Boasts and Beer-Drinking: Book VII – Book IX

VII

Hrothgar spoke, protector of the Scyldings:

“For manly deeds you, friend of mine Beowulf,
and for our benefit, have you sought us.
Thy father fought his way into a terrible feud,
in time he killed Heatholaf with his own hand
while among the Wulfings. Thus he could not have
shelter with those kin for dread of war.
From thence he sought South Dane folk
over the surging waves, the Ar-Scyldings;
that was when I had just begun rule of the Danish people
and in youth governed this fierce empire,
walled and treasure-filled towns of warriors.
At that time was Heregar dead, my elder kinsmen left unliving,
son of Halfdane; alas, he was better than I!
Nonetheless, I settled your father’s feud with goods;
I sent to the Wulfings, over the water’s ridges,
old treasures; for that bold Ecgtheow swore oaths to me.
Yet it grieves me at heart to tell,
indeed, to any man, what affliction Grendel has wrought
on me and on Heorot amidst his hostile designs,
those spiteful attacks. Because of him my hall troop,
my band of warriors, is made thin; wyrd swept them
into Grendel’s terror. But God may easily
put an end to the deeds of that fell-destroyer!
Quite often ale-drunken threats
issued from warriors while belching over ale-cups,
that they would wait in the beer-hall
for Grendel’s onslaught with horrible swords raised high.
Yet when morning came to this mead hall,
this noble-hall was blood-stained, as day was lit,
all the bench space was smeared with blood,
the hall battle-bloodied. Then had I fewer loyal
dear men, death itself had carried them off.
Here and now, sit to our feast, and in the hall hear
of heroes’ glorious victories, as thine heart urges thee!”

At his final word, a space was cleared on a beer hall bench
for all the Geat men to sit together.
There the bold went to feast,
exulting in their strength. A thane bore them refreshment,
he who in hand bore the adorned ale cup,
he poured out the sweet brightness; the poet meanwhile sang
clear in Heorot. There were, as Hrothgar promised, songs of heroic joy
among the none too few noble warrior Danes and Geats.

VIII

Unferth spoke, son of Ecglaf,
he who sat at the foot of the Scylding lord.
That man unbound battle words, ready to halt Beowulf’s venture,
the deed of the courageous sea-farer, he bore the hero a great grudge,
for he would not allow that any other man
over all the earth and under heaven
could ever achieve fame to match his own:

“Are you the Beowulf, he who contended against Breca
on the wide sea in a swimming contest,
where you two for pride moved as you could
and for a foolish boast in the deep water
ventured your lives? No man whatever,
neither loved nor loathed, could dissuade you two
from that distressing journey, not even as you rowed out to sea.
Out there you two eagerly covered the waters with your arms,
traversing the sea-street, moving most quickly with your hands,
gliding over spear-like waves. Ocean ripples roiled,
the winter’s surge. You two on the waters
had toil for seven nights. He the flood overcame,
it had the greater strength, so that come the morning
the sea had carried him to the land of the Heatho-Reams.
Then he sought his dear father land
those dear to him, the land of the Brondings,
splendid strongholds against war, where he had folk,
fortress, and rings. So in truth the son of Beanstan
fully bested you by endurance in your bet with him.
As that is, I believe that you will have the worse outcome,
though thou hast thrived in combat everywhere,
bloody battle, if you will dare wait
nearly all the long night for Grendel.”

Beowulf spoke, son of Ecgtheow:

“Well, you are very much, my friend Unferth,
beer-drunken to be speaking of Breca,
telling of his victory! The truth as I reckon
is that I more swimming strength had,
endured more hardship on the waves, than any other man.
We two dared and bet with each other
since we were children — we two were then
yet in youth — that we two out on the spear-sea
would risk our lives, and so it happened.
We held our naked swords as we two rowed over the waves,
hardiness in hand. We two bore these blades against the whales,
thought to protect ourselves. Breca not at all far from me
could float on the ocean-flow,
being the swifter on the swell, I would not stray from him.
When we two together had been on the sea
for five nights’ time, then we drifted apart on the flood,
wading on the raging waves, in the coldest of weather,
the night darkened, and the north wind
blew battle-grim against us. Wild were the waves,
enraging the hearts of the sea-fish.
Then against the loathed creatures my corselet,
hard, hand-woven, was of great help,
the broad coat of mail that on my breast lay
gold adorned. Yet, in spite of that coat the hostile enemy
pulled me to the bottom, held fast
in its grim grip. I was yet given this mercy:
I could reach the fiend with sword-point,
my battle blade. In the war rush I seized the life
of the stalwart sea-deer with my own hand.”

IX

Very often the vile enemy
vexed me violently; I stretched out to them
my dear sword, as was suitable.
They did not have much joy in that,
the evildoers, they that would have me served up at a feast like this,
they came to permanent seats in the sea-bed.
Come morning, with sword wounds
even more were laid upon the shore,
set to sleep by the sword, so that afterward none
near the steep ford could hinder
the seafarers’ course. Light of the east,
God’s bright beacon, rose. The sea abated
so that I the sea-cliff could see,
set my eyes upon the windy shore. Wyrd oft saves
the unmarked man, when his strength thrives.
However they confined me, I, with the sword, slew
nine sea-beasts. Never have I heard of any, for all my asking,
able to fight so hard beneath heaven’s vault by night,
nor of any man so miserable on the sea.
Yet I continued to survive the hostile distance,
weary of the journey. It was then that the sea bore me up,
the waters brought me to Finland,
borne on the sea of a foreign land. I from no man
have heard tell of you set in such strife,
darkened sword terror. Neither you nor Breca
have tales of such battle-play, neither of you two
have done sincerely such deeds
with the stained sword — nor do I mean to boast in this —
though you brought death to your own brother,
near blood relation; thus in hell shall you
suffer damnation, pain your tongue cannot untie.
I tell to you the truth, son of Ecglaf:
Grendel never could such a horror perpetuate,
that dire demon, over your people,
the humiliation of Heorot, were thy courage,
your heart, so fierce as you yourself says it is.
He has discovered that he need not greatly fear the vendetta,
the terrible thronging swords of your people,
slashings from the Victory-Scyldings.
After all, against that apostle of violence none arise
from among the Danish people, so he wars as he likes,
killing and feasting, prosecution he knows comes not
from the Spear-Danes. But I shall now surprise
him with the might and strength of the Geats,
bringing him battle. Afterward whomever wants to
go to mead shall and shall heartily, once the morning light
brings another day to humanity,
when the light-clad sun shall shine once more from the south.”

