Dragons and Death (ll.3120-3136) [Old English]

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
The Dead Become Dragons?
Dealing with Dragons
Closing

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Abstract

Wiglaf and several other Geats raid the hoard, and then bring Beowulf and their haul to Hronesness for the hero’s funeral.

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Translation

Indeed the wise son of Weohstan
summoned a band of the king’s thanes,
seven together, those who were best,
he went with seven others, warriors,
under the evil roof; one bore in hand
a flaming torch, the one who went at the front.
There was no drawing of lots for the plundering of
that hoard, when the men saw that all parts of
the hall remained without a guardian,
for he lay wasting away; few of them grieved
as they hastily carried out those
dear treasures; the dragon also was pushed,
the serpent they slid over the sea cliff, let the waves
take him, the sea enfolded that guardian of precious
things. Then was wound gold loaded onto wagons,
everything in countless numbers, then was the prince borne,
the old warrior brought to Hronesness.
(Beowulf ll.3120-3136)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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The Dead Become Dragons?

There’s something to be said for efficiency. And, here efficiency could be something pointing towards a parallel that’s merely been suggested beforehand.

As far as the poem describes it, the Geats move Beowulf over to Hronesness in the same load, or at least trip, as the gold that they’ve taken from the hoard. Beowulf is certainly worthy to ride with such treasures, but laying him on this heap of heirlooms is really quite strange, especially if you consider what happens to the dragon.

It’s a small act, but there’s so much going on in it. The projection of value onto wealth, the equation of treasured objects with treasured people, perhaps even a glimpse into a philosophy of the soul. For, the Anglo-Saxons might have regarded the body as merely a vessel, much like the cups found in the hoard, something that can be shining and gold adorned, but that maybe has its greatest value when it is filled with mead, just as a body might have its greatest value while it still holds a soul.

Among the strangest of the things that it suggests (and this is something suggested by the act of burying people of high esteem with objects of high esteem), is that in death great people are made into what, if living, could be considered a dragon. They’re in a barrow, surrounded by gold, and, in the case of Beowulf, there is always flame nearby. Even in the case of people like Scyld Scefing, who were pushed off to sea in ships ladened with treasure and then put to flame, all of the key aspects of a dragon can be found.

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Dealing with Dragons

Yet, what do the Geats do with a proper dragon? They just dump it over the cliff and let it fall into the water. Keeping the written Beowulf‘s Christian influences in mind, I wonder if doing so is as bad as dying in a fire is to the Greeks. In either case your body isn’t being properly preserved, which, strictly theologically speaking, means you will not be able to be judged come the second coming.

Moreover, though, it’s also a denial of the cyclical nature of life as laid down throughout the Bible: ‘people are dust and unto dust they will return.’ Perhaps, in a way, destroying a body but not burying it was intended as a way to keep another manifestation of that thing from appearing. If such is the case, then the ceremonial funerals of great figures from this period and earlier could be explained as a means of propagating greatness, or re-introducing it into the life-cycle.

But then, for a people like the Geats, who face difficulty on all sides and even among themselves believe they’ll be wiped out, what does such a funeral mean? Is it merely to be a monument to the greatest of a long forgotten people? Is it, in the case of Beowulf, just a convenient excuse to build a lighthouse?

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Closing

Next week, Beowulf burns.

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Wiglaf Organizes and Eulogizes (ll.3110-3119) [Old English]

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Picking through a Jumble
Wiglaf’s Word(s)
Closing

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Abstract

Wiglaf commands the wood for Beowulf’s pyre to be gathered, giving a curious measuring of his strength.

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Translation

“Commanded then the son of Weohstan, gave
the fighters orders, bold in battle, warrior among many,
the one who owns a hall, that they might
bring wood for the pyre from afar, for the good man
the leader of a people: ‘Now shall fire consume
– he shall grow dark by the flames – the ruler of warriors,
he who often endured the shower of iron
when the arrow storm was from the bow impelled,
over the shield wall, the shafts their duty fulfilled,
arrowheads aided by hasting feather fletching.'”
(Beowulf ll.3110-3119)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Picking through a Jumble

The descriptive lines of this week’s extract sound jumbled. This is not just a result of translation, but a reflection of the original Old English text. For this extract stands out in these last few hundred lines as one of the most eccentric.

