Saturday, December 3, 2016

Tempered in Blood

Beowulf, lines 2669-2693.

Æfter ðām wordum    wyrm yrre cwōm,
atol inwitgæst    ōðre sīðe
fȳrwylmum fāh    fīonda nīos()an,
lāðra manna.    Līġ ȳðum fōr;
born bord wið rond.    Byrne ne meahte
ġeongum gārwigan    ġēoce ġefremman,
ac se maga ġeonga    under his mǣġes scyld
elne ġeēode,    þā his āgen (wæs)
glēdum forgrunden.    Þā ġēn gūðcyning
m(ōd) ġemunde,    mæġenstrenġo slōh
hildebille,    þæt hyt on heafolan stōd
nīþe ġenȳded;    Næġling forbærst,
ġeswāc æt sæċċe    sweord Bīowulfes
gomol ond grǣġmǣl.    Him þæt ġifeðe ne wæs
þæt him īrenna    ecge mihton
helpan æt hilde;    wæs sīo hond tō strong,
sē ðe mēċa ġehwane    mīne ġefrǣġe
swenġe ofersōhte    þonne hē tō sæċċe bær
wǣpen wundum heard;    næs him wihte ðē sēl.
  Þā wæs þēodsceaða    þriddan sīðe,
frēcne fȳrdraca    fǣhða ġemyndiġ,
rǣsde on ðone rōfan,    þā him rūm āġeald,
hāt ond heaðogrim,    heals ealne ymbefēng
biteran bānum.    Hē ġeblōdegod wearð
sāwuldrīore;    swāt ȳðum wēoll.

[After those words the worm angry came,
Terrible spiteful visitor, for the second time
With fire-surges adorned, enemies to seek out,
Hostile ones of men. Flame advanced in waves;
Burned shield up to the boss. Byrnie might not
To the young spear-warrior help furnish,
But the young man under his kinsman’s shield
Bravely went to, when his own was
By flames destroyed. Then again the war-king
Courage summoned, in great strength struck
With battle-sword, that it on the head stuck
By violence impelled; Næġling shattered,
Beowulf’s sword failed at combat,
Ancient and grey-marked. That never was to him granted
That iron’s edge might him
Help at battle; his hand was too strong,
Which of swords every, as I have heard say,
With blow over strained, when he to fight bore
Weapon by wounds hardened; it was not any better for him.
Then was the ravager of people for a third time,
Terrible fire-drake of feuds mindful,
Rushed on that famous one, when to him opportunity was offered,
Hot and battle-fierce, the neck whole enclosed
With sharp tusks. He made bloody
With life-blood; the blood welled out in waves.]

Throughout the poem Beowulf seems to have had little use for swords: he does not wear one to the battle with Grendel; Hrunting fails him when he fights with Grendel’s mother, and the sword he eventually uses to kill her (which is the “work of giants”) melts away after having been used to decapitate Grendel; in the slaying of Dayraven, a deed of which Beowulf is sufficiently proud to mention it in his final speech to his retainers, Beowulf does not slay him with a sword, but rather crushes his “bone-house” with a mighty bear-hug.


This preference for unarmed combat is now at least partially explained by the fact that Beowulf is so strong that weapons shatter when he strikes, even when he bears a weapon “hardened in wounds.” This cryptic reference may refer to practices or beliefs in ancient Scandinavia surrounding the tempering of weapons in blood (blood and urine are both traditional fluids used in the tempering process) to harden the steel as well as render it less likely to shatter on impact; in other words, the normal measures taken to prevent steel from shattering are no good for Beowulf, thus the “næs him wihte ðē sēl.” If the speculations about the origin of Beowulf himself as a “bear’s son” figure are true, this may be the echo of a comical episode from folklore in which bear’s son is so strong he shatters every weapon he holds. In that case, the poet seems to have appropriated it here for dramatic effect.

Treacherous Hate and Eternal Rewards

Beowulf, lines 1192-1214.

