Tomorrow is always fresh with no mistakes in it...yet.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Humor Me

I know it's bad form to drop off the face of the planet and then return with something I didn't write specifically for my blog, with no pictures and almost 2000 words. Sorry! This was my Independent Reading project for the last term of AP Lit, and I did it on Beowulf. Don't look at me like that. I think it's interesting and it's my blog. So there. And I would love it if you read it. I really would.

Quote 1:

Hwæt! We Gardena in geardagum,
þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon, 
hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon.

Lo, praise of the prowess of people-kings
of spear-armed Danes, in days long sped,
we have heard, and what honor the athelings won!
(Lines 1-3)

These are the very first lines of the poem. The narrator is getting the attention of his audience (as the poem was originally entirely verbal) and introducing them to the beginning of the poem with a history of the Kings of the Danes.

I chose this quote for a few reasons, none of which actually have anything to do with the story. I wanted to comment on the really amazing structure of the original poem. It’s a classical Anglo-Saxon or Old English poem in the alliterative style. Basically, it doesn’t rhyme but it has a strict meter with two “halves” per line. In each of the halves there are two strong downbeats, and at least one of the downbeats in the second half has to be alliterative with at least one of the downbeats in the first half. Kind of hard to describe but anyway, you get “Gardena”and “geardagum,”and “theodcyninga” and “thrym.” It’s incredible in the Old English, but presents a few problems when translated. Many translating “schools” exist for Beowulf: some go for flat-out prose, some try to keep the meter intact, and some focus on alliteration. My personal favorites have a good strong meter and as many alliterations as possible, but the most important thing is to keep it understandable and to keep the integrity of the culture from which the poem sprang. Which is a lot to ask. No wonder there are bad translations out there.

The other point I wanted to make about the original and translation goes along with that. I think the magic of Beowulf isn’t merely the story, although that’s all very well and good. It’s the glimpse it gives us into the people to whom it wasn’t a relic but a well-known story told around a fire by a respected member of their community. To these people, it was a time for bonding, for learning, for tradition and pride in their people. The urgency and rhythm of the original poem is a large part of what portrays that, and so is incredibly important to preserve. But I don’t know how well it can be done. With the very first word we run into problems: “Hwæt!” the speaker proclaims. Literally, this means “What!” But obviously something is lost in translation. I’ve seen it put down as “Lo,” “Listen,” “Now,” “Hear me,” “Attend,” “Behold,” “So,” and many other variations. I’m not really sure where I’m going with this. Maybe I’m suggesting that everyone learn Old English. But I think mostly what I’m saying is that you have to be careful in picking your translation, and the translator has to care about the culture and the feel of the poem, not just the story.

Quote 2:

To the house the warrior walked apace,
parted from peace; the portal opened,
though with forged bolts fast, when his fists had struck it,
and baleful he burst in his blatant rage,
the house's mouth. All hastily, then,
o'er fair-paved floor the fiend trod on,
ireful he strode; there streamed from his eyes
fearful flashes, like flame to see.
(Lines 720-727)

            This is Grendel’s entrance into Heorot, Hrothgar’s hall. He has come from the wild moors, angered at the Danes and desiring their deaths. Grendel is a descendent of Cain, Adam’s son who killed his brother, and the Danes in righteousness have scorned his lineage. Grendel is determined to kill them and he is not fearful of this new warrior, Beowulf of whom he has heard.

            For one thing, this is a major point in the story. If you mention Beowulf to a layman, the only thing they’re likely to know about it (if they know anything) is that he fights a monster named Grendel. This is also a really cool passage—the whole section has some excellent imagery. Grendel blasting through the doors without any trouble, striding over the floors with fire in his eyes, and then falling on the hapless soldier and devouring him. Good stuff. I’d also like to point out this really masterful translation: strong meter, strict alliteration, almost word-for-word inclusion of the original, and it makes sense. Very, very impressive but unfortunately I can’t find who did it because I read this version online. The story of this lake monster as a descendent of a Bible figure is also intriguing to me. It’s an interesting glimpse into what happens when a pagan society is “converted” to early Christianity.

Quote 3:

Of Sigemund grew,
when he passed from life, no little praise;
for the doughty-in-combat a dragon killed
that herded the hoard: under hoary rock
the atheling dared the deed alone
fearful quest, nor was Fitela there.
He had of all heroes the highest renown
among races of men, this refuge-of-warriors,
for deeds of daring that decked his name
since the hand and heart of Heremod
grew slack in battle.
(Lines 884-889, 898-901)

            After Beowulf slays Grendel, a celebration is held in Heorot. There is a great feast, the heroes are presented with gifts to show Hrothgar’s gladness, and a bard comes out to favor the honored guests with fables. Here he tells the tale of Sigemund, a king of long-ago and a warrior of great renown. A dragon was guarding a great hoard, and Sigemund defeated it single-handedly.

