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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