Armour inspires thoughts on time, ad-libbing on sunken arms (ll.1441b – 1454)

Antique Armour More Effective
Armour on Sea Bottoms

Beowulf, Grendel, Old English, Anglo-Saxon

An illustration of Grendel by J.R. Skelton from Stories of Beowulf. Grendel is described as “Very terrible to look upon.”Stories of beowulf grendel” by J. R. Skelton – Marshall, Henrietta Elizabeth (1908) Stories of Beowulf, T.C. & E.C. Jack. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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Beowulf gets geared up, starting with his armour and helmet.

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“Beowulf geared himself
in warrior’s garb, he felt no anxiety for his life then;
his hand woven war-corslet, broad and skillfully decorated,
would soon know those depths,
confident in its ability to protect his bone-chamber,
so that no hand-grasp could crush his chest,
that no furious foe’s malicious hand could harm him;
and on his head a shining helmet he wore,
which would soon muddy the mere’s bottom,
would soon enter the surging waters, that treasure-embellished helm,
encircled by a lordly band, made as those in elder days,
wrought by a weapon smith, wondrously formed,
set all around with boar-images, so that he
may not be bitten by blade or battle sword.”
(Beowulf ll.1441b – 1454)

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Old English:


Modern English:


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Antique Armour More Effective

Beowulf gets kitted out here. Whether one of the Geats with him (or maybe a Dane, as a sign of their good relations?) helps him into this gear as squires would knights in a few hundred years is unclear. All we know from what’s written is that Beowulf puts on his armour and then his helmet. So, much like old school JRPGs, it looks like there are just three pieces of equipment for your average warrior: armour, headgear, weapon.

Most interesting to me is just how important it seems to be that the armour is decorated. I mean, I’m not too familiar with the practicalities of medieval armour, but I’d imagine that it would be a great deal lighter and actually more effective if it was less decorated — not more. As far as I can guess, though, Beowulf’s not going to be guarded from harm because his outfit is so chic, rather its protective power comes from its being so old.

The armour he dons is described as “broad and skilfully decorated” (“sid ond searo-fah” (l.1443)).

Note that the phrase there isn’t “skillfully crafted” (potentially “searo-cræftig” in Old English), but “skilfully decorated” (“searo-fah”).

So, this armour must be old because it was made when people had the time to just sit back, crack into some mead and decorate their armaments. And when could you decorate armour and swords and such? When you’re living in a relative time of peace.

Or a time when fighting is so fierce that you become very skilled in making armour very quickly so that there’s time left over to embellish it.

Either way, the implication about Beowulf’s armour is that this armour is old.

And this implication is outright stated when it comes to Beowulf’s helmet.

On line 1451 the poet tells us it was “made as those in elder days” (“fyrn-dagum”). Which, if you think about it doesn’t put it into the past as much as it suggests that days don’t die, they just grow old and their influence is lessened as time moves onward. All the while, the works done in these days, the things that people made during their’ prime, carry into the future.

It’s a curious way to think about time.

Though, getting back on track,the idea that things “aren’t made like they used to be” in that their not made to last like they used to be continues to be a common sentiment.

After all, it seems like things are moving so quickly that everything made new is made fast rather than to last. For example, my uncle recently took apart an old piano (maybe from the early 20th century) to turn it into a liquor cabinet and the mechanism for the hammer looks and works as if it was made yesterday — although the only metal pieces in it are the spring and the pin that holds the thing together.

Now, there’s no denying that modern tech is growing exponentially and so on and so forth, but that the sense that “they don’t make things like they used to” existed in the time of the Beowulf poet seems to me ridiculous. It suggests that human progress has always been happening, and that however fast our times are, the present always has an element of speed to it. It’s only when we look at all of the days behind us, all gathered around the nursing home table that we just happen to see those things that happened in them much more slowly.

Do you think that spending so much time on Beowulf’s getting his armour on helps build a sense of security? Or is it just the poet stalling for time?

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Armour on Sea Bottoms

A European “mere-grund”1 is probably the best place to find old “eorl-gewæde”2.

I mean, no doubt several warriors perished in the “inwit-feng”3 of “sund-gebland”4 over the centuries, whether they were swimming or sailing across such waters. And those “ban-cofa”5 these warriors would leave behind, in a weird inside-out kind of way, probably made perfect caskets for such lost “here-byrne”6. We’re talking top of the line pieces of arms and armour that were “searo-fah”7 with “swin-lic”8.

Plus, if some of these warriors were always losing their purses or just wanted to have the skate punk look way before its time, maybe there’d be a few “frea-wrasn”9 with the armour, as well. Nothing like a nice chain to keep the cash close, right?

What I have to wonder though, is if ladies of lakes are willing to chuck up the odd “beado-mece”10 since “fyrn-dagum”11, why don’t they ever seem to give away armour too? They must really have it in for warriors everywhere. Or maybe Arthur hastily left after getting Excalibur and ruined getting full sets of arms for the rest of us.

1mere-grund: lake-bottom, bottom of the sea. mere (sea, ocean, lake, pond, pool, cistern) + grund (ground, bottom, foundation, abyss, hell, plain, country, land, eart, sea, water)

2eorl-gewæde: armour. eorl (brave man, warrior, leader, chief, man, earl, nobleman) + gewæde (robe, dress, apparel, clothing, garment, covering) (A word exclusive to Beowulf)

3inwit-feng: spiteful clutch. inwit (evil, deceit, wicked, deceitful) + feng (grip, grasp, embrace, capture, prey, booty) (A word exclusive to Beowulf)

4sund-gebland: commingled sea, surge. sund (swimming, capacity for swimming, sea, ocean, water) + gebland (blending, mixture, confusion) (A word exclusive to Beowulf)

5ban-cofa: bodily frame. ban (bone, tusk, the bone of a limb) + cofa (clost, chamber, ark, cave, den)

6here-byrne: corslet. here (predatory band, troop, army, host, multitude) + byrne (corslet) (A word exclusive to Beowulf)

7searo-fah: variegated, cunningly inlaid. searo (art, skill, cleverness, cunning, device, trick, snare, ambuscade, plot, treachery, work of art, cunning device, engine of war, armour, war-gear, trappings) + fag (variegated, spotted, dappled, stained, dyed, shining, gleaming) (A word exclusive to Beowulf)

8swin-lic: boar image. swin (wild boar, pig, hog, swine, boar image) + lic (like, alike, similar, equal, suitable, likely) (A word exclusive to Beowulf)

9frea-wrasn: splendid chain. frea (lord, king, master, the Lord, Christ, God, husband) + wrasen (band, tie, chain) (A word exclusive to Beowulf)

10beado-mece: battle sword. beado (war, battle, fighting, strife) + mece (sword, blade) (A word exclusive to Beowulf)

11fyrn-dagum: days of yore. fyrn (former, ancient, formerly, of old, long ago, once) + dæg (day, lifetime, Last Day, name of the rune for “d”)

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Next week, Hrothgar’s sleazy counsellor Unferth gives Beowulf a gift.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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