| The Ruthwell Cross
Continuing on my quest to translate one Old English poem by the start of the next school year I here present lines 10 through 20 of The Dream of the Rood.
Ne wæs ðær hūru fracodes gealga,
ac hine þær behēoldon hālige gāstas,
men ofer moldan ond eall þēos mære gesceaft.
Syllic wæs se sigebēam, ond ic synnum fāh,
forwunded mid wommum. Geseah ic wuldres trēow,
15 wædum geweorðod wynnum scīnan,
gegyred mid golde; gimmas hæfdon
bewrigen weorðlīce wealdendes trēow.
Hwæðre ic þurh þæt gold ongytan meahte
earmra ærgewin, þæt hit ærest ongan
20 swætan on þā swīðran healfe. Eall ic wæs mid sorgum gedrēfed,
Nor was there certainly shameful gallows
but he there beheld holy ones
men over earth and all this glorious creation.
Amazing was victory beam, I sin stained
badly wounded with defects. See I glorious tree
covering honored joy shining
adorned with gold. jewels has
covered splendidly the rulers tree.
nevertheless I through that gold beheld could
destitute former struggle that first was back again
bleeding on the right side. All I was with sorrow troubled,
My Attempt at Poetry
It was certainly not a shameful cross
there, but holy ones, men over earth and all
glorious creations beheld him there.
Amazing was that victorious cross, and I sin-stained,
badly wounded with defects, I saw a glorious tree
honored with coverings, shining joyously
adorned with gold. Jewels had
covered splendidly the Lord’s tree.
Nevertheless, I could behold through that gold
the old battle of the destitute, that
it first began to bleed on the right side
I was all with trouble sorrowed,
It has been 20 years since I sat in Professor O’Shea’s Old English class, so I really can’t say what brought on this sudden desire to revisit some traditional OE poetry. All I can say is that it is April vacation and I find myself with a copy of The Dream of the Rood by (probably) Caedmon and an OE dictionary. The Dream of the Rood is one of the earliest Christian poems in OE and an example of dream poetry. Rood is from the OE word rod ‘pole’, or more specifically ‘crucifix’ and it relates a vision of the writer speaking to the Cross on which Jesus was crucified.
I figured I would try my hand at a literal translation and then work up a more fluid and, well, poetic version. What follows are the first ten lines of the project. The Original OE Hwæt! Ic swefna cyst secgan wylle, hwæt me gemætte to midre nihte, syðþan reordberend reste wunedon! þuhte me þæt ic gesawe syllicre treow on lyft lædan, leohte bewunden, beama beorhtost. Eall þæt beacen wæs begoten mid golde. Gimmas stodon fægere æt foldan sceatum, swylce þær fife wæron uppe on þam eaxlegespanne. Beheoldon þær engel dryhtnes ealle, fægere þurh forðgesceaft. My Literal TranslationListen, my vision best report I will what I dreamed in the midnight Went speech men to their sleeping place to dwell Seems to me then was visible an amazing tree On high bringing forth bright light converting giving light to the wood. All that beacon was surrounded with gold. Gem studded beautifully at its earth edge, while there five were up on that crossing place. Behold there the angel noble fully beautifully through the all through-out. My (extremely amateurish attempt at a) Poetic TranslationLo’ the best vision I will tell, what I dreamed at midnight, After men went to their beds to sleep It seems I saw a wondrous tree On high bring forth glowing light turning the wood to light. The entire beacon was covered in gold. Beautifully gem-studded at its earthen base, while there were five upon the crossbeam. I beheld there the princely angel, beautiful throughout all eternity.
One of the best things about reading online is how easy it is to get lost down one rabbit hole or another. This happened to me the other day when I happened to start browsing through The New Atlantis. After reading about how we need to view athletes in the steroid era, and about how property rights in space could be set up, I stumbled across a four-year-old article by Alan Jacobs on Ian M. Banks, a science fiction author who created an entire series of novels largely based on his world-building skills. But I am not all the way into that rabbit hole yet, because the story I want to write about isn’t one of Banks’ novels, but a short story by Ursula Le Guin which Jacobs references
briefly in his article about Banks. (See what I mean; one thing leads to another, which leads to another, ad infinitum.)
The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas was written by Ms. Le Guin in 1973 and she won a Hugo the following year for her efforts. There is almost no plot to speak of in this short, seven page long story; instead we are presented with a picture of complete and utter happiness, with a caveat. In the story, Omelas is a utopian city where everything is wonderful, except for the city’s one horrifying secret: the good fortune and pleasure of Omelas is possible because of a single unfortunate ten-year-old child who remains in constant misery, locked away in a cellar. He never sees anyone, speaks to anyone and has likely been driven mad because of his torment and isolation. Every citizen of Omelas is shown this child upon reaching maturity. The entire civilization willingly lets one child suffer so that millions can have the perfect life.
Most people from Omelas are brought to tears upon seeing this atrocity, but they eventually accept it and try to live lives worthy of the child’s suffering. Le Guin ends her tale stating that a few individual souls do leave Omelas after seeing the child, but to where, no one knows. The reader is left with the obvious question lingering in his mind: Is one person’s suffering justified if it brings an untold number of people absolute happiness?
At first blush most of us would of course answer in the negative, but upon deeper reflection is this scenario actually that foreign to we who live in the civilized western world? While our situation may not be so black and white as Le Guin’s imagined Omelas, we too are often complicit in prospering on the suffering of others. (Who makes the clothes on our backs, the rugs under our feet, and more and more often, who grows and harvests the food on our tables?)
On the other hand, does the world in some existential sense need suffering? If we were to be transported to some Utopian fantasy land would we really enjoy it? A life without suffering is a lot like a book without conflict- nonexistent. It is an interesting conundrum.
Of course this is what good fiction does. It forces you to analyze your own situation in light of a metaphorical world and take stock of exactly what you believe and how you act on those beliefs.