Heorot’s rise and fall (ll.74-85) [Old English]

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Self sabotage and suspense
Heorot and Hubris
Closing

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Abstract

Heorot is raised, named, and has its end prophesied.

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Translation

Then heard I that work a summons went widely,
to many peoples from throughout this earth,
to adorn that dwelling place. After their first meeting,
immediately amidst those assembled, it was made ready,
the greatest of all halls; the poets named it Heorot,
he whose word has widespread influence.
That boast did not lie, rings were doled out,
a continuous treasure flow. That hall rose high,
towering and wide-gabled, made to resist fierce fire,
loathe of lightning; yet it was not as such for long,
since woken sword-hate would later swallow it
after war broke out between son in law and father in law.
(Beowulf ll.74-85)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Self sabotage and suspense

For an epic poem, Beowulf has some moments where it seems to sabotage its own scope. At least on the surface. This excerpt is a prime example of such apparent sabotage, as it takes the grand idea of the world’s greatest mead hall and condenses its history into just over 10 lines.

But there’s some purpose behind doing things this way.

In speaking of the end of Heorot, the poet gives it a finite existence. On the one hand doing so could be the poetical version of the mistakes that artisans would make in their intricate weavings and carvings so as to not offend what they believed to be god’s perfect creation. On the other, it lets readers know that Heorot will not be destroyed until the time that is appointed.

To the poem’s original audience (maybe even in its written version) the reference to a feud erupting between father in law and son in law could actually be meaningful; including this detail could root this story further in history. The poet alludes to something real and gives it enough detail to frame it as the real thing. Then he is free to embellish Heorot’s history with the wild story of Beowulf and Grendel.

From a purely narrative standpoint, delineating Heorot’s existence like this also lets the reader know that Grendel isn’t the one to destroy Heorot. Once more, on the surface this seems like self sabotage. However, this moment in the poem doesn’t undercut the suspense of Beowulf’s struggle with Grendel, it strengthens it. An attentive reader knows that Beowulf must succeed for Heorot to survive to be destroyed in the manner described here. What generates much of the suspense during the lead up to and during his fight with Grendel is the question of how he does it.

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Heorot and Hubris

Continuing in that vein, Heorot sounds like a classic embodiment of hubris. Not only is it a grand building where great treasures are doled out, it’s also built “to resist fierce fire,/loathe of lightning” (“heaðowylma bad,/laðan liges” (ll.82-83)). Its very construction is supposed to negate the natural things that are the banes of other buildings. So it sounds like something that by its nature is calling down the anger of the gods.

Yet, aside from drawing it out of a classically informed narrative analysis placed onto the poem, it’s hard to tell if the Anglo-Saxons themselves saw things this way. This sense of hubris that I’m pulling out of the poem could even be a subtle insertion on the part of the Christian scribe who put Beowulf to paper, something to show the wrong-headedness of the Anglo-Saxons before the missions came and all of that.

Regardless, Heorot’s description is definitely something over the top. And if that’s something that calls down the attention of the gods, then maybe it would foreshadow some sort of supernatural intervention for the poem’s early audiences. Perhaps then, the reference to the hall’s being destroyed in a feud is meant to turn readers’ suspicions away from the supernatural. Grendel still has to be introduced, after all.

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Closing

Next week, in fact, Grendel gets introduced. And the context of this introduction sets up quite the contrast.

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One thought on “Heorot’s rise and fall (ll.74-85) [Old English]

  1. Pingback: Courageous hope and a summary of the Finn and Hengest incident (ll.1600-1611) | A Blogger's Beowulf

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