The best laid shield plans of Beowulf and dragons

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.


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Recap

Last week, Beowulf called out the dragon and heard it call back.


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Synopsis

Beowulf attacks the dragon, and the unexpected happens.


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The Original Old English

“Biorn under beorge bordrand onswaf
wið ðam gryregieste, Geata dryhten;
ða wæs hringbogan heorte gefysed
sæcce to seceanne. Sweord ær gebræd
god guðcyning, gomele lafe,
ecgum unslaw; æghwæðrum wæs
bealohycgendra broga fram oðrum.
Stiðmod gestod wið steapne rond
winia bealdor, ða se wyrm gebeah
snude tosomne; he on searwum bad.
Gewat ða byrnende gebogen scriðan,
to gescipe scyndan. Scyld wel gebearg
life ond lice læssan hwile
mærum þeodne þonne his myne sohte,
ðær he þy fyrste, forman dogore
wealdan moste swa him wyrd ne gescraf
hreð æt hilde. Hond up abræd
Geata dryhten, gryrefahne sloh
incgelafe, þæt sio ecg gewac
brun on bane, bat unswiðor
þonne his ðiodcyning þearfe hæfde,
bysigum gebæded.”
(Beowulf ll.2559-2580a)


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My Translation

“The warrior below the barrow, the lord of the Geats,
swung the rim of his shield against the dreadful stranger,
then was the coiled creature with heart ignited
eager to seek battle. The good war-king
bad already drawn his his sword, the ancient heirloom,
sharp of edges, each was in horror at the intent
to harm and rain destruction evident in the other’s eyes.
He stood firmly against the towering shield,
the lord of a dear people, when the serpent coiled himself
quickly together. Beowulf waited in arms.
Then the serpent went gliding along, still coiled and burning,
hastening toward his fate. The shield well protected
Beowulf’s being and body for a lesser time
than that renowned prince required for his purpose,
that was the first time that day
that he learned he would have to prevail, though fate had not decreed
triumph for him. The lord of the Geats
swung up his hand, the one terrible in its varied colours was struck by
the mighty heirloom, yet its long-tested edge failed,
it gleamed dry, stopped by the beast’s bones, bit less strongly
just when the king of a people had need of it,
when it could have cut him free from his afflictions.”
(Beowulf ll.2559-2580a)


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A Quick Interpretation

Well, all of Beowulf’s psyching up seems to have been for naught. He jumps in to slash the dragon, and his sword has no effect.

Worse than that, though, Beowulf’s grand plan fails him. His heavy iron shield is either heating up too much in the dragon’s fire or actually melting.

These two events are a dire turn for the poem’s hero, but are they really all that surprising? I don’t even mean because of the meta information that we have as readers. Looking at this fight with the logic of the poem in mind, it seems that it follows one of the poem’s major patterns.

Beowulf wears gear and uses weapons when he’s fighting in wars. But in two of the three one-on-one fights we hear about before this dragon fight, Beowulf triumphs when he goes in empty handed.

I mean, Grendel and Day Raven are killed thanks to Beowulf’s killer grip.

Grendel’s mother is an exception, and I’m not sure what to do with that, exactly.

I suppose her case could be dismissed since her underwater hall is kind of an inversion of the Old English Anglo-Saxon normal to begin with. A hall, to them, is a human space, but the Grendels’ hall is occupied by monsters. An Anglo-Saxon hall, generally ruled by a man, is ruled by a woman. A hall is usually warm and dry and safe, but the Grendels have their hall in a cold, damp, and dangerous cave.

So in the context of the Grendel’s hall, Beowulf’s armour deflecting Grendel’s mother’s knife makes sense. Beowulf’s using the giant’s sword to ultimately kill Grendel’s mother makes sense.

But the dragon’s lair is not the inversion of a hall. It’s just a stony area near an ancient barrow by the sea. And a barrow is definitely not a hall in any sense. So bringing gear to this fight may have been deemed necessary, but it’s not surprising that his shield doesn’t work the way he hoped it would, or that his sword fails him. This is a monster fight in an ordinary place.

It’s almost as if Beowulf, this exceptional human being, took the sensible average advice of his counselors, or his people, completely forgetting that he is not average. Such advice doesn’t quite apply to him.

Of course, Beowulf would’ve been burned alive without his shield.

