An end to Geatish sailing (ll.217-228) [Old English]

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Leaving the sea mysterious
Beowulf as historical allegory (a sketch)
Closing

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Abstract

The Geats swiftly arrive on Daneland’s bright shores.

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Translation

The ship then knew the ocean’s motion, was wind-hastened,
became foamy-necked, became seabird like,
until near the time of day they had left,
after their ship with curved prow had glided,
when those well-travelled ones saw land,
dazzling sea cliffs, steep hills,
an ample headland; then was sailing simple,
the journey at an end. From that ship sprang
the Geats onto the sands,
their boat they bound there – they shook their mailcoats,
war gear; they thanked God then,
the one that made their ship’s going smooth.
(Beowulfll.217-228)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Leaving the sea mysterious

For a poem about sea-faring peoples, the poet’s definitely not spinning out what you’d expect. Every time that someone travels by sea it’s usually glossed over. There’s often something about it being swift, or sailors being lucky with conditions, but no real detail about it is given.

Maybe, in this poem for a people looking to settle into a fixed identity, the idea was to keep transitory acts (like sailing) to a minimum. If that’s the case, then the poet definitely did his/her job: there’s not a true sailing scene in the whole poem. Though, there is the matter of Beowulf and Breca’s swimming match.

Perhaps the Geats’ trip over to Daneland is not shown because it would interfere with the importance of the swimming match. After all, the sea would hold no mystery or power or be able to inspire as much of a response if details about safe passage across it were given. With the sailing scenes (and even Beowulf’s swimming back to Geatland after a major battle later in the poem) as short as they are, the sea retains its mystery. And with that mystery can come monsters, like those that Beowulf fights as he defends his friend.

Perhaps the power of this mystery was meant to extend further, as well. For, if the Anglo-Saxons of the British Isles wanted to feel like a grounded, rooted people, then making something as transitional as the sea a mystery could help them do so. For mysterious things are usually alienated or alien things.

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Beowulf as historical allegory (a sketch)

An interesting detail is contained in line 222: “brimclifu blican.” I translated that second word, “blican,” to dazzling (in line with the Clark Hall & Meritt Anglo-Saxon Dictionary’s definition). Perhaps most of northern Europe had the white cliffs that are now associated with Britain (thanks in no small part to Matthew Arnold). So, is Daneland, in all things but figures and fealties, another Britain?

Going back to the Anglo-Saxons as a sea-faring people, they’re sure to have noticed the white cliffs of Britain facing France. So if Beowulf was written by the Anglo-Saxons, and not just translated from a language you might expect given peoples’ and places’ names, then maybe that’s a detail signalling that Daneland represents Britain.

If Daneland is understood as Britain, then perhaps Grendel is the Celts, or some sort of spirit or genius of the Celts that the Anglo-Saxons didn’t care for. Reading Grendel in this metaphorical way, it then becomes possible to interpret Beowulf himself within the same historical framework. Where Grendel is the embodiment of what is wrong with the place that the Anglo-Saxons (the Danes) have chosen to settle, Beowulf represents what is just and what is good – Beowulf is god’s instrument for the creation on earth of what is to be harmonious and perfect. Like the Anglo-Saxons he came from elsewhere, but frees those that he meets and is elevated to kingship because of his prowess and own merits rather than inheritance.

In fact, he becomes king because of the people’s accord when a new ruler has to be found after Hygelac’s line is ended. Ultimately, though, what Beowulf’s death could mean in this metaphorical interpretation of the hero gets tricky. Perhaps it is a kind of prophecy of what would come next for the Anglo-Saxons, after they had waned like their other heroic peoples, the Jews of the book of Exodus, had.

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Closing

This entry wraps things up for 2013. Check back for the first post of 2014 on the third Thursday of January!

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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On Wiglaf’s Weapons (Pt. 2) [ll.2620-2630] (Old English)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Two Possibilities for “mid Geatum”
Medieval Shorthand?
A Curious Word
Closing

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Abstract

The story of Weohstan and the arms winds down here, and things move back to Wiglaf, as he is on the verge of breaking from the host to go help Beowulf.

