Off to a Rousing Start: Prologue – Book III

Scyld Scefing gets a Viking funeral in Beowulf's beginning.

A viking funeral, perhaps like Scyld Scefing’s, as painted by Frank Dicksee in 1893.

Prologue

What! We Spear-Danes have heard in days of yore
of the power of the king of a people,
how heroes accomplished valorous deeds.
Often did Scyld Scefing take away
the mead benches from troops of enemies,
terrified the Erola, afterwards those who had been first were found
to become destitute. For that Scefing experienced solace
grew up under a cloud, his honour prospered,
until each surrounding people from over
the whale road paid obeisance,
gave tribute: that was a good king!
His son was afterward born,
young in years, then did god send
consolation to the people; well did god know their distress,
What they had endured under the lord of old
for a long while; he the life-lord,
glory-lord, granted worldly-worth;
Beowulf was famous—glory widely sprang –
as Scylde’s successor, in all Scandinavian lands.
Thus a young man shall bring about good
from the largesse of his father’s stores,
so that he among men thereafter retains
willing companions when battle comes,
ensures the nation would endure; praiseful deeds shall
always increase for the family of such a man.
Scyld left off amidst this work,
full busy when he went to the Lord.
They brought him to the seashore,
those dear companions, as he had bidden them.
That man’s words ruled his companions,
those of the earthly prince long in languishing.
There at the landing place stood a ring-prowed ship
icy and eager to start, ready for that nobleman’s passage;
the dear lords lead him to
the brightly ringed wealth ship,
treasure filled it to the mast; there was plentiful loot
from foreign lands, booty, loaded into it.
Never heard I of a more splendidly adorned ship
war-ready and armoured,
blade and byrnie. Upon Scyld’s lap was lain
a multifarious fortune, among which
he was to go to far foreign lands.
By no means did they leave a lack of gifts,
treasures of the people, when that was done,
when they sent Scyld forth to his origin,
for he was one who came over the waves as a child.
Then they established a golden sign for him
high overhead, they let the waves bear him,
their gift, to the raging ocean; they were
sorrowful at heart, mourning souls. Men cannot
say for certain, hall rulers,
heroes under heaven, who that horde discovered.

I

Then was the burden on Beow, son of Scyld,
that dear king of men, for several long seasons.
He was reputed among the people, while his father departed elsewhere,
a lord of earth. Until Halfdane awoke,
a match for the father, he held, while he lived,
aged and battle experienced, the joy of the Scyldings.
In unbroken succession Halfdane woke four children in the world: a daughter I believe, then Heorogar, and Hrothgar, and Halga also;
I have heard that […] the daughter was Onela’s queen,
that war-Scylding’s beloved bedfellow.
Hrothgar was given success in war,
honour in battle, such that his kith and kin
eagerly listened, until the young one grew
into a mighty troop lord. His mind soon turned
to the glory of being called a hall lord,
of ruling a mead hall made by the work of many,
one that the children of the ages would ever ask about,
and therein to dole out all
to young and old alike, such as god gave him,
all but the people’s land and lives.
Then heard I that a work summons went widely,
to many peoples from throughout this earth,
to adorn that dwelling place. After their first meeting,
immediately amidst those assembled, it was made ready,
the greatest of all halls; the poets named it Heorot,
he whose word has widespread influence.
That boast did not lie, rings were doled out,
a continuous treasure flow. That hall rose high,
towering and wide-gabled, made to resist fierce fire,
loathe of lightning; yet it was not as such for long,
since woken sword-hate would later swallow it
after war broke out between son-in-law and father-in-law.
Then a terrible demon ushered in a time
of difficult suffering, as it would be in darkness,
he who daily heard the joy makers
loud in the hall; there hands were waved over harps,
there the poets sang clear. Told they of
knowing the long ago provenance of all people,
spoke of how the Almighty made the earth,
this beauteous world, and the water that flows about it;
set the sun and the moon victoriously above
with rays to light the ways of people,
and adorned the rolling hills
with limbs and leaves; spoke of how the Maker shaped
each variety of life, all things that have motion.
So the warriors of the hall lived in joy,
were prosperous, until that one began
committing crimes, like a fiend of hell.
It was the ghastly ghoul called Grendel,
border walker from the marshlands, he that the moors held,
whose mire was his mansion; from the land held fast by
woe-laden man-shaped sea beasts,
since the Shaper had condemned them
as kin of Cain – so the almighty Lord punished
him for that murder, when he slew Abel.
Cain was given no good from that, the Measurer cast him
far abroad, done for his evil, away from humankind.
Then the monsters all awoke,
ogres and elves and orcs,
also giants, those that waged long warfare
against God; until he gave them their reward.

