The coastguard’s farewell (ll.312-319) [Old English]

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
A boastful coastguard?
Meet the new god, same as the old god
Closing

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Abstract

The coastguard takes his leave of the Geats, wishing them god’s protection.

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Translation

“He took the battle brave to the bright
high-souled hall, that he may thither them
go; 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.'”
(Beowulf ll.312-319)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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A boastful coastguard?

The coastguard’s being called “hero of combat” (“guðbeorna”) seems strange. That is, until you notice that it’s the third word in an alliterative sequence. But is it only there to hold up a preferred Old English poetic form?

Yeah, probably.

I mean, the coastguard does mention that he has to go back to the coast to guard against “fiendish foes” (“wrað werod” (l.319)). So there could be some verity to his being a “hero of combat.” But that term seems a little inflated to me.

Could the poet be having a laugh at the coastguard’s expense? “guðbeorna” fit the line that he had written and so he just ran with that and made the coastguard into a bit of a boaster at the end of his speech?

Maybe.

I mean, on the one hand, as much of an exile such a person might feel (even if he does have a crew out there), it definitely wouldn’t be wise to send some fop out to guard your coast.

The Danes wouldn’t have had the troops to keep a barracks there or anything like that. His crew included, the Danish coastguard in Beowulf probably wouldn’t exceed ten men. Tops. So he, the lead coastguard if you will, would definitely need to have proven his mettle in combat.

Though, it’s also possible that the position of coastguard is reserved for warriors who are past their prime. No longer able to perform as vigourously on the battlefield they’re charged to put their skills and battle-sharpened wits to the test in judging new comers and putting on a fearsome face. With a coast as quiet as the Dane’s must be (who, aside from heroes would want to come to a monster-terrorized-golden-hall party?), the job of coastguard definitely seems like something that would get filled by a veteran.

And maybe that’s what the poet was going for with the narrative riff on the coastguard’s past and then his own seemingly over-zealous admission of what he was heading off to do.

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Meet the new god, same as the old god

Throughout Beowulf, people give thanks to a generic male, father god. Many translations (and some instances in the original text) make many of these references into “lord.” As such, it’s very easy to read these instances of reference to god as references to the Christian god. Since “lord” is frequently used as a deific pronoun in Christianity.

However.

Christianity wasn’t the only religion to have a wise, solemn, wrathful, and benevolent patriarchical deity.

The Norse peoples (who definitely had some influence on Beowulf since it’s set largely in Daneland of all places) had Odin. The Germanic people had Woden. The Anglo-Saxon creators or audience for this poem were themselves Germanic.

So who’s to say that these generic references to god aren’t to these pagan gods? The Geats and Danes aren’t exactly quoting Old or New Testament verses at each other. Though there is that lengthy reference to Grendel as the kin of Cain and god’s war with the giants. That could be a reference to the apparently standard stories told among the peoples of northern Europe about unexplored places.

Knowing with certainty who the deity is that’s constantly being referred to is an impossibility. But the idea that it could be either the Christian god or one of the chief Pagan gods isn’t just a neat alternative. That could well have been the intention.

No matter where you place our version of Beowulf‘s composition within the 400 year window generally agreed upon (between 600 and 1000 AD) contemporary Christianity had yet to really spread over all of Europe. As such this story that’s ostensibly about a hero’s quests and fights with the supernatural could have been used as a way to infiltrate and convert.

Or, any male deity could be read into it as a way of making sure that the epic simply wasn’t too preachy.

Beowulf‘s being bundled with a collection of fantastic tales from the east in the Noel codex could in fact be the book creator’s way of sort of sweeping it under the rug because these god references weren’t clear then either. That book maker would have been a Christian monk of some sort or another after all.

So, when you’re reading Beowulf and come across a reference to the “alwalda” don’t just think surfer dude with a long white robe and beard, but think one-eyed, helmeted warrior god, too.

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Closing

Next week, the Geats step into Heorot and duly unequip themselves.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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Between Religions? (ll.3069-3075) [Old English]

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
The Ward on the Hoard
Wiglaf: Favoured and Condemned
Closing

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Abstract

A brief passage about the curse laid upon the dragon’s hoard.

