Speculation along the way to Heorot (ll.301-311) [Old English]

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Gold as guardian
Of ships and mothers
Closing

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Abstract

The coastguard leads Beowulf and his entourage to Heorot.

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Translation

“They went upon their way. The boat was bound,
the capacious craft tethered with cord,
secure at anchor. Boar-shapes shone
atop their cheek guards; ornamented gold,
glistening and firmament firm, securely held life:
war-hearted grim men. They all hurried onward,
going down together, until from that high hall of a building,
ornamented and gold-dappled for all to see
that it was foremost among humanity of all
the buildings beneath heaven, the ruler called for them;
light of the people over so great a land.”
(Beowulf ll.301-311)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Gold as guardian

Gold is pretty prevalent in this passage. It’d be easy just to dismiss the metal’s shining presence in the Geats’ helmets and on Heorot as indicators of wealth and prestige, but I think there’s more to it than that. Of course.

In both of these instances I think that the gold is present in the helmet and the hall as a ward against harm. Or maybe as an outward show of the value of the people under the helmets and in the hall.

Putting a monetary value on a life or a major injury isn’t something modern. The Anglo-Saxons had a law covering the same thing that required the perpetrator to pay their victim (or, in the case of murder, the victim’s next of kin) a fee called “wergild.” The major purpose of this fee was to stem the outbreak of feuds and to bring disparate groups together into a group that extended beyond family ties.

It’s a bit broad, but literally translated, “wergild” becomes “man price.”

This is where this theory gets a little crazy, mostly because of timing issues. If the concept of we-gild had been around for a few generations before Beowulf was put together/originally written, then what would stop payments from becoming a preventative measure? Once it was so established, it’s not much further to get to a point where the association of gold with prevention of harm takes on a magical or superstitious flavour.

With such perception of gold as a protective metal in the culture, it would make good sense for it to adorn helmet and horn alike. Thus, pointing out the gold in the helmets and in Heorot’s exterior firmly establishes the protective properties of both.

However, in this passage, I think that a contrast is implied.

If gold is a metal that the Anglo-Saxons of Beowulf’s time believed to have protective properties then it’s already clear to the audience that it hasn’t worked so well for Heorot. The mention of gold being in the Geats’ helmets, then, calls into question just how effective they’ll be in guarding their lives. It’s also possible to read the failure of Heorot’s golden exterior as evidence for Grendel’s chaotic influence. His presence as a kin of Cain causes the proper function of gold to cease.

If all of this rang true for the poem’s original audience, then it’s hard to believe how much more anticipation there would have been for the fight once Beowulf reveals that he’ll faced Grendel completely unarmed. Heck, you could even say that if all this is true and Grendel’s power to negate weapons extends to negating the protective properties of gold, then Beowulf’s facing him with his bare hands alone evens the field all the more.

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Of ships and mothers

“Capacious” of line 302 is, in Old English, “wide-bosomed,” or “sidfæþmed.”

While a modern interpretation of “wide-bosomed” might be simply “large breasted,” the two definitions of “sidfæþmed” suggest that the Anglo-Saxons regarded it as more a matter of volume than size. Considering that all children of the period were nursed, this is hardly surprising. The greater capacity a mother had for milk the more nourishment her child would get, giving that child a better chance to make it through childhood and come into healthy adolescence.

How that relates to a ship is beyond me, except for the idea that travelling in comfort is better than travelling in a cramped space. Plus, a boat with some room would make rowing much easier. Easier rowing means faster travel. So a capacious boat is definitely optimal.

Getting back to this passage in particular, what can be made of the repeat mentions of Beowulf’s boat being securely tethered?

Running with the connection between mothers and boats via “sidfæþmed,” and taking along for the jog the tradition of referring to boats with feminine pronouns, Beowulf’s boat could be regarded as his anima being securely left behind, enabling him to act without sentiment, if necessary. If you want to take the Jungian tack.

