The dragon settles in (and still no Beowulf)

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

The kind of dragon perfectly at home in Beowulf.

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

In last week’s post we heard about the last survivor and the treasure he hid.


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Synopsis

The dragon finds the ancient hoard. Jump back to the present, where the man who stole the cup shows his lord and the hoard is dug up. They wake the dragon.


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The Original Old English

               “Hordwynne fond
eald uhtsceaða opene standan,
se ðe byrnende biorgas seceð,
nacod niðdraca, nihtes fleogeð
fyre befangen; hyne foldbuend
swiðe ondrædað. He gesecean sceall
hord on hrusan, þær he hæðen gold
warað wintrum frod, ne byð him wihte ðy sel.
Swa se ðeodsceaða þreo hund wintra
heold on hrusan hordærna sum,
eacencræftig, oððæt hyne an abealch
mon on mode; mandryhtne bær
fæted wæge, frioðowære bæd
hlaford sinne. ða wæs hord rasod,
onboren beaga hord, bene getiðad
feasceaftum men. Frea sceawode
fira fyrngeweorc forman siðe.”
(Beowulf ll.2270b – 2286)


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My Translation

               “The old ravager by night
later found that delightful hoard left open,
the burning one who seeks out barrows,
the slick, malicious dragon, flew into it by night,
enveloped in flame. The dwellers on the land thereabouts
greatly feared that drake. It delved deep
searching the earth for the depths of that hoard, which it guarded
through countless winters, kept watch over heathen gold,
useless treasure. That ravager of the people occupied the earth
hidden in the barricaded treasure house for three hundred years.
But then a man enraged that fire wyrm, stoked the fury of its heart.
To his lord the thief bore a gold-plated cup,
that man also offered a plea for peace with his lord —
a plea the lord heard as certainly as he saw the cup’s glint.
Then the hoard was ransacked, the piles of rings and trinkets was diminished,
that wretched man’s request was granted. His lord leered at
the ancient work of long dead men for the first time.”
(Beowulf ll.2270b – 2286)


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A Quick Interpretation

I’m short on time this week and busy over the weekend, so it’s just the poem this week. But I will leave you all with a question:

The dragon in Beowulf is just one of many versions of the mythical creature. What’s your favourite dragon from fiction, video games, or TV/Movies?

Mine would have to be Naydra from the Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. She’s just a coolly beautiful creature:

The dragon Naydra from Legend of Zelda Breath of the Wild: not quite like the dragon in Beowulf.

Link stands before the dragon Naydra. Image from http://www.letswitch.eu/en/2017/03/07/botw-journal-5/

Share your favourite dragon in the comments! And give this post a like if you enjoyed the translation.


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Closing

Next week, the dragon gets all het up.

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Forget Beowulf — what’s the Last Survivor’s story?

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

A long barrow from the time of Beowulf and the Lay of the Last Survivor found in Oxfordshire.

A barrow known as Wayland’s Smithy. Perhaps the Last Survivor stowed his people’s treasures in a similar place. Image from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Wayland_Smithy_Long_barrow.jpg


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Recap & Synopsis

Last week we heard about how the dragon was terrorizing the Geats. Why? Because a cup was stolen from its hoard of treasures.

This week, we hear the Lay of the Last Survivor. These are the final words of the last living member of the tribe who lived where the Geats now live and hid their treasures there.


