How Beowulf recruited a thief who knew much of the dragon

First up, I must apologize for how late this week’s entry is. I’ve managed to post every Thursday for quite a while now, and intend to keep posting these translations on Thursdays. This week, though, work got in the way. So, I just want to say thanks for your understanding, and for reading.

Here’s the post!


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

The thief steals the cup from the treasure hoard of the dragon in Beowulf in translation on A Blogger's Beowulf.

The thief has snuck up to the dragon and reaches for the fateful treasure cup. Image from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Stories_of_Beowulf_slave_stealing_golden_cup.jpg


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Recap

Last week, the poet completed his explanation of how Beowulf became king of the Geats.


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Synopsis

Beowulf gathers together a group of twelve to face the dragon. And he happens to get a thirteenth member when the thief who woke the dragon presents the cup to Beowulf.


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The Original Old English

“Swa he niða gehwane genesen hæfde,
sliðra geslyhta, sunu Ecgðiowes,
ellenweorca, oð ðone anne dæg
þe he wið þam wyrme gewegan sceolde.
Gewat þa XIIa sum torne gebolgen
dryhten Geata dracan sceawian.
Hæfde þa gefrunen hwanan sio fæhð aras,
bealonið biorna; him to bearme cwom
maðþumfæt mære þurh ðæs meldan hond.
Se wæs on ðam ðreate þreotteoða secg,
se ðæs orleges or onstealde,
hæft hygegiomor, sceolde hean ðonon
wong wisian. He ofer willan giong
to ðæs ðe he eorðsele anne wisse,
hlæw under hrusan holmwylme neh,
yðgewinne; se wæs innan full
wrætta ond wira. Weard unhiore,
gearo guðfreca, goldmaðmas heold,
eald under eorðan. Næs þæt yðe ceap
to gegangenne gumena ænigum!”
(Beowulf ll.2397-2416)


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My Translation

“Thus Beowulf survived strife from all quarters,
savage battles and slaughter, that son of Ecgtheow,
brave doer of good deeds, until that day.
That day on which Beowulf was fated to war with the dragon.
Then it was that the scaled one, maddened with rage, knew the twelve;
the dragon recognized the Geatish lord.
Beowulf soon discovered the reason why that fiend arose,
brought adversity to his people. Into his lap fell the famed cup,
wrought of gold and set with stones, fresh from the finder’s hand.
That man made their party’s number thirteen,
he who had created this dire fate,
a captive of sorrowful heart. He agreed to serve
as guide for Beowulf and his men through the dragon’s place.
Against his will he went to the earthen hall which he alone knew.
The barrow beneath the earth, out by the sea billows,
where wave strove with wave, within, it was full of treasures,
both wrought and wound. The horrible warden,
that eager ancient warrior, was bent on guarding his gold-treasures,
both as old as stones beneath the earth. It would not be easy
for Beowulf to bargain with that dragon for his people’s lives!”
(Beowulf ll.2397-2416)


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A Quick Interpretation

How did Beowulf plan to find the dragon before the thief came to him?

Maybe he was just going to go around with his twelve Geats until the dragon swooped down on them.

Or maybe they would’ve gone on a stake out. Sat behind some rocks until the dragon showed up.

As convenient as this meeting is, I think it’s a little shot of realism in this poem.

If you think back to the celebration of Beowulf’s victory over Grendel, you might remember the story of Sigemund the Dragon Slayer. Those events are related as a story even within the world of this story. I would go so far as to argue that the poet’s saying the story was from some far off land is just a fancy way to say “I made this up”.

Anyway, in that story, Sigemund just knew where to go to find the dragon. Why? Because he’s a dragon slayer, I guess. He just has that extra sense built in.

But Beowulf, as something written by an Anglo-Saxon (a person from “Angland” perhaps), has much more immediacy. And the poet must have known that any new, grand story of monsters and mighty heroes needed to have an element of realism to it. So, who could know the way to a treasure hoard that a dragon happens to be guarding? A thief, of course. And so, there’s a thief that joins Beowulf’s party. A thief who is really a guide.

Though maybe Beowulf should strategize to maximize the thief’s “Backstab” ability when fighting the dragon.

