The Oldest English Epic/Chapter 5/Widsith

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The Oldest English Epic by Unknown, translated by Francis Barton Gummere
Widsith

II

WIDSITH

THIS word, beyond reasonable doubt, means “far-wanderer”; the poem surely describes the life and defines the vocation of a typical roving singer of the older times. How its parts were put together, what credit goes to its historical and biographical statements, how one is to reconstruct the wanderer’s itinerary, are questions still under lively debate;[1] they are not to be discussed now beyond their quite incidental bearing upon the personality of the scop himself.

Widsith is introduced by the usual formula as about to speak and as a man worth hearing. He comes of good stock; is champion rover in his profession; and once went on an important mission with persons of the very highest rank. But the first outcome of his “word-hoard” is disappointing. For some forty lines he is very dull; the speech does not belong to him, one is fain to think, but is rather a poetical list of kings and peoples, like those made for children in modern times, easy to remember by means of the rime-scheme into which the names must fit. Saxo uses such a list of alliterating names in telling of those who fought at Bravalla; but he fills out the original Norse.[2] With these English versus memoriales also is mingled other stuff. There is a moral reflection, at which the modern hearer of sermons and lectures would do well not to scoff; and there are two passages which go into legendary details,—one about Offa and one about Hrothgar and Hrothwulf. With the fiftieth line, a good sounding verse, by the way, the Far-Wanderer drops his impersonal and hearsay information, and for the rest of the poem speaks of things he has seen for himself. It is a miscellaneous account, not only in matter, but in style, spirit, and effect. Apart from the impossible Israelites and Assyrians of his itinerary, the singer betrays either the plurality of his origins or his incapacity to tell a good, cheerful, likely lie such as one expects from a forerunner of Mandeville; a travelled man, moreover, he now stammers along as the most helpless of artists, and now breaks out into vivid and moving verse. His account of his visit to Eormanric is in parts admirably done. At last he is silent; the word-hoard is locked again; and in a little epilogue the pen of some sympathetic scribe epitomizes a minstrel’s life, and chants that most English of all English, refrains, the memento mori.

So much for Widsith as this oldest of the rescued early poems in English sets him forth. His supposed words are obviously put together in different places and times. Very likely the tale of his actual wanderings, continuous and dealing with definite occasions, may be the original part of the poem, as Dr. Lawrence suggests; but even this modest statement cannot be positively affirmed. No one singer ever saw or did what Widsith professes to have seen and done; and some of the statements can have no basis of fact in the experience of anybody. Widsith’s story is fiction, so one must fairly admit; but Widsith himself is true. He is rescued from the past, with a queer patchwork story which purports to be of his making, and which deals exclusively—as his brother Deor’s tale also dealt—with continental places, persons, and times. Like another singer of far later date, the German Traugemund,[3] he comes with a “true tale” of many strange things which he has seen in his wanderings. The man who copied him into the Exeter Book must have been a lover of the past; the rescue of this old singer with his queer itinerary, his scraps of epic and wastes of history and biography outworn, might well have been precious in the eyes of an antiquarian. One suspects, moreover, that this convenient traveller had fathered many a group of verses, more or less connected in general subject, which imparted “things everybody ought to know.” Widsith says so was good verification for statements of this sort, just as Alfred or Hending or whoever else was sound authority for a proverb. There must have been many lays in which a singer spoke of his far journeys, but did not mention his own name. Folk, as Möller points out, would call him just what he said he was,—a far-wanderer. The name was generic. In a different sense, the name of Robinson became generic for the actual stories told in the first-person by men who followed Defoe’s enticing trail; there were hundreds of “Robinsons” in the eighteenth century.

This pedantic Widsith may be to some extent a creature of the English pen; but a real roving singer has been rescued from continental tradition in his name. The pomp of heroic lays still echoes in his faltering speech. He has the court accent, the high manner; he wears none but a king’s livery, and takes only royal gifts. One wishes profoundly he had told more about himself, and had held longer the note of battle he strikes so well; but one is grateful to have him on any terms.

