STOP READING if you don’t want spoilers for Beowulf, Eaters of the Dead, or 13th Warrior.
Although I’m bilingual, I’ve written more English than Tagalog. 99.999% of what I’ve written is English. But what is this tool I’m using for writing? What is this English? What are its virtues as a tool for expression? What does it lack? I won’t answer any of these questions here, but a way to understand tools is by looking into their history. Granted, I don’t need to know the history of a hammer to use a hammer, nor a car neither. However, when it comes to linguistic devices, history, especially etymology (which is a kind of history), can be revelatory and open new avenues of thought and perception.
If you asked the ordinary, every day person of the 10th century in what is now Winchester, England what they spoke, they would say Englisċ, which sounds almost exactly like English. They would not have called it what we call it now, Old English — a West Germanic language full of inflections and not at all dependent on word order. This makes Old English a language of economy. I don’t need propositions to make a sentence say something.
Ne wyrċ ðū ðē āgrafene godas. Do not make graven gods for yourself.
Here the 2nd person singular accusative, ðē, does the work of “for yourself.”
This economy in words allows for each line of poetry to be split into two:
My first exposure to Beowulf? Crichton’s novel, Eaters of the Dead, turned into a movie called The 13th Warrior. Crichton had written the novel as a sort of dare that he could turn Beowulf into an interesting but “realistic” novel. Stop reading if you don’t want spoilers.
In The 13th Warrior, Beowulf is interpreted as a viking encounter with Neanderthals. Grendel is recast as a neanderthal of super human strength. The fire-worm is just neanderthals on horseback carrying torches at night. As they descend the hill, they do indeed look like a fire worm. Crichton has done a reverse engineering of Beowulf’s description of monsters and beasts into something we can understand in this technological and scientific age.
My next encounter with Beowulf and what is driving this current study is to understand what I have inherited through my parents immigration to The United States of America. Like the children of many immigrants, I am both heir to the language of my origin and the language used to express the universal freedom of all humans:
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. (Article I of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights)
What is this inheritance, and ought I to use it? Again, more questions that I can’t answer. However, let’s go back to my next encounter with Beowulf.
I listened to a man playing harp in the same way a bard might in the great hall of a 10th century English village. I don’t know Old English, but thanks to knowing some German & English, I could pick out some phrases. This one stood out:
þæt wæs gód cyning.(Beowulf, 1.11)
I heard this as: That was good köning.
In my mind it became: That was good kinging.
However, it really means: That was a good king.
But close enough. Moreover, “kinging” makes the act of being a king active. This active gerund, “kinging,” brought me more into the world of Beowulf.
The language of Beowulf reveals a world of kings, whale-roads (a metaphor for the sea), swan’s road (a metaphor for the sky), mead-halls, heavy and glittering shields, boats almost vaulted into the sky by the sea, and heroes.
Beowulf also inspired Tolkien to coin “middle-earth” in his translation of the work. (p. 15 of Tolkien’s Beowulf)
The world revealed by Beowulf is a Viking one. English was born in a world of migrations, invasions, pagans, Christians, seafaring and violence. It was also birthed in a world where stories were preserved orally by a bard who would sing and strum a harp in a mead hall, where after a day of toil, the bard could take them away to a world of monsters and heroes.
And today? What’s the current status of this work? Who is reading it? It used to be mandatory reading at Oxford until 2000. I’m not sure if undergrads had to read it in Old English but that would be interesting to know. As for who is reading it now? Perhaps in a few English Literature and Medieval Studies departments. We have entertainments that throw the mind into such thrall that reading pales. However, for one who wishes to be free from such thrall, the reading of Beowulf, the original, is still an option.
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Random Factoid: Twitter will render Old English into Old English. It is one of the few languages not monitored by Twitter given this lack of translation. I’m pretty sure you could spew forth whatever infective or concupiscence you wished in Old English, and not get censored.
“His arm, strang and swift” is pure Old English, and still makes sense today.