30 July 2011

The Inferno of Translation

I keep on my hard drive a translation of Dante's Inferno by S. Fowler Wright, a successful novelist of the early twentieth century. One reason I keep it is that his Introduction to the Inferno contains many perceptive comments about how to translate poetry. I'd like to put some of them here. The reasons he gives that the Inferno is not well-known to English readers apply equally to Beowulf.
First, there is the general and almost insuperable difficulty of translating poetry of any kind from or into any language whatever. 
Next, there is a special obstacle arising from the form in which the Divine Comedy was composed, which cannot be successfully imitated in English. [Phrases in Old English seem to begin with stresses much more often than their equivalents in modern English. This changes the rhythm when Beowulf is translated.]
Third, there is the fact that a student of Dante is confronted by such a massed accretion of commentary that his approach to the poem is almost forced toward the pedantic rather than the poetic. He is inclined to regard the obscure or halting line, the obvious padding, the enforced rhyme, which must occur at times in the greatest epic, as too sacred to be altered, and too important to be ignored. Here I am tempted to say that my first qualification for this undertaking is that, while I have some knowledge of European poetry, and some practice in its composition, I make no claim whatever to Italian scholarship! [Beowulf is often translated by two people, a scholar and a poet. A.J. Wyatt provided guidance to William Morris and Professor Alfred David with Seamus Heaney. The first keeps the second from straying too far. The alternative is that a scholar is also a gifted poet, which is more than we can ask for.]
The first of these - the inherent difficulty of all translation of poetry - may be briefly stated in this way. A great poem must have beauty both of form and of content. Soul and body must both be admirable. Having his subject under control, the poet represents it in such a way as is most suitable to the rhythms and verbal beauties of which his language is capable. If a bilingual poet were to attempt composition of the same epic in two languages, without the feeling of obligation to himself which a translator must feel, I have no doubt that he would deviate very widely in details of expression, and often in the actual thoughts expressed, as he would be led by different felicities of expression or the suggestion or absence of a rhyming word. 
A translator, feeling an inferior liberty, faces alternate pitfalls. He may hammer out a verbal repetition of the original, phrase by phrase, which cannot result otherwise than in a doggerel imitation of poetry. He will labour diligently, and, in the end, he will not merely have failed to translate a poem: he will have produced a malignant libel. Alternately, he may be tempted to follow the lure of his own constructions, or to omit or insert as the exigencies of the verse may lead him. 
How can the narrow path be held successfully between these pitfalls - or, if one must be taken, on which side should the descent be made? (...)
Having selected a form in which I hoped to be able to move with sufficient freedom, and which, in English, is best adapted to the spirit of the poem, I had to face the larger questions of formal and spiritual fidelity. In regard to these I recognize two primary obligations: first, I regard it as inexcusable to introduce any word or phrase which discolours the meaning of the original, or deviates from it; second, I am bound to present the substance of the poem with such verbal beauty as I am capable of constructing, even though an adjective be omitted or added in the process, or some non-essential order of narration be changed to obtain it. This last freedom of rendering is not merely a translator's right, it is a clear duty, because the directness and vigour of the original cannot be reproduced by any verbal literality, and it is of the first importance that he should inspire the poem with a new vitality.
I like Fowler Wright's statement that a translator has two goals: "A great poem must have beauty both of form and of content. Soul and body must both be admirable." However, I see a translator as serving three masters, not two: the original meaning, the chosen form, and clear expressive language. One or another is frequently slighted in a single line, but I try to keep each of the three fairly happy.

The other reason I hold onto a copy of Fowler Wright's Inferno is because the translation itself is terrible, almost unreadable. It reminds me that, with full awareness of the problems and the best will in the world, the result may fall far below one's hopes. As an example, here are the first lines of Fowler Wright's translation:
ONE night, when half my life behind me lay,
I wandered from the straight lost path afar.
Through the great dark was no releasing way;
Above that dark was no relieving star.
If yet that terrored night I think or say,
As death's cold hands its fears resuming are.
Now compare those lines to Longfellow's translation.
Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.
Ah me! how hard a thing it is to say
What was this forest savage, rough, and stern,
Which in the very thought renews the fear.
Notice that even in the second line, the "dark forest" (something very important) is missing from Fowler Wright's translation, as well as a description of it. Also notice how hard it is to read an inverted clause like "As death's cold hands its fears resuming are." In contrast, Longfellow is not only easier to read, but much more faithful to the original meaning.

Beowulf may suffer at my hands, as the Inferno suffered at Fowler Wright's, but not (in either case) through carelessness nor lack of effort.

The reason that I am making a post about the difficulties of translation, instead of giving you my translation, is that I am bogged down in an especially difficult passage of Beowulf right now. I've been struggling with it for a few weeks. I've managed to win free of other difficult passages in the past, which is all that sustains me in this one. (For those who are wondering...the passage describes how Beowulf is welcomed home by the Geats). Wish me luck.

26 July 2011

XVI. Celebration in Heort

With Grendel dead, a celebration is in order. Hrothgar sees to it. The hall has been damaged but, with weavings hung and precious goods set out, is still beautiful and impressive. Grendel's fate reminds the poet that we all "struggle and die" which is "no light thing." Once the party is going, Hrothgar and Hrothulf sit companionably, neither knowing that Hrothulf would, one day, kill at least one of Hrothgar's sons and take the throne for himself. As the poet says, "No false-hearted strokes / had flown as yet between Folk-Scyldings." Then Hrothgar gave Beowulf several gifts: "a golden flag,/an embroidered banner. A byrnie and helmet/and splendid sword." These gifts are a warm-up for a more substantial one. Hrothgar orders that eight horses be brought into the hall so that he can give them to Beowulf. One of them is bearing Hrothgar's own finely-worked and precious saddle.
 It is important that these were given publicly, ceremonially. They "were seen by many/borne to Beowulf." Hrothgar's generosity confirms him as honorable and properly grateful, a man worth serving. This message would not be lost on his own men.

