Beowulf and the Geats take a smooth ship trip

Introduction
Synopsis
The Original Old English
My Translation
A Quick Interpretation
Closing

A Viking ship on display in a museum in Oslo.

A photo of a ship from a Viking exhibition in an Oslo Museum. Taken by Grzegorz Wysocki, from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Exhibition_in_Viking_Ship_Museum,_Oslo_01.jpg.


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Synopsis

Beowulf and his crew leisurely sail from Daneland to Geatland.


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The Original Old English

“þa wæs be mæste merehrægla sum,
segl sale fæst; sundwudu þunede.
No þær wegflotan wind ofer yðum
siðes getwæfde; sægenga for,
fleat famigheals forð ofer yðe,
bundenstefna ofer brimstreamas,
þæt hie Geata clifu ongitan meahton,
cuþe næssas. Ceol up geþrang
lyftgeswenced, on lande stod.
Hraþe wæs æt holme hyðweard geara,
se þe ær lange tid leofra manna
fus æt faroðe feor wlatode;
sælde to sande sidfæþme scip,
oncerbendum fæst, þy læs hym yþa ðrym
wudu wynsuman forwrecan meahte.”
(Beowulf ll.1905-1919)


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My Translation

“Then the mast was dressed with its sea garb,
the sail bound with rope; the sea wood creaked.
The wave-floater’s journey was not hindered
by wind over waves, that sea-goer swept forth
riding onwards atop foamy necked waters.
The ship with the ring-bound prow went over the sea current
so swiftly that they soon saw the Geatish cliffs,
the familiar headlands appeared, as the ship came closer
until that wind-battered boat rested upon the sands.
Swiftly the harbour guard was ready at the water,
he who for a long time had eagerly looked
far out to sea for that dear man.
He moored that roomy ship on the beach,
fixed it there with anchor ropes, lest the force of the waves
drive that beautiful boat from shore.”
(Beowulf ll.1905-1919)


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A Quick Interpretation

And with that, Beowulf and his crew are back in Geatland. To borrow a term from modern video games, the Geats definitely fast-travelled from Daneland to Geatland. But there was nothing to get in their way. As the poet says:

“The wave-floater’s journey was not hindered
by wind over waves, that sea-goer swept forth
riding onwards atop foamy necked waters.”

“No þær wegflotan wind ofer yðum
siðes getwæfde; sægenga for,
fleat famigheals forð ofer yðe.”
(ll.1907-1909)

Since Beowulf is returning to his home turf the process of getting off the boat is much smoother than the Daneland coastguard’s inquisition.

As a matter of fact, there’s not a whole lot going on with characters here. The only human being who is mentioned is the “harbour guard” (“hyðweard” (l.1914)) of the Geats. Another character who is left unnamed and only characterized by his position. That he could be so eagerly awaiting the return of Beowulf and the Geats’ best and brightest definitely confirms that there must not be much going on with him outside of his job, too.

But, what we are told much about is the boat.

The poet doesn’t go into an opulent amount of detail, but we’re shown the ship’s mast being set up. Then the sea voyage is described in glowing terms. And the passage ends with a note about the harbour guard anchoring the boat to the shore so that “that beautiful boat” (“wudu wynsuman” (l.1919)) doesn’t float off. Though surely the weight of the treasures and horses Hrothgar gave Beowulf would keep the boat securely on the sand.

What I don’t get though, is why the poet doesn’t say anything about fate or god’s favour in the safeness of Beowulf’s sea voyage.

Perhaps it’s an implicit reference to some Anglo-Saxon superstition. Maybe they believed that praising safe sea travel would call calamity down upon the one praising it.

Or maybe it’s a call back to Beowulf beating up the sea monsters that he and Breca encountered during their race. He had cleared the seas and so there was nothing to keep Beowulf and his crew from a quick trip home.

Whatever the reason behind this lack of detail is, it definitely makes it clear that sailing needs no long detailed explanation. Either the poet had little to no interest in the subject, or they didn’t want to bore their audience and so they just included a few reverent lines about dressing the ship and anchoring it. Though maybe such a tidy voyage is just supposed to foreshadow the smooth sailing that Beowulf faces in the future.