Can anyone tell me what foreshadowing is? I mean really. Don’t we read this part later in the story? Can we skip it here? Aside from that, though, I picked this for another reason. One thing I really love about Beowulf is all the asides in the form of other stories. All through the poem other characters come in to tell their own stories or legends from years past. It’s another glimpse into the culture, and adds a roundness to the poem that would be missing if it merely followed Beowulf’s travels.
Quote 4:
“Ne god hafoc
geond sæl swingeð, ne se swifta mearh
burhstede beateð. Bealocwealm hafað
fela feorhcynna forð onsended!"

“No good hawk now
flies through the hall! Nor horses fleet
stamp in the burgstead! Battle and death
the flower of my race have ripped away."
(Lines 2263-2266)

            This is the passage where the hoard-keeper is quoted. He has watched his entire race be slaughtered, and now as he buries their treasure all away he mourns their loss and all that once was and never will be again.

            There are many reasons why I included this quote. First and foremost, I think that this passage is one of the most beautiful in the entire poem. The man’s emotion, though the grief he mourns is long past, is still so clearly raw that it touches deep down. The rhythm of the passage and the wording is so stirring, I think, partly because he weeps for his lost people and this poem is a glimpse into a lost people: reading Beowulf, trying to see what its performers saw, a modern audience can sympathize with the Guardian. A second reason for this particular bit of his speech is that I made an incredibly exciting discovery the other day. I was watching the extended edition of The Two Towers, and it got to Eowyn’s mourning song at Theodred’s funeral and suddenly it sounded oh-so-familiar. I’d never been able to quite tell what she was saying before because of the singing breaking up word structure (I do know a little Old English, but not enough to recognize words in a song.) So I went and looked up the lyrics online and sure enough: Bealocwealm hafað freone freccan forð onsended! A change in conjugation, that’s all it was: instead of the “flower of my race” being ripped away, it was “the brave warrior.” Yep. The soundtrack used a quote straight out of Beowulf. The “complete” song also had the beginning of the passage; it just didn’t make it into the movie. This is actually really fitting, because Tolkien himself was a professor of Old English and an expert on Beowulf, and the influence is clear throughout his works, especially in the Rohirric culture which is essentially Anglo-saxon. But we really don’t have time to get into that, so I’ll move on. I also love this passage because it was the first (and, so far, only) passage of Beowulf I memorized. In sixth grade for our medieval unit we were supposed to perform a ballad and I chose the Guardian’s Lament. Proof that I’ve been a nerd for longer than even I thought.

Quote 5:
Thus made their mourning the men of Geatland,
for their hero's passing his hearth-companions:
quoth that of all the kings of earth,
of men he was mildest and most beloved,
to his kin the kindest, keenest for praise.
(Lines 3178-3182)

            Here are the final lines of Beowulf. The great hero has died, defeating the dragon but defeated by him. He won his people glory, renown, and at last the hoard of the monster, and though they now fear being overrun by the enemies Beowulf had held back, they hold a funeral worthy of their king. His down is raised high on a hill, so that all sailing by may see it and remember the great ruler. The poem ends as Beowulf’s heorðgeneatas, the members of his household, sing his praises.

            Once again a glimpse is offered into the culture of the Geats and the Danes. The seeking of glory and the fight for your people and for your own praise are prized as much as kindness and leadership.  It was Beowulf’s physical prowess and might in battle that won him the kingship of the Geats, and he was loved for it—it is interesting to note that the Old English guðdeað can be translated either as “good death” or as “battle-death.” To fall in battle is the most glorious and fitting way for Beowulf the Great to leave his people. “A good king,” he is called—and here the earlier words of the poet are echoed, when he called both Hrothgar and Sigemund, in their turn, “good kings.” Thus passes Beowulf. 


  1. YOU ARE BRILLIANT. That will be all.

  2. Ah, Katherine Grace. I agree wholeheartedly with Kate and then some. That was not only highly impressive (I was honestly wondering for a bit if that whole thing was copied from some kind of doctoral dissertation), but it was also very emotional and moving. You don't just care about the smarts of it, do you? You care about the heart and what it portrays. Thank you for sharing that, dearest.