Beowulf and the Creationist: A lesson in critical thinking

Maybe it’s possible that, ceolocanth-like, one or two species of dinosaur lived on into the ancient Greek world. Maybe one even made it far enough to meet a knight or medieval king. Although, if the stories are to be taken literally, any dinosaur in such a situation would be summarily slain.

As an explanation for the dragon in fiction, the idea that some giant lizard from a long lost age doesn’t seem too far fetched if you limit it to the stories that early sailors no doubt told about giant sea serpents. These kinds of stories could have easily inspired the the water-based dragons of stories like Perseus and Andromeda. From there, poets and artists could have easily added their own twist to the terrible monster of the deep by bringing it onto land, letting it breathe fire, and having it fly on enormous leathery wings.

But to think that the flying dragon of medieval Europe was itself a dinosaur is a little too much. And claiming that the dragon that terrorizes the Geats in the last third of Beowulf is an eye-witness account of a dinosaur is downright dumb. Yet, according to this article, that’s exactly what geologist Andrew Snelling claimed when reporter Charles Wolford asked about the matter.

Now, Snelling is a staunch creationist. Wolford caught up with him at the Noah’s Ark theme park in Williamstown, Kentucky. So Snelling’s understanding of the world’s history is necessarily compressed. But to think that a dragon’s being in Beowulf is eye-witness proof is problematic on two levels.

First, there are no fossils (as far as I know) for a dinosaur that’s long and serpentine like a Chinese dragon but that also has wings like the dragon on the Welsh flag. Even setting that aside in the “physical evidence category,” I also know of now dinosaur which paleontologists believe could breathe fire. There are a lot of “what if” books about this point of dragon physiology, and many of them try to be as “scientific” as possible. But these books, like Beowulf, are fiction.

Which brings me to my second point. The use of Beowulf‘s dragon as evidence that humans and dinosaurs lived together at some point in the past is a fantastic example of people picking and choosing what they want to get out of a story. Because if the dragon is a real monster, then so too must Grendel and Grendel’s mother be based on real monsters.

Now, I’ve spent a lot of time making the case that Grendel and Grendel’s mother are sympathetic characters, maybe even the remnants of a displaced clan of people. But even if they were inspired by such, the details that we’re given about them in the poem are far from being based in reality.

Grendel is immune to weapons made of iron. But I can guarantee that 10 out of 10 people who try to nick themselves with an iron knife will bleed – humans are not iron resistant.

Along similar lines, Grendel’s blood melted the blade of an ancient sword. I’m guessing that most people who are reading this have bled before, and probably didn’t have the bandage or tissue they used to staunch the bleeding melt away as the red stuff spilled out onto these pads.

So if people like Snelling want to say that Beowulf is proof that humans and dinosaurs co-existed, then they must also believe that there are humanoids on earth that bleed a kind of acid and who are immune to iron weapons.

Now, I feel like I’ve come down a little hard on Snelling. And I kind of mean to.

After all, I think that there is some truth both philosophical and historical in Beowulf.

The prevalence of trolls and dragons in stories suggests that they were popular for a reason, though I don’t think that it’s because they were ever real in the way that ancestral swords were. I understand Beowulf as being historically reflective of tropes and metaphors and ideas that were popular when it was written.

It’s one thing to say that, for example, Beowulf took on the people of early Sweden and died in a pyrrhic victory, but it’s much more interesting and hardcore to say that he fought a dragon that was terrorizing his people and died doing so. Making a battle with a dragon the climax of a story about a man whose power makes him as monstrous as the monsters he fights is just far more suiting than saying that he died fighting some war.

Likewise, let’s say that there’s a historical analogy for the first two thirds of the poem. If so, then it’s much more heroic and exciting to read about a man defeating two monsters that no one has even got close to scratching for twelve years than to read about a bully from Geatland coming in and killing off the last two of a tribe of people who have an ancestral claim to the lands where Heorot stands.

Part of the power of fiction is embellishment, and when we forget that, we leave ourselves open to looking very foolish indeed.

But that’s also what makes knowing the difference between fiction and fact and knowing how fiction can be given the sheen of fact (think fake news) that makes thinking critically about what we read incredibly important. And what Snelling’s interpretation of Beowulf teaches us here is that it’s important to think just as critically about what gets written today as what was written 1000 and more years ago.

