Hrothgar offers hopeful words to Beowulf

Synopsis
Original
Translation
Recordings
Hrothgar’s Hopeful Praise
What a Memorable Ruler Needs to Do
Closing
Special Announcement

The decorative grip and pommel of the Gilling Sword, like Beowulf's ancient giant sword?

The grip and pommel of the Gilling Sword, found in a stream in Yorkshire in 1976. Did the giant’s sword that Beowulf found have a similar hilt? Copyright York Museums Trust http://bit.ly/2gh8HXJ. Image from http://bit.ly/2gpntKw.


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Synopsis

Hrothgar praises Beowulf and gives a hearty recommendation for his being king.


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Original

“þæt, la, mæg secgan se þe soð ond riht
fremeð on folce, feor eal gemon,
eald eðelweard, þæt ðes eorl wære
geboren betera! Blæd is aræred
geond widwegas, wine min Beowulf,
ðin ofer þeoda gehwylce. Eal þu hit geþyldum healdest,
mægen mid modes snyttrum. Ic þe sceal mine gelæstan
freode, swa wit furðum spræcon. ðu scealt to frofre weorþan
eal langtwidig leodum þinum,
hæleðum to helpe.
(Beowulf ll.1700-1708)


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Translation

“Indeed, it may be said, by he who upholds
right and truth for his people, for all humanity,
even by the old realm lord, that this man
is born to greatness! Your success is wide-flung
over the sea-ways, my friend Beowulf,
your fame is spread over every people. All you do
is done with steadfastness, strength, and wisdom of heart.
To you I give my lasting honour, as we two had earlier agreed. You shall be
to your people an everlasting pillar and help to warriors’ hands.”
(Beowulf ll.1700-1708)


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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}


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Hrothgar’s Hopeful Praise

On a bit of a technical note out front, in the original, Hrothgar’s lines from line 1705-1707 are a lot longer than the others. It’s not that the words the poet uses here are any longer than usual or anything like that. Instead, it seems to be some sort of aesthetic choice. If this part of the poem was performed before it was written down, maybe these long lines are meant to show Hrothgar’s rambling praise of Beowulf. The old “realm lord” (“eðel weard” (l.1702)) is simply beside himself with gratefulness.

And why not?

Beowulf has finally stopped the attacks on Heorot, and given Hrothgar an unexpected gift. The hilt of a giant’s sword is no mere trinket. Especially since it has a story written on it, something no doubt incredibly curious because of the clarity of the runes on it and the craft evident in the hilt’s overall quality. After all, the blade melted in Grendel’s blood, but the hilt did not.

But along with this celebration of Beowulf’s growing fame comes Hrothgar’s proclamation of Beowulf’s future success. Maybe the old schoolyard saying “takes one to know one” could apply here, since as a successful king throughout most of his reign (he did unite his people and organize the building of Heorot, after all), Hrothgar can see the same qualities in Beowulf. And so he assures him that he will be a help to warriors and a pillar for his people going forward. In true poetic fashion Hrothgar then turns around to talk about Heremod, someone undecidedly un-kingly especially in the Anglo-Saxon sense.

Which brings me around to a timely note.

There’s still plenty more Beowulf to work through (just over 900 or so lines before I meet myself where I started this blog with line 2631). There’s also more of Hrothgar’s speech. But, since this is a time of year when many celebrate hope and joy (from the observation of daylight’s slow return from the solstice onwards to the celebration of the birth of a saviour), I figured that ending the 2016 leg of my translation on this hopeful note is appropriate. So enjoy whatever celebrations you may have left for 2016 and this blog will return in the new year (further details on that below).


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What a Memorable Ruler Needs to Do

For an “eðel-weard”1 to achieve “lang-twidig”2 fame,
even in days when warriors revered their spear-bearing forebears,
more than conquest and overturning mead-benches were required.
Such a ruler to be remembered would need to flip those benches
back upright, and sit his people, new and old, down at them,
spreading golden wealth like butter on bread, an even swath
that covered even those from the most “wid-wegas”3
all of those there assembled in that ruler’s glowing hall.


1eðel-weard: lord of the realm, man. eðel (country, native land, ancestral home, name of the rune for oe) + weard (watching, ward, protection, guardianship, advance post, waiting for, lurking, ambuscade)

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2lang-twidig: lasting, assured. lang (long, tall, lasting) + twi (two, double) [A word that is exclusive to Beowulf.]

Back Up

3wid-wegas: distant regions. wid (wide, vast, broad, long) + wegas (way, direction, path, road, highway, journey, course of action)

Back Up


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Closing

In the new year, Hrothgar tells the story of bad king Heremod. Don’t miss it!