These words warmed the treasure-giver in his hall,
grey-haired and battle strong; consolation lived
for the ruler of the bright Danes, he heard in Beowulf
the guardian of a people’s steadfast hope.
There followed the laughter of men, the roar of singing,
words were joyful. Then came forth Wealhtheow,
Hrothgar’s queen, mindful of her king;
she greeted the gold-ornamented warriors in the hall,
and the freeborn woman quickly gave
first to the lord of the East-Danes’ realm;
told him to be blithe at the beer-drinking,
dear to the people. At that he turned more to
the feast and the hall-goblet, a king revelling in victory.
After that that Helming woman went about
to each section of the noble and the young,
she offered the costly vessel to each and every, until that time
that she, the ring adorned queen
of distinguished mind, bore the mead cup to Beowulf.
She greeted the Geatish man, thanked god
with wise words, that he her will fulfilled,
that she could find consolation in any living warrior
against her people’s plaguing sin. He partook of that cup,
the fierce fighter, offered from Wealhtheow,
and then sang the one ever ready for war,
Beowulf spoke, son of Ecgtheow:

“I thought upon that, as I came across the sea,
seated in the sea boat amidst the multitude of my men,
that I completely for your people
would work that will, or die in the slaughter,
held fast in the fiend’s fist. I shall perform
the lordly deed, or find the end
of all my days in this mead hall!”

That lady well liked those words,
the boast-speech of the Geat; then went gold-laden
the stately queen of her people to sit with her lord.
At last it was again as it had been in the hall,
brave words were spoken, people milled about beneath the roof,
the sounds of a victorious people, until in a short time
the son of Halfdane’s will turned to seeking his
evening rest. Knew he that the wretch
against that high hall planned attack,
after the sun’s light might be seen,
when then night had grown dark over all,
draped in shade-mail the shape would come stalking
under the waning heavens. All the throng arose.
Greeted the men each other then,
Hrothgar Beowulf, and to him wished health,
gave over rule of the drinking hall, and these words said:

“Never before have I to any man yielded up,
since I could raise my own hand, my own shield,
the noble house of the Danes but to you now.
Have now and hold this best of houses:
Have remembrance of fame, mighty valour’s seed,
be wakeful against the wrathful one! Thy desire shall not
lack if you survive this brave deed with your life.”

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Going from the Guard to the Herald: Book IV – Book VI

An ale house like a mead hall from Beowulf that's in Sweden.

An ale house just north of Göteborg in Sweden, but a pretty good approximation of what Heorot would look like (except for the lack of gold). Image from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Viking_house_Ale_Sweden.jpg

IV

Their chief answered him,
wielder of the band’s wisdom, he unlocked his word hoard:

“We are kin of the Geatish people,
we come from among Hygelac’s hearth retainers.
His people knew my father,
a noble progenitor known as Ecgtheow, –
he commanded many winters, before he went on his way,
full of years, each man of counsel
on the wide earth takes heed of his name.
We through care of the worries of your lord,
son of Halfdane, have come seeking for
the protector of your people. Your exhortation to us is great!
We have much to declare towards your people’s errand,
the freedom of the Danes, no longer shall there evil
be in this land, I believe. You know —
if it is truly as we have heard —
that against the Scyldings fights a fiend unknown to me,
a thriving ravager, that in the dark of night
threatens you with unknowable fear,
oppression, and slaughter. That I might teach Hrothgar
through the counsel of a broad mind,
how he the wise and good could overcome that fiend —
if he ever should wish to end
this ruinous trouble — relief will come after,
and his cares shall turn cool.
Else ever after shall be times of sorrow,
distress shall be only endured, all while that greatest
of houses is forced to make do, empty, in its high place.”

The guard, astride his horse, spoke to that man,
the fearless officer:

          “Everyone shall
come to know and understand your sharp skill,
words and deeds, as they shall determine.
I hear this and judge thus: that you and your warriors are true
to the Scylding lord. Come forth bearing
your weapons and armour; I will lead you.
Also, I will command my men
to guard your boat against the fiend,
relay a request to them to guard your newly tarred
ship on the shore, until it again bears
you dear men over the streaming surface
in its bound boards to the Geat’s borders;
it is my hope that such doers of good may have that fate,
to survive the battle rush in the hall.”

They went upon their way then. And as the guard promised,
the boat was bound, the capacious craft tethered with cord,
secure at anchor. Boar-shapes shone
atop the warriors’ cheek guards; ornamented gold,
glistening and firmament firm, securely they held their wearers’ life,
the pond-still thoughts of war-hearted, grim men. They all hurried onward,
going down together, until from that high hall of a home,
ornamented and gold-dappled for all to see
that it was foremost among all the human works
and buildings beneath heaven, there the ruler called for them;
the light of the people that shone over so great a land.
The coastguard took the battle-brave to the bright,
high-souled hall, that he may point out
the shortest path thither. That hero of combat turned his horse
about, spoke he these words next:

“It is time for me to go. The Almighty
Father’s grace keep you healthy
amidst your quest! I am to the sea,
to hold the shore against fiendish foes.”

