Beowulf the monstrous individual

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

An Anglo-Saxon helmet with face mask of the style associated with Beowulf.

A helmet, complete with face mask, from the Sutton-Hoo treasure hoard. Image from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sutton_Hoo_replica_(face).jpg


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Synopsis

Beowulf tells more of his time partying in Heorot.


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The Original Old English

“‘Weorod wæs on wynne; ne seah ic widan feorh
under heofones hwealf healsittendra
medudream maran. Hwilum mæru cwen,
friðusibb folca, flet eall geondhwearf,
bædde byre geonge; oft hio beahwriðan
secge sealde, ær hie to setle geong.
Hwilum for duguðe dohtor Hroðgares
eorlum on ende ealuwæge bær;
þa ic Freaware fletsittende
nemnan hyrde, þær hio nægled sinc
hæleðum sealde. Sio gehaten is,
geong, goldhroden, gladum suna Frodan;
hafað þæs geworden wine Scyldinga,
rices hyrde, ond þæt ræd talað,
þæt he mid ðy wife wælfæhða dæl,
sæcca gesette. Oft seldan hwær
æfter leodhryre lytle hwile
bongar bugeð, þeah seo bryd duge!'”
(Beowulf ll.2014-2031)


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My Translation

“‘The company was wrapt in joy; never have I ever seen
such celebration over mead as was amongst those in that hall
in all my life. All the while that renowned queen,
a pledge of peace for her people, went all about the hall,
urging the youths there on. Often, on her rounds, she gave
circlets to the drinkers, until, at the last, she took her seat.
Also, but only at times, before that body of retainers
Hrothgar’s daughter bore the ale cup to the men in turn.
From those sitting in the hall I learned
that this maiden’s name is Freawearu, she who there gave
those warriors studded and precious vessels. She is promised,
young and gold-adorned, to the gracious son of Froda.
The friend of the Scyldings has settled on this,
the protector of the kingdom, and he considers it wise policy
that this woman will settle a great many deadly feuds,
that she will ease the many conflicts. But too often,
when so short a time has passed after a man’s fall,
it is rare for the deadly spear to rest, even though the bride be good.'”
(Beowulf ll.2014-2031)


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A Quick Interpretation

It feels a bit like every scene that involves a leader’s hall in this poem features a young maiden. In particular, a young maiden who has been or is planned to be married off for the sake of peace. In a way, this definitely reinforces the idea that women’s primary strength in the world of Beowulf is through political marriages.

However, what I find interesting about this isn’t so much that these women don’t seem to have agency to do anything else, but that it underscores the importance of the group in early medieval European societies.

Of course, groups continue to be important today, as well. Whether you working in retail, a restaurant, a corner office in a swanky business building, or from your home office you probably have a group (of varying size) of people with whom you work. For the most part, at least on holidays, people get together in the groups we all call families. And, of course, in your day to day life you’re probably in contact with a group of people whom you consider friends.

But the kind of group that Beowulf leaves an impression of in my mind is closer to the sort of collectivist society of some Asian countries. The kinds of societies where individual success doesn’t just feed into the society’s success but comes from filling a proscribed role in the larger society.

And this is why I think Beowulf makes me think of that sort of collectivist society: There don’t seem to be very many individuals in either Daneland or Geatland. Every one of Hrothgar or Hygelac’s retainers may or may not have his own motives, but as far as we know they are simply loyal warriors in the service of their lords.

Now, the version of Beowulf that we have comes from a rather curious book. It is known as the Nowell Codex.

This book is a collection of writings about oddities. There were stories of the then mysterious east, letters between Aristotle and Alexander the Great, a bit of a life of Saint Christopher, and a poetic version of the Biblical story of Judith along with Beowulf. Each of these stories contains something monstrous or strange.

Thus, when modern critics and scholars have puzzle through why these texts were grouped together, they’ve usually concluded that Beowulf is in this collection because there are monsters (Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and the dragon).

