Sunday, October 11, 2020


Thought, Word, and Deed

Andy Orchard, "Beowulf and Other Battlers: An Introduction to Beowulf," in Richard North and Joe Allard, edd., Beowulf and Other Stories: A New Introduction to Old English, Old Icelandic, and Anglo-Norman Literatures (Harlow: Pearson Longman, 2007), pp. 63-94 (at 75-76):
'Þu eart mægenes strang    ond on mode frod,
wis wordcwida.' (Beowulf, lines 1844–5)

'You are strong in might and wise in mind, clever in speeches.'
This particular combination, often described as the 'thought, word and deed' triad, and probably popularised in Anglo-Saxon England through Irish Christian sources, can be found in a number of places elsewhere in the poem, as for example, where Hrothgar mourns the loss of his companion Æschere, ripped apart by Grendel's mother:
                   'Dead is Æschere,
Yrmenlafes    yldra broþor,
min runwita    ond min rædbora,
eaxlgestealla,    ðonne we on orlege
hafelan weredon,    ðonne hniton feþan,
eoferas cnysedan.' (Beowulf, lines 1324–9)

'Æschere is dead, Yrmenlaf's elder brother, my close confidant and my counsel-giver, my shoulder-companion when in battle we protected our heads as footsoldiers clashed, struck boar-helmets.'
The triad 'close confidant . . . counsel-giver . . . shoulder-companion' (runwita . . . rædbora, eaxlgestealla) evidently alludes to the same 'thought, word, and deed' triad, in precisely the same order.

The interest of the Beowulf poet's evident identification of this triad with worldly and individual heroic endeavour is that it can be traced back to a Christian pattern describing how at Doomsday mankind will be judged for what they have done in 'thought, word and deed', and it became a motif most associated with preaching texts. However, certain Anglo-Saxons writing Latin poetry in the earlier period extend the theme, like the Beowulf poet, to praise individuals for their meritorious lives. So, for example, Bede (who died in 735), says in his poetic account of Saint Cuthbert that 'Cuthbert shines brilliant in mind, in hand, and in mouth, and looks after the flocks entrusted to him with prayers and advice'; later in the same poem he reuses the same theme to connect Cuthbert to the Church Fathers: 'For that man was devoted to God in his mind, and pleasant in his mouth, accustomed to recall the holy deeds of the Fathers, he also introduces quite often those of his own, which triumphs he performed with only a heavenly witness.'
See Patrick Sims-Williams, "Thought, Word and Deed: An Irish Triad," Ériu 29 (1978) 78-111.

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