Hwæt, Hrodulf!

An Old English poem by Philip Chapman-Bell

incipit gestis Rudolphi rangifer tarandus

Hwæt, Hrodulf readnosa hrandeor—
Næfde þæt nieten unsciende næsðyrlas!
Glitenode and gladode godlice nosgrisele.
Ða hofberendas mid huscwordum hine gehefigodon;
Nolden þa geneatas Hrodulf næftig Sutton Hoo deer
To gomene hraniscum geador ætsomne.
Þa in Cristesmæsseæfne stormigum clommum,
Halga Claus þæt gemunde to him maðelode:
‘Neahfreond nihteage nosubeorhtende!
Min hroden hrædwæn gelæd ðu, Hrodulf!’
Ða gelufodon hira laddeor þa lyftflogan —
Wæs glædnes and gliwdream; hornede sum gegieddode
‘Hwæt, Hrodulf readnosa hrandeor,
Brad springð þin blæd: breme eart þu!’

Here begin the deeds of Rudolph, Tundra-Wanderer

Lo, Hrodulf the red-nosed reindeer —
That beast didn’t have unshiny nostrils!
The goodly nose-cartilage glittered and glowed.
The hoof-bearers taunted him with proud words;
The comrades wouldn’t allow wretched Hrodulf
To join the reindeer games.
Then, on Christmas Eve bound in storms
Santa Claus remembered that, spoke formally to him:
‘Dear night-sighted friend, nose-bright one!
You, Hrodulf, shall lead my adorned rapid-wagon!’
Then the sky-flyers praised their lead deer —
There was gladness and music; one of the horned ones sang
‘Lo, Hrodulf the red-nosed reindeer,
Your fame spreads broadly, you are renowned!’

Addendum. From Paul Ogden: Yiddish Rudolph!


  1. From what I’ve read online, there’s a surprising number of people who, until some point in adulthood, were unaware that reindeer are real creatures.

  2. Not only that; I just heard on Science 360 that they tend to have reddish noses (due to extra blood vessels in the nose to help keep it warm).

  3. I can’t judge the OE, but the Latin is quite macaronic.

  4. Some of the lines are metrically incorrect and have alliterations in the wrong places, but who cares if it’s funny?

    Merry Christmas, everyone!

  5. David Marjanović says

    I can’t judge the OE, but the Latin is quite macaronic.

    Yeah. How about “incipient gestae Rudolphi rangiferi tarandi”…?

    (Rangifer tarandus is “reindeer/caribou” in Scientific. I don’t know if such beasts actually show up in any Latin work from Antiquity.)

    And what is “Sutton Hoo deer” doing in line 5?!?

  6. I don’t know if such beasts actually show up in any Latin work from Antiquity.

    Not in Classical Latin, but the τάρανδ(ρ)ος of the Greek naturalists may refer to the reindeer.

    And what is “Sutton Hoo deer” doing in line 5?!?

    I’m puzzled too, but it seems to have been edited away: http://www.markbernstein.org/Rudolf.html

    The Sutton Hoo stag figurine was obviously meant to represent a red deer.

  7. The copy here has fewer scribal corruptions, I think, though they are of equal manuscript age (2001, only five years after the 1996 copyright date found in the one I’m linking to).

  8. Not in Classical Latin, but the τάρανδ(ρ)ος of the Greek naturalists may refer to the reindeer.

    Yes, the animal is called τάρανδος in Greek.

  9. Does anyone know where rangifer comes from? The second elemnt fer means “bearer, carrier”, but the first element doesn’t seem to be from Classical Latin.

  10. Ian Myles Slater says

    Rangifer is apparently Medieval Latin: it is listed in Du Cange, according to http://logeion.uchicago.edu/index.html#rangifer
    and see (through included link)

  11. Old French rengier / rangier, like renne and English rein from Scandinavian.

  12. Oh, so it’s basically a badly latinized French word? Makes sense.

  13. Pliny the Elder describes the tarandrus, which is apparently part elk or reindeer, part chameleon: “When it is frightened, this animal reflects the colour of all the trees, shrubs, and flowers, or of the spots in which it is concealed; hence it is that it is so rarely captured.” (Latin here, scroll down to chapter LII.) Solinus Polyhistor, author of a third-century book of Wonders of the World, gives practically the same description of the parandrus (as he calls it), but places it in Ethiopia, proving that Santa was already visiting the Ethiopian Christian community at that early date.

