13 July 2011

X. Beowulf Ends his Reply. They Feast

Beowulf continues his reply to Unferth. The story of Beowulf's rowing contest reaches its triumphant conclusion, then Beowulf turns to the attack: "No brag is this,/but you were the killer of close family,/your own brothers, which will bring in Hell/cruel torments, clever though you are." I am sure this damages Unferth's reputation more than Unferth had cut Beowulf's. Both men are playing to an audience here. Beowulf then questions Unferth's strength and courage (correctly, as we later see). He ends by repeating his offer to do what he could against Grendel, whether he lived or died as a result.

There's an odd word to describe the verbal contest between Unferth and Beowulf here: flyting. It means (according to the on-line Merriam Webster) "a dispute or exchange of personal abuse in verse form." It was a Scottish term, but comes ultimately from the Old English flitan, meaning to argue. Flyting has a modern equivalent: Battle Raps, like the ones from Eminem's movie Eight Mile. I won't link to any of them here because their language is frequently obscene.

We are told that King Hrothgar was cheered by Beowulf's words. His queen took Beowulf a drink and thanked him for coming. Beowulf shifts his tone from attack mode as he reassures the queen that he will do his utmost. A happy feast commences.

There is a wonderful description here of what happens outside as the sun sets: "Shadowy shapes shambled outside/black under the sky." The hall is presented as a circle of light and joy surrounded by darkness, mystery, and non-human dangers. The mood evoked by this line makes me think of the Last Redoubt in William Hope Hodgson's classic fantasy novel The Night Land. The Redoubt is the fortified structure where the last group of human beings lives. Like Heorot, it is surrounded by huge, mysterious enemies. No-one knows when they will destroy the Redoubt, and humanity with it, but no-one doubts that they will.

Finally, Hrothgar decides to leave for bed and gives Heorot to Beowulf to protect for the night. This is no light honour, but the first time that Hrothgar has ever handed over this responsibility.



“Aggressive attackers time and again
“threatened in throngs. I thrust in return 560
“with my dear sword, as seemed decent.
“They had no easy feast, eating their fill,
“no vile satisfaction, feeding on me,
“sitting at banquet on the sea-bottom.
“Instead, at sunrise, struck with a blade,
“they were prostrate on the waves’ deposits,
“asleep from swords, and since that time
“on the high seas, sailors are able
“to move unmolested. Light came from the East
“God’s bright beacon. The breakers sank 570
“so I could see sea-cliffs ahead,
“wind-haunted walls. Wyrd often saves him
“whose doom has not come, if his courage lasts.
“As luck had it, I laid out with my blade
“nine of the nicors. Such night struggles
“under heaven’s roof I rarely hear of
“nor, caught in the current, such comfortless men.
“But the foes’ clutches I escaped alive
“though bone-weary. I was then borne
“by the flowing flood to the Finns’ country. 580
“in my pitching boat. No bit of news
“of your equal efforts has entered my hearing,
“nor desperate brawls. Breca has not,
“nor you either, with edges flashing
“ever accomplished such acts of courage
“with bright swords. No brag is this,
“but you were the killer of close family
“your own brothers, which will bring in Hell
“cruel torments, clever though you are.
“I say it is certain, son of Ecglaf: 590
“Grendel could not have heaped horrors on end,
“that dire demon on your dear master,
“nor humbled Heort, if your heart and soul
“were as savage as you say they are.
“He found he never has need to fight
“the edge-storm fury of your eager folk,
“the Triumph-Scyldings, a terror to foes.
“He imposes his will, passes by none
“of the Dane people, and presses on in delight
“slaying and supping, expecting no contest 600
“from the Spear Danes. But what is dealt to Geats
“of strength and pride, I stand prepared
“to offer in war. Then those able can go
“for mead without fear, when the morning light
“the following day flows over men’s sons,
“when the bright-clad sun beams from the South.”

Then the treasure giver was glad at heart,
grey-haired and tested, for trusted help.
The Bright-Danes’ lord had listened to Beowulf,
the People’s Shield to his unshaken goal. 610
There was heroes’ laughter, a lyrical sound
with joyful words. Wealhtheow entered,
who was Hrothgar’s queen. With courtesy
she met, wearing gold, the men in the hall.
The high lady handed full cups,
first to the firm one, defender of East-Danes.
and bade him be happy having his beer.
Loved by the people, he delighted taking
banquet and beaker, the battle-famed king.
The Helmings’ lady looked after each, 620
both the young and old she offered a share,
carried rich cups, until it came time
to carry to Beowulf—covered with rings,
considerate, caring—a cup of mead.
She greeted the Geat, and gave the Lord thanks
in words of wisdom her wish was granted
that a noble come that could be trusted,
a comfort from terror. He took the full cup,
the war-ready one from Wealhtheow,
then formally spoke with fighting spirit. 630
Beowulf said, the son of Ecgtheow,
“My mind was made, when I mounted the water,
“sat in my sea-boat with sailors around,
“that I would work the will of your people
“in full or fail and, still fighting, die
“held fast by the fiend. I am firm in this:
“to win this encounter or wait for the end
“of my life’s measure in this mead hall.”

The lady liked this language well,
his given word. She went in gold. 640
The sovereign lady sat by her lord.
Then, as before, there in the hall
were brave speeches and spreading joy,
triumphant noise, until at last
Haelfdene’s son decided to find
his rest for the night. He knew the ogre
had planned an attack on the towering hall
before the sun’s light was lost to their seeing,
and the dusk had spread dark night on all.
Shadowy shapes shambled outside 650
black under the sky. The band all rose.
He then greeted, one hero the other,
Hrothgar Beowulf, and bid him health,
the wine-hall’s lord, and a last word:
“To no one else I ever entrusted,
“since I could hold up my hand and shield,
“this noble Dane-hall; only now, to you.
“Now have and hold this house, the best.
“Value your glory; reveal your power;
“watch for the foe. Your wishes shall be granted 660
“if you can keep both courage and life.”

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