Unferth gifts a sword to Beowulf, words tell of blades and battlefields(ll.1455-1464)

Synopsis
Translation
Recordings
A Named and Dangerous Sword
The Usefulness of an Ancient Sword on the Brutal Battlefield
Closing

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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Synopsis

Unferth lends Beowulf a sure-fire sword.

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Translation

“Next was an item of no little service,
such was the thing that Hrothgar’s man leant him,
it was the hilted sword named Hrunting;
an ancient treasure beyond compare;
its edge was iron, decorated like an arm full of poison,
hardened in the blood of battle; never in combat had it failed
any of its weilders, whomever fought with it in their grip,
those who dared do perilous deeds,
who entered the battlefield full of foes. Indeed this was not
the first time the sword had been called upon for heroic deeds”
(Beowulf ll.1455-1464)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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A Named and Dangerous Sword

Here we go!

In this passage we have the first of the named swords of the poem. And it sounds like it’s pretty badass. Not just because it’s never failed anyone who has used it (something I’ll get into a little below), but because of how it’s decorated.

My Old English dictionary, Clark Hall and Meritt’s A Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary (4th edition), suggests “with poisoned twigs or poison-stripes?[sic]” for “ater-tanum” (l.1459). It’s an entry that’s very unsure of itself.

When I think of poison and any sort of branching pattern I think of the horrific visual of poison either dilating or colouring a person’s veins as it rushes ever closer to their heart. And so “decorated like an arm full of poison” sounded like an apt translation of “ater-tanum”. My guess as to what that actually looks like is a branching pattern that was smithed into the steel. Perhaps as a sign of how many times the steel involved was folded.

Come to think of it, I wonder if “arm full of poison,” or even “twig of poison” was just a way of describing someone’s patterned tattoos. I mean, if your veins are picked out because of some sort of poison that’s entered your body you’re not going to be able to gawk at that for very long. But if someone were tattooed, which, if it was just a simple pattern could look like discoloured veins, it would be a lot easier to really contemplate the pattern and compare it to a poison-infested arm.

Anyway, stepping away from that detail about the sword’s decoration, I find it strange that the poet tells us that Hrunting has never failed its wielders. It sounds like it’s the Muramasa from Japanese lore, a sword that had to taste blood of any kind once it was unsheathed.

Though, given Unferth’s past conflict with his kin which lead to him slaying them (at least according to Beowulf) , I can’t help but wonder if he had entered into combat against them. Since Hrunting seems to be Unferth’s sword, in this battle he likely used Hrunting, and the dumb thing just did what swords do (and good swords do even better) and killed them.

That’s not to say that a well made sword removes the agency from its wielder, more that it takes an even better fighter to wield such a weapon well.

Along with the reference to Hrunting never failing could be the poet’s way of making Unferth a sympathetic character, I think it also suggests that he is not as great a warrior as Beowulf. He was unable to reign himself in while under the influence of wielding Hrunting. Kind of like how landing a series of blows in a sparring match can give you an incredible sense of power that kind of numbs your reason the first few times you experience it.

Of course, Beowulf won’t be swayed by such a thing as this sword, surely. Or will he succumb to the call of Hrunting as easily as Unferth seems to have? Leave your thoughts in the comments!

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The Usefulness of an Ancient Sword on the Brutal Battlefield

I think it goes without saying that a “hæft-mece”1 would be a “mægen-fultuma”2 on just about any “folc-stede”3. Forget those swords without hilts — they’re really just oversized knives!

Now, take that sword, though, and make it an “eald-gestreona”.4 And then have a good look at that well worn (yet still sharp!) sword and make sure that it’s decorated in an “ater-tan”5 style. That’s sure to mean that it’s been through the “heaþo-swate”6 more than once, at least.

This is the kind of sword songs are sung about, and that can only be found in RPGs after finishing a really difficult/lengthy sidequest. The kind of sword you’d want with you on a “gryre-sið”7. It’s the sort of thing you use (maybe just in those songs) to do “ellen-weorc”8!

