Blogging Beowulf: Fit XX, Lines 1321-1382

This is another short fit, only some 60-odd lines, but it has some goodies in it. Hrothgar laments the death of his chief thane, named Æschere. He skillfully lays the blame for the death at Beowulf’s doorstep—Æschere’s death is retaliation for his killing of Grendel—and says he will greatly reward Beowulf if he kills Grendel’s mother.

Hrothgar uses the words idese onlīcnæs, likeness of woman, in line 1351a to describe Grendel’s mother. The word ides is generally reserved for noble women and is a term of respect, similar to our use of lady today. The vowel alliterates with the other stressed vowel sounds in the line, so that may be reason for using this odd-choice of a word for a monster, but one can readily imagine that the line could also have been reconstructed to use a more generic term, like wif using a different alliteration scheme.

Then in the second half of the fit is what may be my favorite passage of the poem so far. It’s a description of the territory around the lair of Grendel’s mother. It’s very spooky and wonderfully evocative. It’s very Halloweenish and I keep picturing John Cleese playing Hrothgar, describing the Cave of Cairbannog, lines 1357b-1379:

                                    Hīe dyġel lond
wariġeað, wulfhleoþu,      windiġe næssas,
frēcne fenġelād,      ðær fyrġenstrēam
under næssa ġenipu      niþer ġewīteð,
flōd under foldan.      Nis þæt feor heonon
mīlġemearces      þæt se mere standeð;
ofer þæm hongiað      hrinde bearwas,
wudu wyrtum fæst      wæter oferhelmað.
Þær mæġ nihta ġehwæm      nīðwundor sēon,
fyr on flōde.      Nō þæs frōd leofað
gumena bearna,      þæt þone grund wite.
Ðēah þe hæðstapa      hundum ġeswenċed,
heorot hornum trum      holtwudu sēċe,
feorran ġeflymed,      ær hē feorh seleð,
aldor on ōfre,      ær hē in wille,
hafelan [beorgan];      nis þæt hēoru stōw.
Þonon yðġeblond      up āstīgeð
won tō wolcnum      þonne wind styreþ
lað ġewidru,      oð þæt lyft ðrysmaþ,
roderas rēotað.      Nu is se ræd ġelang
eft æt þē ānum.      Eard ġīt ne const,
frēcne stōwe,      ðæ¯r þū findan miht
sinniġne secg;      sēċ ġif þū dyrre!

                                    (They this secret land
guard, the retreats of wolves,      the windy bluffs,
the terrible fen-passage,      where a waterfall
under the mists of bluffs      departs downward,
a flood under the earth.      It is not far from here
measured by miles      that the mere stands;
over it hangs      a grove covered with frost,
a wood with firm roots      overhangs the water.
There one can each night      see a dreadful wonder,
a fire on the flood.      There lives none so wise
of the children of men      that knows the bottom [of the lake].
Though the heath-stalker      harrassed by hounds,
the hart with strong horns      seeking the forest,
is put far to flight,      he would sooner give up his life,
his life on the shore,      before he would wish [to go] in [the lake]
to save his head;      this is not a good place.
From there the tossing waves      climb up
dark to the clouds      when the wind stirs
the hostile weathers,      until the air chokes,
the heavens weep.      Now is help dependent on
you alone again.      You do not know the region,
the terrible place,      there you might find
the sinful man;      seek it if you dare!)

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