Hrothgar’s tearful farewell offers a glimpse into Beowulf’s future (ll.1866-1887)

The Original Old English
My Translation
A Quick Reflection

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

Image found at

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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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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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Tolkien, Beowulf, and inspiration

It’s been almost two months since J.R.R. Tolkien’s 125th birthday, but I think that Tolkien’s influence and presence in the fantasy world merit giving the whole year over to him. So does Suparna Banerjee, writing for But why am I posting an article about Tolkien’s contributions to the world of modern fantasy on a blog that’s all about Beowulf?

Well, Tolkien’s connection to the poem is one reason. He wrote vehemently for its serious consideration as a work of meaningful art in his essay “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics” (which you cna read in full here). He also translated the poem from Old English, though this wasn’t published until only a few years ago. But, the other reason to mention him is that Beowulf was one of the major taproot texts that influenced his writing for himself and his children.

If you’ve never heard of the term “taproot text” before, it refers to stories that existed well before literature was divided into the various genres we see on bookstore shelves now, but that have major elements of those genres.

So, things like Beowulf, “The Squire’s Tale”, Orlando Furioso, and The Faerie Queene are all taproot texts for fantasy fiction. And, although these taproot texts aren’t required reading for people who write in a genre that grew out of them, they can still bring a great deal of insight. These stories also bring things back to basics, which I think is what happened with Beowulf and Tolkien.

There were fantasy stories before Tolkien and well after Beowulf, after all (Edward Plunkett’s are among my favourites, especially “The Fortress Unvanquishable Save for Sacnoth”). In fact, Banerjee outlines how Tolkien brought these various elements of fantasy together in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. But I don’t think that he would have managed what he did without being as familiar with Beowulf as he was.

Which is why I think Beowulf is so important to come back to as a reader and translator myself.

Beowulf is unlike anything that’s coming out these days, and though it’s a bit dated in some ways, it brings a distant time and society to life. And it does so in a way that combines the historic and the fantastic to make an unforgettable story with a fully realized world. The Beowulf poet took what was mundane when it was being written (political marriages, battling, hall etiquette, the social hierarchy and its attendant wealth distribution system) and adds the fantastic while still being believable.

Though, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the dragon in Beowulf proves that dinosaurs co-existed with humans, but I would say that Beowulf‘s dragon (and the whole story) never feels as lofty and idealized as, say, the courtly romances of King Arthur. Beowulf is no perfumed prince living apart from everyone but wife and children, he is pure physicality present in the goings on of hall society and the personal and national battlefield alike, and that’s what makes it the story that, I think, inspired Tolkien the most.

What do you think of the idea of Beowulf as an inspiritional story? Let me know in the comments!

How “Northern Courage” and ofermōde help Beowulf stand out

A simple drawing of old Beowulf reflecting on heroes of the past.

Image found at: (If you are, or know, the artist, please get in touch so I can give proper credit.)

In my wanderings to find something to write about for this week’s news post, I came across this article from A Tolkienist Perspective: Northern Courage, Ofermōde and Thorin Oakenshield’s last stand.

In this article, James (the author) offers a fairly in depth look at J.R.R. Tolkien’s conception of “Northern courage,” and his interpretation of the tricky Old English word “ofermōde.” The former of these is a sort of boldness that Tolkien explained as maintaining a persistent spirit despite terrible odds. And, according to this article, Tolkien understood “ofermōde” as that Northern courage going too far. In a sense, Northern courage is the kind of spirit that buoys you towards your goal through stormy waters, where ofermōde catapults you across those waters and clear past your goal.

Stepping outside of the realm of Beowulf and into one of the most popular creative worlds that it inspired, gives me a bit of perspective on the original poem. As such, reading James’ article got me thinking that one of the things that I really appreciate about Beowulf is that it is indeed a story with consequences. Unlike other poems that might be described as “epic,” though, those consequences aren’t national rivalries or divine wrath. Instead they are the end of the hero and his people. Thus, Beowulf is really more of an elegiac epic (or an epic elegy).

But what does that have to do with this article about J.R.R. Tolkien’s ideas of Northern courage and foolhardiness?

Well, something that’s always fascinated me is people’s comparing themselves to the characters of the great stories of their times.

Throughout the classical period and the Renaissance (unfortunately, the stars of a lot of medieval epics were saints or Christ himself, so comparisons weren’t quite so welcome), people would make these comparisons to famed heroes for rhetorical purposes. But these heroes always have some fatal flaw, and it often seemed to me that saying “I’m just like Hercules!” was foolish because of Hercules’ sufferings (killing his own family in a fit of divine rage, dying when he dons a coat that burned away all of his skin).

