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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