Wiglaf’s Prognosticatings [ll.2877-2891] (Old English)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Wiglaf’s Learned Look at the Future
Early Thoughts on Early Medieval English Nationhood
Closing

{Wiglaf casts no runes, but peers into the future nonetheless. Image found on the Daily 23 blog.}
 

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Abstract

Wiglaf foretells of terrible times ahead for the Geats, but concludes on a defiant note.

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Translation

“I of life protection little could
offer him in the fray, and yet I felt my limits
lessen when I strove to help our lord.
It was ever weakening, when I landed sword blows
on the mortal enemy, the fire from his head then
grew sluggish. As he became desperate, too few rallied
around the prince, at the time of the beast’s final
thrashing. Now shall the sword-gifting and treasure
sharing, all the native-land joy of our people,
our hope, be subdued; each of us will have
our land-right become idle
among our people, afterwards princes from afar
will come seeking, driving us all to flee,
an inglorious deed. Death is better
to every warrior than a life of dishonour!”
(Beowulf ll.2877-2891)

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Recordings

Old English:

Modern English:

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Wiglaf’s Learned Look at the Future

Here Wiglaf’s rant becomes less about pure anger directed at the thanes (and perhaps redirected from himself, partially) to a bit of prognosticating.

He predicts that now the Geats are doomed because stronger neighbours will overrun them once it becomes known that the Geats have found great treasure and lost a greater leader. However, it’s not fair to pin nothing but prognostication onto Wiglaf’s words here, I think it’s fair to say that they’re simply predictions borne of observation.

Wiglaf has never fought in any battle before, but surely he’d have heard stories about them from his father, or from bards while at the court of Beowulf. With all the time the Geats spent in the meadhall it would be a wonder if their heads weren’t as full of tales as their bellies seem to be of mead and ale. So it’s safe to say that Wiglaf would know about the dangers of being without a powerful leader.

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Early Thoughts on Early Medieval English Nationhood

Anyway, the bigger thing here, at least, as far as I’m concerned, is the compound word “londrihtes” (l.2887). In modern English, this literally translates as “joy of land ownership” or “native land joy.”

The importance of this word, and its connotation appearing earlier in the use of words like “leodscip” (meaning “nation,” “people,” “country,” or “region”) is great. It suggests that the Geats, or the Anglo-Saxons who composed and refined and listened to and watched this poem, had more than just a concept of land ownership – they had a concept of their belonging to the land as much as they did of the land belonging to them.

What makes this so important is that it implies that they weren’t just roving bands of mercenaries, but felt some kind of connection to the land that they occupied, much in the same way that Wiglaf feels a connection to the land that he fears and predicts the Geats will be forced to flee. This isn’t a major aspect of the story, by any means, but its being mentioned and its being used as a threat of future doom buttresses its importance.

Follow me here. Earlier in the poem, speeches to inspire have involved the prospect of treasure or of glory of one kind or another. Even Wiglaf’s speech to the thanes involves reminding them of Beowulf’s generosity with his war spoils, themselves a kind of treasure (in the same way that an iPhone might be considered a treasure today – something ubiquitous that could also have a great deal of sentimental or personal meaning).

However, when Wiglaf starts his doom-saying about the entirety of the Geats he doesn’t say that their war gear will be snatched away, or even that they’ll lose the hoard of treasure – instead he says that they’ll be forced from the land. They’ll be forced to flee. In my mind, and I think, throughout this poem, this is the absolute worst thing that could happen to an Anglo-Saxon because it’s a form of exile.

Yes, the Geats will be forced to flee together, but they’ll still have to flee from the place that they call home. And if being exiled is such a big deal, and it can be expressed through a reference to land, then it seems to me that these Geats have at least some sense of living in a country – in Geatland.

That this is mentioned in this poem matters because its Anglo-Saxon creators wouldn’t waste their breath composing something meaningless. Even setting matters of structure and oratorial decoration aside, the word is there, and it comes at the climax of Wiglaf’s prediction. Therefore, the threat of land-loss must be things that strike a chord in medieval Anglo-Saxon minds. And if the notion of losing one’s country strikes a chord, then there needs to be a concept of even having a country for it to do so.

Thus, these references are important because they point to the importance of a nascent sort of nationalism that, admittedly needs to be expressed (or at least is only expressed as far as we can tell from surviving records/literature) through the story of another nation. It needs to be projected, in other words, which suggests that the nation doing the projecting might not be fully defined as yet, but nonetheless has some sense of nationhood.