On hurried orders, Heorot’s rooms
were made ready by many hands.
Women and men in the wine-hall
and guest-hall prepared. Gold shone brightly,
weavings on walls, wonderful sights.
Each man stood and stared, amazed.
That bright building was broken inside
though straps of steel strengthened its walls.
Hinges hung off; the hall-roof alone
remained intact from the time the fiend, 1000
tainted by misdeeds, twisted to run
with no hope of life: No light thing, that,
to flee for one’s life; let anyone try.
But soul-bearers struggle and win
(and so they must, the sons of men
and all that live) to empty lodgings
where their bodies, bound to death-beds,
sleep after the feast. At the fitting time
Haelfdene’s son proceeded to the hall.
The king himself would sit to feast. 1010
I have never heard of a host so large
that bore themselves better about their lord.
They bent onto benches. The bearers of glory
were glad at the table. They took with grace
countless meadcups, two mighty kinsmen,
fearless heroes in the festive hall,
Hrothgar and Hrothulf. Heort inside
was filled with friends. No false-hearted strokes
had flown as yet between Folk-Scyldings.
Then Healfdene’s son handed Beowulf 1020
a gift for his triumph, a golden flag,
an embroidered banner. A byrnie and helmet
and splendid sword were seen by many
borne to Beowulf. The brave man picked up
a flagon from the floor. He felt not at all
poorly repaid by these precious gifts.
I have failed to find that four such treasures
so rich with gold were given often
by lords on benches with a better will.
A hard ridge there on the helmet’s roof, 1030
wound round with wires, warded off damage,
so no files’ work, though fiercely driven,
could shear the tempered helm when a shielded earl
must face his foes in the field of war.

The earl-saver then ordered eight of his horses
with handsome halters onto the hall’s floor
within the walls. One of them stood,
its saddle skilfully set with jewels.
That was the sovereign’s seat of battle
when Healfdene’s son had decided 1040
to fight in the front. It never failed his need
nor famed skills at fighting amid falling dead.
Then Beowulf received both of these treasures;
the Ingwins’ guard gave him possession
of horses and weapons, with hopes for good use.
By such manly means, the admired lord,
warden of war-gold, rewarded armed clashes
with horses and heirlooms. He behaved with honour
say those who tell the truth as it is.

22 July 2011

XV. Hrothgar's Congratulations

In this Fitt, Hrothgar sees Grendel's arm and realizes that his enemy is dead. He gives a speech that reminds everyone of the suffering Grendel had caused. Now Beowulf has done what "not one of us ever accomplished,/“try as we might." He vows to treat Beowulf like a son for the rest of his life:  "Let it be strong,/“this new kinship. You cannot lack/for worldly wealth if I wield power." These are not casual words: he begins them with a HWAET, meaning "Pay attention," just as the poem Beowulf does, and he announces them before the entire population of his hall. Beowulf tells Hrothgar about the battle and wishes that Hrothgar could have been there to see it. Unferth's brags are silenced when he looks at Grendel's arm and recognizes Beowulf as a mightier (and perhaps as a braver) man. All the men gaze at Grendel's strong claws and talk about how swords were useless against him.

By the way, the following lines from this Fitt are among my favorite bits from this translation. The words fit the original meaning and form as I had hoped they would:
                                  "the wound
“cruelly clutched him. It enclosed him
“in frightful fetters, forced him to wait,
“the guilt-stained villain, for the great verdict
“that Wyrd’s bright ruler renders at will.”

(Although Unferth's brags are silenced, mine are not).

When Hrothgar came to the hall he spoke.
He stood on the steps. The steep roof above
gloried in gold and Grendel’s hand.
“For this sight at last I send the Almighty
“immediate thanks! My miseries thronged,
“griefs from Grendel, but God can work 930
“wonder after wonder, the Warden of Glory.
“Hardly long past I held for myself
“no faith the ill-fortunes that filled my life
“could end in blessings when, blood-coated,
“the stateliest house stood red from battle.
“Woe washed over the wisest men
“who had no hope of holding power
“to fend foes off our forted walls,
“shucks and shinings.1 A shieldbearer now
“has managed a deed with the Almighty’s help 940
“that not one of us ever accomplished
“try as we might. NOW. She truly may say,
“whoever gave birth to this good man,
“brought him to life, if she is breathing still,
“that the Giver of Fate was good to her
“as she bore her child. Beowulf, you,
“the best of swordsmen, like a son I would
“love you through life. Let it be strong,
“this new kinship. You cannot lack
“for worldly wealth if I wield power. 950
“I often, for less, have lavished honours,
“rewards of wealth on a weaker man,
“less strong in a struggle. This striving, yours,
“your deeds guarantee that your good name
“will live forever. Let the All-Ruler
“who showed you blessings shower down more.”

Beowulf spoke, the son of Ecgtheow.
“We gladly took this test of courage,
“pledged to this fight, plunged fearlessly,
“unaware of his strength. I would have preferred 960
“that you yourself had seen him there,
“the fully-armed fiend facing his death.
“I hurried to clutch then clasp him hard,
“to fasten him firmly to his final bed.2
“Because of my hand-grip, he had, I thought,
“to keep fighting for life and could not leave.
“But I had no chance, against Heaven’s choice,
“to hold him close nor hinder escape
“by that warlike foe. He was too mighty,
“the fiend, at fleeing, but forfeited his hand 970
“to save his life. He left behind
“his arm and shoulder without a shred
“of benefit gained by the gross creature,
“no longer life allowed for the brute,
“sunk in his sins, since the wound
“cruelly clutched him. It enclosed him
“in frightful fetters, forced him to wait,
“the guilt-stained villain, for the great verdict
“that Wyrd’s bright ruler renders at will.”

