“fyr on flode” in Beowulf

So, my first dissertation chapter deals with how early medieval English writers dealt with the sea, metaphorically, in a redemptive away when faced with exile/displacement. Exile at sea seems to be linked to the idea of control, ultimately. The more a person clings to control while at sea, the more they flounder. The sooner they relinquish any illusions of control and leave their fates to either wyrd or the Christian god, the sooner they get through their ordeals (see, for example, The Seafarer, The Legend of St. Brendan, King Horn, etc). Even Beowulf must submit to the ocean when the waves separate him from Breca. Eventually, this lack of control and need for assistance translates into intermediaries of the celestial type, such as the archangel Michael or the Virgin Mary, whose title “star of the sea” (stella maris or sæ-steorra) rose in popularity beginning in the twelfth century with religious writers like Bernard of Clairvaux. When you look up sæ-steorra in Bosworth-Toller online, the definition is “A star which guides mariners at sea,” which is unsurprising since the “sea-star” role that Mary plays is one of guidance of lost sailors (read “souls”).

Before getting into the fun early Middle English interactions with the sea and Orm’s use of the sæ steorrne in my dissertation chapter, however, I need to discuss representations of the sea in general in late antique and Anglo-Saxon literature to show how the early medieval English perceptions and reactions to the sea were similar and different. By the way, Sebastian Sobecki‘s two books on this topic are good resources: The Sea and Medieval English Literature (2008), which is available as a PDF download on his site, and The Sea and Englishness in the Middle Ages: Maritime Narratives, Identity and Culture (2011), which is available for order here. Anyway, I discuss texts from Beowulf and The Seafarer to the Old English Physiologus and selections from the Blickling and Vercelli Homilies. I am, by no means, an expert in Beowulf, so much of the text that I’m analyzing I’m translating and reading up on for the first time. The following passage (below it is my own translation) has been discussed at length by various scholars (Frederick Klaeber, E. G. Stanley, and John Niles immediately come to mind, as well as William Witherie Lawrence’s 1912 essay), and I’d love to get comments on what other people think specifically about the translation of fyr on flode. How do you interpret this? Is the fire on the water, in the water? Is it even really fire, as Christopher Abrams suggests that it’s the reflection of gold under the water?

aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaHie dygel lond
warigeað, wulfhleoþu,         windige næssas,
frecne fengelad,         ðær fyrgenstream

under næssa genipu         niþer gewiteð,
flod under foldan.         Nis þæt feor heonon
milgemearces         þæt se mere standeð;
ofer þæm hongiað         hrinde bearwas,
wudu wyrtum fæst         wæter oferhelmað.

þær mæg nihta gehwæm         niðwundor seon,
fyr on flode.         No þæs frod leofað
gumena bearna,         þæt þone grund wite (1357b-67)

[They occupy the secret land, the wolf-hills, the windy headlands, the dangerous fen-path where the mountain-stream goes down under the mists of the headlands, the flowing water under the earth. That is not far from here, measured in miles, where the mere stands; a frost-covered grove hangs over that, a wood fixed by the roots overshadows the water where every night a wicked wonder can be seen, fire on the water. There is no one alive of the children of men so wise who may know the bottom.]

The interpretations range from a representation of hell on earth/water (Klaeber, Sarah L. Higley, Thalia Phillies Feldman), the mouth of hell in the water (Geoffrey Russom), the fiery rivers of hell from Visio Pauli (Klaeber, Charles D. Wright), “will-o’-the-wisps” (William Witherie Lawrence), gold under water (Christopher Abrams), or maybe St. Elmo’s fire (sorry, can’t remember where I saw this reference… You can read about St. Elmo’s fire on Wikipedia, though – seems an unlikely interpretation, though interesting nonetheless). Because of stories of the water near the coastline being on fire, like in the Legend of St. Brendan (Middle English version in The South English Legendary; Latin version via Ireland in Navigatio sancti Brendani abbatis, from which the SEL comes), I’m prone to read this account in Beowulf metaphorically and aimed at the reader/audience rather than the characters within the text itself. Both the deep pool of the mere, which is so deep that even children of wise men (so, wisdom is important, not eyesight – interesting) cannot discern its bottom, and the fire atop the water evoke images of hell – maybe not for the Germanic warrior Beowulf, who is or is not pagan or Christian, but certainly for those reading/listening to the story. Thus, deep water and especially that which is associated with fire is DANGEROUS!

Thoughts? Comments? Interpretations?

About carlamthomas

I'm an Assistant Professor of English at Florida Atlantic University, and I earned my PhD from New York University and my BA and MA from Florida State University. It's good to be a Floridian again. My concentration is Early Middle English literature, language, and manuscript culture although this stretches from Old English influences to later Middle English iterations of developments in my period. I'm also an intersectional feminist, trying to inject such theory into some of my newer work as well as my activist work with the Medievalist of Color.
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