Beowulf’s history and timeline

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

Beowulf's timeline reflects his skewed history.

A somewhat anachronistic clock set into a medieval-looking tower and reflected in the water. Image from: https://pxhere.com/en/photo/1388017.


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Recap

Last week, Beowulf explained how Haethcyn met his end and Eofor ended the Geatish/Swedish war.


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Synopsis

Beowulf reviews the treasures that Hygelac gave him and how he raised his reputation in countless battles.


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The Original Old English

“‘Ic him þa maðmas, þe he me sealde,
geald æt guðe, swa me gifeðe wæs,
leohtan sweorde; he me lond forgeaf,
eard, eðelwyn. Næs him ænig þearf
þæt he to Gifðum oððe to Gardenum
oððe in Swiorice secean þurfe
wyrsan wigfrecan, weorðe gecypan.
Symle ic him on feðan beforan wolde,
ana on orde, ond swa to aldre sceall
sæcce fremman, þenden þis sweord þolað,
þæt mec ær ond sið oft gelæste.
Syððan ic for dugeðum Dæghrefne wearð
to handbonan, Huga cempan;
nalles he ða frætwe Frescyninge,
breostweorðunge, bringan moste,
ac in compe gecrong cumbles hyrde,
æþeling on elne; ne wæs ecg bona,
ac him hildegrap heortan wylmas,
banhus gebræc. Nu sceall billes ecg,
hond ond heard sweord, ymb hord wigan.'”
(Beowulf ll.2490-2509)


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My Translation

“‘The treasures that Hygelac granted me,
were payment for my role in that war, all of which fortune allowed me,
I won it for him by flashing sword. For that he gave me land,
a place to be from, the joy of home. Thus, for Hygelac there was
no need, no reason to be required to seek someone from the gift house,
or the Spear-Danes, or the Swedes for worse war-makers, my worth was well-known.
Always would I go on foot before him,
first in the line, and so shall I do ‘til age takes me,
so shall I conduct war, as long as this sword survives,
that which has and will endure.
For this is the sword I held when I, for nobility’s sake,
became the hand-slayer of Day Raven the Frank.
No treasure at all did that warrior
bring back to the Frisian king.
No breastplate could he have carried,
for in the field he fell as standard bearer,
princely in courage. He was not slain by the sword,
but instead a hostile grip halted the surge of his heart,
broke his bone-house. Now shall the sword’s edge,
hand and hard blade, be heaved against the sentinel of the hoard.’”
(Beowulf ll.2490-2509)


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A Quick Interpretation

First, reading this passage really confuses me about the timeline of Beowulf’s life story.

Wasn’t Hygelac lord of the Geats when he was over in Daneland, fighting the Grendels? And didn’t Beowulf go over there when he was just a teen?

If those two things are true, then Beowulf must have been something like a squire in that battle with the Swedes. He must also have been a pre-teen then. Or, at the youngest, 13. I mean, he was also supposed to be the runt of his generation, and one whom the elders of the Geats doubted.

But if all of that’s true, then how much more land did Beowulf get from Hygelac after returning from Daneland? And if he already had land and treasures before going to Daneland why would the elders of the Geats be so doubtful about him?

Along similar lines, did Beowulf fight Day Raven before going to Daneland, too? Is that where he gained the reputation for having the strength of 30 men in his hand-grip? Or when Beowulf dropped his sword to manually throttle Day Raven did the gathered crowd cheer and whoop, knowing what was coming?

Honestly, if anyone has a better grasp of Beowulf’s timeline, please do get in touch.

Setting aside concerns about when the events of Beowulf’s life happened, he seems to have had a rich life of fighting just as many non-monstrous as monstrous opponents. So I wonder why the poet decided to go down the monster route.

Perhaps it was a matter of interest.

We have so few poems and stories from the Old English-speaking Anglo-Saxons. So it wouldn’t surprise me if their world of stories was flooded with historical or political romps and Beowulf was meant to be something that broke out of that.

Or, maybe this poem was supposed to be a fusion between what then passed as history and their common mythology?

Feel free to share your theories in the comments!


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Closing

Next week, Beowulf tries to pump himself up with a speech to the other Geats with him on the cliff.