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The Original Old English

             “Beorh eallgearo
wunode on wonge wæteryðum neah,
niwe be næsse, nearocræftum fæst.
þær on innan bær eorlgestreona
hringa hyrde hordwyrðne dæl,
fættan goldes, fea worda cwæð:
‘Heald þu nu, hruse, nu hæleð ne moston,
eorla æhte! Hwæt, hyt ær on ðe
gode begeaton. Guðdeað fornam,
feorhbealo frecne, fyra gehwylcne
leoda minra, þara ðe þis lif ofgeaf,
gesawon seledream. Ic nah hwa sweord wege
oððe feormie fæted wæge,
dryncfæt deore; duguð ellor sceoc.
Sceal se hearda helm hyrsted golde
fætum befeallen; feormynd swefað,
þa ðe beadogriman bywan sceoldon,
ge swylce seo herepad, sio æt hilde gebad
ofer borda gebræc bite irena,
brosnað æfter beorne. Ne mæg byrnan hring
æfter wigfruman wide feran,
hæleðum be healfe. Næs hearpan wyn,
gomen gleobeames, ne god hafoc
geond sæl swingeð, ne se swifta mearh
burhstede beateð. Bealocwealm hafað
fela feorhcynna forð onsended!’
Swa giomormod giohðo mænde
an æfter eallum, unbliðe hwearf
dæges ond nihtes, oððæt deaðes wylm
hran æt heortan.”
(Beowulf ll.2241b-2270a)


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My Translation

        ”The barrow stood ready
in open ground near the sea-waves.
It was newly made at the headland, made secure with the art of secrecy.
Within there the keeper of the ancient earls’ ringed treasure
carried that share of worthy treasures,
the hoard of plated gold; these few words he spoke:
‘Hold you now, oh earth, that which men and women cannot,
enjoy these warriors’ possessions! Indeed it was
obtained from you at the first, dug up
by worthy men. But death in battle bore those delvers away.
Now that terrible mortal harm has carried off each and every one of my people.
They have left this life where they knew and looked back longingly
at the joy had in the hall. I now have no-one to bear the sword
or bring the plated cup, that precious drinking vessel.
That group of tried warriors has since passed elsewhere.
Their hard helmets with gold adornment shall be bereft of their gold plate;
the burnishers sleep the sleep of death, those who should polish the battle mask.
So too the battle garbs, that had endured in battle
through the clash of shields and cut of swords,
they now decay upon the warriors’ husks; nor may the mailcoats of rings
go with the war-leader on his long journey,
they may not be kept at their bloodied sides. No harp joy,
no delight of musical instruments, nor any good hawk
flies through the hall, nor any swift mare
stops in the flowered courtyard. Destructive death
has sent forth all others of my race, as it has with countless others.’
Just so, sad at heart, this one followed his kin.
He expressed his sorrow, he moved about joyless,
for unlit days and for fevered nights, until death’s surging
reached his heart.”
(Beowulf ll.2241b-2270a)


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A Quick Interpretation

This is one of the big deal parts of the poem. Much like Hrothgar’s speeches to Beowulf about being a good king, it delivers the other of the poem’s major messages: riches are useless without others to enjoy them with.

I mean, this Twilight Zone-esque last survivor has no hope of enjoying or using all this treasure. He can’t strum the harp while polishing helmets and swinging a sword as he waits for his hawk to come to rest on his hand. Not because he doesn’t have those things, but because he has no one to do those things in tandem with.

Though it’s kind of strange. I really wonder about this last survivor and the sort of society that he comes from.

How did they amass all these treasures? It doesn’t sound like they were won necessarily. Instead it sounds more like his people dug up the raw materials, and then created the helmets and cups and mail and swords themselves.

So is this some sort of advanced ancient society situation?

Or, since the Geats, this sea-faring people, are anchored in their homeland, is this situation the fantasy of finding a land completely bereft of settlers but still home to their treasures?

Is this a metaphor for the Anglo-Saxons coming to Britain and then just kind of sweeping the Britons under the rug?

And why is this one guy the lone survivor? Did some sort of disease sweep through his group and he was the only one with immunities against it?

Was he the only one who was out hunting when a wild band of raiders slaughtered everyone else?

There aren’t really any answers to these questions unfortunately.

But that’s just what seems to happen when you try to logic through Beowulf.

What’s more important to the poet or their audience is that the theme of this passage fits with the rest of the poem. It has a melancholic tone and really emphasizes the idea that possessions are both incredible and incredibly useless without others to enjoy them with.

Unless, of course, you’re a dragon. But we’ll see more of that in coming weeks.

Tabletop games were big throughout the middle ages, and the Last Survivor reminds me of The Lost Tribes from the game Small World. What’s your favourite tabletop game?

