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!”

Advertisements

How Hrethel’s throne made its way to Hygelac

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

Beowulf tells the tale of the sorrowful old man Hrethel and maybe that's fate.

Vincent van Gogh’s depiction of a sorrowful old man, which may as well be Hrethel. Image from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sorrowful_old_man.jpg.


Back To Top
Recap

Last week, Beowulf gave us a simile for the sorrow that Hrethel felt when Herebeald died.


Back To Top
Synopsis

Hrethel leaves off life and Hæthcyn and Hygelac inherit everything.


Back To Top
The Original Old English

“‘Gewiteð þonne on sealman, sorhleoð gæleð
an æfter anum; þuhte him eall to rum,
wongas ond wicstede. Swa Wedra helm
æfter Herebealde heortan sorge
weallende wæg. Wihte ne meahte
on ðam feorhbonan fæghðe gebetan;
no ðy ær he þone heaðorinc hatian ne meahte
laðum dædum, þeah him leof ne wæs.
He ða mid þære sorhge, þe him swa sar belamp,
gumdream ofgeaf, godes leoht geceas,
eaferum læfde, swa deð eadig mon,
lond ond leodbyrig, þa he of life gewat.'”
(Beowulf ll.2460-2471)


Back To Top
My Translation

“‘Then Hrethel was in bed, chanting a dirge,
alone even with himself. To him it all seemed too huge,
the fields’ roll, the halls’ stretch. Thus the Geat’s protector,
his heart suffused with sorrow for Herebeald,
set out for that far country. He never knew how he might
wreak his feud on the slayer;
in no way could he hate the warrior
for that dolorous deed, though he was not loved.
Then he, amidst that sorrow, that which sorely him concerned,
gave up on the enjoyment of life, chose God’s light.
He left all he had on earth to his sons, as any prosperous man does,
lands and towns, when he left off this life.’”
(Beowulf ll.2460-2471)


Back To Top
A Quick Interpretation

Here is an example of society grinding on, beyond the personal concerns of the people in it.

Hæthcyn, the man who killed his own brother and “was not loved” (“him leof ne wæs” (l.2467)), still gets his inheritance. Even though Hrethel never got over that act, even though his sorrow for Herebeald stole away his joie de vive and, arguably, killed him.

But how does Hæthcyn feel about all of this? If it was a hunting accident, I can’t imagine how terrible he feels about it all. But that could be why he has no voice here. He might have shut down in a way different from Hrethel’s death and depression. Hæthcyn may have just completely clammed up, become rather stoic and unassailable. And so this one act destroyed every member of the family except for Hygelac.

After all, if Hygelac was the youngest brother, Hæthcyn would have been the king of the Geats first, but there’s no mention of what he did in the role. This could just be plot convenience, but I really think that Hæthcyn was just a functional shell of his former self and this is why he has almost no page time. And shells of any kind generally don’t make for good characters.

What kind of a king do you think Hæthcyn was?

Feel free to share your theories in the comments!


Back To Top
Closing

Next week, war breaks out and we learn the fate of Hæthcyn.

If you enjoyed this post, please give it a like. And, if you want to keep up with my translations, please do follow this blog!

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

Back To Top

Fate’s sorrowful means to make Hygelac king?

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

Beowulf tells the tale of the sorrowful old man Hrethel and maybe that's fate.

Vincent van Gogh’s depiction of a sorrowful old man, which may as well be Hrethel. Image from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sorrowful_old_man.jpg.


Back To Top
Recap

Last week, Beowulf shared a bit of his early life with Hrethel. He also told the story of how Hrethel’s eldest son killed his own brother.


Back To Top
Synopsis

Beowulf weaves a simile for the sort of sorrow that seizes upon the entire Hrethel household.