But. There are about another 1000 lines of the poem, so the going can’t be that smooth for our hero just yet.

What do you think the poet’s trying to say with this short sea voyage? Are they trying to say anything or is it just a sea voyage? Leave your thoughts in the comments!


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Closing

Next week, Beowulf and Hrothgar’s gifts go to the king of the Geats: Hygelac.

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Beowulf gives a sword to be a king

Introduction
Synopsis
The Original Old English
My Translation
A Quick Question
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

Beowulf and the Geats leave Daneland.


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The Original Old English

“Cwom þa to flode felamodigra,
hægstealdra heap, hringnet bæron,
locene leoðosyrcan. Landweard onfand
eftsið eorla, swa he ær dyde;
no he mid hearme of hliðes nosan
gæstas grette, ac him togeanes rad,
cwæð þæt wilcuman Wedera leodum
scaþan scirhame to scipe foron.
þa wæs on sande sægeap naca
hladen herewædum, hringedstefna,
mearum ond maðmum; mæst hlifade
ofer Hroðgares hordgestreonum.
He þæm batwearde bunden golde
swurd gesealde, þæt he syðþan wæs
on meodubence maþme þy weorþra,
yrfelafe. Gewat him on naca
drefan deop wæter, Dena land ofgeaf.”
(Beowulf ll.1888-1904)


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My Translation

“Came they then to the sea, the very brave
and young company; they wore their ring-mail,
their shirts of interlocking rings. The coastguard observed
their coming, as he had earlier observed their arrival,
but he did not greet those guests of
the craggy promontory with insult, he rode towards the band.
He said to them that they would be welcome by the Weder people,
those warriors in bright armour that went to their ship.
There on the spacious beach that ship was
laden with armour, the ring-prowed ship,
and with horses and with treasures; the mast towered
over the hoarded treasures from Hrothgar.
The lord of the Geats then gave that guard a sword
bound in gold, so that afterwards he was
honoured all the more among the mead-benches for that treasure,
the gilded heirloom. Then the ship of them plunged into the sea,
stirred up the deep waters, thus they left Daneland.”
(Beowulf ll.1888-1904)


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A Quick Interpretation

The best poetry says a lot with a little.

Beowulf’s gift of the sword to the coastguard demonstrates his magnanimity and a quality that makes him a great king: fairness. Beowulf doesn’t just toss the coastguard who, presumably, has been keeping watch over the Geats’ ship for the duration of their stay, some little trinket. He gives him a sword that’s covered in gold (or, as Seamus Heaney has it, it has “gold fittings” (l.1901) (“bunden golde/swurd” (l. 1900-1901))).

A gold-bound sword seems like a pretty good reward for watching what must have been a peaceful shore for a few days.

Though, it could be argued that out of a whole shipload of treasures a mere gold-bound sword is small change. So is Beowulf short-changing this guy?

I don’t think so.

I think that part of what the Anglo-Saxon kings considered when they divided treasure was that treasure’s usefulness to its receivers. A gold-bound sword might have questionable usage in combat. But, as the poet points out, this gift led the coastguard to be “honoured all the more among the meadbenches for that treasure” (“on meodubence maþme þy weorþra” (l.1902)). And that’s why I think it’s what an Anglo-Saxon king (like future Beowulf) would consider a perfectly fair gift for the coastguard.

After all, the poet has never left me with the impression that Daneland faced danger from outside of itself.

Grendel is a threat from within Daneland’s borders, and when the poet mentions the fall of Heorot he says that it’s a family squabble that leads to its end. So somebody guarding one of Daneland’s borders is probably not winning much glory through combat. Thus, Beowulf’s gift of the gold-bound sword is a perfect gift since it boost’s the man’s honour in the eyes of his companions.

With that, then, Beowulf leaves the land where he spent some very formative time with a final act that nods towards his being a fantastic king.


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Closing

Next week, Beowulf and the Geats fight the sea.

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Hrothgar’s tearful farewell offers a glimpse into Beowulf’s future

Introduction
Synopsis
The Original Old English
My Translation
A Quick Reflection
Closing

A scop sings his boasts, just like Beowulf does before Hrothgar.

