Something the story of Beowulf shares with modern TV

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

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.


Back To Top
Recap

Last week, Beowulf decided to fight the dragon one-on-one and commissioned an iron shield.


Back To Top
Synopsis

The poet steps away from Beowulf for a second to sing about how his past accomplishments have prepared him to face the dragon.


Back To Top
The Original Old English

“Oferhogode ða hringa fengel
þæt he þone widflogan weorode gesohte,
sidan herge; no he him þa sæcce ondred,
ne him þæs wyrmes wig for wiht dyde,
eafoð ond ellen, forðon he ær fela
nearo neðende niða gedigde,
hildehlemma, syððan he Hroðgares,
sigoreadig secg, sele fælsode
ond æt guðe forgrap Grendeles mægum
laðan cynnes. No þæt læsest wæs
hondgemota, þær mon Hygelac sloh,
syððan Geata cyning guðe ræsum,
freawine folca Freslondum on,
Hreðles eafora hiorodryncum swealt,
bille gebeaten. þonan Biowulf com
sylfes cræfte, sundnytte dreah;
hæfde him on earme ana XXX
hildegeatwa, þa he to holme beag.
Nealles Hetware hremge þorfton
feðewiges, þe him foran ongean
linde bæron; lyt eft becwom
fram þam hildfrecan hames niosan.”
(Beowulf ll.2345-2366)


Back To Top
My Translation

“Further, Beowulf, the prince of rings,
was too proud to attack the far-flier with a band of men,
an overpowering army. Nor did he fear further attack from the drake,
he thought but little of the dragon’s strength and courage, since he
had already risked harsh circumstances, survived countless combats,
endured the crash of battle, since he had done so for Hrothgar.
Beowulf had been blessed with victory, cleansed the Dane’s hall,
in combat he crushed to death the hateful kindred
of Grendel. Not the least of his deeds happened later,
the hand-to-hand encounter where the man slew Hygelac,
after the Geatish king was caught in the battle onslaught,
the lord and friend of the people fell in Friesland.
Hygelac, Hrethel’s son, had died in the blade brew,
struck by the sword. From there Beowulf
put his strength to use, swimming thence.
In his arm he held the battle gear of thirty men
with which he went to sea.
None of the Hetwares had reason to be exultant
in that battle on foot, with Beowulf against them on the front
bearing a shield. Few would later
return home from their meeting with that warrior.”
(Beowulf ll.2345-2366)


Back To Top
A Quick Interpretation

Just in case you were wondering if Beowulf kept fit after he got back to Geatland, here’s your answer. According to this little story from the poet, Beowulf is still a swimming, fighting, load-carrying (?) machine.

So what? Well, from a narrative point of view, it’s neat how the poet uses a flashback to fill in some details during the otherwise lost 50 years of king Beowulf’s life. Actually, flashbacks are still alive and well in our stories.

Granted, it’s not the most recent example, but one show that is full of examples of this trope is Lost. This show set on an apparently empty tropical island was full of mysteries. From things like the hatch in the middle of nowhere, to the polar bear seen loping around now and then. And most of those mysteries were solved through near-episode long flashbacks that filled in details and offered answers (or at least clues).

The Good Place is another great example of flashback being used to reveal story information or demonstrate a character’s traits. It’s also a fairly mysterious show.

Is Beowulf quite so mysterious because of this and other flashbacks?

Potentially.

Take the strangely disagreeing lines 2365-66. These lines stand in defiance of the image of Beowulf as this perfect warrior. They read: “Few would later/return home from their meeting with that warrior” (“lyt eft becwom/fram þam hildfrecan hames niosan.”).

“Few” of the warriors who faced Beowulf survived the battle. Not “none” but “few”. On the face of it, it sounds like the poet is pulling back a bit from Beowulf as this macho force.

But I think that this is just an example of the poem’s sense of humour. It’s a kind of sarcastic understatement, the sort of line delivered from a crooked grin in a cocked face after a little chuckle.

But humour is a tricky thing in print. Especially in poetry. So, what do you think? Is this line a little joke? Or is it pointing to Beowulf going soft on his way to becoming king?

Share your thoughts in the comments!