  14. Pseudo-Aristotle (Περὶ θαυμασίων ἀκουσμάτων 30):

    Among the Scythians called Geloni they say that there is a beast, excessively rare, which is called “tarandos”; they say that it changes the colour of its hair according to the place it is in. For this reason it is difficult to catch; for it becomes the same colour as the trees and the ground, and generally of the place in which it is. But the changing of the colour of the hair is most remarkable; other creatures change their skin like the chameleon and polypus, p251but this animal is of the size of an ox. But its head is of the same kind as a deer.

  15. David Marjanović says

    Very interesting!

  16. Trond Engen says

    That’s not a bad description. The reindeer changes both its fur and its location with the season

    I wonder about the word Geloni .

  17. marie-lucie says

    In scarcely populated regions of Northern Canada there are immense herds of caribou (= wild reindeer) that migrate with the seasons, walking for days to reach distant traditional pastures. According to photographs I have seen, the animals’ colour (affecting the whole herd) varies from very light to dark brown. The ancient author seems to imply that the animal changes colour as easily and as fast as the chameleon, surely a misunderstanding of what he was told (or a joke on the part of the informants!).

  18. Robert Kelly says

    Grand as it is to see the old language, I think the Ancestors would have called the running-deer Hrothwulf or HHrothulf (th = edh) — ‘fame wolf’ as in Rudolf– not a bad name for such a celebrated beast.

  19. Is the translation into modern English also by Phillip Chapman-Bell? I’m a bit puzzled by the translation of gelufodon in the fourth-last line as “praised” instead of “loved”. I would have thought that “praised” would be gelofodon. I’ve tried to google up examples of Old English lufian meaning “praise” rather than “love”, but can’t seem to find any.

  20. Robert Kelly and Matt_M: Good points.

  21. David Marjanović says

    I would have thought that “praised” would be gelofodon.

    One piece of evidence for this is that it’s lobten in German today.

  22. @Marie-Lucie: It also sounds like an excellent excuse for not being able to shoot one. Cervids are notoriously elusive. In medieval Europe deer were thought to be able to make themselves invisible by eating fern seed, which was itself invisible (in fact, of course, nonexistent).

  23. marie-lucie says

    Cervids are notoriously elusive.

    But in areas where they are not hunted (like in the suburbs of cities) they can be very visible, deer coming to browse people’s lawns, for instance.

  24. A lot like snipes, which are real enough wading birds elsewhere, but in North American English are mostly fictional: a snipe hunt is a sort of wild goose chase perpetrated as a practical joke, like being sent to find a left-handed monkey wrench (wrenches lack chirality). I was amazed to discover that Wilson’s snipe actually does exist and is native here.

  25. But in areas where they are not hunted (like in the suburbs of cities) they can be very visible, deer coming to browse people’s lawns, for instance.

    I see roe deer almost every day.

  26. I would have thought that “praised” would be gelofodon.

    You are right. The verb lofian is denominative, from lof ‘praise’ < *luβa-, with the *u lowered before a low vowel, unlike the retained /u/ in lufu ‘love’ < *luβō, which underlies lufian.

  27. As in the famous last word of Beowulf: lofgeornost ‘most desirous of glory’. Because this word is usually negative but is here used in an unmistakably positive context, it’s been discussed quite a bit.

  28. In the 70s I was with a friend visiting an old gentleman of the small nobility in Switzerland, who had just come back from shooting snipe. The animals were hung up around the mansion, preparatory to being made into Schnepfendreck – the most disgusting dish I have ever heard of.

    Schnepfendreck (oder -kot) ist der Name eines heute weitgehend vergessenen Gerichts aus den Eingeweiden einer Schnepfe samt Inhalt (daher die Bezeichnung). Die Innereien werden fein gehackt, mit Speck, Eigelb, Zwiebeln sowie Sardellen oder Kapern vermengt und zu einer Art Farce verarbeitet, mit der geröstetes Weißbrot bestrichen und dann im Backofen überbacken wird

    I also remember it was there I learned that different bird species have different behaviors – fact! Snipe, I was told, fly in zig-zags not far from the ground when fleeing danger. They are harder to shoot than ducks, which when frightened fly almost straight up out of the water.

