Deor Preface

            Why would anyone want to read Deor?  Or it might be better to ask why did I pick Deor?  I picked Deor for two reasons.  The first reason is the people of the poem.  When I first read the poem, I was interested in finding out the stories behind these characters.  I was curious about them, especially Geat and Maethhild.  The second reason I choose Deor is because, as Megan Richards wrote, Deor “is a poem that everyone can relate to.”  For example, modern readers can relate to Beadohild and her condition and especially if what happened to Beadohild happened to them, too.

            When translating an Anglo-Saxon poem, there will always be tricky vocabulary words and phrases, and Deor is no different.  One phrase that can cause problems for translators is “be wurman.”  In his book Deor, Kemp Malone translates this as “snakes” and suggests that Weland is “undergoing persecution by (alongside) the very weapons with serpentine tracings” (7).  R.E. Kaske agrees with him, suggesting that “be wurman” be read as “among the [products of his craft, all marked with] serpents” (191).

            Besides the vocabulary of the poem, scholars have debated on what genre Deor is.  Murray F. Markland, in his article “Boethius, Alfred, and Deor” argued that Deor was obviously inspired by Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy (1).  Markland points to Book I, prose 2 when Philosophy, the guise of Fortune defends herself against Boethius’ complaints.  To illustrate her defense, Philosophy as Fortune offers the example of King Croesus of the Lydians who was able to emerge from misery with Fortune’s help.  Markland enhances his argument with four parallels the Consolation of Philosophy has with Deor.  First, King Croesus, like Weland, Beadohild, Maethild, Theodoric, and the Ostrogoths, held on, preserved, until his or her misfortune went away and he or she presumably entered on a period of good fortune.  Second, the image of Jupiter’s two barrels, (which is not in Alfred’s translated Anglo-Saxon version), expresses the idea of lines 30-34:  God distributes both good and ill to everyone.  Third, there is a small but noticeable verbal parallel in the Anglo-Saxon works in that the verbal idea which is crucial to the consolation is in both expressed with the same word; Deor says “Þæs ofereode” and Alfred says “Þa unrotnessa…ofergaÞ.”  Finally, the situation of the speaker is that most unhappy one of remembering past joys in present sorrow of which Boethius makes such a point (2).

            Norman E. Eliason in his article “Deor—a Begging Poem?” suggests that the poem is a consolation poem.  Eliason argues that “immediately preceding the tale of the scop’s misfortune and apparently separating it awkwardly form the five other instances of misfortune he has previously cited are some general reflections on misfortune” (58).  The five examples, along with the refrain, are “the basis of the view that Deor is a consolation poem” (58).

Another area of scholarship that some scholars write about is the structure of the poem.  The poem itself does not have a structured plot.  Instead it is six stanzas that are joined together by a refrain.  Each stanza has a different central character that makes the poem even more disjointed.  James L Boren notes that the structure of the poem follows a tri-partite scheme (267).  The first three stanzas consist of legendary, private misfortunes.  The fourth and fifth stanzas consist of historic, public misfortunes and the final stanza consists of philosophical reflection upon the nature of misfortune and its meaning for the individual (267).

            Why is the poem structured like that?  Boren argues that Deor is remembering “those which relate to his own misfortune, and, as he moves from legendary to historical figure, he comes closer to acknowledging his own historical downfall” (273).  The poem portrays the unfolding drama of a man accepting and reconciling himself to adversity.  The first five stanzas are stages in a process of self discovery for the poet.  The process reaches its conclusion in the final stanza when the revelation is revealed to the audience.

            What makes Deor stand out among the other Anglo-Saxon poems is the refrain.  It is one of two poems in the Anglo-Saxon corpus that has a refrain (the other poem that has a refrain is Wulf and Eadwacer).  Many articles have been written on the refrain alone.  Scholars have attempted to figure out what the refrain means.  Literary critics do agree that the “Þæs” indicates the event that was just mentioned and the “þisses” is some unidentified event.  Murray Markland believes that the answer lies in “the indefiniteness or ambiguity of the demonstrative pronouns ‘Þæs’ and ‘þisses’ ” (3).  Therefore, it is up to the audience to determine what “þisses” means.  L. Whitebread writes that it is important to keep in mind that “the second half of the refrain cannot be a wish, but is a statement of probability, expressing future surmount of trouble just as the preterite “ofereode” expressed past” (19).  What he is trying to say is that the “þisses” part of the refrain is not a definite wish, but a probable wish that expresses the future. 

