Beowulf’s Funeral: Book XLII

A ship decked with treasure and set up as a Viking funeral pyre, like the one for Beowulf.

The artist Siemiradzki’s take on a Viking Funeral. Beowulf’s pyre probably looked similar. Image from https://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Funerale_vichingo#/media/File:Funeral_of_ruthenian_noble_by_Siemiradzki.jpg.

XLII

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

Just so the renowned princes solemnly declared
a curse upon that which they placed there until doomsday,
that the man would be guilty in sins,
confined in idol’s shrines, held fast in hell-bonds,
tormented in evil, whoever plundered that place,
unless he had earlier perceived
the gold-giving lord’s favour.

Wiglaf spoke, Weohstan’s son:

“Oft it happens that one warrior’s wish makes
the many endure misery, just so it has happened with us.
We could not persuade that dear prince,
this guardian of the people would not accept any counsel
to not attack the gold guardian then,
to let it lay where he long was,
to let it remain in that dwelling place until the world’s end,
to keep his exalted destiny. The hoard is
bitterly won; it was fate that impelled
that king of a people to that hard place.

“I was in that place and looked over all that was there;
through that building of precious objects I had to clear a
path. Not at all in a friendly way was I granted passage
in the place under the mound. I in haste grasped
much in my hands of a mighty burden
of the hoarded treasures, out to here I carried it
to my king. He was alive yet,
wise and aware; a great many things
the old one said in grief, and ordered me to greet you,
ordered that you should build after the friendly lord’s
deeds a lofty barrow there in the place of the pyre,
mighty and renowned, just as he among men was,
worthiest warrior widely throughout the earth,
while he could enjoy the wealth of a stronghold.

“Let us now hasten to another time,
to see and seek out the pile of finely worked jewels,
the wonder under the wall. I shall guide you,
that you shall look upon abundant
rings and broad gold near at hand. Then ready the bier,
swiftly prepare it where we come out,
and then ferry our lord,
beloved of men, to where he shall long
in the Ruler’s protection remain.”

Commanded then the son of Weohstan, gave
the fighters orders, bold in battle, like a warrior among many,
as one who owns a hall, that they might
bring wood for the pyre from afar, for the good man,
that leader of a people:

          “Now shall fire consume all
— he shall grow dark by the flames — the ruler of warriors,
he who often endured the shower of iron
when the arrow storm was sent from the bow
over the shield wall, the shafts fulfilling their duty,
arrowheads aided by hasting feather fletching.”

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. They also pushed the dragon,
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 before the prince was borne,
the old warrior brought to Whales’ Ness.

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

Also a Geatish woman’s song of mourning
[ . . . ] with hair bound up
for that sorrowful song; they said repeatedly
that they dreaded sorely an invasion,
an abundance of slaughter, terror for the company of men,
humiliation and captivity. Heaven swallowed the smoke.

Then built the Geatish people
a burial mound on the headland, it was high and broad,
for seafarers it was widely visible,
and in ten days they built
the monument for the one bold in battle. They built
also a wall around the remnants of the fire, as
the wise men had most worthily devised it.

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

They praised him for his heroism and his courageous
deeds, which were judged highly, just as it was fitting
that the men laud their friend and lord prince with
such words, love of their hearts, when he
shall lead out his soul from his body.

Thus lamented the Geatish people
for the fall of their lord, their hearth companion.
They said that of earthly kings he was
the mildest among men and most gracious, the
kindest to people and most eager for fame.

Thank you very much for reading my translation of Beowulf! Feel free to email me at nsczach@gmail.com if you have any constructive feedback to share.

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Wild ideas about boars and words from corpses (ll.1107-1118a)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Wild Boars, Wild Boars!
Words Fit for a Corps(e)
Closing

A man hunting down a boar on a 4th century AD Roman mosaic

“Mosaico de Las Tiendas (MNAR Mérida) 01” by Helen Rickard. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mosaico_de_Las_Tiendas_(MNAR_M%C3%A9rida)_01.jpg#/media/File:Mosaico_de_Las_Tiendas_(MNAR_M%C3%A9rida)_01.jpg

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Abstract

The story of Hengest and Finn continues, as Finn makes good on his promise to treat the Danes well and begins a funeral for the fallen Danes – including Hildeburh’s brother Hnæf and her son by Finn.

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Translation

“What was promised was prepared, and treasure-gold
was raised from the horde: the Scyldings
best battler was readied on the pyre.
Mail-shirts shiny with crusted blood were easily visible
on that heap, old gold boar images,
the iron-hard boar, many wounded warriors
were piled there; those few that fell in battle.
Commanded then Hildeburh that at Hnæf’s side
her own son’s body be placed for the blaze,
that his body burn on that same pyre.
Beside his uncle the lady mourned,
lamented with dirges.”
(Beowulf ll.1107-1118a)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Wild Boars, Wild Boars!

There’s a quote attributed to J.R.R. Tolkien that says that the Anglo-Saxons ate too much boar and drank too much mead. The mead part of that equation isn’t present in this passage, but their passion for boar certainly is. Well, in the form of things blazoned on their armour at any rate.

