Beowulf’s promise (ll.277b-285) [Old English]

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Beowulf’s Ultimatum
Cooling cares
Closing

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Abstract

Beowulf concludes his speech to the Danish coastguard.

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Translation

&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp”‘That I might teach Hrothgar
through the counsel of a broad mind,
how he the wise and good could overcome that fiend —
if he ever should end
this ruinous trouble, relief will come after —
and his cares shall turn cool;
Else ever after shall be times of sorrow,
endure distress, all while that greatest
of houses is forced to make do in its high place.'”
(Beowulf ll.277b-285)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Beowulf’s Ultimatum

So here’s the final piece of Beowulf’s speech. He’s introduced himself, spoken about his mission, and stated that he is the one that can kill Grendel. But there’s something strange about his phrasing.

Line 283 starts with the harsh conjunction “else” (“oððe a syþðan”). I call it a harsh conjunction because “else” always indicates a sharp turn in topic and tone. The phrase “or else” is so dramatic that contemporary culture’s love of irony has made it fodder for comedy, but “oððe” wasn’t something to take lightly back in the day.

I’ve translated the phrase “oððe a syþðan” as “else” because such is the simplest way to do so.

Looked at literally, a translation would be “and/until forever afterward.” Using “and” rather than “until” gives the same sense as “else” since it still indicates a sharp turn away from what was said before. Even so, there’s not really any other way to take the phrase “until forever afterward,” than “else”; what better word is there to convey something that will happen until the time “forever” is reached?

So, getting back to Beowulf’s phrasing. It seems that the conclusion to his speech is as much a boast as it is a statement of fact. But that’s important, here.

As Beowulf is speaking the coastguard is measuring him up against the terror of Grendel. Ending on what is really an ultimatum shows that Beowulf can be a match to that terror. For what could be more terrifying than to be told that if this latest of many wishing to attempt a daring feat can’t accomplish it no one can?

Thus, Beowulf’s phrasing is certainly intentional and persuasive. It shows that Beowulf knows about the others who have come before him and uses this knowledge to his advantage.

Such an ultimatum wouldn’t work if he was the first to come challenge Grendel. But, since many have tried and failed before him, his threat that he is the Danes’ final hope is much more believable. It could even be that the line of hopeful heroes has dwindled down to nothing of late, and Beowulf is the first to be seen for some time, making Beowulf’s threat/boast all the more effective.

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Cooling cares

Care and the heart go hand in hand. Poetically, at least.

And the heart is poetically linked to temperature. Kind people are warm hearted, misers are cold hearted. Fear can be described as having your blood run cold and if you find yourself in anger’s grasp some might say the very blood in your veins is boiling.

However, on line 282, Beowulf uses an image that suggests that care itself once had some connection to temperature.

“And his cares shall turn cool” (“ond þa cear-wylmas colran wurðaþ”).

That Beowulf notes that he can cool the cares of Hrothgar shows, once again, his knowledge of the situation.

Sure, Grendel is definitely foremost among Hrothgar’s cares, but going beyond stating that he’ll simply kill the monster that’s terrorizing the Danes really makes it clear that Beowulf isn’t looking for glory alone.

Keeping in mind the fact that the people that he is here to help really makes it clear that he can and will keep their interests in mind. He will respect their customs and regard their ways as he strives to maintain them.

Closing the positive possibility of his defeating Grendel with the image of cooling the Danes’ cares is really quite powerful. It shows Beowulf’s concern with the effect of his success as well as the mission itself.

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Closing

Next week, the coastguard gives Beowulf his answer.

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On words of evil and Beowulf’s cover letter (ll.270-277a) [Old English]

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Words of evil
Beowulf and cover letter writing
Closing

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Abstract

Beowulf introduces the problem he’s come to Daneland to solve.