From clause to clause, it seems as if the speaker is alternating between Beowulf and Wiglaf, but not settling on either. Or, it appears that the speaker is trying to address Wiglaf with the same sort of accolades normally reserved for Beowulf (“bold in battle,” (“hæle hildedior” (l.3111)), “the one who owns a hall” (“boldagendra” (l.3112))).

In either case, there is a great deal of frantic uncertainty in the speaker’s voice at this point, directly after Wiglaf has taken the Geats through the hoard. A sound theory is that the poet composed this section to reflect the Geats’ disorientation after having seen such a sight. They could very easily have vaguely forgotten that Beowulf was dead and mistaken Wiglaf for him, or temporarily felt the wild need to afford Wiglaf the same praise as their king of fifty years deserved.

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Wiglaf’s Word(s)

More often than not in Beowulf whole adjectival clauses are bandied about where simple adjectives might do in modern usage. Wiglaf’s words to the Geats are an incredible example of such elaborate speech at work.

Wiglaf’s describing Beowulf by his evasion of the arrow storm on the battlefield is unique at four lines long.

Taking a zoomed out look at this bit of information about the Geat reveals that Beowulf fought near the front, in the section of any army harried by the defending (possibly besieged) army’s ranged defenses. It also suggests that the Geats used such tactics in their fighting, since the arrows are hastened to their marks. Perhaps they go so quickly that they are unable to fly true and strike only the enemy? If such is the case, then perhaps this lengthy dwelling on archers and arrows is a reflection on the thinning ranks of Geats – there are simply fewer and fewer of them to absorb the missiles from their hurried archers.

Much more likely, given the constant note of fate and wyrd running through the poem, this lengthy description of Beowulf’s battle actions reflects on his luck. He was often the one at the fore of battle, where not only would there have been showers of arrows falling (shot, perhaps by both sides), but also a host of swords and spears probing the air, hungry for human life.

Yet, he “often” came out of such situations okay. Taking a closer look at Wiglaf’s speech, that one word becomes incredibly curious. Were there times when Beowulf was sorely wounded? When his plans did not go as smoothly as had been hoped? Or is this word just an example of Anglo-Saxon understatement, meant to mean that he always came back hale and hearty except for when he tangled with the dragon?

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Closing

Next week, Wiglaf chooses warriors to help him in the work of clearing the hoard and bringing Beowulf to Hronesness.

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Wiglaf Guides Geats to Gold (ll.3101-3109) [Old English]

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Venturing into the Gold Vault
The Geats Choose Glory over Gold?
Closing

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Abstract

Wiglaf invites the Geats to step into the hoard before they prepare for Beowulf’s funeral.

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Translation

“‘Let us now hasten to another time,
to see and seek out the pile of finely worked jewels,
the wonder under the wall. I shall guide you,
that you shall look upon abundant
rings and broad gold near at hand. Then ready the bier,
swiftly prepare it where we come out,
and then ferry our lord,
beloved of men, to where he shall long
in the Ruler’s protection remain.'”
(Beowulf ll.3101-3109)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Venturing into the Gold Vault

At the center of this passage, Wiglaf invites the gathered Geats to take a look at the treasure. His is a simple gesture, and perhaps what is to be done in the circumstances. But, why does he do it?

As Geats, the gold must be a strange thing. On the one hand the hoard is a vast treasure store full of ancient and shiny things – so it’s any of their dreams come true. On the other, it has the potential to be one of the largest draws for the other nations that are likely to wipe them out.

Their currently being kingless is almost just the second largest draw in comparison, actually. The Geats are currently like a headless dragon, and the Swedes and the Franks and no doubt others are likely to be all too keen to take advantage of their vulnerability.

Which leads to either a flaw in the plan to bury the gold with Beowulf, or the final great (unintended) act of the fallen king.

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The Geats Choose Glory over Gold?

The death of Beowulf isn’t just a great blow to the Geats from a martial perspective, it’s also left them crippled diplomatically. Without a king, there’s no single representative for the people. Thus, without Beowulf, the Geats cannot be dealt with in an easy manner.