Sure, it’s easy to compare yourself to a hero in their prime, and maybe that’s all that was intended with these comparisons. But to my mind there was a kind of hubris, a kind of overstepping of the speakers’ bounds just in the comparison alone. These heroes are something beyond human already. I mean, with my above example, Hercules is the son of Zeus and, after his agonizing death he rises to Olympus.

Nonetheless, the superstitious part of me winces when these kinds of comparisons are made since they’re like the point in so many cartoons where one character says “things are better than ever!” and the situation quickly turns around.

But, although the idea of hubris is pretty widespread, Tolkien’s understanding of Northern courage and ofermōde as counterparts (as James explains) goes a long way into expressing why Beowulf stands out for me.

Beowulf isn’t a form like a Greek drama or a Homeric epic with strict rules for dramatists and poets to follow. Instead, it’s a single story that embodies its culture’s greatest attribute (the courage to stand and defend your community against all others and the harsh Northern European elements) and its greatest downfall (the extreme of courage, where actions quickly become more and more foolish) in a single story and a single character.

After all, Beowulf himself oversteps his courage and exhibits too much spiritedness when he insists on fighting the dragon on his own despite his age and despite the danger. This closing of the loop of action and consequence in a single story and in a very human way just seems utterly unique to me, like it’s something that no other story of Beowulf‘s scope manages to do. Beowulf lives, fights monsters, displaying more and more courage each time, until finally that courage becomes too much and he (and his people) die. It’s a sorrowful story, for sure. But it’s complete in a way that nothing else I’ve come across is.

James’ article helped to clarify that for me. Maybe it’ll do something similar for you, so go give it a read.

What do you think of the idea of separating courage into something to be celebrated (Tolkien’s Northern courage) and something that’s just stupid (“ofermōde”, or “foolhardiness,” as it could be translated)? Is all courage stupidity or is there necessary courage that’s actually kind of wise?

Leave your thoughts in the comments!

Where Beowulf meets baseball

Whoops, it’s Friday, isn’t it?

Since I was getting over a nasty cold earlier in the week and then had a job to finish off for the end of the week (and a podcast to edit in between), I didn’t get to finish this week’s Beowulf entry.

As a bit of a fill-in for this week, I found a neat news piece related to Beowulf. Surprisingly, baseball, Beowulf, and J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit cross over.

Click through to find out how:

The spell on Grendel, and a bit about bird swords (ll.801b-808)

The Spell on Grendel
Bird Swords and Weird Death

Beowulf, Grendel, Old English, Anglo-Saxon

An illustration of Grendel by J.R. Skelton from Stories of Beowulf. Grendel is described as “Very terrible to look upon.”Stories of beowulf grendel” by J. R. Skelton – Marshall, Henrietta Elizabeth (1908) Stories of Beowulf, T.C. & E.C. Jack. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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The poet explains the enchantment put on Grendel and describes what will happen upon his death.

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801b – 808

“that sin-laden wretch,
by even the best iron in or on the earth,
by any battle bill could not be at all touched,
for he had forsworn the use of any weapon of war,
each and every edge. His share of eternity
in the days of this life
would agonizing be, and the alien spirit
into the grasp of fiends would journey far.”
(Beowulf ll.801b-808)

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Old English:


Modern English:


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The Spell on Grendel

So the answer to last week’s burning question about Grendel and weapons is that they don’t affect him because he’s “forsworn” them.

The actual word used here is “forsworen,” a form of the verb “forswerian,” which means “to swear falsely” (as the modern “forsworn” does) and “make useless by a spell” (which, according to Clark Hall and Meritt only appears in Beowulf). So there’s some sort of magic going on here.

Now, though we only have an example of the “spell” sense of “forswerian” in Beowulf, I think that the same word’s having the sense of “to swear falsely” is important. I think that it suggests that this isn’t just any magic, but dark magic based on some sort of demonic, or evil power. Or, at the very least, some sort of power based on negation.

Big surprise, I know.

Grendel has been the only who’s said to bear the mark of Cain and be the offspring of giants and all that. But I think that this line about having somehow forsworn weapons in particular is a good piece of evidence for Grendel as the enchanted champion of a fallen goddess.

Demons, after all, are often the new religion’s take on the old faith’s gods. So if Beowulf is coming from a culture that once had a pair of deities that were mother and son or even goddess and champion, I think this line about Grendel being enchanted by dark magic seals the connection.