But I really think that a younger Beowulf would’ve just rushed in and torn the dragon’s lower jaw off, disabling its fire breath and leaving it to bleed out as he did with Grendel. The elder Beowulf, though, seems to have lost belief in his own physical power and prowess, hence his failed reliance on these specially made or imbued, but otherwise absolutely normal, pieces of gear.

Do you think that Beowulf’s confidence has flagged in his old age and he’s just going through the motions? Or do you think that Beowulf just thinks that dragon is beyond his power so some extra gear is needed?

Feel free to share your theories in the comments!


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Closing

Next week, the dragon launches its counterattack!

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 wakes 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.


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Recap

Last week, Beowulf made his final boast and said that if he had to die at the dragon’s claws, he wanted to do so alone and gloriously.


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Synopsis

Beowulf goes down to the barrow and calls out the dragon. And the dragon calls back.


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The Original Old English

“Aras ða bi ronde rof oretta,
heard under helme, hiorosercean bær
under stancleofu, strengo getruwode
anes mannes. Ne bið swylc earges sið!
Geseah ða be wealle se ðe worna fela,
gumcystum god, guða gedigde,
hildehlemma, þonne hnitan feðan,
stondan stanbogan, stream ut þonan
brecan of beorge. Wæs þære burnan wælm
heaðofyrum hat; ne meahte horde neah
unbyrnende ænige hwile
deop gedygan for dracan lege.
Let ða of breostum, ða he gebolgen wæs,
Wedergeata leod word ut faran,
stearcheort styrmde; stefn in becom
heaðotorht hlynnan under harne stan.
Hete wæs onhrered, hordweard oncniow
mannes reorde; næs ðær mara fyrst
freode to friclan. From ærest cwom
oruð aglæcean ut of stane,
hat hildeswat. Hruse dynede.”
(Beowulf ll.2538-2558)


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My Translation

“Arose then behind the shield that renowned warrior,
hard under helm, bore his battle shirt
beneath the stony cliffs. He trusted in the slaughter
one man alone was capable of. That was no cowardly course of action!
Then by the wall the one who had survived
with good manly virtue a great many battles,
the crash of colliding shields and spears, when bands on foot clashed,
saw standing a stone arch, a stream out from there
burst from the barrow, and soon exploded into
a raging flume of hot deadly fire. Beowulf could not be near
the hoard for any length of time without being burned up,
he could not survive in the depths of the dragon’s flame.
Then he allowed it from his breast, released his rage,
the lord of the Weder-Geats sent the word out,
fierce-hearted he shouted, his voice came in
clean as the clang of battle as it reverberated under the grey stone.
Hatred was aroused, the hoard guardian recognized
man speech. Then there was no more time
to ask for friendship. First came the breath
of the fierce assailant from out of the stones,
a hot vapour of battle. The earth resounded with the creature’s calling.”
(Beowulf ll.2538-2558)


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A Quick Interpretation

Beowulf’s yell is one thing. His barbaric yawp is probably a mix of sword and shield being bashed together and the loudest yell a human could muster.

But the dragon’s call? When I read about that, I can’t help but hear this:

Quite clearly Beowulf’s shout is yet another way he psyches himself up. It makes me wonder if he ever felt the fear that seems to be behind all of his boasting about fighting the dragon when he was about to face down an army of men.

Based on how quickly Hygelac took him on as one of his chief warriors, and how he described himself as being the baddest dude in the north, I doubt Beowulf ever felt fear when getting ready for warfare. But now he’s old. And now he’s fighting a monster out of the sorts of stories told to children and drinking men in the hall. Something unreal.

Though it definitely doesn’t seem that Beowulf and the Geats have any trouble believing in a dragon. It’s like a cockroach in a tidy house — a rarity, but definitely not an impossibility.

Actually, bearing the clip above in mind, the Geats’ apparent attitude towards dragons is like the apparent situation in most Godzilla movies.

One way or another, the modern world in these movies just accepts Godzilla not as an impossibility that needs to be comprehended but as some sort of rarely seen animal capable of great destruction. It’s existence is forever floating around in the back of everyone’s minds, it seems, so that when Godzilla finally appears, he doesn’t inspire disbelief, he’s just a terrifying force of nature like a typhoon or hurricane coming to land.

