Beowulf’s rhetoric (ll.340-347) [Old English]

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Introductory patterns
Is there a mic in that helmet?
Closing

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Abstract

Beowulf replies to Wulfgar with his origins, but masks his purpose with formality.

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Translation

“‘One man among them courageously answered,
the proud man of the Weders, spoke after those words,
bold beneath his helm: “We are Hygelac’s
table-companions; Beowulf is my name.
I will explain to the son of Halfdane,
that famed lord, my errand,
your prince, if he will grant us such,
that we may greet him graciously.'”
(Beowulf ll.340-347)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Introductory patterns

Despite the brevity of this passage, there are some things that can be said about it.

Not the least of which is the continuation of a pattern we’ve seen before.

In 6 February’s entry (in which Beowulf introduces himself to the coastguard, ll258-269), we saw that Beowulf didn’t just say outright “I am Beowulf.” Instead he introduced his group as friends of Hygelac’s, and then introduced himself primarily through his father.

Once again, Beowulf introduces the group first, with a similar line explaining their relationship with Hygelac (l.342). But then, instead of introducing his father and merely claiming to be his son, we hear Beowulf say for the first time in the poem that takes his name, “Beowulf is my name” (“Beowulf is min nama” (l.343)).

Surely the herald of a great prince like Hrothgar commands more respect than a coastguard?

So then why does Beowulf simply give his own name (a name which makes no reference to his father)?

My theory is that this has to do with the intimacy of the hall setting.

Although this conversation is still very formalized, Heorot is nonetheless a place of leisure. It’s where Hrothgar and his thanes hang out and trade treasures and stories between battles and forays. The hall would even draw strangers into Hrothgar’s hospitality, at least, were it not for Grendel. As such, Beowulf has no need to show his “son of” card just yet.

Even so, the other curious thing about Beowulf’s shift in tone is that he keeps his purpose for from Hrothgar’s herald. Instead of declaiming for all to hear, “I am Beowulf! I’m here to kill your monster” (as a cg’d Ray Winstone did), he says that he’ll reveal just what his purpose is when he speaks to Hrothgar.

I think this feint is meant to show Beowulf’s social acumen. In a hall besieged for twelve years by some seemingly invincible terror, anyone (especially anyone as young as Beowulf’s supposed to be here) coming around claiming to be there to deal with Grendel is likely not going to be believed. Likely, for most of those twelve years such an approach hasn’t been useful. Those who did come in with boasts blaring were probably laughed out of the hall.

And once you’ve been laughed out of something it’s all the harder to win glory there.

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Is there a mic in that helmet?

All the more so if you appear ridiculous. It might seem Beowulf would were he still wearing his helmet, as the poet suggests on line 342. But this detail appears to bolster his position.

Maybe it’s all just to keep building up the mystery around these Geats among the Danes. The Geats’ helmets are supposed to have cheek-guards, and you’d think that they would protect the helmet’s wearer from sight as well as blows.

Or perhaps the poet is engaging in a bit of embellishment. Painting Beowulf into a bit of a caricature of a warrior. He keeps his helmet on so that he can be ever vigilant. Or maybe because it’s simply the outfit of a warrior and keeping his helmet on shows Beowulf’s seriousness.

Regardless, I definitely think it’s a poetic detail. Though his speaking “bold[ly] beneath his helm” could well be an image of sorts, suggesting that Beowulf spoke as deeply as if he were wearing a helmet. Maybe there’s even something about Beowulf’s tone itself being a source of protection in such an image.

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Closing

Next week, Wulfgar takes Beowulf’s message and departs.

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