Ongoing Ongeontheow (ll.2961-2970) [Old English]

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Teaching by Analogues?
Against Anger, About a Word
Closing

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{Wiglaf shown landing the distracting blow, or Beowulf landing the fatal one – that’s just how much of a team this duo is. Image found on Weird Worm.}

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Abstract

In the messenger’s story, Ongeontheow is captured and attacks Wulf, son of Wonred, in self defense.

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Translation

“‘There by the sword’s edge Ongeontheow,
the grey-haired lord, was left to suffer at
Eofor’s command alone. Angrily against him
Wulf son of Wonred reached with a weapon,
so that his sword swing struck, sending blood
forth from under his hair. Yet he was
not frightened, the old Scylfing,
he paid him back double for that blow,
turning a far worse death strike against that one,
after that the king turned thither.'”
(Beowulf ll.2961-2970)

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Recordings

I’m currently without a recording microphone, and so have no way to record these. However, I should be picking one up over the coming weekend.

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Teaching by Analogues?

As the messenger’s story continues, so too does his focus on Ongeontheow. Here we see him, gray-haired, retaliate against one of the Geats who was too angry to wait for Eofor’s decision.

Actually, it’s a curious detail to add that Ongeontheow is “grey-haired” (“blonden-fexa” l.2962). Obviously we should take it to mean that he is an old man, but as such it’s difficult to not think of Hrothgar, another old man encountered in the poem.

Or, to even think of Beowulf himself.

After all, the messenger must have a point for telling the story of the Ravenswood at such length. I mean, if he just wanted to remind everyone of their feud with the Swedes he could have cut things off with his statement about them not showing any mercy (l.2922-2923). Instead, he launches into a story that runs for 75 lines (ll.2923-2998), involves detailed descriptions of events, and focuses not on a Geat, but the chief of the Swedes.

Apart from using this story to get the Geats to recognize their current situation (as noted in last week’s entry), Ongeontheow could be a stand in for Beowulf.

Perhaps the messenger is warning the Geats of the Swedes, but also, for some strange reason, he’s trying to remind them of themselves. He’s trying to show them how their own laziness and their own cowardice – represented by Wulf’s inabiity to contain his anger – is what caused the trouble stirred by the dragon, just as the same lead to the death of Wulf (and of Beowulf).

But how could such an interpretation be backed up? Well, with the idea that the messenger like all of those bearing news and facts some might not like, needs to add a spin to what he says. His spin is to use a story that everyone can relate to but present it in a way that is different.

Or, perhaps everyone was familiar with Ongeontheow’s actions from a poem or story the Geats told amongst themselves. As of now we can’t really say for sure.

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Against Anger, About a Word

In a much more direct fashion, this excerpt from the messenger’s story is clearly an admonition against anger, against acting when a passion is in you.

Instead, at least through implication, the messenger is telling the people that they must be cautious, just as Eofor was in deciding Ongeontheow’s fate rather than just lashing out at him as Wulf did. Just as an army that has captured their opponent’s leader must think things throw and step carefully into the future, so too must the Geats if they’re to navigate the difficult, leaderless times that lay ahead of them.

For the Geats it is a time that is likely to be noisy with deathblows. A concept perhaps strange to us, but familiar to Anglo-Saxons since the Old English compound “wael-hlem,” meaning “death-blow,” literally translates to “carnage-sound.”

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Closing

That’s it for this week, but the messenger’s story continues next week, as Eofor steps into the fray.

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Psychological Warfare and the Importance of Tactical Mercy (ll.2936-2945) [Old English]

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
A Differently Angled Ambush
Stories and Psychological Warfare
Closing

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Abstract

The messenger’s story of the Ravenswood continues, as the Geats are pinned by Ongeontheow’s host until a saviour is heralded.

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Translation

“‘Beset he then with an immense host the remnant
wearied by war wounds; all the night
long he twisted their tender spirits with vile boasts,
he said that he would destroy them with the
sword’s edge come morning, that he would hang them
on gallows trees to feed the birds. Yet joy again
existed in their sorrowful hearts just as day dawned,
for then came Hygelac with his horn and its call,
a sound they recognized, knew that it meant a troop
of great allies had arrived in their final &nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbspmoment.'”
(Beowulf ll.2936-2945)

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Recordings

Old English:

Modern English:

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A Differently Angled Ambush

The messenger’s message continues, and his story about the Ravenswood really picks up steam in this week’s extract. What could be more exciting than a situation in which a last minute arrival swings in the good guys’ favour, right?