Him wæs ful boren,    ond frēondlaþu
wordum bwæġned,    ond wunden gold
ēstum ġeēawed,    earmrēade twā,
hræġl ond hringas,    healsbēaga mǣst
þāra þe iċ on foldan    ġfræġen hæbbe.
Nǣniġne iċ under sweġle    sēlran hȳrde
hordmāððụm hæleþa    syþðan Hāma ætwæġ
tō þǣre byrhtan byriġ    Brōsinga mene,
siġle ond sinċfæt –    searonīðas flēah
Eormenrīċes,    ġeċēas ēċne rǣd.
Þone hrinġ hæfde    Hiġelāc Ġēata,
nefa Swertinges    nȳhstan sīðe,
siðþan hē for wlenċo    wēan āhsode,
fǣhðe tō Frȳsum.    Hē þā frætwe wæġ,
eorclanstānas    ofer ȳða ful,
rīċe þēoden;    hē under rande ġecranc.
Ġehwearf þā in Francna fæþm    feorh cyninges,
brēostġewǣdu,    ond se bēah somod.
Wyrsan wīġfrecan    wæl rēafeden
æfter gūðsceare;    Ġēata lēode
hrēawīċ hēoldon.    Heal swēġe onfēng.

[To him was the cup born and friendly invitation
With words offered, and twisted gold
With good will presented, arm-ornaments twain,
Garment and rings, of neck rings greatest
Of those that I in earth have heard.
I under heaven heard of no better
Treasure of heroes, since Hama carried away
To that fair stronghold the necklace of the Brosings,
Jewel and fine setting – fleeing the treacherous hate
Of Eormenric, chose eternal rewards.
This collar had Hygelac of the Geats
Grandson of Swerting, at [his] last expedition,
When he under the standard defended treasure,
Guarding the spoil of the slain; fate bore him off,
When he for pride looked for woe,
Assault on Frisia. He those adornments wore,
Precious stones over the cup of waves,
Powerful prince; he under shield fell.
Passed then the life of the king into the Franks’ embrace,
Breast-garment and collar together.
A worse warrior stripped the slain
After war-slaughter; the Geatish people
The place of corpses guarded. The hall received [the gift] with applause.]

Wealtheow’s presentation of the neck ring to Beowulf is accompanied by an ominous foreshadowing the eventual fate of the item: it will be stripped from Hygelac’s corpse when he overreaches himself on the doomed Frisian raid, taken by a lesser warrior than himself. This is the first of four allusions to the nature of Hygelac’s death in the poem, and all together these references make one of the stronger arguments for reading the poem (at least partially) as a criticism of the old heroic system.

Further light may be shed on the nature of this criticism by the cryptic reference in 1197-1201 to the Necklace of the Brosings. The nature of Hama’s feud with Eormenric is not entirely clear, but we can infer from context and from parallel sources that Hama, who figures in Germanic legend as an “exile, adventurer, and outlaw” gained both searonīðas flēah Eormenrīċes as well as ēċne rǣd by stealing the Necklace of the Brosings from Eormenric. (Klaeber 193-4) In both this allusion and in the foreshadowing of Hrothgar’s death we see the inseparability of treasure from the heroic ideal, and the double-aged nature of every heroic deed in the poem: every act of ellen brings about “treacherous hate” as well as “eternal rewards.”

The King's Subjunctive Mood

Beowulf, lines 499-528.

nferð maþelode,    Ecglāfes bearn,
þē æt fōtum sæt    frēan Scyldinga,
onband beadurūne.    Wæs him Bēowulfes sīð,
mōdġes merefaran,    miċel æfþunca,
forþon þe hē ne ūþe    þæt ǣniġ ōðer man
ǣfre mǣrða þon mā    middanġeardes
ġehēdde under heofenum    þonne hē sylfa:
‘Eart þū se Bēowulf,    sē þe wið Brecan wunne
on sīdne sǣ,    ymb sund flite,
ðǣr ġit for wlenċe    wada cunnedon
ond for dolġilpe    on dēop wæter
aldrum nēþdon?    Nē inċ ǣniġ mon,
nē lēof nē lāð,    belēan mihte
sorhfullne sīð,    þā ġit on sund rêon.
Þǣr ġit ēagorstrēam    earmum þehton,
mǣton merestrǣta,    mundum brugdon,
glidon ofer gārsecg;    ġeofon ȳþum wēol,
wintrys wylm[um].    Ġit on wæteres ǣht
seofonniht swuncon;    hē þē æt sunde oferflāt,
hæfde māre mæġen.    Þā hine on morgentīd
on Heaþo-Rǣmes    holm up ætbær;
ðonon hē ġesōhte    swǣsne ēþel,
lēof his lēodum,    lond Brondinga,
freoðoburh fæġere,    þǣr hē folc āhte,
burh ond bēagas.    Bēot eal wið þē
sunu Bēanstānes    so(ð)e ġelǣste.
Đonne wēne iċ tō þē    wyrsan ġeþinġea,
ðēah þū heaðorǣsa    ġehwǣr dohte,
grimre gūðe,    ġif þū Grendles dearst
nihtlongne fyrst    nêan bīdan.’

