Beowulf leaves the underwater haul, and a summary of his time in the Grendels’ hall (ll.1612-1622)

Synopsis
Translation
Recordings
Take only What’s Needed, Leave only Slaughter?
A Treasure Never Lost
Closing

Beowulf and his band of Geats carrying Grendel's head.

J. R. Skelton – Marshall, Henrietta Elizabeth (1908) Stories of Beowulf, T.C. & E.C. Jack.
Image found at: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Stories_of_beowulf_head_of_grendel.jpg#/media/File:Stories_of_beowulf_head_of_grendel.jpg


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Synopsis

Beowulf grabs a couple of things and then leaves the Grendels’ hall.


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Translation

“Nothing more did he take from that place, the lord of Weder-Geats,
any valuable things, though he there many did see,
except for the head and the hilt both,
the shining treasure; the blade before it melted
was a fire-hardened damescened edge, but its blood was too hot,
that alien spirit’s poison, the one which died there.
Soon he was safe and swimming, he who in earlier strife
had called down defeat in his wrath, he climbed through the waters;
the churning waters had been purified,
likewise was the land thereabouts, when that alien spirit
left off her life days and lost her loaned life.”
(Beowulf ll.1612-1622)


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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}


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Take only What’s Needed, Leave only Slaughter?

Beowulf must want to travel light. Otherwise, I can’t see why he doesn’t take more from the strange hall of the Grendels. Practically speaking, anyway.

Poetically, there’s a parallel here between the dragon and the thief who steals the cup. There’s even a parallel between Beowulf’s taking little and Wiglaf taking only a single item from the dragon’s hoard after it’s defeated. But after having seen the armoury of the Grendels’ I still don’t quite see why Beowulf doesn’t go back and grab a complete sword. I guess he’s already carrying Hrunting though, since he owes Unferth that sword.

Stepping back, Beowulf’s choice to not raid the Grendels’ armoury like someone who’s just teamed up with a bunch of other players and headed to a dungeon in World of Warcraft makes a little more sense when you think about the figurative weight of what he took.

Grendel’s head is the symbol of the end of the Grendels’ reign of terror. There is a very old belief that to cut the head off of an enemy ensures the loss of their power. Aside from physiology, the idea that the head is the central part of something lives on in things like the word “capital” (from the Latin “caput”, or “head”). After all, a capital is where a country’s government is based, and therefore one of the most symbolically significant places in any sort of major conflict.

The sword hilt that Beowulf doesn’t just pitch into the water but takes with him also has its significance.

As we’ll learn later, there’s a story engraved on the hilt. And though Beowulf comes from a vibrant oral tradition, I’m sure that the notion of writing was held in very high esteem. I’m not sure what kind of script would be on the hilt, but the importance that’s ascribed to this hilt with its engraved story of the great flood really plays into the idea that a written story gained even more reverence than a remembered one.

Actually, maybe this little trinket suggests (at least in part) why Beowulf was eventually written down. It was simply well regarded enough to justify all of the effort that went into writing something down before the age of widely available pulp-based paper and ballpoint pens.

Would you have just taken what Beowulf took, or would you have tried to take all the treasure out of the Grendels’ hall as the spoils of victory?


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A Treasure Never Lost

It sounds like something out of a video game, but Beowulf did it first. He went down to a hall of monsters, where he fought an “ellor-gast”1 or two. And during the strife he found a “maðm-æht”2, a giant’s sword. A weapon that guaranteed the monster’s “wig-hryre”3. And though after beheading the other “ellor-gast”1 that giant’s “broden-mæl”4 had melted away he still had the hilt and the story of how he got it.

Along with Grendel’s head, he pulled the hilt out with him, too, as he swam through a “yð-geblond”5 that had now calmed. Though of the three things he hauled out of the underwater hall, it’s the story that he’ll have for the rest of his “lif-dæg”6.

1ellor-gast: alien spirit. ellor (elsewhere, elsewhither, to some other place) + gast (spirit, ghost) [A word that is exclusive to Beowulf.]

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2maðm-æht: valuable thing, treasure. maðum (treasure, object of value, jewel, ornament) + æht (possessions, goods, lands, wealth, cattle, serf, ownership, control) [A word that is exclusive to Beowulf.]

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3wig-hryre: slaughter, defeat. wig (strife, contest, war, battle, valour, military force, army) + hryre (fall, descent, ruin, destruction, decay) [A word that is exclusive to Beowulf.]

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4broden-mæl: damescened sword. broden (surface, board, plank, tablet) + mæl (mark, sign, ornament, cross, crucifix, armour, harness, sword, measure; time, point of time, occasion, season, time for eating, meal, meals)

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5yð-geblond: wave mixture, surge. yð (wave, billow, flood, sea, liquid, water) + blandan (blend, mix, mingle, trouble, disturb, corrupt)

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6lif-dæg: life-day, lifetime. lif (life, existence, life-time) + dæg (day, life-time, Last Day, name of the rune for ‘d’)

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Closing

Next week, Beowulf returns to the surface.

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