Dungeons & Dragons jokes aside, I think that the introduction of the thief as a character of any stature is a way to add complexity to a story that was pretty common. It’s a new twist on the old story of dragon slayers.

What do you think of the inclusion of the thief in Beowulf’s dragon hunting party? What do you think caused the thief to come to Beowulf with the cup? Guilt? The death of his own lord? A desire for glory?

Let me know in the comments!


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Closing

Next week, Beowulf sits down on a cliff and tells his group memories of his youth.

And, if you enjoyed this post, please give it a like.

Also, if you want to keep up with my translations, please do follow this blog!

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When the Beowulf dragon wakes, strife wakes with it

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

The kind of dragon perfectly at home in Beowulf.

An Anglo-Saxon dragon, complete with treasure hoard. Image from http://brer-powerofbabel.blogspot.ca/2011_09_01_archive.html


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Recap

Last week, how the dragon came to be in the barrow was revealed. And we learned that the barrow thief brought the stolen cup to his lord. This man, captured by greed, commanded that the barrow treasure be dug up, and so the dragon’s wrath was woken.


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Synopsis

The dragon realizes that his treasure hoard is missing a golden cup. He sulks around his barrow and then decides to attack the countryside.


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The Original Old English

“þa se wyrm onwoc, wroht wæs geniwad;
stonc ða æfter stane, stearcheort onfand
feondes fotlast; he to forð gestop
dyrnan cræfte dracan heafde neah.
Swa mæg unfæge eaðe gedigan
wean ond wræcsið, se ðe waldendes
hyldo gehealdeþ! Hordweard sohte
georne æfter grunde, wolde guman findan,
þone þe him on sweofote sare geteode,
hat ond hreohmod hlæw oft ymbehwearf
ealne utanweardne, ne ðær ænig mon
on þære westenne; hwæðre wiges gefeh,
beaduwe weorces, hwilum on beorh æthwearf,
sincfæt sohte. He þæt sona onfand
ðæt hæfde gumena sum goldes gefandod,
heahgestreona. Hordweard onbad
earfoðlice oððæt æfen cwom;
wæs ða gebolgen beorges hyrde,
wolde se laða lige forgyldan
drincfæt dyre. þa wæs dæg sceacen
wyrme on willan; no on wealle læg,
bidan wolde, ac mid bæle for,
fyre gefysed. Wæs se fruma egeslic
leodum on lande, swa hyt lungre wearð
on hyra sincgifan sare geendod.”
(Beowulf ll.2287 – 2311)


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My Translation

“When the dragon awoke, strife stirred with him.
The drake moved quickly over the stones of his home, fierce-hearted.
He found the enemy’s track, the scent of he who had used stealth
and skill to creep close to his head, where the golden cup
had rested. Thus may he who is unfated to die easily survive
misery and exile, so it goes for the one who keeps
the Ruler’s favour. But the guardian of that hoard
searched eagerly along the ground, its fervent wish was to find
the one who had dealt so grievously with his cup as he slept.
Hot and fierce-hearted he often went all around
the outside of that barrow – yet not any man was there
in that deserted place. All the same, the dragon shook and postured
as if at war, as if he were in the midst of deeds of battle. At times he
took turns about the barrow, seeking that precious vessel. Immediately he
found that a man had tampered with his gold,
had his hands upon that rich treasure. The hoard guardian
waited with difficulty until evening came,
he was enraged and impatient, at last he decided
he would payback the precious drinking vessel
with hateful flames. As the day went by
the serpent seethed with desire; no longer could it
wait within the walls. Amidst its flames the wyrm burst forth,
ready with fire. That was but the beginning the terror the people
of that land suffered, and just so
it spelled a swift end to their quickly grieving treasure-giver.”
(Beowulf ll.2287 – 2311)


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A Quick Interpretation

Hunting down work as a freelancer is sometimes as full-time a job as the jobs you’re hunting. This is one of those times. Which means this week’s post is another poetry only piece. I do have a question, though:

If you had to a slay a dragon how would you do it?

Would you go all out and risk doing more damage to the area than the dragon would? Or would you try to be precise and tactical?

I’d try to be as strategic as possible – a dagger in the dragon’s soft spot is the surest end.