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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The plundered sword: Anglo-Saxons and encoding meaning

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

The decorative grip and pommel of the Gilling Sword, like Beowulf's ancient giant sword?

The grip and pommel of the Gilling Sword, found in a stream in Yorkshire in 1976. Did the giant’s sword that Beowulf found have a similar hilt? Copyright York Museums Trust http://bit.ly/2gh8HXJ. Image from http://bit.ly/2gpntKw.


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Synopsis

Beowulf begins his dramatic imagining of the wedding of Hrothgar’s daughter.


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The Original Old English

“Mæg þæs þonne ofþyncan ðeodne Heaðobeardna
ond þegna gehwam þara leoda,
þonne he mid fæmnan on flett gæð,
dryhtbearn Dena, duguða biwenede;
on him gladiað gomelra lafe,
heard ond hringmæl Heaðabeardna gestreon
þenden hie ðam wæpnum wealdan moston,
oððæt hie forlæddan to ðam lindplegan
swæse gesiðas ond hyra sylfra feorh.”
(Beowulf ll.2032-2040)


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My Translation

“It may be displeasing to the prince of the Heathobards
and to the thanes of the people of the prince Ingeld
when he with his new bride strides onto the hall floor
while the Danish wedding attendants are nobly entertained.
One will point to the shining of an old heirloom on them,
a time-hardened, ring-patterned treasure of the Heathobards,
recognized from the time when they were able to wield such weapons,
a time that ended when they came to destruction at the shield-play
that scarred their lives and laid low their dear companions.”
(Beowulf ll.2032-2040)


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A Quick Interpretation

This passage is prime proof of how important material culture was to the Anglo-Saxons.

I mean, the Heathobard hall dwellers’ problem isn’t the mere presence of the wicked Danes. Rather, it’s the sight of swords and treasures that they used to wield. This detail really drives home the idea that whole lineages were encoded in such objects. Which I think is one of the harder things for modern readers to relate to.

Speaking mostly from my own experience, I can’t think of a single heirloom that any grandparent or relative has left to me, let alone one with any kind of practical use. Of course, that could be just because I’m the second son, and in the hierarchy of traditional inheritance I would not get things simply handed to me unless there were a lot of them.

But even then, when I think about stories of inheritances set in the modern day, I tend to think of things like watches or plate collections rather than, say, swords. These objects have some practical use, perhaps, but more often then not it seems to me that people try as hard as they can to preserve objects that they’ve inherited rather than use them.

If it’s a watch, it’s in a special case so that it doesn’t get lost.

If it’s plates, they’re on display so as to stand as a memorial perhaps, or at the least to protect them from wear.

I guess a part of this push for preservation could be a desire to pass the object in question onto the next generation as well.

But then again, my experience is pretty limited, since I’m just one person. What have your experiences been with inheriting items from previous generations of your family? Did you hold onto them? Were they practical items, or things you’d just put on a shelf and look at to remember the giver? Has anyone out there inherited a sword? Feel free to share in the comments!


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Closing

Next week, Beowulf shows off his flair for the dramatic.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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When Beowulf was confirmed to be an “English” story

In an effort to look at something other than an adaptation of Beowulf, this week, I’m looking back through time. Just a mere 23 years, though, peering back at 1993. Why? Because this was the year when Beowulf‘s English-ness was confirmed.

David Keys tells the story in this article.

Here’s the summary: From the mid 1970s onwards, the accepted academic opinion was that Beowulf, with all of its ship burials and stories of heroics in Daneland and Geatland, was a story from the viking Danes. In other words, Beowulf was not an English story.

But, thanks to the seven years work of Dr Sam Newton, the Anglo-Saxon literature specialist, it was confirmed that Beowulf is indeed an English story about the English. Newton’s reasoning for this claim was based on his findings that there are no Scandinavian loanwords in Beowulf, that the names of the characters come from Old English templates, and that the major characters in Beowulf are revered by the early English, not the 10th century Vikings.

Newton even went so far as to say that the Anglo-Saxons and the Vikings came from the same geographic area, save that the Anglo-Saxons came over to Britain about 500 years earlier, making this poem about the very early English. And so the oldest poetry from old English was confirmed to be English.

But so what?

Well, I think that this story was newsworthy at the time (and would be today as well) because national stories are important. And that’s not something that the Americas grew out of after they were colonized within the last five centuries.

