A Co-ordinated Dragon Kill [ll.2688-2705] (Old English)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
When Words Flash, Sharp as Swords
A Matter of Succession
Closing

{Wiglaf shown landing the distracting blow, or Beowulf landing the fatal one – that’s just how much of a team this duo is. Image found on Weird Worm.}

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Abstract

Thanks to a team effort, Beowulf and Wiglaf bring down the dragon.

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Translation

“Then the ravager of a people for a third time,
the terrible fire dragon intent on a hostile deed,
rushed on that renowned one when for him the opportunity
permitted, hot and battle fierce. All of his neck was
clasped by sharp tusks; he was made to become bloody
with ichor, gore in waves surged out.
Then, as I have heard, the soldier by his side showed
known courage for his liege lord,
strength and boldness, as was inborn.
He worked not upon the head, but the hand of that daring
man was burned, when he his kin helped by striking
a little lower at the strife-stranger with blade full
of cunning, so that the decorated sword, gleaming and
gold-adorned, stuck in the beast’s stomach so that the
fire began to abate afterwards. Then once more the king
himself wielded his wit, brandished a hip-blade, bitter
and battle-sharp, that he wore on his byrnie;
the protector of the Weders cleaved the dragon in its
     middle.”
(Beowulf ll.2688-2705)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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When Words Flash, Sharp as Swords

The words here are definitely meant to mimic the flashing of blades. The exact words are different, of course, being translated, but the description of the duo’s weapons and their working is preserved.

The descriptive phrases “sword full of cunning, so that the decorated sword,/gleaming and gold-adorned” (“þæt ðæt sweord gedēaf,/
fāh ond fǣted” (ll.2700-2701)) and “brandished a hip-blade,/bitter and battle-sharp,” (“wællseaxe gebrǣd/biter ond beaduscearp” (ll.2703-2704)) in both Englishes still give a vivid image of steel being swung or stabbing, all the while glittering with either jewels or fatal intent.

Such description and rhetorical use of language is effective here because it brings listeners/readers into the action of the poem while also reminding them of the extreme danger of the dragon. After all, the gleam of Wiglaf’s sword is likely as much due to whatever natural light is available as it is to the dragon’s fire illuminating it; and Beowulf’s “bitter and battle-sharp” dagger, drawn with wit, reminds us of the kind of cunning required to slay something so ancient, deadly, and tricky in its own right.

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A Matter of Succession

If there was ever a history of Wiglaf penned by a monk or sung by a bard, and if that history involved a successor, it would not be surprising if Wiglaf’s successor helped him win his final battle.

Kingship is something that needs to be continuous, lest a contest for the throne result in the destruction of a house, much like the case of Haethcyn and Herebeald. And there is no better way to pass on kingship than to slay a dragon with your successor.

In fact, if the line of kings is regarded as a kind of chain, Wiglaf’s selfless stabbing of the dragon below its armored head is exactly where his link connects to that of Beowulf as the poem’s hero rallies and defeats the dragon, drawing his own link on the chain of kingship (and, *spoilers* his life */spoilers*) to a close.

But Neil Gaiman wasn’t far from the mark when he has Wiglaf succeed Beowulf, for although it may be short lived, Wiglaf’s succession of Beowulf is exactly what this team effort solidifies.

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Closing

Next week, this blog will be on break so that what’s here can be tidied up, recordings can be posted, and a new page can be launched. But, in the meantime, I’ll be updating my other blog every day of the week, so check it out at http://glarkly.blogspot.ca!

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Isidore of Seville on Color (Pt.2) [12:53-55] (Latin)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
The Trickiness of Translating Color (2)
High Riders and Low Riders
Closing

{A stained glass window from The Cathedral of Saint Mary of the See, also known simply as Seville Cathedral. Image from the Wikipedia.}

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Abstract

Isidore continues his descriptions of colors, and ends with an indirect description of a pony express.

