Both Neal and I studied Beowulf under the same enthralling professor, albeit three years apart. The first line of great Old English epic poem was: ‘Listen!’ The line grabbed us by the collar, pulled us in and, in a single word, sat us up straight and told us to pay attention. To this day, Beowulf has remained an important work and example of early Anglo-Saxon literature.¹ I always loved that opening and, some day, I want to write a story that starts in a similar fashion.
Today, everything in my world has all come crashing down with the article ‘Listen! Beowulf opening line misinterpreted for 200 years.’
“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.”
This, my friends, is what you too can do if you study literature, linguistics, or history ²– that is, if you do not become a cartoonist first.
Stay studious, my friends.³
¹· As someone who has read many medieval works, I can also tell you that Beowulf is above average for works of its time, even if that average is sometimes rather low. It was once cited as the most important work of English literature. In actuality, it made the top 100, and on that unranked, alphabetical list it came out on top by the merit of its ‘B’. That said, let us not let these facts get in the way of it being a fantastic read.
²· How someone could misinterpret this is beyond me. It’s quite clear: “Hwæt! We Gar-Dena in gear-dagum, þeod-cyninga, þrym gefrunon, hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon!”
³· And who got us into this mess? Jakob Grimm, one half of the Brothers Grimm.