Mine would have to be Time Stories. (I still haven’t played the Beowulf game, after all 😉 )

Share your favourite board game in the comments!


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Closing

Next week, we learn what happened to the thief who stole the cup and kicked all this off.

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The stories embodied in the Beowulf manuscript

Introduction
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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Synopsis

The dragon appears and we hear its story.


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The Original Old English

          “he geheold tela
fiftig wintra (wæs ða frod cyning,
eald eþelweard), oððæt an ongan
deorcum nihtum draca ricsian,
se ðe on heaum hofe hord beweotode,
stanbeorh steapne; stig under læg,
eldum uncuð. þær on innan giong
niða nathwylc, se ðe neh gefeng
hæðnum horde, hond ……,
since fahne. He þæt syððan ……,
þeah ðe he slæpende besyred wurde
þeofes cræfte; þæt sie ðiod onfand,
bufolc beorna, þæt he gebolgen wæs.
Nealles mid gewealdum wyrmhord abræc
sylfes willum, se ðe him sare gesceod,
ac for þreanedlan þeow nathwylces
hæleða bearna heteswengeas fleah,
ærnes þearfa, ond ðær inne fealh,
secg synbysig, sona onfunde
þæt þær ðam gyste gryrebroga stod;
hwæðre earmsceapen
…sceapen
þa hyne se fær begeat.
Sincfæt ……; þær wæs swylcra fela
in ðam eorðhuse ærgestreona,
swa hy on geardagum gumena nathwylc,
eormenlafe æþelan cynnes,
þanchycgende þær gehydde,
deore maðmas. Ealle hie deað fornam
ærran mælum, ond se an ða gen
leoda duguðe, se ðær lengest hwearf,
weard winegeomor, wende þæs ylcan,
þæt he lytel fæc longgestreona
brucan moste.”
(Beowulf ll.2209-2241a)


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My Translation

“He ruled them well for fifty winters,
indeed Beowulf became a wise king,
an aged lord of the realm — until one began to trouble them;
in the dark of night a prowling dragon appeared.
The wyrm held a treasure in his high hall,
all beneath a steep stone roof, led to by a narrow footpath
unknown to men. There into the abyss stumbled
someone or other … who seized by hand from that heathen hoard …
a gleaming treasure that he afterward …
though the dragon slept he had outwitted
it with a thief’s wiles. Soon the people thereabouts,
those under the shield of the local lord, discovered
that the thief’s act unlocked the serpent’s rage. Though
not at all with evil intent did the thief break into the dragon’s hoard,
it was not for his own greedy desire, he had been sorely opressed.
For three nights that slave turned thief
had fled the blows of a prince of men,
he delved into the dragon’s den by need, then entering in
as a man ridden with guilt. Shortly he discovered
that … the man stood terror struck,
which the miserable …
… made … that fed his own fear, treasure piece
… there were many such pieces
of ancient heirlooms in that earthen house.
For there in earlier times some man or other,
had left a huge legacy of noble kin,
thoughtfully buried the treasures there,
those precious pieces of their story. He and all his kin
had since been carried off by death in former times.
But the last one left of that noble people, he who was the eldest,
a barrow guard grieving for lost friends buried them, knowing indeed
that he would little enjoy those grand and
beautiful treasures apart from all his kin.”
(Beowulf ll.2209-2241a)


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A Quick Interpretation

Once the dragon comes front and center, the poem itself takes a beating. Every one of the ellipses seen in this week’s passage represents an illegible part of the original text of Beowulf.

I’m not sure what exactly caused this crop of ellipses, but there are a few possibilities. As with all old books, it’s possible that these pages are worm-eaten. Or they may have just decayed because the Nowell Codex was sometimes kept in damp conditions. Or, since the Nowell Codex survived a fire, those missing bits of the poem may have been, appropriately, burned up.

Even setting aside everything that happened to it, it’s impressive that the Nowell Codex (and the copy of Beowulf within) survived for so long. It would be incredible to be able to go see the thing in person, but living on the other side of the Atlantic makes that kind of hard.

