A right-thinking Beowulf?

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

St. George slaying a dragon solo unlike mister might Beowulf.

An illumination showing a pleasantly distracted looking St. George slaying a cat-pawed dragon. No “right thinking” partner required? Image from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Zanino_di_Pietro_-_Saint_George_Killing_the_Dragon_-_Walters_W322215R_-_Open_Obverse.jpg.


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Recap

Last week, Beowulf’s sword failed him and his shield proved weaker than expected.


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Synopsis

Beowulf battles the dragon, but needs to give it some space.


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The Original Old English

“þa wæs beorges weard
æfter heaðuswenge on hreoum mode,
wearp wælfyre; wide sprungon
hildeleoman. Hreðsigora ne gealp
goldwine Geata; guðbill geswac,
nacod æt niðe, swa hyt no sceolde,
iren ærgod. Ne wæs þæt eðe sið,
þæt se mæra maga Ecgðeowes
grundwong þone ofgyfan wolde;
sceolde ofer willan wic eardian
elles hwergen, swa sceal æghwylc mon
alætan lændagas. Næs ða long to ðon
þæt ða aglæcean hy eft gemetton.
Hyrte hyne hordweard (hreðer æðme weoll)
niwan stefne; nearo ðrowode,
fyre befongen, se ðe ær folce weold.
Nealles him on heape handgesteallan,
æðelinga bearn, ymbe gestodon
hildecystum, ac hy on holt bugon,
ealdre burgan. Hiora in anum weoll
sefa wið sorgum; sibb æfre ne mæg
wiht onwendan þam ðe wel þenceð.”
(Beowulf ll.2580b-2601)


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My Translation

“Then was the barrow
guard, after that battle stroke, thrust into a fierceness of spirit –
it threw its deadly fire, wildly leapt
those battle lights. Of glorious victory the
gold-giving friend of the Geats could not boast then,
the war sword failed him while unsheathed in battle, as it should
not have, became known as iron formerly excellent. That was no easy
journey, when the renowned kin of Ecgtheow
knew he should give up that ground,
that he should, against his wish, inhabit a dwelling place
elsewhere, so shall each man
leave off his loaned days. Then not long was it
before the fierce warriors met each other again.
The hoard guard himself took heart – his breast began to heave
from strain – he lunged forth once again. Harsh straits were suffered,
the fires enveloped Beowulf, he who once had ruled the people.
Not any of the band of comrades were with him then.
The sons of nobility stood around merely draped in martial virtues
they fled into the woods at the sight below,
eager to save their own lives. Of them, in only one mind
surged sorrow. Kinship may never
for anything be turned away from if a man thinks rightly.”
(Beowulf ll.2580b-2601)


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A Quick Interpretation

The fabric of Beowulf the poem is shot through with the idea of boasts and actions being bigger than mere words. Throughout the story we see Beowulf match this process of action. Boast, act, report.

But this is where we get some sure signals that the story is ending.

Beowulf can’t follow through on his boast from earlier. On lines 2524-2525 he had said “And I will not give/a foot’s length when I meet the barrow’s guard” (“Nelle ic beorges weard/forfleon fotes trem”). And now he is giving that ground. Beowulf can no longer do as he says, his actions now speak more quietly than he has need of them to.

Those he had handpicked as the best of the young Geats are also leaving him in his hour of greatest need.

Except for one.

One Geat up on that hill looks down and sees his lord in need and wants to help out. More than that, though, he is “a man [who] thinks rightly” (“þam ðe wel þenceð” (l.2601)).

Maybe that’s what Beowulf needs right now: right thinking.

After all, although his actions failed to meet his boast, that was due to his overestimating his abilities and the tools he had with him. But there is more to it than that, I think. Any incongruence between acts and words in the morality of Beowulf suggests a sourness of character. Liars say what they’ll do and then don’t do it, and they orchestrate that kind of outcome because they’re thinking of deceiving (others or themselves).

Beowulf falls prey to a bit of this with his failed follow through. Not that he was intending to go back on his boast, though the stories could have branded him as such because of that failure to follow through. So it makes sense that one with right thinking will swoop in for Beowulf’s rescue.

Was Beowulf thinking properly when he came up with his flame-resistant shield and when he said he had to fight the dragon alone? Or were these things the product of a mind convinced that the body it was attached to could still pull off such grand deeds?

Feel free to share your theories in the comments!


