Friday, April 18, 2014

Beowulf's rhetoric (ll.340-347) [Old English]

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Introductory patterns
Is there a mic in that helmet?
Closing


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Abstract

Beowulf replies to Wulfgar with his origins, but masks his purpose with formality.

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Translation

"'One man among them courageously answered,
the proud man of the Weders, spoke after those words,
bold beneath his helm: "We are Hygelac's
table-companions; Beowulf is my name.
I will explain to the son of Halfdane,
that famed lord, my errand,
your prince, if he will grant us such,
that we may greet him graciously.'"
(Beowulf ll.340-347)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Introductory patterns

Despite the brevity of this passage, there are some things that can be said about it.

Not the least of which is the continuation of a pattern we've seen before.

In 6 February's entry (in which Beowulf introduces himself to the coastguard, ll258-269), we saw that Beowulf didn't just say outright "I am Beowulf." Instead he introduced his group as friends of Hygelac's, and then introduced himself primarily through his father.

Once again, Beowulf introduces the group first, with a similar line explaining their relationship with Hygelac (l.342). But then, instead of introducing his father and merely claiming to be his son, we hear Beowulf say for the first time in the poem that takes his name, "Beowulf is my name" ("Beowulf is min nama" (l.343)).

Surely the herald of a great prince like Hrothgar commands more respect than a coastguard?

So then why does Beowulf simply give his own name (a name which makes no reference to his father)?

My theory is that this has to do with the intimacy of the hall setting.

Although this conversation is still very formalized, Heorot is nonetheless a place of leisure. It's where Hrothgar and his thanes hang out and trade treasures and stories between battles and forays. The hall would even draw strangers into Hrothgar's hospitality, at least, were it not for Grendel. As such, Beowulf has no need to show his "son of" card just yet.

Even so, the other curious thing about Beowulf's shift in tone is that he keeps his purpose for from Hrothgar's herald. Instead of declaiming for all to hear, "I am Beowulf! I'm here to kill your monster" (as a cg'd Ray Winstone did), he says that he'll reveal just what his purpose is when he speaks to Hrothgar.

I think this feint is meant to show Beowulf's social acumen. In a hall besieged for twelve years by some seemingly invincible terror, anyone (especially anyone as young as Beowulf's supposed to be here) coming around claiming to be there to deal with Grendel is likely not going to be believed. Likely, for most of those twelve years such an approach hasn't been useful. Those who did come in with boasts blaring were probably laughed out of the hall.

And once you've been laughed out of something it's all the harder to win glory there.

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Is there a mic in that helmet?

All the more so if you appear ridiculous. It might seem Beowulf would were he still wearing his helmet, as the poet suggests on line 342. But this detail appears to bolster his position.

Maybe it's all just to keep building up the mystery around these Geats among the Danes. The Geats' helmets are supposed to have cheek-guards, and you'd think that they would protect the helmet's wearer from sight as well as blows.

Or perhaps the poet is engaging in a bit of embellishment. Painting Beowulf into a bit of a caricature of a warrior. He keeps his helmet on so that he can be ever vigilant. Or maybe because it's simply the outfit of a warrior and keeping his helmet on shows Beowulf's seriousness.

Regardless, I definitely think it's a poetic detail. Though his speaking "bold[ly] beneath his helm" could well be an image of sorts, suggesting that Beowulf spoke as deeply as if he were wearing a helmet. Maybe there's even something about Beowulf's tone itself being a source of protection in such an image.

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Closing

Next week, Wulfgar takes Beowulf's message and departs.

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Saturday, April 12, 2014

Exile and bandits' weapon of choice (ll.331b-339) [Old English]

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Finding community among exiles?
A word for spear
Closing


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Abstract

Hrothgar's herald questions the Geats' origins.

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Translation

              "Then a proud warrior
asked after those men's origins:
'Where come ye of the anointed shields,
shirts of grey mail and visored helms,
this crowd of spears? I am Hrothgar's
herald and officer. Never saw I this many men
from far away of such high spirits.
It seems to me that you for glory, not at all for exile,
yay for courage have sought out Hrothgar.'"
(Beowulf ll.331b-339)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Finding community among exiles?

