If I were asked to rank the four languages that I studied for my degree as part of the Cambridge Anglo-Saxon Tripos – Old English, Old Norse, Old Irish and Old Welsh – according to the literary merit/interest of what survives in them, then Old Norse would come in a clear winner with Old English, I am sorry to say, limping in a somewhat distant fourth; this may, of course, simply be a reflection of how much of our native heritage has been lost. True, we have ‘Beowulf’, and ‘Beowulf’ has its moments, but not enough of them to sustain a poem of over 3000 lines, and if it was really ever meant for recitation then I like to think of some small Anglo-Saxon child, allowed to stay up late in the mead-hall, tugging at his father’s sleeve saying ‘Dad, when do we get to the bit with the monsters?’.
Still, there are other things in Old English besides ‘Beowulf’, and one of them is this rather beautiful riddle from the Exeter Book, to which the answer is generally assumed to be ‘Swan’. The slightly free translation that follows is my own.
Hrægl min swigað þōn ic hrusan trede
oþþe þa wic buge oþþe wado drefe
hwilum mec ahebbað ofer hæleþa byht
hyrste mine þeos hea lyft
mec þōn wide wolcna strengu
ofer folc byreð frætwe mine
swogað hlude swinsiað
torhte singað þōn ic getenge ne beom
flode ond foldan ferende gæst
My garb is silent when I go on earth
Where men abide, or when I stir the stream.
Sometimes, though, I harness the high air,
Men’s dwellings dwindle as I mount above
Borne on the mighty sky. What music then
My rustling raiment makes, what melodies
It sings in splendour as I soar aloft,
A faring spirit far from field and flood.