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Translation

“Just so the renowned princes solemnly declared
a curse upon that which they placed there until doomsday,
that the man would be guilty in sins,
confined in idol’s shrines, held fast in hell-bonds,
tormented in evil, whoever plundered that place;
not at all had he earlier perceived
the gold-giving lord’s favour.”
(Beowulf ll.3069-3075)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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The Ward on the Hoard

One of the strongest arguments for this poem’s being written down for some sort of missionary purpose is its treatment of pagan seeming religions. We get the first taste of this all the way back at the poem’s opening, when the poet describes Hrothgar’s use of strange rituals to try to ward off Grendel. Here, as there, there’s a clear connection between idols and evil.

Though, interestingly, and especially given the poem’s symmetry, in this extract, the poet isn’t condemning the characters to evil and hellbonds, but rather is the poet reporting what the hoard’s original owner did to protect their wealth.

Rather than a mention of religion that condemns people, this is a mention of it that sees people condemning those who seek out worldly wealth, as represented by the impossibly valuble hoard. To do so, the one hurling the curse would need to be invoking an opposite power – or, perhaps that same hellish power that they condemn the hoard’s violator to.

This is where things get complicated in themselves, since the powers invoked could be either or, but also in the broader context of the poem.

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Wiglaf: Favoured and Condemned

It was noted two weeks ago that the poet states that only someone whom god judged worthy would be allowed into the hoard. Wiglaf seems to have passed, since he in fact delved into the hoard. But now, the poet tells us that the hoard’s establisher laid a curse on it that would condemn any looter to hell. Read as a whole, these two parts of the poem say that god wanted the Geats to be destroyed, essentially having set a kind of trap.

Perhaps Beowulf put in a word for Wiglaf, though, and his death has been staid until the last of the Geats has fallen. After all, Beowulf’s soul did go to where the righteous are judged (l.2820).

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Closing

Leave your thoughts in the comments. And check back here next week for the first part of Wiglaf’s words about Beowulf and his mad sally against the dragon.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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Fortune Beguiled? ["O Fortuna," Third Stanza] (Latin)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Final Notes
Sorrow maybe made Joyous
Closing

{Lady Fortune likes to greet those she favours with a fist bump – for obvious reasons. Image found on Doctor Michael Haldane’s Translation Homepage.}

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Abstract

The poem’s speaker finally gives in under the crushing weight of Fortune, and laments, calling all others to join him.

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Translation

Ah Fortune, you do invert
My health and my power,
Ay do you torture me with desire and weakness.
Now without hindrance let us strike
The chord in time, lament loudly with me,
For Fortune foils even the fortunate.
(“O Fortuna”, 3rd stanza)

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Recordings

Latin:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Final Notes

Once more, the translation above is not entirely literal – but that’s just not my modus operandi.

Though the most altered line is the final one. Not that the original Latin (“quod per sortem sternit fortem”) doesn’t come out to something similar when translated literally, word for word (“which by fortune overthrow the strong”). It’s just that the above translation dwells less on the words of the original and attempts to delve more into the sense of those original words.

The basic idea is that Fortune treats everyone equally, regardless of their merits. What better way to express that in English than to match “Fortune” with “fortunate”? Plus, though not necessarily a quality in thirteenth century Goliardic poetry, the alliteration is also very English.

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Sorrow maybe made Joyous

Now, although this poem ends on a pretty down note, one phrase is curious. In the original Latin it is “mecum omnes plangite,” in the above translation it’s “lament loudly with me.” What’s interesting here is that, though it’s framed by the sorrowful “lament” the speaker calls for everyone to come together to lament Fortune’s tyranny.

But, what usually happens when a bunch of people get together (even medieval people)? A cracking party ensues – of one sort or another.

So it might be something that’s coming from looking a little too deep, but including the call for everyone to come complain with him suggests that the speaker is aware that Fortune is not the only thing that runs in cycles.

It could be that he’s trying to start some kind of spirit boosting gathering, even if it’s just a bunch of monks getting together and moaning about their misfortunes. Unless they’re all Dominicans, chances are one will tell a joke or relate a misfortune that another will chuckle at, and things will go up from there.

Or, of course, they’ll reason that this Fortune stuff is all pagan nonsense and go off to read the loose-parchment copies of the story of Christ jousting against Satan that they’ve hidden in their bound books of theology.

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Closing

Come Thursday, Wiglaf is in the dragon’s hoard and does some hoarding of his own – while the poet ornaments his tale with a brief meditation on the dragon.

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