Though, what would make seeing the Beowulf manuscript in person special would be the chance to interact with the story’s physical embodiment. I mean, the Beowulf manuscript is a physical copy of a story that’s proliferated like its own species of animal. Going to see it manuscript in person would be like meeting with the first primate that walked upright (though with much less growling, I’d think).

Plus it would give me a new appreciation of all the work that went into bringing the Nowell Codex together.

After all, the poet didn’t just get lucky and find someone willing to publish them, give a fat advance, and send them out on a book tour.

The Beowulf poet got lucky enough to have their work written down on material that would last centuries. And that material came from several sheep and could take days, maybe weeks, to prepare. Beowulf was committed to bound paper at a time when books were truly treasured. So, to see that kind of labour of love up close would be fascinating.

And who knows. Maybe, even through the white gloves I’d need to wear to be in the room with it, contact with the pages of the Nowell Codex would trigger a psychic link to one of its scribes. And through that link I’d gain a greater understanding of why Beowulf was bunched together with letters about far away places and a homily on St. Christopher.

But that fan-fic is for another time. (Is there even such a thing as fanfiction about books?)

I guess for now I’ll just have to check out the digital version on the British Library’s site.

What’s your favourite old book? If you’re a book collector, do you have any first editions? What makes them special to you?

Feel free to share your answers in the comments.


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Closing

Next week, the grieving barrow guard gives a speech.

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Beowulf becomes king after some summarizing

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.

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


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Synopsis

Hygelac gives Beowulf the greatest gifts of all.


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The Original Old English

“Het ða eorla hleo in gefetian,
heaðorof cyning, Hreðles lafe
golde gegyrede; næs mid Geatum ða
sincmaðþum selra on sweordes had;
þæt he on Biowulfes bearm alegde
ond him gesealde seofan þusendo,
bold ond bregostol. Him wæs bam samod
on ðam leodscipe lond gecynde,
eard, eðelriht, oðrum swiðor
side rice þam ðær selra wæs.
Eft þæt geiode ufaran dogrum
hildehlæmmum, syððan Hygelac læg
ond Heardrede hildemeceas
under bordhreoðan to bonan wurdon,
ða hyne gesohtan on sigeþeode
hearde hildefrecan, Heaðoscilfingas,
niða genægdan nefan Hererices,
syððan Beowulfe brade rice
on hand gehwearf;”
(Beowulf ll.2190-2208)


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My Translation

“After those gifts were given the protector of the earls,
the battle-famed king, ordered Hrethel’s heirloom be brought in.
It was a wondrous, gold-chased thing, there was no other
amid the whole Geat treasure hold to best that sword.
This Hygelac laid upon Beowulf’s lap,
and to him he gave seven thousand hides of land,
a hall and a throne. Both already owned land
by right of kin, though he of greater
hereditary right had more — lands were ample among
those of high rank — to him the best of the
earth was bequeathed.
After that came many days
full of the fury of battle. Hygelac fell,
Heardred’s protection proved useless,
it collapsed under the phalanx that brought his death
when they, the victorious people of the Heatho-Scylfings,
attacked with seasoned swordsmen.
That brought about fatal strife for his nephew Hereric.
Afterwards those lands turned to Beowulf’s hand.”
(Beowulf ll.2190-2208)


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A Quick Interpretation

Here the gift exchange comes to an end. Then, the summaries come.

By their nature, summaries work best when you’re familiar with what’s being talked about.

If these summaries were in plainly written prose, then they would be very informative. But these are poetic summaries. And they’re poetic summaries that refer to things that only Beowulf scholars are familiar with.

Heardred hasn’t been mentioned much at all up to this point in the poem, and Hereric is a brand new ripple all together. So, ultimately, this passage shows how much a part of Beowulf was of some sort of greater body of work or group of stories. The poet is definitely pulling on a wealth of cultural and shared knowledge. Which makes this ancient poem written in a barely familiar form of English the perfect example of how far removed such old things are from us.