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Special Announcement

In news about this blog itself, I’ll be taking a break from updating A Blogger’s Beowulf as we roll through the holidays. But a new post about Beowulf news will appear on January 10, 2017, and the next translation post will go up on January 12.

If the holidays that you celebrate have already passed by, I hope that they were fantastic! And if your holidays are coming up, I hope that they will be fantastic!

Watch for the new posts in the new year!

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The book that changed Beowulf’s course in pop culture

The cover for the 1989 edition of John Gardner's Beowulf-inspired Grendel.

The cover for the 1989 edition of John Gardner’s Grendel. Image from http://amzn.to/2gZcPqK

I first read John Gardner’s novel Grendel while studying for my master’s degree at the University of Victoria. The same copy I read then now sits on my shelf, begging for a reread. And it’s deserving of one, I think. I remember the novel being a complex web of meanings and interpretations, though the meaning that was front and centre was a straightforward critique of human society through the eyes of Grendel.

Yes, as the book’s title suggests, it focuses on Grendel and what he gets up to between bouts of terrorizing Heorot. But it’s not all loping around the moors, scaring animals and feasting on his victims. The humans intrigue him as they build Heorot and celebrate its beauty and light. But he also sees and feels just how different he is from the Danes. And when Grendel first sees Beowulf he has this eerie feeling that his days are numbered.

It’s a good read, and from Gardner’s flipping of the original poem’s focus, to his social commentary through the monster’s eyes, to his use of zodiac symbolism, there’s a lot to its 174 pages. If you have the chance you should check it out!

But what brought Gardner’s book to mind today was my discovery of this extract from an article that centres around Gardner’s Grendel.

The extract explains how the pop culture scholars Michael Livingstone and John William Sutton argue that though the 20th century is full of adaptations of Beowulf, Gardner’s Grendel marks a turning point in these works. Whereas those that came before the novel are usually just retellings of Beowulf tailored to suit various genres and audiences, those that came after it share in Gardner’s use of the poem and of Grendel to generate social commentary on specific figures, incidents, or observed traits of the human condition.

If you’re interested in reading their article in full, you can find it here.

Along with Livingston and Sutton’s main thesis, the article is a treasure trove of adaptations that I never even knew existed. So if you’re interested in reading historical fiction based around Beowulf, or tracking down a rock musical in which Grendel’s a punk rocker, check out that article for some extra details.

Why do you think the Beowulf story is so widely adapted? What is it about the story and its characters that make it so flexible?

Struggling against giants: A sword’s story

Synopsis

Original

Translation

Recordings

Europe and its Giants

A Retelling of the Flood: Poetic Fragment

Closing

The decorative grip and pommel of the Gilling Sword, like Beowulf's ancient giant sword?

The grip and pommel of the Gilling Sword, found in a stream in Yorkshire in 1976. Did the giant’s sword that Beowulf found have a similar hilt? Copyright York Museums Trust http://bit.ly/2gh8HXJ. Image from http://bit.ly/2gpntKw.

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Synopsis

Hrothgar hefts the sword hilt that Beowulf hands him and then marvels at the wondrous story told on it.

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Original

“Hroðgar maðelode, hylt sceawode,
ealde lafe, on ðæm wæs or writen
fyrngewinnes, syðþan flod ofsloh,
gifen geotende, giganta cyn
(frecne geferdon); þæt wæs fremde þeod
ecean dryhtne; him þæs endelean
þurh wæteres wylm waldend sealde.
Swa wæs on ðæm scennum sciran goldes
þurh runstafas rihte gemearcod,
geseted ond gesæd hwam þæt sweord geworht,
irena cyst, ærest wære,
wreoþenhilt ond wyrmfah. ða se wisa spræc
sunu Healfdenes (swigedon ealle):”
(Beowulf ll.1687-1699)

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Translation

“Hrothgar spoke, as he was shown the hilt,
that old treasure. On it was written the origins
of a great struggle, after the flood had slain many,
sloshed through in torrents, a struggle with giant-kind;
peril was brought to all; that was a people
estranged from the eternal Lord; from the Almighty
came the final retribution of rising waters.
Thus was the pommel work written upon in gold
with runes properly inscribed,
inset and incarved, by the one who worked that sword,
the best of blades, first among weapons,
with wire-wound hilt and edge damescened like snakes. Then
the wise one spoke, the son of Healfdane — the hall hushed:”
(Beowulf ll.1687-1699)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Europe and its Giants

I’m glad that the poet gives us this description. It’s all too easy to imagine a sword hilt as just a piece of metal used to hold a sword, and depending on the design, maybe to help catch or parry incoming blows. But here we’re told that there’s a full blown story printed across what I imagine is the crossbar of the sword. In the picture at the top of this entry, the Gilling sword’s crossbar is just outside of the lower right corner of the frame.

