Beowulf becomes king after some summarizing

A Viking Age battle involving, no doubt, a king like Beowulf.

Thorir Hund dressed in a reindeer-hide tunic kills King Olaf at the Battle of Stiklestad. Painting by Peter Nicolai Arbo. Click image for source.

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


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Synopsis

Hygelac gives Beowulf the greatest gifts of all.


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The Original Old English

“Het ða eorla hleo in gefetian,
heaðorof cyning, Hreðles lafe
golde gegyrede; næs mid Geatum ða
sincmaðþum selra on sweordes had;
þæt he on Biowulfes bearm alegde
ond him gesealde seofan þusendo,
bold ond bregostol. Him wæs bam samod
on ðam leodscipe lond gecynde,
eard, eðelriht, oðrum swiðor
side rice þam ðær selra wæs.
Eft þæt geiode ufaran dogrum
hildehlæmmum, syððan Hygelac læg
ond Heardrede hildemeceas
under bordhreoðan to bonan wurdon,
ða hyne gesohtan on sigeþeode
hearde hildefrecan, Heaðoscilfingas,
niða genægdan nefan Hererices,
syððan Beowulfe brade rice
on hand gehwearf;”
(Beowulf ll.2190-2208)


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My Translation

“After those gifts were given the protector of the earls,
the battle-famed king, ordered Hrethel’s heirloom be brought in.
It was a wondrous, gold-chased thing, there was no other
amid the whole Geat treasure hold to best that sword.
This Hygelac laid upon Beowulf’s lap,
and to him he gave seven thousand hides of land,
a hall and a throne. Both already owned land
by right of kin, though he of greater
hereditary right had more — lands were ample among
those of high rank — to him the best of the
earth was bequeathed.
After that came many days
full of the fury of battle. Hygelac fell,
Heardred’s protection proved useless,
it collapsed under the phalanx that brought his death
when they, the victorious people of the Heatho-Scylfings,
attacked with seasoned swordsmen.
That brought about fatal strife for his nephew Hereric.
Afterwards those lands turned to Beowulf’s hand.”
(Beowulf ll.2190-2208)


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A Quick Interpretation

Here the gift exchange comes to an end. Then, the summaries come.

By their nature, summaries work best when you’re familiar with what’s being talked about.

If these summaries were in plainly written prose, then they would be very informative. But these are poetic summaries. And they’re poetic summaries that refer to things that only Beowulf scholars are familiar with.

Heardred hasn’t been mentioned much at all up to this point in the poem, and Hereric is a brand new ripple all together. So, ultimately, this passage shows how much a part of Beowulf was of some sort of greater body of work or group of stories. The poet is definitely pulling on a wealth of cultural and shared knowledge. Which makes this ancient poem written in a barely familiar form of English the perfect example of how far removed such old things are from us.

An alliterative, compound word-heavy language just isn’t English as we know it. And neither are Heardred or Hereric.

And yet, Beowulf sticks with us.

All that stuff about Beowulf fighting monsters and being a little bit of a monster himself keeps it relevant because it speaks so much to our greatest struggle. Whenever we face a new challenge we come up against some form of change. And we can change in a bad way, perhaps taking the easy way out of a tight spot. Or we can try to do our best and meet those challenges in an honest way, hopefully leading to positive growth. And that’s probably why so many adaptations of Beowulf focus on those first two monsters.

Starting next week, though, I’ll be starting to translate the final part of the poem. We’ll be seeing the poem’s third monster.

What’s your favourite monster from mythology? I’ve always been a fan of dragons. Leave your favourite in the comments!


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Closing

Next week, something big, scaly, and flying gets in the way of Beowulf’s happiness.

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Beowulf gets inspiritional

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

The Snaptun Stone, a stone carved with a face that could be the god Loki.

The Snaptun Stone, which may depict the Norse god Loki. Click image for source.


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Synopsis

Beowulf’s past exposed!


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The Original Old English

“Swa bealdode bearn Ecgðeowes,
guma guðum cuð, godum dædum,
dreah æfter dome, nealles druncne slog
heorðgeneatas; næs him hreoh sefa,
ac he mancynnes mæste cræfte
ginfæstan gife, þe him god sealde,
heold hildedeor. Hean wæs lange,
swa hyne Geata bearn godne ne tealdon,
ne hyne on medobence micles wyrðne
drihten Wedera gedon wolde;
swyðe wendon þæt he sleac wære,
æðeling unfrom. Edwenden cwom
tireadigum menn torna gehwylces.”
(Beowulf ll.2177-2189)


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My Translation

“So boldly onward went the son of Ecgtheow,
a man known for war, known, too, for good deeds,
living according to justice, never slaying
any hearth companion while drinking, never was he rough minded.
Indeed, he was the strongest of the children of men.
So much so that he gained a great stronghold, which god granted him,
and he carried himself as a warrior ought. All of which was cause for surprise,
long had he been lowly, regarded as little good among sons of the Geats,
nor had he done any deeds of great renown or anything
to be recalled by the Weder lord while men were on the mead bench.
Yet he set out on the way of strength, though they believed him slack,
an ill-formed prince. But Beowulf’s persistence led to a reversal,
now every little deed of his further enriched his newfound fame.”
(Beowulf ll.2177-2189)


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A Quick Interpretation

Persistence pays off. It’s as simple as that, right?

