Wiglaf Speaks – But Will The Others Listen? [ll.2631-2646a] (Old English)

 

{An ideal warrior, indeed. Image from Geograph.co.uk.}
 

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Getting Grammatical
Geatland’s Next Top Warrior
Closing

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Abstract

Wiglaf speaks to his fellow thanes, making his intentions to fulfill their pledges to Beowulf made in the mead hall and trying – indirectly – to stir his fellows to do the same.

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Translation

“Wiglaf spoke, many true words were
said by the companion (though at heart he was sad):
“I that time remember, when we mead drank,
when we pledged ourselves to our lord
in the beer hall, he who to us these rings gave,
promised that we the war-equipment would repay
if such need to him befell, [fend for him] with
helms and hard swords. For that reason he us from
the army chose, for this expedition by his own will,
considered us worthy for glory, and to me this
treasure gave, because he us good spear-fighters
judged,valiant warriors in helmets — though the
lord this courageous deed alone intended to
perform, herder of the people, because he
among men a glorious deed would accomplish,
do that deed audaciously.”
(Beowulf ll.2631-2646a)

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Recordings

Old English:

Modern English:

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Getting Grammatical

The most characteristic thing about this passage of Beowulf is the placement of its pronouns. Clauses like “he who to us these rings gave” (“ðe ūs ðās bēagas geaf” l.2635) sound pretty unnatural to modern ears since. It sounds off since in modern English this statement would be written “he who gave these rings to us.” Yet, throughout this passage the pronouns for the Subject and Direct Object (the thing directly acted on by the Subject) are constantly side by side (or closer than they are in Modern English).

This placement definitely emphasizes the connection between Beowulf and the thanes on the level of straightforward meaning, but it also works on a grammatical level. For there is almost no verbal distance between the Subject and the Direct Object, and this close proximity shows just how closely related the two are. Each one of Wiglaf’s statements underlines this fact, and it is this idea of their closeness that he uses to try to rouse his fellow thanes so that they all go and help Beowulf together.

However, at first glance there is something in this passage that works against Wiglaf’s rhetorical emphasis of his and the other thanes’ reliance on Beowulf.

The last five lines of this section of the poem are entirely about Beowulf’s desire to fight the dragon alone.

The line “though the lord/this courageous deed alone intended to perform” (“þēah ðe hlāford ūs/þis ellen-weorc āna āðōhte/tō gefremmanne”) sounds like it could be referring to Beowulf’s telling the thanes to stay out of the fight because he wanted to handle it himself, but it also suggests that Beowulf intended to fight alone from the start – which makes you wonder why he bothered to bring along the twelve thanes in the first place.

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Geatland’s Next Top Warrior

Whether fighting solo was something premeditated or not, bringing along the best of the best for this fight might have been Beowulf’s way of finding a successor.

The dragon is indeed the ultimate foe, and Beowulf may’ve guessed that even most of the cream of the martial crop would fear it. If that’s the case, then bringing this cream along would make it easy to find out who could possibly rule the Geats after his death – Beowulf was, after all, having dark premonitions after the dragon came and before the fight.

Though, this raises the question of why Beowulf never had any children. Whether he married Hygd after Hygelac’s death or not, fifty years is a long time to go without fathering any children. It stretches the belief, though maybe remaining unwedded and childless are characteristics of the hero that the scops were aiming for when Beowulf was being told and retold, molded into what was written down and what we have today.

Some bits of the manuscript were eaten by rats, or destroyed by a fire, but even those that remain still hold much mystery.

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Closing

Next week, come back for more early medieval thoughts on horses with St. Isidore of Seville, and to get the second half of Wiglaf’s stirring speech.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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Beowulf – In Media Res [ll.2401-2409] (Old English)

Introduction
Background to the Project
Old English Appreciation
Section Summary
Two Words
Closing

Introduction

Today I’m breaking out the glittering armour, gift from the ring-giver, a tight-knit coat in the battle-storm.

Yep. Today’s entry is the first about Beowulf.

