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  • Writer's pictureBen Hellman

Toying with Ancient Stories; Uncovering the Tales of the Old English Poem “Widsith”

Updated: Feb 17, 2021

Danish King Hrothgar with his nephew Hrothulf, cutting down the Heathobards as Heorot Hall burns, following the failed wedding union between Hrothgar's daughter, Freawine, and scion of his ancestral enemies, Prince Ingeld. The story is hinted at in Beowulf, and in “Widsith.”

What’s a researcher to do? I was facing a thousand-year-old poem with hundreds of names and oblique references to mostly little-known stories. It was dense, intimidating and fairly impenetrable; the biggest, most boring list of a poem I’d ever encountered! I did what any other self-respecting truth-searcher would do. I borrowed camera and bought a whole bunch of toys.

It was admittedly a lark at first. Bored with my job and the courses I had to teach over and over, I would build a colorful monument to this monumentally boring thing. Hundreds of headshots and class photos of groups of warrior kings and tribesmen as toys. I had a whole slideshow planned. Students would look upon my works and despair. But at the time I didn’t know the goldmine of tales I was sitting on!

Wade, the stern boatman, aboard his fanciful ship the Guinngelot, ferrying the eloping Hild and Henden to their tragic ends in the Hjaðningavíg, or Battle of the Heodenings. Little remains of the stories of Wade, other than that he was a giant associated with the seas, potentially the son of a mermaid. He is also the father of Wayland, the legendary smith.

Widsith, the “far-traveler,” a poet and harper, is the narrator and protagonist of the poem now known by his name. He is fictional; a construct to bring together tales. He does narrate a few in the poem. But the vast bulk of the poem is in lists. Like Johnny Cash, Widsith has been everywhere, man, and he isn’t holding back one detail of it. Widsith names legendary and historical leaders and the names of nations and tribes of the peoples he visited in his impossibly long and storied life. Some you would recognize: Attila, Caesar, Alexander the Great; the Greeks, the Romans, the Finns, the Danes. But many, many, many more you would not recognize unless you’ve remained very still in front of very old books until, like mine, your shoulders have grown gray with dust.

The famed swimming match between Beowulf and Brecca the Bronding. Only Brecca is mentioned in “Widsith,” but I indulged myself in adding the hero in the background fighting a sea serpent.

What I did not know when I started my lighthearted, spite-worthy slide show was that the multitudes of names in the poem were not random and that the few fairly complete stories that Widsith narrates sit upon a gnomic list of characters from their own moving, inspiring, often violent, heartbreaking, stories. Widsith’s most admired princess was tied between the city gates and trampled to death by horses. A mute prince thought to be feeble-minded stands up and orates on the day his father’s lands are about to be usurped; and then he cuts down two champions in a legal duel. A wife is forced to drink from her father’s skull and plots the death of her cruel husband. A heartbroken daughter raises her husband and father from the dead interminably, only to watch them and their armies cut each other down again. And all of this from a poem that generally reads thus:

I was among the Franks and among the Frisians and among the Frumtingas.

I was among the Rugas and among the Glommas and among the Rumwala.

Likewise I was among the Eatula with Ælfwine,

he had the lightest hand of all mankind, as I have heard,

to perform his praises, the most generous in the sharing of rings,

the bright bracelets, the child of Eadwine. (68-74)

Aegelmund pulling the child Lamassio from a pool, a story from Paul the Deacon. The baby had just been left to drown when the warrior passed by and saw something moving in the pool. He thrust his spear into the pool and when the child was strong enough to grasp it and hold on, the warrior adopted him.

The poem “Widsith” has inspired a number of scholars. My favorite, R.W. Chambers, was a colleague and mentor to J.R.R. Tolkien, and his research is still the most extensive in English. Chambers' 260-odd pages on the 143-line poem is most interested in tracking down the identities of characters and their stories. The much more recent John Niles reexamined the poem as political rhetoric justifying the power of a ruling family. There are few full-blown texts devoted to "Widsith" and, on the whole, one can study Old English poetry and only see it in the footnotes of Beowulf scholarship. If there is a thesis behind my work, it is that early audiences of the poem would have been aware of the stories it refers to just by hearing the names of the figures, much as modern audiences are able to read the names Romeo and Juliet and derive the theme of star-crossed lovers. The names themselves might have functioned like kennings, shorthand descriptions for ideas and concepts that the right audience would recognize, just as a listener of Don Mclean's “American Pie” with an understanding of the lyrics can intuit a series of understandings and thereby events. Or, perhaps like me, one starts with Mclean's lyrics and must put in the work to learn the stories. It is become gnomic.

