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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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Hrothgar starts to step out of the story

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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Introduction

It’s been a busy week, so here’s a short translation post.


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Synopsis

Hrothgar sums up his rule, and promises Beowulf great gifts.


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The Original Old English

“‘Swa ic Hringdena hund missera
weold under wolcnum ond hig wigge beleac
manigum mægþa geond þysne middangeard,
æscum ond ecgum, þæt ic me ænigne
under swegles begong gesacan ne tealde.
Hwæt, me þæs on eþle edwenden cwom,
gyrn æfter gomene, seoþðan Grendel wearð,
ealdgewinna, ingenga min;
ic þære socne singales wæg
modceare micle. þæs sig metode þanc,
ecean dryhtne, þæs ðe ic on aldre gebad
þæt ic on þone hafelan heorodreorigne
ofer ealdgewin eagum starige!
Ga nu to setle, symbelwynne dreoh
wigge weorþad; unc sceal worn fela
maþma gemænra, siþðan morgen bið.'”
(Beowulf ll.1769-1784)


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My Translation

‘”Just so I have ruled the Ring-Danes under the sky
for one hundred half-years, and have protected
them against war with many nations from across this world,
from both spears and swords, such that I have not considered any other beneath the sky’s expanse as an adversary.
But lo! A hard reversal came to my native land,
grief following joy, once Grendel appeared,
that ancient adversary, that invader of my peace;
at that arrival I continually bore persecution
and great sorrow of mind. Thus I now thank God,
the eternal Lord, that I might experience in my life,
after the struggle, the chance to gaze upon with my eyes
the beast’s head blood-stained from battle.
Go now to the bench, joyously join the
mirth of feasting; we two shall share
a great many treasures when the morning comes.'”
(Beowulf ll.1769-1784)


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A Quick Question

Hrothgar’s quick summary of the poem leads into a section where Beowulf’s adventures in Daneland come to an end. And there’s a lot of talk of celebration, but it seems very under-hyped to me. Hrothgar mentions that Beowulf will get “a great many treasures” (“maþma gemænra” (l.1784)) for all of his work here, but that’s about it.

Instead, most of the end of Hrothgar’s speech is about his rule. I guess the implication here is that happiness has returned to Heorot, and Hrothgar’s rule will continue as it did before. There’s definitely a strong sense that not only are things returning to normal in Daneland, but all of the characters living there are stepping out of the mythic realm that Beowulf brings with him and returning to history.

What do you get out of Hrothgar’s talking about his rule in Daneland? Let me know in the comments!


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Closing

Next week, Beowulf and Hrothgar party on.

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Is Hrothgar motivating Beowulf with death?

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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Introduction

Unfortunately this week’s been a little too hectic for me to make time for a full translation post. Instead of skipping a week though, here is my translation of the next part of Beowulf.


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Synopsis

Hrothgar makes the moral of his story loud and clear for Beowulf.


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The Original Old English

“‘Bebeorh þe ðone bealonið, Beowulf leofa,
secg betsta, ond þe þæt selre geceos,
ece rædas; oferhyda ne gym,
mære cempa. Nu is þines mægnes blæd
ane hwile. Eft sona bið
þæt þec adl oððe ecg eafoþes getwæfeð,
oððe fyres feng, oððe flodes wylm,
oððe gripe meces, oððe gares fliht,
oððe atol yldo; oððe eagena bearhtm
forsiteð ond forsworceð; semninga bið
þæt ðec, dryhtguma, deað oferswyðeð.'”
(Beowulf ll.1758-1768)


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My Translation

“‘Guard against such evil hostility, dear Beowulf,
best of men, and be sure to make the better choice:
eternal gain; be not intent on pride,
oh renowned warrior! Now is your power prospering
for but a short while; soon will either
illness or the blade deprive you of that strength,
or the grip of flames, or the surging waters,
or an attack by sword, or the flight of spears,
or terrible old age, or the light of your eyes
will fail and grow dim; presently such will come
upon you, oh lord of battle, and death will overpower you.'”
(Beowulf ll.1758-1768)


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A Quick Question

A lot of people take the inevitability of their own death as a major inspiration to get on with what they want to do with their lives. Steve Jobs, for example, used his mortality as a way to figure out if what he was doing was what he truly wanted to (he suggests was “meant” to do) on what sounds like a daily basis. At least that’s the impression I get from the speech quoted in this article.

Although Hrothgar’s list of all the ways Beowulf could eventually die is a little gloomy and seems very melancholic do you think he’s doing the same thing here? Is he trying to motivate Beowulf to live each day to the fullest? Or is he just trying to remind Beowulf that he won’t live forever?

Let me know in the comments!


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Closing

Next week Hrothgar gives a recap of the whole poem so far — from his perspective.

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Further adventures in philosophy via Beowulf: The best use of wealth

Synopsis
Original
Translation
Recordings
Hrothgar’s Thoughts on Wealth and Sharing It
The Way to Our Best Futures
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’s hypothetical ruler meets his tragic end.