It’s not the first time that we’ve had a story with late comers mentioned in Beowulf. After the hero himself defeats Grendel we hear about the Battle of Finnsburg (ll.1068-1158), where the Frisians have ambushed and wearied the Danes.

Since it sounds like Hygelac was completely unexpected by Ongeontheow and the Geats alike, his appearance here is definitely a kind of ambush. But rather than the tragedy that is the Battle of Finnsburg, Hygelac’s appearance is a cause for joy.

After all, in the story about Finnsburg listeners can take a side, but in the messenger’s story, we know that those listening are cheering for the Geats, and therefore it’s less a negative ambush and more of a rescue, as the phrase “at last faran” (“arrived in their final moment,” l.2945) suggests.

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Stories and Psychological Warfare

Speaking of perspective, it’s easy to see even the major players within the world of Beowulf as brutes with sharp swords, but Ongeontheow does something rather incredible when he has the troop trapped in the Ravenswood.

He doesn’t rush in and slaughter them outright. Instead he launches a psychological attack, as he bombards them with “vile boasts” (“wean oft gehet” l.2937) all through the night (“ondlong niht” l.2938). This is a strange move on Ongeontheow’s part at first glance, but if we look deeper we can see his reasons for it.

During this period of time, destroying a leaderless band outright would have been like killing a headless man. Matters of redundancy aside, it would have been dishonourable and a source of shame, rather than something that a warrior could be proud of. Besides, a terrified group of leaderless enemy soldiers would have to deal with their own shame of having outlived their lord, and would likely tell the darkest stories of their conqueror’s power.

This sense of shame explains a little bit of why Ongeontheow says he’ll leave the Geats until morning, but it doesn’t give a full picture of it.

Down the line of shame, there may have been some convention among warriors of the time to wait so many hours/watches before attacking such a disorganized rabble (perhaps to let one of them rise up as leader?), but Ongeontheow has another reason for his threats.

Multiple stories told by many terrified, shamed, and sorrowful men would grow Ongeontheow’s reputation. But a handful of stories that include his torturing them with vile boasts all night and then slaughtering most of the remaining host would make it easy for any survivors to tell stories of him that were absolutely intimidating.

And, as we saw in 2012’s last entry, Ongeontheow seems to care deeply for the safety of his family. So creating the seeds of intimidating stories would benefit him as it would deter future purpose-less raids from other groups that were looking for places to attack for arrogance’s sake.

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Closing

Next week, the story of Ravenswood continues. Don’t miss it!

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Rafting through Battlefields ["Dum Diane vitrea" Eighth Stanza] (Latin)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
An Opening Question
Pondering Love’s Dualities
Closing

{Enjoined in love’s embrace – along with that bird’s. Image found on Michael Delahoyde’s Courtly Love webpage.}

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Abstract

The poem wraps up with a brief meditation on the nature of love (possibly both physical and emotional).

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Translation

“Oh in how great the unreliable varying
of the spirit of love!
It is as a wandering raft upon the seas,
when free from anchor,
In flux between hope and fear, both dubious;
So goes the battle of Venus.”
(“Dum Diane vitrea” Stanza 8)

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Recordings

The entire poem will be recorded once it’s all been translated and posted.

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An Opening Question

As the cap on the bottle of wisdom that is this poem, this final stanza rings so true that some might call it cliché. All’s fair in love and war, love is a many faceted thing, etc, etc, etc. But there’s more to it than that.

The images that this stanza evokes are those of the unanchored raft (“ratis”), and a battle (or, more stiffly, “campaign,” (“militia”)). Both of these are set at the whim of chance, and no manner of preparation can bring complete success. Neither being incredibly knowledgeable about seamanship nor a well-seasoned veteran will grant you a 100% guaranteed survival or victory. And of course, so it goes with love.

But why the image of a raft and a battle? Why not double down on the same image, rather than invoking both?

