Tuesday, 19 May 2009

Beowulf :The Text-Prologue


What can be known about a unique poem in a unique manuscript, dated around the year 1000 a.d.? What do we know about the circumstances of its composition? Is it literary, oral, or something in-between? What can we never know? Beowulf is both strange and familiar: it has some links with ancient classical poems like Homer's; 19thc ideas of it have been received and reworked in the course of the 20thc in academe, children's literature and adult popular culture; and yet it remains an ancient artifact of a culture whose world we can never share.
The manuscript and its editions always present us with a linguistic obstacle: Old English has a different kind of grammar from Modern. Old English is like Latin or Russian, or many other languages whose grammar is expressed by inflection: that is, affixes on a root word can stand in for function words like pronouns, so that a noun like "stow" will indicate its grammatical place in a sentence or clause by a series of endings: "... nis Þaet heoru stow!" (That is not a pleasant place!); or "He het þa þa stowe Dominus videt" (He named that place Dominus videt; or "on manegum stowum" (in many places). In an Old English sentence, especially in the poetry, syntax (the order of words) much more fluid than in Modern. Spelling will seem inconsistent, even random, in our terms; the alphabet contains some unfamiliar letters derived from runes.
Translation of a language removed in kind and in time is a process of exploration, not a neat matching of word and idiom to sense, or the grammar of one language to the grammar of another. We will use translation as our primary means of reading Beowulf.
What kind of overlap can be found between our written, literary experience of the poem, and its earlier oral delivery, which may have been memorized, reconstituted anew each time, and was always designed for being heard? Memory functions in different and often enhanced modes in oral rather than written cultures, especially when supported by verbal patterns evolved through centuries in a poetic or sung medium. Written literature may produce an intense impact, but rarely through its delivery; in Beowulf and other Old English poems, impact was always made through oral performance. When such poetry is written down, it is neither strictly oral nor graphic.
Within the poem, no distinction is made between myth and history, although it is now read as though it were 'history with fabulous elements' or 'myth with some correspondence to fact.' Beowulf cannot accurately be described as fiction or fact. It is a kind of narrative comprised of analogical episodes, people, creatures more or less human, praise, blame, lyrical moments, grim comedy and even grimmer tragedy.
The poem makes an icon of a former age, constructed as such very consciously by a maker of poems, literate, somewhat literate or not at all literate, from familiar elements in this particular way. Analogies are built which bridge the preChristian and Christian Germanic worlds, by making the characters in the poem noble, monotheistic preChristians, for an audience of Christian Germanic people; the poem is not anachronistic, and is, even in our terms, accurately placed according to 'history.' It is a story about 'those others who were ourselves'.

Summary :The story begins with the story of *Scyld Scefing, a great king who ruled by virtue of his power being greater than all others, and none would challenge him. This kept the peace, and he was rewarded tribute of gold.
The son of *Scyld, *Beow(ulf), continued the rule gifting gold to the worthy and earning respect and loyalty. This fame spread throughout the North-lands and their prosperity grew.
And when *Beow died, they adorned him and his ship with treasure and set him off to burial at sea.

Beowulf Map
Old English Text - Prologue
Hwæt! We Gardena in geardagum, þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon, hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon. Oft Scyld Scefing sceaþena þreatum,
5 monegum mægþum, meodosetla ofteah, egsode eorlas. Syððan ærest wearð feasceaft funden, he þæs frofre gebad, weox under wolcnum, weorðmyndum þah, oðþæt him æghwylc þara ymbsittendra
10 ofer hronrade hyran scolde, gomban gyldan. þæt wæs god cyning! Ðæm eafera wæs æfter cenned, geong in geardum, þone god sende folce to frofre; fyrenðearfe ongeat
15 þe hie ær drugon aldorlease lange hwile. Him þæs liffrea, wuldres wealdend, woroldare forgeaf; Beowulf wæs breme (blæd wide sprang), Scyldes eafera Scedelandum in.
20 Swa sceal geong guma gode gewyrcean, fromum feohgiftum on fæder bearme, þæt hine on ylde eft gewunigen wilgesiþas, þonne wig cume, leode gelæsten; lofdædum sceal
25 in mægþa gehwære man geþeon. Him ða Scyld gewat to gescæphwile felahror feran on frean wære. Hi hyne þa ætbæron to brimes faroðe, swæse gesiþas, swa he selfa bæd,
30 þenden wordum weold wine Scyldinga; leof landfruma lange ahte. þær æt hyðe stod hringedstefna, isig ond utfus, æþelinges fær. Aledon þa leofne þeoden,
35 beaga bryttan, on bearm scipes, mærne be mæste. þær wæs madma fela of feorwegum, frætwa, gelæded; ne hyrde ic cymlicor ceol gegyrwan hildewæpnum ond heaðowædum,
40 billum ond byrnum; him on bearme læg madma mænigo, þa him mid scoldon on flodes æht feor gewitan. Nalæs hi hine læssan lacum teodan, þeodgestreonum, þon þa dydon
45 þe hine æt frumsceafte forð onsendon ænne ofer yðe umborwesende. þa gyt hie him asetton segen geldenne heah ofer heafod, leton holm beran, geafon on garsecg; him wæs geomor sefa,
50 murnende mod. Men ne cunnon secgan to soðe, selerædende, hæleð under heofenum, hwa þæm hlæste onfeng.

Modern Text - Prologue

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!

Oft Scyld the Scefing from squadroned foes,from many a tribe,

the mead-bench tore,

awing the earls. Since erst he lay

friendless, a foundling, fate repaid him:

for he waxed under welkin, in wealth he throve,

till before him the folk, both far and near,

who house by the whale-path, heard his mandate,

gave him gifts: a good king he!

To him an heir was afterward born,

a son in his halls, whom heaven sent

to favor the folk, feeling their woe

that erst they had lacked an earl for leader

so long a while; the Lord endowed him,

the Wielder of Wonder, with world's renown.

Famed was this Beowulf:1 far flew the boast of him,

son of Scyld, in the Scandian lands.

So becomes it a youth to quit him well

with his father's friends, by fee and gift,

that to aid him, aged, in after days,

come warriors willing, should war draw nigh,

liegemen loyal: by lauded deeds

shall an earl have honor in every clan.

Forth he fared at the fated moment,

sturdy Scyld to the shelter of God.

Then they bore him over to ocean's billow,

loving clansmen, as late he charged them,

while wielded words the winsome Scyld,

the leader beloved who long had ruled....

In the roadstead rocked a ring-dight vessel,

ice-flecked, outbound, atheling's barge:

there laid they down their darling lord

on the breast of the boat, the breaker-of-rings,2
by the mast the mighty one. Many a treasure

fetched from far was freighted with him.

No ship have I known so nobly dight

with weapons of war and weeds of battle,

with breastplate and blade: on his bosom lay

a heaped hoard that hence should go

far o'er the flood with him floating away.

No less these loaded the lordly gifts,

thanes' huge treasure, than those had done

who in former time forth had sent him

sole on the seas, a suckling child.

High o'er his head they hoist the standard,

a gold-wove banner; let billows take him,

gave him to ocean. Grave were their spirits,

mournful their mood. No man is able

to say in sooth, no son of the halls,

no hero 'neath heaven, -- who harbored that freight!
Notes :
1 Not, of course, Beowulf the Great, hero of the epic.

2 Kenning for king or chieftain of a comitatus: he breaks off gold from the spiral rings -- often worn on the arm -- and so rewards his followers.

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