Some have supposed that Beowulf himself, being this sword-breaking, monster-slaying superman, is the monstrous reason for its inclusion in this collection. I think these scholars are a bit closer to the mark.

But I don’t think that Beowulf is monstrous because of his strength. I think that what makes Beowulf the character monstrous is his individuality.

There are other stories of great heroes and warriors from around the same time and later in the medieval period, sure. There’s at least one epic about Alexander the Great, there are the stories of Roland and Charlemagne, there’s the story of El Cid. But what sets Beowulf apart from all of these characters is that he’s not a knight or in the service of any lord.

Beowulf doesn’t go to Daneland because Hygelac commands it. As we found out two weeks ago, Hygelac was against Beowulf’s journey. And yet he set out on his own. And Beowulf is no knight, trying to right the wrongs of the world in some quest for the service of a lady.

In fact, when we first meet him, Beowulf is basically just an arrogant (probably) teenager who thinks that he’s invincible, tells stories to back that up, and actually turns out to be as strong as all the rumours say. But until he becomes the king of the Geats, he doesn’t act in the service of anyone but himself, really. Sure, helping the Danes cements a Geat/Dane alliance, but Beowulf didn’t set out to do that. He just wanted to increase his own fame and glory.

In short, he may have wanted to help others, but he does that by helping himself first. Which sounds a lot like an altruistic individual or entrepreneur. Which, in a time like the early middle ages, with its uncertain politics and fragmented states struggling to join together into nations, would be the last thing that any major authority like the Roman Catholic Church (the organization we can probably thank for keeping Beowulf safe for us) would want. Therefore they would label it as monstrous.

But that’s just my take. What are your thoughts and feelings on how individualism fits into Beowulf? Why do you think Beowulf was included in a collection of strange stories? Let me know in the comments!


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Closing

Next week, Beowulf imagines what will happen at the wedding party of Freawearu and Froda’s son.

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Beowulf’s boasts, pro wrestling, and fame

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

Beowulf fights Grendel as depicted by Santiago Garcia and David Rubin's graphic novel adaptation of Beowulf.

Beowulf battles Grendel in Santiago Garcia and David Rubin’s Beowulf. Image from http://bit.ly/2jVrgOn.


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Synopsis

Beowulf begins the story of his time at Heorot.


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The Original Old English

“Biowulf maðelode, bearn Ecgðioes:
‘þæt is undyrne, dryhten Higelac,
micel gemeting, monegum fira,
hwylc orleghwil uncer Grendles
wearð on ðam wange, þær he worna fela
Sigescyldingum sorge gefremede,
yrmðe to aldre. Ic ðæt eall gewræc,
swa begylpan ne þearf Grendeles maga
ænig ofer eorðan uhthlem þone,
se ðe lengest leofað laðan cynnes,
facne bifongen. Ic ðær furðum cwom
to ðam hringsele Hroðgar gretan;
sona me se mæra mago Healfdenes,
syððan he modsefan minne cuðe,
wið his sylfes sunu setl getæhte.'”
(Beowulf ll.1999-2013)


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My Translation

“Beowulf spoke, son of Ecgtheow:
‘That is all widely known, lord Hygelac,
that journey’s fame has spread to many among mankind,
how Grendel and I grappled
at the very place where he was used to
terrorizing the Victory-Shieldings with terrible sorrow,
where we battled for life with bare limb. There I avenged all,
so that no kin of Grendel’s would have need
to boast to any over earth when the crash of dawn came,
no matter how long any of his dark brood may last,
all that treacherous and trembling bunch. But when at first
I arrived at that ring hall I greeted Hrothgar.
Soon he trusted to my reputation, the son of Halfdane,
after he came to know the wish of my heart,
then he presented me with a seat between his own sons.'”
(Beowulf ll.1999-2013)


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A Quick Interpretation

This passage is Beowulf’s prologue for his own story. He entices Hygelac’s attention with his boast about his adventure in Daneland already being well-known, and then gives a preview of the match between himself and Grendel. And maybe this gives a little too much away.

