How Hrethel’s throne made its way to Hygelac (ll.2460-2471)

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

Beowulf tells the tale of the sorrowful old man Hrethel and maybe that's fate.

Vincent van Gogh’s depiction of a sorrowful old man, which may as well be Hrethel. Image from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sorrowful_old_man.jpg.


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Recap

Last week, Beowulf gave us a simile for the sorrow that Hrethel felt when Herebeald died.


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Synopsis

Hrethel leaves off life and Hæthcyn and Hygelac inherit everything.


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The Original Old English

“‘Gewiteð þonne on sealman, sorhleoð gæleð
an æfter anum; þuhte him eall to rum,
wongas ond wicstede. Swa Wedra helm
æfter Herebealde heortan sorge
weallende wæg. Wihte ne meahte
on ðam feorhbonan fæghðe gebetan;
no ðy ær he þone heaðorinc hatian ne meahte
laðum dædum, þeah him leof ne wæs.
He ða mid þære sorhge, þe him swa sar belamp,
gumdream ofgeaf, godes leoht geceas,
eaferum læfde, swa deð eadig mon,
lond ond leodbyrig, þa he of life gewat.'”
(Beowulf ll.2460-2471)


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My Translation

“‘Then Hrethel was in bed, chanting a dirge,
alone even with himself. To him it all seemed too huge,
the fields’ roll, the halls’ stretch. Thus the Geat’s protector,
his heart suffused with sorrow for Herebeald,
set out for that far country. He never knew how he might
wreak his feud on the slayer;
in no way could he hate the warrior
for that dolorous deed, though he was not loved.
Then he, amidst that sorrow, that which sorely him concerned,
gave up on the enjoyment of life, chose God’s light.
He left all he had on earth to his sons, as any prosperous man does,
lands and towns, when he left off this life.’”
(Beowulf ll.2460-2471)


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A Quick Interpretation

Here is an example of society grinding on, beyond the personal concerns of the people in it.

Hæthcyn, the man who killed his own brother and “was not loved” (“him leof ne wæs” (l.2467)), still gets his inheritance. Even though Hrethel never got over that act, even though his sorrow for Herebeald stole away his joie de vive and, arguably, killed him.

But how does Hæthcyn feel about all of this? If it was a hunting accident, I can’t imagine how terrible he feels about it all. But that could be why he has no voice here. He might have shut down in a way different from Hrethel’s death and depression. Hæthcyn may have just completely clammed up, become rather stoic and unassailable. And so this one act destroyed every member of the family except for Hygelac.

After all, if Hygelac was the youngest brother, Hæthcyn would have been the king of the Geats first, but there’s no mention of what he did in the role. This could just be plot convenience, but I really think that Hæthcyn was just a functional shell of his former self and this is why he has almost no page time. And shells of any kind generally don’t make for good characters.

What kind of a king do you think Hæthcyn was?

Feel free to share your theories in the comments!


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Closing

Next week, war breaks out and we learn the fate of Hæthcyn.

If you enjoyed this post, please give it a like. And, if you want to keep up with my translations, please do follow this blog!

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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Fate’s sorrowful means to make Hygelac king? (ll.2444-2459)

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

Beowulf tells the tale of the sorrowful old man Hrethel and maybe that's fate.

Vincent van Gogh’s depiction of a sorrowful old man, which may as well be Hrethel. Image from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sorrowful_old_man.jpg.


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Recap

Last week, Beowulf shared a bit of his early life with Hrethel. He also told the story of how Hrethel’s eldest son killed his own brother.


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Synopsis

Beowulf weaves a simile for the sort of sorrow that seizes upon the entire Hrethel household.


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The Original Old English

“‘Swa bið geomorlic gomelum ceorle
to gebidanne, þæt his byre ride
giong on galgan, þonne he gyd wrece,
sarigne sang, þonne his sunu hangað
hrefne to hroðre, ond he him helpe ne mæg,
eald ond infrod, ænige gefremman.
Symble bið gemyndgad morna gehwylce
eaforan ellorsið; oðres ne gymeð
to gebidanne burgum in innan
yrfeweardas, þonne se an hafað
þurh deaðes nyd dæda gefondad.
Gesyhð sorhcearig on his suna bure
winsele westne, windge reste
reote berofene. Ridend swefað,
hæleð in hoðman; nis þær hearpan sweg,
gomen in geardum, swylce ðær iu wæron.'”
(Beowulf ll.2444-2459)


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My Translation

“‘Then was the whole household like a sorrowful old man
who must live on, though his young son hangs on the gallows.
Such a man then makes a dirge, distressed singing,
while his son hangs at the mocking mercy of ravens,
birds gloating over their feast, and he can do nothing
to help his son, no water from his well of experience and age
will allow him to haul the boy down and lavish new life onto his lank body.
Reluctantly he is reminded each morning of
his son’s death. He does not care to wait
for another heir in his hall, since the
first has been found fettered, devoured, by death’s dire decree.
He looks on with tear-filled soul into his lost son’s chambers,
all hall joy now desolation, the resting place of winds,
a place bereft of all joy. The riders sleep.
The fighters lay in darkness. No harp sounds are there.
There are no men in the yard. Nothing is as it once was.’”
(Beowulf ll.2444-2459)


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A Quick Interpretation

There’s definitely a “Lay of the Last Survivor” vibe to the last three lines of this passage.