But, once again turning to Robert Graves’ The White Goddess (here’s my first entry on it, from my other blog), there’s even more here than just the implication that Grendel is some sort of old and outdated deity or demi-deity made monstrous.

In the chapter that Graves dedicates to Llew Llaw Gyffes, Graves tells the story of this early Welsh hero. Ultimately, Graves comes to the death of this hero, but the thing with him is that he can only be killed in a very particular way.

And it’s not just that he has to be hit in his heel or struck with a certain sword, he’s got to be balancing between the lip of a cauldron and the back of a goat, beside a stream, under a tree, holding particular items and so on. The conditions are ridiculous (so much so Graves readily looks into them for their iconographic meaning).

The conditions on Grendel’s death aren’t quite so ridiculous, but in the context of Beowulf I think the idea of someone being impervious to weapons would be pretty incredible. I mean — they’re weapons. They’re designed to kill and maim and hurt. To not be affected by a thing’s defining purpose almost gives Grendel a weird metaphysical power over the world around him. Almost.

At any rate, I think that the spell on Grendel is a similar one to that one on Llew Llaw Gyffes.

Perhaps Grendel, as rude and slovenly as he is, is just such a hero viewed through a Christian lens — none of his powers or virtues are won in a straightforward manner and so how could he be anything other than a monster, something outside the proper realm of society, and therefore banished to its borders with his monstrously powerful mother?

The other thing I want to pick at here is why the poet gives half of this passage to describing Grendel’s flight and death.

Actually, I take it to be more than just a description of whatever track Grendel’s going to make as he runs home mortally wounded. Just as heroes die and have the arms of angels to look forward to once their soul ascends, I get the feeling that the poet is using Grendel’s flight from Heorot as a metaphor for his soul’s transmigration to hell (“the grasp of fiends” (“on feonda geweald” (l.808))). But why even mention this?

I think it goes back to the poet’s shifting the focus to Grendel to indirectly show just how strong and powerful Beowulf is.

Rather than just praising his hero unendingly, the poet decided to mix things up and show how terrified Beowulf’s enemies become as they fight him. Interestingly, actually, this is the only fight in which we get a sense of Beowulf’s opponent’s mind as the poem’s hero lands the fatal blow.

Perhaps this shift in perspective is also because, as much as Grendel is the twisted and monstrous champion of the old, Beowulf is the champion of the new?

What do you think?

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Bird Swords and Weird Death

This week’s selection of curious words is rather limited. Still, two stand out: “guð-bill” and “aldor-gedal.”

The first of these means “sword,” and is one of many creative words for the weapon in Beowulf.

This word’s two parts come out as “guð” (“war,” “conflict,” “strife,” or “battle”) and “bill” (“bill,” “axe,” “falchion,” “blade,” or “sword”). So it’s a pretty straightforward concept and even more so a straightforward compound.

But it does make me wonder about what kind of “bill” the sword’s being compared to.

It’s not out of the question that the Anglo-Saxons were into cock-fighting, and part of that is definitely the roosters’ pecking at each other. Though even more likely is that the Anglo Saxons would have observed something like chickens pecking a newcomer nearly to death or other birds fighting and using their beaks primarily to drive their point home.

Though the thing with that is, at least in Modern English, “bill” refers specifically to a longer, often broad, sort of beak, like the kind you’d see on a duck or a stork. So maybe, if “bill” was just as restrictive among the Anglo-Saxons, it fit what the poet was going for since it’s a broad or long bit of a body that an animal uses as a weapon.

Good martial artists of all sorts treat weapons in the same way, as extensions of their bodies rather than separate things. So maybe “guðbill” carries more weight than just “sword,” instead implying a sword that’s wielded as well as any other limb (or maybe specific to a single person, an heirloom sword, perhaps).

The second word, “aldor-gedal,” means death.

Split into its pieces we get “aldor” (“elder,” “parent,” “ancestors,” “civil/religious authority,” “chief,” “leader,” “master,” “lord,” “prince,” “king” “source,” “primitive,” “life,” “vital part,” “age,” “old age,” or “eternity”) and “gedal” (“division,” “separation,” “sharing,” “giving out,” “distinction,” “difference,” “destruction,” “share,” or “lot”).

The tricky thing here is that it’s not entirely clear how these words combine to mean death.

