Beowulf becomes king after some summarizing

A Viking Age battle involving, no doubt, a king like Beowulf.

Thorir Hund dressed in a reindeer-hide tunic kills King Olaf at the Battle of Stiklestad. Painting by Peter Nicolai Arbo. Click image for source.

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


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Synopsis

Hygelac gives Beowulf the greatest gifts of all.


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The Original Old English

“Het ða eorla hleo in gefetian,
heaðorof cyning, Hreðles lafe
golde gegyrede; næs mid Geatum ða
sincmaðþum selra on sweordes had;
þæt he on Biowulfes bearm alegde
ond him gesealde seofan þusendo,
bold ond bregostol. Him wæs bam samod
on ðam leodscipe lond gecynde,
eard, eðelriht, oðrum swiðor
side rice þam ðær selra wæs.
Eft þæt geiode ufaran dogrum
hildehlæmmum, syððan Hygelac læg
ond Heardrede hildemeceas
under bordhreoðan to bonan wurdon,
ða hyne gesohtan on sigeþeode
hearde hildefrecan, Heaðoscilfingas,
niða genægdan nefan Hererices,
syððan Beowulfe brade rice
on hand gehwearf;”
(Beowulf ll.2190-2208)


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My Translation

“After those gifts were given the protector of the earls,
the battle-famed king, ordered Hrethel’s heirloom be brought in.
It was a wondrous, gold-chased thing, there was no other
amid the whole Geat treasure hold to best that sword.
This Hygelac laid upon Beowulf’s lap,
and to him he gave seven thousand hides of land,
a hall and a throne. Both already owned land
by right of kin, though he of greater
hereditary right had more — lands were ample among
those of high rank — to him the best of the
earth was bequeathed.
After that came many days
full of the fury of battle. Hygelac fell,
Heardred’s protection proved useless,
it collapsed under the phalanx that brought his death
when they, the victorious people of the Heatho-Scylfings,
attacked with seasoned swordsmen.
That brought about fatal strife for his nephew Hereric.
Afterwards those lands turned to Beowulf’s hand.”
(Beowulf ll.2190-2208)


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A Quick Interpretation

Here the gift exchange comes to an end. Then, the summaries come.

By their nature, summaries work best when you’re familiar with what’s being talked about.

If these summaries were in plainly written prose, then they would be very informative. But these are poetic summaries. And they’re poetic summaries that refer to things that only Beowulf scholars are familiar with.

Heardred hasn’t been mentioned much at all up to this point in the poem, and Hereric is a brand new ripple all together. So, ultimately, this passage shows how much a part of Beowulf was of some sort of greater body of work or group of stories. The poet is definitely pulling on a wealth of cultural and shared knowledge. Which makes this ancient poem written in a barely familiar form of English the perfect example of how far removed such old things are from us.

An alliterative, compound word-heavy language just isn’t English as we know it. And neither are Heardred or Hereric.

And yet, Beowulf sticks with us.

All that stuff about Beowulf fighting monsters and being a little bit of a monster himself keeps it relevant because it speaks so much to our greatest struggle. Whenever we face a new challenge we come up against some form of change. And we can change in a bad way, perhaps taking the easy way out of a tight spot. Or we can try to do our best and meet those challenges in an honest way, hopefully leading to positive growth. And that’s probably why so many adaptations of Beowulf focus on those first two monsters.

Starting next week, though, I’ll be starting to translate the final part of the poem. We’ll be seeing the poem’s third monster.

What’s your favourite monster from mythology? I’ve always been a fan of dragons. Leave your favourite in the comments!


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Closing

Next week, something big, scaly, and flying gets in the way of Beowulf’s happiness.

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Beowulf gives a sword to be a king

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

The decorative grip and pommel of the Gilling Sword, like Beowulf's ancient giant sword?

The grip and pommel of the Gilling Sword, found in a stream in Yorkshire in 1976. Did the giant’s sword that Beowulf found have a similar hilt? Copyright York Museums Trust http://bit.ly/2gh8HXJ. Image from http://bit.ly/2gpntKw.


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Synopsis

Beowulf and the Geats leave Daneland.