  29. I’m currently reading Sergei Aksakov’s Notes of a Hunter of Orenburg Province (of which Chernyshevsky said, “no Western literature can boast anything resembling it”), which I see has been translated as Notes of a Provincial Wildfowler, and he has a lot to say about different bird species and their different behaviors—the ducks alone take up many chapters.

  30. David Marjanović says

    und zu einer Art Farce verarbeitet

    Farce sounds about right. Could also have written lolwut.

  31. marie-lucie says

    The French word la farce means “stuffing” in a culinary context (although this type of mixture can also be cooked and eaten on its own).

  32. “That beast didn’t have unshiny nostrils!”

    Is this a standard construction in poetry of this era? It’s really common in Irish poetry of the era.

  33. marie-lucie says

    Jim: This sort of thing is very common in French, both literary and colloquial. For instance, where English might say Nice! or Pretty good!, French might say Pas mal!. Of course English can also use Not bad!, but there have been studies documenting the fact that French uses negatives to imply positives much more than English. I don’t know if this is supposed to go back to Gaulish!

  34. This reminds me of the classic Field and Stream review of Lady Chatterley’s Lover:

    Although written many years ago, Lady Chatterley’s Lover has just been reissued by the Grove Press, and this fictional account of the day-to-day life of an English gamekeeper is still of considerable interest to outdoor minded readers, as it contains many passages on pheasant raising, the apprehending of poachers, ways to control vermin, and other chores and duties of the professional gamekeeper.

    “Unfortunately, one is obliged to wade through many pages of extraneous material in order to discover and savor these sidelights on the management of a Midlands shooting estate, and in this reviewer’s opinion this book cannot take the place of J.R. Miller’s Practical Gamekeeping. —Ed Zern, Field and Stream, November 1959, p. 142.

    (Zern’s column was a humor column, not a book review column, and the latter book does not exist. But the review was printed.)

  35. Be advised that a Google search for [“john cowan” zern] gets hits with “with watercolors by John Cowan.” You are even more multifarious than I thought.

  36. You might consider reparing the broken link to the Eureka Springs bank robbery.

  37. marie-lucie says

    Thanks PG for ferreting it out. A great story! It seems just made for a movie. Did anyone make one?

  38. Fixed, thanks!

  39. Jim,

    From http://faculty.goucher.edu/eng211/other_common_features_of_epic.htm:

    “Litotes” or epic understatement–in a complement to extended simile, the poet understates the most important fact about a scene, as when the “Battle of Maldon” poet describes Byrhtnoth, bleeding to death from massive sword blows and spear thrusts, thus: “He might no longer stand firm on his feet” (107).

    There’s also https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Litotes with examples of understatement by denying the opposite and with the following statement, sourced to the Britannica (warning, you might need a litotes/now we know what Cú Chulainn tied himself to the stone with):

    It is a feature of Old English poetry and of the Icelandic sagas and is a means of much stoical restraint.[8]

    I think it’s a general epic thing, but I couldn’t find the perfect link.

  40. “From what I’ve read online, there’s a surprising number of people who, until some point in adulthood, were unaware that reindeer are real creatures.”

    To be fair though, only some of them are real. The best-known ones are entirely fictitious.

  41. One reason is that there is more fiction than reindeer.

  42. marie-lucie says

    Growing up in France, we had le Père Noël but I don’t remember any mention of reindeer in his context. I think I learned about reindeer in a children’s book about Sami life.

  43. Noetica! What a pleasure to see you around these parts again. Happy new year!

  44. Interestingly, many Christmas traditions – though not the American one – have the Father Christmas figure living in Lapland.

  45. marie-lucie says

    Of course, if “Santa” has reindeer, Lapland is the only place in Western Europe where he can get them. Lapland would not mean anything to people in North America, so it’s the North Pole instead, even though there are no reindeer there. Polar bears would not be suitable for pulling a sleigh.

  46. The best-known ones are entirely fictitious.

    Some of the best-known human beings (notably Sherlock Holmes) are fictitious, but nobody supposes that Homo sapiens is a mere fever-dream (of whom?)