Yet, aside from honouring Beowulf by leaving the gold with him in his barrow, it seems that Wiglaf may have another reason for doing so. Or, at the least, another reason can be read out of the poet’s doing so for the sake of a poetically parallel ending.

It’s clear that Beowulf is greatly respected. It’s likely even that, though they bear grudges against him, even the Geats’ foreign enemies respect Beowulf to some degree. So, perhaps Wiglaf planned to bury Beowulf with the hoard with Beowulf as a kind of seal upon it. That is, in connecting the gold to the barrow of a respected warrior, it would become inviolate in the eyes of the honourable.

The question that comes up next, though, is why Wiglaf would want to preserve the hoard.

The Geats go in to take a look at it in this passage- who’s to stop any of them from taking a coin, a sword – a cup? Perhaps the thief who did so and woke the dragon doing so is enough of a warning to them.

Perhaps, more importantly, Wiglaf knows the danger of greed (maybe he’d heard of Heremod?) and is well aware that the hoard could inspire such an end to the Geats? If so, maybe Wiglaf (and the Geats in general?) prefer to go out on a high note, lost to history because of the loss of a great leader.

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Closing

Next week, Wiglaf apparently leaves the Geats to their own devices in the hoard, as he gives orders for the construction of Beowulf’s funeral pyre.

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Gold from the (Word) Hoard (ll.3087-3100) [Old English]

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Golden Standards
Treasured Retellings
Closing

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Abstract

Wiglaf relates how he gathered treasures from the hoard for Beowulf and what the warrior said to him in his grief.

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Translation

“‘I was in that place and looked over all that was there;
through that building of precious objects I had to clear a
path. Not at all in a friendly way was I granted passage
in the place under the mound. I in haste grasped
much in my hands of a mighty burden
of the hoarded treasures, out to here I carried it
away to my king. Alive was he yet,
wise and aware; a great many things
the old one said in grief, and ordered me to greet you,
ordered that you should build after the friendly lord’s
deeds a lofty barrow there in the place of the pyre,
mighty and renowned, just as he among men was,
worthiest warrior widely throughout the earth,
while he could enjoy the wealth of a stronghold.'”
(Beowulf ll.3087-3100)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Treasured Retellings

Wiglaf’s account of going into the hoard and then bringing some treasures back to Beowulf in his final moments is straightforward and simple. As far as the retellings of events from the poem within the poem go, it might also be the most honest. However, as with the retellings that come up earlier in the poem, Wiglaf elaborates on what the poet originally told us.

Wiglaf points out, among the other details of his time in the hoard, that he met an unfriendly welcome going through it. The first reaction to this statement, the first imagining, is that this is a way of saying how rich the hoard is: There’s so much gold there that he had to wade through it to get to the things he took. But, bearing in mind the curse that the messenger mentioned earlier in the poem, maybe there’s more to Wiglaf’s addition than a comment on the hoard’s wealth.

Since Wiglaf is not the saviour of the Geats that passage into the hoard would truly herald, he has to struggle through some sort of invisible barrier to get into it. Of course, seeing nothing there, he would mention nothing of such magic. Indeed, he’d likely have been overwhelmed by the sheer volume of gold and treasure in the hoard, and would later ascribe his difficulty to having to wade through piles of heirlooms.

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Golden Standards

Along with his additions to the story he tells of the hoard, Wiglaf leaves out some details, as well. An obvious omission of his is of the things that he took from the hoard. As the poet noted between lines 73-75, he took some gold, cups, and a standard. The gold and cups are obvious choices. But the standard is a charged one.

First. whose standard was it? Why was it in the hoard? The answer to both is that it was the ancient people’s, and that it was put there because that people died out.

Could there be some sort of Anglo-Saxon belief that stealing another group’s standard without first besting them in battle?

Or does Wiglaf not mention it because he wants to keep himself blameless in the matter oft he Geats reaching the end of their time?

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Closing

Next week, Wiglaf gives the Geats directions regarding Beowulf’s funeral, after, of course, boastng a little more about the treasure in the hoard.

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