Spreading the Word [ll.2892-2899] (Old English)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Why so few Thanes?
More ‘Limits Lessening’
Closing

Looks like those knights have maille. Image found on iStockPhoto.
 

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Abstract

Wiglaf commands a messenger to go to tell the encamped Geats about Beowulf’s battle with the dragon.

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Translation

“Commanded he then that the battle work be
reported to those encamped on the cliff-edge, where the
noble warrior host sat sorrow-hearted the morning length of day,
the shield bearers, each entertained both possibilities:
that it was the end of the dear man’s days and that
the prized prince would return again. The messenger
kept little silent in his story, so that naught was left
unsaid, and so he spoke truth to them all:”
(Beowulf ll.2892-2899)

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Recordings

Old English:

Modern English:

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Why so few Thanes?

The first thing that comes to mind upon reading this passage is – if Beowulf had all of these shield bearers at his command, why didn’t he have all the Geatish warriors lay on the dragon at once? I can only imagine how poorly he’d do in Pikmin or in Little King’s Story.

Pitifully anachronistic references aside, it is a wonder why Beowulf wanted to travel only with 13. Sure, it could be said that he simply wanted to endanger as few as possible, but then you need to ask: Why 13 and not 3? Or, if there had been some hint of Wiglaf being the most valiant of the bunch, why not just the two of them with the thief as their guide?

However, as a poem that might’ve been used as a missionary tool, or that may have been hurriedly adapted from a pagan original by some deft bard, it makes sense that Beowulf travel with 13. After all, he’s he’s a Christ-figure (having survived the harrowing of the Grendels’ lair) and so to complete the analogy he needs 12 companions. One needs to betray him (the thief in this case, I suppose), and few need to prove true. In Beowulf only one the apostle analogues proves his mettle, but I’m sure that even when this change, or this narrative choice, was made, it was done to keep things interesting rather than boring its listeners with a thinly veiled Christian tale.

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More ‘Limits Lessening’

Stranger than any analogy, however, is this messenger that Wiglaf commands to go to the people. He’s clearly quick, and he’s clearly trained in the art of delivering messages (unless his heart and mind were so affected by the sight of Beowulf that he speaks truth to the people). It’s possible that it could be one of the cowardly thanes, but then, where did he come from? I’m not an early medieval military historian, by any means, but given the nature of communications then, it would make perfect sense to have a messenger in every military unit.

To hopefully suss this out a little bit more, let’s look back to lines 2878-2879 where Wiglaf says that he felt his “limits lessen”:

“…ongan swa þeah/ofer min gemet mæges helpan;”

“…I felt my limits/lessen when I strove to help our lord.”

Is it possible that just as Wiglaf found a previously unknown reserve of courage as he defended Beowulf, that the thane who delivers the news of the battle experiences the same?

If Beowulf, as we have it today, is truly a work that’s been influenced by early Christianity, as many believe it is, then this otherwise minor detail might be a major part of its Christianization. A major part of Christianity is the idea that everyone has freewill, and that one way to find your destiny is to essentially give that freewill up of your own choice so that you willingly accept “god’s plan.”

Wiglaf and this nameless messenger may not give up their freewill in doing what they do, but I don’t think it’s far from the mark to say that they both do what they’re supposed to do, and being part of the younger generation (which is almost always cast as defiant in literature), doing what these two do doesn’t come as naturally to them as it might to a young man with something to prove to kin that think he’s a good-for-nothing weakling.

Cutting right to it, then, I think that Wiglaf’s feeling his limits lessen and the messenger (assuming that it’s one of the cowardly thanes, and not some mysteriously a-horse messenger specialist) speaking freely to the gathered Geats are examples of two people finding their callings. Wiglaf is to be the battle leavings: something he can be as long as he goes to battle (if he wins, he survives and is a leaving, and if he loses he dies, and is an heirloom of the battle left to the crows and the sun). And the messenger…well…we don’t get enough information on him to be sure, but if there were certainty in analysis of English literature, science majors wouldn’t be so adverse to it.

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Closing

That wraps things up for both blogs this week.

Come Monday, a new short story will appear over at A Glass Darkly, and expect a movie review (title TBA), and Annotated Links entry on Friday and Saturday respectively. Here at Tongues in Jars, the usual Latin and Old English entries will be updloaded on Tuesday and Thursday.

