Sometimes a dragon is just a dragon

The Original Old English
My Translation
A Quick Interpretation

The kind of dragon perfectly at home in Beowulf.

An Anglo-Saxon dragon, complete with treasure hoard. Image from

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Last week, the dragon started to get furious with the man who stole the golden cup and all his ilk.

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The dragon exacts its revenge the only way it knows how. And things really heat up because of it!

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The Original Old English

Ða se gæst ongan gledum spiwan,
beorht hofu bærnan; bryneleoma stod
eldum on andan. No ðær aht cwices
lað lyftfloga læfan wolde.
Wæs þæs wyrmes wig wide gesyne,
nearofages nið nean ond feorran,
hu se guðsceaða Geata leode
hatode ond hynde; hord eft gesceat,
dryhtsele dyrnne, ær dæges hwile.
Hæfde landwara lige befangen,
bæle ond bronde, beorges getruwode,
wiges ond wealles; him seo wen geleah.
(Beowulf ll. 2312-2323)

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My Translation

“Then the stranger among those lands started to spew forth flames,
it burned down all the bright dwellings thereabouts, the glow of fire
turned men stone still in terror. That hateful sky-flier
left nothing there alive.
The serpent’s onslaught was widely seen,
its cruelly hostile malice was clear to all from near and far.
That war-like ravager of the Geatish people
hated and humiliated them. Afterward it hastened to its hoard,
escaped to the secret splendid hall before the sun summoned daytime.
But with that night of ruin the dragon had encircled the people of the land,
ringed them about in burning fire and [b…] fear. While it was emboldened in
the safety of its barrow, his fighting power, his walls. But by that hope he was deceived.”
(Beowulf ll. 2312-2323)

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A Quick Interpretation

Because Beowulf is studied closely by so many people there are a lot of different interpretations out there. And, because monsters were commonly used as stand-ins for various concepts, people, and events in medieval literature this dragon is no exception.

One of the louder interpretations of the dragon that I remember hearing is that it is the Swedes. Yes, those Swedes, the ones that the Geats are in the middle of a feud with.

Before putting this post together, I was never entirely convinced by this interpretation.

Yes, the dragon is the biggest, baddest monster that Beowulf faces. And yes, it does the most damage. But my Catholic-raised brain was busy at work reading the dragon as something demonic or even devilish. Something much bigger than any mere group of people.

After all, how could something as powerful and otherworldly as a dragon represent a country when representing Satan as a dragon has been popular since the middle ages themselves, if not since the conception of the whole Satan/God binary dynamic in Christianity?

I mean, you’ve got the serpent in the story of the Garden of Eden, St. Michael pinning a rather draconic looking Satan (and the myriad saintly copycats, often with actual dragons), and later examples like William Blake’s painting of the Great Red Dragon of The Book of Revelation.

St. Michael binding Satan just like Beowulf will bind the dragon in death.

St. Michael binding a mostly humanoid, but leathery-winged and horned, Satan. Image from,_by_Raffaello_Sanzio,_from_C2RMF_retouched.jpg

William Blake's Great Red Dragon looming over a woman like the dragon looming over Geatland in Beowulf.

William Blake’s Great Red Dragon standing over the Woman Clothed in the Sun. Image from

Even today, I think that the conspiracy theories involving lizard people are just the modern version of the Western idea of dragons (lizards with human-like intelligence and power) as inherently evil or dangerous.

So why limit the dragon in Beowulf to being just some tribe of people?

But while I was translating and transcribing this week’s passage that interpretation finally clicked.

The utter destruction that the dragon brings. The fire that it leaves in its wake and has encircled the Geatish people with (l.2322). The fact that it “hated and humiliated” (“hatode ond hynde” (l.2319)) the Geats.

All of this sounds like it could be the work of a bunch of warriors.

Plus, reading the dragon as an enemy group works a bit more widely than the moralistic/allegorical reading that I had in mind.

If Beowulf is the hero of good, what does it mean for him to be an old, somewhat world-weary man? And if Beowulf is the paragon of good and the dragon the ultimate evil, then how does the thief and his lord fit into things? Not to mention dealing with all of the citizens of Geatland the dragon’s attack has affected.

So that dragon could be the Swedes. This part of the poem could be about the first massive attacks that start to weaken the Geats.