As with that section of the poem, these lines are a reflection on the emptiness of loss. Except, where the “Lay of the Last Survivor” focused on how the amassed wealth of a whole civilization is useless to a single member of that civilization, this passage is all about family.

After Herebeald’s death, Hrethel’s family falls apart. Why? Because the kinds of retribution for murder that society allows are simply not possible. They couldn’t kill a member of the family.

For a modern spin, the situation is like two people getting into a crash. Except that neither of them can sue each other because of a familial loophole. Though if family members are crashing into each other when they’re out driving, they must have problems beyond broken bones and crumpled metal.

Actually, last week, I put forth the idea that this episode in the Hrethel household has a clear analogue in Norse mythology. But aside from cooking up this episode to bring some mythology into his poem, what could have driven one brother to shoot another with an arrow? I grew up with two brothers, and we fought every now and then, but none of us ever shot another with an arrow.

For the record, it seems that the academic consensus is that Hæthcyn killed Herebeald in a hunting accident.

Maybe this kind of tragedy would just be written off as wyrd or fate. Hygelac had to become the lord of the Geats, and the best way for that to happen was to invalidate his brothers’ claims to the throne. So the gears of fate fired up and took Herebeald and Hæthcyn out.

What’s your favourite (or best) simile or metaphor for sorrow?

Feel free to share it in the comments!


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Closing

Next week, Beowulf explains how society grinds on beyond death.

If you enjoyed this post, please give it a like. And, if you want to keep up with my translations, please do follow this blog!

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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Baldur’s death and the beginning of Beowulf’s Ragnarok (ll.2425-2443)

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

Baldur lays dead, Hodr is confused, and Beowulf tells a parallel tale.

The scene of Baldur’s death as painted by Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg. Image from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Baldr_dead_by_Eckersberg.jpg.


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Recap

Last week, Beowulf took a deep dive inward.


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Synopsis

Beowulf calls his Geats in, and begins to tell them of his time with king Hrethel and his three sons. He also shares the family shattering event that happened.


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The Original Old English

“Biowulf maþelade, bearn Ecgðeowes:
‘Fela ic on giogoðe guðræsa genæs,
orleghwila; ic þæt eall gemon.
Ic wæs syfanwintre, þa mec sinca baldor,
freawine folca, æt minum fæder genam;
heold mec ond hæfde Hreðel cyning,
geaf me sinc ond symbel, sibbe gemunde.
Næs ic him to life laðra owihte,
beorn in burgum, þonne his bearna hwylc,
Herebeald ond Hæðcyn oððe Hygelac min.
Wæs þam yldestan ungedefelice
mæges dædum morþorbed stred,
syððan hyne Hæðcyn of hornbogan,
his freawine, flane geswencte,
miste mercelses ond his mæg ofscet,
broðor oðerne blodigan gare.
þæt wæs feohleas gefeoht, fyrenum gesyngad,
hreðre hygemeðe; sceolde hwæðre swa þeah
æðeling unwrecen ealdres linnan.'”
(Beowulf ll.2425-2443)


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My Translation

“Beowulf spoke, the son of Ecgtheow:
‘Countless were the skirmishes that I survived in youth,
numerous times of war. I can recall them all.
I was seven winters old when I fostered with our treasure lord,
the lord and friend of our people, at my father’s command.
The good king Hrethel kept me and cherished me,
he gave me treasure goods and solemn office, mindful of our kinship.
Indeed, while living in the stronghold as a boy I was not counted
less worthy than his own sons,
Herebeald and Hæthcyn, and my dear Hygelac.
The eldest son, by a deed of his brother,
impiously spread his deathbed,
Hæthcyn had hoisted his horn-tipped bow toward the boy,
and loosed the arrow that shattered his life.
He had aimed for a misted mark and shot his own kin,
bloodied his fatal dart with the life of his own brother.
That was a strife beyond recompense, transgression against sin itself,
a steeping of the heart in sadness. What else should be done but
to leave the offense the eldest carried out unavenged?’”
(Beowulf ll.2425-2443)


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A Quick Interpretation

You might be wondering what this story has to do with Beowulf’s exploits in battle. And you’re totally justified in wondering that.

I mean, I think that the poet is doing a few things here. First, putting this story of Herebeald and Hæthcyn in Beowulf’s mouth makes one of this poem’s many ancillary stories flow into the main story more organically. Sharing this part of Beowulf’s life also reveals how he came to be so favoured by the late king Hygelac.

Arguably, if Beowulf is half as great as all his boasting (and much of this poem) suggests, it wouldn’t matter who succeeded Hrethel as king. Hæthcyn? Herebeald? He would still be celebrated and no doubt end up with land and a hall all his own.

But if Hygelac didn’t become king what what would change is that Beowulf may not have been so friendly with the new king. And, I think, thin as it is, what’s running under all of this poem’s suggestion that the world of Beowulf was a world where merit mattered is the cold simple fact that charisma could still get you quite far.

Just think back to Beowulf trying to match Hrothgar’s tone and cadence when he’s chatting with him. Or look at the version of the Grendel fights that Beowulf reports to Hygelac. Maybe he could have charmed his way into the hearts of Herebeald or Hæthcyn had one of them been king, but getting cozy with his “dear Hygelac” seems like it was an almost immediate thing.

What’s a little strange about this incident though, is how it resonates with the rest of the poem on a mythological level.

