A funeral ship and far foreign lands (ll.32-42) [Old English]

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
The matter of the treasure ship
Far away may as well be undiscovered
Closing

Back To Top
Abstract

Scyld’s funeral procession and the description of his final ship feature this week.

Back To Top
Translation

“There at the landing place stood a ring-prowed ship
icy and eager to start, ready for that nobleman’s passage;
the dear lords lead him to
the brightly ringed wealth ship,
treasure filled it to the mast; there was plentiful loot
from foreign lands, booty, loaded into it.
Never heard I of a more splendidly adorned ship
war-ready and armoured,
blade and byrnie; upon his lap was lain
a multifarious fortune, among which
he was to go to far foreign lands.”
(Beowulf ll.32-42)

Back To Top
Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

Back To Top
The matter of the treasure ship

Scyld’s ship would make a cracking archaeological find. All of that treasure, some of which coming from foreign lands, would have so much to say about the range of the early medieval Danes (and maybe Anglo-Saxons?).

Outside of such a find, though, the big thing here is that the ship is characterized as “icy” (“isig” l.33).

What would the use of an icy ship be?

Would it more effectively cut through the water?

Or is it supposed to mean that it’s an old ship, one that’s been so covered with hoarfrost from travelling in the chill north that it’s become discoloured? Maybe barnacled?

The safest bet is that it’s an old ship. It’d be one thing to use a new one for a Viking burial, but it’d be something else entirely to use a new ship and to laden it with so much treasure.

Speaking of which, aside from the immense wealth on board, the time is taken to mention that the ship is “war-ready and armoured” (“hildewæpnum ond heaðowædum” l.39). Beliefs in some sort of struggle that one must go through to get to the afterlife are fairly common around this time, and they may have coupled with ideas traditionally ascribed to the Norse. Particularly, I refer to the Norse idea that only those who go to death armed will be able to join the ranks of Valhalla. Perhaps there’s also some of the Celtic belief that the afterlife is another life similar to the one in which readers of this entry find themselves.

Whatever the case, Scyld could very easily buy a king out of ransom, and fend off a horde of demons on his way to the “far foreign lands” (“æht feor” l.42).

Back To Top
Far away may as well be undiscovered

Is the “far foreign land” of line 42 a predecessor to Shakespeare’s “he undiscover’d country” (from 3.i.81)? Outside of going into a lengthy historical/literary analysis, let’s just look at the two lines within the context of internet writing.

One tips for writing for the internet found in many books/articles/heads of experts is to use Anglo-Saxon words, rather than Latinate or Greek-derived words. It’s supposed to be best to use words that have been in English since the days of the Beowulf bard(s). Keeping this in mind, and remembering that the key here is simplicity maintaining itself throughout history, “the foreign country” as a euphemism for death should have some staying power.

After all, in the days when travel between points was difficult and most people stayed where they were born, anything outside of the village and its surroundings would seem distant and hard to reach. This difficulty of travelling abroad persisted from the time of Beowulf‘s composition (whether you peg it in the 7th or 11th century), to the time of Shakespeare (despite theories about his own wide travelling). With travel abroad being so difficult, round trips were even more so, and thus travelling to a “far foreign” land would mean a person may as well be dead – or vice versa.

Thus, though Shakespeare probably never read Beowulf, the sentiment of his “undiscover’d country,” and of Beowulf’s “far foreign land” is undoubtedly the same.

Back To Top
Closing

That’s it for this week. Recordings continue to be delayed, in fact, at this point the “Recording” section of each entry will continue to be included, but they will be filled only when I can find the time.

Next week, we get into part two of Scyld’s funeral, in which his body and its adornments are described.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

Back To Top

The power of spoken word (ll.20-31) [Old English]

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
A word’s afterlife
Closing

Back To Top
Abstract

Beowulf’s reputation is summed up as enough to draw reliable companions for battle, and Scyld dies.

