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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