The subversive power of the poet’s song, people and sadnesses (ll.898-906)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
All Hail the King of the Danes
Peoples and Sorrows
Closing

Beowulf, Anglo-Saxons. poetry

King Harold out for a hunt on the Bayeux Tapestry, no doubt a song was sung soon after. Image found at http://regia.org/research/misc/pastimes.htm.

Back To Top
Abstract

The poet’s song turns from Sigemund and his glorious victory to look instead at a man defeated: Heremod.

Back To Top
Translation

“His fame was pushed most widely
among the nations, protector of warriors,
for deeds of courage — he prospered from then after —
after Heremod retired from war,
his strength and courage; he against the Jutes
had his power stolen in ambush and his force
was quickly slain. His sorrow oppressed him
far too long; to his people he waned,
to all his nobles his life grew too full of care.”
(Beowulf ll.898-906)

Back To Top
Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

Back To Top
All Hail the King of the Danes

Although there’s no poet interjecting here to keep things from getting messy, this passage is dangerous.

Earlier, before this poet on horseback started to sing of Sigemunde, there was some noise made about everyone praising Beowulf, but being happy with Hrothgar as their king. In fact, the poet goes so far as to give Hrothgar one of the highest epithets: “that was a good king!” (“þæt wæs god cyning” (l.863)).

In light of this passage, though, there could be some sarcasm in that earlier statement.

Here we’re told how Sigemund’s fame grew after he beat the dragon and stole away its treasure, bringing it to his own people. In fact, it even sounds like Sigemund had some sort of happy homecoming because of his courageous deed. In fact, it sounds like he might have been in that far country where the poet alleged his story of the hero came from because of some sort of exile. And, what’s more, possibly exile at the hands of king Heremod. After the first three lines, the poet shifts over to this figure of lore.

Heremod is king of the Danes, and when we meet him here he is the very picture of melancholy. Having suffered a great loss when fighting the Jutes (maybe the giants? the word used is “eotena” which could mean either), Heremod falls into a depression and loses his warlike demeanour. He must’ve been some battler since his entire court is thrown into disarray when he no longer steps out to campaign or bring in treasure from raids.

As a reader of Anglo-Saxon culture as much as Anglo-Saxon poetry, this passage — the poet’s song on horseback in general — is supposed to show the two examples of great man that stand before Beowulf — the man triumphant in Sigemund and the leader who is shackled by shame and fear in Heremod. Later on, Hrothgar talks more explicitly about Heremod as a bad king (the kind Beowulf should not be), but right now this whole thing being an example for Beowulf is just implied.

But it’s really hard to not see it as a subversion of the poet’s saying “the people thought Beowulf was great! But, oh yeah, they still like Hrothgar, too.” I mean, you’ve got the young hero Sigemund who’s just reversed his fortunes by defeating the dragon and winning the treasure and that’s pretty much Beowulf. Sure, our hero hasn’t fought a dragon yet, but he’s beaten Grendel and won great fame that’s quickly spread thanks to the treasure that Grendel left: his arm and claw. Then you’ve got Heremod, the man who sits in his court and bemoans his defeat. Isn’t that too much like the Hrothgar of the last 12 years for any sort of analogy or parallel to be made?

So I think this passage is the poet insinuating that Beowulf could become the new ruler of the Danes. But we can’t know for sure until we get the rest of the story in the next part of the poem.

How subversive do you think the poem Beowulf is? Is it just some light entertainment? Or is it about the young overtaking the old? Or is Beowulf a Christianized Germanic hero bringing new vibrancy to an old tradition?

Back To Top
Peoples and Sorrows

Maybe it’s because sorrow and pitched battle are involved in this passage, but compound words are coming back! Actually, it wouldn’t surprise me if their reappearance was due more to the depression and sorrow of Heremod. If Anglo-Saxon poets wove their words into tangles to accurately represent war, then surely they could do the same to represent the complexities of the deep sadness the old king’s experiencing.

Anyway. Onto the words.

First in the passage, on line 899, is “wer-þeod,” a combination of “wer” (meaning “male being,” “man,” “husband,” “legal money-equivalent of a person’s life,” “a man’s legal value,” “dam,” “fish-trap,” “catch,” “draught,” “troop,” or “band”) and þeod (meaning “people,” “nation,” “tribe,” “region,” “country,” “province,” “men,” “war-troop,” “retainers,” “Gentiles,” “language,” or “fellowship”). This compound is taken to mean “folk,” “people,” or “nation,” and I can see why. It could literally be translated as “people of men.”

