words in Beowulf: 1

12:46 PM Posted by James Owens

I re-read Beowulf every year or two, and some internal chairometer tells me today is the day to start it again. So I’m planning a series of posts that will indulge the addictions of my (not very well hidden) philology-wonk side. Beowulf is, I insist, the greatest single work of English literature --- if we grant for the moment that it is written in English --- but I admit that over the years it has become, for me, more Wortschatz than poem. Perversely, I think posts like this might breathe some life back into it.

As Glinda the Good Witch of the South says, “It’s always best to start at the beginning.” So, the first word….

Hwæt, we gardena in geardagum
theodcyninga thrym gefrunon;
hu tha æthelingas ellen fremedon!

(NB: I am using “th” for both the AS letters “eth” and “thorn” --- if I persist with these posts, I’ll download an Anglo-Saxon font…)

Listen! We have heard reports of the majesty of the people’s kings of the spear-wielding Danes in days of old; truly those princes accomplished deeds of courage!
(Translated by S.A.J. Bradley, prose version from the Everyman’s Library series)

“Hwæt” the singer begins, and the meadhall falls silent as the warriors shift their consciousness into the mode of “hearing a poem.” The word, which stands at the head of many AS poetic texts, is a difficult-to-translate interjection, which really means something like “what I’m going to say next is a poem, so receive it that way.” It doesn’t have any other meaning and occurs only in this context --- a pure signifier without a signified, a signal which points to nothing in the “real” world but alerts its hearers that what follows is in a changed register of discourse. “Hwæt” spoken by the poet (R: the “gleoman,” a “gl-“ word!) changes the consciousness of the listener, changes receptivity to a different kind of speech. “Hwæt” charges the air with electricity. It is pure speech-act. An archetype of the Bachelardian poet’s parole that changes the world when it is spoken.

Bradley’s imperative “Listen!” from the translation above is wrong. A direct command to the hearer to pay attention is nothing more than an ordinary sign --- it may be a speech act that puts the listener in the right frame of mind for a poem, but it has content, pointing to an action; it loses hwæt’s sense of pure form that changes the world not by signifying, but merely by existing.

Similarly, 19th century translations that rendered hwæt by “Hark!” or “Behold!” miss the point. And I think it is the point….

One of the things that distinguishes ancient Germanic poetry, and Beowulf in particular, from Greek and Latin poems is that there is no invocation to a higher power for “inspiration,” no “Sing, O Muse…” These three lines at the beginning of the poem are indeed an invocation, but the poet does not claim authority granted from some divine realm. Rather, the authority to speak the poem is social: Hwæt, we … gefrunon, we have heard, and the business of the poet is to preserve traditional wisdom and to speak it in such a way that it confirms social bonds in its contemporary setting.

The exchange of words (and other things) is central to Beowulf. In fact, I believe a very good case can be made that the poem is essentially a meditation on the power of speech in establishing and maintaining human civilization (i.e., it is language which creates the Heideggerian clearing in the darkness of the forgetting of Being, to state it in terms of another obsession….)

This understanding of the absolute centrality and social (not divine) nature of language/poetry is implicit in the word hwæt --- refusing to point to any object of reference, hwæt achieves its poetic effect only because the listeners have understood and agreed upon its meaning as social convention, and it will operate only within the group that understands this. The Anglo-Saxons understood the arbitrariness of language, and the paradoxical strength and fragility of objects constructed from words --- that is, poems and human culture.

And this is what Beowulf is about. The whole damned poem is folded up inside the first word. Or, perhaps, the whole poem is folded up in the space between the first two words, in the movement from hwæt to we.

It is essential that a translator understand the meaning of hwæt from the start. Seamus Heaney does better than Bradley (though he inexplicably moves “we have heard” to a position where it loses most of its force):

“So. The Spear-Danes in years gone by
and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness.
We have heard of those princes’ heroic campaigns.

The storyteller’s “So” is right --- an interjection that signals a poem is coming. Still, Heaney is a bit understated. I would argue that the best, most accurate translation of hwæt into contemporary English, coming from a tradition that would not find the ethos of Beowulf very foreign at all, is “Word up!”


Neil said...

I was just too late to hear Tolkien lecturing on Beowulf, but apparently he would stride into a lecture hall of gossiping students and shout Hwæt!
They would assume he was saying, Quiet! and all shut up. And he would then carry on with the poem...

By the way, for Þ, ð,and all other alphabetical oddities, the best thing is to buy Popchar - not very expensive and gives you everything you need in an easy-to-use format.

James Owens said...

Hi, Neil: I would have loved to hear Tolkien lecture on Beowulf. Obviously, in the popular mind he is primarily (or only!)the author of The Lord of the Rings, which I too love --- but one could make a good case that his real master stroke was "The Monster and the Critics."

sam of the ten thousand things said...

Interesting post - and start of a series, James. I like the contemporary notion you inject. That would be good translation to read in its complete form.

Sorlil said...

I look forward to following your series. I've got Heaney's translation here but I've yet to read the full thing.