Once again, more than anything I’m blown away by how many layers this poem has. It’s simply incredible.

If you had come up with a theory for what the dragon ‘really” represents in this part of the poem what would your theory be?

Share your thoughts in the comments!

And, if you enjoyed this post give it a like and consider reblogging it.

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Next week, Beowulf busts back into the poem! But he’s a changed man.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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When the Beowulf dragon wakes, strife wakes with it

The Original Old English
My Translation
A Quick Interpretation

The kind of dragon perfectly at home in Beowulf.

An Anglo-Saxon dragon, complete with treasure hoard. Image from

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Last week, how the dragon came to be in the barrow was revealed. And we learned that the barrow thief brought the stolen cup to his lord. This man, captured by greed, commanded that the barrow treasure be dug up, and so the dragon’s wrath was woken.

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The dragon realizes that his treasure hoard is missing a golden cup. He sulks around his barrow and then decides to attack the countryside.

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The Original Old English

“þa se wyrm onwoc, wroht wæs geniwad;
stonc ða æfter stane, stearcheort onfand
feondes fotlast; he to forð gestop
dyrnan cræfte dracan heafde neah.
Swa mæg unfæge eaðe gedigan
wean ond wræcsið, se ðe waldendes
hyldo gehealdeþ! Hordweard sohte
georne æfter grunde, wolde guman findan,
þone þe him on sweofote sare geteode,
hat ond hreohmod hlæw oft ymbehwearf
ealne utanweardne, ne ðær ænig mon
on þære westenne; hwæðre wiges gefeh,
beaduwe weorces, hwilum on beorh æthwearf,
sincfæt sohte. He þæt sona onfand
ðæt hæfde gumena sum goldes gefandod,
heahgestreona. Hordweard onbad
earfoðlice oððæt æfen cwom;
wæs ða gebolgen beorges hyrde,
wolde se laða lige forgyldan
drincfæt dyre. þa wæs dæg sceacen
wyrme on willan; no on wealle læg,
bidan wolde, ac mid bæle for,
fyre gefysed. Wæs se fruma egeslic
leodum on lande, swa hyt lungre wearð
on hyra sincgifan sare geendod.”
(Beowulf ll.2287 – 2311)

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My Translation

“When the dragon awoke, strife stirred with him.
The drake moved quickly over the stones of his home, fierce-hearted.
He found the enemy’s track, the scent of he who had used stealth
and skill to creep close to his head, where the golden cup
had rested. Thus may he who is unfated to die easily survive
misery and exile, so it goes for the one who keeps
the Ruler’s favour. But the guardian of that hoard
searched eagerly along the ground, its fervent wish was to find
the one who had dealt so grievously with his cup as he slept.
Hot and fierce-hearted he often went all around
the outside of that barrow – yet not any man was there
in that deserted place. All the same, the dragon shook and postured
as if at war, as if he were in the midst of deeds of battle. At times he
took turns about the barrow, seeking that precious vessel. Immediately he
found that a man had tampered with his gold,
had his hands upon that rich treasure. The hoard guardian
waited with difficulty until evening came,
he was enraged and impatient, at last he decided
he would payback the precious drinking vessel
with hateful flames. As the day went by
the serpent seethed with desire; no longer could it
wait within the walls. Amidst its flames the wyrm burst forth,
ready with fire. That was but the beginning the terror the people
of that land suffered, and just so
it spelled a swift end to their quickly grieving treasure-giver.”
(Beowulf ll.2287 – 2311)

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A Quick Interpretation

Hunting down work as a freelancer is sometimes as full-time a job as the jobs you’re hunting. This is one of those times. Which means this week’s post is another poetry only piece. I do have a question, though:

If you had to a slay a dragon how would you do it?

Would you go all out and risk doing more damage to the area than the dragon would? Or would you try to be precise and tactical?

I’d try to be as strategic as possible – a dagger in the dragon’s soft spot is the surest end.

Share your answer in the comments!

And if you like my translation, please like this post. You could also follow this blog to see a new translation pop up in your feed every Thursday.

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Next week, the dragon brings fire to the countryside.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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The dragon settles in (and still no Beowulf)

The Original Old English
My Translation
A Quick Interpretation

The kind of dragon perfectly at home in Beowulf.

