How Hrethel’s throne made its way to Hygelac

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

Beowulf tells the tale of the sorrowful old man Hrethel and maybe that's fate.

Vincent van Gogh’s depiction of a sorrowful old man, which may as well be Hrethel. Image from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sorrowful_old_man.jpg.


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Recap

Last week, Beowulf gave us a simile for the sorrow that Hrethel felt when Herebeald died.


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Synopsis

Hrethel leaves off life and Hæthcyn and Hygelac inherit everything.


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The Original Old English

“‘Gewiteð þonne on sealman, sorhleoð gæleð
an æfter anum; þuhte him eall to rum,
wongas ond wicstede. Swa Wedra helm
æfter Herebealde heortan sorge
weallende wæg. Wihte ne meahte
on ðam feorhbonan fæghðe gebetan;
no ðy ær he þone heaðorinc hatian ne meahte
laðum dædum, þeah him leof ne wæs.
He ða mid þære sorhge, þe him swa sar belamp,
gumdream ofgeaf, godes leoht geceas,
eaferum læfde, swa deð eadig mon,
lond ond leodbyrig, þa he of life gewat.'”
(Beowulf ll.2460-2471)


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My Translation

“‘Then Hrethel was in bed, chanting a dirge,
alone even with himself. To him it all seemed too huge,
the fields’ roll, the halls’ stretch. Thus the Geat’s protector,
his heart suffused with sorrow for Herebeald,
set out for that far country. He never knew how he might
wreak his feud on the slayer;
in no way could he hate the warrior
for that dolorous deed, though he was not loved.
Then he, amidst that sorrow, that which sorely him concerned,
gave up on the enjoyment of life, chose God’s light.
He left all he had on earth to his sons, as any prosperous man does,
lands and towns, when he left off this life.’”
(Beowulf ll.2460-2471)


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A Quick Interpretation

Here is an example of society grinding on, beyond the personal concerns of the people in it.

Hæthcyn, the man who killed his own brother and “was not loved” (“him leof ne wæs” (l.2467)), still gets his inheritance. Even though Hrethel never got over that act, even though his sorrow for Herebeald stole away his joie de vive and, arguably, killed him.

But how does Hæthcyn feel about all of this? If it was a hunting accident, I can’t imagine how terrible he feels about it all. But that could be why he has no voice here. He might have shut down in a way different from Hrethel’s death and depression. Hæthcyn may have just completely clammed up, become rather stoic and unassailable. And so this one act destroyed every member of the family except for Hygelac.

After all, if Hygelac was the youngest brother, Hæthcyn would have been the king of the Geats first, but there’s no mention of what he did in the role. This could just be plot convenience, but I really think that Hæthcyn was just a functional shell of his former self and this is why he has almost no page time. And shells of any kind generally don’t make for good characters.

What kind of a king do you think Hæthcyn was?

Feel free to share your theories in the comments!


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Closing

Next week, war breaks out and we learn the fate of Hæthcyn.

If you enjoyed this post, please give it a like. And, if you want to keep up with my translations, please do follow this blog!

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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Fate’s sorrowful means to make Hygelac king?

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

Beowulf tells the tale of the sorrowful old man Hrethel and maybe that's fate.

Vincent van Gogh’s depiction of a sorrowful old man, which may as well be Hrethel. Image from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sorrowful_old_man.jpg.


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Recap

Last week, Beowulf shared a bit of his early life with Hrethel. He also told the story of how Hrethel’s eldest son killed his own brother.


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Synopsis

Beowulf weaves a simile for the sort of sorrow that seizes upon the entire Hrethel household.


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The Original Old English

“‘Swa bið geomorlic gomelum ceorle
to gebidanne, þæt his byre ride
giong on galgan, þonne he gyd wrece,
sarigne sang, þonne his sunu hangað
hrefne to hroðre, ond he him helpe ne mæg,
eald ond infrod, ænige gefremman.
Symble bið gemyndgad morna gehwylce
eaforan ellorsið; oðres ne gymeð
to gebidanne burgum in innan
yrfeweardas, þonne se an hafað
þurh deaðes nyd dæda gefondad.
Gesyhð sorhcearig on his suna bure
winsele westne, windge reste
reote berofene. Ridend swefað,
hæleð in hoðman; nis þær hearpan sweg,
gomen in geardum, swylce ðær iu wæron.'”
(Beowulf ll.2444-2459)