And so I think that along with dealing with his age, Beowulf is also wrestling with his bad luck in having to encounter this monster. His various attempts to psych himself up are his way of covering those emotions, or pushing them out of his mind so that it can be filled with nothing but the slaying of dragons. Where’s a bard with songs of Sigmund when you need one?

If you were to read or hear that a clutch of dragons had been discovered in some remote location would you be surprised or just brush it off as a kind of “of course!” fact?

Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments!


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Closing

Next week, Beowulf makes the first move in this fight.

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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What Beowulf has for the dragon: taunts and worries

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

The kind of dragon perfectly at home in Beowulf as if by fate.

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

Last week, Beowulf recounted how Hygelac rewarded him for his role in the war with the Swedes. And I wondered about Beowulf’s timeline.


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Synopsis

Beowulf now boasts to boost his spirits.


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The Original Old English

“Beowulf maðelode, beotwordum spræc
niehstan siðe: ‘Ic geneðde fela
guða on geogoðe; gyt ic wylle,
frod folces weard, fæhðe secan,
mærðu fremman, gif mec se mansceaða
of eorðsele ut geseceð.’
Gegrette ða gumena gehwylcne,
hwate helmberend, hindeman siðe,
swæse gesiðas: ‘Nolde ic sweord beran,
wæpen to wyrme, gif ic wiste hu
wið ðam aglæcean elles meahte
gylpe wiðgripan, swa ic gio wið Grendle dyde.
Ac ic ðær heaðufyres hates wene,
oreðes ond attres; forðon ic me on hafu
bord ond byrnan. Nelle ic beorges weard
forfleon fotes trem, ac unc furður sceal
weorðan æt wealle, swa unc wyrd geteoð,
metod manna gehwæs. Ic eom on mode from
þæt ic wið þone guðflogan gylp ofersitte.
Gebide ge on beorge byrnum werede,
secgas on searwum, hwæðer sel mæge
æfter wælræse wunde gedygan
uncer twega. Nis þæt eower sið
ne gemet mannes, nefne min anes,
þæt he wið aglæcean eofoðo dæle,
eorlscype efne. Ic mid elne sceall
gold gegangan, oððe guð nimeð,
feorhbealu frecne, frean eowerne!'”
(Beowulf ll.2510-2537)


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My Translation

“Beowulf spoke after a pause, made a formal boast
for the final time. ‘In youth I
risked much in combat, yet I will once more.
Though I am now an old king of the people, I shall pursue this feud,
gain glory, if only the fiend to men
will come out from his earth-hall to face me!’
Addressed he then each warrior,
speaking true to each helm-wearer, for the last time,
every gathered dear companion: ‘I would not bear a sword,
bring the weapon to the wyrm, if I knew how
I might otherwise grapple gallantly against
that foe, as I once with Grendel did.
But there will be hot war-fires I expect,
stinking breath and venom. Thus I have on
both shield and byrnie. And I will not give
a foot’s length when I meet the barrow’s guard, but between us two
what is to happen later on the sea-wall, that is as fate.
The Measurer of Men is indeed to decide. I am firm of heart,
so that I may desist from boasting over this war-flyer.
Wait you all on the barrow, my armed men,
warriors ready in war-gear, while we see which
of we two can endure the wounds
after our deadly onslaught. This is not your fight,
nor any other man’s, but mine alone
to share my might with the foe,
indeed, to share my courage. By that courage shall
I win the gold, or, in this battle, gain the peril of a violent death,
if the latter, may your lord to swept away!’”
(Beowulf ll.2510-2537)


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A Quick Interpretation

I can see Beowulf screaming down to the barrow as he wraps up his boast, and I can see him maybe bashing his shield and sword together as he speaks to the Geats (and the thief!) he has with him, imploring them to stay put.

What’s most surprising and gripping about this passage, though, is Beowulf’s apparent foreknowledge of what is to happen. He doesn’t get specific but his saying “but between us two/what is to happen later on the sea-wall, that is as fate” (“ac unc furður sceal/weorðan æt wealle, swa unc wyrd geteoð” (ll.2525-2526)) strikes me as a bit of insight into his own end.

And honestly, that sentiment seems to colour this whole passage.

Beowulf definitely knows how dangerous this fight will be. And he seems to bar the others from joining him because he wants to expose only himself to what will surely be a fatal encounter. I mean, he also wants to get all the glory (hello there, fatal flaw), but I definitely get the impression there are a few drops of compassion for his fellow Geats in the mix, too.

