Friday, September 5, 2008


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I've come across this verb four times in Crossley-Holland's translation of Beowulf. Shrithe (scriþan). I can't quite triangulate on its meaning. I imagine something between slither and slide and slink and slip but it's irritating not being able to pin it down. I know that in most languages there are no exact equivalents of many words but, still, it's beginning to bug me. I'm not sure if it's a word from which I'm supposed to infer magnificence and/or inevitability, awe or disgust. Is it more 'slither' or 'sail majestically' or what? At I found this:

SHRITHE - Bruce Mitchell's "Invitation" gives this account of the word: "The [Beowulf] poet uses the verb scriþan four times -- of hellish monsters, of shadows, of Grendel, who is both a hellish monster and a sceadugenga 'shadow-goer' and of the dragon. The word seems to imply smooth and graceful movement (it is used elsewhere of the sun, clouds, and stars, of a ship skimming over the sea, and of darting salmon in a pool) and an element of mystery (other poets use it of the coming of May, of the beginning and ending of the day, and of the gradual passing of human life). In Beowulf, there is also a suggestion of menace and danger which is echoed in other poems, where the word refers to the spread through the body of a disease which could be cancer and to flames raging unchecked. Had it survived, poets would have used it as a rhyme for 'writhe' and sports writers would have turned it into a cliche applicable to footballers, cricketers and baseballers, tennis-players, and boxers."

If not for the 'darting' salmon, I'd go for something like 'steal' as in 'stealing up to the door'--a sense of stealth, and smoothness, and movement. Any better suggestions?

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  1. I think that scrithan usually means "to glide," and that might work even for the salmon (to indicate the smoothness of the motion). I don't think the passages in Beowulf are particularly about sneaking so much as a sort of inexorable movement.

  2. Ah. Glide. Yes, that works. It has a faint hint of otherworldliness, as well as ease of movement, and stealth. Thank you.

  3. I can't add anything to what Mike has said, who's right as usual. I just wanted to add though that this is one of those words I encountered in Beowulf and *LOVE* the way it feels, slips, glides off the of the reasons I got into Old English as an undergrad (long story, long ago) was the feel of words like this. Anyway, good going.

  4. I like the rolling r's. Makes me want to thump the table as I declaim :)

  5. Glide is also suggested by one "Khartoumi" at

    "Seamus Heaney is a magnificent poet in the English language... but you cannot judge the Latin of the original through a translation - and a loose one at that. For example, Heaney's version of Beowulf is one of the best; but he freely admits that it is nothing like the original Old English in patterns of alliteration, of kenning, nor in its terrible power:

    Com on wanre niht scrithan an sceadugenga...

    Came on a dark night, gliding, a shadow walker

    But "scrithan" means so much more than "glide" - it is pronounced "shri-than" and is assonant with another word "shrivan" (origin of the English "shrive" and "shrove", as in Shrove Tuesday) which has a sense of something being fated or alloted, something being bound to happen.

    What is gliding, fatefully, on a dark night? Well, the monster himself, Grendel, towards his death (this time) at the hands of Beowulf and so- finally - Beowulf towards his own...

    And none of this is revealed or open to being revealed in even Heaney's translation."

    Looking forward to your work.

  6. anonymous, I definitely think the assonance thing is in play here: glide, writhe, shrive... The mind loves to play.


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