Beowulf, Bread and Car Wrecks

Posted November 30th, 2015 by maryanthony and filed in Executive Director's Blog


Detail of the opening words of Beowulf, beginning ‘Hwæt’ (‘Listen!), from Beowulf, England, 4th quarter of the 10th century, Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 132r. – See more at:

“Hwæt! We Gar-Dena in gear-dagum, þeod-cyninga,  þrym gefrunon, hu ða æþelingas  ellenfremedon!”

(traditional translation: “Listen! We have heard of the might of the kings”)

Hwaet! (rhymes with sat) is the first word of Beowulf, written about 1,200 years ago. But Jonathan Brown reports a challenge to its meaning in the Independent (Tuesday 5 November 2013) in his article, “Listen! Beowulf opening line misinterpreted for 200 years”

In graduate school, most of us used a “Listen up” approach to Hwaet.  But Brown reports that since it was first published in 1819 “it has variously been translated as “What ho!”  “Hear me!” “Attend!” “Indeed!” and more recently “So!” by Seamus Heaney in 2000.”

And there shouldn’t be an exclamation point.  Oops.

According to Dr. George Walkden at the University of Manchester (U.K.), the better translation of the opening line is “How we have heard of the might of the kings.” Subtle, but important in the world of Beowulf.

Historical scholarship is hugely fascinating and sheds a light on pieces of the past- Walkden’s scholarship shows us, for instance, that the original listeners probably weren’t unruly. His work and the really fascinating work being done around African American history in this country matter- their scholarship enriches our lives by helping us understand how we came to be the people and civilizations we are today.

But Hwaet! (old school) Let’s go from the 1,200 year-old Beowulf kerfuffle to today.  Five people see a car wreck from different vantage points- various ages, eyesight, experiences.  Ask them what happened five minutes later.  Five different accidents.

So, how do we treat historical scholarship?  If one event can produce a multitude of responses minutes later and a 1,200 year-old text still has a misinterpreted FIRST WORD, then what should we think of history in general?  There are some very big reasons to look at all of documented history with a very cautious eye.

First, it’s history, rarely herstory, kidstory, or enslaved peoplestory.  All of our forebears had stories worth telling; most are forever gone.  Until fairly recently, you had to be able to read, write and be chosen for publication by a small group of outlets to have your story told.  We also should consider that most of written history focuses on wars, politics, major social upheaval, not the story of routine life.  So, we only have a sliver.  It is important, but we should know it will never be whole.

In the field of historic preservation, I often hear that buildings tell a story- told through architecture and placement and the narratives of the lives spent within.  I would respectfully suggest that like car wreck testimonies and Hwaet!, this is where our approach falls apart a bit and leads to what I believe is The Big Question for historic preservation – Are we spending equal time looking forward or are we stuck over analyzing the sliver of the past we have documented?

Once a building is preserved and its story told it is like baked bread.  Done. Preserved in its final format. We can spend earnest hours discussing the subtleties of the preserved history, the Hwaet! of the house, but it would be a true revolution if we in the historic preservation field instead spent fully half of our time looking forward. Unlike an ancient transcript, we have a whole usable building.  In fact, we have hundreds of thousands of buildings in this country that are historic and still very much needed, now.  If we restore and use them thoughtfully and artfully, they will do much for the future- they will keep an incredible amount of wreckage from our landfills, they will contribute to vibrant downtown cultures, economic revitalization, provide needed homes and spaces to create art and, yes, they will still tell a historic story.

So, perhaps we need to stop trying so hard to bake history and begin to employ a sourdough bread starter approach- bake some, but leave some to feed the future. Perhaps we should focus fully half of our historic preservation efforts on historic revitalization, preservation with a future.

In Paterson, NJ, the historic brick Paterson Silk Machinery Exchange building on Spruce Street has been turned into transitional housing for kids “aging” out of foster care. It is a very cool contributing building in a historic area that has recently been named an urban National Park.

“New Jersey Community Development Corporation worked with the New Jersey Department of Children and Families to create William Waldman Independence House, a safe, inviting and inspiring place which provides housing and supportive services for young people in their final years in the foster care system. The residents are supported 24 hours a day by NJCDC staff and receive assistance in building independent living skills and in developing vocational interests. This assistance includes creating Individual Success Plans that measure regular progress in attaining personal goals. During their time at Independence house, the ten residents pursue educational opportunities (high school diploma, GED, college courses, vocational training) as well as regular employment, preparing them to face the world of juggling various responsibilities as adults.”

Hwaet!  Listen up! Yo! Oi! Indeed! What ho! Attend!  The Paterson Silk Machinery Exchange tells an important historic story AND provides a little starter dough for a better future.   Let’s hope that the next 1,200 years give historic preservation and revitalization equal time because maybe one of these Paterson kids will become a dragon slayer.  Maybe he or she will become the most important story ever told by this building. We don’t know, because their stories haven’t been baked yet.