Jerome Mandel also says that “if the þisses of the refrain is supposed to refer to a specific misfortune suffered by a listener similar to the generic misfortune described in the exempla, then the listener can acknowledge his own misfortune more readily once he recognizes it as similar to one that is publicly know and widely understood, the common knowledge of all listeners” (2).  By hearing this refrain six times, the audience can relate their own misfortunes to that of the one just heard. 

The refrain is the glue that holds the poem together.  Renee Trilling says that the refrain “continually brings the reader back to Deor’s present, but also reinforces the ambiguity of the poem’s message” (158).  It can also serve as an enforcer, repeatedly bringing the message home to whoever is reading or hearing the poem performed.  The refrain serves as the moral of the poem; some scholars would go so far and say the refrain is the theme of the poem.  Mandel believes the refrain serves to “state the fundamental truth of existence…Everything passes; everything changes:  nothing endures” (131).

Last, but not least, scholarship on Deor has focused on the legends and stories about the people featured in the poem.  With the exception of the eponymous character and Heorringa, the people featured in the poem are either characters from Germanic legend or history.  Weland the legendary smith, Nithhad and Beaohild are from the Old Norse epic Volundurkviða.  Theodoric and Eormanic are historical figures.

Of all the figures in the poem, the two who have been the most debated are Geat and Maethhild.  Maethild was not a part of German legend and the name itself was not a common English name.  Originally, scholars like Frederick Tupper, Jr. interpret this crux as going back to Beahohild.  Tupper read the original as “mæð Hild” as translated this as “the maiden Hild.”  “Geates” was thought to be another name for Nithhad.  Tupper thus translated lines 15-16 as “Nithhad’s grief at the loss of his sons—the brothers of Beadohild mentioned in the second section” (“On Deor 14-17,” 3).

In 1937, a breakthrough in solving this troubling crux emerged.  Kemp Malone discovered two Scandinavian ballads that he believes might have been brought over from Scandinavia to Anglo-Saxon England that the poet of Deor might have heard and related one of the two stories to his poem.  These are the two stories that Malone published in his 1936 article, “Mæðhilde”:

Norwegian Version—“Gaute og Magnild”

Gaute marries a fair maiden.  Magnild by name.  As the wedding journey is about to begin, Gaute sees his bride in tears.  He asks her why she weeps.  Magnild answers that she laments her approaching death in the Vending River.  Gaute tells her he will build the bridge over the river high and strong, but she replies that one cannot escape one’s fate.  As they ride homeward they see a deer, and everyone, eager to take it, forgets the bride, who, at the bridge, falls into o the water.  Gaute, when he learns that Magnild has not been seen since the company crossed the stream, sends for his harp.  When the harp is brought to him, he plays so strongly that Magnild, with her saddle and her horse, rises to the surface of the stream, in spite of everything that water demon can do.  By the magic power of his harp, Gaute has overcome the evil spirit and saved his bride from death.

Icelandic Version—“Kvæði af Gauta of Magnhildi”

Gauti and Magnhild his wife lie in bed together.  He asks why she mourns.  She answers, she mourns because she is fated to drown in the Skotberg River.  He tells her she shall not drown in the river, because he will make an iron bridge across it.  She replies, “Though thou make it as high as a cloud, none can flee one’s fate.”  After three days of feasting [the wedding feast?], they ride to the river.  Gauti asks his man what has become of Magnhild.  He is told that the bridge fell apart when she reached its middle, and that 50 men fell in but none paid any heed to Magnhild.  Gauti asks for his harp.  When it is brought he hurls it to the floor, so that 12 strings break.  He hurls it again, and five more strings break.  Then he plays upon it until his wife’s body rises from the bottom and comes to land.  He kisses his dead wife, buries her body, and makes new strings for his harp out of her hair.

After these two ballads emerged, scholars and translators have followed Malone’s lead and do not break up Maethild’s name.  However, they still don’t agree on how to deal with Geat.  S.A.J. Bradley and W.S. Mackie in their translations translate it as “the Geat.” 