[Unferth made a speech, Ecglaf’s son,
Who sat at the feet of the Lord of the Scyldings,
Unbound a battle-rune: Beowulf’s undertaking,
Bold seafearer, was to him great vexation,
Because he never wished that any other man
Of glory in the world
Might be thought of more than himself:
“Are you the Beowulf, who that against Brecca strove,
In a swimming competition in the wide sea,
There you both because of daring the waters tried
And for foolish boasting in deep water
Lives to risk? Nor might any man,
Neither friend nor foe, dissuade the two of you
From sorrowful venture, when you both in the sea swam.
There you two the ocean-stream with arms embraced,
Measured sea-streams, with hands wove
Glided over ocean: The deep surged with waves,
With winter’s swells. You both in the water’s power
Seven nights toiled; he beat you then at swimming,
Had more strength. Then at morning the sea
Carried him up to the [land of the] Heaþo-Rǣmes;
Thence he sought dear native land,
Dear to his people, land of the Brodings,
Fair fortified burg, there he had folk,
Burg and rings. All [his] boast against you
The son of Bearnstan truly carried out.
Therefore I expect from you a worse outcome,
Although thou in the onset of battle everywhere do well,
In grim war, if thou dare in night-long watch

To wait close at hand for Grendel.]

Unferth’s position sitting æt fōtum of the Lord of the Scyldings tells us something of the importance of his position at Hrothgar’s court. Twice later in the poem he is referred to as a þyle, variously referred to as the king’s “sage, orator…historian, major-domo, and… right-hand man.” (Klaeber 149-50) Although Unferth’s motives for criticizing Beowulf seem straightforward enough (he cannot stand for any man to be more prominent than himself) there is also the possibility here that it was the responsibility of the þyle to remember the deeds and lineages of important people, and to remind the king of them when they came to court. Professor Shippey suggests that Unferth may have been acting here as the "king's subjunctive mood."

Since Beowulf’s own account of the swimming match does not actually contradict Unferth’s, but only adds to it new information which Unferth does not seem to have had, it seems possible that Unferth is advancing a potentially valid criticism on Hrothgar’s behalf, in a way which allows the king to save face should it turn out not to be true. Note that it is after Beowulf’s successful rebuttal of Unferth (which boils down to: I did not come to Heorot to swim; I came to kill monsters, and I’m really good at it!) that Hrothgar seems genuinely pleased with his young warrior who has come to his aid (line 607).

Friday, October 28, 2016

The crushing of Dayraven: An oddly specific detail?

One more note about the banhus gebræc section in my previous post. This particular detail -- the fact that Beowulf crushed a Frankish warrior named Dayraven in a (possibly literal) bear-hug seems sort of oddly specific. Why would Beowulf include this particular feat of strength in the inventory he is taking of (or possibly the apology he is making for) his life? Surely the fight with Grendel or Grendel's mother would have been more impressive here.

But the context from line 2490 on is the ways in which Beowulf has been a faithful retainer to Hygelac all throughout his life: he has done so by repaying all of the gifts Hygelac has given him with valor in battle, meriting Hygelac's further favor in gifts of land and rulership. Which leads to an implicit question: if Beowulf is such a great warrior, why are the Geats routed at the Frisian raid? Why is Hygelac killed and why is Beowulf one of the only survivors, swimming back to Geatland with the spoils of thirty warriors, while Hygelac's body is picked over by a "lesser warrior than himself?"