How much of his future do you think Beowulf is aware of? Is he just predicting that he’ll end up fighting the dragon on an outcropping close to the nearby sea? Or is there more insight there?

Feel free to share your theories in the comments!


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Closing

Next week, Beowulf sets out to meet the dragon.

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’s history and timeline

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

Beowulf's timeline reflects his skewed history.

A somewhat anachronistic clock set into a medieval-looking tower and reflected in the water. Image from: https://pxhere.com/en/photo/1388017.


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Recap

Last week, Beowulf explained how Haethcyn met his end and Eofor ended the Geatish/Swedish war.


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Synopsis

Beowulf reviews the treasures that Hygelac gave him and how he raised his reputation in countless battles.


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The Original Old English

“‘Ic him þa maðmas, þe he me sealde,
geald æt guðe, swa me gifeðe wæs,
leohtan sweorde; he me lond forgeaf,
eard, eðelwyn. Næs him ænig þearf
þæt he to Gifðum oððe to Gardenum
oððe in Swiorice secean þurfe
wyrsan wigfrecan, weorðe gecypan.
Symle ic him on feðan beforan wolde,
ana on orde, ond swa to aldre sceall
sæcce fremman, þenden þis sweord þolað,
þæt mec ær ond sið oft gelæste.
Syððan ic for dugeðum Dæghrefne wearð
to handbonan, Huga cempan;
nalles he ða frætwe Frescyninge,
breostweorðunge, bringan moste,
ac in compe gecrong cumbles hyrde,
æþeling on elne; ne wæs ecg bona,
ac him hildegrap heortan wylmas,
banhus gebræc. Nu sceall billes ecg,
hond ond heard sweord, ymb hord wigan.'”
(Beowulf ll.2490-2509)


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My Translation

“‘The treasures that Hygelac granted me,
were payment for my role in that war, all of which fortune allowed me,
I won it for him by flashing sword. For that he gave me land,
a place to be from, the joy of home. Thus, for Hygelac there was
no need, no reason to be required to seek someone from the gift house,
or the Spear-Danes, or the Swedes for worse war-makers, my worth was well-known.
Always would I go on foot before him,
first in the line, and so shall I do ‘til age takes me,
so shall I conduct war, as long as this sword survives,
that which has and will endure.
For this is the sword I held when I, for nobility’s sake,
became the hand-slayer of Day Raven the Frank.
No treasure at all did that warrior
bring back to the Frisian king.
No breastplate could he have carried,
for in the field he fell as standard bearer,
princely in courage. He was not slain by the sword,
but instead a hostile grip halted the surge of his heart,
broke his bone-house. Now shall the sword’s edge,
hand and hard blade, be heaved against the sentinel of the hoard.’”
(Beowulf ll.2490-2509)


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A Quick Interpretation

First, reading this passage really confuses me about the timeline of Beowulf’s life story.

Wasn’t Hygelac lord of the Geats when he was over in Daneland, fighting the Grendels? And didn’t Beowulf go over there when he was just a teen?

If those two things are true, then Beowulf must have been something like a squire in that battle with the Swedes. He must also have been a pre-teen then. Or, at the youngest, 13. I mean, he was also supposed to be the runt of his generation, and one whom the elders of the Geats doubted.

But if all of that’s true, then how much more land did Beowulf get from Hygelac after returning from Daneland? And if he already had land and treasures before going to Daneland why would the elders of the Geats be so doubtful about him?

Along similar lines, did Beowulf fight Day Raven before going to Daneland, too? Is that where he gained the reputation for having the strength of 30 men in his hand-grip? Or when Beowulf dropped his sword to manually throttle Day Raven did the gathered crowd cheer and whoop, knowing what was coming?

Honestly, if anyone has a better grasp of Beowulf’s timeline, please do get in touch.

Setting aside concerns about when the events of Beowulf’s life happened, he seems to have had a rich life of fighting just as many non-monstrous as monstrous opponents. So I wonder why the poet decided to go down the monster route.

Perhaps it was a matter of interest.

We have so few poems and stories from the Old English-speaking Anglo-Saxons. So it wouldn’t surprise me if their world of stories was flooded with historical or political romps and Beowulf was meant to be something that broke out of that.

