Something the story of Beowulf shares with modern TV

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

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.


Back To Top
Recap

Last week, Beowulf decided to fight the dragon one-on-one and commissioned an iron shield.


Back To Top
Synopsis

The poet steps away from Beowulf for a second to sing about how his past accomplishments have prepared him to face the dragon.


Back To Top
The Original Old English

“Oferhogode ða hringa fengel
þæt he þone widflogan weorode gesohte,
sidan herge; no he him þa sæcce ondred,
ne him þæs wyrmes wig for wiht dyde,
eafoð ond ellen, forðon he ær fela
nearo neðende niða gedigde,
hildehlemma, syððan he Hroðgares,
sigoreadig secg, sele fælsode
ond æt guðe forgrap Grendeles mægum
laðan cynnes. No þæt læsest wæs
hondgemota, þær mon Hygelac sloh,
syððan Geata cyning guðe ræsum,
freawine folca Freslondum on,
Hreðles eafora hiorodryncum swealt,
bille gebeaten. þonan Biowulf com
sylfes cræfte, sundnytte dreah;
hæfde him on earme ana XXX
hildegeatwa, þa he to holme beag.
Nealles Hetware hremge þorfton
feðewiges, þe him foran ongean
linde bæron; lyt eft becwom
fram þam hildfrecan hames niosan.”
(Beowulf ll.2345-2366)


Back To Top
My Translation

“Further, Beowulf, the prince of rings,
was too proud to attack the far-flier with a band of men,
an overpowering army. Nor did he fear further attack from the drake,
he thought but little of the dragon’s strength and courage, since he
had already risked harsh circumstances, survived countless combats,
endured the crash of battle, since he had done so for Hrothgar.
Beowulf had been blessed with victory, cleansed the Dane’s hall,
in combat he crushed to death the hateful kindred
of Grendel. Not the least of his deeds happened later,
the hand-to-hand encounter where the man slew Hygelac,
after the Geatish king was caught in the battle onslaught,
the lord and friend of the people fell in Friesland.
Hygelac, Hrethel’s son, had died in the blade brew,
struck by the sword. From there Beowulf
put his strength to use, swimming thence.
In his arm he held the battle gear of thirty men
with which he went to sea.
None of the Hetwares had reason to be exultant
in that battle on foot, with Beowulf against them on the front
bearing a shield. Few would later
return home from their meeting with that warrior.”
(Beowulf ll.2345-2366)


Back To Top
A Quick Interpretation

Just in case you were wondering if Beowulf kept fit after he got back to Geatland, here’s your answer. According to this little story from the poet, Beowulf is still a swimming, fighting, load-carrying (?) machine.

So what? Well, from a narrative point of view, it’s neat how the poet uses a flashback to fill in some details during the otherwise lost 50 years of king Beowulf’s life. Actually, flashbacks are still alive and well in our stories.

Granted, it’s not the most recent example, but one show that is full of examples of this trope is Lost. This show set on an apparently empty tropical island was full of mysteries. From things like the hatch in the middle of nowhere, to the polar bear seen loping around now and then. And most of those mysteries were solved through near-episode long flashbacks that filled in details and offered answers (or at least clues).

The Good Place is another great example of flashback being used to reveal story information or demonstrate a character’s traits. It’s also a fairly mysterious show.

Is Beowulf quite so mysterious because of this and other flashbacks?

Potentially.

Take the strangely disagreeing lines 2365-66. These lines stand in defiance of the image of Beowulf as this perfect warrior. They read: “Few would later/return home from their meeting with that warrior” (“lyt eft becwom/fram þam hildfrecan hames niosan.”).

“Few” of the warriors who faced Beowulf survived the battle. Not “none” but “few”. On the face of it, it sounds like the poet is pulling back a bit from Beowulf as this macho force.

But I think that this is just an example of the poem’s sense of humour. It’s a kind of sarcastic understatement, the sort of line delivered from a crooked grin in a cocked face after a little chuckle.

