There’s a fantastic and interesting genre of Old English poetry known as wisdom or gnomic poetry. Written by unknown authors, these poems list small bits of wisdom on everything from human behavior and societal roles to religious expectation to descriptions of flora and fauna. Here are a few of my favorite gems from the so-called Maxims:
Fidelity is typically in a warrior, wisdom is in a man. (Translated by Stanley Greenfield & Richard Evert)
The tree shall suffer the loss of its leaves upon the earth, and lament its branches. (Translated by W.S. Mackie)
A shameful man must go in the shadows, the light suits a brighter man. (Translated by Aaron K. Hostetter)
There are two famous sets of these Old English wisdom poems, Maxims I (dated to around the 7th or 8th century) and Maxims II (around the 11th century). Despite sharing a name, the two poems are found in completely separate manuscripts and don’t seem to be connected beyond their content—but even that varies. There are, for instance, no dragons in Maxims I.
Maxims II’s dragon appears briefly in a list of where particular things and creatures can be found:
25 …Sweord sceal on bearme,
drihtlic isern. Draca sceal on hlæwe,
frod, frætwum wlanc. Fisc sceal on wætere
cynren cennan. Cyning sceal on healle
beagas dælan… (ll.25b-29a)
25 […The sword shall (be) in the breast,
noble iron. The dragon shall (be) in the barrow,
old, proudly ornamented. Fish shall (be) in the water,
bears his kind. The king shall (be) in the hall,
These are my translations of the Old English, but many other scholars have translated them as well, differing slightly in each rendition. Stanley Greenfield and Richard Evert, for instance, add “typically” in their 1975 translation (as in, “The dragon, old, proudly ornamented, is typically in the barrow”) whereas Albert Cook lyrically translates this line as “The dragon shall dwell on the mound, old, and proud of his treasure” (1902). The verb sculan, which appears in each of the sayings, can mean must or should as well as shall. These different meanings can cause significant differences in how we understand this poem.
No matter how we translate it, though, we have a dragon, which lives in or on some sort of hill, and guards his treasure. This is right on the par with Beowulf’s dragon in the Old English epic, Beowulf: the dragon hides in a mountain, surrounded by its gold, until a thief awakens it and thereby unleashes its wrath. In Isidore of Seville’s Etymologiae (c.600-625), dragons (sometimes) live up in the mountains as well. There seems to be a somewhat common belief about these scaly beasts that indicates there’s something simultaneously reachable and unreachable about dragon-inhabited lands. We know where and how to find dragons (on the edges of our maps), but that does not mean the journey will easy.
This edge-of-the-maps conversation adds to my interest in how Maxims II positions its dragon. In his research into Maxims II and the Menologium as relating to their manuscript companion Orosius, Kazutomo Karasawa suggests that Maxims II may be viewed as “the laws of the natural world and humanity” (borrowing this specific phrase from M.J. Swanton’s work on the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle). If we view the poem from this perspective of natural order, it not only places dragons within our world as real and identifiable beings, but it also might give us insight into how Old English scholars were engaging with the environment in all forms of literature.
Additionally, we might be able to consider the dragon a marvel, comparable to the manmade and natural wonders listed throughout the poem. Wondrously-wrought halls, massive armies, and strong river currents inhabit this poem. Another frightening beast, a þyrs (defined by the Bosworth-Toller Anglo-Saxon Dictionary as “a giant, an enchanter, a demon”) is mentioned. All these things sceal exist just as God ordains. By placing these little and big marvels alongside one another, Maxims II manages to highlight the everyday miracles that happen in our fair middangeard (middle-earth, world), including beasts that live on the margins.
Where to read it:
The Old English Poetry Project (under Maxims II) translated into Modern English by Aaron K. Hostetter.
Select Translations from Old English Poetry (small sections under “Gnomic Verses”) translated into Modern English by Albert Cook (1902) via the Internet Archive.
or, an Old English edition via online by the Internet Sacred Texts Archive.
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