An end to Geatish sailing (ll.217-228) [Old English]

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Leaving the sea mysterious
Beowulf as historical allegory (a sketch)
Closing

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Abstract

The Geats swiftly arrive on Daneland’s bright shores.

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Translation

The ship then knew the ocean’s motion, was wind-hastened,
became foamy-necked, became seabird like,
until near the time of day they had left,
after their ship with curved prow had glided,
when those well-travelled ones saw land,
dazzling sea cliffs, steep hills,
an ample headland; then was sailing simple,
the journey at an end. From that ship sprang
the Geats onto the sands,
their boat they bound there – they shook their mailcoats,
war gear; they thanked God then,
the one that made their ship’s going smooth.
(Beowulfll.217-228)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Leaving the sea mysterious

For a poem about sea-faring peoples, the poet’s definitely not spinning out what you’d expect. Every time that someone travels by sea it’s usually glossed over. There’s often something about it being swift, or sailors being lucky with conditions, but no real detail about it is given.

Maybe, in this poem for a people looking to settle into a fixed identity, the idea was to keep transitory acts (like sailing) to a minimum. If that’s the case, then the poet definitely did his/her job: there’s not a true sailing scene in the whole poem. Though, there is the matter of Beowulf and Breca’s swimming match.

Perhaps the Geats’ trip over to Daneland is not shown because it would interfere with the importance of the swimming match. After all, the sea would hold no mystery or power or be able to inspire as much of a response if details about safe passage across it were given. With the sailing scenes (and even Beowulf’s swimming back to Geatland after a major battle later in the poem) as short as they are, the sea retains its mystery. And with that mystery can come monsters, like those that Beowulf fights as he defends his friend.

Perhaps the power of this mystery was meant to extend further, as well. For, if the Anglo-Saxons of the British Isles wanted to feel like a grounded, rooted people, then making something as transitional as the sea a mystery could help them do so. For mysterious things are usually alienated or alien things.

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Beowulf as historical allegory (a sketch)

An interesting detail is contained in line 222: “brimclifu blican.” I translated that second word, “blican,” to dazzling (in line with the Clark Hall & Meritt Anglo-Saxon Dictionary’s definition). Perhaps most of northern Europe had the white cliffs that are now associated with Britain (thanks in no small part to Matthew Arnold). So, is Daneland, in all things but figures and fealties, another Britain?

Going back to the Anglo-Saxons as a sea-faring people, they’re sure to have noticed the white cliffs of Britain facing France. So if Beowulf was written by the Anglo-Saxons, and not just translated from a language you might expect given peoples’ and places’ names, then maybe that’s a detail signalling that Daneland represents Britain.

If Daneland is understood as Britain, then perhaps Grendel is the Celts, or some sort of spirit or genius of the Celts that the Anglo-Saxons didn’t care for. Reading Grendel in this metaphorical way, it then becomes possible to interpret Beowulf himself within the same historical framework. Where Grendel is the embodiment of what is wrong with the place that the Anglo-Saxons (the Danes) have chosen to settle, Beowulf represents what is just and what is good – Beowulf is god’s instrument for the creation on earth of what is to be harmonious and perfect. Like the Anglo-Saxons he came from elsewhere, but frees those that he meets and is elevated to kingship because of his prowess and own merits rather than inheritance.

In fact, he becomes king because of the people’s accord when a new ruler has to be found after Hygelac’s line is ended. Ultimately, though, what Beowulf’s death could mean in this metaphorical interpretation of the hero gets tricky. Perhaps it is a kind of prophecy of what would come next for the Anglo-Saxons, after they had waned like their other heroic peoples, the Jews of the book of Exodus, had.

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Closing

This entry wraps things up for 2013. Check back for the first post of 2014 on the third Thursday of January!

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