But humour is a tricky thing in print. Especially in poetry. So, what do you think? Is this line a little joke? Or is it pointing to Beowulf going soft on his way to becoming king?

Share your thoughts in the comments!

And if you liked this translation, give this post a like. You might also want to follow this blog so that you can get the rest of this poem as it’s translated.


Back To Top
Closing

Next week, the poet continues the story of Beowulf’s life after the death of Hygelac.

Back To Top

Advertisements

Beowulf the storyteller’s idea of a great celebration

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

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

Image found at http://bit.ly/2jumA3j


Back To Top
Synopsis

Beowulf recounts the various conversations going on in Heorot’s post-Grendel celebration.


Back To Top
The Original Old English

“‘Me þone wælræs wine Scildunga
fættan golde fela leanode,
manegum maðmum, syððan mergen com
ond we to symble geseten hæfdon.
þær wæs gidd ond gleo. Gomela Scilding,
felafricgende, feorran rehte;
hwilum hildedeor hearpan wynne,
gomenwudu grette, hwilum gyd awræc
soð ond sarlic, hwilum syllic spell
rehte æfter rihte rumheort cyning.
Hwilum eft ongan, eldo gebunden,
gomel guðwiga gioguðe cwiðan,
hildestrengo; hreðer inne weoll,
þonne he wintrum frod worn gemunde.'”
(Beowulf ll.2101-2014)


Back To Top
My Translation

“‘Golden ornaments were awarded to me then
by the friend of the Scyldings for that mortal conflict,
countless treasures, once the morning had come
and we had sat down to feast.
There was song and sonorous entertainment there,
an elder Scylding recounted tales of things learned long ago,
one brave in battle was in harp joy,
he struck the delightful wood while retelling
tales both true and tragic, the great hearted king
correctly shared strange stories,
and an old warrior bound by age proceeded
to a lament for his youth, of strength in battle.
Within him his heart surged when
he recalled many things from the seasons of his past.'”
(Beowulf ll.2101-2014)


Back To Top
A Quick Interpretation

This passage is really all about how stories and celebration are linked in early medieval Anglo-Saxon culture.

That said, I’m not surprised (but I am a little disappointed) that there aren’t any women telling stories here. I mean, Wealhtheow must have a wealth of stories to share. After all, she grew up elsewhere and probably knows some regional tales that none of the Danes would’ve heard before. Or she could share the story of her upbringing, of some court intrigue back home, or of travelling to Daneland to marry Hrothgar. There’s a lot for her to work with.

But instead this is a very masculine scene. Which is how a party in an early medieval hall would likely be.

Though Beowulf once again shows his sensitive side here. He must have been sitting back and just taking everything in. Otherwise, I’m not sure how he would’ve heard all of these different conversations and stories.

It’s this extra detail once again makes Beowulf’s account of his time in Daneland much more interesting than the poet’s version. Beowulf even includes a detail that proves that his version is probably just a differently told version of the same events.

On line 2109 Beowulf says that the tales of one of the tellers were “both true and tragic” (“soð ond sarlic”).

I think this is probably a reference to the story of Hildeburh and the slaughter of Finn’s house. But what does such a connection matter?

This connection suggests that this poem is really playing with the theme of how people shape their story.

A great example of this comes up at the end of the poem: Beowulf’s dying wish is that he be remembered as one who was always eager for glory. Further, Tolkien’s reading Beowulf as an elegy rather than an heroic epic brings it even more in line with the importance of shaping your story. After all, elegies are tragic remembrances of things now gone and such remembrances are rarely comprehensive.

And that what I think is the crux of this scene. Beowulf is shaping his story as he describes the hall full of stories to Hygelac.

Plus, though there are only male voices sharing stories, there are still several of them. One is a king, another is handy with an instrument, and at least one other is an old man well past his prime. But it’s those several voices that weave together and tell tales, and in so doing contribute to Beowulf’s own tale.