Perhaps it’s because it’s the lot of all living things to one day die, or because death is the share that all living things have in eternity. Death commemorates the formerly alive in a way beyond the memories of the living, and somehow adds them into eternity.

Though that reasoning might give the Anglo-Saxons more credit in the realm of quantum physics, or at least ideas of corpses dissipating into the soil and re-entering the natural world.

The “lot of old age” or the “share of old age” makes a little more sense, without attributing too much philosophy to the Anglo-Saxons, but I think it’s a little too plain. If the Anglo-Saxons were into nothing else, they were definitely into death and elegies. Beowulf itself, in fact, has been considered an elegy by no less a scholar than J.R.R. Tolkien. As a whole it does seem to be about the loss of a whole people (within an Anglo-Saxon context, perhaps the Geats are the Celts?).

As with all old poetry that’s stood the test of time, it’s not at all clear. So, what do you think the reasoning is behind sticking “aldor” and “gedal” together to make a word for “death”? How does that equation work?

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Next week, Grendel gets a reprieve as the poet waxes poetic ends and we’re told just how Beowulf wins it all.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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On Requests and Namelessness [ll.2743b-2755] (Old English)

Digging Deeper into Beowulf’s Request
Going Nameless

{J.R.R. Tolkien: Believer in Beowulf‘s being an elegy. Image found on}

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Beowulf instructs Wiglaf to get some gold from the hoard to show him what he fought for, and Wiglaf runs off to oblige him.

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&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp”Now go you quickly
to see the hoard under the grey stone,
dear Wiglaf, now the serpent lay dead,
sleeping in death sorely wounded, deprived of treasure.
Be now in haste that I ancient riches,
the store of gold may see, clearly look at
the bright finely worked jewels, so that I may the more
peacefully after the wealth of treasure leave my
life and lordship; that which I have long held.’
I have heard that then the son of Weohstan quickly obeyed
after the spoken word of his lord in wounds and
in war weariness, bearing mailcoat
the broad ring-shirt, under the barrow’s roof.”
(Beowulf ll.2743b-2755)

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Old English:


Modern English:


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Digging Deeper into Beowulf’s Request

On the surface, Beowulf’s request seems simple enough. ‘Go and grab some gold, that I may be able to see it,’ but there’s more to it then a validation of his final battle. Within this request lay the very stuff of revenge.

Beowulf acknowledges that now the serpent is dead and thus “deprived of treasure” (“since bereafod” (l.2746)). Thus, were he to die without seeing what he had fought for then, he would, in a way, not have won at all.

For Beowulf would then not have been able to say that he had laid eyes on that for which he fought, while the dragon enjoyed the sight of it constantly. Further, he also wouldn’t have experienced it, and wouldn’t therefore have fulifilled the treasure’s basic purpose: to be used by being enjoyed through sight (just as a grammatical object is used simply by being linked to a grammatical subject).

However, the act of seeing it, of using it, also puts Beowulf on par with the dragon on the level of greed, since he is not able to dole out the treasure to his people, as any good king must, in person.

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Going Nameless

But, what’s curious about this passage is Wiglaf’s lacking reference by name. First he is the “son of Weohstan” and then he is referred to with a bit of metonymy when the poet simply says that he bore a mailcoat into the barrow (“hringnet beran/…under beorges hrof” (ll.2754-2755)).

So why does Wiglaf, the one who was instrumental in Beowulf’s victory, suddenly lose his name? Perhaps to keep the focus on Beowulf, rather than Wiglaf so that it truly does become an elegy rather than a story of succession, of hope.

It’s also possible that this is merely poetic license, but the fact is that Wiglaf is not referred to by name again until line 2852. That’s over one hundred lines later, and the point at which his fellow Geats recognize him as the new leader for the first time.

That Wiglaf is named for the occasion of recognition as the new authority strongly suggests that indeed he is occluded for the next 100 lines to keep Beowulf in the spotlight. Going out at Beowulf’s behest, Wiglaf isn’t really Wiglaf anymore, but he is made into Beowulf’s double, at least for the brief time that he scrambles out to the hoard, through it, and back.

It could even be argued, that Wiglaf’s washing Beowulf clean and then undoing his helmet are both acts that signify a complete rescindment of the will, perhaps as an acknowledgement of the end of a life. In doing these things Wiglaf drops his own desires and takes up Beowulf’s request entirely so that he can be a comfort to the old lord in his final moments.

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Next week, the second stanza of “O Fortuna” will be posted, and Wiglaf, though nameless, finds himself immersed in a fabulous treasure room.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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