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Translation

[53] “Roan is what the common folk call guaranen. Brazen itself the commons call this; which is colored in the way of bronze. On the other hand, myrtle is simply purple.

[54] “Moreover, they call it [dowry], the color that is the same as the ass’ color: that itself and ash grey are the same. They are also those colors in the wild breeds: those born, as the horse breeders say, without the ability to pass on the refinement of civilization.

[55] “Moors are black, truly the Greeks call black mauron. Gallic horses are in fact small horses, which the commons call brownish. Truly gifted the old ones call those which drive back, that is lead; or which run on public ways, going to and fro as they are accustomed to do.”
(St. Isidore of Seville, Etymologiae 12:53-55)

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Recordings

Latin:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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The Trickiness of Translating Color (2)

Some things just don’t seem to be translatable. This week’s section isn’t as bad as last week’s, but one word seems to have been left behind by Modern English: “guaranen.”

This word is indeed mysterious, but it must at the least refer to some color involving brown and white since it’s comparable to the color roan, itself the name for the color of animals whose pelts mingle brown and white closely together.

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High Riders and Low Riders

Throughout the descriptions and explanations this week, Isidore consistently refers to the commons as having a different vocabulary. Since he’s writing about horses, an animal that has many functions in human societies, this makes sense.

The common folk are likely to use horses to work and get around, whereas the wealthy are those that breed them for show and for speed – arguably less utilitarian ends. A gap between these two groups is also seen in the differing terms for copper colored: “cervinus” and “Aeranen,” (12:53). The first of these refers to the color of deer and the second to the color of a valuable metal thought to last forever.

Color terms are likely to come from things encountered in daily life, since this gives them a grounding in shared experience, and the difference in experience of the wealthy and the commons is underscored by the gap between the deer that the wealthy had time to admire and a valuable metal that the commons may well have coveted.

Curiously, this creates something of a yin-yang relationship, in that each group contains a germ of the other.

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Closing

Check back here on Thursday for the final exchange of attacks between team Beowulf and the dragon.

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Beowulf Strikes the Dragon’s Head, and the Poet/Scribe Strikes at the Poem’s Heart [ll.2672b-2687] (Old English)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Beowulf’s Flaw, and an Old Dichotomy
Striking at the Heart of the Poem
Closing

{A good example of how flame might advance in a wave. Image by John Howe, and found on john-howe.com.}

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Abstract

Wiglaf’s valor inspires Beowulf, but this leads to the revelation of the truth about Beowulf and his swords.

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Translation

        “Flame in a wave advanced,
burned the shield up to the boss; mail coat could not
for the young spear-warrior provide help,
but the man of youth under his kinsman’s shield
valiantly went on, when his own was
by flame destroyed. Then the war king again set
his mind on glory, struck with great strength
with the war sword, so that it in the dragon’s head stuck
and impelled hostility; Naegling broke,
failed at battle the sword of Beowulf, ancient
and grey-coloured. To him it was not granted by
fate that his sword’s edge may be a help at battle;
it was in his too strong hand, he who did so with
every sword, as I have heard, the stroke overtaxed
it, when he to battle bore any weapon wondrously
hard; it was not for him at all the better.”
(Beowulf ll.2672b-2687)

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Recordings

Old English:

Modern English:

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Beowulf’s Flaw, and an Old Dichotomy

All heroes need a flaw.

Eddard Stark in the Song of Ice and Fire was simply too noble, Link in the Legend of Zelda games is always inexperienced, and Beowulf can’t effectively wield swords. Beowulf’s particular weakness is especially interesting in relation to the rest of the poem.

On the one hand, it’s potentially a great reflection of Beowulf’s name, whether it means “bear” (bee-wolf), or is simply “wolf.” His being unable to use swords effectively (almost pervasively a symbol of cultivated, human nobility) plays well to his animalistic aspect.

Rather than fighting like a civilized man with sword and shield, Beowulf instead fights bare handed, and is indeed the better for it. After all, defeating Grendel empty-handed is a much more boast-worthy feat than defeating him with a sword, not necessarily because of the strength that it requires, but because it plays so well into the mythology around Grendel as a monster who resists iron weapons.