Much more straightforward is the interpretation that Beowulf’s ship is his only means of getting him back to his homeland. As such, its security is of the utmost importance.

Or, it could symbolize his identity as a true Geat. If he had no way of getting back home, his liege Hygelac could think him dead or gone native, erasing his status as outsider among the Danes and making him a quasi-exile.

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Closing

Next week, the coastguard takes the Geats to Heorot’s doors and then takes his leave.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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The coastguard’s reply (Pt. 2) (ll.293-300) [Old English]

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
The coastguard’s prayer
Two matters
Closing

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Abstract

The coastguard makes Beowulf a promise, and wishes him well.

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Translation

“‘Also I’ll command my men
to guard your boat against the fiend,
relate a request to guard your newly tarred
ship on the shore, until it again bears
you dear men over the streaming surface
in its bound boards to the Geat’s borders:
that such a doer of good may have that fate,
to survive the battle rush in the hall.'”
(Beowulf ll.293-300)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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The coastguard’s prayer

A coastguard promising to command his underlings to watch someone’s ship until their return sounds like a pretty routine part of a coastguard’s job. It could just be what coastguards say to those with whom they interact. But here, in the context of Beowulf’s fateful arrival in Daneland, it feels like there’s more to the coastguard’s words than a professional nicety.

The final two lines of this extract are spent wishing Beowulf luck against Grendel, why could that well wish not be extended further back to the extract’s very beginning on line 293?

Taken as a whole, those last two lines definitely fit in with the rest of this part of the coastguard’s reply.

The extract opens with the coastguard promising to command his men to guard Beowulf’s ship until his return and departure.

This is a crux.

It’s not that they’ll watch his boat until his return – they’ll keep his boat until his return and until he leaves Daneland. That the promise covers that much time, and is described in that way, suggests that the coastguard has some confidence in this new challenger.

Though, Beowulf’s return to his ship could be as a corpse (something that’s touched on further into the poem). In that scenario, if that is what the coastguard has in mind, then there is likely little confidence in the man’s tone and delivery. But a whole two lines are spent on the final section of this reply, something that I regard as a prayer, or at the very least, an invocation.

Again, this part of the coastguard’s reply doesn’t really directly refer to Beowulf. However, there’s a slight sarcasm in this section: Rather than “Beowulf” he says “such a doer of good” (“godfremmendra swylcum” (l.299)).

Whether or not Beowulf will indeed do any good has yet to be seen, so I think that the coastguard’s referring to Beowulf as such is a way for him to acknowledge the hope he has for Beowulf while also declining to fully embrace this hope. He’s likely seen too many other heroes come and fail before.

Combined with his promise, this guarded expression of hope makes this part of the coastguard’s reply into one long wish of luck. In that sense, it’s like a prayer, a focused statement meant to bring into being the hypothetical situation that it proposes (Beowulf’s doing good and returning alive).

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Two matters

Two little things here.

First, on line 295, the reference to Beowulf’s boat as “newly tarred” makes it clear that Beowulf’s boat is a really nice boat. After all, tarring was a means of waterproofing and so a newly tarred boat is one in the best state of repair. Though, being newly tarred could imply one of two things.

A boat might have just had a new coat of tar put on it, patching up all of the holes accumulated over years of sailing.

Or, a boat may have been newly tarred because it is itself a new boat.

Like Beowulf in truth, his boat could be a very new boat, something inexperienced and in need of some actual experience of the real world.

The other little thing is the word “lagu-streamas” (“streaming surface” (l.297)).

This combination of “surface” (“lagu”) and “streaming” (“streamas”) gives quite the insight into the Anglo-Saxon view of the ocean. It implies a great depth to the ocean, since it is just the surface that a boat travels along.

Compare that with the modern English means of describing sailing being things like “going out on the water,” and the same sense sort of lives on but is really not as pronounced. For “lagu-streamas” also carries implications of only the surface of the ocean being in motion, the rest of it left mysterious and impenetrable.

