The action’s paused, time for a montage (ll.202-209) [Old English]

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Low action, high language
Beowulf in montage
Closing

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Abstract

The Geatish hero gathers his group and they head for their ship.

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Translation

“Then were wise warriors chosen to accompany
him on his journey, those whom to him were dear,
whetstones to wondrous deeds, each looking hale.
The good Geat people then a great warrior
had crowned, there you a brave man might find;
some fifteen sought out the ship at shore;
to the frontier they went, following
the words of the wise, the one versed in sea-ways.”
(Beowulf ll.202-209)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Low action, high language

The action of this passage is pretty bland. Beowulf’s crew is selected, they’re all mighty in their own right, and the lot of them head down to the shore for their boat. That’s it.

But the poet was certainly aware of the dullness of this section of the epic. Where its action lags, its language really soars. Unfortunately, this doesn’t always come across in translation, but the alliteration and tone of line 204a is pretty easily preserved.

The original reads thusly:

“hwetton higerofne”

A literal translation of this is: “sharpening high bravery”

To maintain the alliteration and theatricality of the original, I translated it thusly:

“whetstones to wondrous deeds”

What makes this sort of preservation possible here is the fact that this half-line is an adjective clause. That makes it easier because most of Old English’s poetic sentences are garbled and have words shuffled out of the usual Subject-Verb-Object order. As a result, even taking poetic license, it’s not always possible to translate a sentence from Beowulf so that you maintain the original’s rhythm and tone. But, a clause that’s just describing something always follows the same formula of encapsulating the thing being described into a vaguely related phrase.

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Beowulf in montage

This passage’s lack of action has two causes. The first is that it’s primarily a descriptive section of the poem. Instead of seeing anything in depth, this mysterious Geatish hero is merely introduced as vaguely as the others who had tried to help the Danes were. The biggest difference is that he’s being dwelled upon quite a bit, but otherwise this guy is as anonymous as the rest.

The extra attention afforded to this hero makes it clear that this one is different from the rest. But the poet would have had to have mentioned those others who tried their hands against Grendel to get this effect in the first place. Plus, though it can only be speculation, since I have no idea how well known the story of Beowulf and Grendel was when the epic was first being put together, audiences might have already known about the one who gets Grendel out of the Danes’ hair. As such, introducing him through this summary-like, action-less passage builds anticipation for his full arrival in the story.

The other reason for this passage’s being rather bland is connected to the idea that this is just a brief description of events that the audience may already have been familiar with. In fact, it kind of bolsters the first reason.

Were Beowulf’s arrival written only as this stranger’s appearing on the Danish shore, without any sort of explanation or reason why, it would be downright bad writing – especially if Beowulf was a well known character. After all, for anything more than a cameo, even a well known character needs to be set up. Audiences get more out of it if they’re able to guess at who this Geatish hero is. Just dropping audiences into the Geats’ meeting with the Danes’ would not build up the same amount of anticipation, and so the pay off of Beowulf’s being named would be much less than it is.

Actually, this part of the poem is like the modern movie montage – a thing to drop in between scenes when you need a quick way to show some sort of motion or progress towards a goal. Here, that goal is Beowulf’s arriving in Daneland.

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Closing

Next week the montage continues, as we watch Beowulf and his band set sail and navigate the seas.

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