Beowulf’s Death, and his Soul’s Departure [ll.2809-2820] (Old English)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Ambiguity in Beowulf’s Death
Beowulf Doomed?
Closing

{Wiglaf listens to Beowulf’s final words. Image found on “Outpost 10F” of The Poetry Guild.}

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Abstract

Beowulf bestows his war garb unto Wiglaf, and then gives up the ghost.

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Translation

He did off the golden ring about his neck,
the brave hearted prince, gave it to the thane,
the young spear warrior, his gold adorned helmet,
ring and mail shirt, commanded him to use them well:
“You are the last remaining of our kin,
of the Waegmundings; fate has swept away all
of my line as per the decree of destiny,
warriors in valour; I after them now shall go.”
That was the old one’s last word
of thoughts of the heart before he chose the pyre,
the hot battle flame; from his breast went
his soul to seek the judgment of the righteous.
(Beowulf ll.2809-2820)

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Recordings

Old English:

Modern English:

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Ambiguity in Beowulf’s Death

As will be the case with the death of any great literary figure, this passage is one that’s often studied. Beyond its importance to the story, we’re also once more confronted with some ambiguity around Beowulf’s deeds. Yet, rather than being confronted with ambiguity by the words of Beowulf himself, we’re confronted with ambiguity in the poet/scribe’s own phrasing.

At the passage’s end we’re told that Beowulf’s soul leaves to “seek the judgement of the righteous.” Just as the phrase “judgement of the righteous” is ambiguous in Modern English, since the litigous could defend its meaning either ‘the judgement handed down by the righteous,’ or ‘the judgement that is passed on the righteous,’ it’s the same in Old English. There it simply reads: “soðfæstra dom” (l.2820).

The problem here is that there’s no clarifying word or phrase either in the original or in most translations that strive to be accurate. As a result we’re left with something that leaves the interpretation up to the listener/reader.

But could this maybe be the point here? Could the poet/scribe who created the version of the poem that we have today have been going for ambiguity at this part of the poem?

Just as either side of the phrase’s meaning could be argued, so too could either side of the interpretation debate.

In brief, if it’s understood to mean that Beowulf is a righteous one going to the judgment that awaits him it sets him among the holy heathens whom Christ pulled from the upper levels of hell during its harrowing.

Alternately, if the phrase is interpreted as meaning that the righteous are passing judgment, there’s a strong implication that either righteousness is something a person earns after being judged worthy by those who have it (thereby becoming one of their peers).

Or, taking this meaning could mean that Beowulf really isn’t righteous at all, and that his being judged by them means that there will be a great deal of hardship in his afterlife.

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Beowulf Doomed?

Of these three possibilities, the most interesting is that Beowulf might be doomed in the end since he’s being judged by the righteous.

A truly puritanical Christian audience might be expecting as much from such a violent, alcoholic figure, but at the same time, that would seriously undermine any missionary value that this story had. After all, the Christian monks who recorded stories such as this from oral traditions would definitely have given them a spin that could be useful for bringing around the unconverted.

Of course, that gives the idea that this moment of ambiguity is intentional even more steam.

Yes, it could maybe spark debate among those who differ in their interpretations, but as long as this version was being told by a priest or religious, they would be there to point the way to their own version of the truth. If monks or religious actually went around reciting this poem, then this moment in particular would be the perfect one to serve as a crisis moment that could be turned around and explained so as to make Christ seem super appealing.

Unfortunately, the only way we’ll ever know for sure if any of this speculation about the ambiguity of the phrase “soðfæstra dom” is accurate is if another version of the poem shows up or the scribe of our version is definitively identified.

Until then, feel free to leave your thoughts on the phrase in the comments!

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Closing

Next week, the second verse of “Dum Diane vitrea” will be up, along with what Wiglaf does next after Beowulf’s demise.

