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The One Ring Forums: Tolkien Topics: Reading Room:
Listen! Beowulf opening line misinterpreted for 200 years?

News from Bree

Nov 8 2013, 2:58am

Post #1 of 3 (327 views)
Listen! Beowulf opening line misinterpreted for 200 years? Can't Post

beowulf.large The opening line 'Listen!' is not a proclamation and should not have an exclamation mark, according to new research by an academic at the University of Manchester.

It is perhaps the most important word in one of the greatest and most famous sentences in the history of the English language.

Yet for more than two centuries “hwæt” has been misrepresented as an attention-grabbing latter-day “yo!” designed to capture the interest of its intended Anglo-Saxon audience urging them to sit down and listen up to the exploits of the heroic monster-slayer Beowulf.

According to an academic at the University of Manchester, however, the accepted definition of the opening line of the epic poem – including the most recent translation by the late Seamus Heaney - has been subtly wide of the mark.

In a new paper, Dr George Walkden argues that the use of the interrogative pronoun “hwæt” (rhymes with cat) means the first line is not a standalone command but informs the wider exclamatory nature of the sentence which was written by an unknown poet between 1,200 and 1,300 years ago.

According to the historical linguist, rather than reading: “Listen! We have heard of the might of the kings” the Old English of “Hwæt! We Gar-Dena in gear-dagum, þeod-cyninga, þrym gefrunon, hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon!” should instead be understood as: “How we have heard of the might of the kings.”

Dr Walkden said his conclusion – based on the positioning of the word relative to the verb within 141 other clauses studied – would put him at odds with the conventional wisdom on the subject.

“I’d like to say that the interpretation I have put forward should be taken into account by future translations,” he said.

[Read More]

Bootnpte: In another, follow-up article, author Claire Kelley points out that "while Walkden and the University of Manchester quote Seamus Heaney as having using an exclamation point mark (The Independent repeats the error), Heaney actually just used a period, choosing to use the word “So.” as more of a transition word that is meant to mimic Anglo-Saxton diction and indicate the continuation of the conversation." Cue a storm of argument from the Anglo-Saxonists?


Nov 9 2013, 12:08am

Post #2 of 3 (206 views)
Fascinating! [In reply to] Can't Post

I wonder what Tolkien would have had to say about this!

Faithful servant yet master's bane,
Lightfoot's foal, swift Snowmane


Nov 9 2013, 5:36am

Post #3 of 3 (243 views)
The Monsters and the Critics [In reply to] Can't Post

Tolkien probably would have been very interested in the debate, as it concerns the use of an Anglo-Saxon word "hwaet" for which we have no exact translation. I thought that Heaney's use of "So." made sense in conveying the down-to-earth voice of the Beowulf poet, better than the "Hark!" or "Listen!" of previous translations.

In Reply To
I wonder what Tolkien would have had to say about this!

Don't mess with my favorite female elf.


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