Norse mythology includes a story about Baldur and Hodr. Baldur is an Æsir god and such a beautiful thing that he radiated light and the gods themselves were entranced by him. Hodr, on the other hand, is a fairly mysterious god, though his name means “warrior” in Old Norse and he is generally thought to be blind. These two gods were brothers (fathered by Odin).

According to their story, Baldur dreamed that his death was imminent so his mother Freya went around to all of existence getting oaths from everything that they would never harm her son. After doing this, the gods made a game of throwing whatever they could think of at Baldur.

Of course, what’s Norse mythology without Loki?

The trickster disguised himself and asked Freya if she managed to get an oath from everything. She then revealed that she didn’t bother with mistletoe, since it seemed too small and harmless to bother with. So, Loki being Loki, he found a branch of mistletoe and gave it to Hodr. Then he guided Hodr’s hand so that the mistletoe pierced Baldur, killing him instantly. Confusion and mourning followed.

What’s more, according to the Norse mythological cycle, Baldur’s death is one of the early signs of the coming of Ragnarok. Thus, Baldur’s death marks the beginning of the end of Norse mythology.

All right, back to Beowulf.

As Beowulf’s story continues we see the same grand end triggered for Hrethel. In a society where retribution was the most widely recognized way to gain closure for murder, fratricide caused quite a dilemma.

However, beyond a reference to widely known contemporary mythology, I think including this reference says something more broadly about Beowulf. Its inclusion shows how mortals handle matters that afflict even gods. And, unsurprisingly, this incident destroys Hrethel, leaving him a shell of a man until his death.

I would argue that Beowulf has a similar experience. Throughout his life he enjoys mythological strength and abilities. And I think that last week we saw Beowulf’s lifelong existential dread surfacing. In a way, Beowulf could well be aware of how monstrous he is himself.

And, more simply, I think that the poet’s inclusion of the story of Hrethel’s sons and its parallel to Norse mythology was meant to signal the beginning of Beowulf’s end. The end for the character, for the poem, and for the way of life that both represent.

But what do you think? Is Beowulf’s self-image tied up with being a freak of strength? Is the parallel to the story of Baldur and Hodr and what it means just coincidence? Or is there something else going on here entirely?

Feel free to share your theories in the comments!


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Closing

Next week, Beowulf weaves an analogy for the depth of grief that Hrethel experienced at Herebeald’s death.

If you enjoyed this post, please give it a like. And, if you want to keep up with my translations, please do follow this blog!

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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Beowulf takes a seat to think this dragon thing through (ll.2417-2424)

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 my last post, the poet shared how Beowulf rallied together 11 young Geatish warriors, took the dragon hoard thief as a guide, and started out to reckon with the dragon.


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Synopsis

After coming to a clifftop overlooking the dragon’s barrow, Beowulf sits down and reflects on where he is in life.


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The Original Old English

“Gesæt ða on næsse niðheard cyning,
þenden hælo abead heorðgeneatum,
goldwine Geata. Him wæs geomor sefa,
wæfre ond wælfus, wyrd ungemete neah,
se ðone gomelan gretan sceolde,
secean sawle hord, sundur gedælan
lif wið lice, no þon lange wæs
feorh æþelinges flæsce bewunden.”
(Beowulf ll.2417-2424)


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My Translation

“Sat then the veteran king upon the clifftop.
He wished his hearth companions luck,
the gold friend of the Geats. His mind was sorrowful,
he was restless and ready for death, fate had come immeasurably near,
he knew that soon he would fully face old age,
that it would soon seek his soul’s hoard, tear his life
from his body. Not long from then would that lord’s
flesh unravel from his spirit.”
(Beowulf ll.2417-2424)


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A Quick Interpretation

The poet is snapping out of something here. The contrast between this passage’s opening line and the last line of the previous passage suggests that as Beowulf sits something shifts in him.

As a refresher, the final line of the previous passage was:

“It would not be easy/for Beowulf to bargain with that dragon for his people’s lives!” (“Næs þæt yðe ceap/to gegangenne gumena ænigum!” (ll.2415-2416))

This statement is a classic example of Anglo-Saxon understatement (or a “litote” for those keen on literary terms). In it we can see the poet openly winking to the audience as the puppets pulled by the lines he lays down dance on without the power to change their fates.
And then you get the simple statement:

“Sat then the veteran king upon the clifftop.” (“Gesæt ða on næsse niðheard cyning” (l.2417))

When was the last time Beowulf sat down? He may have been sitting when he was sharing his exploits and treasures with Hygelac, but I’ve always imagined him standing (or maybe kneeling?) in some sort of audience hall a la Ganondorf in Ocarina of Time.

Ganondorf kneeling before the king of Hyrule, maybe Beowulf did the same?

Ganondorf kneeling before the king of Hyrule. Perhaps as Beowulf did? Though probably without the evil eyes. Image from https://strategywiki.org/wiki/File:OoT_Spying_on_Ganondorf.jpg

Of course, Beowulf’s intentions aren’t as wicked as Ganondorf’s (though Beowulf would be right at home in a world overseen by goddesses and golden triangles).

But even then, going back to his time with the Danes, when he sits for the parties that Hrothgar throws there’s never any line like “Beowulf sat”. With the change it signals, and the sort of coming in to roost of the poem’s metaphorical chickens throughout the remainder of the poem this line is kind of like the “Jesus wept” (John 11:35) moment of the poem for me. It shows Beowulf’s more limited, average human side.