The funeral of Queen Swanhild, killed unjustly by her husband shortly after their wedding. “Her fame extended through many lands, when I used my song to spread the word of where under the heavens I knew a queen, adorned with gold, most generous of all” (Widsith, 99-102).

To give the toys full credit, and explain their use, these are Playmobil figures, typically of the Viking and Medieval series, augmented at times when I needed a prop or set that didn’t exist. I know that I am using them to depict stories that predate the Viking era by centuries, but you cast the show with the people who show up to audition and these guys were available. I am not an expert on armor, costumes or swords, but I mostly avoid horned helmets and have made a good-faith effort to use the most appropriate weapons. Playmobil’s Viking series was the perfect set as it incorporated not only costumes and armor that would communicate a sense of era, but also included the gamut of medieval props (barrels, benches, goblets, food, etc.) that would help in my storytelling. I know I use war paint reminiscent of anachronistic sources like Braveheart and the Vikings television show, but in my defense the people who might be my audience see those details and recognize the medieval past. I am also working with the single Playmobil face and my medium is the photography of plastic objects. I would finally add that recasting the ancient past anachronistically is extremely common in Old English poetry. This said, I made an effort to use accurate images for backdrop images, sometimes searching many hours for a castle wall or work of architecture from a particular location. For example, in my Caesar shoot, I looked for an image of the Rubicon, but had to settle for another river in the same province, which I believe was the Montanto. I learned later that Caesar was likely a reference to a Byzantine ruler, not Julius Caesar, and I will not post the character until I reshoot him so as not to perpetuate my misunderstanding.

Anatomy of a Scene: The Swimming Match

I’m not a modeler, but I have become a lot of things as this project required it. For the Brecca shot, I knew that the only thing Brecca is known for is participating in the swimming match with Beowulf. He had to be in the ocean. So I made an ocean.

Just as I did not start my reading of “Widsith” as an expert, I did not start my project as a photographer. I humbly submit that I still have a lot to learn about both. But just as my knowledge of the complexity of the poem grew--of its many narratives, reaching out like spokes to most of the extant corpus of old Germanic lore--my skills as a photographer and stager of scenes, continued to evolve. My fairly drab early photos (circa 2012) got a lot fancier as I added dramatic lighting and photographic backdrops. I searched Henden the Glomman a few days ago to recall the names and details of his story and Google gave me one of my first depictions of him, which I’d posted on a Playmobil enthusiast website all those years ago. There aren’t many depictions of Henden the Glomman on the internet, but mine is there. For better or worse, I’ve become part of the record of people who had worked with this poem.

Henden the Glomman 2012 versus 2017

I recently learned that Googling some of the lesser-known names from “Widsith” brings up photos I took in 2012. When I first shot Henden I did not know that he was part of a story where he elopes with a princess.

While my grand design has evolved over the years, sharing the genuine love I have developed for “Widsith” and exploring the powerful stories imbedded in it has become my ultimate goal. Last week, The Widsith Project went live on my website with photo galleries of the three largest narratives referred to in the poem and I plan to add new tales as time permits. The images there were meant to illustrate and interact with the poem in a slideshow that honestly was hard to follow and caused me to pause my work in 2018. The galleries, at best, give a sense of the stories, but with evolving technology and storytelling platforms, I would like eventually to share what I think the intended audience of “Widsith” may have experienced when hearing or reading the poem.

In the meantime, with an actual platform to share the stories, I plan to resume my shooting schedule and give myself the leeway to explore the exciting parts of the stories that “Widsith” doesn't directly refer to, like Hild from the Hjaðningavíg raising her father and lover from the dead; or the original badass shieldmaiden Hervor from the Hervarar saga exhorting her dead father to rise from the grave to grant her the cursed sword Tyrfing. There are so many stories to be told from this corpus, from the tales of the eponymous poet Widsith, and I don't feel I have to limit myself to the photographs, as much as I love having images to anchor stories in my memory. I did not have a website or play the lyre when I began the Widsith Project, which means that I could start podcasting or even pursue dramatic retellings of the these stories in the way my favorite fictitious medieval poet would have. I look forward to the possibilities. Into the 21st Century, Widsith’s journeys wend ever on!

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