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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