V

The Geats’ way then was stone-paved, along the road
the warriors went together. War-byrnies shone,
hard, hand-linked, shining ring-mail from
skilled hands celebrated in song hung beneath plate.
Shortly they arrived at the hall in their horrible war gear,
sea-weary they set their shields,
battle-hard bucklers, against that hall’s outer wall;
they dropped onto the benches set there, mail-shirts ringing,
those war-skilled men. Spears stood,
bound in a seaman’s bunch, all together,
ashen shaft over grey; that iron-clad crew’s
weapons jostled as they rested against the hall.
Then a proud warrior asked after those men’s origins:

“Where come ye, ye of the anointed shields,
shirts of grey mail and visored helms,
this crowd of spears? I am Hrothgar’s
herald and officer. Never saw I this many men
from far away of such high spirits.
It seems to me that you for glory, not at all for exile,
yay, even for courage, have sought out Hrothgar.”

One man among them courageously answered,
the proud man of the Weders, spoke after those words,
bold beneath his helm:

        “We are Hygelac’s
table-companions; Beowulf is my name.
I will explain to the son of Halfdane,
that famed lord, my errand,
your prince, if he will grant us such audience,
allow us to greet him graciously.

Wulfgar spoke: a Wendel man,
well known for his heart-thought,
of war and of wisdom:

         “I, friend of Danes,
will inquire of our shield,
giver of rings, as thou art a petitioner,
of that famed lord, about your journey,
and then the answer I shall convey immediately,
that I may speak as it so pleases him.”

Then quickly he turned to face where Hrothgar sat,
old and hoar among the throng of his thanes.
Wulfgar then went to the one of honourable deeds, shoulder to shoulder
with the Danish lord he spoke: knew he their noble customs.
Wulfgar’s words to his friend and lord were thus:

“Here are those who came, who ventured
forth going over the sea from the Geatish lands;
their chief champion
they call Beowulf, he is the petitioner,
the one asking, my lord, if he might mix
words with you. Do not propose to deny
your reply, gracious Hrothgar.
By his war-gear I think their worth is equal
to that of esteemed warriors; indeed he seems dependable,
the one warrior who has lead them so far.”

VI

Hrothgar spoke, protector of the Scyldings:

“I knew that man when he was but a boy.
His father of old was called Ecgtheow,
he to whom Hrethel of the Geats gave
his only daughter. And now, I hear, his son
has come here, seeking favourable friendship.
Once sailors, that brought gifts
from Geatland thither as thanks,
said that this man has the might of
thirty men in his hand-grip,
is famed in war. He, Holy God,
for our support has sent him
to the West-Danes, this I believe,
against Grendel’s terror. I shall well reward
them with treasures for his courage.
Be thou in haste, go with this command,
that the peaceful host may hear it together.
Also give him word that they are welcome
in these Danish lands!”

        Then to the hall door
went Wulfgar, from within this word was called out:

“You, as commanded by word of my war-lord,
prince of the East-Danes, here have a famed family.
and you, proven brave in your coming to him
from over the sea-wave, are welcome hither.
Now you may go in wearing your armour,
under your helmets, to see Hrothgar;
yet here leave your shields unbound,
the broad boards, and deadly spears, this is a meeting for words alone.”

Arose then the hero, from amidst his many thanes,
various valiant warriors, though some remained there,
to watch the war-gear, as they were strictly ordered.
Those going in hurried together, their chief at their head,
went under Heorot’s roof. Through the hall strode the war-fierce,
under hard helmets, until they stood upon the hearth.
Beowulf spoke — on him the byrnie shone,
his corselet crafted with the smith’s skill:

“Be thou, Hrothgar, hale! I am Hygelac’s
relation and man; I have started into earning
great glory since my youth. News of Grendel
is openly known in my homeland;
it was the talk of sailors, that this hall stood,
best of buildings, idle and emptied
of each man after the evening light
becomes obscured beneath heaven’s brightness.
Then a council urged me to help,
the most esteemed, the cleverest of Geatish men,
that I thee, the ruler of Danes, Hrothgar seek,
for they all know of my strength.
They themselves saw when I cleverly overcame,
foe after foe, when I bound five,
devastated the kin of giants, and upon the sea slew
water-demons by night. Indeed I have endured dire need,
have fulfilled the Geat’s hatred — such was the hope they summoned —
it consumed those enemies. And so it shall now go against Grendel,
with this monster I will stand alone as it please,
have a singular meeting with the demon. Now, I to thee,
lord of the Bright-Danes, will make my request,
prince of the Scyldings, I will proclaim this alone:
That you do not refuse me, protector of warriors,
close friend of the people, that for which I have now come from afar,
that I might alone save for my band of warriors,
this hardy heap, cleanse Heorot.
I have also learned, by asking, that this demon
in his recklessness does not care for weapons.
I the same shall scorn, that Hygelac may be for me,
my liege-lord, blithe of heart,
that I neither sword nor the broad shield shall bear,
the linden-bound battle buckler; instead I shall grapple
against the fiend with my grasp and struggle for life,
hater against hated; in that I shall trust
in God’s judgment to take whom he will in death.
I expect that the fiend will, if he be allowed
in the hall of battle, the Geatish people
devour unafraid, as he often has,
trampling the flower of men. You need not
cover my head, but he will have me
blood-stained, if death take me.
The beast will bear away my bloodied body, thinking to taste,
without remorse will the lone-goer eat me,
staining his moor-den, so do not be long anxious
about my body’s state.
Send to Hygelac, if me battle take,
this best of battle dresses, that I bear upon my breast,
choicest of garments; that is Hraedlan’s heirloom,
the work of Wayland. For always fate shall go as it will!”

