Hall building but not slave trading (ll.64-73) [Old English]

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Hrothgar – The Builder
What won’t be traded at Heorot
Closing

Back To Top
Abstract

Hrothgar sees success in battle, grows his reputation, and dreams of a fantastical hall.

Back To Top
Translation

Hrothgar was given success in war,
honour in battle, such that his kith and kin
eagerly listened, until the young one grew
into a mighty troop lord. His mind soon turned
to the glory of being called a hall lord,
a mead hall made by the work of many,
that the children of the ages would ever ask about,
and therein to dole out all
to young and old alike, such as god gave him,
all but the people’s land and lives.
(Beowulf ll.64-73)

Back To Top
Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

Back To Top
Hrothgar – The Builder

Once again, at least as I’ve translated it, we get some reference to the importance of reputation. Curiously though, the buzz around Hrothgar sounds like it was built on the foundation of his own deeds. Though, the verb phrase “eagerly listened” (“georne hyrdon”; a literal translation of which would be “eagerly heard” (l.66)) could be the poet’s way of saying that Hrothgar himself, or whatever scop he had in his employ, sang of these deeds in a most compelling way. A way that magnified exploits that might otherwise be rather paltry.

In either case, it’s interesting that the builder of a hall like Heorot would first build up his own reputation. Looking at his career trajectory, from successful warrior to troop lord, to ambitions of hall lordship, and then the fulfilment of that ambition, it seems that Hrothgar himself is a building. One built entirely on a reputation in fact; a foundation that says quite a bit about the importance of a reputation at the time.

But could it say more?

In line 69, we’re told that Hrothgar envisioned his hall as the work of many. This suggests that its building could be something like a modern Amish barn raising, but, given this description, at the very least it would be community effort. What I then wonder is if such a project wouldn’t create a further reputation of one’s being able to turn their words into physical objects. Hrothgar envisions the hall – he must have told someone of these ambitions – and then through his will and influence he brings it about. As a mythic poem would it be out of line to suggest that Hrothgar as a mythic figure could be called “The Builder”?

Back To Top
What won’t be traded at Heorot

Quite a well balanced extract, the end of this part of the poem is as rich as its beginning.

Particularly the final clause, which makes it plain that neither land nor peoples’ lives are among those things that Hrothgar will give away. This sounds straightforward enough. Hrothgar will respect his thanes’ and followers’ claims to land and not give the people themselves away. But in what way would he be giving them away otherwise? As slaves? As sacrifices? As soldiers?

It doesn’t seem likely that it’s the third of these, since soldiers would make up a healthy portion of Hrothgar’s followers as is.

The second is definitely possible, since we do later get references to rituals that the Danes try to rid themselves of Grendel. But it’s not likely that these involve human sacrifice, since the poet only mentions that the Danes called on demons (since, as at least a Christian poet, anything other than Christ (and the other members of the trinity) standing as god would be blasphemy) to save them. There’s never any real mention of ritualistic murder or the like, either.

So it seems most likely that he’s referring to treating his people like slaves. To selling them off as if they were just property – another golden cup or war outfitted horse. Actually, that’s a good way to categorize the things that Hrothgar will not be doling out to his followers: things that are not made by human hands.

Land is clearly something not made by human hands, especially since Beowulf portrays the land as a source of threats to civilization.

Grendel and Grendel’s Mother threaten Hrothgar’s little utopia, and the dragon threatens the Geats under Beowulf. Grendel and Grendel’s Mother come from the heath, and even more specifically a strange lake that opens into an underground cave. Later, the dragon comes from an ancient cave near the cliffs of a coast. Both are places that are distinctly other, and thus not at all connected to human creation.

It’s fair to say that people are held as sacred in Beowulf. Yes, parts of the poem seem like they’re just about a bunch of guys bashing another bunch of guys over the head with pointy sticks, but even in those instances, there’s something all to human at stake: honour, glory, safety for one or the other side’s leader’s family/group. Nonetheless, there is value to human life as something more than a possession in this poem, though it may seem to fluctuate more than our modern valuing of the same.

Back To Top
Closing

Next week, we see Heorot being built, named, and lurked about by Grendel.

Feel free to comment on today’s entry below and to subscribe to this blog to keep yourself up to date.

Back To Top

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s