Hrothgar's herald says something more than passing strange in what seems to be passing. On lines 336 to 337 he states that he has "Never [seen] this many men/from far away of such high spirits" ("Ne seah ic elþeodige/þus manige men modiglicran").

Given the fact that challengers to Grendel have probably dried up over the past twelve years of his reign of terror, it's fair to say that this man's probably not seen many foreigners lately.

Even when heroes in waiting were coming by Heorot, they were probably more grim and serious than the apparently boisterous Geats (though we're not really told this - maybe they were like giddy teenagers in the presence of some musical idol, all jostling together and too nervous to speak, and that's what their weapons jostling last week was all about).

So the herald probably speaks true. He never has seen so many foreigners and in such high spirits.

But the word he uses for foreigners ("elþeodige") could also be translated as "exiled people."

The difference between "foreigners" and "exiled people" may seem slight, perhaps. But if the herald mentions exiles here then his assertion just a few lines later that these men are not here for exile makes much more sense.

Translating "elþeodige" as "exiled people" also paints a curious picture.

The image of a group of exiles is, strangely, the perfect representation of the importance of community to Anglo-Saxons. Among them, exile was considered a fate worse than death.

Partially because being exiled meant that you lost your social standing and whatever came with it. But at least as much as that if not more, exile meant that you were cut off from the people with whom you shared an ipso facto relationship through blood. You didn't earn their trust, nor did you work for their friendship - ties of kinship were supposed to be the reliable ties that saw you through the hardships of life.

Being exiled cut you off from all of that, but at the same time, it wouldn't be impossible for exiles to meet while in their respective outcast states. That a group of exiles would find each other, and, one can only assume, band together under the common aegis of their exiles shows just how important having a group and belonging was.

All of that said, whether or not such a hypothetical band of exiles would be in high spirits because they had found new community is hard to say.

It's possible that their common state would cause these exiles to form a strong bond in which case high spirits would definitely be possible.

Though it's also possible that though their respective communities no longer regard them as members, the exiles would still see themselves as Angles, or Saxons, or Danes, or Geats. In which case, they would likely still hold the prejudices of these groups.

Whatever the case with such a group of exiles is, either their numbers or their spirits were great enough for Hrothgar's herald to believe these Geats before him to be not exiles but something else.

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A word for spear

Another extract, and another batch of crazy words. The craziest this week, though, has got to be "here-sceaft."

The second part of this compound word for "spear" might look familiar. It's the word that eventually became the name of a famed and funky 70s private detective. Shaft.

But the first part of "here-sceaft" is where meanings become bizarre. Standing alone, this word could mean "troop," "army," "host," "multitude," or "predatory band."

So the spear is very much the common man's weapon. All right. But then, since "here" can mean "predatory band" is it also the weapon of choice for bandits and thieves?

Logically, the answer would have to be yes.

If a spear was something that you could easily come by in Anglo Saxon England, then certainly it would be the scoff-law's preferred weapon. Swords certainly wouldn't be lying around, that's for sure.

Actually, pushing logic a bit further, is it possible that swords were harder to come by simply because smiths who could work such large pieces of metal were hard to come by? Or, more likely, forges that could get such a lump of metal hot enough were rare?

Because making a spear requires making nothing more than a little pointy hat for a stick (or you could forgo the hat and shave the stick to a sharp point).

Given the fact that the resources consumed in making a sword were that much greater than those used for a simple spear really makes me wonder if associating the spear with bandits (even at the level of language like "here-sceaft") and the commons was just another thing that elevated the sword to the point where it became a prestigious and noble weapon.

Clearly, if "here-sceaft" has the potential for negative connotations as I believe it does, then the cultural elevation of the sword had happened long before Beowulf was written.

But then, when?

At the very moment that someone working their forge to ridiculous heats threw in big long chunks of metal and wound up with something no other forge-user in the area ever thought possible?