Nonetheless, I find it pretty funny how similar Beowulf’s delivery is to what you’d hear from late 20th century pro wrestlers. The hyperbole, the extremity and slight contrivance of describing his victory over Grendel as reason for Grendel’s relatives to have nothing to boast about. For an example of what I mean, here’s a clip of the most extreme 80’s/90’s pro wrestler: The Ultimate Warrior:

Of course, Beowulf’s words make a little more sense, but that’s what sets literature apart from pro wrestling promos.

But aside from Beowulf’s rhetoric matching (appropriately?) the modern day male soap opera that is pro wrestling, he also subscribes to #8 in Kurt Vonnegut’s list of writing rules.

In just five lines (lines 2005-2009) he tells Hygelac the most important information from his story: that he beat up Grendel. Not how, so much, but he’s given away the ending. Granted, Beowulf’s presence does mean that he beat Grendel (or ran away), but he probably wouldn’t be so haughty about it if he ran away. Unless it turned out that Beowulf was actually going to turn into the Unferth of the Geat kingdom. But that would be a very different epic poem.

This passage also reminds us of the importance of boasts in Anglo-Saxon culture.

It’s not just that Beowulf uses this device once again to say how quickly his incredible story has become widely known (tying boasting to reputation). He also demonstrates how not being able to boast (and therefore bolster your reputation) is a bad thing. Even if you’re being barred from boasting about a relative.

Though when it comes to boasting about relatives’ accomplishments, I pretty much immediately think of schoolyard boasts about uncles who work at Nintendo.

Of course, people today don’t generally introduce themselves as “Beowulf, son of Ecgtheow” (“Biowulf maðelode, bearn Ecgðioes” (l.1999)), so it seems like boasting about your family’s accomplishments went the same way. Actually, all of this kind of makes me wonder how Beowulf would go if his father wasn’t notable. No doubt there would be some retroactive fame for his parents since they would become known as the parents of the great Beowulf. Curious how fame spreads forward and backward in time like that, isn’t it?

Actually, it makes me wonder how Beowulf would do on social media. Would we get a Twitter feed full of baseless boasts or would he rock Instagram with pictures of all of his latest victories, stunningly hashtagged and captioned? What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments!


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Closing

Next week, Beowulf shares some otherwise unknown information about Heorot.

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Not trusting in his journey: Beowulf the storyteller?

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

A scop sings his boasts, just like Beowulf does before Hrothgar.

Image found at http://bit.ly/2jumA3j


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Synopsis

Beowulf and his fellow Geats meet with Hygelac and he asks how things went.


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The Original Old English

“Gesæt þa wið sylfne se ða sæcce genæs,
mæg wið mæge, syððan mandryhten
þurh hleoðorcwyde holdne gegrette,
meaglum wordum. Meoduscencum hwearf
geond þæt healreced Hæreðes dohtor,
lufode ða leode, liðwæge bær
hæleðum to handa. Higelac ongan
sinne geseldan in sele þam hean
fægre fricgcean (hyne fyrwet bræc,
hwylce Sægeata siðas wæron):
‘Hu lomp eow on lade, leofa Biowulf,
þa ðu færinga feorr gehogodest
sæcce secean ofer sealt wæter,
hilde to Hiorote? Ac ðu Hroðgare
widcuðne wean wihte gebettest,
mærum ðeodne? Ic ðæs modceare
sorhwylmum seað, siðe ne truwode
leofes mannes; ic ðe lange bæd
þæt ðu þone wælgæst wihte ne grette,
lete Suðdene sylfe geweorðan
guðe wið Grendel. Gode ic þanc secge
þæs ðe ic ðe gesundne geseon moste.'”
(Beowulf ll.1977-1998)


