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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