I saw a web of stories; murky, hard to conceive as a whole, but likely once the main contents of the gleeman’s bag. And I wanted to illuminate that web, cut it down to size, produce a tool that might allow me to see at a glance a system of tales too sprawling to hold in my mind without a little help: the Widsith Project. The Widsith project takes its name from an Old English poem about a fictional poet who claimed to travel to the edges of his world. By way of illustrating his far-reaching knowledge, he alludes to many stories we know from the ancient Germanic world. These tales include references to most of the named figures in Old English poetry, the heroic tales of the Norse Eddas and the later written continental romances of Germany. If the North had produced a Homer, he would have drawn from these tales to produce his Iliad, his Odyssey.
A newcomer to the poem, “Widsith” will see a list of mostly anonymous names and places that reads a bit like an Old Testament genealogy or a tournament roster from a chivalric romance. But there are bits of story alluded to. Probably the most often quoted lines refer to characters and a reference from Beowulf, King Hrothgar and his nephew Hrothulf, routing Ingeld and the Heathobards. The lines illuminate the Beowulf reader’s understanding of the feud between uncle and nephew, and perhaps cousins, only hinted at in Beowulf. The “Widsith” poem does present a story, of the far-traveled poet who has gained such high regard from his ability to tell a story. The poet connects himself most closely to a story about the Goth King Eormanaric, who has sought the hand of a princess in marriage. Widsith travels with that good, but doomed, lady from her home court to the lands of Eormanaric, insinuating himself into an ever widening wheel of tales that connect him to every place the migrant Northerners settled. Widsith’s story, unlike many of the tragic tales he refers to, ends happily; like the hero Beowulf, he achieves lasting fame.
Widsith’s frame narrative interests me most in its ability to draw together all of the greats of the old Germanic stories into the span of a single man’s lifetime, to suggest that there was a golden age of heroes, of glorious stories for the ages, concentrated into the geographic distance a medieval storyteller might travel. I find many of the individual stories to be moving, but to imagine oneself at the nexus of so much life and death struggle, of such will and whelming emotion, is, for me, irresistible. It is a world whose values and struggles help illustrate truths about a lost culture and the human condition. This is to interpret the poem by its own conceit, of course, however fantastical that might be. The narrator Widsith claims to have met several generations of families, at least interpreting the poem by the extant tales. Neither Widsith’s journey, nor the world it suggests, is possible. However, it is only by taking the poem on its own terms that one can take seriously the fictive world it creates. The Widsith Project is my attempt to study, experience, understand and share the beauty and pain of a fictional world, a suggested world; a conceit built of the tales of the time.
You will find my work on the Widsith Project to be of a creative nature. Because I have studied and worked to understand the poem for several years, the nature of the work has shifted. My work has undergone different phases as I felt I understood more about the poem. At present you will find illustrations of moments from individual stories and from Widsith’s frame narrative, as well as descriptions of tales as we understand them, along with citations of sources where you might find the extant texts and scholarly criticism. As the project progresses, I hope to find a way to unify the stories, or bring them into a form that allows an admirer to understand how they tell a story of the people of the North.