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Mapping Widsið

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One of the many interesting poems featured in the Exeter Book is the tale of Widsið, or "The Far-travelled One." Indeed, this poem is important for a number of reasons, not least of which being the fact that it is one of the places that testifies to the existence of several characters who are also found in Beowulf. As the poem acts more like a catalogue of places and tribes visited than anything else, a great deal is lost on modern audiences who often have very little knowledge of who many of the tribes were or where they may have lived. I have personally often wished that a map of the various places Widsið had visited existed, but I have looked online and in scholarly books and journals for years, never being able to find a map that could give me the scope of the poem. This seemed like the perfect opportunity to create something that would be of use to others who find themselves in a similar situation.

We are fortunate at this point in history to have as much access to geographical information as we do, and indeed to have it available wherever we might need it. Rather than spend a great deal of time learning how to map points on a physical document with precision, technologies like GIS (Geographical Information Systems) and even friendly navigation-centric mobile apps like Google Maps can provide a flexible, informative system that provides a great deal of information in a geo-centric model that is both highly accurate and (relatively) easy to assemble.

Gathering the Data

Software Required:

Google Sheets (part of the Google Docs suite of web-based office applications)

Since this project is very specifically the creation of a map of places listed in a poem, the most logical way to begin would be to assemble the data necessary for creating that map. I began by listing the various tribes in the poem, proceeding line by line, until I realized that such a list would be impossible to assemble in the limited amount of time I would have to work on this project during the semester. As a result, I drew an arbitrary line at line number 30; doing so limits the amount of work to about 20% of the poem while still providing the opportunity to work with information on over 20 tribes and their leaders, a project workload that would be far more realistic than the 142 lines in the entire poem and the matching increase in the number of locations.

My main source for this information was Kemp Malone's Widsith, the landmark etymological study of the work and the various places and peoples it lists. Although it was printed in 1963, Malone's work continues to be the single most important work on the subject to this day. Because part of this process was intended to be public in nature, however, I needed a better and more accessible source for most, if not all, of the tribes mentioned. For the purposes of online information and wide acceptance, I turned to Wikipedia as a natural linked source, although I was forced to go beyond to other, more academic sites on occasion.

From these sources, I gleaned a general location from descriptions relative to landmarks such as rivers and coastlines and chose a location (and its coordinates) using Google Earth, about which I will write more in the next section of this project. The result is a spreadsheet full of locations, poetic line references, scholarly citations, and live links to other sites. For the sake of transparency, I decided to put this information into a Google Sheet in order to share it with the rest of the world:

Although there is nothing remarkable about this data per se, it is worth considering for a moment that each of these locations (and the points that will be generated from them) are, at best, only generally accurate. These points, then, should not be understood as specific locations on the map, but rather as a placeholder for a general, broad location that, given more time and effort, could be rendered in an alternative, less precise way.

There are, of course, very good reasons for the information we have to be so vague; many of these tribes were nomadic or semi-nomadic, and even those locations that are very specific (Hroðgar's hall Heorot, for example) were constructed of wood, leaving very little chance for its presence to survive for twelve to fifteen centuries. Add to that the difficulty of dealing with tribes who themselves left little behind, either having been wiped out by war or illness or absorbed into a larger, stronger tribe, and the scant information that survives seems less and less likely to be tied to a single coordinate.

Future manifestations of this project will need to handle this difficulty somehow, possibly by representing each tribe not as an occupied area rather than a single point, but doing so creates problems of its own. The borders of these areas are rarely clean, so a great deal of overlap will be required, and as a result layer upon layer of these shapes will be added to the image, often making it difficult to view more than a few at a time. This will mean that each point will need to be entered into a sort of database and the map will need to be generated dynamically, responding to the queries of the user based on information like date, poem line, or even thula. This will, of course, require a great deal more learning and effort, but will be important in understanding the poem's geography.

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