Up until now, Beowulf has been a poem of youthful exploits, adventures in foreign lands, and victory in battle. But now the titular character is an old man and he is fully aware of this.

Though, there have no doubt been some off-page exploits that Beowulf is less than proud of. And he’s probably spent more time quaffing mead and eating pork than keeping up with his swimming regimen.

Yet this is how the poem starts its ending. It’s like the sequel to the blockbuster that no one really wanted starring all the original actors whose characters have been rewritten to fit the physical and mental changes the actors have all undergone in the decades since the original bit of movie magic.

“Sat then the veteran king upon the clifftop.”

But this is Beowulf. As much as his mind starts to turn to how close fate is coming to him, how little of his lease on life he still has left, there’s a dragon out there. And even if, as we’ll see next week, he needs to draw inspiration from his own life, Beowulf will fight it.

What do you imagine Beowulf doing after he sits in this passage? Does he stare out at the landscape below them? Or does he look into the eyes of his Geatish kin and wonder about their safety?

Feel free to share your theories in the comments!


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Closing

Next week, Beowulf tries to inspire his gathered Geats (and himself?) with his life story.

If you enjoyed this post, please give it a like. And, if you want to keep up with my translations, please do follow this blog!

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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How Beowulf recruited a thief who knew much of the dragon (ll.2397-2416)

First up, I must apologize for how late this week’s entry is. I’ve managed to post every Thursday for quite a while now, and intend to keep posting these translations on Thursdays. This week, though, work got in the way. So, I just want to say thanks for your understanding, and for reading.

Here’s the post!


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

The thief steals the cup from the treasure hoard of the dragon in Beowulf in translation on A Blogger's Beowulf.

The thief has snuck up to the dragon and reaches for the fateful treasure cup. Image from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Stories_of_Beowulf_slave_stealing_golden_cup.jpg


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Recap

Last week, the poet completed his explanation of how Beowulf became king of the Geats.


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Synopsis

Beowulf gathers together a group of twelve to face the dragon. And he happens to get a thirteenth member when the thief who woke the dragon presents the cup to Beowulf.


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The Original Old English

“Swa he niða gehwane genesen hæfde,
sliðra geslyhta, sunu Ecgðiowes,
ellenweorca, oð ðone anne dæg
þe he wið þam wyrme gewegan sceolde.
Gewat þa XIIa sum torne gebolgen
dryhten Geata dracan sceawian.
Hæfde þa gefrunen hwanan sio fæhð aras,
bealonið biorna; him to bearme cwom
maðþumfæt mære þurh ðæs meldan hond.
Se wæs on ðam ðreate þreotteoða secg,
se ðæs orleges or onstealde,
hæft hygegiomor, sceolde hean ðonon
wong wisian. He ofer willan giong
to ðæs ðe he eorðsele anne wisse,
hlæw under hrusan holmwylme neh,
yðgewinne; se wæs innan full
wrætta ond wira. Weard unhiore,
gearo guðfreca, goldmaðmas heold,
eald under eorðan. Næs þæt yðe ceap
to gegangenne gumena ænigum!”
(Beowulf ll.2397-2416)


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My Translation

“Thus Beowulf survived strife from all quarters,
savage battles and slaughter, that son of Ecgtheow,
brave doer of good deeds, until that day.
That day on which Beowulf was fated to war with the dragon.
Then it was that the scaled one, maddened with rage, knew the twelve;
the dragon recognized the Geatish lord.
Beowulf soon discovered the reason why that fiend arose,
brought adversity to his people. Into his lap fell the famed cup,
wrought of gold and set with stones, fresh from the finder’s hand.
That man made their party’s number thirteen,
he who had created this dire fate,
a captive of sorrowful heart. He agreed to serve
as guide for Beowulf and his men through the dragon’s place.
Against his will he went to the earthen hall which he alone knew.
The barrow beneath the earth, out by the sea billows,
where wave strove with wave, within, it was full of treasures,
both wrought and wound. The horrible warden,
that eager ancient warrior, was bent on guarding his gold-treasures,
both as old as stones beneath the earth. It would not be easy
for Beowulf to bargain with that dragon for his people’s lives!”
(Beowulf ll.2397-2416)


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A Quick Interpretation

How did Beowulf plan to find the dragon before the thief came to him?

Maybe he was just going to go around with his twelve Geats until the dragon swooped down on them.

Or maybe they would’ve gone on a stake out. Sat behind some rocks until the dragon showed up.

As convenient as this meeting is, I think it’s a little shot of realism in this poem.

If you think back to the celebration of Beowulf’s victory over Grendel, you might remember the story of Sigemund the Dragon Slayer. Those events are related as a story even within the world of this story. I would go so far as to argue that the poet’s saying the story was from some far off land is just a fancy way to say “I made this up”.

Anyway, in that story, Sigemund just knew where to go to find the dragon. Why? Because he’s a dragon slayer, I guess. He just has that extra sense built in.

But Beowulf, as something written by an Anglo-Saxon (a person from “Angland” perhaps), has much more immediacy. And the poet must have known that any new, grand story of monsters and mighty heroes needed to have an element of realism to it. So, who could know the way to a treasure hoard that a dragon happens to be guarding? A thief, of course. And so, there’s a thief that joins Beowulf’s party. A thief who is really a guide.

Though maybe Beowulf should strategize to maximize the thief’s “Backstab” ability when fighting the dragon.

Dungeons & Dragons jokes aside, I think that the introduction of the thief as a character of any stature is a way to add complexity to a story that was pretty common. It’s a new twist on the old story of dragon slayers.