The American stories of nationhood are inescapable the world over — ideas of manifest destiny and their country being the swinging bachelor pad of democracy where anyone can be anything if they only work at it. As a Canadian, although it often seems like we’re just America’s hat up here, I know that even we have a story, albeit one that’s much more quietly told.

The Canadian story is one of resilience in nature, of diversity and acceptance in society, and of striving to be globally minded in thought.

Whenever a group of people gets together anywhere in the world they’ll eventually tell the story of how or why they got there (even when there are already people where they got to who have their own story). Why? Because stories have a great deal of power to define and celebrate in-groups. Though that’s not to say that outsiders can find a place in an already established national story.

Along with the importance of confirming that it was their own original story, Dr Newton’s work ensured that the UK had Beowulf as the basis for its story. But I think that there’s another element to the importance of claiming Beowulf as an English story. Particularly if it’s a story of the early peoples who would eventually come to Britain and form the basis of the English.

And this is it: The Anglo-Saxons, who, after centuries of mingling with other cultures and peoples, became the modern English, are not native to Britain.

Though, after centuries of living somewhere it’s all too easy to get comfortable and forget that you haven’t always been there.

What do you think the purpose of a national story or epic is?

A theory on Anglo-Saxon soldiers’ motives, a primer on compound word combat (ll.1242-1250)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Serial-Inspired Thoughts on the Military of Beowulf
Defense Through Compound Words
Closing

A shield from the Anglo-Saxons' Britain, likely what would be called "bord-wudu."

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Abstract

The poet details how those left in the hall arranged their weapons before bed.

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Translation

“They set at their heads their battle-shields,
the bright shield-wood. On the benches behind the
princes who’d watched the waves
were the helmets that towered in battle, ringed mailshirts,
glorious spears. Such was their custom,
to be always ready for war,
whether at home or out plundering, or at any time
that their lord showed signs of
need for rallying; that was a brave people.”
(Beowulf ll.1242-1250)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Serial-Inspired Thoughts on the Military of Beowulf

This passage, though brief, tells how the people it’s referring to are a brave and war-ready people. They’re constantly ready to defend their safety and repel danger. But, more interesting is their being ready to rally around their lord.

I’ve been listening to the second season of Serial, and recently heard of how this season’s subject, Bowe Bergdahl, saw himself as an idealistic soldier, as someone who was supposed to be fighting for a noble cause that he himself believed in. However, as Sarah Koenig (serial’s host) points out, modern armies don’t work like the armies of old on which Bowe had modelled his ideas of soldiering. Modern day privates aren’t individuals fighting for a single cause that brings them together, but are instead tools for the higher ups to send out and fight for them and for their ideas — whether or not the individuals agree with them.

There’s definitely still the mist of nobility around the martial sentiments presented in Beowulf. Whether Anglo-Saxons actually regarded being a warrior as fighting for a single ideal or not, I can’t help but think of these men, “always ready for war” (“oft wæron an wig gearwe” (l.1247)), being like Bowe. Not because they’re fighting for some uniting ideal, but because they’re fighting for individual reasons that happen to align with what their lord can offer them. After all, when society’s on the level of clans and groups (or even city states) rather than centralized massive populations, it’s hard to imagine that the greater good extends beyond defending what you have and maintaining order within the group.

Ultimately, the better a warrior in a lord’s comitatus fought, the better his reward would be either because of merit or just because there’d be more spoils — so it would have been directly in warriors’ (soldiers’) best interests to fight well for their lord. Plus, in a sense, warriors paid their lord in kind, returning the favour of a lord’s political or social protection with physical protection on the battlefield. But even then, squaring up such a deal would be a way of clearing individual (*maybe* familial) indebtedness. But in the end, the warriors in Beowulf seem to fight for individualistic to a greater extent than those from later in history who are remembered for fighting for entire nations or the fates of mass political movements.

That’s not to say that Anglo-Saxon warriors were petty.

The Anglo-Saxons themselves, as unsure of their identity as most teens are, probably saw a grat deal of good in fighting to defend the integrity of what they regarded as theirs and as meaningful to them. Hence the emphasis on honour in Beowulf, and on fighting bravely in this poem and in other major Anglo-Saxon works (like the Battle of Maldon).

