22 June 2011

The First (or Second) Fitt

There is a bit of a difference of opinion about how to number the Fitts (the sections that Beowulf is divided into). The first one has no number. The second is numbered "1." So, a translator has two options. He can follow the original numbering and call the first Fitt a "Prologue" or "Forward" or something similar, or he can call it Fitt 1 and renumber the rest accordingly. I'm doing the latter, so here is Fitt 2. I'll include a few comments after.



Then Beowulf stayed in the stead of Scyld,
a beloved king, long remaining,
famous among his folk, after his father passed,
his forerunner. He fathered a son,
lordly Healfdene. While he lived, he ruled,
grey-haired and grim, the grateful Scyldings.
His four children, the first to the last     60
woke in the world from the war leader:
Heorogar and Hrothgar and Halga the good,
and Yrse, I heard, was Onela’s queen3,
sweet bed-companion to the Swedes’ war-leader.

Then Hrothgar was sent success in war,
glory in fighting, so gladly his friends
readily served him and his retinue grew,
a powerful band. Then his purpose came
to order the making of a mansion house
a mead-hall bigger than men had built
so their sons should always ask them of it,    70
and within its portals portion out all
yielded by God, to young and old,
save common land and the lives of men.
I have heard the work was widely shared
by many folk across Middle-Earth
to finish this meet-place. He finally saw it,
created early. The craftsmen had made
the best of halls. Heort he named it—
he, a man whose words had worth in all lands.
He broke no vow, but provided rings,     80
riches at his feasts. There reared the hall,
horn-crested and high, but hateful waves
of flame would lash it. Not long after,
the edge-fury of father-in-law and son
must awaken from murderous hatred.
Then a hardy spirit could hardly master
the bitterness he endured, who bided in darkness,
who daily heard happiness spill
loud from the hall. A harp’s sound was there,
and the bard’s clear song. He sang what he knew,   90
told the story of the start of man.
He showed how God had shaped the earth,
that beautiful field, bounded by water,
triumphantly set the sun and moon
as lamps to shine on land-dwellers,
and with beauty enriched the regions of Earth
with limbs and leaves, and life as well
for each kind of being that breathes and moves.

So the lord’s men lived happily,
contentedly, until the time that one     100
fashioned horrors, a fiend of hell.
Grendel was the name this grim soul bore,
a hated marsh-walker inhabiting moors,
ruins and fens, the realm of fiends.
The wretched creature ruled since the time
the Creator for a crime condemned
all Cain’s kinsmen. A killing brought vengeance
at the Almighty’s hand, the murder of Abel.
From his deed, no joy, as he was driven far
by Heaven’s King from human kind.     110
He brought to life a loathsome brood:
ettins and elves, orcs of the sea,
and fierce giants, who fought with God
as ages passed. He repaid them well.


After wrapping up what is left of the Royal Danish line of descent, the poem introduces Hrothgar. He is a major character in the first two thirds of the poem, the king that Beowulf comes to help. We learn that he is a man deserving respect as a fighter and leader. He has the other Germanic virtue, too, of generosity, so he builds his palace so that he can share his wealth.

This fitt introduces a constant theme in the poem: if something is introduced as wonderful and good, we get a peep into the future to see how it will not last: The poem paints the hall as a marvel, so it immediately tells us that it will be plagued by violence and will burn down. Keep an eye open for such two-sided descriptions.

The name of the hall is given as Heorot or, sometimes, Heort, a word that remains in modern English as "Hart," a male deer. The building is sometimes described as being decorated with deer antlers, so that may be the origin of the name.

Lines 90-98 are sometimes called "The Song of Creation." I think they are lovely. The "limbs and leaves" in line 97 are tree limbs. Animals are dealt with in the next line.

Fitt 2 has introduced Hrothgar and Heorot. It concludes by introducing us to Grendel, who will plague them both. Grendel's evil is explained in a biblical fashion by introducing him as a monstrous descendant of Cain, the first murderer, cursed by God. Once Hrothgar and Grendel are brought together in Heorot, the last major character will enter the story: Beowulf himself.

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