Back To Top
Translation

“Thus the young man shall bring about good,
from the largesse of his father’s stores,
so that he among men thereafter retains
willing companions when battle comes,
the nation would endure; praiseful deeds shall
always increase for the family of such a man.
Scyld left off amidst his work,
full busy when he went to the Lord.
They brought him to the seashore,
those dear companions, as he had bidden them.
That man’s words ruled his companions,
those of the earthly prince long in languishing.”
(Beowulf ll.20-31)

Back To Top
Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

Back To Top
A word’s afterlife

The companionship sung about in this section of the poem sounds dear. Yet it’s phrased in a way that also makes it sound slightly tyrannical. It becomes quite a bit less so if you look at the text as something that’s supposed to be larger than life, and that’s supposed to magnify its characters.

Particularly powerful, though, is Scyld’s word. Lines 30-31 are not to be taken lightly. For these lines sum up what it means to be a truly great hero to Anglo-Saxons (as far as I can figure): commanding enough respect to have your words retain their effect, even after you’ve died. It’s a reflection of Scyld’s strength and, more than likely, his diplomatic skills that his word is so followed.

This same respect is paid to Beowulf, whose dying wish for a specific funeral is also followed. Thus, from the beginning, this poem is about exemplary figures who command the pseudo-mythical power of not only having their words be fulfilled after they’ve died, but also having these events reported.

Such fame might not put them in the same group as dog-headed men and a very large saint, but it definitely makes them remarkable for their time.

Back To Top
Closing

Next week, we come to the description of Scyld’s funeral.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

Back To Top

An End and Everlasting Fame (ll.3173-3182) [Old English]

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Singled Out
Fame, Preservation, Power
Closing

Back To Top
Abstract

Beowulf ends, as the gathered Geats mourn and praise their fallen leader.

Back To Top
Translation

“[They] praised him for his heroism and his courageous
deeds, which were judged highly, just as it was fitting
that the men laud their friend and lord prince with
such words, love of their hearts, when he
shall lead out his soul from his body.
Thus lamented the Geatish people
for the fall of their lord, their hearth companion;
they said that of earthly kings he was
the mildest among men and most gracious, the
kindest to people and most eager for fame.”
(Beowulf ll.3173-3182)

Back To Top
Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

Back To Top
Singled Out

After the semicolon that ended last week’s extract, things become detached. The poet no longer refers to the actors as individuals, nor does e acknowledge individuals within the groups. Last week there were “sons” of noblemen, and twelve warriors. This week there are only “the men” (“þæt mon” (l.3175)), “the Geatish people” (“Geata leode” (l.3178)), and “they” (the pronoun derived from “cwædon” (l.3180)).

It’s as if the poet has pulled out his focus, broadening it until the final declaration about Beowulf can be made objectively. Though there is acknowledgement that it’s anything but, since it is the Geats themselves who say those good things about their fallen hero.

What this pulling away of subjects also does is emphasize Beowulf’s individuality all the more. It separates him from the Geatish people, and thereby allows the poet to elevate him somewhat. In a way, it allows Beowulf to be set on such a height where he is truly alone, making it clear that the poem is about him and should be named accordingly.

Back To Top
Fame, Preservation, Power

It’s one thing to end an epic poem with the death and burial of its main character. It’s quite another to end it on the comment that said character was the “most eager for fame” (“lofgeornost” (l.3182)).

Beowulf‘s ending in such a way strikes me as strange. Not because it’s out of place, but because it could well be the reason for the poem’s composition and endurance into manuscript form. After that it was just a matter of surviving, fire, rats, and worms, so that there were still enough words for modern people to read it.

Such an ending isn’t out of place, because it was fame that endured and Anglo-Saxons (like most peoples with an oral tradition) were sure to know this. In a way, living on through your fame could be considered similar to living on in spirit not just with family and friends, but with all who knew you. In a way, having as much fame as Beowulf did could possibly be intertwined with ideas of having a great magnanimity.