But, of course, there are some very interesting nuances to both of these words.

With “wer” we get a look into the Anglo-Saxon idea of the value of life in that the word can mean the “legal money-equivalent of a person’s life,” or “a man’s legal value.” Of course, it has to be noted that a monetary value was attached to human life in Anglo-Saxon society because of law makers’ attempts to control rampant feuding. So, if you happened to kill someone from that group over there, they wouldn’t have to come and kill you, you could just pay that group the value of the life you took and the feud would be called off (legally, anyway). This bunch of laws is an unfortunate imposition since it might’ve been used to turned a few lives into bits of silver, but still. This concept helped to keep people from endlessly feuding so they could do other things. Plus, I bet these laws had some repercussions on ideas of manliness that have resonated down through the centuries, too.

The other half of this compound similarly has some neat meanings. Like “Gentiles” or “language.” In combination with the former, the compound could mean the collection of those who weren’t Jewish, those who weren’t chosen by God. In light of the Anglo-Saxons trying to identify with the Jews of Exodus, a people in search of a homeland, referring to the Danes as Gentiles even through vague implication is interesting. And as a story about pre-Christian times, this meaning seems unlikely to be a coincidence. At the least, I can see the poet smiling after the fact and considering himself very clever indeed for using “wer-þeod where he has.

But combining “wer” with the “language” sense of “þeod” is where things really pick up. The sense of such a combination is that all of those who speak the same language are one group. That’s a really cool idea!

But I digress, since there’re other compounds to get to.

Like the less mysterious “sorh-wylmas.” This combination of “sorg” (“sorrow,” “pain,” “grief,” “trouble,” “care,” “distress,” or “anxiety”) and “wielm” (“boiling,” “swelling,” “surge,” “billow,” “current,” “stream,” “burning,” “flame,” “inflammation,” “fervour,” “ardour,” or “zeal”) means “wave of sorrow.” And its constituent parts don’t really make that meaning a secret. Though I suppose there’s a bit more colour to the idea of a wave of sorrow if you add in the sense of that wave being arduous or zealous. It’s not just a lazy lolling mass of sadness washing over you, but the sort of wave a ship in the middle of the sea might encounter while in a storm’s clutches.

Then, rounding out the bunch but being strangest of the three is “aldor-cearu” of line 906. Meaning “great sorrow,” this one combines “ealdor” (“elder,” “parent,” “ancestors,” “civil or religious authority,” “chief,” “leader,” “master,” “lord,” “prince,” “king,” “source,” “primitive,” “life,” “vital part,” “age,” “old age,” or “eternity”) with “cearu” (a form of “carig” carrying meanings like “sorrowful,” “anxious,” or “grievous”).

“Cearu” is pretty straightforward. But “ealdor” much less so. This one could combine with the former to mean a few shades of “great sorrow.” It could be old sorrow, implying that it’s the sort of sorrow that’s sat and festered for years; it could mean that it is a princely sorrow, a sorrow that comes with the responsibility of ruling over a people; or it could be seen as the sorrow that simply comes with age, the regret and feelings of inadequacy a person experiences as they inevitably compare their present selves to their younger, remembered as happier and stronger, selves. It’s definitely a worthy companion to the much simpler “sorh-wylmas,” though, since both carry a heavy weight with them.

If you agree that the language of the poem is intentionally more complex around descriptions of battles and of sorrow, what do you make of it? Is treating sorrow as the same sort of complex ordered mess as a battle accurate, or just a weak comparison? What do you think of all of this if you don’t agree that the language’s complexity is intentional?

Back To Top
Closing

In the next post, the story of Heremod wraps up.

Back To Top

Beowulf gets introspective, even plain words can be lovely (ll.884b-897)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Myth on Myth
Passing Judgement on Words
Closing

Beowulf, Old English, translation, poetry

Beowulf fighting the dragon. There are striking similarities between this fight and Sigemund’s. Image found at https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/6f/Beowulf_and_the_dragon.jpg.

Back To Top
Abstract

The poet in the poem sings of Sigemund defeating the dragon alone and winning its treasures.