WIDSITH

“THE FAR-WANDERER”

Widsith spake, his word-hoard unlocked,
who farthest had fared among folk of earth
through tribes of men, oft taking in hall
rich meed of gold.[4] Of the Myrging line
5his ancestors woke.[5] With Ealhhild fair,
weaver-of-concord, went he first,[6]
seeking the home of the Hrethan king,—
from the east, from Anglia,—Eormanric fierce,
marrer-of-covenants.[7]—Much he sang.
10 “Many men have I heard of who held dominion.
Let every leader live aright,
earl after earl in honor rule,
who thinks to thrive and his throne maintain!
Of these[8] was Hwala a while the best,
and Alexander, of all, the greatest
in the race of men, and most he throve
of any on earth that ever I heard.
Attila ruled Huns, and Eormanric Goths,
Becca the Banings,[9] Burgundy Gifeca.
20Cæsar ruled Greeks and Cælic Finns,[10]
Hagena Holmrygas, Heoden the Glommas.[11]
Witta ruled Sueves, and Wada[12] the Hælsings,
Meaca the Myrgings, Mearchealf the Hundings.
Theodric[13] ruled Franks, and Thyle the Rondings,
25Breoca the Brondings, Billing the Wernas.
Oswine ruled Eowas, Ytas[14] Gefwulf,
Fin[15] the Folcwalding Frisian clans.
Sigehere longest the Sea-Danes ruled,
Hnæf the Hocings, Helm[16] the Wulfings,
30Wald the Woings, Wod Thuringians,
Sæferth the Sycgan, the Swedes Ongentheow,[17]
Sceafthere Ymbras, Sceafa Longbards,
Hun the Hætweras, Holen the Wrosnas.
Hringwald was hight the Herefars’ king.
35Offa[18] ruled Angles; Alewih Danes,—
of all mankind in mood the bravest,
yet never with Offa his earlship availed:
for Offa won, of all men first,
when still a boy the broadest empire:
40none of his age showed earlship more
in stress of battle with single brand:
against the Myrgings marked he bounds
by Fifeldor:[19] thenceforth ’twas held
by Sueve and Angle as Offa won it.
45Hrothwulf and Hrothgar[20] held the longest
concord of kin as cousins[21] together,
after they routed the race of Wicings,
laid prone the pride of the power of Ingeld,
hewed down at Heorot the Heathobard line.

50So I fared through many a foreign realm[22]
this wide earth o’er, as weal or ill
came to my ken; of my kin bereft,
far from my folk, I followed onward.
Wherefore I can sing and say my tales,
55to men in the mead-hall make my lay,
how high-born heroes heaped me gifts.
I was with Huns and with Hrethan Goths,[23]
with Swedes and with Geats[24] and with Southern Danes,
with Wenlas[25] and with Wærnas and with the Wicings,
60with Gefthas and with Winedas and with Geflegas,
with Angles and with Sueves and with Ænenas,
with Saxons and with Scygan and with the Swordmen,
with Hronas and with Deanas and with Heatho-Reamas.[26]
With Thyrings[27] was I, and Throwends too;
65and with the Burgundians got I a ring,
when Guthhere[28] gave me the glittering treasure
in pay for my song: no puny king!
With Franks and Frisians and Frumtings was I,
with Rugas and Glommas and Rumwalas.[29]
70Likewise with Ælfwine[30] in Italy was I:
of all mankind I ken he had
the fairest hand his fame to heighten,
heart most ungrudging in gift of rings,
of shining circlets, son of Eadwine.
75With Saracens was I, and Serings too,
with Greeks and with Finns, and with Cæsar[31] was I.
he that ruled o’er the revellers’ cities,[32]
wielded the wealth of the Walas’[33] realm.
With Scots and Picts, and Scrid-Finns[34] was I,
80with Lith-Wicings, Leonas, and Longobards,
with Heathmen and Hæreths and Hunding folk.
With Israelites was I and with the Ex-Syrings,[35]
with Ebrews and Indians, in Egypt too.
With Medes and Persians and Myrging folk,
85and with Mofdingas too, and the Myrgings beyond,
and with Amothings, and with East-Thyrings,
with Eolas, Istas, and Idumeans.[36]
And[37] I was with Eormanric all that while
the king of the Goths was gracious to me.
90A ring he gave me, ruler of strongholds,
on which six-hundred of solid gold
was scored for the treasure by shilling-count;[38]
I made then Eadgils owner of this,
my helmet-lord,[39] when home I fared,
95the loved one, in pay for the land he gave me.
First[40] of the Myrgings, my father’s home.
Then Ealhhild gave me another ring,
queen of the doughty-band, daughter of Eadwine.[41]
My laud of her moved through many lands
100whenever in song I was urged to say
where under heaven I’d heard of the best
gold-decked queen her gifts dividing.[42]
Then I and Scilling[43] with sounding voice
before our lord uplifted song:
105loud to the harp the lay rang out,
and many men of mood sublime
spake with words,—who well could judge,—
that they never had known a nobler song.
Thence I ranged o’er the realm of Goths,
110ever seeking the sturdiest clansmen.—
Such was Eormanric’s suite of earls:[44]
Hethca and Beadeca;[45] Harlings both,
Emerca, Fridia; that East-Goth, too,
sage and brave, the Sire of Unwen;[46]
115Secca and Becca, Seafolan and Theodric,
Heathoric and Sifeca, Hlithe and Inggentheow,
Eadwine and Elsa,[47] -Ægelmund and Hangar,
and the Neighbor-Myrgings’ noble band,
Wulfhere and Wyrmhere,—(war was not languid,
120when the Hrethan host with hardy blade
were fain to defend by the forests of Vistula
olden homes from Attila’s horde)!—
Rædhere and Rondhere, Rumstan and Gislhere,
Withergield[48] and Freotheric, Wudga and Hama:[49]
125not worst[50] of warrior-comrades these,
though now I come to name them last!
From their host full often whining flew
howling[51] spears at the hostile throng.
Exiles won there woven[52] gold,
130men and women, Wudga and Hama.
So found I ever, in faring thus,
that he is dearest to dwellers on earth
whom God has raised to rule o’er men
as long as here he lives in the world.”[53]


