31 March 2012

Second half of Fitt XXXVI: Beowulf gets bitten!

Above is a picture, courtesy of Wikipedia, of white-bearded Beowulf with his iron shield directly facing the dragon's fire. You might want to compare it with a scene from Disney's Sleeping Beauty that terrified me as a young boy.

Wiglaf finishes his exhortation to the other troops to enter the fight to support Beowulf, who is outmatched by the dragon. He receives no response, so rushes out himself and encourages the king with a few words. The dragon then burns Wiglaf's wooden shield "to the boss." That is the metal centre to the Viking shield. Again, Wikipedia shows a clear picture of what is meant.

So Wiglaf shelters behind his king's iron shield, which was made not to burn. Beowulf's sticks his sword in the dragon's head, but it breaks. We are specifically told that the "bursting" of the sword is not the sword's fault, nor the dragon's victory, but was due to Beowulf's strength. Apparently, he was always doing that to swords.

His sword, Naegling, is pronounced like "nailing" and means either "the Nailer" "the Nailed One."

In the dragon's third rush, he bites Beowulf in the neck. Blood spurts over him.
                                "As God is my witness:
"I would rather surrender my body
"and benefactor to the fire's embrace.
"It cannot be right that we carry shields
"back to our land unless we first
"have felled the foe, defended the life
"of the Weders' lord. Well do I know:
"the deeds that he did do not deserve
"that, out of our army, only he suffers
"and sinks in struggle. My sword and helmet,
"byrnie and shroud will be his too."

Through the reek of war he waded in helmet
to support his lord, and spoke a few words.
"Dear Beowulf, be brave in your actions,
"as you told us in the time of your youth,
"you would not allow, while you still lived,
"your fame to fade. Now, fight boldly,
"a strong-minded noble, with nothing reserved;
"defend yourself! I stand with you."

After these words, the worm came in anger,
the awful affliction another time
to wash his foes in flaming waves,
the hated humans. The heat-waves burned
his shield to the boss. His byrnie failed
to aid the young hero in any way,
but the young man kept behind his kinsman's shield
advancing bravely, when his own had been
fuel for the fire.
                                   The fighting king
remembered his strength and struck mightily
so that his sword stood from the head,
narrowly driven, and Naegling burst.
Beowulf's sword broke in the fight,
old and grey-streaked. Not granted to him
that iron edges ever provided
help in the fight. His hand was too strong,
so each of his swords, or so I have heard,
was destroyed by the strength of his stroke in battle.
Even wound-tempered weapons were no better.

Then, for the third time, the threat to the people,
the fire dragon, vindictive and fierce,
rushed at the warrior when there was room,
a burning terror, and took the whole neck
between his teeth. A torrent of blood
Spread over him, spurting in waves.

26 March 2012

First Half of Fitt XXXVI: Wiglaf to the rescue!

Here we begin a new chapter in the story by introducing Wiglaf, one of the dozen men Beowulf had taken with him to the dragon's den. When he sees that Beowulf is struggling against the greater power of the dragon, Wiglaf is filled with memories of gifts and favours his family had received, and feels bound by duty and love to take support him.

We learn a little of Wiglaf's background then: his father is Weohstan, a Scylfing (Swede). Weohstan had slain Eanmund, the son of Ohthere, who was himself the brother of King Onela. However, Onela did not pursue revenge on Weohstan, but allowed him to keep Eanmund's armour and weapons. Weohstan held onto them for many years, until he passed them on, in some form of public ceremony, to Wiglaf himself.

Wiglaf is, at this time, an untested fighter. However, the poem makes clear that he is brave and loyal.

Wiglaf begins a speech to the other men, reminding them of their oaths and urging them to join him in an attack on the dragon. The rest of the speech will be in the next posting.


He was called Wiglaf, Weohstan's son,
a shieldbearing friend of the Scylfing folk,
Aelfhere's kinsman. His king, he saw,
hurt from the heat under the helmet's mask.
His mind remembered many favours,
the wealthy estate of the Waegmundings,
and each one's folk rights, as his father had held,
then could not hold back. His hand seized the shield
of yellow linden. He lifted his old sword
that all recognize as Eanmund's,
Ohthere's son, slain in battle,
unwanted, an exile, by Weohstan's hand
and a broadsword's blade. He brought to his kin
a bright bronze helm, a byrnie of rings,
an old sword of the Ettins. Onela returned
the war clothing that his kinsman wore.
He made no mention of manslaughter
though a blow brought down a brother's son.

