Beowulf: Mighty in Arms, Loose in Words? [ll.2732b-2743b] (Old English)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Peering in, But Just Dipping Toes
Not Many Oaths Sworn “in Unrighteousness”
Kinds of Kin-Slaying
Closing

{Words spoken and frozen in wood, just as bad oaths are remembered. Image found on documentarystorm.com.}

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Abstract

Beowulf says that he’s come to terms with his death because he was a good king and can stand blameless before the final judgment.

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Translation

&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp”‘I this people have ruled
for fifty winters; never was there a king of the people,
any of the neighbouring folks
would dare attack with war-friends,
threaten terror. I in my homeland awaited
destiny, it guarded me well,
I did not seek contrived hostility, nor swore I many
oaths in unrighteousness. In all of this
infirmity of a mortal wound I have joy;
because the Lord of men has no cause to accuse me
of murderous killing of kinsmen, when my
life passes from my body.'”
(Beowulf ll.2732b-2743a)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Peering in, But Just Dipping Toes

For such a short passage, there’s a fair bit going on here.

It’s revealed that Beowulf has ruled as long as Hrothgar and Grendel’s Mother did; that Beowulf was the sort of king that defended his lands on reputation or by some other passive means; that he had a fairly Taoist, go-with-the-flow life philosophy that kept him out of trouble; that he has been mostly true to his word; and that he is guiltless when it comes to murdering kinsmen.

Though there’s quite a bit of depth here, this entry is just going to focus on the last two in that list.

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Not Many Oaths Sworn “in Unrighteousness”

What does Beowulf mean when he says “nor swore I many/oaths in unrighteousness” (“ne me swor fela/aða on unriht.” (ll.2738-2739), emphasis my own)? Is it an accepted part of Anglo-Saxon life (perhaps especially or only in positions of power) that some oaths are not sworn in the best of circumstances?

What exactly does it mean to swear an oath in “unrighteousness”?

Did Beowulf swear some oaths to do some unsavory things? Did he swear some oaths to escape others? Did he make pacts with spirits?

The wording itself aside, what can be looked at here is the word “fela,” which I translated as “many.” So there haven’t been a lot of oaths sworn poorly. is this just a matter of practice?

Though we don’t see Beowulf swearing oaths unrighteously, it is curious that Beowulf plays fast and loose with his retelling of the fights with Grendel and with Grendel’s Mother to Hrothgar. Specifically, Beowulf adds Grendel’s terrible glove to his story (ll.2085-2088), and greatly shortens his encounter with Grendel’s mother (ll.2135-2141).

Words were considered incredibly important to Anglo-Saxons, especially when it came to the valuation of people. So, could this alteration of words mean that Beowulf didn’t always take words so seriously?

Perhaps the answer can be found in the next part.

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Kinds of Kin-Slaying

Within the poem itself, there have been several instances of kin-slaying.

Most recently is Beowulf’s story of Hæðcyn killing Herebeald, but there is also the story of the Battle of Finnburgh, and, of course, Beowulf’s implication that Unferth killed his brother. Though it’s the most distant to this point in the poem, the Unferth instance might actually be the most relevant here.

According to some, the first half of Beowulf represents Beowulf’s destroying his shadow self, in so far as Grendel and Grendel’s Mother are embodiments of Beowulf’s animalistic nature.

In fact, others also suggest that Beowulf and Grendel are somehow related, making Beowulf a kin-killer.

On one hand this seems like an unstable interpretation, but, on the other, every statement in the section of Beowulf’s speech translated for this entry gives further information about his life through implication. Thus, either Beowulf is suggesting that accusations of kin-killing have been made against him, or that kin-killing is a common crime among kings, but he is innocent of it.

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Closing

Next week, as a relief from the animal, the first verse of the thirteenth century Latin poem “O Fortuna” will be translated. Plus, Beowulf makes his penultimate request of Wiglaf, and the plucky young thane goes darting off to fulfill it.

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