Beowulf 1-11: The Rise of Shield Sheafling (From Old English)

If I'm going to deal with Beowulf, I might as well just lay my cards on the table and come clean. Literary historians and historical linguists have taken to each other's metaphorical throats over whether Beowulf can or can't be dated securely as an early text. Surveying the battlefield from my vantage point in the cross-fire between two disciplines near to my heart and dear to my head, I cannot escape the conclusion that — on this point — the linguists are in the right. An early 8th century date seems about right.

Beowulf is an early poem out of a lost world. In a very important way, that was already true in turn-of-the-millennium Wessex. By the time the Nowell Codex was produced around 1000 AD, written Old English itself was probably a somewhat more "artificial" language than it had been in the pre-Alfredian period. The language of Old English verse in particular — and a poem like this especially — was rather removed from anybody's everyday speech. This poem, one of the oldest to have survived (and I think probably the oldest extant poetic text of any length), posed serious comprehension problems for the scribes copying it.

Imagine that our only source for the Canterbury Tales were a single manuscript copied out in 1600 by two scribes ignorant of the fact that final -e was once pronounced as its own syllable.

Assumptions about the undatability and geographic unplaceability of Beowulf — at least among literary historians — have basically allowed a great many scholars to read the text in a context of their choosing. The early date of the text, though, was never really questioned by actual linguists who have worked on it, and with good reason. Not only do many lines only scan properly if one substitutes Mercian forms, but the copyists either didn't care or didn't notice. Several able studies have shown that the scribes of our text were insensitive to the metrical principles that the actual poet/s operated with. Work on Late Old English meters suggests that the scribes would have understood poem's meter as a line of four conceptually equal accentual peaks, which is also how I translate it. Indeed, Beowulf's versification is unique in being sensitive to distinctions of vowel length in unstressed syllables. There is also exhaustively documented evidence that the scribes often had a hard time understanding what they were reading. They misread proper names that had not been common for two centuries, and sometimes found Anglian dialect forms baffling. All of this and more conspires to support one conclusion: the language of Beowulf is genuinely archaic, not the product of a late poet’s attempt to recreate an early style.

Everyone who deals with the Beowulf text must either decide which emender to trust, or use their own judgment as to which emendations to accept. I have done the latter, and for the opening passage here translated, two of my emendations are present in the Old English text as I give it. Neither of them finds much general favor these days in the literary side of Beowulf studies. One, though (a trivial deletion) is generally supported by linguists. The other, of greater consequence, is more circumstantial but also cooler.

My audio recording of the original text is not in the Late West Saxon of the surviving MS but —for a change of pace — in a hypothetical transposition into early Mercian.

Alright, now that I've fired the prerequisite shots, let's get down to brass tacks and have a translation. I said it is a poem out of a lost world. A lot of translators for the past century have done their part to make it more accessible to people in this one. Let me try. I'll start with the famous first lines.

The Rise of the Shield Sheafling
Opening of Beowulf (1-11)
Translated by A.Z. Foreman

HEAR! We have heard of hero glory,
of Speardane Kings,  the strength and deeds
of Clan Princes whose craft was courage.
How often Shield Sheafling shattered an enemy
horde in a swordcloud seizing meadhalls
of tribe after tribe, a terror to lords,
berserking the Earlings. In Ancient Denmark,
a sorry foundling,  he soon flourished
to heights under heaven hale with warglory
till every neighbor and outland tribe
beyond the whale-run yielded power,
praise and gold.  Good king in deed.

Audio of me reciting the text

The Original:

Hwæt wē Gār-Dena     in ġeārdagum
þēodcyninga     þrymm gefrūnon·
hū þā æðelinas     ellen fremedon·
Oft Scyld Scēfing     sceaðena þrēatum
monegum mǣġþum     meodosetla oftēah·
eġsode Eorle     syþþan ǣrest wearð
fēasceaft funden     Hē þæs frōfre gebād·
wēox under wolcnum·     weorðmyndum þāh
oþ þæt him ǣġhwylc     ymbsittendra
ofer hronrāde     hȳran scolde
gomban gyldan·     þæt wæs gōd cyning·


L5: Like Tom Shippey, I accept Wrenn's emendation of <eorl> to eorle rather than the standard eorlas. It's an emendation that is now out of general favor (note the skeptical note on p. 112 of the latest Klaeber edition). Though it does have its supporters, which appear to be growing in number. The connection with the Eruli about whom Jordanes report that they were expelled from Scandinavia by the Danes is compelling. Even if it didn't actually happen that way, legends telling of it were clearly known to Jordanes, and may have influenced lore about the Migration Era. I find the common restoration of <eorl(as)> unsatisfactory. It is hard to understand why a scribe would have written <eorl> if his exemplar had <eorlas>. Eorlas is a common form of a common word which would not be susceptible to enormous scribal troubles, whereas one can easily see how a scribe would have seen Eorle and thought it was simply an ungrammatical dative and "corrected" it to <eorl> instead. Slips even in common words do happen, despite the scribes' obvious care. But obscure proper names clearly gave the scribes great trouble at almost every turn, and I see no reason not to reconstruct one here, given that the manuscript form <eorl> is clearly corrupt and metrically faulty.

Also (and this is the important part) I just think it’s cool. It makes a cooler poetic line with a proper name as the culmination of a long clause. I pulled the form “Earling” in my translation pretty much out of my ass. It's a term that fits the orthographic, morphological and phonological patterns of inherited English vocabulary, it should work like an obscure proper name ought to. Basically I just did what felt right aesthetically. There is no need for medievalists need to treat these texts as museum pieces all the time. We are allowed to have fun. It is true that if one imagines these reconstructed Eorle as the Heruli (and assuming that these are the same Heruli as were later living around the Sea of Azov), then the beginning of this poem's back-story would have to be set in the early 3rd century AD, which doesn't really square with the timeline. Only five generations are described separating Scyld from Hroðulf, which hardly allows for enough of a gap between the era of Scyld and the early 6th century AD which (based on the mention of Hygelac's raid on the Frisians) would seem to be the time-frame in which our poem is set. But epic poetry does not have to be (and in fact almost never is) strictly faithful to actual chronology.

L9: I have excised <þara> from L9, as it is suspicious on several grounds. Not least the fact that it is a wildly unmetrical line, and requires þāra to be construed as an unemphatic function word. Such a construction conforms to later usage, and probably seemed natural to the scribes, but it is at odds with the general practice of the poem which treats se as a demonstrative pronoun. Moreover, minor words of this kind are precisely the sort of words that late Wessex scribes are known (based on other evidence) to have freely interpolated into the texts they transmitted. The archetypal half-line was probably a standard D-type verse consisting of a single word ymbsittendra. The Klaeber edition even says outright that þāra "is likely enough a scribal insertion", but leaves it in because "the stylistic rule is flexible...and emendation on the basis of meter is now largely avoided". It's my position that Beowulf's most influential editors have been far too conservative in their emendations. The "Dating Debate" is father to a generalized chronological agnosticism, which prompts uncertainty about how much or how little garbling one may expect in the text. 

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