Off to a Rousing Start: Prologue – Book III

Scyld Scefing gets a Viking funeral in Beowulf's beginning.

A viking funeral, perhaps like Scyld Scefing’s, as painted by Frank Dicksee in 1893.

Prologue

What! We Spear-Danes have heard in days of yore
of the power of the king of a people,
how heroes accomplished valorous deeds.
Often did Scyld Scefing take away
the mead benches from troops of enemies,
terrified the Erola, afterwards those who had been first were found
to become destitute. For that Scefing experienced solace
grew up under a cloud, his honour prospered,
until each surrounding people from over
the whale road paid obeisance,
gave tribute: that was a good king!
His son was afterward born,
young in years, then did god send
consolation to the people; well did god know their distress,
What they had endured under the lord of old
for a long while; he the life-lord,
glory-lord, granted worldly-worth;
Beowulf was famous—glory widely sprang –
as Scylde’s successor, in all Scandinavian lands.
Thus a young man shall bring about good
from the largesse of his father’s stores,
so that he among men thereafter retains
willing companions when battle comes,
ensures the nation would endure; praiseful deeds shall
always increase for the family of such a man.
Scyld left off amidst this work,
full busy when he went to the Lord.
They brought him to the seashore,
those dear companions, as he had bidden them.
That man’s words ruled his companions,
those of the earthly prince long in languishing.
There at the landing place stood a ring-prowed ship
icy and eager to start, ready for that nobleman’s passage;
the dear lords lead him to
the brightly ringed wealth ship,
treasure filled it to the mast; there was plentiful loot
from foreign lands, booty, loaded into it.
Never heard I of a more splendidly adorned ship
war-ready and armoured,
blade and byrnie. Upon Scyld’s lap was lain
a multifarious fortune, among which
he was to go to far foreign lands.
By no means did they leave a lack of gifts,
treasures of the people, when that was done,
when they sent Scyld forth to his origin,
for he was one who came over the waves as a child.
Then they established a golden sign for him
high overhead, they let the waves bear him,
their gift, to the raging ocean; they were
sorrowful at heart, mourning souls. Men cannot
say for certain, hall rulers,
heroes under heaven, who that horde discovered.

I

Then was the burden on Beow, son of Scyld,
that dear king of men, for several long seasons.
He was reputed among the people, while his father departed elsewhere,
a lord of earth. Until Halfdane awoke,
a match for the father, he held, while he lived,
aged and battle experienced, the joy of the Scyldings.
In unbroken succession Halfdane woke four children in the world: a daughter I believe, then Heorogar, and Hrothgar, and Halga also;
I have heard that […] the daughter was Onela’s queen,
that war-Scylding’s beloved bedfellow.
Hrothgar was given success in war,
honour in battle, such that his kith and kin
eagerly listened, until the young one grew
into a mighty troop lord. His mind soon turned
to the glory of being called a hall lord,
of ruling a mead hall made by the work of many,
one that the children of the ages would ever ask about,
and therein to dole out all
to young and old alike, such as god gave him,
all but the people’s land and lives.
Then heard I that a work summons went widely,
to many peoples from throughout this earth,
to adorn that dwelling place. After their first meeting,
immediately amidst those assembled, it was made ready,
the greatest of all halls; the poets named it Heorot,
he whose word has widespread influence.
That boast did not lie, rings were doled out,
a continuous treasure flow. That hall rose high,
towering and wide-gabled, made to resist fierce fire,
loathe of lightning; yet it was not as such for long,
since woken sword-hate would later swallow it
after war broke out between son-in-law and father-in-law.
Then a terrible demon ushered in a time
of difficult suffering, as it would be in darkness,
he who daily heard the joy makers
loud in the hall; there hands were waved over harps,
there the poets sang clear. Told they of
knowing the long ago provenance of all people,
spoke of how the Almighty made the earth,
this beauteous world, and the water that flows about it;
set the sun and the moon victoriously above
with rays to light the ways of people,
and adorned the rolling hills
with limbs and leaves; spoke of how the Maker shaped
each variety of life, all things that have motion.
So the warriors of the hall lived in joy,
were prosperous, until that one began
committing crimes, like a fiend of hell.
It was the ghastly ghoul called Grendel,
border walker from the marshlands, he that the moors held,
whose mire was his mansion; from the land held fast by
woe-laden man-shaped sea beasts,
since the Shaper had condemned them
as kin of Cain – so the almighty Lord punished
him for that murder, when he slew Abel.
Cain was given no good from that, the Measurer cast him
far abroad, done for his evil, away from humankind.
Then the monsters all awoke,
ogres and elves and orcs,
also giants, those that waged long warfare
against God; until he gave them their reward.