When technology and manufacturing are so unrestricted as they are today it's hard to imagine something so simple as a long pointy piece of sharpened metal being impressive, but it certainly would've been when making such things was harder.

And it's easy to see, then, that something as low-tech as a spear could be associated with "predatory bands."

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Closing

Next week, Beowulf answers Hrothgar's herald.

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Friday, April 4, 2014

Words and the noise of the Geats' arrival in Heorot (ll.320-331a) [Old English]

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Word order wonderings
Why the Geats' weapons jostle
Closing



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Abstract

Beowulf and his crew come to Heorot and plonk down onto its benches.

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Translation

"The way was stone-paven, along the path
the warriors went together. War-byrnies shone,
hard, hand-linked, shining ring-mail from
skilled hands celebrated in song. Shortly they
arrived at the hall in their horrible war gear,
sea-weary they set their shields aside,
battle-hard bucklers, against that hall's wall;
they dropped onto the benches, mailshirts ringing,
those war-skilled men. Spears stood,
bound in a seaman's bunch, all together,
ashen shaft over grey; that iron-clad crew's
weapons jostled."
(Beowulf ll.320-331a)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Word order wonderings

It's passages like this that make it abundantly clear that Beowulf is a poem, but also that it's a product of a time quite different from our own. Not just on the obvious levels of social structure and what was considered entertainment, but on the level of language itself.

The brief phrase "æscholt ufan græg" (l.330) that I've translated as "ashen shaft over grey" is a prime example.

Word order in Old English is definitely not as hard and fast as it is for we speakers of Modern English.

Because Old English is a synthetic language (it has declensions), a word's function wasn't defined by its place in the sentence but instead by its different forms.

Take for instance "searwum." This word is the dative plural of "searo". In English this word's translation "skilled"/"skilful" will almost always occur before the noun that it modifies.

We could say "that person is a skillful engineer" or "a skilled artisan." But you'd never hear a native English speaker (of classical English, anyway) say something like "an artisan skilled" without that being followed up with a prepositional phrase for "skilled" to modify ("an artisan skilled in the craft of blacksmithing"). Likewise "engineer skilful" just isn't how English is spoken for the most part. Unless you change that phrase's into a compound adjective with a hyphen.

However, in this passage "song in searwum" is just how it's written. The Old English word for "skilled" or "skilful" is left to the end of the sentence.

But the word's ending shows what it is modifying, it's that ending that establishes its relationship with "hringiren" from line 323. This difference in placement suggests, with a bit of a leap, that native Old English speakers had a greater awareness of words' relationships to each other. English is definitely a difficult language to learn from scratch, but its static structure makes it worlds easier than any synthetic language.

Getting back to "æscholt ufan græg" its word order is a complete mystery to me.

Are there grey and ashen shafts bundled together?

Are the spears being stored counter-intuitively with their points in the ground (perhaps for symbolic or ceremonial reasons)?

At the heart of this issue is the preposition "ufan". This word is said to mean "over," "above," "on high."

Those definitions would seem to rule out the possibility that the phrase "æscholt ufan græg" refers to different coloured spear shafts being bundled together. Although maybe the preposition isn't meant to be taken so literally.

It could be that the ash-shaft spears are over or above those that are grey because they're given a prominent place in the bundle.

Or it could be that they're simply taller.

I'm just not convinced that warriors would store weapons point-down, risking the dulling of their points and edges. Unless sticking your spears in the ground was a sign of peaceful intentions, certainly a fair assessment of their being described as "ashen shafts over grey."

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Why the Geats' weapons jostle

Yet, peaceable as the Geats' intentions are, we're told that their weapons jostled as they sat down. Is this to be taken as a sign that those weapons are eager for a fight? Or is it just a matter of the Geats being armed to the teeth?

Though, there's another completely unrelated reason that the poet could give us that aural detail.

Picture this:

You're sitting in a hall with your comrades and kin, along with your lord. You're on edge because you and your people have been mercilessly ravaged night after night by some sort of un-killable fiend.

All is quiet.

