19 July 2011

XIV. The Morning After

In this Fitt, we see the aftermath of Beowulf's struggle with Grendel. Rumours had spread, so people rode to Heorot to "stare at the wonder," meaning Grendel's arm, mounted high on Heorot. They then rode out to follow Grendel's trail to the edge of the water, which was turning red with his blood, but they did not find his body. On the way back, just as the sun was going to rise, they held races, praised Beowulf, and one old soldier with poetic gifts started composing a poem about Beowulf's deed, but "artfully added" the story of an older and more famous hero, Sigemund. In this way, he is able to compare Beowulf's deeds with Sigemund's.

There is something very peculiar with this "poem within a poem." Sigemund, like Beowulf, had "slaughtered several giants" but then went on to slay a dragon and win its hoard. That also happens to Beowulf, but much later. In other words, the soldier's poem foreshadows later events that strengthen Beowulf's similarity to Sigemund.

In addition, the poem in Beowulf that compares Beowulf to Sigemund might be considered the very first version of the Beowulf poem itself. We are reading in the poem of how the poem that we are reading was conceived and first presented, as if we are looking into a mirror that includes a mirror that reflects us looking into the first mirror...and so on. It's sometimes called the "Infinite Mirrors" effect, and sometimes the "Quaker Oats" effect because of this box cover:

The box shows a Quaker who is holding the box, which shows a Quaker, who is holding a box.... The Math term for it is, I believe, recursion.

The poem describes the method of creating a poem in alliterative verse. New half-lines are combined with standard, well-known phrases to express the poet's thought. "A royal thane/laden with words, a lover of song—/a man who remembered much from the past—/found old phrases and fitting words/to bind into truth."

The Fitt concludes with Hrothgar rising from sleep and coming grandly to the main hall, along with wife, bodyguard, the queen's ladies, and other members of the court. His dignity and importance is highlighted by this to increase the effect when, in the next Fitt, he praises Beowulf.

In the morning were, so men have told me,
many gathered by the gift-hall,
nobles who fared from near and far
over wide stretches to stare at the wonder, 840
the enemy’s tracks. His end did not
bring any sadness to bystanders
who saw in the prints of the unpraised foe
how he went away, weary-hearted,
defeated in fight, to the fen of beasts,
driven out, doomed, dripping out his life.
Blood rippled there in roiling water.
Disturbed currents stirred together
and blended with streams of steaming blood.
His death-day here, he had withdrawn 850
to lie in his lair as life departed
and his heathen soul. Hell took them there.

Many old comrades came from that place
and many young men on the merry ride
out from the marsh, mounted on horses,
borne on pale backs. There Beowulf had
his glory told, in glad repetition:
that between the seas, neither south or north,
in all the earth, no other man
beneath heaven’s arch was ever a better 860
shield-bearing knight of a nobler realm—
but no-one belittled their lord and friend,
gracious Hrothgar, a good king indeed.
At length, riders loosened the reins
and galloped their greys together in contest
on stretches of road that struck their eye
and were reckoned good. A royal thane
laden with words, a lover of song—
a man who remembered much from the past—
found old phrases and fitting words 870
to bind into truth. This bladebearer started
a beautiful chant of Bowulf’s deed
and artfully added another tale.
He left out little as he laid out words
that men had said of Sigemund,
stirring stories of strange events:
the Waelsing’s struggles, his wanderings
of which no man knew much at all,
of fights and feuds. To Fitela only
he set out tales of such trials, 880
as uncle to nephew, as they always were,
brothers in arms in every battle.

They had slaughtered several giants,
hacked them with swords. Sigemund held
after life’s finish, no little fame
for the hard fighter had finished a dragon
who guarded gold under grey stone.
The son of the lord set out alone
on this fearful act with Fitela elsewhere,
but the fate befell that he forced his sword 890
through the wondrous worm and wedged in the stone
the excellent iron that ended the dragon.
The strong warrior had won with courage
the right to have the hoard of rings
to claim as he pleased. He placed in the sea-boat,
bore into its bosom, the bright treasures,
that son of Wael. The worm itself melted.

He was most famed of far-travellers,
among the world’s peoples, this warriors’ protector,
for heroic acts, which helped him after 900
since Heremod faded in fighting spirit
through troubles and weakness. He was betrayed
among the Ettins into enemy hands
and quickly killed. The currents of sorrow
had lamed him too long. The lord to his people,
to all of the nobles, was only a worry.
More grief took hold for, in times before
the warrior left, the wisest carls
had set their hopes for sorrow’s end
that the next in line would live and grow 910
to follow his father, defend the people,
the hoard and hold, the heroes’ kingdom,
the Scyldings’ home. But Hygelac’s kinsman
was more honoured by all mankind
than Heremod was, wounded by sin.

Racing at times, on twilit roads
they moved on their mounts. Then morning light
shone and ascended. Servingmen went
to the high hall with their hearts set
to see the marvel. The monarch himself, 920
from his wife’s rooms, the rings’ warden,
strode out grandly with his strong guard,
his quality sung of, his queen at his side.
He walked to the meadhall. Maidens followed.

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