The swordsman fell silent, the son of Ecglaf3 980
from making proud boasts of his battle-deeds
when they gazed at proof of the Geat’s power,
beholding the hand high up on the roof,
the fiend’s fingers. In front of each
instead of a nail, and near-hard as steel,
was a heathen hand-spur from that hard fighter,
an unsettling claw. They said, each man,
that no fine weapon would fall on him,
though well-tested iron, and one could not harm
the demon’s claw, so dark with blood. 990
1The Black Shuck or Old Shuck is a preternatural black dog. Its name is a modern descendant of the word used in the poem, scucc. Shinings would be some kind of wraith. Hrothgar is including Grendel as one threat within a category of supernatural threats.
2His grave.

21 July 2011

Dragon's Treasure and Gold

Discard any thought that "it's only money." Gold is more than that in Beowulf. It is a symbol of all that is good.

First, it is a sign of the functioning of a society. Gold was earned by heroism, as it was by Beowulf when he destroyed Grendel and Grendel's mother. Perhaps it is better to say that heroism and the fame that accompanies it are acknowledged by gold, just as heroism in our military is acknowledged by medals and other honours. Without the ability to acknowledge great deeds, much of the ability to inspire them is gone. A king without rings cannot be the generous "ring-giver" that a hero loves to serve, just as a country that does not honour its soldiers may have trouble attracting recruits.

When Beowulf returns home, however, we see gold flowing in the opposite direction, from the hero to his king. He freely hands over his new-won treasures to his king, putting his fame into the collective store of his people's fame as his treasure goes into the nation's treasure, and allowing the king to keep the gold circulating as fresh rewards through the society, like the life-blood circulating in a body.

But kingdoms rise and fall, as Beowulf himself rises in the first half of the poem and falls in the second. We are directed to this reality by sections of the poem called the "the Lay of the Last Survivor" (lines 2247–66) and the Father's Lament (lines 2444-2462). When the kingdom falls, its fame, its memory, and all proof of its existence and former greatness are literally carried off or buried with it in the form of treasure.

Such a treasure is kept by the dragon. It is described thus: iron rusting, armour decaying, cups unpolished, and only the royal standard still bright. When the dragon is dead, Wiglaf makes sure that this standard is brought to Beowulf as a portion of his victory spoils, but also as a symbol of them.

This standard is like the one raised over Scyld Scefing at the poem's start that was sent out to sea with him. The standard seems to symbolize the value of his leadership. It is a statement of his greatness during life and a statement of former greatness after, like a monument or cenotaph. Yet it can be taken up again by a person with the heroic qualities to match its former holder.

Dragons hoard treasure, keeping it from circulating in a way that seems deeply wrong to the people in Beowulf. Imagine something you value locked away from all use, such as a fortune in a Swiss vault, while people starve for lack of money, or a great work of art like the Mona Lisa, locked in a collector's safe, never seen, giving joy to no-one.

The dragon, like a king, is a "hoard-ward," but one who keeps, like an evil king, the hoard locked up. The poet could have explained the wrongness of this by telling the Christian parable of the Talents, but his pre-Christian predecessors would have understood it just as well. Imagine a gift like Beowulf's strength not used for the protection of his people. Imagine the example he set for young warriors, never set. The hoarding of gold without the giving of gold is the same kind of sinful waste.

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.

18 July 2011

XIII. Beowulf Tears off Grendel's Arm

Beowulf's fight with Grendel reaches a climax then a few concluding thoughts are offered about what Beowulf's success means to the Danes.


The earls’ defender found no reason
that he should keep that killer alive
nor could others count his days
as having use. A horde brandished
their heirloom blades. Beowulf’s allies
rushed to defend their ruler’s life,
the famous lord’s, if it lay in them.
They had not discovered when they came to fight—
though willing to strive with the strength they had,
to slash with their swords this side and that 800
and seek the soul of the sinning foe—
that the finest edges ever fashioned,
would not wound him, no war-sword could,
for he had made himself safe from all points
and every edge. However, his death,
on that earlier day of earthly life,
would be ghastly, and his wandering ghost
would travel far, into fiends’ control.
At last he found—who in former times
held in his heart hate for mankind, 810
fashioned horrors and fought with God—
that his body frame failed to obey
for the high in heart, Hygelac’s kin
had him by the hand. Each hated the other
to his final breath. He felt agony,
the wicked ogre. A wide opening
showed where sinews in his shoulder split
and bone-locks burst. To Beowulf
glory was granted. Grendel had to flee,
fatally hurt, under fenland hills 820
to his noisome den. He knew his doom:
he had come at last to his life’s finish,
his total of days. The Danes received
from the war-tempest wishes come true.
He had purged it, the prince from afar,
through power and prudence. The palace of Hrothgar,
he rescued from ruin. He relished his night-work,
his excellent deeds. To the East Danes
the Geats’ captain had kept his word.
So all their sorrow was set aright, 830
the awful burden they earlier bore,
and harsh distress they had withstood,
no little pain. That was plain to see
when the deadly lord had laid the hand,
arm and shoulder—all together—
the grip of Grendel under the gabled roof.

16 July 2011

Sutton Hoo, Beowulf, and History

Although Beowulf was written in England, in English, it is set in Denmark and Sweden in the sixth century, maybe about the year 500. Some of the places, battles, and people are historical and attested in Scandinavian sources.

Many editions of Beowulf have covers decorated with this helmet:

(Source, Wikimedia Commons). Maybe mine will, as well.