But the Anglo-Saxons were, nonetheless, a people who’d left their native Anglia and Saxony, who’d mixed with Celts and met and mingled with Romans, both of which I’d expect had a huge impact on how they saw themselves and how they subtly changed before ultimately being melded with the French, Spanish, and countless other world cultures to become the English that we know today.

So what’s my point here? Simply that among Anglo-Saxon warriors I think there was a strange and unique sense that protecting your individual needs and wants was somehow more in line with, if not entirely synchronized with, the greater good of the group. After all, if all Anglo-Saxons kept up their own business and concerns, then surely the mass of them together would be Anglo-Saxon, right?

Leave your thoughts in the comments!

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Defense Through Compound Words

Whatever the ideals or orders behind it, war-time combat’s always been fairly simple at its heart.

For example, When someone strikes out with their “þræc-wudu” (l.1246), or spear, you need to defend yourself. Especially if you consider what’s gone into make that “þræc-wudu”: “þræc” (“throng,” “pressure,” “force,” “violence,” “equipment”) and “wudu” (“wood,” “forest,” “grove,” “tree,” “the cross,” “Rood,” “wood,” “timber,” “ship,” or “spear shaft”), turning the component parts into a kind of “force wood.”

And how better to defend yourself than with a “hilderand” (l.1242)? This kind of shield would be especially helpful in combat in general, at least if you translate “hiderand” literally. Doing so combines “hilde” (“war” or “combat”) and “rand” (“border,” “edge,” “boss of shield,” “rim of shield,” “shield,” or “buckler”), giving you “war shield.”

Though if you’re trying to escape a mortal wounding from a “þræc-wudu” in particular, why not block wood with wood and use a “bord-wudu” (l.1243)? The word “bord-wudu” also means “shield,” but as a compounding of “bord” (“board,” “plank,” “table,” “side of a ship,” “ship,” or “shield”) and “wudu” (“wood,” “forest,” “grove,” “tree,” “the cross,” “Rood,” “wood,” “timber,” “ship,” or “spear shaft”) it sounds much more natural, like a simple “wood shield,” though maybe it’s so simple it’s mystical like a “board from the cross,” a shield perhaps more emblematic than physically effective.

Simpler even than defending yourself in combat, though, is figuring out the size of your weapons and armour. Something small might not be that useful in a pitched battle or melée, but something that’s “heaþu-steap” could be very handy indeed.

Whether it’s a spear or a shield, if it’s “heaþu-steap” (l.1245), then it’s “towering in battle.” Or, more specifically it’s “steap” (“precipitous,” “deep,” “high,” “lofty,” “prominent,” “projecting,” “upright,” “bright,” or “brilliant”) in “heaþu” (war).

While “bord-wudu” sounds like a simpler shield to me, I think that even if a “bord-wudu” were to be “heaþu-steap,” it could be beautifully decorated or something more like a tower shield than a simple buckler.

If you were in a pitched battle with opponents and allies all around you would you rather have a small weapon or a big one? Leave your thoughts in the comments!

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Closing

Next week the poet goes to Biblical lengths to describe who pays a nighttime visit to Heorot.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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Beowulf finds his footing in public speaking and thoughts on a “whale” of a word (ll.539-549)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Understanding Beowulf’s interjections
A word on “whale”
Closing

St. Brendan and his crew celebrating Easter on the back of a whale. Found at http://saintsbridge.wordpress.com/2013/12/20/celts-to-the-creche-st-brendan-the-navigator/.

St. Brendan and his crew celebrating Easter on the back of a whale.
Found at http://saintsbridge.wordpress.com/2013/12/20/celts-to-the-creche-st-brendan-the-navigator/.

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Abstract

Beowulf tells a more detailed version of his swimming contest with Breca.

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Translation

“‘We had swords naked, as we two rowed over the waves,
hardiness in hand; we two against the whales
thought to protect ourselves; he not at all far from me
could float on the ocean-waves,
the swifter on the swell, I would not float from him.
When we two together had been on the sea
for five nights’ time, then we two drifted apart on the flood,
wading on the raging waves, in the coldest of weather,
the night darkened, and the north wind
battle-grim blew against us. Wild were the waves,
enraging the hearts of the sea-fish.'”
(Beowulf ll.539-549)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Understanding Beowulf’s interjections

In this part of Beowulf’s version of the swimming contest story, we see a return to an old form.