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The Original Old English

“Cwom þa to flode felamodigra,
hægstealdra heap, hringnet bæron,
locene leoðosyrcan. Landweard onfand
eftsið eorla, swa he ær dyde;
no he mid hearme of hliðes nosan
gæstas grette, ac him togeanes rad,
cwæð þæt wilcuman Wedera leodum
scaþan scirhame to scipe foron.
þa wæs on sande sægeap naca
hladen herewædum, hringedstefna,
mearum ond maðmum; mæst hlifade
ofer Hroðgares hordgestreonum.
He þæm batwearde bunden golde
swurd gesealde, þæt he syðþan wæs
on meodubence maþme þy weorþra,
yrfelafe. Gewat him on naca
drefan deop wæter, Dena land ofgeaf.”
(Beowulf ll.1888-1904)


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My Translation

“Came they then to the sea, the very brave
and young company; they wore their ring-mail,
their shirts of interlocking rings. The coastguard observed
their coming, as he had earlier observed their arrival,
but he did not greet those guests of
the craggy promontory with insult, he rode towards the band.
He said to them that they would be welcome by the Weder people,
those warriors in bright armour that went to their ship.
There on the spacious beach that ship was
laden with armour, the ring-prowed ship,
and with horses and with treasures; the mast towered
over the hoarded treasures from Hrothgar.
The lord of the Geats then gave that guard a sword
bound in gold, so that afterwards he was
honoured all the more among the mead-benches for that treasure,
the gilded heirloom. Then the ship of them plunged into the sea,
stirred up the deep waters, thus they left Daneland.”
(Beowulf ll.1888-1904)


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A Quick Interpretation

The best poetry says a lot with a little.

Beowulf’s gift of the sword to the coastguard demonstrates his magnanimity and a quality that makes him a great king: fairness. Beowulf doesn’t just toss the coastguard who, presumably, has been keeping watch over the Geats’ ship for the duration of their stay, some little trinket. He gives him a sword that’s covered in gold (or, as Seamus Heaney has it, it has “gold fittings” (l.1901) (“bunden golde/swurd” (l. 1900-1901))).

A gold-bound sword seems like a pretty good reward for watching what must have been a peaceful shore for a few days.

Though, it could be argued that out of a whole shipload of treasures a mere gold-bound sword is small change. So is Beowulf short-changing this guy?

I don’t think so.

I think that part of what the Anglo-Saxon kings considered when they divided treasure was that treasure’s usefulness to its receivers. A gold-bound sword might have questionable usage in combat. But, as the poet points out, this gift led the coastguard to be “honoured all the more among the meadbenches for that treasure” (“on meodubence maþme þy weorþra” (l.1902)). And that’s why I think it’s what an Anglo-Saxon king (like future Beowulf) would consider a perfectly fair gift for the coastguard.

After all, the poet has never left me with the impression that Daneland faced danger from outside of itself.

Grendel is a threat from within Daneland’s borders, and when the poet mentions the fall of Heorot he says that it’s a family squabble that leads to its end. So somebody guarding one of Daneland’s borders is probably not winning much glory through combat. Thus, Beowulf’s gift of the gold-bound sword is a perfect gift since it boost’s the man’s honour in the eyes of his companions.

With that, then, Beowulf leaves the land where he spent some very formative time with a final act that nods towards his being a fantastic king.


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Closing

Next week, Beowulf and the Geats fight the sea.

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The lessons of bad king Heremod and Hrothgar’s bluster

Synopsis
Original
Translation
Recordings
Hrothgar’s Anti-Heremod Bluster and Compounds that Sing Beowulf’s Praises
A Cruel Heart and its Cure
Closing


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Synopsis

Having told Beowulf how to be a good king, Hrothgar shares the story of bad king Heremod.


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Original

                 Ne wearð Heremod swa
eaforum Ecgwelan, Arscyldingum;
ne geweox he him to willan, ac to wæl-fealle
ond to deað-cwalum Deniga leodum;
breat bolgen-mod beod-geneatas,
eaxl-gesteallan, oþþæt he ana hwearf,
mære þeoden, mon-dreamum from.
ðeah þe hine mihtig god mægenes wynnum,
eafeþum stepte, ofer ealle men
forð gefremede, hwæþere him on ferhþe greow
breost-hord blod-reow. Nallas beagas geaf
Denum æfter dome; dream-leas gebad
þæt he þæs gewinnes weorc þrowade,
leod-bealo longsum. ðu þe lær be þon,
gum-cyste ongit; ic þis gid be þe
awræc wintrum frod.
(Beowulf ll.1709b-1724a)