This is a modern reproduction of a helmet found in a buried ship that serves as a royal tomb, buried in the early 7th century (not long after the period when the Beowulf story takes place) and discovered in 1939. It is from Sutton Hoo, in Suffolk, England. It is similar in style to a helmet found in a seventh-century boat grave in Vendel, Sweden.

(Source, Wikimedia Commons).

Sutton Hoo also contains a harp. Beowulf may have originally been performed to musical accompaniment from a harp like this reconstruction of the Sutton Hoo harp.

(Source, Wikimedia Commons)

The fact that kings were buried in ships at Sutton Hoo and Vendel may mean that Scyld Scefing's burial at sea, at the beginning of Beowulf, may be a metaphor for a king's burial in a ship on land. After all, it is not a good idea to shove a ship full of treasure out to sea when the tide may bring it back the next day. The metaphorical journey of the man in the ship is from life to death, not from land to land.

If Heorot existed (Hrothgar did), it is probably at Lejre, on the island of Zealand in Eastern Denmark. Three royal halls have been excavated there: one from the ninth century, one from the seventh, and one from the sixth. All are about 50 m long. More information here. A recent book on this is Beowulf and Lejre by John Niles.

15 July 2011

XII. Grendel's Raid

Here it is! The past is prologue to this climax when Beowulf and Grendel meet. It is interesting how, in the Old English, almost all lines in this Fitt have three alliterations instead of two, probably to indicate a greater emotional intensity. I've tried to imitate that with a combination of lines with three alliterations and lines with two pairs of alliterations.



Then from the moor, under misty slopes 710
Grendel came walking, weighed with God’s wrath.
The monster meant to make away
with a human robbed from the rich hall.
He walked under sky till the wine-house,
the gilded palace, he plainly saw
glowing with gold. He had gone other times
to find the home where Hrothgar lived.
But never in life, later or before,
found as hard a fate or fighting men.

The wandering warrior walked to the hall, 720
exiled from joy. He jarred open the door,
though fastened with forgings, when his fingers touched.
He ripped it free, for he was filled with rage,
opened its mouth. Immediately after
the fiend was treading the floor’s bright tiles,
angrily striding. There streamed from his eyes
a lurid light much like a flame.
He beheld in the hall a host of soldiers,
a circled assembly of sleeping kin,
a horde of heroes. His heart laughed then. 730
The monster was minded, before morning came,
the cruel creature, to claw from each
life from the body, believing that
a feast would follow. Fate disallowed him
more of mankind to murder thereafter
to make his meals. The mighty one saw,
Hygelac’s kin, how the killer
was set to launch a swift attack.
He had no thought to hesitate.
His claws flashed out at his closest prey 740
and he slashed apart a sleeping guard,
savaged the bone-locks, swallowed the blood,
put meat in his maw. A moment later
the dead body was bolted down
to feet and hands. Then a forward step
to hold in his hands a hardy man,
a warrior at rest, reach towards him
a hellish hand; he hastily closed it
with ghastly thoughts and grasped the arm.
That shepherd of evils was instantly shocked 750
for he had never met in Middle Earth
to the edge of Earth another man
with as great a grip. There grew in his heart
fear for his life. To leave there fast
was his first feeling, flee into dark
to the fiends’ shelter, but his fated end
was unlike the life he had lived so far.

The hero recalled, Hygelac’s kin,
his evening oaths. Then up he stood
and fastened on the fiend till his fingers cracked 760
The ogre moved outward; the earl stepped in.
The monster meant to move where he could,
to find freedom far from that place,
flee to the fens. He felt his hands trapped
in his enemy’s grip. That was a grim outing
the harmer had to Heorot.
The mansion dinned. The Danish men
the fortress folk, fearless soldiers,
fed on ashes.1 Anger filled both
of the raging guards who rattled the house. 770

It was a wonder that the wine-hall
withstood the struggle instead of falling,
the beautiful structure, though sturdily built
inside and out with iron straps,
carefully crafted. There cracked from the floor
many a mead-bench, men have told me,
finely gilded, where the foes grappled.
Danish sages had scarcely dreamed,
that it ever by anyone,
bright and bone-set, be broken up, 780
cleverly unclasped, unless the clutch of fire
annihilate it. A noise lifted
new and nearby. The North-Danes stood
grey-faced and aghast in the group that could
hear from the wall weeping noises,
skin-crawling screams. The scather of God
sang not of triumph but sore injury,
the Hell-bound soul. He held him firm,
the man who was the mightiest
on that earlier day of earthly life.

1The line says that the earls did an action called “ealuscerwen,” which literally means they “served beer." That provides a very odd mental image of them sitting down to watch the show, like sports fans, with mugs of beer in their hands. An educated guess is that it means the earls felt grief and anguish. From the little I know of the rather earthy Anglo-Saxon sense of humour, it could just as easily mean that they wet themselves in fear, "serving" the beer they had stored in their bladders. However, my translation of the line is based on the idea that the guards felt shame and frustration that they could not participate in the defence of their own hall. In an image from the Bible (Isaiah 44:20, Psalm 102:9), they feed on bitter and unsustaining ashes. Whatever the original meaning may have been, the Old English word does imply, ironically, that the Danes are hosts and Grendel is a guest in their home.

14 July 2011


Queen Wealhtheow serving a man who sits beside King Hrothgar. Probably Beowulf. She seems quite a bit younger than her husband, doesn't she?

XI. The Watch for Grendel

A very short Fitt here.  The "king of glory" mentioned in the fourth line may be Hrothgar or it could be God himself. Beowulf gives himself a short, confidence-building talk. He then prepares himself by deliberately raising a state of rage, "withering anger." In all the battles, "rage" is a necessary ingredient for effective fighting. The more rage, the more strength. So, while afloat on a sea of adrenaline and testosterone, Beowulf nonetheless lies down and composes himself, pretending to sleep until Grendel's arrival. His comrades, less motivated or less disciplined, truly do sleep.