  47. Trond Engen says

    Curiously, there’s no connection to Lapland or reindeer in the Norwegian tradition(s) of nissen or tomten. He’s usually very local, living on the farm or under a tree in the forest. If he does have a sled, it’s pulled by a horse — or a goat. But even this is probably early local adaptation of inernational culture, which gradually transforms the image of nissen in the late19th and early 20th centuries. These days (jule)nissen lives on the North Pole, wears a shining red synthetic outfit, and says “hou hou hou” with broad American diphtongs when he comes into the room.

  48. John: but nobody supposes that Homo sapiens is a mere fever-dream (of whom?)

    Homo sapiens is a fever-dream of members of Homo sapiens. An imagined community, and none the less real for being imagined.

  49. In the Danish narrative, julenisser are separate from, but allied with Julemanden — who lives in Greenland, as anybody with any sense should realize (actually a PR stunt by the Royal Danish Post), and just sort of teleports into people’s front halls when presents are due.

    Nisserne are magical, can turn small or invisible, and like making mischief.

    Julemanden may be the chief of nisserne, and may or may not be of the same kindred, but he isn’t one and doesn’t stoop to pranks. In fact he doesn’t leave his workshop except on Christmas eve, his appearance in department stores notwithstanding. (And there is no trace of the Saint Nicholas back story — the only aspect of his myth to reach Denmark (through a German picture book) is the strict old man in a beard and red hat who punishes misbehaving children).

    Of course Danes are aware of the American version — nobody needed explained what Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was about when it was a hit in Danish translation, for instance — and this is all gradually changing, both by American admixture and by creative domestic storytelling. I’m not a grandfather yet, so I don’t know exactly what the target demographic believes this year.

  50. Homo sapiens is a fever-dream of members of Homo sapiens.

    True enough.

    his appearance in department stores notwithstanding

    My daughter and now my grandson have always been clear that the Santa they see at Macy’s is no more the real Santa than the Santas they see in movies are. They are of course Santa’s helpers, and Santa has many helpers, including their own (grand)parents.

  51. Hi LH, and Hattic friends. My annual cameo appearance. Best new year wishes to all!

    “Some of the best-known human beings (notably Sherlock Holmes) are fictitious, but nobody supposes that Homo sapiens is a mere fever-dream (of whom?)”

    The human case differs from the reindeer case, which looks doxastically equivalent to the unicorn case. The best-known unicorns are fictitious, yes? But even if the best-known humans were fictitious, everyone is furnished with counterexamples to refute the claim that all humans are fictitious. At least every human is so furnished. And a caution: let’s not confuse “unreal” and “fictitious”. Relatively few unreal reindeer (or humans, or unicorns) rise to fictitiousness – or are ever named or cognised. No real reindeer are fictitious of course.

    The human and one’s own construction of humanness and selfhood? Not the same theme as the preceding. Humanness and oneself might be (must be?) a fever-dream of humans and of oneself. Anātman, both shared and idiocentric. It applies to these reindeer we hear so many rumours about, as much as to unicorns and humans.

  52. Hey ho, Noetica: glad to see your return, however temporary.

    Relatively few unreal reindeer (or humans, or unicorns) rise to fictitiousness.

    I take the position that there are no unreal things. “What is there?”, Quine asked, and Quine replied, “Everything.” So, far from few unreal unicorns arising to the status of fictitiousness, vacuously all of them do, ugye?

    At least every human is so furnished

    The qualification is good. As Tolkien said in “Farmer Giles of Ham”:

    “So knights are mythical!” said the younger and less experienced dragons. “We always thought so.”

    “At least they may be getting rare,” thought the older and wiser worms (i.e. wyrmas); “far and few and no longer to be feared.”

    (Wiktionary tells us that this ancient word meant ‘locust’ among the Slavs and ‘midge’ among the Balts. Quomodo ceciderunt robusti, though an insectile sense was not unknown to the English either.)

  53. “… there are no unreal things”

    At least if we take “real” etymologically from “res”. Omnes sunt res reales, ugye? All things are thingy.

    Hwæt was Kiri-kin-tha’s first law of metaphysics? If “Kiri-kin-tha” is used in an attempt to name something or someone merely fictional (and a fortiore unreal), presumably there can be no such law. (And that naming attempt must fall flat for want of an object.)

