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).

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