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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