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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