Blogging Beowulf: Fit VI, Lines 371-455

This fit opens with Hrothgar speaking (maþelode). The Danish king tells Wulfgar, and presumably his assembled nobles, that he remembers Beowulf as a boy (Beowulf’s father served in the Danish court) and that he has heard from seafarers that Beowulf has grown into a great warrior with the strength of thirty men. He declares that Beowulf’s arrival is literally a God-send and that if the Geat can defeat Grendel, he will reward him with many treasures. Wulfgar goes back to the Geats and bids them enter the hall, wearing their armor, but leaving their weapons and shields at the door.

Beowulf and his men enter Heorot and Beowulf introduces himself to Hrothgar, giving the king a bit of an oral résumé. In the past, Beowulf says that he captured five enemy in a battle on one occasion. On another he slew a race of giants. And on yet a third, he battled successfully with sea-monsters. So he is an experience monster-killer. He has come to defeat Grendel and asks that he and his men be allowed to fight the monster. Since Grendel does not use weapons, Beowulf will eschew them as well, fighting with his bare hands. If he should fail, Hrothgar need not worry about burial, since Grendel will have eaten him. In that case, all he asks is that his armor be returned to Hygelac, the king of the Geats.

Again, this fit has a lot of talking, but it’s terrific language, especially Beowulf’s speech to Hrothgar. The speech is rife with litotes. Our hero refers to the terror that Grendel has wrought as Grendles þinġ, or the Grendel affair (literally, thing). And he says (lines 424b-426a):

                              (Nū wið Grendel sceal,
wið þam āglæ¯ċan,     āna ġehēġan
ðinġ wið þyrse.

                              Now with Grendel [I] shall
with the adversary,     hold a meeting
with the demon.)

Not only is this understatement, but it is referring back to the exchange of words, the wordum wrixlan.

His announcement that he will fight bare-handed is also great, lines 438b-441:

                              ac iċ mid grāpe sceal
fōn wið fēonde     ond ymb feorh sacan,
lāð wið lāþum;     ðær ġelyfan sceal
dryhtnes dōme     sē þe hine dēað nimeð.

                              (But I shall with grasp
grapple with the fiend     and [we shall] fight for our lives,
foe against foe;     he who death takes
to the Lord’s judgment     shall be resigned.)

I just love the lāð wið lāþum line. Also, the sharp-eyed will note that my translation here changes the order of some of the half-lines. To wit, I switched the last and the penultimate b half-lines. Since Old English is inflected, syntax, or word order, is much less important. And in poetry you will often have the subject buried at the end of very long and complex sentence. This one wasn’t so long, but the sē þe (he who) does come toward the end. When translating, you have to move words around for it to make any sense in modern English. Also, prepositions and pronouns are frequently omitted; they’re often superfluous in an inflected language and are frequently dropped in poetry for metrical reasons. You have to add them back in modern English.

Another great passage is Beowulf saying there will be no need to tend to his corpse in case he loses, lines 445b-451:

                              Nā þū mīnne þearft
hafalan hydan,     ac hē mē habban wile
d[r]ēore fāhne,     ġif meċ dēað nimeð:
byreð blōdiġ wæl,     byrġean þenċeð,
eteð āngenġa     unmurnlīċe,
mearcað mōrhopu—     nō ðū ymb mīnes ne þearft
līċes feorme     lenġ sorgian.

                              (You will have no need
to hide my head     but he will have had me
stained with blood     if death takes me:
[he] bears [my] bloody corpse     intending to eat [it],
the solitary one eats     ruthlessly,
[and] marks [his] lair on the moors—     you will have no need over
caring for my body     [nor] to grieve long.)

Covering the head is a burial practice. Note that the phrase dēað nimeð (death takes) is repeated from the passage above.

The fit also ends with a great half-line, indicating the attitude Anglo-Saxons had toward fate and destiny:

Gæð ā wyrd swā hīo scel.

(Fate always goes as it shall.)

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