1hæft-mece: hilted sword. hæft (haft, handle) + mece (sword, blade) (A word exclusive to Beowulf)

2mægen-fultuma: mighty help. mægen (bodily strength, might, main, force, power, vigor, valour, virtue, efficiency, efficacy, good deed, picked men of a nation, host, troop, army, miracle) + fultum (help, support, protection, forces, army) (A word exclusive to Beowulf)

3folc-stede: dwelling-place, battlefield. folc (folk, people, nation, tribe; collection or class of persons, laity; troop, army) + stede (place, site, position, station; firmness, standing, stability, steadfastness, fixity, strangury)

4eald-gestreona: ancient treasure. eald (old, aged, ancient, antique, primeval, elder, experienced, tried, honoured, eminent, great) + streon (gain, acquisition, property, treasure, traffic, usury, procreation)

5ater-tan: with poison twigs or poison stripes?[sic] (“Looking like an arm full of poison”). ater (poison, venom, gall) + tan (twig, rod, switch, branch, rod of divination) (A word exclusive to Beowulf)

6heaþo-swate: blood of battle. heaðu (war) + swat (sweat, perspiration, exudation, blood, foam, toil, labour)

7gryre-sið: dangerous expedition. gryre (horror, terror, fierceness, violence, horrible thing) + sið (going, motion, journey, errand, departure, death, expedition, undertaking, enterprise, road, way, time, turn, occasion) (A word exclusive to Beowulf)

8ellen-weorc: heroic deed, good work. ellen (zeal, strength, courage) + weorc (work, labour, action, deed, exercise; affliction, suffering, pain, trouble, distress; fortification)

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Closing

Next week, the poet reflects on Unferth’s character further.

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One word with two meanings, and two words all about swords (ll.1030-1042)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Protection and Aggression
The Wicked Cravings and the Names of Swords
Closing

An example of a 9th-10th century Anglo-Saxon sword

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Abstract

The poet describes the helmet Beowulf’s given in more detail. And we see Hrothgar hand over eight horses — one of which is quite special.

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Translation

“Around the helmet’s protective top there
was a wire-wound ridge to keep the blows out,
so that its wearer would not be imperilled
by the battle-hardened sword’s bite, when the wicked
craving comes over the blade.
The lord then ordered a man to draw eight mares
with gold-pleated bridles into the hall,
within Heorot’s bounds; among them one stood
with a saddle skilfully coloured, a worthy treasure.
That was the very battle seat of the high king,
the place in which the son of Halfdane rode forth in
to make the battle even; never was he in
wide-known wars laid low, when the ridge was overthrown.”
(Beowulf ll.1030-1042)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Protection and Aggression

The poet must’ve gotten excited about the mention of the four treasures Beowulf’s given or for the opportunity to weave more words about war, because this passage is particularly rich. Despite that, I’m just going to focus on one word.

In line 1031 “walu” appears in reference to the helmet that Beowulf was given. As part of the description of this wondrous bit of headgear, the “walu” is understood as a kind of ridge which sounds like it gives a little bit of extra protection from blows. That it’s wound about with wire suggests that maybe part of this protection comes from the tightness of the bunched up wound wire in much the same way that a properly wrapped turban is supposed to protect from the downward slice of a sword. Though the wire and the ridge must be working with the basic metal hat-ness of the helmet to begin with.

Anyway, the point is that this first use of “walu” is used to refer to the helmet’s extra protective properties. It’s not just any old helmet, but one that’s specially designed to protect your head in the heat of battle (beautifully expressed as “when the wicked/craving comes over the blade” (“þonne scyldfreca/ongean gramum gangan scolde” (l.1033-1034))).

This instance of “walu” also alliterates with line 1031’s “wirum” and “bewunden.” In fact, as the first word after the caesura, “walu” bridges the two half lines, making (at least to my ear) for a faster paced line when it’s spoken.

The second instance of “walu” comes in on line 1042. Here the word takes on two meanings.

First is the geographic sense that Clark Hall and Meritt provide with their definitions of the word as “ridge,” or “bank.” I understand that this definition fits the line’s meaning because a ridge or bank could easily be the strongest part of an enemy’s (or your own) line in battle, and so the spot likely to have the most intense fighting. Even if it wasn’t the strongest, a ridge would certainly be a spot that a military force primarily made of infantry would want to capture. After all, fighting uphill is much more difficult than downhill when you’re mostly engaging in mêlée combat on foot. So, again, a ridge would likely be among the most intense sites during a battle.

The other possible meaning of “walu” (both Clark Hall and Meritt and C.L. Wrenn consider a secondary meaning, referring to the word “wael”) is “slaughter” or “carnage.” I think that this interpretation has a similar meaning, it’s just much more direct about it and there’s no subtext of why there’s slaughter or carnage.

But whatever the precise meaning of “walu” in line 1042, it’s possible that it’s also here for the purpose of alliteration. The line starts with “wid-cuþes wig” and then “walu” is the second word after the caesura, so it bridges the two parts of the line a little less strongly than in line 1031, but does so all the same.