Share your answer in the comments!

And if you like my translation, please like this post. You could also follow this blog to see a new translation pop up in your feed every Thursday.


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Closing

Next week, the dragon brings fire to the countryside.

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The dragon settles in (and still no Beowulf)

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

The kind of dragon perfectly at home in Beowulf.

An Anglo-Saxon dragon, complete with treasure hoard. Image from http://brer-powerofbabel.blogspot.ca/2011_09_01_archive.html


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Recap

In last week’s post we heard about the last survivor and the treasure he hid.


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Synopsis

The dragon finds the ancient hoard. Jump back to the present, where the man who stole the cup shows his lord and the hoard is dug up. They wake the dragon.


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The Original Old English

               “Hordwynne fond
eald uhtsceaða opene standan,
se ðe byrnende biorgas seceð,
nacod niðdraca, nihtes fleogeð
fyre befangen; hyne foldbuend
swiðe ondrædað. He gesecean sceall
hord on hrusan, þær he hæðen gold
warað wintrum frod, ne byð him wihte ðy sel.
Swa se ðeodsceaða þreo hund wintra
heold on hrusan hordærna sum,
eacencræftig, oððæt hyne an abealch
mon on mode; mandryhtne bær
fæted wæge, frioðowære bæd
hlaford sinne. ða wæs hord rasod,
onboren beaga hord, bene getiðad
feasceaftum men. Frea sceawode
fira fyrngeweorc forman siðe.”
(Beowulf ll.2270b – 2286)


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My Translation

               “The old ravager by night
later found that delightful hoard left open,
the burning one who seeks out barrows,
the slick, malicious dragon, flew into it by night,
enveloped in flame. The dwellers on the land thereabouts
greatly feared that drake. It delved deep
searching the earth for the depths of that hoard, which it guarded
through countless winters, kept watch over heathen gold,
useless treasure. That ravager of the people occupied the earth
hidden in the barricaded treasure house for three hundred years.
But then a man enraged that fire wyrm, stoked the fury of its heart.
To his lord the thief bore a gold-plated cup,
that man also offered a plea for peace with his lord —
a plea the lord heard as certainly as he saw the cup’s glint.
Then the hoard was ransacked, the piles of rings and trinkets was diminished,
that wretched man’s request was granted. His lord leered at
the ancient work of long dead men for the first time.”
(Beowulf ll.2270b – 2286)


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A Quick Interpretation

I’m short on time this week and busy over the weekend, so it’s just the poem this week. But I will leave you all with a question:

The dragon in Beowulf is just one of many versions of the mythical creature. What’s your favourite dragon from fiction, video games, or TV/Movies?

Mine would have to be Naydra from the Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. She’s just a coolly beautiful creature:

The dragon Naydra from Legend of Zelda Breath of the Wild: not quite like the dragon in Beowulf.

Link stands before the dragon Naydra. Image from http://www.letswitch.eu/en/2017/03/07/botw-journal-5/

Share your favourite dragon in the comments! And give this post a like if you enjoyed the translation.


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Closing

Next week, the dragon gets all het up.

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Forget Beowulf — what’s the Last Survivor’s story?

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

A long barrow from the time of Beowulf and the Lay of the Last Survivor found in Oxfordshire.

A barrow known as Wayland’s Smithy. Perhaps the Last Survivor stowed his people’s treasures in a similar place. Image from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Wayland_Smithy_Long_barrow.jpg


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Recap & Synopsis

Last week we heard about how the dragon was terrorizing the Geats. Why? Because a cup was stolen from its hoard of treasures.

This week, we hear the Lay of the Last Survivor. These are the final words of the last living member of the tribe who lived where the Geats now live and hid their treasures there.