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Closing

Next week, we turn away from the dragon to see what the Geats on the clifftop are up to.

If you enjoyed this post, please give it a like. And, if you want to keep up with my translations, please do follow this blog!

 

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The best laid shield plans of Beowulf and dragons

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

Beowulf is protected from dragon fire by his shield while treasure awaits.

An illustration of Beowulf fighting the dragon that appears at the end of the epic poem. Illustration in the children’s book Stories of Beowulf (H. E. Marshall). Published in New York in 1908 by E. P. Dutton & Company. Image found at https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Beowulf_and_the_dragon.jpg.


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Recap

Last week, Beowulf called out the dragon and heard it call back.


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Synopsis

Beowulf attacks the dragon, and the unexpected happens.


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The Original Old English

“Biorn under beorge bordrand onswaf
wið ðam gryregieste, Geata dryhten;
ða wæs hringbogan heorte gefysed
sæcce to seceanne. Sweord ær gebræd
god guðcyning, gomele lafe,
ecgum unslaw; æghwæðrum wæs
bealohycgendra broga fram oðrum.
Stiðmod gestod wið steapne rond
winia bealdor, ða se wyrm gebeah
snude tosomne; he on searwum bad.
Gewat ða byrnende gebogen scriðan,
to gescipe scyndan. Scyld wel gebearg
life ond lice læssan hwile
mærum þeodne þonne his myne sohte,
ðær he þy fyrste, forman dogore
wealdan moste swa him wyrd ne gescraf
hreð æt hilde. Hond up abræd
Geata dryhten, gryrefahne sloh
incgelafe, þæt sio ecg gewac
brun on bane, bat unswiðor
þonne his ðiodcyning þearfe hæfde,
bysigum gebæded.”
(Beowulf ll.2559-2580a)


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My Translation

“The warrior below the barrow, the lord of the Geats,
swung the rim of his shield against the dreadful stranger,
then was the coiled creature with heart ignited
eager to seek battle. The good war-king
bad already drawn his his sword, the ancient heirloom,
sharp of edges, each was in horror at the intent
to harm and rain destruction evident in the other’s eyes.
He stood firmly against the towering shield,
the lord of a dear people, when the serpent coiled himself
quickly together. Beowulf waited in arms.
Then the serpent went gliding along, still coiled and burning,
hastening toward his fate. The shield well protected
Beowulf’s being and body for a lesser time
than that renowned prince required for his purpose,
that was the first time that day
that he learned he would have to prevail, though fate had not decreed
triumph for him. The lord of the Geats
swung up his hand, the one terrible in its varied colours was struck by
the mighty heirloom, yet its long-tested edge failed,
it gleamed dry, stopped by the beast’s bones, bit less strongly
just when the king of a people had need of it,
when it could have cut him free from his afflictions.”
(Beowulf ll.2559-2580a)


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A Quick Interpretation

Well, all of Beowulf’s psyching up seems to have been for naught. He jumps in to slash the dragon, and his sword has no effect.

Worse than that, though, Beowulf’s grand plan fails him. His heavy iron shield is either heating up too much in the dragon’s fire or actually melting.

These two events are a dire turn for the poem’s hero, but are they really all that surprising? I don’t even mean because of the meta information that we have as readers. Looking at this fight with the logic of the poem in mind, it seems that it follows one of the poem’s major patterns.

Beowulf wears gear and uses weapons when he’s fighting in wars. But in two of the three one-on-one fights we hear about before this dragon fight, Beowulf triumphs when he goes in empty handed.

I mean, Grendel and Day Raven are killed thanks to Beowulf’s killer grip.

Grendel’s mother is an exception, and I’m not sure what to do with that, exactly.

I suppose her case could be dismissed since her underwater hall is kind of an inversion of the Old English Anglo-Saxon normal to begin with. A hall, to them, is a human space, but the Grendels’ hall is occupied by monsters. An Anglo-Saxon hall, generally ruled by a man, is ruled by a woman. A hall is usually warm and dry and safe, but the Grendels have their hall in a cold, damp, and dangerous cave.

So in the context of the Grendel’s hall, Beowulf’s armour deflecting Grendel’s mother’s knife makes sense. Beowulf’s using the giant’s sword to ultimately kill Grendel’s mother makes sense.