II

That demon knew then what he sought, once night fell,
at the high house, he knew how the Ring-Danes
after beer-drinking would be stayed there.
Found he therein a fortune of princes
sleeping fast after the feast — they knew no sorrow,
men of the war spear. The unholy figure,
grim and greedy, was quickly enthused,
savage and severe, and at once he seized
thirty thanes; after that he went out
heading loudly home with his prey;
after the slaughter he returned to his dwelling.
Then, outside the hall at daybreak,
was Grendel’s war-strength seen by human eyes;
after that was there weeping to heaven,
a morning full of mourning. Famous warriors,
long-tested true lords, sorrowful sat,
the mighty moaned, the lost thanes saddened them,
until they found the faint, loathful footprints that
the evil-doing fiend had made. That was helpful to
track the beast’s escape, hateful and sluggish. That night
was not long alone, nigh the next night Grendel again brought
more violent death and seemed not to hesitate as before,
bringing violence and outrage; he came down heavily upon them.
Then was he easy to find roaming
about elsewhere seeking rest,
a place to recline and relax, to which he left a trail,
that token spoke truly of the object
of the hall-dwellers’ hate; they sought
refuge outside the hall once they knew that fiend was running free.
So Grendel ruled in defiance of right,
one of lesser stuff against all, until that
greatest of houses stood silent. It was so for some time,
twelve winters of anger the friends of Scyld suffered,
each became accustomed to such hardship,
rough sorrow; because of that they became speakers,
sons of the age, knowledge of them was unhidden,
those troubled deeds of old, that Grendel lashed
out against Hrothgar for a long time, the hateful
monster’s way, years filled with failures and feuding,
a perpetual siege. That kin would not treat
with any man of the Danes for even the shortest time,
deadly evil from afar, as few did hope,
nor were there any who believed that his
hand could be stayed with a bright death price;
the fierce enemy was, after all, the pursuer,
a dark death shadow over the veterans and youths,
those who tarried and planned. Night upon night
Grendel held the misty moors, men never knew
whither the fiendish monster rapidly went.
So the fiend trespassed deeply against humankind,
the horror of the lone-goer, oft-cursed,
awful in affliction; Heorot was lived in by day,
but the richly adorned hall was his by gloomy night,
though Grendel could not approach the throne,
the treasure to the Measurer, nor could he be known.
This did much to the misery of the Scyldings,
their hearts broken. Many oft sat
with the ruler to give counsel, esteemed advice,
things that the rash and the best were fixing
to do against the awful horror.
Meanwhile they made demands of cherished idols
at household shrines, with words of worship,
so that they sought help against their problems
from the soul-slaying fiend. Such was their way,
their heathenish hope; they concentrated on hell
in their hearts, they knew not the Measurer,
the deeds of the Judge, they knew not almighty God
nor knew they of the praiseful protection of heaven,
glorious God. Woe betide them that shall
cast their soul into the flames’ embrace when
embroiled in cruel enmity, cheer they never know,
never a person restored! Well be those that might
after their death day seek the Lord
and hope for the safety of God’s grace.