Perhaps what makes the last line seem discordant nonetheless, is its stating the obvious. Beowulf never shrank from a fight, even when his counsellors, (and, let’s be honest, common sense) suggested otherwise. He stood up to Grendel when none before succeeded, and then took the feud to Grendel’s terrible mother. He fought on countless battlefields, and in the end went up against a dragon – a monster right from the grand heroic tales considered old even in Beowulf’s day.

Why then mention (and on the last line, no less), that he always wanted to win fame?

Perhaps, it is just the poet having some fun with a famed figure. After all, the warrior did the deed, but the poet commemorated it, deeds are forgotten, but commemorations are not.

Back To Top
Closing

Having started this translation and commentary of Beowulf in its midst (and in a very different way), the next entry will see a return to the poem’s beginning.

However, next week there will not be a full update, as I work to get all of the missed recordings up and in place. Regular updates will resume the first Thursday of June (the 6th).

2018-04-05 Update: If you’re reading this after going through the entirety of my translation: thanks! Even if this is the first post you’re reading, thanks for doing so. Having people read what I write means a lot to me.

However much of it you’ve read, I hope you’ve enjoyed this translation. And be sure to watch this blog for my edited together version of Beowulf, Beowulf-related articles, and translations of other works.

 

Back To Top

The Gold That was Buried with the Geat (ll.3163-3172) [Old English]

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
An Empty Victory
Beowulf’s Courage
Closing

Back To Top
Abstract

Beowulf is buried, and the dragon’s hoard with him. As part of the burial, twelve warriors ride around his barrow, lamenting all the while.

Back To Top
Translation

“They placed him in the barrow with rings and jewels,
all such adornments as were before in the
hoard of the hostile minded one that men had taken.
The warriors left the wealth to be kept by the earth,
gold in the ground, where it yet exists
as useless to men as it previously had been.
Then around the barrow of the brave in battle they rode,
the sons of noblemen, twelve warriors,
they would lament with their sorrow and mourn their king,
uttering dirges and speaking about the man;”
(Beowulf ll.3163-3172)

Back To Top
Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

Back To Top
An Empty Victory

Beowulf’s victory over the dragon was glorious, but it was ultimately useless. He died in the process,and he left his people unprotected against the ire of their rivals. But had he left the dragon to its devices,it would have destroyed the Geats. Why not just return the cup? Because the dragon was awoken, and the implication is that it was already too late by the time the serpent struck. Beowulf had lost his chance to truly protect his people by keeping a cooler head around that slave – if it was his slave to even begin with.

But back to the emptiness of Beowulf’s accomplishment. In the old songs Sigurd slays the dragon and he becomes a great hero as a result. Though his household also collapses by the end of that story (at least in the forms of it that we still have it today). The important difference, though, is that Beowulf has no period of glory afterwards.

He’s left mortally wounded by the fight with the dragon, and all he can do is bequeath his gear to Wiglaf and ask to see the treasure he gave his life for. Given the Christian bent of the written poem, could such a shortened life after so glorious an accomplishment be considered a mercy?

Could that be the secret of the dragon fight’s relation to the story of Sigurd told after Beowulf beats Grendel? Perhaps Beowulf’s shortened life is supposed to stand for the salvation that he finds, while Sigurd has no heaven to go to and thus is forced to roam onward.

Back To Top
Beowulf’s Courage

In spite of the futility of Beowulf’s final act, what the Geats celebrate at his death is his courage. This is a quality still admired in people, though modern ideals of courage have perhaps come quite far from early medieval notions of the concept. Or perhaps not.

The courageous deeds of Beowulf that are sung of in Beowulf are all examples of active courage.

This is the sort of courage that comes out when people face head on demons and monsters and great evil. However, this certainly couldn’t be the extent of Beowulf’s courage. He couldn’t possibly have been on every battlefield, fighting every foe of the Geats and sparking the feuds that now threaten the leaderless people.