Off to a Rousing Start: Prologue – Book III

Scyld Scefing gets a Viking funeral in Beowulf's beginning.

A viking funeral, perhaps like Scyld Scefing’s, as painted by Frank Dicksee in 1893.

Prologue

What! We Spear-Danes have heard in days of yore
of the power of the king of a people,
how heroes accomplished valorous deeds.
Often did Scyld Scefing take away
the mead benches from troops of enemies,
terrified the Erola, afterwards those who had been first were found
to become destitute. For that Scefing experienced solace
grew up under a cloud, his honour prospered,
until each surrounding people from over
the whale road paid obeisance,
gave tribute: that was a good king!
His son was afterward born,
young in years, then did god send
consolation to the people; well did god know their distress,
What they had endured under the lord of old
for a long while; he the life-lord,
glory-lord, granted worldly-worth;
Beowulf was famous—glory widely sprang –
as Scylde’s successor, in all Scandinavian lands.
Thus a young man shall bring about good
from the largesse of his father’s stores,
so that he among men thereafter retains
willing companions when battle comes,
ensures the nation would endure; praiseful deeds shall
always increase for the family of such a man.
Scyld left off amidst this work,
full busy when he went to the Lord.
They brought him to the seashore,
those dear companions, as he had bidden them.
That man’s words ruled his companions,
those of the earthly prince long in languishing.
There at the landing place stood a ring-prowed ship
icy and eager to start, ready for that nobleman’s passage;
the dear lords lead him to
the brightly ringed wealth ship,
treasure filled it to the mast; there was plentiful loot
from foreign lands, booty, loaded into it.
Never heard I of a more splendidly adorned ship
war-ready and armoured,
blade and byrnie. Upon Scyld’s lap was lain
a multifarious fortune, among which
he was to go to far foreign lands.
By no means did they leave a lack of gifts,
treasures of the people, when that was done,
when they sent Scyld forth to his origin,
for he was one who came over the waves as a child.
Then they established a golden sign for him
high overhead, they let the waves bear him,
their gift, to the raging ocean; they were
sorrowful at heart, mourning souls. Men cannot
say for certain, hall rulers,
heroes under heaven, who that horde discovered.

I

Then was the burden on Beow, son of Scyld,
that dear king of men, for several long seasons.
He was reputed among the people, while his father departed elsewhere,
a lord of earth. Until Halfdane awoke,
a match for the father, he held, while he lived,
aged and battle experienced, the joy of the Scyldings.
In unbroken succession Halfdane woke four children in the world: a daughter I believe, then Heorogar, and Hrothgar, and Halga also;
I have heard that […] the daughter was Onela’s queen,
that war-Scylding’s beloved bedfellow.
Hrothgar was given success in war,
honour in battle, such that his kith and kin
eagerly listened, until the young one grew
into a mighty troop lord. His mind soon turned
to the glory of being called a hall lord,
of ruling a mead hall made by the work of many,
one that the children of the ages would ever ask about,
and therein to dole out all
to young and old alike, such as god gave him,
all but the people’s land and lives.
Then heard I that a work summons went widely,
to many peoples from throughout this earth,
to adorn that dwelling place. After their first meeting,
immediately amidst those assembled, it was made ready,
the greatest of all halls; the poets named it Heorot,
he whose word has widespread influence.
That boast did not lie, rings were doled out,
a continuous treasure flow. That hall rose high,
towering and wide-gabled, made to resist fierce fire,
loathe of lightning; yet it was not as such for long,
since woken sword-hate would later swallow it
after war broke out between son-in-law and father-in-law.
Then a terrible demon ushered in a time
of difficult suffering, as it would be in darkness,
he who daily heard the joy makers
loud in the hall; there hands were waved over harps,
there the poets sang clear. Told they of
knowing the long ago provenance of all people,
spoke of how the Almighty made the earth,
this beauteous world, and the water that flows about it;
set the sun and the moon victoriously above
with rays to light the ways of people,
and adorned the rolling hills
with limbs and leaves; spoke of how the Maker shaped
each variety of life, all things that have motion.
So the warriors of the hall lived in joy,
were prosperous, until that one began
committing crimes, like a fiend of hell.
It was the ghastly ghoul called Grendel,
border walker from the marshlands, he that the moors held,
whose mire was his mansion; from the land held fast by
woe-laden man-shaped sea beasts,
since the Shaper had condemned them
as kin of Cain – so the almighty Lord punished
him for that murder, when he slew Abel.
Cain was given no good from that, the Measurer cast him
far abroad, done for his evil, away from humankind.
Then the monsters all awoke,
ogres and elves and orcs,
also giants, those that waged long warfare
against God; until he gave them their reward.

