From 'Beowulf'

Beowulf is the greatest epic poem surviving from Anglo-Saxon times.  The materials on which the poet drew are ancient: some elements derive from the Germanic “homeland” in Scandinavia, others from folklore.  Yet these ancient materials have been transformed by a later Christian writer.  The narrative of the poem is centred on the hero Beowulf’s three great battles, against the ogre Grendel (in the hall of Hrothgar, king of the Danes), against Grendel’s mother (underwater) and, after a space of time, against a dragon (involving exposure to fire).  Such a bald description makes the poem sound something like a comic-strip adventure.  However, twentieth-century criticism has revealed the religious elements, elegaic and homiletic, which underlie the poem and which are employed in a sophisticated and highly-wrought manner.  The comparison with the epics of Homer and Virgil is a valid one.

There are numerous translations of Beowulf.  That contained in S.A.J.Bradley, Anglo-Saxon Poetry (London: Dent, 1982) is a convenient prose version, but it is worth looking at verse-translations as well.  Recommended are those by K.Crossley-Holland (London: Macmillan, 1968), E.Morgan (Aldington: Hand and Flower Press, 1952) and M.Alexander (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973), all the work of practising poets.  The best editions are those by F.Klaeber (the major scholarly edition; Lexington: Heath, 1950) and G.Jack (the best students’ edition, but with much of interest for advanced scholars; Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994).  This passage, with a few minor modifications, follows these editions.

The passage given below comes from early in the poem (lines 64-125).  Hrothgar, king of Denmark, has erected a great hall appropriate to his royal dignity and expressive of the personal bonds between him and his retainers: Heorot, whose name has usually been taken to correspond to the hart, a creature with royal significance in ancient Germanic society.  In the hall, men drink mead; they receive gifts; they listen to hearpan sweg (harp's music).  Thus far we are reminded of the tribal societies recorded by the Roman writer Tacitus in his Germania (for which see H.Mattingly and S.A.Hanford trans. Tacitus: The Agricola and the Germania, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1970).  But the poem to which the king and his courtiers listen nevertheless appears to correspond in subject-matter to that in Cædmon’s Hymn (see Text (5) above), a deeply Christian poem.

 Heorot is therefore in origin a place of joy.  However, there are one or two ominous hints of evils to come, eg. hea?owylma bad ([it] awaited hostile flames); and the swutol sang scopes (sweet song  of [the] poet), awakens the demon who lurks on the frontiers of tribal society.  This semi-human monster is called Grendel - a phonaesthetically-significant name (cf. PDE grim grind, gruff etc.).  Grendel is infuriated by the presumption of the humans, and he attacks Heorot, carrying off thirty of Hrothgar’s retainers.  The situation is only resolved when Beowulf, a prince of the the Geatish tribe living in what is now Southern Sweden, hears of Hrothgar’s troubles and decides to prove his valour by destroying Grendel.

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Þa wæs Hroðgare    heresped gyfen,
wiges weorðmynd,    þæt him his winemagas  65
georne hyrdon,    oðð þæt seo geogod geweox,
magodriht micel.    Him on mod be-arn,
þæt healreced    hatan wolde,
medoærn micel    men gewyrcean
þonne yldo bearn    æfre gefrunon,  70
ond þær on innan    eall gedælan
geongum ond ealdum,    swylc him God sealde
buton folcscare    ond feorum gumena.
Da ic wide gefrægn    weorc gebannan
manigre mægþe    geond þisne middangeard,  75
folcstede frætwan.    Him on fyrste gelomp,
ædre mid yldum, þæt hit wearð ealgearo,
healærna mæst;    scop him Heort naman
se þe his wordes geweald    wide hæfde.
He beot ne aleh,    beagas dælde,   80
sinc æt symle.    Sele hlifade
heah ond horngeap;    heaðowylma bad,
laðan liges;    ne wæs hit lenge þa gen,
þæt se ecghete    aþumsweoran
æfter wælniðe    wæcnan scolde.   85

Da se ellengæst    earfoðlice
þrage geþolode,    se þe in þystrum bad,
þæt he dogora gehwam    dream gehyrde
hludne in healle;    þær wæs hearpan sweg,
swutol sang scopes.    Sægde se þe cuþe  90
frumsceaft fira    feorran reccan,
cwæð þæt se Ælmihtiga    eorðan worhte,
wlitebeorhtne wang,    swa wæter bebugeð,
gesette sigehreþig    sunnan ond monan
leoman to leohte    landbuendum,   95
ond gefrætwade    foldan sceatas
leomum ond leafum,    lif eac gesceop
cynna gehwylcum    þara ðe cwice hwyrfaþ.

