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The Whale
English
Old English
Manuscript

Nú ic fitte gén ymb fisca cynn
Nú ic fitte gén ymb fisca cynn
This time I will with poetic art rehearse,
wille wóðcræfte wordum cýþan
wille wóðcræfte wordum cýþan
by means of words and wit, a poem
þurh módgemynd, bi þám miclan hwale.
þurh módgemynd, bi þám miclan hwale.
about a kind of fish, the great seamonster
Sé bið unwillum oft geméted,
Sé bið unwillum oft geméted,
which is often unwillingly met,
frécne and fer[h]ðgrim, fareðlácendum,
frécne and fer[h]ðgrim, fareðlácendum,
terrible and cruel-hearted to seafarers
niþþa gehwylcum; þám is noma cenned,
niþþa gehwylcum; þám is noma cenned,
yea, to every man; this swimmer
fyr[ge]nstréama geflotan, Fastitocalon.
fyr[ge]nstréama geflotan, Fastitocalon.
of the ocean-streams is known as Fastitocalon.



Is þæs híw gelíc hréofum stáne,
Is þæs híw gelíc hréofum stáne,
His appearance is like that of a rough boulder,
swylce wórie bi wædes ófre,
swylce wórie bi wædes ófre,
as if there were tossing by the shore
sondbeorgum ymbseald, sǽrýrica mǽst,
sondbeorgum ymbseald, sǽrýrica mǽst,
a great ocean-reedbank begirt with sand-dunes,
swá þæt wénaþ wǽglíþende
swá þæt wénaþ wǽglíþende
so that seamen imagine
þæt hý on éalond sum éagum wlíten;
þæt hý on éalond sum éagum wlíten;
they are gazing upon an island,
and þonne gehýd[i]að héahstefn scipu
and þonne gehýd[i]að héahstefn scipu
and moor their high-prowed
tó þám unlonde oncyrrápum,
tó þám unlonde oncyrrápum,
ships with cables to that false land,
s[ǽ]laþ sǽméaras sundes æt ende,
s[ǽ]laþ sǽméaras sundes æt ende,
make fast the ocean-coursers at the sea’s end,
and þonne in þæt églond úp gewítað
and þonne in þæt églond úp gewítað
and, bold of heart, climb up
collenfer[h]þe; céolas stondað
collenfer[h]þe; céolas stondað
on that island; the vessels stand
bi staþe fæste stréame biwunden.
bi staþe fæste stréame biwunden.
by the beach, enringed by the flood.
Ðonne gewíciað wérigfer[h]ðe,
Ðonne gewíciað wérigfer[h]ðe,
The weary-hearted sailors then
faroðlácende, frécnes ne wénað.
faroðlácende, frécnes ne wénað.
encamp, dreaming not of peril.
On þám éalonde ǽled weccað,
On þám éalonde ǽled weccað,
On the island they start a fire,
héah fýr ǽlað. Hæleþ béoþ on wynnum,
héah fýr ǽlað. Hæleþ béoþ on wynnum,
kindle a mounting flame. The dispirited heroes,
réonigmóde, ræste gel[y]ste.
réonigmóde, ræste gel[y]ste.
eager for repose, are flushed with joy.
Þonne geféleð fácnes cræftig
Þonne geféleð fácnes cræftig
Now when the cunning plotter
þæt him þá férend on fæste wuniaþ,
þæt him þá férend on fæste wuniaþ,
feels that the seamen are firmly established upon him,
wíc weardiað, wedres on luste,
wíc weardiað, wedres on luste,
and have settled down to enjoy the weather,
ðonne semninga on sealtne wǽg
ðonne semninga on sealtne wǽg
the guest of ocean sinks without warning
mid þá nóþe niþer gewíteþ,
mid þá nóþe niþer gewíteþ,
into the salt wave with his prey (?),
gársecges gæst, grund geséceð,
gársecges gæst, grund geséceð,
and makes for the bottom,
and þonne in déaðsele drence bifæsteð
and þonne in déaðsele drence bifæsteð
thus whelming ships and men
scipu mid scealcum.
scipu mid scealcum.
in that abode of death.