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The Original Old English

             “Beorh eallgearo
wunode on wonge wæteryðum neah,
niwe be næsse, nearocræftum fæst.
þær on innan bær eorlgestreona
hringa hyrde hordwyrðne dæl,
fættan goldes, fea worda cwæð:
‘Heald þu nu, hruse, nu hæleð ne moston,
eorla æhte! Hwæt, hyt ær on ðe
gode begeaton. Guðdeað fornam,
feorhbealo frecne, fyra gehwylcne
leoda minra, þara ðe þis lif ofgeaf,
gesawon seledream. Ic nah hwa sweord wege
oððe feormie fæted wæge,
dryncfæt deore; duguð ellor sceoc.
Sceal se hearda helm hyrsted golde
fætum befeallen; feormynd swefað,
þa ðe beadogriman bywan sceoldon,
ge swylce seo herepad, sio æt hilde gebad
ofer borda gebræc bite irena,
brosnað æfter beorne. Ne mæg byrnan hring
æfter wigfruman wide feran,
hæleðum be healfe. Næs hearpan wyn,
gomen gleobeames, ne god hafoc
geond sæl swingeð, ne se swifta mearh
burhstede beateð. Bealocwealm hafað
fela feorhcynna forð onsended!’
Swa giomormod giohðo mænde
an æfter eallum, unbliðe hwearf
dæges ond nihtes, oððæt deaðes wylm
hran æt heortan.”
(Beowulf ll.2241b-2270a)


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My Translation

        ”The barrow stood ready
in open ground near the sea-waves.
It was newly made at the headland, made secure with the art of secrecy.
Within there the keeper of the ancient earls’ ringed treasure
carried that share of worthy treasures,
the hoard of plated gold; these few words he spoke:
‘Hold you now, oh earth, that which men and women cannot,
enjoy these warriors’ possessions! Indeed it was
obtained from you at the first, dug up
by worthy men. But death in battle bore those delvers away.
Now that terrible mortal harm has carried off each and every one of my people.
They have left this life where they knew and looked back longingly
at the joy had in the hall. I now have no-one to bear the sword
or bring the plated cup, that precious drinking vessel.
That group of tried warriors has since passed elsewhere.
Their hard helmets with gold adornment shall be bereft of their gold plate;
the burnishers sleep the sleep of death, those who should polish the battle mask.
So too the battle garbs, that had endured in battle
through the clash of shields and cut of swords,
they now decay upon the warriors’ husks; nor may the mailcoats of rings
go with the war-leader on his long journey,
they may not be kept at their bloodied sides. No harp joy,
no delight of musical instruments, nor any good hawk
flies through the hall, nor any swift mare
stops in the flowered courtyard. Destructive death
has sent forth all others of my race, as it has with countless others.’
Just so, sad at heart, this one followed his kin.
He expressed his sorrow, he moved about joyless,
for unlit days and for fevered nights, until death’s surging
reached his heart.”
(Beowulf ll.2241b-2270a)


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A Quick Interpretation

This is one of the big deal parts of the poem. Much like Hrothgar’s speeches to Beowulf about being a good king, it delivers the other of the poem’s major messages: riches are useless without others to enjoy them with.

I mean, this Twilight Zone-esque last survivor has no hope of enjoying or using all this treasure. He can’t strum the harp while polishing helmets and swinging a sword as he waits for his hawk to come to rest on his hand. Not because he doesn’t have those things, but because he has no one to do those things in tandem with.

Though it’s kind of strange. I really wonder about this last survivor and the sort of society that he comes from.

How did they amass all these treasures? It doesn’t sound like they were won necessarily. Instead it sounds more like his people dug up the raw materials, and then created the helmets and cups and mail and swords themselves.

So is this some sort of advanced ancient society situation?

Or, since the Geats, this sea-faring people, are anchored in their homeland, is this situation the fantasy of finding a land completely bereft of settlers but still home to their treasures?

Is this a metaphor for the Anglo-Saxons coming to Britain and then just kind of sweeping the Britons under the rug?

And why is this one guy the lone survivor? Did some sort of disease sweep through his group and he was the only one with immunities against it?

Was he the only one who was out hunting when a wild band of raiders slaughtered everyone else?

There aren’t really any answers to these questions unfortunately.

But that’s just what seems to happen when you try to logic through Beowulf.

What’s more important to the poet or their audience is that the theme of this passage fits with the rest of the poem. It has a melancholic tone and really emphasizes the idea that possessions are both incredible and incredibly useless without others to enjoy them with.

Unless, of course, you’re a dragon. But we’ll see more of that in coming weeks.

Tabletop games were big throughout the middle ages, and the Last Survivor reminds me of The Lost Tribes from the game Small World. What’s your favourite tabletop game?