In some instances, Beowulf’s reputation must have preceded him, and this emanation of his force must have been enough to bring some peoples to heel. After all, could a king who constantly brings his people to war be considered a good king? With the poem’s examples of bad rulers (Heremod and Modthryth) in mind, it seems like such an action would be seen as merely selfish, and not really for the greater good of a people at all.

If Beowulf’s courage created a reputation that itself protected the Geats and was maintained by Beowulf, it’s possible to speak of his courage in more modern terms. So long as you consider the modern conception of courage to be knowing when to act and when to wait and being able to do which is needed. And, in that sense, that sort of courage could be one of the aspects of a “god cyning.”

Back To Top
Closing

Next week we look at the final lines of the poem. Beowulf’s burial is complete, and the final words about the great Geatish hero are spoken.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

Back To Top

She Wails, but only the Smoke’s Accepted (ll.3150-3162) [Old English]

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Beowulf‘s Wailing Woman
Smoke in the Sky
Closing

Back To Top
Abstract

A mourning woman is mentioned before larger concerns are noted and Beowulf’s barrow is built.

Back To Top
Translation

“Also a Geatish woman’s song of mourning
[ . . . ] with hair bound up
for that sorrowful song; they said repeatedly
that they dreaded sorely an invasion,
an abundance of slaughter, terror for the company of men,
humiliation and captivity. Heaven swallowed the smoke.
Then built the Geatish people
a burial mound on the headland, it was high and broad,
for seafarers it was widely visible,
and in ten days they built
the monument for the one bold in battle. They built
also a wall around the remnants of the fire, as
the wise men had most worthily devised it.”
(Beowulf ll.3150-3162)

Back To Top
Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

Back To Top
Beowulf‘s Wailing Woman

The first truly curious thing about this passage (and there are a few) is the woman described in its opening. She isn’t identified as anyone we’ve met earlier in the poem, nor does she seem to be any individual in particular.

Though it must have been an Anglo-Saxon tradition for women to wear their hair up for mourning. After all something closer to what could be called unkempt is what first comes to mind when thinking of medieval mourning.

Perhaps the woman has it done up as part of her mourning for the sake of showing that everything is all right, and there’s cause for celebration. Though her sorrowful song certainly makes it clear that only the fire, the earth, and the worms have cause for celebration.

Some theorize that this woman is Hygelac’s former wife, Hygd. I’m sure there are even theories that the wailing woman and Beowulf plotted to get the poem’s hero onto the Geatish throne.

As per my own interpretation, I can see her being either an important individual or a stand-in for the Geats more generally, a kind of synecdoche figure for the grief and sorrow of a people.

This second interpretation has some evidence later in the passage, though, when the poet refers to the Geats’ fears for their future as “humiliation and captivity” (l.3155). Women were regularly married off to seal alliances or to ease feuds, but even when both sides of such arrangements had stable leaders I can’t imagine the experience of being given away and having to adjust to a completely new home being a happy one.

In the world of Beowulf in particular it seems that the value of a woman is determined by decidedly male factors. Who her father is, the martial status of her clan or people, and the relationship of suitors to her father are all variables.

With the Geats being leaderless, fear of living in humiliation when they were once proud, or in captivity when they once had the freedom to range around and help such people as the Danes, would sting any one of them. But to the Geatish women, such things would mean that they would be denied the security of even an orderly peace-weaver arrangement. Where their fathers, or brothers, or sons could intercede for them in normal circumstances, having lost their leader, the Geatish women will now have no such recourse as they’re much more simply taken.

Back To Top
Smoke in the Sky

The rest of this week’s extract offers a few interesting facts about Beowulf’s barrow, but what’s particularly striking is the end of line 3155: “Heaven swallowed the smoke.”

This statement cuts the extract into two pieces. The first piece deals with the mourning woman and the worried Geats, and the second with the construction of Beowulf’s barrow. Having such a stark sentence between these two things is an assertion of the need to carry on through crises and disasters. The peoples’ cries are not swallowed, nor are their worries. Only the smoke from the fire, only what can be expected from the mundane world. Yet, amidst this bleak pivot point for the passage, there is some hope.

