The coastguard’s farewell (ll.312-319) [Old English]

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
A boastful coastguard?
Meet the new god, same as the old god
Closing

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Abstract

The coastguard takes his leave of the Geats, wishing them god’s protection.

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Translation

“He took the battle brave to the bright
high-souled hall, that he may thither them
go; that hero of combat turned his horse
about, spoke he these words next:
‘It is time for me to go. The almighty
father’s grace keep you healthy
amidst your quest! I am to the sea,
to hold the shore against fiendish foes.'”
(Beowulf ll.312-319)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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A boastful coastguard?

The coastguard’s being called “hero of combat” (“guðbeorna”) seems strange. That is, until you notice that it’s the third word in an alliterative sequence. But is it only there to hold up a preferred Old English poetic form?

Yeah, probably.

I mean, the coastguard does mention that he has to go back to the coast to guard against “fiendish foes” (“wrað werod” (l.319)). So there could be some verity to his being a “hero of combat.” But that term seems a little inflated to me.

Could the poet be having a laugh at the coastguard’s expense? “guðbeorna” fit the line that he had written and so he just ran with that and made the coastguard into a bit of a boaster at the end of his speech?

Maybe.

I mean, on the one hand, as much of an exile such a person might feel (even if he does have a crew out there), it definitely wouldn’t be wise to send some fop out to guard your coast.

The Danes wouldn’t have had the troops to keep a barracks there or anything like that. His crew included, the Danish coastguard in Beowulf probably wouldn’t exceed ten men. Tops. So he, the lead coastguard if you will, would definitely need to have proven his mettle in combat.

Though, it’s also possible that the position of coastguard is reserved for warriors who are past their prime. No longer able to perform as vigourously on the battlefield they’re charged to put their skills and battle-sharpened wits to the test in judging new comers and putting on a fearsome face. With a coast as quiet as the Dane’s must be (who, aside from heroes would want to come to a monster-terrorized-golden-hall party?), the job of coastguard definitely seems like something that would get filled by a veteran.

And maybe that’s what the poet was going for with the narrative riff on the coastguard’s past and then his own seemingly over-zealous admission of what he was heading off to do.

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Meet the new god, same as the old god

Throughout Beowulf, people give thanks to a generic male, father god. Many translations (and some instances in the original text) make many of these references into “lord.” As such, it’s very easy to read these instances of reference to god as references to the Christian god. Since “lord” is frequently used as a deific pronoun in Christianity.

However.

Christianity wasn’t the only religion to have a wise, solemn, wrathful, and benevolent patriarchical deity.

The Norse peoples (who definitely had some influence on Beowulf since it’s set largely in Daneland of all places) had Odin. The Germanic people had Woden. The Anglo-Saxon creators or audience for this poem were themselves Germanic.

So who’s to say that these generic references to god aren’t to these pagan gods? The Geats and Danes aren’t exactly quoting Old or New Testament verses at each other. Though there is that lengthy reference to Grendel as the kin of Cain and god’s war with the giants. That could be a reference to the apparently standard stories told among the peoples of northern Europe about unexplored places.

Knowing with certainty who the deity is that’s constantly being referred to is an impossibility. But the idea that it could be either the Christian god or one of the chief Pagan gods isn’t just a neat alternative. That could well have been the intention.

No matter where you place our version of Beowulf‘s composition within the 400 year window generally agreed upon (between 600 and 1000 AD) contemporary Christianity had yet to really spread over all of Europe. As such this story that’s ostensibly about a hero’s quests and fights with the supernatural could have been used as a way to infiltrate and convert.

Or, any male deity could be read into it as a way of making sure that the epic simply wasn’t too preachy.

Beowulf‘s being bundled with a collection of fantastic tales from the east in the Noel codex could in fact be the book creator’s way of sort of sweeping it under the rug because these god references weren’t clear then either. That book maker would have been a Christian monk of some sort or another after all.

So, when you’re reading Beowulf and come across a reference to the “alwalda” don’t just think surfer dude with a long white robe and beard, but think one-eyed, helmeted warrior god, too.

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Closing

Next week, the Geats step into Heorot and duly unequip themselves.

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Speculation along the way to Heorot (ll.301-311) [Old English]

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Gold as guardian
Of ships and mothers
Closing

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Abstract

The coastguard leads Beowulf and his entourage to Heorot.

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Translation

“They went upon their way. The boat was bound,
the capacious craft tethered with cord,
secure at anchor. Boar-shapes shone
atop their cheek guards; ornamented gold,
glistening and firmament firm, securely held life:
war-hearted grim men. They all hurried onward,
going down together, until from that high hall of a building,
ornamented and gold-dappled for all to see
that it was foremost among humanity of all
the buildings beneath heaven, the ruler called for them;
light of the people over so great a land.”
(Beowulf ll.301-311)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Gold as guardian

Gold is pretty prevalent in this passage. It’d be easy just to dismiss the metal’s shining presence in the Geats’ helmets and on Heorot as indicators of wealth and prestige, but I think there’s more to it than that. Of course.