Then Hrothgar went, his heroes in train,
the Scyldings’ armour, out from the hall,
The war-chief wanted Wealhtheow,
his queen in his bed. The king of glory
prepared for Grendel—so people heard—
guards for the hall, given the duty
to ward the king and watch for the giant.
The Geat noble greatly trusted
his immense might and Maker’s favour,        670
so he removed his mailed byrnie,
helmet from head, handed his sword,
the keenest of edges, to his aide to keep,
and bid him guard his battle gear.

The good man then made a promise,
Beowulf the Geat, before going to bed:
“I am no weaker in arts of war,
“in grim action, than this Grendel is,
“so I will use no sword to silence him,
“shorten his life, though I surely could.        680
“He lacks the skill to lash back at me,
“to cut my shield, though he acquired a name
“for murderous works, but we must at night
“discard our swords if he cares to seek
“war without weapons, and wise God then
“will select with one hand, the Holy Lord,
“to send glory, as He sees fitting.”

The leader bent, lay down his head
to rest on a pillow, and round him many
brave sailors sank in sleep in the hall.        690
Not one believed he would leave this place
or return again to his treasured home,
his folk or the fortress that fostered him
for they had heard the high number
hauled down in war in that wine-hall
of the Danish folk. But the Dear Lord gave
a weaving of war-luck to the Weder men.
comfort and aid to end their foe,
destroy him completely through the strength of one,
by his own power. People know truly        700
that over mankind Almighty God
has enduring rule. In the dark night came
the shadow-walker. Warriors slept
in the house of horns, those holding guard.
One only did not. They each trusted,
if God did not will it, they would not be
dragged into darkness by the destroyer.
A watcher waited in withering anger,
in rising fury for the fight’s result.

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.”

12 July 2011

Kingsley Amis Poem on Beowulf


Kingsley Amis

'There is not much poetry in the world like this'--
                          Professor J.R.R. Tolkien

So, bored with dragons, he lay down to sleep,
Locking for the last time his hoard of words
(Thorkelin's transcript B), forgetting now
The hope of heathens, muddled thoughts on fate.

Councils would have to get along without him;
The peerless prince had taken his last bribe
(Zupitza's reading); useless now the byrnie
Hard and hand-locked, fit for a baseball catcher.

Consider now what this king had not done:
Never was human, never lay with women
(Weak conjugation), never saw quite straight
Children of men or the bright bowl of heaven.

Someone has told us this man was a hero.
But what have we to learn in following
His tedious journey to his ancestors
(An instance of Old English harking-back)?

The "he" in the poem could be Thorkelin (an early transcriber of the Beowulf manuscript) or another Beowulf scholar, since he has locked for the last time "Transcript B"; or the original Beowulf poet who, dying, forgot "the hope of heathens, muddled thoughts on fate," or Beowulf himself, since "Councils would have to get along without him/The peerless prince...." Most likely, it is Kingsley Amis himself, tired with academic study of the poem (represented by Thorkelin Transcript B and interpretations by Zupitza) and not seeing why he should continue.

He criticizes Beowulf and Beowulf as having no connection with normal human life: "Consider now what this king had not done:/Never was human, never lay with women/(weak conjugation)..." Thus the prince had led a loveless, sexless life (no "conjugation" with women), and the same criticism can be leveled at the scholars of Old English (concerned with the forms of "conjugation" of OE verbs).

He also criticizes both Beowulf and Beowulf as having no connection to modern life. Beowulf's byrnie, his pride and joy, made by Weland himself, now has no use except to a "baseball catcher."

Just as the first stanza begins with the word "bored," the last refers to Beowulf's journey to death as "tedious." So, why read it? Do we do it because we are "harking back" to previous events in our history, just as the Beowulf story "harks back" to previous events in his history? Is that the only reason?

Amis is a wry, ironic writer, and this poem of his has a wry, ironic tone. Take it as a humorous writing explaining the point of view of anyone who had to read or study Beowulf without getting much from it.

P.S. The reference to Zupitza led me to this, which has images of the original manuscript pages beside a transcription. There are more modern equivalents to this, but this has the virtue of being on-line in its entirety.

Borges on Learning Old English

The great Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges is almost the last person I would imagine studying Old English. Modern English, yes, to get at the full flavour of the English writings he enjoyed, but Old English? Well, he did, and wrote a sonnet about why. I find it moving.

"Poem Written in a Copy of Beowulf"
by Borges (trans. by Alastair Reid)

At various times, I have asked myself what reasons
moved me to study, while my night came down,
without particular hope of satisfaction,
the language of the blunt-tongued Anglo-Saxons.

Used up by the years, my memory
loses its grip on words that I have vainly
repeated and repeated. My life in the same way
weaves and unweaves its weary history.

Then I tell myself: it must be that the soul
has some secret, sufficient way of knowing
that it is immortal, that its vast, encompassing
circle can take in all, can accomplish all.

Beyond my anxiety, beyond this writing,
the universe waits, inexhaustible, inviting.

10 July 2011

Beowulf is Challenged by Unferth

Beowulf's warm welcome from Hrothgar is not echoed by Hrothgar's "thyle," Unferth. Now a thyle has no real equivalent these days, but Wikipedia has a short, helpful article on them.

I picture a thyle as a kind of prosecuting attorney in the King's court. If someone makes a statement of fact, the thyle will try (test) it. If someone makes a statement of purpose, the thyle will make sure it is wise or achievable. Looked at this way, Unferth is doing no more than his duty when he casts doubt on Beowulf's ability to survive even "the length of a night" against Grendel.

