Essay 1 of 10 on
that I saw
while on vacation
in summer 2015.
Once upon a time, I read Beowulf as a bedtime read-aloud to my son. I read it in the Seamus Heaney translation, but in retrospect maybe it would have been more fun (for me, at least) to do it in the Old English, starting with a firm:
Hwæt is an appropriate word to begin a read-aloud because—at least according to many scholars—it means something like, “Shut up, pay attention, this is important!” succinctly reduced to a single exclamatory command: Hwæt!
It could be argued that English literature was launched with that one word. Once it was uttered, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Austen, Keats, Dickens, and Beowulf-scholar Tolkien would inevitably follow.
|First page of Beowulf in the Cotton MS Vitellius|
A XV manuscript at the British Library.
On my second day in London, I’m standing in front of the first leaf of the only existing manuscript of Beowulf, poised behind glass in the Sir John Ritblat Treasures of the British Library Gallery, the word Hwæt large in the left corner. The penmanship was the work of some anonymous scribe, toiling in the late Anglo-Saxon world circa 1000 A.D., give or take a half-century either direction. Beowulf probably felt ancient even then, a mysterious relic of a marauding foreign mode of life.
Today no one knows exactly what “Hwæt” means, the word apparently having dropped out of common usage as language shifted toward Middle English under the Norman occupation. By the time of Chaucer, no one was saying, “Hwæt,” not even the Wife of Bath.
In the introduction to his magisterial Beowulf translation, poet Seamus Heaney wrote:
Conventional renderings of Hwæt, the first word of the poem, tend towards the archaic literary, with ‘lo,’ ‘hark,’ ‘behold,’ ‘attend,’ and—more colloquially—‘listen’ being some of the solutions offered previously.
Heaney settled on the word “So,” with a period following it to signify its separate function from the words that follow. First, you demand attention and then you begin the story:
Hwæt we Gar-Dena in gear-daum
becomes in Heaney’s translation:
So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by…
But I prefer to think that something was lost as the poem moved from a tale told in a mead-hall to an epic transcribed in a scriptorium. “In gear-daum” (in days gone by) doesn’t sound right to me, at least from the perspective of a bedtime read-aloud. I prefer:
So. Once upon a time, the Spear-Danes
And the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness…
Of course, that would never have been the way the Beowulf poet would have declaimed it in in formal company, where certain poetic rules had to be observed. No, it’s the first draft that he improvised by the bed of his son, sharing a tale of Grendel beasts and dragons as the sun set and the shadows grew long.
© 2015 Lee Price