Of course, for the reference to concepts of nationhood within Beowulf to suggest some nascent sense of nationalism, the poem would need to have been written (or at least first composed) around the time of Alfred the Great (ninth century) or earlier. All the same, there’s something to be said for the poem’s implications about nationhood.

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Closing

Tomorrow, watch for a review of The Room – it’s coming!

And you can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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Swedish Retribution "from over wide water" [ll.2472-2483] (Old English)

Abstract
Translation
On Swedes and Geats
Compounding New Words
Closing

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Abstract

We get the history hard and fast in this week’s passage of Beowulf (ll.2472-2483, Chapter XXXV).

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Translation

“‘Then between Swedes and Geats was war and enmity;
from over wide water causing laments,
wall-hard warfare, after Hrethel had perished,
Ongeonðēow’s sons to them came,
warlike; they would not free
those they held under sorrow’s sway, and near Hrēosnahill
they oft launched voracious ambushes.
My close-kin avenged this,
feud and war-fire, as it is known,
though one of them bought the victory, at a hard price,
with his life; Haethcyn, Geatish lord,
was taken in the war’s assailing.'”
(Beowulf ll.2472-2483)

{Approximation of the Hrēosnahill fight offered by a mural of the Battle of Maldon. From the Braintree collection of murals.}

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On Swedes and Geats

Questions bubble up like air in a flagon of ale upon reading this passage. Who was Ongeonðēow? What’s important about Hrēosnahill? What liberties were taken with the translation?

Ongeonðēow [On-g’in-thou] was the king of the Swedes who launched an attack on the Geats to recover his daughter and his gold, both of which had been taken by the Geats on an earlier raid. He was famed as a powerful king, and two Geats (Eofor and Wulf) had to work together to defeat him (read more here). Though, as we’ll see in next week’s entry, Beowulf makes it sound like Hygelac himself lands the deathblow.

Hrēosnahill [Heh-res-na-hill] is where Hæðcyn had taken Ongeonðēow’s daughter, and is apparently a real place (modern Swedish:”Ramshult”), as well as a place that is traditionally within Geatish territory. Go to this Wikipedia page for more info.

So, what’s happening here is a little bit of old fashioned early medieval back and forth. The Geats stole Ongeonðēow’s daughter and gold (according to Wikipedia), and now the Swedes are coming for rescue and revenge – which they (again, from Wikipedia) only half exact. The Swedes recover the woman, but not the gold.

Two liberties were taken in the above translation. In the third line (l.2474) “wall-hard warfare” is altered from the literal “hard warfare” since the alliteration makes it sound more Anglo-Saxon and “hard warfare” isn’t as evocative as the original “here-nīð hearda.”

The phrase “under sorrow’s sway” was also altered from the literal “lamentation holding” since it doesn’t have enough punch in Modern English. It also confuses the metaphor of being held under extreme emotion, which is clarified by “under sorrow’s sway.”

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Compounding New Words

The words “here-nīð,” and “inwit-scearo” are both compound words worthy of elaboration.

The first combines the word for “predatory band, troop, army; war, devastation” (“here”) and for “strife, enmity, attack, spite, affliction,” (“nīð”). Literally, then, it could be rendered “war-strife” or “troop-enmity” and so warfare is a clear translation of it. The redundancy of a literal translation also makes the standard translation of the phrase more efficient than a literal rendering.

The word “inwit-scearo” on the other hand, is more worthy. The term is a mix of “inwit,” meaning “evil, deceit, wicked, deceitful,” and “scearo,” a form of “scieran,” meaning “to cleave, hew, cut; receive tonsure; abrupt.”

Literally, the word could be rendered as “evil-cleave” or “abrupt-deceit” which sound like they could still be productive words among modern counterparts. “Evil-cleave” at least sounds like a technique in an RPG, while “abrupt-deceit” could be a spicier way to describe an ambush or surprise attack.

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Closing

To let me know what you think about these compound words (or this entry in general) just post a comment below. And feel free to follow this blog, I’ll follow yours back.

Next week, Isidore elaborates on the workings of sheep and rams, and Beowulf tells of Hygelac’s revenge, all the while bolstering his own warrior-like image.

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Beowulf [ll.2419-2429] (Old English)

Introduction
Summary
Beowulf’s Greatest Foe?
Beowulf’s Opening Lines
Genæs: Further Analysis
Briefly Autobiographical
Closing

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Introduction

When we last left Beowulf, he was sitting on a cliff, looking out to sea. His mind was heavy with thoughts of his impending death, and this week’s section gives us an idea of what those thoughts were like.

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Beowulf’s Greatest Foe?