Once more Beowulf is setting descriptions within his narrative, dropping short descriptive phrases between points of action. And he’s doing it an awful lot. So much so that I can’t help but wonder if the poet is deliberately having Beowulf chew the scenery.

Or maybe this is just what Beowulf, brash and bold, is like when he tells a story. Perhaps working through each of his little description digressions will help shed some light on what exactly is going on.

The first one comes in line 540: “hardiness in hand” (“heard on handa”). In reference to the swords that they held in their hands as they swam, this line seems like it’s mostly a space-filler.

It reiterates that the swords they held to guard themselves are hard, and therefore useful weapons. Not to mention, within the alliterative scheme of the line, the original Old English alliterates entirely with itself.

This alliterative scheme separates the first half of line 540 from the second, which in turn suggests the semi-colon that divides the line in Heaney’s text, and the comma that does something similar in the text found on the McMaster University site I link to beneath the extract.

So would Beowulf the speaker run one of his sentiments into another line like this, overflowing his expression in such a way?

Maybe.

I mean it is the beginning of the passage, and it’s not unlikely that he’d feel impassioned as he told of yet more of his wondrous feats.

So, maybe in putting this half line here and having it link directly with the previous one the poet is showing Beowulf’s near loss of control over his own story and his own boasting. Or, maybe at this point Beowulf’s starting to feel all that ale he’s no doubt been drinking.

The next among Beowulf’s additional phrases is line 543’s “the swifter on the swell” (“hraþor on holme”).

Definitely Beowulf’s way of making sure that everyone knows that he’s the stronger swimmer between he and Breca, this half line fits perfectly with its surroundings. It doesn’t seem to be overflow or anything like that.

So what’s it mean for it to be compartmentalized like it is?

I think, if anything, because this statement is a boast. Beowulf’s been boasting since he was a child, he knows his way around such things and is able to smoothly fit it into his description of their swimming. It almost naturally flows with what’s around it, too.

It’s sort of difficult to pin down the next extraneous descriptive phrase, because after line 543 they all become necessary.

Beowulf’s description of his and Breca’s “wading on the raging waves,” how the atmosphere shifted to “the coldest of weather,” how “the night darkened” and the storm winds picked up around them, all feed into each other.

This part of the extract practically imitates the storm it describes. The shuffling of four distinct and independent half-lines simulates the way in which everything around Beowulf and Breca at this point came crashing into them.

This analysis runs a bit short of something you’d find in an academic journal, but I think the main thing to take away from it is that Beowulf, for all his prowess on the battle field, is not so great in front of a crowd. He’s only truly comfortable speaking about the battles in which he fares so well.

We can see this as his interjections move from the strangely extraneous feeling, through to a boast, and ending with a series of short clauses that themselves descriptively crash against themselves.

Before he starts into the threat of the “sea-fishes.”

But that’s in next week’s extract.

What do you think of Beowulf’s speechifying? Is this part of his reply to Unferth perfectly smooth or is it as craggy as I seem to think? In either case, what do you make of it?

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A word on “whale”

Okay everyone. There are, as always, more words than one that are notable for one weirdness or another in this week’s passage.

However.

One stands out from the rest. Technically two. (They both carry one word that could unlock them both.)

This word is “fiscas,” as it’s found in the compounds “hron-fixas” and “mere-fixas.”

The first of these combines the word for “whale” and for “fish” to make the word “whale.” Seamus Heaney translates the instance of “hron-fixas” on line 540 as “whale-beasts;” Francis Gummere translates it as “whales;” and C.L. Wrenn offers “whale.” So it sounds like there’s agreement across the board.

But why append “fixas” to the word for whale? Well, if you guess “for alliteration” you would be sort of right.

As I mention above, line 540 is neatly divided by its caesura. On the left side of the line “h” is definitely the alliterative sound. But on the right side of that caesura, where “hron-fixas” is found, the alliterative sound is “w.”

So another alliterative pair stands between it and its alliterating brethren. It’s safe, then, I think, to say that “hron-fixas” isn’t there to add music to the poetry of Beowulf’s speech.

Maybe, then, the dictionary will have some answers.