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Moon Love ["Dum Diane vitrea" First Stanza] (Latin)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Liminal Evening
Sister to the Stars
Lifting the Cloud of Unloving
Closing

{The moon and stars looking ready for a night out. Image found on NASA’s “Astronomy Picture of the Day” website.}

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Abstract

The poem begins like so many days: with the dawning of the sun as a stand in for love.

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Translation

“When Diana’s glassy torch rises late
And is kindled by her rosy brothers,
A pleasant breath of wind lifts
the etheric cloud from all couples;
Thus she softens emotive power
And immoveable hearts, which
Towards the pledge of love she sways.”
(“Dum Diane vitrea” Stanza 1)

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Recordings

Since this is a poem, it will be recorded as a whole and then posted as a whole once it’s been completely translated. Once that happens, and all of the individual stanzas have been posted, an entry will be dedicated to looking at the poem as a whole. This entry will also include a complete recording.

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Liminal Evening

What is “Diana’s glassy torch”? Is it the final light of evening? Or is it the way that the sun reflects from the curvature of the earth so that we can still see some light even though the sun’s already set. Whatever it is, it makes it clear that this stanza is about a liminal moment.

That is, this moment is one between two set, concrete points of time – the day and the night.

Yet, even with this stanza’s liminality established, what is it that causes this cloud that’s apparently settled over couples to lift?

As far as can be told from this stanza, it’s just the switching over from day to night.

The most relevant aspect of this transition seems to be that it’s a move from the outward show of day toward the private and unknown night.

The reference to Diane’s mysterious brothers (or allies, “fratris”) supports this interpretation, after all, only when night has fully arrived do the stars emerge.

And that’s just what her brothers are – the stars.

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Sister to the Stars

For, Diane is the moon and her glassy torch is the moon as it sheds its pale light, so her rosy allies are the stars. Why they’re described as being rosy is unclear, unless it used to have a meaning along the lines of self-luminescent. A person with rosy cheeks is usually blushing, and a rose itself is red – a colour that is vibrant enough to pull in human attention.

With all of that out of the way, just what is the cloud that settles over couples?

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Lifting the Cloud of Unloving

Since this cloud is dispelled as the moon rises and the stars come out, it sounds likely to be the troubles of the day. The moon, accompanied by the stars gives such a different atmosphere that it changes the context of perception and allows people to forget their troubles.

Perhaps, along with factors of wealth and work, this is also why palour was sought after among women in classic ideas of beauty – just as Diane’s pale light could inspire lovers to come together, so too could the palour of a young woman be considered a palliative against the troubles of the day. Maybe such paleness was also important because it helped to wash away whatever troubles a husband/lover experienced in the public sphere.

Th public/private binary is definitely an interesting thing to apply to this poem since it already invokes the binary of night and day (through implication), but it’s also problematic.

Medieval life wasn’t exactly one that leant itself to privacy – walls were thin, roads were narrow, and small towns banded together not to be cliquey and such, but because it was necessary for survival and protection.

As a result, private/public would be better represented as public/less-public, in that at least around the house (most) people wouldn’t be intentionally watching you.

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Closing

Next week’s stanza continues along the way of love and calls on a lot of night imagery, so perhaps we’ll see all of these ideas come into play again then. In the meantime, leave your own thoughts in the comments, and watch for Beowulf’s final farewell on Thursday.

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After a Partial Peter Gabriel Eclipse

Over the past week, here’s what I’ve done for the sake of my fiction and poetry writing:

  • Outlined four of the five acts of the audio drama that I’m currently working on;
  • Worked out all of the climactic events for my perspective characters in Dekar 4 – except for the main female character;
  • Begun to research some of the magazines I’m thinking of sending my short story to;
  • Noted more story ideas.

By this week’s end I’ll have:

  • Completed my research into magazines and made a short list of five to send my stories to;
  • Sent my stories to the first magazine from this list;
  • Written up and organized a chapter-by-chapter outline of Dekar 4;
  • Written out the next act (4 scenes) of the audio drama I’m working on.

