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Taken from About.com, an information websiteCopy of original Beowulf manuscript London, British Library, MS. Cotton Vitellius A. XV.
Hwæt! We Gar-Dena in gear-dagum
þeod-cyninga, þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon!
Oft Scyld Scefing sceaþena þreatum
monegum mægþum meodo-setla ofteah;
egsode eorl[as] syððan ærest wearð
feasceaft funden; he þæs frofre gebad,
weox under wolcnum, weorð-myndum þah,
oðæt him æghwylc þara ymb-sittendra
ofer hron-rade hyran scolde,
gomban gyldan. Þæt wæs god cyning!
What were we War-Danes in our yore-days?
Tribal-Kings! Truly cast that glory past,
how the counts had courage vast!
Oft Scyld Scefing shed Eotens'
many sons of mead-seats often.
Awesome Earl; since erst a whelp
fund-shorn found, was offered help.
Waxed under welkin, won worth-prestige
until all areas we edged with were beseiged
over the whale-road, wide wealth did they bring:
gave up their gold. That was a good king!
These are the first eleven lines of the poem Beowulf. Howell D. Chickering, Jr, author of Beowulf: A Dual-language Edition, (1977) gives the background for this work. It was written in approximately 1000 A.D. by two different scribes, in the late West Saxon dialect. The first scribe wrote the first 1,939 lines, and the second scribe wrote the remaining 1,244. Chickering was unimpressed with the penmanship of the two unknown scribes, calling them indifferent. 5x8 inches in size, it was part of five different works in a codex. It is hypothesized that the five were assembled together as a group of monster or "marvelous" stories. The edges were burnt when the library of Sir Robert Cotton, where the manuscript was then housed, caught on fire in 1731. Now in the British Library, Cotton's catalogue system, (naming the manuscripts in his collection after the Roman emperors on the tops of the shelves) was kept for this work. The damage from the fire, the subsequent attempts to repair the damage and other wear through the centuries caused some of the poem to become illegible. Only the two transcriptions made by in the early 19th century, though with errors, allowed scholars to reconstruct the missing words.
I made my own translation for the eleven lines, in order to do a closer line reading, and give a better flavor of the alliteration in the text. I found myself unable to resist rhyme couplets, though it loses some of the literal translation. However, visual examination of the Old English text, such as gear-dagum/þreatum, gefunon/fremedon, and ofteah/þah indicates some rhyming involved in the work, though its poetic sensibility comes mostly from the alliteration. I made the first line a question, though most translations exclaim the first word, "What!" also using "Wait!" "Lo!" or Chickering's own "Listen!" I thought at first that it possibly might be "Wot!" the word still current in some British dialects as "know," but in examining it further, it more easily falls as a scop's question, "What were we in days of yore?" For which the listeners in the Hall would yell out, "Tribal Kings!" In other words, the Danes were conquerers over all the peoples or nations on the seas they sailed, poetically called the whale road. I call them War-Danes instead of Spear-Danes to rhyme better, but also because as shoulder, shield and soldier are akin, so are arm, arms and army; so is gar, gear and guerre (war). A more befitting title for the martial Danes. I used Chickering's punctuation in the lines, but the manuscript itself has no punctuation marks, making it the translator's choice for clarity. A question mark for a rhetorical question, followed by an exclamation point for the answer, seemed the best choices. The aethelings are more like princes than counts, but the hard 'c' better alliterated with king, cast, count and courage. Scyld Scefing (sh sound) seized threateners'sons seats from which they drank honey-fermented barley. Used Old English word Eoten (enemy) to strangle it into rhyming with often. Chickering accepts the emendation of earls instead of earl, which would suggest awestruck enemy earls, instead of awesome earl, but it seems clear that it is not a transcriptual error, but that the poet meant that the Earl in question was Scyld. I interpreted as feasceaft as money flung/shard, feoh sceaft, to mean fee-less, or poor. Then he "frofre gebad," (gained benefit), which I versed as "was offered help," grew (waxed) under skies (welkin), seems to be a typical stock phrase. Though not in common use, both wax and welkin are words still in the dictionary. In using the word mention, in stead of of prestige would more accurate, but worth-mention is faint praise in modern-day usage. 'Until all the areas we edged with were beseiged, over the whale road,' is a literal translation. Here-in forced tribute in gold, would be a more accurate version of 'hyran scolde gomban gyldan,' but didn't alliterate and rhyme as well as 'wide weath did they bring, gave up their gold.' 'That was a good king!' is literal, but sounds better without the article 'a.,' but was unavoidable usage.
These first lines sets up the story of Beowulf, one of brave Danes (though a Geat, close enough) in days of yore, starting with Scyld, after whom the Scyldings, (the old name of the Danish people) were called. It establishes what a good kings is: a seizer of mead-seats, a beseiger of settlements, bringing home the (other peoples') bacon. Though first lowly, Scyld became king, just as Beowulf was first scorned, but earned fame by overcoming Grendel and his mother. The themes of fate, and the meaning of good kingship are established, and run through the entire poem.
I am responsible for this content of the site and no one is to quote it or use my ideas without proper attribution. Beowulf page taken from from About.com web site, http://z.about.com/d/historymedren/1/0/c/9/beowulf1.jpg. Background information and Old English text of Beowulf from Howell D. Chickering's "Beowulf: A Dual-Language Edition." Anchor Books Editions, a Division of Random House, NY: 1977
October 3, 2007