He minded the treasures for many seasons,
sword and byrnie, till his son was able
to fight a good fight, as his father had done.
Then, with Geats watching, he gave equipment,
countless, all kinds, then came to his end,
wise as he parted.
                               This was the first time
the young champion charged into battle
to act as he ought for his honoured lord.
Neither unmelted mettle nor remaining strength
would fail the fighter, as his foe discovered.
when each would face the other in combat.

Then Wiglaf spoke inspiring words.
Sad to his soul, he said to his friends:
"I remember a time of taking mead,
"when we swore to save our sovereign lord,
"there, in the beer hall, to our breaker of rings,
"we would pay him back for our battle gear
"if need for our aid ever arose
"for helms and hard swords. Hence he chose us.
"out of the army of his own free will
"as fit to earn fame, and found me these treasures
"because he counted us as keen spearmen
"helm-bearers with heart, though he had intended
"that the lord take on this task alone,
"the folk's defender perform this deed
"because out of all men he has earned most fame
"for daring deeds."
                              "The day has now come!
"Our noble master has need of the might
"of loyal fighters. Let us go forward
"and help our leader while heat surrounds him
"aggressive and grim. God is my witness,(...)"

19 March 2012

Fifth Chunk of Fitt XXXV: The battle against the dragon continues

Once again, here it is in first draft. This brings the translation to 80% complete. The battle of Beowulf and the dragon is in full swing here.


The serpent came--coiling, burning--
rushing to its fate. The famous ruler
had body and soul safe for a while
in the shield's shelter, though a shorter time
than he had wished, when it was tested
that first trial. But fate withheld
glory in battle. The Geats' leader
lifted his hand to the loathesomely-hued
with his heirloom sword so the edge weakened,
bright on the bone. It bit less fiercely
than men's master demanded of it,
goaded by need. The guard of the barrow,
after the battle-blow, was bloody-minded,
He spewed deadly fire that spread out far,
a battle light. No boast was made
by the Geats' gold-friend. His good sword failed
naked in battle, as it never should,
that wonderful weapon. Nor was it easy
for the honoured son of Ecgtheow
to willingly hazard the whole world.
Against his will, he would soon enter
a distant dwelling, as does each man
when his loaned days end. Not long after,
the fierce fighters faced each other.
The hoard-guard took heart, heaved in a breath
another time. He knew torture,
folded in flames, who formerly ruled.
Not in the least did his loyal companions
sons of nobles, stand around him
brave in battle. They backed off to the trees
to save their lives. One soul alone
was filled with care. Kinship can never
weaken at all in one who thinks well.

15 March 2012

Who Best to Read out Beowulf?

Latter-day scops (poets and singers) still tell Beowulf aloud, both in the Old English and the new. Among those who use the Old, Benjamin Bagby is unique. He has memorized sections of the poem and performs them in a mixture of dramatic story-telling and song. He accompanies himself on a reproduction of an Anglo-Saxon harp. I cannot say if his style is the same as the old scops', but it is the best effort that has been made, and is thrilling in its own right. Here are are links to two short samples: the opening lines and Grendel's ambush.

Anyone interested in Beowulf should consider getting the dvd of Bagby's full performance.

A free recording of the Gummere translation, read by Kara Schallenberg, was released as part of the Librivox project. However, when I imagine my translation being read aloud, I hear a different type of voice speaking it.
First, it is a man's voice. With no disrespect meant to Ms. Schallenberg, Beowulf is a story by, for, and about men. If a woman was given Queen Wealhtheow's lines to speak, which are almost the only lines attributed to a woman, then she would have only thirty-five lines out of more than three thousand.

Next, it should be a slow, deliberate voice that gives appropriate weight to the alliteration and action, and a deeper voice would be better than a higher one.

