Quest-lust (ll.3076-3086) [Old English]

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Quest-lust and Wyrd
The Repercussions of a Lost Act
Closing

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Abstract

Wiglaf speaks to the assembled Geats, recounting Beowulf’s unquenchable fervour for striking out against the dragon.

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Translation

“Wiglaf spoke, Weohstan’s son:
‘Oft it happens that one warrior’s wish makes
the many endure misery, just so it has happened with us.
We could not persuade that dear prince,
this guardian of the people would not accept any counsel,
to not attack the gold guardian then,
to let him lay where he long was,
in that dwelling place remain until the world’s end,
to keep his exalted destiny. The hoard is
bitterly won; it was fate that impelled
that king of a people to that hard place.'”
(Beowulf ll.3076-3086)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Quest-lust and Wyrd

It sounds like Geatish kings could be total jerks. Or, at the least, self-centred power trippers.

Whatever the case, Wiglaf’s words are a grand reminder that the system of the comitatus is hardly an equal thing. Based on his opening here, it seems that from time to time one warrior would become obsessed with some impossible goal, and cause the rest of the group to suffer through it. What Wiglaf leaves unsaid though, is whether or not these impossible quests would cost the whole group their lives or only the warrior who proposed them.

In either case, this periodic obsession becomes a curious way that wyrd comes into people’s lives, welling up from within like some sort of fatal disease. However, at least in the case of Beowulf, fate or wyrd‘s presence in the mad desire felt by warriors is able to be read out of the experience. Fate is at the least recognizable in hindsight.

Though, maybe, just maybe, the obsessed warrior was one way in which people thought fate could be seen, they were an expected anomaly that gave the game away, so to speak. That fate could be seen in such a way suggests that preparations could be made for the inevitable, but it needs to be wondered if they were.

Would such preparations tip off fate that its path was known and force it to change?

Or could planning for that inevitability merely be considered as fated as the warrior’s tragic heroic effort?

It seems that no matter how it was construed, this madness could spell the end for whole peoples if the wrong fighter was infected. If, of course, it was a people’s leader who came down with it.

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The Repercussions of a Lost Act

Though, going back a ways in the poem, it needs to be wondered if Beowulf’s fervour for fighting the dragon was less random than some disease can seem.

Beowulf mentions his dark thoughts during the time when the dragon first attacks, how he wonders if he did something wrong in his past and is now paying for it.

So,fate or not, there may also have been some prior causation in Beowulf’s obsession with the dragon. Perhaps, since his obsession is enough to destroy the dragon’s “exalted destiny” (“wicum wunian” l.3084), that earlier causation gave Beowulf the momentum to change destiny. That’s definitely something to create a 3000+ line poem about.

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Closing

Wiglaf’s speech to the assembled Geats continues next week, as he speaks of his time in the hoard and Beowulf’s final wish.

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Between Religions? (ll.3069-3075) [Old English]

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
The Ward on the Hoard
Wiglaf: Favoured and Condemned
Closing

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Abstract

A brief passage about the curse laid upon the dragon’s hoard.

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Translation

“Just so the renowned princes solemnly declared
a curse upon that which they placed there until doomsday,
that the man would be guilty in sins,
confined in idol’s shrines, held fast in hell-bonds,
tormented in evil, whoever plundered that place;
not at all had he earlier perceived
the gold-giving lord’s favour.”
(Beowulf ll.3069-3075)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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The Ward on the Hoard

One of the strongest arguments for this poem’s being written down for some sort of missionary purpose is its treatment of pagan seeming religions. We get the first taste of this all the way back at the poem’s opening, when the poet describes Hrothgar’s use of strange rituals to try to ward off Grendel. Here, as there, there’s a clear connection between idols and evil.

Though, interestingly, and especially given the poem’s symmetry, in this extract, the poet isn’t condemning the characters to evil and hellbonds, but rather is the poet reporting what the hoard’s original owner did to protect their wealth.

Rather than a mention of religion that condemns people, this is a mention of it that sees people condemning those who seek out worldly wealth, as represented by the impossibly valuble hoard. To do so, the one hurling the curse would need to be invoking an opposite power – or, perhaps that same hellish power that they condemn the hoard’s violator to.

This is where things get complicated in themselves, since the powers invoked could be either or, but also in the broader context of the poem.

