Saturday, February 22, 2014

Anglo-Saxon Saturdays: Weox Under Wolcnum

Last time, I wrote about one way in which the Anglo-Saxon conception of the world is different from ours in Modern America. This week, I'd like to share another, and this one is also illustrated with the help of a phrase from the proem to Beowulf:

Weox under wolcnum

(way-ox oon-der wohlk-num)

This phrase is the first half of line 8 in Beowulf and refers to the legendary king, Scyld Scefing, as he grew into a man. Weox under wolcnum translates to "waxed under welkin" or with more familiar vocabulary, "grew under the heavens." The poet chose the word "wolcnum" to fit the alliteration* but the concept, not the particular word, is what is important here. The idea is that Scyld grew up under the protection of the heavens, under the safety of the skies. This is a sort of verbal fencing-in, giving the impression of a sheep fold or fenced pasture that was a safe and happy place in which to grow up.

The Anglo-Saxons were an agoraphobic people. They saw rules and boundaries and a roof over the head as safe and protective. This plays into how community-oriented the Anglo-Saxon culture was as well. They were closely tied with their local communities and the idea of leaving those ties was terrifying (as I will expand upon in the next Anglo-Saxon Saturdays post, wulfes heafod). The happiest scenes in Anglo-Saxon literature fall under the theme of "joys of the hall" or the eating and drinking and singing and boasting and general merriment that went on in the safety of an Anglo-Saxon mead-hall.

When Grendel comes to attack Heorot in Beowulf, he comes from the wilderness, from the fens. This is where monsters and dragons dwell and you don't have the protection of your fences or home or your fighting companions anymore. The laws of man and common decency do not apply there, and the wild is a dangerous place where the weather, the landscape, and the animals seem to conspire together for your destruction.

This is the exact opposite of how most modern Americans feel. Our culture is claustrophobic. We tend to see boundaries and walls as confining, as something to be challenged. We tend to see wide open spaces as places of freedom and adventure, where anything is possible (think of the genre of American Westerns). But this is exactly what scared Anglo-Saxons about open spaces: if anything can happen, then anything can go wrong.

*Alliteration is a convention of Anglo-Saxon poetry; rather than rhyme, in which words sound alike at the end (i.e. - walker, knocker, sock her), when words alliterate, they sound alike at the beginning (i.e. - Will would wish to wail?).

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