What do you think of the inclusion of the thief in Beowulf’s dragon hunting party? What do you think caused the thief to come to Beowulf with the cup? Guilt? The death of his own lord? A desire for glory?

Let me know in the comments!


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Closing

Next week, Beowulf sits down on a cliff and tells his group memories of his youth.

And, if you enjoyed this post, please give it a like.

Also, if you want to keep up with my translations, please do follow this blog!

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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Reluctant king Beowulf and his long-term feud strategy (ll.2367-2396)

Recap
Synopsis
The Original Old English
My Translation
Quick Question
Closing

A vassal pledging loyalty to a lord via homage, maybe to quell a feud.

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


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Recap

After showing how the dragon devastated Beowulf’s lands and hall, the poet started to share how Beowulf became king.


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Synopsis

After some swimming, some fighting, and some turning offers down, Beowulf becomes king of the Geats. He also tries to ensure a lasting peace.


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The Original Old English

Oferswam ða sioleða bigong sunu Ecgðeowes,
earm anhaga, eft to leodum;
þær him Hygd gebead hord ond rice,
beagas ond bregostol, bearne ne truwode
þæt he wið ælfylcum eþelstolas
healdan cuðe, ða wæs Hygelac dead.
No ðy ær feasceafte findan meahton
æt ðam æðelinge ænige ðinga,
þæt he Heardrede hlaford wære
oððe þone cynedom ciosan wolde;
hwæðre he him on folce freondlarum heold,
estum mid are, oððæt he yldra wearð,
Wedergeatum weold. Hyne wræcmæcgas
ofer sæ sohtan, suna Ohteres;
hæfdon hy forhealden helm Scylfinga,
þone selestan sæcyninga
þara ðe in Swiorice sinc brytnade,
mærne þeoden. Him þæt to mearce wearð;
he þær for feorme feorhwunde hleat
sweordes swengum, sunu Hygelaces,
ond him eft gewat Ongenðioes bearn
hames niosan, syððan Heardred læg,
let ðone bregostol Biowulf healdan,
Geatum wealdan. þæt wæs god cyning!
Se ðæs leodhryres lean gemunde
uferan dogrum, Eadgilse wearð
feasceaftum freond, folce gestepte
ofer sæ side sunu Ohteres,
wigum ond wæpnum; he gewræc syððan
cealdum cearsiðum, cyning ealdre bineat.
(Beowulf ll.2367-2396)


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My Translation

“Thanks to long practice he swam over the sea,
the son of Ecgtheow, a reclusive water treader heading
back to his people. There Hygd urged him to take
the treasure and the throne, rings and the power seat.
She trusted not her son. She doubted that he could hold
the royal seat against foreign foes, for Hygelac was dead.
Yet for nothing could that people find a means
to get Beowulf to accept such power, nothing whatever swayed him,
so long as Heardred was lord,
until the kingdom itself would choose.
Nonetheless, in that time Beowulf proved to be a well
of friendly counsel among the people, freely and with grace,
until he became mature in power, a ruler of the Weder-Geats.
But then miserable men sought for Heardred from over the sea,
Ohthere’s son. Those men had rebelled against the protector
of the Scylfings, the best among sea kings,
he who had dealt out treasure in the Swedish kingdom,
the greatly famed ruler. For Heardred that marked the end.
For his hospitality he gained a terrible wound,
the sting of a swung sword, that unfortunate son of Hygelac.
Afterwards Ongentheow’s son left,
headed for home, after Heardred was slain,
leaving the ruler’s seat for Beowulf to fill,
he was then called to rule the Geats. That was a good king!
Though the fall of the prince made that one mindful,
worried for retribution as days dragged on, he turned to Eadgils,
a man destitute of friends. That people,
those of the sons of Ohthere, he helped
with warriors and weapons. The feud was settled after a chill cold,
a cruel campaign, when old king Onela was bound by death.”
(Beowulf ll.2367-2396)


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Quick Questions

To summarize the feud upon feud in this passage:

The son of Ohthere and his gang get vengeance for Ohthere when they kill Heardred. But they’re pretty uneasy about Beowulf. Luckily he soothes their worries by helping them secure their position back in what would become Sweden. But Onela’s probably got some sons. So the cycle of violence is probably going to continue.

Would Beowulf have known this? Do you think he’s expecting an attack from Onela’s son? Is this maybe why he doesn’t fear the dragon – fighting an army of men is more terrifying because they’re not monsters?

If Beowulf knows about how inescapable all these feuds are, is that why he’s so reluctant to be king?

What are your thoughts? Go ahead and share them in the comments!


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Closing

Next week, we come back to the present and Beowulf’s preparations for fighting the dragon.

If you enjoyed this post, please give it a like. And feel free to reblog this post to help more people find it.

Also, be sure to follow this blog if you want to keep up with my translations of the poem.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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Something the story of Beowulf shares with modern TV (ll.2345-2366)

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

A Viking Age battle involving, no doubt, a king like Beowulf.

Thorir Hund dressed in a reindeer-hide tunic kills King Olaf at the Battle of Stiklestad. Painting by Peter Nicolai Arbo. Click image for source.


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Recap

Last week, Beowulf decided to fight the dragon one-on-one and commissioned an iron shield.


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Synopsis

The poet steps away from Beowulf for a second to sing about how his past accomplishments have prepared him to face the dragon.


