29 November 2011

XXXI. Beowulf gives presents and rises to rule.

So far, Beowulf has received many presents, which is one half of the gift economy. At this point, we see him being equally generous, giving all of those gifts to his king, Hygelac. Beowulf not only honours Hygelac as his king and friend, but as family. He says, "There are few alive/I have as kin, Hygelac, but you." As a result of their family feeling, "neither forgot the needs of the other."

Hygelac shows his appreciation for Beowulf with more gifts: the best sword in his treasury and sizable land-holdings, described as "seven thousand hides." According to the Wikipedia article on the "hide" as an area of land, its actual extent varied greatly, especially in later times. However, it originally meant the land that was needed to support a single family. Clearly, Beowulf's land holdings became very substantial with this gift.
The gift-giving is followed by an unexpected comment on Beowulf's character. The Geat officers had thought little of him and, especially, had accused him of being a slacker. (The Old English word applied to him is, literally, sleac, slack). He now had earned the respect that he had been denied.

Surprisingly, we are only now, two-thirds of the way through the poem, introduced to Beowulf's motivation to go to Heorot. This explains why he "dreah aefter dome" (line 2179), which Ben Slade (at heorot.dk) translates as "he led his life for glory." This connects with the poem's last line that says that, of all men, he was "lof-geornost." Apparently "geornost" is related to our word "to yearn." "Lof," is praise, glory, or a song of praise. So, more than others, he longed for respect. While he was at Heorot, he was desperate to prove himself at last or die in the attempt.
We now have a sudden flash forward in time. Hygelac dies in battle, and his heir Heardred as well, either in the same battle or another. Beowulf inherits the kingdom: "it came into his hands." The Geat kingdom, unlike Denmark after Hrothgar dies, faces no regicide or usurpation, but an orderly transfer of the crown. This is part of the significance of the touching lines in 2150-2151, where Beowulf tells Hygelac that he is almost the only family that Beowulf has. By implication, Beowulf is Hygelac's rightful heir.
Beowulf ruled wisely for "fifty years." (This is the same as the length of Hrothgar's rule, and the same that Grendel's mother held control of her watery kingdom. We are not meant to take it literally, but as a way of saying "a long time"). The events of his reign are skipped over, and we go straight to introduction of the creature who would end it. A dragon was enraged by the theft of a cup from the hoard he guarded, rose from his stone barrow, and "ruled the dark." The story of the theft and its consequences will be told in the next fitt.

“So the country's king kept the traditions.
“By no means gone were the gifts I had,
“rewards for my strength, but he bestowed more wealth,
“Healfdene's son, to suit my achievement.
“I wish to bring these, warrior king,
“and offer you all, since everything still
“flows from your favour. There are few alive 2150
“I have as kin, Hygelac, but you.”

He bade them bring the boar-crest standard,
the high battle helmet, the hoar-silver byrnie,
and the beautiful sword. He said further:
“Hrothgar wished me this war harness,
“the clever ruler, and commanded
“that first I inform you of its former state.
“He said it came from King Heorogar
“who led the Scyldings so long a time,
“but he held it back from brave Heoroweard, 2160
“though he was loyal, and the lord's own son.
“This is the breast armour. Bear it all well.”

I heard four horses were held with the treasure;
well matched and fast, they followed behind,
fallow as apples. He offered the gifts,
horses and riches, as relatives should,
never weaving webs of malice,
with shadowy traps ensuring the death
of hand companions. For Hygelac
his nephew stayed steady in battle 2170
and neither forgot the needs of the other.

I heard, too, that Hygd was handed the necklace,
the wonderful work Wealhtheow gave,
the lord's daughter, along with three steeds,
bright-saddled and supple. And soon after
the gem was given, it gleamed on her breast.

So he acted boldly, Ecgtheow's son,
daring in battle, to do what is right.
He prized his honour. Companions were safe
from drunken murder. His mind was calm, 2180
but no man could match the might in him,
a goodly gift that God had sent him,
the battle brave. He had borne distain;
the sons of Geats regarded him poorly.
Not much of honour on mead-benches
was allowed him by warriors' lords.
They called him lazy and lax in his ways,
no bold noble. Now that all changed
for the man among men, each misery cancelled.
Now the earls' bulwark ordered brought in— 2190
the hardy war king—Hrethel's heirloom
embellished with gold. No Geat had a better
or so precious a sword as that.
He lay the blade in Beowulf's lap
and settled on him land, seven thousand hides,
as home and seat. They held in the nation
the fields and folds of family estates,
land that was left them, but the larger share
of the wide kingdom went to the higher.

In due order the days passed by 2200
till Higelac lay dead in hard fighting.
The same for Heardred: swords in battle
passed by his shield and shed his blood
when they advanced on the victory people
the hard fighters, Heathoscylfings.1
They struck in haste Hereric's nephew.

Then Beowulf became king of the nation;
it came into his hands. He kept it well
for fifty winters; full of wisdom,
the state's old warden, till one started 2210
to rule the dark. A dragon rose
from his house on high who hoarded treasure
in a stark barrow of stone standing over a path
that no-one knew. His name, who entered,
I never heard. He kneeled to grope
the heathen hoard. His hands enclosed
an elaborate jewel. Later, it cost him.
Though the sleeper suffered a trick
from the thief's cunning, the countryfolk learned,
the people around, the rage that filled him. 2220

1Meaning “Battle Scylfings.”

