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.

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