Back To Top
Translation

      “Sigemund’s fame saw
no small surge after his death day,
after ward in cruel combat he killed the dragon,
the hoard’s guardian. Under the grey stone,
the nobleman’s son, alone he dared to do
the dangerous deed; Fitela was not with him then;
without that comrade, he plunged his sword through
the wondrous wyrm, so that it stuck in the wall,
that lordly iron; the dragon died its death.
His courage over the foe won him its treasure fully,
so that he the ring hoards had to give
as he saw fit; a boat they loaded,
they bore in the ship’s bosom bright treasures,
Waels’ son; the hot wyrm melted.”
(Beowulf ll.884b-897)

Back To Top
Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

Back To Top
Myth on Myth

We’ve got another simple, straightforward type passage here. Though it begs an important question: what’s the story of Sigemund doing here? It’s something that the poet on horseback has conjured up out of his knowledge of the hero, and there are definitely analogues to Beowulf. Though these analogues are really only present if you’re already familiar with Beowulf. Otherwise, all of the talk of Sigemund fighting the dragon and winning is just foreshadowing. Weirdly, though, the exact phrase “under the grey stone” (“under harne stan” (l.887)) comes up when Beowulf faces the dragon in the last third of Beowulf. Anyway, I think what’s going on here with the analogues to Beowulf — his slaying a dragon, driving the sword through a dragon who guarded a bunch of treasure,and the dragon being liquid in some way — is a bit of play with the nature of myth and legend.

Where Sigemund beats the dragon and lives, Beowulf beats his dragon but dies in the process. Nonetheless, as spoils Beowulf gains control over the dragon’s hoard much like Sigemunde does. Though this control passes from Beowulf to his own Fitela figure: Wiglaf. These twists on the events of the Sigemunde story — Beowulf’s death, his Fitela being with him — I think are the poet trying to make the myth of Beowulf more realistic. Maybe it’s even the product of an imagination that knew that the age of deathless heroes who earned great glory forever was past. So, perhaps with Sigemund foreshadowing or contrasting with Beowulf the poet is trying to make sense of what a mythic figure might look like in a world with a new religious system that overturned much of what went before and in an era in which law and order were starting to centralize. Heroes were still needed in this new world, they were still craved, but the shifting realities of the Anglo-Saxons (or maybe their blending Germanic, Roman, and Celtic traditions and ideas into a single culture) forced them to create a hero who followed the mythic formula of fighting a dragon and triumphing, but whose glorious victory cost him his life. The point perhaps being: “glory comes at a great cost these days. Be wary of glory.”

It’s also interesting that when the ring hoard of the dragon comes into Sigemund’s possession it’s not a cause for celebration because he has the treasure for himself. Instead, it’s a great event because Sigemund’s able to spread the wealth among his closest relations. Beowulf also celebrates the gain of the treasure not as a personal victory but as one for his people.

How much do you think is going on with this story of Sigemund? Is it here because the poet’s trying to say something about heroes? Or just something sung while the people of Heorot rejoice?

Back To Top
Passing Judgement on Words

I’m starting to wonder if the language of the poem is getting simpler as this other poet sings because of how the actual poet wants this in-tale poet to look. If the actual poet of Beowulf is trying to put his all into it, then there can’t be a poet in the story who’s use of language is more complex or descriptive, right?

Anyway, the simplicity of the language throughout this section means that there aren’t many compound words. And generally when there are, they’re pretty simple.

The word “beah-hordes” meaning “ring hoard” is the only compound of note in the passage for this entry. It’s a combination of the word “beah” (meaning “ring,” “coil,” “bracelet,” “collar,” “crown,” or “garland”) and “hord” (meaning “hoard,” or “treasure”). And that’s really all there is to it. Combining these two words really does nothing more than specify the kinds of rings that you’re dealing with. Not much more fantastical stuff beyond that, really.

But, there are two words in the passage for this entry that do offer a little more. Even if they’re perfectly normal, singular words.

The first of these is “dōm” a word meaning “doom,” “judgement,” “ordeal,” “sentence,” “decree,” “law,” “ordinance,” “custom,” “justice,” “equity,” “opinion,” “advice,” “choice,” “option,” “free will,” “condition” “authority,” “supremacy,” “majesty,” “power,” “might,” “reputation,” “dignity,” “glory,” “honour,” “splendour,” “court,” “tribunal,” “assembly,” “meaning,” or “interpretation.”

What makes “dōm” stand out is that in the context of the passage it means “glory” or “reputation,” meanings that are kind of a ways down the list. But even so, it’s not an interesting word because its in-context meaning is low on its list of meanings. The word itself seems to really express what underpins reputation, and therefore fame, in a very neutral way.