135So, faring aye, are fated to wander
men of song through many lands,
to say their need and to speak their thanks.
Or south or north, some one is found,
wise of word and willing of hoard,
140to lift his praise in his liegemen’s presence,
to honor his earlship,—till all is fled,
light and life together: he gets him laud,
holds under heaven a haughty name.

  1. Well discussed by Dr. W. W. Lawrence in Modern Philology for October, 1906, who has shed light on several dark places in the poem. The short introduction, and the equally short epilogue, were almost surely written in England.
  2. See Holder’s Ed., p. 257, beginning of Bk. VIII; and Vigfusson and Powell, Corpus Poeticum Boreale, I, 353 ff.
  3. Uhland, Volkslieder, I, 1.
  4. For his minstrelsy.
  5. Were born,—kenning, or metaphor, considerably faded.
  6. For the first time. If any consistency is to be found in this poem, we must think of Ealhhild (see also v. 97) as a princess of the Myrgings (a tribe living near the Elbe) who goes to the Gothic court to be wife (“weaver-of-concord” is the usual kenning) to Eormanric. Widsith goes with her. If she is called daughter to Audoin (therefore sister to Alboin), and thus is made out a hundred and fifty years or so younger than her husband, and if the conqueror of Italy is put back in the old home of the Langobards, these inconsistencies are only a part of the legendary process. To the English writer of this short prologue, the figures of his continental legends, even when historical, had no chronology. All belonged together; and the various nations are pictured in their original territories. Even the favorites of the English themselves never leave the old home.
  7. Foil to “weaver-of-concord.” Eormanric, king of “Hreth-Goths,” or Goths, is the typical tyrant in Germanic legend,—witness Deor’s Song,—and the epithets are bestowed on him as part of his proper name. That he had not won them at the time of this supposed marriage, but was a generous prince, we gather from vv. 88 ff., where the singer warms at the remembrance of a fine gratuity. Epithets, moreover, must not be taken too literally. The Beowulf poet speaks of the “Victor”-Scyldings when telling of their defeat.—“From the east” (long misunderstood) means that the home of Ealhhild and Widsith was in the “east” for the writer of this prologue in England; Anglia being the “old home” on the Cimbrian peninsula and by the lower Elbe. Not far from this old home, for the writer and for the legends that he knew, were still grouped Goths and Vandals to the eastward, by the Baltic, and nearer yet, the Langobards.
  8. This list, which in vv. 18 ff. shows (in the alternating use, for example, of the word “ruled”) plain traces of a strophic or stanzaic arrangement, is of immense ethnological interest. It ends with names that give a glimpse of legend itself, and it shows an effort at systematic grouping.—The moral, too, with which it opens, is in the vein so often found in old epic; gnomic verse is very ancient, and there is no need to put these edifying lines upon an “interpolator.”
  9. The word means “murderers.” Müllenhoff counts with these epithet-names others in the two lists like (v. 59) Wicings, that is, “vikings” or “men who camp”; (v. 24) Rondings, or “shieldsmen”; (v. 63) Swordweras, “swordsmen” or “men of an oath.”
  10. These would be the extremes, south and north, for the Germanic singer.
  11. Baltic folk. Hagena (see Waldere, B, 15) and Heoden belong to the old Hild Myth.
  12. Wada, Wade, along with Wayland, survived the conquest and was still a favorite in Chaucer’s time. “Tales of Wade” were proverbial. In Troilus and Criseide, III, 614:

    He songe, she playde, he tolde a tale of Wade.

    As a seafaring person he had his “boat,” to which Chaucer refers in the Merchant’s Tale, C. T., E. 1424. Binz adds a reference in Sir Bevis which makes Wade flght a “fire-drake,” like Beowulf, and one from Malory’s Morte D’Arthur,—“as wight as ever was Wade . . .”—comparison of power and prowess.

  13. Not the Goth, of course, but a king of the Franks.
  14. H. Möller, Altenglisches Volksepos, p. 88, declares these Ytas to be the people who invaded and settled Kent,—not the Danish Jutes, but a Frisian tribe.
  15. For this verse, with 29 and 31, see the fragment of Finnsburg, translated above, and the episode, in Beowulf, vv. 1068 ff.
  16. Beowulf, v. 620, Hrothgar’s queen is said to belong to the family of Helmings.
  17. Ibid., vv. 2472 ff., 2910 ff., the story is told of struggles between Swede and Geat in which this king plays a part.
  18. Legendary king of the continental Angles. Offa, king of Mercia, traced his blood through this elder namesake to Woden.—See, too, Beowulf, vv. 1949, 1957.
  19. The river Eider.
  20. See Beowulf, vv. 1017, 1181 f. Hrothwulf is nephew to King Hrothgar, and evidently if the old king should die would be natural guardian to his children. The queen (1181) expresses her confidence that Hrothwulf in that event would take no advantage of his position. It would seem that she feared otherwise and her fears were well founded; but this present passage shows that when the uncle lived he and his nephew worked in concord; and the victory mentioned is when Ingeld, Hrothgar’s son-in-law, broke his oaths (B. , 84) and in revenge for old wrongs (B., 2024 ff., tells the story and foretells the trouble) invaded the Danish kingdom. At Herorot (Hrothgar’s great hall) he is badly defeated.—See also the saga of Hrolf-Kraki.
  21. In the old sense of “uncle-and-nepliew,” which is the literal meaning of the text. In the ballad of Arthur and Gawain, uncle and nephew, the former says to the latter: “thou art my coz,”—sister’s son.
  22. Rhys, Celtic Heathendom, p. 248, notes that the Celtic bards also pretended to have been present at the scenes they describe.
  23. Huns and Goths, as before with Attila and Eormanric, belong together. See Waldere and Hildebrand.
  24. See the introduction to the Beowulf.
  25. Wulfgar in Beowulf, v. 348, is “prince of the Wendlas,” perhaps a tribe of Danes well to the north. Müllenhoff identifies them with the Vandals, who once lived by the Baltic, as did the Wenedas (Wends). The old grouping, before that great movement of the tribes which made the heroic age, is here regarded as unbroken.
  26. Tribe in southern Norway. See Beowulf, vv. 519 f. In translating vv. 59–63 a superfluous “I was” is omitted. The verses are longer than others, except 68 f., 76, and 79–84.
  27. Thuringians.
  28. See the Waldere. He is the Nibelungen Gunther, with a difference.
  29. That is, “Rome-Welsh,” foreigners of Rome. A curious bit of popular etymology turned Romulus into Anglo-Saxon Romwalus.
  30. This is the famous Alboin, son of Audoin (=Eadwine in Anglo-Saxon), the Langobard or Lombard king who invaded Italy in 568 A.D. His people had already shifted their territory from the neighborhood of the Elbe to the Danube. Paul the Deacon records that Alboin’s generosity and fame were known by all of Germanic tongue “and sung in their songs.”
  31. The rimes are disordered; but Creacum answers to Casere with the k sound.
  32. Literally, “wine-burg,” place of banquets.
  33. As above, “foreigners”; the Italians are still called “Welsh” by German folk.
  34. Probably the “Snow-Shoe Finns,” such as King Alfred heard about from the sea-captain. The Finns in vv. 20, 77, Müllenhoff places in the northeast of Europe.
  35. Assyrians.
  36. The “list” has been badly damaged here, so far as symmetry goes, and falls into a curious kind of pedantry.