And if you liked this translation, give this post a like. You might also want to follow this blog so that you can get the rest of this poem as it’s translated.


Back To Top
Closing

Next week, the poet continues the story of Beowulf’s life after the death of Hygelac.

Back To Top

Advertisements

A shield by Beowulf, against the dragon

Recap
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


Back To Top
Recap

The dragon from the treasure hoard has attacked Beowulf’s lands and burned down his hall.


Back To Top
Synopsis

Beowulf comes up with a plan for revenge.


Back To Top
The Original Old English

“Hæfde ligdraca leoda fæsten,
ealond utan, eorðweard ðone
gledum forgrunden; him ðæs guðkyning,
Wedera þioden, wræce leornode.
Heht him þa gewyrcean wigendra hleo
eallirenne, eorla dryhten,
wigbord wrætlic; wisse he gearwe
þæt him holtwudu helpan ne meahte,
lind wið lige. Sceolde lændaga
æþeling ærgod ende gebidan,
worulde lifes, ond se wyrm somod,
þeah ðe hordwelan heolde lange.”
(Beowulf ll. 2333–2344)


Back To Top
My Translation

“The fire dragon had destroyed all the people’s strongholds,
scourged all the land out to the coast, scorched all their earthen work walls
with its flames. For that flying beast the lord of the fray,
prince of the Weders, planned vengeance.
He commanded that a protector of warriors be made,
all of iron, quenched and tempered, so said the lord of earls,
he sought a wondrous war-board from his smiths. Beowulf knew well
that the forest wood warriors so often carried would be no help to him,
that the linden shield would crumble against flames. Beowulf also knew
that he must soon come to the end of his transitory days, the prince of excellence,
his loan of life would soon be due, and so, too, would the dragon’s,
though the wyrm had guarded the hoarded wealth long.”
(Beowulf ll. 2333–2344)


Back To Top
A Quick Interpretation

Before the other two fights Beowulf showed great bravery. Before fighting Grendel, he pledged to meet the monster on his own level and eschew weapons and armour. Before fighting Grendel’s mother, Beowulf steeled himself and dove into her lake.

Now we see Beowulf put some thought into his approach. He doesn’t boast or make some sort of brave stand. Instead he thinks about his own mortality. He – the Beowulf – realizes that he’s going to die soon. And he applies some intelligence to his approach rather than rushing in or trying to prove something to someone.

But if that’s all you get out of living for 50 years in the world of Beowulf, then it seems a little underwhelming.

Though Beowulf’s idea to make an iron shield plays perfectly to his strengths.

As was hinted at early and is mentioned later, Beowulf is too strong to use any normal sword. They all end up breaking when he uses them. So hoisting a shield of iron would be no problem for the king of the Geats. Which is neat; it took a bit, but Beowulf seems to have become quite the strategist over his tenure as ruler!

If you had to come up with a scheme to fight a dragon, what would your scheme be?

I think it’d be pretty cool to fight the dragon in the air, so I’d want to create some sort of flying machine (think medieval dragon mech).

Share your own answers in the comments!


Back To Top
Closing

Next week, the poet reassures us of Beowulf’s courage with a little story of his bravery.

Back To Top

Is it fate, god, or a dragon from Beowulf’s past?

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

The hall of Beowulf in a flaming ruin because of a dragon as seen in Blogger's Beowulf and decreed by fate and god.

What Beowulf’s hall probably looked like after the dragon attacked. Image from https://pixabay.com/en/funeral-pyre-fire-may-fire-flame-232504/


Back To Top
Recap

Last week, the dragon continued its attack on the countryside. It destroyed people’s homes and towns as it sought vengeance against the thief and his lord.


Back To Top
Synopsis

Beowulf is told about the dragon melting his hall. This leads Beowulf to wonder what he’s done to deserve this.