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Translation

“He kept those adornments for many half-years,
sword and mail shirt, until his son could
perform heroic deeds as his late father did;
then he gave to him among the Geats war garbs
in countless number, when he departed from life,
old and on his way forth. Then was the first time
for the young warrior, to himself advance into
the battle onslaught with his noble lord. His spirit
did not melt away then, nor did his kinsman’s
heirloom fail in the conflict; this the serpent
discovered, after they had come together.”
(Beowulf ll.2620-2630)

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Recordings

Old English:

Modern English:

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Two Possibilities for “mid Geatum”

Just as with so many other sets of equipment in Beowulf, Wiglaf’s arms were passed onto him by his father. However, the poet/scribe also sees fit to add that these things were passed onto Wiglaf when father and son were “among the Geats,” (“mid Geatum” (l.2623)).

Since Weohstan had previously been in exile (as the poem made plain when describing his slaying of Eanmunde), this added detail is rather significant for one reason or another.

On the one hand, this detail suggests the importance of community. Possibly, even, this small prepositional phrase implies an underlying belief of the poet’s/scribe’s that communal memory is better than individual memory. At the least, with the constant references to friendship, kin ties, and the sound of the raucous joy of groups in halls, a community is regarded as being better than being alone.

On the other hand, it might just be another detail. Something to add to the colour of the story and not really a thread that’s woven around or with something else in the poem as so many things are.

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Medieval Shorthand?

Actually, It’s easy to wonder then if the phrase “among the Geats” is shorthand for a more detailed setting. But the marker of community might just be setting enough for the sort of transitional act that passing on war garb is in Anglo-Saxon culture.

For there was a firm belief among the Anglo-Saxons that a person’s belongings carried a part of his or her essence even after he or she died. So, passing these things on is as much a passing on of the physical objects as it is of the memory held within them, the things they used to make their mark on the world.

To pass these weapons, these memories, on, within the structures of a community, to make it an event within that community and thus set it into that community’s memory, would ensure that it definitely becomes entrenched there. It becomes as much a community act as a family act.

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A Curious Word

The other highlight of the passage is the original Old English verb used on line 2628: “gemealt.”

According to the Clark Hall & Merritt dictionary of Old English, the verb can be translated as “to consume by fire,” “melt,” “burn up,” “dissolve,” or “digest.” Since it’s referring to Wiglaf’s spirit, it seems most appropriate to go with melt. That way the words invoke an image of the young warrior envisioning his attack on the dragon and the aid that he’ll give his lord and having this vision stand firm rather than melting away (like a Jello mold in the heat of the sun).

{Possibly how Wiglaf imagines himself fighting the dragon. Image from Lady, That’s My Skull}

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Closing

That’s all for this week, but check back next for Isidore’s continuing look at horses, and for Wiglaf’s stirring speech to his fellow thanes.

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Credits in a Comitatus and Boasts Filled with Wonder Words [ll.2484-2495] (Old English)


The Translation
Ongentheow’s Killer and the Comitatus
“heoro-blāc”
“ēðel-wynn”
“Gifðum”
Wrap-up

{a younger Beowulf, perhaps, flashing his gams and doing some boasting. From “Gayle’s Bard Blog.”}

The Translation

We return to Beowulf now, as he rounds out his history lesson and starts to verbally fist pump. Let’s listen in:

“Then in the morning I heard that his kin
avenged him by the blade, plunged its edge to end
the slayer’s life where Eofor’s attack fell upon Ongenþēow;
his war-helm split, the Swedish warlord
fell sword-wan; his hand held memory enough
of feuding, he could not hold off that fatal blow.

“The treasure, which Hygelac gave to me,
I won for him by flashing sword; he gave to me land,
a native place, land joy. For him there was no need,
no reason to be required to seek some worse warrior
from the gifthouse or the spear-danes or the swedes,
my worth was well known.”
(Beowulf ll.2484-2495)

Some interesting stuff is going on in this passage.

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Ongentheow’s Killer and the Comitatus

First, there’s the question of who killed Ongenþēow. The text suggests that it was Hygelac who killed him “by the sword’s edge” (“billes ecgum” l.2485), but it also mentions an Eofor who is credited with splitting his helmet (“thǣr Ongenþēow Eofores nīosað;/gūð-helm tōglād” ll.2486-7). So who’s the real hero, Beowulf?

To a modern reader this double crediting of Ongenþēow’s kill (something that might lead to another killing if it happened in a MMORPG), might seem confused. But, to an Anglo-Saxon sensibility, it makes perfect sense.