On the other hand, the poem says directly that Unferth's motivation was jealousy: "he could never say that another man/could accomplish more on Middle Earth/or gain under heaven higher acclaim."

Another insight into Unferth is this description of his challenge to Beowulf, "He unbound runes of battle." This seems to mean that he is showing a dislike or anger that had been secret until then (like revealing rune letters so that their secret meanings could be read).

Unferth chose to illustrate Beowulf's limitations by telling about a swimming (or rowing) contest that Beowulf had had with his friend Breca. Since Beowulf could not even beat Breca, he says, he cannot be expected to beat Grendel.

Now, as to the choice between Beowulf swimming and Beowulf rowing, I'm depending on remarks made by Ben Slade on his website as a footnote for lines 506-81. First, he says, most of the words that support the "swimming" idea have more general meanings: on sund is translated swimming, but generally means in the (ocean) sound; and reon is translated as swimming, though it means generally to travel across water; and line 581 has wudu (wood, a word used to describe ships), but this is amended to wadu (water) to make the swimming interpretation work. I've accepted the "rowing" version because the last point follows the plain meaning of the text and the other words and phrases are ambiguous.

Finally, we see how Beowulf, the big guy himself, responds to being challenged. Pretty well, I'd say. He begins with a formal Hwaet!, just like the Beowulf poem itself, meaning that he is going to answer formally and (most likely) at length. He then begins to retell the rowing contest story in more detail. His story gives us the first clear view of Beowulf's superhuman strength (although, to be fair, Breca emerges creditably from the water, too). It turns out that Beowulf was slowed down by an attack by a sea creature that dragged him underwater.

Beowulf has more to say on this in the next Fitt, and I will make a few notes about the custom of "flyting" then. In the meantime, here is Unferth's challenge and the beginning of Beowulf's response.


Then Unferth spoke. The son of Ecglaf
who sat at the feet of the friend of Scyldings        500
unbound runes of battle. Beowulf’s quest,
the brave seafarer’s, upset him greatly
for he never could say that another man
could accomplish more on Middle Earth
or gain under heaven higher acclaim.
“Are you the Beowulf, Breca’s rival
“who tried to best him on the broad ocean
“for no reason but pride? You risked the waters
“for a silly dare. In the deep sea
“your lives could be lost. No living man—        510
“not foe nor friend—could force a retreat
“from that crazy stunt of crossing the sound.
“There your arms stretched over the streams,
“measured sea-lanes, mixed the waters,
“gliding over the sea. There were surging waves,
“winter whitecaps. In the water’s hold
“you strained seven nights. He stroked better,
“with greater might. As morning broke
“combers beached him on the Battle-Reams’ coast,
“which he left to find the land of his birth,        520
“loved by his people, the land of the Brondings,
“the fair fortress of his folk and kin,
“his towns and treasures. Truly it seems,
“Beanstan’s son’s boast had come true.
“So I sense the result will be somewhat worse—
“though you won the fights you waged before
“in grim struggles—if you stand up to Grendel
“and lie in wait the length of a night.”

Beowulf spoke, the son of Ecgtheow.
“NOW. Far too much, my friend Unferth,        530
“and with too much beer you told of Breca,
“tales of his trip. The truth is this:
“my might at sea was more than his;
“my peril on the waves surpassed all others’.
“While just half-grown we had agreed
“and exchanged boasts, both of us still
“in our youthful years, that beyond the shore
“we would risk our lives, as we rightly did.
“As we rowed the sound, our swords were bared
“and held in our hands to have a defence        540
“from whales, as we thought. In no way could he       
“float far from me over flood-waves
“as the faster on water, nor would I leave him.
“We stayed together, going over the strait
“through five full nights, till forced apart by waves.
“The angry water, the iciest weather,
“the darkening night and the north wind
“war-grim rushed us. The waves were rough.
“Then the sea fishes’ fury was stirred.
“An aid against foes, my armoured shirt,        550
“strong and hand-linked, helped me withstand them,
“safeguarding my breast, my braided sark,
“adorned with gold. I was dragged to the sea-floor
“by a hated foe holding me fast,
“grim in his grip, but it was granted to me
“that I could mark this monstrous creature
“with my keen blade. My blows curtailed
“the monster’s life through my might of hand.”

08 July 2011

On Beowulf and the "Cursed Hoard"

An article on whether the dragon's hoard was cursed, and what happened to Beowulf's soul after death. I will go here when I have the leisure to peruse.

07 July 2011

Hrothgar Tells of Grendel

Hrothgar relates how he had helped Beowulf's father, who had been exiled because he had killed a man and the ensuing feud was accounted a danger to the Geats. This story establishes the relationship between Hrothgar and Beowulf, which may be a reason for Beowulf's offer of help. Once this is over, the Geats and Danes settle in for an evening of drinking, entertainment, and conviviality.