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Closing

Beowulf and his fellow Geats are taken to Heorot next week – watch for it!

Or, you can find the next part here.

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What’s found in Beowulf’s word hoard (ll.258-269) [Old English]

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Beowulf’s credentials
Words from the hoard
Closing

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Abstract

Beowulf unlocks his word hoard, and begins to answer the coastguard’s concerns.

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Translation

“The eldest answered him,
with the wisdom of the band, unlocked his word hoard:
‘We are kin of the Geatish people
and of Hygelac’s **hearth retainers;
His people knew my father,
a noble progenitor known as Ecgtheow, –
he commanded many winters, before he went on his way,
full of years; each man of counsel
on the wide earth takes heed of him.
We through care of the worries of your lord,
son of Halfdane, have come seeking,
the protector of your people; your exhortation to us is great!'”
(Beowulf ll.258-269)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Beowulf’s credentials

Being the main character’s first speech, this extract is surprisingly straightforward.

We get the poet introducing the speaker with a description of him and his answer rather than a name. We hear Beowulf tell the guard who they are, who they serve, who he is, and who his father is.

Hold on a second.

It’s standard in old heroic stories that people introduce themselves with mentions of their connections. But placing the fealty connection so close to the blood connection creates a parallel that carries some weight.

In defining who they are, Beowulf says that they are “Hygelac’s hearth retainers.” In defining who he is, he says that Ecgtheow is his father. But, no doubt with a characteristic wry smile, the poet has for more than ten lines ignored the guard’s admonishment from last week’s extract: “haste is best
in saying why you are come hence'” (“Ofost is selest/to gecyðanne hwanan eowre cyme syndon” (ll.256-57)).

So why spend so many lines introducing himself so indirectly? In part because of tradition. But also, I think, because the credentials that Beowulf lays down are of the utmost importance.

Hygelac is a great war leader from what little we’ve learned of him so far. And, from what Beowulf says, his father is a famed tactician. Along with wanting to show the guard just what he’s all about, I think Beowulf mentions these two men in the way that he does to communicate that he combines these qualities. Qualities that until now have appeared separately in all of those who have come to face Grendel.

The combination of a warrior’s spirit and a commander’s mind (also, a commander who survived for a long time, suggesting, in one way, that Ecgtheow was able to delay death itself) would surely be seen as what was needed to destroy Grendel.

What, then, can be said for the order of Beowulf’s laying down his credentials? Why not put his father first and his people second?

I think it’s a move meant to show humility, that Beowulf is not out to serve himself, but instead in the service of a whole people.

Again, much like the reference to a warrior like Hygelac, I believe this is meant to show Beowulf’s courage or strength of heart. What he fights for is not personal gain, but the benefit of whole groups of people. That makes him the perfect candidate for defeating Grendel, since he has the moral high ground against a monster that the poet has called kin of Cain, a lineage that marks him with grand immorality.

At least, as far as kinship ties go. If Beowulf’s ties bring in longevity, battle strength, and cunning, Grendel’s brings in murderousness, gluttony, and rage.

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Words from the hoard

Some wondrous words are used in this passage.

“Yldest” (l.257) is usually fairly straightforward. It simply means “oldest,” or “chief.” In the context in which it appears here, this latter definition makes fine sense. And the probe into this word’s meaning could end there.

But if it’s taken to mean the “oldest,” then just how young are Beowulf’s companions?

As he is the hero of the story, it’s easy to see Beowulf as a young man who stands on an established reputation for prowess. But being reminded of the rest of his band like this makes that perception shaky. Especially if this trip is a means for Beowulf to come of age and prove his worth. Such a test seems tailored to someone in his teens. Does that mean that his companions are hardly able to grow beards? Or is the age difference just a matter of months?

Interpreting the word as “chief” is clearer, but why have a word that could mean either “oldest” or “chief”?

This dual definition implies a connection between the two, certainly.

