Posts Tagged ‘Scyld Scefing’

After the telling us of Scyld’s departure we get a relatively long and detailed description of his funeral.  It’s interesting to contrast all these details with the brief description we had earlier of his up-bringing.  We heard he grew in strength under heaven and perhaps that he was fated for greatness, but now we zoom in close to just how a good funeral was performed.  You almost expect þæt wæs god īcþēnung (funeral) at the end.  No?  Ok, just me then.

Another thing is the lack of religious references.  Until know we had some stuff about God sending people Beowulf (mk I), and giving him worldly honor.  But to be fair, none of this is directly aimed at Scyld.  His people, sure, and Beowulf, yes.  But Scyld, only indirectly.

Even though it’s clear (made clear later) that the narrator is conscious of describing the event of an earlier time, a pre-chritian time, he is happy to attribute various events and abilities to God, but it’s almost as if Scyld himself was outside of that influence.

þær æt hyðe stod         hringedstefna,
isig ond utfus,         æþelinges fær.
Aledon þa         leofne þeoden,
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,
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
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,
murnende mod.         Men ne cunnon
secgan to soðe,         selerædende,
hæleð under heofenum,         hwa þæm hlæste onfeng.

It’s a long section, compared to my normal posts, but I don’t think it makes sense in fragments.

Literal:  There at the harbor stood the curved prow of the a ship.  Icy, and ready to sail, It was a hero’s vessel.  They laid their dearly loved Lord, the ring giver, on to the ship.  They placed that famous man by the mast.  There were many precious things, brought from far oat lands.  I have not heard of a more beautifully equiped ship.  There were battle weapons and battle dress, swords and mail coats, and a multitude of precious things, all to travel far with him across the sea.  (Certainly more wealth than when, as a child and alone, his people cast him to the seas).  They raised a golden standard above his head and gave him to the ocean.  They had mournful hearts and minds.  No man, councilor in the hall, or hero under heaven could say  truthfully who received that cargo.

The last line, I think, add more to that lack of religious comment.  Is it just – who salvaged all that loot?  Or who got Scyld’s soul?  Did he in fact die in the final sense, or is he one of the prototype once and future kings, like King Arthur sailing of to Avalon after receiving his mortal wound from Mordred?

Also you can see the change in focus, the amount of detail.  The ice on the ship, the curve of the prow, the items of treasure to go with Scyld.

Initially we get:

þær æt hyðe stod         hringedstefna,

There at [the] harbor stood [the] ringed prow,

isig ond utfus,         æþelinges fær.

Icy and ready to set out, prince’s/hero’s vessel.

Aledon þa         leofne þeoden,

Lay down, he, [the] dearly loved Lord,

beaga bryttan,         on bearm scipes,

[The] ring giver, into [the] ship’s possession,

mærne be mæste.         þær wæs madma fela

Famous by [the] mast    There was precious things many

of feorwegum,         frætwa, gelæded;

Of distant paths, treasures, brought;

So far so good, then the narrator can’t contain his distance, so excited by the details, and goes from second person (We know the Danes of old) to first person:

ne hyrde ic cymlicor         ceol gegyrwan

Not  heard I [of a] more beatiful  ship equiped

Getting the finer points of a hero’s send off was clearly important and likely went down well around the mead benches.  Probably like watching a retrospective of Bill Shankly.

Then some description of the gifts:

hildewæpnum         ond heaðowædum,

Battle weapons and battle dress

billum ond byrnum;         him on bearme læg

Swords and mail coats;  On his bossom [they] laid

madma mænigo,         þa him mid scoldon

Precious things [a] multitude [there of],  That him with must

on flodes æht         feor gewitan.

To [the] river/tide’s possession far go.

Then there’s a reminder of Scyld’s humble beginnings. And again – as in that was a good king –  there is the understatment, the dark or wry humor at the begnning of this passage.  When it talks about his current (funereal) gift are not at all less then those he had when he was a child (ie the current gift are a loft, when he was a child he had nothing).  So loving detailed description of arms and gold, and honor done to a great man, then a joke and a that Scyld was a self-made man:

Nalæs hi hine læssan         lacum teodan,

Not at all they him less gifts provided,

þeodgestreonum,         þon þa dydon

Peoples treasures than those did

þe hine æt frumsceafte         forð onsendon

Who him at beginning forth sent away

ænne ofer yðe         umborwesende.

Alone over wave being a child.

Then back to the last rites of the funeral.  More treasure, more sadness.  The end summary of the Shankly documentary.

þa gyt hie him asetton         segen geldenne

Then further for him erect standard golden

heah ofer heafod,         leton holm beran,

High over [his] head   [and] allow [the] sea [to] bear [him],

geafon on garsecg;         him wæs geomor sefa,

[and they] Gave [him] to [the] ocean (spearman, sea);  they were mournful [of] heart,

murnende mod.

Mournful [of] mind.

Then the strange ending.  The statement that no one know what really happened to Scyld or to Scyld’s funeral ship.

Men ne cunnon

Man [does] not know,

secgan to soðe,         selerædende,

[to] tell in truth, [or] counsellor in hall,

hæleð under heofenum,         hwa þæm hlæste onfeng.

[or] Hero under heaven [by] whom that/the freight [was] received.

So we have the founding of the Scylding dynasty, the heroic past of the Danes and a sense of what is important, what makes a good king, and how to morn him.  This comes back at the end of the tale, when we have the funeral of a slightly different hero.