In both of these instances I think that the gold is present in the helmet and the hall as a ward against harm. Or maybe as an outward show of the value of the people under the helmets and in the hall.

Putting a monetary value on a life or a major injury isn’t something modern. The Anglo-Saxons had a law covering the same thing that required the perpetrator to pay their victim (or, in the case of murder, the victim’s next of kin) a fee called “wergild.” The major purpose of this fee was to stem the outbreak of feuds and to bring disparate groups together into a group that extended beyond family ties.

It’s a bit broad, but literally translated, “wergild” becomes “man price.”

This is where this theory gets a little crazy, mostly because of timing issues. If the concept of we-gild had been around for a few generations before Beowulf was put together/originally written, then what would stop payments from becoming a preventative measure? Once it was so established, it’s not much further to get to a point where the association of gold with prevention of harm takes on a magical or superstitious flavour.

With such perception of gold as a protective metal in the culture, it would make good sense for it to adorn helmet and horn alike. Thus, pointing out the gold in the helmets and in Heorot’s exterior firmly establishes the protective properties of both.

However, in this passage, I think that a contrast is implied.

If gold is a metal that the Anglo-Saxons of Beowulf’s time believed to have protective properties then it’s already clear to the audience that it hasn’t worked so well for Heorot. The mention of gold being in the Geats’ helmets, then, calls into question just how effective they’ll be in guarding their lives. It’s also possible to read the failure of Heorot’s golden exterior as evidence for Grendel’s chaotic influence. His presence as a kin of Cain causes the proper function of gold to cease.

If all of this rang true for the poem’s original audience, then it’s hard to believe how much more anticipation there would have been for the fight once Beowulf reveals that he’ll faced Grendel completely unarmed. Heck, you could even say that if all this is true and Grendel’s power to negate weapons extends to negating the protective properties of gold, then Beowulf’s facing him with his bare hands alone evens the field all the more.

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Of ships and mothers

“Capacious” of line 302 is, in Old English, “wide-bosomed,” or “sidfæþmed.”

While a modern interpretation of “wide-bosomed” might be simply “large breasted,” the two definitions of “sidfæþmed” suggest that the Anglo-Saxons regarded it as more a matter of volume than size. Considering that all children of the period were nursed, this is hardly surprising. The greater capacity a mother had for milk the more nourishment her child would get, giving that child a better chance to make it through childhood and come into healthy adolescence.

How that relates to a ship is beyond me, except for the idea that travelling in comfort is better than travelling in a cramped space. Plus, a boat with some room would make rowing much easier. Easier rowing means faster travel. So a capacious boat is definitely optimal.

Getting back to this passage in particular, what can be made of the repeat mentions of Beowulf’s boat being securely tethered?

Running with the connection between mothers and boats via “sidfæþmed,” and taking along for the jog the tradition of referring to boats with feminine pronouns, Beowulf’s boat could be regarded as his anima being securely left behind, enabling him to act without sentiment, if necessary. If you want to take the Jungian tack.

Much more straightforward is the interpretation that Beowulf’s ship is his only means of getting him back to his homeland. As such, its security is of the utmost importance.

Or, it could symbolize his identity as a true Geat. If he had no way of getting back home, his liege Hygelac could think him dead or gone native, erasing his status as outsider among the Danes and making him a quasi-exile.

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Closing

Next week, the coastguard takes the Geats to Heorot’s doors and then takes his leave.

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The coastguard’s reply (Pt. 2) (ll.293-300) [Old English]

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
The coastguard’s prayer
Two matters
Closing

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Abstract

The coastguard makes Beowulf a promise, and wishes him well.

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Translation

“‘Also I’ll command my men
to guard your boat against the fiend,
relate a request to guard your newly tarred
ship on the shore, until it again bears
you dear men over the streaming surface
in its bound boards to the Geat’s borders:
that such a doer of good may have that fate,
to survive the battle rush in the hall.'”
(Beowulf ll.293-300)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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The coastguard’s prayer

A coastguard promising to command his underlings to watch someone’s ship until their return sounds like a pretty routine part of a coastguard’s job. It could just be what coastguards say to those with whom they interact. But here, in the context of Beowulf’s fateful arrival in Daneland, it feels like there’s more to the coastguard’s words than a professional nicety.

The final two lines of this extract are spent wishing Beowulf luck against Grendel, why could that well wish not be extended further back to the extract’s very beginning on line 293?

Taken as a whole, those last two lines definitely fit in with the rest of this part of the coastguard’s reply.

The extract opens with the coastguard promising to command his men to guard Beowulf’s ship until his return and departure.

This is a crux.

It’s not that they’ll watch his boat until his return – they’ll keep his boat until his return and until he leaves Daneland. That the promise covers that much time, and is described in that way, suggests that the coastguard has some confidence in this new challenger.

Though, Beowulf’s return to his ship could be as a corpse (something that’s touched on further into the poem). In that scenario, if that is what the coastguard has in mind, then there is likely little confidence in the man’s tone and delivery. But a whole two lines are spent on the final section of this reply, something that I regard as a prayer, or at the very least, an invocation.