However, it also implies that Beowulf is somehow on a level with Grendel, who, as it is noted, “scorns/in his reckless way to use weapons” (“þæt se ǣglǣca/for his won-hȳdum wǣpna ne recceð”(ll.433-434)).

In this way, Beowulf’s prowess in unarmed combat speaks to something uncivilized in him that he’s note entirely capable of controlling. After his fight with Grendel, he doesn’t seem to take up sword and shield to the same effect again (after Grendel we hear no more of “sea-brutes” (“niceras” (l.422)) or trolls (“eotena” (l.421))). Except of course, in his final, fatal battle with the dragon.

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Striking at the Heart of the Poem

The fact that the whole poem is essentially an elegy to Beowulf and the Geatish (probably, by proxy, Anglo-Saxon) culture that he is so much a part of, while also presenting Beowulf as uncivilized in war (something uncivilized in itself) might just be the strongest argument for Beowulf’s really being about the Anglo-Saxons transitioning from their own traditions to something more Christian. The brutality of empty-handed combat gives way to something regarded as more civil.

The way of the sword (very obviously a cross, if the blade is stuck into the ground), is left in the absence of the way of the brutal fist. But even the way of the sword fades, if you look beyond the far end of the poem, as the Geats are prophesied to soon meet their end as a nation (ll.3010-3030).

So in addition to elegy, the poem is also apocalyptic, indicating the end of warfare, the way of the sword, for one of the many groups in early medieval Europe. Perhaps, from a Christian perspective, this is meant to point towards a Utopian future, or Second Coming, that is inevitable if the old ways are left behind and new ones are adapted.

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Closing

Check back next week for more of Isidore’s colorful explanations, and for the climax of the battle between team Beowulf and the dragon.

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Isidore of Seville on Color (Pt.1) [12:50-52] (Latin)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
The Trickiness of Translating Color
Varieties of White: Something From Nothing?
Closing

{A simple color wheel, yet complexities hide in what it depicts. Image from the Association for Anthroposophic Medicine & Therapies in America.}

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Abstract

Although it “is especially visible,” Isidore expands on the meaning of the various colours he cited in last week’s translation.

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Translation

[50] “Bluish-gray is in fact just as painted eyes and those which are brightly dyed. On the other hand, grayish is a better color than pale yellow. Speckled it is, white dotted throughout with black.

[51] “Moreover, brilliant white and white are in turn differed from each other. For white is that which is pale, while brilliant white is in fact filled with brightness like snow and pure light. White gray it is called which comes from the colors brilliant white and black. Checked it is called because of rings which have brilliant white among purple.

[52] “Horses that are spotted have inferior colors in some ways. Those that have only hooves of true white, known as petili, and whose forehead is white, warm.”
(St. Isidore of Seville, Etymologiae 12:50-52)

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Recordings

Latin:

Modern English:

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The Trickiness of Translating Color

Just as the way in which Anglo-Saxon’s differentiated colors based on brightness, the sense of the colors that Isidore expounds upon this week isn’t entirely clear in translation.

Obviously, in paragraph 52, spotted is pointed out as an inferior color, but even then the why isn’t entirely explicit.

On the one hand it could be because spotted horses don’t live as long as solid colored horses, or it could hearken back to the appearance based judgments that went into relating rippling muscles and certain sorts of ears to a great power and speed respectively.

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Varieties of White: Something From Nothing?

Yet, the differentiation between white and brilliant white is interesting. Rather than being defined by the lack that “white” is (since paleness generally means the absence of color), brilliant white is defined simply as the presence of brilliance (new fallen snow or bright light).

Again, returning to the idea that the outside reflects the inside, it goes unsaid, but chances are a brilliant white horse would be more valued than one that is merely “white.” Projecting whiteness must have been more impressive than simply being white.