III

So they brooded upon the troubles of that time,
none of the wise could put them upon the right
way; that strife was too steep, loathful and long-lasting,
that which had befallen the people,
that fierce severe punishment, the wreaker of night-destruction.
One of his thanes heard of this while home with Hygelac,
one good amidst the Geats, he heard tell of Grendel’s deeds;
he was humanities’ mightiest in strength
in the days of this life,
regal and great. He was given command of a ship
and well-directed; he spoke, saying he would seek
the troubled king across the swan’s way,
that famous ruler, to show that he was the man they needed.
Then were wise warriors chosen to accompany
him on his journey, those whom to him were dear,
whetstones to wondrous deeds, each looking hale.
The good Geat people then a great warrior
had crowned, there you a brave man might find!
Some fifteen sought out the ship at shore;
to the frontier they went, following the words of the wise,
the ones versed in sea-ways. The foremost knew motion;
the ship was on the sea, the boat that sat before barrows.
The warriors roaringly rose a cry — the current carried them on,
bringing the sea against sand. The men bore
bright treasures upon their chests,
magnificent in martial-gear; they all shoved off,
men bound for an expected expedition by boat.
The ship then knew the ocean’s motion, was wind-hastened,
became foamy-necked, became seabird like,
until near the time of day they had left,
after their ship with curved prow had glided,
when those well-travelled ones saw land,
dazzling sea cliffs, steep hills,
an ample headland. Then was sailing simple,
the journey at an end. From that ship sprang
the Geats onto the sands,
their boat they bound there — they shook their mail-coats,
rattled war-gear; they thanked God then,
the one that made their ship’s going smooth.
From those dazzling cliffs the Scyldings’ shore guard saw them,
the one who held the sea-cliffs saw those
men carrying bright shields across a ship’s gangway,
bearing ready war gear; his curiosity overpowered
his thinking, the need to know what these men were.
So rode out the thane of Hrothgar
to the shore, powerfully he shook the
spear in his hand before the wave-goers,
asked in a querying tone:

           “What are ye gear-havers,
wearers of corselets, that thus laden
in a high ship come over the sea-street,
hither with the waves? I am set
as border guard, to keep this isle hold watched,
So that no loathed ones may batter this
Danish land with naval force.
Never in known memory have any
come so openly bearing shields; nor do you
seem eager to get a word of permission from this watchman,
a Dane’s consent. Never saw I a mightier man
upon this earth, than this one before me,
this man of might; is that not a retainer,
one worthy of weapons? Never would his mien betray him,
a singular sight. Now I shall know whence
you come, far-farer, before you enter this land
as a spy, before you further step into
these Danish lands. Now, you of the far-off dwelling place,
sea-farer, I would hear tell of
your singular purpose; haste is best
in saying why you are come hence.”

Want more Beowulf? Continue the poem here!

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Update: The translation’s done, now what?

This is the first page from the Beowulf manuscript, in Old English.

The first page of the original Beowulf manuscript, in Old English. Image from http://bit.ly/2jdxSdW.

Last week I finally posted the last part of my Beowulf translation. So I think that this is a pretty good opportunity to get into what happens next on this blog.

More Translations?

First off, for ease of reading and as a means to improve my translation, I’m going to start posting larger bits of Beowulf here next week. In total, I’ve broken the poem down into 15 pieces, and each of these will get onto this blog before I bring them together, do some final editing, and start bringing together an ebook version of my translation.

Once that ebook is out, I’d love to do more translations. Particularly of other epic poems like The Aeneid or some of the more obscure medieval Latin epic works.

Yes, those would all be translations from Latin, and Latin isn’t exactly Old English, but I might also do some other Old English translations.

The Old English Judith, for example, is kind of like a miniature epic story, and some of the shorter poems would be interesting to tackle. But none of these are Beowulf (there is only one, after all 😉 ), so I’ll likely be starting another blog for those projects.

But getting into works other than Beowulf is a matter for the distant future. What non-poetry stuff is coming up soon?

Interviews

Earlier this year I mentioned putting together interview posts. So far I haven’t done any work on these, but I definitely want to get going on it soon.

