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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