The smoke reaches the heavens, and, once there, is accepted. In this single sentence the poet makes it clear that the world is temporary, but while people are in it they need to do what they can to improve it or at the least make it liveable. Thus, I don’t think that Beowulf’s barrow’s use as a landmark is just supposed to stand as a reminder of the fallen warrior’s glory, but as a metaphor for the things that people (or groups of people, as here) do to make life easier for others and for those who come next.

The sorrow and the worry of the Geats help no one, and so the heavens are indifferent to them. But the smoke heralds the death of a great hero who won glory in his youth and kept constant guard for his people’s good in his old age. Thus, the smoke, perhaps itself a metaphor for the most mundane of ways to transcend the physical world, is all that the heavens take in.

Back To Top
Closing

Next week we enter the closing stretch of Beowulf, as the man himself is laid to rest and the ceremony continues.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

Back To Top

Focused on the Fire (ll.3137-3149) [Old English]

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
A Translation Explained
Further on the Fire’s Remains
Closing

Back To Top
Abstract

Beowulf’s body is burned on his pyre, and even the fire mourns.

Back To Top
Translation

“For him the Geatish people then made ready
The splendid pyre in the earth,
hung round with helmets, with battle shields,
with gleaming mail coats, as he had requested.
Then they laid the renowned prince in the midst of
lamenting warriors, that dear lord.
The fighters then proceeded to kindle
that great funeral fire; wood smoke rose up
black over the blaze, the flame roared, mingling
with weeping – the swirling wind subsided – until
that blade had broken the body, proven hot to the
heart. Sad at the source, it threw about sorrowful
heat,and lamented grievously, killing the liege lord.”
(Beowulf ll.3137-3149)

Back To Top
Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

Back To Top
A Translation Explained

The conventional way to translate the part of this week’s passage relating to the mourners and the fire is to ascribe the sorrow to the people around the flame. However, because the idea that even the elements mourn Beowulf’s passing has a lot of appeal, I chose to translate it as such. Admittedly, this is partially a baseless translation since I don’t know if the Anglo-Saxons believed in any sort of pathetic fallacy.

Nonetheless, I’d like to think that they, or the Christians writing out Beowulf, would have had some sense of the world as a creation being an organic whole. As such, the loss of one part would elicit an organic reaction from the other parts, or maybe more in line with ideas and theories of Anglo-Saxon artistry, the loss of a knot or a link causes the whole to function differently. Thus, rather than just having the fire burn, the loss of Beowulf (and, indeed, inevitably of all the Geats), causes it to mourn in its own turn, and to reluctantly fulfil its duty to destroy and reduce to ash.

Back To Top
Further on the Fire’s Remains

That reduction to ash, although not really mentioned in this passage, is implicit, and important. As an elegy, Beowulf is cyclical to some extent. It begins with the mourning of Scyld Scyfing, then moves through Beowulf’s triumphs, and ends with the mourning of Beowulf himself. The concept that all humans follow a similar cycle is found in Christian religion, along with many others.

But the idea’s presence in Christianity is especially relevant, since the interwoven structure of the poem and the cycle of mourning-triumph-mourning work well to illustrate the rhythms of human achievement in a Christian perspective. Everything returns to dust, but also comes from that same dust.

At the heart of such a sentiment, the Anglo-Saxon idea that people are given a “loan of days” is right at home.

Back To Top
Closing

Next week, we’ll see the mysterious mourning woman, and hear about the construction of Beowulf’s monumental barrow.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

Back To Top

Dragons and Death (ll.3120-3136) [Old English]

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
The Dead Become Dragons?
Dealing with Dragons
Closing

Back To Top
Abstract

Wiglaf and several other Geats raid the hoard, and then bring Beowulf and their haul to Hronesness for the hero’s funeral.

