Beowulf gets introspective, even plain words can be lovely (ll.884b-897)

Myth on Myth
Passing Judgement on Words

Beowulf, Old English, translation, poetry

Beowulf fighting the dragon. There are striking similarities between this fight and Sigemund’s. Image found at

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The poet in the poem sings of Sigemund defeating the dragon alone and winning its treasures.

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“Sigemund’s fame saw
no small surge after his death day,
after ward in cruel combat he killed the dragon,
the hoard’s guardian. Under the grey stone,
the nobleman’s son, alone he dared to do
the dangerous deed; Fitela was not with him then;
without that comrade, he plunged his sword through
the wondrous wyrm, so that it stuck in the wall,
that lordly iron; the dragon died its death.
His courage over the foe won him its treasure fully,
so that he the ring hoards had to give
as he saw fit; a boat they loaded,
they bore in the ship’s bosom bright treasures,
Waels’ son; the hot wyrm melted.”
(Beowulf ll.884b-897)

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Old English:


Modern English:


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Myth on Myth

We’ve got another simple, straightforward type passage here. Though it begs an important question: what’s the story of Sigemund doing here? It’s something that the poet on horseback has conjured up out of his knowledge of the hero, and there are definitely analogues to Beowulf. Though these analogues are really only present if you’re already familiar with Beowulf. Otherwise, all of the talk of Sigemund fighting the dragon and winning is just foreshadowing. Weirdly, though, the exact phrase “under the grey stone” (“under harne stan” (l.887)) comes up when Beowulf faces the dragon in the last third of Beowulf. Anyway, I think what’s going on here with the analogues to Beowulf — his slaying a dragon, driving the sword through a dragon who guarded a bunch of treasure,and the dragon being liquid in some way — is a bit of play with the nature of myth and legend.

Where Sigemund beats the dragon and lives, Beowulf beats his dragon but dies in the process. Nonetheless, as spoils Beowulf gains control over the dragon’s hoard much like Sigemunde does. Though this control passes from Beowulf to his own Fitela figure: Wiglaf. These twists on the events of the Sigemunde story — Beowulf’s death, his Fitela being with him — I think are the poet trying to make the myth of Beowulf more realistic. Maybe it’s even the product of an imagination that knew that the age of deathless heroes who earned great glory forever was past. So, perhaps with Sigemund foreshadowing or contrasting with Beowulf the poet is trying to make sense of what a mythic figure might look like in a world with a new religious system that overturned much of what went before and in an era in which law and order were starting to centralize. Heroes were still needed in this new world, they were still craved, but the shifting realities of the Anglo-Saxons (or maybe their blending Germanic, Roman, and Celtic traditions and ideas into a single culture) forced them to create a hero who followed the mythic formula of fighting a dragon and triumphing, but whose glorious victory cost him his life. The point perhaps being: “glory comes at a great cost these days. Be wary of glory.”

It’s also interesting that when the ring hoard of the dragon comes into Sigemund’s possession it’s not a cause for celebration because he has the treasure for himself. Instead, it’s a great event because Sigemund’s able to spread the wealth among his closest relations. Beowulf also celebrates the gain of the treasure not as a personal victory but as one for his people.

How much do you think is going on with this story of Sigemund? Is it here because the poet’s trying to say something about heroes? Or just something sung while the people of Heorot rejoice?

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Passing Judgement on Words

I’m starting to wonder if the language of the poem is getting simpler as this other poet sings because of how the actual poet wants this in-tale poet to look. If the actual poet of Beowulf is trying to put his all into it, then there can’t be a poet in the story who’s use of language is more complex or descriptive, right?

Anyway, the simplicity of the language throughout this section means that there aren’t many compound words. And generally when there are, they’re pretty simple.

The word “beah-hordes” meaning “ring hoard” is the only compound of note in the passage for this entry. It’s a combination of the word “beah” (meaning “ring,” “coil,” “bracelet,” “collar,” “crown,” or “garland”) and “hord” (meaning “hoard,” or “treasure”). And that’s really all there is to it. Combining these two words really does nothing more than specify the kinds of rings that you’re dealing with. Not much more fantastical stuff beyond that, really.

But, there are two words in the passage for this entry that do offer a little more. Even if they’re perfectly normal, singular words.

The first of these is “dōm” a word meaning “doom,” “judgement,” “ordeal,” “sentence,” “decree,” “law,” “ordinance,” “custom,” “justice,” “equity,” “opinion,” “advice,” “choice,” “option,” “free will,” “condition” “authority,” “supremacy,” “majesty,” “power,” “might,” “reputation,” “dignity,” “glory,” “honour,” “splendour,” “court,” “tribunal,” “assembly,” “meaning,” or “interpretation.”

What makes “dōm” stand out is that in the context of the passage it means “glory” or “reputation,” meanings that are kind of a ways down the list. But even so, it’s not an interesting word because its in-context meaning is low on its list of meanings. The word itself seems to really express what underpins reputation, and therefore fame, in a very neutral way.

Judgement underlies fame, after all. And, weirdly, in Modern English the connotations have shifted, since to us “fame” generally seems like a good thing while “judgement” feels like it’s the face of a beast called guilt. Maybe there’s something to say here about the perceptions of judgement and the cultural influence of Christianity, a religion promising judgement with eternal consequences.

But in Old English, the sense of “dōm” meaning judgement and its forms and offshoots is much more neutral. Simply put, you need to be judged to have a reputation or fame, so “dōm” covers a lot of this area of meaning. Maybe because it also seems to be a general sort of word. It’s used as it is here to mean” reputation or “fame” and it’s used elsewhere to refer to divine judgement and elsewhere still to refer to the day the world ends in judgement (so I guess its appearances in Old English are soaked in Christianity, too). But maybe more than anything it all just comes from the Old English “dōm” being narrowly cognate with our own “doom,” a much much more streamlined term for having been judged and found wanting, or for hopeless consequences.

The other weird word in this passage is much lighter. In line 887, the poet describes the dragon as the “hierde” of his hoard of treasure. The use for the sake of alliteration here is supremely obvious, but I still find it neat that the word for “shepherd,” “herdsman,” “guardian,” “keeper,” or “pastor” could be stretched in this way.

A “guardian” makes sense in reference to gold, as does a “keeper.” But what about the sense of guidance in “shepherd,” “herdsman,” and “pastor”? How could you guide a hoard of treasure, especially if you weren’t sharing or spending it, but just sitting on it as dragons do? Maybe there’s a bit of foreshadowing in this sense of the word, or even a judgement passed on the dragon, since when Sigemund becomes master of the treasure he does much more to guide it into the hands of his people. There’s a Christ analogy here, too, with the dragon as Satan or a pre-Christian deity, while Sigemund, going it alone under the grey stone (itself perhaps a reference to Jesus going into the sealed tomb after the crucifixion, or even a reference to the harrowing of hell) is the Christ figure and the treasure is salvation, which Sigemund gives freely.

Old English words have a lot of different shades of meaning to them. Do you think the same is still true with Modern English, or, as English has changed over the years its vocabulary has become specialized?

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In the next passage, we hear how Sigemund’s victory affected his home and old king Heremod’s court.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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1 thought on “Beowulf gets introspective, even plain words can be lovely (ll.884b-897)

  1. Pingback: A mysterious start to a tale of Sig(e)mund (ll.874b-884a) | A Blogger's Beowulf

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