A "Recently Discovered" Old English Poem

It is with pleasure that I report the discovery of fragment of Anglo-Saxon manuscript which contains a complete short poem in Old English. The fragment (now designated St. John's College Library, Cambridge, MS. B 971) had been used in the original binding of a fourteenth-century collection of French romances; B 971 was discovered in the course of rebinding the romance collection (itself of limited interest!).1

The text of B 971 is in a hand which may be dated to c. AD 1000, and is in a Merican dialect similar to that of the Vespasian Psalter. It consists of a verse which appears to be an adaptation of the well-known "Ring Verse" (as recorded in the Red Book of Westmarch). A normalized edition of the text (with vowel length marked and adapted to HTML) follows (left), with a fairly literal Modern English translation (left) intended to assist a reader owning little familiarity with Old English. Old English verbs in the subjunctive are marked in the translation by "(may)".

Hringas þríe       þéodnum Ælfa,
allra ældestum,     ofer eormengrunde.
Hringas seofun     innan sele stænnum
Dwergdryhtnum.     Derc heara hús.
Hringas nigon     néote Moncynn,
hláfordas méra     mégas déaðfæge.
Heolstres Hearra     hring ánne weardað
in dryhtsele dimmum     on dercan þrymmsetle
þér licgað scedwa     in londe Mordores.
Hring án gewalde,     hring án gefinde,
hring án gebringe,     hring án gebinde
þéoda swá þéowas     in þéostrum tógedere
þér licgað scedwa     in londe Mordores.

Rings three     for the rulers of Elves,
eldest of all,     above the mighty-ground.
Rings seven,     in halls of stone,
for the Dwarf-leaders.     Dark their houses.
Rings nine     (may) Mankind use/enjoy,
masters of horses,     kinsmen fated-to-die.
Dark's Lord    wards one ring
in dim/gloomy leader-hall     on dark majesty-seat.
where lie shadows     in Mordor's land.
Ring one (may) rule,     Ring one (may) find,
Ring one (may) bring,     Ring one (may) bind
nations as slaves     in darkness together
where lie shadows     in Mordor's land.

This is clearly not a simple translation of the original Black Speech "Ring Verse", best known from the late J.R.R. Tolkien's own Modern English adaptation of the Red Book of Westmarch (below). Indeed, it has been markedly expanded in scope, perhaps to facilitate its transposition into Old English alliterative verse. The composer has, however added material that is very similar in content to those fragments of The Long List of the Ents preserved in the Red Book.

It should be noted that Line 2b of the verse in the manuscript is written over a mostly erased earlier half-line in the same hand. With the help of ultraviolet photography, it has been possible to determine that Line 2b originally read under eormenrodore. This might be translated "under the mighty-sky", and is thereby much closer to Tolkien's "under the sky" (translated from a Black Speech original, itself now only partially preserved in the Red Book), perhaps confirming the validity of Tolkien's translation. It is unsure whether this manuscript represents the original adaptation of the "Ring Verse" into Old English, or is a copy of an earlier work. Thus, it is hard to tell whether eormenrodore was a copying error, a scribal emendation, or whether the author was simply undecided over which word to use. The word eormenrodore is a hapax legomenon, otherwise unattested in any other Old English manuscript, and so was perhaps replaced by a more familiar, if less accuarate, eormengrunde.

For comparative purposes, Tolkien's Modern English translation of the "Ring Verse" is presented below:

Three Rings for the Elven-kings under the sky,
Seven fo the Dwarf-lords in their halls of stone,
Nine for Mortal Men doomed to die,
One for the Dark Lord on his dark throne
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.
One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them,
One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.

1As I have now had various inquiries regarding this remarkable discovery, in the interest of clarity, it should be noted that it is a complete fabrication -- something of an academic joke! There is no manuscript, and I wrote the Old English version of the Ring Verse myself. Still, if Anglo-Saxon scribes really had written an Old English version of the Ring Verse, I like to think it would look quite a lot as I describe it. :)