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A Comparison of the Sword in Beowulf and in Other Anglo-Saxon Poems

The Sword in Beowulf and in Other Anglo-Saxon Poems

Is the sword mentioned only in Beowulf or is it a common element in all Anglo-Saxon

poetry? Is the sword described the same way as in Beowulf?

In “Beowulf and Archaeology” Catherine M. Hills states: “The most important weapon referred to in Beowulf is the sword” (305). In the poem lines 1557 ff. tell the poet’s description of the sword Beowulf finds in the mere:

Then he saw among the armor a victory-bright blade

made by the giants, an uncracking edge,

an honor for its bearer, the best of weapons,

but longer and heavier than any other man

could have ever carried in the play of war-strokes,

ornamented, burnished, the work of giants.

Attention is now focused on the sword-hilt: “he grabbed the belted hilt” (1563). In the next line is mentioned hringmael or “ring ornamented”/”ring-patterned” as refering to the sword Beowulf found. This might refer to “ring swords” found in Kentish graves of the sixth century and Scandinavian graves of the seventh century (Cramp 125-6). Line 1616 uses broden-mael, “wavy-ornamented”/”wavy-patterned” in reference to the sword which has melted because of the monster’s blood. Whether the translator sees these adjectives as referring to the hilt or to the blade does not matter, archaeologically speaking, because circular and interlacing patterns are found on both blades and hilts throughout the Anglo-Saxon period. These wavey or ring patterns occur from the twistng or weaving of the bands of hard and soft iron.

Lines 1687 ff. describes the Grendel sword hilt:

Hrothgar spoke, examined the hilt,

great treasure of old. There was engraved

the origin of past strife, when the flood drowned,

the pouring ocean killed the race of giants.

Terribly they suffered, were a people strange

to eternal God; their final payment

the ruler sent them by the rushing waters.

On its bright gold facings there were also runes

set down in order, engraved, inlaid,

which told for whom the sword was first worked,

its hair-keen edges, twisted gold

scrolled in the hilt, the woven snake-blade.

Regarding the runes on the sword hilt, G. Stephens in his Handbook of Runic Monuments maintains that the only Anglo-Saxon runic inscription on a sword hilt is on the Gilton sword, and that it is unintelligible (Cramp 128).

The Sea in Beowulf and in Other Anglo-Saxon Poems

The Sea in Beowulf and in Other Anglo-Saxon Poems

Is the sea mentioned only in Beowulf or is it a common element in all Anglo-Saxon poetry? Is the sea described the same way as in Beowulf?

In Beowulf there is one reference after another to the sea. When Scyld died, “his people caried him to the sea, which was his last request,” where he drifted out into the beyond on a “death ship.” In the Geat land Beowulf, a “crafty sailor,” and his men “shoved the well-braced ship out on the journey they’d dreamed of,” to rescue the Danes from Grendel. “From far over the sea’s expanse,” the Geats came, “brave men who come over the sea swells.” In his welcoming speech Hrothgar recalls that the hero’s father “sought us Danes over the rolling waves,” and his warrior Unferth remembers that the hero “struggled with Brecca [youthful companion] in the broad sea in a swimming contest … risked his life in the deep water … hugged the sea, gliding through the boiling waves … toiled seven nights in the sea.” A Dane “was tending to every courtesy” for Beowulf, for “such in those days could a seafarer expect.” King Hrothgar and Queen Welhtheow gave rich gifts “to those on the mead-bench who made the sea-journey.” In the Finnburh Episode, Hengest had to spend the winter months with Finn because “he could not steer his ring-prowed ship on the cold sea.” “Guthlaf and Oslaf spoke of their grief after the sea-journey.” The Danes carried Hildeburh, the queen of Danish ancestry, “over the sea.” “The surging waters” received Beowulf as he swam in pursuit of Grendel’s mother. During the battle Hrothgar and his retinue stared down at the “turbulent water.” Finally Beowulf returned, “protector of sailors, strong swimmer, to land.” Hrothgar, i…

… middle of paper …

… beat

across wastes of water: far warmer to me

are the Lord’s kindnesses than this life of death

lent us on land. . . .

The Seafarer concludes with a rather lengthy prose exhortation to his heareres to fix their hopes on heaven.

The characters in the Old English poem Beowulf certainly delighted in the seas. From this essay it can be appreciated that their attitude toward the sea is both conflictingg with and comparable with that expressed in other Old English poems.


Alexander, Michael, translator. The Earliest English Poems. New York: Penguin Books, 1991.

Chickering, Howell D.. Beowulf A dual-Language Edition. New York: Anchor Books, 1977.

TheSeafarer. In The Earliest English Poems, translated by Michael Alexander. New York: Penguin Books, 1991.

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