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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