Montage meanings imagined and interpreted (ll.210-216) [Old English]

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Prime or time
Burrowing into a word
Closing

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Abstract

Beowulf and crew prep their ship and ready themselves, too.

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Translation

“The foremost knew motion; the ship was on the sea,
the boat that sat before barrows. The warriors
roaringly rose a cry – the current carried them on,
bringing the sea against sand; the men bore
bright treasures upon their chests,
magnificent in martial-gear; they all shoved off,
men bound for an expected expedition trip by boat.”
(Beowulf ll.210-216)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Prime or time

Once again, we see some summarized action at work. The poet is speeding us along here, giving the barest detail about Beowulf and his crew boarding their ship and putting out to sea. No doubt the strangeness of Grendel (and maybe the fame of Beowulf?) had audiences eager to hear what happened once the Geats reached the Danes.

But, despite the clear sense of forward motion in this passage, the first clause of this section is vague.

The three words that kick it all off (“Fyrst forð gewat”) form a complete thought with a subject, object, and verb in that order. But at the level of literal translation into modern English, they don’t really work together. They come out to something like “the first knew forwardness/awayness.” Although, this isn’t the only place in the poem where a literal translation just won’t do.

Looking at this clause’s general sense, I think that it’s communicating the idea that the foremost member of the group (that is, Beowulf) was in a state of mind for travel as they set out. He had full understanding of his physical purpose, and so body and mind were joined in his undertaking. A sense of such unity could be used to foreshadow Beowulf’s prowess and success against Grendel and Grendel’s mother.

Running with that understanding of this clause’s general sense, I then pieced together a clause that gets it across as economically as possible. “The foremost knew motion” is as close as I’ve gotten so far to my interpretation of the sense of the original.

For the sake of comparison, Seamus Heaney translates the line from a completely different understanding of its sense. He turns “Fyrst forð gewat” into “Time went by.” There’s still some motion in this version of the clause, maybe even more of it than in mine if you take time to be the motion of god (perhaps what Heaney took from “Fyrst” and left only implied in his translation). The difference between our clauses is also important, since Heaney chose the interpretation of “Fyrst” as “time” rather than as the premier cardinal number.

Looking back, that makes the clause as a whole quite clearer at the literal level. But, I’ve chosen to stick with my own translation because it allows for more interpretation. Very little is lost in doing so. Both convey a sense of motion, after all, and that is this clause’s purpose as it comes at the start of a passage all about kicking off travel.

Actually, Heaney’s interpretation slows down time in that it calls attention to time itself passing by. Taking “Fyrst” as a reference to Beowulf instead puts the focus on the Geats and their eagerness to be off on their “expected expedition” (l.216).

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Burrowing into a word

A cleaner curiousity (from an academic angle) is the use of “beorge” (l.211). This word has several interpretations, including “mountain,” “hill,” and “barrow.” The sense that I pulled from it and its context is that this “beorge” indicates the boundary of Geatish territory, or, since Beowulf and company find their boat safe, maybe it’s the final land marker of Geatish territory. If it’s meant to indicate mountains, then maybe the Geats cleverly set up where mountains sheltered them from naval assaults.

The more fantastical explanation that sprang to my mind (with no help from any facts that I know) is that the word means just what it sounds like: a barrow. I’m not sure about the practices of the Geats and how much they were like those of other groups around them, but it makes sense to bury your dead on the outskirts of your settlement. Doing so allows those in mourning to move on, and keeps those still living free from any disease that might propagate or reside in a corpse.

Stepping into the realm of superstition, maybe a barrow on the edge of your settlement also acted as an enemy deterrent. If not regarded as an out-and-out hazardous field of ghosts, perhaps it could stand as a reminder of the finality of death and demotivate those who sought to add to it.

Also, and who knows since the geographical detail is so sketchy here, perhaps this “beorge” is a reference to Hronesness, the place where Beowulf is buried at the poem’s end. Maybe it even is that place. We’re never told much about Hronesness after all, other than the fact that it’s high enough to mount a beacon for ships on it. Perhaps generations before Beowulf there was another hero buried there, and in the ultimate show of the vanity of human pride the elements wore down his great barrow until it was just a low mound – the same fate that awaits Beowulf’s.

If this whole “beorge” business has anything to do with Hronesness, then maybe it’s even the poet/scribe stepping in to imply the importance of written history and records. Words record deeds and memory much better than monuments left exposed to the cruel elements of nature’s erasing power.

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Closing

Next week Beowulf and crew get out to sea, and, very quickly, come to Daneland.

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