But even though both instances of the word alliterate, and the second “walu” is possibly just a scribal error or variation for “wael,” I find its double duty in this passage interesting because of what the echoing of “walu” with its very disparate uses suggests.

The first appearance of “walu” refers to protection — specifically protection on the battle field. There’s the sense that the helmet that it’s describing provides extra protection, but hidden in there is also the sense that a ridge is a fairly safe place in a medieval battle (or so I’d guess — being higher ground and all that — arrows not withstanding). But then, on line 1042 the same word is used to denote a place that lacks safety both because it’s a hot spot during battle (definitely a place where the “wicked/craving comes over the blade” (ll.1033-1034)) and because in the context of the poem it refers to the spot where the celebrated Hrothgar is rampaging.

So “walu” is used in practically opposite ways within the same passage — within 12 lines even, and I think that this is at least the scribe trying to throw in a micro-commentary about war. Namely that war is only ever safe for the victors, but that those victors imperil themselves in the process of winning both physically (usually having to fight through the toughest spot) and also spiritually since they gain a fearful reputation for cruelty on the battlefield. It’s not as heavy handed as you might expect from a medieval Christian scribe writing out a pseudo-pagan poem, but I think it’s there.

But what’s your take on this? Is “walu” used twice just because it sounds good or is easy to alliterate with a lot of words? Or is there something about war being said here?

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The Wicked Cravings and the Names of Swords

I haven’t been formally recording or watching the instances of compound words since wondering if there’s any sort of pattern a few posts ago, but I think it’s safe to say that war equals compounds. Something about the heat of combat or the rhythm that the poet felt was needed in verses about fighting just seems to require compound words. This passage is full of them.

They range from the simple like heafod-beorge (a mix of heafod, meaning “head,” “source,” “origin,” “chief,” “leader,” or “capital”; and “beorge” meaning “protection,” “defence,” “refuge,” or “mountain,” “hill,” “mound,” “barrow,” or “burial place” that means “prominent hill”) to “faeted-hleore” (mixing faeted “ornamented with gold” and hleore’s “cheek,” “face,” or “countenance” to mean “with cheek ornaments”) which describes the horses to things like “hilde-setl” (“war, combat” and “seat,” “stall,” “sitting,” “place,” “residence,” “throne,” “see,” “siege,” meaning “saddle”).

There’s also “heah-cyninges” (meaning “high king,” or “God” — a mix of “heah,” meaning ” high” “tall,” “lofty,” “high-class,” “exalted,” “sublime,” “illustrious,” “important,” “proud,” “haughty,” “deep,” “right (hand)” and “cyning” meaning “king,” “ruler,” “God,” “Christ,” or “Satan”) and wid-cuþes (simply “widely known,” or “celebrated” from “wid” (“wide,” “vast,” “broad,” or “long”) and “cuþ” (“known,” “plain,” “manifest,” “certain,” “well-known,” “usual,” “noted,” “excellent,” “famous,” “intimate,” “familiar,” “friendly,” or “related”)).

But two of the compounds encountered in this passage stand out — even from the usual crowd of compounds I’ve been coming across lately.

The first of these is “scyld-frecu” from line 1033. This word takes “scyld,” (which means “offence,” “fault,” “crime,” “guilt,” “sin,” “obligation,” “liability,” “due,” “debt”; or as “scield”: “shield,” “protector,” “protection,” “defence,” “part of a bird’s plumage(?)”) and combines it with “frecu” (meaning “greedy,” “eager,” “bold,” “daring” or “dangerous”; or as “freca”: “warrior” or “hero”) to come out with “wicked craving.”

At first glance this looks like a logical combination, a word for “sin” and a word for “greedy” — you’ve got all the necessary parts. But then “frecu” could mean “warrior” or “hero” if it’s read as “freca.” A stretch perhaps, but synonyms and puns are wordplay staples in Modern English, so there must’ve at last been some awareness of these uses of language in Old English.

Take the name “Heorot” itself for instance. It sounds like the Old English term for a stag (“heort”) and also the term for the centre of human feeling (and thought as well, according to some classical natural philosophers), the “heorte.” This three way meeting of meanings can’t just be coincidental. That’s why I see something curious in the “freca” connection to “scyld-frecu.” (Not to mention it sounds an awful lot like this compound could simply mean “shield man”…and maybe it does — but that’s the beauty of poetry!)