Like other scholars, I have my interpretation of Deor.  For “be wurman” I decided to translate it as “on account of the snake ring.” According to Robert Cox, “in Volundurkviða, Weland’s troubles are more closely associated with his rings.  The ring he made for Hervor, his valkyrie-wife, is stolen from him by Nithhad’s men.  He is seeking it… when he falls asleep and is captured by Nithhad.  We can infer that he wakes confronted by his captors ‘near’ or ‘in the presence of these rings’ ” (4).  Weland’s misery is based upon those snake rings.  It is because of those rings that he is now in this unhappy state.  The Deor poet probably knew of Weland’s story in the Volundurkviða and decided to include it into his poem.

As for the genre of the poem, I think Deor is a reflection poem, leaning more towards Eliason’s argument.  Deor is reflecting on the miseries suffered by the people in the poem and himself.  He uses the refrain to accept what has happened with the hope that it will pass.  I agree with Boren’s argument about the structure of the poem.  I think the poem is structured like a six-step recovery process with the final step being Deor admitting his misery and starting to get over it.  By talking about the struggles of Weland, Beaohild, Maethhild, Geat, Theodoric, and Eormanic, the poet is trying to cope with the unfortunate circumstance that has befallen on him by relating to the struggles of those six people.

As for the refrain, I interpret it as the moral of the poem, the lesson to be learned.   I agree with Trilling in regards to the refrain serving as an enforcer, repeatedly bringing the message home to whoever is reading the poem.  I also see eye to eye with Mandel about the refrain.  The refrain is similar to that of a maxim in which it states a general truth about life in general.  Nothing lasts forever.  I also like Mandel’s position on how “þisses” should be viewed in the refrain. The “þisses” makes the suffering more relatable to the reader who can recognize his or her own misfortune and relate to what is happening to these people.

As for Maethhild and Geat, I believe that Malone is right.  I believe that the poet must have heard one of those ballads and incorporated one of them into his poem.  He probably related to Maethhild and Geat’s misery and decided to use it in his poem.

The purpose of a translation, for me, is to make the poem easy to understand for the modern reader.  My word choices will be words that appear in every-day language.  I will avoid word choices that are not used often everyday or words that will make a reader have to have a dictionary beside him or her. 

As for the content/technique part of the criteria, my emphasis will be more on capturing the tone and ideas of a poem than trying to preserve the proper Anglo-Saxon grammatical and poetic techniques.  I think understanding the tone and ideas of Anglo-Saxon poems is a good for modern readers.  To me, the tone and content of an Anglo-Saxon poem is easier to relate to than the grammatical and poetic techniques and gets the point across more effectively than the grammatical and poetic techniques.  The tone and content help make the poem more understandable to modern readers; grammatical and poetic techniques might be too complicated for modern readers to understand.

Over the course of my research, I have looked at five translations.  The first translation I looked at is S.A.J Bradley’s.  Overall, his translation is clear and easy to understand.  However, he needs to pick better words.  For “be wurman” he picked the word “trammels.”  His translation read “Weland, by way of the trammels upon him, knew persecution.”  Who uses the word “trammels”?  Nobody.  I translated that line as “Weland, on account of the snake ring, knew misery.”  “On account of the snake ring” is more modern than trammels.  While it might not be the best translation of “be wurman” is one that makes more sense.

S.G. Kossick used W.S. Mackie’s translation for her article to discuss Deor.  This translation is a more literal translation.  While it is easy to understand, it fails meeting my criteria in terms of word choice.  Modern readers would not understand “supple bounds of sinew.”  If Mackie choose “handcuffs” or “chains” instead, the modern reader would be able to comprehend it. 

Judith Kroll’s translation meets most of my criteria.  However, like Mackie, she used “supple sinew-bonds.”  I think she used the phrase to describe the fetters which she also uses in her translation:  “after Lord Nithad had laid him in fetters, put supple sinew-bonds on the better man.”  I don’t know what compelled her to do this.  If she left the “put supple sinew-bonds” part out, she would get an A in my book.

The final two translations I looked at had prefaces.  Lloyd M. Davis translated Deor “to convey the rough strength of the Old English alliterative rhythm and, at the same time, to bring into focus its characteristically cogent images without departing sense of the original” (1).  He accomplished it in three ways:  emphasizing the alliteration, shortening the lines and “preserving the poetic strength of the original by emphasizing a vocabulary of monosyllabic and disyllabic words” (1).  While that’s nice and I completely respect his choices, based on my criteria he gets a D.  Sometimes, his translation comes off shaky and even a little comical.  Consider line 28:

                                    The sorrowful sits severed from joy

                                    Harassed in heart, and hits at himself (3).