An alliterative, compound word-heavy language just isn’t English as we know it. And neither are Heardred or Hereric.

And yet, Beowulf sticks with us.

All that stuff about Beowulf fighting monsters and being a little bit of a monster himself keeps it relevant because it speaks so much to our greatest struggle. Whenever we face a new challenge we come up against some form of change. And we can change in a bad way, perhaps taking the easy way out of a tight spot. Or we can try to do our best and meet those challenges in an honest way, hopefully leading to positive growth. And that’s probably why so many adaptations of Beowulf focus on those first two monsters.

Starting next week, though, I’ll be starting to translate the final part of the poem. We’ll be seeing the poem’s third monster.

What’s your favourite monster from mythology? I’ve always been a fan of dragons. Leave your favourite in the comments!


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Closing

Next week, something big, scaly, and flying gets in the way of Beowulf’s happiness.

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Beowulf gets inspiritional

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

The Snaptun Stone, a stone carved with a face that could be the god Loki.

The Snaptun Stone, which may depict the Norse god Loki. Click image for source.


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Synopsis

Beowulf’s past exposed!


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The Original Old English

“Swa bealdode bearn Ecgðeowes,
guma guðum cuð, godum dædum,
dreah æfter dome, nealles druncne slog
heorðgeneatas; næs him hreoh sefa,
ac he mancynnes mæste cræfte
ginfæstan gife, þe him god sealde,
heold hildedeor. Hean wæs lange,
swa hyne Geata bearn godne ne tealdon,
ne hyne on medobence micles wyrðne
drihten Wedera gedon wolde;
swyðe wendon þæt he sleac wære,
æðeling unfrom. Edwenden cwom
tireadigum menn torna gehwylces.”
(Beowulf ll.2177-2189)


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My Translation

“So boldly onward went the son of Ecgtheow,
a man known for war, known, too, for good deeds,
living according to justice, never slaying
any hearth companion while drinking, never was he rough minded.
Indeed, he was the strongest of the children of men.
So much so that he gained a great stronghold, which god granted him,
and he carried himself as a warrior ought. All of which was cause for surprise,
long had he been lowly, regarded as little good among sons of the Geats,
nor had he done any deeds of great renown or anything
to be recalled by the Weder lord while men were on the mead bench.
Yet he set out on the way of strength, though they believed him slack,
an ill-formed prince. But Beowulf’s persistence led to a reversal,
now every little deed of his further enriched his newfound fame.”
(Beowulf ll.2177-2189)


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A Quick Interpretation

Persistence pays off. It’s as simple as that, right?

You’ve just got to hang onto what you’re trying to do and ignore those who doubt you. It’s a message as old as…well…Beowulf itself. And probably older.

What I wonder, though, is this: Is this part of the poem a later Christian insertion? Or is it part of the original poem? Were lords sitting on mead benches and hearing the inspirational story of how this spindly little kid called Beowulf did great deeds and proved himself worthy of being considered a “prince” (“æðeling” (l.2188))?

I’m not sure that I’ll ever have an answer to those questions.

But I do find it interesting — and maybe those early Catholic monks who wrote this poem out did, too — that despite the greatness of Beowulf’s deeds, god is always somehow present. In this passage, god just shows up as justification for Beowulf’s having a stronghold.

But that stronghold isn’t just some idle gift.

It’s a symbol of Beowulf’s power, and a place where Beowulf can prove himself within society.

In this way, having a stronghold (given by god or whatever) allows Beowulf to grow in power. And god as an agent of that growth is important, since Catholic belief includes the idea that being justified or righteous is not necessarily a binary state but something in which someone can grow. And the means of that growth is interaction with god, who is the sole arbiter of righteousness.

As far as I understand and remember it. But I’m no catechism scholar.

Of course, the references to a singular god could be the scribes’ edits.

But those scribes must have been poets themselves if every reference to god was added. Yes, references to god start to thin out now that Beowulf has proven himself, but they were everywhere in the first half of the poem.