You’ve just got to hang onto what you’re trying to do and ignore those who doubt you. It’s a message as old as…well…Beowulf itself. And probably older.

What I wonder, though, is this: Is this part of the poem a later Christian insertion? Or is it part of the original poem? Were lords sitting on mead benches and hearing the inspirational story of how this spindly little kid called Beowulf did great deeds and proved himself worthy of being considered a “prince” (“æðeling” (l.2188))?

I’m not sure that I’ll ever have an answer to those questions.

But I do find it interesting — and maybe those early Catholic monks who wrote this poem out did, too — that despite the greatness of Beowulf’s deeds, god is always somehow present. In this passage, god just shows up as justification for Beowulf’s having a stronghold.

But that stronghold isn’t just some idle gift.

It’s a symbol of Beowulf’s power, and a place where Beowulf can prove himself within society.

In this way, having a stronghold (given by god or whatever) allows Beowulf to grow in power. And god as an agent of that growth is important, since Catholic belief includes the idea that being justified or righteous is not necessarily a binary state but something in which someone can grow. And the means of that growth is interaction with god, who is the sole arbiter of righteousness.

As far as I understand and remember it. But I’m no catechism scholar.

Of course, the references to a singular god could be the scribes’ edits.

But those scribes must have been poets themselves if every reference to god was added. Yes, references to god start to thin out now that Beowulf has proven himself, but they were everywhere in the first half of the poem.

Personally, I think that originally there were as many references to a deity or deities, and these were merely modified. After all, supernatural help has been the start of many a hero’s journey. And if the deity or deities involved in the original Beowulf (or at least the version ours is based on) were meant to be parental, the slow ebb of their influence would make even more sense.

Geez, if there were pagan parental deities involved, then perhaps they were even part of the sense of old things passing away that’s persistent throughout the poem. But I can only speculate.

What’s your favourite inspirational story and why? Feel free to share it in the comments!


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Closing

Next week, Beowulf’s strength is recognized and rewarded.

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Just how important Beowulf’s gift of horses is

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

A drawing of an Anglo-Saxon chariot, complete with horses.

A 10th century illustration of a two-horse chariot from Prudentius’ Psychomachia (a poem about a battle between virtues and vices). Click the image for the source.


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Synopsis

The poet describes the gifts Beowulf gives to Hygelac and Hygd.


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The Original Old English

“Hyrde ic þæt þam frætwum feower mearas
lungre, gelice, last weardode,
æppelfealuwe; he him est geteah
meara ond maðma. Swa sceal mæg don,
nealles inwitnet oðrum bregdon
dyrnum cræfte, deað renian
hondgesteallan. Hygelace wæs,
niða heardum, nefa swyðe hold,
ond gehwæðer oðrum hroþra gemyndig.
Hyrde ic þæt he ðone healsbeah Hygde gesealde,
wrætlicne wundurmaððum, ðone þe him Wealhðeo geaf,
ðeodnes dohtor, þrio wicg somod
swancor ond sadolbeorht; hyre syððan wæs
æfter beahðege breost geweorðod.”
(Beowulf ll.2163-2176)


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My Translation

“I heard that next four ornate horses were brought in,
quickly, each of them as beautiful as the last,
bay and brilliant. Beowulf gave unto his lord such gifts
in horses and treasures. And so shall all kinsmen do;
not scheme and lay out nets laced with malice for others
through deceitful craft, not arrange death
for hand-companions. Hygelac proved a grand uncle
to Beowulf, a nephew who held fast to the bond,
and each was mindful of the other’s joy.
I heard that then he gave the gorget to Hygd,
Wealhtheow’s well-wrought wonder treasure, that which
the queen had given him, daughter of the prince, three horses as well,
each supple and with ornamented saddles.
The gorget shone like the sun upon Hygd’s breast.”
(Beowulf ll.2163-2176)


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A Quick Interpretation

Ah, horses. Today we admire them for their grace and speed. And, back in the early medieval period, people liked horses for the same reasons. Though these qualities were also tied up with ideas of nobility, virility, divinity, and symbolism.