Or, maybe this poem was supposed to be a fusion between what then passed as history and their common mythology?

Feel free to share your theories in the comments!


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Closing

Next week, Beowulf tries to pump himself up with a speech to the other Geats with him on the cliff.

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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King Hæthcyn’s brief run toward battle

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 shared how Hrethel’s remaining kids (Hygelac and Hæthcyn) inherited his wealth.


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Synopsis

This week, we learn of Hæthcyn’s all too short run as king of the Geats.


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The Original Old English

“‘þa wæs synn ond sacu Sweona ond Geata
ofer wid wæter, wroht gemæne,
herenið hearda, syððan Hreðel swealt,
oððe him Ongenðeowes eaferan wæran
frome, fyrdhwate, freode ne woldon
ofer heafo healdan, ac ymb Hreosnabeorh
eatolne inwitscear oft gefremedon.
þæt mægwine mine gewræcan,
fæhðe ond fyrene, swa hyt gefræge wæs,
þeah ðe oðer his ealdre gebohte,
heardan ceape; Hæðcynne wearð,
Geata dryhtne, guð onsæge.
þa ic on morgne gefrægn mæg oðerne
billes ecgum on bonan stælan,
þær Ongenþeow Eofores niosað.
Guðhelm toglad, gomela Scylfing
hreas hildeblac; hond gemunde
fæhðo genoge, feorhsweng ne ofteah.'”
(Beowulf ll.2472-2489)


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My Translation

“‘After that, between Swedes and Geats was war and enmity,
over the wide waters could be heard their cries of sorrow,
the noise of wall-hard warfare, after Hrethel perished.
From across that water came Ongeontheow’s sons,
warlike, they would not free those
they held in lamentation, they would not relent.
Near the hill of Hreosnburgh they often launched voracious
murderous attacks. My own close-kin avenged this,
feud and war-fire, as it was known,
though one of them bought it with his life,
at a hard price; Hæthcyn, Geatish lord,
was taken in the war’s assailing.
Then in the morning I heard that his kin
avenged him by the blade, laid its edge to end the slayer’s life,
where Eofor’s attack fell upon Ongeontheow.
His war-helm was split, the Swedish warlord
fell, mortally wounded, for Eofor’s hand held memory
enough of the feuding, Ongeontheow could not hold off the fatal blow.’”
(Beowulf ll.2472-2489)


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A Quick Interpretation

King today, a war statistic tomorrow. Poor Hæthcyn, forced to live on with the sorrow of killing his brother, being spurned by his father, and then being king for what sounds like just a few months before dying in battle.

Well, the king is dead. Long live the king.

Yes, this is how Hæthcyn meets his end. It must not have been very glorious, since Beowulf doesn’t dwell on it here. Instead, Eofor is given the attention in the story of this strife. Rightfully so, I suppose, since he doesn’t die and actually lands the blow that ends it all.

Though I can’t really blame Beowulf for glossing over Hæthcyn’s role.

Maybe he was a weak king. After all, he fell in battle, and seems to have done nothing diplomatic to keep the peace between Geats and Swedes.

More than that, though, if Hæthcyn really did kill Herebeald by accident, then he would still be in the terrible position of having killed his brother and haunted by that fact.

If it was no accident, but something along the lines of Robert Baratheon’s hunting trip in Game of Thrones, though, then Hæthcyn definitely wouldn’t be remembered. Such an intention would set him among the worst of the villains in the Anglo-Saxon’s mythology. That kind of treachery isn’t just against family, but against what then would have been seen as the natural order of royal succession. So, just like bad king Heremod, Hæthcyn was given all the gifts of worldly status and squandered them for his own greedy ends — if his brother’s death was indeed not an accident.

Aside from all of that, I really like the phrase that describes Eofor’s disposition when he attacks Ongeontheow: that his “hand held memory/enough of feuding” (“hond gemunde/fæhðo genoge” (ll.2488-2489)). It’s simple, yet incredibly evocative of the single warrior channeling the will of his group into a single act.

Speaking of warriors, do you think that Hæthcyn put up a fight? Or do you think that he went down like a dropped sack of potatoes after an arrow or sword made its way through him?

Feel free to share your theories in the comments!


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Closing

Next week, Beowulf gets back to his own story as he explains how he was rewarded for his role in the fight with the Swedes.

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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