II

That demon knew then what he sought, once night fell,
at the high house, he knew how the Ring-Danes
after beer-drinking would be stayed there.
Found he therein a fortune of princes
sleeping fast after the feast — they knew no sorrow,
men of the war spear. The unholy figure,
grim and greedy, was quickly enthused,
savage and severe, and at once he seized
thirty thanes; after that he went out
heading loudly home with his prey;
after the slaughter he returned to his dwelling.
Then, outside the hall at daybreak,
was Grendel’s war-strength seen by human eyes;
after that was there weeping to heaven,
a morning full of mourning. Famous warriors,
long-tested true lords, sorrowful sat,
the mighty moaned, the lost thanes saddened them,
until they found the faint, loathful footprints that
the evil-doing fiend had made. That was helpful to
track the beast’s escape, hateful and sluggish. That night
was not long alone, nigh the next night Grendel again brought
more violent death and seemed not to hesitate as before,
bringing violence and outrage; he came down heavily upon them.
Then was he easy to find roaming
about elsewhere seeking rest,
a place to recline and relax, to which he left a trail,
that token spoke truly of the object
of the hall-dwellers’ hate; they sought
refuge outside the hall once they knew that fiend was running free.
So Grendel ruled in defiance of right,
one of lesser stuff against all, until that
greatest of houses stood silent. It was so for some time,
twelve winters of anger the friends of Scyld suffered,
each became accustomed to such hardship,
rough sorrow; because of that they became speakers,
sons of the age, knowledge of them was unhidden,
those troubled deeds of old, that Grendel lashed
out against Hrothgar for a long time, the hateful
monster’s way, years filled with failures and feuding,
a perpetual siege. That kin would not treat
with any man of the Danes for even the shortest time,
deadly evil from afar, as few did hope,
nor were there any who believed that his
hand could be stayed with a bright death price;
the fierce enemy was, after all, the pursuer,
a dark death shadow over the veterans and youths,
those who tarried and planned. Night upon night
Grendel held the misty moors, men never knew
whither the fiendish monster rapidly went.
So the fiend trespassed deeply against humankind,
the horror of the lone-goer, oft-cursed,
awful in affliction; Heorot was lived in by day,
but the richly adorned hall was his by gloomy night,
though Grendel could not approach the throne,
the treasure to the Measurer, nor could he be known.
This did much to the misery of the Scyldings,
their hearts broken. Many oft sat
with the ruler to give counsel, esteemed advice,
things that the rash and the best were fixing
to do against the awful horror.
Meanwhile they made demands of cherished idols
at household shrines, with words of worship,
so that they sought help against their problems
from the soul-slaying fiend. Such was their way,
their heathenish hope; they concentrated on hell
in their hearts, they knew not the Measurer,
the deeds of the Judge, they knew not almighty God
nor knew they of the praiseful protection of heaven,
glorious God. Woe betide them that shall
cast their soul into the flames’ embrace when
embroiled in cruel enmity, cheer they never know,
never a person restored! Well be those that might
after their death day seek the Lord
and hope for the safety of God’s grace.

III

So they brooded upon the troubles of that time,
none of the wise could put them upon the right
way; that strife was too steep, loathful and long-lasting,
that which had befallen the people,
that fierce severe punishment, the wreaker of night-destruction.
One of his thanes heard of this while home with Hygelac,
one good amidst the Geats, he heard tell of Grendel’s deeds;
he was humanities’ mightiest in strength
in the days of this life,
regal and great. He was given command of a ship
and well-directed; he spoke, saying he would seek
the troubled king across the swan’s way,
that famous ruler, to show that he was the man they needed.
Then were wise warriors chosen to accompany
him on his journey, those whom to him were dear,
whetstones to wondrous deeds, each looking hale.
The good Geat people then a great warrior
had crowned, there you a brave man might find!
Some fifteen sought out the ship at shore;
to the frontier they went, following the words of the wise,
the ones versed in sea-ways. The foremost knew motion;
the ship was on the sea, the boat that sat before barrows.
The warriors roaringly rose a cry — the current carried them on,
bringing the sea against sand. The men bore
bright treasures upon their chests,
magnificent in martial-gear; they all shoved off,
men bound for an expected expedition by boat.
The ship then knew the ocean’s motion, was wind-hastened,
became foamy-necked, became seabird like,
until near the time of day they had left,
after their ship with curved prow had glided,
when those well-travelled ones saw land,
dazzling sea cliffs, steep hills,
an ample headland. Then was sailing simple,
the journey at an end. From that ship sprang
the Geats onto the sands,
their boat they bound there — they shook their mail-coats,
rattled war-gear; they thanked God then,
the one that made their ship’s going smooth.
From those dazzling cliffs the Scyldings’ shore guard saw them,
the one who held the sea-cliffs saw those
men carrying bright shields across a ship’s gangway,
bearing ready war gear; his curiosity overpowered
his thinking, the need to know what these men were.
So rode out the thane of Hrothgar
to the shore, powerfully he shook the
spear in his hand before the wave-goers,
asked in a querying tone:

           “What are ye gear-havers,
wearers of corselets, that thus laden
in a high ship come over the sea-street,
hither with the waves? I am set
as border guard, to keep this isle hold watched,
So that no loathed ones may batter this
Danish land with naval force.
Never in known memory have any
come so openly bearing shields; nor do you
seem eager to get a word of permission from this watchman,
a Dane’s consent. Never saw I a mightier man
upon this earth, than this one before me,
this man of might; is that not a retainer,
one worthy of weapons? Never would his mien betray him,
a singular sight. Now I shall know whence
you come, far-farer, before you enter this land
as a spy, before you further step into
these Danish lands. Now, you of the far-off dwelling place,
sea-farer, I would hear tell of
your singular purpose; haste is best
in saying why you are come hence.”