Finally, I must admit that I hear it in my head spoken with a West Country accent...one from the counties to the west and South of London: Wiltshire, Somerset, Avon, Devon and the like. If you are not familiar with this manner of speech, think of pirates talking, or Sam Gamgee in The Lord of the Rings movies, or Hagrid in the Harry Potter movies. In fact, Robbie Coltrane, the actor who plays Hagrid, would do a fine job, Scot though he is.

However, the best voice I've heard for the reading of Beowulf, even though I do not believe he has ever done it, belongs to a Yorkshire-born actor, Jim Carter, who played Lord Faa of the Gyptian folk in the film The Golden Compass. These lines of his could be considered an audition for the job of reading Beowulf
When the time comes to punish, we shall strike such a blow as'll make their hearts faint and fearful. We shall strike the strength out of 'em. We shall leave them ruined and wasted, broken and shattered, torn in a thousand pieces and scattered to the four winds.
Now that's an alliteration-heavy formal boast very close in spirit and style to Beowulf's own, and Carter delivers it perfectly.

One reason that I imagine Beowulf read in a West Country accent is that I was born in that part of England and would probably have that accent myself, if my family had not emigrated. A better reason is that this accent is the most direct descendant of the Old English language that Beowulf was written in.

Wikipedia puts it this way: "The West Country dialects derive not from a corrupted form of modern English, but reflect the historical origins of the English Language and its historical pronunciation, in particular Late West Saxon, which formed the earliest English language standard, from the time of King Alfred until the late 11th century.")

To get an idea of its sound, listen to this Wiltshireman, Phil Harding, being interviewed. 

Another accent that would sound "right" to me, though, is Yorkshire's. After all, it descends from Viking language, spoken by invading Danes, and much of Beowulf is the about those Danes. Here's what it sounds like, unadulterated, and here's Jim Carter himself in an interview.


Late breaking. I'd wanted to include a clip of Jim Carter saying his little speech of vengeance, but can't find one on-line. This one, however, does include him in character as Lord Faa.

11 March 2012

Fourth Chunk of Fitt XXXV, and a Small Request

Writing, for many people, including me, keeps the writer and the audience pretty separate. I know how many hits this site gets in a day, but I don't know who comes, why, or what they think of the translation so far. I'd appreciate it if you take a moment during your visit to let me know something about yourself and your thoughts on this project. It needn't be much, but it would be appreciated.


Then he let his rage rise from his lungs,
a word went out from the Weder lord,
the staunch-heart stormed. A strident call
rang out against the grey pale rocks.
Hatred was raised. The hoard's guard knew
the voice of a man. No moment was left
to try for a truce. The tunnel released
breath from the beast, burning vapour
out of the stone. The earth thundered.

The knight swung shield, beneath the tomb,
to the loathesome guest, the Geats' leader.
Then, coiled and hooped, its heart compelled it
to search out a fight. He drew his sword,
an ancient heirloom, the excellent war-king,
rash with edges, and each of the pair
of opposing foes feared the other.
With stern spirit he stood with his steep-bossed shield,
first among friends, as the firedrake coiled,
winding in haste. He waited in harness.

04 March 2012

Third Chunk of Fitt XXXV

This, again, is a rough draft. Still, putting lines up in this state helps to boost my spirit by showing some forward movement. With any luck, you'll like what I have, too.

This takes us from lines 2534 to 2549. When I reach the end of the Fitt (line 2601), it will be a substantial milestone. I will have finished almost exactly 80% of the translation.

Beowulf continues his address to his men and spots a steaming, deadly stream emerging from the entrance to the tomb. He realizes that he cannot survive if he enters. The dragon's heat and poisonous breath would overcome him.
He knew the terror would take all his strength
and prove his worth. "I must go bravely 2535
"and gain the gold, or give up to war--
"from vicious wounds--your very lord."

The strong one stood, steadied by his shield,
hard under helmet, hauberk in place,
under cliffs of stone; staking all on the power 2540
of a man alone, not like a coward.

He saw by the wall then, the worthy lord,
who emerged alive from many battles,
clashes of arms, when armies collided,
that a stone arch was standing. A stream emerged 2545
that broke from the barrow. The brook's current
had deadly heat. The hoard beyond it
he could never near, not for an instant,
nor endure the deeps for the dragon's flame. 2549