In the killing of Dayraven we find something of an answer. Note that Beowulf always fights, by his own admission "ana on orde" -- "alone in the van." In other words, Beowulf fights best out alone, in front of the rest of the warband. The specific instances we see of Beowulf's prowess against monsters seems to bear this out: he goes in alone against both Grendel's Mother and the Dragon. So the first half of the answer to "where was  Beowulf when Hygelac was slain?" is "he was out in the front of the rest of the army, where he always is."

The second half of the answer may be found in the identity of Dæghrefn ("Day-raven"). He is the cumbles hyrde, the standard-bearer of the Frankish army. So when Hygelac is killed during the Frisian raid, Beowulf is out in front of the rest of the army, taking down the enemy standard alone. He is serving Hygelac as he has always served him.

banhus gebraec

Symle ic him on feðan    beforan wolde,
ana on orde,    ond swa to aldre sceall
sæcce fremman,    þenden þis sweord þolað.
Þæt mec ær ond sið    oft gelæste,
syððan ic for dugeðum    Dæghrefne wearð
to handbonan,    Huga cempan.
Nalles he ða frætwe    Frescyninge,
breostweorðunge    bringan moste,
ac in cempan gecrong    cumbles hyrde,
æþeling on elne.    Ne wæs ecg bona,
ac him hildegrap    heortan wylmas,
banhus gebræc.

Always I for him [Hygelac] would be in the front of the band of soldiers, alone in the van, and so [in this manner] through life shall battle do, while this sword lasts, which has served me early and late, since I before the experienced retainers proved to Dayraven as slayer-by-hand, champion of the Franks. Not at all he the trappings to the Frisian King, might be allowed to present breast-adornment, but in battle fell the standard-bearer, prince in valor; nor was edge the slayer, but for him the battle-grip bone-house and heart's surges crushed.

Beowulf, 2497-508

This passage, which contains not one, but two digressions starting back around line 2300, has always been a difficult one for students of the poem, and is sort of doubly difficulty to follow if you are reading the poem in the original. Having gone through it a couple of times over the last two weeks, I have a new appreciate for how intricately (and artfully) these digressions have been interwoven.

One cannot help but see a bit of irony (whether or not it was intended by the poet) in Beowulf's words "þenden þis sweord þolað" given that his sword will fail him at the last, when he is fighting out in the front of the "band of soldiers" without the help of his thanes.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

The Most Difficult Couplet in Beowulf

No he þone gifstol gretan moste
maþðum for Me-tode, ne his myne wisse.

(Beowulf, Lines 168-9)

With typical understatement, the commentary accompanying these lines in the fourth edition of Klaeber’s critical text begins by declaring it “A perplexing passage.” (Klaeber 126) In his own notes on the passage, Tolkien declared it “perhaps the most difficult in Beowulf.” (Tolkien 181) There are a total of eight difficulties listed in Klaeber’s commentary for these two lines, and they have attracted considerable attention from Tolkien and others. For the purposes of this textual study, we will focus particularly on the pronouns he and him. Who is doing the approaching, to whom does the throne belong, and to whom does his refer in 169b?

The suggested reading in the commentary of Klaeber’s Fourth Edition reads “…Grendel could not approach the throne, nor might he (as one of the seed of Cain) know his (God’s) love (or perhaps: nor was he [Grendel] permitted his desire).”[1] The identification here of he with Grendel seems supportable light of the fact that Hrothgar has not been mentioned since 156, and since Grendel has been the subject since 164. But Tolkien challenges this reading on the grounds that it renders the rest of the sentence nonsensical. The throne cannot be Hrothgar’s, Tolkien argues, 

“Why could Grendel not approach the throne, when he was in sole control of Heorot all night? There was no magical or divine protection over the throne any more than over the hall or its inhabitants, and no doubt Grendel could have sat in the king’s throne and gnawed bones... It becomes plain therefore that the language is theological. gifstol is God’s throne, and is an example of the frequent user of heroic language with divine import…” (Tolkien 184)

Thus he is not Grendel, the argument follows, because Grendel’s standing before God has already been dealt with, and has little to do with “Hrothgar’s torment.” Tolkien thus regarded these lines as a sudden and clumsy shift to Hrothgar as the subject—clumsy because it is an “interpolation or elaboration.” (Tolkien 185)