And why not? seniority and authority often go together quite well, especially in medieval societies. Still, the connection one way makes me wonder if it could go the other way as well. If Beowulf is the oldest he can be the chief, but if he is the chief does that mean that he is, necessarily, the oldest?

Another curious compound appears in this passage, too. It’s the word translated as “hearth retainers” in line 261 above: “heorð-geneatas,” a combination of “heorð” (meaning “hearth”) and “neat” (meaning “companion, follower (esp. in war); dependent, vassal; tenant who works for a lord”). Because of the range of options for “geneatas,” the meaning of this one is difficult to bring out in Modern English.

Much like “hall hero”, I think that “hearth retainers” is a solid translation. This new compound gets across that those meant are close to the one they serve and that their master has given them job security of some sort – keeping them on retainer.

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Closing

Next week, Beowulf continues to speak. Come on by this blog on Thursday to listen!

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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What the Danes’ coastguard says of Beowulf (ll.247b-257) [Old English]

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
A matter of translation
Beowulf’s self control
Closing

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Abstract

The Dane’s coastal watchman gaurdedly compliments the Geats’ leader and calls on him to identify himself and his purpose.

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Translation

“‘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, 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.'”
(Beowulf ll.247b-257)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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A matter of translation

The last word of line 249 doesn’t quite work. I’m not working to get a set meter into my translation of Beowulf, nor am I worried about rhythm. But even John R. Clark Hall and Herbert D. Meritt are bothered by the word at the end of line 249, that they translate as “retainer?” (Hall 302a).

This word is “seld-guma.”

Its only ascription in my dictionary is to this instance of it in Beowulf. Apparently the words “seld” and “guma” are not combined anywhere else in the extant body of Old English writing.

The former of the two words in this compound means “hall, palace, residence; seat, throne, dais,” and the latter means “man, lord, hero.” So literal combinations could be “hall hero,” “palace lord,” or “throne man.” One of these is better than simply “retainer,” I think. “Hall hero” does the best job of capturing the sense of “seld-guma.”

Just what is that sense?

I think, aside from its literal meaning, “seld-guma” connotes someone who is a regular attendant upon a hall or palace who has distinguished himself somehow. I’m pulling this connotation from the combination itself, since an appellation like “seld-guma” doesn’t seem to be something lightly given.

The Anglo-Saxons put a high value on halls, after all, and so to be called “seld-guma” could be considered a great commendation. What’s more, in this specific instance it must mean that Beowulf has a very dignified look about him since the coastguard is riffing off of his appearance alone. Association with a hall or residence would confer certain airs upon a person, and Beowulf very clearly carries himself with these in full effect.

Another way to think of the combination is that it connotes “household guard.” To lightly assign warriors to guard your house (and by extension your family, valuables, and own life) would be to invite peril. Thus, naming Beowulf as such not only signifies that he has this title back in Geatland, but also that he is a hall hero because a stranger recognizes such qualities in him.

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Beowulf’s self control

Further along in this week’s extract, the coastguard says of Beowulf “never would his mien betray him” (“næfne him his wlite leoge” (l.250)). It’s my opinion that this is meant to build on Beowulf as a “seld-guma.”

As a warrior, even as a debater, it’s important that you control yourself as much as possible. Attacks can be telegraphed by the body in strange ways, after all.

With that in mind, saying that Beowulf’s countenance would never betray him suggests that he is in complete control of his expression, letting nothing at all slip out unintentionally.

Once more, this comes back to the coastguard assessing Beowulf on how he carries himself. Based on what’s said here, it must be very well indeed. Not to mention, if Beowulf can really keep a lid on things to the extent that’s suggested, it’s fair to guess that he’s a truly great warrior since he would leave his opponents guessing until he struck.

More generally, it must also mean that Beowulf could erase things like fear and joy from his face, making him just as dangerous with words as with swords, as we’ll see next week.