Back To Top
Translation

Indeed the wise son of Weohstan
summoned a band of the king’s thanes,
seven together, those who were best,
he went with seven others, warriors,
under the evil roof; one bore in hand
a flaming torch, the one who went at the front.
There was no drawing of lots for the plundering of
that hoard, when the men saw that all parts of
the hall remained without a guardian,
for he lay wasting away; few of them grieved
as they hastily carried out those
dear treasures; the dragon also was pushed,
the serpent they slid over the sea cliff, let the waves
take him, the sea enfolded that guardian of precious
things. Then was wound gold loaded onto wagons,
everything in countless numbers, then was the prince borne,
the old warrior brought to Hronesness.
(Beowulf ll.3120-3136)

Back To Top
Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

Back To Top
The Dead Become Dragons?

There’s something to be said for efficiency. And, here efficiency could be something pointing towards a parallel that’s merely been suggested beforehand.

As far as the poem describes it, the Geats move Beowulf over to Hronesness in the same load, or at least trip, as the gold that they’ve taken from the hoard. Beowulf is certainly worthy to ride with such treasures, but laying him on this heap of heirlooms is really quite strange, especially if you consider what happens to the dragon.

It’s a small act, but there’s so much going on in it. The projection of value onto wealth, the equation of treasured objects with treasured people, perhaps even a glimpse into a philosophy of the soul. For, the Anglo-Saxons might have regarded the body as merely a vessel, much like the cups found in the hoard, something that can be shining and gold adorned, but that maybe has its greatest value when it is filled with mead, just as a body might have its greatest value while it still holds a soul.

Among the strangest of the things that it suggests (and this is something suggested by the act of burying people of high esteem with objects of high esteem), is that in death great people are made into what, if living, could be considered a dragon. They’re in a barrow, surrounded by gold, and, in the case of Beowulf, there is always flame nearby. Even in the case of people like Scyld Scefing, who were pushed off to sea in ships ladened with treasure and then put to flame, all of the key aspects of a dragon can be found.

Back To Top
Dealing with Dragons

Yet, what do the Geats do with a proper dragon? They just dump it over the cliff and let it fall into the water. Keeping the written Beowulf‘s Christian influences in mind, I wonder if doing so is as bad as dying in a fire is to the Greeks. In either case your body isn’t being properly preserved, which, strictly theologically speaking, means you will not be able to be judged come the second coming.

Moreover, though, it’s also a denial of the cyclical nature of life as laid down throughout the Bible: ‘people are dust and unto dust they will return.’ Perhaps, in a way, destroying a body but not burying it was intended as a way to keep another manifestation of that thing from appearing. If such is the case, then the ceremonial funerals of great figures from this period and earlier could be explained as a means of propagating greatness, or re-introducing it into the life-cycle.

But then, for a people like the Geats, who face difficulty on all sides and even among themselves believe they’ll be wiped out, what does such a funeral mean? Is it merely to be a monument to the greatest of a long forgotten people? Is it, in the case of Beowulf, just a convenient excuse to build a lighthouse?

Back To Top
Closing

Next week, Beowulf burns.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

Back To Top

Waxing Elegiac as Treasure Trickles (ll.3058-3068) [Old English]

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
A Use for Elegies
Gold-less Geats
Closing

Back To Top
Abstract

The poet steps back from the action to muse on the glorious futility of the Geats’ quest for the dragon’s gold.

Back To Top
Translation

“Then it was seen, that the journey for
that which was hidden in the earth swell
was for nought; the guard earlier slew
that one of joy; that one worked the feud,
and worked it wrathfully. It is a wonder
where any great man famed for courage will meet the end
of these loaned days, when he may no longer
dwell with his kinsmen in the mead hall.
So it was with Beowulf, when he the barrow’s
guardian sought, cunning enmity: none can know
through what means his own parting from this world will be.”
(Beowulf ll.3058-3068)

Back To Top
Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

Back To Top
A Use for Elegies

It’s true that none can know his or her end, but there’s some solace to be found in this sentiment.