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Original

“þonne bið on hreþre under helm drepen
biteran stræle (him bebeorgan ne con),
wom wundor-bebodum wergan gastes;
þinceð him to lytel þæt he lange heold,
gytsað grom-hydig, nallas on gylp seleð
fædde beagas, ond he þa forð-gesceaft
forgyteð ond forgymeð, þæs þe him ær god sealde,
wuldres waldend, weorð-mynda dæl.
Hit on ende-stæf eft gelimpeð
þæt se lic-homa læne gedreoseð,
fæge gefealleð; fehð oþer to,
se þe unmurnlice madmas dæleþ,
eorles ær-gestreon, egesan ne gymeð.”
(Beowulf ll.1745-1757)


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Translation

“Then that sharp arrow slides beneath his defenses,
it bites into his heart — he knows not to guard himself —
the perverse strange command of the evil spirit then has hold.
He begins to think little of what he had long held;
going forth angry-minded he only covets, for pride he never gives
rings of hammered gold; and what he had been destined for
is forgotten and neglected, what was shown in the Almighty’s past gifts,
God’s glory, all that was made clear in his share of honour.
Afterwards the common end comes to him,
that prince’s transitory body declines,
what is fated to die falls; then another takes what had been his,
one who ungrudgingly shares that former prince’s ancient treasures
among their earls, fearing no retribution.”
(Beowulf ll.1745-1757)


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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}


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Hrothgar’s Thoughts on Wealth and Sharing It

In my reading of this passage the thing that Hrothgar is getting at is that the best use of wealth is to share it.

His hypothetical ruler who had it all gets greedy after their soul (their humanity) is killed by feelings of anxiety and uncertainty. After this murder the ruler turns to the world of things rather than to the world of their fellow people to soothe themselves. However, this leads to a miserly and covetous existence in which the ruler surrounds themselves with things, and then passes away with no fanfare whatever. And, after they’re gone another comes along and doles out what their predecessor had so closely guarded with an open hand, proving that such miserliness only causes pointless suffering.

Ultimately, then, this passage reinforces the Anglo-Saxon value of the wealthy class sharing their wealth. A lesson that’s just as important then as it is today.

And the past, which so many people are quick to call only brutish and cruel, is littered with such sentiments. Just look at Hammurabi’s Code, one of the earliest sets of laws, which stipulated that payment for medical care be related to a person’s wealth. If someone like a king needed a doctor, they would pay full price, but if a non-land owning plebeian needed a doctor, they would get a deep discount.

The values put forth in Beowulf are similar. In practice, they may not lead to a utopia (too many rulers are like Hrothgar’s hypothetical prince), but in theory they are far more progressive than most people would ever credit for something coming out of the middle ages.

After all, the whole driving force behind the Anglo-Saxon ideal of a king who shares out wealth to those who have earned it is merit. It’s a system designed to make wealth more even while also being a system through which there could be some mobility. Though, it does concentrate the power over wealth into a single person, which comes with a host of problems.

I mean, despite Hrothgar’s historical connection, Beowulf is still a piece of fiction, and so this ideal of a magnanimous king, doling out wealth to those who have proven themselves is equally fictitious. Some historical rulers may have come close to doing so, but centralizing power in a single figure all too often results in what happened to Hrothgar’s ideally set up ruler. They are corrupted; if not by power, then they’re corrupted by paranoid ideas or selfishness. The shininess of gold grabs our attention, but sometimes it grabs so much of it that we have none left to share with other people, no matter how those others might strive to get it.

Though, along with poetry, there’s another antidote for power’s corrupting force. And that antidote is in this extract, on line 1753: “common end” (“ende-stæf”). Everyone dies and no one can take their physical wealth with them. But the friendships and connections that people make over their lifetime conquer death and help people’s memory live on long after their bodies have passed away, whether they were finely attired in the smoothest silk or wore the same cotton shirt and blue jeans day after day.

On a related note, in Carl Sagan’s The Demon Haunted World he wrote about the idea that humanity progresses, but is always able to slide back into darkness. History is the story of people, after all.

What do you think about the idea that wealth poses a danger to people’s sense of humanity and compassion? Is it as necessary as Hrothgar’s story suggests to be ever-vigilant when you come into wealth?


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The Way to Our Best Futures

Love should not be a “wundor-bebod”1,
Something that our greed or selfishness make us “grom-hydig”2 toward,
like a dog beaten into brutally barking at each passerby.
Hatred burns the bridges to our best “forð-gesceaft”3,
brings us to our “ende-staef”4 before our “lic-homa”5 runs down, is put in ground.
Love and “weorð-mynd”6 are the best of “aer-gestreon”7 we can wear, then and now.

1wundor-bebod: strange command. wundor (wonder, miracle, marvel, portent, horror, wondrous thing, monster) + bebod (command, injunction, order, decree) [A word that is exclusive to Beowulf.]

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2grom-hydig: hostile, malignant. gram (angry, cruel, fierce) + hygdig (heedful, thoughtful, careful, chaste, modest)

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3forð-gesceaft: future destiny, creature, created being or thing, world. forð (forth, forwards, onwards, further, hence, thence, away, continually, still, continuously, henceforth, thenceforward, simultaneously) + sceaft (created being, creature, origin, creation, construction, existence, dispensation, destiny, fate, condition, nature)

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4ende-staef: end, conclusion. ende (end, conclusion, boundary, border, limit, quarter, direction, part, portion, division, district, region, species, kind, class, death) + staef (staff, stick, rod, pastoral staff, letter, character, writing, document, letters, literature, learning)

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5lic-homa: body, corpse, trunk. lic (body, corpse) + homa (village, hamlet, manor, estate; home, dwelling, house, region, country)

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6weorð-mynd: honour, dignity, glory, mark of distinction. weorð (worth, value, amount, price, purchase-money, ransom; worth, worthy, honoured, noble, honourable, of high rank; valued, dear, precious; fit, capable) + mynd (memory, remembrance, memorial, record, act of commemoration, thought, purpose, consciousness, mind, intellect)

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7aer-gestreon: ancient treasure. aer (ere, before that, soon, formerly, beforehand, previously, already, lately, till) + streon (gain, acquisition, property, treasure)

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Closing

Next week Hrothgar makes his allegory relevant to Beowulf.

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