19 November 2011

XXX. Beowulf Continues his Speech to Hygelac

With this fitt, we're coming very close to catching up with where I am in the translation. That will slow down the postings of new fitts, although I could keep up new postings with discussions of the time, culture, poetic form, and so on. I'm still continuing in the translation, though. At the moment, I'm writing about the dragon.

In this fitt, Beowulf continues speaking to his king, Hygelac, about the probable disaster when King Hrothgar attempts to make peace with his enemies the Bards (or Heathobards) by marrying his daughter to one of their princes. Grudges will be harboured, he says, and shared, until a Scylding in the wedding party is murdered.

Then, that point made, Beowulf switches abruptly to the story of Grendel's attack on Hrothgar's hall. For the first time, we learn the name of the Scylding warrior who was eaten by Grendel: Hondscio. He also describes a strange article of clothing on Grendel, a pouch, which Grendel tried to stuff him into. He recapitulates his fights with Grendel and Grendel's mother. After each struggle, he says, King Hrothgar rewarded him. He mentions this not only as a comment on Hrothgar's virtues but to introduce the subject of the next fitt, in which Beowulf gives these awards to his King.

There is much that I should comment on in this section, even though it is largely material that we know from earlier. For example, there is the meaning of Hondscio's name, why the name has been omitted from the story until now, and the nature and significance of Grendel's pouch. Enough for now, though. Here is the translation.


“before they led headlong to ruin
“their lives and loved ones in linden play.        2040
“Then a drinker speaks who spies ring treasure
“an old fighting man, remembering all,
“men killed by spear. His spirit is fierce.
“Forced by his grief, he finds a youth
“to tell him his heart, to tempt the mind,
“to spur savage war; he speaks these words.

“‘Look there, my friend, is that the sword,
“‘the one your father wore to the fight
“‘below his mask on his last battle?
“‘That iron cost dear. The Danes slew him there.    2050
“‘and kept the shambles when the counterblow failed,
“‘and the heroes fell, the fierce Scyldings.
“‘Now the son of one who slew that day,
“‘proudly attired, treads on the floor, 
“‘boasts of murder and bears the treasure
“‘that is your own by all that's right.’

“So he enrages and raises the past
“with trenchant words till the moment
“Freawaru’s man, for his father’s deeds,
“sleeps from a sword’s bite, stained with his blood,    2060
“released from life. Lightly, the other
“leaves there alive for land he knows well.
“Then they are broken, by both parties,
“the earls’ sworn oaths. Then Ingeld will feel
“blood lust welling, and love for his wife
“become colder from cresting grief.
“So I have little faith that Heathobards
“will honour their treaty with the trusting Danes
“with a long friendship. But let me say
“more about Grendel to give you all,            2070
“giver of treasure, that happened that day
“in hand combat when heaven’s jewel
“glided to Earth. The angry guest,
“awful in evening, entered to visit
“where, safe and sound, on sentry duty,
“we held the hall where Hondscio sank
“fated to fall, the first to be killed,
“the girded hero. Grendel took him
“to murder by mouth, that much-praised thain.
“The dear man's body was bolted down,        2080
“and instantly, though empty-handed,
“life's blood on teeth, intent on evil,
“he hoped to go from the gold-hall,
“but with terrible strength, he tested mine,
“held me in hand. There hung a pouch,
“queer and capacious, cunningly fashioned.
“Every part was artfully worked
“with devilish skill of dragon skins
“and, into it, me, an innocent man
“the rash raider was ready to push            2090
“as he had others.  He had no success
“because I rose erect in anger.
“It would take too long to tell how that scourge
“I repaid in kind for his cruelties.
“In that place, my prince, your people gained
“glory from my action. He got away
“and enjoyed his life a little while,
“but part of his right side rested behind,
“his hand in Heort. From here, the wretch
“sad-hearted sank to the sea bottom."           2100
“The Scylding's friend, for this fierce struggle,
“repaid me with gifts of plated gold,
“many treasures, when morning came
“and we sat at table to sate ourselves;
“we had song and glee. The grey-haired Scylding
“told us a few of the tales he knew.
“At times, he was pleased to take up the harp,
“wrung tunes from old wood. At times, gave us songs
“true and tragic. At times, odd stories
“he related truly, the large-hearted king.        2110
“At times, age-bound, he turned again,
“the grey fighter, to grieve for his youth.
“his fighting strength. It filled his heart,
“wise from his winters, when he recalled it.
“Here we relaxed the whole day long,
“taking pleasure until the night
“returned to men.
                                      "Then the time had come;
“to avenge her grief, Grendel's mother
“set out sadly. Her son was dead
“from the Weders' hate. That horrible woman        2120
“avenged her child, vanquished a fighter,
“audaciously. Life departed
“from old and learned Aeshere there.
“They could not even, come the morning,
“the death-weary Danish people,
“burn his body or bed on his pyre
“the much-loved man. She moved with his corpse
“in the fiend's embrace, under beck water.
“That was, for Hrothgar, the hardest grief
“laid on that lord for the longest time.        2130
“Then the lord invoked me by your very life;
“worried, he wished, in the water's rage
“I perform a deed, face the danger,
“and win glory. He would give rewards.
“I met in the mere, as many know,
“the hate-filled horrid holder of the deep
“There, hand to hand, we held our grip.
“Currents ran crimson. I cut off the head
“of Grendel's dam, in that deep hall,
“with awful edges. No easy thing            2140
“to leave there alive. It lay with fate,
“but the heroes' ward once more gave me
“heaped-up treasures, Healfdene's kin.”

