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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One thought on “Beowulf takes a seat to think this dragon thing through

  1. Pingback: How Beowulf recruited a thief who knew much of the dragon | A Blogger's Beowulf

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