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Closing

In next week’s extract, we hear, for the first time in the poem, from Beowulf himself.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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On the coastguard and Anglo-Saxon nationalism (ll.237-247a) [Old English]

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
An idea of nationalism
The bureaucratic border guard
Closing

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Abstract

The Danish coastguard begins his speech to the newly arrived Geats.

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Translation

“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.”
(Beowulf ll.237-247a)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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An idea of nationalism

This passage really says a lot about the conception of nationhood that the poet/scribe was working with. Or, that the poet/scribe wanted to portray.

On line 241, the coastguard is referred to as “endesæta.” Clark Hall and Meritt translate this compound as “border-watchman.” Taken separately, the word “ende” translates as “border, edge,” and “sæta” could be a form of the verb “sittan” meaning “to sit” or it could mean “sitter.” So a more modern spin on this compound would be “border-sitter.”

What this little word says about conceptions of nationhood is this: A nation’s land comes down to what it can directly control or patrol.

This lone Dane is out on the coast making sure that no-one sneaks up on the rest of his people, yes. But, his being at the coast also extends the purview of the Danish people so long as he remains connected to the whole (something that is implied when he sends the Geats speedily on to the interior, where Hrothgar is). However, such a conception of borders or limits is essentially one that relies much more heavily on social constructions than on any sort of physical marker.

In one sense, the Danes don’t extend their rule into the sea, but at the same time, their representative at the coast is policing incoming traffic. Not that he can do anything about visitors until they land, but he is nonetheless watching the sea and anticipating threats to the Danes more generally.

At any rate this sense of nationhood is most curious because of its portable nature. Aside from Heorot, the Danes have no constructed physical indicator of their borders. Like the Israelites, or the Anglo-Saxons, they are a people because of their familial and loyalty ties rather than a shared, fixed land.

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The bureaucratic border guard

The Watchman’s last set of statements seems strange without the other half of his speech. Jumping ahead for a second, his “Never…nor” (“No…ne” (ll.244-246)) statement reflects how impressed he is by the Geats’ leader.

More immediately, and sticking to this excerpt, though, mentioning the Geats’ not seeking Danish permission to land seems strangely bureaucratic for a bunch of warrior-adventurers.

Nonetheless, having to ask permission at a border to disembark makes sense. Having to deal with one foreigner within your lands would be much easier than having to manage a boatload of them. It’s no doubt easier for a tribe like the Danes to trust one foreigner at a time when first meeting them, too.

What makes this part of the extract stand out, though, is just the plain shock that comes across in the Danish watchman’s statement. Perhaps he has been coastguard for so long that procedure is something he holds dear because it’s all the human interaction he gets. After all, as a coastguard, he’s hardly in exile, but he’s not exactly back at the hall enjoying the friendly boasting and the mead there.

Alternatively, this could be a reflection of this coastguard’s inexperience. He’s so green that he shakes his spear before he begins to speak not to intimidate, but because of his nervousness. And he makes a statement about the Geats’ lack of respect for protocol because he’s never had to deal with such impatience before.

Given the Dane’s situation, though, it’s not likely that even the newest of their coastguards would be without a good knowledge of warriors landing at the coast. Surely, more than a few have stopped by to try their hands at Grendel. Nonetheless, be he old hand, or greenhorn, the awe expressed in the coastguard’s pointing out the Geats’ eagerness comes across quite clearly. And it sounds genuine to boot.

Clearly Beowulf has made a good first impression.

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Closing

Next week, check back for the second part of the coastguard’s speech.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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A thoughtful shore guard and Anglo-Saxon karma? (ll.229-236) [Old English]

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Why so curious?
Anglo-Saxon Karma
Closing

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Abstract

This week, we’re offered a look into the head of a Danish shore guard as he sees the Geats land.