And you can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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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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On God and Wiglaf’s Re-Naming [ll.2852b-2863] (Old English)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Invocations
Wiglaf Smoulders
Closing

Tir, perhaps akin to the god Mars, the Norse god of warriors like Beowulf.

The Norse god of warriors Tir, Tiw to the Anglo-Saxons. Also strongly related to justice and law — is he what Beowulf’s audience would think of when they think of “The Measurer”? Image from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:IB_299_4to_Tyr.jpg.

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Abstract

Wiglaf’s grief continues, and he turns his anger toward the cowardly thanes.

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Translation

                     “He sat exhausted,
the warrior on foot near his lord’s shoulder;
tried to revive him with water – not at all did that speed him.
He might not on earth make that chieftan keep his life,
though he wished well to,
nor could he at all change the decree of the Ruler;
God’s decree would rule over the deeds
of each man, as he now yet does.
Then from that young warrior a grim answer
was easy to obtain for those who earlier had lost their courage.
Wiglaf spoke, Weohstan’s son,
the man sad at heart – he saw them as not dear:”
(Beowulf ll.2852b-2863)

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Recordings

Old English:

Modern English:

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Invocations

The reference to god on lines 2857-2859 lends Beowulf’s death finality. Every other reference to god has been at a set points, nodes even, of the story.

When Beowulf defeats Grendel he thanks god for the victory, when he comes back from the mire, he thanks god again. References to god and fate like this one seem to be the pillars that hold Beowulf on high. But then, what are they holding it up for? If the poem’s like a woven piece of Anglo-Saxon sculpture or jewelry, then what is the purpose of having anchor points? I suppose, because they’re references to cosmic forces, and are references to things that would hold the swirling designs of the universe in place. God’s referenced at the points in the story that emphasize order where things are otherwise going wrong.

A king’s hall being assaulted by a monster, a terrible she-beast wreaking havoc, a kingdom in turmoil, a dragon ravaging the land. Like any good fantasy story, this isn’t about a bunch of men talking about the latest tourney that went off without a hitch, or a bunch of ladies in waiting discussing what to bring their lady from the kitchen. This is a tale of action and adventure, particularly that of a young man who proves his worth and grows into greatness. References to god at key moments accentuate those moments and subtly nudge Christianity, or at the least the conception of there being just one god, into early audiences’ minds.

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Wiglaf Smoulders

After this reference to god, we then move onto the epilogue. And with the return of Wiglaf’s name, and therefore, I argue, his agency, we swing back into his perspective.

Wiglaf’s frustrated with the thanes who ran since all of them working together could have very well slain the dragon without losing Beowulf. He’s also frustrated because of the immensity of the responsibility that he’s been saddled with (Beowulf having made him his successor). The whole trouble of dealing with a people who are very obviously not ready to defend themselves as valiantly as they had in the past is also now a worry of Wiglaf’s.

So it’s fair to say that Wiglaf is feeling quite overwhelmed by the task ahead of him now. He’s also moving into the anger stage of his grieving, lashing out at those whom he can easily pin the blame on. And rightfully so within Anglo-Saxon culture – but we won’t see just how direly he lays into them until next week.

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Closing

In the meantime, check out A Glass Darkly tomorrow for a tip-toeing into the 2011 horror flick Silent House for Part Three of Shocktober. And come next week, watch for the Sixth stanza of “Dum Diane vitrea” and Wiglaf’s words to the cowardly thanes.

And, you can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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The Fallen Hero and the Fleeing Thanes [ll.2836-2852a] (Old English)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Reflection amidst Grief
Joining the Two
The Battle-Leaving
Closing

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Abstract

Today’s excerpt is very clearly in two parts. In the first we see the wrapping up of explicit mourning for Beowulf, and in the second the return of the cowardly thanes who fled when the dragon grew fierce.

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Translation

“Indeed few mighty men on earth
have so succeeded, as I have heard,
though every deed they did was daring,
few of them would make a rush against the breath of the
fierce ravager or could disturb a hall of rings by hand,
if he discovered the ward awakened
dwelling in the barrow. Beowulf had paid
for his share of the noble treasures with his death;
each had reached the end of
their loaned lives. It was not long then
before the laggards in battle left the wood,
ten cowardly traitors together,
those that dared not fight by the spear when
their liege lord was in greatest need;
but they were ashamed when they came bearing shields,
dressed in war garments to where their lord lay;
they gazed on Wiglaf. ”
(Beowulf ll.2836-2852a)

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Recordings

Old English:

Modern English:

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Reflection amidst Grief

The first half of this excerpt clearly expresses closure for Wiglaf, whether directly or indirectly.