It seems that as much as Beowulf is about daring heroics and gory action, it is also a story, and passages like this one show how much its early tellers and audiences revelled in stories.

What do you think the reason Beowulf includes all of this storytelling in his description of the celebrations in Heorot? Why not just talk about how good the mead was, or how well received the other Geats were?

Share your thoughts in the comments!


Back To Top
Closing

Next week, Grendel’s mother strikes!

Back To Top

What a quiet moment in Beowulf means

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

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

Image found at http://bit.ly/2jumA3j


Back To Top
Introduction

I know that February is almost done, and so 2017 is already started. But, one of the things that I want to do over the course of this year is to trim back on the padding that I’ve built into my work in the past. I want to make 2017 Twenty-Seven-Lean. Both in that I trim the fat from what I do and in that I use the time I’m left with to lean more into the core of what I do.

I can’t say for sure yet, but I’m starting to consider using these shorter translation post formats from here forward. If you want to share your thoughts on this potential change, let me know in the comments.


Back To Top
Synopsis

Beowulf parties before hitting the hay.


Back To Top
The Original Old English

“Geat wæs glædmod, geong sona to
setles neosan, swa se snottra heht.
þa wæs eft swa ær ellenrofum
fletsittendum fægere gereorded
niowan stefne. Nihthelm geswearc
deorc ofer dryhtgumum. Duguð eal aras.
Wolde blondenfeax beddes neosan,
gamela Scylding. Geat unigmetes wel,
rofne randwigan, restan lyste;
sona him seleþegn siðes wergum,
feorrancundum, forð wisade,
se for andrysnum ealle beweotede
þegnes þearfe, swylce þy dogore
heaþoliðende habban scoldon.”
(Beowulf ll.1785-1798)


Back To Top
My Translation

“The Geat was glad-hearted at that, he descended the dais,
sought out a seat, as the wise one had commanded.
Then was it as it had been before for the bold,
the sitters in the hall spoke fairly with voices renewed.
The mantle of night fell to darken the world
outside the warriors’ hall. All that company arose;
the grey-haired one then sought his bed,
leader of the Scyldings, the Geat, renowned shield warrior
was also eager for such rest. Soon to him,
the one wearied along the warrior’s way, a hall thane came,
one to guide the far-flung one on his way,
he who for etiquette’s sake waited on all
thane’s needs, such as should be had in those days
for far-flung seafaring warriors.”
(Beowulf ll.1785-1798)


Back To Top
A Quick Question

The core of this passage is that Beowulf is shown as a warrior who observes good manners in waiting for his host to go to bed before heading there himself. Other than that, there’s not much here.

Although, the absence of action or conflict or major dramatic events speaks to how quiet this moment in the poem is. This isn’t just a break between beating up monsters, but for Beowulf the character this is the end of his labours in Daneland. He has slept in Heorot before, but this is the first night where he can sleep without worrying about staying awake for Grendel or without the shadow of Grendel’s mother looming over him. Daneland has been saved from monsters, and so his work is done.

But this moment also fits in between the major events in the social drama of Beowulf. Hrothgar has said his piece about kingship, and the big ceremonial giving of gifts happens in the morning. Right now the poet is singing where normally he’d be taking a break. And that’s what makes this part of the poem significant in my mind.

In particular, since it’s about the need for rest, I see this part of the poem as a very human moment in a poem that is otherwise all about the supernatural and non-human.

But what do you think? Should the poet have just said “And after Hrothgar spoke, they all went to bed to rest up for the gift-giving. And what a gift giving!” to get on with it? Or is there some reason for this curious quiet moment? Let me know in the comments!


Back To Top
Closing

Next week, Beowulf’s thoughts turn to home, and Unferth’s sword returns to him.

Back To Top

Hrothgar starts to step out of the story

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

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

Image found at http://bit.ly/2jumA3j


Back To Top
Introduction

It’s been a busy week, so here’s a short translation post.


Back To Top
Synopsis

Hrothgar sums up his rule, and promises Beowulf great gifts.