Back To Top
The Original Old English

“‘Swa bið geomorlic gomelum ceorle
to gebidanne, þæt his byre ride
giong on galgan, þonne he gyd wrece,
sarigne sang, þonne his sunu hangað
hrefne to hroðre, ond he him helpe ne mæg,
eald ond infrod, ænige gefremman.
Symble bið gemyndgad morna gehwylce
eaforan ellorsið; oðres ne gymeð
to gebidanne burgum in innan
yrfeweardas, þonne se an hafað
þurh deaðes nyd dæda gefondad.
Gesyhð sorhcearig on his suna bure
winsele westne, windge reste
reote berofene. Ridend swefað,
hæleð in hoðman; nis þær hearpan sweg,
gomen in geardum, swylce ðær iu wæron.'”
(Beowulf ll.2444-2459)


Back To Top
My Translation

“‘Then was the whole household like a sorrowful old man
who must live on, though his young son hangs on the gallows.
Such a man then makes a dirge, distressed singing,
while his son hangs at the mocking mercy of ravens,
birds gloating over their feast, and he can do nothing
to help his son, no water from his well of experience and age
will allow him to haul the boy down and lavish new life onto his lank body.
Reluctantly he is reminded each morning of
his son’s death. He does not care to wait
for another heir in his hall, since the
first has been found fettered, devoured, by death’s dire decree.
He looks on with tear-filled soul into his lost son’s chambers,
all hall joy now desolation, the resting place of winds,
a place bereft of all joy. The riders sleep.
The fighters lay in darkness. No harp sounds are there.
There are no men in the yard. Nothing is as it once was.’”
(Beowulf ll.2444-2459)


Back To Top
A Quick Interpretation

There’s definitely a “Lay of the Last Survivor” vibe to the last three lines of this passage.

As with that section of the poem, these lines are a reflection on the emptiness of loss. Except, where the “Lay of the Last Survivor” focused on how the amassed wealth of a whole civilization is useless to a single member of that civilization, this passage is all about family.

After Herebeald’s death, Hrethel’s family falls apart. Why? Because the kinds of retribution for murder that society allows are simply not possible. They couldn’t kill a member of the family.

For a modern spin, the situation is like two people getting into a crash. Except that neither of them can sue each other because of a familial loophole. Though if family members are crashing into each other when they’re out driving, they must have problems beyond broken bones and crumpled metal.

Actually, last week, I put forth the idea that this episode in the Hrethel household has a clear analogue in Norse mythology. But aside from cooking up this episode to bring some mythology into his poem, what could have driven one brother to shoot another with an arrow? I grew up with two brothers, and we fought every now and then, but none of us ever shot another with an arrow.

For the record, it seems that the academic consensus is that Hæthcyn killed Herebeald in a hunting accident.

Maybe this kind of tragedy would just be written off as wyrd or fate. Hygelac had to become the lord of the Geats, and the best way for that to happen was to invalidate his brothers’ claims to the throne. So the gears of fate fired up and took Herebeald and Hæthcyn out.

What’s your favourite (or best) simile or metaphor for sorrow?

Feel free to share it in the comments!


Back To Top
Closing

Next week, Beowulf explains how society grinds on beyond death.

If you enjoyed this post, please give it a like. And, if you want to keep up with my translations, please do follow this blog!

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

Back To Top

Just how important Beowulf’s gift of horses is

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

A drawing of an Anglo-Saxon chariot, complete with horses.

A 10th century illustration of a two-horse chariot from Prudentius’ Psychomachia (a poem about a battle between virtues and vices). Click the image for the source.


Back To Top
Synopsis

The poet describes the gifts Beowulf gives to Hygelac and Hygd.


