Forget Beowulf — what’s the Last Survivor’s story? (ll.2241b-2270a)

Recap & Synopsis
The Original Old English
My Translation
A Quick Interpretation

A long barrow from the time of Beowulf and the Lay of the Last Survivor found in Oxfordshire.

A barrow known as Wayland’s Smithy. Perhaps the Last Survivor stowed his people’s treasures in a similar place. Image from

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Recap & Synopsis

Last week we heard about how the dragon was terrorizing the Geats. Why? Because a cup was stolen from its hoard of treasures.

This week, we hear the Lay of the Last Survivor. These are the final words of the last living member of the tribe who lived where the Geats now live and hid their treasures there.

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The Original Old English

“Beorh eallgearo
wunode on wonge wæteryðum neah,
niwe be næsse, nearocræftum fæst.
þær on innan bær eorlgestreona
hringa hyrde hordwyrðne dæl,
fættan goldes, fea worda cwæð:
‘Heald þu nu, hruse, nu hæleð ne moston,
eorla æhte! Hwæt, hyt ær on ðe
gode begeaton. Guðdeað fornam,
feorhbealo frecne, fyra gehwylcne
leoda minra, þara ðe þis lif ofgeaf,
gesawon seledream. Ic nah hwa sweord wege
oððe feormie fæted wæge,
dryncfæt deore; duguð ellor sceoc.
Sceal se hearda helm hyrsted golde
fætum befeallen; feormynd swefað,
þa ðe beadogriman bywan sceoldon,
ge swylce seo herepad, sio æt hilde gebad
ofer borda gebræc bite irena,
brosnað æfter beorne. Ne mæg byrnan hring
æfter wigfruman wide feran,
hæleðum be healfe. Næs hearpan wyn,
gomen gleobeames, ne god hafoc
geond sæl swingeð, ne se swifta mearh
burhstede beateð. Bealocwealm hafað
fela feorhcynna forð onsended!’
Swa giomormod giohðo mænde
an æfter eallum, unbliðe hwearf
dæges ond nihtes, oððæt deaðes wylm
hran æt heortan.”
(Beowulf ll.2241b-2270a)

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My Translation

“The barrow stood ready
in open ground near the sea-waves.
It was newly made at the headland, made secure with the art of secrecy.
Within there the keeper of the ancient earls’ ringed treasure
carried that share of worthy treasures,
the hoard of plated gold; these few words he spoke:
‘Hold you now, oh earth, that which men and women cannot,
enjoy these warriors’ possessions! Indeed it was
obtained from you at the first, dug up
by worthy men. But death in battle bore those delvers away.
Now that terrible mortal harm has carried off each and every one of my people.
They have left this life where they knew and looked back longingly
at the joy had in the hall. I now have no-one to bear the sword
or bring the plated cup, that precious drinking vessel.
That group of tried warriors has since passed elsewhere.
Their hard helmets with gold adornment shall be bereft of their gold plate;
the burnishers sleep the sleep of death, those who should polish the battle mask.
So too the battle garbs, that had endured in battle
through the clash of shields and cut of swords,
they now decay upon the warriors’ husks; nor may the mailcoats of rings
go with the war-leader on his long journey,
they may not be kept at their bloodied sides. No harp joy,
no delight of musical instruments, nor any good hawk
flies through the hall, nor any swift mare
stops in the flowered courtyard. Destructive death
has sent forth all others of my race, as it has with countless others.’
Just so, sad at heart, this one followed his kin.
He expressed his sorrow, he moved about joyless,
for unlit days and for fevered nights, until death’s surging
reached his heart.”
(Beowulf ll.2241b-2270a)

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A Quick Interpretation

This is one of the big deal parts of the poem. Much like Hrothgar’s speeches to Beowulf about being a good king, it delivers the other of the poem’s major messages: riches are useless without others to enjoy them with.

I mean, this Twilight Zone-esque last survivor has no hope of enjoying or using all this treasure. He can’t strum the harp while polishing helmets and swinging a sword as he waits for his hawk to come to rest on his hand. Not because he doesn’t have those things, but because he has no one to do those things in tandem with.

Though it’s kind of strange. I really wonder about this last survivor and the sort of society that he comes from.

How did they amass all these treasures? It doesn’t sound like they were won necessarily. Instead it sounds more like his people dug up the raw materials, and then created the helmets and cups and mail and swords themselves.