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Pondering Love’s Dualities

Because, at least so far as my theory goes, this stanza cuts to the quick of the poem and the poet’s point for one final time. These images, at their most basic, are about the conflict of humans v. nature, and humans v. humans. Such a duality of imagery sets up the poem to make a point about the dual facets of love that seem to be the poet’s major concern.

If this was written by Abelard, than his feelings towards love (particularly if it was written *after* the business of Eloise was *ahem* cut off) would definitely be much more than something romantic or cynical. Though both are certainly present. What could be more romantic than comparing one’s feelings of love to an unmoored raft, and what more cynical than reducing them to something that can be worked through with a mixture of tactics, strategy and chance?

But the argument to be made about the poem being about physical and emotional love gets most of its steam from the adjective attached to battle – “Venus” (“Veneris”).

Without delving too deep into ancient meanings of the goddess Venus (or Aphrodite) – at my own peril, I admit – invoking this love goddess suggests a leaning much more to the physical side of things. First and foremost among my reasons for thinking so is the fact that whomeever the poet is, they are more than likely Christian, and so any pagan deity is going to be used as a simple reference rather than anything particularly deep.

Besides that, there is something of a tradition of referring to the journey of the Christian mystic to god as being adrift at sea (and, though it may not directly relate, Anglo-Saxons associated such journeying with the extremities of loneliness, something that might come into the emotional mix of vacillating love). Because there’s the possibility of the raft image making this religious reference, I think that it’s quite likely that the direct reference to Venus is included to balance the poem.

The placement of these images, then, takes on some extra meaning. After all, it’s definitely no secret that the majority of the poem has had connotations of physical rather than spiritual love, and so placing the spiritual before the physical in this the final stanza suggests that the spiritual must precede the physical. Or, at the least, it implies that it can in itself be a mooring for the fluxes in the physical aspect of love, if you can manage to find anchor.

What then, the poem ultimately says is that it’s necessary to love spiritually, or platonically, or just plain emotionally, before loving physically. This highlighting of the spiritual while closing with the physical is a convenient and brief way to excuse what has come before while keeping tongue firmly in cheek (just as Chaucer’s retraction does for The Canterbury Tales).

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Closing

That’s it for new entries for the rest of the month. Watch this blog on Tuesday 4 December, for the final “Dum Diane vitrea” entry (including recordings of it in Latin and English), and a special announcement about a major change coming to this blog.

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One Stanza, Three Ways ["Dum Diane vitrea" Sixth Stanza] (Latin)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
A full First Clause
The Conceivable
In Satiable Terms
Closing

{Some fifteenth century imaginings of a child in a womb. Image found on the British Library’s Learning: Medieval Realms website.}

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Abstract

Appetites are sated, so sleepiness and the desire for more clash.

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Translation

“The deadly fume evaporates from the womb,
As its three little rooms are bedewed;
These lovers eyes and eyelids are then filled
With the fog of sleepiness,
Yet vision veers not away.
Whence through the eyes are we bound
By animal power, as they are the will’s &nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsphelpers.”
(“Dum Diane vitrea” Stanza 6)

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Recordings

The entire poem will be recorded once it’s all been translated and posted.

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A full First Clause

First and foremost here, I need to make a quick mention that “womb,” as far as I know, was used much more generally in the medieval world than it is in the modern one. Of course, there was the sense that it meant the female part that holds a foetus, but it also, as far as I can tell from my own reading and knowledge, meant the stomach as a fillable space much more generally. Thus, though the first clause retains its weirdness all the same, it at least isn’t necessarily about pregnancy or conception or anything like that. Necessarily.

But, poetic license aside, there are really only three things possible with this first clause: It’s about conceiving a child (since “the three little rooms are bedewed”), about having an appetite sated, or about the two lovers being a little flatulent.

Although fart jokes are a staple of medieval bawdy comedy (just as they are today), since this is a love poem (and as far as I know Abelard wasn’t into that sort of thing), that last possibility can be instantly ruled out.

That leaves conception and the sating of an appetite.

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The Conceivable

In terms of conception, the medieval understanding of human reproduction wasn’t as advanced as ours is today, but it wasn’t as backwards as might be expected.

In the early medieval period the prevailing idea was that both a man and a woman had to expel seed while copulating for a child to be conceived. In other words, both partners had to orgasm, and these orgasms had to be more or less synchronized.

