Old English is no longer the chosen dialect for residents of Great Britain, nor has it been for thousands of years. Over time, the vernacular of Old English evolved into Middle English, which eventually developed into the Modern English we speak today. As a result of our language developing, many Old English words and phrases have been forgotten, and some words are lost forever. However, it is necessary to study Old English vocabulary and poetry to fully understand the components of Anglo-Saxon literature. By looking more closely at the elements of Old English writing, such as alliteration, apposition, kennings, repetition, synonyms, word meanings, and the root of names; Anglo-Saxon poetry and prose becomes more comprehensible for the reader.
Probably the most recognizable word in Old English is hwaet, because it is found at the start of many Anglo-Saxon texts. Hwaet is a call to attention for the reader and his listening audience that lets them know the story is beginning. Hwaet shouts out to the crowd in a resounding cry that demands silence, so undoubtedly it was used to introduce stories when they were passed on by word of mouth and was later written at the opening when the stories were recorded.
Drihten, haeleth, and wyrd also are important Old English words. Drihten refers to a knight or warrior, the chief protagonist in most Anglo-Saxon tales. A driht is a band of warriors, and in Caedmon’s Hymn, God is referred to as ece drihten, which means Eternal Lord. Haeleth means hero, and is found in The Dream of the Rood where Christ is described as a haeleth in lines 39 and 78. Wyrd is the Old English word for fate, an important theme in Anglo-Saxon tales like Beowulf.
Alliteration is another noticeable element (that I love!) in Anglo-Saxon writing. Many of the Old English poems we read fit within the alliterative style where each line contains multiple words with the same starting letter. A prime example is Caedmon’s Hymn, the first recorded poem in English history. In lines 1-2, “Nu sculon herigean heofonrices weard, / meotodes meahte and his modgepanc,…” In the first line we can see the repetition of “h” words, and the second line repeats “m” words. All nine lines of Caedmon’s Hymn follow this alliterative style. Furthermore, in the case of Caedmon’s Hymn and many other Old English writings, the words are spelled like they sound, representative of phonemic spelling.
The most important part of any Anglo-Saxon story besides the story itself is the characters, most specifically the names of the characters. This is most evident in Beowulf, where the names of the characters, places, and weapons reveal their true moral qualities even before the story is told. Beowulf gets his name from a combination of the words Bee and Wulf, which probably mean Bear and Wolf. This implies that Beowulf is strong and fierce like the creatures he is named after. Furthermore, we can break down the name of Beowulf’s father, Ecgtheow into Edge and Servant, meaning that he is a servant of the sword, a loyal warrior. The name Sigemund, the good king Hrothgar tells Beowulf about, means Battle Hand, indicating that he was a good warrior as well. Sigemund derives from words that do not exist in Old English anymore. Another good warrior, Wiglaf, has a name that means Heirloom of Battle. This is especially fitting considering that Wiglaf is the only one of Beowulf’s warriors who remains loyal to Beowulf and does not flee when his master goes to fight the dragon. His name and his loyalty to Beowulf imply that Wiglaf will succeed Beowulf as the next great king and warrior.
While the deepest meaning is found within the names of loyal and strong warriors, other characters have important names. Hrunting, the sword Beowulf receives from Unferth, is named so because of the sound it makes in battle. This is another example of phonemic spelling, as is Grendel, whose name might mean grinding or could be derived from a growling sound. While there does not appear to be any more extensive meaning to these names, they certainly originate from sounds.
In the case of the warriors who exemplify loyalty and bravery to their lords and their people, further praises are lauded onto them in the form of apposition. Apposition provides characters with titles that herald their moral greatness, as Beowulf does for Hrothgar when he arrives in Heorot in lines 344 – 345, “If your lord and master, the most renowned / son of Halfdane,” (See also: lines 371; 529; 639; 2550). However, apposition does not always bestow praise upon a character, as exhibited in the description of Grendel in line 711, “God-cursed Grendel” (See also: lines 703; 1506; 2580; 2593).
Kennings are compound words that are metaphors for a person, object, or place. In The Wanderer, the Old English title is Eardstapa which means “Yard Stepper” or “Country Stepper,” essentially someone who walks and wanders along. Kennings abound in Beowulf where they paint the portrait of the Anglo-Saxon world. Beowulf and his warriors sail to Heorot across the “whale-road,” or ocean, which is later referred to as the “sail-road.” A good king is called “beag-gifa” which means ring-giver, referencing the king’s outstanding generosity towards his loyal subjects. Beowulf uses three kennings to detail Hrunting just before his battle with Grendel’s mother (lines 1388 – 1491):
“And Unferth is to have what I inherited:
to that far-famed man I bequeath my own
sharp-honed, wave-sheened, wonder-blade.
With Hrunting I shall gain glory or die.”
These kennings and more offer a unique method of description for the Anglo-Saxon characters and their environment. Certain kennings are repeated with synonymous kennings, such as “whale-road” reappearing later as “sail-road.” An example of synonymous kennings in the same passage is found in lines 1503 – 1505, “…the mesh of the chain-mail / saved him on the outside. Her savage talons / failed to rip the web of his war-shirt.” Here Grendel’s mother is attempting to rip Beowulf apart as is customary for her and her son; nevertheless, she is thwarted by Beowulf’s strong chain-mail suit, or “war-shirt.”
Despite the fact that the authors of Beowulf and many other Old English poetry and prose compositions are unknown we can glean a greater idea of the meanings of their stories by having a better understanding of the finer workings of the language of Anglo-Saxon England. Through knowing the meanings of certain words, recognizing the patterns of alliteration, and appreciating the origin and apposition of character names we can more fully comprehend the feelings of the narrator and the culture he lived in. The Old English language that comprises works like Caedmon’s Hymn, The Dream of the Rood, The Wanderer, and Beowulf offers a look into more than just the text, but into the characters’ real life homes in Anglo-Saxon England, and, in the case of the Geats, life along the whale-road. When thoroughly examined, the Old English text expands the tales of loyal warriors and glory more closely to the original version than any translation can.
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