Archive for April, 2010

So after hearing of the birth of Scyld’s son, and the importance of this to his people we get:

Him þæs liffrea,

wuldres wealdend,         woroldare forgeaf;

Beowulf wæs breme         (blæd wide sprang),

Scyldes eafera         Scedelandum in.

Literal:  He was, by god, the glorious ruler, given worldly honor.  Beowulf was renowned, his fame spread far, this son of Scyld, across Scania (southern Scandinavia).

That first line:

Him þæs liffrea, wuldres wealdend, woroldare forgeaf.

Is a good example of the different word order of OE compared to modern english.  Where we are used to Subject, Verb, Object.  Here we have Subject, Object, Verb:

He was [ by god, the glorious ruler] worldly honer given. Subject [He], object [Honor], verb [given].  “Honor” – an abstract noun – is given to him (Beowulf).  It’s close to Yoda speak, but Yoda would probably say: Honor, given by God, to him it was.  Object, verb, subject.  A very strange word order, that probably has something to do with living in a swamp.

Anyway, here we have the first mention of Beowulf!  Finally.  But it’s not the Beowulf.  Some translations try to make this clear by rendering the name “Beown” or something similar to avoid confusion with the later, the real deal, Beowulf.

Beowulf (mark1)

You can see from the manuscript (above: “forgeaf beowulf”) that the original scribe had no such concerns.  The genealogy of the Scandinavian royal families was probably well known to the audience.  Also, and it’s probably not clear yet, but this is the Danish royal line.  The Beowulf who is the hero of the poem is a Geat.  That will become clear once we’re clear of the prologue.

And so to my translation.  I’ve kept the name Beowulf, though this is Beowulf (mk1), I don’t think it’s too confusing.  Just as Deep Purple (mk1) – who did Hush – are rarely confused with the more successful mk2 line up.

He was marked for glory,

The son of shield,

As a flame,

Beowulf’s fame spread,

Through the Southlands.


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After introducing the founder of the scyldings and his rise to power we get:

Ðæm eafera wæs         æfter cenned,

geong in geardum,         þone god sende

folce to frofre;         fyrenðearfe ongeat

þe hie ær drugon         aldorlease

lange hwile.


To him a child was born, a young life in his hall.  God sent it to comfort the people.  They had formerly endured a long time, in dire distress, without a king.

This mentions explicitly what was hinted at earlier when introduction Scyld – the danger of a king without a people, or in this case, a people without a king.  It’s interesting to note that king (Anglo-Saxon: Cyning) derives from the word for kin, or kin-leader.  When you follow it back to that level, the leader of a family – albeit an extended family – you can see the great loss, the distress, it brings about; and, of course, the importance of succession.  There is the normal horror that a political power vacuum can (and generally has throughout history) bring about – the threat of enemy invasion during a time of weakness, and the internal power struggle between kin-rivals.

But king, or cyning, is not mentioned in the fragment above.  Instead we have “aldorlease.”  Which is aldor + lease = leader + without.

Another thing about this passage, perhaps not in written form, is it’s closeness to modern english.

If you remember that thorn (þ) and eth (Ð) are pronounce “th.”  And “g” is often pronounce “y” as in geong=young.

Ðæm eafera wæs æfter cenned:

Then [a] child was afterward born

geong in geardum:

Young in [the] court.

þone god sende:

whom god sent

aldorlease lange hwile:

Leaderless [for a] long while.

And so to my translation:

A son was born to him,

A life in his hall,

A gift to his people:

Darkly they remembered,

Life without a king.

Next time we get to hear about this wondrous son.

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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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The prologue of Beowulf continues by introducing Scyld Scefing, the ancestor of the Danes.  It goes on to describe his origins, rise to power, the founding of his dynasty (his son is called Beowulf – no relation to the hero of the poem) and his death.

Oft Scyld Scefing         sceaþena þreatum,

monegum mægþum,         meodosetla ofteah,

egsode eorlas.

Literal – Often Scyld Scefing enemies troops, many nations, mead benches take away, terrify warriors/heros.

Here we see the herioc values (we get told so later).  Scyld was one tough Dane.  He emptied the mead benches of many an enemy nations hall.  That is he has killed a lot of enemies, leaving their halls empty.  And a king without retainers (again, we’ll see this later) is a deeply fear and shameful state.  And not just for the king.  A man without a lord, a leader is a man without home or fortune.

