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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