14 November 2011

XXIX. Beowulf's Homecoming

Now that Beowulf has returned to Geatland, he and his men head to King Hygelac's hall. The news of their coming precedes them, and all is made ready for a formal greeting. Hygelac is genuinely happy to see Beowulf, sits him down beside him, and questions him about the trip. We learn, for the first time, that Beowulf had gone to Heorot against his king's wishes. Beowulf describes Hrothgar's hall and discusses an affair of state, Hrothgar's intention to create peace with the Heathobards by marrying his daughter to Froda, a prince of that people. Beowulf reveals here, as he presumably did not to Hrothgar, that he believes this marriage will fail to bring peace. He will continue to discuss this in the next Fitt.

Hardy, he went with his hand-picked men;
himself, he strode the strip of sand,
the wide stretching shore. The world candle shone,
the sun from the south. They set off ahead,
walking quickly to where the defender,
Ongentheow's doom, dwelt in his fort,
the young war-leader. They learned that the good man
was handing out rings.
                                                 Hygelac was
quickly brought news of Beowulf's coming        1970       
that there in the walls, the warriors' refuge,
the lindenshield comrade, had come back alive,
healthy, unharmed, and homeward bound.
The court quickly, on the king's orders,
was cleared to make room for men to come in.
Then he sat himself beside the survivor,
kinsman by kinsman. Once the king himself
in gracious language, greeted his liege
with stirring speech, servings of mead
went round the hall. Hareth’s daughter—        1980
she loved the people—passed on the cups
to heroes’ hands. Hygelac started
in that lofty court to question politely
his best comrade. Questions burst out
to find how the Sea-Geats fared on their journey.

“Did it go well, dear Beowulf,
“when you, of a sudden, decided to fight
“in distant Heort? And did you, for Hrothgar,
“even slightly ease the sorrows
“of the honoured lord? Anxious at heart,        1990
“seething with sorrow, I sensed trouble
“for the best of friends. I begged at length:
“Stay well away from that wild spirit;
“let the Southern Danes deal by themselves
“with Grendel's aggression. I give thanks to the Lord
“that, safe and sound, I see you now.”

Beowulf said, the son of Ecgtheow,
“Little is hidden, Lord Hygelac;
“for many know of the mighty encounter—
“how great a struggle!—Grendel and I        2000
“passed in the place where he put onto many
“Triumph Scyldings terrible sorrows,
“endless anguish. All, I avenged.
“So Grendel’s kinsmen will give no boast—
“of that morning meeting—mortal devils!—
“even the last of that loathsome race,
“wrapped in rancour. I arrived there
“at the gift-hall to greet Hrothgar.
“After he found what feelings brought me
“he set me beside his sons at table.            2010
“The hall-troops were happy. I have not seen
“any hall-sitters under heaven's arch
“celebrate more. Sometimes the great queen,
“a promise of peace between peoples, went 
“to gladden the young. She gave veterans
“many fine rings before she sat down.
“It happened too that Hrothgar's daughter
“passed down the tables pouring out ale.
“The older heroes I heard call her
“‘Freawaru,’ as she furnished drink,            2020
“speaking her name when the studded cup
“was presented. She will marry,
“young and in gold, the great son of  Froda.
“The Scyldings’ friend ensured this match;
“the people’s herder heeded counsel
“that he, with her wedding, can heal old wounds
“and bloody feuds. But, most often,
“a little after a lord is killed
“the war-spear lowers, though the wife be good.1
“It has to hurt the Heathobard prince,        2030
“and every thane of that people,
“when he and the woman walk in the hall,
“that Dane-lords’ sons, a seasoned troop,
“are feted, outfitted in flashing heirlooms,
“hard and be-ringed—Heathobard treasures,
“while they wielded those weapons themselves—

10 November 2011

Tennyson's Alliterative Verse: "The Battle of Brunanburh"

Here's a treat. I've always enjoyed Tennyson more than any other Victorian poet. (That is, except for Kipling. I grew up reading Kipling). As it turns out, Tennyson's son, Hallam, made a prose translation of the Old English poem "The Battle of Brunanburh," which inspired the father to try his hand at alliterative verse. The story is here, a page that contains links to discussions of the poem. If you want to see the poem as Tennyson published it, look at the RPO (Representative Poetry Online) site here.

However, in his time it was usual to print each half-line as a separate line on the page. For the comfort of people used to seeing both half-lines together, I've taken that liberty below. I've kept the capitalization the same as Tennyson had it, even though I've joined the half-lines.


Constantinus, King of the Scots, after having sworn allegiance to Athelstan, allied himself with the Danes of Ireland under Anlaf, and invading England, was defeated by Athelstan and his brother Edmund with great slaughter at Brunanburh in the year 937.
Athelstan King, Lord among Earls,
Bracelet-bestower and Baron of Barons,
He with his brother, Edmund Atheling,
Gaining a lifelong Glory in battle,
Slew with the sword-edge 
There by Brunanburh, Brake the shield-wall,
Hew'd the lindenwood, Hack'd the battleshield,
Sons of Edward with hammer'd brands.

Theirs was a greatness Got from their Grandsires--
Theirs that so often in Strife with their enemies
Struck for their hoards and their hearths and their homes.

