Now, we Spear-Danes have long heard
of glorious kings and heroic deeds;
of how Scyld Sceaf·sen seized many
a frightened warrior from the very mead benches
of the foe in many lands. Found abandoned, a lowly orphan,
he awaited his [time of] comfort,
under the skies he grew,
and finally prospered in honour,
even requiring lands beyond the whales' paths to
pay him tribute. That was a goodly king!

Assuming my liberalities with the original grammar are acceptable, is there a better way to translate hron-rade than whales' paths (especially given that this might refer to other creatures than whales) and he þæs frofre gebad than awaited his time of comfort?

My aim is to improve clarity, readability, while respecting the original text. If not a good fit for Stack Exchange, where specifically should I post this?

  • 2
    There is an interesting article on “Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary” by JRR Tolkien en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beowulf:_A_Translation_and_Commentary that is worth reading. Given Tolkien’s huge ability in Old English, this comment it particularly helpful: “ – “[Tolkien complained] in precise academic detail about what he considered mistranslations, such as the popular kenning "whale-road" – he renders it "the sea where the whale rides", to avoid, among other traps, the echo of "railroad".
    – Greybeard
    Jul 30 at 22:52
  • 1
    I think that Tolkien's point about railroad is that it is basic and ordinary and that "whale road" (probably the archetypal "kenning") does not convey to the modern reader what it would have conveyed to the original reader for whom "the sea where the whale rides" is far closer.
    – Greybeard
    Jul 31 at 9:48
  • 1
    @Greybeard - Interesting, I had the same concern... perhaps 'where the whale rides' is sufficient, since sea is then implied. Aug 1 at 21:43
  • 1
    It's not an appositive, not "We Spear-Danes". Spear-Danes (Gar-Dena) is a possessive (genitive plural) as is "theodcyninga". Gloss: We have heard of the glory of the greatest kings of the Spear-Danes in times past...
    – TimR
    Aug 1 at 22:55
  • 1
    We might wonder what the whale is riding.
    – TimR
    Aug 2 at 19:36

1 Answer 1


Is there a better way to translate hronrade?

I think there is. You can go literal with "whale road" (a famous Old English kenning, a figurative trope similar in style to Homer's use of epithets like "wine dark sea") or just use your own metaphor for the sea. But be careful. Translations should bring out the flavor of the original, if possible, and "whale road" certainly does that.

I wonder, though, what was wrong with the Old English "þæt wæs god cyning" (That was a good king)? What purpose does "goodly" serve there, other than to make the Old English sound more like Sir Walter Scott's. This is the one line in the poem that just about anybody can read, and the simple adjective good makes us think more of mead halls than of courtly castles and "days of old when knights were bold."


Now, a word about hwæt. I don't think you capture the nature of that word. "Now, ..." sounds mildly interruptive, but in a conversational, not very robust way. My OE prof in college gave hwæt (OE "what" but richer than that) as a shout for the men in the mead benches to shut up and listen. There are different ideas about this. I suggest reading the page at Medievalists.net, "What is hwæt?" There are links there for further reading. Quite a range of interpretations, I must say, but worth considering before you plant what may be the most important single short word in the whole poem.

  • I was thinking of perhaps 'where the whale rides', since I think that's clearer to my intended audience . þæt wæs god cyning makes sense to me if I come at this from a Germanic or Norse mindset but to my sensibilities from modern English, it sounds a little unnatural, blunt or short. Possibly 'He was a good king' or something with the idea 'that's what a good king is'... or even 'that's a good king'. Thanks for the hwæt link. On a well-mannered basis, I could perhaps write: What we Spear-Danes have long heard of is glorious kings and heroic deeds... Aug 1 at 22:13

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