The how of this story on a sword isn’t quite my strong suit. There’re runes describing the events, and they’re inlaid with gold. But what the poet means when they say that these runes are “properly inscribed” (“rihte gemearcod” (l.1695)) is quite a mystery to me. Maybe they were neatly made, unlike the chicken scratch of the poet’s day.

What I do know about is just how prevalent wars against giants are in the European imagination.

There are the Greek myths that detail the fight between the Olympian gods and the Titans.

In the Brut, an epic poem about people travelling to Britain to settle there, the travellers must first defeat a giant or two to make the land safe for themselves.

Even much much later, there are still stories of giants in things like fairy tales (“Jack and the Beanstalk”) and Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels.

I think that the Beowulf poet is referring specifically to a race of giants called the Nephilim here. These were the offspring of fallen angels and human women, which fits since the mention of the flood seems to circle around it being a destructive force that god sent out. And the note that the sword this hilt came from was one of the first weapons (“ærest wære” (l.1697)) gels with the idea that the fallen angels who fathered those giants taught humanity about things like smithing and warfare.

What’s unclear about this story, though is if the flood came after or before the great struggle with the giants. It seems like a torrential flood would be a pretty good way to deal with oversized earth dwellers, so my guess is before, but it’s left a little ambiguous.

Why do you think this story was written on the sword’s hilt?

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A Retelling of the Flood: Poetic Fragment

Before the “primeval struggle”1, when the world was yet young,
God on high inscribed a “rune”2 in the sky, a letter of unbinding,
That tore a hole between the clouds, as that word was sung
By angels standing all around, with ancient garment winding

around their firm frames, robes “adorned with figures of snakes”3,
Suiting costume for the “final retribution”4‘s sake.

1fyrn-gewin: primeval struggle. fyrn (former, ancient, formerly, of old, long ago, once) + winn (toil, labour, trouble, hardship, profit, gain, conflict, strife, war) [A word that is exclusive to Beowulf.]

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2run-stæf: runic letter, rune. run (mystery, secrecy, secret, counsel, consultation, council, runic character, letter, writing) + stæf (staff, stick, rod, pastoral staff, letter, character, writing, document, letters, literature, learning)

Back Up

3wyrm-fah: adorned with figures of snakes, damescened. wyrm (reptile, serpent, snake, dragon, work, inset, mite, poor creature) + fag (variegated, spotted, dappled, stained, dyed, shining, gleaming) [A word that is exclusive to Beowulf.]

Back Up

4ende-lean: final retribution. ende (end, conclusion, boundary, border, limit) + lean (reward, gift, loan, compensation, remuneration, retribution)

Back Up


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Closing

Next week, Hrothgar speaks his mind about Beowulf.

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A Connection between The Odyssey and Beowulf?

Synopsis
Original
Translation
Recordings
Really Zooming in on Gift-Giving
The Value of a Skilled Smith
Closing

The decorative grip and pommel of the Gilling Sword, like Beowulf's ancient giant sword?

The grip and pommel of the Gilling Sword, found in a stream in Yorkshire in 1976. Did the giant’s sword that Beowulf found have a similar hilt? Copyright York Museums Trust http://bit.ly/2gh8HXJ. Image from http://bit.ly/2gpntKw.


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Synopsis

The poet describes Beowulf’s gifting the hilt of his found giant sword to Hrothgar, and reiterates the Grendels’ defeat.


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Original

Ða wæs gylden hilt gamelum rince,
harum hildfruman, on hand gyfen,
enta ærgeweorc; hit on æht gehwearf
æfter deofla hryre Denigea frean,
wundorsmiþa geweorc, ond þa þas worold ofgeaf
gromheort guma, godes ondsaca,
morðres scyldig, ond his modor eac,
on geweald gehwearf woroldcyninga
ðæm selestan be sæm tweonum
ðara þe on Scedenigge sceattas dælde.

(Beowulf ll.1677-1686)


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Translation

“Then was the golden hilt given into the hand
of the old battle-chief, an ancient work of giants
for the aged ruler. It became the possession
of the Danish prince after those devils perished,
the craft of a skilled smith; when the hostile-hearted,
the enemies of god, gave up this world,
guilty of murder, he and and his mother as well.
Thus the hilt came into the power of the worldly king
judged to be the best between the two seas,
a treasure freely given to the Danes.”
(Beowulf ll.1677-1686)


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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}


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Really Zooming in on Gift-Giving

This passage is weird. I mean, why spend so many words on the simple act of Beowulf giving Hrothgar the hilt of the sword that Grendel’s mother’s blood melted? It’s a strange thing to dwell on, and I can’t help but feel like it might have been a late addition.