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Translation

“Then from the cliffs the Scyldings shore guard saw them,
the one who was to hold the sea-cliffs,
men carrying bright shields across a ship’s gangway,
bearing ready war gear; his curiousity overpowered
his thinking, the need to know what these men were.
Then rode out the thane of Hrothgar
to the shore, powerfully shook the
spear in his hand, asked in a querying tone:”
(Beowulf ll.229-236)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Why so curious?

The core of this short passage is the shore guard’s inner conflict. From “his curiousity overpowered/his thinking” (“hine fyrwyt bræc/modgehygdum” (ll.232-233)) we can see that he’s generally a cautious, thoughtful sort of guy (possibly an introvert?), but his curiousity overpowers him. What marks this as the core of the passage is what this conflict can tell us about the current feeling among the Danes more generally.

There are a number of things that the man could wonder or assume about those he sees trundling onto the shore, armed and ready for war. But of them, there are two that seem most likely to be in there.

One of these is the possibility that this band of warriors is here to fight Grendel. The other thought is the possibility that the band is an advance party sent to scout out (maybe even take on?) the Danes in open war. Word had spread about their predicament with Grendel, after all. And such word would draw those who wanted to help the Danes as much as those who wanted to take advantage of them. Even fiend-harried, there would no doubt be some gain to be had from taking the storied hall of Heorot.

If we assume that the first possibility is what eggs the man on, then there’s not too much more to write on it. He’s hopeful that the Danes will be saved and that Grendel will be dealt with. This feeling among the Danes is already well-established in earlier passages. However, if it’s the second possibility, that this band of men has come to cause further trouble for the Danes, then things get more interesting.

Perhaps, none have tried to take advantage of the Danes’ weakened state just yet, but Hrothgar, king that he is, is well aware that people will do so. As such, maybe this is even the assumption the man has been commanded to make in this sort of situation. Or, perhaps such attempts have already been made and repelled, making this shore guard wary of such parties of warriors.

The latter situation is more likely to generate inner conflict since hope for help would clash with a learned dread of outsiders. As such, the latter situation is more strongly implied here, which means that a whole lot more has been happening in Daneland than the poet’s told so far. Not that the poet finds such inter-human conflicts as interesting as those between people and the supernatural.

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Anglo-Saxon Karma

Combining the possibility that over the course of Grendel’s twelve year reign of terror people came to challenge the Danes as well as Grendel with Beowulf‘s cyclical and interwoven nature creates a very strong through-line.

Is Beowulf later visited by a supernatural fiend of his own because he freed Hrothgar from another?

Perhaps, buried in old books and found among words told to children beside winter fires, there is a long since dead belief that whatever you helped to rid one person of would come back in a greater form to challenge you directly. Thus Beowulf‘s supernatural element moves from a pair of ogres/goblins/monsters to a single fire-breathing, night-flying dragon.

Because I’ve always read Beowulf as a story about the broken link a long chain of events, the end of a way of life, this reading of the poem adds further depth to Beowulf’s failure against the dragon.

Hrothgar prospers, or at least survives, because his help is from outside of his group. As such, the group itself is not weakened internally and is able to re-emerge from a lengthy oppression. On the other hand, the dragon that terrorizes the Geats isn’t dealt with by some warrior from another group but is finished off by another Geat: Wiglaf.

Because it’s a member of the group in peril that saves the group from that peril, by whatever mechanic the matter of disasters works in the world of the poem (and maybe its originator?), the Geats are left permanently weakened.

The Geats’ position is also not helped, of course, by the death of their leader. Perhaps the Geats fall not because of the loss of Beowulf alone but because the the outcome of a supernatural revenge system is heaped on top of it.

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Closing

Next week, we hear what the shore guard says. Listen up come next Thursday!

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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Montage meanings imagined and interpreted (ll.210-216) [Old English]

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Prime or time
Burrowing into a word
Closing

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Abstract

Beowulf and crew prep their ship and ready themselves, too.

