An End and Everlasting Fame (ll.3173-3182) [Old English]

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Singled Out
Fame, Preservation, Power
Closing

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Abstract

Beowulf ends, as the gathered Geats mourn and praise their fallen leader.

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Translation

“[They] praised him for his heroism and his courageous
deeds, which were judged highly, just as it was fitting
that the men laud their friend and lord prince with
such words, love of their hearts, when he
shall lead out his soul from his body.
Thus lamented the Geatish people
for the fall of their lord, their hearth companion;
they said that of earthly kings he was
the mildest among men and most gracious, the
kindest to people and most eager for fame.”
(Beowulf ll.3173-3182)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Singled Out

After the semicolon that ended last week’s extract, things become detached. The poet no longer refers to the actors as individuals, nor does e acknowledge individuals within the groups. Last week there were “sons” of noblemen, and twelve warriors. This week there are only “the men” (“þæt mon” (l.3175)), “the Geatish people” (“Geata leode” (l.3178)), and “they” (the pronoun derived from “cwædon” (l.3180)).

It’s as if the poet has pulled out his focus, broadening it until the final declaration about Beowulf can be made objectively. Though there is acknowledgement that it’s anything but, since it is the Geats themselves who say those good things about their fallen hero.

What this pulling away of subjects also does is emphasize Beowulf’s individuality all the more. It separates him from the Geatish people, and thereby allows the poet to elevate him somewhat. In a way, it allows Beowulf to be set on such a height where he is truly alone, making it clear that the poem is about him and should be named accordingly.

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Fame, Preservation, Power

It’s one thing to end an epic poem with the death and burial of its main character. It’s quite another to end it on the comment that said character was the “most eager for fame” (“lofgeornost” (l.3182)).

Beowulf‘s ending in such a way strikes me as strange. Not because it’s out of place, but because it could well be the reason for the poem’s composition and endurance into manuscript form. After that it was just a matter of surviving, fire, rats, and worms, so that there were still enough words for modern people to read it.

Such an ending isn’t out of place, because it was fame that endured and Anglo-Saxons (like most peoples with an oral tradition) were sure to know this. In a way, living on through your fame could be considered similar to living on in spirit not just with family and friends, but with all who knew you. In a way, having as much fame as Beowulf did could possibly be intertwined with ideas of having a great magnanimity.

Perhaps what makes the last line seem discordant nonetheless, is its stating the obvious. Beowulf never shrank from a fight, even when his counsellors, (and, let’s be honest, common sense) suggested otherwise. He stood up to Grendel when none before succeeded, and then took the feud to Grendel’s terrible mother. He fought on countless battlefields, and in the end went up against a dragon – a monster right from the grand heroic tales considered old even in Beowulf’s day.

Why then mention (and on the last line, no less), that he always wanted to win fame?

Perhaps, it is just the poet having some fun with a famed figure. After all, the warrior did the deed, but the poet commemorated it, deeds are forgotten, but commemorations are not.

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Closing

Having started this translation and commentary of Beowulf in its midst (and in a very different way), the next entry will see a return to the poem’s beginning.

However, next week there will not be a full update, as I work to get all of the missed recordings up and in place. Regular updates will resume the first Thursday of June (the 6th).

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The Gold That was Buried with the Geat (ll.3163-3172) [Old English]

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
An Empty Victory
Beowulf’s Courage
Closing

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Abstract

Beowulf is buried, and the dragon’s hoard with him. As part of the burial, twelve warriors ride around his barrow, lamenting all the while.

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Translation

“They placed him in the barrow with rings and jewels,
all such adornments as were before in the
hoard of the hostile minded one that men had taken.
The warriors left the wealth to be kept by the earth,
gold in the ground, where it yet exists
as useless to men as it previously had been.
Then around the barrow of the brave in battle they rode,
the sons of noblemen, twelve warriors,
they would lament with their sorrow and mourn their king,
uttering dirges and speaking about the man;”
(Beowulf ll.3163-3172)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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An Empty Victory

Beowulf’s victory over the dragon was glorious, but it was ultimately useless. He died in the process,and he left his people unprotected against the ire of their rivals. But had he left the dragon to its devices,it would have destroyed the Geats. Why not just return the cup? Because the dragon was awoken, and the implication is that it was already too late by the time the serpent struck. Beowulf had lost his chance to truly protect his people by keeping a cooler head around that slave – if it was his slave to even begin with.