So perhaps there’s a connection between the “greedy craving” which you could simplify to “bloodlust,” and being a warrior or hero. This could be acknowledgement of the cost of working in either of these roles.

But as a compound word “scyld-frecu” is completely overshadowed by “scur-heard.”

This compound is completely new to me, and possibly of a type that’s rare even in Beowulf. As Clark Hall and Meritt explain in the entry, this word means “made hard by blows (an epithet for a sword).”

So this compound word doesn’t just bring two terms together to create some other word, it’s an epithet for a sword. The Anglo-Saxons were so into swords that it wasn’t enough to have almost as many words for them as the Inuit have for snow, they had to also have words that were recognized as names for swords — not just words to refer to them (like “hildebill” or “gramum”).

But I digress, the parts of “scur-heard” are “scur” (“shower,” “storm,” “tempest,” “trouble,” “commotion,” “breeze,” or “shower of blows or missiles”) and “heard” (“hard,” “harsh,” “severe,” “stern,” “cruel,” “strong,” “intense,” “vigorous,” “violent,” “hardy,” “bold,” “resistant,” or “hard object”).

So literally read, you could take this one to mean something like “hardened in the shower of blows” or even “violent amidst the many blows.” On the one hand, maybe this is just referring to swords in general. Or. Maybe it’s referring to things a little more broadly. Maybe this is even evidence that the Anglo-Saxons attributed actions or personalities to swords.

Calling a sword (or swords in general) “hardened in the shower of blows” definitely makes me think that some of the power and agency of the sword in question are taken away from the wielder and given to the sword itself. Perhaps this denotes the Anglo-Saxons foisting something like “luck,” or even the intense violence of battle, off on the sword itself.

Or, maybe “scur-heard” contains the sense that the sword is so keen (being modified by that “wicked craving,” remember) that it’s just doing the work of slashing and parrying and drawing away attacks on its own. Perhaps the name’s a hint at an early longing for an inanimate object with a mind of its own.

Sounds crazy, perhaps. But legends and stories of magicians and mystics bringing statues to life (Jewish stories of the golem, the Greek myth of Pygmalion) go back quite a ways into recorded history.

If you could give an inanimate object life, or foist some characteristic of yours off on one (and not be thought crazy) what object would you choose?

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Closing

In the next post’s passage, Hrothgar formally bestows these gifts and horses on Beowulf. And the poet comments.

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Beowulf’s placement and Wulfgar’s use of "you" (ll.389b-398) [Old English]

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Are they in or out?
Oh, “eow”…
Closing

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Abstract

Wulfgar runs to Beowulf and the Geats, bearing word of their being accepted by Hrothgar.

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Translation

                &nbsp”Then to the hall door
went Wulfgar, from within this word was called out:
‘You as commanded by word of my war lord,
prince of the East-Danes, that he knows of your family:
and you to him are from over the sea-wave,
proven brave, welcome hither.
Now you may go in wearing your armour,
under your helmets, to see Hrothgar;
yet here unbind and leave your shields,
broad boards, and deadly spears, this is a meeting for     &nbspwords alone'”
(Beowulf ll.389b-398)
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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Are they in or out?

This scene reminds me of Dorothy’s arrival at the Emerald City in The Wizard of Oz. I can very vividly picture Wulfgar popping his head out of a window cut into Heorot’s door and calling down to Beowulf that he and his Geats are allowed in.

The trouble with that is that they’ve already taken seats at benches. So are those benches outside on Heorot’s lawn (perhaps the setting for a now lost epic poem about lawn bowling) or are they in some sort of antechamber?

We are told, when the Geats arrive, that they lean some of their gear up against a wall (“sea-weary they set their shields aside,/battle-hard bucklers, against that hall’s wall;” (“setton sæmeþe side scyldas,/rondas regnhearde, wið þæs recedes weal,” (ll.325-326))). The benches (the exact word used is “bence” (l.327)) that they sit on are also vague. In the former case it seems as though they’re outside and have set their weapons up against the hall’s outer wall. The non-descript benches could also be outside (the word used isn’t “medu-benc” (“bench in a meadhall”) after all).

But then what can be taken from Wulfgar’s mentioning the conditions of their meeting with Hrothgar; namely that they are to leave their shields and spears outside?

Doing so could be an act of trust. It might be a way for the Danes to tell if the Geats are with honour and honesty. If they’re willing to leave the tools of their trade in the open, it shows that they see the Danes as no threat to their gear and that they believe that their equipment will be well kept for them.