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My Translation

“He sat there with his own, a survivor of battle amidst veterans,
kin with kin, once the lord there
had graciously greeted him with singing tones
and great words. Bearing the mead jug
around the hall was Hygd, Haereth’s daughter,
loved by the people, filling the offered cups
with plenty. Hygelac then began
to ask fair questions of the man
in that high hall. He burst with curiosity,
sought to know how all the sea-going Geat’s journey went:
‘How fared you on your journey, dear Beowulf,
when you suddenly strove to travel far
over the salt sea to seek strife,
battle, at Heorot? And were you a help
to the widely known best of men,
to that famed prince? I have had sorrow
sitting upon my heart, I did not trust in your
journey, dear man. Long had I told you,
do not go to meet this monster at the hall,
let the South Danes work war against Grendel
themselves. Thus I say thanks to god,
that I am able to see you hale and whole here.'”
(Beowulf ll.1977-1998)


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A Quick Interpretation

I decided to go for a longer passage this week since the description before Hygelac’s questions is pretty ho-hum. The poet tells us that Beowulf and the Geats are in the hall, Hygd is pouring them mead, and everyone’s happy to see each other. On the one hand it’s sort of notable that Hygd is called “Haerath’s daughter” (“Hæreðes dohtor” (l.1981)). But on the other seeing that as an attempt to keep named women from the poem overlooks the poet’s penchant for referring to people by their parentage. Which is still a popular device today (look no further than the popularity of family tree websites).

So I wanted to get right into Hygelac’s dialogue. Unfortunately, much like the passage before it, it sounds like what you’d expect.

Hygelac is indeed ‘bursting with curiosity’ (“hyne fyrwet bræc” (l.1985)). But amidst these rapid fire questions comes a confession: “I did not trust in your/journey” (“siðe ne truwode” (ll.1993-1994)). This sentence is very telling. For all of Beowulf’s bluster while in Daneland, he did not have the full support of his fellow Geats.

What’s more surprising is how effective that bluster was, since it not only impressed the coastguard that Beowulf and his crew first met, but the man’s boasts also won Hrothgar over to his side. What’s more, though, is that maybe those boasts were a little exaggerated. Beowulf seems to do well enough (maybe) relying entirely on his improv skills to explain away losing to Breca in their swimming match, but, if Hygelac’s doubt is anything to go by, then it sounds as if Beowulf was a better storyteller than fighter before he set out. Though he certainly put his fists where his mouth was.

If you look at this section as a whole, actually, it looks as if Beowulf is being coddled. The queen is serving everyone generous portions of mead, the king is tripping over himself with questions for the lately returned wanderer. It’s a scene that, to me, evokes the return of a dearly loved but somehow frail child who is just back from flying across the country for the first time with a relative.

What’s more, as the next 163 lines will show, Beowulf is quite the storyteller. I don’t think the poet included Beowulf’s retelling of the fight with Grendel to Hrothgar or the brief flashes of the fight with Grendel’s mother he shares just for the sake of reminding his audience of what happened hundreds of lines earlier.

So the big question is this: Is Beowulf really that great a fighter, or is he more of a storyteller? Or is he both? Sure, he beat up Grendel and then Grendel’s mother. But maybe those giants he boasted about beating up were just his childhood bullies. What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments!


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Closing

Next week, Beowulf begins his version of his story.

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The unearned title that exposes Anglo-Saxon gold for glory scheme

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

A scop sings his boasts, just like Beowulf does before Hrothgar.

Image found at http://bit.ly/2jumA3j


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Synopsis

Beowulf and his crew make their way to Hygelac.