Back To Top
The Original Old English

“Hyrde ic þæt þam frætwum feower mearas
lungre, gelice, last weardode,
æppelfealuwe; he him est geteah
meara ond maðma. Swa sceal mæg don,
nealles inwitnet oðrum bregdon
dyrnum cræfte, deað renian
hondgesteallan. Hygelace wæs,
niða heardum, nefa swyðe hold,
ond gehwæðer oðrum hroþra gemyndig.
Hyrde ic þæt he ðone healsbeah Hygde gesealde,
wrætlicne wundurmaððum, ðone þe him Wealhðeo geaf,
ðeodnes dohtor, þrio wicg somod
swancor ond sadolbeorht; hyre syððan wæs
æfter beahðege breost geweorðod.”
(Beowulf ll.2163-2176)


Back To Top
My Translation

“I heard that next four ornate horses were brought in,
quickly, each of them as beautiful as the last,
bay and brilliant. Beowulf gave unto his lord such gifts
in horses and treasures. And so shall all kinsmen do;
not scheme and lay out nets laced with malice for others
through deceitful craft, not arrange death
for hand-companions. Hygelac proved a grand uncle
to Beowulf, a nephew who held fast to the bond,
and each was mindful of the other’s joy.
I heard that then he gave the gorget to Hygd,
Wealhtheow’s well-wrought wonder treasure, that which
the queen had given him, daughter of the prince, three horses as well,
each supple and with ornamented saddles.
The gorget shone like the sun upon Hygd’s breast.”
(Beowulf ll.2163-2176)


Back To Top
A Quick Interpretation

Ah, horses. Today we admire them for their grace and speed. And, back in the early medieval period, people liked horses for the same reasons. Though these qualities were also tied up with ideas of nobility, virility, divinity, and symbolism.

Elaine Moxon wrote a fantastic post about horses in early medieval Britain over on the English Historical Fiction Authors blog. Definitely check it out for the full story.

But, over and over in that post, Moxon points out that horses are prized because they embody the qualities that warriors wanted. Horses were seen as agile, strong, virile, and a simple comfort. Plus, they made it easy to travel the long distances between towns and kingdoms. But, more than that, having and keeping a horse was a sign of wealth. Paying for all that hay and getting someone to muck the stables wasn’t any easier back then it seems.

So Beowulf’s giving Hygelac and Hygd all of these horses is a truly grand gesture. It implies that they’re worthy of such gifts already and yet having an extra seven horses around makes Hygelac and Hygd that much worthier and wealthier. Also, according to Moxon’s post, bay horses were a symbol of the goddess Freyja and fertility. So Beowulf’s gift shows the depth of his fealty to Hygelac through symbolically boosting his ability to produce an heir.

Personally, I think that horses are indeed magnificent creatures. Speaking as a big fan of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, I also really appreciate horses as a means of fast travel — maybe just as much as the Anglo-Saxons and early Britons did.

What do you like most (or least) about horses? Leave your thoughts in the comments!


Back To Top
Closing

Next week: A bit of an intermission in the life of Beowulf.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

Back To Top

Is Beowulf’s outward loyalty true loyalty?

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

A vassal pledging loyalty to a lord via homage.

A miniature from a French manuscript depicting the homage ritual. How loyalty was pledged to a superior. Click for source.


Back To Top
Synopsis

Beowulf gives Hygelac three gifts and a message from Hrothgar.


Back To Top
The Original Old English

Ða ic ðe, beorncyning, bringan wylle,
estum geywan. Gen is eall æt ðe
lissa gelong; ic lyt hafo
heafodmaga nefne, Hygelac, ðec.”
Het ða in beran eaforheafodsegn,
heaðosteapne helm, hare byrnan,
guðsweord geatolic, gyd æfter wræc:
“Me ðis hildesceorp Hroðgar sealde,
snotra fengel, sume worde het
þæt ic his ærest ðe est gesægde;
cwæð þæt hyt hæfde Hiorogar cyning,
leod Scyldunga lange hwile;
no ðy ær suna sinum syllan wolde,
hwatum Heorowearde, þeah he him hold wære,
breostgewædu. Bruc ealles well!”
(Beowulf ll.2148-2162)


