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

Gold as guardian
Of ships and mothers

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The coastguard leads Beowulf and his entourage to Heorot.

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“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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Old English:


Modern English:


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

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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

  1. Pingback: Payment for the dead and weird words with clear covers (ll.1050-1062) | A Blogger's Beowulf

  2. Pingback: The coastguard’s reply (Pt. 2) (ll.293-300) [Old English] | A Blogger's Beowulf

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