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The Original Old English

“Gewat him ða se hearda mid his hondscole
sylf æfter sande sæwong tredan,
wide waroðas. Woruldcandel scan,
sigel suðan fus. Hi sið drugon,
elne geeodon, to ðæs ðe eorla hleo,
bonan Ongenþeoes burgum in innan,
geongne guðcyning godne gefrunon
hringas dælan. Higelace wæs
sið Beowulfes snude gecyðed,
þæt ðær on worðig wigendra hleo,
lindgestealla, lifigende cwom,
heaðolaces hal to hofe gongan.
Hraðe wæs gerymed, swa se rica bebead,
feðegestum flet innanweard.”
(Beowulf ll.1963-1976)


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My Translation

“Went he then, along with his retinue,
down the beachhead, treading over the sandy seashore,
over the broad beach. The world candle shone overhead,
the sun strove from the south. They had endured,
bravely gone, to where stood that hall of lords,
the place where Ongentheow’s killer ruled,
went to where they had heard that the young king
was doling out rings. Hygelac was quickly told then
of Beowulf’s journey there, in that word it was said
that Beowulf was in the burgh, that his lifelong
shield companion had come, that the stalwart
warrior walked within the hall, hale and hearty.
Space was cleared, as the king commanded,
those who had travelled far by foot came in.”
(Beowulf ll.1963-1976)


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A Quick Interpretation

Most of this passage is just standard stuff. Beowulf and his crew of Geats are coming to the Geats’ stronghold, and they hear that Hygelac must be in since “the young king/was doling out rings” (“geongne guðcyning godne gefrunon
hringas dælan” (ll.1969-1970)). But what catches my eye is the reference to “Ongentheow’s killer” (“bonan Ongenþeoes” (l.1968)).

This wikipedia article makes the point that this epithet for Hygelac is a bit of an extrapolation. As the article points out (and as we learn later in Beowulf itself), Ongentheow had a few run-ins with the Geats, including Hygelac.

But it was not Hygelac who killed him. Eofor did, with the help of Wulf.

I guess part of being a king in the Anglo-Saxon style was sharing in your retainers’ accomplishments as much as it was sharing out your gold with them. Which is pretty interesting if you think of it as a glory for gold kind of equation. In such a situation, the king’s reputation swells with every great victory his retainers win while those retainers only see gold for the deeds they do.

In some ways, this system of glory funnelling up and gold funnelling down is a dim mirror of the sort of corporate system that’s in place now.

Today’s workers are faceless and ill-remembered by history, but are paid for their labour (mental, physical, emotional), while the glory of their accomplishments adds another page to history’s book in the name of their employer.

Kind of shines a new light on copyright and patents doesn’t it?

I only wish that there were more accounts of how warriors in early medieval Anglo-Saxon communities felt about having their physical needs met and station raised at the cost of their being remembered for their own deeds.

Though, I guess, then, as now, if someone wanted to make a place for themselves in history they would grin and bear losing the glory earned for their lord/employer while saving enough gold to start their own comitatus/business and strive for their place in history.

But if you grew up in a society where the greatest service was service to your lord, would you even consider stepping out from his shadow? Were there people who strove for their own individual goals back then? What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments.


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Closing

Next week, Hygelac asks how things went in Daneland.

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Good Queen Modthryth? How marriage makes women (and men) better

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

Aethelflaed, the anglo-saxon woman who wasn't queen but fought off vikings.

An image of Aethelflaed, fighter of vikings and the daughter of King Alfred the Great and Queen Ealhswith. Image from https://younghistorian7.wordpress.com/2014/03/18/a-look-at-some-anglo-saxon-queens/


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Synopsis

The poet continues the story of Modthryth and what happened when she was married off.


