Diacritically-Marked Text of
facing a New Translation
(with explanatory notes)
edited & translated by
from the Exeter Book, fol. 100r-100v
(Exeter Cathedral Library 2501 fols. 8-130 [Gneuss 257])
The poem Deor is recorded in the Exeter Book (fol. 100r-100v). The Exeter Book (also called Codex Exoniensis or Liber Exoniensis) is so called as it is preserved in the library of Exeter Cathedral, having been given to the cathedral by Leofric (d. 1072), first bishop of Exeter. The Exeter Book may well be the manuscript described in the list of Leofric's donations as i mycel englisc boc be gehwilcum þingum on leoðwisan geworht (='1 great English book of many things, done in verse'). The Exeter Book itself appears to have been written in the late 10th-c.
The poem Deor is narrated by a minstrel named Deor (='wild animal'), lamenting his replacement as scop (=poet, gleeman) of the Heodenings by another poet named Heorrenda. As a comfort to himself, he sings of the sorrows of famous figures from old Germanic heroic tradition, and concludes each scenario with the poem's refrain: þæs ofereode, þisses swa mæg! (='that passed over, this can too'). One of the chief interests of the poem are these references to figures from old Germanic legend.
The capture and multilation the 'wonder-smith' Weland (=ON Volund ) is the first such figure mentioned. Weland is cited as the maker of Hrethel's mail-coat, Beo. ll.453-4 and who is also mentioned in the fragmentary poem Waldere (at l.2 in fragment A, l.9 in B) together with his famous sword Mimming. A version of this story of Weland is told in the Völundarkviða of the Poetic Edda. In this story, the evil king Níðoð (OE. Niðhad ) imprisoned Volund for his skills as a smith and had him hamstrung so that he could not escape. In revenge, Volund slaughters Níðoð's sons and ravishes Böðvildr (OE. Beadohild ), Níðoð's daughter. The rape of Beadohild and her subsequent pregnancy is referred to in Deor ll.8-12 (the child that is born of Weland and Beadohild is Widia, mentioned at l.4 of Waldere B).
The story of Geat and Maethhild is rather more obscure. The name Geat (Geot, -geot) appears in various manuscripts containing Anglian royal pedigrees (variously as Geat, Geta, Geot, Angengeot , Siggeot, Weoðulgeot - see North (p. 134) for further discussion). The cognate Gautr in Old Norse appears as an epithet of Óðinn as he prepares to enter the world of the dead in Baldrs draumar (Baldr's Dreams) in the Poetric Edda, ll.2, 13, and at l.54 in Grímnismál (also in the Poetic Edda) Óðinn says his name is Gautr among the gods. Elsewhere gautr is used simply as a kenning for a warlike man (see Meissner, p.261). The word geot seems to refer to sacrifice, as OE geotan means 'to pour, to cut open'. However, none of this seems to explicate the reference in Deor. Malone (1961, pg. 8-9) identifies Geat and Meathhild with Gaute and Magnild from a 19th-c. Norwegian ballad, and with Gauti and Magnhildur of a 19th-c. Icelandic ballad. In the Norwegian version, Gaute marries Magnild, who then foresees her own death in the river Vending. And, indeed, as the two of them cross the river one day, Magnild falls in and drowns. Her husband draws her shore by playing his harp, alive in the Norwegian version, dead in the Icelandic (a Northern reflex of the Orpheus story?).
The brief reference to Theodric (ll.17-9) is likely referring to Theodric, king of the Ostrogoths, also known as Dietrich von Bern (Verona) who appears in the Nibelungenlied and the Norwegian Thiðrekssaga. Ermanaric (see Deor ll.21-6), king of the Goths, invaded Bern and exiled Theodric. After the reference to Theodric, the traditional cruelty of King Ermanaric is recalled (ll.21-26).
The non-West Saxon forms which appear in Deor appear to be Anglian, though the structure of the metre itself provides no evidence for a particular date or locality. However, it appears most likely that Deor was written in an Anglian dialect sometime in the 8th-c.