If you’re wondering why this second list is fairly similar to the to-do list from last week’s entry, my only excuse is that going to see Peter Gabriel in Toronto was a major distraction. In fact, here are the two highlights of the show (thanks to babyVantage and apc611 respectively):



This week’s distraction will be a jaunt out to see “Whose Live Is It Anyway” at the Center in The Square. All the same, I’ll have ample time for writing and planning, so I think that I’ll be able to make short work of this week’s to-do list.

Along with that, I’ll be posting my translation of the first verse (for real this week) of “Dum Diane vitrea” on Tuesday and of Beowulf’s final words on Thursday.

Over at A Glass Darkly, you can find some creative writing tomorrow, a search for the salient in Samuel L. Jackson’s The Samaritan on Friday, and some more “Annotated Links” on Saturday.

And, watch for regular updates over at my examiner.com page.

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Translation and the Bejewelled Truth [ll.2794-2808] (Old English)

A quick note: I realize that I had planned the first entry for the poem “Dum Diane vitrea” this past Tuesday. However, since I was quite distracted by travelling to Toronto for a Peter Gabriel concert by way of Guelph, that entry was not published. Watch for it next week, and my apologies for missing a beat. I’ve got my rhtyhm back now, though.

So, onwards!

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
The Facets of Translation
Answering Questions Raised
Probing Possibility
Closing

{Is the dragon’s hoard perhaps much less substantial, but much more potent? Image found on the blog PowerOfBabel.}

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Abstract

Beowulf gives thanks for his seeing the dragon’s treasure, and gives Wiglaf instructions for his funerary arrangements.

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Translation

“‘I for all of these precious things thank the Lord,
spoke these words the king of glory,
eternal lord, that I here look in on,
for the fact that I have been permitted to gain
such for my people before my day of death.
Now that I the treasure hoard have bought
with my old life, still attend to the
need of my people; for I may not be here longer.
Command the famed in battle to build a splendid barrow
after the pyre at the promontory over the sea;
it is to be a memorial to my people
high towering on Whale’s Ness,
so that seafarers may later call it
Beowulf’s Barrow, those who in ships
over the sea mists come sailing from afar.'”
(Beowulf ll.2794-2808)

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Recordings

Old English:

Modern English:

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The Facets of Translation

The most prominent feature of this week’s passage is the awkward opening sentence.

Its gist is straightfrward enough: Beowulf is thanking what we can safely guess is the Christian god for his successes, as he has done previously. However, if translating things fairly literally (perhaps too literally), we wind up with a second clause about the words being spoken by god (“wuldurcyninge wordum secge” ll.2795). Many translations omit this line since it appears to just repeat and expand upon Beowulf’s thanks to god, as it could come out as “[I…]speak these words to the king of glory.”

Yet, and this is where I exert a bit of extra pressure on the text, I’ve translated the second line as a reference to the jewels and the like being the words of god.

The reason for taking this route with the translation is simple: it gives the reader the opportunity to interpret the dragon’s hoard as the words of god, as some sort of cosmological truth as spoken directly by the creator of those cosmos. Opening up this possibility forces readers to take another look at the dragon, too. It’s still antagonistic in that it’s keeping the words of god to itself and needs to be killed for them to be distributed, but then just what kind of entity is it?

It might stretching things to the breaking point, but it seems that the dragon could be interpreted as the powerful priesthood or any entrenched exclusionary religious group, and Beowulf could then be considered some kind of scholar, wrenching the truth from those who are in places of religious power and being ready to redistribute it. Though, as we find out later in the poem, this doesn’t happen since the treasure is buried with Beowulf since the Geats consider it too dangerous to add massive wealth to their leader-less state.

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Answering Questions Raised

In this reading of the hoard as cosmological truth, we need to consider what it means for Beowulf to die for it. One possibility is that in taking on such a major source of authority he destroys all of his own credibility, and as a result the truth that he uncovers can’t be successfully transmitted since without credibility (or in more contemporary terms, authority or auctoritas) no one will willingly accept what he has to say.