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The Original Old English

“Huru þæt onhohsnode Hemminges mæg;
ealodrincende oðer sædan,
þæt hio leodbealewa læs gefremede,
inwitniða, syððan ærest wearð
gyfen goldhroden geongum cempan,
æðelum diore, syððan hio Offan flet
ofer fealone flod be fæder lare
siðe gesohte; ðær hio syððan well
in gumstole, gode, mære,
lifgesceafta lifigende breac,
hiold heahlufan wið hæleþa brego,
ealles moncynnes mine gefræge
þone selestan bi sæm tweonum,
eormencynnes. Forðam Offa wæs
geofum ond guðum, garcene man,
wide geweorðod, wisdome heold
eðel sinne; þonon Eomer woc
hæleðum to helpe, Hemminges mæg,
nefa Garmundes, niða cræftig.”
(Beowulf ll.1944-1962)


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My Translation

“Indeed, Hemming’s kinsman put an end to that.
The ale drinkers in the hall told another tale:
that she caused much less trouble to her people,
favoured fewer malicious acts, as soon as she was
given to the young lord while gowned in gold,
a man of noble descent, as soon as she boarded a boat
to cross the pale waters to marry Offa
according to her father’s counsel. Once there
the woman worked well on the throne, renowned for goodness,
she made the most of her destined life-span while alive;
she maintained her deep love with the prince of warriors
among all kingdoms, as I have heard,
the best between the two seas
of all mankind. As such, Offa was foremost
in gifts and in wars, a spear-bold man,
one honoured widely, who ruled his nature
and lands with wisdom. Then Eomer was born,
a help to warriors, Hemming’s kinsman,
grandson of Garmund, powerful in battle.”
(Beowulf ll.1944-1962)


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A Quick Interpretation

The poet ends the story of bad queen Modthryth here. But it isn’t the ending I would’ve expected from such a story.

Instead of meeting her end as fated retribution for her wickedness, Modthryth is married off to another man.

It’s unclear if this is because Modthryth was more princess than queen or if her husband was killed. Unfortunately, I don’t have any information about her family tree, so I can’t really say much about why she’s suddenly eligible for marriage here.

However, it is clear that the story that the “ale drinkers in the hall” (“ealodrincende oðer sædan” (l.1945)) tell differs quite a bit from what we heard last week.

This time around Modthryth (at least, I think the poet’s still talking about Modthryth — Old English poetry can have some unclear pronouns at times) is a model queen. She changes so much in fact, that she becomes “renowned for goodness” (“gode, mære” (l.1952)). But that’s not enough. She also seems to help Offa become a better leader.

This point in particular is important to note because it illustrates the good that can come out of a good marriage. It can mellow a woman out (a chronic issue in a fair bit of medieval literature), it can help a man be better, and, in doing those two things, it can fulfil what I’ve always seen as a Christian imperative for marriage: enable the mutual and reciprocal improvement of the partners involved.

That such a lesson be included in Beowulf (even in one of the poet’s asides) definitely shows how Beowulf has been Christianized.

True, the reciprocal improvement of the members of a married couple is probably also celebrated in non-Christian contexts, too. But presenting such a terrible portrait of Modthryth before talking about how marriage redeemed her gives her an arc that’s got far too much to do with redemption for me to just write it off as the Beowulf poet sharing with us some universal lesson.

Not to mention the implication in last week’s passage that Modthryth’s earlier husband (or father?) lacked the power to control her. As a result she inflicted a dire punishment on any other man who looked at her.

But, Offa is a celebrated warrior of history and legend. As such he is powerful enough to control Modthryth, and the idea that women can only do good when controlled (or at least matched with an equal) seems like a very non-pagan idea to me. Boudica was fine on her own after her husband’s death, and women generally commanded respect in early medieval Germanic societies (for spiritual insight or otherwise). But I can’t think of a single Christian story about a woman who was generally respected or defiant to the end except for those who were in the service of god and wound up as saints.

But what do you think of this turnaround for Modthryth? Is it evidence of the Christian influence on Beowulf? Or does it say something about how the Anglo-Saxons and other Germanic groups viewed women and marriage’s potential effects on them? Feel free to discuss your thoughts in the comments!


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Closing

Next week, the poet gets back to Beowulf and his meeting with Hygelac.

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Beowulf and the Geats take a smooth ship trip

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

A Viking ship on display in a museum in Oslo.

