The great whale (miclan hwale)

The whale who pretends to be an island

This passage comes from the Old English poem The Whale (lines 1-31a). You can access the full Old English text hereThe Whale is one of three poems in the Exeter Book that are derived from the Physiologus, the first bestiary (originally composed in Greek, later translated into Latin). The Exeter Book is a codex (book) of Old English poetry. It is dated palaeographically (based on the style of handwriting or script) dated to the second half of the tenth century.

Translation and glossing by Hana Videen. Hover over words to see how they’re pronounced. More about this project here.

Bestiary of Ann Walsh. England. England, 15th century. Copenhagen, Kongelige Bibliotek, Gl. kgl. S. 1633 4º, fol. 59v. [Bestiary.ca]

NuNow with wordumwords, through thought and woðcræftesong-craft, I will tell a tale about fisca cynna kind of fish, the miclan hwalegreat whale.

Seafarers oftoften meet him by accident—he’s called Fastitocalon— frecnedangerous and ferðgrimspirit-grim, he who floats on fyrnstreamaancient streams. His look is like hreofum stanerough stone, the greatest sea-bank crumbling near the water’s edge, clothed in sondbeorgumsand dunes so that seafarers think they are looking at sum ealondsome island.

Bestiary. England, c. 1110-1130. Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS. Laud Misc. 247, fol. 157r. [Luna]

Men moor their heahstefn scipuhigh-prowed ships with oncyrrapumanchor-ropes to the unlondefalse land, the Un-land, settling their sæmearassea-steeds at the water’s endeend and going boldly upon þæt eglondthat islandBiwundenEncircled by the streamecurrent, the ships remain fæstesecure near the shore.

Richard de Fournival’s Bestiaire d’amour. France (Paris), 13th-14th century. Bibliothèque Nationale de France, fr. 1951, fol. 30r. [bestiary.ca]

The werigferðeweary-spirited seafarers, expecting no danger, make camp on þam ealondethat island, lighting a flame and kindling a heahfyrhigh fire. Tired but happy, they are ready for ræsterest.

When the deceit-cræftigcrafty one senses the travellers are fæstesecure upon him, keeping camp, wishing for fair weather, down he plunges—all at once—on the sealtne wægsalt-way. The ocean’s gæstgast goes to grundground with his plunder, delivering scipuships with their drencedrowned to the deaðseledeath-hall.

BL_HarleyMS4751_fol69r
Harley Bestiary. England (Salisbury?), c. 1230-1240. British Library, Harley MS. 4751, fol. 69r. [BL.uK]

4 comments on “The great whale (miclan hwale)Add yours →

  1. This was fantastic! I enjoyed noticing how many common words from OE still are used today. And there are some that I wish still were.

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