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Translation

                  “‘Heremod was not so
to the sons of Ecgwelan, the Ar-Scyldings;
he did not grow into joy, but to slaughter,
a death dealer to the Danish people.
With enraged heart he killed table companions
and shoulder comrades alike, until he was truly alone,
he of renown, of power, was away from human joy,
though mighty God had given him all,
raised him in strength, put him ahead of
all other men in all things. Yet in his heart he harboured
secret and cruel bloodthirsty thoughts; never gave he
any rings to the Danes who strove for fame. He lived joylessly,
such that his struggles made him suffer misery,
his life was a long-lasting affliction to his people. By this be taught,
see what is manly virtue! That is why I, wise from many winters,
tell you this tale.'”
(Beowulf ll.1709b-1724a)


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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}


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Hrothgar’s Anti-Heremod Bluster and Compounds that Sing Beowulf’s Praises

One of the elements of Hrothgar’s short story that catches my eye is the compound words. A little harder to pick up on in Modern English, these are the words that are hyphenated in the Old English original above.

Hrothgar is no stranger to using these verbal embellishments, but there’re a lot of them clustered around the height of Heremod’s cruelty.

In fact, when Hrothgar tells of how he treated those closest to him, from lines 1711-1715, we get six of them.

That’s six compounds out of a total of 11 in four lines out of a total of 15. So more than half of this passage’s compounds are concentrated in less than 1/3 of its lines.

This clustering of compounds makes me think that Hrothgar is getting particularly agitated as he shares this part of the story. His anger at recalling this terrible king working his words into the much more artful compounds, perhaps expressing something that singular words just can’t reach. Indeed, Heremod’s reckless slaughtering of those close to him sounds like something that defies words.

Which is maybe the poet’s point here, putting aside matters of alliteration and prosody.

I mean, before there were widespread written records (so, snugly in the time of Beowulf‘s oral original), heroes and villains alike were memorialized through shared stories and poetic performances. So, if everyday words couldn’t capture a person’s deeds, then they must be quite extreme.

Actually, if you’ll excuse the spoilers, if we look at the last lines of the poem, Beowulf isn’t remembered with a bunch of compound words after his death, he’s simply remembered as the one who was “the mildest among men and most gracious, the/kindest to people and most eager for fame” (“manna mildust ond mon-ðwærust,/leodum liðost ond lof-geornost” (l.3181-3182)). That phrase “most eager for glory” is encapsulated in the compound “lof-geornost”. The word “mon-ðwærust” is also a compound, which literally means “most gracious of men”.

But that’s just two compounds in two lines.

Even looking at the preceding lines from the end of the poem, there’s no more than one compound per line of the poem. Contrasted with Hrothgar’s apopleptic barrage of compound words, the much more regular rhythm of compound words when the poet is memorializing Beowulf seems calmer, even melodious in comparison.

Thus, maybe the compound words Hrothgar concentrates around Heremod’s cruelty reflects how his memory is an onerous one, and something that can only be to teach. Actually, I can’t help but think that Hrothgar explicitly tells Beowulf he shares this tale to teach him how to be a good king is a bit of classic English understatement, a bit of comedic relief after the heavy telling of the cruel and stingy king Heremod.

What do you think of the words Hrothgar uses to describe Heremod’s cruelty to his companions? Are they embellished to highlight the cruelty as the story’s main lesson? Let me know in the comments.


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A Cruel Heart and its Cure

Any ruler who holds “blod-hreow”1 thoughts in their “breost-hord”2
freezes the fountain that flows from their heart.
So “bolgen-mod”3, they are always ready to dole out “wæl-feall”4,
to call for “deað-cwalu”5 whether for prisoner or “beod-geneatas”6.
In their “dream-leas”7 soul they bristle with the weapons needed to be
the “leod-bealu”8. To these rulers, and to all,
“man-dream”9 with “eaxl-gestealla”10 is “gum-cyst”11, a way
to pour the warmth of joy over the ice-lock of cruelty
that numbs their magnanimity and threatens their people and themselves.