A photo of a ship from a Viking exhibition in an Oslo Museum. Taken by Grzegorz Wysocki, from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Exhibition_in_Viking_Ship_Museum,_Oslo_01.jpg.


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Synopsis

Beowulf and his crew leisurely sail from Daneland to Geatland.


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The Original Old English

“þa wæs be mæste merehrægla sum,
segl sale fæst; sundwudu þunede.
No þær wegflotan wind ofer yðum
siðes getwæfde; sægenga for,
fleat famigheals forð ofer yðe,
bundenstefna ofer brimstreamas,
þæt hie Geata clifu ongitan meahton,
cuþe næssas. Ceol up geþrang
lyftgeswenced, on lande stod.
Hraþe wæs æt holme hyðweard geara,
se þe ær lange tid leofra manna
fus æt faroðe feor wlatode;
sælde to sande sidfæþme scip,
oncerbendum fæst, þy læs hym yþa ðrym
wudu wynsuman forwrecan meahte.”
(Beowulf ll.1905-1919)


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My Translation

“Then the mast was dressed with its sea garb,
the sail bound with rope; the sea wood creaked.
The wave-floater’s journey was not hindered
by wind over waves, that sea-goer swept forth
riding onwards atop foamy necked waters.
The ship with the ring-bound prow went over the sea current
so swiftly that they soon saw the Geatish cliffs,
the familiar headlands appeared, as the ship came closer
until that wind-battered boat rested upon the sands.
Swiftly the harbour guard was ready at the water,
he who for a long time had eagerly looked
far out to sea for that dear man.
He moored that roomy ship on the beach,
fixed it there with anchor ropes, lest the force of the waves
drive that beautiful boat from shore.”
(Beowulf ll.1905-1919)


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A Quick Interpretation

And with that, Beowulf and his crew are back in Geatland. To borrow a term from modern video games, the Geats definitely fast-travelled from Daneland to Geatland. But there was nothing to get in their way. As the poet says:

“The wave-floater’s journey was not hindered
by wind over waves, that sea-goer swept forth
riding onwards atop foamy necked waters.”

“No þær wegflotan wind ofer yðum
siðes getwæfde; sægenga for,
fleat famigheals forð ofer yðe.”
(ll.1907-1909)

Since Beowulf is returning to his home turf the process of getting off the boat is much smoother than the Daneland coastguard’s inquisition.

As a matter of fact, there’s not a whole lot going on with characters here. The only human being who is mentioned is the “harbour guard” (“hyðweard” (l.1914)) of the Geats. Another character who is left unnamed and only characterized by his position. That he could be so eagerly awaiting the return of Beowulf and the Geats’ best and brightest definitely confirms that there must not be much going on with him outside of his job, too.

But, what we are told much about is the boat.

The poet doesn’t go into an opulent amount of detail, but we’re shown the ship’s mast being set up. Then the sea voyage is described in glowing terms. And the passage ends with a note about the harbour guard anchoring the boat to the shore so that “that beautiful boat” (“wudu wynsuman” (l.1919)) doesn’t float off. Though surely the weight of the treasures and horses Hrothgar gave Beowulf would keep the boat securely on the sand.

What I don’t get though, is why the poet doesn’t say anything about fate or god’s favour in the safeness of Beowulf’s sea voyage.

Perhaps it’s an implicit reference to some Anglo-Saxon superstition. Maybe they believed that praising safe sea travel would call calamity down upon the one praising it.

Or maybe it’s a call back to Beowulf beating up the sea monsters that he and Breca encountered during their race. He had cleared the seas and so there was nothing to keep Beowulf and his crew from a quick trip home.

Whatever the reason behind this lack of detail is, it definitely makes it clear that sailing needs no long detailed explanation. Either the poet had little to no interest in the subject, or they didn’t want to bore their audience and so they just included a few reverent lines about dressing the ship and anchoring it. Though maybe such a tidy voyage is just supposed to foreshadow the smooth sailing that Beowulf faces in the future.

