22 January 2012

XXXIV. Beowulf's Revenge for Heardred. The Father's Lament.

I am posting this at once, but am sure I will alter it later.

In this fitt, Beowulf takes his revenge on King Onela of the Swedes for killing Heardred.

Coming back to the present, we are told that twelve men, including Beowulf, are in the dragon-hunting party, not including the person who had stolen the dragon's cup. He, the thirteenth man, goes to guide them.

 I assume this passage is the origin of Michael Crichton's concept of "the thirteenth warrior" in the book Eaters of the Dead  (later a movie called The Thirteenth Warrior). The narrator of the book explains:
I learned that these Northmen have some notion that the year does not fit with exactitude into thirteen passages of the moon, and thus the number thirteen is not stable and fixed in their minds. The thirteenth passage is called magical and foreign, and Herger says, "Thus for the thirteenth man you were chosen as foreign."
I should mention that Eaters of the Dead is, in part, a retelling of Beowulf.

Beowulf sits on a sea cliff and feels that his death is close. He tells his companions how Hrethel had taken him in at the age of seven and treated him as a son. He also says that one of Hrethel's three natural sons, Herebeald, had accidentally killed another Haethcyn. Worse than the death, he says, is the fact that the king cannot, in these circumstances, receive proper repayment for the loss.

That situation is like, we are told, that of a man who sees his son sentenced to hang. His life feels empty, over. Nothing can be done. This famous passage is called "The Father's Lament."


He remembered the price of a prince's death.
In days to come, he became Eagdil's
friend in misfortune. His forces went
over the ocean to Ohtere's son,
warriors and weapons. He was avenged.
He killed the old king in cold onslaughts.
So he came safely through such encounters
in every case, Ecgtheow's son
with daring deeds, till the day had come
that drove Beowulf to battle the dragon.
The Geat lord went, one out of twelve,
swollen with rage, to see the dragon.
He had then heard how the feud started,
the cursed conflict. He clutched to his breast
the costly cup come from the informant.
They took the thrall as the thirteenth man,
the one who started the strife and pain.
The miserable captive was made to come
as guide to the grave, against his will,
the hall in the earth that he alone knew
the buried barrow with billows near,
the struggling sea. Inside was filled
with worked gold and wires, watched by a beast
an aggressive guard grasping the treasures
old under earth. No easy bargain
for any man entering there.

The king sat on the cliffs, accustomed to war.
and welcomed his hearthmates with wishes for health,
the Geats' gold-friend, now given to sadness,
fretting and fierce, his fate beside him,
ready to greet the grey-haired man
to seize his soul's wealth, sever the link
of life and limb. No long time would
the noble's breath be bound in his flesh.

Beowulf said, the son of Ecgtheow,
"I often, when young, weathered blows,
in times of war. I remember them all.
I was seven winters when the wealthy lord,
the folk's lord and friend, from my father took me
to have and to hold. Hrethel, the king
gave feasts and gifts, regardful of kinship.
Throughout my life there, he thought me no less,
a man of his fortress, than his flesh and blood,
Herebald and Haethcyn and my Hygelac.

Without warning, the eldest of these
was borne to his death-bed by a brother's act,
when Haethcyn killed him with a horn-bow,
his lord and friend felled by an arrow
that missed its mark, and murdered his kinsman,
one brother the other, with a bloody shaft.
No fee made it good, a grievous wrong,
exhausting the heart, but, hard as it is,
the earl must die without requital.

It is tragic for an aged man
to suffer the sight of his son riding,
a youth on the gallows. He gives a lament
a sorrowful song that his son hangs there
to comfort a raven. He cannot give
from age or wisdom, any assistance
He still remembers, every morning
who had departed. He hopes for no other
and will not wait walled up for a child
to inherit his wealth, when the one he had
by Death's decree was cruelly treated.
He sees, in sadness, his son's dwelling,
the wine-hall wasted, a wind-swept shelter,
robbed of pleasure. The riders sleep,
heroes hidden. No harp resounds
in happy halls, as had once been.

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