Until the door opens and in walk a group of men bristling with arms and armour. They set their weapons to the side and then proceed to plonk down onto your benches - maybe the place where old Higðor Stonefist the stone mason once regularly sat before the demon made off with him leaving nothing behind but the ring that his wife had given him, still attached to the grisly remains of a gnawed finger.

All remains quiet except for the newcomers murmurs of conversation. One of them muffles a laugh. But the biggest one is silent.

Nothing happens.

No one is saying anything now. The entire hall is as quiet as...yes, you think it, a burial mound.

But then the newcomers start to shuffle around on the benches, and their ringcoats (looking resplendent in the fire light) clank, their sheathed swords knock together, and their spears fall from the earth in which they'd been set.

The poet's just used five words to give this detail, but I think, whatever it might mean on a sub-textual level, it's there to break the silence that otherwise exists in the hall. It's there to call the Danes' attention fully to these newcomers and to clear out the hall's quiet (there's no mention of noise or music coming from the hall as the Geats approach it) so that the newcomers can be questioned in the following lines.

If nothing else the jostling of the Geats' weapons restores sound to the world of the hall, one so deep in mourning and sorrow that its collective voice needs to be called forth.

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Closing

Next week Hrothgar's top man Wulfgar questions the Geats.

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Thursday, March 27, 2014

The coastguard's farewell (ll.312-319) [Old English]

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
A boastful coastguard?
Meet the new god, same as the old god
Closing


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Abstract

The coastguard takes his leave of the Geats, wishing them god's protection.

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Translation

"He took the battle brave to the bright
high-souled hall, that he may thither them
go; that hero of combat turned his horse
about, spoke he these words next:
'It is time for me to go. The almighty
father's grace keep you healthy
amidst your quest! I am to the sea,
to hold the shore against fiendish foes.'"
(Beowulf ll.312-319)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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A boastful coastguard?

The coastguard's being called "hero of combat" ("guðbeorna") seems strange. That is, until you notice that it's the third word in an alliterative sequence. But is it only there to hold up a preferred Old English poetic form?

Yeah, probably.

I mean, the coastguard does mention that he has to go back to the coast to guard against "fiendish foes" ("wrað werod" (l.319)). So there could be some verity to his being a "hero of combat." But that term seems a little inflated to me.

Could the poet be having a laugh at the coastguard's expense? "guðbeorna" fit the line that he had written and so he just ran with that and made the coastguard into a bit of a boaster at the end of his speech?

Maybe.

I mean, on the one hand, as much of an exile such a person might feel (even if he does have a crew out there), it definitely wouldn't be wise to send some fop out to guard your coast.

The Danes wouldn't have had the troops to keep a barracks there or anything like that. His crew included, the Danish coastguard in Beowulf probably wouldn't exceed ten men. Tops. So he, the lead coastguard if you will, would definitely need to have proven his mettle in combat.

Though, it's also possible that the position of coastguard is reserved for warriors who are past their prime. No longer able to perform as vigourously on the battlefield they're charged to put their skills and battle-sharpened wits to the test in judging new comers and putting on a fearsome face. With a coast as quiet as the Dane's must be (who, aside from heroes would want to come to a monster-terrorized-golden-hall party?), the job of coastguard definitely seems like something that would get filled by a veteran.

And maybe that's what the poet was going for with the narrative riff on the coastguard's past and then his own seemingly over-zealous admission of what he was heading off to do.

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Meet the new god, same as the old god

Throughout Beowulf, people give thanks to a generic male, father god. Many translations (and some instances in the original text) make many of these references into "lord." As such, it's very easy to read these instances of reference to god as references to the Christian god. Since "lord" is frequently used as a deific pronoun in Christianity.

However.

Christianity wasn't the only religion to have a wise, solemn, wrathful, and benevolent patriarchical deity.

The Norse peoples (who definitely had some influence on Beowulf since it's set largely in Daneland of all places) had Odin. The Germanic people had Woden. The Anglo-Saxon creators or audience for this poem were themselves Germanic.