Where the earlier meditation on the dragon might seem more like the poet/scribe’s own musing on death, it’s much easier to relate these lines about Beowulf’s sacrifice and his grand deeds to Wiglaf’s own thoughts. Yet, at the same time, having had a hand in defeating the dragon, it’s fair to say that Wiglaf may also have marvelled at the dragon’s corpse.

In fact, it could well be that Wiglaf first had to marvel at the corpse in order to really register the magnitude of Beowulf’s deed. And, as one of the poem’s audience proxies (since the warriors in the audience – of any skill level – could probably relate to Wiglaf’s facing a major, brand new challenge), it’s fair to say that he may have been so shocked by Beowulf’s death that it takes the meditation on the dragon to make him realize that its corpse was his and Beowulf’s doing.

Victory seemed impossible, but together they achieved it – though they can never be together again.

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Joining the Two

What’s interesting about the way the poet/scribe transitions between the meditation on Beowulf and the thanes’ return is that he uses a statement involving both parties. It’s not that Beowulf had reached the end of his loaned days, nor that the dragon did, but that both did. In death all things are just creations of the god that the poet/scribe may have been trying to tell his audience about.

Or, all things are ultimately and equally the toys of fate, depending on a person’s outlook. The fact that both the dragon and Beowulf reached the end of their loaned days, though, points to a deeper connection than anything implied by a mere whim like that so often associated with fate or wyrd.

After the transition to the thanes’ return we aren’t given much in the way of juicy material. They wend their way back to see the aftermath of the fight, and we’re not given any solid reason why aside from implications of feeling guilty and ashamed. However, what the poet/scribe chooses to point out in his description of the thanes is very telling.

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The Battle-Leaving

After describing them as cowards they’re described as “ashamed when they came bearing shields,/dressed in war garments.” This fits in nicely with the idea of hypocrisy, and may also touch on a distrust of any consciously known dissonance in a person’s appearance.

It’s important for the poet/scribe to mention this here because it underlines a concern with a mismatch of appearance and essence. The thanes that fled are ashamed to be wearing the garb that marks them as warriors since these things were to help them become warriors but their own essences weren’t up to the task.

Further, since the majority of the thanes fled it’s implied that the old ways have failed the Geats. As a result of this, they’ve all gone soft in the face of new challenges, save for one. And, after nearly 100 lines of being without it, he is outfitted once more with his proper name: Wiglaf.

Renaming Wiglaf at this point may seem strange, but I think that it’s a positive example of the exterior matching the interior.

As mentioned in a previous entry, his name literally means battle-leaving or battle-heirloom. Since Wiglaf is the one left after the battle with the dragon, it seems almost as though he has fulfilled his name. Since he is indeed now a battle-leaving, he has achieved its proper meaning and is now a figure of authority that not just the thanes, but that the rest of the Geats will look to for guidance.

Unlike the cowardly thanes who are ashamed of the dissonance between their equipment and their conduct, through his courage Wiglaf has transcended into a perfect alignment between his name and his being which leads to his becoming as major a figure as Beowulf was, though his part of the story is much shorter.

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Closing

All the same, check back next week for the continuation of that story on Thursday as Wiglaf lays into the thanes. Also, don’t miss verse four of “Dum Diane vitrea,” which will be posted come next Tuesday.

A little more immediately, go over to A Glass Darkly tomorrow for Part Two of Shocktober: a look at Leprechaun in the Hood

And you can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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Two Fallen Greats [ll.2821-2835] (Old English)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Showing Mourning
Seeking Meaning
Closing

{A dramatic rendition of the dragon battle that gives it an intense, resonant scope. Image found on Zouch Magazine & Miscellany.}
 

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Abstract

A reflection on Beowulf’s death dwells on the dragon.

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Translation

“That which had happened was painfully felt
by the young man, when he on the ground saw
that dearest one pitiably suffering
at his life’s end. The slayer also lay so,
the terrible earth dragon was bereaved of life,
by ruin overwhelmed. In the hoard of rings no
longer could the coiled serpent be on guard,
once he by sword edge was carried off,
hard, battle-sharp remnant of hammers,so
that the wide flier by wounds was still and
fallen on earth near the treasure house. Never
after did he move about through the air by flight
in the middle of the night, in his rich possession
glorying, never could he make more appearances,
since he fell to earth at the war leader’s deed of the
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsphand.”
(Beowulf ll.2821-2835)

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Recordings

Old English:

Modern English:

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Showing Mourning

The first question to surface here, like the hideous sea beasts pulled from Grendel’s Mother’s mire, is why a section of the poem that’s showing Wiglaf’s grief for Beowulf immediately after his death dwells so long on the dragon rather than Beowulf.