Bow'd the spoiler, Bent the Scotsman,
Fell the shipcrews Doom'd to the death.
All the field with blood of the fighters
Flow'd, from when first the great
Sun-star of morningtide,
Lamp of the Lord God Lord everlasting,
Glode over earth till the glorious creature
Sank to his setting.
There lay many a man Marr'd by the javelin,
Men of the Northland Shot over shield.
There was the Scotsman Weary of war.

We the West-Saxons,
Long as the daylight Lasted, in companies
Troubled the track of the host that we hated;
Grimly with swords that were sharp from the grindstone
Fiercely we hack'd at the flyers before us.

Mighty the Mercian, Hard was his hand-play,
Sparing not any of Those that with Anlaf,
Warriors over the Weltering waters
Borne in the bark's-bosom,
Drew to this island: Doom'd to the death.

Five young kings put asleep by the sword-stroke,
Seven strong earls of the army of Anlaf
Fell on the war-field, numberless numbers,
Shipmen and Scotsmen.

Then the Norse leader, Dire was his need of it,
Few were his following, Fled to his warship;
Fleeted his vessel to sea with the king in it,
Saving his life on the fallow flood.

Also the crafty one, Constantinus,
Crept to his north again, Hoar-headed hero!

Slender warrant had He to be proud of
The welcome of war-knives--
He that was reft of his
Folk and his friends that had Fallen in conflict,
Leaving his son too Lost in the carnage,
Mangled to morsels, A youngster in war!

Slender reason had He to be glad of
The clash of the war-glaive-- 
Traitor and trickster And spurner of treaties-- 
He nor had Anlaf With armies so broken
A reason for bragging That they had the better
In perils of battle On places of slaughter--
The struggle of standards,
The rush of the javelins,
The crash of the charges,
The wielding of weapons--
The play that they play'd with
The children of Edward.

Then with their nail'd prows Parted the Norsemen, a
Blood-redden'd relic of
Javelins over The jarring breaker, the deep-sea billow,
Shaping their way toward Dyflen again, Shamed in their souls.

Also the brethren, King and Atheling,
Each in his glory,
Went to his own in his own West-Saxonland,
Glad of the war.

Many a carcase they left to be carrion,
Many a livid one, many a sallow-skin--
Left for the white-tail'd eagle to tear it, and
Left for the horny-nibb'd raven to rend it, and
Gave to the garbaging war-hawk to gorge it, and
That gray beast, the wolf of the weald.

Never had huger Slaughter of heroes
Slain by the sword-edge--Such as old writers
Have writ of in histories--Hapt in this isle, since
Up from the East hither Saxon and Angle from
Over the broad billow Broke into Britain with
Haughty war-workers who Harried the Welshman, when
Earls that were lured by the
Hunger of glory gat Hold of the land.

06 November 2011

XXVIII. Beowulf Returns. Queens Hygd and Thryth

Beowulf and his men return to their ship and meet the coast guard who had challenged them when they arrived. They reward him, load the ship, and return to Geatland. We are treated to a short description of a journey at sea, similar to the one in lines 210-228. After they land, King Hygelac's wife, Hygd, has her virtues contrasted to the vices that another queen, Thryth (or Modthryth) had shown before she married and reformed.
They came to the sea with confident hearts,
young warriors. They wore ring nets,
meshed coats of mail. The march warden 1890
saw the earls come, as he earlier did.
He called down no insults from the clifftop heights
to greet the guests but guided his horse
and said they would be welcomed home,
warriors in bright mail.
                                         He went to the ship.
Then, on the sand, the sea-curved boat
from stem to stern was stocked with armour,
mounts and rich metal. The mast towered
over the hoard of Hrothgar's wealth.
Beowulf gave the boat's protector 1900
a sword, gold-inset, so that he would
at meadbench receive respect for the treasure
passed on through ages. He put out to sea
to stir the deeps. He struck oar from Denmark.

They raised up the mast a mighty sea-cloth
bound by the bowlines. The boards thundered.
The wave floater was not hindered
by wind over waves. The warriors sailed.
The foamy-neck floated on waves,
the tight-fitted prow parted the currents, 1910
till the Geats’ headlands grew in their sight,
familiar cliffs. The keel rushed up,
worn by weather. It washed up on land.

Quickly the coast guard came to the water.
Weeks he had watched for the well-loved men,
fervently peering far out to sea.
The broad-beamed boat was bound to sand,
stayed with anchors, to stop the waves' force
from floating away the faithful wood.
He urged them to take the earls’ treasure 1920
trophies and trappings. The trip was not far
to go to the one who gave out wealth,
Hygelac son of Hrethel, at home where he lived,
he and his comrades, close to the headlands.

The house was impressive; the prince, battle-tough;
the hall was high; and Hygd,1 very young,
flourishing, wise, though few winters
had lapsed in the walled town while she had lived there.
Hareth's daughter's hand was open,
not grudging gifts to Geatish men 1930
of splendid things.
                           Spite had filled Thryth.
That famous queen inflicted wrongs.
Not even the boldest braved the danger,
in all that band, only her lord,
to look long at her in the light of day.
He would be taken and tied for killing;
cords were hand-knotted. Quickly after
the man was seized, a sword was ordered
to settle the matter; the mottled sword
called out the killing. Such queenly manners 1940
are wrong for a lady, rare though she be,
that a peace-weaver deprive of life
a much-loved man for imagined harm.