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My Translation

“‘Then was the whole household like a sorrowful old man
who must live on, though his young son hangs on the gallows.
Such a man then makes a dirge, distressed singing,
while his son hangs at the mocking mercy of ravens,
birds gloating over their feast, and he can do nothing
to help his son, no water from his well of experience and age
will allow him to haul the boy down and lavish new life onto his lank body.
Reluctantly he is reminded each morning of
his son’s death. He does not care to wait
for another heir in his hall, since the
first has been found fettered, devoured, by death’s dire decree.
He looks on with tear-filled soul into his lost son’s chambers,
all hall joy now desolation, the resting place of winds,
a place bereft of all joy. The riders sleep.
The fighters lay in darkness. No harp sounds are there.
There are no men in the yard. Nothing is as it once was.’”
(Beowulf ll.2444-2459)


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A Quick Interpretation

There’s definitely a “Lay of the Last Survivor” vibe to the last three lines of this passage.

As with that section of the poem, these lines are a reflection on the emptiness of loss. Except, where the “Lay of the Last Survivor” focused on how the amassed wealth of a whole civilization is useless to a single member of that civilization, this passage is all about family.

After Herebeald’s death, Hrethel’s family falls apart. Why? Because the kinds of retribution for murder that society allows are simply not possible. They couldn’t kill a member of the family.

For a modern spin, the situation is like two people getting into a crash. Except that neither of them can sue each other because of a familial loophole. Though if family members are crashing into each other when they’re out driving, they must have problems beyond broken bones and crumpled metal.

Actually, last week, I put forth the idea that this episode in the Hrethel household has a clear analogue in Norse mythology. But aside from cooking up this episode to bring some mythology into his poem, what could have driven one brother to shoot another with an arrow? I grew up with two brothers, and we fought every now and then, but none of us ever shot another with an arrow.

For the record, it seems that the academic consensus is that Hæthcyn killed Herebeald in a hunting accident.

Maybe this kind of tragedy would just be written off as wyrd or fate. Hygelac had to become the lord of the Geats, and the best way for that to happen was to invalidate his brothers’ claims to the throne. So the gears of fate fired up and took Herebeald and Hæthcyn out.

What’s your favourite (or best) simile or metaphor for sorrow?

Feel free to share it in the comments!


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Closing

Next week, Beowulf explains how society grinds on beyond death.

If you enjoyed this post, please give it a like. And, if you want to keep up with my translations, please do follow this blog!

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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Baldur’s death and the beginning of Beowulf’s Ragnarok

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

Baldur lays dead, Hodr is confused, and Beowulf tells a parallel tale.

The scene of Baldur’s death as painted by Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg. Image from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Baldr_dead_by_Eckersberg.jpg.


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Recap

Last week, Beowulf took a deep dive inward.


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Synopsis

Beowulf calls his Geats in, and begins to tell them of his time with king Hrethel and his three sons. He also shares the family shattering event that happened.


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The Original Old English

“Biowulf maþelade, bearn Ecgðeowes:
‘Fela ic on giogoðe guðræsa genæs,
orleghwila; ic þæt eall gemon.
Ic wæs syfanwintre, þa mec sinca baldor,
freawine folca, æt minum fæder genam;
heold mec ond hæfde Hreðel cyning,
geaf me sinc ond symbel, sibbe gemunde.
Næs ic him to life laðra owihte,
beorn in burgum, þonne his bearna hwylc,
Herebeald ond Hæðcyn oððe Hygelac min.
Wæs þam yldestan ungedefelice
mæges dædum morþorbed stred,
syððan hyne Hæðcyn of hornbogan,
his freawine, flane geswencte,
miste mercelses ond his mæg ofscet,
broðor oðerne blodigan gare.
þæt wæs feohleas gefeoht, fyrenum gesyngad,
hreðre hygemeðe; sceolde hwæðre swa þeah
æðeling unwrecen ealdres linnan.'”
(Beowulf ll.2425-2443)