But Tolkien’s whole argument hinges upon the assumption that the poet literally means that Grendel has the run of the hall itself, but cannot physically approach the king’s seat. But as Tolkien himself reminds us, gretan here means to “hail or address.” (Tolkien 183) We are not to imagine Grendel as being physically unable to come near Hrothgar’s chair, but rather that he cannot come and pay his respects before the “gift-seat” as a good retainer should[2], a reminder that the monster’s whole situation is a dark parody of the heroic society of the poem. Grendel holds the hall as a king, but he pays no wergild for those he kills[3]; he is referred to as healðegn (142) and yet he cannot participate in the gift-giving economy of the heroic society. He is an outsider, an interloper, whose time in the hall only ever comes at night, when all men have deserted it. Why is he outcast? for Metode – because he is under the divine curse laid upon all of Cain’s kin. 

ne his myne wisse is more difficult. Its interpretation hinges on who his signifies. As the context makes it unlikely to be Hrothgar, it must refer to either God or Grendel. Thus Klaeber (at different points) offers two conflicting readings: ‘nor did he [God] take thought of him [Grendel]’ or ‘nor did he [Grendel] feel (regard) gratitude for it.’

The simplest solution is that Grendel is still the subject of the sentence, for Metode being an interjection intended to keep our attention focused on Grendel’s state of isolation from God and man even as he enjoys the dominion of the hall, which has been the theme of this section of the poem since 144. myne, which appears elsewhere in the poem, may be here glossed as “desire, love, kind thought.” (Klaeber 415) Grendel thus “knows” an absence of desire regarding his ability to approach the gifstol and take his maþðum as a good retainer. This indeed is the reading suggested by P. Cosjin: “nor was he inclined to do so.” (Klaeber 127) By this reading, 169b is an echo of the sentiment expressed earlier in 154-8. Not only is Grendel total foreign to the social contract by which Hrothgar’s world operates, he has no desire to become a part of it. I would therefore suggest the following reading for these lines:

“Nor might he be permitted to approach the gift-seat for treasure, because of God‘s curse, nor did he desire to do so.”

Works Cited
    Klaeber, Fr, R. D. Fulk, Robert E. Bjork, and John D. Niles. Klaeber's Beowulf ; and the Fight at Finnsburg. Toronto: U of Toronto, 2008. Print.
    Tolkien, J. R. R., Christopher Tolkien, and J. R. R. Tolkien. Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary: Together with Sellic Spell. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014. Print.

---
[1] The equivocation inherent in this rendering serves to illustrate just how difficult scholars have found this couplet.
[2] The use of maþðum makes this plain: this word which means “gift” or “precious thing” stands in apposition to the “gift” element of gifstol. It was customary for the king’s retainers to approach the king’s seat during the feast and accept a gift from him, in return for which loyal military service was expected. See Wiglaf’s speech beginning at 2633.
[3] 154-8

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Who really won the swimming match?

It is interesting to note that Beowulf never actually corrects Unferth's account of the swimming match between Beowulf and Breca. His own account of his deeds on the water certainly has a lot more detail than Unferth's version, but Beowulf does not actually correct Unferth's basic assertion that the two of them swam together for seven nights before Beowulf dropped out and Breca washed up on the Heathoream shore. In fact, Beowulf's version of events has them together for only five nights before they are driven apart by a storm. He has the fight with the Nicors in the night, and washes up on the Finnish shore the morning of Day 6.

So who won the swimming fight? I think what Beowulf is saying, in the correct roundabout way that we'd expect from the hero of an Anglo-Saxon story, is that "sure, Breca stayed in the water for longer, but killed nine nicors. Who won the swimming fight? It doesn't matter. I didn't come to Heorot to swim. I came to Heorot to kill monsters."