If you’ve been inspired by Beowulf or have a lot to say about it, please reach out to me at nsczach at gmail dot com. I have a short list of people to contact for a brief Beowulf chat, but I’m interested in hearing as many stories about the impact Beowulf has had on people as I can.

Beowulf in (Pop?) Culture

Even though I’ve already covered a few topics related to Beowulf on this blog, there’s still a lot to the world of Beowulf. I’m talking adaptations, translations, even a Beowulf festival in Woodbridge Suffolk! It might not be mainstream, but there’s actually a subculture of Beowulf fans out there.

And I want to gather information about that subculture here on this blog. I want to make it less of a blog and more of a hub.

Reality

But.

My life right now is cobbled together from various projects. Fiction writing, podcasting and audio editing, streaming, this blog, and the seemingly never-ending search for gigs or work that can both keep my bank account in the black and leave me enough time to follow my passions. Needless to say, I don’t have as much time for this blog as I’d like to.

With that said, I think that it’s most realistic to continue with one post a week on this blog for the foreseeable future. But my hope is that I’ll be able to rotate between the three topics mentioned above.

Admittedly, over the next month I might lean a little heavily on poetry posts, but I’m going to try to get an interview or culture post into the mix as well.

Thanks for reading this update, and for (hopefully 😉 ) keeping up with my translation.

If you’ve got any suggestions for this blog, please feel free to share them in the comments. And feel free to give this post a like if you liked it, and follow the blog if you feel it’s follow-able.

Wiglaf: The right hero in an ever-changing world?

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

Beowulf and Wiglaf, each a hero, after the fierce fight against the dragon.

Wiglaf and Beowulf at the end of the fierce fight with the dragon. Image from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Stories_of_beowulf_wiglaf_and_beowulf.jpg.


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Recap

Last week, Beowulf did what he said he would never do. He backed down.


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Synopsis

Wiglaf, the new Geat hero, is introduced.


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The Original Old English

Wiglaf wæs haten Weoxstanes sunu,
leoflic lindwiga, leod Scylfinga,
mæg ælfheres; geseah his mondryhten
under heregriman hat þrowian.
Gemunde ða ða are þe he him ær forgeaf,
wicstede weligne Wægmundinga,
folcrihta gehwylc, swa his fæder ahte.
Ne mihte ða forhabban; hond rond gefeng,
geolwe linde, gomel swyrd geteah,
þæt wæs mid eldum Eanmundes laf,
suna Ohteres. þam æt sæcce wearð,
wræccan wineleasum, Weohstan bana
meces ecgum, ond his magum ætbær
brunfagne helm, hringde byrnan,
eald sweord etonisc; þæt him Onela forgeaf,
his gædelinges guðgewædu,
fyrdsearo fuslic, no ymbe ða fæhðe spræc,
þeah ðe he his broðor bearn abredwade.
He frætwe geheold fela missera,
bill ond byrnan, oððæt his byre mihte
eorlscipe efnan swa his ærfæder;
geaf him ða mid Geatum guðgewæda,
æghwæs unrim, þa he of ealdre gewat,
frod on forðweg. þa wæs forma sið
geongan cempan, þæt he guðe ræs
mid his freodryhtne fremman sceolde.
Ne gemealt him se modsefa, ne his mæges laf
gewac æt wige; þæt se wyrm onfand,
syððan hie togædre gegan hæfdon.
(Beowulf ll.2602-2630)