Back To Top
My Translation

“‘These to you, oh noble king, I will bring
and point out the delicate points of each. After all,
all my grace still relies on you. I have few
kin — indeed there are none but you!’
He commanded then that the boar helm, head-topper for battle,
a war-steeped hat, the ancient mail shirt, and the precious war sword
be brought forth, saying thus after all this garb was brought out:
‘Hrothgar gave me this battle-keened gear,
oh wise lord. And along with them he commanded me
to first tell thee of these treasure’s journey.
He said that they had been Heorogar’s, the king,
lord of the Scyldings, for a long while.
Yet Heorogar did not bequeath them to his son,
the one called Heremod, though he was loyal,
a true wanderer through his father’s heart. Enjoy each of them well!'”
(Beowulf ll.2148-2162)


Back To Top
A Quick Interpretation

When we think of the medieval world we tend to think in absolutes. Heroes are not just people who do some grand deed once and have that mark their reputation forever. Medieval heroes are people who always do the right thing (King Arthur). Villains are the exact opposite (Bad King John). Modern scholarship has made a lot of hay from complicating these figures, but in the popular imagination the medieval world is one where people’s morality is almost naively black and white.

But in this passage we have a clear example of a character adapting to his context.

Beowulf is maybe one of the most clear-cut characters in the popular imagination. Or at least as he’s experienced in high school and introductory university courses. And yet, this part of his speech to Hygelac includes him reassuring this king of his loyalty.

But mention of that loyalty is almost entirely absent while Beowulf is in Daneland. The only mention we get of Hygelac at all during that part of the poem is in Beowulf’s funeral instructions. If he should die trying to rid Daneland of the Grendels, his armour must be sent back to Hygelac.

So his pledge of loyalty (“all my grace still relies on you” (“Gen is eall æt ðe/lissa gelong” (ll.2149-50))) to his king could just be here out of convenience.

That said, though, I don’t think that Beowulf is disloyal to Hygelac. I think it’s just that this aspect of his character is just now being highlighted because of his context. After all, it would make for a very different character if Beowulf couldn’t shut up about how great Hygelac is from the time he introduces himself to the Danish coastguard.

Now, standing before him and ready to offer gifts, It makes sense that Beowulf reaffirms his loyalty to Hygelac. But, as with a real person, his loyalty is not always at the surface of Beowulf’s personality.

Which isn’t to say that Beowulf is just putting it on for Hygelac. I think that the few mentions of Hygelac that are made while Beowulf is in Daneland show that this loyalty is an aspect of Beowulf’s character. But at that time Beowulf had some more immediate things to be worried about (one named Grendel, the another known as Grendel’s mother). But, now that he’s back in Geatland this loyalty has a place to be expressed and so is on full display.

But what do you think about Beowulf’s obvious statements of loyalty in this passage (and earlier)? Is Beowulf as loyal to Hygelac as a modern person is loyal to their boss? Or is he as loyal as all the true warriors in old stories are to their liege lords?

As always, you can share your thoughts in the comments.


Back To Top
Closing

Next week, Beowulf gives more gifts!

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

Back To Top

Telling tall tales? Beowulf gives Grendel a greater role

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

Grendel terrifyingly looms with his death bag, screaming at Beowulf.

An illustration of Grendel by J.R. Skelton from Stories of Beowulf. Grendel is described as “Very terrible to look upon.” From: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Stories_of_beowulf_grendel.jpg


Back To Top
Synopsis

Beowulf restarts the story of the fight with Grendel. And adds a character while he’s at it.