That brings us around the matters of the theif and of Wiglaf. In this interpretation of the dragon’s hoard as some sort of great truth, the theif could well be one who haplessly leaked one of its aspects and therefore set the whole of Beowulf’s kingdom astir. A little bit of knowledge can be much more dangerous than a lot, after all.

As per Wiglaf, he could be an acolyte of the elder scholar Beowulf. He could be a youth who has joined his cause when noone else was brave enough to, and who cared enough for the tradition of truth than the institution which had grown up and kept it from the masses.

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Probing Possibility

The last question that this interpretation needs to face is whether or not it could have been knowingly injected into a poem written down by people working for the medieval church, an institution that was rarely free from accusations of withholding knowledge or working contrarily to the truth of things. Representing the church as a dragon, something commonly equated with the devil, could be risky in a medieval context, but I argue that this interpretation of the dragon’s hoard would hold up since the dragon could be explained as a symbol only for the corrupt within the Church and not necessarily the Church itself.

So, do you think that this interpretation holds water, or am I just stretching my own credibility by trying to keep my translation as literal as I can? Or, for that matter, have I missed something in my translation? Let me know in the comments!

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Closing

Next week, the full complement of a Latin and Old English entry will return, with the first verse of “Dum Diane vitrea” and Beowulf’s further final words to Wiglaf.

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Shining a Light Fore and Aft

Welcome to the first Sunday Edition of A Glass Darkly.

In keeping with the themes of my other entries in this blog, since Sunday is named for the Sun, these entries will shine a light on what I did related to my writing over the previous week, while also using that light to peer ahead into the next. Yes, there will be lists, but there’ll also be a little bit of description. Let’s get to it.

As you might remember from the last “Update Entry” I made, I wrote that I was going to provide an update every three days rather than every two. That was back on Monday, and so things have sort of slackened on that end of things.

However, I’m now yanking that slack and drawing in the last parts of that blog update for this Sunday entry. So, in the future, those sorts of blog updates will come out every Sunday. In the meantime, these entries will be all about my writing efforts.

Over the past week, here’s what I’ve done for the sake of my fiction and poetry writing:

  • Re-organized the schedule of A Glass Darkly to better accomodate my fiction and poetry writing;
  • Come up with the climactic moment for my current fantasy novel (Working title: Dekar 4);
  • Made notes for a number of short stories;
  • Done some world building for that fantasy series I’m working on (the world’s cosmology, history, and magic system, specifically);
  • Compiled a list of Canadian science fiction magazines.

As a refresher, here are the things still outstanding from the blog update of August ’12:

  • Send out two short stories to magazines
  • Outline entirety of the fantasy novel I’m writing
  • Completed 10 of those chapters
  • Completed the next act (4 scenes) of an audio drama I’m working on

It’s my hope that I’ll have all of these wrapped up come next Sunday.

Until then, don’t miss tomorrow’s creative writing entry and Friday’s look at Luke Wilson and Samuel L. Jackson’s Meeting Evil over at A Glass Darkly. Plus, on Saturday, you’ll be able to find the newest “Annotated Links” at that blog as well.

And keep an eye out for Tuesday’s translation of a poem possibly written by Peter Abelard (of the famed pair of star-crossed medieval lovers Héloïse and Abelard), “Dum Diane vitrea,” followed by Thursday’s look at Beowulf’s burial instructions here at Tongues in Jars.

Oh, you might also have remembered that I mentioned a video game blog that I’d be starting up soon. I still intend to start it sooner rather than later, so watch for a link in future entries.

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On Wiglaf’s Rushing Back [ll.2783-2793] (Old English)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Loyal Wiglaf
As Beowulf Lay Bleeding
Closing

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Abstract

Wiglaf remains nameless, as he rushes back to show Beowulf the gold from the hoard.

