The stories embodied in the Beowulf manuscript

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

Beowulf is protected from dragon fire by his shield while treasure awaits.

An illustration of Beowulf fighting the dragon that appears at the end of the epic poem. Illustration in the children’s book Stories of Beowulf (H. E. Marshall). Published in New York in 1908 by E. P. Dutton & Company. Image found at https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Beowulf_and_the_dragon.jpg


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Synopsis

The dragon appears and we hear its story.


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The Original Old English

          “he geheold tela
fiftig wintra (wæs ða frod cyning,
eald eþelweard), oððæt an ongan
deorcum nihtum draca ricsian,
se ðe on heaum hofe hord beweotode,
stanbeorh steapne; stig under læg,
eldum uncuð. þær on innan giong
niða nathwylc, se ðe neh gefeng
hæðnum horde, hond ……,
since fahne. He þæt syððan ……,
þeah ðe he slæpende besyred wurde
þeofes cræfte; þæt sie ðiod onfand,
bufolc beorna, þæt he gebolgen wæs.
Nealles mid gewealdum wyrmhord abræc
sylfes willum, se ðe him sare gesceod,
ac for þreanedlan þeow nathwylces
hæleða bearna heteswengeas fleah,
ærnes þearfa, ond ðær inne fealh,
secg synbysig, sona onfunde
þæt þær ðam gyste gryrebroga stod;
hwæðre earmsceapen
…sceapen
þa hyne se fær begeat.
Sincfæt ……; þær wæs swylcra fela
in ðam eorðhuse ærgestreona,
swa hy on geardagum gumena nathwylc,
eormenlafe æþelan cynnes,
þanchycgende þær gehydde,
deore maðmas. Ealle hie deað fornam
ærran mælum, ond se an ða gen
leoda duguðe, se ðær lengest hwearf,
weard winegeomor, wende þæs ylcan,
þæt he lytel fæc longgestreona
brucan moste.”
(Beowulf ll.2209-2241a)


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My Translation

“He ruled them well for fifty winters,
indeed Beowulf became a wise king,
an aged lord of the realm — until one began to trouble them;
in the dark of night a prowling dragon appeared.
The wyrm held a treasure in his high hall,
all beneath a steep stone roof, led to by a narrow footpath
unknown to men. There into the abyss stumbled
someone or other … who seized by hand from that heathen hoard …
a gleaming treasure that he afterward …
though the dragon slept he had outwitted
it with a thief’s wiles. Soon the people thereabouts,
those under the shield of the local lord, discovered
that the thief’s act unlocked the serpent’s rage. Though
not at all with evil intent did the thief break into the dragon’s hoard,
it was not for his own greedy desire, he had been sorely opressed.
For three nights that slave turned thief
had fled the blows of a prince of men,
he delved into the dragon’s den by need, then entering in
as a man ridden with guilt. Shortly he discovered
that … the man stood terror struck,
which the miserable …
… made … that fed his own fear, treasure piece
… there were many such pieces
of ancient heirlooms in that earthen house.
For there in earlier times some man or other,
had left a huge legacy of noble kin,
thoughtfully buried the treasures there,
those precious pieces of their story. He and all his kin
had since been carried off by death in former times.
But the last one left of that noble people, he who was the eldest,
a barrow guard grieving for lost friends buried them, knowing indeed
that he would little enjoy those grand and
beautiful treasures apart from all his kin.”
(Beowulf ll.2209-2241a)


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A Quick Interpretation

Once the dragon comes front and center, the poem itself takes a beating. Every one of the ellipses seen in this week’s passage represents an illegible part of the original text of Beowulf.

I’m not sure what exactly caused this crop of ellipses, but there are a few possibilities. As with all old books, it’s possible that these pages are worm-eaten. Or they may have just decayed because the Nowell Codex was sometimes kept in damp conditions. Or, since the Nowell Codex survived a fire, those missing bits of the poem may have been, appropriately, burned up.

Even setting aside everything that happened to it, it’s impressive that the Nowell Codex (and the copy of Beowulf within) survived for so long. It would be incredible to be able to go see the thing in person, but living on the other side of the Atlantic makes that kind of hard.

Though, what would make seeing the Beowulf manuscript in person special would be the chance to interact with the story’s physical embodiment. I mean, the Beowulf manuscript is a physical copy of a story that’s proliferated like its own species of animal. Going to see it manuscript in person would be like meeting with the first primate that walked upright (though with much less growling, I’d think).

Plus it would give me a new appreciation of all the work that went into bringing the Nowell Codex together.

After all, the poet didn’t just get lucky and find someone willing to publish them, give a fat advance, and send them out on a book tour.

The Beowulf poet got lucky enough to have their work written down on material that would last centuries. And that material came from several sheep and could take days, maybe weeks, to prepare. Beowulf was committed to bound paper at a time when books were truly treasured. So, to see that kind of labour of love up close would be fascinating.

And who knows. Maybe, even through the white gloves I’d need to wear to be in the room with it, contact with the pages of the Nowell Codex would trigger a psychic link to one of its scribes. And through that link I’d gain a greater understanding of why Beowulf was bunched together with letters about far away places and a homily on St. Christopher.

But that fan-fic is for another time. (Is there even such a thing as fanfiction about books?)

I guess for now I’ll just have to check out the digital version on the British Library’s site.

What’s your favourite old book? If you’re a book collector, do you have any first editions? What makes them special to you?

Feel free to share your answers in the comments.


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Closing

Next week, the grieving barrow guard gives a speech.

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