Blogging Beowulf: Fit IV, lines 258-319

Not a lot of action happens in this fit, which consists mostly of speeches by Beowulf and by the coastal watch, but there is some interesting language and some themes are developed.

Beowulf, still unnamed, answers the challenge of the coastal watch, declaring who they are and his lineage (without giving his name) and that they are on an errand to give counsel to Hrothgar about how to defeat Grendel. The officer of the coastal watch sets a guard on Beowulf’s ship and conducts them to Heorot, at which point he takes leave of them.

The fit opens with one of the most famous lines from the poem, famous mainly for one word, word-hoard:

Him se yldesta          andswarode,
werodes wīsa,          wordhord onlēac.

(The eldest one          answered him,
leader of the troop,          unlocked his word-hoard.)

It’s a great word and the image of unlocking a treasury of words as one starts a speech is a powerful one. And it compares with the image of a noble distributing treasure to his people, but in this case a treasure of fair and kind words.

Throughout this passage there is an opposition of words and deeds. Beowulf unlocks his word-hoard. He declares in line 278 that he has come to ræd ġelæran (give counsel) to Hrothgar, even though he comes armed and clearly intends to fight Grendel, not to just give advice. The officer of the coastal watch says (lines 287b-289):

                                  Æġhwæþres sceal
scearp scyldwiga          ġescād witan,
worda ond worca,          sē þe wēl þenċeð.

(                                   Each sharp shield-warrior
should          distinguish between
words and deeds,          if he thinks well.)

Meaning that he has heard Beowulf’s words and trusts him, even though he has come to Denmark under arms.

In contrast, Beowulf calls Grendel, in line 275, a dēogol dædhata, a secret persecutor or literally, a secret hater by deeds. Beowulf is set up as a warrior who bears arms openly and in daylight, but who speaks fair and honest words. Grendel, on the other hand, is the secretive tormentor who comes by cloak of night and commits evil deeds.

There is also an interesting thematic introduction of the role of fate in lines 280-81. Beowulf says his “advice” will be useful:

ġyf him edwenden          æfre scolde
bealuwa bisigu,          bōt eft cumin—
ond þā ċearwylmas          cōlran wurðaþ;
oððe ā syþðan          earfoðþrāge,
þrēany¯d þolað          þenden þær wunað
on hēahstede          hūsa sēlest.

(if change to him          should ever
come and in turn relief          of afflictions, of trouble—
and the seething of sorrows          become cooler;
or always          in a time of tribulation,
will suffer dire distress          while he dwells
in the lofty place          the best of houses.)

Beowulf can only help if it is fated to be so. He is an instrument of fate, possessing no agency of his own.

A few other words of note. There is the word wicg (pronounced / widge / ), meaning horse. It’s notable simply for its humorous pronunciation, at least to the modern ear. The word is related to way and the German wegand is from an Old Germanic root meaning to carry.

Last time I wrote about physical metaphors being used to denote emotions. In line 278 Beowulf says he has come þurh rūmne sefan, or with a large heart or spirit. Big-hearted is a metaphor we still use today.

Finally, at the end of the fit, as he departs, the coastal watchman prays that fæder alwalda, or father almighty, will guard Beowulf and his companions in their journey. It is one thing to have Christian references in expositional text, but this appears in dialogue. There is clearly a very complex relationship going on between the Christian world of the poet and the pre-Christian world of the story. The poem was created by a Christian society, but hearkened back to a pre-Christian era. I wonder how much more blending of cultural attitudes I’ll encounter as I go.

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