Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Beowulf's Sword

I should specify which sword since there are three, possibly four swords, that Beowulf carried in his tale: the one he carried to Hrothgar's court, Hrunting which Unferth lent to Beowulf, the sword in the cave that Beowulf uses to dispatch Grendel's mother, and the sword he used against the dragon. I think the sword that he carried to Hrothgar's court and the one he used against the dragon are not the same because he stated to Hrothgar that his corslet was an heirloom, the work of Weland, but did not mention the sword when he was telling him how to dispose of his property if Grendel kills him. At the end, Beowulf was carrying a sword called Nægling, a "gomele lafe"(2563) or ancient heirloom. R.D. Fulk posed the question in the back of his Klaeber's Beowulf if the two swords are the same, meaning it is not at all certain that they are.
The sword I was thinking of discussing was the one that he found in Grendel's cave, the one that is the work of giants, the 'ealdsweord eotenisc'(1558) 'giganta geweorc'(1562). Whether eoten are Jutes or giants is still debated but the consensus is that they are giants. There is no doubt about the meaning of 'giganta'. Unferth's sword does not even scratch Grendel's mother so Beowulf threw it down and prepared to fight bare-handed and die when he saw this amazing sword. It was able to pierce her magically protected hide but it melted away from the poisonous heat of her blood.
Of course in a story with sea-monsters, a dragon, Grendel and his mother and Weland, too, why should there not also be giants? In two Anglo Saxon poems, The Ruin and The Wanderer, we have the phrase again - 'work of giants'. In The Ruin (in fragments), it refers possibly to the ruins of Bath as the poet comes upon them and wonders about the builders in stone and the fate that took them. He refers to the city as 'enta geweorc' as are the ruins in The Wanderer. The Anglo Saxons did not build in stone so Roman ruins were a marvel to them and the deserted cities were the habitations of ghosts and demons. So, my thought is that, if Beowulf found a strange old sword, that was the work of giants, was it a Roman sword that he held in his hand? After all there were many heated battles between the Romans and the Germanic tribes. The Teutoburger Wald where Augustus lost three legions, one quarter of the entire Roman army, to a Cheruscan leader, Arminius, is one such place. The sites of the Batavian uprising are another. It would be an intriguing thought, since the Teutoburger Wald was a boggy place, that maybe Grendel's mere was located there but it really is too far from Leire, the site of Hrothgar's court. Anyway, Roman swords built tough to last just like their walls.

5 comments:

Anachronist said...

if Beowulf found a strange old sword, that was the work of giants, was it a Roman sword that he held in his hand?

Roman swords used to be rather short - how could one of them be called a work of giants?

The Red Witch said...

Actually they were rather long, as much as 3 to 4 feet long. Considering the average Roman soldier was 5 feet tall, that is a long sword.
Further down, when Beowulf returns from the mere, he gave the hilt of the melted sword to Hrothgar in a scene rather like when Gandalf gave the Morgul blade to Elrond. There were runes set on it that told the name of him for whom the blade had been wrought. It also told the story of the flood (Roman myth had a flood story too) and of a battle with giants (there was a battle between the Olympians and the Titans which the Olympians won and which Milton adapted for his battle in heaven scene in Paradise Lost). Would a sword made by a giant speak in glowing terms about their defeat? The word for giant in this passage was 'enta' again (l. 1679) This is the same word used of the builders of the stone ruins seen around England.

Anachronist said...

It seems we are thinking about two different kinds of Roman swords. I had gladius in mind which was a short stabbing sword with a blade between 20-24"(50-60cm) long and about 2 inches (5cm) wide and an unguarded hilt.The Gladius developed from a spanish style of sword to allow Roman legionaires to fight side by side with shields taking the blows of the longer swords of their enemies. The gladius was worn in a sheath on the right side, with its small size allowing it to be draw by the right hand and easier to use for someone carrying a large shield in the left hand than having the sheath on the left hand side of the body. The Gladius was replaced by a longer sword worn on the left the Spatha during the second century AD.

Anachronist said...

BTW if you want to see more of these go here

The Red Witch said...

Very interesting. Only thing is that there are runes on the hilt that tell by whom or for whom the sword was made. Romans didn't write in runes but, when one considers that Arminius and Julius Civilis, both spent time in the Roman army and the emperor's bodyguard were usually from the Germanic tribes, I don't see why a Roman sword couldn't have runes on it. Who ever this sword belonged to was wealthy since there is gold and jewels on it but I find it hard to believe that giants would want a sword made to celebrate their defeat by God. If the poet had a historical sword in mind when he wrote the poem.