The Story of Beowulf, Translated from Anglo-Saxon into Modern English Prose
THE STORY OF BEOWULF
HAZELL, WATSON AND VINEY, LD.,
LONDON AND AYLESBURY,
THE MEMORY OF
NOTE AS TO USE OF APPENDIX
I have relegated to the Appendix all notes of anyconsiderable length. The reader is advised to consult the Appendiceswherever directed in the footnotes. He will then have a much clearerconception of the principal characters and events of the poem.
‘Beowulf’ may rightly be pronouncedthe great national epic of the Anglo-Saxon race. Not that it exalts therace so much as that it presents the spirit of the Anglo-Saxon peoples,the ideals and aims, the manners and customs, of our ancestors, andthat it does so in setting before us a great national hero. Beowulfhimself was not an Anglo-Saxon. He was a Geat-Dane; but he belonged tothat confraternity of nations that composed the Teutonic people. Helived in an heroic age, when the songs of the wanderingsingers were of the great deeds of outstanding men. The absolute epicof the English people has yet to be written. To some extent Arthur,though a British King—that is to say, though he was King of theCeltic British people, who were subsequently driven into the West, intoCornwall and Wales and Strathclyde, by our Saxon ancestors—becamenationalized by our Anglo-Norman ancestors as a typical King of theEnglish people. He has become the epic King of the English in thepoetry of Tennyson. It is always a mystery to the writer that nocompetent singer among us has ever laid hands upon our own Saxon hero,King Alfred. It is sometimes said that there is nothing new under thesun, that there is nothing left for the modern singer to sing about,and that the realm of possible musical production is fast vanishing outof view. Certainly this is not true of poetry. Both Alfred and Arthurare waiting for the sympathetic voice that will tell forth to the worldthe immortal splendour of their personalities. And just as theAnglo-Normans idealized Arthur as a hero-king of the English nation,though he really fought against the English, so the Saxon singer ofBeowulf has idealized this Geatish chieftain, and in some way set himforth as the idealized chieftain of the Teutonic race.
Beowulf is an Anglo-Saxon poem.—It consists of 3182lines. It is written in the alliterative verse of our ancestors in theAnglo-Saxon tongue, which, though the mother-tongue of the English, isyet more difficult to read for the Englishman than Latin or Greek. Onewonders whether any genuine Anglo-Saxon epic existed, and has beendestroyed in the passing of the centuries. The curious feature aboutthis poem is that it concerns a man who was not an Anglo-Saxon. Ourpoem is written in the West Saxon dialect. The original poem wasprobably in Northumbrian, and was translated into West Saxon during theperiod of literary efflorescence in the West Saxon Court. We do notknow whether it was a translation or whether it wasoriginal, though the latter is, I believe, the prevailing opinion.Arnold has put forth what may be called the missionary theory of itsorigin. He believes that both the choice of subject and the grade ofculture may be connected with the missionary efforts of the EnglishChurch of those days to extend Christianity in Friesland and furthereast. ‘It does not seem improbable that it was in the interest ofthe spread of Christianity that the composer ofBeowulf—perhaps a missioner, perhaps a layman attached tothe mission—was attracted to the Scandinavian lands; that heresided there long enough to become thoroughly steeped in the folk-loreand local traditions; that he found the grand figure of Beowulf theGeat predominant in them; and that, weaving into an organic whole thosewhich he found suitable to his own purpose, he composed an epic which,on his return home, must soon have become known to all the lovers ofEnglish song.’1 Dr. Sarrazin thoughtthis unknown poet might have been the famous Cynewulf. Arnold, chieflyon stylistic grounds, differs from this opinion. This is Arnold’sopinion: ‘Sagas, either in the Danish dialect or that of theGeats—more probably the latter—were current in theScandinavian countries in the seventh century. Among these sagas, thatof Beowulf the Geat must have had a prominent place; others celebratedHygelac his uncle, Hnaef the Viking, the wars of the Danes and theHeathobards, of the Danes and the Swedes. About the end of the centurymissionaries from England are known to have been busy in Friesland andDenmark, endeavouring to convert the natives to Christianity. Some oneof these, whose mind had a turn for literature and dwelt with joy uponthe traditions of the past, collected or learnt by heart a number ofthese sagas, and, taking that of Beowulf as a basis, and weavingsome others into his work, composed an epic poem to which, although itcontains the record of those adventures, the heroic scale of thefigure who accomplishes them all imparts a real unifying epicinterest.’ Whatever may be the truth as to its origin, there itlies in the British Museum in its unique MS. as a testimony to all agesof the genius of the Anglo-Saxon race.
Now it will be quite naturally asked, What do we learnfrom Beowulf of the genius and spirit of that race from which weare sprung?