An Anglo-Saxon dragon, complete with treasure hoard. Image from

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In last week’s post we heard about the last survivor and the treasure he hid.

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The dragon finds the ancient hoard. Jump back to the present, where the man who stole the cup shows his lord and the hoard is dug up. They wake the dragon.

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The Original Old English

“Hordwynne fond
eald uhtsceaða opene standan,
se ðe byrnende biorgas seceð,
nacod niðdraca, nihtes fleogeð
fyre befangen; hyne foldbuend
swiðe ondrædað. He gesecean sceall
hord on hrusan, þær he hæðen gold
warað wintrum frod, ne byð him wihte ðy sel.
Swa se ðeodsceaða þreo hund wintra
heold on hrusan hordærna sum,
eacencræftig, oððæt hyne an abealch
mon on mode; mandryhtne bær
fæted wæge, frioðowære bæd
hlaford sinne. ða wæs hord rasod,
onboren beaga hord, bene getiðad
feasceaftum men. Frea sceawode
fira fyrngeweorc forman siðe.”
(Beowulf ll.2270b – 2286)

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My Translation

“The old ravager by night
later found that delightful hoard left open,
the burning one who seeks out barrows,
the slick, malicious dragon, flew into it by night,
enveloped in flame. The dwellers on the land thereabouts
greatly feared that drake. It delved deep
searching the earth for the depths of that hoard, which it guarded
through countless winters, kept watch over heathen gold,
useless treasure. That ravager of the people occupied the earth
hidden in the barricaded treasure house for three hundred years.
But then a man enraged that fire wyrm, stoked the fury of its heart.
To his lord the thief bore a gold-plated cup,
that man also offered a plea for peace with his lord —
a plea the lord heard as certainly as he saw the cup’s glint.
Then the hoard was ransacked, the piles of rings and trinkets was diminished,
that wretched man’s request was granted. His lord leered at
the ancient work of long dead men for the first time.”
(Beowulf ll.2270b – 2286)

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A Quick Interpretation

I’m short on time this week and busy over the weekend, so it’s just the poem this week. But I will leave you all with a question:

The dragon in Beowulf is just one of many versions of the mythical creature. What’s your favourite dragon from fiction, video games, or TV/Movies?

Mine would have to be Naydra from the Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. She’s just a coolly beautiful creature:

The dragon Naydra from Legend of Zelda Breath of the Wild: not quite like the dragon in Beowulf.

Link stands before the dragon Naydra. Image from

Share your favourite dragon in the comments! And give this post a like if you enjoyed the translation.

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Next week, the dragon gets all het up.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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The stories embodied in the Beowulf manuscript

The Original Old English
My Translation
A Quick Interpretation

Beowulf is protected from dragon fire by his shield while treasure awaits.

An illustration of Beowulf fighting the dragon that appears at the end of the epic poem. Illustration in the children’s book Stories of Beowulf (H. E. Marshall). Published in New York in 1908 by E. P. Dutton & Company. Image found at

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The dragon appears and we hear its story.

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The Original Old English

“he geheold tela
fiftig wintra (wæs ða frod cyning,
eald eþelweard), oððæt an ongan
deorcum nihtum draca ricsian,
se ðe on heaum hofe hord beweotode,
stanbeorh steapne; stig under læg,
eldum uncuð. þær on innan giong
niða nathwylc, se ðe neh gefeng
hæðnum horde, hond ……,
since fahne. He þæt syððan ……,
þeah ðe he slæpende besyred wurde
þeofes cræfte; þæt sie ðiod onfand,
bufolc beorna, þæt he gebolgen wæs.
Nealles mid gewealdum wyrmhord abræc
sylfes willum, se ðe him sare gesceod,
ac for þreanedlan þeow nathwylces
hæleða bearna heteswengeas fleah,
ærnes þearfa, ond ðær inne fealh,
secg synbysig, sona onfunde
þæt þær ðam gyste gryrebroga stod;
hwæðre earmsceapen
þa hyne se fær begeat.
Sincfæt ……; þær wæs swylcra fela
in ðam eorðhuse ærgestreona,
swa hy on geardagum gumena nathwylc,
eormenlafe æþelan cynnes,
þanchycgende þær gehydde,
deore maðmas. Ealle hie deað fornam
ærran mælum, ond se an ða gen
leoda duguðe, se ðær lengest hwearf,
weard winegeomor, wende þæs ylcan,
þæt he lytel fæc longgestreona
brucan moste.”
(Beowulf ll.2209-2241a)