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Spectacular speculation (ll.12-19) [Old English]

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
All about “aldorlease”
Browsing Beowulf possibilities
Closing

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Abstract

Scyld Scefing’s son is born, and recognized as a suitable successor.

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Translation

“His son was afterward born,
young in years, then did god send
consolation to the people; well did god know their distress,
What they had endured under the lord of old
for a long while; he the life-lord,
glory-lord, granted worldly-worth;
Beowulf was famous – glory widely sprang –
as Scylde’s successor, in all Scandinavian lands.”
(Beowulf ll.12-19)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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All about “aldorlease”

Here is a grand example of the importance of family connections and succession for Anglo-Saxon society. However, rather than being a purely happy situation, there’s a note of hope invested in Scyld’s successor.

After all, it’s unclear who the “lord of old” (“aldorlease” (l.15)) is.

Since we’ve only been hearing of Scyld up to this point, the obvious answer is that it is Scyld himself. He was a good king because he commanded so much tribute, but it’s possible that people grew tired of him because of his concentrated wealth.

The lord of old could also be some old god, and maybe, getting into the Christian influences in the poem early, the reference alludes to Scyld’s own belief. Quite possibly he was an early convert, and used the birth of his son as a sign of this new god’s favour.

Or – Scyld’s rule was a little bit on the harsh side, and the scribe responsible for writing out Beowulf inserted this reference to allude to god’s showing favour to an oppressed people by giving this lord a successor who could be as fierce but more even handed.

Whoever the “lord of old” is, the entity referred to in lines 16-17, is definitely benevolent. Whether that’s a set of references to Scyld or to the Christian god.

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Browsing Beowulf possibilities

Yes, Scyld’s successor was named Beowulf. And ultimately, then, Hrothgar has an ancestor who shares his name with the hero who saves him.

Maybe breaking out the titular name so early is a kind of feint, something to bring people in until the great hall of Heorot is built and the story’s strife becomes clear.

Though using “Beowulf” as a preview of the hero of the poem, could also be the case here. If this is the case, then the Beowulf of the poem proper could be considered a sort of second coming.

Or, along similar lines, maybe “Beowulf” is the name of a hero older than the events of the poem, here preserved as a fantastical figure. That would definitely explain why the mysterious Beowulf appears amidst historical figures like Hrothgar.

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Closing

Editing the recordings is going much more slowly than anticipated. Getting a novel ready for publication, and getting freelance projects together have filled my days. But, my plan is to edit one track a day, get them on YouTube at the end of each week, and then embed those videos here.

As per next week’s text, Beowulf’s successor-ship is cemented, and Scyld’s funeral begins.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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Back to the Beginning of the Woven Ring (ll.1-11) [Old English]

Featured

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
A Turn of Fate
Setting a Tight Sequential Tone
Closing

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Abstract

The poem begins on a rollicking note, as the poet recalls the glory of Scyld Scefing.

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Translation

“What! We Spear-Danes had heard in days of yore
of the power of the king of a people,
how heroes accomplished valorous deeds.
Often did Scyld Scefing take away
the mead benches from troops of enemies,
terrified the Erola, afterwards that first was found
to become destitute; for that he experienced solace
grew up under a cloud, his honour prospered,
until each surrounding people from over
the whale road paid obeisance,
gave tribute: that was a good king!”
(Beowulf ll.1-11)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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A Turn of Fate

Right in the middle of this excerpt, there’s a marked turn.

The poet notes that “the first was found/to become destitute” (“Syððan ærest wearð/feasceaft funden” (ll.6-7)). Rather than just saying that Scyld Scefing became prosperous, the time is taken to note that the powerful that he tore down were torn down before his rise is solidly mentioned in line 7.

This sequencing of events underlines, very early on, the importance of sequence in the Anglo-Saxon world. It also gives some insight into kingship and the belief in something like fortune’s wheel. Only one person can be a powerful king at any given time, and only on can be on the top of the wheel in any given arena at one time. It just so happened that Scyld was at the top of both at the same time.

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Setting a Tight Sequential Tone

That the poet makes a note of this power shift also sets the tone of the poem. It will be a story of changing fortunes, but it will be one in which there is no vacuum left for things to be pulled into. There will always be some definite succession of events, something will always happen at the end of something else.

Already, we’ve seen this in the death of Beowulf. The Geats lost a leader, and they will definitely be wiped out since they have none to replace Beowulf. Meanwhile the surrounding tribes will shortly be upon them.

In a sense, the open-endedness that we are left with at the end of the poem promises something that may have been considered a fate worse than death: exile. Scyld might have stolen mead benches, what people would recline on while enjoying themselves and socializing, but exile means that a person would have no mead bench at all – none to even win back.

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Closing

Next week, a batch of recordings will have been uploaded to this blog, and we’ll move onto Scefing’s further deeds.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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