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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