Geats want to go out fighting, “alma mater” to the max (ll.688-700a)

The dedication to die away from home
Very dear country

Beowulf, Anglo-Saxons, poetry, translation

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Beowulf and his fellow Geats bed down for the night while the narrator assures us that their beliefs about never again seeing home are unnecessary.

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“He Kept himself bold then, took a pillow
to his cheek with his band, and he among the many
ready seafarers gave themselves to hall-rest.
None of those thought that they should afterward
ever see their dear land again,
their people or their towns, where they had been raised;
and they had prayed, with fervour earlier, that they
in that wine hall be taken by death in battle,
those Danish people. But to them the Lord gave
woven success in war, thanks to the Weder people,
joy and help, that they the fiend there
through that one’s strength fully overcame,
by his own might.”
(Beowulf ll.688-700a)

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Old English:


Modern English:


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The dedication to die away from home

Unlike last week’s passage, there’s a fair bit more going on in this week’s. Not that it’s wall to wall action or anything, but, nonetheless, I have some things to say about it rather than just a thing.

In the middle of this week’s passage, we get something that seems uncharacteristic for the sorts of warriors Beowulf and his men are said to be. We’re told that “None of those thought that they should afterward/ever see their dear land again,” (“Nænig heora þohte þæt he þanon scolde/eft eardlufan æfre gesecean”(ll.691-692)). At first, this bit of information makes it seem as though the Geats feel that theirs is a doomed project.

And why not?

Countless others have tried before them and have failed. Why should they, a band of warriors whose leader is really an unproven whelp have any better luck?

But, immediately after this fairly touching bit about never returning to where they were raised (ll.693) we’re given a little more information. The sort of information that clarifies things further and explains quite a bit about the difference between our culture and that expressed in Beowulf.

From lines 694 to 695 we’re told that the Geats had earlier prayed (the word is “gefrignan,” meaning, in general “to ask”) that they should die in battle. Again, at first you think, well, that’s probably so that they don’t have to face defeat. That they’ll be remembered as having gone down fighting. But when you put this idea with the belief that they’ll never see home again, then you get what I think is the full picture.

The Geats think that they’ll never see their homeland and loved ones again because hat’s just how resolved they are to dying in the fight with Grendel. It’s not that they’re afraid of the monster or sorrowful about a doomed fate. Instead, I think the poet/scribe is showing us the strength of the Geats’ resolve. They’re so willing to die in the service of this quest that they, in the calm before Grendel storms in, are convinced that they’ll never go back across the waters to see Geatland again.

Nevertheless, this passage closes out with a curious reassurance.

In line 698, the poet/scribe tells us that Grendel will be defeated, but by “one’s strength” (“anes cræft” (l.699)). What’s curious about this to me is that, on one hand, this seems to be about Beowulf.

But If such is the case what’s unclear is whether this means that Beowulf’s strength overcomes Grendel’s or if it’s Beowulf’s strength that convinces god to give the victory to the Danes (as mentioned on lines 698-699).

But, “one’s strength” (l.699) could also refer to god itself.

Since Beowulf is always invoking god as the one who grants him victory after victory, it wouldn’t surprise me if the poet/scribe (more so the scribe) snuck this into the poem as a reference to what the Christian version of a single omniscient and omnipotent deity was.

Based on nothing aside from his depth of knowledge, I agree with Robert Graves in his argument that the peoples of Northern Europe had the idea of a singular ruling deity, a sort of monotheism, before Christianity (as Graves outlines in The White Goddess).

But it’s possible that early Christian missionaries sold those people on the idea of Christ and God and such on its being a new, fresh deity, someone who could overcome and vanquish the old gods or their champions. With this sort of reading, “one’s strength” takes on a much more proselytizing tone, and, over all, makes the poem weirdly more Christian than it would be otherwise (that is Beowulf thanks god for victories, but those victories are by god’s grace, so the whole poem, whatever else it is, is really about god’s grace in battle).

However, where such a religious reading of this line falls apart is that there’s no clear reference to god.

It’s possible that Beowulf, at best an adaptation of a hero from an earlier story, is god as god’s champion, and so that “one alone” is both god and Beowulf simultaneously. But to expect that this meaning would get across to the audience of a poem seems far-fetched to me.

Yet, in that case, it could be that the poet/scribe intended this particular passage as a sort of coded wink or nod to those in the know. Maybe at this point in the poem, while it was being read/performed, the guy beside you who’d been pretty quiet up until then would turn to you and say “have you let Jesus Christ into your heart, brother?”

How much Christian influence do you think is in Beowulf? Are all of his references to god just references to a pre-Christian deity?

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Very dear country

This week’s passage isn’t without its compound words, but most of them are straightforward and to the point. They’re combinations of words that make sense together and don’t offer as much room for wiggling.

These are words like “hleorbolster” (“hleor” (meaning “cheek,” “face,” or “countenance”) + “bolster” (meaning “cushion”)) or “wigsped” (“wig” (meaning “war,” “strife,” “battle”) + “sped” (meaning “success”). But, as in all good poetry, this passage does have its variety.

Otherwise I’m not sure how you’d explain the presence of “eard-lufan.”

This word is, at first blush, a simple compound. It combines the word “eard” (meaning “native place,” “country,” “region,” “dwelling-place,” “estate,” “cultivated ground,” “earth,” “land,” “condition,” or “fate”) with the word “lufan” (meaning “dear,” or “beloved”).

So, very simply, we get the dictionary-prescribed “dear home” (as in Clark Hall and Meritt) or “beloved home” (as in C.L. Wrenn’s glossary). The difference here is infinitesimal, and it looks like an easy enough compound word to deal with.

But what about those weird definitions of “eard” near the end of that list up there? “Condition” and “fate” are strange words to translate a word that seems to otherwise just mean “home” or “earth.”

I think these alternate meanings of “eard” don’t alter the compound word or give it radically different meanings, though. I think that their being possible translations for “eard” just deepens the meaning of “eardlufan.”

For the most part, “eard” is a word that represents earth and home. I think the inclusion of “condition” and “fate” in this list suggests that a dear home isn’t just a place where a person grew up, but also where they hope to die. It is a place so dear to them so utterly connected to them and they to it, that they want to be raised there, live there, and die there.

I’m basing this speculation on the Biblical notion that “dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return” (Genesis 3:19) (something I imagine the Anglo-Saxons were aware of); the earth or ground isn’t just our home or where we make our dwelling, but we are the very stuff of it and return to it when we die.

I think this extra shade of “eardlufan” deepens its meaning because it suggests a connection with a country and a land so strong that a person would give all they have for it. I might even go so far as to say that a person who uses such a word implies that they themselves are a part of the country or land from which they come.

What’s more, to the Anglo-Saxons, a people who identified with the wandering, country-less Jews of Exodus, this notion of an incredible bond with a place must have been a great fantasy. It may have even driven them to settle in as much as they did in the British Isles. Perhaps it even encouraged them to establish a country for themselves, the nation of wanderers that they saw themselves as.

But that’s just some succinct speculation. Though it brings to mind a question.

When it comes to early nationhood, which do you think came first: a country big enough to sustain a large group of people or a large group of people who strongly identified as a single group?

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Next week, Grendel begins his approach to Heorot.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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1 thought on “Geats want to go out fighting, “alma mater” to the max (ll.688-700a)

  1. Pingback: Beowulf’s boast before bedtime (ll.675-687) | A Blogger's Beowulf

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