Saturday, February 24, 2018

Until the Dragon Comes: Responses to Edwenden in Hrothgar's Sermon

Among the many themes of the Beowulf poem, perhaps none is as persistent throughout each of the poem's scenes, episodes, and digressions as that of "the change from despair to triumph... the sudden reversals of time," a concept the poet refers to as edwenden (Old English Verse 38). This post is a  close reading of Hrothgar's "sermon,"[1] which runs from lines 1700-84[2], which I believe contains the poem’s clearest thesis on this kind of sudden change, and suggests proper and improper responses to edwenden by which the poem’s characters may be judged.

More than Politeness (1700-7a)

Hrothgar begins his speech with pleasantries, justly praising Beowulf's valor, although not without creating an implicature. "A right and proper guardian of the homeland, an upholder of truth, would praise you," Hrothgar says, and then promptly goes on to praise Beowulf, thus hedging his position. This opening marks a tendency throughout Hrothgar's address to prefer elliptical phrasing and reserve direct statements for emphasis.[3]

The Trouble with Heremod (1707b-23a)

Beowulf has already been favorably contrasted to Heremod[4] in lines 898-906. Hrothgar repeats the comparison, but instead of a contrast he suggests the danger of a parallel. Like Beowulf, Heremod had been "blessed with strength, exalted with vigor." Given the station to which he had been exalted, Heremod should have been a help to his people—as Hrothgar implies Beowulf should be. Instead, Heremod grew bloodthirsty and miserly and fell victim to the violence and mistrust he perpetuated. The elliptical warning is punctuated by a direct imperative: "teach yourself by that, see manly virtue!" Hrothgar's superior age and wisdom—cleverly established at the beginning of the speech—allows him to make this direct statement, which might otherwise be perceived as a face-threatening act (Shippey 1993). But it also allows him to explain where things went wrong for Heremod—and where they could go wrong for Beowulf.

Where the Rot Sets In (1723b-57)

Until now we have not been told much about Heremod's shortcomings, beyond his violence and miserliness. Hrothgar's parable of the "man of famous family" indicates Heremod's avarice was more symptom than disease. The subject of this parable begins with everything going well for him—he "dwells in plenty, and not a whit do illness or old age hinder him... the world goes as he wishes." This might well describe Beowulf, flushed with victory after his fight with Grendel's mother. It might also describe Heremod or even Hrothgar early in their careers. This is the moment of greatest danger—the moment when the "slayer" strikes, and the man’s heart is filled with “evil counsels.”[5]

The turn comes when "that which he long possessed seems too little." Something causes this man to cling to what he has, which Hrothgar reminds us was a gift in the first place, and to forget and neglect "what is ordained to come." This phrase translates the single word forðgesceaft, nearly identical in meaning to the mælgesceafta "allotted time" or "what time has in store"[6] which Beowulf refers to later in the poem, during his final speech before his fight with the dragon. The echo is significant. The speech, which recounts the tragic history of the Geatish royal family and Beowulf's role as part of that family, serves as an apology for the hero's life. He argues that he has not followed in the steps of Heremod—that he has not forgotten what time had in store for him, but rather awaited it. He has passed Hrothgar’s test. But what exactly is that test? By forðgesceaft, does Hrothgar mean merely death, or is death only one example (albeit the most potent) of the kind of event for which he is trying to prepare Beowulf?

Edwenden Comes for All (1758-84)

After making his point elliptically by two different examples, Hrothgar now directly addresses Beowulf's situation, juxtaposing "wicked hostility" with "eternal gains.” This may seem an odd contrast until Hrothgar lays bare the source of the hostility which afflicted Heremod and the man of famous family in his parable: they resisted change. Beowulf must not. Beowulf is in the flower of his strength, but that will change "afterward" and "at once." Note that Hrothgar includes "terrible old age" among his list of kinds of sudden changes of fortune. Old age, when it comes, will seem just as sudden as death in battle.

All of this Hrothgar knows because he has experienced it himself. The word he uses is edwenden, "sudden change," and it and related words are used throughout the poem to refer to reversals both good and bad. It has a “curious neutrality” which resists simple characterization (Old English Verse 38). Even minor characters within the poem, such as Æschere and the Danish retainers experience edwenden; in their case for the worse (1280-2). Beowulf experiences edwenden too: we learn in the later third of the poem that Beowulf's triumph over Grendel and Grendel's mother came as a change to a bad early reputation among the Geats, and this change is described as edwenden (2183-9). Hrothgar, an aged and experienced king by the time Beowulf comes to Heorot, has lived long enough to experience both edges of the sword: the fall from the height and the rise from the valley. His first "sudden change" came when Grendel's crimes interrupted the golden age of his reign, his second when Beowulf slew Grendel and cleansed Heorot.

In the examples of his own and Heremod's reigns, and in his speculation about Beowulf's future, Hrothgar summarizes the qualities of edwenden: it is sudden, inevitable, but not always bad. Nor is it connected with any fault or merit on the part of the person to whom the change comes. Heremod does not experience edwenden because he is a bad king; he becomes a bad king because he resists edwenden. Similarly, Grendel does not come upon Hrothgar because of any sin which Hrothgar has committed. And even if Beowulf lives a long and virtuous life, death will still come for him in the end. As it happens, Beowulf's final edwenden is dramatic far beyond Hrothgar's expectations: he rules the Geats well for fifty years oð ðæt an ongan deorcum nihtum draca ricsian, “until one began on dark nights, a dragon, to rule” (2210-11).


Works Cited

Klaeber, Frederick, R. D. Fulk, Robert E. Bjork, and John D. Niles. Klaeber's Beowulf and the Fight at Finnsburg. U of Toronto, 2008.

Shippey, Thomas A. Principles of Conversation in Beowulfian Speech. Collected in John M. Sinclair, Michael Hoey, and Gwyneth Fox, editors. Techniques of Description: Spoken and Written Discourse: A Festschrift for Malcolm Coulthard. Routledge 1993.

Shippey, Thomas A. Old English Verse. Hutchinson, 1972.


[1] First referred to as such by L. Etmulller in 1875 (Klaeber 213).
[2] All line references to Beowulf are from Klaeber 2008. Translations are my own.
[3] Tom Shippey identifies this tendency as one of the hallmarks of “Beowulfian Speech” (Shippey 1993).
[4] A Danish king whose violent end resulted in the interregnum which seems to have immediately preceded the founding of the Scylding dynasty in the poem's prologue.
[5] The “slayer” here echoes Anglo-Saxon references to the biblical devil (Klaeber 215). It might as easily refer to the man’s own pride.
[6] “Ic on earde bad mælgesceafta…” The commentary on this phrase in Klaeber notes the ambiguity of mælgesceafta. If we take it in the genitive, the phrase can be rendered "I awaited my destiny." If, on the other hand, mælgesceafta is in the accusative case, its meaning becomes "I lived out my allotted time." (Klaeber 256) While the meanings are similar, the former implies that Beowulf sees the dragon as his own special destiny, while the latter implies that Beowulf sees death in any form as a fate that is common to all men.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks so much for this. It’s concise and insightful. How might this idea of edwenden be related to envy, I wonder? Is envy also the forgetfulness or edwenden? The desire to fix one’s fate?

    ReplyDelete

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