But Hemming’s kinsman curbed her behaviour.
The ale-drinkers also told us
she came to plague her people less
with malice and anger after she was
given in gold to a gloried youth
of fine family. Her father sent her,
in his deep wisdom, over dark waters 1950
to Offa’s hall, and here she was
fitly enthroned, famed for her virtue.
For her fated span she spent life well,
holding deep love for the heroes' lord,
the best there was between the seas
of his mighty kind because Offa
in giving and conflict was keen as a spear,
widely honoured, wisely ruling
his own country. Then Eomer woke,2
the heroes' helper, Hemming's kinsman, 1960
Garmund's grandson, good in a fight.
1This is the first reference to Hygelac's wife, the queen.
2was born.

03 November 2011

Fitt XXVII. The Parting Words

In this short Fitt, Beowulf tells Hrothgar he wishes to go home, but will return with help if Hrothgar ever needs it. Hrothgar praises Beowulf's wisdom and predicts great things, even kingship, for him. He promises friendship between their peoples. He then embraces Beowulf with tears in his eyes, fearing that this would be their last meeting. In a very different, cheerful, mood, Beowulf walks towards the ship that will take him home. -----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Beowulf said, the son of Ecgtheow,
“We seafarers wish to tell you,
“our home is far, and our hearts desire
“to seek Hygelac. Here, and in full, 1820
“our wants were tended. You welcomed us truly.
“If there is on Earth some act in my power,
“a deed to deserve your deeper love,
“master of men, than is mine so far
“for clash of arms, I will do it.
“When word crosses the wide ocean
“that bordering peoples oppress you with fear,
“as those who hate you have sometimes done,
“I will throw into battle a thousand men,
“heroes to help. Hygelac, I know, 1830
“though the Geat leader is green in years,
“the people’s guard would give me aid
“in word and action, so I can serve you
“and furnish support, a forest of spears,
“might to sustain you when men are needed.
“And if Hrethric decides to seek the Geat court,
“the son of the king can certainly
“find many friends. Far-distant lands
“are pleasant stays for powerful men."

Then Hrothgar spoke to him in answer: 1840
“The words you have given are gifts the wise Lord
“sent to your mind. Such wisdom I never
“heard in the speech of such a young man.
“Your might is great and your mind is wise,
“thoughtful speaker! I think it may be
“that, should it happen a shaft robs you
“of Hrethel’s successor in horrid battle,
“if sickness or sword seize your ruler,
“the people’s shield, and should you still live,
“the seafaring Geats could get no better 1850
“by setting another to serve as king,
“as warriors’ ward, if you wish to rule
“your kinsman’s kingdom. Your keen spirit
“is a deepening joy, dear Beowulf.
“Your efforts ensure that each people,
“the Geats as well as the warlike Danes
“will live in peace and lessen the rancour
“from brutal acts that burdened them.
“While I have rule of this wide kingdom
“wealth will be shared. One and another 1860
“will greet with gifts on the gannet’s bath.
“The curve-prowed craft will carry on waves
“love tokens and presents. These peoples, I know,
“face unafraid both friends and foes,
“blameless in all, in the ancient way.”

The earls’ guardian gave him once more,
Haelfdene’s son, a hoard of twelve gems.
He said, “Take these gifts. Go to your people.
“Travel safely; return quickly."
Then the noble king kissed the good lord, 1870
the first among Scyldings, the finest thane,
and took his neck. Tears fell from the man
with grey in his hair. He had two thoughts.
The mindful old man, the mightier youth
might never have sight of nor sit with the other,
courageous in council. So close was the man
he could not still his stirring breast,
but his heart firmly held to a feeling
for the dear man, a deep longing
burned in his blood.
                                            Beowulf himself, 1880
wearing his gold, walked the grass slope
glad of his treasure. His transport waited,
riding at anchor, ready for its lord.
As they headed home, Hrothgar’s presents
were applauded. He was a king
blameless in all, till age had taken
the joys of strength, a stroke many feel.

30 October 2011

W.H. Auden from "The Runner"

The poet W.H. Auden was commissioned by the National Film Board of Canada to write the commentary for a short film called "The Runner." He introduces the subject of the film like this:
It is meet we praise in our days fleet-footed
Bruce Kidd from Toronto.
The script includes prose and rhyme and, unexpectedly, a section of alliterative verse. Here is part:
(FIRST VOICE) Rivals should ride to the race together
Be firm friends.
                                (SECOND VOICE) Foolish is he
Who, greedy for victory, grits his teeth,
Frowns fiercely before contests,
And no neighbor.
                                  (FIRST VOICE) It is nice to win,
But sport shall be loved by losers also:
Foul is envy.
                           (SECOND VOICE) False are those
With warm words for the winner after
A poor race.
                         (FIRST VOICE) Pleasing to the ear
Are clapping crowds, but the cold stop-watch
Tells the truth.
                             (SECOND VOICE) There is time and place
For a fine performance. Fate forbids
Mortals to be at their best always.
God-given is the great day.
I found this under the title "Six Commissioned Texts" in Auden's Collected Poems. (pg. 610 in my edition).

21 October 2011

In praise of good design and fine workmanship

The Beowulf poet cannot seem to mention a tool of a warrior's trade without giving a physical description of it, sometimes the name of its creator or original owner, and its fine protective or offensive qualities.