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My Translation

“Beowulf spoke, the son of Ecgtheow:
‘Countless were the skirmishes that I survived in youth,
numerous times of war. I can recall them all.
I was seven winters old when I fostered with our treasure lord,
the lord and friend of our people, at my father’s command.
The good king Hrethel kept me and cherished me,
he gave me treasure goods and solemn office, mindful of our kinship.
Indeed, while living in the stronghold as a boy I was not counted
less worthy than his own sons,
Herebeald and Hæthcyn, and my dear Hygelac.
The eldest son, by a deed of his brother,
impiously spread his deathbed,
Hæthcyn had hoisted his horn-tipped bow toward the boy,
and loosed the arrow that shattered his life.
He had aimed for a misted mark and shot his own kin,
bloodied his fatal dart with the life of his own brother.
That was a strife beyond recompense, transgression against sin itself,
a steeping of the heart in sadness. What else should be done but
to leave the offense the eldest carried out unavenged?’”
(Beowulf ll.2425-2443)


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A Quick Interpretation

You might be wondering what this story has to do with Beowulf’s exploits in battle. And you’re totally justified in wondering that.

I mean, I think that the poet is doing a few things here. First, putting this story of Herebeald and Hæthcyn in Beowulf’s mouth makes one of this poem’s many ancillary stories flow into the main story more organically. Sharing this part of Beowulf’s life also reveals how he came to be so favoured by the late king Hygelac.

Arguably, if Beowulf is half as great as all his boasting (and much of this poem) suggests, it wouldn’t matter who succeeded Hrethel as king. Hæthcyn? Herebeald? He would still be celebrated and no doubt end up with land and a hall all his own.

But if Hygelac didn’t become king what what would change is that Beowulf may not have been so friendly with the new king. And, I think, thin as it is, what’s running under all of this poem’s suggestion that the world of Beowulf was a world where merit mattered is the cold simple fact that charisma could still get you quite far.

Just think back to Beowulf trying to match Hrothgar’s tone and cadence when he’s chatting with him. Or look at the version of the Grendel fights that Beowulf reports to Hygelac. Maybe he could have charmed his way into the hearts of Herebeald or Hæthcyn had one of them been king, but getting cozy with his “dear Hygelac” seems like it was an almost immediate thing.

What’s a little strange about this incident though, is how it resonates with the rest of the poem on a mythological level.

Norse mythology includes a story about Baldur and Hodr. Baldur is an Æsir god and such a beautiful thing that he radiated light and the gods themselves were entranced by him. Hodr, on the other hand, is a fairly mysterious god, though his name means “warrior” in Old Norse and he is generally thought to be blind. These two gods were brothers (fathered by Odin).

According to their story, Baldur dreamed that his death was imminent so his mother Freya went around to all of existence getting oaths from everything that they would never harm her son. After doing this, the gods made a game of throwing whatever they could think of at Baldur.

Of course, what’s Norse mythology without Loki?

The trickster disguised himself and asked Freya if she managed to get an oath from everything. She then revealed that she didn’t bother with mistletoe, since it seemed too small and harmless to bother with. So, Loki being Loki, he found a branch of mistletoe and gave it to Hodr. Then he guided Hodr’s hand so that the mistletoe pierced Baldur, killing him instantly. Confusion and mourning followed.

What’s more, according to the Norse mythological cycle, Baldur’s death is one of the early signs of the coming of Ragnarok. Thus, Baldur’s death marks the beginning of the end of Norse mythology.

All right, back to Beowulf.

As Beowulf’s story continues we see the same grand end triggered for Hrethel. In a society where retribution was the most widely recognized way to gain closure for murder, fratricide caused quite a dilemma.

However, beyond a reference to widely known contemporary mythology, I think including this reference says something more broadly about Beowulf. Its inclusion shows how mortals handle matters that afflict even gods. And, unsurprisingly, this incident destroys Hrethel, leaving him a shell of a man until his death.

I would argue that Beowulf has a similar experience. Throughout his life he enjoys mythological strength and abilities. And I think that last week we saw Beowulf’s lifelong existential dread surfacing. In a way, Beowulf could well be aware of how monstrous he is himself.

And, more simply, I think that the poet’s inclusion of the story of Hrethel’s sons and its parallel to Norse mythology was meant to signal the beginning of Beowulf’s end. The end for the character, for the poem, and for the way of life that both represent.

But what do you think? Is Beowulf’s self-image tied up with being a freak of strength? Is the parallel to the story of Baldur and Hodr and what it means just coincidence? Or is there something else going on here entirely?

Feel free to share your theories in the comments!


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Closing

Next week, Beowulf weaves an analogy for the depth of grief that Hrethel experienced at Herebeald’s death.