Judgement underlies fame, after all. And, weirdly, in Modern English the connotations have shifted, since to us “fame” generally seems like a good thing while “judgement” feels like it’s the face of a beast called guilt. Maybe there’s something to say here about the perceptions of judgement and the cultural influence of Christianity, a religion promising judgement with eternal consequences.

But in Old English, the sense of “dōm” meaning judgement and its forms and offshoots is much more neutral. Simply put, you need to be judged to have a reputation or fame, so “dōm” covers a lot of this area of meaning. Maybe because it also seems to be a general sort of word. It’s used as it is here to mean” reputation or “fame” and it’s used elsewhere to refer to divine judgement and elsewhere still to refer to the day the world ends in judgement (so I guess its appearances in Old English are soaked in Christianity, too). But maybe more than anything it all just comes from the Old English “dōm” being narrowly cognate with our own “doom,” a much much more streamlined term for having been judged and found wanting, or for hopeless consequences.

The other weird word in this passage is much lighter. In line 887, the poet describes the dragon as the “hierde” of his hoard of treasure. The use for the sake of alliteration here is supremely obvious, but I still find it neat that the word for “shepherd,” “herdsman,” “guardian,” “keeper,” or “pastor” could be stretched in this way.

A “guardian” makes sense in reference to gold, as does a “keeper.” But what about the sense of guidance in “shepherd,” “herdsman,” and “pastor”? How could you guide a hoard of treasure, especially if you weren’t sharing or spending it, but just sitting on it as dragons do? Maybe there’s a bit of foreshadowing in this sense of the word, or even a judgement passed on the dragon, since when Sigemund becomes master of the treasure he does much more to guide it into the hands of his people. There’s a Christ analogy here, too, with the dragon as Satan or a pre-Christian deity, while Sigemund, going it alone under the grey stone (itself perhaps a reference to Jesus going into the sealed tomb after the crucifixion, or even a reference to the harrowing of hell) is the Christ figure and the treasure is salvation, which Sigemund gives freely.

Old English words have a lot of different shades of meaning to them. Do you think the same is still true with Modern English, or, as English has changed over the years its vocabulary has become specialized?

Back To Top
Closing

In the next passage, we hear how Sigemund’s victory affected his home and old king Heremod’s court.

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.

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!

Back To Top

Appraising a Dagger via a Sword

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Reading Steel
Ouroboros Slinks in
Closing

{A modern replica of an Anglo-Saxon “seax” (or dagger). Image found on Englisc Gateway}

Back To Top
Abstract

The messenger sent by Wiglaf tells the waiting people of Beowulf’s fate, and Wiglaf’s steadfastness.

Back To Top
Translation

“‘Now is the Weder’s gracious giver,
the lord of the Geats, fast in his deathbed,
gone to the grave by the dragon’s deed:
Beside him, in like state, lay the
mortal enemy, dead from dagger wounds; for that sword
could not work any wound whatever on
that fierce foe. Wiglaf sits
by Beowulf’s side, the son of Weohstan,
a warrior watching over the unliving other,
holding vigil over the Geats’ chief,
he sits by the beloved and the reviled.'”
(Beowulf ll.2900-2910a)

Back To Top
Recordings

Old English:

Modern English:

Back To Top
Reading Steel

The emphasis that the messenger puts on the dagger is strange. It’s not that he goes out of his way to praise it, but the fact that he makes it clear that the sword was useless. This extra detail suggests that the sword was indeed considered the proper, noble weapon, while the dagger held a lower position on the symbolic/social scale of weapons. Nonetheless, the connotation of Beowulf’s dagger use underlines just what the Geats lose when they lose Beowulf.

It was likely standard among Anglo-Saxons to carry a dagger of some kind with them, along with their swordbelt. However, even in the heat of the moment, the poet peels things back and tells us that Beowulf wore his dagger on his hip/byrnie.

So was the wearing of a smaller blade a new thing with Beowulf’s generation? Was it simply the garb of a proper warrior? Why does the poet specify where Beowulf wore his dagger?

Such a small detail, though potentially of some historical or cultural significance, is more likely than not just an example of the poet filling out his poetic meter. The mention of the sword’s failure, as an explanation for the use of the dagger definitely shows that the messenger is true to his word – he leaves out no detail.

And that honesty opens up the other side of the issue, it seems very likely that the sword is only mentioned to excuse the dagger. In fact, if you’ve read Beowulf enough times, you can almost see the crowd rolling their eyes and thinking that Beowulf’s just being Beowulf, being too strong for any sword and whatnot.