Back To Top
The Original Old English

Ic sceal forð sprecan
gen ymbe Grendel, þæt ðu geare cunne,
sinces brytta, to hwan syððan wearð
hondræs hæleða. Syððan heofones gim
glad ofer grundas, gæst yrre cwom,
eatol, æfengrom, user neosan,
ðær we gesunde sæl weardodon.
þær wæs Hondscio hild onsæge,
feorhbealu fægum; he fyrmest læg,
gyrded cempa; him Grendel wearð,
mærum maguþegne to muðbonan,
leofes mannes lic eall forswealg.”
(Beowulf ll.2069b-2080)


Back To Top
My Translation

“I shall now speak
further about Grendel, so that you may know the matter well,
bestower of treasures, and of what happened after
the hand to hand struggle between warriors. After heaven’s gem
had glided out beyond the earth’s rim the enraged creature came,
that dreadful one sought us out for its evening hostilities,
while we stood guard, still unharmed, in the hall.
There battle proved fatal for Hondscio,
he had been fated to die by the deadly evil; he was the first laid low,
that girded warrior. Grendel swallowed him up,
took his whole body into his mouth and snapped
through mail and bone and sinew until that renowned thane was gone.”
(Beowulf ll.2069b-2080)


Back To Top
A Quick Interpretation

Either Beowulf or the poet recording his life in this poem is a terrible journalist. But one (maybe both) are fantastic storytellers.

After all, the poet left out Hondscio and his being eaten whole while the Geats looked on and Beowulf thought it best to include that detail.

Though why would anyone want to add such a gruesome thing in?

Perhaps Beowulf wanted to punch the story up a little bit. He hadn’t been sent out after a nest of monsters, and so couldn’t say he beat all of them up. Nor had he been out swimming alone for hours so he couldn’t exactly say that he defeated a bunch of water beasts. So he includes a demonstration of Grendel’s terrifying strength and appetite.

But then, shouldn’t Hygelac say “Hondscio? Who’s Hondscio?” Or “Oh, poor Hondscio!”

Beowulf names one of his otherwise nameless retinue here. And Hygelac says nothing. Which just confuses things further.

But maybe I’m demanding too much realism from such an old poem. Maybe this is why Beowulf was included along with the other strange and monstrous writings in the Nowell Codex. The events and characters of the poem are monstrous, but the things left out are even more so. In other words, even medieval monks thought it terrifying that characters lacked awareness and their interactions were so formulaic that they couldn’t speak up in the middle of them.

I mean, Beowulf is reporting to the man who is his social superior. If Hygelac had some questions, Beowulf would be silenced while those questions were asked and addressed.

Beyond those questions, though, is the poet’s word choice on line 2072. It’s here that the word “hæleða,” appears. This word means “fighter” or “man” or “hero”. Because of English’s quirks, just about any of those definitions could work in this passage since Beowulf could be talking about his and his troop’s struggles rather than the collective struggles of them and Grendel.

Even so, the use of this word as a plural makes me think. Is the poet humanizing Grendel again? At the very least, he is acknowledged as another warrior, rather than just as some crazed beast.

Journalist or storyteller or both, I think that it’s this consistent ambiguity that makes Beowulf and Grendel’s struggle so timeless.

Just like the struggle of someone against the crueller side of their nature, it could be read as a person fighting a monster. Or it could be read as a more intimate struggle, one between a person and some ugly aspect of themselves.

Actually, I think this fight does one better than Nietzsche’s warning about becoming a monster when you battle them. Because this fight really shows how close the monster and the human are to one another. There is no becoming the monster, only acknowledging it, accepting it, and moving beyond it. Or, perhaps, acquiescing to it.

What do you think of Beowulf’s addition of Hondscio to his story? Is he trying to make it more interesting for Hygelac? To demonstrate how terrifying Grendel is? Or is Beowulf just trying to make himself sound greater for destroying such a monster? Do you think this addition makes the fight and its participants even more frightening and monstrous?

As always, add your thoughts in the comments!


Back To Top
Closing

Next week, Beowulf’s one man show “The Terrors of Grendel” continues!

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

Back To Top

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


Back To Top
Synopsis

Beowulf tells more of his time partying in Heorot.


Back To Top
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)


Back To Top
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)


Back To Top
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!


Back To Top
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.

Back To Top