Back To Top
The Original Old English

“þa wæs Biowulfe broga gecyðed
snude to soðe, þæt his sylfes ham,
bolda selest, brynewylmum mealt,
gifstol Geata. þæt ðam godan wæs
hreow on hreðre, hygesorga mæst;
wende se wisa þæt he wealdende
ofer ealde riht, ecean dryhtne,
bitre gebulge. Breost innan weoll
þeostrum geþoncum, swa him geþywe ne wæs.”
(Beowulf ll.2324–2332)


Back To Top
My Translation

“Then was Beowulf told of that terror,
in a voice trembling with speed and truth, he heard that his own home,
the best of buildings, had been melted in a surge of fire,
the gift seat of the Geats. That good man
was sorrowful at heart, sunken into great grief when he heard that news.
In that moment his thoughts turned to his past,
he wondered if he had acted contrary to the old laws of the Ruler,
the Eternal Lord, severely offended them; within his breast welled up
dark thoughts, as was not customary for him.”
(Beowulf ll.2324–2332)


Back To Top
A Quick Interpretation

This must be the first bad thing that happens to Beowulf. Ever. Why else would he only now wonder how he offended his god?

After all, that’s the only reason anything bad would happen to him.

At least as far as we know. There is a fifty year gap in the story here, so maybe there is something that Beowulf did do that’s knocked him out of god’s favour.

Or, maybe, fate always goes as it must.

If this is the first bad thing to happen to Beowulf, then of course it’s going to cause Beowulf to look into his heart of hearts and search out the darkness. Like anyone else, he probably got comfortable with things always going his way. So when things start to move against him it seems quite natural that he would jump to some sort of supernatural cause.

Actually, this turn and Beowulf’s reaction to it could have come from a lot of incidents in the Old Testament, particularly the Books of Job or of Exodus. In fact, the latter of these was a favourite of Anglo-Saxon writers.

That might seem like a strange book of the Bible to pick as a favourite, but they had a good reason. In the Jews of Egypt the Anglo-Saxons saw people who were exiled from what had become their homeland and were forever searching for a place to call their own. That sums up how a lot of Anglo-Saxon writers and thinkers seemed to have thought of themselves.

The Angles and the Saxons had come over from what is now Germany, after all. And they had settled into and gotten comfortable in Britain. But that’s where the Celts were at home.

Anyway, that’s just a little sidebar on some of the Beowulf poet or scribes’ possible influences.

Getting back to the concept of fate, I like to think that in his long-lived comfort Beowulf has probably not thought much about fate over the last fifty years. Saying something like “fate goes ever as it must” is really cool before a high stakes, low odds fight, but it doesn’t quite have the same impact when you say it before starting a diplomatic meeting.

Another point of interest: When he was young, Beowulf seems to have mentioned god and fate in the same breath quite often. But now he doesn’t hear about his hall being destroyed and think “huh…well, fate goes as it must” but instead he thinks only of god. Maybe this is the poet saying that it’s all well and good to think in terms of fate when young, since it rules over this world, but once you get closer to death and the next world, it’s better to turn to those with power over that.
In any case, how Beowulf reacts to this calamity says a lot about how he’s changed. His first thoughts aren’t about going after the dragon. Instead he worries about himself and his past offenses. Which brings a question to mind.

Throughout the poem Beowulf is made out to be a great guy. What do you think these offenses he mulls over are? What could those dark thoughts that well up from within be about?

My own guess is that he has a troubled past with a woman. The fact that there’s not a single named female character in this part of the poem just seems like too much of an omission to me. The poet could be leaving something out to leave room for Beowulf’s more macho ending.

But those are just my thoughts. Do you agree? Disagree? Have your own theory?

Let me know in the comments!

And if you enjoyed this post, please give it a like. Also, be sure to hit the follow button so that you never miss another part of this poem.


Back To Top
Closing

Next week, we get a glimpse of the old Beowulf as he resolves to go against the dragon. And uses science (…sort of) to do so.

Back To Top

Sometimes a dragon is just a dragon

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

The kind of dragon perfectly at home in Beowulf.

An Anglo-Saxon dragon, complete with treasure hoard. Image from http://brer-powerofbabel.blogspot.ca/2011_09_01_archive.html


Back To Top
Recap

Last week, the dragon started to get furious with the man who stole the golden cup and all his ilk.


Back To Top
Synopsis

The dragon exacts its revenge the only way it knows how. And things really heat up because of it!