     Swá bið scinn[en]a þéaw,
     Swá bið scinn[en]a þéaw,
     Such is the way of demons,
déofla wíse, þæt hí droht[i]ende
déofla wíse, þæt hí droht[i]ende
the wont of devils: they spend their lives
þurh dyrne meaht duguðe beswícað,
þurh dyrne meaht duguðe beswícað,
in outwitting men by their secret power,
and on teosu tyhtaþ tilra dǽda,
and on teosu tyhtaþ tilra dǽda,
inciting them to the corruption of good deeds,
wémað on willan, þæt hý wraþe sécen,
wémað on willan, þæt hý wraþe sécen,
misguiding them at will so that they seek help
frófre tó féondum, oþþæt hý fæste ðǽr
frófre tó féondum, oþþæt hý fæste ðǽr
and support from fiends, until they end
æt þám wǽrlogan wíc gecéosað.
æt þám wǽrlogan wíc gecéosað.
by making their fixed abode with the betrayer.
Þonne þæt gecnáweð of cwicsúsle
Þonne þæt gecnáweð of cwicsúsle
When, from out his living torture,
fláh féond gemáh, þætte fíra gehwylc
fláh féond gemáh, þætte fíra gehwylc
the crafty, malicious enemy perceives that any one
hæleþa cynnes on his hringe biþ
hæleþa cynnes on his hringe biþ
is firmly settled within his domain,
fæste geféged, hé him feorgbona,
fæste geféged, hé him feorgbona,
he proceeds, by his malignant wiles,
þurh slíþen searo, siþþan weorþeð,
þurh slíþen searo, siþþan weorþeð,
to become the slayer of that man
wloncum and héanum þe his willan hér
wloncum and héanum þe his willan hér
be he rich or poor, who sinfully does his will;
firenum fremmað; mid þám hé fǽringa,
firenum fremmað; mid þám hé fǽringa,
and, covered by his cap of darkness,
heoloþhelme biþeaht, helle séceð,
heoloþhelme biþeaht, helle séceð,
suddenly betakes himself with them to hell,
góda géasne, grundléasne wylm
góda géasne, grundléasne wylm
where naught of good is found, a bottomless abyss
under mistglóme, swá se micla hwæl
under mistglóme, swá se micla hwæl
shrouded in misty gloom—like that monster
se þe bisenceð sǽlíþende
se þe bisenceð sǽlíþende
which engulfs the ocean-traversing
eorlas and ýðméaras.
eorlas and ýðméaras.
men and ships.



     Hé hafað óþre gecynd,
     Hé hafað óþre gecynd,
     This proud tosser of the waves
wæterþisa wlonc, wrǽtlícran gíen.
wæterþisa wlonc, wrǽtlícran gíen.
has another and still more wonderful trait.
Þonne hine on holme hunger bysgað,
Þonne hine on holme hunger bysgað,
When hunger plagues him on the deep,
and þone áglǽcan ǽtes lysteþ,
and þone áglǽcan ǽtes lysteþ,
and the monster longs for food,
ðonne se mereweard múð ontýneð,
ðonne se mereweard múð ontýneð,
this haunter of the sea opens his mouth,
wíde weleras; cymeð wynsum stenc
wíde weleras; cymeð wynsum stenc
and sets his lips agape; whereupon there issues
of his innoþe, þætte óþre þurh þone,
of his innoþe, þætte óþre þurh þone,
a ravishing perfume from his inwards,
sǽfisca cynn, beswicen weorðaþ.
sǽfisca cynn, beswicen weorðaþ.
by which other kinds of fish are beguiled.
Swimmað sundhwate þǽr se swéta stenc
Swimmað sundhwate þǽr se swéta stenc
With lively motions they swim to where
út gewít[e]ð. Hí þǽr in farað,
út gewít[e]ð. Hí þǽr in farað,
the sweet odor comes forth, and there enter in,
unware weorude, oþþæt se wída ceafl
unware weorude, oþþæt se wída ceafl
a heedless host, until the wide gorge
gefylled bið; þonne fǽringa
gefylled bið; þonne fǽringa
is full; then, in one instant,
ymbe þá herehúþe hlemmeð tógædre
ymbe þá herehúþe hlemmeð tógædre
he snaps his fierce jaws together
grimme góman.
grimme góman.
about the swarming prey.



     Swá biþ gumena gehwám
     Swá biþ gumena gehwám
     Thus it is with any one
se þe oftost his unwærlíce,
se þe oftost his unwærlíce,
who, in this fleeting time,
on þás lǽnan tíd, líf biscéawað:
on þás lǽnan tíd, líf biscéawað:
full oft neglects to take heed to his life,
lǽteð hine beswícan þurh swétne stenc,
lǽteð hine beswícan þurh swétne stenc,
and allows himself to be enticed by sweet fragrance,
léasne willan, þæt hé biþ leahtrum fáh
léasne willan, þæt hé biþ leahtrum fáh
a lying lure, so that he becomes hostile to the King of glory
wið Wuldorcyning. Him se áwyrgda ongéan
wið Wuldorcyning. Him se áwyrgda ongéan
by reason of his sins. The accursed one will,
æfter hinsíþe helle ontýneð,
æfter hinsíþe helle ontýneð,
when they die, throw wide the doors of hell to those who,
þám þe léaslíce líces wynne
þám þe léaslíce líces wynne
in their folly, have wrought the treacherous delights of the body,
ofer ferh[ð]gereaht fremedon on unrǽd.
ofer ferh[ð]gereaht fremedon on unrǽd.
contrary to the wise guidance of the soul.
Þonne se fǽcna in þám fæstenne
Þonne se fǽcna in þám fæstenne
When the deceiver, skilful in wrongdoing,
gebróht hafað, bealwes cræftig,
gebróht hafað, bealwes cræftig,
hath brought into that fastness,
æt þám [á]dwylme, þá þe him on cleofiað,
æt þám [á]dwylme, þá þe him on cleofiað,
the lake of fire, those that cleave to him
gyltum gehrodene, and ǽr georne his
gyltum gehrodene, and ǽr georne his
and are laden with guilt, such as had eagerly
in hira lífdagum lárum hýrdon,
in hira lífdagum lárum hýrdon,
followed his teachings in the days of their life,
þonne he þá grimman góman bihlemmeð,
þonne he þá grimman góman bihlemmeð,
he then, after their death,
æfter feorhcwale, fæste tógædre,
æfter feorhcwale, fæste tógædre,
snaps tight together his fierce jaws,
helle hlinduru. Nágon hwyrft né swice,
helle hlinduru. Nágon hwyrft né swice,
the gates of hell. They who enter there
útsíþ ǽfre, þá [þe] þǽr in cumað,
útsíþ ǽfre, þá [þe] þǽr in cumað,
have neither relief nor escape, no means of flight,
þon má þe þá fiscas, faraðlácende,
þon má þe þá fiscas, faraðlácende,
any more than the fishes that swim the sea
of þæs hwæles fenge hweorfan mótan.
of þæs hwæles fenge hweorfan mótan.
can escape from the clutch of the monster.