However, after Europe’s rediscovery of Aristotle between the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, Galen’s two-seed idea was tossed out in favour of the Aristotlean notion that only a man’s seed mattered and a woman just had to lay back and think of beautiful/strong/pleasing things. I’m simplifying here, but that’s just because I don’t want to distract from the poem at hand.

Speaking of which, if we carry the notion that the first two lines are about conception forward, then the couple described in the rest of the stanza becomes a tightly married one. After all, the remainder of the first sentence says, ‘then they both felt tired, but they kept gazing at each other.’

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In Satiable Terms

On the other hand, if we take the notion that the opening is about our lovers’ sexual appetites being sated, then we come out with something a little more subversive: the idea that the sex act described in the rest of the poem isn’t enjoyed by some miscreant lusty couple, but by a deeply loving one – though we’re given no real suggestion about whether they’re married or not. Once more, if we go with the appetite interpretation, we come out with a theme similar to the one seen last week: sex is natural, and just what happens between consenting, loving adults.

However, these two interpretations don’t need to be kept apart like two cats in heat. No. They can be crossed over to create an even more revealing interpretation.

For the very fact that these two interpretations are possible suggests that the poet, as long as he was aware of the themes his work was evoking, or bound to evoke, meant this poem to assert that sex between a loving married couple is the same as sex between a loving un-married couple. Definitely a controversial thought, and certainly something Abelard could use to argue the case for his affair with Eloise.

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Closing

Come back on Thursday for the remainder of Wiglaf’s rant against the cowardly thanes (click here for part one).

And, if you find anything amiss in today’s entry let me know. The same goes for anything you might want to add.

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Natural Exhaustion ["Dum Diane vitrea" Fourth Stanza] (Latin)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Teasing Meaning from Images
It’s all about Sleep
Closing

{An idyllic windmill scene. Image found on JA Tappero’s Main Page.}

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Abstract

The poet waxes on about satisfying (?) post-coital sleepiness.

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Translation

“Morpheus then draws forth
an urge in the mind
Like gentle wind over mature corn,
clear shoreside river murmurings,
the circuitous orbit of mill arms,
he who steals sleep from clear eyes.”
(“Dum Diane vitrea” Stanza 4)

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Recordings

The entire poem will be recorded once it’s all been posted. This recording will then be posted with a final, full edition of my translation.

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Teasing Meaning from Images

What this stanza describes sounds unequivocally like post-coital sleepiness. The way it’s described with rustic, idyllic even, similes strengthens this reading, too.

After all, If love is often romanticized in classical literature as the affection between a shepherd and a shepherdess, why not also romanticize the urge to sleep afterwards with a bunch of natural imagery? Though it definitely needs to be noted that this stanza’s imagery isn’t entirely natural.

Corn may grow on its own, but it’s made into fields by human hands, just as much as a windmill is something of human design and construction. Yet, associating these things with sleep makes sense on many different levels.

There’s the obvious level of their soothing nature, and that of all three working together to paint a very calm and relaxed scene. And relaxed is the best word for this scene, since all of these actions are passive. The corn merely bends in the wind, the water is just running to lower ground, and the mill’s arms turn as gusts go by.

Further, the first and third of these images are visual cues of something invisible but audible: wind, while the second of the three is an aural representation of something very visual. This synaesthetic description of the sweeping desire to sleep is incredibly effective if you think about the last time you felt utterly exhausted. Alternatively, you could compare this stanza’s main image to the gradual release of tension in a yogic meditation or that you might experience if you just lay in bed, close your eyes, and concentrate on your breathing.

But why, if the poet wanted to depict an idyllic country scene, did he use these three things? Why does the poet choose the wind in a cornfield, the babbling of a river, and the wind through the arms of a windmill? These are all things found in the countryside, sure. But why these three? How do they work together? And why move from wind to water to wind?

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It’s all about Sleep

It’s possible that this arrangement offers further reflection on the medieval biphasic sleep pattern.

The wind could be the gentle and effortless rest that sleep affords, while the water, coming in between wind images, could be the awake phase in between sleep periods (or sex itself, depending on how far you want to take the flow of the river).