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My Translation

“Wiglaf was his name, son of Weohstan,
a beloved warrior, man of the Scylfings,
kinsman of Aelfhere. He saw his liege lord
under the battle mask hot and suffering.
Then he remembered that bounty which he had earlier given,
how he lived in the rich dwelling place of the Waegmundings,
a place granted to each by common right, as his father had enjoyed.
Then he could not restrain himself, by hand his shield was grasped,
a yellow shield, the ancient sword he drew,
that which was, according to men, Eanmunde’s heirloom,
the sword of the son of Ohthere. It was brought back from battle,
while Weohstan was in friendless exile, he was that man’s slayer
with the sword’s edge, and to his kinsmen he bore
a shining helm, ringed mail shirt,
and that ancient sword of giant’s craft. Onela had given it to him,
his kinsman’s war garments,
the ready war garb, no feud was there to speak of,
though he his brother’s son had killed.
He kept the adornments for many half-years,
sword and mail-shirt, until his son could
perform the same heroic deeds as his late father.
Then he also gave the Geats one of the countless number
of war garbs when he departed from life,
old and on his way forth. Then was the first time
for that young warrior to advance himself
in the onslaught of battle for his noble lord.
His spirit was not melted by what he saw, nor did
his kinsman’s heirloom fail in the conflict. This the serpent discovered
after the two Geats had come together.”
(Beowulf ll.2602-2630)


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A Quick Interpretation

Well, it looks like Beowulf’s successor is pretty much set up.

Wiglaf enters the scene, bearing some pretty hefty gear. It’s the equipment of Onela’s nephew. So it’s from the Swedes; a bit of treasure from a successful Geat raid or battle. And this gear comes from his own dad, which makes its appeal something of a double whammy, I would think. Not only does this gear have history, but it’s something that Wiglaf inherited, adding to its reputation.

So he’s well-equipped to help Beowulf out. I guess all the other Geats Beowulf brought with him just had the small fortune required to pick a few things up from the local blacksmith. That’s got to be why they all ran off, right?

Actually, thinking of things that way, why are swords and helmets and armour with a history so valuable and confidence-bestowing?

Sure, swords and armour that have lasted for generations must be made of some tough stuff.

But if you have this ancestral sword that’s totally bad-ass and practically never fails you, when you’re slain and your sword is taken as war booty, was the sun in your eyes as your opponent came down with a slash to end you or did your sword screw up?

I guess that’s part of why there would be that belief that certain pieces of equipment had “proper” users. Beyond being form-fitted, the right swordsman with the right sword must’ve been believed to be unstoppable.

Interestingly, Beowulf puts the lie to that way of thinking, though. Beowulf’s ultimate weapon is his bare-handed physical strength. But something like the dragon can’t be beaten by brute force or wrestling holds alone. So maybe it’s less about the right piece of gear for the right user, and, in line with the Anglo-Saxon idea of the world being an ever-changing place, more about that right fit changing every few years.

Hopefully, for Beowulf’s sake, Wiglaf is the “right” wielder for the sword his dad gave him.

What’s your take on the importance of ancestral swords or on war gear plundered from fallen foes? Is it a guarantee of quality or just a cheap way to get some things that would have been prohibitively expensive?

Feel free to share your theories in the comments!


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Closing

In the next post, Wiglaf makes a speech to stir his comrades to Beowulf’s side. You can find that post, and the rest of my translation, starting here.

Yep! Perhaps a little confusingly, this is the last of my translation posts. The entries aren’t in perfect chronological order as far as when I wrote them, unfortunately. But now the entirety of Beowulf is on this blog!

Thanks for following this project as I’ve slowly released pieces of it over the years. And in the coming weeks, look forward to more coverage of Beowulf related news and media!

A bit further down the road, look for reworked, standalone chapters of the poem as I prepare my translation for publication.

And, of course, if you enjoyed this post, please give it a like. And, if you want to keep up with my Beowulf coverage, please do follow this blog!

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A right-thinking Beowulf?

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

St. George slaying a dragon solo unlike mister might Beowulf.

An illumination showing a pleasantly distracted looking St. George slaying a cat-pawed dragon. No “right thinking” partner required? Image from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Zanino_di_Pietro_-_Saint_George_Killing_the_Dragon_-_Walters_W322215R_-_Open_Obverse.jpg.


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Recap

Last week, Beowulf’s sword failed him and his shield proved weaker than expected.


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Synopsis

Beowulf battles the dragon, but needs to give it some space.


