Deor may be the name of an Anglo-Saxon scop (pronounced “shop,” a kind of early English minstrel or bard), or it may be a pseudonym. It literally means something like “wild animal” and may refer to the poet’s low or “wild” station.
Whoever this was, he left behind a poem called (conveniently enough) “Deor,” or sometimes “The Lament of Deor,” though the surviving text doesn’t have a title. It is found in a tenth-century manuscript known as the Exeter Book. It may have been meant to be proclaimed aloud, possibly in a mixture of singing and spoken word, accompanied by a lyre. Some scholars maintain that it was only a literary work, written in imitation of oral poems that no longer survive. In any case, the poem gives an account of some of the great tragedies and hardships of a number of folks from Anglo-Saxon and Germanic literature and legend, as can be seen in the opening lines:
Wayland experienced torment from serpents [swords?]
The strong-minded noble, he endured hardships,
Sorrow and longing were his companions,
In wintry exile, he often found misery …
Cheerful stuff. The full story that this particular verse refers to is told in the tongue-twisting Völundarkviða poem, from Old Norse (the language of the Vikings), and it is much worse than the brief excerpts related here. It was a story well known by the Germanic, Viking, and Anglo-Saxon peoples, who had many shared myths and cultural traditions.
Back to the “Deor” poem: it recounts various examples of suffering. Another verse reads:
We have heard of Eormanric’s wolfish mind;
He ruled men in many places
In the Goths’ realm—that was a grim king.
Many a man was surrounded by sorrows,
Expecting misery, he often wished
That the kingdom would be overcome.
That went by, so may this.
Each verse always ends with the same line: “That went by [or passed away], so may this.”
The stanzas revel in short stories of misery and death, telling us that the poet wishes “this” to pass away also, as these other sorrows did. So, what is the mysterious “this” that the poet alludes to? We find out in the last section, where he reveals that he was once an exalted poet to a lord who was dislodged from his position by someone else:
I will say this of myself:
For some time I was the Heodenings’ poet,
Dear to my lord, my name was “Deor.”
For many years I had a good position,
And a loyal lord until now that Heorrenda,
The man skilled in song, has received the estate
That the warriors’ guardian had given to me.
That went by, so may this.
That’s it. That’s the great tragedy. He was fired, laid off, given the boot; that’s the equivalent of all of these other heroic tragedies. Mass murder, imprisonment, torture, tyranny, unwanted pregnancy from a rape … all of that is easy, but losing his job? Now we’re talking disaster. To be fair, when and if such a thing happened, the scop couldn’t just go down to the local Anglo-Saxon dole office at the end of the village and collect a bagful of coins for a few weeks. Being cast out of a lord’s service could be akin to banishment, along with the shame that accompanied such a fate, and there was no guarantee of being accepted elsewhere. So maybe he does have a right to whine after all.
Actually, the writer probably wasn’t giving us his autobiography. The entire work is a fiction, with mythological content and probable ironic intent. Indeed, in this final verse, the poet speaks of being set out on his wretched path by the gods and serving mythical lords. He says Heorrenda, one of the names for the god Woden (Odin), has greater skill. Of course he does; Odin was the god of poets and verse-makers as well as war (the two often went hand in hand in that culture, with poetry existing to exalt the deeds of warriors). Really, Deor never had a chance; who can compete with a god, especially the god of the very same skill as the poet?
So, was “Deor” a real person giving some kind of odd autobiography laced with mythic imagery, perhaps to hide the real names of those whom he served and his replacement? Or is it all merely a clever literary device written in imitation of earlier oral poems and songs? We don’t know for certain, but it makes for a fascinating glimpse into the possible world of Anglo-Saxon performance, and its stirring imagery is written in the words that are roots of our modern English language.