Back To Top
Ouroboros Slinks in

Yet, if we turn the mention of the dagger again, then there’s the matter of the dragon’s existence in the story being cyclical. The dragon appears because a thief steals from its hoard.

A dagger is weapon of favour among those who prize stealth (like thieves) – hence the modern genre tag “cloak and dagger” – and so is likely to be a thief’s weapon. The dragon is killed with a dagger, and so the dragon’s existence in the story is something of a closed system. A noble sword is wielded, but in the end what woke the dragon must put it back to its rest.

Back To Top
Closing

Next week, watch for the prognostications of the messenger on Thursday! I’ll also be uploading links to any British/Medieval archaelogical news that I come across.

Back To Top

Two Fallen Greats [ll.2821-2835] (Old English)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Showing Mourning
Seeking Meaning
Closing

{A dramatic rendition of the dragon battle that gives it an intense, resonant scope. Image found on Zouch Magazine & Miscellany.}

Back To Top
Abstract

A reflection on Beowulf’s death dwells on the dragon.

Back To Top
Translation

“That which had happened was painfully felt
by the young man, when he on the ground saw
that dearest one pitiably suffering
at his life’s end. The slayer also lay so,
the terrible earth dragon was bereaved of life,
by ruin overwhelmed. In the hoard of rings no
longer could the coiled serpent be on guard,
once he by sword edge was carried off,
hard, battle-sharp remnant of hammers,so
that the wide flier by wounds was still and
fallen on earth near the treasure house. Never
after did he move about through the air by flight
in the middle of the night, in his rich possession
glorying, never could he make more appearances,
since he fell to earth at the war leader’s deed of the
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsphand.”
(Beowulf ll.2821-2835)

Back To Top
Recordings

Old English:

Modern English:

Back To Top
Showing Mourning

The first question to surface here, like the hideous sea beasts pulled from Grendel’s Mother’s mire, is why a section of the poem that’s showing Wiglaf’s grief for Beowulf immediately after his death dwells so long on the dragon rather than Beowulf.

It could be that the poet/scribe went this way because so much of the rest of the poem is given over to Beowulf. Or it could be that Wiglaf’s attention is simply drawn to the dragon because of the sheer spectacle of the sight. Though, it could also be that Wiglaf looks over to the dragon for the sake of contrast, to put off the reality of Beowulf’s death for just a short time so that he, as all but Beowulf’s named successor, can have a brief respite before he must coldly go forth and fulfil his duty as the new Geatish leader.

Of course, it could also be the poet’s own voice that pulls away from Wiglaf at this point, leaving his perspective behind for a time to turn a little more omniscient, and to give us, the listers/readers a view of the dragon as it lay dead so that we can contrast it with Beowulf.

Back To Top
Seeking Meaning

Germanic culture widely held that dragons were symbols of the greed that would undermine the gift-centric Germanic society. So perhaps the focus on the dragon and the recounting of how it can no longer do anyone any harm suggests that greed itself has been defeated, and by one so noble as to sacrifice his own good for going against the advice of his counsel and fighting the dragon.

Maybe even the defeat of greed and the destruction of the Geats themselves that is an almost inevitable result (since they’re now kingless and sitting on all of this gold) are related.

If this version of the poem is as Christian as some believe, then this shift over to the dragon shouldn’t be read as Wiglaf’s or the poet/scribe’s attempt to contrast a death with a death, but instead as a way to show that the perfection of a society through the defeat of its greatest evil leaves that society at its end.

If Beowulf was ever used as a missionary tale, then this part of the poem could well be that which attempts to sooth potential converts into the belief that in becoming Christian their previous beliefs die off and they enter into something more perfect.

Or, again, their physical being ends, but just as Beowulf persisted up until he defeats his society’s major evil, so too would the spirit of the assimilated society persist in its people. Plus, missionaries would probably say the new converts were all imbued with the spark of life that, in the Christian tradition, is generally regarded as a spoken thing – just as this story itself would’ve been at the time, even after having been written out.

Back To Top
Closing

So could this episode in the Beowulf saga be another key moment in the use of the poem as missionary propaganda, or is it just the poet/scribe’s representation of Wiglaf’s mourning? Leave a comment in the box to let me know your thoughts!

Next week, stanza three of “Dum Diane vitrea” will drop, and Wiglaf meets the cowardly thanes as they slink onto the scene.

Back To Top