Back To Top
The Original Old English

“‘Swa ic Hringdena hund missera
weold under wolcnum ond hig wigge beleac
manigum mægþa geond þysne middangeard,
æscum ond ecgum, þæt ic me ænigne
under swegles begong gesacan ne tealde.
Hwæt, me þæs on eþle edwenden cwom,
gyrn æfter gomene, seoþðan Grendel wearð,
ealdgewinna, ingenga min;
ic þære socne singales wæg
modceare micle. þæs sig metode þanc,
ecean dryhtne, þæs ðe ic on aldre gebad
þæt ic on þone hafelan heorodreorigne
ofer ealdgewin eagum starige!
Ga nu to setle, symbelwynne dreoh
wigge weorþad; unc sceal worn fela
maþma gemænra, siþðan morgen bið.'”
(Beowulf ll.1769-1784)


Back To Top
My Translation

‘”Just so I have ruled the Ring-Danes under the sky
for one hundred half-years, and have protected
them against war with many nations from across this world,
from both spears and swords, such that I have not considered any other beneath the sky’s expanse as an adversary.
But lo! A hard reversal came to my native land,
grief following joy, once Grendel appeared,
that ancient adversary, that invader of my peace;
at that arrival I continually bore persecution
and great sorrow of mind. Thus I now thank God,
the eternal Lord, that I might experience in my life,
after the struggle, the chance to gaze upon with my eyes
the beast’s head blood-stained from battle.
Go now to the bench, joyously join the
mirth of feasting; we two shall share
a great many treasures when the morning comes.'”
(Beowulf ll.1769-1784)


Back To Top
A Quick Question

Hrothgar’s quick summary of the poem leads into a section where Beowulf’s adventures in Daneland come to an end. And there’s a lot of talk of celebration, but it seems very under-hyped to me. Hrothgar mentions that Beowulf will get “a great many treasures” (“maþma gemænra” (l.1784)) for all of his work here, but that’s about it.

Instead, most of the end of Hrothgar’s speech is about his rule. I guess the implication here is that happiness has returned to Heorot, and Hrothgar’s rule will continue as it did before. There’s definitely a strong sense that not only are things returning to normal in Daneland, but all of the characters living there are stepping out of the mythic realm that Beowulf brings with him and returning to history.

What do you get out of Hrothgar’s talking about his rule in Daneland? Let me know in the comments!


Back To Top
Closing

Next week, Beowulf and Hrothgar party on.

Back To Top

A post that’s briefly about Beowulf’s historical figures

A section of the Bayeux Tapestry, artifact from history,  showing Anglo-Saxon warfare.

Image found here: “Bayeux Tapestry 4” by photo by Gabriel Seah – gssq.blogspot.com. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

Throughout this blog, I’ve often written about history and Beowulf and how the two are woven together (like here and here). The post that I’m sharing this week pulls what I’ve weaved together in a tight, quick way.

This week’s post is a short piece by Jan Purnis (who appears to currently be a professor of English at the University of Regina) all about the historical figures in Beowulf. In this piece, Jan groups these figures together according to their kin group, and then explains how they are or aren’t accounted for in the historical records that we have of the early medieval period.

If you’ve read a bit about the history of the poem itself, you’ll know that there’s some controversy over when exactly Beowulf was first put together. Purnis doesn’t go into to much detail with it, but she does note that the Offa referred to in the poem could be either Offa I, fourth century king of the continental Angles, or Offa II, late eighth century ruler of Mercia (a kingdom in Britain). There was nearly 400 years between them, and in the story that runs from lines 1944-1962 the poet didn’t add an “I” or “II”. So this reference, like some others, doesn’t reveal much about when Beowulf was first thought up.

Nonetheless, Purnis’ conclusion that the poet uses their historical knowledge and references to bring an air of historicity to the wondrous Beowulf himself is a neat point. It’s the same sort of thing that historical fiction writers do today. They know the period and place that they’re writing about as best they can and then they add in their own characters or elaborate on actual figures to build a story. In my mind, this similarity just goes to show how much work has always gone into crafting stories.

