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.


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Recap

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


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Synopsis

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


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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)


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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)


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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.


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Closing

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

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