What the Danes’ coastguard says of Beowulf (ll.247b-257) [Old English]

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
A matter of translation
Beowulf’s self control
Closing

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Abstract

The Dane’s coastal watchman gaurdedly compliments the Geats’ leader and calls on him to identify himself and his purpose.

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Translation

            “‘Never saw I a mightier man
upon this earth, than this one before me,
this man of might; is that not a retainer,
one worthy of weapons; never would his mien betray him,
a singular sight. Now, you of the far off dwelling place,
sea-farer, I would hear tell of
your singular purpose; haste is best
in saying why you are come hence.'”
(Beowulf ll.247b-257)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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A matter of translation

The last word of line 249 doesn’t quite work. I’m not working to get a set meter into my translation of Beowulf, nor am I worried about rhythm. But even John R. Clark Hall and Herbert D. Meritt are bothered by the word at the end of line 249, that they translate as “retainer?” (Hall 302a).

This word is “seld-guma.”

Its only ascription in my dictionary is to this instance of it in Beowulf. Apparently the words “seld” and “guma” are not combined anywhere else in the extant body of Old English writing.

The former of the two words in this compound means “hall, palace, residence; seat, throne, dais,” and the latter means “man, lord, hero.” So literal combinations could be “hall hero,” “palace lord,” or “throne man.” One of these is better than simply “retainer,” I think. “Hall hero” does the best job of capturing the sense of “seld-guma.”

Just what is that sense?

I think, aside from its literal meaning, “seld-guma” connotes someone who is a regular attendant upon a hall or palace who has distinguished himself somehow. I’m pulling this connotation from the combination itself, since an appellation like “seld-guma” doesn’t seem to be something lightly given.

The Anglo-Saxons put a high value on halls, after all, and so to be called “seld-guma” could be considered a great commendation. What’s more, in this specific instance it must mean that Beowulf has a very dignified look about him since the coastguard is riffing off of his appearance alone. Association with a hall or residence would confer certain airs upon a person, and Beowulf very clearly carries himself with these in full effect.

Another way to think of the combination is that it connotes “household guard.” To lightly assign warriors to guard your house (and by extension your family, valuables, and own life) would be to invite peril. Thus, naming Beowulf as such not only signifies that he has this title back in Geatland, but also that he is a hall hero because a stranger recognizes such qualities in him.

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Beowulf’s self control

Further along in this week’s extract, the coastguard says of Beowulf “never would his mien betray him” (“næfne him his wlite leoge” (l.250)). It’s my opinion that this is meant to build on Beowulf as a “seld-guma.”

As a warrior, even as a debater, it’s important that you control yourself as much as possible. Attacks can be telegraphed by the body in strange ways, after all.

With that in mind, saying that Beowulf’s countenance would never betray him suggests that he is in complete control of his expression, letting nothing at all slip out unintentionally.

Once more, this comes back to the coastguard assessing Beowulf on how he carries himself. Based on what’s said here, it must be very well indeed. Not to mention, if Beowulf can really keep a lid on things to the extent that’s suggested, it’s fair to guess that he’s a truly great warrior since he would leave his opponents guessing until he struck.

More generally, it must also mean that Beowulf could erase things like fear and joy from his face, making him just as dangerous with words as with swords, as we’ll see next week.

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Closing

In next week’s extract, we hear, for the first time in the poem, from Beowulf himself.

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On the coastguard and Anglo-Saxon nationalism (ll.237-247a) [Old English]

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
An idea of nationalism
The bureaucratic border guard
Closing

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Abstract

The Danish coastguard begins his speech to the newly arrived Geats.

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Translation

“What are ye gear-havers,
wearers of corselets, that thus laden
in a high ship come over the sea-street,
hither with the waves? I am set
as border guard, to keep this isle hold watched,
So that no loathed ones may batter this
Danish land with naval force.
Never in known memory have any
come so openly bearing shields; nor do you
seem eager to get a word of permission from this watchman,
a Dane’s consent.”
(Beowulf ll.237-247a)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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An idea of nationalism

This passage really says a lot about the conception of nationhood that the poet/scribe was working with. Or, that the poet/scribe wanted to portray.

On line 241, the coastguard is referred to as “endesæta.” Clark Hall and Meritt translate this compound as “border-watchman.” Taken separately, the word “ende” translates as “border, edge,” and “sæta” could be a form of the verb “sittan” meaning “to sit” or it could mean “sitter.” So a more modern spin on this compound would be “border-sitter.”

What this little word says about conceptions of nationhood is this: A nation’s land comes down to what it can directly control or patrol.

This lone Dane is out on the coast making sure that no-one sneaks up on the rest of his people, yes. But, his being at the coast also extends the purview of the Danish people so long as he remains connected to the whole (something that is implied when he sends the Geats speedily on to the interior, where Hrothgar is). However, such a conception of borders or limits is essentially one that relies much more heavily on social constructions than on any sort of physical marker.

In one sense, the Danes don’t extend their rule into the sea, but at the same time, their representative at the coast is policing incoming traffic. Not that he can do anything about visitors until they land, but he is nonetheless watching the sea and anticipating threats to the Danes more generally.

At any rate this sense of nationhood is most curious because of its portable nature. Aside from Heorot, the Danes have no constructed physical indicator of their borders. Like the Israelites, or the Anglo-Saxons, they are a people because of their familial and loyalty ties rather than a shared, fixed land.

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The bureaucratic border guard

The Watchman’s last set of statements seems strange without the other half of his speech. Jumping ahead for a second, his “Never…nor” (“No…ne” (ll.244-246)) statement reflects how impressed he is by the Geats’ leader.