Mine would have to be Time Stories. (I still haven’t played the Beowulf game, after all 😉 )

Share your favourite board game in the comments!


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Closing

Next week, we learn what happened to the thief who stole the cup and kicked all this off.

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The stories embodied in the Beowulf manuscript

Introduction
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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Synopsis

The dragon appears and we hear its story.


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The Original Old English

          “he geheold tela
fiftig wintra (wæs ða frod cyning,
eald eþelweard), oððæt an ongan
deorcum nihtum draca ricsian,
se ðe on heaum hofe hord beweotode,
stanbeorh steapne; stig under læg,
eldum uncuð. þær on innan giong
niða nathwylc, se ðe neh gefeng
hæðnum horde, hond ……,
since fahne. He þæt syððan ……,
þeah ðe he slæpende besyred wurde
þeofes cræfte; þæt sie ðiod onfand,
bufolc beorna, þæt he gebolgen wæs.
Nealles mid gewealdum wyrmhord abræc
sylfes willum, se ðe him sare gesceod,
ac for þreanedlan þeow nathwylces
hæleða bearna heteswengeas fleah,
ærnes þearfa, ond ðær inne fealh,
secg synbysig, sona onfunde
þæt þær ðam gyste gryrebroga stod;
hwæðre earmsceapen
…sceapen
þa hyne se fær begeat.
Sincfæt ……; þær wæs swylcra fela
in ðam eorðhuse ærgestreona,
swa hy on geardagum gumena nathwylc,
eormenlafe æþelan cynnes,
þanchycgende þær gehydde,
deore maðmas. Ealle hie deað fornam
ærran mælum, ond se an ða gen
leoda duguðe, se ðær lengest hwearf,
weard winegeomor, wende þæs ylcan,
þæt he lytel fæc longgestreona
brucan moste.”
(Beowulf ll.2209-2241a)


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My Translation

“He ruled them well for fifty winters,
indeed Beowulf became a wise king,
an aged lord of the realm — until one began to trouble them;
in the dark of night a prowling dragon appeared.
The wyrm held a treasure in his high hall,
all beneath a steep stone roof, led to by a narrow footpath
unknown to men. There into the abyss stumbled
someone or other … who seized by hand from that heathen hoard …
a gleaming treasure that he afterward …
though the dragon slept he had outwitted
it with a thief’s wiles. Soon the people thereabouts,
those under the shield of the local lord, discovered
that the thief’s act unlocked the serpent’s rage. Though
not at all with evil intent did the thief break into the dragon’s hoard,
it was not for his own greedy desire, he had been sorely opressed.
For three nights that slave turned thief
had fled the blows of a prince of men,
he delved into the dragon’s den by need, then entering in
as a man ridden with guilt. Shortly he discovered
that … the man stood terror struck,
which the miserable …
… made … that fed his own fear, treasure piece
… there were many such pieces
of ancient heirlooms in that earthen house.
For there in earlier times some man or other,
had left a huge legacy of noble kin,
thoughtfully buried the treasures there,
those precious pieces of their story. He and all his kin
had since been carried off by death in former times.
But the last one left of that noble people, he who was the eldest,
a barrow guard grieving for lost friends buried them, knowing indeed
that he would little enjoy those grand and
beautiful treasures apart from all his kin.”
(Beowulf ll.2209-2241a)


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A Quick Interpretation

Once the dragon comes front and center, the poem itself takes a beating. Every one of the ellipses seen in this week’s passage represents an illegible part of the original text of Beowulf.

I’m not sure what exactly caused this crop of ellipses, but there are a few possibilities. As with all old books, it’s possible that these pages are worm-eaten. Or they may have just decayed because the Nowell Codex was sometimes kept in damp conditions. Or, since the Nowell Codex survived a fire, those missing bits of the poem may have been, appropriately, burned up.

Even setting aside everything that happened to it, it’s impressive that the Nowell Codex (and the copy of Beowulf within) survived for so long. It would be incredible to be able to go see the thing in person, but living on the other side of the Atlantic makes that kind of hard.