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Translation

“‘We have much to declare towards your errand,
the freedom of the Danes, no longer shall there evil
be, this I believe. You know – if it is
truly as we have heard –
that against the Scyldings fights a fiend unknown to me,
a thriving ravager, that in the dark of night
threatens you with unknowable fear,
oppression and slaughter.'”
(Beowulf ll.270-277a)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Words of evil

Line 275 of this passage suggests a pattern in Old English words. Those starting with the letter “d” are more often than not related to evil or, that intention’s favoured cover, darkness.

The words that suggest this pattern are “deogol” (“unknown”), “daed-hata” (“ravager”), “deorcum” (“dark of”). In a passage containing roughly 50 words, four may not seem like a lot, but what’s important here is that these words were chosen for their alliterative properties.

Now, bringing the poem’s use of alliteration into an argument about the meaning of the poem’s words might seem backwards.

Calling attention to the fact that Beowulf is written alliteratively can remind people that its words aren’t necessarily chosen for their meaning, after all. But, my point in doing so is to also remind readers that any single word in a line of Old English poetry could be used for alliteration. The fact that line 275 contains three words that are linked by both alliteration and connotation seems far too coincidental to be anything but intentional.

So what can be said about this combination of words relating to evil and darkness?

Well, first off, that they’re related concepts in the Old English mind.

Further, that since the Old English perception of colour is more about lustre than shade, these words show the association of darkness and evil at work. Dark colours, those lacking lustre, are still regarded as being more dire than their brighter counterparts, just as they would have been regarded during the time that Beowulf strives to capture.

Putting these three things together also establishes Grendel, the subject of this line, as being utterly separate from god. To the Anglo-Saxons, god was a concept of light and intricate patterns (both things negated by such darkness). That his utterance implies an understanding of this association also marks Beowulf as a rather smooth talker, one who can turn a memorable phrase as well as parry and riposte a well timed strike.

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Beowulf and cover letter writing

Speaking of Beowulf as well-spoken. This section of his speech to the coastguard fits very nicely into a rhetorical outline of his speech as a whole.

The previous section of his speech was all about his introduction. That section established who Beowulf is as a person and where he stands in relation to the hierarchy of power. That is, he’s related to Ecgtheow, who had helped the Danes previously, he’s in the service of Hygelac, a famed warrior, and has accomplished deeds of renown in the past.

This week’s section has him move from that self-introduction to an explanation of why he (and his crew) have come to Daneland. Although the coastguard would already be well-versed in the troubles of his people, Beowulf’s stating the problem (before running through his ability to solve it next week), establishes that he is familiar with said problem. Thus, Beowulf offers the coastguard a view onto his own understanding of what it is he is here to help with.

Rhetorically speaking, this sort of complete introductory speech is still used today.

Unless I’ve been doing it wrong this whole time, the classic cover letter follows a relatively similar format. You introduce yourself, state the purpose of your application, and then why you’re a good fit for the job to which you’re applying. The biggest difference between this staple of serious job applications and Beowulf’s speech is that instead of explicitly describing the job you’re applying for, you implicitly do so in the skills and experiences that you emphasize in your cover letter.

Boasts are also sometimes a shared feature between Anglo-Saxon discourse and cover letter writing. But we won’t see any of those in Beowulf until this coming week’s extract.

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Closing

Check back here on Thursday for the third part of Beowulf’s introductory speech. In it he claims to be able to solve all the Danes’ problems.

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What’s found in Beowulf’s word hoard (ll.258-269) [Old English]

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Beowulf’s credentials
Words from the hoard
Closing

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Abstract

Beowulf unlocks his word hoard, and begins to answer the coastguard’s concerns.

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Translation

“The eldest answered him,
with the wisdom of the band, unlocked his word hoard:
‘We are kin of the Geatish people
and of Hygelac’s **hearth retainers;
His people knew my father,
a noble progenitor known as Ecgtheow, –
he commanded many winters, before he went on his way,
full of years; each man of counsel
on the wide earth takes heed of him.
We through care of the worries of your lord,
son of Halfdane, have come seeking,
the protector of your people; your exhortation to us is great!'”
(Beowulf ll.258-269)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Beowulf’s credentials

Being the main character’s first speech, this extract is surprisingly straightforward.