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Background to the Project

It’s a project that started in my third year of studying for my BA, though it didn’t really take off until just after I had finished that degree. I’m using the bilingual edition of Seamus Heaney’s translation that has the Anglo Saxon original on the left and the poet’s translation on the right (an online version of the original can be found here).

Heaney’s arrangement is great, but the running glossary in George Jack’s student edition is even more helpful – when I borrowed it from the library for a graduate class I barely used my dictionary.

However, now that Jack’s edition is back in Victoria and I’m over in Ontario, I make good use of my copy of the Fourth Edition of the Anglo-Saxon Dictionary as edited by Hall and Meritt. If I can’t find a word in the dictionary then I’ll usually look it up in the website Old English Made Easy’s dictionary.

The weight of this project hasn’t crushed me just yet, but it is something that has provided an ongoing struggle. Not just because of the size of the poem, but because its use of multiple adjectival clauses can really cloud sense and make things seem obtuse.

However, when things get grammatical, my Magic Sheet is never out of sight. This handy little chart from the English Faculty at the University of Virigina summarizes the declensions and conjugations of everything in Old English, so it’s super useful.

So armed, I’ve been able to translate 5/6 of the poem over the years and once I’m finished my plan is to bring a consistent voice to the whole thing (possibly by re-writing), type it up, and try to get it published. A bold move perhaps, but this is something that I’m passionate about. Maybe it’s just a bunch of barbarians hitting each other (and monsters) over the head with pointy sticks to some, but to me it’s a piece of grand old art.

And it’s something that’s fun to translate.

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Old English Appreciation

Sure, the grammar can get sticky and there are points that scholars still contend to this day (was Beowulf swimming until nightfall to get to the bottom of the mire? Why does the Danish bard sing such a sad song after Beowulf’s victory?). But there’s a joie de vivre in the poet/scribes’ language that isn’t really present in a lot of Modern English.

And no, I’m not a snob. I think that Middle English (Chaucerian English) and Early Modern (Shakespearean English) are just as lovely. But when all of the grammarians stuck their fingers in the delicious hot pie that was English in the 17th and 18th centuries they sucked a lot of life out of it. They set it up to become a reliable and powerful lingua franca for all, but they made it a little bit dull in the process.

Now when somebody drops a consonant and replaces it with an apostrophe people are all up ins. And slang is slang. Before the grammarians came about (I’m looking at you Samuel Johnson) all of English (all the dialects) were pretty slang-laden. It’s just the way that the language was.

And it was grand.

Not so great for national or international communication maybe, but the plays, treatises, and poems that remain are all excellent examples of what a language can do.

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Section Summary

Anyway, I don’t want this entry to be fully derailed by a rant. Right now I’m working through the scene where Beowulf fights the dragon, so I’m really sticking to the story-telling principle of starting in media res.

But, true to most modern novels, I’m starting just where the action is picking up – Beowulf has just gotten his band of 11 fellow Geats together and has compelled the slave that brought him the dragon’s cup to guide them the the lizard’s lair.

All of this happens in lines 2401-2409.

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Two Words

Two words really struck me in section:

First, “gebolgen” on l. 2401. It reminds me of the “Gáe Bolga,” the mysterious, foot-held spear that Cuchulain was trained in by the warrior woman Scáthach, and with which he killed his friend and rival Ferdiad in the Táin Bó Cuailnge.

The other word that caught my eye was “meldan,” from l.2405. This one means finder according to Heaney. The dictionary definition is “tell, reveal, accuse” – but I’m guessing that Heaney let his translation lean on “cwom” (come) the combination of which with “tell, reveal, accuse” suggests a kind of giving – like coming with tales or news, things which are only useful if given.

Plus, a shiny cup from a whole pile of treasure would indeed be welcome news to any Geat (or Anglo-Saxon listener).

Though, I do admit that combining words in this way is kind of like trying to stretch a single ox hide over an acre of land.

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Closing

If you’ve got any suggestions/corrections for me, leave them in a comment. I’ll be back next week with Beowulf’s arrival at the cave.

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