When I read “hits at himself’ I laughed.  Does Davis mean “hitting himself” physically?  I don’t think that was his intention, but that is how it came across to me.

Finally, I looked at Megan Richards’ translation.  She, too, has a preface.  She wanted “to convey the Anglo-Saxon language” and “remain true to the OE (Old English) as much as possible.”  She kept the Anglo-Saxon poetic elements and syntax, something I did not do.  Her translation of the poem might be hard for the modern reader to understand.  For example, in the first line she translated that as “Weland to him by a multitude.”  I don’t think a modern reader would understand what is going on.  My translation will be easier to understand than hers.

Unlike the other five translations, my translation will be the easiest to understand.  My translation will not use words that are not used often.  It will be as simple as possible.  The syntax and the grammatical techniques will be absent from the poem.  It will be the easiest translation of Deor ever.


Works Cited

Bradley, S.A.J.  “Deor.”  Anglo-Saxon Poetry.  London:  Orion Publishing Group, 1982.  Print.

Bolton, W. F.  “Boethius, Alfred, and Deor Again.” Modern Philology: A Journal Devoted to Research in Medieval and Modern Literature 69.3 (1972): 222-227.  Print.

Boren, James L.  “The Design of the Old English Deor.”  Anglo-Saxon Poetry: Essays in Appreciation for John C. McGalliard. 264-276. Notre Dame: U of Notre Dame P, 1975.  Print.

Cox, Robert.  “Snake Rings in Deor and Vǫlundarkviða.” Leeds Studies in English 22. (1991): 1-20.  Print.

Davis, Lloyd M.  “Deor: A New Verse Translation.”  West Virginia University Philological Papers 14. (1963):  1-5.  Print.

Eliason, Norman E. “Deor - a Begging Poem?” Medieval Literature and Civilization: Studies in Memory of G. N. Garmonsway. 55-61. London: U of London, Athlone P, 1969.  Print.

Hoffman, Alice S.  “The Story of Volund.”  The Book of the Sagas.  Vaidilute.  Web.  9 Dec. 2010.

Kaske, R. E. “Weland and the Wurmas in Deor.”  English Studies: A Journal of English Language and Literature 44. (1963):  190-191.  Print.

Kossick, Shirley G. “The Old English Deor.” Unisa English Studies: Journal of the Department of English 10.1 (1972): 3-6.  Print.

Kroll, Judith. “Translations from Old English.” Cambridge Quarterly 4. (1969): 70-73.  Print

Malone, Kemp. Deor. London, England: 1933.  Print.

---.  “Mæđhild.” ELH 3.3 (1936): 253-256.  Print.

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---.  “The Tale of Geat and Mæþhild.” English Studies: A Journal of English Language and Literature 19. (1937): 193-199.  Print.

Mandel, Jerome. “Audience Response Strategies in the Opening of Deor.” Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature 15.4 (1982): 127-132.  Print.

---.  “Exemplum and Refrain: The Meaning of Deor.” The Yearbook of English Studies 7. (1977): 1-9.  Print.

Markland, Murray F. “Boethius, Alfred, and Deor.” Modern Philology: A Journal Devoted to Research in Medieval and Modern Literature 66.1 (1968): 1-4.  Print.

---.  “Deor:  þæs ofereode, þisses swa mæg.”  American Notes and Queries 35-36.  Academic Search Complete.  Web.  1 Oct. 2010.

Trilling, Renée R. “Ruins in the Realm of Thoughts: Reading as Constellation in Anglo-Saxon Poetry.” Journal of English and Germanic Philology 108.2 (2009): 141-167.  Print.

Richards, Megan.  “Deor.”  Uncovering Old English Texts.  Susan Oldrieve, 2006.  Web.  24 Sept. 2010.

Tupper, Frederick, Jr. “The Song of Deor.” Modern Philology: Critical and Historical Studise in Literature, Medieval Through Contemporary 9.2 (1911): 265-267.  Print.

“Volundarkvitha:  the Saga of Wayland the Smith.”  Poetic Edda.  Trans.  Henry Adams Bellows.  Lewiston:  Edwin Mellen Press.  Waylands.  Web.  9 Dec. 2010.

Whitebread, L.  “Text-Notes on Deor.” Modern Language Notes 62.1 (1947): 15-20.  Print.


Works Consulted

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Academic Search Complete.  Web.  17 Oct. 2010.

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