Then Hrothgar spoke, the Helmet of Scyldings:
“To fight in defence, my friend Beowulf,
“and seek honour, you sought us here.
“A strike from your father once started a feud.
“He slew with his hand Heatholaf 460
“of the Wylfing folk. His Weder friends
“from fear of the feud forced him away,
“so he sought out the Southern Danes,
“the honourable Scyldings, over ocean waves.
“I had only begun to govern the Danes;
“while young I ruled this rich kingdom,
“a treasury of heroes. Heorogar was then dead,
“my elder brother, breathing no more,
“Healfdene’s first born, and better than I am.
“I settled the feud by sending fees 470
“across ridged water to the Wylfing realm,
“ancient treasures. I took oaths then.1
“I am sore at heart. It hurts to say
“to any man the dishonour caused
“by Grendel’s hatred in Heorot.
“In lightning moves my men-at-arms,
“my guard, is wasted. Wyrd swept them off
“with Grendel’s rage. God readily
“can end the reavings of the reckless thief.
“They boasted often, with beer inside them 480
“over frothing tankards, fully armed men,
“they would wait here in the wine-hall
“to give sharp greetings to Grendel’s onslaught.
“Then this mead-hall as morning came
“was dyed with gore. As the day brightened
“the sturdy bench-boards were blood-speckled,
“the palace, blood-painted, and I was poorer in friends;
“my dear comrades were claimed by death.
“Now sit to the banquet, unsealing thoughts
“of your hero’s deeds as your heart directs.” 490

The Geats were gathered together then.
In the beer-hall a bench was cleared.
There the strong-souled sat themselves down
proud in their strength. A servant did his part
who carried a cup carved and embossed
and poured shining mead. A poet, at times,
sang clearly in Heort. Heroes felt joy,
that not-little war-group of Weders and Danes.

1After settling the feud, Hrothgar took an oath of loyalty from Beowulf’s father. Hrothgar implies that Beowulf may be helping out of gratitude or family obligation.

Another Beowulf Blog

Through coincidence, I came upon another Beowulf blog that I'd like to record here to find again easily. Among other things, it is putting up the Old English text Fitt by Fitt.


05 July 2011

Wordle for the first 2/3s

The web site http://wordle.com takes text and makes a word picture of it. I understand that it takes the most common words and represents how common they are by how big they are, giving an overview of the most important people, objects, and concepts in the text. There are options to change the colour, angle, and font of the words to make a kind of word art.

I fed it what I have done of the Beowulf translation (up to line 1985). Here is the result:

Notice how big the words "Man" and "Men" are. This is an overwhelmingly masculine story. The names Beowulf and Hrothgar are the next largest words. Grendel is surprisingly small: smaller than son, life, or God.

I will repeat the experiment when the translation is complete.

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.


Hrothgar answered, the helmet of Scyldings.
I remember this man as a mere boy.
His agèd 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.

04 July 2011

Fitt Six: Beowulf Arrives at Heorot

When the Coastguard leaves, Beowulf and his men have only a short way to travel to get to Heorot. Wulfgar questions Beowulf at the door, then goes to King Hrothgar to recommend that he see the visitors.


All bright with stones, the street brought them
marching together. Mail-shirts glittered,        320
braided by hand; bright iron rings
clashed in armour as they closed with the hall
striding forward in stern harness.
The sea-wearied men set down broad shields,
Well-hardened rims rested on the wall,
and they bent to a bench. Byrnies jangled,
men’s war-tackle. Their weapons stood.
The sailors’ lances leaned together,
grey-tipped ash-wood. That armoured group
had praiseworthy weapons. A proud warrior    330
said that these spearmen should speak of themselves:
“These came from what place, these plated shields,
“these grey hauberks and grim-masked helmets,
“this heap of spears? I speak for Hrothgar
“as attendant and herald. I have not seen
“so large a troop look so determined.
“Honour, I know it, and not exile
“but spirited hearts sped you to Hrothgar.”

The eager for battle answered him back;        340
words came in reply from the Weder lord,
hard under helmet: “Hygelac is our king;
“we share his board. Beowulf is my name.
“I hoped to say to Healfdene’s son,
“that famous sovereign, my sole purpose,
“if by his grace he grants a hearing,
“gives me permission to meet him now.”

Wulfgar answered, the Wendels’ lord,
a strong-minded man that many knew
for courage and counsel: “Coming to the Dane-friend,    350
“I shall inquire to the Scylding king,
“the ring-giver, about the gift you seek,
“to that famous lord relay your wish
“and promptly come with the king’s response
“that the good man will give to me.”

In haste he turned to where Hrothgar sat
old and white-haired, his earls around him.
He strode boldly, then stood at the shoulder
of the Danish king, as the custom is.
Wulfgar lifted his voice to his lord and friend:         360
“They fared to here from their far-off home,
“going on seaways, Geatish sailors.
“The first among these fighting men
“is called Beowulf. The boon they ask,
“Your Majesty, is that they may with you
“exchange some words. Welcome them here
“and grant them answers, gracious Hrothgar.
“Their war-gear surely shows they are worthy
“of our earls’ respect. Their oldest is indeed strong,
“the one who led these warriors here.”

A Last Look at the First Sentence (?)

The opening sentence (the first three lines) has niggled at me, but I came up with good solutions for two thirds of it.

The fighting Danes of former days,
the kings of the nation, we know their fame...

I have had the following line read

and how they earned honour through deeds.

The line sounds good, I think, but does not perfectly render the original meaning, which means something along the lines of

and how those lords exploits accomplished.

I can come closer with

and the proud deeds those princes did.

This is a good place to explain how and why I am breaking the rules of Alliterative Verse from time to time. Old English verse never has the two stresses of a half-line together at the end, as I just put them in "and the PROUD DEEDS." However, for many lines in Beowulf, that is the simplest and most accurate way to translate. For example, "in the beer hall," "in the gold hall," "in the wine hall" all work beautifully in Old English because the words for the hall--sele, reced--have two syllables. Not so in modern English. A way around the problem is to create lines like "in the hall of gold," but that is awkward and misleading. The gold hall fairly clearly means the place where gold is given out, not the place that is made of gold; after all, the wine hall is where wine is given out...it does not mean that the hall is made of wine! I could use a different word, such as mansion or palace. In the end, I sometimes used hall even though it meant that some few half-lines had their two stresses together at the end.

P.S. On the other hand, I can avoid breaking the rules with this:

and the proud exploits those princes did.