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Translation

“The messenger was in haste, eager in the journey back
By precious things he was urged on; anxiety oppressed him,
whether he would meet bold in spirit and alive
in that place the prince of the Weders,
deprived of strength, where he had earlier left him.
He then with the treasure the renowned prince,
his lord bleeding, found,
his life at an end; he then again began the
sprinkling of water, until the beginning of words
broke through his heart. The warrior king spoke,
old in sorrow – looked at the gold:”
(Beowulf ll.2783-2793)

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Recordings

Old English:

Modern English:

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Loyal Wiglaf

There’s a lot about loyalty in this passage. Wiglaf’s rushing back with gold in tow to show Beowulf, as per his final request, really highlights it.

In fact, that’s really all we’re treated to here, which is quite remarkable given all of the information we’ve been given in previous passages of the same length. When Wiglaf is in the hoard, the treasure is described and listed, when he and Beowulf are fighting the dragon, almost every lines shows us their manoeuvre or the dragon’s. But here, we just have Wiglaf rushing to show Beowulf the treasure.

It’s quite a distinct split from what’s come before. But it’s also a great way to signal that the big shift from being primarily about Beowulf to being about his death and the future of the Geats is finally about to come.

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As Beowulf Lay Bleeding

One word in particular stands out, though. When Wiglaf returns to Beowulf we’re immediately told that he’s found bleeding (“driorigne” l.2789). To note this with this word in particular is strange, since it suggests that before he left for the hoard Beowulf’s wound had somehow stopped bleeding, been stopped bleeding, or Wiglaf expected it to stop before he got back.

Regardless of what the case may be with the wound itself, that we’re given this detail really drives home the fact that this is it for Beowulf. Just as he is found bleeding his very life away, so too will the words that he next speaks be his last, as he releases the last of those two – effectively closing the word hoard.

Curiously, I imagine that his body will continue to bleed beyond his actual time of death, which, though maybe not apparent to a listening audience, acknowledges an idea that words are themselves a kind of adornment for life, something that can be woven and worn over something more plain like a brooch binding the collar of a simple cloak.

At the same time, Beowulf doesn’t mention anything about grand words that he’s spoken in the past when he tells Wiglaf that he has joy in his wound, but rather the hero says this because he has done nothing to incriminate himself. Perhaps then, even a listening audience would notice the warp and woof of the scop’s words as he sang the song of Beowulf.

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Closing

Next week, Old English will return, but the return of Latin is still uncertain.

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Blog Update: Putting a Premium on Time (Update Entry #11)

Because everything on the list is now related to my fiction and not my blogs, I’m going to start to return to regularly updates. This week, though I’ll just be posting an Old English entry. Also, These update entries are going to start coming up every three days rather than two.

The reason for this temporarily limited return is that I’ve joined the ranks of the underemployed. It’s not a job I can see myself in five years down the road, but it’s a surer way than my freelancing has been to date to help cover the costs of searching for a job requiring English/creative writing/writing/editing skills while based in a small, rural town. This job’s also something that puts a premium on time thereby making it much clearer and easier for me to work on fiction.

At any rate, here’re the to-do lists’s stragglers:

  • Sent out two short stories to magazines;
  • In the process of making time to edit, and search out good homes for them.

  • Outlined the entirety of the fantasy novel that I’m currently writing;
  • Perhaps more important than any list of key events, I’ve finally figured out the climactic event for this novel. I’m going to be outlining the chapters shortly. Hopefully within the next three days.

  • Completed five of those chapters;
  • The chapters I have right now seem like they need to be re-written, and, in fact, I may end up doing so. As per the next five chapters of the novel? I am still fleshing out what needs to happen to the novel’s various characters on the way towards and away from the climactic moment.

  • Completed the next act (four scenes) of an audio drama I’m working on;
  • An outline for this act is going to be constructed first. I need to give myself a coherent end point for the act, since that will fuel my jog towards it.

For my writing about video games, check out my writing about video games here. Also, keep an eye out over the next few days for the launch of another (yes, another) blog that I’ll be using as a play log.

And, don’t miss tonight’s creative writing entry, Wednesday’s editorial, or Friday’s galavant into David Gordon Green’s Your Highness.

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