Or, maybe like Homer’s asides and flashbacks in the Odyssey, this is meant to be a moment outside of and within time simultaneously. I’m thinking particularly of when Odysseus gets back to Ithaca and the nurse who raised him recognizes him because of a scar on his thigh. Homer uses her seeing the scar as an in to explain its origin in a brief aside.

But, maybe because the Beowulf poet’s story is about people who see themselves as a little rougher around the edges than the ancient Greeks saw themselves, scars don’t matter. And so this aside comes from an act of giving. After all, the act of giving in early British cultures was huge. It was through giving that wealth was distributed and people were meant to feel that things were given fairly. So, perhaps, along with defeating the monsters terrorizing Heorot, this hilt is meant as a tangible gift that Beowulf gives in return for all that Hrothgar gives him.

Which is kind of suiting since, although the poet calls Hrothgar a “battle-chief” (“hild-fruma” (l.1678)), he is also called “old” twice in close succession (“gamelum” on line 1677, and “harum” on line 1678). These mentions make it clear that Hrothgar’s fighting days are over.

With that in mind, how better to mark the ending of the need for such a strong leader to fight than with the hilt of an ancient sword? It too can no longer be used to fight effectively, but it also has much to say and old stories to share — as we’ll see in next week’s post.

What do you think the poet meant by going on for so long about Beowulf giving Hrothgar the hilt of the sword he found in the Grendels’ hall?


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The Value of a Skilled Smith

It is the wish of every leader, every “battle-chief”1,
who finds themselves standing tall as an “earthly king”2,
that they have a “skilled smith”3 in their midst,
one familiar with the methods and means of “ancient works”4.
If such a smith is truly skilled and willing, then that ruler
May wield power and style against the “hostile minded”5.


1hild-fruma: battle-chief, prince, emperor. hild (war, combat) + frum (prince, king, chief, ruler)

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2woruld-cyning: earthly king. woruld (world, age) + cyning (king, ruler, God, Christ, Satan)

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3wundor-smiþ: skilled smith. wundor (wonder, miracle, marvel, portent, horror, wondrous thing, monster) + smiþ (handicraftsman, smith, blacksmith, armourer, carpenter)

Back Up

4aer-geweorc: work of olden times. aer (before that, soon, formerly, beforehand, previously, already, lately, till) + geweorc (work, workmanship, labour, construction, structure, edifice, military work, fortification)

Back Up

5gram-heort: hostile-minded. gram (angry, cruel, fierce, oppressive, hostile, enemy) + heorte (heart, breast, soul, spirit, will, desire, courage, mind, intellect, affections)

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Closing

Next week, Hrothgar handles the hilt and reveals its meaning.

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Beowulf meets Hollywood in Beowulf: The Blockbuster

Bryan Burroughs in Beowulf: The Blockbuster, a one man show pop culture-infused retelling of the epic.

A still from Bryan Burroughs’ one man show Beowulf: The Blockbuster. Looks like a great show! (Image from http://www.beowulftheblockbuster.com/)

I had always figured that Seamus Heaney would be the only prominent Irish figure to take on Beowulf. But. I was wrong.

The actor Bryan Burroughs has tackled the story in his one man show Beowulf: The Blockbuster. You can check out the show’s website here.

The premise for the play is that Burroughs’ character is a terminally ill father telling his son the final bed time story that he will get to tell him. But, rather than just being a straight retelling of Beowulf, it is an improvised retelling full of elements that Burroughs’ character’s son adds in.

So, instead of Beowulf just being about a lone warrior taking on demons there are things from Jaws or Nightmare on Elm Street thrown in. Or, more specifically, as Burroughs mentioned in an interview with Shelley Marsden of The Irish World, the son suggests that Grendel sounds like Chewbacca, and so Burroughs’ character obliges.

It sounds like an awesome sight to behold. Especially because, as Burroughs plays all of these different parts, he also attempts various impressions to keep them separate. I may not be able to read Beowulf‘s dialogue without slipping into a bit of Sean Connery’s accent after reading that it’s what Burroughs uses for the Geat.

Though what makes this performance interesting to me is that it wasn’t initially going to be about Beowulf.

As he explains in that interview, Burroughs wanted to explore the question of what a parent who knew they had one hour left with their child would say to them. Beowulf only came into play because it has a tight three act structure (whether he covers the whole poem or just the Grendel bit is unclear, but either way there are three acts involved), and was a way for him to tell a story about how wonderful it is to be mortal. Plus, I think that as such an archetypal story Beowulf lends itself to having other characters and stories attached to it.

As always with performances like this, the only thing I don’t really like is that it’s not likely I’ll see the whole thing. Thankfully, though, there is this excerpt. Enjoy!