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The poet meditates on the inescapability of fate as he tells of how Heorot quieted down for the night.
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“She went then to her seat. There was the greatest of feasts,
men drank great wine; none knew the fate that awaited,
a dolorous destiny, as it would again
and again befall the many, after evening came,
and Hrothgar had retired with his entourage to his chamber,
the ruler gone to rest. The hall was guarded
by warriors without number, as they had oft done before;
the bench boards were cleared; the floor was enlarged
with bedding and pillows. One reveller
was marked and doomed on that couch to depart.”
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Fate’s Just What Happens to You
It looks like this passage is just the poet talking, filling time. But it sounds like things are about to take a dark turn in Heorot.
Of course, there isn’t much to tell of the revelry at Heorot right now. Things are quieting down for the night. But how the poet tells us this is what I find interesting.
Rather than being overly moralistic about the juxtaposition of revelry and the harshness of fate here (as is my general impression of Christian writing), the poet says the feasting in the hall went on, everyone eventually getting ready for bed and being entirely unaware of what is about to befall them. It’s a simple enough juxtaposition, the difference between an everyday thing and something out of the ordinary. But what draws my attention to this juxtaposition is that there’s no connection between the two of these things. This “dolorous destiny” (“geosceaft grimme” (l.1234)) isn’t about to be visited on Heorot because they were revelling and enjoying to excess. It’s just what happens “as it would again/and again befall the many” (“swa hit agangen wearð/eorla manegum” (l.1234-1235)).
And that line especially, “as it would again/and again befall the many” keeps having fun and being visited with some sort of terrible fate from being truly connected here. It almost sounds like the poet’s stance on destiny or fate or determinism is that bad stuff is bound to happen to people as long as they’re on this earth. But, at the same time there’s the implication that this bad stuff is balanced out with the ability and the chances that people have to enjoy themselves. Like, for example, indulging a bit in the “greatest of feasts” (“symbla cyst” (l.1232)).
Along with the poet’s revealing a bit of how they think about fate, it’s interesting from a narrative perspective that they just say “one reveller/was marked and doomed on that couch to depart” (“beorscealca sum/fus ond fæge fletræste gebeag” (ll.1240-1241)). This line builds up a little bit of tension, and the effect is amplified thanks to the line’s placement around all of this mystical talk of inexorable fate. Everyone dies sometime. Maybe this one who’s doomed to die in Heorot this night will pass quietly?
There’s no question about this person being someone other than Beowulf, since the poem is named for him, and there’s quite a bit of the poem left. Plus, the poet’s very clearly pulled out from the usual tight zoom on this epic’s titular character. Which leaves us with the question of will a Geat die this night or will it be a Dane?
Toss your guess in the comments!
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The Bench Boards’ Destiny
The Old English word “geo-sceaft” (l.1234) means “destiny,” or “fate,” and is a word that only appears in Beowulf as far as we know. This word comes from the combination of “geo” (“once,” “formerly,” “of old,” “before,” “already,” or “earlier”) and “sceaft” (“created being,” “creature,” “origin,” “creation,” “construction,” “existence,” “dispensation,” “destiny,” “fate,” “condition,” “nature”), creating a neat image of something that has happened before happening again, maybe on a karmic sort of scale, or maybe because the Anglo-Saxon sense of fate was somehow tied to habits.
But, whatever the Anglo-Saxons’ related fate to, the idea of destiny is pretty high falutin. People die for destiny, they’ll put their all into pursuing it, and they’ll feel like they were made to fulfil it. But I’d rather look at a particular thing’s destiny in this section.
I think it’s safe to say that a “bencþel” (l.1239) has a destiny. That is, a “bench board,” or “wainscotted space where benches stand,” is destined for something – it’s designed for it. In fact, in this passage, I’d say that this thing described by a word born of the union of “benc” (“bench”) and “þel” (“board,” “plank,” “metal plate”), is destined to have “beor-scealca” transform it.
These “beor-scealca” (l.1240; meaning”revellers,” or “feasters,”) are likely to transform the bencþel for a very specific purpose. As you might guess from the combination of “beor” (“strong drink,” “beer,” “mead”) and “scealca” (“servant,” “retainer,” “soldier,” “subject,” “member of a crew,” “man,” “youth”) these “beor-scealca” aren’t in any state to go to their own beds, so instead they’ll transform the “bencþel” into a “flet-ræst.”
A “flet-ræst” (l.1241) is a “couch,” pure and simple (though it applies to just about anywhere soft enough to comfortably lay or bed down in).
Coming from the mix of “flet” (“floor,” “ground,” “dwelling,” “hall,” “mansion”) and “ræst” (“rest,” “quiet,” “repose,” “sleep,” “resting place,” “bed,” “couch,” “grave”), this word sounds like it specifies something more than just a box with some cushions on it. In fact, this word got so comfy for English speakers, that it became the English vernacular for “house” or “apartment”: “flat.”
But transforming an area meant for benches into a soft place to sleep isn’t just some drinking trick (have several pints, look in empty corner, see comfy couch, collapse on bare floor). The “beor-scealca” would transform the “bencþel” by using the process of “geondbrædan.”
The word “geond-bræden” (l.1239) means “to cover entirely,” or, only in Beowulf apparently, “to enlarge,” or “extend.” This word comes from the combination of “geond” (“throughout,” “through,” “over,” “up to,” “as far as,” or “during”) and “bræden” (“make broad,” “extend,” “spread,” “stretch out,” “be extended,” “rise,” “grow,” “roast,” “toast,” “bake,” “broil,” or “cook”).
So, the “beor-scealca” would fulfil the “bencþel”‘s “geo-sceaft” by fluffing the area up with pillows and such (the “geondbræd”-ing process) to make it into a “flet-ræst,” something more than just a place for benches. After the feast, these areas would become the resting place for the feasters. And for one in particular it will be his final resting place.
What do you think it’s you’re destiny to do? Do you even believe in the concept of destiny?
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The Dane’s bedtime ritual continues next week. What could the poet be building to with this talk of fate?