Of course, if that line of reasoning is followed, you might just find yourself with an old explanation for why some people thought that Caucasians with skin that’s white-as-a-sheet are better than everyone else. Rather than being white because of lack, they’re white because of excess. A curious reversal of the spectrum, in a way.

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Closing

Check back here Thursday to see what happens when Beowulf and Wiglaf launch their counterattack on the dragon.

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A Chatty Wiglaf and an Encouraged Beowulf [ll.2661-2672a] (Old English)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Wiglaf: The Chatty Youth
An Early Ascension Speech?
Closing

{Just what the dragon’s doing while Wiglaf stages his dramatic entrance. Image from Quest for Glory V concept art at RPGamer.com}

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Abstract

Wiglaf rushes over to Beowulf, and reassures him that his glory will not falter for this difficulty. But, just as Wiglaf finishes his short speech, the dragon starts back towards the pair.

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Translation

“Advanced he then through that deadly smoke, in helmet
he bore to the lord his help, few words he spoke:
‘Dear Beowulf, perform all well,
just as you in youth long ago said
that you would not allow while you are alive
your glory to decline; You shall now in deed be famous,
resolute prince, all strength
your life to defend; I you shall help.’
After that word the serpent angry came,
the terrible malicious alien from another time
glowing in surging fire attacked his enemy,
hateful of men.”
(Beowulf ll.2661-2672a)

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Recordings

Old English:

Modern English:

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Wiglaf: The Chatty Youth

Wiglaf is a very strange character. It’s not that his name is odd (aside from what’s been said before, what could naming someone “war heirloom” mean, anyway?), or that his introduction is hastily foisted onto an explanation of his equipment, but that he gets so many lines of dialog.

After all, considering the length of this poem, there really isn’t that much dialog.

Hrothgar and Beowulf have some long speeches, but they’re both in the poem for a substantial amount of time, while Wiglaf is only prominently featured in the last 500 lines or so.

So, why does Wiglaf have such a major speaking role relative to the length of his presence in the poem?

It could be that speech is shorthand for the kind of thing that his generation of Geats excels in. That the rest of his fellow thanes ran away when Beowulf’s distress became clear is a clear mark of this. Or it could be that Wiglaf, as someone who hasn’t yet seen real battle and killed with his own sword, primarily interacts with the world through speech rather than weaponry.

But then, one thing still stands out.

In almost every instance of Beowulf, the poem’s other major hero, talking, he does it in response to other characters’ actions. He answers Unferth’s challenge to his valor (ll.529-606), he boasts to Wealhtheow when she presents him with a drinking cup (ll.628-638), and he retells his exploits in Daneland when Hygelac asks for a tale of his adventures (ll.1900-2162).

Otherwise, Beowulf is mostly a silent protagonist. The only major instance where he speaks unbidden is before his thanes, when he gives them his lengthy autobiography and assures them that this dragon fight will be tough, but he’ll handle it himself.

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An Early Ascension Speech?

With that in mind, is it possible that the poet/scribe behind the poem is setting Wiglaf up as the next Geatish king?

Since Beowulf’s speech to his thanes is the product of his office as well as his emotional state at the time, the only thing that marks Wiglaf as different is his lack of a title. Perhaps his outburst is meant to stand as a kind of shorthand for youthful vigor, a vigor that he tries to impart to or revive in Beowulf through his words of encouragement – themselves completely unbidden.

Going back to the idea that Wiglaf’s speeches are the result of his inexperience in the field of war (a man’s proving grounds in the poem), maybe he is an early case study in the idea behind the phrase “fake it before you make it.”

Having no past battle experience, Wiglaf can only put on a brave face, something expressed through words, but he can’t put on a brave show aside from his apparently impulsive rush from the band of thanes to his lord’s side.

Of course, if all of this is true, then the depiction of Wiglaf speaking to his fellow thanes and rushing to his lord’s side is a great portrayal of a young thane bound for great things.