Personally, I think that originally there were as many references to a deity or deities, and these were merely modified. After all, supernatural help has been the start of many a hero’s journey. And if the deity or deities involved in the original Beowulf (or at least the version ours is based on) were meant to be parental, the slow ebb of their influence would make even more sense.

Geez, if there were pagan parental deities involved, then perhaps they were even part of the sense of old things passing away that’s persistent throughout the poem. But I can only speculate.

What’s your favourite inspirational story and why? Feel free to share it in the comments!


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Closing

Next week, Beowulf’s strength is recognized and rewarded.

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Just how important Beowulf’s gift of horses is

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

A drawing of an Anglo-Saxon chariot, complete with horses.

A 10th century illustration of a two-horse chariot from Prudentius’ Psychomachia (a poem about a battle between virtues and vices). Click the image for the source.


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Synopsis

The poet describes the gifts Beowulf gives to Hygelac and Hygd.


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The Original Old English

“Hyrde ic þæt þam frætwum feower mearas
lungre, gelice, last weardode,
æppelfealuwe; he him est geteah
meara ond maðma. Swa sceal mæg don,
nealles inwitnet oðrum bregdon
dyrnum cræfte, deað renian
hondgesteallan. Hygelace wæs,
niða heardum, nefa swyðe hold,
ond gehwæðer oðrum hroþra gemyndig.
Hyrde ic þæt he ðone healsbeah Hygde gesealde,
wrætlicne wundurmaððum, ðone þe him Wealhðeo geaf,
ðeodnes dohtor, þrio wicg somod
swancor ond sadolbeorht; hyre syððan wæs
æfter beahðege breost geweorðod.”
(Beowulf ll.2163-2176)


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My Translation

“I heard that next four ornate horses were brought in,
quickly, each of them as beautiful as the last,
bay and brilliant. Beowulf gave unto his lord such gifts
in horses and treasures. And so shall all kinsmen do;
not scheme and lay out nets laced with malice for others
through deceitful craft, not arrange death
for hand-companions. Hygelac proved a grand uncle
to Beowulf, a nephew who held fast to the bond,
and each was mindful of the other’s joy.
I heard that then he gave the gorget to Hygd,
Wealhtheow’s well-wrought wonder treasure, that which
the queen had given him, daughter of the prince, three horses as well,
each supple and with ornamented saddles.
The gorget shone like the sun upon Hygd’s breast.”
(Beowulf ll.2163-2176)


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A Quick Interpretation

Ah, horses. Today we admire them for their grace and speed. And, back in the early medieval period, people liked horses for the same reasons. Though these qualities were also tied up with ideas of nobility, virility, divinity, and symbolism.

Elaine Moxon wrote a fantastic post about horses in early medieval Britain over on the English Historical Fiction Authors blog. Definitely check it out for the full story.

But, over and over in that post, Moxon points out that horses are prized because they embody the qualities that warriors wanted. Horses were seen as agile, strong, virile, and a simple comfort. Plus, they made it easy to travel the long distances between towns and kingdoms. But, more than that, having and keeping a horse was a sign of wealth. Paying for all that hay and getting someone to muck the stables wasn’t any easier back then it seems.

So Beowulf’s giving Hygelac and Hygd all of these horses is a truly grand gesture. It implies that they’re worthy of such gifts already and yet having an extra seven horses around makes Hygelac and Hygd that much worthier and wealthier. Also, according to Moxon’s post, bay horses were a symbol of the goddess Freyja and fertility. So Beowulf’s gift shows the depth of his fealty to Hygelac through symbolically boosting his ability to produce an heir.

Personally, I think that horses are indeed magnificent creatures. Speaking as a big fan of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, I also really appreciate horses as a means of fast travel — maybe just as much as the Anglo-Saxons and early Britons did.

What do you like most (or least) about horses? Leave your thoughts in the comments!


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Closing

Next week: A bit of an intermission in the life of Beowulf.

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Is Beowulf’s outward loyalty true loyalty?

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

A vassal pledging loyalty to a lord via homage.