We get the poet introducing the speaker with a description of him and his answer rather than a name. We hear Beowulf tell the guard who they are, who they serve, who he is, and who his father is.

Hold on a second.

It’s standard in old heroic stories that people introduce themselves with mentions of their connections. But placing the fealty connection so close to the blood connection creates a parallel that carries some weight.

In defining who they are, Beowulf says that they are “Hygelac’s hearth retainers.” In defining who he is, he says that Ecgtheow is his father. But, no doubt with a characteristic wry smile, the poet has for more than ten lines ignored the guard’s admonishment from last week’s extract: “haste is best
in saying why you are come hence'” (“Ofost is selest/to gecyðanne hwanan eowre cyme syndon” (ll.256-57)).

So why spend so many lines introducing himself so indirectly? In part because of tradition. But also, I think, because the credentials that Beowulf lays down are of the utmost importance.

Hygelac is a great war leader from what little we’ve learned of him so far. And, from what Beowulf says, his father is a famed tactician. Along with wanting to show the guard just what he’s all about, I think Beowulf mentions these two men in the way that he does to communicate that he combines these qualities. Qualities that until now have appeared separately in all of those who have come to face Grendel.

The combination of a warrior’s spirit and a commander’s mind (also, a commander who survived for a long time, suggesting, in one way, that Ecgtheow was able to delay death itself) would surely be seen as what was needed to destroy Grendel.

What, then, can be said for the order of Beowulf’s laying down his credentials? Why not put his father first and his people second?

I think it’s a move meant to show humility, that Beowulf is not out to serve himself, but instead in the service of a whole people.

Again, much like the reference to a warrior like Hygelac, I believe this is meant to show Beowulf’s courage or strength of heart. What he fights for is not personal gain, but the benefit of whole groups of people. That makes him the perfect candidate for defeating Grendel, since he has the moral high ground against a monster that the poet has called kin of Cain, a lineage that marks him with grand immorality.

At least, as far as kinship ties go. If Beowulf’s ties bring in longevity, battle strength, and cunning, Grendel’s brings in murderousness, gluttony, and rage.

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Words from the hoard

Some wondrous words are used in this passage.

“Yldest” (l.257) is usually fairly straightforward. It simply means “oldest,” or “chief.” In the context in which it appears here, this latter definition makes fine sense. And the probe into this word’s meaning could end there.

But if it’s taken to mean the “oldest,” then just how young are Beowulf’s companions?

As he is the hero of the story, it’s easy to see Beowulf as a young man who stands on an established reputation for prowess. But being reminded of the rest of his band like this makes that perception shaky. Especially if this trip is a means for Beowulf to come of age and prove his worth. Such a test seems tailored to someone in his teens. Does that mean that his companions are hardly able to grow beards? Or is the age difference just a matter of months?

Interpreting the word as “chief” is clearer, but why have a word that could mean either “oldest” or “chief”?

This dual definition implies a connection between the two, certainly.

And why not? seniority and authority often go together quite well, especially in medieval societies. Still, the connection one way makes me wonder if it could go the other way as well. If Beowulf is the oldest he can be the chief, but if he is the chief does that mean that he is, necessarily, the oldest?

Another curious compound appears in this passage, too. It’s the word translated as “hearth retainers” in line 261 above: “heorð-geneatas,” a combination of “heorð” (meaning “hearth”) and “neat” (meaning “companion, follower (esp. in war); dependent, vassal; tenant who works for a lord”). Because of the range of options for “geneatas,” the meaning of this one is difficult to bring out in Modern English.

Much like “hall hero”, I think that “hearth retainers” is a solid translation. This new compound gets across that those meant are close to the one they serve and that their master has given them job security of some sort – keeping them on retainer.

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Closing

Next week, Beowulf continues to speak. Come on by this blog on Thursday to listen!

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