Is it fate, god, or a dragon from Beowulf’s past?

Recap
Synopsis
The Original Old English
My Translation
A Quick Interpretation
Closing

The hall of Beowulf in a flaming ruin because of a dragon as seen in Blogger's Beowulf and decreed by fate and god.

What Beowulf’s hall probably looked like after the dragon attacked. Image from https://pixabay.com/en/funeral-pyre-fire-may-fire-flame-232504/


Back To Top
Recap

Last week, the dragon continued its attack on the countryside. It destroyed people’s homes and towns as it sought vengeance against the thief and his lord.


Back To Top
Synopsis

Beowulf is told about the dragon melting his hall. This leads Beowulf to wonder what he’s done to deserve this.


Back To Top
The Original Old English

“þa wæs Biowulfe broga gecyðed
snude to soðe, þæt his sylfes ham,
bolda selest, brynewylmum mealt,
gifstol Geata. þæt ðam godan wæs
hreow on hreðre, hygesorga mæst;
wende se wisa þæt he wealdende
ofer ealde riht, ecean dryhtne,
bitre gebulge. Breost innan weoll
þeostrum geþoncum, swa him geþywe ne wæs.”
(Beowulf ll.2324–2332)


Back To Top
My Translation

“Then was Beowulf told of that terror,
in a voice trembling with speed and truth, he heard that his own home,
the best of buildings, had been melted in a surge of fire,
the gift seat of the Geats. That good man
was sorrowful at heart, sunken into great grief when he heard that news.
In that moment his thoughts turned to his past,
he wondered if he had acted contrary to the old laws of the Ruler,
the Eternal Lord, severely offended them; within his breast welled up
dark thoughts, as was not customary for him.”
(Beowulf ll.2324–2332)


Back To Top
A Quick Interpretation

This must be the first bad thing that happens to Beowulf. Ever. Why else would he only now wonder how he offended his god?

After all, that’s the only reason anything bad would happen to him.

At least as far as we know. There is a fifty year gap in the story here, so maybe there is something that Beowulf did do that’s knocked him out of god’s favour.

Or, maybe, fate always goes as it must.

If this is the first bad thing to happen to Beowulf, then of course it’s going to cause Beowulf to look into his heart of hearts and search out the darkness. Like anyone else, he probably got comfortable with things always going his way. So when things start to move against him it seems quite natural that he would jump to some sort of supernatural cause.

Actually, this turn and Beowulf’s reaction to it could have come from a lot of incidents in the Old Testament, particularly the Books of Job or of Exodus. In fact, the latter of these was a favourite of Anglo-Saxon writers.

That might seem like a strange book of the Bible to pick as a favourite, but they had a good reason. In the Jews of Egypt the Anglo-Saxons saw people who were exiled from what had become their homeland and were forever searching for a place to call their own. That sums up how a lot of Anglo-Saxon writers and thinkers seemed to have thought of themselves.

The Angles and the Saxons had come over from what is now Germany, after all. And they had settled into and gotten comfortable in Britain. But that’s where the Celts were at home.

Anyway, that’s just a little sidebar on some of the Beowulf poet or scribes’ possible influences.

Getting back to the concept of fate, I like to think that in his long-lived comfort Beowulf has probably not thought much about fate over the last fifty years. Saying something like “fate goes ever as it must” is really cool before a high stakes, low odds fight, but it doesn’t quite have the same impact when you say it before starting a diplomatic meeting.

Another point of interest: When he was young, Beowulf seems to have mentioned god and fate in the same breath quite often. But now he doesn’t hear about his hall being destroyed and think “huh…well, fate goes as it must” but instead he thinks only of god. Maybe this is the poet saying that it’s all well and good to think in terms of fate when young, since it rules over this world, but once you get closer to death and the next world, it’s better to turn to those with power over that.
In any case, how Beowulf reacts to this calamity says a lot about how he’s changed. His first thoughts aren’t about going after the dragon. Instead he worries about himself and his past offenses. Which brings a question to mind.

Throughout the poem Beowulf is made out to be a great guy. What do you think these offenses he mulls over are? What could those dark thoughts that well up from within be about?

My own guess is that he has a troubled past with a woman. The fact that there’s not a single named female character in this part of the poem just seems like too much of an omission to me. The poet could be leaving something out to leave room for Beowulf’s more macho ending.

But those are just my thoughts. Do you agree? Disagree? Have your own theory?

Let me know in the comments!

And if you enjoyed this post, please give it a like. Also, be sure to hit the follow button so that you never miss another part of this poem.


Back To Top
Closing

Next week, we get a glimpse of the old Beowulf as he resolves to go against the dragon. And uses science (…sort of) to do so.

Back To Top

Advertisements

The Danes and Geats bed down with fate, the bench boards’ destiny (ll.1232-1241)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Fate’s Just What Happens to You
The Bench Boards’ Destiny
Closing

Back To Top
Abstract

The poet meditates on the inescapability of fate as he tells of how Heorot quieted down for the night.

Back To Top
Translation

“She went then to her seat. There was the greatest of feasts,
men drank great wine; none knew the fate that awaited,
a dolorous destiny, as it would again
and again befall the many, after evening came,
and Hrothgar had retired with his entourage to his chamber,
the ruler gone to rest. The hall was guarded
by warriors without number, as they had oft done before;
the bench boards were cleared; the floor was enlarged
with bedding and pillows. One reveller
was marked and doomed on that couch to depart.”
(Beowulf ll.1232-1241)

Back To Top
Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

Back To Top
Fate’s Just What Happens to You

It looks like this passage is just the poet talking, filling time. But it sounds like things are about to take a dark turn in Heorot.