A miniature from a French manuscript depicting the homage ritual. How loyalty was pledged to a superior. Click for source.


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Synopsis

Beowulf gives Hygelac three gifts and a message from Hrothgar.


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The Original Old English

Ða ic ðe, beorncyning, bringan wylle,
estum geywan. Gen is eall æt ðe
lissa gelong; ic lyt hafo
heafodmaga nefne, Hygelac, ðec.”
Het ða in beran eaforheafodsegn,
heaðosteapne helm, hare byrnan,
guðsweord geatolic, gyd æfter wræc:
“Me ðis hildesceorp Hroðgar sealde,
snotra fengel, sume worde het
þæt ic his ærest ðe est gesægde;
cwæð þæt hyt hæfde Hiorogar cyning,
leod Scyldunga lange hwile;
no ðy ær suna sinum syllan wolde,
hwatum Heorowearde, þeah he him hold wære,
breostgewædu. Bruc ealles well!”
(Beowulf ll.2148-2162)


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My Translation

“‘These to you, oh noble king, I will bring
and point out the delicate points of each. After all,
all my grace still relies on you. I have few
kin — indeed there are none but you!’
He commanded then that the boar helm, head-topper for battle,
a war-steeped hat, the ancient mail shirt, and the precious war sword
be brought forth, saying thus after all this garb was brought out:
‘Hrothgar gave me this battle-keened gear,
oh wise lord. And along with them he commanded me
to first tell thee of these treasure’s journey.
He said that they had been Heorogar’s, the king,
lord of the Scyldings, for a long while.
Yet Heorogar did not bequeath them to his son,
the one called Heremod, though he was loyal,
a true wanderer through his father’s heart. Enjoy each of them well!'”
(Beowulf ll.2148-2162)


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A Quick Interpretation

When we think of the medieval world we tend to think in absolutes. Heroes are not just people who do some grand deed once and have that mark their reputation forever. Medieval heroes are people who always do the right thing (King Arthur). Villains are the exact opposite (Bad King John). Modern scholarship has made a lot of hay from complicating these figures, but in the popular imagination the medieval world is one where people’s morality is almost naively black and white.

But in this passage we have a clear example of a character adapting to his context.

Beowulf is maybe one of the most clear-cut characters in the popular imagination. Or at least as he’s experienced in high school and introductory university courses. And yet, this part of his speech to Hygelac includes him reassuring this king of his loyalty.

But mention of that loyalty is almost entirely absent while Beowulf is in Daneland. The only mention we get of Hygelac at all during that part of the poem is in Beowulf’s funeral instructions. If he should die trying to rid Daneland of the Grendels, his armour must be sent back to Hygelac.

So his pledge of loyalty (“all my grace still relies on you” (“Gen is eall æt ðe/lissa gelong” (ll.2149-50))) to his king could just be here out of convenience.

That said, though, I don’t think that Beowulf is disloyal to Hygelac. I think it’s just that this aspect of his character is just now being highlighted because of his context. After all, it would make for a very different character if Beowulf couldn’t shut up about how great Hygelac is from the time he introduces himself to the Danish coastguard.

Now, standing before him and ready to offer gifts, It makes sense that Beowulf reaffirms his loyalty to Hygelac. But, as with a real person, his loyalty is not always at the surface of Beowulf’s personality.

Which isn’t to say that Beowulf is just putting it on for Hygelac. I think that the few mentions of Hygelac that are made while Beowulf is in Daneland show that this loyalty is an aspect of Beowulf’s character. But at that time Beowulf had some more immediate things to be worried about (one named Grendel, the another known as Grendel’s mother). But, now that he’s back in Geatland this loyalty has a place to be expressed and so is on full display.

But what do you think about Beowulf’s obvious statements of loyalty in this passage (and earlier)? Is Beowulf as loyal to Hygelac as a modern person is loyal to their boss? Or is he as loyal as all the true warriors in old stories are to their liege lords?

As always, you can share your thoughts in the comments.


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Closing

Next week, Beowulf gives more gifts!

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