Consider for a minute the fact that Hygelac is, at the point when Ongenþēow’s killed, the leader of the Geat forces against the Swedes at this battle since Hæðcyn has been killed. Thus, Eofor is fighting as Hygelac’s thane – Eofor is part of Hygelac’s group.

In Anglo-Saxon terms, such a group could be called a “comitatus,” a band of warriors held together by mutual quid pro quo. If a warrior pledges his life and sword to a lord, he fights until his death – even if that lord should die before he does. In return, the lord provides the warrior with treasure and land.

“The Battle of Maldon” is a perfect example of the comitatus style of loyalty because it tells of a band of warriors that fights on after their lord dies, even though they all know that they are doomed to die.

What’s happening in Beowulf, then, is that Hygelac is being credited with Eofor’s kill because Hygelac is the head of the Geats, of the Geatish comitatus, and likewise, all of the warriors within Hygelac’s comitatus are his swords. So it’s fair to say that Hygelac had his vengeance on Ongenþeow by the edge of the sword, in the sense that he was killed by one of Hygelac’s men.

At the level of words within the passage, there are indeed a few that are quite curious.

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“heoro-blāc”

The word “heoro-blāc”, meaning “mortal wound” is unique among these curious words since it is a somewhat mysterious combination of “heoru” meaning “sword” and “blāc” meaning “pallid, pale, wan.” So, literally, someone who is “heoro-blāc” is “sword-pale.”

Unfortunately, the literal translation doesn’t work quite so well, since “sword-pale” suggests that something is as pale as a sword. Depending on what it’s made of, a corpse might get to a similar pallor as a clean, shiny sword, but it’s a rather fantastical comparison.

“Mortal wound” is a little on the nose, though, so “sword-wan” is what was used above. The term is used in the senses that Ongenþēow is weakened by the sword, and about as strong as a sword without a wielder. He is mighty, yet useless, as he lay where Eofor split his helmet.

Moving into Beowulf’s boast about his own accomplishments yields more tricky and wondrous words.

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“ēðel-wynn”

First up there’s “ēðel-wynn” meaning “joy of ownership,” but made up of “ēðel” (native land, country, home) and “wynn” (joy). So translating the term as “joy of ownership” does work, in that there will be a joy in a native owning their own land, but at the same time “joy of ownership” falls short by generalizing the original word too much.

Nonetheless, what’s telling about the translation is that it completely ignores the fact that “ēðel-wynn” contains a specific reference to land (“ēðel”). There might not be an exact and precise equivalent term in English, but by cutting out any reference to land, it seems like that there’s a desire to deny a sense of landed-ness in Anglo-Saxon at play.

But that’s just not true.

The fact that a compound word with “ēðel” is used here is important because it shows that whenever Beowulf was written (or maybe even when it was still being sung) land ownership was a big deal to Anglo-Saxons. This means that they might have had a sense of nationhood as we do today, since it wasn’t something nebulous or abstract.

Words like “ēðel-wynn” allow you to make a case that there was a sense among Anglo-Saxons that a place defined a people and that if a certain people was given a certain space then that people would be joyous. So, it seems that Seamus Heaney’s translation of the word as “the security that land brings” is better, though still wanting for the implied sense of nationhood.

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“Gifðum”

The other word is “Gifðum,” which is not in the Clark Hall & Meritt Anglo-Saxon Dictionary. However, Seamus Heaney translates it as “gift house.”

Heaney’s translation might just be in a newer dictionary, or it could be derived from the idea that “Gifðum” is a corruption of “giefu-hus.” A stretch, maybe, but the poem Beowulf isn’t beyond having a few textual ticks here and there.

For example, in the original Anglo-Saxon, there’s a consistent difference in spelling between the first and second halves of the poem, suggesting that there were two scribes involved in making the copy of the poem that we still have today.

Of course, textual ticks or no, that still leaves the nature of “Gifðum” a mystery.

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Wrap-up

If you’ve got your own theory about what “Gifðum” could mean, I want to know, just leave it in a comment for me.

Next week, St. Isidore talks of the goat, we get some more medieval lore, and Beowulf starts into more boasting. Don’t miss it!
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Beowulf – In Media Res [ll.2401-2409] (Old English)

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

Introduction

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

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

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Background to the Project

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Old English Appreciation

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

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

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

And it was grand.

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

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Section Summary

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

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

All of this happens in lines 2401-2409.

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Two Words

Two words really struck me in section:

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

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

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

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

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Closing

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

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