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The Original Old English

“Oferhogode ða hringa fengel
þæt he þone widflogan weorode gesohte,
sidan herge; no he him þa sæcce ondred,
ne him þæs wyrmes wig for wiht dyde,
eafoð ond ellen, forðon he ær fela
nearo neðende niða gedigde,
hildehlemma, syððan he Hroðgares,
sigoreadig secg, sele fælsode
ond æt guðe forgrap Grendeles mægum
laðan cynnes. No þæt læsest wæs
hondgemota, þær mon Hygelac sloh,
syððan Geata cyning guðe ræsum,
freawine folca Freslondum on,
Hreðles eafora hiorodryncum swealt,
bille gebeaten. þonan Biowulf com
sylfes cræfte, sundnytte dreah;
hæfde him on earme ana XXX
hildegeatwa, þa he to holme beag.
Nealles Hetware hremge þorfton
feðewiges, þe him foran ongean
linde bæron; lyt eft becwom
fram þam hildfrecan hames niosan.”
(Beowulf ll.2345-2366)


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My Translation

“Further, Beowulf, the prince of rings,
was too proud to attack the far-flier with a band of men,
an overpowering army. Nor did he fear further attack from the drake,
he thought but little of the dragon’s strength and courage, since he
had already risked harsh circumstances, survived countless combats,
endured the crash of battle, since he had done so for Hrothgar.
Beowulf had been blessed with victory, cleansed the Dane’s hall,
in combat he crushed to death the hateful kindred
of Grendel. Not the least of his deeds happened later,
the hand-to-hand encounter where the man slew Hygelac,
after the Geatish king was caught in the battle onslaught,
the lord and friend of the people fell in Friesland.
Hygelac, Hrethel’s son, had died in the blade brew,
struck by the sword. From there Beowulf
put his strength to use, swimming thence.
In his arm he held the battle gear of thirty men
with which he went to sea.
None of the Hetwares had reason to be exultant
in that battle on foot, with Beowulf against them on the front
bearing a shield. Few would later
return home from their meeting with that warrior.”
(Beowulf ll.2345-2366)


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A Quick Interpretation

Just in case you were wondering if Beowulf kept fit after he got back to Geatland, here’s your answer. According to this little story from the poet, Beowulf is still a swimming, fighting, load-carrying (?) machine.

So what? Well, from a narrative point of view, it’s neat how the poet uses a flashback to fill in some details during the otherwise lost 50 years of king Beowulf’s life. Actually, flashbacks are still alive and well in our stories.

Granted, it’s not the most recent example, but one show that is full of examples of this trope is Lost. This show set on an apparently empty tropical island was full of mysteries. From things like the hatch in the middle of nowhere, to the polar bear seen loping around now and then. And most of those mysteries were solved through near-episode long flashbacks that filled in details and offered answers (or at least clues).

The Good Place is another great example of flashback being used to reveal story information or demonstrate a character’s traits. It’s also a fairly mysterious show.

Is Beowulf quite so mysterious because of this and other flashbacks?

Potentially.

Take the strangely disagreeing lines 2365-66. These lines stand in defiance of the image of Beowulf as this perfect warrior. They read: “Few would later/return home from their meeting with that warrior” (“lyt eft becwom/fram þam hildfrecan hames niosan.”).

“Few” of the warriors who faced Beowulf survived the battle. Not “none” but “few”. On the face of it, it sounds like the poet is pulling back a bit from Beowulf as this macho force.

But I think that this is just an example of the poem’s sense of humour. It’s a kind of sarcastic understatement, the sort of line delivered from a crooked grin in a cocked face after a little chuckle.

But humour is a tricky thing in print. Especially in poetry. So, what do you think? Is this line a little joke? Or is it pointing to Beowulf going soft on his way to becoming king?

Share your thoughts in the comments!

And if you liked this translation, give this post a like. You might also want to follow this blog so that you can get the rest of this poem as it’s translated.


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Closing

Next week, the poet continues the story of Beowulf’s life after the death of Hygelac.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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A shield by Beowulf, against the dragon (ll.2333–2344)

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

Beowulf is protected from dragon fire by his shield while treasure awaits.

An illustration of Beowulf fighting the dragon that appears at the end of the epic poem. Illustration in the children’s book Stories of Beowulf (H. E. Marshall). Published in New York in 1908 by E. P. Dutton & Company. Image found at https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Beowulf_and_the_dragon.jpg


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Recap

The dragon from the treasure hoard has attacked Beowulf’s lands and burned down his hall.


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Synopsis

Beowulf comes up with a plan for revenge.


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The Original Old English

“Hæfde ligdraca leoda fæsten,
ealond utan, eorðweard ðone
gledum forgrunden; him ðæs guðkyning,
Wedera þioden, wræce leornode.
Heht him þa gewyrcean wigendra hleo
eallirenne, eorla dryhten,
wigbord wrætlic; wisse he gearwe
þæt him holtwudu helpan ne meahte,
lind wið lige. Sceolde lændaga
æþeling ærgod ende gebidan,
worulde lifes, ond se wyrm somod,
þeah ðe hordwelan heolde lange.”
(Beowulf ll.2333–2344)


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My Translation

“The fire dragon had destroyed all the people’s strongholds,
scourged all the land out to the coast, scorched all their earthen work walls
with its flames. For that flying beast the lord of the fray,
prince of the Weders, planned vengeance.
He commanded that a protector of warriors be made,
all of iron, quenched and tempered, so said the lord of earls,
he sought a wondrous war-board from his smiths. Beowulf knew well
that the forest wood warriors so often carried would be no help to him,
that the linden shield would crumble against flames. Beowulf also knew
that he must soon come to the end of his transitory days, the prince of excellence,
his loan of life would soon be due, and so, too, would the dragon’s,
though the wyrm had guarded the hoarded wealth long.”
(Beowulf ll.2333–2344)


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A Quick Interpretation

Before the other two fights Beowulf showed great bravery. Before fighting Grendel, he pledged to meet the monster on his own level and eschew weapons and armour. Before fighting Grendel’s mother, Beowulf steeled himself and dove into her lake.

