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/


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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.


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Synopsis

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


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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)


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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)


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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!

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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.

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Beowulf gets inspiritional

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

The Snaptun Stone, a stone carved with a face that could be the god Loki.

The Snaptun Stone, which may depict the Norse god Loki. Click image for source.


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Synopsis

Beowulf’s past exposed!


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The Original Old English

“Swa bealdode bearn Ecgðeowes,
guma guðum cuð, godum dædum,
dreah æfter dome, nealles druncne slog
heorðgeneatas; næs him hreoh sefa,
ac he mancynnes mæste cræfte
ginfæstan gife, þe him god sealde,
heold hildedeor. Hean wæs lange,
swa hyne Geata bearn godne ne tealdon,
ne hyne on medobence micles wyrðne
drihten Wedera gedon wolde;
swyðe wendon þæt he sleac wære,
æðeling unfrom. Edwenden cwom
tireadigum menn torna gehwylces.”
(Beowulf ll.2177-2189)


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My Translation

“So boldly onward went the son of Ecgtheow,
a man known for war, known, too, for good deeds,
living according to justice, never slaying
any hearth companion while drinking, never was he rough minded.
Indeed, he was the strongest of the children of men.
So much so that he gained a great stronghold, which god granted him,
and he carried himself as a warrior ought. All of which was cause for surprise,
long had he been lowly, regarded as little good among sons of the Geats,
nor had he done any deeds of great renown or anything
to be recalled by the Weder lord while men were on the mead bench.
Yet he set out on the way of strength, though they believed him slack,
an ill-formed prince. But Beowulf’s persistence led to a reversal,
now every little deed of his further enriched his newfound fame.”
(Beowulf ll.2177-2189)


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A Quick Interpretation

Persistence pays off. It’s as simple as that, right?

You’ve just got to hang onto what you’re trying to do and ignore those who doubt you. It’s a message as old as…well…Beowulf itself. And probably older.

What I wonder, though, is this: Is this part of the poem a later Christian insertion? Or is it part of the original poem? Were lords sitting on mead benches and hearing the inspirational story of how this spindly little kid called Beowulf did great deeds and proved himself worthy of being considered a “prince” (“æðeling” (l.2188))?

I’m not sure that I’ll ever have an answer to those questions.

But I do find it interesting — and maybe those early Catholic monks who wrote this poem out did, too — that despite the greatness of Beowulf’s deeds, god is always somehow present. In this passage, god just shows up as justification for Beowulf’s having a stronghold.

But that stronghold isn’t just some idle gift.

It’s a symbol of Beowulf’s power, and a place where Beowulf can prove himself within society.

In this way, having a stronghold (given by god or whatever) allows Beowulf to grow in power. And god as an agent of that growth is important, since Catholic belief includes the idea that being justified or righteous is not necessarily a binary state but something in which someone can grow. And the means of that growth is interaction with god, who is the sole arbiter of righteousness.

As far as I understand and remember it. But I’m no catechism scholar.

Of course, the references to a singular god could be the scribes’ edits.

But those scribes must have been poets themselves if every reference to god was added. Yes, references to god start to thin out now that Beowulf has proven himself, but they were everywhere in the first half of the poem.

Personally, I think that originally there were as many references to a deity or deities, and these were merely modified. After all, supernatural help has been the start of many a hero’s journey. And if the deity or deities involved in the original Beowulf (or at least the version ours is based on) were meant to be parental, the slow ebb of their influence would make even more sense.

Geez, if there were pagan parental deities involved, then perhaps they were even part of the sense of old things passing away that’s persistent throughout the poem. But I can only speculate.

What’s your favourite inspirational story and why? Feel free to share it in the comments!


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Closing

Next week, Beowulf’s strength is recognized and rewarded.

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