Back To Top
The Original Old English

Ða se gæst ongan gledum spiwan,
beorht hofu bærnan; bryneleoma stod
eldum on andan. No ðær aht cwices
lað lyftfloga læfan wolde.
Wæs þæs wyrmes wig wide gesyne,
nearofages nið nean ond feorran,
hu se guðsceaða Geata leode
hatode ond hynde; hord eft gesceat,
dryhtsele dyrnne, ær dæges hwile.
Hæfde landwara lige befangen,
bæle ond bronde, beorges getruwode,
wiges ond wealles; him seo wen geleah.
(Beowulf ll. 2312-2323)


Back To Top
My Translation

“Then the stranger among those lands started to spew forth flames,
it burned down all the bright dwellings thereabouts, the glow of fire
turned men stone still in terror. That hateful sky-flier
left nothing there alive.
The serpent’s onslaught was widely seen,
its cruelly hostile malice was clear to all from near and far.
That war-like ravager of the Geatish people
hated and humiliated them. Afterward it hastened to its hoard,
escaped to the secret splendid hall before the sun summoned daytime.
But with that night of ruin the dragon had encircled the people of the land,
ringed them about in burning fire and [b…] fear. While it was emboldened in
the safety of its barrow, his fighting power, his walls. But by that hope he was deceived.”
(Beowulf ll. 2312-2323)


Back To Top
A Quick Interpretation

Because Beowulf is studied closely by so many people there are a lot of different interpretations out there. And, because monsters were commonly used as stand-ins for various concepts, people, and events in medieval literature this dragon is no exception.

One of the louder interpretations of the dragon that I remember hearing is that it is the Swedes. Yes, those Swedes, the ones that the Geats are in the middle of a feud with.

Before putting this post together, I was never entirely convinced by this interpretation.

Yes, the dragon is the biggest, baddest monster that Beowulf faces. And yes, it does the most damage. But my Catholic-raised brain was busy at work reading the dragon as something demonic or even devilish. Something much bigger than any mere group of people.

After all, how could something as powerful and otherworldly as a dragon represent a country when representing Satan as a dragon has been popular since the middle ages themselves, if not since the conception of the whole Satan/God binary dynamic in Christianity?

I mean, you’ve got the serpent in the story of the Garden of Eden, St. Michael pinning a rather draconic looking Satan (and the myriad saintly copycats, often with actual dragons), and later examples like William Blake’s painting of the Great Red Dragon of The Book of Revelation.

St. Michael binding Satan just like Beowulf will bind the dragon in death.

St. Michael binding a mostly humanoid, but leathery-winged and horned, Satan. Image from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Le_Grand_Saint_Michel,_by_Raffaello_Sanzio,_from_C2RMF_retouched.jpg

William Blake's Great Red Dragon looming over a woman like the dragon looming over Geatland in Beowulf.

William Blake’s Great Red Dragon standing over the Woman Clothed in the Sun. Image from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Reddragon.jpg

Even today, I think that the conspiracy theories involving lizard people are just the modern version of the Western idea of dragons (lizards with human-like intelligence and power) as inherently evil or dangerous.

So why limit the dragon in Beowulf to being just some tribe of people?

But while I was translating and transcribing this week’s passage that interpretation finally clicked.

The utter destruction that the dragon brings. The fire that it leaves in its wake and has encircled the Geatish people with (l.2322). The fact that it “hated and humiliated” (“hatode ond hynde” (l.2319)) the Geats.

All of this sounds like it could be the work of a bunch of warriors.

Plus, reading the dragon as an enemy group works a bit more widely than the moralistic/allegorical reading that I had in mind.

If Beowulf is the hero of good, what does it mean for him to be an old, somewhat world-weary man? And if Beowulf is the paragon of good and the dragon the ultimate evil, then how does the thief and his lord fit into things? Not to mention dealing with all of the citizens of Geatland the dragon’s attack has affected.

So that dragon could be the Swedes. This part of the poem could be about the first massive attacks that start to weaken the Geats.

Once again, more than anything I’m blown away by how many layers this poem has. It’s simply incredible.

If you had come up with a theory for what the dragon ‘really” represents in this part of the poem what would your theory be?

Share your thoughts in the comments!

And, if you enjoyed this post give it a like and consider reblogging it.


Back To Top
Closing

Next week, Beowulf busts back into the poem! But he’s a changed man.

Back To Top