II

That demon knew then what he sought, once night fell,
at the high house, he knew how the Ring-Danes
after beer-drinking would be stayed there.
Found he therein a fortune of princes
sleeping fast after the feast — they knew no sorrow,
men of the war spear. The unholy figure,
grim and greedy, was quickly enthused,
savage and severe, and at once he seized
thirty thanes; after that he went out
heading loudly home with his prey;
after the slaughter he returned to his dwelling.
Then, outside the hall at daybreak,
was Grendel’s war-strength seen by human eyes;
after that was there weeping to heaven,
a morning full of mourning. Famous warriors,
long-tested true lords, sorrowful sat,
the mighty moaned, the lost thanes saddened them,
until they found the faint, loathful footprints that
the evil-doing fiend had made. That was helpful to
track the beast’s escape, hateful and sluggish. That night
was not long alone, nigh the next night Grendel again brought
more violent death and seemed not to hesitate as before,
bringing violence and outrage; he came down heavily upon them.
Then was he easy to find roaming
about elsewhere seeking rest,
a place to recline and relax, to which he left a trail,
that token spoke truly of the object
of the hall-dwellers’ hate; they sought
refuge outside the hall once they knew that fiend was running free.
So Grendel ruled in defiance of right,
one of lesser stuff against all, until that
greatest of houses stood silent. It was so for some time,
twelve winters of anger the friends of Scyld suffered,
each became accustomed to such hardship,
rough sorrow; because of that they became speakers,
sons of the age, knowledge of them was unhidden,
those troubled deeds of old, that Grendel lashed
out against Hrothgar for a long time, the hateful
monster’s way, years filled with failures and feuding,
a perpetual siege. That kin would not treat
with any man of the Danes for even the shortest time,
deadly evil from afar, as few did hope,
nor were there any who believed that his
hand could be stayed with a bright death price;
the fierce enemy was, after all, the pursuer,
a dark death shadow over the veterans and youths,
those who tarried and planned. Night upon night
Grendel held the misty moors, men never knew
whither the fiendish monster rapidly went.
So the fiend trespassed deeply against humankind,
the horror of the lone-goer, oft-cursed,
awful in affliction; Heorot was lived in by day,
but the richly adorned hall was his by gloomy night,
though Grendel could not approach the throne,
the treasure to the Measurer, nor could he be known.
This did much to the misery of the Scyldings,
their hearts broken. Many oft sat
with the ruler to give counsel, esteemed advice,
things that the rash and the best were fixing
to do against the awful horror.
Meanwhile they made demands of cherished idols
at household shrines, with words of worship,
so that they sought help against their problems
from the soul-slaying fiend. Such was their way,
their heathenish hope; they concentrated on hell
in their hearts, they knew not the Measurer,
the deeds of the Judge, they knew not almighty God
nor knew they of the praiseful protection of heaven,
glorious God. Woe betide them that shall
cast their soul into the flames’ embrace when
embroiled in cruel enmity, cheer they never know,
never a person restored! Well be those that might
after their death day seek the Lord
and hope for the safety of God’s grace.

III

So they brooded upon the troubles of that time,
none of the wise could put them upon the right
way; that strife was too steep, loathful and long-lasting,
that which had befallen the people,
that fierce severe punishment, the wreaker of night-destruction.
One of his thanes heard of this while home with Hygelac,
one good amidst the Geats, he heard tell of Grendel’s deeds;
he was humanities’ mightiest in strength
in the days of this life,
regal and great. He was given command of a ship
and well-directed; he spoke, saying he would seek
the troubled king across the swan’s way,
that famous ruler, to show that he was the man they needed.
Then were wise warriors chosen to accompany
him on his journey, those whom to him were dear,
whetstones to wondrous deeds, each looking hale.
The good Geat people then a great warrior
had crowned, there you a brave man might find!
Some fifteen sought out the ship at shore;
to the frontier they went, following the words of the wise,
the ones versed in sea-ways. The foremost knew motion;
the ship was on the sea, the boat that sat before barrows.
The warriors roaringly rose a cry — the current carried them on,
bringing the sea against sand. The men bore
bright treasures upon their chests,
magnificent in martial-gear; they all shoved off,
men bound for an expected expedition by boat.
The ship then knew the ocean’s motion, was wind-hastened,
became foamy-necked, became seabird like,
until near the time of day they had left,
after their ship with curved prow had glided,
when those well-travelled ones saw land,
dazzling sea cliffs, steep hills,
an ample headland. Then was sailing simple,
the journey at an end. From that ship sprang
the Geats onto the sands,
their boat they bound there — they shook their mail-coats,
rattled war-gear; they thanked God then,
the one that made their ship’s going smooth.
From those dazzling cliffs the Scyldings’ shore guard saw them,
the one who held the sea-cliffs saw those
men carrying bright shields across a ship’s gangway,
bearing ready war gear; his curiosity overpowered
his thinking, the need to know what these men were.
So rode out the thane of Hrothgar
to the shore, powerfully he shook the
spear in his hand before the wave-goers,
asked in a querying tone:

           “What are ye gear-havers,
wearers of corselets, that thus laden
in a high ship come over the sea-street,
hither with the waves? I am set
as border guard, to keep this isle hold watched,
So that no loathed ones may batter this
Danish land with naval force.
Never in known memory have any
come so openly bearing shields; nor do you
seem eager to get a word of permission from this watchman,
a Dane’s consent. Never saw I a mightier man
upon this earth, than this one before me,
this man of might; is that not a retainer,
one worthy of weapons? Never would his mien betray him,
a singular sight. Now I shall know whence
you come, far-farer, before you enter this land
as a spy, before you further step into
these Danish lands. Now, you of the far-off dwelling place,
sea-farer, I would hear tell of
your singular purpose; haste is best
in saying why you are come hence.”

Beowulf the monstrous individual

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

An Anglo-Saxon helmet with face mask of the style associated with Beowulf.

A helmet, complete with face mask, from the Sutton-Hoo treasure hoard. Image from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sutton_Hoo_replica_(face).jpg


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Synopsis

Beowulf tells more of his time partying in Heorot.