Of course, there isn’t much to tell of the revelry at Heorot right now. Things are quieting down for the night. But how the poet tells us this is what I find interesting.

Rather than being overly moralistic about the juxtaposition of revelry and the harshness of fate here (as is my general impression of Christian writing), the poet says the feasting in the hall went on, everyone eventually getting ready for bed and being entirely unaware of what is about to befall them. It’s a simple enough juxtaposition, the difference between an everyday thing and something out of the ordinary. But what draws my attention to this juxtaposition is that there’s no connection between the two of these things. This “dolorous destiny” (“geosceaft grimme” (l.1234)) isn’t about to be visited on Heorot because they were revelling and enjoying to excess. It’s just what happens “as it would again/and again befall the many” (“swa hit agangen wearð/eorla manegum” (l.1234-1235)).

And that line especially, “as it would again/and again befall the many” keeps having fun and being visited with some sort of terrible fate from being truly connected here. It almost sounds like the poet’s stance on destiny or fate or determinism is that bad stuff is bound to happen to people as long as they’re on this earth. But, at the same time there’s the implication that this bad stuff is balanced out with the ability and the chances that people have to enjoy themselves. Like, for example, indulging a bit in the “greatest of feasts” (“symbla cyst” (l.1232)).

Along with the poet’s revealing a bit of how they think about fate, it’s interesting from a narrative perspective that they just say “one reveller/was marked and doomed on that couch to depart” (“beorscealca sum/fus ond fæge fletræste gebeag” (ll.1240-1241)). This line builds up a little bit of tension, and the effect is amplified thanks to the line’s placement around all of this mystical talk of inexorable fate. Everyone dies sometime. Maybe this one who’s doomed to die in Heorot this night will pass quietly?

There’s no question about this person being someone other than Beowulf, since the poem is named for him, and there’s quite a bit of the poem left. Plus, the poet’s very clearly pulled out from the usual tight zoom on this epic’s titular character. Which leaves us with the question of will a Geat die this night or will it be a Dane?

Toss your guess in the comments!

Back To Top
The Bench Boards’ Destiny

The Old English word “geo-sceaft” (l.1234) means “destiny,” or “fate,” and is a word that only appears in Beowulf as far as we know. This word comes from the combination of “geo” (“once,” “formerly,” “of old,” “before,” “already,” or “earlier”) and “sceaft” (“created being,” “creature,” “origin,” “creation,” “construction,” “existence,” “dispensation,” “destiny,” “fate,” “condition,” “nature”), creating a neat image of something that has happened before happening again, maybe on a karmic sort of scale, or maybe because the Anglo-Saxon sense of fate was somehow tied to habits.

But, whatever the Anglo-Saxons’ related fate to, the idea of destiny is pretty high falutin. People die for destiny, they’ll put their all into pursuing it, and they’ll feel like they were made to fulfil it. But I’d rather look at a particular thing’s destiny in this section.

I think it’s safe to say that a “bencþel” (l.1239) has a destiny. That is, a “bench board,” or “wainscotted space where benches stand,” is destined for something – it’s designed for it. In fact, in this passage, I’d say that this thing described by a word born of the union of “benc” (“bench”) and “þel” (“board,” “plank,” “metal plate”), is destined to have “beor-scealca” transform it.

These “beor-scealca” (l.1240; meaning”revellers,” or “feasters,”) are likely to transform the bencþel for a very specific purpose. As you might guess from the combination of “beor” (“strong drink,” “beer,” “mead”) and “scealca” (“servant,” “retainer,” “soldier,” “subject,” “member of a crew,” “man,” “youth”) these “beor-scealca” aren’t in any state to go to their own beds, so instead they’ll transform the “bencþel” into a “flet-ræst.”

A “flet-ræst” (l.1241) is a “couch,” pure and simple (though it applies to just about anywhere soft enough to comfortably lay or bed down in).

Coming from the mix of “flet” (“floor,” “ground,” “dwelling,” “hall,” “mansion”) and “ræst” (“rest,” “quiet,” “repose,” “sleep,” “resting place,” “bed,” “couch,” “grave”), this word sounds like it specifies something more than just a box with some cushions on it. In fact, this word got so comfy for English speakers, that it became the English vernacular for “house” or “apartment”: “flat.”

But transforming an area meant for benches into a soft place to sleep isn’t just some drinking trick (have several pints, look in empty corner, see comfy couch, collapse on bare floor). The “beor-scealca” would transform the “bencþel” by using the process of “geondbrædan.”

The word “geond-bræden” (l.1239) means “to cover entirely,” or, only in Beowulf apparently, “to enlarge,” or “extend.” This word comes from the combination of “geond” (“throughout,” “through,” “over,” “up to,” “as far as,” or “during”) and “bræden” (“make broad,” “extend,” “spread,” “stretch out,” “be extended,” “rise,” “grow,” “roast,” “toast,” “bake,” “broil,” or “cook”).

So, the “beor-scealca” would fulfil the “bencþel”‘s “geo-sceaft” by fluffing the area up with pillows and such (the “geondbræd”-ing process) to make it into a “flet-ræst,” something more than just a place for benches. After the feast, these areas would become the resting place for the feasters. And for one in particular it will be his final resting place.

What do you think it’s you’re destiny to do? Do you even believe in the concept of destiny?

Back To Top
Closing

The Dane’s bedtime ritual continues next week. What could the poet be building to with this talk of fate?

Back To Top