It could be that the poet/scribe went this way because so much of the rest of the poem is given over to Beowulf. Or it could be that Wiglaf’s attention is simply drawn to the dragon because of the sheer spectacle of the sight. Though, it could also be that Wiglaf looks over to the dragon for the sake of contrast, to put off the reality of Beowulf’s death for just a short time so that he, as all but Beowulf’s named successor, can have a brief respite before he must coldly go forth and fulfil his duty as the new Geatish leader.

Of course, it could also be the poet’s own voice that pulls away from Wiglaf at this point, leaving his perspective behind for a time to turn a little more omniscient, and to give us, the listers/readers a view of the dragon as it lay dead so that we can contrast it with Beowulf.

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Seeking Meaning

Germanic culture widely held that dragons were symbols of the greed that would undermine the gift-centric Germanic society. So perhaps the focus on the dragon and the recounting of how it can no longer do anyone any harm suggests that greed itself has been defeated, and by one so noble as to sacrifice his own good for going against the advice of his counsel and fighting the dragon.

Maybe even the defeat of greed and the destruction of the Geats themselves that is an almost inevitable result (since they’re now kingless and sitting on all of this gold) are related.

If this version of the poem is as Christian as some believe, then this shift over to the dragon shouldn’t be read as Wiglaf’s or the poet/scribe’s attempt to contrast a death with a death, but instead as a way to show that the perfection of a society through the defeat of its greatest evil leaves that society at its end.

If Beowulf was ever used as a missionary tale, then this part of the poem could well be that which attempts to sooth potential converts into the belief that in becoming Christian their previous beliefs die off and they enter into something more perfect.

Or, again, their physical being ends, but just as Beowulf persisted up until he defeats his society’s major evil, so too would the spirit of the assimilated society persist in its people. Plus, missionaries would probably say the new converts were all imbued with the spark of life that, in the Christian tradition, is generally regarded as a spoken thing – just as this story itself would’ve been at the time, even after having been written out.

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Closing

So could this episode in the Beowulf saga be another key moment in the use of the poem as missionary propaganda, or is it just the poet/scribe’s representation of Wiglaf’s mourning? Leave a comment in the box to let me know your thoughts!

Next week, stanza three of “Dum Diane vitrea” will drop, and Wiglaf meets the cowardly thanes as they slink onto the scene.

And you can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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Beowulf’s Death, and his Soul’s Departure [ll.2809-2820] (Old English)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Ambiguity in Beowulf’s Death
Beowulf Doomed?
Closing

{Wiglaf listens to Beowulf’s final words. Image found on “Outpost 10F” of The Poetry Guild.}
 

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Abstract

Beowulf bestows his war garb unto Wiglaf, and then gives up the ghost.

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Translation

He did off the golden ring about his neck,
the brave hearted prince, gave it to the thane,
the young spear warrior, his gold adorned helmet,
ring and mail shirt, commanded him to use them well:
“You are the last remaining of our kin,
of the Waegmundings; fate has swept away all
of my line as per the decree of destiny,
warriors in valour; I after them now shall go.”
That was the old one’s last word
of thoughts of the heart before he chose the pyre,
the hot battle flame; from his breast went
his soul to seek the judgment of the righteous.
(Beowulf ll.2809-2820)

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Recordings

Old English:

Modern English:

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Ambiguity in Beowulf’s Death

As will be the case with the death of any great literary figure, this passage is one that’s often studied. Beyond its importance to the story, we’re also once more confronted with some ambiguity around Beowulf’s deeds. Yet, rather than being confronted with ambiguity by the words of Beowulf himself, we’re confronted with ambiguity in the poet/scribe’s own phrasing.

At the passage’s end we’re told that Beowulf’s soul leaves to “seek the judgement of the righteous.” Just as the phrase “judgement of the righteous” is ambiguous in Modern English, since the litigous could defend its meaning either ‘the judgement handed down by the righteous,’ or ‘the judgement that is passed on the righteous,’ it’s the same in Old English. There it simply reads: “soðfæstra dom” (l.2820).

