Beowulf gets inspirational (ll.2177-2189)

The Original Old English
My Translation
A Quick Interpretation

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

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

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Beowulf’s past exposed!

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The Original Old English

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

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My Translation

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

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A Quick Interpretation

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

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

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

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

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

But that stronghold isn’t just some idle gift.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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