The Familial and the National (ll.53-63) [Old English]

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
The macro in the micro
Grazing the matter of interconnection
Closing

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Abstract

Beow, the son of Scyld rises to power, and his son Halfdane’s children are named.

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Translation

“Then was the burden on Beow, son of Scyld,
that dear king of men, for several long seasons
he was reputed among the people; while his father departed elsewhere,
a lord of earth. Until he Halfdane awoke
to match the father; he held, while he lived,
aged and battle experienced, the joy of the Scyldings.
In unbroken succession he woke four children
in the world: a daughter I believe,
then Heorogar, and Hrothgar, and Halga also;
I have heard that […] the daughter was Onela’s queen,
that war-Scylding’s beloved bedfellow.”
(Beowulf ll.53-63)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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The macro in the micro

Every now and then in Beowulf you can see the weave pattern at work from line to line. Interestingly, the first few lines of this extract are just such a point.

From lines 53 to 57 references to Beow and to the recently departed Scyld are found on every line. What makes these lines extraordinary, though, is that the clauses of each line alternate between having Scyld or Beow as a subject. This gives the section the effect of Beow being borne up on Scyld’s reputation, almost as if Beow would never have been as lauded as he is had Scyld not died.

That’s not to say that this points towards some sort of power intrigue on Beow’s part. I think that it’s just a matter of showing how succession would work, the heir being fuelled by his predecessor’s reputation until the heir’s own reputation grew to become self-sustaining.

That the final two lines of this pattern (56 and 57) feature Scyld in the first half and Beow in the second sustains my reading since their very structure resembles that of a parent propelling their child onwards. Not to mention the appearance of Beow’s own son Halfdane in the midst of this spiral, a placement that sets him up as a ruler able to derive great glory from the swirling power of his ancestors. And, to pass this power on to his own children.

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Grazing the matter of interconnection

Keeping an eye on the larger patterns of the poem and how they show up in smaller extracts, at this one’s end we get the first mention of a major player in the poem.

Onela is the king of the Swedes who kills Hrethel, the father of Hygelac. So, for all of the Geats great rivalry with the Swedes, the Danes aren’t entirely excluded from the scene since Hrothgar’s sister is married to the Swedish king. In fact, later in the poem, Beowulf kills Onela, though no mention of Halfdane’s daughter is made.

What all of these connections point to is a keen awareness of the need to construct a world that is imminently familiar to an audience so that monsters aren’t just accepted but believed. The scops or scribes who composed Beowulf must have been keen observers of their times, as all lasting writers are, but all the more so to delineate the sorts of interconnections that are so characteristic of Norse myth and legend.

In a way this tight weave between families and people was a matter of survival. Without the central authority offered by a unified government or monarchy, each social group would need to defend itself.

Marriage ties were often the best way to do so, as they could spare life and the cost of battle (both the human cost and the supply cost – I can’t imagine farming or fishing or hunting in Northern Europe at the time saw anyone laying up great stores of stuff with which to trade. After all, the scent of extra fat on a social group could draw the sword teeth of another, probably desperate, group.).

From a perspective of nascent nationalism, it seems, then, that barriers between people were more porous (at least in the world of the poem, which we can only assume to be a reasonable facsimile (monsters excluded) of the time at which Beowulf was first being composed) than they are now. Yet at the same time, though ties between nations may only have been a marriage away, none of the groups in the book willingly turn away from their own origins.

Perhaps that steadfast memory of family is what fuelled so much of the conflict of the time. A desire for safety and security clashing with a fierce sense of identity brought on by seeing yourself as standing on the shoulders of your forebears. How many times does the poet refer to Beowulf as the son of Ecgtheow, or to Wiglaf as the son of Weohstan?

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Closing

Next week, the poet jumps ahead to the creation of Hrothgar’s gleaming Heorot hall, and to the young ruler’s ambitious ideals.

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Gilding the greats (ll.43-52) [Old English]

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Homeward bound Scyld?
Imposing a word and why
Closing

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Abstract

Scyld is sent off with his boat of treasure as his living comrades are plagued by heavy hearts.

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Translation

“By no means did they leave a lack of gifts,
treasures of the people, when that was done,
when they sent him forth to his origin,
for he was one who came over the waves as a child.
Then they established a golden sign for him
high overhead, they let the waves bear him,
their gift to the raging ocean; they were
sorrowful at heart, mourning souls. Men cannot
say for certain, hall rulers,
heroes under heaven, who that horde discovered.”
(Beowulf ll.43-52)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Homeward bound Scyld?

Initially, it’s tempting to say that the first sentence of this excerpt is very familiar. Not in that everyone sends their dead out to sea laden with treasure, but in that ‘going to see your maker’ is a fairly popular euphemism for death. However, as the sentence ends we get an extra layer is added to Scyld’s story.

Like so many other “chosen heroes” (or figures like them), it’s revealed that Scyld’s origins are shrouded in mystery. On one hand this is definitely a trope, but considering the patriarchal society in which Beowulf was composed/sung, it’s also a curious quality in a great leader.

If there’s one thing that’s important in Anglo-Saxon society it’s a person’s connection to their lineage and heritage. Later in the poem, when Beowulf appears before Hrothgar, there’s no question that Hrothgar’s helping Beowulf’s father in the past goes far in getting Hrothgar to feel secure in entrusting Heorot to the travelling Geat. Scyld’s lack of any connection, since he’s an orphan from across the sea, makes his rise to power all the more impressive.

Though, it’s not out outlandish to guess that having no earthly origin might have as much clout as regal or warrior origins would. After all, a leader’s story and reputation could be as powerful as any army – having such mysterious origins could only bolster such power. So long as they were properly maintained.

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Imposing a word and why

Though there’s no connection between the hoard sent out with Scylde and that of the dragon later in the poem, I’ve chosen to suggest one. This centers around the word “hlæste” (l.52).

Commonly, this word means “burden,” “load,” or “freight,” but I went with “hoard.” It’s true that the treasure is the boat’s freight, with the implication that Scyld is as much a treasure as the glittering armour or piled gold, but “hoard” doesn’t subtract from this implication. Thus, it’s a variant translation, but still a valid one.

For, using “hoard” associates Scyld with the treasure that has been sent off in the same way as the more common translations of “hlæste.” It’s possible that Anglo-Saxons might regard “hoard” as more negative in its connotations, though. Hoarding treasure means that it isn’t shared, and unshared treasure is more often than not the undoing of a ruler.

Actually, this raises a curious point. In the person of Scyld literal treasure and a valued figure are joined into one thing; both of them become regarded as treasure. Then, later in the poem, we get the stories of Heremod (who hoarded his treasure, much to the dissatisfaction of his thanes), and of Modthryth (who hoarded her beauty to herself, and punished men simply for looking at her). So, after a great person has been gilded we then see examples of the extreme opposites – a man who refuses to share his treasure in an expected way and a woman who refuses to share her person in an expected way (as skeezy as that might sound).

This establishing of the true value of a great man and then its deconstruction makes for a grand set up for the end of the poem. After all, the tension between valued figures and valued things is resolved in Beowulf’s death and funeral.

Like Scyld he is buried with a great deal of treasure, and like Scyld he is a greatly valued figure among his people. The major difference – Beowulf’s being buried rather than set off to sea – does two things. It gives closure for the poem, but it’s a much more definitive kind of closure since Beowulf returns to the dust of his home rather than mere dust in general.

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Closing

Next week, the focus returns to Beow, and we hear the first mention of Hrothgar.

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