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The Original Old English

“þa wæs beorges weard
æfter heaðuswenge on hreoum mode,
wearp wælfyre; wide sprungon
hildeleoman. Hreðsigora ne gealp
goldwine Geata; guðbill geswac,
nacod æt niðe, swa hyt no sceolde,
iren ærgod. Ne wæs þæt eðe sið,
þæt se mæra maga Ecgðeowes
grundwong þone ofgyfan wolde;
sceolde ofer willan wic eardian
elles hwergen, swa sceal æghwylc mon
alætan lændagas. Næs ða long to ðon
þæt ða aglæcean hy eft gemetton.
Hyrte hyne hordweard (hreðer æðme weoll)
niwan stefne; nearo ðrowode,
fyre befongen, se ðe ær folce weold.
Nealles him on heape handgesteallan,
æðelinga bearn, ymbe gestodon
hildecystum, ac hy on holt bugon,
ealdre burgan. Hiora in anum weoll
sefa wið sorgum; sibb æfre ne mæg
wiht onwendan þam ðe wel þenceð.”
(Beowulf ll.2580b-2601)


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My Translation

“Then was the barrow
guard, after that battle stroke, thrust into a fierceness of spirit –
it threw its deadly fire, wildly leapt
those battle lights. Of glorious victory the
gold-giving friend of the Geats could not boast then,
the war sword failed him while unsheathed in battle, as it should
not have, became known as iron formerly excellent. That was no easy
journey, when the renowned kin of Ecgtheow
knew he should give up that ground,
that he should, against his wish, inhabit a dwelling place
elsewhere, so shall each man
leave off his loaned days. Then not long was it
before the fierce warriors met each other again.
The hoard guard himself took heart – his breast began to heave
from strain – he lunged forth once again. Harsh straits were suffered,
the fires enveloped Beowulf, he who once had ruled the people.
Not any of the band of comrades were with him then.
The sons of nobility stood around merely draped in martial virtues
they fled into the woods at the sight below,
eager to save their own lives. Of them, in only one mind
surged sorrow. Kinship may never
for anything be turned away from if a man thinks rightly.”
(Beowulf ll.2580b-2601)


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A Quick Interpretation

The fabric of Beowulf the poem is shot through with the idea of boasts and actions being bigger than mere words. Throughout the story we see Beowulf match this process of action. Boast, act, report.

But this is where we get some sure signals that the story is ending.

Beowulf can’t follow through on his boast from earlier. On lines 2524-2525 he had said “And I will not give/a foot’s length when I meet the barrow’s guard” (“Nelle ic beorges weard/forfleon fotes trem”). And now he is giving that ground. Beowulf can no longer do as he says, his actions now speak more quietly than he has need of them to.

Those he had handpicked as the best of the young Geats are also leaving him in his hour of greatest need.

Except for one.

One Geat up on that hill looks down and sees his lord in need and wants to help out. More than that, though, he is “a man [who] thinks rightly” (“þam ðe wel þenceð” (l.2601)).

Maybe that’s what Beowulf needs right now: right thinking.

After all, although his actions failed to meet his boast, that was due to his overestimating his abilities and the tools he had with him. But there is more to it than that, I think. Any incongruence between acts and words in the morality of Beowulf suggests a sourness of character. Liars say what they’ll do and then don’t do it, and they orchestrate that kind of outcome because they’re thinking of deceiving (others or themselves).

Beowulf falls prey to a bit of this with his failed follow through. Not that he was intending to go back on his boast, though the stories could have branded him as such because of that failure to follow through. So it makes sense that one with right thinking will swoop in for Beowulf’s rescue.

Was Beowulf thinking properly when he came up with his flame-resistant shield and when he said he had to fight the dragon alone? Or were these things the product of a mind convinced that the body it was attached to could still pull off such grand deeds?

Feel free to share your theories in the comments!


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Closing

Next week, we turn away from the dragon to see what the Geats on the clifftop are up to.

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!

 

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