Image found at http://bit.ly/2jumA3j


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Synopsis

Hrothgar gives Beowulf gifts and tearfully parts with him as the Geat and his companions leave Daneland.


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The Original Old English

“ða git him eorla hleo inne gesealde,
mago Healfdenes, maþmas XII;
het hine mid þæm lacum leode swæse
secean on gesyntum, snude eft cuman.
Gecyste þa cyning æþelum god,
þeoden Scyldinga, ðegn betstan
ond be healse genam; hruron him tearas,
blondenfeaxum. Him wæs bega wen,
ealdum infrodum, oþres swiðor,
þæt hie seoððan no geseon moston,
modige on meþle. Wæs him se man to þon leof
þæt he þone breostwylm forberan ne mehte,
ac him on hreþre hygebendum fæst
æfter deorum men dyrne langað
beorn wið blode. Him Beowulf þanan,
guðrinc goldwlanc, græsmoldan træd
since hremig; sægenga bad
agendfrean, se þe on ancre rad.
þa wæs on gange gifu Hroðgares
oft geæhted; þæt wæs an cyning,
æghwæs orleahtre, oþþæt hine yldo benam
mægenes wynnum, se þe oft manegum scod.”
(Beowulf ll.1866-1887)


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My Translation

“Then the protector of warriors, son of Half-Dane,
gave him twelve treasures,
commanded he then those dear ones to
go forth in safety, and to quickly come back.
The king then kissed that one of good and noble descent,
the lord of the Scyldings embraced that best of men,
with arms about his neck; then the
greyhaired one fell to tears. Two things were known to him,
the old one of great wisdom, one of the two was clearer:
that he would never afterward see him,
meet for a heart to heart. To him that man was so beloved
that he could not restrain his surging emotion,
his heartstrings were wound tight at that thought,
he keenly felt his fondness for the man whom
he now knew as his dearest friend. From him Beowulf then went,
the warrior now proudly wound in gold walked the green earth,
exulting in his treasure. He went to where his ship waited
for its owner and lord, where it had ridden at anchor.
Thereafter the gifts of Hrothgar were often praised
as the Geats went on their way. He was a true king,
blameless in all respects, until age deprived him
of the might of joy, as it has ever oppressed a host of others.”
(Beowulf ll.1866-1887)


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A Quick Reflection

Well, this is quite a send off for Hrothgar. Beowulf may be leaving, but as of that last line Hrothgar slips out of the story and off this mortal coil. As Hrothgar himself suspects, he never again meets Beowulf.

But what a set of lines to go out on.

I mean, Saying that Hrothgar was “a true king” (“þæt wæs an cyning” (l.1885)) right up to the end when “age deprived him/of the might of joy” (“hine yldo benam/mægenes wynnum” (l.1886-87)) offers a very poetic iris slow wipe on his character and its involvement in the story.

Actually, come to think of it, it’s kind of strange that this farewell focuses so much on the old king of the Danes. I mean, this is Beowulf after all, right? Yet this is one of the few moments where we actually get this kind of insight into another character’s inner workings.

In all of Beowulf’s interactions with Unferth, for example, we’ve only ever had their dialogue and what the poet states are Beowulf’s intentions. But we don’t get any insight into Unferth’s thought processes. There are no sly snipes or profaning curses in inner monologue directed from Unferth to Beowulf. Even later on in the poem, every character that Beowulf encounters is presented as simply as non-player characters in video games. They’re all just people that Beowulf interacts with, but we hear nothing of people’s impressions of him or his actions until his funeral.

So what makes Hrothgar different? Why does the poet dwell so much on this foreign king when they could be writing reams about Hygelac’s joy at seeing Beowulf come back to Geatland safe and sound?

Well, I think that it comes back to J.R.R. Tolkien’s idea that Beowulf is not an epic poem but an elegy and John Leyerle’s idea that the poem follows an interlaced structure. Thematically, Hrothgar is the mirror of old Beowulf, and so all of this insight into his character and inner thoughts reflect old Beowulf’s own inner thoughts.

