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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