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

Back To Top
Abstract

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

Back To Top
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)

Back To Top
Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

Back To Top
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.

Back To Top
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.

Back To Top
Closing

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

Back To Top

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s