January 2008


Here’s an excerpt from much earlier in the poem than my last few posts: lines 1556-1590. This takes place in the lair of Grendel’s mother, when Beowulf is fighting for his life and being rather badly whupped. The venerable sword given him by Unferth (who, honestly, is not someone I would have trusted to keep a good weapon) fails, and Grendel’s mother is giving a much better account of herself than her son did. Sometime we’ll have to take a look at the sorrowful and the monstrous idres, but that can wait. It looks like I’ll be doing Wednesday updates for now, so I’ll see all two of you next week.

Saw he there among the arms a sword blessed by victory,
oldsword crafted by giants, with strong edges,
warriors’ glory; that was the best weapon,
but that it was more than any other man
to the warplay might carry,
good and splendid, work of giants.
He seized that ornamental hilt, warrior of the Scyldings,*
fierce and deadly grim, he drew the ringsword
without hope of life, struck angrily
that on her neck caught hard,
her bonerings broke. The sword passed through all
of the fated flesh-being; she fell to the floor.
The sword was bloody, the man in his work rejoiced
that gleam shone forth, light appeared further in.
Just as that from heaven brightly shines
the sky’s candle. He looked about the hall;
he turned by the wall, weapon raised
hard along the hilts Hygelac’s thane,
angry and resolute. Nor was that blade useless
to the warrior, rather he quickly would
Grendel repay for his many attacks
of which he carried out upon the West-Danes
much more often than on one occasion,
when he Hroðgar’s heart-companions
slew in slumber, in sleep devoured
of the folk of the Danes fifteen men,
and other such carried off,
loathsome boon. He to him for that reward repaid,
fierce warrior, so that when he on its resting place saw,
worn out by battle, Grendel’s corpse
lifeless, because he earlier had wounded him
in the battle at Heorot. The body burst wide open
since it after death suffered a blow
with a bold swordstroke, and with that carved off the head.

*Beowulf is still a Geat, but since he is currently on Scylding business and has been accepted by Hroðgar as being as dear as a son, he can be called a Scylding for now. Hroðgar’s fatherly love for the hero is beautifully (if windily) expressed, and the gesture was sufficiently close enough to adopting Beowulf as kin to get Wealtheow, Hroðgar’s queen, worked up about succession. I’d have to code switch to explain the tremendous significance in this culture more gracefully. The Irish do an excellent job with mo cuisla, which translates close to “my own blood.”

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We’re skipping a lot of the manuscript to get here, but I may go back and change that later, adding in earlier sections. For the meantime, however, read on only if you’re familiar with the story; the sequence of Beowulf’s death (not to mention the antecedents and the gaps in the manuscript) can be a little strange if you don’t remember Wiglaf, the retainers, and the persistence of the preceding allusions. Enough of that, though, Let’s see Wiglaf come into his name:

The messenger was in haste, eager for the journey back,
by precious things urged on; anxiety him oppressed,
whether the bold in spirit alive he would find
in that place, the Weders’ prince,
deprived of strength where he himself before had left.
He then with that treasure to the renowned prince,
his own lord bleeding found, at the end of his life; he him again began
to sprinkle with water, until words began
through the breasthoard breaking…[the warrior king spoke]
old in sorrow–at the gold he looked–:
“I for these precious things the lord of all thank,
to the Glory King say words,
to the eternal lord, for that I here gaze on,
this which I have been permitted for my people
before my deathday such to gain.
Now I for a hoard of treasures have sold my
aged life, attending to, still,
the people’s needs; nor may I here long be.
Command a burial mound famed in battle to build
splendid like flame at the promontory by the sea;
that is to be as memorial to my people,
a high tower on Hronesness,
that it sailors afterwards may call
Beowulf’s Barrow, when those of ships
over the flood’s mist from afar navigate.”
Took he off his neck ring golden,
the prince brave-hearted, to his thane gave it,
to the young warrior, gold-adorned helm,
ring and mail coat, commanded him to use them well:
“you are the end-leaving of our kin,
Wægmundings; all fate swept away
of my kinsmen to destiny’s decree,
earls in valor; I must after them.”
That was from the old one the last word
from his heart’s thoughts before he the pyre chose,
hot hostile flame; from his breast departed
soul sought righteous glory.