So who's to say that these generic references to god aren't to these pagan gods? The Geats and Danes aren't exactly quoting Old or New Testament verses at each other. Though there is that lengthy reference to Grendel as the kin of Cain and god's war with the giants. That could be a reference to the apparently standard stories told among the peoples of northern Europe about unexplored places.

Knowing with certainty who the deity is that's constantly being referred to is an impossibility. But the idea that it could be either the Christian god or one of the chief Pagan gods isn't just a neat alternative. That could well have been the intention.

No matter where you place our version of Beowulf's composition within the 400 year window generally agreed upon (between 600 and 1000 AD) contemporary Christianity had yet to really spread over all of Europe. As such this story that's ostensibly about a hero's quests and fights with the supernatural could have been used as a way to infiltrate and convert.

Or, any male deity could be read into it as a way of making sure that the epic simply wasn't too preachy.

Beowulf's being bundled with a collection of fantastic tales from the east in the Noel codex could in fact be the book creator's way of sort of sweeping it under the rug because these god references weren't clear then either. That book maker would have been a Christian monk of some sort or another after all.

So, when you're reading Beowulf and come across a reference to the "alwalda" don't just think surfer dude with a long white robe and beard, but think one-eyed, helmeted warrior god, too.

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Closing

Next week, the Geats step into Heorot and duly unequip themselves.

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Thursday, March 20, 2014

Speculation along the way to Heorot (ll.301-311) [Old English]

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Gold as guardian
Of ships and mothers
Closing


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Abstract

The coastguard leads Beowulf and his entourage to Heorot.

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Translation

"They went upon their way. The boat was bound,
the capacious craft tethered with cord,
secure at anchor. Boar-shapes shone
atop their cheek guards; ornamented gold,
glistening and firmament firm, securely held life:
war-hearted grim men. They all hurried onward,
going down together, until from that high hall of a building,
ornamented and gold-dappled for all to see
that it was foremost among humanity of all
the buildings beneath heaven, the ruler called for them;
light of the people over so great a land."
(Beowulf ll.301-311)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Gold as guardian

Gold is pretty prevalent in this passage. It'd be easy just to dismiss the metal's shining presence in the Geats' helmets and on Heorot as indicators of wealth and prestige, but I think there's more to it than that. Of course.

In both of these instances I think that the gold is present in the helmet and the hall as a ward against harm. Or maybe as an outward show of the value of the people under the helmets and in the hall.

Putting a monetary value on a life or a major injury isn't something modern. The Anglo-Saxons had a law covering the same thing that required the perpetrator to pay their victim (or, in the case of murder, the victim's next of kin) a fee called "wergild." The major purpose of this fee was to stem the outbreak of feuds and to bring disparate groups together into a group that extended beyond family ties.

It's a bit broad, but literally translated, "wergild" becomes "man price."

This is where this theory gets a little crazy, mostly because of timing issues. If the concept of we-gild had been around for a few generations before Beowulf was put together/originally written, then what would stop payments from becoming a preventative measure? Once it was so established, it's not much further to get to a point where the association of gold with prevention of harm takes on a magical or superstitious flavour.

With such perception of gold as a protective metal in the culture, it would make good sense for it to adorn helmet and horn alike. Thus, pointing out the gold in the helmets and in Heorot's exterior firmly establishes the protective properties of both.

However, in this passage, I think that a contrast is implied.

If gold is a metal that the Anglo-Saxons of Beowulf's time believed to have protective properties then it's already clear to the audience that it hasn't worked so well for Heorot. The mention of gold being in the Geats' helmets, then, calls into question just how effective they'll be in guarding their lives. It's also possible to read the failure of Heorot's golden exterior as evidence for Grendel's chaotic influence. His presence as a kin of Cain causes the proper function of gold to cease.

If all of this rang true for the poem's original audience, then it's hard to believe how much more anticipation there would have been for the fight once Beowulf reveals that he'll faced Grendel completely unarmed. Heck, you could even say that if all this is true and Grendel's power to negate weapons extends to negating the protective properties of gold, then Beowulf's facing him with his bare hands alone evens the field all the more.

