Hrothgar hefts the sword hilt that Beowulf hands him and then marvels at the wondrous story told on it.
“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):”
“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:”
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.
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
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.]
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)
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.]
Next week, Hrothgar speaks his mind about Beowulf.
You can find the next part of Beowulf here.