The Oldest English Epic/Chapter 1/Beowulf 00
|←Beowulf (introduction)||The Oldest English Epic by , translated by Francis Barton Gummere
PRELUDE OF THE FOUNDER OF THE DANISH HOUSE
Lo, praise of the prowess of people-kings
- English historians knew the story or myth of this Scyld (“Shield”), who as a helpless child drifts ashore in an oarless boat. The hoat is filled with weapons, but a “sheaf” of grain serves as pillow for the little sleeper; and hence the people call him Shield the Sheaf-Child. They make him their king. He ruled, so William of Malmesbury says, “where Heithebi stands, once called Slaswic.” The term “Sheaf-Child” came to be misunderstood as “Child of Sheaf,” and Scyld was furnished with a father, Scef or Sceaf.
- An “earl” was the freeman, the warrior in a chosen band; though not yet indicating specific rank, the word carried a general idea of nobility.
- Kenning for “sea.” Tribes across the water, say in southern Sweden, or westward of the Danish lands in Zealand, became tributary to Scyld.
- Literally, “God.”
- Not, of course, Beowulf the Geat, hero of the epic. Genealogies of Anglo-Saxon kings name this son of Scyld as Beaw, Beo, Bedwig, Beadwig, Beowinus, etc., all shorter forms or corruptions of a common original name. The name Beowulf may mean “Wolf-of-the-Croft” (Gering), but its etymology is uncertain.
- Sc. “as Scyld did.” Beowulf’s coming fame is mentioned, so to speak, as part of Scyld’s assets, and the whole passage is praise of the “pious founder” of the Danish line.
- The Exeter Maxims, vv. 14 f., say
Let the atheling young by his honest comrades
be emboldened to battle and breaking of rings,—
i.e. liberal gifts to his clansmen.
- To heaven, the other world. Various metaphors are used for death; e.g. “he chose the other light.” See also v. 2469.
- 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. In Ælfric’s famous Colloquy, early in the eleventh century, the huntsman says he sometimes gets gift of a horse or an arm-ring from his king.
- Professor Garnett’s rendering.
- The poet’s favorite figure of litotes or understatement. He means that the treasure which they sent out with the dead king far exceeded what came with him in the boat that brought him, a helpless child, to their shores.
- While the reader should guard against putting into these effective lines sentiment and suggestion which they do not really contain, he should compare this close with the close of Tennyson’s Morte d’Arthur. The classical passage for ship-burial among the old Germans is the description of Balder’s funeral in the prose Edda. On the “greatest of all ships” was laid the corpse of the god; and a balefire was made there; and rings, and costly trappings, and Balder’s own horse, were consumed along with the body.