On mythical smiths and plundered gear (ll.399-406) [Old English]

Vague words and allusions
Plundered gear

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Wulfgar having given him the okay, Beowulf strides in to Hrothgar with his thanes in tow.

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“Arose then the hero, from amidst his many thanes,
various valiant warriors, some remained there,
to watch the war-gear, as they were strictly ordered.
They hurried together, their chief going first,
under Heorot’s roof; on went the war-fierce,
under hard helmets, until they stood upon the hearth.
Beowulf spoke – on him the byrnie shone,
his corslet crafted with the smith’s skill:”
(Beowulf ll.399-406)

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Old English:


Modern English:


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Vague words and allusions

Although the poet/scribe here describes Beowulf’s walking “under Heorot’s roof” (“under Heorotes hrof” (l.403)) we’re no closer to figuring out whether he and his fellow Geats have been waiting outside or in some sort of antechamber. Even the Old English is of no help since it literally means “under Heorot’s roof.” Either Beowulf has walked in to be under it, or is striding (no doubt manfully) beneath Heorot’s golden eaves.

Though really, what sort of hall could be called “great” without some sort of antechamber?

Moving from one vague phrase to another, at the end of this passage we encounter “smiþes.”

This word translates easily into “smith,” but the question is: is it plural or singular?

A quick look at the University of Virginia’s famed Magic Sheet reveals that “smiþes” is in fact singular.

So what?

It’s possible that this word is an allusion. In Norse myth there is a famous smith named Wayland who crafted many wondrous things (like the incredible, instantly-travelling “Wade’s boat” referenced in Chaucer’s “The Merchant’s Tale”). Normally it would be ridiculous to pick this reference out of a throwaway use of the word “smiþes.” But the end of this passage is special.

After we’re told that Beowulf speaks, the poet/scribe decides to go on and describe the armour that Beowulf is wearing.

We’re told that Beowulf’s byrnie (waist-length maille shirt) shone and that his corslet (breastplate) was made “with the smith’s skill” (l.406). All of this talk of armour, however brief, opens up the possibility of “smiþes” being a reference to Wayland. This description being the set up for Beowulf’s speech also suggests a reference because reading even the first line of the Geat’s gab shows that it is a formal, carefully worded address. It’s not every day (even during the lifetime of the poet/scribe) that you use “þu,” (“thou”) after all.

Now, if “smiþes” is a reference to Wayland, it doesn’t necessarily mean that Wayland made Beowulf’s armour. Though that would fit in well with why Beowulf (not to mention the poet/scribe) prizes it so highly. It could just be a reference that is idiomatic in that the real live smith who fashioned the Geat’s battle gear seemed to have channelled the mythical skill of the smith when making it. It’s just that good.

Mythological reference or not, as we’ll see soon, whoever the smith was that made Beowulf’s armour, he made it to last.

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Plundered gear

Along with a bizarre, translation-blocking typo in the Old English text of the bilingual edition of Heaney’s translation (the apparently non-existent “pryðlic” for “þryðlic” (l.400)), this passage has a word of note.

Yet another word for “war-gear,” “heaðo-reaf,” has a curious meaning when pulled apart and patched back together.

Separately, its words translate as “war” and “plunder, booty, spoil; garment, armour, vestment.” These don’t exactly come together like “Wig/laf” (literally “war legacy/relic”), there’s a definite implication that this armour is directly related to combat. Beowulf has pulled it from the battle field.

But in what sense?

Could it simply refer to its being plundered from a battlefield?

Or should the reference be taken to mean that it’s seen many close scrapes and yet been “plundered” from each one in that its wearer has survived to wear it again?

Either way, it’s not used here to avoid some sort of reference to genitalia, but instead, to simply alliterate in the first half of the line.

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Next week, Beowulf to Hrothgar speaks.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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One thought on “ On mythical smiths and plundered gear (ll.399-406) [Old English]

  1. Pingback: Beowulf’s placement and Wulfgar’s use of "you" (ll.389b-398) [Old English] | A Blogger's Beowulf

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