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Closing

Next week, Isidore runs through three of the colors from this week’s guide to good horses. And, in Beowulf, another hardship befalls the rallied lord of the Geats.

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Part 2 of the Guide to a Good Horse [12:47-49] (Latin)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Two Notes on the Translation
Guide to a Good Horse (Part 2)
Closing

{Those are some formidable limbs, and it almost looks like they’re trembling. Image from FreeFoto.com.}

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Abstract

‎Isidore concludes the medieval guide to a good horse and discusses the Latin word for reddish/chestnut brown (“badius” 12:47).

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Translation

‎[‏47‎] “M‏erit,‭ ‬that is a bold spirit,‭ ‬brisk hooves,‭ ‬trembling limbs,‭ ‬which indicate strength:‭ ‬those who are easily roused from their stillness to their maximum speed,‭ ‬or that are not difficult to be held in their excited hurry.‭ ‬On the other hand a horse’s motion can be perceived in their ears,‭ ‬their power in the tremors of their limbs.

‎[‏48‎] ‏”Color is especially visible:‭ ‬reddish,‭ ‬golden,‭ ‬rosy,‭ ‬myrtle,‭ ‬deer brown,‭ ‬pale yellow,‭ ‬bluish gray,‭ ‬checkered,‭ ‬gray,‭ ‬white,‭ ‬speckled,‭ ‬black.‭ ‬Moreover the sequence must be ordered,‭ ‬black from reddish distinguished,‭ ‬leaving behind varied color or preventing ash gray.

‎[‏49‎] ‏”Moreover reddish was called bay (vadium) of old,‭ ‬which among the other animals made its way (vadat) through strength.‭ ‬Itself is chestnut brown (spadicus),‭ ‬as it is called by the Phoenicians, and was called the color of glory,‭ ‬which the Sicilians called spadicus.‭”
(St. Isidore of Seville, Etymologiae 12:47-49)

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Recordings

Latin:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Two Notes on the Translation

First, there is one marked difference between last week’s translation of the guide to a good horse and this week’s.

Last week, the word “meritum” (12:45) was translated as “kindness,” but this week it was translated as “merit.” The reason for the difference is context. Initially, it seemed that translating “meritum” as “kindness” would work best since it makes sense that a horse with a generous spirit is better than one with a mean spirit.

However, the list of qualities mentioned in this week’s translation makes it clear that “meritum” should be translated as “merit.”

Second, the final paragraph is an odd tangle of nouns.

Originally, “Phoenicians” was translated simply as “phoenix” and the second clause of the second sentence read “or called phoenix,” which doesn’t make as much sense. Yet, even changing “phoenicatum” (12:49) to “Phoenician” is not entirely satisfactory, since the sentence seems to be about different names for the same colour, though both are given the same.

Of course, it is possible that this paragraph is supposed to point out some sort of weird parallel between the words that two diverse cultures use, but I don’t know enough about the early medieval Sicilians and Phoenicians to make such a call.

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Guide to a Good Horse (Part 2)

Color’s a given here, but there is a curious idea presented in the description of merit.

This is that the trembling of a horse’s limbs (when idle, it seems) suggests the horse’s power – as if the muscles are so powerful that they tremble and quaver, are simply overflowing with energy, when not in use.

This diagnostic technique for detecting a horse’s power is interesting because it feeds directly into the then popular field of deducing what’s going on inside a body from what’s going on outside of it. This way of looking at things also explains why there’s an order to the colors that are listed, but the meaning of that list is not clear.

Nonetheless, the same principle of externals pointing to internals goes for using the ears as a guide to a horse’s speed.

In a way these two things are perhaps the most secret of ways to tell if a horse is good or not – and thus the most effective – since they’re given such vague descriptions.

Should the muscles tremble when the horse is idle? When it’s just at a trot? Or a when it’s at a full gallop? And what about the ears indicates speed? If they’re kind of pulled back, as they might be when a horse runs so fast that the wind (or the horse itself) pulls them back? Maybe the ear thing is a matter of an early understanding of aerodynamics. And why not?