1blod-hreow: sanguinary, cruel. blod (blood, vein) + hreow (sorrow, regret, penitence, repentance, penance, sorrowful, repentent)

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2breost-hord: thought, mind. breost (breast, bosom, stomach, womb, mind, thought, disposition, ubertas) + hord (hoard, treasure)

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3bolgen-mod: enraged. belgan (to be or become angry, offend, provoke) + mod (heart, mind, spirit, mood, temper, courage, arrogance, pride, power, violence)

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4wæl-feall: slaughter, death, destruction. wæl (slaughter, carnage) + fiell (fall, destruction, death, slaughter, precipice, case, inflection)

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5deað-cwalu: death by violence. deað (death, dying, cause of death) + cwalu (killing, murder, violent death, destruction) [A word that is exclusive to Beowulf.]

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6beod-geneatas: table companion. beod (table, bowl, dish) + geneata (companion, follower (especially in war), dependant, vassal, tenant who works for a lord)

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7dream-leas: joyless, sad. dream (joy, gladness, delight, ecstasy, mirth, rejoicing, melody, music, song, singing) + lease (without, free from, devoid of, bereft of,(+/-) false, faithless, untruthful, deceitful, lax, vain, worthless falsehood, lying, untruth, mistake)

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8leod-bealu: calamity to a people. leod (man) + bealu (bale, harm, injury, destruction, ruin, evil, mischief, wickedness, malice, a noxious thing, baleful, deadly, dangerous, wicked, evil)

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9man-dream: revelry, festivity. man (one, people, they) + dream (joy, gladness, delight, ecstasy, mirth, rejoicing, melody, music, song, singing)

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10eaxl-gestealla: shoulder-companion, comrade, counsellor, competitor. eaxl (shoulder) + steall (standing, place, position, state, stall (for cattle), stable, fishing ground)

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11gum-cyst: excellence, bravery, virtue, liberality. guma (man, lord, hero) + cyst (free-will, choice, election, picked host, moral excellence, virtue, goodness, generosity, munificence)

Back Up


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Closing

Next week Hrothgar stares off into the distance as he talks about humanity’s place in the world, fate, and god.

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Hrothgar offers hopeful words to Beowulf

Synopsis
Original
Translation
Recordings
Hrothgar’s Hopeful Praise
What a Memorable Ruler Needs to Do
Closing
Special Announcement

The decorative grip and pommel of the Gilling Sword, like Beowulf's ancient giant sword?

The grip and pommel of the Gilling Sword, found in a stream in Yorkshire in 1976. Did the giant’s sword that Beowulf found have a similar hilt? Copyright York Museums Trust http://bit.ly/2gh8HXJ. Image from http://bit.ly/2gpntKw.


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Synopsis

Hrothgar praises Beowulf and gives a hearty recommendation for his being king.


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Original

“þæt, la, mæg secgan se þe soð ond riht
fremeð on folce, feor eal gemon,
eald eðelweard, þæt ðes eorl wære
geboren betera! Blæd is aræred
geond widwegas, wine min Beowulf,
ðin ofer þeoda gehwylce. Eal þu hit geþyldum healdest,
mægen mid modes snyttrum. Ic þe sceal mine gelæstan
freode, swa wit furðum spræcon. ðu scealt to frofre weorþan
eal langtwidig leodum þinum,
hæleðum to helpe.
(Beowulf ll.1700-1708)


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Translation

“Indeed, it may be said, by he who upholds
right and truth for his people, for all humanity,
even by the old realm lord, that this man
is born to greatness! Your success is wide-flung
over the sea-ways, my friend Beowulf,
your fame is spread over every people. All you do
is done with steadfastness, strength, and wisdom of heart.
To you I give my lasting honour, as we two had earlier agreed. You shall be
to your people an everlasting pillar and help to warriors’ hands.”
(Beowulf ll.1700-1708)


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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}


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Hrothgar’s Hopeful Praise

On a bit of a technical note out front, in the original, Hrothgar’s lines from line 1705-1707 are a lot longer than the others. It’s not that the words the poet uses here are any longer than usual or anything like that. Instead, it seems to be some sort of aesthetic choice. If this part of the poem was performed before it was written down, maybe these long lines are meant to show Hrothgar’s rambling praise of Beowulf. The old “realm lord” (“eðel weard” (l.1702)) is simply beside himself with gratefulness.

And why not?