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The Original Old English

“‘Weorod wæs on wynne; ne seah ic widan feorh
under heofones hwealf healsittendra
medudream maran. Hwilum mæru cwen,
friðusibb folca, flet eall geondhwearf,
bædde byre geonge; oft hio beahwriðan
secge sealde, ær hie to setle geong.
Hwilum for duguðe dohtor Hroðgares
eorlum on ende ealuwæge bær;
þa ic Freaware fletsittende
nemnan hyrde, þær hio nægled sinc
hæleðum sealde. Sio gehaten is,
geong, goldhroden, gladum suna Frodan;
hafað þæs geworden wine Scyldinga,
rices hyrde, ond þæt ræd talað,
þæt he mid ðy wife wælfæhða dæl,
sæcca gesette. Oft seldan hwær
æfter leodhryre lytle hwile
bongar bugeð, þeah seo bryd duge!'”
(Beowulf ll.2014-2031)


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My Translation

“‘The company was wrapt in joy; never have I ever seen
such celebration over mead as was amongst those in that hall
in all my life. All the while that renowned queen,
a pledge of peace for her people, went all about the hall,
urging the youths there on. Often, on her rounds, she gave
circlets to the drinkers, until, at the last, she took her seat.
Also, but only at times, before that body of retainers
Hrothgar’s daughter bore the ale cup to the men in turn.
From those sitting in the hall I learned
that this maiden’s name is Freawearu, she who there gave
those warriors studded and precious vessels. She is promised,
young and gold-adorned, to the gracious son of Froda.
The friend of the Scyldings has settled on this,
the protector of the kingdom, and he considers it wise policy
that this woman will settle a great many deadly feuds,
that she will ease the many conflicts. But too often,
when so short a time has passed after a man’s fall,
it is rare for the deadly spear to rest, even though the bride be good.'”
(Beowulf ll.2014-2031)


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A Quick Interpretation

It feels a bit like every scene that involves a leader’s hall in this poem features a young maiden. In particular, a young maiden who has been or is planned to be married off for the sake of peace. In a way, this definitely reinforces the idea that women’s primary strength in the world of Beowulf is through political marriages.

However, what I find interesting about this isn’t so much that these women don’t seem to have agency to do anything else, but that it underscores the importance of the group in early medieval European societies.

Of course, groups continue to be important today, as well. Whether you working in retail, a restaurant, a corner office in a swanky business building, or from your home office you probably have a group (of varying size) of people with whom you work. For the most part, at least on holidays, people get together in the groups we all call families. And, of course, in your day to day life you’re probably in contact with a group of people whom you consider friends.

But the kind of group that Beowulf leaves an impression of in my mind is closer to the sort of collectivist society of some Asian countries. The kinds of societies where individual success doesn’t just feed into the society’s success but comes from filling a proscribed role in the larger society.

And this is why I think Beowulf makes me think of that sort of collectivist society: There don’t seem to be very many individuals in either Daneland or Geatland. Every one of Hrothgar or Hygelac’s retainers may or may not have his own motives, but as far as we know they are simply loyal warriors in the service of their lords.

Now, the version of Beowulf that we have comes from a rather curious book. It is known as the Nowell Codex.

This book is a collection of writings about oddities. There were stories of the then mysterious east, letters between Aristotle and Alexander the Great, a bit of a life of Saint Christopher, and a poetic version of the Biblical story of Judith along with Beowulf. Each of these stories contains something monstrous or strange.

Thus, when modern critics and scholars have puzzle through why these texts were grouped together, they’ve usually concluded that Beowulf is in this collection because there are monsters (Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and the dragon).

Some have supposed that Beowulf himself, being this sword-breaking, monster-slaying superman, is the monstrous reason for its inclusion in this collection. I think these scholars are a bit closer to the mark.

But I don’t think that Beowulf is monstrous because of his strength. I think that what makes Beowulf the character monstrous is his individuality.

There are other stories of great heroes and warriors from around the same time and later in the medieval period, sure. There’s at least one epic about Alexander the Great, there are the stories of Roland and Charlemagne, there’s the story of El Cid. But what sets Beowulf apart from all of these characters is that he’s not a knight or in the service of any lord.

Beowulf doesn’t go to Daneland because Hygelac commands it. As we found out two weeks ago, Hygelac was against Beowulf’s journey. And yet he set out on his own. And Beowulf is no knight, trying to right the wrongs of the world in some quest for the service of a lady.

In fact, when we first meet him, Beowulf is basically just an arrogant (probably) teenager who thinks that he’s invincible, tells stories to back that up, and actually turns out to be as strong as all the rumours say. But until he becomes the king of the Geats, he doesn’t act in the service of anyone but himself, really. Sure, helping the Danes cements a Geat/Dane alliance, but Beowulf didn’t set out to do that. He just wanted to increase his own fame and glory.

In short, he may have wanted to help others, but he does that by helping himself first. Which sounds a lot like an altruistic individual or entrepreneur. Which, in a time like the early middle ages, with its uncertain politics and fragmented states struggling to join together into nations, would be the last thing that any major authority like the Roman Catholic Church (the organization we can probably thank for keeping Beowulf safe for us) would want. Therefore they would label it as monstrous.

But that’s just my take. What are your thoughts and feelings on how individualism fits into Beowulf? Why do you think Beowulf was included in a collection of strange stories? Let me know in the comments!


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Closing

Next week, Beowulf imagines what will happen at the wedding party of Freawearu and Froda’s son.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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Hrothgar’s tearful farewell offers a glimpse into Beowulf’s future

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

A scop sings his boasts, just like Beowulf does before Hrothgar.

Image found at http://bit.ly/2jumA3j


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Synopsis

Hrothgar gives Beowulf gifts and tearfully parts with him as the Geat and his companions leave Daneland.