Elaine Moxon wrote a fantastic post about horses in early medieval Britain over on the English Historical Fiction Authors blog. Definitely check it out for the full story.

But, over and over in that post, Moxon points out that horses are prized because they embody the qualities that warriors wanted. Horses were seen as agile, strong, virile, and a simple comfort. Plus, they made it easy to travel the long distances between towns and kingdoms. But, more than that, having and keeping a horse was a sign of wealth. Paying for all that hay and getting someone to muck the stables wasn’t any easier back then it seems.

So Beowulf’s giving Hygelac and Hygd all of these horses is a truly grand gesture. It implies that they’re worthy of such gifts already and yet having an extra seven horses around makes Hygelac and Hygd that much worthier and wealthier. Also, according to Moxon’s post, bay horses were a symbol of the goddess Freyja and fertility. So Beowulf’s gift shows the depth of his fealty to Hygelac through symbolically boosting his ability to produce an heir.

Personally, I think that horses are indeed magnificent creatures. Speaking as a big fan of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, I also really appreciate horses as a means of fast travel — maybe just as much as the Anglo-Saxons and early Britons did.

What do you like most (or least) about horses? Leave your thoughts in the comments!


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Closing

Next week: A bit of an intermission in the life of Beowulf.

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Is Beowulf’s outward loyalty true loyalty?

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

A vassal pledging loyalty to a lord via homage.

A miniature from a French manuscript depicting the homage ritual. How loyalty was pledged to a superior. Click for source.


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Synopsis

Beowulf gives Hygelac three gifts and a message from Hrothgar.


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The Original Old English

Ða ic ðe, beorncyning, bringan wylle,
estum geywan. Gen is eall æt ðe
lissa gelong; ic lyt hafo
heafodmaga nefne, Hygelac, ðec.”
Het ða in beran eaforheafodsegn,
heaðosteapne helm, hare byrnan,
guðsweord geatolic, gyd æfter wræc:
“Me ðis hildesceorp Hroðgar sealde,
snotra fengel, sume worde het
þæt ic his ærest ðe est gesægde;
cwæð þæt hyt hæfde Hiorogar cyning,
leod Scyldunga lange hwile;
no ðy ær suna sinum syllan wolde,
hwatum Heorowearde, þeah he him hold wære,
breostgewædu. Bruc ealles well!”
(Beowulf ll.2148-2162)


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My Translation

“‘These to you, oh noble king, I will bring
and point out the delicate points of each. After all,
all my grace still relies on you. I have few
kin — indeed there are none but you!’
He commanded then that the boar helm, head-topper for battle,
a war-steeped hat, the ancient mail shirt, and the precious war sword
be brought forth, saying thus after all this garb was brought out:
‘Hrothgar gave me this battle-keened gear,
oh wise lord. And along with them he commanded me
to first tell thee of these treasure’s journey.
He said that they had been Heorogar’s, the king,
lord of the Scyldings, for a long while.
Yet Heorogar did not bequeath them to his son,
the one called Heremod, though he was loyal,
a true wanderer through his father’s heart. Enjoy each of them well!'”
(Beowulf ll.2148-2162)


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A Quick Interpretation

When we think of the medieval world we tend to think in absolutes. Heroes are not just people who do some grand deed once and have that mark their reputation forever. Medieval heroes are people who always do the right thing (King Arthur). Villains are the exact opposite (Bad King John). Modern scholarship has made a lot of hay from complicating these figures, but in the popular imagination the medieval world is one where people’s morality is almost naively black and white.

But in this passage we have a clear example of a character adapting to his context.

Beowulf is maybe one of the most clear-cut characters in the popular imagination. Or at least as he’s experienced in high school and introductory university courses. And yet, this part of his speech to Hygelac includes him reassuring this king of his loyalty.

But mention of that loyalty is almost entirely absent while Beowulf is in Daneland. The only mention we get of Hygelac at all during that part of the poem is in Beowulf’s funeral instructions. If he should die trying to rid Daneland of the Grendels, his armour must be sent back to Hygelac.

So his pledge of loyalty (“all my grace still relies on you” (“Gen is eall æt ðe/lissa gelong” (ll.2149-50))) to his king could just be here out of convenience.

That said, though, I don’t think that Beowulf is disloyal to Hygelac. I think it’s just that this aspect of his character is just now being highlighted because of his context. After all, it would make for a very different character if Beowulf couldn’t shut up about how great Hygelac is from the time he introduces himself to the Danish coastguard.

Now, standing before him and ready to offer gifts, It makes sense that Beowulf reaffirms his loyalty to Hygelac. But, as with a real person, his loyalty is not always at the surface of Beowulf’s personality.