Though, what would make seeing the Beowulf manuscript in person special would be the chance to interact with the story’s physical embodiment. I mean, the Beowulf manuscript is a physical copy of a story that’s proliferated like its own species of animal. Going to see it manuscript in person would be like meeting with the first primate that walked upright (though with much less growling, I’d think).

Plus it would give me a new appreciation of all the work that went into bringing the Nowell Codex together.

After all, the poet didn’t just get lucky and find someone willing to publish them, give a fat advance, and send them out on a book tour.

The Beowulf poet got lucky enough to have their work written down on material that would last centuries. And that material came from several sheep and could take days, maybe weeks, to prepare. Beowulf was committed to bound paper at a time when books were truly treasured. So, to see that kind of labour of love up close would be fascinating.

And who knows. Maybe, even through the white gloves I’d need to wear to be in the room with it, contact with the pages of the Nowell Codex would trigger a psychic link to one of its scribes. And through that link I’d gain a greater understanding of why Beowulf was bunched together with letters about far away places and a homily on St. Christopher.

But that fan-fic is for another time. (Is there even such a thing as fanfiction about books?)

I guess for now I’ll just have to check out the digital version on the British Library’s site.

What’s your favourite old book? If you’re a book collector, do you have any first editions? What makes them special to you?

Feel free to share your answers in the comments.


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Closing

Next week, the grieving barrow guard gives a speech.

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Is Beowulf spreading rumours about a feud?

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

An Anglo-Saxon helmet with face mask of the style associated with Beowulf.

A helmet, complete with face mask, from the Sutton-Hoo treasure hoard. Image from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sutton_Hoo_replica_(face).jpg


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Synopsis

Beowulf predicts what will happen at the marriage of Hrothgar’s daughter and Ingeld of the Heathobards. It’s nothing good, that’s for sure.


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The Original Old English

“þonne cwið æt beore se ðe beah gesyhð,
eald æscwiga, se ðe eall geman,
garcwealm gumena (him bið grim sefa),
onginneð geomormod geongum cempan
þurh hreðra gehygd higes cunnian,
wigbealu weccean, ond þæt word acwyð:
‘Meaht ðu, min wine, mece gecnawan
þone þin fæder to gefeohte bær
under heregriman hindeman siðe,
dyre iren, þær hyne Dene slogon,
weoldon wælstowe, syððan Wiðergyld læg,
æfter hæleþa hryre, hwate Scyldungas?
Nu her þara banena byre nathwylces
frætwum hremig on flet gæð,
morðres gylpeð, ond þone maðþum byreð,
þone þe ðu mid rihte rædan sceoldest.’
Manað swa ond myndgað mæla gehwylce
sarum wordum, oððæt sæl cymeð
þæt se fæmnan þegn fore fæder dædum
æfter billes bite blodfag swefeð,
ealdres scyldig; him se oðer þonan
losað lifigende, con him land geare.
þonne bioð abrocene on ba healfe
aðsweord eorla; syððan Ingelde
weallað wælniðas, ond him wiflufan
æfter cearwælmum colran weorðað.
þy ic Heaðobeardna hyldo ne telge,
dryhtsibbe dæl Denum unfæcne,
freondscipe fæstne.
(Beowulf ll.2041-2069a)


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My Translation

“That one will then speak, while beer-drinking, about that precious object,
the elder spear-warrior, he remembers all of that treasure’s history
and those that faced death at spear-point — his mind settles on their grim fates —
then, sad of mind, he will test a young warrior’s
spirit with an assault on his heart-thought,
he will arouse the evil of war, and he will say these words:
‘Might you, my comrade, recognize that sword
which your father bore to the field,
wearing his battle mask on his last expedition,
that precious sword, the campaign where the Danes slew him,
when they seized the Heathobards and made where they lay a place of slaughter,
when all our warriors were felled by the valiant Scyldings?
Now here the sons of those slayers go about
on the hall floor, exalting in the adornments of someone else.
They boast of murder, and bear about treasures
that you by right should possess.’
Just so he urges and reminds each of that time
with bitter words, until the time comes
that one of the lady’s men sleeps in bloodstained furs,
is found sliced by a sword for his father’s deeds,
to avenge those who forfeited their lives. From there that slayer
will escape alive, for he knows the land well.
Then the oath swearing of men will be shattered
on both sides, and afterwards in Ingeld
will well up a deadly hate
and surging sorrow will cool his love for his wife.
Therefore, I consider the Heathobards of no loyalty,
their part of the peace to be made by marriage is not without deceit,
the fastness of their friendship is false.”
(Beowulf ll.2041-2069a)


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A Quick Interpretation

From an outsider’s perspective, I think this passage sums up the cyclical nature of feuds quite nicely.