But. There are about another 1000 lines of the poem, so the going can’t be that smooth for our hero just yet.

What do you think the poet’s trying to say with this short sea voyage? Are they trying to say anything or is it just a sea voyage? Leave your thoughts in the comments!


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Closing

Next week, Beowulf and Hrothgar’s gifts go to the king of the Geats: Hygelac.

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Beowulf gives a sword to be a king

Introduction
Synopsis
The Original Old English
My Translation
A Quick Question
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 and the Geats leave Daneland.


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The Original Old English

“Cwom þa to flode felamodigra,
hægstealdra heap, hringnet bæron,
locene leoðosyrcan. Landweard onfand
eftsið eorla, swa he ær dyde;
no he mid hearme of hliðes nosan
gæstas grette, ac him togeanes rad,
cwæð þæt wilcuman Wedera leodum
scaþan scirhame to scipe foron.
þa wæs on sande sægeap naca
hladen herewædum, hringedstefna,
mearum ond maðmum; mæst hlifade
ofer Hroðgares hordgestreonum.
He þæm batwearde bunden golde
swurd gesealde, þæt he syðþan wæs
on meodubence maþme þy weorþra,
yrfelafe. Gewat him on naca
drefan deop wæter, Dena land ofgeaf.”
(Beowulf ll.1888-1904)


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My Translation

“Came they then to the sea, the very brave
and young company; they wore their ring-mail,
their shirts of interlocking rings. The coastguard observed
their coming, as he had earlier observed their arrival,
but he did not greet those guests of
the craggy promontory with insult, he rode towards the band.
He said to them that they would be welcome by the Weder people,
those warriors in bright armour that went to their ship.
There on the spacious beach that ship was
laden with armour, the ring-prowed ship,
and with horses and with treasures; the mast towered
over the hoarded treasures from Hrothgar.
The lord of the Geats then gave that guard a sword
bound in gold, so that afterwards he was
honoured all the more among the mead-benches for that treasure,
the gilded heirloom. Then the ship of them plunged into the sea,
stirred up the deep waters, thus they left Daneland.”
(Beowulf ll.1888-1904)


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A Quick Interpretation

The best poetry says a lot with a little.

Beowulf’s gift of the sword to the coastguard demonstrates his magnanimity and a quality that makes him a great king: fairness. Beowulf doesn’t just toss the coastguard who, presumably, has been keeping watch over the Geats’ ship for the duration of their stay, some little trinket. He gives him a sword that’s covered in gold (or, as Seamus Heaney has it, it has “gold fittings” (l.1901) (“bunden golde/swurd” (l. 1900-1901))).

A gold-bound sword seems like a pretty good reward for watching what must have been a peaceful shore for a few days.

Though, it could be argued that out of a whole shipload of treasures a mere gold-bound sword is small change. So is Beowulf short-changing this guy?

I don’t think so.

I think that part of what the Anglo-Saxon kings considered when they divided treasure was that treasure’s usefulness to its receivers. A gold-bound sword might have questionable usage in combat. But, as the poet points out, this gift led the coastguard to be “honoured all the more among the meadbenches for that treasure” (“on meodubence maþme þy weorþra” (l.1902)). And that’s why I think it’s what an Anglo-Saxon king (like future Beowulf) would consider a perfectly fair gift for the coastguard.

After all, the poet has never left me with the impression that Daneland faced danger from outside of itself.

Grendel is a threat from within Daneland’s borders, and when the poet mentions the fall of Heorot he says that it’s a family squabble that leads to its end. So somebody guarding one of Daneland’s borders is probably not winning much glory through combat. Thus, Beowulf’s gift of the gold-bound sword is a perfect gift since it boost’s the man’s honour in the eyes of his companions.

With that, then, Beowulf leaves the land where he spent some very formative time with a final act that nods towards his being a fantastic king.


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Closing

Next week, Beowulf and the Geats fight the sea.

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