Beacons

The “telegraph” used by the English naval admiralty (located in Whitehall) in the early nineteenth century to communicate with the coast.

The series of beacons in Agamemnon which alerts the watchman back in Argos that Troy has finally been whupped.

The beautiful, wide-spirited scene in Return of the King when the chain of mountaintop beacons is lit from Gondor to Rohan.

I remembered The Dream of the Rood as referring to the rood as something like “beacna beorhtost”, and I meant to write about how the Gondor thing visually enriched that language for me. But as it turns out I remembered the poem wrong — the relevant section goes like

ðuhte me ðæt ic gesawe seldlicre treo
on lyft lædan leohte bewunden,
beama beorhtost. Eall ðæt beacen wæs
begoten mid golde; gimmas stodon
fægere at foldan sceatum, swelce ðær fife wæron
uppe on ðam eaxl-gespanne.

If we translate this in the poetically hampered but etymologically interesting Ezra Pound manner, which has the added benefit of being well adapted to a meagre and time-attenuated understanding of Old English, we get something like

Methought I saw a very seldom-like [i.e. rare] tree
leading aloft, bewound with light,
brightest of beams. All that beacon was
bepoured with gold; gems stood
fair on the fold’s sheet [i.e. the ground], likewise there were
five up on that axle-span. [i.e. shoulder-span]

Well, well, here we are dusting off our old textbooks for show and tell. No apologies, but readers with any aversion to dust, must, mold, foxing etc. are advised not to continue. Tolkien fans might appreciate this section of The Wanderer. It’s an “ubi sunt” passage, which are apparently pretty common in Old English poetry. I think there might be one in Beowulf too? I haven’t read much OE, but the whole vibe of “everything’s going downhill but let’s try to be really strong and noble anyway” certainly pervades most of what I have read, and for sure Tolkien is all over it. Theoden busts out with some shit very similar to this in Return of the King, or was it the Two Towers?

“Hwær com mearh? Hwær com magu? Hwær com maðumgiefa?
Hwær com symbla gesetu? Hwær sindon seledreamas?
Ea-la beorht bune! Ea-la byrnwiga!
Ea-la ðeodnes ðrymm! He seo ðrag gewatt,
genað under nihthelm, swa heo na wære!
Standeð nu on laste leofre duguðe
weall wundrum heah, wyrmlicum fag.
Eorlas fornamon æsca ðryðe,
wæpen wælgifru, wyrd seo mære,
and ðas stanhliðu stormas cnyssa&eth,
hrið hreosende hrusan bindeð
wintres woma, ðonne wann cymeð
nipeð nihtscua, norðan onsendeð
hreo hæglfære, hæleðum on andan.
Eall is eorfoðlic eorðan rice,
onwendeð wyrda gesceaft weorold under heofunum.
Her bið feoh læne, her bið freond læ,
her bið mann læne, her bið mæg læne,
eall ðis eorðan gesteall idel weorðeð

Learning Old English corrupts, and inclines one entirely too much to archaism. People are so in love with kicking it Pound style that it takes some time to find a translation that is readable. I wonder if, say, Italian translations of Latin works have the same problem? Anyways here’s a decent translation of the above, in a style reminiscent of Tolkien’s High Style:


Where has the man gone? Where has the horse gone? whence went the treasure giver?
whence went the banquet places? Where are all the hall revelry(s)
Alas bright cup! Alas mail-clad warrior!
Alas prince’s splendor! How time has passed

darkened under night’s-helm as if it had not been.
Now the stone slope outlasts the footstep of beloved one’s army
wall wondrously high with serpent images inscribed.
Warriors destroyed by the ash-spear troop
weapons greedy for slaughter. Fate, that illustrious one,

and its stone slope with tempests trouble
rapidly falling snow storm the ground binds
winter’s howling then comes darkly
the shadow of night grows dark sends forth from the north
a fierce hailstorm to the warriors’ vexation.

All is full of hardship in this rich earth
fate changes destiny in the world under heaven.
Here is wealth transitory here is friend transitory
here is man transitory here is kinsman transitory
the foundation of all this earth becomes vain

The above is by Rick McDonald, and the full text is here. Mr. McDonald has created an excellent Wanderer page.

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