Beowulf has finally stopped the attacks on Heorot, and given Hrothgar an unexpected gift. The hilt of a giant’s sword is no mere trinket. Especially since it has a story written on it, something no doubt incredibly curious because of the clarity of the runes on it and the craft evident in the hilt’s overall quality. After all, the blade melted in Grendel’s blood, but the hilt did not.

But along with this celebration of Beowulf’s growing fame comes Hrothgar’s proclamation of Beowulf’s future success. Maybe the old schoolyard saying “takes one to know one” could apply here, since as a successful king throughout most of his reign (he did unite his people and organize the building of Heorot, after all), Hrothgar can see the same qualities in Beowulf. And so he assures him that he will be a help to warriors and a pillar for his people going forward. In true poetic fashion Hrothgar then turns around to talk about Heremod, someone undecidedly un-kingly especially in the Anglo-Saxon sense.

Which brings me around to a timely note.

There’s still plenty more Beowulf to work through (just over 900 or so lines before I meet myself where I started this blog with line 2631). There’s also more of Hrothgar’s speech. But, since this is a time of year when many celebrate hope and joy (from the observation of daylight’s slow return from the solstice onwards to the celebration of the birth of a saviour), I figured that ending the 2016 leg of my translation on this hopeful note is appropriate. So enjoy whatever celebrations you may have left for 2016 and this blog will return in the new year (further details on that below).


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What a Memorable Ruler Needs to Do

For an “eðel-weard”1 to achieve “lang-twidig”2 fame,
even in days when warriors revered their spear-bearing forebears,
more than conquest and overturning mead-benches were required.
Such a ruler to be remembered would need to flip those benches
back upright, and sit his people, new and old, down at them,
spreading golden wealth like butter on bread, an even swath
that covered even those from the most “wid-wegas”3
all of those there assembled in that ruler’s glowing hall.


1eðel-weard: lord of the realm, man. eðel (country, native land, ancestral home, name of the rune for oe) + weard (watching, ward, protection, guardianship, advance post, waiting for, lurking, ambuscade)

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2lang-twidig: lasting, assured. lang (long, tall, lasting) + twi (two, double) [A word that is exclusive to Beowulf.]

Back Up

3wid-wegas: distant regions. wid (wide, vast, broad, long) + wegas (way, direction, path, road, highway, journey, course of action)

Back Up


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Closing

In the new year, Hrothgar tells the story of bad king Heremod. Don’t miss it!


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Special Announcement

In news about this blog itself, I’ll be taking a break from updating A Blogger’s Beowulf as we roll through the holidays. But a new post about Beowulf news will appear on January 10, 2017, and the next translation post will go up on January 12.

If the holidays that you celebrate have already passed by, I hope that they were fantastic! And if your holidays are coming up, I hope that they will be fantastic!

Watch for the new posts in the new year!

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Wending through the Ravenswood (ll.2922-2935) [Old English]

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Picking at the Messenger’s Words
Biblical Arrogance
Closing

<!–

{Wiglaf shown landing the distracting blow, or Beowulf landing the fatal one – that’s just how much of a team this duo is. Image found on Weird Worm.}

–>

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Abstract

The messenger goes on to recount why the Swedes will also turn against the Geats once word of Beowulf’s death reaches them.

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Translation

Nor do I expect the Swedes to hold us as kin
or remain peaceful; for it was widely known
that Ongeontheow slew Haethcyn,
son of Hrethel, in the strife at Ravenswood,
when for arrogance the Geats first
sought to strike the Scylfings.
Old and terrible, Ohthere’s wise father
gave the return assault,
destroyed the sea king, kept his bride,
deprived his aged wife of gold,
the mother of Onela and Ohthere;
then he followed the mortal foe,
until they showed themselves
in great leaderless hardship in the Ravenswood.
(Beowulf ll.2922-2935)

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Recordings

Old English:

Modern English:

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Picking at the Messenger’s Words

This passage is as complex as any path through a place called the Ravenswood might be. The Anglo-Saxon basics are here (a feud, raiding for treasure’s sake, protecting peace weavers), but the way that they’re delivered likely leaves something to be desired for most modern readers.

Particularly, the jump from the statement that the Swedes will not be the Geats’ greatest allies to the retelling of the Geats arrogantly raiding Swedish lands is not entirely clear.