The problem here is that there’s no clarifying word or phrase either in the original or in most translations that strive to be accurate. As a result we’re left with something that leaves the interpretation up to the listener/reader.

But could this maybe be the point here? Could the poet/scribe who created the version of the poem that we have today have been going for ambiguity at this part of the poem?

Just as either side of the phrase’s meaning could be argued, so too could either side of the interpretation debate.

In brief, if it’s understood to mean that Beowulf is a righteous one going to the judgment that awaits him it sets him among the holy heathens whom Christ pulled from the upper levels of hell during its harrowing.

Alternately, if the phrase is interpreted as meaning that the righteous are passing judgment, there’s a strong implication that either righteousness is something a person earns after being judged worthy by those who have it (thereby becoming one of their peers).

Or, taking this meaning could mean that Beowulf really isn’t righteous at all, and that his being judged by them means that there will be a great deal of hardship in his afterlife.

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Beowulf Doomed?

Of these three possibilities, the most interesting is that Beowulf might be doomed in the end since he’s being judged by the righteous.

A truly puritanical Christian audience might be expecting as much from such a violent, alcoholic figure, but at the same time, that would seriously undermine any missionary value that this story had. After all, the Christian monks who recorded stories such as this from oral traditions would definitely have given them a spin that could be useful for bringing around the unconverted.

Of course, that gives the idea that this moment of ambiguity is intentional even more steam.

Yes, it could maybe spark debate among those who differ in their interpretations, but as long as this version was being told by a priest or religious, they would be there to point the way to their own version of the truth. If monks or religious actually went around reciting this poem, then this moment in particular would be the perfect one to serve as a crisis moment that could be turned around and explained so as to make Christ seem super appealing.

Unfortunately, the only way we’ll ever know for sure if any of this speculation about the ambiguity of the phrase “soðfæstra dom” is accurate is if another version of the poem shows up or the scribe of our version is definitively identified.

Until then, feel free to leave your thoughts on the phrase in the comments!

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Closing

Next week, the second verse of “Dum Diane vitrea” will be up, along with what Wiglaf does next after Beowulf’s demise.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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Translation and the Bejewelled Truth [ll.2794-2808] (Old English)

A quick note: I realize that I had planned the first entry for the poem “Dum Diane vitrea” this past Tuesday. However, since I was quite distracted by travelling to Toronto for a Peter Gabriel concert by way of Guelph, that entry was not published. Watch for it next week, and my apologies for missing a beat. I’ve got my rhtyhm back now, though.

So, onwards!

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
The Facets of Translation
Answering Questions Raised
Probing Possibility
Closing

{Is the dragon’s hoard perhaps much less substantial, but much more potent? Image found on the blog PowerOfBabel.}
 

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Abstract

Beowulf gives thanks for his seeing the dragon’s treasure, and gives Wiglaf instructions for his funerary arrangements.

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Translation

“‘I for all of these precious things thank the Lord,
spoke these words the king of glory,
eternal lord, that I here look in on,
for the fact that I have been permitted to gain
such for my people before my day of death.
Now that I the treasure hoard have bought
with my old life, still attend to the
need of my people; for I may not be here longer.
Command the famed in battle to build a splendid barrow
after the pyre at the promontory over the sea;
it is to be a memorial to my people
high towering on Whale’s Ness,
so that seafarers may later call it
Beowulf’s Barrow, those who in ships
over the sea mists come sailing from afar.'”
(Beowulf ll.2794-2808)

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Recordings

Old English:

Modern English:

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The Facets of Translation

The most prominent feature of this week’s passage is the awkward opening sentence.

Its gist is straightfrward enough: Beowulf is thanking what we can safely guess is the Christian god for his successes, as he has done previously. However, if translating things fairly literally (perhaps too literally), we wind up with a second clause about the words being spoken by god (“wuldurcyninge wordum secge” ll.2795). Many translations omit this line since it appears to just repeat and expand upon Beowulf’s thanks to god, as it could come out as “[I…]speak these words to the king of glory.”

Yet, and this is where I exert a bit of extra pressure on the text, I’ve translated the second line as a reference to the jewels and the like being the words of god.

The reason for taking this route with the translation is simple: it gives the reader the opportunity to interpret the dragon’s hoard as the words of god, as some sort of cosmological truth as spoken directly by the creator of those cosmos. Opening up this possibility forces readers to take another look at the dragon, too. It’s still antagonistic in that it’s keeping the words of god to itself and needs to be killed for them to be distributed, but then just what kind of entity is it?