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My Translation

“He ruled them well for fifty winters,
indeed Beowulf became a wise king,
an aged lord of the realm — until one began to trouble them;
in the dark of night a prowling dragon appeared.
The wyrm held a treasure in his high hall,
all beneath a steep stone roof, led to by a narrow footpath
unknown to men. There into the abyss stumbled
someone or other … who seized by hand from that heathen hoard …
a gleaming treasure that he afterward …
though the dragon slept he had outwitted
it with a thief’s wiles. Soon the people thereabouts,
those under the shield of the local lord, discovered
that the thief’s act unlocked the serpent’s rage. Though
not at all with evil intent did the thief break into the dragon’s hoard,
it was not for his own greedy desire, he had been sorely opressed.
For three nights that slave turned thief
had fled the blows of a prince of men,
he delved into the dragon’s den by need, then entering in
as a man ridden with guilt. Shortly he discovered
that … the man stood terror struck,
which the miserable …
… made … that fed his own fear, treasure piece
… there were many such pieces
of ancient heirlooms in that earthen house.
For there in earlier times some man or other,
had left a huge legacy of noble kin,
thoughtfully buried the treasures there,
those precious pieces of their story. He and all his kin
had since been carried off by death in former times.
But the last one left of that noble people, he who was the eldest,
a barrow guard grieving for lost friends buried them, knowing indeed
that he would little enjoy those grand and
beautiful treasures apart from all his kin.”
(Beowulf ll.2209-2241a)

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A Quick Interpretation

Once the dragon comes front and center, the poem itself takes a beating. Every one of the ellipses seen in this week’s passage represents an illegible part of the original text of Beowulf.

I’m not sure what exactly caused this crop of ellipses, but there are a few possibilities. As with all old books, it’s possible that these pages are worm-eaten. Or they may have just decayed because the Nowell Codex was sometimes kept in damp conditions. Or, since the Nowell Codex survived a fire, those missing bits of the poem may have been, appropriately, burned up.

Even setting aside everything that happened to it, it’s impressive that the Nowell Codex (and the copy of Beowulf within) survived for so long. It would be incredible to be able to go see the thing in person, but living on the other side of the Atlantic makes that kind of hard.

Though, what would make seeing the Beowulf manuscript in person special would be the chance to interact with the story’s physical embodiment. I mean, the Beowulf manuscript is a physical copy of a story that’s proliferated like its own species of animal. Going to see it manuscript in person would be like meeting with the first primate that walked upright (though with much less growling, I’d think).

Plus it would give me a new appreciation of all the work that went into bringing the Nowell Codex together.

After all, the poet didn’t just get lucky and find someone willing to publish them, give a fat advance, and send them out on a book tour.

The Beowulf poet got lucky enough to have their work written down on material that would last centuries. And that material came from several sheep and could take days, maybe weeks, to prepare. Beowulf was committed to bound paper at a time when books were truly treasured. So, to see that kind of labour of love up close would be fascinating.

And who knows. Maybe, even through the white gloves I’d need to wear to be in the room with it, contact with the pages of the Nowell Codex would trigger a psychic link to one of its scribes. And through that link I’d gain a greater understanding of why Beowulf was bunched together with letters about far away places and a homily on St. Christopher.

But that fan-fic is for another time. (Is there even such a thing as fanfiction about books?)

I guess for now I’ll just have to check out the digital version on the British Library’s site.

What’s your favourite old book? If you’re a book collector, do you have any first editions? What makes them special to you?

Feel free to share your answers in the comments.

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Next week, the grieving barrow guard gives a speech.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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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)

All Hail the King of the Danes
Peoples and Sorrows

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

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

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“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)

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Old English:


Modern English:


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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?

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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?

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

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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

Myth on Myth
Passing Judgement on Words

Beowulf, Old English, translation, poetry

Beowulf fighting the dragon. There are striking similarities between this fight and Sigemund’s. Image found at

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

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“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)

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Old English:


Modern English:


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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?

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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?

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

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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