Oh yes, and how did I translate it?  H’m.  Tricky this one and subject to change.  I didn’t like the first person narration and kept it to the second.

On the wave,
Caked with ice,
Stood a hero’s ship.
There they placed Scyld’s body,
And with golden tribute
Made his shroud.
There never was
A vessel so equipped:
Bright steel,
swords and mail,
And glorious gifts
Lay around that mast.
Nor was this less,
Than his own people
Provided him:
As a child,
They sent him over seas.

But on this ship,
His latest home,
They set a golden standard.
Then gloomy of heart and mind,
They gave him to the sea.
And the truth of that last voyage,
No wiseman, nor hero under heaven,
Can say who gained that cargo.


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After the brief lesson on how a young man or prince must behave, we resume the back story with the passing of Scyld:

Him ða Scyld gewat         to gescæphwile

felahror feran         on frean wære.

Hi hyne þa ætbæron         to brimes faroðe,

swæse gesiþas,         swa he selfa bæd,

þenden wordum weold         wine Scyldinga;

leof landfruma         lange ahte.


So then Scyld departed, at the appointed time, still strong, to be with the Lord.  His beloved companions carried him to the sea, as he had asked, while he ruled, this protector of his people; the dear king had ruled a long time.

Like his birth and upbringing, Scyld’s departure seems equally mysterious and driven by fate.  You see here also the first reference to the dynasty he founded:

þenden wordum weold         wine Scyldinga;

While [he gave] words of command, protector [of the] scyldings;

Scyld’s people become the Scyldings.  It seems common practice to take on their kings/rulers name.  As in the Wuffings, the East Anglian tribe under king Wuffa (ca 570AD).  The Wuffings themselves are linked to Beowulf (or at least to the Geats) by the Sutton Hoo burial ship, and its strong connection to Scandinavian buried practices.

I tried this a few different ways, playing around with order and the hints that Scyld went of his own volition (still active/strong).  I think I kept the hint, but avoided any direct mention.

But the hour came,

When Scyld departed.

And to the sea’s cusp

His dutiful companions took him;

Long had he ruled.

After this the mystery deepens as the myth grows.

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After listing fearsome nature of Scyld the Beowulf prologue turns to his origins:

Syððan ærest wearð

feasceaft funden,         he þæs frofre gebad,

weox under wolcnum,         weorðmyndum þah,

oðþæt him æghwylc         þara ymbsittendra

ofer hronrade         hyran scolde,

gomban gyldan.


After first being found destitute, he grew under the clouds, gaining honor and wealth, until all the surrounding lands sent him tribute from across the whale road (the sea).

So, it seems that this terror of warlords came from  humble beginnings, slowly gain in power until all the neighboring kingdoms offered him fealty or tribute.

There is a line (the second half of the second line) that I left out of the literal translation:

he þæs frofre gebad

Which seems to mean: because  of or through experience he gain comfort/consolation.

It’s difficult to pin down the exact meaning of this, and it might be my own limited understanding.  I’ve seen it handled in different ways.  It usually gets  reshaped into something related to fate, as in: but fate had more in store for him.  I’m inclined to skip it for now.

Then we have “weox under wolcnum” – grew/[waxed?] under [the] clouds.  Though it could be, by inference, sky or heavens rather than clouds.  Which might be where the reference to fate comes in.  Grew under heavens – might be: grew under divine guidance.

Then we have the stuff about the tribute come from across the whale roads (ofer hronrade).  This image of the sea as the whale road is an example of the “kenning” found in lots of anglo-saxon and norse tales.  It cropped up earlier in the first sentence – þeod-cyninga (people-kings).  Other example are, sea-kings, earth-kings, heigh-kings and all really just mean kings.

It is thought (more or less accepted) that these poetic phrases which were like reusable component parts that the poet (the “scop” who would chant or speak these tales around the mead-hall fire) could use at different times to fill out the line, or complete the meter. So if you had a line discussing a king, but you didn’t have enough to say to fill the line you could use one of the stock phrases to fill in the gap.

After detailing Scyld rise to power we get an emphatic statement of his worth:

þæt wæs god cyning!

Literal: That was [a] good King!

But like the exclamation mark, like that at the end of Hwaet, is a later addition.  Here’s an image of the line from the original manuscript:

That was a good king.

The distinction here is worth noting, besides that fact that “was” is also an addition.  While Scyld accomplishments are great, there is not exclamation.  Probably the Anglo-Saxons did have one.  But it seems likely that this is another motif, like kenning, namely that of litotes, or understatement.  This comes up a lot in Beowulf, and other anglo-saxon literature.  A bit like the word “drunk.”  It goes all the way back to the Beowulf times (as drincan). It was just a past tense of drink, but applied to someone clearly intoxicated, as in – looks like they’ve drunk – becomes an understatement.  Flash-forward to today and drunk (besides its role as the past participle of drink) is an adjective meaning intoxicated by alcohol.  The understatement has been worn away through long use, but the overall meaning remains.

Back to Scyld.  So, after building him up we just get: that was a good king.  A deliberate understatement, that adds to the austerity, but also hints at a sense of dark humor.

Here’s my translation of the passage:

He came from nothing,

Raised beneath a brooding sky,

He grew in power,

Winning, from across the sea,

Golden tribute.

This, we say, is a good king.

Next time we get to his famous son, Beowulf (mark I).

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