Which makes me wonder why the poet wanted to write about a kind of superman whose world, as Purnis points out, was straddling the old Pagan/continental and the new Christian/British ones.

Maybe it was to legitimize the story. I mean, authority drawn from strong relation to the past was an important concept in the medieval world. In fact, that kind of legitimacy through relation to the past is a major reason why people like Offa II referred to Offa I as their ancestor (despite the 400 year and several hundred mile gap between them), and so maybe that was the theme that the poet had set out to tackle. Why then are there monsters in Beowulf? Well, who doesn’t like a good monster story?

If you want to learn more about the historical figures behind a lot of the cast of Beowulf, check out Purnis’ write up. Since it’s a bit on the academic side it comes with a list of sources for further reading, too.

If you could write a historical fiction story about any figure from history who would it be and why? Let me know in the comments! (Chaucer would be at the top of my list!)

Struggling against giants: A sword’s story

Synopsis

Original

Translation

Recordings

Europe and its Giants

A Retelling of the Flood: Poetic Fragment

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.

Back To Top

Synopsis

Hrothgar hefts the sword hilt that Beowulf hands him and then marvels at the wondrous story told on it.

Back To Top

Original

“Hroðgar maðelode, hylt sceawode,
ealde lafe, on ðæm wæs or writen
fyrngewinnes, syðþan flod ofsloh,
gifen geotende, giganta cyn
(frecne geferdon); þæt wæs fremde þeod
ecean dryhtne; him þæs endelean
þurh wæteres wylm waldend sealde.
Swa wæs on ðæm scennum sciran goldes
þurh runstafas rihte gemearcod,
geseted ond gesæd hwam þæt sweord geworht,
irena cyst, ærest wære,
wreoþenhilt ond wyrmfah. ða se wisa spræc
sunu Healfdenes (swigedon ealle):”
(Beowulf ll.1687-1699)

Back To Top

Translation

“Hrothgar spoke, as he was shown the hilt,
that old treasure. On it was written the origins
of a great struggle, after the flood had slain many,
sloshed through in torrents, a struggle with giant-kind;
peril was brought to all; that was a people
estranged from the eternal Lord; from the Almighty
came the final retribution of rising waters.
Thus was the pommel work written upon in gold
with runes properly inscribed,
inset and incarved, by the one who worked that sword,
the best of blades, first among weapons,
with wire-wound hilt and edge damescened like snakes. Then
the wise one spoke, the son of Healfdane — the hall hushed:”
(Beowulf ll.1687-1699)

Back To Top

Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

Back To Top

Europe and its Giants

I’m glad that the poet gives us this description. It’s all too easy to imagine a sword hilt as just a piece of metal used to hold a sword, and depending on the design, maybe to help catch or parry incoming blows. But here we’re told that there’s a full blown story printed across what I imagine is the crossbar of the sword. In the picture at the top of this entry, the Gilling sword’s crossbar is just outside of the lower right corner of the frame.

The how of this story on a sword isn’t quite my strong suit. There’re runes describing the events, and they’re inlaid with gold. But what the poet means when they say that these runes are “properly inscribed” (“rihte gemearcod” (l.1695)) is quite a mystery to me. Maybe they were neatly made, unlike the chicken scratch of the poet’s day.

What I do know about is just how prevalent wars against giants are in the European imagination.

There are the Greek myths that detail the fight between the Olympian gods and the Titans.

In the Brut, an epic poem about people travelling to Britain to settle there, the travellers must first defeat a giant or two to make the land safe for themselves.

Even much much later, there are still stories of giants in things like fairy tales (“Jack and the Beanstalk”) and Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels.