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Wiglaf: Favoured and Condemned

It was noted two weeks ago that the poet states that only someone whom god judged worthy would be allowed into the hoard. Wiglaf seems to have passed, since he in fact delved into the hoard. But now, the poet tells us that the hoard’s establisher laid a curse on it that would condemn any looter to hell. Read as a whole, these two parts of the poem say that god wanted the Geats to be destroyed, essentially having set a kind of trap.

Perhaps Beowulf put in a word for Wiglaf, though, and his death has been staid until the last of the Geats has fallen. After all, Beowulf’s soul did go to where the righteous are judged (l.2820).

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Closing

Leave your thoughts in the comments. And check back here next week for the first part of Wiglaf’s words about Beowulf and his mad sally against the dragon.

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Waxing Elegiac as Treasure Trickles (ll.3058-3068) [Old English]

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
A Use for Elegies
Gold-less Geats
Closing

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Abstract

The poet steps back from the action to muse on the glorious futility of the Geats’ quest for the dragon’s gold.

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Translation

“Then it was seen, that the journey for
that which was hidden in the earth swell
was for nought; the guard earlier slew
that one of joy; that one worked the feud,
and worked it wrathfully. It is a wonder
where any great man famed for courage will meet the end
of these loaned days, when he may no longer
dwell with his kinsmen in the mead hall.
So it was with Beowulf, when he the barrow’s
guardian sought, cunning enmity: none can know
through what means his own parting from this world will be.”
(Beowulf ll.3058-3068)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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A Use for Elegies

It’s true that none can know his or her end, but there’s some solace to be found in this sentiment.

After all, not knowing when or how you’ll die means it could happen at any time, and so this absence of knowledge presents you with two possibilities: dread and drive. Being an epic poem that celebrates the life of a legendary hero, it’s pretty clear that the poet intends to focus on the “drive” aspect of death’s mystery.

But why?

Well, given the widespread use of the elegiac in Anglo-Saxon literature (check out “The Seafarer,” or “Wulf and Eadwacer,” or “The Wanderer,” for just a few samples), it must have been a device that they found interesting or useful.

Perhaps Anglo-Saxons enjoyed a good elegy for the same reason that melancholy songs remain popular through to today. Such pieces of concentrated dreariness offer a useful contrast to people’s own personal problems, and the perspective that they give to listeners is often useful in brightening up their mood. This use of melancholy as a poultice for sorrow might also be why Christianity eventually found root with the Anglo-Saxons, since it is a religion with a truly elegiac figure at its center.

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Gold-less Geats

It’s mentioned in passing on line 3059, but getting the treasure is never noted as the 12’s original goal in going to seek the dragon. In fact, Beowulf’s primary concern appears to be killing the monster, not revelling in its hoarded wealth. Nonetheless, this brief glimpse into a more adventurous motivation suggests how the hunt for treasure is always somewhere in the Anglo-Saxon mind.

What’s more, as it appears in this extract, the absence of treasure works as a shorthand for the loss that the Geats now suffer. Were they able to take the gold, it’s possible that they could try to buy their safety. Without those riches, however, the Geats lose yet another means of escaping their fate. They are leaderless, and now, they’re also treasureless.

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Closing

Next week, the poet describes the curse put upon the gold. Check back here then for an enchanting read.

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The Ward on the Huge Hoard (ll.3047-3057) [Old English]

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
The Problem of Entering the Gold Hoard
A Big, Strong Word
Closing

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Abstract

The poet reflects further on the dragon, and reveals some interesting facts about the serpent’s hoard.

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Translation

“Beside him stood beakers and cups,
plates laid about and dear swords,
rusty, eaten through, as only those who live
in the embrace of earth for a thousand winters
can be. Yet that huge cache,
the hold of gold of men of old, was spell-bound,
so that no man might enter
that ring-hall, save god itself,
Ruler of Triumph, give its approval
– for god is humanity’s handler – to open that hoard,
even then only for such a man as god thought fit.”
(Beowulf ll.3047-3057)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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The Problem of Entering the Gold Hoard

Only someone with god’s stamp of approval can enter the hoard.

Does that mean Wiglaf has god’s approval? For he entered the hoard and saw its vast richness, reported it to Beowulf and showed a small fraction of it. The implications of such a thing are a little confusing though. If Wiglaf had god’s approval, then why isn’t he leading the Geats through the coming hardships? Why are they a people consigned to nothing more than utter annhilation?

The only really good reason I can come up with is that the poem’s named Beowulf, not A History of the Geats, or the Geatilliad. Which begs the question: why would the Anglo-Saxons tell such an elegiac story? And why would it later be considered important enough to write down?