If you enjoyed this post, please give it a like. And, if you want to keep up with my translations, please do follow this blog!

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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Beowulf takes a seat to think this dragon thing through

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.


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Recap

In my last post, the poet shared how Beowulf rallied together 11 young Geatish warriors, took the dragon hoard thief as a guide, and started out to reckon with the dragon.


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Synopsis

After coming to a clifftop overlooking the dragon’s barrow, Beowulf sits down and reflects on where he is in life.


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The Original Old English

“Gesæt ða on næsse niðheard cyning,
þenden hælo abead heorðgeneatum,
goldwine Geata. Him wæs geomor sefa,
wæfre ond wælfus, wyrd ungemete neah,
se ðone gomelan gretan sceolde,
secean sawle hord, sundur gedælan
lif wið lice, no þon lange wæs
feorh æþelinges flæsce bewunden.”
(Beowulf ll.2417-2424)


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My Translation

“Sat then the veteran king upon the clifftop.
He wished his hearth companions luck,
the gold friend of the Geats. His mind was sorrowful,
he was restless and ready for death, fate had come immeasurably near,
he knew that soon he would fully face old age,
that it would soon seek his soul’s hoard, tear his life
from his body. Not long from then would that lord’s
flesh unravel from his spirit.”
(Beowulf ll.2417-2424)


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A Quick Interpretation

The poet is snapping out of something here. The contrast between this passage’s opening line and the last line of the previous passage suggests that as Beowulf sits something shifts in him.

As a refresher, the final line of the previous passage was:

“It would not be easy/for Beowulf to bargain with that dragon for his people’s lives!” (“Næs þæt yðe ceap/to gegangenne gumena ænigum!” (ll.2415-2416))

This statement is a classic example of Anglo-Saxon understatement (or a “litote” for those keen on literary terms). In it we can see the poet openly winking to the audience as the puppets pulled by the lines he lays down dance on without the power to change their fates.
And then you get the simple statement:

“Sat then the veteran king upon the clifftop.” (“Gesæt ða on næsse niðheard cyning” (l.2417))

When was the last time Beowulf sat down? He may have been sitting when he was sharing his exploits and treasures with Hygelac, but I’ve always imagined him standing (or maybe kneeling?) in some sort of audience hall a la Ganondorf in Ocarina of Time.

Ganondorf kneeling before the king of Hyrule, maybe Beowulf did the same?

Ganondorf kneeling before the king of Hyrule. Perhaps as Beowulf did? Though probably without the evil eyes. Image from https://strategywiki.org/wiki/File:OoT_Spying_on_Ganondorf.jpg

Of course, Beowulf’s intentions aren’t as wicked as Ganondorf’s (though Beowulf would be right at home in a world overseen by goddesses and golden triangles).

But even then, going back to his time with the Danes, when he sits for the parties that Hrothgar throws there’s never any line like “Beowulf sat”. With the change it signals, and the sort of coming in to roost of the poem’s metaphorical chickens throughout the remainder of the poem this line is kind of like the “Jesus wept” (John 11:35) moment of the poem for me. It shows Beowulf’s more limited, average human side.

Up until now, Beowulf has been a poem of youthful exploits, adventures in foreign lands, and victory in battle. But now the titular character is an old man and he is fully aware of this.

Though, there have no doubt been some off-page exploits that Beowulf is less than proud of. And he’s probably spent more time quaffing mead and eating pork than keeping up with his swimming regimen.

Yet this is how the poem starts its ending. It’s like the sequel to the blockbuster that no one really wanted starring all the original actors whose characters have been rewritten to fit the physical and mental changes the actors have all undergone in the decades since the original bit of movie magic.

“Sat then the veteran king upon the clifftop.”

But this is Beowulf. As much as his mind starts to turn to how close fate is coming to him, how little of his lease on life he still has left, there’s a dragon out there. And even if, as we’ll see next week, he needs to draw inspiration from his own life, Beowulf will fight it.

What do you imagine Beowulf doing after he sits in this passage? Does he stare out at the landscape below them? Or does he look into the eyes of his Geatish kin and wonder about their safety?

Feel free to share your theories in the comments!


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Closing

Next week, Beowulf tries to inspire his gathered Geats (and himself?) with his life story.

If you enjoyed this post, please give it a like. And, if you want to keep up with my translations, please do follow this blog!

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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