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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