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.

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You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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