Again, this part of the coastguard’s reply doesn’t really directly refer to Beowulf. However, there’s a slight sarcasm in this section: Rather than “Beowulf” he says “such a doer of good” (“godfremmendra swylcum” (l.299)).

Whether or not Beowulf will indeed do any good has yet to be seen, so I think that the coastguard’s referring to Beowulf as such is a way for him to acknowledge the hope he has for Beowulf while also declining to fully embrace this hope. He’s likely seen too many other heroes come and fail before.

Combined with his promise, this guarded expression of hope makes this part of the coastguard’s reply into one long wish of luck. In that sense, it’s like a prayer, a focused statement meant to bring into being the hypothetical situation that it proposes (Beowulf’s doing good and returning alive).

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Two matters

Two little things here.

First, on line 295, the reference to Beowulf’s boat as “newly tarred” makes it clear that Beowulf’s boat is a really nice boat. After all, tarring was a means of waterproofing and so a newly tarred boat is one in the best state of repair. Though, being newly tarred could imply one of two things.

A boat might have just had a new coat of tar put on it, patching up all of the holes accumulated over years of sailing.

Or, a boat may have been newly tarred because it is itself a new boat.

Like Beowulf in truth, his boat could be a very new boat, something inexperienced and in need of some actual experience of the real world.

The other little thing is the word “lagu-streamas” (“streaming surface” (l.297)).

This combination of “surface” (“lagu”) and “streaming” (“streamas”) gives quite the insight into the Anglo-Saxon view of the ocean. It implies a great depth to the ocean, since it is just the surface that a boat travels along.

Compare that with the modern English means of describing sailing being things like “going out on the water,” and the same sense sort of lives on but is really not as pronounced. For “lagu-streamas” also carries implications of only the surface of the ocean being in motion, the rest of it left mysterious and impenetrable.

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Closing

Beowulf and his fellow Geats are taken to Heorot next week – watch for it!

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The coastguard’s reply (Pt.1) (ll. 286-292) [Old English]

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Enter a horse
The coastguard’s backstory?
Closing

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Abstract

The coastguard answers Beowulf, and passes judgement on what the Geat has told him.

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Translation

“The guard spoke, there astride his horse,
the fearless officer: ‘Everyone shall
come to know and understand your sharp skill,
words and deeds, as they shall determine.
I hear this, that this warrior is true
to the Scylding lord. Come forth bearing
your weapons and armour; I will lead you:'”
(Beowulf ll.286-292)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Enter a horse

In the run up to the coastguard’s speech we’re told that he’s on horseback.

This little fact might seem something strange to include before a speech, but I think there’s a practical side to doing so. The most obvious benefit to the coastguard being that while on horseback he would be able to project his voice much more effectively than if he were on foot.

The sense that I get from the poet/scribe’s having thrown this reference in, though, is that it would have been taken for granted that the coastguard would be ahorse and that is why it’s not mentioned until now. After all, it would be kind of difficult to effectively guard a coast on foot. You’d just be too slow.

But then, was it only mentioned now to fill out the poetic meter, or was it only mentioned now to emphasize and remind the audience that the speaker here is in a position of power, of authority? Being ahorse, the coastguard is placed in authority over Beowulf – quite literally.

If this horse is mentioned for emphasis, then it bears directly on what the coastguard says. Specifically line 290, on which the guard restates what he has heard. It makes the guard’s judgement of Beowulf as being true in his words, and to be put to the test in front of the rest of the Danes a true one within the court of the coast.

If it’s a matter of meter, though, then the poet/scribe’s choice says a lot about the contemporary conception of poetry.

Let’s say that to the original audience, the coastguard was, of course, on horseback. The mention of that fact brings that fact into high relief. Mentioning the horse, draws it out of the scene that the poet has already evoked so far and places it at the fore of the audience’s attention.

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The coastguard’s backstory?

Related to the coastguard’s being on horseback, he, like any gatekeeper, plays a filtering role among the Danes. In his reply to Beowulf he specifically mentions that “Everyone shall/come to know and understand your sharp skill” (“æghwæþres sceal/scearp scyldwiga gescad witan” (l.287b-288)). Yet he was the one to know Beowulf first. It was he that gave Beowulf admittance into the Dane’s land on his word as a warrior and destroyer of fiends.

The question I’m left with after this passage, though, is who is this man to arbitrate for the whole of Hrothgar’s folk?

It’s easy to dismiss a lone coastguard as some sort of near cast out who somehow wound up with the short straw when the guards were pulling for their positions. But he’s the one who checks everyone’s character before they’re admitted into the land. He must have some importance, or he must in some way be an extension of Hrothgar. Perhaps in his younger days he fought alongside the Danish king. Or the position of coastguard is one of two branches of promotion – the other of equal esteem being Hrothgar’s comitatus.

Whatever he was, he is now the coastguard. And his position as arbiter of taste has just admitted a gang of warriors into the land.

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Closing

Next week the coastguard finishes his speech.

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