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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