And that was the end of the king, at least, although the tale does not end there. More on that later! Ah, and brownie points to anyone who remembers the literal translation of Wiglaf’s name…

“It is a fair tale, though it is sad, as are all the tales of Middle Earth, and yet it may lift up your hearts.”
-Aragorn
The Fellowship of the Ring

The manuscript is badly damaged here (it’s been through a lot in its time), so the gaps I have represented with ellipses. It picks up with fragments about the slave’s finding of the cup that he steals from the dragon, moving in to the origins of the barrow’s hoard after an unknown number of lost lines. Since there are even more confusing literal translations in this passage than usual, I’ve switched the syntax around to make things match a bit better. If anything is confusing to you, please let me know, and I’ll go back and twiddle with it.

…when the sudden attack befell him.
The precious vessel…there were many of such
in that earth-house of ancient treasures,
which he in olden days, some one of men,
the immense legacy of a noble race,
deep in thought there hid,
dear treasures. All of them by death were carried off
in former times, and he [the] one then still [enduring],
tried warrior of his people, he there lived the longest,
became mourning for friends, expected the same,
that he a little time the ancient treasure
would be able to enjoy. The barrow fully ready
stood on open land near the ocean waves,
newly made by the headland, secured by the art of obfuscation.*
There to the inside he bore the warrior’s treasure,
the ring-guard, a quantity worthy of hoarding
plated with gold; He spoke a few words:
“Hold you now, Earth, now warriors may no longer,
the property of earls! Indeed, it before by those
worthy men attained; death in battle carried [them] off
by terrible mortal harm to each man
of my people, of whom this life have left:
saw the halljoy. There is none who carried the sword
or forth bore the plated cup,
dear drinking cup; tried warriors elsewhere passed
[now] shall from the hard helm’s gold adornments
the plating fall; burnishers sleep in death
that the battlemask should polish;
and so the mailcoat that at battle bore
over the clash of shields the cut of swords
decay as its warrior; nor may the ring of mail shirts
after the war-leader journeyed wide
by warriors’ sides. By no means the joy of the harp,
delight in an instrument, nor good hawk
flies through the hall, nor the swift steeds
stamp in the courtyard. Destructive death has
many a living race before sent off.”
So sad at heart the sorrow expressed,
one after all, joyless moved about
days and nights, ’til death’s surging
touched at his heart.

*literally, “the art of making things inaccessible,” or, perhaps, the art of obfuscation and secretiveness.

It’s alive! No, wait…it’s just another biochemist that’s got it’s hands on a two-core tower of power (what can we say? They’re all broke until after the PhD). So, the story is that on the occasions when I had access to a computer over break I had no access to my translations. Now that I’m back, I have a fair amount of work, but also motivation in the form of wonderful, inquisitive family and friends. Here’s one of the woefully unpolished versions of a translation I meant to post over the holidays. Next up is the Lay of the Last Survivor. Enjoy.

Ordered he for him then be made, warriors’ protector,
all of iron, lord of earls,
a warboard wondrous; he knew well
that forest wood would not help him,
wood with fire. He must of his passing days
the prince of proven excellence experience the end
of the world’s life, and the worm also,
though the hoardwealth he had long held.
Disdained then the prince of rings
that he that far-flier with a host of men sought,
with large army; He did not fear for himself in battle,
nor to him the worm’s power anything did,
strength and courage, because he had done much before:
harsh straits risked, combat survived,
in the crash of battles, since he Hroðgar’s,
man blessed with victory, hall cleansed
and at combat crushed to death Grendel’s kindred,
hateful kind. Nor that the least was
in the hand-combat where a man slew Hygelac
after the king of the Geats in the onslaught of battle,
lord and friend of the folk, in Frisia
Hreðel’s son in the sword-drink died,
by the sword struck. From there Beowulf came
by his own strength, by the use of the sea;
he had on his arms thirty thanes’
battle gear when he went to the sea.
Not at all had the Hetwars** reason to exult
of the foot battle when he in front went forth
shield bearing; few afterwards came
from that warrior to go home.
Swam he then over the expanse of the sea, son of Ecgðeow,
wretched one alone, afterwards to his people,
there Hygd bade him take hoard and kingdom,
rings and royal throne; she didn’t trust her child
that he with foreign peoples the ancestral throne
would be able to hold, now that Hygelac was dead.
None the sooner, yet the destitute might not prevail upon
that prince in any way
that he to Heardred* lord would be,
or that royal kingdom would accept;
However he to him* in the fold in friendly counsel held,
with good will, with honor, until he* older became
and the Weather Geats ruled.

*Heardred, son of Hygelac and Hygd. Sorry, but it’s not much clearer (if anything, it’s murkier) in the Old English.
**The Hetwars were a Frankish tribe. Beowulf’s liege, Hygelac, died against them in battle in Frisia.

Happy second day of the new year, everyone.