But back to the emptiness of Beowulf’s accomplishment. In the old songs Sigurd slays the dragon and he becomes a great hero as a result. Though his household also collapses by the end of that story (at least in the forms of it that we still have it today). The important difference, though, is that Beowulf has no period of glory afterwards.

He’s left mortally wounded by the fight with the dragon, and all he can do is bequeath his gear to Wiglaf and ask to see the treasure he gave his life for. Given the Christian bent of the written poem, could such a shortened life after so glorious an accomplishment be considered a mercy?

Could that be the secret of the dragon fight’s relation to the story of Sigurd told after Beowulf beats Grendel? Perhaps Beowulf’s shortened life is supposed to stand for the salvation that he finds, while Sigurd has no heaven to go to and thus is forced to roam onward.

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Beowulf’s Courage

In spite of the futility of Beowulf’s final act, what the Geats celebrate at his death is his courage. This is a quality still admired in people, though modern ideals of courage have perhaps come quite far from early medieval notions of the concept. Or perhaps not.

The courageous deeds of Beowulf that are sung of in Beowulf are all examples of active courage.

This is the sort of courage that comes out when people face head on demons and monsters and great evil. However, this certainly couldn’t be the extent of Beowulf’s courage. He couldn’t possibly have been on every battlefield, fighting every foe of the Geats and sparking the feuds that now threaten the leaderless people.

In some instances, Beowulf’s reputation must have preceded him, and this emanation of his force must have been enough to bring some peoples to heel. After all, could a king who constantly brings his people to war be considered a good king? With the poem’s examples of bad rulers (Heremod and Modthryth) in mind, it seems like such an action would be seen as merely selfish, and not really for the greater good of a people at all.

If Beowulf’s courage created a reputation that itself protected the Geats and was maintained by Beowulf, it’s possible to speak of his courage in more modern terms. So long as you consider the modern conception of courage to be knowing when to act and when to wait and being able to do which is needed. And, in that sense, that sort of courage could be one of the aspects of a “god cyning.”

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Closing

Next week we look at the final lines of the poem. Beowulf’s burial is complete, and the final words about the great Geatish hero are spoken.

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She Wails, but only the Smoke’s Accepted (ll.3150-3162) [Old English]

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Beowulf‘s Wailing Woman
Smoke in the Sky
Closing

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Abstract

A mourning woman is mentioned before larger concerns are noted and Beowulf’s barrow is built.

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Translation

“Also a Geatish woman’s song of mourning
[ . . . ] with hair bound up
for that sorrowful song; they said repeatedly
that they dreaded sorely an invasion,
an abundance of slaughter, terror for the company of men,
humiliation and captivity. Heaven swallowed the smoke.
Then built the Geatish people
a burial mound on the headland, it was high and broad,
for seafarers it was widely visible,
and in ten days they built
the monument for the one bold in battle. They built
also a wall around the remnants of the fire, as
the wise men had most worthily devised it.”
(Beowulf ll.3150-3162)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Beowulf‘s Wailing Woman

The first truly curious thing about this passage (and there are a few) is the woman described in its opening. She isn’t identified as anyone we’ve met earlier in the poem, nor does she seem to be any individual in particular.

Though it must have been an Anglo-Saxon tradition for women to wear their hair up for mourning. After all something closer to what could be called unkempt is what first comes to mind when thinking of medieval mourning.

Perhaps the woman has it done up as part of her mourning for the sake of showing that everything is all right, and there’s cause for celebration. Though her sorrowful song certainly makes it clear that only the fire, the earth, and the worms have cause for celebration.

Some theorize that this woman is Hygelac’s former wife, Hygd. I’m sure there are even theories that the wailing woman and Beowulf plotted to get the poem’s hero onto the Geatish throne.

As per my own interpretation, I can see her being either an important individual or a stand-in for the Geats more generally, a kind of synecdoche figure for the grief and sorrow of a people.

This second interpretation has some evidence later in the passage, though, when the poet refers to the Geats’ fears for their future as “humiliation and captivity” (l.3155). Women were regularly married off to seal alliances or to ease feuds, but even when both sides of such arrangements had stable leaders I can’t imagine the experience of being given away and having to adjust to a completely new home being a happy one.

In the world of Beowulf in particular it seems that the value of a woman is determined by decidedly male factors. Who her father is, the martial status of her clan or people, and the relationship of suitors to her father are all variables.