Another Anglo-Saxon poem, the Wanderer, has this type of masterless man as its narrator.  A moody and brooding poem, it details the emptiness, the loss an loneliness of a man in this fallen state.  Something deeply felt by the warrior class of the time.

The name Scyld Scefing is sometimes updated to Shield Shieving or variations thereof.  I won’t bother, but it’s helpful to note it, in passing since it’s a easy way to get the pronunciation across.  The “Sc” in Old English has the “Sh” sound of modern english.

My translation goes like this:

Like Scyld Scefing,

Despoiler of armies and mead halls,

Terror of warlords.

Two whole sentences translated!

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The first sentence of Beowulf is usually written like this:

Hwæt! We Gardena         in geardagum,

þeodcyninga,         þrym gefrunon,

hu ða æþelingas         ellen fremedon.

This isn’t the Anglo-Saxon grammar, but added later by editors.  Anyway, I plan to follow alone with this general plan.  So, I mentioned earlier – in a previous post – that I’m not going to deal with Hwaet, since this is written, not spoken, and on a blog, not a bustling mead hall.  Leaving that aside then sentence translates to something like this:

We have heard, in days gone by, of the kings of the spear-Danes, how their heros performed great deeds.

Or more literally as, We Speardanes in days of yore, people kings, host/army hear of, how the heros/princes strength accomplish.

Most of this seems ok to me, though Speardanes seems unnecessary now.  And plain old Danes is good enough.  I’ve read variations on just who is talking about what in this first sentence.  Is it the Danes talking about the people kings (we the Danes), or another speaker talking about the Danes who were people kings (we have heard of the Danes)?  Part of the problem is word order is no guarantee (or even that relevant) to an inflected language, which Anglo-Saxon is.  Being a beginner – and until I learn better – I’ll go with the speaker referring to the Danes, and translate as:

We know the Danes of old,

The glory of their Kings,

And the might of their Princes.

Yes, it’s condensed.  I have ditched spear, from Speardane, but used might, rather than strength or power.  Hopefully, a fare trade.

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A call to hush the hall, to quieten the mead benches, to draw a line under what has gone before.  A word lost to us now; lost in respects to an easy modern substitute.  Many have tried.

Listen!  Lo! Hark!  and so on…

But it doesn’t sound right, or read right, at least to me.   It makes me think of men in tights singing “hey nony hey” or something equally fey.  I think part of the problem is the medium.  Now we encounter Beowulf most commonly in the written form (discounting the made for TV movies and big screen animation), and so the call for silence or attention doesn’t apply.  We are reading, we are (hopefully) in wrapped attendance.

Drawing a line under what has previously gone may make more sense, and Heaney’s had a good go at it with “So.”  His introduction mentions something about “so” being a common way of starting a conversation.  It’s not just common to the Irish, you can hear it a lot in Britian or even here in San Francisco (a waiter once asked me – So, kiddo – what’s it gonna be?).  But it is “So” followed by a comma, meaning the pause is short.  Heaney has “So” forming its own sentence.  “So” – then a full pause – We Gardena etc…

This is better, and makes more sense when reading, at least to me.  Also, the replacement of the exclamation mark with a full pause (the period) achieves that breaking with what went before (whatever that might be), slows the reader (the pause) and adds seriousness.

“So. We Gardena etc…”  Rather than “So, We Gardena etc…”

So.  I am tempted.  But in the end I don’t think it is needed.  Rather than look for a suitable substitute or follow Heaney, I decided to ignore the word altogether.  As I said in the initial post, I’m interested in a concise, austere translation.  More brooding and hinting than overflowing and panegyric.

So, breaking with tradition from the start.  Hwaet is out.

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Stepping from the light of the fire into darkness… Or using a number of concise Anglo-Saxon dictionaries and some online teaching resources, my plan is to work my way through the Old English epic of Beowulf, documenting my translation as I go.

My main purpose is to teach myself Anglo-Saxon, or improve my limited knowledge.  But I also want a stripped down translation, shorn of christianity – if possible – and with an austere feel; something direct, but not just a literal translation.

Meter and alliteration are, at this point, optional.

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