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Of ships and mothers

"Capacious" of line 302 is, in Old English, "wide-bosomed," or "sidfæþmed."

While a modern interpretation of "wide-bosomed" might be simply "large breasted," the two definitions of "sidfæþmed" suggest that the Anglo-Saxons regarded it as more a matter of volume than size. Considering that all children of the period were nursed, this is hardly surprising. The greater capacity a mother had for milk the more nourishment her child would get, giving that child a better chance to make it through childhood and come into healthy adolescence.

How that relates to a ship is beyond me, except for the idea that travelling in comfort is better than travelling in a cramped space. Plus, a boat with some room would make rowing much easier. Easier rowing means faster travel. So a capacious boat is definitely optimal.

Getting back to this passage in particular, what can be made of the repeat mentions of Beowulf's boat being securely tethered?

Running with the connection between mothers and boats via "sidfæþmed," and taking along for the jog the tradition of referring to boats with feminine pronouns, Beowulf's boat could be regarded as his anima being securely left behind, enabling him to act without sentiment, if necessary. If you want to take the Jungian tack.

Much more straightforward is the interpretation that Beowulf's ship is his only means of getting him back to his homeland. As such, its security is of the utmost importance.

Or, it could symbolize his identity as a true Geat. If he had no way of getting back home, his liege Hygelac could think him dead or gone native, erasing his status as outsider among the Danes and making him a quasi-exile.

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Closing

Next week, the coastguard takes the Geats to Heorot's doors and then takes his leave.

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Thursday, March 13, 2014

The coastguard's reply (Pt. 2) (ll.293-300) [Old English]

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
The coastguard's prayer
Two matters
Closing


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Abstract

The coastguard makes Beowulf a promise, and wishes him well.

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Translation

"'Also I'll command my men
to guard your boat against the fiend,
relate a request to guard your newly tarred
ship on the shore, until it again bears
you dear men over the streaming surface
in its bound boards to the Geat's borders:
that such a doer of good may have that fate,
to survive the battle rush in the hall.'"
(Beowulf ll.293-300)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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The coastguard's prayer

A coastguard promising to command his underlings to watch someone's ship until their return sounds like a pretty routine part of a coastguard's job. It could just be what coastguards say to those with whom they interact. But here, in the context of Beowulf's fateful arrival in Daneland, it feels like there's more to the coastguard's words than a professional nicety.

The final two lines of this extract are spent wishing Beowulf luck against Grendel, why could that well wish not be extended further back to the extract's very beginning on line 293?

Taken as a whole, those last two lines definitely fit in with the rest of this part of the coastguard's reply.

The extract opens with the coastguard promising to command his men to guard Beowulf's ship until his return and departure.

This is a crux.

It's not that they'll watch his boat until his return - they'll keep his boat until his return and until he leaves Daneland. That the promise covers that much time, and is described in that way, suggests that the coastguard has some confidence in this new challenger.

Though, Beowulf's return to his ship could be as a corpse (something that's touched on further into the poem). In that scenario, if that is what the coastguard has in mind, then there is likely little confidence in the man's tone and delivery. But a whole two lines are spent on the final section of this reply, something that I regard as a prayer, or at the very least, an invocation.

Again, this part of the coastguard's reply doesn't really directly refer to Beowulf. However, there's a slight sarcasm in this section: Rather than "Beowulf" he says "such a doer of good" ("godfremmendra swylcum" (l.299)).

Whether or not Beowulf will indeed do any good has yet to be seen, so I think that the coastguard's referring to Beowulf as such is a way for him to acknowledge the hope he has for Beowulf while also declining to fully embrace this hope. He's likely seen too many other heroes come and fail before.

Combined with his promise, this guarded expression of hope makes this part of the coastguard's reply into one long wish of luck. In that sense, it's like a prayer, a focused statement meant to bring into being the hypothetical situation that it proposes (Beowulf's doing good and returning alive).


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Two matters

Two little things here.

First, on line 295, the reference to Beowulf's boat as "newly tarred" makes it clear that Beowulf's boat is a really nice boat. After all, tarring was a means of waterproofing and so a newly tarred boat is one in the best state of repair. Though, being newly tarred could imply one of two things.