Though, back then, explanations of how air moves and interacts with other things would have been called something like “aerodynamikos” rather than “aerodynamics.” Ah, well.

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Closing

Check back here Thursday for the next installment of Beowulf. This time, Wiglaf has rushed to Beowulf’s aid, and shares words of support as the dragon draws in for another attack.

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The Second Half of Wiglaf’s Speech to the Thanes: Rhetoric [ll.2646b-2660] (Old English)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Anglo-Saxon Understatement
On Fate and Rhetoric
Closing

{The sort of sheild that Wiglaf brings to the fight – hopefully his sword proves sturdier! Image from the blog Beowulfian, hosted by wikimedia.org.}

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Abstract

Wiglaf completes his speech, and in doing so presents himself as the shining example that the other thanes should follow.

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Translation

Now is the day come
that our liege lord strength needs
good warriors. Let us go to,
to help the leader in battle while it is possible,
against the fierce terror from fire. God knows
that it is much dearer to me that my body
be with my gold-giving lord while fire should enfold him.
Nor does it seem to me fitting that we shields
bear back to home unless we first may
the foe kill, by life defend
the Weder’s prince. I know well
that it is not merited by past deeds, that he alone must
without the Geatish host affliction suffer,
fall at the battle; both of us shall sword and helm,
mail coat and battle garment together share.”
(Beowulf ll.2646b-2660)

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Recordings

Old English:

Modern English:

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Anglo-Saxon Understatement

Wiglaf really gives it to his fellow thanes in this part of his speech. How can you tell such a thing? Because he uses token Anglo-Saxon sense of understatement. Not very liberally, but in such a way that it remains obvious even to this day.

So, we hear Wiglaf start a sentence with “God knows,” (“God wāt” (l.2650)), and it’s quite clear that he’s either being incredibly genuine or relying on a higher power to embolden himself. The understatement comes next when he moves from citing god to state that it wouldn’t be fitting to go home as warriors if they didn’t even fight.

The understatement in this sentence is clear from Wiglaf’s beginning it with “nor” (“ne”(l.2653)). This negative start undercuts his own position (“…seem to me…” ( “…þynceð me…”(l.2653))) and puts it squarely in contrast with his previous reference to god. And so the young warrior cunningly sets himself up for a verbal finger wagging as he calls his fellow warriors on even thinking about calling themselves warriors without even fighting the dragon.

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On Fate and Rhetoric

Wiglaf’s statement “I know well/that it is not merited by past deeds” (“Ic wāt geare,/þæt nǣron eald-gewyrht”(ll.2656-2657)) that Beowulf should suffer alone sets human knowledge and the unknowable power of fate at an incredible contrast.

Earlier in the poem we’ve been told that fate has left Beowulf’s side (ll.2574-2575), that it is indeed his fate to die, but Wiglaf, because of his dedication to kin, is not deterred by this, however obvious it might be given the state of the fight.

As the one who is set up to succeed Beowulf as king of the Geats, it seems that Wiglaf has an uncanny way of seeing how to make the best of fate, since he does indirectly acknowledge the fact that Beowulf is doomed while at the same time he calls for all the Geats to rally around him so that Beowulf will not be alone when he falls. It’s a nice emphasis of the importance of community to Anglo-Saxon life and culture.

However, where all of Wiglaf’s rhetoric falls flat is in his final sentence. Old English pronouns included some that were just for two people, but the one used here, “bām,” is definitely of the dual sense. So, just as Wiglaf is acutely aware of the fact that Beowulf should be attended because of his great stature as a warrior, it also seems that by the speech’s end he’s acutely aware of the fact that he is the only one about to rush off to help.

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Closing

Next week, St. Isidore starts to wrap up coverage of horses, and concludes the overview of the last two characteristics of a great horse. In Beowulf, Wiglaf rushes to Beowulf and says some more words before we’re all reminded that the dragon’s still about.

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