05 July 2011

Fitt Seven: Hrothgar Welcomes Beowulf

This Fitt shows one reason why King Hrothgar is respected as "wise." He has information about Beowulf, Beowulf's parents, his father's father-in-law, and rumours of his ability, all sorted and ready as soon as he hears that a Geat named Beowulf has arrived. He also has a shrewd idea as to why Beowulf has come. Accordingly, he invites the Geats (except for a few who guard their weapons) to an audience.

Beowulf then introduces himself to Hrothgar. He uses high, courtly language, far removed from the direct speech he gave to the Coastguard.  He tells Hrothgar that the wise men of the Geats encouraged him to come and confront Grendel because "they understand the strength I possess./They saw it themselves." He lists his accomplishments. (We have an equivalent of such formal boasting in job interviews. Think of this speech as Beowulf's job interview with Hrothgar). Then he requests--amid many titles and praises of Hrothgar--one favour: that he and his men face Grendel alone.

Beowulf acknowledges, with characteristic honesty, that he may lose the fight, showing a streak of black humour as he does so. He assures the king that he will not have to bear the expense of Beowulf's funeral in any event, since there would be almost nothing left of his body to bury.

His final request is that Hrothgar should, if Beowulf dies, make sure that his chain mail armour is returned to Beowulf's own king, Hygelac. It was the work of the legendary smith Wayland, and very valuable.

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VII. HROTHGAR WELCOMES BEOWULF
Hrothgar answered, the helmet of Scyldings.
I remember this man as a mere boy.
His ag├Ęd father was Ecgtheow by name.
Hrethel the Geat gave him as wife
his only daughter. Their offspring, now,
has come to find their constant friend.
My seamen, too, have talked of him,
who carried my gifts to the Geatish court
as tokens of thanks. They tell that thirty
men together could match his grip, 380
famous in battle. The Blessed Father,
the merciful Lord, delivered this man
to the West Danes—so I dearly hope—
against Grendel’s horror. In grace, I must repay
good will like his with wealthy gifts.
Go hastily, and have them enter;
assemble those kinsmen to see me together,
and carry these words: Welcome is offered
here by the Danes.” To the hall’s doorway
Wulfgar made way and his words declared: 390
My sovereign master commands me to say
that the king knows your noble kin,
and, at sailing’s end, you are extended—
most willing heroes—a welcome here.
You may enter in your mailed armour
and grim-faced helmets to greet Hrothgar.
Let your battle-shields be left a while
and the wooden war-shafts wait through our talk.”

Then mighty he rose, surrounded by soldiers,
a fine war-band. A few stayed back 400
to watch over weapons as willed by their leader.
The group hurried, the herald as guide
under Heorot’s roof. The hero went
strong under helmet, till he stood in the hall.

Beowulf spoke. His byrnie shone,
a wondrous war-net woven by smiths.
Hail to you, Hrothgar! I am Hygelac’s man
as bondsman and kin. I have accomplished much
that is great, though young. Grendel’s doings
are widely known in my native land. 410
Travellers’ tales tell that this hall,
this excellent building for any man,
is idle and empty after evening light
has hidden itself under heaven’s dome.
I received advice from some of my household,
the wisest carls, whose counsel is prized,
sovereign Hrothgar, to seek you out
for they understand the strength I possess.
They saw it themselves when I safely returned
blood-soaked from my foes. I bound up five, 420
warring with giants. On waves I slew
nicors by night. Unnumbered times
I avenged the woes the Weders suffered,
struck down the aggressors. With Grendel now,
alone with that monster, I will make a stand
to quell the beast. A request, just one,
King of Bright-Danes, I bring to you,
Warden of Scyldings, to win your consent.
You should not refuse it, Fighting-men’s Shield,
Friend to All, Lord. We have fared long 430
so that, unaided, I and my thanes,
this hardy clan, will cleanse Heorot.
I have also heard the horrid being
in reckless fury fears no weapons.
I too forswear them, so Hygelac,
my high-born prince, will be proud at heart
that I bring no sword nor a broad shield
trimmed with yellow, but will try my grip
when I face this fiend, fighting for life,
foe against foe. Faith will be needed 440
for God’s will guides who goes with death.
Clearly, his wish, if he can win it,
is to wolf down Geats in the war-hall,
fearing no failure, full of success,
eat warrior heroes. And have no worries
how to shroud my head—the shreds of it left
will be drenched with blood if death takes me.
He will bear my corpse to bite alone.
The outcast will tear it, tearless, unmourning,
to mark out his moorland. So make no provisions 450
for funeral offerings: no food will be needed.
But if I sink in death, send Hygelac
the wonderful armour worn over my breast,
the best of hauberks that Hrethel left me,
Wayland’s own work.1 Wyrd2 does as she must.”

1Wayland Smith was a  godlike blacksmith. His work would be best.
2Fate.

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