Now we see Beowulf put some thought into his approach. He doesn’t boast or make some sort of brave stand. Instead he thinks about his own mortality. He – the Beowulf – realizes that he’s going to die soon. And he applies some intelligence to his approach rather than rushing in or trying to prove something to someone.

But if that’s all you get out of living for 50 years in the world of Beowulf, then it seems a little underwhelming.

Though Beowulf’s idea to make an iron shield plays perfectly to his strengths.

As was hinted at early and is mentioned later, Beowulf is too strong to use any normal sword. They all end up breaking when he uses them. So hoisting a shield of iron would be no problem for the king of the Geats. Which is neat; it took a bit, but Beowulf seems to have become quite the strategist over his tenure as ruler!

If you had to come up with a scheme to fight a dragon, what would your scheme be?

I think it’d be pretty cool to fight the dragon in the air, so I’d want to create some sort of flying machine (think medieval dragon mech).

Share your own answers in the comments!


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Closing

Next week, the poet reassures us of Beowulf’s courage with a little story of his bravery.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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Is it fate, god, or a dragon from Beowulf’s past? (ll.2324–2332)

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

The hall of Beowulf in a flaming ruin because of a dragon as seen in Blogger's Beowulf and decreed by fate and god.

What Beowulf’s hall probably looked like after the dragon attacked. Image from https://pixabay.com/en/funeral-pyre-fire-may-fire-flame-232504/


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Recap

Last week, the dragon continued its attack on the countryside. It destroyed people’s homes and towns as it sought vengeance against the thief and his lord.


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Synopsis

Beowulf is told about the dragon melting his hall. This leads Beowulf to wonder what he’s done to deserve this.


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The Original Old English

“þa wæs Biowulfe broga gecyðed
snude to soðe, þæt his sylfes ham,
bolda selest, brynewylmum mealt,
gifstol Geata. þæt ðam godan wæs
hreow on hreðre, hygesorga mæst;
wende se wisa þæt he wealdende
ofer ealde riht, ecean dryhtne,
bitre gebulge. Breost innan weoll
þeostrum geþoncum, swa him geþywe ne wæs.”
(Beowulf ll.2324–2332)


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My Translation

“Then was Beowulf told of that terror,
in a voice trembling with speed and truth, he heard that his own home,
the best of buildings, had been melted in a surge of fire,
the gift seat of the Geats. That good man
was sorrowful at heart, sunken into great grief when he heard that news.
In that moment his thoughts turned to his past,
he wondered if he had acted contrary to the old laws of the Ruler,
the Eternal Lord, severely offended them; within his breast welled up
dark thoughts, as was not customary for him.”
(Beowulf ll.2324–2332)


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A Quick Interpretation

This must be the first bad thing that happens to Beowulf. Ever. Why else would he only now wonder how he offended his god?

After all, that’s the only reason anything bad would happen to him.

At least as far as we know. There is a fifty year gap in the story here, so maybe there is something that Beowulf did do that’s knocked him out of god’s favour.

Or, maybe, fate always goes as it must.

If this is the first bad thing to happen to Beowulf, then of course it’s going to cause Beowulf to look into his heart of hearts and search out the darkness. Like anyone else, he probably got comfortable with things always going his way. So when things start to move against him it seems quite natural that he would jump to some sort of supernatural cause.

Actually, this turn and Beowulf’s reaction to it could have come from a lot of incidents in the Old Testament, particularly the Books of Job or of Exodus. In fact, the latter of these was a favourite of Anglo-Saxon writers.

That might seem like a strange book of the Bible to pick as a favourite, but they had a good reason. In the Jews of Egypt the Anglo-Saxons saw people who were exiled from what had become their homeland and were forever searching for a place to call their own. That sums up how a lot of Anglo-Saxon writers and thinkers seemed to have thought of themselves.

The Angles and the Saxons had come over from what is now Germany, after all. And they had settled into and gotten comfortable in Britain. But that’s where the Celts were at home.

Anyway, that’s just a little sidebar on some of the Beowulf poet or scribes’ possible influences.

Getting back to the concept of fate, I like to think that in his long-lived comfort Beowulf has probably not thought much about fate over the last fifty years. Saying something like “fate goes ever as it must” is really cool before a high stakes, low odds fight, but it doesn’t quite have the same impact when you say it before starting a diplomatic meeting.

Another point of interest: When he was young, Beowulf seems to have mentioned god and fate in the same breath quite often. But now he doesn’t hear about his hall being destroyed and think “huh…well, fate goes as it must” but instead he thinks only of god. Maybe this is the poet saying that it’s all well and good to think in terms of fate when young, since it rules over this world, but once you get closer to death and the next world, it’s better to turn to those with power over that.
In any case, how Beowulf reacts to this calamity says a lot about how he’s changed. His first thoughts aren’t about going after the dragon. Instead he worries about himself and his past offenses. Which brings a question to mind.