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The Original Old English

“ða git him eorla hleo inne gesealde,
mago Healfdenes, maþmas XII;
het hine mid þæm lacum leode swæse
secean on gesyntum, snude eft cuman.
Gecyste þa cyning æþelum god,
þeoden Scyldinga, ðegn betstan
ond be healse genam; hruron him tearas,
blondenfeaxum. Him wæs bega wen,
ealdum infrodum, oþres swiðor,
þæt hie seoððan no geseon moston,
modige on meþle. Wæs him se man to þon leof
þæt he þone breostwylm forberan ne mehte,
ac him on hreþre hygebendum fæst
æfter deorum men dyrne langað
beorn wið blode. Him Beowulf þanan,
guðrinc goldwlanc, græsmoldan træd
since hremig; sægenga bad
agendfrean, se þe on ancre rad.
þa wæs on gange gifu Hroðgares
oft geæhted; þæt wæs an cyning,
æghwæs orleahtre, oþþæt hine yldo benam
mægenes wynnum, se þe oft manegum scod.”
(Beowulf ll.1866-1887)


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My Translation

“Then the protector of warriors, son of Half-Dane,
gave him twelve treasures,
commanded he then those dear ones to
go forth in safety, and to quickly come back.
The king then kissed that one of good and noble descent,
the lord of the Scyldings embraced that best of men,
with arms about his neck; then the
greyhaired one fell to tears. Two things were known to him,
the old one of great wisdom, one of the two was clearer:
that he would never afterward see him,
meet for a heart to heart. To him that man was so beloved
that he could not restrain his surging emotion,
his heartstrings were wound tight at that thought,
he keenly felt his fondness for the man whom
he now knew as his dearest friend. From him Beowulf then went,
the warrior now proudly wound in gold walked the green earth,
exulting in his treasure. He went to where his ship waited
for its owner and lord, where it had ridden at anchor.
Thereafter the gifts of Hrothgar were often praised
as the Geats went on their way. He was a true king,
blameless in all respects, until age deprived him
of the might of joy, as it has ever oppressed a host of others.”
(Beowulf ll.1866-1887)


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A Quick Reflection

Well, this is quite a send off for Hrothgar. Beowulf may be leaving, but as of that last line Hrothgar slips out of the story and off this mortal coil. As Hrothgar himself suspects, he never again meets Beowulf.

But what a set of lines to go out on.

I mean, Saying that Hrothgar was “a true king” (“þæt wæs an cyning” (l.1885)) right up to the end when “age deprived him/of the might of joy” (“hine yldo benam/mægenes wynnum” (l.1886-87)) offers a very poetic iris slow wipe on his character and its involvement in the story.

Actually, come to think of it, it’s kind of strange that this farewell focuses so much on the old king of the Danes. I mean, this is Beowulf after all, right? Yet this is one of the few moments where we actually get this kind of insight into another character’s inner workings.

In all of Beowulf’s interactions with Unferth, for example, we’ve only ever had their dialogue and what the poet states are Beowulf’s intentions. But we don’t get any insight into Unferth’s thought processes. There are no sly snipes or profaning curses in inner monologue directed from Unferth to Beowulf. Even later on in the poem, every character that Beowulf encounters is presented as simply as non-player characters in video games. They’re all just people that Beowulf interacts with, but we hear nothing of people’s impressions of him or his actions until his funeral.

So what makes Hrothgar different? Why does the poet dwell so much on this foreign king when they could be writing reams about Hygelac’s joy at seeing Beowulf come back to Geatland safe and sound?

Well, I think that it comes back to J.R.R. Tolkien’s idea that Beowulf is not an epic poem but an elegy and John Leyerle’s idea that the poem follows an interlaced structure. Thematically, Hrothgar is the mirror of old Beowulf, and so all of this insight into his character and inner thoughts reflect old Beowulf’s own inner thoughts.

However, unlike a poet who likens a character to some great legendary figure because of a single characteristic, Hrothgar is more than just a reflection of future king Beowulf: just, generous, and ruling long and well. Buried in the last lines of this passage is the end of Beowulf as well. Old age puts an end to his adventuring, as little as he’s willing to admit to it when the time comes. Though silent and persistent old age ultimately adds him to the multitude of those whom it has chopped down in the past.

Why do you think we’re told about Hrothgar shedding tears and his fondness for Beowulf wrenching his heart strings as the Geat leaves? Share your thoughts in the comments!


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Closing

Next week, Beowulf and his crew head back to their ships and meet an old friend.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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Hrothgar’s talk of gifts hides anxiety about society

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

A scop sings his boasts, just like Beowulf does before Hrothgar.

Image found at http://bit.ly/2jumA3j


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Synopsis

Hrothgar congratulates Beowulf on restoring peace.


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The Original Old English

“‘Hafast þu gefered þæt þam folcum sceal,
Geata leodum ond Gardenum,
sib gemæne, ond sacu restan,
inwitniþas, þe hie ær drugon,
wesan, þenden ic wealde widan rices,
maþmas gemæne, manig oþerne
godum gegretan ofer ganotes bæð;
sceal hringnaca ofer heafu bringan
lac ond luftacen. Ic þa leode wat
ge wið feond ge wið freond fæste geworhte,
æghwæs untæle ealde wisan.'”
(Beowulf ll.1855-1865)


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My Translation

“‘You have brought it about so that by all people it shall be said,
by the Geatish people and by the spear Danes,
we have a shared peace and ceased strife,
ended the enmity that we once endured,
and that it was while I ruled over a wide kingdom,
over common treasures, greeted with gifts
many others from across the gannet’s bath.
The ring-prowed ships shall ever bring
gifts and love-tokens across the heaving crests. I of thy people
know that you are firm with friend or with foe alike,
steadfast in every respect in the old ways.'”
(Beowulf ll.1855-1865)


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A Quick Question

Hrothgar here declares that Beowulf has brought about peace. And, since he’s a delegate from the Geats, his defeating the Grendels means that Danes and Geats share a strengthened bond now. No doubt the talk of treasure flowing freely between their nations underscores this new-forged peace, too.

