Medieval manuscripts blog

06 November 2013

How Does Beowulf Begin?


We always like to hear about research that touches on the British Library's collections; and here is a good example. Anglo-Saxon scholars will invariably be familiar with the opening of the epic poem Beowulf, which starts with the word "Hwæt!". You can see the word in question above (the second letter is a wynn, pronounced w-), and you can view the whole manuscript online on our Digitised Manuscripts site.

This word "Hwæt" has puzzled translators for some considerable time, and it has been rendered variously as "What!" by William Morris (1895) and "So!" by Seamus Heaney (1999), among other interpretations. However, new research by George Walkden (University of Manchester) suggests that the context of "Hwæt" has been misunderstood: instead of functioning as a command to listen (along the lines of Hey! Oi you!), Walkden proposes that it should be translated as "How", in the sense of "How we have heard of the might of kings". Dr Walkden's conclusion is based on a close study of the other uses of this word and, if correct, adds a fresh perspective to the opening lines of Beowulf. Perhaps the original audience wasn't so inattentive, after all?

For those of you interested in what the poem would have sounded like, we'd also highly recommend the version by Benjamin Bagby. Or if you'd prefer to hear the opening lines in Hungarian (or French or Telugu), click here! "Listen up"" (as the Beowulf-poet apparently didn't say).


I always though Hwaet! meant Hello! In fact I find it is a very good email opener and much more sophisticated than the dreadful "hi" which is sadly so commonplace.

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