What’s more, shifting the wind image to that of a mill after that middle water image works perfectly well within an interpretation of this stanza as the medieval sleep pattern in miniature. After all, a windmill would often be used to grind grains (corn included) into meal or flour, and medieval associations between this flour and male potency (or more generally the active principle) are many.

So reading these three images as a representation of the night as a whole is certainly possible within context. What’s especially significant about such a reading though is that it shows the poet’s associating this sleep pattern with human use of nature, and the way that nature and humanity interact. On the surface, this kind of idea sounds tame enough, but through such a series of associations, the poet could well be asserting that sex is merely something natural.

Maybe the poet is even trying to go so far as to bring sex, something contemporarily thought of as dangerous and needing control (a natural, base urge), into the more civilized and human realm. Moreover, because of the cyclical nature of this series of images, the poet seems to suggest that sex is just another part of a natural cycle that can be put under human control, or under human use (as water and its flow can be).

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Closing

Of course, all of this is speculation – go right ahead and share your own in the comments!

Also, don’t miss Thursday’s Beowulf entry – Beowulf is firmly cut from the story, as its focus moves over to the grieving Wiglaf.

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Moon Fruit ["Dum Diane vitrea" Third Stanza] (Latin)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
A Fruitful Opening
That Spontaneous Spark
Closing

{Handle it, but don’t hold it, the poem counsels. Image found on a blog called Imprint.}

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Abstract

Some of the virtues of sex are indirectly extolled.

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Translation

“Oh how fruitful is that remedy of drowsiness,
Which tempestuous cares and sorrows sedates!
So long as it steals up to sore open eyes,
themselves a sweet joy of love to have.”
(“Dum Diane vitrea” Stanza 3)

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Recordings

The entire poem will be recorded once it’s all been posted.

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A Fruitful Opening

The opening pun of this week’s stanza is, thankfully, something that works in both languages.

“Felix” may not unerringly translate into “fruitful” but it’s one of many possibilities, just as one could say that there are many English synomnyms for “fruitful.” In any case, this is about as subtle as it gets, since the rest of the poem is just a celebration of sex.

Turning back to the pun in line one, though, it’s possible that the play on the word fruitful/felix, could be a reference to the fertility rate of having sex during this waking interval.

But even something like the Domesday book didn’t keep records of when children that women managed to carry to term were conceived down to the hour, so the potency of the hours between midnight and second sleep isn’t really something we can check.

It’s possible, though, that since the two hour window of wakefuless would be the best time for sex from a social/scheduling point of view (one of the few times you wouldn’t be toiling away at your daily labour, eating, or, well, sleeping), that this is billed as the ideal time.

After all, it’s not like that was the only time that medieval people knocked boots. Any time at which they could gain a private moment they’d do it, just as we do. There’s no particular evidence that I can cite for that, but it’s definitely something that just stands to reason.

With that sort of sexual freedom from a temporal standpoint, it makes sense that an authority like the Church would try to suggest an ideal time for sex.

It’s a cold view of what is through-and-through a love poem, but since the “Dum Diane vitrea” was written in Latin, and Latin was the language of the Church and the educated (who were educated by the Church), it’s not outside of the realms of the probable that this poem is a propaganda piece aiming to keep sex in (or move it to) a set time.

This interpretation of stanza three is also supported by the idea that Abelard may have written the whole of the “Dum Diane vitrea.” Having been a victim of wild passions with his student, Eloise, and winding up castrated for his pleasures, he’d be the perfect person to get to sit down and write a stirring love song about how sex should be kept in the appropriate place. Make that appropriateness cosmic, and you’ve got a powerhouse on your hands.

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That Spontaneous Spark

Once we get to line three, things heat up a bit further.

At this part of the stanza we get the conditional “So long as” (“Dum”). So, though the exclamation effectively closes the statement that covers lines one and two, we also have to consider sex something that sneaks up on a person.

In other words, it can’t be a cold duty between a married couple (assuming that those are the people the poem addresses), but rather something spontaneous.

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Closing

Check back here on Thursday for the rest of Wiglaf’s mourning, and the return of the cowardly thanes!

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Translation and the Bejewelled Truth [ll.2794-2808] (Old English)

A quick note: I realize that I had planned the first entry for the poem “Dum Diane vitrea” this past Tuesday. However, since I was quite distracted by travelling to Toronto for a Peter Gabriel concert by way of Guelph, that entry was not published. Watch for it next week, and my apologies for missing a beat. I’ve got my rhtyhm back now, though.