But I can’t help but notice how Hrothgar puffs himself up here on lines 1859-1861. Here Hrothgar notes that Beowulf brought about this peace while he ruled generously over many, though we never really see that many. In fact, Hrothgar’s calling this out about himself seems strange because when I think of proper medieval speech-giving, I think that rulers need to be humble. If anyone boasts about a ruler’s accomplishments, it’s an underling like a herald or a standard bearer of some kind. Maybe if Grendel’s mother hadn’t dragged Aeschere off, he would be the one saying these things, though. After all, he was the one who announced Beowulf in the first place, I believe.

Setting aside matters of humility and hierarchy, though, I hear a strong note of doom in Hrothgar’s final lines. There’s just something in his calling the Geats “steadfast in every respect in the old ways” (“æghwæs untæle ealde wisan” (l.1865)). This statement suggests that there are new ways that aren’t so clear cut. But what are these new ways? Switching allegiances at random?

Since this poem is set in the distant past, did those old ways die out while the new ones took over? To the people hearing and reading Beowulf in the 11th century, was the past that this poem presented where ideals of honour and being true to your word lived in the same way the middle ages as a whole are where those things live for many people today?

The fact that Hrothgar notes the Geats’ steadfastness in the old ways as a positive thing definitely suggests that they’re becoming harder to find. So does that mean that even in the era of Beowulf, honour among clearly defined allies and enmity towards equally well-defined foes was a fading quality in people? Or could this line have been altered by the Christian monks who put the poem to paper to try to dispel notions that the pre-Christian past was a better time?

As with many of the themes and ideas in this poem there are no clear answers to these questions. But, that’s the beauty of discussing literature, it’s all a matter of interpretation and opinion. So, what do you think of Hrothgar’s final words to Beowulf? Inscribe your thoughts in the comments!


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Closing

Next week, Hrothgar gives some sweet gifts and Beowulf and the Geats head for their boats.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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Beowulf: A growing character or diplomatic chameleon?

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

A scop sings his boasts, just like Beowulf does before Hrothgar.

Image found at http://bit.ly/2jumA3j


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Synopsis

Hrothgar finishes his final speech to Hrothgar and the Danes.


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The Original Old English

“‘Gif ic þæt gefricge ofer floda begang,
þæt þec ymbsittend egesan þywað,
swa þec hetende hwilum dydon,
ic ðe þusenda þegna bringe,
hæleþa to helpe. Ic on Higelac wat,
Geata dryhten, þeah ðe he geong sy,
folces hyrde, þæt he mec fremman wile
wordum ond worcum, þæt ic þe wel herige
ond þe to geoce garholt bere,
mægenes fultum, þær ðe bið manna þearf.
Gif him þonne Hreþric to hofum Geata
geþingeð, þeodnes bearn, he mæg þær fela
freonda findan; feorcyþðe beoð
selran gesohte þæm þe him selfa deah.'”
(Beowulf ll.1826-1839)


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My Translation

“‘If, while over the sea’s expanse I learn
that neighbouring peoples threaten you with terror,
as enemies formerly did to your people,
I shall bring the help of a thousand thanes,
the aid of warriors. Of Hygelac, lord of the Geats,
I know, though he is young, that,
as the protector of my people, he will support me
with words and with deeds, so that I may honour thee
and bear to you a forest of spears as help,
the strength of support, when you have need of men.
Then, if Hreþric decides to go to
the Geatish hall, your son, oh prince, he shall
find countless friends there; for far-flung countries
are most hospitable to those who are themselves worth meeting.'”
(Beowulf ll.1826-1839)


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A Quick Question

Beowulf happens across some lovely eloquence in this passage. With his “help of a thousand thanes” (“ðe þusenda þegna bringe” (l.1829)), his humbly admitting Hygelac’s youth (relative to Hrothgar, surely), and his “forest of spears” (“garholt” (l.1834)), it’s clear that he’s bringing his “A” speech game. And why not? This is Beowulf’s final big speech to the Danes, after all. So he has to leave a good impression.

More than that, though, this eloquence shows Beowulf’s growth. If you go back and read his earlier speeches to Hrothgar and the Danes he’s not much more eloquent than he is here. But his images seem to be much cleaner and clearer than his boastful stories of beating up monsters and what not. Here Beowulf is the diplomat more than the fighter. And, I think, that we can see this as Beowulf maturing into kingship.

Though it’s definitely possible that Beowulf is just matching his surroundings, as Hrothgar did early on when Beowulf had proven himself to the Danish lord.

His tidy images are just in keeping with a proper farewell speech. Concrete images are bound to land much more of a hit than vague boasts about beating up whole islands’ worth of monsters, after all.

Beyond the images, this speech also matches the occasion through Beowulf’s respectful mention of Hygelac. He is in the presence of another king, so, even though he is his immediate lord, Beowulf can’t pump Hygelac up that much. And he finishes this indirect flattery of Hrothgar off with an open invite for his son, so that Hrothgar’s court can reciprocate Hygelac’s generosity of sending Beowulf off.

This last point is especially important because it means that Hrothgar and Hygelac can be kept in balance. It is a future event, Hreþric’s hypothetical visit to Geatland, but it’s still important because it is one of the greatest ways of showing friendship: offering the same kindness that you were shown.

Do you think that this speech shows Beowulf’s growth towards maturity? Or is he still the same monster-smashing fighter he was when he arrived in Geatland some 1500 lines ago? Share your thoughts in the comments!


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Closing

Next week, Hrothgar says that Beowulf will be a great king!

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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