Swa ða drihtguman    dreamum lifdon,
eadiglice,    oð ðæt an ongan   100
fyrene fremman    feond on helle.
Wæs se grimma gæst    Grendel haten,
mære mearcstapa,    se þe moras heold,
fen ond fæsten;    fifelcynnes eard
wonsæli wer    weardode hwile,   105
siþðan him Scyppend    forscrifen hæfde
in Caines cynne
.  Þone cwealm gewræc
ece Drihten,    þæs þe he Abel slog.
Ne gefeah he þære fæhðe,    ac he hine feor forwræc,
Metod for þy mane    mancynne fram
.  110
Þanon untydras    ealle onwocon,
eotenas ond ylfe   ond orcneas,
swylce gigantas,    þa wið Gode wunnon
lange þrage;    he him ðæs lean forgeald.

Gewat ða neosian,    syþðan niht becom, 115
hean huses,    hu hit Hring-Dene
æfter beorþege    gebun hæfdon.
Fand þa ðær inne    æþelinga gedriht
swefan æfter symble;    sorge ne cuðon,
wonsceaft wera.    Wiht unhælo,   120
grim ond grædig,    gearo sona wæs,
reoc ond reþe,    ond on ræste genam
þritig þegna;    þanon eft gewat
huðe hremig    to ham faran,
mid þære wælfylle    wica neosan.  125



(66)  oðð þæt = oþ þæt


(68)  hatan wolde '[he] wanted'.  The subject-pronoun is often left unexpressed in verse, as here.
 

(79)  se þe his wordes geweald    wide hæfde  'he who had authority widely in his speech', ie. the power to announce law.  Kings in Anglo-Saxon times exercised power directly, through the verbum regis (the word of the king). 
se þe is a relative construction, marked by a combination of determiner and relative particle.

(80)  beot 'vow, boast'.  The “heroic boast” is a frequent phenomenon in ancient Germanic literature.  For a classic example, see an Old Icelandic text, the Heimskringla of Snorri Sturluson (1178-1241).  In the portion of this text known as King Olaf Tryggvasson’s Saga, chapter 35, Snorri gives an account of the baroquely ingenious vows of the Jómsborg vikings.  For a convenient translation of this text, see S.Laing (rev. J. Simpson), Snorri Sturluson: Heimskringla, Part I (The Olaf Sagas) (London: Dent, 1964).

(84)  aþumsweoran An “irregular” dative-plural = 'between son-in-law and father-in-law'.  The lines þæt se ecghete    aþumsweoran/ æfter wælnide    wæcnan scolde may be translated as 'that violent hatred between son-in-law and father-in-law had to arise after (ie. through) deadly enmity'.  These lines refer to something treated at greater length later in the poem, future conflict between Danes and another tribe, the Heathobards - something Hrothgar had tried to halt by marrying his daughter Freawaru to Ingeld, a prince of the Heathobards. 

(98)  þara ðe  Another example of a relative construction using determiner and relative particle.

(100)  an 'one' modifies feond 'enemy' in the following line.

(106 - 7)  him Scyppend    forscrifen hæfde/ in Caines cynne The reference here is to the banishment of Cain and his descendants after the killing of Abel; see Genesis, chapter 4.

(109 - 110)  Ne gefeah he þære fæhðe,    ac he hine feor forwræc/ Metod for þy mane    mancynne fram 'nor did he (ie. Cain) gain joy for that hostile act, but he, God, banished him far away from mankind because of that crime'. 

(113)  þa  The determiner is here used in place of a relative particle.

(117)  æfter beorþege 'after beer-drinking'.  The ritual and social role of drinking-bouts and feasting in ancient Germanic society is well-attested; see, for instance, Tacitus, Germania, chapter 22. 

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