After all, not knowing when or how you’ll die means it could happen at any time, and so this absence of knowledge presents you with two possibilities: dread and drive. Being an epic poem that celebrates the life of a legendary hero, it’s pretty clear that the poet intends to focus on the “drive” aspect of death’s mystery.

But why?

Well, given the widespread use of the elegiac in Anglo-Saxon literature (check out “The Seafarer,” or “Wulf and Eadwacer,” or “The Wanderer,” for just a few samples), it must have been a device that they found interesting or useful.

Perhaps Anglo-Saxons enjoyed a good elegy for the same reason that melancholy songs remain popular through to today. Such pieces of concentrated dreariness offer a useful contrast to people’s own personal problems, and the perspective that they give to listeners is often useful in brightening up their mood. This use of melancholy as a poultice for sorrow might also be why Christianity eventually found root with the Anglo-Saxons, since it is a religion with a truly elegiac figure at its center.

Back To Top
Gold-less Geats

It’s mentioned in passing on line 3059, but getting the treasure is never noted as the 12’s original goal in going to seek the dragon. In fact, Beowulf’s primary concern appears to be killing the monster, not revelling in its hoarded wealth. Nonetheless, this brief glimpse into a more adventurous motivation suggests how the hunt for treasure is always somewhere in the Anglo-Saxon mind.

What’s more, as it appears in this extract, the absence of treasure works as a shorthand for the loss that the Geats now suffer. Were they able to take the gold, it’s possible that they could try to buy their safety. Without those riches, however, the Geats lose yet another means of escaping their fate. They are leaderless, and now, they’re also treasureless.

Back To Top
Closing

Next week, the poet describes the curse put upon the gold. Check back here then for an enchanting read.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

Back To Top

Wondering about the Strange and the Draconic (ll. 3033-3046) [Old English]

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Dragon Gawking
Of Dragonkind
Closing

Back To Top
Abstract

The Geats come down to where Beowulf died, but are distracted by a more wondrous sight.

Back To Top
Translation

They found him on the sand where his soul left his body
emptily guarding his couch, he who had given rings
in days past; that was the final day
of that good man’s journey, indeed that great-king,
lord of the Weders, died a wondrous death.
Yet before that they saw a stranger creature,
opposite him there on the strand was the serpent, there
the loathed one lay: it was the dweller of the drake’s
den,the sombrely splattered horror, glowing like an
ember for its flames. It was full fifty feet long,
laying there; just days ago it knew
the joy of night-flight, keeping a searching eye out for
its den down below; it was held there in death,
never again would it know its earth den.
(Beowulf ll.3033-3046)

Back To Top
Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

Back To Top
Dragon Gawking

The first thing to ask after reading this passage is: Why does the dragon get so much attention?

It’s the “loathed” enemy (“laa[th]ne” l.3040), and Beowulf overcame it. So why spend nine lines going into detail about it?

There are a few possibilities here. The Anglo-Saxon audiences of the poem before it was written down probably had a good sense of a creature’s strength. More than likely, simply by hearing about him, her, or it, even. The prevalance and power of boasting among them definitely attests to such an idea. But any culture that can so readily size up opponents needs some sort of metric to go by. So, maybe, all of this extra detail about the dragon is provided to show how Beowulf is at least equal to the dragon, since they mutually slew one another.

Or, maybe the point of having such detail isn’t to compare it to Beowulf in terms of strength at all. Instead, maybe it’s more about their common strangeness. For, whatever a man’s boasts were in those days, few would have crossed paths with monsters as varied and powerful as those that Bwowulf scuffled with. In that sense, then, maybe this passage is suggesting that Beowulf himself should be viewed as a kind of monster. Or, at the very least, a wonder.

Maybe this is why Beowulf was bound together with a life of Saint Christopher, Wonders of the East, and a Letter of Alexander to Aristotle. Rather than being about a normal person going around the world and finding oddities, Beowulf offered audiences a glimpse into the perspective of a creature as rare and wonderful as dog-headed men, or a land over which thick darkness has settled.

