þæt wæs grim cyning: Anglo-Saxon Literature

“That was a grim king.”

The phrase is from the Anglo-Saxon poem “Deor” or as I learned it, “Deor’s Lament.” It is one of the complete (or so it appears) Anglo-Saxon poems we have, and describes mythological and historical figures who have bad times. The refrain is enigmatic to put it mildly. One translation I read (grew up with) was “That passed away – This also may.” Another is “That was overcome, so may this be.” Did the poet mean “I might survive these hard times,” or “May I overcome these hard times” in the sense of a prayer of sorts? The original word leaves it unclear. “Þæs ofereode, þisses swa mæg.”

Other poems, often borrowed by people like J. R. R. Tolkien (“The Wanderer”), are equally cheerful and encouraging. However, when you look at things like the Exeter Book fo Riddles, you get a different view of the Angles and Saxons. Ribald double-entendres, witty word-play, bad puns, and other things abound.

One of the most famous riddles is number (modern listing) 25:

Ic eom wunderlicu wiht, wifum on hyhte,
neahbuendum nyt; nængum sceþþe
burgsittendra, nymþe bonan anum.
Staþol min is steapheah, stonde ic on bedde,
neoþan ruh nathwær. Neþeð hwilum
ful cyrtenu ceorles dohtor,
modwlonc meowle, þæt heo on mec gripeð,
ræseð mec on reodne, reafað min heafod,
fegeð mec on fæsten. Feleþ sona
mines gemotes, seo þe mec nearwað,
wif wundenlocc. Wæt bið þæt eage.

Or, in modern English:

I am a wondrous creature, a joy to women,
a help to neighbours; I harm none
of the city-dwellers, except for my killer.
My base is steep and high, I stand in a bed,
shaggy somewhere beneath. Sometimes ventures
the very beautiful daughter of a churl,
a maid proud in mind, so that she grabs hold of me,
rubs me to redness, ravages my head,
forces me into a fastness. Immediately she feels
my meeting, the one who confines me,
the curly-locked woman. Wet will be that eye.

OK, now, before your minds finish going where I suspect they will go, the answers (the collection lacks a list at the back) might be an onion, a leek, or mustard, but the onion is the probable solution.

We don’t have much Old English humor that survived down the ages, or much of anything at all, really, compared to other languages. The Church saved some things, especially if they were religious (“The Dream of the Rood,” and “Caedmon’s Hymn”) or government (The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles). Otherwise we are fortunate to have Beowulf, The Wanderer, and a few others.

Hwær cwom mearg? Hwær cwom mago? [#]Where is the horse gone? Where the rider?
Hwær cwom maþþumgyfa?Where the giver of treasure?
Hwær cwom symbla gesetu?Where are the seats at the feast?
Hwær sindon seledreamas?Where are the revels in the hall?
Eala beorht bune!Alas for the bright cup!
Eala byrnwiga!Alas for the mailed warrior!


If you think you might know those words, well, Tolkien caught the sense.

In the novels, the lines are spoken by Aragorn, but the way the movie was done, and where they were used, they fit Theoden very well. “Theoden,” by the way, means “prince” with the implication of one with a fate.* Now is that fate a wyrd or “fated to be a prince?” Again, the sense is ambiguous.


*According to some sources. Linguists seem to be arguing over that.


6 thoughts on “þæt wæs grim cyning: Anglo-Saxon Literature

  1. Þæs ofereode, þisses swa mæg.

    That’s a great line I must make use of it. (I’ve heard the translation before, but knew not from whence it came.)

  2. It took the Professor to fill in gaps and enrich the song. Lyrical and stately. One of my favorite poems or songs.

    Aragorn in the books was more appropriate. In the Appendices, we discover his adventures south in the time of Thengel and young Theoden, A traveling adventurer from the north called Thorongil (Eagle-Star), who enjoyed their courtesy and welcome. He grew to love their simpler outlook on life. Young Denethor unfortunately saw through his cover and suspected him as a Ranger, or *worse* for the Steward’s son – one of the Line. That secret gnawed at him for decades. With Faramir’s dream, the Steward sent his ‘more reliable’ elder son to Imladris.

  3. Your History PhD is showing, with a tease of Literature. Since (IMO) History is first of all Story (in the largest meaning of that word) I’d love to see more of it here. That is, if it doesn’t damage the border between your fiction and non-fiction lives.

    Mystery author John Dickson Carr almost got thrown out of some historical society for =The Murder of Sir Edmund Godfrey=, in which he takes a crime from the Restoration, presents it as a mystery story, and offers a very convincing solution.

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