But the dragon’s lair is not the inversion of a hall. It’s just a stony area near an ancient barrow by the sea. And a barrow is definitely not a hall in any sense. So bringing gear to this fight may have been deemed necessary, but it’s not surprising that his shield doesn’t work the way he hoped it would, or that his sword fails him. This is a monster fight in an ordinary place.

It’s almost as if Beowulf, this exceptional human being, took the sensible average advice of his counselors, or his people, completely forgetting that he is not average. Such advice doesn’t quite apply to him.

Of course, Beowulf would’ve been burned alive without his shield.

But I really think that a younger Beowulf would’ve just rushed in and torn the dragon’s lower jaw off, disabling its fire breath and leaving it to bleed out as he did with Grendel. The elder Beowulf, though, seems to have lost belief in his own physical power and prowess, hence his failed reliance on these specially made or imbued, but otherwise absolutely normal, pieces of gear.

Do you think that Beowulf’s confidence has flagged in his old age and he’s just going through the motions? Or do you think that Beowulf just thinks that dragon is beyond his power so some extra gear is needed?

Feel free to share your theories in the comments!


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Closing

Next week, the dragon launches its counterattack!

If you enjoyed this post, please give it a like. And, if you want to keep up with my translations, please do follow this blog!

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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A shield by Beowulf, against the dragon

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

Beowulf is protected from dragon fire by his shield while treasure awaits.

An illustration of Beowulf fighting the dragon that appears at the end of the epic poem. Illustration in the children’s book Stories of Beowulf (H. E. Marshall). Published in New York in 1908 by E. P. Dutton & Company. Image found at https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Beowulf_and_the_dragon.jpg


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Recap

The dragon from the treasure hoard has attacked Beowulf’s lands and burned down his hall.


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Synopsis

Beowulf comes up with a plan for revenge.


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The Original Old English

“Hæfde ligdraca leoda fæsten,
ealond utan, eorðweard ðone
gledum forgrunden; him ðæs guðkyning,
Wedera þioden, wræce leornode.
Heht him þa gewyrcean wigendra hleo
eallirenne, eorla dryhten,
wigbord wrætlic; wisse he gearwe
þæt him holtwudu helpan ne meahte,
lind wið lige. Sceolde lændaga
æþeling ærgod ende gebidan,
worulde lifes, ond se wyrm somod,
þeah ðe hordwelan heolde lange.”
(Beowulf ll. 2333–2344)


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My Translation

“The fire dragon had destroyed all the people’s strongholds,
scourged all the land out to the coast, scorched all their earthen work walls
with its flames. For that flying beast the lord of the fray,
prince of the Weders, planned vengeance.
He commanded that a protector of warriors be made,
all of iron, quenched and tempered, so said the lord of earls,
he sought a wondrous war-board from his smiths. Beowulf knew well
that the forest wood warriors so often carried would be no help to him,
that the linden shield would crumble against flames. Beowulf also knew
that he must soon come to the end of his transitory days, the prince of excellence,
his loan of life would soon be due, and so, too, would the dragon’s,
though the wyrm had guarded the hoarded wealth long.”
(Beowulf ll. 2333–2344)


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A Quick Interpretation

Before the other two fights Beowulf showed great bravery. Before fighting Grendel, he pledged to meet the monster on his own level and eschew weapons and armour. Before fighting Grendel’s mother, Beowulf steeled himself and dove into her lake.

Now we see Beowulf put some thought into his approach. He doesn’t boast or make some sort of brave stand. Instead he thinks about his own mortality. He – the Beowulf – realizes that he’s going to die soon. And he applies some intelligence to his approach rather than rushing in or trying to prove something to someone.

But if that’s all you get out of living for 50 years in the world of Beowulf, then it seems a little underwhelming.

Though Beowulf’s idea to make an iron shield plays perfectly to his strengths.

As was hinted at early and is mentioned later, Beowulf is too strong to use any normal sword. They all end up breaking when he uses them. So hoisting a shield of iron would be no problem for the king of the Geats. Which is neat; it took a bit, but Beowulf seems to have become quite the strategist over his tenure as ruler!

If you had to come up with a scheme to fight a dragon, what would your scheme be?

I think it’d be pretty cool to fight the dragon in the air, so I’d want to create some sort of flying machine (think medieval dragon mech).

Share your own answers in the comments!


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Closing

Next week, the poet reassures us of Beowulf’s courage with a little story of his bravery.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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