It might stretching things to the breaking point, but it seems that the dragon could be interpreted as the powerful priesthood or any entrenched exclusionary religious group, and Beowulf could then be considered some kind of scholar, wrenching the truth from those who are in places of religious power and being ready to redistribute it. Though, as we find out later in the poem, this doesn’t happen since the treasure is buried with Beowulf since the Geats consider it too dangerous to add massive wealth to their leader-less state.

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Answering Questions Raised

In this reading of the hoard as cosmological truth, we need to consider what it means for Beowulf to die for it. One possibility is that in taking on such a major source of authority he destroys all of his own credibility, and as a result the truth that he uncovers can’t be successfully transmitted since without credibility (or in more contemporary terms, authority or auctoritas) no one will willingly accept what he has to say.

That brings us around the matters of the theif and of Wiglaf. In this interpretation of the dragon’s hoard as some sort of great truth, the theif could well be one who haplessly leaked one of its aspects and therefore set the whole of Beowulf’s kingdom astir. A little bit of knowledge can be much more dangerous than a lot, after all.

As per Wiglaf, he could be an acolyte of the elder scholar Beowulf. He could be a youth who has joined his cause when noone else was brave enough to, and who cared enough for the tradition of truth than the institution which had grown up and kept it from the masses.

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Probing Possibility

The last question that this interpretation needs to face is whether or not it could have been knowingly injected into a poem written down by people working for the medieval church, an institution that was rarely free from accusations of withholding knowledge or working contrarily to the truth of things. Representing the church as a dragon, something commonly equated with the devil, could be risky in a medieval context, but I argue that this interpretation of the dragon’s hoard would hold up since the dragon could be explained as a symbol only for the corrupt within the Church and not necessarily the Church itself.

So, do you think that this interpretation holds water, or am I just stretching my own credibility by trying to keep my translation as literal as I can? Or, for that matter, have I missed something in my translation? Let me know in the comments!

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Closing

Next week, the full complement of a Latin and Old English entry will return, with the first verse of “Dum Diane vitrea” and Beowulf’s further final words to Wiglaf.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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On Wiglaf’s Rushing Back [ll.2783-2793] (Old English)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Loyal Wiglaf
As Beowulf Lay Bleeding
Closing

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Abstract

Wiglaf remains nameless, as he rushes back to show Beowulf the gold from the hoard.

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Translation

“The messenger was in haste, eager in the journey back
By precious things he was urged on; anxiety oppressed him,
whether he would meet bold in spirit and alive
in that place the prince of the Weders,
deprived of strength, where he had earlier left him.
He then with the treasure the renowned prince,
his lord bleeding, found,
his life at an end; he then again began the
sprinkling of water, until the beginning of words
broke through his heart. The warrior king spoke,
old in sorrow – looked at the gold:”
(Beowulf ll.2783-2793)

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Recordings

Old English:

Modern English:

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Loyal Wiglaf

There’s a lot about loyalty in this passage. Wiglaf’s rushing back with gold in tow to show Beowulf, as per his final request, really highlights it.

In fact, that’s really all we’re treated to here, which is quite remarkable given all of the information we’ve been given in previous passages of the same length. When Wiglaf is in the hoard, the treasure is described and listed, when he and Beowulf are fighting the dragon, almost every lines shows us their manoeuvre or the dragon’s. But here, we just have Wiglaf rushing to show Beowulf the treasure.

It’s quite a distinct split from what’s come before. But it’s also a great way to signal that the big shift from being primarily about Beowulf to being about his death and the future of the Geats is finally about to come.

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As Beowulf Lay Bleeding

One word in particular stands out, though. When Wiglaf returns to Beowulf we’re immediately told that he’s found bleeding (“driorigne” l.2789). To note this with this word in particular is strange, since it suggests that before he left for the hoard Beowulf’s wound had somehow stopped bleeding, been stopped bleeding, or Wiglaf expected it to stop before he got back.

Regardless of what the case may be with the wound itself, that we’re given this detail really drives home the fact that this is it for Beowulf. Just as he is found bleeding his very life away, so too will the words that he next speaks be his last, as he releases the last of those two – effectively closing the word hoard.

Curiously, I imagine that his body will continue to bleed beyond his actual time of death, which, though maybe not apparent to a listening audience, acknowledges an idea that words are themselves a kind of adornment for life, something that can be woven and worn over something more plain like a brooch binding the collar of a simple cloak.