There is a connection between the two, sure, but it definitely casts the Swedes in a much more negative light than the Geats. I mean, obviously any such unprovoked attack is likely to start some bitter feelings, but just as much as the Swedes hate the Geats for it, the Geats should hate the Swedes – their king was lost there, after all.

However, maybe the way that the messenger tells the story, calling the Geats arrogant and putting the Swedes in the place of the villains, is a call back to the story of Haethcyn and Herebeald. The story of fratricide leading to Haethcyn’s becoming king upon Hrethel’s death, itself brought on by Herebeald’s death.

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Biblical Arrogance

If we follow this string a little further, we can speculate that the Geats’ arrogance wasn’t to be found in fighting a greater force than themselves – but rather that the Geats were arrogant in trying to force judgment on Haethcyn (a man that none could judge nor feud with because of the nature of fratricide).

For if the Swedes were a greater force than what the Geats could muster, and though it sounds like it must have been a harsh fate for those Ongeontheow met in the Ravenswood, it’s possible that they raided Swedish lands simply to get Haethcyn, the one guilty of fratricide, killed.

If such is the case, then maybe this act itself is also a reference to the story of king David and Bathsheba, in which he sends her husband, Uriah, to the front line so that she becomes a widow and therefore available. This biblical story is definitely one of arrogance, yet, Christ is considered to be of David’s lineage, and so relating a doomed race to such a story suggests that there is hope yet for the Geats, in some small and distant way.

Following this line of thinking, and working with the hypothesis that Beowulf was written down in the 10th/11th centuries, then maybe it was popular enough to write down around this time because it reflected a large group of Anglo-Saxon society’s hopefulness in the face of great odds.

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Closing

That’s it for Tongues in Jars until the New Year. Watch for the next Beowulf entry on January 3!

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Appraising a Dagger via a Sword

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Reading Steel
Ouroboros Slinks in
Closing

{A modern replica of an Anglo-Saxon “seax” (or dagger). Image found on Englisc Gateway}

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Abstract

The messenger sent by Wiglaf tells the waiting people of Beowulf’s fate, and Wiglaf’s steadfastness.

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Translation

“‘Now is the Weder’s gracious giver,
the lord of the Geats, fast in his deathbed,
gone to the grave by the dragon’s deed:
Beside him, in like state, lay the
mortal enemy, dead from dagger wounds; for that sword
could not work any wound whatever on
that fierce foe. Wiglaf sits
by Beowulf’s side, the son of Weohstan,
a warrior watching over the unliving other,
holding vigil over the Geats’ chief,
he sits by the beloved and the reviled.'”
(Beowulf ll.2900-2910a)

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Recordings

Old English:

Modern English:

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Reading Steel

The emphasis that the messenger puts on the dagger is strange. It’s not that he goes out of his way to praise it, but the fact that he makes it clear that the sword was useless. This extra detail suggests that the sword was indeed considered the proper, noble weapon, while the dagger held a lower position on the symbolic/social scale of weapons. Nonetheless, the connotation of Beowulf’s dagger use underlines just what the Geats lose when they lose Beowulf.

It was likely standard among Anglo-Saxons to carry a dagger of some kind with them, along with their swordbelt. However, even in the heat of the moment, the poet peels things back and tells us that Beowulf wore his dagger on his hip/byrnie.

So was the wearing of a smaller blade a new thing with Beowulf’s generation? Was it simply the garb of a proper warrior? Why does the poet specify where Beowulf wore his dagger?

Such a small detail, though potentially of some historical or cultural significance, is more likely than not just an example of the poet filling out his poetic meter. The mention of the sword’s failure, as an explanation for the use of the dagger definitely shows that the messenger is true to his word – he leaves out no detail.

And that honesty opens up the other side of the issue, it seems very likely that the sword is only mentioned to excuse the dagger. In fact, if you’ve read Beowulf enough times, you can almost see the crowd rolling their eyes and thinking that Beowulf’s just being Beowulf, being too strong for any sword and whatnot.

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Ouroboros Slinks in

Yet, if we turn the mention of the dagger again, then there’s the matter of the dragon’s existence in the story being cyclical. The dragon appears because a thief steals from its hoard.

