How to get the gods to shut up, or, “Hwaet do I do with a first stanza?”

An exhausting week, last week.  But, reader, I return.

Now that the translation project is back underway, I thought it might be interesting to give a glance at a couple of the issues that went into revising the first stanza.  I’ll discuss a few points, then give you my new version at the end, along with a couple of other folks’s for comparison.

Here it is in the original, in case you were curious:

Hljóðs bið ek allar  helgar kindir,

meiri ok minni, mögu Heimdallar.

Vildu at ek, Valföðr, vel fyr telja

forn spjöll fira, þau er fremst um man.

With my very literal translation, so’s we’re all on the same page:

Hearing ask I all  holy beings

Greater and lesser  sons of Heimdall

Wish you, Father of the Slain, that I  well narrate

Old-tales of men,  those which from furthest back I recall.

Actually, the biggest issue was simply deciding to make it the first stanza.  Originally, I followed Auden & Taylor’s re-ordering of the stanzas, which pushed this one back a bit, their idea being that it’s a little in medias res to open with the witch speaking without having been introduced.

Upon further reflection and research, that seems unnecessarily idiosyncratic, so I’m going back to the consensus pick that this is the opener.  It’s likely we’ll open the book with a few wordless pages showing Odin riding his six-legged horse along with his retinue down to Hel and coaxing/wheedling/dragging this witch back from beyond the grave, so the framing should be a little clearer.

Okay, second point.  If I go with this order of stanzas, the very first word in the poem means “attention,” essentially, although it’s being directed at the  Aesir, not the reader.  It’s diegetic, if you will (it took me quite a while to recall that word, so I’m using it).  Still, my mind was drawn back to the famous opening word of Beowulf, that Hwæt, that throatclearer that does nothing more than say HEY LISTEN UP A POEM’S A-COMIN’! It’s different in that it doesn’t have a role within the syntax of the line the way that Hljóðs does, but I thought I might be able to borrow the principle, to play the witch’s part for a moment and grab my reader just as she clutches at her crowd.


I advise starting all conversations this way. "Hwaet's up, y'all?" "Hwaet's for dinner?" "Hwaet are you doing with that turnip?"

Finally, let’s look at those old tales of men.  In my original translation, “lore” was the go-to concept here, and it’s a good word for it.  It’s easy to overuse it, however, in a poem that’s all about recalling the past and telling the future.  In looking it up in the OED Online, however, I came across this miniature narrative:

In the Gentl. Mag. for June, 1830, p. 503, a correspondent suggested that Eng. compounds of lore should be substituted for the names of sciences in -ology: e.g. birdlore for ornithology, earthlore for geology, starlore for astronomy, etc. The suggestion was never adopted, though some few words out of the long list of those proposed are occasionally used, not as names of sciences, but in the sense above explained. In German, several compounds of the equivalent lehre are in regular use as names of sciences or departments of study: e.g. sprachlehre (= speech-lore) grammar.

What an Outstanding Idea, correspondent!  For my purposes, anyhow; I don’t think we need to go tearing down the facades of the local university.  But a tall order: what sort of word would sum up all of Norse cosmology/mythology in a couple of syllables?

I came up with a couple.  Worldslore is interesting, I think, because the Norse concept of the Nine Worlds is unique enough, and hopefully well-known enough, to make it identifiable while also being an interesting, appropriate coinage not unlike BSG‘s godsdammit.  Reminds you what universe you’re in.

But even better is Treelore (always capitalized, y’know, to keep it distinguished from botany ‘n’ such).  Yggdrasill, the World-Tree, stands at the center of the Norse universe.  It’s a returning image throughout the poem, and its status is something of a barometer for how things are otherwise.  This association of the Tree with everything else in the Norseverse would be easy to bolster through the book’s artwork as well, so that it wouldn’t be lost on anyone.

So, here’s my old version.  It’s not very impressive, honestly.  It’s dull, and the alliteration is all jacked up and shoddy.  Definitely an unworthy opening stanza.

Heed I ask  of all you Aesir,

Of Heimdall’s bloodline  one and all;

Warfather Odin  would have me weave

The lore of men  I learned long ago.

And born anew (stressed syllables bolded)!!

Hear me!  Heed me!   Holy ones,

Heimdall’s brood in blood and bone

Odin Warfather   wills me weave

the Treelore, the tidings,   taught me long hence.

Just so you have something to compare it to (Hollander):

Hear me, all ye   hallowed beings,

both high and low  of Heimdall’s children:

thou wilt, Valfather,  that I well set forth

the fates of the world  which as first I recall.

And for something a little more poetical (Auden & Taylor):

Silence I ask  of the sacred folk,

Silence of the kith and kin of Heimdal:

At your will, Valfather,  I shall well relate

The old songs of men  I remember best.

So?  What do you think?  An auspicious beginning?  Shall we consult the entrails?



  1. ihatedanger said,

    November 3, 2009 at 11:02 pm

    Very nice, sir.

  2. November 3, 2009 at 11:03 pm

    Thank you, miss.

  3. mordicai said,

    November 4, 2009 at 7:11 am

    I gotta say, I’m maybe a sucker for literal poetics? Hwaet I’d maybe wrangle into a “Lo!” or “O!” or something that serves the similar purpose.

    Treelore…Runelore? No, I like Worldlore better, I think…Treelore just doesn’t quite do it for me. Worldtreelore is too clunky, too…

    Have we talked about Christopher Louge’s “War Music”?

    • November 4, 2009 at 10:41 am

      When you say literal, how do you mean it? The witch doesn’t literally say O; that’d be my extrapolation. But it would be following a convention. I do love saying O, for what it’s worth.

      There are a couple of other reasons I prefer “Treelore,” at least in this spot. The very next stanza is actually all about Yggdrasill, so it follows nicely. And there’s also a later stanza in which Man & Woman are created from driftwood. “Man” and “tree” share a word in Old Norse, so in a way, Treelore is also the history of Mankind.

      That said, I’m very likely going to use “Worldslore” in a later bit. Like I said, it comes up a lot.

      Runelore would probably be very specifically the study of magic, since Odin gets the runes after hanging himself from Yggdrasill and thereby increases his spellbook, as it were.

      • mordicai said,

        November 4, 2009 at 1:03 pm

        Yeah, literal isn’t what I meant at all– uh.

        Maybe you should be really hodge-podge– just translate Hweat by ending the stanza with “Selah!”

        Anyhow, I really enjoy this series of posts.

        Man, you should come play in my campaign.

  4. November 4, 2009 at 10:44 am

    Also, for those who might be curious, “Hwaet” is rendered a few different ways by translators. I have Heaney & Chickering (the books, not the folks) in my office: Chickering says “Listen!” while sullen Heaney goes with “So.”

    Check it:

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