Exeter Book

Exeter Book Summary and Analysis of "Deor"


Weyland was a strong man, and he was used to suffering, longing, and "wintry exile." One time, a lesser man, Nithhad, captured him and bound him with tendons. However, Weland overcame that particular hardship, and the narrator will also be able to overcome his struggles.

Beadohild had also experienced sorrow in her life, especially when her brothers died. However, she experienced an even higher level of distress when she found out that she was pregnant. She knew that nothing good could come out of that situation. However, Beadohild surmounted this obstacle, and the narrator believes that he can do the same.

The narrator next presents the example of Geat, who was in love with Maethild. Geat's love soon grew too great for him to withstand, and he was no longer able to sleep. He managed to overcome this barrier, and similarly, the narrator will overcome his.

Everyone knew about Theodric, who was the ruler of the Maering stronghold for thirty years. He conquered his struggles, and the narrator will attain a similar outcome.

Ermanaric had a "wolfish" mind and ruled over the realm of the Goths. During his reign, however, many of the warriors in the kingdom began to despair. They longed for the day that Ermanaric would be overthrown. Ermanaric overcame the difficulties of his reign, and the narrator will similarly be able to withstand the challenges in his own life.

The narrator goes on to share his belief that when a man is sorrowful and has no pleasure in his life, the sadness can consume him. This man may start to believe that God above follows a shrewd pattern of granting glory to some men and heaping sadness on others.

Finally the narrator reveals his identity and shares his own story. He was formerly known as Deor, and served as a scop for the Heodeningas. He was a favorite of his kind lord. Although Deor served faithfully for many years, he was ousted and replaced by Heorrenda, a skillful bard. The narrator claims that he was able to overcome that struggle, and he hopes that he will be able to remain resilient.


"Deor" is a heroic Anglo-Saxon poem consisting of 42 lines. It is the only poem from the Anglo-Saxon era in which stanzas are used for artistic effect, and only one of two poems (the other being "Wulf and Eadwacer") that has a refrain. "Deor" has six strophes (stanzas) of unequal length, and the refrain, "That passed away, this may also" concludes each strophe. "Deor" is included in The Exeter Book, but its subject matter indicates that it could have been written much earlier than the other poems in the book. Some critics have also posited that "Deor"'s unusual structure, which has more in common with Old Norse poetry than Old English poetry, means that it could actually be a translation of an older verse.

Scholars have found it difficult to place "Deor" in a specific genre. Some call it a lament, an elegy, or even a "begging poem," meaning that it was written by an itinerant begging poet without an official place in a court. There are, however, some similarities between "Deor" and two of the other poems in Exeter Book, "The Seafarer" and "The Wanderer". Despite these theories, "Deor" is a challenge to study because certain parts of the third and fourth stanzas defy easy translation, and thus, it is difficult to ascertain the poet's tone and intent.

It is important for contemporary readers to understand the historical references in "Deor" before analyzing the multiple interpretations of the poem. All of the characters in the poem are historical or mythical figures that readers would have likely been familiar with. In the first stanza, the narrator refers to Weyland, who is the Old Norse Goldsmith/God. Weyland was imprisoned by his enemy, King Nithhad, who forced him do manual labor. The narrator refers to Weyland's physical restraints, which invokes the old Norse practice of hamstringing prisoners and binding their limbs with animal tendons. The story of Weyland is that he escaped from prison, killed Nithhad's sons, raped the king's daughter, Beadohild, and then escaped capture on metal wings that he forged. The second stanza follows this traditional narrative, as the narrator describes Beadohild's despair at being impregnated by the man who killed her brothers. In the third stanza, the narrator describes how the powerful love between Geat and Maethild takes a physical toll on Geat. There is no available historical information on the origins of this tale. In the fourth stanza, the narrators mentions the rule of Theodric, who was King of the Ostrogoths from 471-526 CE. The poem implies that his reign was tumultuous, but there is little information available to support or deny this claim. In the fifth stanza, the narrator describes Ermanaric, a bellicose Gothic ruler who died in 376 CE.

Literary scholar Jerome Mandel wrote an article aimed at helping modern readers to interpret "Deor". Mandel believes that the poem was designed to teach, not to console. The poet unites each of the five sections using his description of misery. In each stanza, the character feels physical and spiritual misery that involves separation or isolation of some kind. Each anecdote exemplifies a moral that the audience would have been familiar with: that God gives to some and takes from others. By concluding each stanza with the same refrain, the narrator asks the audience to identify with the example in question and recognize their own misfortunes.

In the first stanza, the narrator emphasizes Weyland's physical suffering. He is an exile, and while his mind is indeed troubled, the most salient aspect of his tale is his bodily misfortune. As an exile, Weyland is physically limited. The methods of binding Weland's flesh would have been familiar to an Anglo-Saxon audience, and the image is intended to make them recognize that it is possible to overcome physical suffering. In the second stanza, which invokes the same Norse legend, Beadohild's suffering is cognitive and spiritual. After being raped by the man who killed her brothers, she discovers that she is pregnant. Beadohild is entirely aware of the severity of her plight, but eventually manages to conquer her mental anguish, although the poem does not reveal how she does this.

In the third stanza, the narrator mentions the brief and ambiguous affair between the unfamiliar lovers Geat and Maethild. Somehow, Geat is sleepless as a result of their love, but somehow gets over it. Mandel offers a few different interpretations of the fourth stanza, which is about Theodric's rule. Even though the poem describes Theodric's leadership as "tyrannical rule and therefore woe for the people," the narrator invokes Theodric's woe instead of his kingdom's. This could be because Theodric "ruled Maeringaburg for thirty years and then his rule came to an end," or because he was isolated for thirty years from his people. Mandel himself believes the latter, that Theodric was a good king in exile, and eventually he got over the misery of his separation from his people. In the fifth stanza, the narrator mentions the relationship between Ermanaric and his warriors. According to Mandel, this stanza "epitomizes a particular kind of misfortune which, in time, can pass away. This misfortune involves a separation of the king from his people; they are not in accord as they ought to be in a well run kingdom." In this stanza, the scop, or poet, is trying to appeal his audiences' experience, since many viewers would have been familiar with the torment of exile.

Finally, in the last stanza, the poet employs the traditional Anglo-Saxon maneuver of transitioning from personal description to a more general address. The narrator explains that no matter how terrible a man's sorrow might be, it will pass, because God always changes things, evidenced by the alleviations of suffering in the earlier stanzas. The narrator also claims that although it can seem that God allows some to prosper and some to suffer, even those who are blessed will eventually see their good fortune fade. The narrator offers his own experience to illustrate that principle. Deor lost everything that was dear to him - his lord, his position- and now he is experiencing woe. However, he knows that his pain will pass. Mandel concludes that the poem "is remarkable for the way in which it involves the listener, asking him to recognize first his own suffering in terms of the suffering of others and then his own life in terms of a principle of change."