A boat might have just had a new coat of tar put on it, patching up all of the holes accumulated over years of sailing.

Or, a boat may have been newly tarred because it is itself a new boat.

Like Beowulf in truth, his boat could be a very new boat, something inexperienced and in need of some actual experience of the real world.

The other little thing is the word "lagu-streamas" ("streaming surface" (l.297)).

This combination of "surface" ("lagu") and "streaming" ("streamas") gives quite the insight into the Anglo-Saxon view of the ocean. It implies a great depth to the ocean, since it is just the surface that a boat travels along.

Compare that with the modern English means of describing sailing being things like "going out on the water," and the same sense sort of lives on but is really not as pronounced. For "lagu-streamas" also carries implications of only the surface of the ocean being in motion, the rest of it left mysterious and impenetrable.

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Closing

Beowulf and his fellow Geats are taken to Heorot next week - watch for it!

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Thursday, March 6, 2014

The coastguard's reply (Pt.1) (ll. 286-292) [Old English]

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Enter a horse
The coastguard's backstory?
Closing


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Abstract

The coastguard answers Beowulf, and passes judgement on what the Geat has told him.

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Translation

"The guard spoke, there astride his horse,
the fearless officer: 'Everyone shall
come to know and understand your sharp skill,
words and deeds, as they shall determine.
I hear this, that this warrior is true
to the Scylding lord. Come forth bearing
your weapons and armour; I will lead you:'"
(Beowulf ll.286-292)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Enter a horse

In the run up to the coastguard's speech we're told that he's on horseback.

This little fact might seem something strange to include before a speech, but I think there's a practical side to doing so. The most obvious benefit to the coastguard being that while on horseback he would be able to project his voice much more effectively than if he were on foot.

The sense that I get from the poet/scribe's having thrown this reference in, though, is that it would have been taken for granted that the coastguard would be ahorse and that is why it's not mentioned until now. After all, it would be kind of difficult to effectively guard a coast on foot. You'd just be too slow.

But then, was it only mentioned now to fill out the poetic meter, or was it only mentioned now to emphasize and remind the audience that the speaker here is in a position of power, of authority? Being ahorse, the coastguard is placed in authority over Beowulf - quite literally.

If this horse is mentioned for emphasis, then it bears directly on what the coastguard says. Specifically line 290, on which the guard restates what he has heard. It makes the guard's judgement of Beowulf as being true in his words, and to be put to the test in front of the rest of the Danes a true one within the court of the coast.

If it's a matter of meter, though, then the poet/scribe's choice says a lot about the contemporary conception of poetry.

Let's say that to the original audience, the coastguard was, of course, on horseback. The mention of that fact brings that fact into high relief. Mentioning the horse, draws it out of the scene that the poet has already evoked so far and places it at the fore of the audience's attention.

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The coastguard's backstory?

Related to the coastguard's being on horseback, he, like any gatekeeper, plays a filtering role among the Danes. In his reply to Beowulf he specifically mentions that "Everyone shall/come to know and understand your sharp skill" ("æghwæþres sceal/scearp scyldwiga gescad witan" (l.287b-288)). Yet he was the one to know Beowulf first. It was he that gave Beowulf admittance into the Dane's land on his word as a warrior and destroyer of fiends.

The question I'm left with after this passage, though, is who is this man to arbitrate for the whole of Hrothgar's folk?

It's easy to dismiss a lone coastguard as some sort of near cast out who somehow wound up with the short straw when the guards were pulling for their positions. But he's the one who checks everyone's character before they're admitted into the land. He must have some importance, or he must in some way be an extension of Hrothgar. Perhaps in his younger days he fought alongside the Danish king. Or the position of coastguard is one of two branches of promotion - the other of equal esteem being Hrothgar's comitatus.

Whatever he was, he is now the coastguard. And his position as arbiter of taste has just admitted a gang of warriors into the land.

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Closing

Next week the coastguard finishes his speech.

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