He sometimes does this for swords (in lines 1694-1698)
Engraved in the gold of the glowing hilt,
the uprights of runes, rightly inscribed,
set down and said the sword's first owner,
the man it was made for, that matchless blade
and winding-snake hilt.
Sometimes, helmets (in lines 1446-1451)
The shining helmet that sheltered his head
and would swirl up mire from the mud below,
creating currents, was crusted with treasure
in elaborate bands for long before
a weaponsmith worked, wonderfully lengthened,
and fastened boars as a firm sign
that not blade at all could ever bite.
But, invariably, shirts of mail.
“But if I sink in death, send Hygelac 452
“the wonderful armour worn over my breast,
“the best of hauberks that Hrethel left me,
“Wayland's handwork."
“An aid against foes, my armoured shirt 550
“strong and hand-linked, helped me withstand,
“safeguarding my breast, my braided sark
“adorned with gold"
The modern reader might wonder why so much attention goes to an item of protective clothing, but the listeners apparently never tired of hearing such details. Perhaps we can understand them by describing items of narrow but deep interest to particular groups. For example, passages like this would interest one segment of society.
His vehicle waited,   a V-8 turbo
with twin overhead cams   that came from his father
an avid collector.   The Camaro was painted
in metallic red.   A racing stripe
adorned its length   and leather seats,
factory-fresh,   in front and back.
An over six-thousand   cc engine
carefully tuned   by qualified techs
zoomed in three seconds    from zero to sixty.
If you are aware whether Camaros had 6000 cc V-8 engines, you are a perfect audience for this type of description. Other people would pay attention to
A chinois Chanel   shaped to perfection...
A Mac computer   from Cupertino...
I begin to appreciate why Richard  Wilbur chose alliterative verse to praise objects (and discarded objects at that). That function is common in alliterative verse.

XXVI. The Sermon Ends, and the Last Night at Heort

Hrothgar continues his moral advice to Beowulf, first because he values the man himself and second because he senses that Beowulf may eventually become a king. The specific sin he highlights is covetousness: attempting to accumulate wealth for its own sake, rather than using it to recognize and reward his supporters. A covetous man, he says, gives up the "place of honour" he should have.

Hrothgar then focuses on mortality, as it applies to man in general and to Beowulf and himself in particular. The points he makes about his own life later apply to Beowulf's. Hrothgar ruled his people for fifty years, as Beowulf will; Hrothgar's prowess in war brought security to his people for a time, as Beowulf's will. The peace he forged for the Danes was shattered by the monster Grendel, as the Geats' peace would be by a dragon. Finally, Hrothgar speaks of his satisfaction at seeing his enemy lying, dead, as Beowulf will see the dragon. In a way, as Hrothgar seems to recognize, Beowulf is a younger version of himself.

Night comes. The men sleep.

In the morning, the raven announces that a new day has come, and Beowulf begins his farewells. First, he returns Unferth's sword to him, politely praising its quality, although it had not helped him in the fight against Grendel's mother. He then approaches King Hrothgar.

Then under the armour they enter the heart,
the cruel shafts. He cannot resist
crooked counsel of the cursed spirit.
It seems too little, what he had saved too long.
Greedy and cruel, he keeps for himself
the rings of fine gold. The future is then 1750
forgotten, foregone, which God had intended,
the Prince of Glory, a place of honour.”

It always comes in the end to this:
the living frame loaned to him fails;
it falls, as it must. The man who follows
gladly gives out golden treasures
the earl had hoarded, heeding no fear.”1

These wicked ways, beware, Beowulf, dear man,
first among men, and favour the better,
the timeless truth. Turn from self-pride, 1760
famous soldier. We celebrate your power
a little time. Not long from now
illness or edge will end your strength,
or flow of flood, or flame's embrace,
or clutch of sword, or course of spear,
or hideous age, or the eyes' reflection
will dull and dim. The day will soon come
that has you, hero, humbled by death.”

So the Ring Danes I have, these half-hundred years,
held under heaven, and helped in war 1770
with many a tribe of Middle Earth,
with ash-wood and sword, till it seemed that none
under sky's cover counted as foes.”

NOW. Those times in my country came to an end.
Grief followed joy since Grendel became
a familar foe forced upon me.
I bore without pause his persecution.
I grieved greatly. God then be thanked,
Lord of Ages, that life remains
so on that head, hacked and bloody, 1780
our fight at last finished, I can feast my eyes.
Take your seat now; attend our glad meal,
graced by your trials. Time and again,
I will share wealth, when morning comes.”

The Geat felt glad, going at once
to his waiting seat, as the wise man said.
Then, as before, the fighting-tough,
the seated guests, were given a banquet,
another time. Night’s helmet darkened,
black over the war-band. All warriors rose. 1790
The aged one wanted his bed,
the grey-haired Scylding. The Geat very much,
brave warrior, wanted to rest.
An attendant took the tired wayfarer
from far away, went as a guide
as courtesy called for, and cared for each
of the soldier’s needs, for such, in those days,
seafaring heroes had as a right.
The big-hearted one rested. The building reared high,
gabled and gilded.
                               The guest slept inside 1800
till the black raven, bliss of the sky,
sang light-hearted, then swift brightness came,
shine after shadow. The shield-bearers hurried.
The nobles were, away to their people,
eager to leave on the long journey;
the great-hearted guest, to go to his ship.
He told the tough man to take Hrunting;
the son of Ecglaf was offered his sword,
beloved iron, along with thanks.
The war-friend2 was warmly praised 1810
by war’s master. No words slighted
the broadsword’s blade. He bore himself well.
And then, wanting to go, their war-gear on,
the warriors waited. He went, loved by Danes,
the noble to the throne. There was the other.
The great in heart greeted Hrothgar.

1With no fear of the dead lord’s ghost.