At the same time, Beowulf doesn’t mention anything about grand words that he’s spoken in the past when he tells Wiglaf that he has joy in his wound, but rather the hero says this because he has done nothing to incriminate himself. Perhaps then, even a listening audience would notice the warp and woof of the scop’s words as he sang the song of Beowulf.

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Closing

Next week, Old English will return, but the return of Latin is still uncertain.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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The Emptiness of All that Gold [ll.2771b-82] (Old English)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
The Hoard’s Sheer Immensity
The Golden Power
Closing

{The immensity of the Lost Underworld in Earthbound is just like that of the hoard: identity erasing. Image found on flyingomelette.com.}
 

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Abstract

The dragon is dwelled on, while Wiglaf wanders through the hoard.

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Translation

&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp”None of that sight there
was for the serpent, when the blade carried him off.
Then, I have heard, the hoard in the barrow, ancient
work of giants, was ransacked by one man, he loaded
his lap with drinking vessels and dishes of his own
choosing, the standard he also took, brightest of banners.
The sword earlier had injured – the blade was iron – that
of the aged lord, that was the treasure’s guardian for
a long time, terrifying fire brought
hot from the hoard, fiercely willing in
the middle of the night, until he a violent death died.”
(Beowulf ll.2771b-82)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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The Hoard’s Sheer Immensity

Already it’s been mentioned how Wiglaf is not referred to by name for some time after this point, but here the poet/scribe takes this lack of identity to a strange place.

Instead of referring to Wiglaf via synecdoche with a piece of a warrior’s equipment, or calling him a “thane” or “fighter,” the poet/scribe simply calls Wiglaf “one man” (“ānne mannan” (l.2774)).

The effect of this pronoun and its adjective is immense.

However, this immensity doesn’t come from the alienation that the poet/scribe subjects Wiglaf to, but rather from the sheer size of the hoard that the poet/scribe’s making Wiglaf suddenly so small implies. Don’t forget that because of that shining banner everything is now illuminated, so we can liken this part of the poem to a long panning shot that might be used in movies to show a suddenly-broken-into, vast treasure chamber in an ancient temple or tomb.

Yet, it’s curious that the poet/scribe describes the immensity of the hoard in this way, especially since there’s so much build up to it.

We hear about it when the thief stumbles into it (ll.2283-4), again when Beowulf and his thanes head to the barrow (ll.2412-3), and then again in Beowulf’s command to Wiglaf (ll.2745-6).

Plus, any Anglo-Saxon would have been practically salivating at the prospect of finding so much treasure all in one spot – becoming instantly wealthy and instantaneously being able to exercise huge influence over others through gifts, thereby shoring up his or her own reputation and social network so that they would be more secure than gold alone would allow.

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The Golden Power

In fact, it’s exactly within the gold-giving culture of the Anglo Saxons that we can find another reason for the poet/scribe’s describing the hoard as he does.

Rather than focus on how much there is, the poet/scribe has described the hoard through a kind of lack. It’s big and immense, but it’s the sort of thing that you can lose yourself in – even if you’re a loyal thane who’s already pledged your very being to help your lord in his dying moments.

And this is what makes the dragon’s hoard so dreadful. It’s big, it’s vast, it’s unwieldy.

No one could use that much gold for social reasons, and the temptation to fall into self-indulgence (as Heremod does in the story Hrothgar tells Beowulf (ll.1709-1722)) is practically irresistible. If there is a curse on the gold, that is the curse: to be instantly given so much that you don’t know what to do with yourself so you revert to an animalistic state.

Some have even theorized that the survivor who sings the “Lay of the Last Survivor” (ll.2247–66) somehow became the dragon: The last of his kind pining away over the treasure that could not buy back the lives of his fallen people or return them to their former glory.

This might also explain why the dragon is so prominently featured in this passage, despite his being long since dead. As Beowulf’s wishes have taken over Wiglaf’s identity, now the dragon’s identity, the miserly lord of plenty, threatens to do the same. Yet ultimately Wiglaf resists, for the poet/scribe sings that the dragon “a violent death died” (“hē morðre swealt” (l.2782)) to round out Wiglaf’s time in the hoard.

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Closing

Next week, this blog will be on break. I’ve fallen too far behind in the recordings to keep heading onwards and since I finished “O Fortuna” this week, I want to give myself time to catch up before moving onto my next Latin text.