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Translation

“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 trip by boat.”
(Beowulf ll.210-216)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Prime or time

Once again, we see some summarized action at work. The poet is speeding us along here, giving the barest detail about Beowulf and his crew boarding their ship and putting out to sea. No doubt the strangeness of Grendel (and maybe the fame of Beowulf?) had audiences eager to hear what happened once the Geats reached the Danes.

But, despite the clear sense of forward motion in this passage, the first clause of this section is vague.

The three words that kick it all off (“Fyrst forð gewat”) form a complete thought with a subject, object, and verb in that order. But at the level of literal translation into modern English, they don’t really work together. They come out to something like “the first knew forwardness/awayness.” Although, this isn’t the only place in the poem where a literal translation just won’t do.

Looking at this clause’s general sense, I think that it’s communicating the idea that the foremost member of the group (that is, Beowulf) was in a state of mind for travel as they set out. He had full understanding of his physical purpose, and so body and mind were joined in his undertaking. A sense of such unity could be used to foreshadow Beowulf’s prowess and success against Grendel and Grendel’s mother.

Running with that understanding of this clause’s general sense, I then pieced together a clause that gets it across as economically as possible. “The foremost knew motion” is as close as I’ve gotten so far to my interpretation of the sense of the original.

For the sake of comparison, Seamus Heaney translates the line from a completely different understanding of its sense. He turns “Fyrst forð gewat” into “Time went by.” There’s still some motion in this version of the clause, maybe even more of it than in mine if you take time to be the motion of god (perhaps what Heaney took from “Fyrst” and left only implied in his translation). The difference between our clauses is also important, since Heaney chose the interpretation of “Fyrst” as “time” rather than as the premier cardinal number.

Looking back, that makes the clause as a whole quite clearer at the literal level. But, I’ve chosen to stick with my own translation because it allows for more interpretation. Very little is lost in doing so. Both convey a sense of motion, after all, and that is this clause’s purpose as it comes at the start of a passage all about kicking off travel.

Actually, Heaney’s interpretation slows down time in that it calls attention to time itself passing by. Taking “Fyrst” as a reference to Beowulf instead puts the focus on the Geats and their eagerness to be off on their “expected expedition” (l.216).

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Burrowing into a word

A cleaner curiousity (from an academic angle) is the use of “beorge” (l.211). This word has several interpretations, including “mountain,” “hill,” and “barrow.” The sense that I pulled from it and its context is that this “beorge” indicates the boundary of Geatish territory, or, since Beowulf and company find their boat safe, maybe it’s the final land marker of Geatish territory. If it’s meant to indicate mountains, then maybe the Geats cleverly set up where mountains sheltered them from naval assaults.

The more fantastical explanation that sprang to my mind (with no help from any facts that I know) is that the word means just what it sounds like: a barrow. I’m not sure about the practices of the Geats and how much they were like those of other groups around them, but it makes sense to bury your dead on the outskirts of your settlement. Doing so allows those in mourning to move on, and keeps those still living free from any disease that might propagate or reside in a corpse.

Stepping into the realm of superstition, maybe a barrow on the edge of your settlement also acted as an enemy deterrent. If not regarded as an out-and-out hazardous field of ghosts, perhaps it could stand as a reminder of the finality of death and demotivate those who sought to add to it.

Also, and who knows since the geographical detail is so sketchy here, perhaps this “beorge” is a reference to Hronesness, the place where Beowulf is buried at the poem’s end. Maybe it even is that place. We’re never told much about Hronesness after all, other than the fact that it’s high enough to mount a beacon for ships on it. Perhaps generations before Beowulf there was another hero buried there, and in the ultimate show of the vanity of human pride the elements wore down his great barrow until it was just a low mound – the same fate that awaits Beowulf’s.

If this whole “beorge” business has anything to do with Hronesness, then maybe it’s even the poet/scribe stepping in to imply the importance of written history and records. Words record deeds and memory much better than monuments left exposed to the cruel elements of nature’s erasing power.

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Closing

Next week Beowulf and crew get out to sea, and, very quickly, come to Daneland.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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