Spreading the Word [ll.2892-2899] (Old English)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Why so few Thanes?
More ‘Limits Lessening’
Closing

Looks like those knights have maille. Image found on iStockPhoto.

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Abstract

Wiglaf commands a messenger to go to tell the encamped Geats about Beowulf’s battle with the dragon.

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Translation

“Commanded he then that the battle work be
reported to those encamped on the cliff-edge, where the
noble warrior host sat sorrow-hearted the morning length of day,
the shield bearers, each entertained both possibilities:
that it was the end of the dear man’s days and that
the prized prince would return again. The messenger
kept little silent in his story, so that naught was left
unsaid, and so he spoke truth to them all:”
(Beowulf ll.2892-2899)

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Recordings

Old English:

Modern English:

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Why so few Thanes?

The first thing that comes to mind upon reading this passage is – if Beowulf had all of these shield bearers at his command, why didn’t he have all the Geatish warriors lay on the dragon at once? I can only imagine how poorly he’d do in Pikmin or in Little King’s Story.

Pitifully anachronistic references aside, it is a wonder why Beowulf wanted to travel only with 13. Sure, it could be said that he simply wanted to endanger as few as possible, but then you need to ask: Why 13 and not 3? Or, if there had been some hint of Wiglaf being the most valiant of the bunch, why not just the two of them with the thief as their guide?

However, as a poem that might’ve been used as a missionary tool, or that may have been hurriedly adapted from a pagan original by some deft bard, it makes sense that Beowulf travel with 13. After all, he’s he’s a Christ-figure (having survived the harrowing of the Grendels’ lair) and so to complete the analogy he needs 12 companions. One needs to betray him (the thief in this case, I suppose), and few need to prove true. In Beowulf only one the apostle analogues proves his mettle, but I’m sure that even when this change, or this narrative choice, was made, it was done to keep things interesting rather than boring its listeners with a thinly veiled Christian tale.

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More ‘Limits Lessening’

Stranger than any analogy, however, is this messenger that Wiglaf commands to go to the people. He’s clearly quick, and he’s clearly trained in the art of delivering messages (unless his heart and mind were so affected by the sight of Beowulf that he speaks truth to the people). It’s possible that it could be one of the cowardly thanes, but then, where did he come from? I’m not an early medieval military historian, by any means, but given the nature of communications then, it would make perfect sense to have a messenger in every military unit.

To hopefully suss this out a little bit more, let’s look back to lines 2878-2879 where Wiglaf says that he felt his “limits lessen”:

“…ongan swa þeah/ofer min gemet mæges helpan;”

“…I felt my limits/lessen when I strove to help our lord.”

Is it possible that just as Wiglaf found a previously unknown reserve of courage as he defended Beowulf, that the thane who delivers the news of the battle experiences the same?

If Beowulf, as we have it today, is truly a work that’s been influenced by early Christianity, as many believe it is, then this otherwise minor detail might be a major part of its Christianization. A major part of Christianity is the idea that everyone has freewill, and that one way to find your destiny is to essentially give that freewill up of your own choice so that you willingly accept “god’s plan.”

Wiglaf and this nameless messenger may not give up their freewill in doing what they do, but I don’t think it’s far from the mark to say that they both do what they’re supposed to do, and being part of the younger generation (which is almost always cast as defiant in literature), doing what these two do doesn’t come as naturally to them as it might to a young man with something to prove to kin that think he’s a good-for-nothing weakling.

Cutting right to it, then, I think that Wiglaf’s feeling his limits lessen and the messenger (assuming that it’s one of the cowardly thanes, and not some mysteriously a-horse messenger specialist) speaking freely to the gathered Geats are examples of two people finding their callings. Wiglaf is to be the battle leavings: something he can be as long as he goes to battle (if he wins, he survives and is a leaving, and if he loses he dies, and is an heirloom of the battle left to the crows and the sun). And the messenger…well…we don’t get enough information on him to be sure, but if there were certainty in analysis of English literature, science majors wouldn’t be so adverse to it.

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Closing

That wraps things up for both blogs this week.

Come Monday, a new short story will appear over at A Glass Darkly, and expect a movie review (title TBA), and Annotated Links entry on Friday and Saturday respectively. Here at Tongues in Jars, the usual Latin and Old English entries will be updloaded on Tuesday and Thursday.

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