With the Geats being leaderless, fear of living in humiliation when they were once proud, or in captivity when they once had the freedom to range around and help such people as the Danes, would sting any one of them. But to the Geatish women, such things would mean that they would be denied the security of even an orderly peace-weaver arrangement. Where their fathers, or brothers, or sons could intercede for them in normal circumstances, having lost their leader, the Geatish women will now have no such recourse as they’re much more simply taken.

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Smoke in the Sky

The rest of this week’s extract offers a few interesting facts about Beowulf’s barrow, but what’s particularly striking is the end of line 3155: “Heaven swallowed the smoke.”

This statement cuts the extract into two pieces. The first piece deals with the mourning woman and the worried Geats, and the second with the construction of Beowulf’s barrow. Having such a stark sentence between these two things is an assertion of the need to carry on through crises and disasters. The peoples’ cries are not swallowed, nor are their worries. Only the smoke from the fire, only what can be expected from the mundane world. Yet, amidst this bleak pivot point for the passage, there is some hope.

The smoke reaches the heavens, and, once there, is accepted. In this single sentence the poet makes it clear that the world is temporary, but while people are in it they need to do what they can to improve it or at the least make it liveable. Thus, I don’t think that Beowulf’s barrow’s use as a landmark is just supposed to stand as a reminder of the fallen warrior’s glory, but as a metaphor for the things that people (or groups of people, as here) do to make life easier for others and for those who come next.

The sorrow and the worry of the Geats help no one, and so the heavens are indifferent to them. But the smoke heralds the death of a great hero who won glory in his youth and kept constant guard for his people’s good in his old age. Thus, the smoke, perhaps itself a metaphor for the most mundane of ways to transcend the physical world, is all that the heavens take in.

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Closing

Next week we enter the closing stretch of Beowulf, as the man himself is laid to rest and the ceremony continues.

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Focused on the Fire (ll.3137-3149) [Old English]

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
A Translation Explained
Further on the Fire’s Remains
Closing

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Abstract

Beowulf’s body is burned on his pyre, and even the fire mourns.

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Translation

“For him the Geatish people then made ready
The splendid pyre in the earth,
hung round with helmets, with battle shields,
with gleaming mail coats, as he had requested.
Then they laid the renowned prince in the midst of
lamenting warriors, that dear lord.
The fighters then proceeded to kindle
that great funeral fire; wood smoke rose up
black over the blaze, the flame roared, mingling
with weeping – the swirling wind subsided – until
that blade had broken the body, proven hot to the
heart. Sad at the source, it threw about sorrowful
heat,and lamented grievously, killing the liege lord.”
(Beowulf ll.3137-3149)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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A Translation Explained

The conventional way to translate the part of this week’s passage relating to the mourners and the fire is to ascribe the sorrow to the people around the flame. However, because the idea that even the elements mourn Beowulf’s passing has a lot of appeal, I chose to translate it as such. Admittedly, this is partially a baseless translation since I don’t know if the Anglo-Saxons believed in any sort of pathetic fallacy.

Nonetheless, I’d like to think that they, or the Christians writing out Beowulf, would have had some sense of the world as a creation being an organic whole. As such, the loss of one part would elicit an organic reaction from the other parts, or maybe more in line with ideas and theories of Anglo-Saxon artistry, the loss of a knot or a link causes the whole to function differently. Thus, rather than just having the fire burn, the loss of Beowulf (and, indeed, inevitably of all the Geats), causes it to mourn in its own turn, and to reluctantly fulfil its duty to destroy and reduce to ash.

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Further on the Fire’s Remains

That reduction to ash, although not really mentioned in this passage, is implicit, and important. As an elegy, Beowulf is cyclical to some extent. It begins with the mourning of Scyld Scyfing, then moves through Beowulf’s triumphs, and ends with the mourning of Beowulf himself. The concept that all humans follow a similar cycle is found in Christian religion, along with many others.

But the idea’s presence in Christianity is especially relevant, since the interwoven structure of the poem and the cycle of mourning-triumph-mourning work well to illustrate the rhythms of human achievement in a Christian perspective. Everything returns to dust, but also comes from that same dust.

At the heart of such a sentiment, the Anglo-Saxon idea that people are given a “loan of days” is right at home.

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Closing

Next week, we’ll see the mysterious mourning woman, and hear about the construction of Beowulf’s monumental barrow.

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