If the Geats are still outside it definitely explains why the poet/scribe hasn’t said more about the Danes’ reaction to them. They are still new arrivals in this land and do not yet have the ability to freely enter and exit it. In effect, they need to leave part of themselves outside in order to gain access.

Though that does leave them with their swords.

But, as poetic as this all is, I can’ help but thiwael-sceaftasnk that the Geats are free to bring in their swords because these items are more status symbol than weapon.

Claiming to be someone’s son could only go so far, carrying your father’s sword would confirm your lineage. Along with whatever family resemblance there might be of course.

Not to mention, swords seem to have a much richer life as the weapon for single combats and particularly tough spots in battles. The compound for “spear” that appears on line 398 suggests that that weapon is much more regarded as the brutal tool of human destruction. The word “wælsceaftas” literally translates as “slaughter/carnage spear,” leaving little doubt as to their efficacy in mass combat.

Unless, behind all of this praise of spears, is a particularly boastful poet/scribe who thinks that the Danes and Geats were terrible swordsmen.

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Oh, “eow”…

English has never been a tonal language. The difference between Old English and even Middle English (what Chaucer and Gower wrote in) is wide since the former is a synthetic language and the latter is much more of an analytic language, but even so. English has always been English.

Though, curiously, Old English seems to have more context-sensitive words.

The first word in Wulfgar’s speech, for example, is “eow.”

Seamus Heaney translated this as “my lord” and Francis Gummere translated the word simply as “to you” (l.391). From the original it’s clear that Wulfgar is addressing Beowulf directly. But even if he is a stranger, it seems as though more formality should be applied than that contained in “eow.” A nice “ðu” (modernized as “thou”) would be better suited.

Unless Wulfgar, in conveying Hrothgar’s message of extreme welcome, is dialling it back a bit because he’s wary of this fierce band claiming to be from Geatland.

As Hrothgar’s herald Wulfgar has no doubt seen his share of warriors coming to them with hopes of ridding Heorot of Grendel only to have those hopes plucked from them like legs from a spider. And maybe Wulfgar’s sick of seeing the flower of youth trampled in this way. All of the men of courage are throwing themselves at a problem with no clear solution and leaving the world filled with layabout rogues.

Of course, even for someone with a master’s degree in English, that’s a lot to pull out of a single “eow.” Wulfgar could also just be adjusting his address to something more casual because Beowulf and his fellow Geats are entering the Danish social hierarchy with a reputation for courage but no first-hand proof of it. “Eow” is thus used because the Geats have yet to become worthy of the daintier “ðu.”

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Closing

Next week Beowulf and a select few of the Geats crowd into Hrothgar’s hall.

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Appraising a Dagger via a Sword

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Reading Steel
Ouroboros Slinks in
Closing

{A modern replica of an Anglo-Saxon “seax” (or dagger). Image found on Englisc Gateway}

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Abstract

The messenger sent by Wiglaf tells the waiting people of Beowulf’s fate, and Wiglaf’s steadfastness.

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Translation

“‘Now is the Weder’s gracious giver,
the lord of the Geats, fast in his deathbed,
gone to the grave by the dragon’s deed:
Beside him, in like state, lay the
mortal enemy, dead from dagger wounds; for that sword
could not work any wound whatever on
that fierce foe. Wiglaf sits
by Beowulf’s side, the son of Weohstan,
a warrior watching over the unliving other,
holding vigil over the Geats’ chief,
he sits by the beloved and the reviled.'”
(Beowulf ll.2900-2910a)

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Recordings

Old English:

Modern English:

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Reading Steel

The emphasis that the messenger puts on the dagger is strange. It’s not that he goes out of his way to praise it, but the fact that he makes it clear that the sword was useless. This extra detail suggests that the sword was indeed considered the proper, noble weapon, while the dagger held a lower position on the symbolic/social scale of weapons. Nonetheless, the connotation of Beowulf’s dagger use underlines just what the Geats lose when they lose Beowulf.

It was likely standard among Anglo-Saxons to carry a dagger of some kind with them, along with their swordbelt. However, even in the heat of the moment, the poet peels things back and tells us that Beowulf wore his dagger on his hip/byrnie.

So was the wearing of a smaller blade a new thing with Beowulf’s generation? Was it simply the garb of a proper warrior? Why does the poet specify where Beowulf wore his dagger?

Such a small detail, though potentially of some historical or cultural significance, is more likely than not just an example of the poet filling out his poetic meter. The mention of the sword’s failure, as an explanation for the use of the dagger definitely shows that the messenger is true to his word – he leaves out no detail.

