Questionable Memories (ll.2910-2921) [Old English]

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Battles and Anglo-Saxon War Codes
Behind the Scenes?
Closing

{Was the right side on the black or the red horse? Image found on jehsmith.com.}

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Abstract

The messenger foretells of trouble with the Franks and Frisians.

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Translation

&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp”Now our people may
expect war-time, once the king’s fall
becomes widely and openly known
among Franks and Frisians. The fury of the Franks
was hard rattled, after Hygelac sailed from afar
in a war fleet to Frisian lands, there
Hetware harried him on the field, zealously came out
against him with overpowering might so that the
corsleted warrior was made to give way,
he fell amongst foot soldiers; not at all did that
lord give treasures to his troop. Ever since then
the Merovingians have shown us no mercy.”
(Beowulf ll.2910b-2921)

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Recordings

Old English:

Modern English:

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Battles and Anglo-Saxon War Codes

For a passage that tells of events which aren’t directly connected to Beowulf’s story, there’s a lot going on here. For the messenger tells of the battle in which Hygelac fell, and the grudge that the Merovingians (the pre-Pepin the Short Franks) hold against the Geats for their raid on their land. But this isn’t the first we’ve heard of a battle like this.

We heard Beowulf himself describe another one earlier, when he’s talking to the thanes before they go up to the dragon’s hoard and describes how he killed Dayraven on the field and swam back to Geatland with 30 suits of armour. What’s curious about both of these battles is that they both involve the death of the Geats’ lord. In the battle the messenger tells of, Hygelac dies, and in the battle Beowulf tells of, Hrethel and Haethcyn (however strange the chronology) fall.

Part of the Anglo-Saxon code of battle was to fight on after the death of your lord, and if any Geatish lord died here, then Beowulf should have fought until they won or he met a similar fate.

Instead Beowulf *swam* back to Geatland, suggesting that the Geats were not victorious, even though he may have brought treasures back with him. Plus, as a raid, how could it be successful save for the gaining of the raided land? Or were the Geats more like the reavers of A Song of Ice and Fire, attacking for loot and then returning to their homes?

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Behind the Scenes?

But throughout the whole poem we don’t hear anything of Beowulf’s cowardice. Certainly, there’s no place for it in a piece that’s all about the grand deeds of one man.

Historically, since the Merovingians are mentioned, this battle would have happened in the 5th century AD. Socially, on the other hand, the sense that you ought to fight to the death – especially after your lord is killed in battle – may have waned by the time that Beowulf’s been written down.

More troubling, however, is the idea that Beowulf swam back with some hopes of claiming the throne for himself. Hygd may have been as enamoured with Beowulf as some argue Wealhtheow was, only she may also have been more successful in the wooing.

Whatever happened behind the scenes that saw Beowulf mounting the throne, the very fact that he survived the apparently lost battle against Hetware seems to work against many of the ideals of Anglo-Saxon warriors and society.

Perhaps, again, these things were what caused him to feel responsible for the dragon’s wrath. Perhaps his conscience was pricking at something deeper than disciplining some thief who stole a cup.

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Closing

Check back here next Thursday for the continuation of the messenger’s words to the Geats!

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