Saturday, September 24, 2011


Grey Foe of the Forest

Storm and Other Old English Riddles, tr. Kevin Crossley-Holland (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1970), p. 24 (no. 5 Crossley-Holland = no. 53):
I saw a tree towering in the wood
in vestments of bright green; the timber grew,
a joyous growth. Both water and earth
provided for it generously, but when it grew old
in times long ago, it was treated most terribly;
sorely wounded, and silent in its chains,
its front was fettered with sombre trappings.
And now with brute force its butting-head
devastates, it opens the direct way
for a malicious enemy. In the mighty storm of battle
they often plunder the treasure hoard together.
Its butt is swift and restless whenever its head
runs the gauntlet for a comrade in distress.
Riddle 53:
Ic seah on bearwe        beam hlifian,
tanum torhtne.        þæt treow wæs on wynne,
wudu weaxende.        Wæter hine ond eorþe
feddan fægre,        oþþæt he frod dagum
on oþrum wearð        aglachade
deope gedolgod,        dumb in bendum,
wriþen ofer wunda,        wonnum hyrstum
foran gefrætwed.        Nu he fæcnum weg
þurh his heafdes mægen        hildegieste
oþrum rymeð.        Oft hy an yste strudon
hord ætgædre;        hræd wæs ond unlæt
se æftera,        gif se ærra fær
genamnan in nearowe        neþan moste.

p. 51 (no. 24 Crossley-Holland = no. 21):
I keep my snout to the ground; I burrow
deep into the earth, and churn it as I go,
guided by the grey foe of the forest
and by my lord, my stooping owner
who steps behind me; he drives me
over the field, supports and pushes me,
broadcasts in my wake. Brought from the wood,
borne on a wagon, then skillfully bound,
I travel onward; I have many scars.
There's green on one flank wherever I go,
on the other my tracks—black, unmistakable.
A sharp weapon, rammed through my spine,
hangs beneath me; another, on my head,
firm and pointing forward, falls on one side
so I can tear the earth with my teeth
if my lord, behind me, serves me rightly.
Riddle 21:
Neb is min niþerweard;        neol ic fere
ond be grunde græfe,        geonge swa me wisað
har holtes feond,        ond hlaford min
woh færeð        weard æt steorte,
wrigaþ on wonge,        wegeð mec ond þyð,
saweþ on swæð min.        Ic snyþige forð,
brungen of bearwe,        bunden cræfte,
wegen on wægne,        hæbbe wundra fela;
me biþ gongendre        grene on healfe
ond min swæð sweotol        sweart on oþre.
Me þurh hrycg wrecen        hongaþ under
an orþoncpil,        oþer on heafde,
fæst ond forðweard.        Fealleþ on sidan
þæt ic toþum tere,        gif me teala þenaþ
hindeweardre,        þæe meaningt biþ hlaford min.

The answer to the first riddle is a battering ram, to the second a plow. Both riddles, from the Exeter Book collection, exhibit some sympathy for felled trees.

A riddle within the second riddle is the meaning of the kenning "har holtes feond" (translated by Crossley-Holland as "grey foe of the forest"). Although the Old English phrase looks foreign, closer inspection lessens the unfamiliarity. From "har" we get modern English "hoar" and "hoary" (grey-haired, greyish-white); "holt" (Old English genitive "holtes") survives unchanged in modern English, with the meaning wood or copse (cf. also German "Holz" = wood); and from "feond" comes modern English "fiend". But opinions differ about the meaning of the phrase as a whole. Some think it describes the grey ox that draws the plow, others the iron from which the plowshare is made, and yet others the grizzled plowman himself. Whatever the meaning, the phrase is a sympathetic recognition of the harm done to woodland by clearing for agriculture.

Hat tip: Ian Jackson.


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