Back To Top
Of Dragonkind

Matters of the dragon and Beowulf sharing the page in this excerpt aside, there’s the question of what kind of dragon it is. Given its description here, it sounds more like an Oriental dragon than an Occidental one. It must be rather thin (its fire burning through its skin can be seen long after it’s dead), it can fly but no real mention of wings is made in the poem, and, at least so far as I’m imagining it, it seems like it’s coiled up in death.

Why should the kind of dragon that Beowulf and Wiglaf defeated matter?

Well, one of the biggest influences on Beowulf (particularly its being written down) was Christianity. Of course, Christianity isn’t without its depictions of dragons. These, though, especially up to the early Medieval period, are generally of a serpentine beast that’s supposed to be the devil incarnate. Maybe there’s a bit of that here too, but it seems more likely that having a unique dragon is just another reason that the book was bound with fantastic tales from around the known world.

Back To Top
Closing

Next week, the poem moves from treasure-hoarder to treasure itself. Don’t miss it!

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

Back To Top

Scavenging Field and Page Alike (ll.3021b-3032) [Old English]

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
A Beastly Finish
A Curious Death March
Closing

Back To Top
Abstract

The messenger’s premonition ends with the beasts of battle, and the troop of Geats heads to where Beowulf and the dragon lay.

Back To Top
Translation

“‘The future will see hands habituated to hoisting
morning-cold spears,heaved by hand, not at all shall
the harp’s sweep stir warriors, but wan on the wing
the raven flying over the doomed will speak,
tell the eagle how he vomited and ate,
when he and the wolf reaved the dead.’
Such was the sentence of that speaker’s
dire speech; he did not deceive in
what he told and read of fate. The troop all arose,
went without joy beneath Eagle Cliff,
faces tear-torn, the terrible scene to see.”
(Beowulf ll.3021b-3032)

Back To Top
Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

Back To Top
A Beastly Finish

The messenger at last finishes his speech to those Geats gathered to hear word of their dear leader. And, as if he hadn’t been clear enough, he closes with mention of the emblematic beasts of battle.

These animals were closely associated with war in Anglo-Saxon culture because of their established presence on the battlefield. These are, after all, the animals that would swoop or scrounge in and savour the leavings of a battle. Except, perhaps, for the eagle. I mean, it seems more likely that the eagle would fly over a battle field in the hopes of finding a small rodent that’s a bit too curious.

Closing with these animals, which were neutral in and of themselves (they merely represented the destruction of war and nature’s way of restoring things to their former states), makes clear the slaughter that the Geats are in for. They can march away, forever in exile, but even then their lives will be ones of constant vigilance. For human armies can tire of such a chase, whereas nature never can, and the beasts are a symbol of that relentless power.

Back To Top
A Curious Death March

Up until this point, those to whom the messenger is speaking were some small distance from the cliffs where the battle took pace, and their march towards the awful spectacle can be nothing more than a heavy-footed trek. They already know what they will see, and it will not prove to be overwhelmingly positive.

Yet, this points towards something interesting. The Geats already know what happened, and still a troop of them go to see what are the ruins of their leader and their foe.

Perhaps the Anglo-Saxons had some belief around funerals that friends and family needed to see the corpse before it was buried or burned. Why would such a belief exist?

To allow people to confirm things, maybe. Or perhaps to offer people one final chance to see the deceased’s face. Or, still possible, the Geats go to see Beowulf because they believe a part of their soul is bestowed upon him, maybe making the afterlife an easier place for him to navigate.

Whatever the reason, next week they find Beowulf and the dragon. One is regarded with sorrow and the other with wonder – check out the next entry to find out which is which!

Back To Top
Closing

This coming week, watch for the next entry on Thursday. I’ll be done with the big draw on my freetime – editing an episode of the Doctor Who podcast TelosAM – by then. As a result, getting back to this blog’s regular schedule will not be an issue.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

Back To Top