    But then, by a further outrageous playful sophistic self-referentiality-exploiting extension, if “Nothing unreal exists” does not obtain as a law of metaphysics then something unreal might (must?) exist. No wonder Brentano ran into trouble with “Es gibt keinen Drachen”. In wyrmgeard be drakes!

  54. fictional (and a fortiore unreal)

    But I hold that that presupposition does not hold. Mr. Spock is as real as Dr. Spock, although one is fictional and the other is not (and is therefore loosely called “real”). Each can be the value of a variable, or if you prefer, can have properties predicated of him. The question “Did Pegasus have pinfeathers?” is perfectly meaningful and well-defined, and we don’t know the answer to it for much the same reason we don’t know the color of Russell’s teapot (assuming there is such a teapot).

    In any case, it is sophistical to claim that because X did not exist or is fictional, X’s law does not exist or is fictional. The reality (in either sense) of Murphy’s law does not depend on the reality (in either sense) of Edwin A. Murphy, nor on whether he said what he is said to have said. Some people call the same thing Sod’s law, but the reality (in either sense) of the law is not undermined because Sod did not exist (either fictionally or non-fictionally). Other people distinguish between Murphy’s and Sod’s laws, unsurprisingly; people are very unwilling to admit the existence of absolute synonymy.

  55. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gs9c_HpPJIE&feature=youtu.be&t=1m20s

    “Dad, do people exist?”

    “No, son, that’s just science fiction”

  56. “fictional (and a fortiore unreal)”

    I hereby correct my Fingerschlipp:

    “fictional (and a fortiori unreal)”

    “Mr. Spock is as real as Dr. Spock, although one is fictional and the other is not (and is therefore loosely called “real”).”

    Well, if you want to use “real” in your supposedly unloose way, good luck to you and your extended family. Do we disagree about anything beyond how to use terms (noting that some distinguish “real” and “actual”, by the way)? O, wait:

    “… it is sophistical to claim that because X did not exist or is fictional, X’s law does not exist or is fictional, …”

    Nah. Again we agree. That is plain from my preceding post:

    “… then, by a further outrageous playful sophistic self-referentiality-exploiting extension, …”

    The continuation was a manifest absurdity, so perhaps the paralethic jesting ought to have been surabundantly apparent.

    (Or am I being sophistical right now? I mean, at the time of my typing this …
    O, never mind.)

  57. I cry mephitic.

  58. Mephitic? Positively phlogisticated one might say. (Or should that be negatively?)

  59. Foul.

  60. Fair enough.

  61. But fair is foul, and indeed vice versa.

  62. David Marjanović says
  63. I must have first encountered “mephit” in the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Field Folio, where they appear on page 64. There were four types, and they were described thus: “The various mephits are the evil messengers and errand-runners of the powerful creatures of the Lower Planes. They are common inhabitants of all these locales, from the Nine Hells to the Abyss. Their alignment varies, depending on their plane of origin, but they are always evil.” The original four types were: fire, lava, smoke, and steam; these were evidently chosen by their creator* Martin Stollery (who became a scholar of British and European film studies) for their connections to heat and volcanism—volcanism being the prototypical source of mephitic vapors.

    Later game master-authors seemed to miss the original significance of the name “mephit.” The next mephit to appear was the ice type (in the adventure module “Eye of the Serpent”), which did not really fit the pattern. By second edition AD&D, there were also lightning mephits. More recently, they have been associated with the elemental, para-elemental, and quasi-elemental** planes, giving rise to types such as ooze, mineral, radiance, mist, and dust—none of which really fit the name.

    I personally have used the word mephitis in writing exactly once in my life:

    “As the battalions poured from their subterranean barracks, the mountain, Vawg Kreitsel, came alive. The enemy infused the peak with his strength. He possessed the rock and made it his—a part of himself. The crater became his jaws, the pipes and reservoirs his craw and gullet, the dens and hatcheries his bowels. The red magma was his blood and vomit, and the mephitis was his breath.”

    * Most of the monsters in the Fiend Folio were made up by British gamers, whose submissions originally appeared in the “Field Factory” feature in White Dwarf magazine.

    ** The para- and quasi-elemental planes are peculiarities of the AD&D multiverse, lying between the elemental planes or positive and negative energy planes. It’s not actually very interesting.

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