11 October 2011

XXV. Hrothgar's Sermon

Once Beowulf arrives back at Heorot with Grendel's head, he hands over to Hrothgar a hilt. This is all that is left of the giants' sword that had killed Grendel's mother. It is a "sign of glory," he says, then summarizes the fight. He credits God for timely help. He promises that the danger to Hrothgar's people is over now and that appropriate revenge was taken.

Hrothgar examines the hilt and then speaks. He praises Beowulf, of course, but obviously sees a great future for him, and offers the benefit of his experience to prepare him for it.

He tells Beowulf to keep hold of the credit he has won by protecting and comforting those set under him. His admonition is the same as that in Luke 12:48: "For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required." More concisely, He is reminding Beowulf that noblesse oblige.

Heremod is again mentioned as someone whose strength and position gave him a potential for greatness, but who forgot his duty, killed his own people and failed to reward with appropriate gifts.  He died alone and unhonoured.

Hrothgar then paints a more general picture of a man to whom God gives a rich and easy life, so his pride in himself grows to the point that his soul is in danger from "the killer / whose arrows' aim is always good."

This speech is sometimes called "Hrothgar's Sermon," and it is continued in the next Fitt.

Lines 1705-7 are the poem's second use of hypermetric lines (a specific form that produces longer-than-usual lines). They are marked with an asterisk (*).
Beowulf spoke, the son of Ecgtheow.
“NOW. This sea-won hilt, Healfdene's son,
“Prince of the Danes, we are pleased to bring you.
“You see before you a sign of glory.
“To leave with my life was less than easy,
“war under water. The work I did
“required all my strength. Still, and quickly,
“that grapple would have ended, but God shielded me.
“With Hrunting I held no hope of success;
“it worked no effect, though a fine weapon. 1660
“But the Lord of Men allowed me the grace
“to behold on the wall, hanging in beauty,
“a potent old sword—often he points out
“a way to the friendless. I forced out the blade
“and felled in the fight, when fate allowed,
“the home's defenders. Then that fighting sword,
“wave-patterned, burned up as blood washed over,
“the hottest war-sweat. The hilt, though, I carried
“here from the demons. I redressed the crime
“of Danish deaths, as due and right. 1670
“You have my word that you will, in Heort,
“sleep without sadness with your soldier band,
“and each thane, too, all through your kingdom,
“father and son. Fear no more evil
“to come from that quarter, King of the Scyldings,
“no more of the death-wounds you dreaded before.”
Then the golden hilt was handed over
to the aged fighter, the august king.
The old work of giants joined the possessions
of the Danish king after the devils' fall: 1680
a wonder-smith's work, when the Earth lost
the furious fiend, the foe of God,
guilty of murder, and his mother, too.
It went to the keeping of kings of this world
who excelled the others by either sea
of Northern lands in lavish giving.
Then Hrothgar spoke. He inspected the hilt,
the ancient heirloom, etched with the story
of the old dispute, when the ocean slew
the race of giants in rushing floods. 1690
They fared poorly, a people divided
from eternal God. They got in return
rising waters as the Ruler’s gift.
Engraved in the gold of the glowing hilt,
the uprights of runes, rightly inscribed,
set down and said the sword's first owner,
the man it was made for, that matchless blade
and winding-snake hilt.
                                               And the wise one spoke,
Healfdene’s son. The hall fell silent.
“One who treats men with truth and right, 1700
“remembers old times, protected this land,
“may tell you this: Truly, this lord here
“was born to excel! You have built a name
“to the farthest fringes, my friend Beowulf;
* “credit comes from all quarters, so now keep hold of it
* “steadily, with strength from wisdom, and I still shall give you
* “support, such as we spoke of. You must spread comfort to those
“who live in your care, through long years to come,
“and help heroes.
                                    “Heremod did not
“to Ecgwela's sons, the Honour-Scyldings. 1710
“He bore no blessing but bitter slaughter
“dealing out death to Danish folk.
“He felled in fury friends of his table,
“companions in the press, till he passed alone,
“that lofty king, from life's pleasures.
“Though mighty God gave him strength
“that made him more than men about him,
“garnered him greatness, there grew in his heart
“a breast’s treasure1 of blood-thirst. No bracelets were given
“to honour Danes. Dour, he existed 1720
“enduring the pain of daily strife,
“a plague on his people.
                                                “Profit from this
“to understand virtue. This story's teller
“is wise from his winters. How wonderful to say
“how mighty God gives to mankind
“wisdom—He draws it from deep knowledge—
“stout heart and estate. He stands over all.
“He delights, at times, to allow a man
“of fine family his fondest wish,
“awards in his birthplace the best of this world: 1730
“to have command of men in a hold,
“to put under his rule part of the earth,
“a wide kingdom. He cannot himself,
“blind to its cause, believe it will end.
“He lives in plenty. No pain arrives
“from illness nor age; no anguish afflicts him,
“darkens his spirit; nor disputes arise
“stemming from hatred. Instead the world
“wends as he wills it, no worse than before.
“Meanwhile, inside him, his measure of pride 1740
“grows and engorges till the guard is asleep,
“the soul's keeper. The sleep is profound
“and caught up in distractions. The killer is near
“whose arrows’ aim is always good.”

1The breast’s treasure is the heart.