A dagger is weapon of favour among those who prize stealth (like thieves) – hence the modern genre tag “cloak and dagger” – and so is likely to be a thief’s weapon. The dragon is killed with a dagger, and so the dragon’s existence in the story is something of a closed system. A noble sword is wielded, but in the end what woke the dragon must put it back to its rest.

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Closing

Next week, watch for the prognostications of the messenger on Thursday! I’ll also be uploading links to any British/Medieval archaelogical news that I come across.

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Beowulf: Mighty in Arms, Loose in Words? [ll.2732b-2743b] (Old English)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Peering in, But Just Dipping Toes
Not Many Oaths Sworn “in Unrighteousness”
Kinds of Kin-Slaying
Closing

{Words spoken and frozen in wood, just as bad oaths are remembered. Image found on documentarystorm.com.}

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Abstract

Beowulf says that he’s come to terms with his death because he was a good king and can stand blameless before the final judgment.

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Translation

&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp”‘I this people have ruled
for fifty winters; never was there a king of the people,
any of the neighbouring folks
would dare attack with war-friends,
threaten terror. I in my homeland awaited
destiny, it guarded me well,
I did not seek contrived hostility, nor swore I many
oaths in unrighteousness. In all of this
infirmity of a mortal wound I have joy;
because the Lord of men has no cause to accuse me
of murderous killing of kinsmen, when my
life passes from my body.'”
(Beowulf ll.2732b-2743a)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Peering in, But Just Dipping Toes

For such a short passage, there’s a fair bit going on here.

It’s revealed that Beowulf has ruled as long as Hrothgar and Grendel’s Mother did; that Beowulf was the sort of king that defended his lands on reputation or by some other passive means; that he had a fairly Taoist, go-with-the-flow life philosophy that kept him out of trouble; that he has been mostly true to his word; and that he is guiltless when it comes to murdering kinsmen.

Though there’s quite a bit of depth here, this entry is just going to focus on the last two in that list.

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Not Many Oaths Sworn “in Unrighteousness”

What does Beowulf mean when he says “nor swore I many/oaths in unrighteousness” (“ne me swor fela/aða on unriht.” (ll.2738-2739), emphasis my own)? Is it an accepted part of Anglo-Saxon life (perhaps especially or only in positions of power) that some oaths are not sworn in the best of circumstances?

What exactly does it mean to swear an oath in “unrighteousness”?

Did Beowulf swear some oaths to do some unsavory things? Did he swear some oaths to escape others? Did he make pacts with spirits?

The wording itself aside, what can be looked at here is the word “fela,” which I translated as “many.” So there haven’t been a lot of oaths sworn poorly. is this just a matter of practice?

Though we don’t see Beowulf swearing oaths unrighteously, it is curious that Beowulf plays fast and loose with his retelling of the fights with Grendel and with Grendel’s Mother to Hrothgar. Specifically, Beowulf adds Grendel’s terrible glove to his story (ll.2085-2088), and greatly shortens his encounter with Grendel’s mother (ll.2135-2141).

Words were considered incredibly important to Anglo-Saxons, especially when it came to the valuation of people. So, could this alteration of words mean that Beowulf didn’t always take words so seriously?

Perhaps the answer can be found in the next part.

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Kinds of Kin-Slaying

Within the poem itself, there have been several instances of kin-slaying.

Most recently is Beowulf’s story of Hæðcyn killing Herebeald, but there is also the story of the Battle of Finnburgh, and, of course, Beowulf’s implication that Unferth killed his brother. Though it’s the most distant to this point in the poem, the Unferth instance might actually be the most relevant here.

According to some, the first half of Beowulf represents Beowulf’s destroying his shadow self, in so far as Grendel and Grendel’s Mother are embodiments of Beowulf’s animalistic nature.

In fact, others also suggest that Beowulf and Grendel are somehow related, making Beowulf a kin-killer.

On one hand this seems like an unstable interpretation, but, on the other, every statement in the section of Beowulf’s speech translated for this entry gives further information about his life through implication. Thus, either Beowulf is suggesting that accusations of kin-killing have been made against him, or that kin-killing is a common crime among kings, but he is innocent of it.

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Closing

Next week, as a relief from the animal, the first verse of the thirteenth century Latin poem “O Fortuna” will be translated. Plus, Beowulf makes his penultimate request of Wiglaf, and the plucky young thane goes darting off to fulfill it.

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