Looking at the definition of “fixas” in Clark Hall and Meritt only yields up “fish” (after pointing us to “fisc”).

So that doesn’t really tell us much about why the poet didn’t just use “hron” either.

Perhaps, then, looking at “mere-fixas” will shed some light on why “hron-fixas” has that extra “fixas.”

In Seamus Heaney’s translation, the “mere-fixas” of line 549 is translated as “sea-brutes.” Gummere gives us “sea-fish.” C.L. Wrenn gives us the straightforward variation “fish of the sea.”

What other sort of “fish” were the Anglo-Saxons writing about?

But that brings up a good point. Especially with “mere-fixas,” both of these compounds are redundant. That is, “hron-fixas” and “mere-fixas,” combine words that are so alike that they easily reduce into one word when translated. But why compound them in the first place?

Well, since both involve “fixas,” which we’ve already established means “fish,” maybe it’s to emphasize their being in the sea. These aren’t land or sky beasts or brutes – they’re “sea-beasts” and “sea-brutes.” At least according to Seamus Heaney.

But, then why does Beowulf even bother calling these beasts “whales”?

My guess is that “whale” was just the Anglo-Saxon word for any enormous sea creature, whether it was actually what we know today as a whale or something else entirely (a giant squid or now extinct dinosaur-like creature).

Some have theorized, based on x-rays, that whales carry vestigial legs. It’s possible (though unlikely?) that the whales that Beowulf fought still had these legs and they were recognizable as legs. If that’s the case, then maybe these legs lead the Anglo-Saxons to seeing them as the sea’s guardians just as dragons were the guardians of caves and hoards.

Of course, because we don’t have Anglo-Saxons to pull aside and ask just what was meant by “hron-fixas” specifically, we may never know exactly what Beowulf means when he uses the word.

It could, after all, just be a general word for a general application that the poet felt was the best fit.

It should also be said that two men swimming in stormy waters aren’t likely to get a good look at such creatures. That they were swimming armed suggests that they weren’t worried about getting a good look, either.

How do you understand Beowulf’s use of “whale” and “sea-fishes”? Do you think he’s referring to things that we would refer to with these words, or some other class of animal entirely?

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Closing

Next week, the action continues as Beowulf recounts his bout with one of these mysterious sea creatures.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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Beowulf focuses though his words run free (ll.442-455)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Beowulf focuses his speech for arms’ sake
Words off-book and revealing
Closing

Interlaced men motif. Image from http://public.wsu.edu/~hanly/oe/503.html

Interlaced men motif. Image from http://public.wsu.edu/~hanly/oe/503.html

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Abstract

Beowulf finishes his speech with a prediction of what will happen if Grendel takes him and instructions should such a thing occur.

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Translation

“‘I expect that he will, if he be allowed,
in the hall of battle, the Geatish people,
devour unafraid, as he often has,
that flower of men. You need not
to cover my head,but he will have me
blood-stained, if death take me;
he will bear away my bloodied body, thinking to taste;
mournlessly will the lone-goer eat me,
staining his moor-den; nor need you be long anxious
about my body’s state.
Send to Hygelac, if me battle take,
this best of battle dresses, that I bear upon my breast,
choicest of garments; that is Hraedlan’s heirloom,
the work of Weland. Always fate shall go as it will!'”
(Beowulf ll.442-455)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Beowulf straightens his speech for arms’ sake

Beowulf’s first sentence this week offers up more of something that we saw earlier in his speech (see June 13’s entry). The interlace of clauses once more makes the climactic statement “devour unafraid” (“etan unforhte” (l.444)) applicable to Grendel or Geat alike.

Grendel will be unafraid as he devours them because they pose no threat to his otherworldly might, and/or the Geats will be unafraid because they always accept their fate without flinching. If taken in the latter sense, this statement foreshadows Beowulf’s closing remark, actually.

Curiously, however, Beowulf’s clauses stop interlacing after that first sentence. He still retreats into subordinate clauses to add extra description to his subjects, but he doesn’t talk about parallel subjects again.

Why does he make this shift in speech?

My theory is that Beowulf’s speech becomes more focused after he wraps up about Grendel because he stops talking about the battle and matters that involve two feuding parties. Since he’s now discussing serious matters pertaining only to him (he is talking about his own death here) he brings more concentration to his words. They need to convey things clearly after all.