So is this some sort of advanced ancient society situation?

Or, since the Geats, this sea-faring people, are anchored in their homeland, is this situation the fantasy of finding a land completely bereft of settlers but still home to their treasures?

Is this a metaphor for the Anglo-Saxons coming to Britain and then just kind of sweeping the Britons under the rug?

And why is this one guy the lone survivor? Did some sort of disease sweep through his group and he was the only one with immunities against it?

Was he the only one who was out hunting when a wild band of raiders slaughtered everyone else?

There aren’t really any answers to these questions unfortunately.

But that’s just what seems to happen when you try to logic through Beowulf.

What’s more important to the poet or their audience is that the theme of this passage fits with the rest of the poem. It has a melancholic tone and really emphasizes the idea that possessions are both incredible and incredibly useless without others to enjoy them with.

Unless, of course, you’re a dragon. But we’ll see more of that in coming weeks.

Tabletop games were big throughout the middle ages, and the Last Survivor reminds me of The Lost Tribes from the game Small World. What’s your favourite tabletop game?

Mine would have to be Time Stories. (I still haven’t played the Beowulf game, after all 😉 )

Share your favourite board game in the comments!

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Next week, we learn what happened to the thief who stole the cup and kicked all this off.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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3 thoughts on “Forget Beowulf — what’s the Last Survivor’s story? (ll.2241b-2270a)

  1. Pingback: The stories embodied in the Beowulf manuscript | A Blogger's Beowulf

  2. I translated the Lay of the Last Survivor some years ago into free verse. It captured my imagination because I believed it to be a pre-Christian remnant of a song from the times when the Anglo-Saxons were still on the continent. I can find almost no academic criticism of the Lay of the Last Survivor, that would confirm or disconfirm my theory that the Lay is pagan, not Christian, and that it is oral poetry transcribed by a monk. It is curious to me that there is no criticism on this topic, as if the Lay were a dangerous topic. I wonder what your thoughts are on the Lay: Might it be oral poetry transcribed? Might it be untouched by Christianity? Does the Last Survivor, after his death, become a Dragon guarding a hoard? I don’t enjoy board games, but I will say that my favorite board game is checkers. And why do academics neglect the Lay?


    • Hey, thanks for taking the time to comment.

      I find your theory about the Lay being a pre-Christian insertion into the poem quite interesting. I think that it probably isn’t out of the question for one of the scribes responsible for transcribing Beowulf to have had the lay in their back pocket after picking it up from a more blatantly non-Christian source and then inserted it into the poem. Or, I think it’s entirely possible that the Lay was part of the Beowulf poem as it would have been recited and it just wasn’t outright Christianized in the same way that other parts of the poem likely were. I think it’s very important to remember that at this point in time Christianity probably felt pretty secure as an institution, but was still open to syncretizing with earlier traditions to ease/urge new converts and fence-sitters into the Christian belief system.

      As to the apparent academic silence about the Lay?

      I can only guess that most of the research into such a specific part of a particular poem from a niche field of research underneath the now-not-very-popular umbrella of the Arts and Humanities isn’t going to get wide circulation. If more than what you’ve found even exists.

      If you have access to scholarly resources through a university or college, there may be a small stack of papers about it, but I don’t foresee any pop-history books about the Lay of the Last Survivor setting the world on fire any time soon, unfortunately.

      That super-niche status of this topic might also keep people from doing any research into the Lay at all since academic departments are run more like businesses than research hubs these days. So writing about an esoteric topic like the Lay isn’t as likely to bring in grants and funding the same way that something about royalty, figures like Chaucer or Shakespeare, or, depending on the timing, a piece about Beowulf itself is, I think.

      To get specific for a second, when I was a grad student in the early 2010s and we were gearing up our own funding applications we were told explicitly to make our proposals as business-friendly as possible. Without linking the Lay and learning more about its origins (which are likely oral, or maybe wound up recycled into book bindings down the line) to something that most of the general population will find interesting, nothing is likely to get publicly written about it. That was one of the struggles I faced as a grad student: stay in academia and write to a captive audience of maybe another 100 fellow scholars with similar or related niche interests, or leave academia and write for anyone interested enough to take the time to read my writing.

      I thank you again for doing just that. (And I apologize for the lateness of my reply!)


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