Blogging Beowulf; Fit III, lines 189-257

The first few lines of this fit have Hrothgar brooding over the afflictions that Grendel is wrecking upon his people. Then we are introduced to our hero, Beowulf, although he remains unnamed here, described only as Hygelac’s thane—Hygelac being the king of the Geats. Our hero hears of the predations of Grendel upon the Danes and resolves to go help them. He commands that a ship, or yðlida, a wave-crosser, be built and selects fifteen of the bravest warriors from among the Geats to accompany him. The journey to Denmark takes somewhat more than a day. They are met upon the shore by Hrothgar’s coastal watch, the leader of which rides out alone to challenge them. The officer of the coastal watch makes the first of many speeches in the poem. Brandishing his spear and using very formal language, he commends them for openly bearing arms and not skulking about; he says they are clearly fine warriors, especially their leader (Beowulf), who is the mightiest warrior he has ever seen. Then he demands they tell him what they’re doing in Denmark and that they better answer quickly.

There is some interesting use of language here. First, there are the descriptions of emotion. The Anglo-Saxons did not use a rich vocabulary to express emotions. Instead the poet uses metaphors of physical actions to convey emotion. As in Hrothgar’s brooding over what Grendel has done to him and his people, which the poet describes with the verb sēoðan, to boil or seethe. And the officer of the coastal watch, faced with an armed force and knowing it is his duty to ride out alone and face them, has his fear described with the words hine fyrwyt bræc mōdġehyġdum (anxiety broke him in his thoughts). The verb brecan should not be literally translated; as he remains the master of his fear, it doesn’t break the officer, as we would say today. Rather it torments him.

The entire scene with the officer of the coastal watch riding out to challenge the Geats can be read multiple ways. It can be read heroically, the officer doing his duty in the face of potential death. Or it can be read comically, an absurd scene with one man waving a spear about in front of sixteen very deadly warriors and spouting off a mock-heroic challenge. I think the latter is a modern spin and the heroic reading is what the poet intended.

There’s another passage that I’ve always liked and it reads even better in the original Old English than it does in modern translation. It’s the scene where Beowulf and company set off on their voyage across the sea (lines 210-16):

Fyrst forð ġewāt;          flota wæs on yðum,
bāt under beorge.          Beornas ġearwe
on stefn stigon.          Strēamas wundon,
sund wið sande.          Secgas bæron
on bearm nacan          beorhte frætwe,
gūðsearo ġeatoliċ;          guman ūt scufon,
weras on wilsīð          wudu bundenne.

(The time had come;          the ship was on the waves,
the boat was under the cliffs.          The eager heroes
mounted the prow.          Currents eddied,
the sea against the sand.          The men bore
into the bosom of the ship          bright weapons,
splendid armor;          the men pushed the wood-bound ship off,
men on a wished-for journey.)

The cadence of the passage is superb. It carries the emotional urgency and eagerness that Beowulf and company must have felt.

Finally, I want to talk a bit about the manuscript. As I’ve mentioned, London, British Library, Cotton Vitellius A.xv. is the only manuscript that contains the poem. Without this manuscript, we would know nothing about the poem, and it was almost lost.

Two scribes wrote down the poem in the manuscript. The first scribed penned the three preceding items in the codex and the first part of Beowulf. He wrote in a script known as English Vernacular miniscule, which is not known to have existed before the year 1001. The second scribe finished writing down Beowulf and went on to pen the next item in the codex (a poetic version of the Biblical book of Judith). He used Anglo-Saxon Square miniscule, which is not found after 1010. So the manuscript was most likely produced in the first decade of the 11th century, or almost certainly between 990-1020. The poem was, however, certainly composed sometime earlier. A date of the c.800 is often assigned, but unlike the dating of the manuscript, there is considerable academic controversy over when the Beowulf poet worked.

We have no record of the manuscript prior to 1563, when the antiquary Laurence Nowell wrote his name and date on the first page of what would come to be known as the Nowell Codex. BL, Cotton Vitellius A.xv. consists of two codices, the Southampton Codex and the Nowell Codex. The manuscript came into the possession of Robert Bruce Cotton (1571-1631), whose collection was to form the core of the British Museum’s manuscript collection. (In 1973, the British Library was created and the manuscript collection was moved there; hence older commentary will refer to the manuscript as British Museum Cotton Vitellius A.xv.)

While awaiting transfer to its permanent home in the British Museum, the Cotton collection was stored in the Ashburnham House in Westminster. A fire broke out in 1731, destroying about one quarter of the books. Cotton Vitellius A.xv. was badly damaged and only saved when someone started throwing books out a window in order to save them.

In 1787, Danish archivist Grimur Jonsson Thorkelin commissioned a copy of the poem, which was created by an amanuensis who knew no Old English. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as someone ignorant of the language will tend to copy it exactly. Someone who knows the language will have a tendency to make emendations. But Thorkelin, who knew some Old English, but was far from expert in it, did not trust the copy and made a second one himself. Ironically, it turns out that Thorkelin A, created by the man with no knowledge of Old English, is more accurate than Thorkelin B. These two early copies are referred to as Thorkelin A and B. The creation of these early copies was fortuitous. The charred edges of the manuscript were crumbling and the Thorkelin copies are the only record we have of some words at the end of lines.

The manuscript was conserved and rebound in 1845. Each folio was separately mounted on a paper frame, allowing both sides to be visible. This put an end to further deterioration, but resulted in the one-time loss of more words, as the some of the edges are not visible through the frames.

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