A funeral ship and far foreign lands (ll.32-42) [Old English]

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
The matter of the treasure ship
Far away may as well be undiscovered
Closing

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Abstract

Scyld’s funeral procession and the description of his final ship feature this week.

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Translation

“There at the landing place stood a ring-prowed ship
icy and eager to start, ready for that nobleman’s passage;
the dear lords lead him to
the brightly ringed wealth ship,
treasure filled it to the mast; there was plentiful loot
from foreign lands, booty, loaded into it.
Never heard I of a more splendidly adorned ship
war-ready and armoured,
blade and byrnie; upon his lap was lain
a multifarious fortune, among which
he was to go to far foreign lands.”
(Beowulf ll.32-42)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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The matter of the treasure ship

Scyld’s ship would make a cracking archaeological find. All of that treasure, some of which coming from foreign lands, would have so much to say about the range of the early medieval Danes (and maybe Anglo-Saxons?).

Outside of such a find, though, the big thing here is that the ship is characterized as “icy” (“isig” l.33).

What would the use of an icy ship be?

Would it more effectively cut through the water?

Or is it supposed to mean that it’s an old ship, one that’s been so covered with hoarfrost from travelling in the chill north that it’s become discoloured? Maybe barnacled?

The safest bet is that it’s an old ship. It’d be one thing to use a new one for a Viking burial, but it’d be something else entirely to use a new ship and to laden it with so much treasure.

Speaking of which, aside from the immense wealth on board, the time is taken to mention that the ship is “war-ready and armoured” (“hildewæpnum ond heaðowædum” l.39). Beliefs in some sort of struggle that one must go through to get to the afterlife are fairly common around this time, and they may have coupled with ideas traditionally ascribed to the Norse. Particularly, I refer to the Norse idea that only those who go to death armed will be able to join the ranks of Valhalla. Perhaps there’s also some of the Celtic belief that the afterlife is another life similar to the one in which readers of this entry find themselves.

Whatever the case, Scyld could very easily buy a king out of ransom, and fend off a horde of demons on his way to the “far foreign lands” (“æht feor” l.42).

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Far away may as well be undiscovered

Is the “far foreign land” of line 42 a predecessor to Shakespeare’s “he undiscover’d country” (from 3.i.81)? Outside of going into a lengthy historical/literary analysis, let’s just look at the two lines within the context of internet writing.

One tips for writing for the internet found in many books/articles/heads of experts is to use Anglo-Saxon words, rather than Latinate or Greek-derived words. It’s supposed to be best to use words that have been in English since the days of the Beowulf bard(s). Keeping this in mind, and remembering that the key here is simplicity maintaining itself throughout history, “the foreign country” as a euphemism for death should have some staying power.

After all, in the days when travel between points was difficult and most people stayed where they were born, anything outside of the village and its surroundings would seem distant and hard to reach. This difficulty of travelling abroad persisted from the time of Beowulf‘s composition (whether you peg it in the 7th or 11th century), to the time of Shakespeare (despite theories about his own wide travelling). With travel abroad being so difficult, round trips were even more so, and thus travelling to a “far foreign” land would mean a person may as well be dead – or vice versa.

Thus, though Shakespeare probably never read Beowulf, the sentiment of his “undiscover’d country,” and of Beowulf’s “far foreign land” is undoubtedly the same.

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Closing

That’s it for this week. Recordings continue to be delayed, in fact, at this point the “Recording” section of each entry will continue to be included, but they will be filled only when I can find the time.

Next week, we get into part two of Scyld’s funeral, in which his body and its adornments are described.

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