And convey things clearly they do. How could Beowulf’s instructions not be clear when “send my mail coat back to Hygelac” is stretched over four lines?

Part of the extension of his instructions involves some curious information about his mail coat. It’s being the work of Weland is definitely noteworthy. Though, as was the case the last time Weland was mentioned, it’s possible that “the work of Weland” (“Welandes geweorc” (l.455)) is just a very high compliment to the smith responsible for it.

More tangible is Beowulf’s mentioning that his mail coat is an heirloom of Hraedlan’s. Now that’s a name we haven’t seen before.

Though according to every translation of the poem I have at hand (Seamus Heaney’s, Allan Sullivan’s, and R.M. Liuzza’s) “Hraedlan” (l.454) is an alternative spelling of “Hrethel.”

This figure is none other than Beowulf’s maternal grandfather.

So Beowulf’s armour, made by Weland the Smith or not, is at least from Beowulf’s grandfather’s younger days.

Age and history added value to arms, making it obvious why Beowulf would not want to lose this mail coat. A sword that’s passed down from a grandfather is one thing – it can be broken to pieces and reforged. But armour that lasts that long must be doing something right.

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Words off-book and revealing

Telling someone “gullible” isn’t in the dictionary is one thing. Using a word that’s not in that language’s dictionary (at least the one you happen to be looking in) is completely another.

Yet that’s just what happened with the word “hreð-manna” (l.445)

This word apparently translates as “flower of men,” but more literally could be “quick-man.”

Combined with the word “mægen,” the first half of line 445 could be taken to mean “mighty fast-men” – people who combine speed and strength. You may well wonder how “flower of men” can be pulled from such a line, but the path from “mighty fast-men” to “flower of men” is fairly logical.

The word “manna” on its own means “men,” and the word “hreð” on its own means “quick,” nimble,” ready,” active,” alert,” prompt.” The general implication of those words is liveliness, a certain vivacity of spirit that could be represented by a vibrant flower.

Plus, it doesn’t hurt that “hreð” + the Old English word for “month,” “monað,” means “March” – traditionally the first month of spring. A very lively season, especially when people had no long-lasting artificial light to extend those short winter days.

From this place of “hreð” comes the translation of “maegan hreð-manna:” “the flower of men,” or “the liveliest/most vital of men.”

Another unclear word in this passage is “byrgean” (l.448).

In the context of Beowulf’s speech the word means “to taste, eat,” but there are two other senses in which it can be taken.

One of these is “to raise a mound, hide, bury, inter,” and the other is “to save, deliver, preserve, guard, defend, fortify, spare; beware of, avoid, guard against.”

Translating “byrgean” as “to taste” definitely makes the most sense, but it’s interesting to see what other meanings branched off of the same word. In a sense they all mean to “bury,” since eating something certainly covers it, and, although drastic, burying something could be a way of saving it. Applied in this situation, though, it’s strange to think that Grendel would want to save Beowulf – or even more so that he would want to bury him.

Though this word’s alternative meanings are one of the poem’s several entry points to the view that Beowulf and Grendel share a certain kinship, that they’re both monstrous in a sense.

If the word “byrgean” is supposed to be translated as “to cover” or “to bury,” then the implication is definitely that Grendel doesn’t take Beowulf back for a midnight snack, but instead to pay the proper respects to his fallen kin.

Actually, maybe it’s just a question of Beowulf’s alignment.

He could be a monstrous being who’s not on the cusp of society as Grendel is because he has learned how to act within it (something shown in his speech to Hrothgar and to the coast guard), yet in the alternate future where Beowulf is beaten by Grendel the only reason he loses is because he comes to identify too closely with his monstrous self.

Without recourse to his association to the godly kin of Seth, Beowulf fails in ridding the Danes (included in the kin of Seth) of Grendel (kin of Cain). Because Beowulf, reminded of his own monstrousness, is set on an equal footing with Grendel he is bested and Grendel takes him back to his den to bury his fallen kin.

But all that is just a theory. A Beowulf theory.

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Closing

With that, Beowulf’s speech to Hrothgar and his assembled thanes is finished. Next week Hrothgar takes up the mic to fill us all in on how exactly he came to know Beowulf’s father Ecgtheow.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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