More immediately, and sticking to this excerpt, though, mentioning the Geats’ not seeking Danish permission to land seems strangely bureaucratic for a bunch of warrior-adventurers.

Nonetheless, having to ask permission at a border to disembark makes sense. Having to deal with one foreigner within your lands would be much easier than having to manage a boatload of them. It’s no doubt easier for a tribe like the Danes to trust one foreigner at a time when first meeting them, too.

What makes this part of the extract stand out, though, is just the plain shock that comes across in the Danish watchman’s statement. Perhaps he has been coastguard for so long that procedure is something he holds dear because it’s all the human interaction he gets. After all, as a coastguard, he’s hardly in exile, but he’s not exactly back at the hall enjoying the friendly boasting and the mead there.

Alternatively, this could be a reflection of this coastguard’s inexperience. He’s so green that he shakes his spear before he begins to speak not to intimidate, but because of his nervousness. And he makes a statement about the Geats’ lack of respect for protocol because he’s never had to deal with such impatience before.

Given the Dane’s situation, though, it’s not likely that even the newest of their coastguards would be without a good knowledge of warriors landing at the coast. Surely, more than a few have stopped by to try their hands at Grendel. Nonetheless, be he old hand, or greenhorn, the awe expressed in the coastguard’s pointing out the Geats’ eagerness comes across quite clearly. And it sounds genuine to boot.

Clearly Beowulf has made a good first impression.

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Closing

Next week, check back for the second part of the coastguard’s speech.

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A thoughtful shore guard and Anglo-Saxon karma? (ll.229-236) [Old English]

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Why so curious?
Anglo-Saxon Karma
Closing

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Abstract

This week, we’re offered a look into the head of a Danish shore guard as he sees the Geats land.

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Translation

“Then from the cliffs the Scyldings shore guard saw them,
the one who was to hold the sea-cliffs,
men carrying bright shields across a ship’s gangway,
bearing ready war gear; his curiousity overpowered
his thinking, the need to know what these men were.
Then rode out the thane of Hrothgar
to the shore, powerfully shook the
spear in his hand, asked in a querying tone:”
(Beowulf ll.229-236)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Why so curious?

The core of this short passage is the shore guard’s inner conflict. From “his curiousity overpowered/his thinking” (“hine fyrwyt bræc/modgehygdum” (ll.232-233)) we can see that he’s generally a cautious, thoughtful sort of guy (possibly an introvert?), but his curiousity overpowers him. What marks this as the core of the passage is what this conflict can tell us about the current feeling among the Danes more generally.

There are a number of things that the man could wonder or assume about those he sees trundling onto the shore, armed and ready for war. But of them, there are two that seem most likely to be in there.

One of these is the possibility that this band of warriors is here to fight Grendel. The other thought is the possibility that the band is an advance party sent to scout out (maybe even take on?) the Danes in open war. Word had spread about their predicament with Grendel, after all. And such word would draw those who wanted to help the Danes as much as those who wanted to take advantage of them. Even fiend-harried, there would no doubt be some gain to be had from taking the storied hall of Heorot.

If we assume that the first possibility is what eggs the man on, then there’s not too much more to write on it. He’s hopeful that the Danes will be saved and that Grendel will be dealt with. This feeling among the Danes is already well-established in earlier passages. However, if it’s the second possibility, that this band of men has come to cause further trouble for the Danes, then things get more interesting.

Perhaps, none have tried to take advantage of the Danes’ weakened state just yet, but Hrothgar, king that he is, is well aware that people will do so. As such, maybe this is even the assumption the man has been commanded to make in this sort of situation. Or, perhaps such attempts have already been made and repelled, making this shore guard wary of such parties of warriors.

The latter situation is more likely to generate inner conflict since hope for help would clash with a learned dread of outsiders. As such, the latter situation is more strongly implied here, which means that a whole lot more has been happening in Daneland than the poet’s told so far. Not that the poet finds such inter-human conflicts as interesting as those between people and the supernatural.

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Anglo-Saxon Karma

Combining the possibility that over the course of Grendel’s twelve year reign of terror people came to challenge the Danes as well as Grendel with Beowulf‘s cyclical and interwoven nature creates a very strong through-line.

Is Beowulf later visited by a supernatural fiend of his own because he freed Hrothgar from another?

Perhaps, buried in old books and found among words told to children beside winter fires, there is a long since dead belief that whatever you helped to rid one person of would come back in a greater form to challenge you directly. Thus Beowulf‘s supernatural element moves from a pair of ogres/goblins/monsters to a single fire-breathing, night-flying dragon.

Because I’ve always read Beowulf as a story about the broken link a long chain of events, the end of a way of life, this reading of the poem adds further depth to Beowulf’s failure against the dragon.

Hrothgar prospers, or at least survives, because his help is from outside of his group. As such, the group itself is not weakened internally and is able to re-emerge from a lengthy oppression. On the other hand, the dragon that terrorizes the Geats isn’t dealt with by some warrior from another group but is finished off by another Geat: Wiglaf.

Because it’s a member of the group in peril that saves the group from that peril, by whatever mechanic the matter of disasters works in the world of the poem (and maybe its originator?), the Geats are left permanently weakened.

The Geats’ position is also not helped, of course, by the death of their leader. Perhaps the Geats fall not because of the loss of Beowulf alone but because the the outcome of a supernatural revenge system is heaped on top of it.

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Closing

Next week, we hear what the shore guard says. Listen up come next Thursday!

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