We’re told that Beowulf knows that he would soon “encounter old age,” (“gomelan grētan sceolde,” l. 2421) that it would seek his “hoarded (?) soul,” (“sēcean sāwle hord,” l. 2422). And before Beowulf at last addresses the 12 with him the poet offers the elaborations of Beowulf’s life being rent from his body (“sundur gedǣlan/līf wið līce,” l. 2422-3) and of his “flesh…soon unravel[ing] from his spirit” (“nō þon lange wæs/feorh æþelinges flǣsce bewunden,” l. 2423-4).

Death is definitely violent, but very firmly not the end, and Beowulf knows this well. But all of this is mentioned in the context of Beowulf sitting in “sorrowful mind” (“geōmor sefa,” 2419). There’s definitely a strong sense of the elegy that J.R.R. Tolkien detected in the poem here (see page 14 of this article). And there’s also the sense that Beowulf feels some remorse. But why?

Because his kingdom has been ruined by the dragon and, upon seeing its lair, he realizes that he will die fighting it? Because he feels that those he has taken with him, the leaders of the next generation, surely, are not capable of the glory that he achieved? Perhaps he regrets the conquests and triumphs of his youth? Or is it merely an expression of the extreme anxiety around death?

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Beowulf’s Opening Lines

The first line and a half of the section set the atmosphere by telling us that Beowulf was “restless and ready for death,” that he could feel “fate immeasurably near” (“wǣfra ond wæl-fūs, wyrd ungemete nēah,” l. 2420). Then the poet/scribe offers things more concrete.

Beowulf’s ensuing speech is about his youth and accomplishments, but I’ll get more into that next week. This week, I just want to focus on the first two lines (one sentence) of it.

Beowulf opens by saying that he “survived” (genæs) countless battles and war-times in his youth. His choice of words here is curious, since, according to my dictionary, all senses of “genæs” suggest the last-minute removal from a dire situation (survive, escape from, be saved).

Why doesn’t Beowulf (or the scribe/poet) simply use “won glory,” or “succeeded”? Is this a sign that Beowulf is well aware of the horrors of war and that the poem itself can be read not as a document glorifying it, but maybe the first recorded account in English of someone who has experienced Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)? Or, is it just the only word that would fit the line’s meter and/or alliteration?

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Genæs: Further Analysis

Following the line of reasoning that the poet/scribe could have used another word in place of “genæs,” here’s my analysis.

“Survived” makes it sound as though all of the battles that Beowulf has seen were trials or hardships sent by some greater entity, or merely as a part of life. “Escaped from” makes armed conflict seem like some terrible, impersonal machine or happening.

And, “been saved” makes it seem as though Beowulf got lucky each time he fought and was spared from the sword or arrow by the intervention of his fellow warriors or some sort of supernatural being. This last meaning of “genæs” perhaps gels the best with the laggard that everyone at the Geatish court believed Beowulf to be until he returned from Daneland with stories of slaying Grendel and his mother.

So then did Beowulf actually change from a weakling boy into a fierce warrior, or was his original softness just masked by luck – is this a propagandic Christian twist that suggests that trusting in god will keep you safe in skirmishes and war time?

Beowulf at this point is 50 years old – the same age as Hrothgar and Grendel’s mother when he was in Daneland. Rulers in the world of Beowulf seem to last their 50 winters and then tip off the mortal coil in one way or another. Though in such a world, living to see 50 does seem remarkable.

Whatever the case may be, modern interpretations of “genæs” all come with this connotation of getting through something larger than an individual human’s machination.

At the least, I feel secure in saying that this word suggests that human conflict is something outside of the control of individual people and possibly even groups of people. In fact, the word could be read as the poet/scribe suggesting that war is another kind of natural disaster. The cosmological implications are fascinating.

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Briefly Autobiographical

The next sentence of Beowulf’s speech begins his auto-biography. At the age of seven he went to his treasure lord (“sinca baldor,” l. 2428) for fostering at his father’s command. This treasure lord, “leader and friend of the people” (“frēa-wine folca,” l. 2429), seems benevolent enough, and the practice of fostering is evident throughout the middle ages. Even Chaucer was fostered.

The transition from the first sentence of his speech and the second is where these two get interesting.

Beowulf ends his first sentence with the bold statement that he “remembers all of [the conflicts]” (“ic þaet eall gemon,” l. 2427). And from what comes next it seems that he also remembered much of his youth. He specifically recalls a story from his youth that may well be the earliest political strife he encountered. But I’ll get into that next week.

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Closing

Think I’m a little too loose with my translations of words or phrases? Or that I dig too deep for meaning? Or do you think that I’m right on and should just write a book about it all already? Let me know in the comments.

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