In the meantime be sure to check my past entries and recordings, and if you like what you read and hear, feel free to support my efforts here!

And, you can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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Treasuring Words and Admiring Their Weave [ll.2756-2771a] (Old English)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Finding Use for Treasure
A Shining Standard
Closing

{Shy of the characters, Wiglaf may have seen a standard just like this one. Image found on Wikipedia.}
 

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Abstract

Wiglaf hurries to the hoard, where he is mesmerized by the treasure that he finds.

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Translation

“He, the triumphant in victory, when he beyond the seat
went, the young brave thane, saw many precious jewels,
glittering gold lay on the ground,
wondrous objects on the wall, and in that dragon’s lair,
daybreak flier of old, cups stood,
vessels of men of old, now lacking a burnisher,
deprived of adornment.* There were many a helmet,
old and rusty, a multitude of arm-rings
skillfully twisted. Treasure easily may,
gold in ground, overpower each one of
mankind, though one may hide it.
Also hanging he saw a standard all of gold
high over the hoard, greatest of marvels made by hand,
woven by skill of craft; from there light
shone out, so that he might see the surface of the floor,
could look at every part of those ornate objects.”
(Beowulf ll.2756-2771a)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Finding Use for Treasure

After the excitement of the battle with the dragon, and Beowulf’s heartfelt summary of his kingship, this passage is definitely something of a rest. But that doesn’t mean that it’s entirely silent, a point in the story where the poem’s original audiences could entirely rest.

For there is treasure about.

And, along with the treasure comes a very interesting passage: “cups stood,/vessels of men of old,now lacking a burnisher,/deprived of adornment” (“orcas stondan,/fyrnmanna fatu feormendlease,/hyrstum behrorene” (ll.2760-2762)).

What makes this passage more than what it seems is it’s implication about treasure and people’s relationship to it. Because “deprived of adornment” follows “now lacking a burnisher” it sounds as if the burnishing, the polishing, was these cups’ adornment. This makes sense since whatever precious metal they were made of would require maintenance of some sort to keep its shine.

But what’s more is that as this treasure was in the care of a characteristically miserly dragon, it didn’t receive that care that people would have given it. But add to this why people would care to preserve their treasure, especially the sorts of things described here. My own theory is that they would use these things and they would need them to be in their top shape.

Putting this all together you come out with the impression that the passage implies that treasure is ostensibly valuable only when it’s being used by people. And treasure can’t be used by the same person indefinitely, so the best way to keep treasure in use is to give it away. It’s given away to be used by the young, who can then maintain it and then give it away again, thus keeping the cycle going indefinitely.

Not to mention keeping the preciousness of the treasure in tact indefinitely.

However, this reading of treasure as the fuel in a perpetual motion machine of gifting and receiving is troubled by what happens to the treasure hoard that Beowulf and Wiglaf won. It all gets buried with Beowulf.

To be fair, the treasure may well have been buried for a strategic purpose. After all, having great wealth would likely bring down the Geats’ old enemies upon them much more quickly than the news of their loss alone.

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A Shining Standard

Another illuminating part of this passage comes at it’s end. The standard that lights the cave in which Wiglaf finds the hoard is clearly very shiny (being described as “all of gold” (“eallgylden” (ll.2767))), and must have sunlight striking it. But this sparkling standard is also significant because it echoes an earlier light in a cave: That which appears when Beowulf kills Grendel’s Mother in her den (ll.1570-1572).

Because of the parallels – the light appears in a cave, comes from a fantastical source, flares up only after the defeat of a powerful monster of one sort or other – it’s tempting to say that Wiglaf’s assist in slaying the dragon is his own killing of Grendel’s Mother. This reading is also bolstered by Wiglaf’s taking treasures back with him to Beowulf just as Beowulf bore the hilt of the giants’ sword and Grendel’s head back to Hrothgar.

Yet, then, we run into the question: Is that where the parallels end? After the treasure is brought back to Beowulf and Wiglaf is cemented as the new leader of the Geats is he not still on the same trajectory as Beowulf?

Maybe he is, but because he isn’t Beowulf (even if he is, for now, nameless) it’s not his fate for a similar trajectory to land him in the same place as the poem’s lead character.

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Closing

Next week, the third and final stanza of “O Fortuna” gets translated (and the whole thing gets posted as a recording), and Wiglaf takes as much treasure as he can back to the waiting Beowulf.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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