Throughout the poem Beowulf is made out to be a great guy. What do you think these offenses he mulls over are? What could those dark thoughts that well up from within be about?

My own guess is that he has a troubled past with a woman. The fact that there’s not a single named female character in this part of the poem just seems like too much of an omission to me. The poet could be leaving something out to leave room for Beowulf’s more macho ending.

But those are just my thoughts. Do you agree? Disagree? Have your own theory?

Let me know in the comments!

And if you enjoyed this post, please give it a like. Also, be sure to hit the follow button so that you never miss another part of this poem.


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Closing

Next week, we get a glimpse of the old Beowulf as he resolves to go against the dragon. And uses science (…sort of) to do so.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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Sometimes a dragon is just a dragon (ll. 2312-2323)

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

Last week, the dragon started to get furious with the man who stole the golden cup and all his ilk.


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Synopsis

The dragon exacts its revenge the only way it knows how. And things really heat up because of it!


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The Original Old English

Ða se gæst ongan gledum spiwan,
beorht hofu bærnan; bryneleoma stod
eldum on andan. No ðær aht cwices
lað lyftfloga læfan wolde.
Wæs þæs wyrmes wig wide gesyne,
nearofages nið nean ond feorran,
hu se guðsceaða Geata leode
hatode ond hynde; hord eft gesceat,
dryhtsele dyrnne, ær dæges hwile.
Hæfde landwara lige befangen,
bæle ond bronde, beorges getruwode,
wiges ond wealles; him seo wen geleah.
(Beowulf ll. 2312-2323)


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My Translation

“Then the stranger among those lands started to spew forth flames,
it burned down all the bright dwellings thereabouts, the glow of fire
turned men stone still in terror. That hateful sky-flier
left nothing there alive.
The serpent’s onslaught was widely seen,
its cruelly hostile malice was clear to all from near and far.
That war-like ravager of the Geatish people
hated and humiliated them. Afterward it hastened to its hoard,
escaped to the secret splendid hall before the sun summoned daytime.
But with that night of ruin the dragon had encircled the people of the land,
ringed them about in burning fire and [b…] fear. While it was emboldened in
the safety of its barrow, his fighting power, his walls. But by that hope he was deceived.”
(Beowulf ll. 2312-2323)


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A Quick Interpretation

Because Beowulf is studied closely by so many people there are a lot of different interpretations out there. And, because monsters were commonly used as stand-ins for various concepts, people, and events in medieval literature this dragon is no exception.

One of the louder interpretations of the dragon that I remember hearing is that it is the Swedes. Yes, those Swedes, the ones that the Geats are in the middle of a feud with.

Before putting this post together, I was never entirely convinced by this interpretation.

Yes, the dragon is the biggest, baddest monster that Beowulf faces. And yes, it does the most damage. But my Catholic-raised brain was busy at work reading the dragon as something demonic or even devilish. Something much bigger than any mere group of people.

After all, how could something as powerful and otherworldly as a dragon represent a country when representing Satan as a dragon has been popular since the middle ages themselves, if not since the conception of the whole Satan/God binary dynamic in Christianity?

I mean, you’ve got the serpent in the story of the Garden of Eden, St. Michael pinning a rather draconic looking Satan (and the myriad saintly copycats, often with actual dragons), and later examples like William Blake’s painting of the Great Red Dragon of The Book of Revelation.

St. Michael binding Satan just like Beowulf will bind the dragon in death.

St. Michael binding a mostly humanoid, but leathery-winged and horned, Satan. Image from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Le_Grand_Saint_Michel,_by_Raffaello_Sanzio,_from_C2RMF_retouched.jpg

William Blake's Great Red Dragon looming over a woman like the dragon looming over Geatland in Beowulf.

William Blake’s Great Red Dragon standing over the Woman Clothed in the Sun. Image from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Reddragon.jpg

Even today, I think that the conspiracy theories involving lizard people are just the modern version of the Western idea of dragons (lizards with human-like intelligence and power) as inherently evil or dangerous.

So why limit the dragon in Beowulf to being just some tribe of people?

But while I was translating and transcribing this week’s passage that interpretation finally clicked.

The utter destruction that the dragon brings. The fire that it leaves in its wake and has encircled the Geatish people with (l.2322). The fact that it “hated and humiliated” (“hatode ond hynde” (l.2319)) the Geats.

All of this sounds like it could be the work of a bunch of warriors.

Plus, reading the dragon as an enemy group works a bit more widely than the moralistic/allegorical reading that I had in mind.

If Beowulf is the hero of good, what does it mean for him to be an old, somewhat world-weary man? And if Beowulf is the paragon of good and the dragon the ultimate evil, then how does the thief and his lord fit into things? Not to mention dealing with all of the citizens of Geatland the dragon’s attack has affected.

So that dragon could be the Swedes. This part of the poem could be about the first massive attacks that start to weaken the Geats.

Once again, more than anything I’m blown away by how many layers this poem has. It’s simply incredible.

If you had come up with a theory for what the dragon ‘really” represents in this part of the poem what would your theory be?

Share your thoughts in the comments!

And, if you enjoyed this post give it a like and consider reblogging it.


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Closing

Next week, Beowulf busts back into the poem! But he’s a changed man.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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