Forþon is eallinga . . . . . . . . . . .
Forþon is eallinga . . . . . . . . . . .
Therefore is it by all means. . . . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
dryhtna Dryhtne, and á déoflum wiðsace
dryhtna Dryhtne, and á déoflum wiðsace
the Lord of lords, and strive against devils
wordum and weorcum, þæt wé Wuldorcyning
wordum and weorcum, þæt wé Wuldorcyning
with words and works, that so we may come
geséon móton. Uton á sibbe tó him,
geséon móton. Uton á sibbe tó him,
to behold the King of glory. Let us ever,
on þás hwílnan tíd, hǽlu sécan,
on þás hwílnan tíd, hǽlu sécan,
now in this fleeting time, seek from him grace and salvation,
þæt wé mid swá léofne in lofe mótan
þæt wé mid swá léofne in lofe mótan
that so with the Beloved we may in worship
tó wídan feore wuldres néotan.
tó wídan feore wuldres néotan.
enjoy the bliss of heaven for evermore.

Commentary
The Whale is one of three poems in the Exeter Book, an important collection of Anglo-Saxon poetry from the 10th century, with a subject from the Physiologus. The Physiologus (from Ancient Greek Ὁ Φυσιολόγος “The Naturalist”) is an ancient treaty of natural history written in Greek in Alexandria by an unknown Christian author, in which he briefly describes a variety of real or imaginary creatures and their special behaviour, and then elaborates for each of them a moral allegory. It is a forerunner and one of the main sources of mediæval bestiaries. Its date is a difficult and much debated issue: many scholars ascribe it to the 2nd century A.D. but some others put forward a later date in the 3rd or the 4th century. The Physiologus became immensely popular and was translated in ancient times into Old Armenian, Syriac, Geʻez (the classical language of Ethiopia) and Latin. Its influence endured during the entire Middle Ages (notably in symbolism) and widened with later translations into Arabic, Georgian, and many European languages (often from the Latin version). The three poems of the Exeter Book are most likely the surviving remnants of an Old English version.

The whale that the poem allegorically relates to the Devil is actually a legendary sea monster known under the Greek name Aspidochelone (ἀσπιδοχελώνη), which is a compound word literally meaning “asp turtle” or “shield turtle”, the ambiguity being due to the double meaning of its first element ἀσπίς. Fastitocalon must be a corruption of it with a fancy F, which seems to have been added initially mostly to provide the poet with the correct alliteration required by the Old English meter where the name appears. This poet remains unknown, although the name of Cynewulf has sometimes been brought up in the past based upon stylistic considerations.

J. R. R. Tolkien drew from it the inspiration of his own poem Fastitocalon included in The Adventures of Tom Bombadil. He uses the same imagery; however, since the poem is supposed to belong to the Hobbit tradition, the Christian allegory is naturally lacking and the tone is considerably lighter.

We have used Abert S. Cook’s edition and prose translation, with macrons replaced by acute to mark long vowels and diphthongs. A missing gap in the original text is shown by a series of dots.

The text’s transcription emulates the Insular script, a style of the Latin alphabet of Irish origin, used in most Old English manuscripts. We made use of Peter S. Baker’s typeface Beowulf1.

References
The Old English Physiologus. Text and prose translation by Albert Stanburrough Cook, verse translation by James Hall Pitman. New Haven (Connecticut): Yale University Press, London: Humphrey Milford Oxford University Press, 1921. (Yale Studies in English; 63). 🌍 Project Gutenberg.

The works of John Ronald Reuel and Christopher Tolkien are under the copyright of their authors and/or rights holders, including their publishers and the Tolkien Estate.
Quotations from other authors, editors and translators mentioned in the bibliography are under the copyright of their publishers, except for those whose copyright term has ended.
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