Beowulf On-line

There are a number of complete translations of Beowulf on-line. Project Gutenberg (http://gutenberg.org) features three: William Morris and A.J. Wyatt, Francis Barton Gummere, and Lesslie Hall. It has, as well, the Old English version edited by Harrison and Sharp and a useful critique of early translations by Chauncey Brewster Tinker.

Of these, Gummere's 1910 translation is best, possibly because he developed it for oral reading in a classroom. It keeps the poem's form and follows its meaning quite closely. However, tastes in poetry have changed, and Gummere uses a poetic diction that is no longer in style. Unfortunately, Morris's version is unreadably archaic in language. Hall's is a freer translation than those two, and does not follow the original line for line.

For a literal translation, side by side with the original Old English, and with copious notes, a wonderful resource is Ben Slade's site (http://heorot.dk). I've leaned on this heavily.

Another wonderful site, Beowulf Translations (http://beowulftranslations.net/)  is scheduled to disappear from the Internet on 31 December 2011. This site has selections from many, many translations of Beowulf for comparison. Anyone who can should take advantage of Syd Allen's offer and download the entire site as a zip file.

The Klaeber edition of Beowulf has been the standard Old English edition for decades. It is on-line, though without the copious notes in the book, at this site: http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/beowulf-oe.html.

An on-line magazine called January Magazine has selections from the translation of Beowulf by Charles W. Kennedy, originally published by Oxford University Press. I had not seen this alliterative verse translation before. It is modern and readable. The January Magazine article also has a link to the full text of the book on the Questia Online Library. Questia is a paid service, though, so only part of the introduction and the first page of the poem are there for free. For now, at least, you can find much of it also here.

Kennedy's introduction to Beowulf has an annoying oversight, though. He says, "THE Old English Beowulf holds a unique place as the oldest epic narrative in any modern European tongue." Isn't Greek "a modern European tongue"? So shouldn't that honour go to The Iliad or The Odyssey?

Another free one is here. It is by Dick Ringler and is titled Beowulf: A New Translation for Oral Delivery. It is dated May, 2005.

It is the nature of the Internet that resources appear and disappear. I don't expect the Project Gutenberg books to disappear: that organization is not going away soon, if at all, but the others may be ephemeral. Still, what disappears in one place may reappear in another, so do not let a dead link stop you from searching further.

02 July 2011

First Page

Here, from Wikimedia Commons, is the first page of Beowulf.

Fitt the Fifth: Beowulf Answers the Coastguard and Goes to Heorot

Notice how Beowulf answers the Coastguard here. First, he names his king, then his family. Beowulf's fame is not enough to impress a Dane (yet), so he claims respectability by referring to his eminent father. He does not even give his own name here! Finally, he says that he will "unfold his full message" to the guard, but does not. He actually intends to end Hrothgar's problems with Grendel by personally killing the monster, but does not tell the guard this. Instead, he says merely that he has "a proposal of weight" for the king to consider.  

Beowulf gives an impression of being entirely open and honest to the Coastguard while withholding quite a bit of information. This turns out to be typical of the man. He does give his name later, when he needs to, at the door of Heorot. He "unfolds his full message" only when he needs to, to King Hrothgar himself. His speech exposes Unferth to scorn, comforts the queen, rouses the King, and so on. More than anyone else, Beowulf varies both the style and content of his speech to fit his audience and his purpose.

The Coastguard is satisfied that the Geats intend no harm, so he puts a guard on their ship to keep it safe and leads them to Heorot to see the king.

He who was eldest then answered him;
the warriors’ leader unlocked his word-hoard:
We are kindred of the clan of Geats 260
and share the hearth of Hygelac.
My father was known, famed by the people,
an eminent noble, Ecgtheow by name.
Worn by winters, he went at last
away, agèd, but often remembered
the wide world over by the wisest men.
We firmly decided to find your lord,
are seeking here Healfdene’s son,
the people’s guard. I pray you to guide us.
We have for the prince a proposal of weight 270
for the Dane himself. I see no reason
not to unfold my full message.
You should know the truth of news we were told:
to Scyldings a killer, I am not sure what kind,
a slinking demon in the dark of night,
enacts horrors, unequalled hatred,
suffering and ruin. To the ruler I can
from an open heart offer counsel
how he, wise and good, may worst the ghoul,
that is, if his curse can ever end, 280
a cure arrive for his restive mind,
and care’s hot waves wash cooler then,
or else, forever, anguish will endure,
suffering stay, while that stands erect,
high on the hill, that house without equal.”

The warden said, sitting there on his horse,
that ready retainer, “Truly, every
shrewd-minded soldier should know the difference
between words and works, if he weighs them right.
From what I hear I grasp this group means no harm 290
to the Scylding king; so carry on, bearing
your weapons and armour on the way I show.
Also, to my men I will issue commands
to keep a watch on your craft for foes,
that ship on the sand that shines with new tar,
to safeguard it until it sails, bearing
over water-streams the well-loved man,
the curve-necked wood to the Weder lands.
Men who perform such fitting deeds
are held from harm in the heat of war.” 300

They started their march. Unmoving, the boat
rode on the sand, the roomy ship,
fastened by its anchor. Figures of boars
engraved in gold guarded their cheeks,
fire-hardened and shining, a shield to lives.
In a heroic mood, the men hurried,
headed forward till the hall of wood
stood in their sight, stately and gold-trimmed.
That was the best for beings on earth
of halls under heaven, where Hrothgar lived.
Its lustre lit the lands around. 310
Then the bold man to the battlers’ house,
all brilliant, led them, bringing them along
the straightest way. The sturdy warrior
turned his horse round and hailed them all.
I must now leave. The Almighty Father,
I pray will grant grace and protection
safeguarding you. I go to the sea
to watch and ward against warring foes.”