The Emptiness of All that Gold [ll.2771b-82] (Old English)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
The Hoard’s Sheer Immensity
The Golden Power
Closing

{The immensity of the Lost Underworld in Earthbound is just like that of the hoard: identity erasing. Image found on flyingomelette.com.}

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Abstract

The dragon is dwelled on, while Wiglaf wanders through the hoard.

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Translation

&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp”None of that sight there
was for the serpent, when the blade carried him off.
Then, I have heard, the hoard in the barrow, ancient
work of giants, was ransacked by one man, he loaded
his lap with drinking vessels and dishes of his own
choosing, the standard he also took, brightest of banners.
The sword earlier had injured – the blade was iron – that
of the aged lord, that was the treasure’s guardian for
a long time, terrifying fire brought
hot from the hoard, fiercely willing in
the middle of the night, until he a violent death died.”
(Beowulf ll.2771b-82)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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The Hoard’s Sheer Immensity

Already it’s been mentioned how Wiglaf is not referred to by name for some time after this point, but here the poet/scribe takes this lack of identity to a strange place.

Instead of referring to Wiglaf via synecdoche with a piece of a warrior’s equipment, or calling him a “thane” or “fighter,” the poet/scribe simply calls Wiglaf “one man” (“ānne mannan” (l.2774)).

The effect of this pronoun and its adjective is immense.

However, this immensity doesn’t come from the alienation that the poet/scribe subjects Wiglaf to, but rather from the sheer size of the hoard that the poet/scribe’s making Wiglaf suddenly so small implies. Don’t forget that because of that shining banner everything is now illuminated, so we can liken this part of the poem to a long panning shot that might be used in movies to show a suddenly-broken-into, vast treasure chamber in an ancient temple or tomb.

Yet, it’s curious that the poet/scribe describes the immensity of the hoard in this way, especially since there’s so much build up to it.

We hear about it when the thief stumbles into it (ll.2283-4), again when Beowulf and his thanes head to the barrow (ll.2412-3), and then again in Beowulf’s command to Wiglaf (ll.2745-6).

Plus, any Anglo-Saxon would have been practically salivating at the prospect of finding so much treasure all in one spot – becoming instantly wealthy and instantaneously being able to exercise huge influence over others through gifts, thereby shoring up his or her own reputation and social network so that they would be more secure than gold alone would allow.

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The Golden Power

In fact, it’s exactly within the gold-giving culture of the Anglo Saxons that we can find another reason for the poet/scribe’s describing the hoard as he does.

Rather than focus on how much there is, the poet/scribe has described the hoard through a kind of lack. It’s big and immense, but it’s the sort of thing that you can lose yourself in – even if you’re a loyal thane who’s already pledged your very being to help your lord in his dying moments.

And this is what makes the dragon’s hoard so dreadful. It’s big, it’s vast, it’s unwieldy.

No one could use that much gold for social reasons, and the temptation to fall into self-indulgence (as Heremod does in the story Hrothgar tells Beowulf (ll.1709-1722)) is practically irresistible. If there is a curse on the gold, that is the curse: to be instantly given so much that you don’t know what to do with yourself so you revert to an animalistic state.

Some have even theorized that the survivor who sings the “Lay of the Last Survivor” (ll.2247–66) somehow became the dragon: The last of his kind pining away over the treasure that could not buy back the lives of his fallen people or return them to their former glory.

This might also explain why the dragon is so prominently featured in this passage, despite his being long since dead. As Beowulf’s wishes have taken over Wiglaf’s identity, now the dragon’s identity, the miserly lord of plenty, threatens to do the same. Yet ultimately Wiglaf resists, for the poet/scribe sings that the dragon “a violent death died” (“hē morðre swealt” (l.2782)) to round out Wiglaf’s time in the hoard.

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Closing

Next week, this blog will be on break. I’ve fallen too far behind in the recordings to keep heading onwards and since I finished “O Fortuna” this week, I want to give myself time to catch up before moving onto my next Latin text.

In the meantime be sure to check my past entries and recordings, and if you like what you read and hear, feel free to support my efforts here!

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