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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