Appraising a Dagger via a Sword

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Reading Steel
Ouroboros Slinks in
Closing

{A modern replica of an Anglo-Saxon “seax” (or dagger). Image found on Englisc Gateway}

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Abstract

The messenger sent by Wiglaf tells the waiting people of Beowulf’s fate, and Wiglaf’s steadfastness.

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Translation

“‘Now is the Weder’s gracious giver,
the lord of the Geats, fast in his deathbed,
gone to the grave by the dragon’s deed:
Beside him, in like state, lay the
mortal enemy, dead from dagger wounds; for that sword
could not work any wound whatever on
that fierce foe. Wiglaf sits
by Beowulf’s side, the son of Weohstan,
a warrior watching over the unliving other,
holding vigil over the Geats’ chief,
he sits by the beloved and the reviled.'”
(Beowulf ll.2900-2910a)

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Recordings

Old English:

Modern English:

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Reading Steel

The emphasis that the messenger puts on the dagger is strange. It’s not that he goes out of his way to praise it, but the fact that he makes it clear that the sword was useless. This extra detail suggests that the sword was indeed considered the proper, noble weapon, while the dagger held a lower position on the symbolic/social scale of weapons. Nonetheless, the connotation of Beowulf’s dagger use underlines just what the Geats lose when they lose Beowulf.

It was likely standard among Anglo-Saxons to carry a dagger of some kind with them, along with their swordbelt. However, even in the heat of the moment, the poet peels things back and tells us that Beowulf wore his dagger on his hip/byrnie.

So was the wearing of a smaller blade a new thing with Beowulf’s generation? Was it simply the garb of a proper warrior? Why does the poet specify where Beowulf wore his dagger?

Such a small detail, though potentially of some historical or cultural significance, is more likely than not just an example of the poet filling out his poetic meter. The mention of the sword’s failure, as an explanation for the use of the dagger definitely shows that the messenger is true to his word – he leaves out no detail.

And that honesty opens up the other side of the issue, it seems very likely that the sword is only mentioned to excuse the dagger. In fact, if you’ve read Beowulf enough times, you can almost see the crowd rolling their eyes and thinking that Beowulf’s just being Beowulf, being too strong for any sword and whatnot.

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Ouroboros Slinks in

Yet, if we turn the mention of the dagger again, then there’s the matter of the dragon’s existence in the story being cyclical. The dragon appears because a thief steals from its hoard.

A dagger is weapon of favour among those who prize stealth (like thieves) – hence the modern genre tag “cloak and dagger” – and so is likely to be a thief’s weapon. The dragon is killed with a dagger, and so the dragon’s existence in the story is something of a closed system. A noble sword is wielded, but in the end what woke the dragon must put it back to its rest.

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Closing

Next week, watch for the prognostications of the messenger on Thursday! I’ll also be uploading links to any British/Medieval archaelogical news that I come across.

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