  37. Here begins what may fairly pass as the oldest and best part of the poem. The reader should note the resemblances of style and phrase here to style and phrase of the Beowulf. Kennings are heaped, in variant repetition, for the two kings. The fact that Widsith gave what he had received to his own king should be compared with Beowulf’s similar action; the latter gets land in return, the former is paying for land already given.
  38. The heavy gold ring is marked with its value. Spirals of gold, too, were often twisted about the arm; one round broken from the spiral counted so much. So a king’s kenning is “ring-breaker.”
  39. A favorite kenning for the king is “helmet,” or “refuge,” or “shelter,” or “haven,” of his people.
  40. Lord or king.
  41. If persons and places here must be put into some sort of consistent relations both with one another and with the statements of the prologue, Heinzel’s scheme is least open to cavil. Widsith leaves his home among the Myrgings, somewhere in the neighborhood of Holstein, and his king, Eadgils, and sings his way to Italy, where the great Alboin (Ælfwine) gives him welcome, and sends him along with the conqueror’s sister, Ealhhild, on the marriage journey to Eormanric. He stays at the Gothic court some time, and gets a splendid gratuity. This, in a kind of anticipatory clause familiar to readers of our old epic, and demanded no doubt by the curiosity of its original hearers, is further described as going to pay Widsith’s lord, when the singer got home again, for paternal estates now or previously restored. But another ring is given to Widsith by the new queen, whose praise he has sung and will sing again. Inspired by her, he and Scilling sang wonderfully to the Gothic court, so that the Goths themselves—first and greatest masters of the old minstrel’s art, be it remembered—can think of nothing better.—Fiction as it is, this is consistent, so far as it goes. Then follows a description of Eormanric’s retinue, a confusion of names, with a touch or so of legend; and Widsith has done. Dr. Lawrence points out that in view of the cross-pattern in Anglo-Saxon poetical style it is not at all certain that Widsith and Scilling are supposed to sing at Eormanric’s court. “Our lord” may well be Eadgils, as in v. 94.
  42. See the summary of a queen’s duties in a note to the Beowulf, v. 622. “Gold-decked,” adorned with gold, is the usual adjective for high-born dames.
  43. Müllenhoff, Runenlehre, p. 54, makes this name mean “sonorous,”—another appellation, like “Widsith” itself, for the Scop.
  44. Müllenhoff’s arrangement is followed here, so that the names are given as chosen from the list of Eormanric’s company, though they are actually drawn from various sources and from imagination. The Eormanrio saga itself does not come clearly out; in the Norse account, Swanhild, his wife (=Ealhhild, perhaps), is put to death for alleged unfaithfulness. Nothing is hinted here of all that, though amongthe followers of the famous “troth-breaker” is named Becca, the betrayer Bikki in Norse legend.
  45. These names occur in the mythical genealogy of Essex, and mean “slaughter” and “battle.”
  46. The East-Goth is Ostrogotha, who, according to Jordanes, was father of Hunnil, the Unwen of this verse.
  47. Names of Langobard kings.
  48. See Beowulf, v. 2051.
  49. Hama, Heime in later German legend, is said in Beowulf, v. 1198, to have carried off the famous Brising necklace.
  50. Litotes, as in the Beowulf.
  51. “Yelling.” See King Heidrek’s Riddle on the Arrow: “It flies aloft, yelling aloud.” . . .
  52. Twisted, as in rings and the like.
  53. The words of Widsith are ended,—with a fine bow to the king on whose favor he relies for bread. Even in the epilogue a professional note is evident. Minstrels are the real voice of fame; treat them accordingly,—as Hamlet advised about the actors. For the results of bad treatment of minstrels, see Uhland’s effective little piece, Des Sängers Fluch.