A mysterious poem, where a big part of the translation depends on how you interpret it. We know that the speaker of the poem is a “she”, because grammatical forms in Old English she uses are feminine. Her husband left and her husband’s relatives feel enmity towards her. She now lives in an earth cave beneath the roots of an old oak tree. We do not know exactly why her husband left the country – she says “I must suffer the feud of my beloved”, but we don’t know whether that means she must suffer the consequences of the feud her husband is embroiled in or whether the feud is the enmity he feels towards her, perhaps instigated by her family. She could be like the ladies from Beowulf, a peace-weaver, the wife given away to settle the feud and like in their case, the marriage didn’t work out or help to end the feud. She still misses her husband and imagines he misses her too. The poem, similarly to The Wanderer, ends with advice to keep “a glad countenance” even if your heart is full of sorrow.
This is the poem made famous by its inclusion in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings – several motifs are used both in the book and the movie, of which the best-known one is this speech, loosely inspired by a part of The Wanderer:
The poem is the complaint of the warrior who lost everything: his king, his comrades, his mead-hall and his family. He is like a ronin, if you excuse a comparison from a different culture – an outcast, without a lord, roaming the world in search of a new one. The lack of a liege-lord is something we perhaps cannot very easily relate to in our individualistic culture (think of the cliche “I want to be my own boss”), but in Germanic culture it meant not only economic deprivation but also the status of a social outcast. The Wanderer complains that he has nobody to turn for advice to and he has to keep his feelings hidden “in his heart’s coffer”. The need to keep one’s emotions to oneself (a harbinger of the famous “stiff upper lip”?) is emphasized several time throughout the poem.
The warrior sails through a cold winter sea, sees the ruins left by “giants” (perhaps Roman ruins) and they give him the only comfort he has – all things must pass and everything eventually falls into decay. Cold comfort indeed. This is an old trope, referred to in literary studies by its Latin name “ubi sunt?”, meaning literally “where are they?” We can see it recurring throughout the medieval literature, most notably several centuries later in Francois Villon’s “Ballade des dames du temps jadis”.
King Alfred, he of the burnt cakes fame, is the author of the first text in a long time that is not concerned with killing one’s enemies but with educating oneself and translating, both things close to my heart. Alfred is one of my favourite kings: not only did he successfully fight off the Vikings, but also, seeing that the condition of education in England was in a sorry state after the decades of Viking invasions, decided to start with himself and learnt Latin in order to produce translations of various key works of early Middle Ages. The editors of the NAEL take a measured approach, as historians usually do, writing that we cannot be really sure if all the translations ascribed to Alfred are really his work, but I choose to believe they are, because I just like and respect this guy.
The text in the NAEL is his preface to one of his earliest translations, a clergyman’s handbook titled Pastoral Care by the pope Gregory the Great. In this preface Alfred explains his motivation: education in England is in decay and it’s not only the Vikings that are to blame. He remembers from his youth churches full of books that nobody was able to read because there were so few people able to read Latin. He at the beginning thought it was a shame they had not been translated, but then reinterpreted it as a kind of reproach from the earlier generations: they simply didn’t imagine that their descendants will become so careless as to forget all the Latin.
People of Bethulia attack the Assyrians. They in turn lose precious time standing around Holofernes’s tent, because they all expect that Judith is still in bed with him. This is again a departure from the biblical text, where it is just his eunuch servant who was sent to wake him up and who stood outside clapping his hands. The warriors start by humming and hawing, then escalate to louder cries of warning until the boldest one makes his way inside the tent and sees the dreadful sight. The israelites decimate the Assyrians, bringing bountiful loots and they give Judith Holofernes’s helmet, sword and mail-coat, apart from his personal riches. in the Bible, she gets only his precious jewellery, garments and household stuff. This is an interesting departure: in practical terms, I don’t think Judith had much use for a “gory helmet”, but it puts her on a par with the other warriors, I guess. So the OE author feels that the helmet and sword of the man she has slain are her due.
On a side note, when I was running today I was listening to the BBC Proms Show about Wilfred Owen, because it’s the anniversary of WWI and so on, and it made me think – when did poets stop thinking that war is such a cool thing? Obviously, humankind in general hasn’t stopped believing so (If you don’t believe me, turn on the evening news), but is WWI the first war that produced anti-war poetry? Because somehow I cannot imagine any OE poet composing a poem in the vein of “why can’t we get all together along in peace”.
Judith returns to Bethulia with the head of Holofernes in her servants bag. She shows the head to the gathered people and encourages them to attack the Assyrians first thing in the morning, which they do with much success. I don’t have much to say here, apart from the fact that Judith’s servant has “pale complexion”, the detail not mentioned in the Bible AFAIK. The battle is described in terms similar to the ones described in OE literature, with the animals: the wolf, eagle, raven waiting to feed on the corpses. I’m not sure if there were any wolves in ancient Middle East, but certainly it helped to make the experience more relatable to the English audience, to refer them to the poetic conventions they knew.
The story follows the biblical narrative: Holofernes gets drunk and invites (well, commands) Judith to come to his tent. She obeys but fortunately for her Holofernes passes out. She prays to God to give her strength and then beheads him with two strokes of the sword. I don’t have much interesting to say about it, except two things: Judith is referred to in this part of the poem as “maiden”. I suppose the translator had good grounds for it, so it’s interesting because Judith was a widow. (Although isn’t there Jewish folk tradition claiming that her husband was impotent, so she died a virgin? I’m not sure if it’s true or whether I’ve just invented it.) And the Old English poet skips the detail that during the feast Judith ate and drank only what her servant prepared to her, to avoid ritual defilement – a detail very important for Jewish readers, but would be probably lost on English ones, so I guess that’s the reason why. Oh, and one more thing, but it’s really the observation of the editors, not mine – Holofernes’s rich mosquito net, mentioned in the Bible, has one more important detail added by the English poet, that is he can see from the inside out, but people standing outside cannot peep in, which will prove to play a crucial role later.
The editors of the NAEL treat Judith as a loose translation from the Old Testament but I’d rather approach it as an “imitation” in the sense the word was used by Romantic poets – the original theme is described by the poet not only in her own language, but in her own words. So it is more of a paraphrase, pretty much what you do when you recap a TV episode, or when you retell a text, like I am doing right now.
The text was damaged and the beginning is missing, but it gives a rather good effect, like beginning “in medias res”. If you don’t know the story of Judith, the editors of the NAEL helpfully provide the outline to you, so it’s not a problem. King Nebuchadnezzar is conducting his invasion of Media (no, not the Media. Media as in the kingdom of Medes) and destroying all the smaller towns that stand in his way. Bethulia, an Israeli town is about to surrender, but a beautiful widow Judith intervenes, telling the leaders to resist a few days more and sets off to Holofernes’ camp, telling him that she wants to join his army and help him win the city. The moment when the poem opens, Judith has been already four days in the camp and she is praying to God to strengthen her. Holofernes throws a big party during which everybody drinks himself legless, Holofernes included.
(Spoiler alert, although honestly, if you are afraid of spoilers about the story that is thousands of years old, then in the words of Ferris Bueller, “I weep for the future”)