The one outstanding fact, as it appears to the writer,is the co-operative principle. And this principle stands in almostviolent opposition to the ruling principle of the modern world, inwhich society is divided into a number of mutually opposite sections orclasses, whose interests clash with fatal results to individual andcorporate well-being. In this poem we see the whole community, from theKing to the churl, bound by one common interest. King and chieftain andthane and churl freely intermingle and converse. They eat and drink andsleep under one common roof, or at least in one common enclosure.Tempora mutantur! but the idea of social interaction and mutual interdependence never foundmore vivid or real expression than in the pictures presented inBeowulf of Hart, the Great Hall of Hrothgar, and in the Courtand township of Hygelac, King of the Geats. In the Hall of HartHrothgar and his Queen and his courtiers sit at the high table on thedais, and the lower orders at the long table down the hall. The spearsand shields adorn the walls. After the evening meal, the singer, orscop, as he is called, to the accompaniment of the harp, tells forththe deeds of some ancient feud, such as that of Finn and the Danes orthe Fight at Finnsburgh, or the feud of the Danes and the Heathobards,in which Freawaru, Hrothgar’s daughter, and Ingeld figure sotragically. Then the benches are removed, and the rude beds are spreadout on the floor of the Great Hall and they seek ‘eveningrest.’ The whole is a picture of fraternal and paternalgovernment. If Grendel, the Fen-monster, carries away one of theirnumber, then there is weeping and lamentation. The King andthe Queen and the nobility and the commonalty areall concerned in the tragedy. The loss of one is the loss of all. WhenAeschere is slain by Grendel’s mother Hrothgar thus bewails hisloss: ‘Seek no more after joy; sorrow is renewed for the Danishfolk. Aeschere is dead, he who was my wise counsellor and my adviserand my comrade in arms, when in time of war we defended ourselves; ...but now the hand lieth low which bestowed every kind of joy uponyou.’ And in the end of the poem it is said of Beowulf that hewas ‘most gentle to his folk.’ The King was king only‘for his folk.’ The interest of his folk, their physicaland moral well-being, was his chief solicitude.
2. But not only was this so within any one nation ortribe, but there was a sense of comradeship and mutual responsibilityamong those of various tribes and nations. When Beowulf the Geat hearsin Gautland of the raids of Grendel upon Hart, he commands his folk tomake ready a boat that he may fare across the sea to the help ofHrothgar, because ‘he was lacking in warriors.’Beowulf’s whole mission in Hart was the discharge of a solemnobligation of help from the strong to the weak. He announces toHrothgar that he is come ‘to cleanse Hart of ill,’ and thishe feels he must do. ‘Woe is me if I preach not thegospel!’ cried St. Paul. ‘Woe is me if I help not the weakand cleanse not the demon-infested palace of my kinsman!’ criedBeowulf. ‘Weird goes as he willeth’; that is, Fate must besubmitted to. And Fate hath willed that he should help the weak and‘cleanse the ill.’
3. Then there is the tremendous sense of loyalty on thepart of the folk to their king or chieftain. The idea of the‘Comitatus’ bound the folk to their leaders. Nothing moredisgraceful could be conceived than the desertion of the leader.Terrible were the reproaches hurled at the trembling cowards who hadhurried away into the woods, to save their own skins, whilst their KingBeowulf wrestled with the dragon, the enemy of the people. ‘Yea,death is better for any earl than a life of reproach.’Loyalty, a passionate loyalty to the King, was the greatest of virtues,and disloyalty and cowardice the greatest of vices. Society was anorganic whole, bound together by the bands of loyalty and devotion tothe common good.
4. There is, too, the fatalistic note heard all throughthe poem. Beowulf feels himself hard pressed by Fate. The Anglo-Saxoncalled Fate by the name ‘Weird,’ which has survived inmodern English in the sense of something strange and mysterious. Weirdwas the God, or Goddess of Fate. Again and again in the poem we hearthe solemn, minor, dirge-like refrain, ‘Weird hath willedit’; ‘Goeth Weird as she willeth’ (chapter VI. p.44). There is this perpetual overshadowing and almost crushing sense ofsome inscrutable and irresistible power that wieldeth all things anddisposeth all things, which is, I believe, a pre-eminent characteristicof the Anglo-Saxon race, and accounts for the dare-devil courage of hersons upon the battle-field or on the high seas. We find it,too, in its morally less attractive form in the recrudescent pessimismof modern literature. Thomas Hardy is the lineal descendant inliterature of the author of Beowulf when he says: ‘Thusthe President of the Immortals had finished his sport with poorTess.’2
5. And closely allied to this sense of Destiny is thesombre view of life that is characteristic of the Teutonic peoples.There is none of that passionate joy in beauty and in love that we findin the Celtic literature. Life is a serious thing in Beowulf andwith us of the Anglo-Saxon race. The scenery of Beowulf ismassive and threatening and mist-encircled. Angry seas are boiling andsurging and breaking at the foot of lofty and precipitous cliffs. Abovethe edge of the cliffs stretch mysterious and gloomy moorlands, andtreacherous bogs and dense forests inhabited by malignant and powerfulspirits, the foes of humanity. In a land like this there is no time forlove-making. Eating, drinking, sleeping, fighting there makeup the business of life. It is to the Celticinflow that we owe the addition of love in our modern literature. Thecomposer of Beowulf could not have conceived the Arthur Saga orthe Tristram love-legend. These things belong to a later age, whenCeltic and