The Oldest English Epic/Chapter 1/Beowulf 13

The Oldest English Epic by Unknown, translated by Francis Barton Gummere
Beowulf: XIII


Many at morning, as men have told me,
warriors gathered the gift-hall round,
folk-leaders faring from far and near,
840o’er wide-stretched ways, the wonder to view,
trace of the traitor. Not troublous[1] seemed
the enemy’s end to any man
who saw by the gait of the graceless foe
how the weary-hearted, away from thence,
845baffled in battle and banned, his steps
death-marked dragged to the devils’ mere.[2]
Bloody the billows were boiling there,
turbid the tide of tumbling waves
horribly seething, with sword-blood hot,
850by that doomed one dyed, who in den of the moor
laid forlorn his life adown,
his heathen soul,—and hell received it.
Home then rode the hoary clansmen
from that merry journey, and many a youth,
855on horses white, the hardy warriors,
back from the mere. Then Beowulf’s glory
eager they echoed, and all averred
that from sea to sea, or south or north,
there was no other in earth’s domain,
860under vault of heaven, more valiant found,
of warriors none more worthy to rule!
(On their lord beloved they laid no slight,
gracious Hrothgar: a good king he!)
From time to time, the tried-in-battle
865their gray[3] steeds set to gallop amain,
and ran a race when the road seemed fair.
From time to time, a thane of the king,[4]
who had made many vaunts, and was mindful of verses,
stored with sagas and songs of old,
870bound word to word in well-knit rime,
welded his lay; this warrior soon
of Beowulf’s quest right cleverly sang,
and artfully added an excellent tale,
in well-ranged words, of the warlike deeds
875he had heard in saga of Sigemund.[5]
Strange the story: he said it all,—[6]
the Wælsing’s wanderings wide, his struggles,
which never were told to tribes of men,
the feuds and the frauds,[7] save to Fitela only,
880when of these doings he deigned to speak,
uncle to nephew; as ever the twain
stood side by side in stress of war,
and multitude of the monster kind
they had felled with their swords. Of Sigemund grew,
885when he passed from life, no little praise;
for the doughty-in-combat a dragon killed
that herded the hoard:[8] under hoary rock
the atheling dared the deed alone,
fearful quest, nor was Fitela there.
890Yet so it befell, his falchion pierced
that wondrous worm;—on the wall it struck,
best blade; the dragon died in its blood.
Thus had the dread-one by daring achieved
over the ring-hoard to rule at will,
895himself to pleasure; a sea-boat he loaded,
and bore on its bosom the beaming gold,
son of Wæls; the worm was consumed.
He had of all heroes the highest renown
among races of men, this refuge-of-warriors,
900for deeds of daring that decked his name
since[9] the hand and heart of Heremod
grew slack in battle. He, swiftly banished
to mingle with monsters[10] at mercy of foes,
to death was betrayed; for torrents of sorrow
905had lamed him too long;[11] a load of care
to earls and athelings all he proved.
Oft indeed, in earlier days,
for the warrior’s wayfaring[12] wise men mourned,
who had hoped of him help from harm and bale,
910and had thought their sovran’s son[13] would thrive,
follow his father, his folk protect,
the hoard and the stronghold, heroes’ land,
home of Scyldings.—But here, thanes said,
the kinsman of Hygelac kinder seemed
915to all: the other[14] was urged to crime!
And afresh to the race,[15] the fallow roads
by swift steeds measured! The morning sun
was climbing higher. Clansmen hastened
to the high-built hall, those hardy-minded,
920the wonder to witness. Warden of treasure,
crowned with glory, the king himself,
with stately band from the bride-bower strode;
and with him the queen and her crowd of maidens
measured the path to the mead-house fair.

  1. Note the favorite litotes.
  2. Sea or Lake of the Nicors. Indefinite talk of the moorland or fen as home of the monsters here yields to the idea of home in the waters. The water-hell was familiar to Germanic traditions; in Scandinavia it takes very definite form; and even in the Heliand, translation of the gospels, we read of the punishments of the waters, wateres witi.
  3. “Fallow.” Just now the horses were “white”; and in v. 916 it will he the roads that are “fallow.” Color schemes are not very exact in our old poetry, and color was not used to any extent in visualizing a scene. The popular ballads show the same lack of clearness.
  4. Warriors often improvised lays of their own battles, and so laid the foundation of epic; thus Gaston Paris, in his Histoire Poétique de Charlemagne, for French sources. This thane of Hrothgar may have been a professional minstrel in the eyes of the epic poet who made the Beowulf; but there is a possibility of his amateur standing. In any case, he improvises a lay on Beowulf’s adventure, as he rides along, and uses his store of traditional phrase and comment in the process. If the epithet applied to him by the epic, guma gilphlæden, means “a man laden with vaunts” and not simply “a warrior who had made many vaunts and performed them, that is, covered with glory,”—and the former rendering is preferable,—then yet another accomplishment of the Germanic warrior is indicated. He could probably sing his beot, or vaunt, in good verse. Specimens of such a vaunt, sung, however, by a North American Indian at the war-dance, and improvised to the rhythm of the bystanders’ choral singing, can be studied with some application to the Germanic problem,—for the cruder forms of improvisation, to be sure, and not for a finished chant of adventure like this in question, which is followed by traditional verse dealing with the Germanic heroic legend.—It is told of William of Orange, a hero of medieval song, born about 754, that when he was riding as a monk through the forest, he caused a song in praise of his own deeds to be sung by a retainer who rode in his train.—The Canterbury pilgrims were keeping old custom when they told tales as they rode; but improvisation in verse was no longer expected.
  5. In the Nibelungen Lay this adventure is told of Siegfried, son of Sigmund, who is son of Wæls. In the Volsunga Saga (Wælsings) Sinfiotli (=Fitela) is son to Sigmuad by his sister Signy. See the introduction to Deor’s Song, below. Beowulf is thus ranged at once with heroes of Germanic legend.
  6. Literally, “he told the whole story, . . . much of it unknown. . .”
  7. That is, betrayals, treacheries.
  8. “Guarded the treasure.”—The “brief abstract” style of this report of the singer’s lay befits a tale which was known to hearers of lay and epic alike. Sigmund is the type with which Beowulf is compared, the good and great hero; while Heremod, admirably introduced, serves as antitype. The latter is probably the Lotherus of Saxo’s history, son of Dan, of the royal Danish house, the brave king who turns tyrant and is at last slain by a desperate and outraged folk. For further reference to him, see below, vv. 1709 ff. and 2177 ff.
  9. Müllenhoff’s rendering, and the best. Heremod, one is told, might have rivalled and surpassed Sigmund, but the former fell from grace, turned tyrant, and in fact was precisely what the aspiring hero should not be,—quite the opposite, say, of this glorious Beowulf.
  10. Probably “devils in hell,” who would also be the foes. Others take the banishment literally,—as if to actual giants, who soon compassed the king’s death.
  11. Bugge emends:

    With torrents of sorrow
    he had long lamed his landfolk; a load of care . . .

    and understands the “earlier days” in v. 907 as the days before Heremod’s real tyranny began, though his subjects were already chafing at his folly and neglect.
  12. “Way of life” (Wyatt). Sievers refers it to the assumed literal banishment. Or does it mean some wild adventure undertaken when the king should have been caring for his folk at home?
  13. See vv. 20 ff., above: “So becomes it a youth . . .”
  14. Sc. Heremod.
  15. The singer has-sung his lays, and the epic resumes its story. The time-relations are not altogether good in this long passage which describes the rejoicings of “the day after”; but the present shift from the riders on the road to the folk at the hall is not very violent, and is of a piece with the general narrative style.