In considering the answer, the place of the elegy in Anglo-Saxon literature and narrative is incredibly important.

Quite possibly, the fall of the Geats did not happen in the way the poem describes, but has been accelerated for the sake of the form. Or maybe for the sake of the lesson. Though what the lesson of Beowulf is, is rather ambiguous. Its moral could be any number of things.

Christianity is the way to go?

Even the smallest transgression – something so tiny that you can only remember it as a vague feeling – can lead to your downfall?

Wyrd is cruel and unknowable?

The poem’s a bit longer than your average fable, so narrowing it down to something concrete isn’t quite so straightforward.

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A Big, Strong Word

The difficulty of interpretation aside, the word used to describe the hoard, eacencraeftig, has a crystal clear meaning. Sure, it means “huge,” but broken down into its component parts it means “augmented strength” (“eacen”+”craeftig”).

Since it’s used to describe the hoard, eacencraeftig clearly means immense or huge. The sense of the word’s components together gives a similar affect, since physical strength has always been linked to physical size, and augmenting that strength means increasing that size. There isn’t necessarily anything crafty about the word otherwise, but it’s neat to know what little there is.

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Closing

Next week the poet returns to the poem’s namesake. Watch for it on Thursday!

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Wondering about the Strange and the Draconic (ll. 3033-3046) [Old English]

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Dragon Gawking
Of Dragonkind
Closing

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Abstract

The Geats come down to where Beowulf died, but are distracted by a more wondrous sight.

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Translation

They found him on the sand where his soul left his body
emptily guarding his couch, he who had given rings
in days past; that was the final day
of that good man’s journey, indeed that great-king,
lord of the Weders, died a wondrous death.
Yet before that they saw a stranger creature,
opposite him there on the strand was the serpent, there
the loathed one lay: it was the dweller of the drake’s
den,the sombrely splattered horror, glowing like an
ember for its flames. It was full fifty feet long,
laying there; just days ago it knew
the joy of night-flight, keeping a searching eye out for
its den down below; it was held there in death,
never again would it know its earth den.
(Beowulf ll.3033-3046)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Dragon Gawking

The first thing to ask after reading this passage is: Why does the dragon get so much attention?

It’s the “loathed” enemy (“laa[th]ne” l.3040), and Beowulf overcame it. So why spend nine lines going into detail about it?

There are a few possibilities here. The Anglo-Saxon audiences of the poem before it was written down probably had a good sense of a creature’s strength. More than likely, simply by hearing about him, her, or it, even. The prevalance and power of boasting among them definitely attests to such an idea. But any culture that can so readily size up opponents needs some sort of metric to go by. So, maybe, all of this extra detail about the dragon is provided to show how Beowulf is at least equal to the dragon, since they mutually slew one another.

Or, maybe the point of having such detail isn’t to compare it to Beowulf in terms of strength at all. Instead, maybe it’s more about their common strangeness. For, whatever a man’s boasts were in those days, few would have crossed paths with monsters as varied and powerful as those that Bwowulf scuffled with. In that sense, then, maybe this passage is suggesting that Beowulf himself should be viewed as a kind of monster. Or, at the very least, a wonder.

Maybe this is why Beowulf was bound together with a life of Saint Christopher, Wonders of the East, and a Letter of Alexander to Aristotle. Rather than being about a normal person going around the world and finding oddities, Beowulf offered audiences a glimpse into the perspective of a creature as rare and wonderful as dog-headed men, or a land over which thick darkness has settled.

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Of Dragonkind

Matters of the dragon and Beowulf sharing the page in this excerpt aside, there’s the question of what kind of dragon it is. Given its description here, it sounds more like an Oriental dragon than an Occidental one. It must be rather thin (its fire burning through its skin can be seen long after it’s dead), it can fly but no real mention of wings is made in the poem, and, at least so far as I’m imagining it, it seems like it’s coiled up in death.

Why should the kind of dragon that Beowulf and Wiglaf defeated matter?

Well, one of the biggest influences on Beowulf (particularly its being written down) was Christianity. Of course, Christianity isn’t without its depictions of dragons. These, though, especially up to the early Medieval period, are generally of a serpentine beast that’s supposed to be the devil incarnate. Maybe there’s a bit of that here too, but it seems more likely that having a unique dragon is just another reason that the book was bound with fantastic tales from around the known world.

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Closing

Next week, the poem moves from treasure-hoarder to treasure itself. Don’t miss it!

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