Nicor, Artist Unknown


---

Beowulf maþelode,    bearn Ecgþeowes:
"Hwæt, þu worn fela,    wine min Hunferð,
beore druncen,    ymb Brecan spræce,
sægdest from his siðe.    Soð ic talige
þæt ic merestrengo    maran ahte,
earfeþo on yþum,    ðonne ænig oþer man.
Wit þæt gecwædon,    cnihtwesende
ond gebeotedon,    wæron begen þa git
on geogoðfeore,    þæt wit on garsecg ut
aldrum neðdon,    ond þæt geæfndon swa.
Hæfdon swurd nacod,    þa wit on sund reon,
heard on handa.    Wit unc wið hronfixas
werian þohton.    No he wiht fram me
flodyþum feor    fleotan meahte,
hraþor on holme,    no ic fram him wolde.
Ða wit æt|somne    on sæ wæron
fif nihta fyrst,   oþ þæt unc flod todraf,
wado weallende,    wedera cealdost,
nipende niht,    ond norþanwind,
heaðogrim ondhwearf.    Hreo wæron yþa!
Wæs merefixa    mod onhrered:
þær me wið laðum    licsyrce min
heard hondlocen,    helpe gefremede,
beadohrægl broden    on breostum læg,
golde gegyrwed.    Me to grunde teah,
fah feondscaða,    fæste hæfde,
grim on grape.    Hwæþre me gyfeþe wearð
þæt ic aglæcan    orde geræhte,
hildebille.    Heaþoræs fornam
mihtig meredeor    þurh mine hand."
Swa mec gelome    laðgeteonan
þreatedon þearle.    Ic him þenode
deoran sweorde,    swa hit gedefe wæs.
Næs hie ðære fylle    gefean hæfdon,
manfordædlan,    þæt hie me þegon,
symbel ymbsæton    sægrunde neah.
Ac on mergenne,    mecum |wunde,
be yðlafe    uppe lægon,
sweordum aswefede,    þæt syðþan na
ymb brontne ford    brimliðende
lade ne letton.   Leoht eastan com,
beorht beacen Godes,    brimu swaþredon,
þæt ic sænæssas    geseon mihte,
windige weallas.    Wyrd oft nereð
unfægne eorl,    þonne his ellen deah.
Hwæþere me gesælde    þæt ic mid sweorde ofsloh
niceras nigene.    No ic on niht gefrægn
under heofones hwealf    heardran feohtan,
ne on egstreamum    earmran mannon.
Hwaþere ic fara feng    feore gedigde,
siþes werig.    Ða mec sæ oþbær,
flod æfter faroðe,    on Finna land,
wadu weallendu. 
(Beowulf, Lines 529-81)


Beowulf spoke, son of Ecgtheow: "Indeed thou a great multitude, my friend Unferth, drunk with beer, about Breca have spoken, said about his adventure. Truth I claim that I had great strength in the sea, hard struggle in waves, than any other man. We two this agreed, being boys, and boasted -- were both then still in youthfulness -- that we two out in the ocean to risk our lives; and that we did. Having naked swords, when we two in the sea swam, hard [blades] in hands, we two ourselves against sea-monsters intended to defend. He might not a whit from me over the sea-waves swim, faster in the sea, nor did I wish from him to go. Then we two together in the sea were the space of five nights, and the North Wind hostile turned against us. Rough were the waves, the anger of the ocean-fishes was aroused. There to me my body armor -- hard, hand-locked -- help provided, mail-shirt woven, lying on breast, well adorned. The hostile, dire foes drew me to the bottom, firmly, grim in graps: yet to me it was granted that I those monsters struck with point, with battle-bill; battles rush cut off mighty sea-beast through my hand. Thus those loathely-spoilers pressed me severely; I them served with good sword, as it befitting was. Not at all they their fill of joy had, wicked destroyers, that they partook, sat around at banquet on the sea floor near me; but at morning with sword wound by the shore above lay, by swords put to sleep, that afterwards never in the sea steep waterway to sea-farer passage hindered. Light came from the East, God's bright beacon; ocean waters subsided that I the headlands might see, windy high shores. Wyrd oft saveth the undoomed man, when his courage be good. Yet to me befell, that I with sword slew nine Nicors. Nor I heard of harder fight at night under heaven's fault, nor of men harder pressed in water-streams. Yet I from foes's grasp with life escaped, weary of undertaking. Then the sea bore me off, flood after current to the land of the Finns, waters surging..."

Thesis Theater: The Digital Hervararkviða

As I've mentioned recently, I've been head-down getting the Digital Hervararkviða finished and ready for prime time. Last week it ca...