For new readers and those who might not know what the flavour of early medieval feuds was, here’s a quick rundown: Group A holds a mutual grudge against Group B. Group B is living more or less peacefully near Group A until Group A decides to take revenge for that grudge. This encourages Group B to do the same with Group A. Group A then retaliates, and Group B does the same. The cycle only ends when a third group comes and sorts Group A and B out or one gradually kills the other off.

Unlike your Hatfields and McCoys. An early medieval feud wouldn’t just fizzle, it basically ends when there’s no one left to feud against.

But, put some flesh on that model, and you could very well end up with this passage. After all, the Heathobards clearly still hold some hard feelings for the Danes. All it takes for one of the next generation of them to lash out is a question.

Though the old warrior’s question is pretty loaded. He asks if the young warrior remembers his father, if he remembers the heirloom that may be his by Heathobard rights, and implies that the young man could easily take it to avenge his father and restore the honour of his family (and by extension, the Heathobards). Out of those three major notes, though, I think it’s the last one that’s the most important whisper in this young man’s ear.

Why?

Because also implied in the old warrior’s words is that the young warrior’s father must not be allowed to die in vain. Actually, there’s kind of a sense that such a slaughter as the Heathobards allegedly suffered at the hands of the Danes is unsportsmanike. Which is strange to say, but warfare has always had rules.

The most important thing about this passage as it relates to the rest of Beowulf, though, is that it contradicts something that came earlier.

Back on lines 1071 to 1158, a scop tells us the story of the Danes Hildeburh and Hengest and the winter they spent with the subject of a feud: the Frisian Finn. Here we have another situation where peace forged by marriage falls apart. There’s even a similar result. But the idea of relativism was certainly alive and well for the Beowulf poet because the Danes slaughtering the Frisians and then sailing away is seen as a victory. Told in the presence of Danes, how could it be any other way, right?

But, reading it that way, I can’t help but wonder if Beowulf is catering to some prejudice of Hygelac’s with his prediction for the future Freawearu/Ingeld wedding. Maybe he’s just drawing up these lovely word pictures for his lord to better his own position at home.

Or, since he’s back home in Geatland, is Beowulf simply being true to his feelings? Now that he’s back in Geatland, he’s just letting the truth out.

Or is the only honesty that he knows a sword-point? Maybe this is simply another part of Beowulf’s monstrous qualities. He’s just too well adapted to fitting around every suggestion he faces like his sheath fits around his sword.

Ultimately, the question that really needs to be asked (and with your tongue nowhere near your cheek) is this: Why is this passage included in Beowulf’s story about his time in Daneland?

Is a slightly informed prophecy of a doomed alliance through marriage somehow relevant to the poem as a whole? Or is Beowulf just telling Hygelac what he wants to hear? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments!


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Closing

Next week, Beowulf continues his story of his adventures in Heorot. Specifically, he talks Grendel.

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Beowulf leaves the underwater haul, and a summary of his time in the Grendels’ hall (ll.1612-1622)

Synopsis
Translation
Recordings
Take only What’s Needed, Leave only Slaughter?
A Treasure Never Lost
Closing

Beowulf and his band of Geats carrying Grendel's head.

J. R. Skelton – Marshall, Henrietta Elizabeth (1908) Stories of Beowulf, T.C. & E.C. Jack.
Image found at: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Stories_of_beowulf_head_of_grendel.jpg#/media/File:Stories_of_beowulf_head_of_grendel.jpg


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Synopsis

Beowulf grabs a couple of things and then leaves the Grendels’ hall.