However, unlike a poet who likens a character to some great legendary figure because of a single characteristic, Hrothgar is more than just a reflection of future king Beowulf: just, generous, and ruling long and well. Buried in the last lines of this passage is the end of Beowulf as well. Old age puts an end to his adventuring, as little as he’s willing to admit to it when the time comes. Though silent and persistent old age ultimately adds him to the multitude of those whom it has chopped down in the past.

Why do you think we’re told about Hrothgar shedding tears and his fondness for Beowulf wrenching his heart strings as the Geat leaves? Share your thoughts in the comments!


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Closing

Next week, Beowulf and his crew head back to their ships and meet an old friend.

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Hrothgar’s talk of gifts hides anxiety about society

Introduction
Synopsis
The Original Old English
My Translation
A Quick Question
Closing

A scop sings his boasts, just like Beowulf does before Hrothgar.

Image found at http://bit.ly/2jumA3j


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Synopsis

Hrothgar congratulates Beowulf on restoring peace.


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The Original Old English

“‘Hafast þu gefered þæt þam folcum sceal,
Geata leodum ond Gardenum,
sib gemæne, ond sacu restan,
inwitniþas, þe hie ær drugon,
wesan, þenden ic wealde widan rices,
maþmas gemæne, manig oþerne
godum gegretan ofer ganotes bæð;
sceal hringnaca ofer heafu bringan
lac ond luftacen. Ic þa leode wat
ge wið feond ge wið freond fæste geworhte,
æghwæs untæle ealde wisan.'”
(Beowulf ll.1855-1865)


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My Translation

“‘You have brought it about so that by all people it shall be said,
by the Geatish people and by the spear Danes,
we have a shared peace and ceased strife,
ended the enmity that we once endured,
and that it was while I ruled over a wide kingdom,
over common treasures, greeted with gifts
many others from across the gannet’s bath.
The ring-prowed ships shall ever bring
gifts and love-tokens across the heaving crests. I of thy people
know that you are firm with friend or with foe alike,
steadfast in every respect in the old ways.'”
(Beowulf ll.1855-1865)


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A Quick Question

Hrothgar here declares that Beowulf has brought about peace. And, since he’s a delegate from the Geats, his defeating the Grendels means that Danes and Geats share a strengthened bond now. No doubt the talk of treasure flowing freely between their nations underscores this new-forged peace, too.

But I can’t help but notice how Hrothgar puffs himself up here on lines 1859-1861. Here Hrothgar notes that Beowulf brought about this peace while he ruled generously over many, though we never really see that many. In fact, Hrothgar’s calling this out about himself seems strange because when I think of proper medieval speech-giving, I think that rulers need to be humble. If anyone boasts about a ruler’s accomplishments, it’s an underling like a herald or a standard bearer of some kind. Maybe if Grendel’s mother hadn’t dragged Aeschere off, he would be the one saying these things, though. After all, he was the one who announced Beowulf in the first place, I believe.

Setting aside matters of humility and hierarchy, though, I hear a strong note of doom in Hrothgar’s final lines. There’s just something in his calling the Geats “steadfast in every respect in the old ways” (“æghwæs untæle ealde wisan” (l.1865)). This statement suggests that there are new ways that aren’t so clear cut. But what are these new ways? Switching allegiances at random?

Since this poem is set in the distant past, did those old ways die out while the new ones took over? To the people hearing and reading Beowulf in the 11th century, was the past that this poem presented where ideals of honour and being true to your word lived in the same way the middle ages as a whole are where those things live for many people today?

The fact that Hrothgar notes the Geats’ steadfastness in the old ways as a positive thing definitely suggests that they’re becoming harder to find. So does that mean that even in the era of Beowulf, honour among clearly defined allies and enmity towards equally well-defined foes was a fading quality in people? Or could this line have been altered by the Christian monks who put the poem to paper to try to dispel notions that the pre-Christian past was a better time?

As with many of the themes and ideas in this poem there are no clear answers to these questions. But, that’s the beauty of discussing literature, it’s all a matter of interpretation and opinion. So, what do you think of Hrothgar’s final words to Beowulf? Inscribe your thoughts in the comments!


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Closing

Next week, Hrothgar gives some sweet gifts and Beowulf and the Geats head for their boats.

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