his A Song of Ice and Fire series, but instead used a kind of third person (or top-down, in video game terms) limited perspective throughout. However, from this point onward another character comes to the fore, one revealed over the coming weeks.

And, as one branch may support another, so too does this new entrant into the poet/scribe’s limited third person perspective hoist up Beowulf’s actions and deeds over the next 500+ lines of the poem before, as it began, it ends with the poet/scribe narrator firmly in control.

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Closing

Next week check back for Isidore’s take on other kinds of buffalo, camel, and cud. And, on Thursday there’ll come a shift in focus in the Old English epic from Beowulf to his thanes.

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All About Three Things on Four Legs [12:31-33] (Latin)

Translation
Recordings
Cattle-trot Strut
On Calves
A Buffalo Re-Buff?
Closing

{Buffalo: so wild that they don’t even keep within manuscript borders. Image from the National Library of the Netherlands Medieval Illuminated Manuscript Collection.}

St. Isidore moves pretty quickly through the next three types of animals, so let’s get right to it.

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Translation

[31] “Cow it is called, like cattle. In fact, it is a name from the quality of their movement, just as leonine comes from lion and draconic comes from dragon.

[32] Calves are so called from the Latin for greenness, that is the green age, just like a maiden. Thus the calf is small and does not have the power of generation: for only the bullock or cow has the power of generation.

[33] Buffalo they are called by derivation, which are like cattle; though they are wild so that they will not take the burden of a yoke upon their necks.”
(St. Isidore of Seville, Etymologiae 12:31-33)

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Recordings

Latin:

Modern English:

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Cattle-trot Strut

Cow and cattle – the relationship in English is as clear as the relationship in Latin, that is, between “vacca” (the “v” is pronounced like a “w”) and “boacca” (12:31).

What’s not clear though is just what is meant by “cattle” coming from “the quality of their movement,” (“Est enim ex qualitate mobilium nominum” (12:31)), it’s just plain bizarre.

Maybe English has a word for the same sort of movement already, or maybe there just wasn’t a need for a word for that kind of movement. What sort of movement marks a cow, anyway? Slow, steady, and sturdy? This is a relatively simple passage to translate, but the precise meaning of it is rather puzzling.

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On Calves

Calves (“vitulus et vitula” (12:32)) being so named because of the Latin words’ relation to the Latin for “green” (“viriditate”) is much clearer.

Calves are young, prefer to frolic in the field, and, if pagan religious rites are any indication, iconic of the innocence associated with youth. Likewise, the propensity to sacrifice bullocks also makes sense since those are the male cattle that have just gained the power of generation, having gone through bovine puberty.

Paragraph 32 definitely deserves a medal of some sort for being so forthright and direct. But maybe it’s like that because there’s so little to say about the calf – cattle have already been likened to humans in that they seem to show compassion and so all that’s needed here is an analogy to a maiden, one without any sort of blemish or lack in its purity. In fact, the word translated into “maiden,” (“virgo” (12:32)), also could be translated as “virgin.”

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A Buffalo Re-Buff?

Then, we have the buffalo.

Isidore must mean that they’re like cattle in appearance and maybe in the way that they move, but otherwise they’re not given much of a chance. In fact, the mere note that they’re too wild to be yoked suggests, through negation, that they’re nothing at all like cattle in their character.

After all, the yoke is very much symbolic of cattle in this period. The yoke could even be used as a metonymy for them with no real problem in understanding whatsoever. So the buffalo’s refusal of the yoke seems to be Isidore’s way of making clear that they look like cattle, but lordy, they ain’t no cattle.

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Closing

Check back here on Thursday for Beowulf’s reaction to his sword that “bit less strongly” than necessary in last week’s entry (Beowulf l.2578).

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