So what’s the deal with the boar references in lines 1111 and 1112? Well, the passage almost answers that question itself.

The first reference to a boar is the “old gold boar images” on the mail and armour of the fallen (“swyn ealgylden” (l.1111)). These images of the animals sound like they were decorative, something that adorned the armour that the fallen wore rather than something worn for practical purposes. The fact that these boars are “gold” definitely suggests decoration.

But then what about the “old” part?

My thinking is that since Hnæf is a lauded hero, he travels with the best he could muster. If they’re all part of a comitatus, perhaps their insignia is a golden boar. Or maybe the boar image at that time was just the symbol for a certain sort of soldier. So its being made of gold, the most prized metal at the time, signifies that these are the best soldiers that the Danes had to offer.

So these “old gold” boars are symbols of the fallen warriors’ status as celebrated fighters and heroes.

The next line definitely suggests the same thing, since a group of seasoned and skilled soldiers would certainly have the raw power of “the iron hard boar” (“eofer irenheard” (l.1112)). And boars are definitely powerful animals, as you can see here:

So the boar could easily have been the symbol for great warriors of old, those who fought and fought and fought and always came back.

And maybe that’s why the Anglo-Saxons (at least according to J.R.R. Tolkien) ate so much boar. Being Germanic the old German saying “you are what you eat” could well have been at work in their dietary choices.

The other major thing to address in this passage is that despite the sombre tone of this funeral scene, Hrothgar’s poet still throws in some comedy.

Line 1113’s “those few that fell in battle” just has to be sarcastic understatement. After earlier describing the dawn-lit battle field as a place where she sees “the violent death of her kin” (1079), there’s got to be more than a “few” that fell in battle. How else could someone so great as the hero Hnæf fall in battle?

Why the poet injects this little joke here may be a matter of pride – “there’s no way the Frisians killed that many of us, we still got him to follow through on his oath (as stated in this passage’s opening – “What was promised was prepared” (“Ad wæs geæfned” (l.1107)).

But the joke might also be here to dampen the military tone of recounting the soldiers and their garb as they lay on the pyre so that he can bring up the woman in mourning motif more effectively. The joke makes for a bittersweet bridge between the two, I think.

Do you think the poet’s trying to lighten the mood with this joke? Is it even a joke? Let me know what you think in the comments.

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Words Fit for a Corps(e)

Because of the tonal variety of this week’s passage, and perhaps even to play down the glory angle of battle, the poet doesn’t use too many compound words. In fact, none of them relate to high falutin concepts as is usual when we hear about war and combat in Beowulf. Instead, they all relate to the body in very mundane ways.

Line 1109’s “beadu-rinc” is first, with its meaning of “warrior” or “soldier.” How this word derives this meaning from its parts is completely straightforward. The word “beadu” means “war,” “battle,” “fighting,” or “strife” and the word “rinc” means “man,” “warrior,” or “hero.”

So “beadu-rinc” refers to a warrior as literally a “battle man” or a “fighting man.” This is clearly someone who’s defined by their battle experience. Which, if the word’s modern cousins like “firefighter (or fireman) or “fisher” (or “fisherman”) are any indication, is probably quite a deep and long experience indeed. Maybe it’s even referring to people whose vocation was war.

Then we peer inside the warrior to get a compound word for what’s leaked out all over their torn and damaged armour: blood.

The word is “swat-fah” and it means “blood-stained,” or “bloody.” The word comes from “swat,” meaning “sweat,” “perspiration,” “exudation,” “blood,” “foam,” “toil,” or “labour”; and “fag” which means “variegated,” “spotted,” “dappled,” “stained,” “dyed,” “shining,” or “gleaming.”

There’s no doubt that the fallen warriors garments and arms are spotted or stained with blood. But I went a little further with my translation of “shiny with crusted blood” (l.1110) but I’d like to think that for the remaining Danes the blood-encrusted garb of their comrades had a certain gleam to it. That the blood dried on it was something that called out to those Danes still living and tore at their guts more than any Frisian barb about being in the service of their lord’s slayer.

On the other end of a slayer, you’ll likely find the slain. And a good word to describe such a person is “ban-fatu.” This word means “body, corpse” and comes to do so through combining “ban” (“bone,” “tusk,” or “the bone of a limb”) and “fæt” (“vessel,” “jar,” “cup,” “casket,” or “division”). So literally, “ban-fatu” means “bone vessel,” or “vessel for bones.”

Unfortunately, I can’t say if the Anglo-Saxons had any theological or cultural beliefs about bones being extra important to human life, but maybe there’s something about the bones as human frame in there. So that calling someone a “vessel for bones” meant that they were just a flesh vat carrying around their bone frame, which, in a way, is exactly what a corpse is.

What sort of image does the word “bone vessel” bring to mind when you hear it? Let me know in the comments.

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Closing

With the funeral of the fallen Danes under way, the poet next meditates on the sight of the pyre ablaze.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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