So, onwards!

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
The Facets of Translation
Answering Questions Raised
Probing Possibility
Closing

{Is the dragon’s hoard perhaps much less substantial, but much more potent? Image found on the blog PowerOfBabel.}

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Abstract

Beowulf gives thanks for his seeing the dragon’s treasure, and gives Wiglaf instructions for his funerary arrangements.

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Translation

“‘I for all of these precious things thank the Lord,
spoke these words the king of glory,
eternal lord, that I here look in on,
for the fact that I have been permitted to gain
such for my people before my day of death.
Now that I the treasure hoard have bought
with my old life, still attend to the
need of my people; for I may not be here longer.
Command the famed in battle to build a splendid barrow
after the pyre at the promontory over the sea;
it is to be a memorial to my people
high towering on Whale’s Ness,
so that seafarers may later call it
Beowulf’s Barrow, those who in ships
over the sea mists come sailing from afar.'”
(Beowulf ll.2794-2808)

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Recordings

Old English:

Modern English:

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The Facets of Translation

The most prominent feature of this week’s passage is the awkward opening sentence.

Its gist is straightfrward enough: Beowulf is thanking what we can safely guess is the Christian god for his successes, as he has done previously. However, if translating things fairly literally (perhaps too literally), we wind up with a second clause about the words being spoken by god (“wuldurcyninge wordum secge” ll.2795). Many translations omit this line since it appears to just repeat and expand upon Beowulf’s thanks to god, as it could come out as “[I…]speak these words to the king of glory.”

Yet, and this is where I exert a bit of extra pressure on the text, I’ve translated the second line as a reference to the jewels and the like being the words of god.

The reason for taking this route with the translation is simple: it gives the reader the opportunity to interpret the dragon’s hoard as the words of god, as some sort of cosmological truth as spoken directly by the creator of those cosmos. Opening up this possibility forces readers to take another look at the dragon, too. It’s still antagonistic in that it’s keeping the words of god to itself and needs to be killed for them to be distributed, but then just what kind of entity is it?

It might stretching things to the breaking point, but it seems that the dragon could be interpreted as the powerful priesthood or any entrenched exclusionary religious group, and Beowulf could then be considered some kind of scholar, wrenching the truth from those who are in places of religious power and being ready to redistribute it. Though, as we find out later in the poem, this doesn’t happen since the treasure is buried with Beowulf since the Geats consider it too dangerous to add massive wealth to their leader-less state.

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Answering Questions Raised

In this reading of the hoard as cosmological truth, we need to consider what it means for Beowulf to die for it. One possibility is that in taking on such a major source of authority he destroys all of his own credibility, and as a result the truth that he uncovers can’t be successfully transmitted since without credibility (or in more contemporary terms, authority or auctoritas) no one will willingly accept what he has to say.

That brings us around the matters of the theif and of Wiglaf. In this interpretation of the dragon’s hoard as some sort of great truth, the theif could well be one who haplessly leaked one of its aspects and therefore set the whole of Beowulf’s kingdom astir. A little bit of knowledge can be much more dangerous than a lot, after all.

As per Wiglaf, he could be an acolyte of the elder scholar Beowulf. He could be a youth who has joined his cause when noone else was brave enough to, and who cared enough for the tradition of truth than the institution which had grown up and kept it from the masses.

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Probing Possibility

The last question that this interpretation needs to face is whether or not it could have been knowingly injected into a poem written down by people working for the medieval church, an institution that was rarely free from accusations of withholding knowledge or working contrarily to the truth of things. Representing the church as a dragon, something commonly equated with the devil, could be risky in a medieval context, but I argue that this interpretation of the dragon’s hoard would hold up since the dragon could be explained as a symbol only for the corrupt within the Church and not necessarily the Church itself.

So, do you think that this interpretation holds water, or am I just stretching my own credibility by trying to keep my translation as literal as I can? Or, for that matter, have I missed something in my translation? Let me know in the comments!

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Closing

Next week, the full complement of a Latin and Old English entry will return, with the first verse of “Dum Diane vitrea” and Beowulf’s further final words to Wiglaf.

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