23 June 2011

The First Sentence

The first sentence of Beowulf is one of the hardest in the poem. It spans three lines, and its word order is nothing that modern English could produce. Here it is in Old English.

Hwæt! Wé Gárdena      in géardagum

þéodcyninga      þrym gefrúnon·

hú ðá æþelingas      ellen fremedon.

The first word is "What!" Obviously, we need a substitute that indicates that attention is being demanded from the audience. "Listen" and "Hark" and "Lo" and even "So" have been tried. "Yo!" is a close equivalent, but too informal for an ancient poem.

After that we have this:

We, about the Spear Danes of former days,
the kings of the people, heard of their glory
how those nobles performed deeds. 

We have a problem using "The Spear Danes" because it is only three syllables, and we need at least four per half-line. If we include the "Hwaet!" to make four, we still have another problem: finding words to alliterate with "Spear" or "Danes" that fit into the next part of the line. You could have "The Spear Danes of days long past" or "The Spear Danes of days sped by" but that is about it.

Do we actually need the term, "Spear Danes," though? The same group is sometimes called the Bright Danes, the Ring Danes, the South Danes, and so on. The one constant is that they are always Danes, except when they are called Scyldings. "Spear" is more a description than a name, it seems: an epithet like "godlike Achilles." On the other hand, it does give an appropriately aggressive image of the Danes which we could retain like this:

Those fighting Danes of former days...

I like it! I'll make the change...

No comments:

Post a Comment