I think that the Beowulf poet is referring specifically to a race of giants called the Nephilim here. These were the offspring of fallen angels and human women, which fits since the mention of the flood seems to circle around it being a destructive force that god sent out. And the note that the sword this hilt came from was one of the first weapons (“ærest wære” (l.1697)) gels with the idea that the fallen angels who fathered those giants taught humanity about things like smithing and warfare.

What’s unclear about this story, though is if the flood came after or before the great struggle with the giants. It seems like a torrential flood would be a pretty good way to deal with oversized earth dwellers, so my guess is before, but it’s left a little ambiguous.

Why do you think this story was written on the sword’s hilt?

Back To Top

A Retelling of the Flood: Poetic Fragment

Before the “primeval struggle”1, when the world was yet young,
God on high inscribed a “rune”2 in the sky, a letter of unbinding,
That tore a hole between the clouds, as that word was sung
By angels standing all around, with ancient garment winding

around their firm frames, robes “adorned with figures of snakes”3,
Suiting costume for the “final retribution”4‘s sake.

1fyrn-gewin: primeval struggle. fyrn (former, ancient, formerly, of old, long ago, once) + winn (toil, labour, trouble, hardship, profit, gain, conflict, strife, war) [A word that is exclusive to Beowulf.]

Back Up

2run-stæf: runic letter, rune. run (mystery, secrecy, secret, counsel, consultation, council, runic character, letter, writing) + stæf (staff, stick, rod, pastoral staff, letter, character, writing, document, letters, literature, learning)

Back Up

3wyrm-fah: adorned with figures of snakes, damescened. wyrm (reptile, serpent, snake, dragon, work, inset, mite, poor creature) + fag (variegated, spotted, dappled, stained, dyed, shining, gleaming) [A word that is exclusive to Beowulf.]

Back Up

4ende-lean: final retribution. ende (end, conclusion, boundary, border, limit) + lean (reward, gift, loan, compensation, remuneration, retribution)

Back Up


Back To Top

Closing

Next week, Hrothgar speaks his mind about Beowulf.

Back To Top

Beowulf meets Hollywood in Beowulf: The Blockbuster

Bryan Burroughs in Beowulf: The Blockbuster, a one man show pop culture-infused retelling of the epic.

A still from Bryan Burroughs’ one man show Beowulf: The Blockbuster. Looks like a great show! (Image from http://www.beowulftheblockbuster.com/)

I had always figured that Seamus Heaney would be the only prominent Irish figure to take on Beowulf. But. I was wrong.

The actor Bryan Burroughs has tackled the story in his one man show Beowulf: The Blockbuster. You can check out the show’s website here.

The premise for the play is that Burroughs’ character is a terminally ill father telling his son the final bed time story that he will get to tell him. But, rather than just being a straight retelling of Beowulf, it is an improvised retelling full of elements that Burroughs’ character’s son adds in.

So, instead of Beowulf just being about a lone warrior taking on demons there are things from Jaws or Nightmare on Elm Street thrown in. Or, more specifically, as Burroughs mentioned in an interview with Shelley Marsden of The Irish World, the son suggests that Grendel sounds like Chewbacca, and so Burroughs’ character obliges.

It sounds like an awesome sight to behold. Especially because, as Burroughs plays all of these different parts, he also attempts various impressions to keep them separate. I may not be able to read Beowulf‘s dialogue without slipping into a bit of Sean Connery’s accent after reading that it’s what Burroughs uses for the Geat.

Though what makes this performance interesting to me is that it wasn’t initially going to be about Beowulf.

As he explains in that interview, Burroughs wanted to explore the question of what a parent who knew they had one hour left with their child would say to them. Beowulf only came into play because it has a tight three act structure (whether he covers the whole poem or just the Grendel bit is unclear, but either way there are three acts involved), and was a way for him to tell a story about how wonderful it is to be mortal. Plus, I think that as such an archetypal story Beowulf lends itself to having other characters and stories attached to it.

As always with performances like this, the only thing I don’t really like is that it’s not likely I’ll see the whole thing. Thankfully, though, there is this excerpt. Enjoy!