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Translation

“Nothing more did he take from that place, the lord of Weder-Geats,
any valuable things, though he there many did see,
except for the head and the hilt both,
the shining treasure; the blade before it melted
was a fire-hardened damescened edge, but its blood was too hot,
that alien spirit’s poison, the one which died there.
Soon he was safe and swimming, he who in earlier strife
had called down defeat in his wrath, he climbed through the waters;
the churning waters had been purified,
likewise was the land thereabouts, when that alien spirit
left off her life days and lost her loaned life.”
(Beowulf ll.1612-1622)


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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}


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Take only What’s Needed, Leave only Slaughter?

Beowulf must want to travel light. Otherwise, I can’t see why he doesn’t take more from the strange hall of the Grendels. Practically speaking, anyway.

Poetically, there’s a parallel here between the dragon and the thief who steals the cup. There’s even a parallel between Beowulf’s taking little and Wiglaf taking only a single item from the dragon’s hoard after it’s defeated. But after having seen the armoury of the Grendels’ I still don’t quite see why Beowulf doesn’t go back and grab a complete sword. I guess he’s already carrying Hrunting though, since he owes Unferth that sword.

Stepping back, Beowulf’s choice to not raid the Grendels’ armoury like someone who’s just teamed up with a bunch of other players and headed to a dungeon in World of Warcraft makes a little more sense when you think about the figurative weight of what he took.

Grendel’s head is the symbol of the end of the Grendels’ reign of terror. There is a very old belief that to cut the head off of an enemy ensures the loss of their power. Aside from physiology, the idea that the head is the central part of something lives on in things like the word “capital” (from the Latin “caput”, or “head”). After all, a capital is where a country’s government is based, and therefore one of the most symbolically significant places in any sort of major conflict.

The sword hilt that Beowulf doesn’t just pitch into the water but takes with him also has its significance.

As we’ll learn later, there’s a story engraved on the hilt. And though Beowulf comes from a vibrant oral tradition, I’m sure that the notion of writing was held in very high esteem. I’m not sure what kind of script would be on the hilt, but the importance that’s ascribed to this hilt with its engraved story of the great flood really plays into the idea that a written story gained even more reverence than a remembered one.

Actually, maybe this little trinket suggests (at least in part) why Beowulf was eventually written down. It was simply well regarded enough to justify all of the effort that went into writing something down before the age of widely available pulp-based paper and ballpoint pens.

Would you have just taken what Beowulf took, or would you have tried to take all the treasure out of the Grendels’ hall as the spoils of victory?


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A Treasure Never Lost

It sounds like something out of a video game, but Beowulf did it first. He went down to a hall of monsters, where he fought an “ellor-gast”1 or two. And during the strife he found a “maðm-æht”2, a giant’s sword. A weapon that guaranteed the monster’s “wig-hryre”3. And though after beheading the other “ellor-gast”1 that giant’s “broden-mæl”4 had melted away he still had the hilt and the story of how he got it.

Along with Grendel’s head, he pulled the hilt out with him, too, as he swam through a “yð-geblond”5 that had now calmed. Though of the three things he hauled out of the underwater hall, it’s the story that he’ll have for the rest of his “lif-dæg”6.

1ellor-gast: alien spirit. ellor (elsewhere, elsewhither, to some other place) + gast (spirit, ghost) [A word that is exclusive to Beowulf.]

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2maðm-æht: valuable thing, treasure. maðum (treasure, object of value, jewel, ornament) + æht (possessions, goods, lands, wealth, cattle, serf, ownership, control) [A word that is exclusive to Beowulf.]

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3wig-hryre: slaughter, defeat. wig (strife, contest, war, battle, valour, military force, army) + hryre (fall, descent, ruin, destruction, decay) [A word that is exclusive to Beowulf.]

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4broden-mæl: damescened sword. broden (surface, board, plank, tablet) + mæl (mark, sign, ornament, cross, crucifix, armour, harness, sword, measure; time, point of time, occasion, season, time for eating, meal, meals)

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5yð-geblond: wave mixture, surge. yð (wave, billow, flood, sea, liquid, water) + blandan (blend, mix, mingle, trouble, disturb, corrupt)

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6lif-dæg: life-day, lifetime. lif (life, existence, life-time) + dæg (day, life-time, Last Day, name of the rune for ‘d’)

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Closing

Next week, Beowulf returns to the surface.

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