And that honesty opens up the other side of the issue, it seems very likely that the sword is only mentioned to excuse the dagger. In fact, if you’ve read Beowulf enough times, you can almost see the crowd rolling their eyes and thinking that Beowulf’s just being Beowulf, being too strong for any sword and whatnot.

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Ouroboros Slinks in

Yet, if we turn the mention of the dagger again, then there’s the matter of the dragon’s existence in the story being cyclical. The dragon appears because a thief steals from its hoard.

A dagger is weapon of favour among those who prize stealth (like thieves) – hence the modern genre tag “cloak and dagger” – and so is likely to be a thief’s weapon. The dragon is killed with a dagger, and so the dragon’s existence in the story is something of a closed system. A noble sword is wielded, but in the end what woke the dragon must put it back to its rest.

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Closing

Next week, watch for the prognostications of the messenger on Thursday! I’ll also be uploading links to any British/Medieval archaelogical news that I come across.

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A Co-ordinated Dragon Kill [ll.2688-2705] (Old English)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
When Words Flash, Sharp as Swords
A Matter of Succession
Closing

{Wiglaf shown landing the distracting blow, or Beowulf landing the fatal one – that’s just how much of a team this duo is. Image found on Weird Worm.}

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Abstract

Thanks to a team effort, Beowulf and Wiglaf bring down the dragon.

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Translation

“Then the ravager of a people for a third time,
the terrible fire dragon intent on a hostile deed,
rushed on that renowned one when for him the opportunity
permitted, hot and battle fierce. All of his neck was
clasped by sharp tusks; he was made to become bloody
with ichor, gore in waves surged out.
Then, as I have heard, the soldier by his side showed
known courage for his liege lord,
strength and boldness, as was inborn.
He worked not upon the head, but the hand of that daring
man was burned, when he his kin helped by striking
a little lower at the strife-stranger with blade full
of cunning, so that the decorated sword, gleaming and
gold-adorned, stuck in the beast’s stomach so that the
fire began to abate afterwards. Then once more the king
himself wielded his wit, brandished a hip-blade, bitter
and battle-sharp, that he wore on his byrnie;
the protector of the Weders cleaved the dragon in its
     middle.”
(Beowulf ll.2688-2705)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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When Words Flash, Sharp as Swords

The words here are definitely meant to mimic the flashing of blades. The exact words are different, of course, being translated, but the description of the duo’s weapons and their working is preserved.

The descriptive phrases “sword full of cunning, so that the decorated sword,/gleaming and gold-adorned” (“þæt ðæt sweord gedēaf,/
fāh ond fǣted” (ll.2700-2701)) and “brandished a hip-blade,/bitter and battle-sharp,” (“wællseaxe gebrǣd/biter ond beaduscearp” (ll.2703-2704)) in both Englishes still give a vivid image of steel being swung or stabbing, all the while glittering with either jewels or fatal intent.

Such description and rhetorical use of language is effective here because it brings listeners/readers into the action of the poem while also reminding them of the extreme danger of the dragon. After all, the gleam of Wiglaf’s sword is likely as much due to whatever natural light is available as it is to the dragon’s fire illuminating it; and Beowulf’s “bitter and battle-sharp” dagger, drawn with wit, reminds us of the kind of cunning required to slay something so ancient, deadly, and tricky in its own right.

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A Matter of Succession

If there was ever a history of Wiglaf penned by a monk or sung by a bard, and if that history involved a successor, it would not be surprising if Wiglaf’s successor helped him win his final battle.

Kingship is something that needs to be continuous, lest a contest for the throne result in the destruction of a house, much like the case of Haethcyn and Herebeald. And there is no better way to pass on kingship than to slay a dragon with your successor.

In fact, if the line of kings is regarded as a kind of chain, Wiglaf’s selfless stabbing of the dragon below its armored head is exactly where his link connects to that of Beowulf as the poem’s hero rallies and defeats the dragon, drawing his own link on the chain of kingship (and, *spoilers* his life */spoilers*) to a close.

But Neil Gaiman wasn’t far from the mark when he has Wiglaf succeed Beowulf, for although it may be short lived, Wiglaf’s succession of Beowulf is exactly what this team effort solidifies.

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Closing

Next week, this blog will be on break so that what’s here can be tidied up, recordings can be posted, and a new page can be launched. But, in the meantime, I’ll be updating my other blog every day of the week, so check it out at http://glarkly.blogspot.ca!

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