Dr. George Walkden, of the University of Manchester, claims that the opening line of the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf has been misinterpreted since its first publication in 1815. His claim, based on the position of the word hwæt relative to its verb in 141 other clauses, suggests that the line “Hwæt! We Gar-Dena in gear-dagum, þeod-cyninga, þrym gefrunon, hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon!” should be read as: “How we have heard of the might of the kings” rather than the traditional interpretation: “Listen! We have heard of the might of the kings.”
The difference may seem minor, but Dr. Walkden argues that it completely changes the tone of the poem. Whereas “Listen!” implies that there’s a reason to call an unruly audience to attention, the less exclamatory interpretation implies that the audience is more willing to hear the story. It is unclear whether this latest interpretation will be used in future translations. The original interpretation is more evocative of dark and heavy wooden meeting halls, packed with warrior thegns and long tables of food and drink.
- “Listen! Beowulf opening line misinterpreted for 200 years“, The Independent, 05 Nov 2013