04 October 2011

XXIV. Beowulf Kills Grendel's Mother

Beowulf rises to his feet, but unarmed. He spots a weapon that might help: it is truly ancient (from before the flood!) and larger than life (forged by giants!). His extraordinary strength allows him to lift it and cut through the neck of Grendel's mother. He then takes the sword on a search for Grendel's corpse and cuts off its head. The act has consequences. Beowulf sees the ancient blade dissolve like an icicle on a hot day; his waiting friends see waves turn red and mount higher. They feel this is a sign of Beowulf's death. "At the day's ninth hour," the Danes give up their vigil, though the Geats "stared into the lake, / and longed without faith that their lord and friend / reenter their sight."

Beowulf picked the hilt of the melted sword and Grendel's head to take with him. He swam to the surface. No monsters attacked; they had disappeared. The water was calm. His friends rejoiced to see him. Teams of four men took turns carrying Grendel's heavy head to Heorot. They marched in with it and placed it in the midst of the men and women who were drinking there, amazing them all.

This Fitt describes a wide range of emotional states in a limited space. There is Beowulf's berserk rage against Grendel's mother, his vengefulness against Grendel, the hopeless longing of the Geats who thought Beowulf was dead, their unrestrained joy as he returns, the satisfaction of their trip back, and the stupefaction of the Danes as they saw Grendel's head dumped among them. There is irony, such as Grendel lying "seeming at rest" (though he suffered in Hell). There is also fine simile, such as this:
The sword then changed:
The blood of the slain dissolved the blade
like spears of ice. It inspired awe
that nothing remained, as melting ice
when the Father frees frost from its bonds,         1610
unwinds water-ropes, the one who rules
the times and seasons, the true Creator.
I'm not sure exactly what it means that the Father "unwinds water ropes." If an unwound rope looks somthing like this

Then it might look like this

But the other image that comes to mind is an icicle with water running down it, twisting into exactly the shape of a rope. I can't find a picture of it, but I've seen it.

Or "water rope" could simply be a term for an icicle.

One of the joys of literature is that you do not have to choose between competing interpretations. They all contribute meaning to the metaphor.

He saw among weapons a well-tested sword
with firm edges forged by giants,
an honour to wield. This one was the best        1560
but oversized for other men
to bear away to a battleground.
It was made well, this work of giants.
The Scyld-lord seized the sword by its ring-hilt.
Enraged beyond reason, he raised the sword,
not hoping to live. He hit with such anger
that it clutched her neck, cut into it hard,
broke through the neckbones, and next passed through
the doomed body. She dropped to the floor.
The blade was bloody. Beowulf rejoiced.        1570
The hall was lit by a light from within,
much like the bright illuming beams
of the sky’s candle. He scanned the room
and followed the wall, his weapon in hand
with bristling hilts. Hygelac’s thane
held one angry thought: The weapon had use
to the warrior’s will. He wanted now
to make Grendel pay for his many raids,
for the war he waged on the West-Danes,
returning to attack more times than the once        1580
that Hrothgar saw his hearth-companions
while slumbering slaughtered, while sleeping devoured.
The fifteen dead were Danish fighters.
Countless others were carried away,   
pitiful victims. The vengeful prince
repaid him sorely! Seeming at rest,
Grendel was lying, life’s pleasures gone,
robbed of existence, ruined as he was
by Heorot’s battle. The body heaved
when the corpse received a cut of such strength,        1590
so heavy a blow, its head came away.

They saw at once, the wise companions
that were watching the water with Hrothgar,
that the troubled waves were tossing higher
and stained with gore. Greybearded men,
respected elders spoke of the good man.
They had little hope the high-born lord,
exulting in triumph, would return and seek
the glorious monarch. Many agreed
that he had been slain by the sea-wolf’s hands.        1600

At the day’s ninth hour, the noble Danes
left the sea-cliff. He set off for home,
the gold-sharer, but his guests looked about
distraught at their loss, stared into the lake,
and longed without faith that their lord and friend
reenter their sight. 
                                        The sword then changed:
The blood of the slain dissolved the blade
like spears of ice. It inspired awe
that nothing remained, as melting ice
when the Father frees frost from its bonds,         1610
unwinds water-ropes, the one who rules
the times and seasons, the true Creator.

The war leader of the Weder Geats
retrieved no trophies from the treasures there,
except the head and the sword’s hilt,
so brightly adorned. The blade had melted,
its wave-pattern burned, the blood came so hot
from the poisonous spirit that perished within.

At once, in the water, the war survivor,
death to his foes, dived and ascended.         1620
The clashing waves were clear of danger,
endless expanses where evil spirits
had given up breath and this borrowed world.
The sailors’ leader set out for land,
swimming strongly, his sea-loot a joy,
the heavy burden he bore with him.

Then the thanes approached, with prayers of thanks.
The group of earls grinned and shouted
on seeing at last that their lord was safe.
Then the hardy man had helm and byrnie         1630
quickly loosened. The lake grew calm.
Below the sky lay blood-stained water.

They travelled the trails that took them back
with happy hearts. They held to the path,
the familiar route. With royal pride,
they carried the head from the clifftop heights,
with much effort from all of the men.
Four at a time, full of spirit,
they lifted and carried the litter pole
with Grendel’s head to the gold-hall.            1640
The time arrived that they reached the hall,
the fierce fighters, fourteen in all,
Geatsmen going with their great leader,
proud in the pack. They passed over the lawn.
The men’s captain then came marching,
fearless in action, exalted to fame,
the gallant hero, to greet Hrothgar.
The head was lowered by its hair to rest,
the monster’s head where men were drinking.
The earls were awed, as were the ladies,        1650
on seeing the marvel. The men all stared.