Which isn’t to say that Beowulf is just putting it on for Hygelac. I think that the few mentions of Hygelac that are made while Beowulf is in Daneland show that this loyalty is an aspect of Beowulf’s character. But at that time Beowulf had some more immediate things to be worried about (one named Grendel, the another known as Grendel’s mother). But, now that he’s back in Geatland this loyalty has a place to be expressed and so is on full display.

But what do you think about Beowulf’s obvious statements of loyalty in this passage (and earlier)? Is Beowulf as loyal to Hygelac as a modern person is loyal to their boss? Or is he as loyal as all the true warriors in old stories are to their liege lords?

As always, you can share your thoughts in the comments.


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Closing

Next week, Beowulf gives more gifts!

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Beowulf gets brief when talking of the Grendels’ hall

Introduction

Synopsis

The Original Old English

My Translation

A Quick Interpretation

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: http://bit.ly/2frmbiU

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Synopsis

Beowulf ends his story with his account of fighting Grendel’s mother and then explains his reward.

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The Original Old English

“‘þæt wæs Hroðgare hreowa tornost
þara þe leodfruman lange begeate.
þa se ðeoden mec ðine life
healsode hreohmod, þæt ic on holma geþring
eorlscipe efnde, ealdre geneðde,
mærðo fremede; he me mede gehet.
Ic ða ðæs wælmes, þe is wide cuð,
grimne gryrelicne grundhyrde fond;
þær unc hwile wæs hand gemæne,
holm heolfre weoll, ond ic heafde becearf
in ðam guðsele Grendeles modor
eacnum ecgum, unsofte þonan
feorh oðferede. Næs ic fæge þa gyt,
ac me eorla hleo eft gesealde
maðma menigeo, maga Healfdenes.
Swa se ðeodkyning þeawum lyfde.
Nealles ic ðam leanum forloren hæfde,
mægnes mede, ac he me maðmas geaf,
sunu Healfdenes, on minne sylfes dom.'”
(Beowulf ll.2129-2147)

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My Translation

“‘That was Hrothgar’s most grievous of those sorrows
that had long befallen that leader of a people.
Then that prince implored me while troubled in mind
to perform another heroic deed in the tumult
of the darkened waters, to venture my life;
in short, perform a glorious deed. He promised me proper reward.
I found in those surging waters, as it is well-known,
the grim and terrible guardian of the deep.
There we two were locked in hand-to-hand combat.
But soon the water seethed with blood, and I had cut off
the head of Grendel’s mother in her battle hall
with a mighty sword edge. With difficulty
I carried my life from that place, but it was not yet fated
for me to die, and so the protector of warriors gave me
a multitude of treasures, the son of Half-Danes.
Just so, that king of his people acted in accord with custom,
never had I any want for reward while with him,
he gave me great gains, granted me beautiful treasures,
the true Son of Half-Dane, and ever were they of my choosing.'”
(Beowulf ll.2129-2147)

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A Quick Interpretation

Beowulf keeps his story very tidy. There’s no crossover between his encounter with Grendel and his encounter with Grendel’s mother. There isn’t any mention of the Grendels’ underwater hall, or their armory full of ancient weapons either. Beowulf doesn’t even note how he saw Grendel’s body on some sort of alter and then chopped off his head.

Of course, his account of these fights is quite a bit more precise than the poet’s version. Though leaving these things out seems like a weird omission. Why not share how he took Grendel’s head and an ancient sword hilt as a prize? Or, for that matter, why not mention nailing Grendel’s arm to the eaves of Heorot?

I think that Beowulf leaves these things out because of Hygelac. The Geats’ king is, after all, supposed to be a giant. So using monstrous body parts as trophies is probably not something Hygelac wants to hear about.

Also, I have no way to confirm it, but it would be fascinating if this is the same reason why Beowulf doesn’t go into detail about the giant’s sword he found.

Which makes me wonder: What would the Anglo-Saxon people have thought of living giants if there are all of these ancient weapons allegedly made by their ancestors? Why aren’t these real life giants celebrated as smiths or designers and hoisted up as the best of artisans?

My only guess is that the idea of the giants (“eoten” in Old English) is somehow influenced by the Biblical account of the Nephilim. According to Genesis 6:2 and 6:4, these creatures were the offspring of human women and angels from the time before the great flood. Which placement only deepens the potential influence on Beowulf‘s creator since the found sword’s hilt tells of the flood.

But, then again, giants are a fairly common creature in European folklore and story. Even in the various versions of the mythical story of Britain’s origins, the Brut, giants make a few appearances.

Why do you think Beowulf cuts out mentions of Grendel’s arm and head being treated like trophies?

Share your thoughts in the comments!

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Closing

Next week, Beowulf gives Hygelac his treasures.

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