Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Caedmon's Dream, Part I

Periodically, I rediscover an interest in Anglo-Saxon, or "Old English". This is yet another example of a road not taken, a blue remembered hill glimmering in the distance where, almost certainly, I shall now never live. Nevertheless, I still find myself from time to time idly browsing through the travel brochures.

Anglo-Saxon is the bane of those who study English at the older universities. Back in the days when English was first established as a subject of study at university level, there was much sneering at this new, soft subject. It would be little more than the swapping of subjective opinions about leisure reading, they said, mere "higher gossip". To counter these jibes, the curriculum was stiffened with a hefty dose of philology and, above all, the compulsory study of Anglo-Saxon. There, you mocking classicists, how's about that for a "soft" option, then?

From the series "Ring Hoard" *

Now, let us be clear. Old English is not the language of the Tudors, a familiar tongue quaintly bespattered with "thee", "thou", and "wherefore". Nor is it even the language of Chaucer, a vaguely familiar face seen in a distorting mirror. It is the name given to the dialects spoken by the Germanic tribes that invaded and settled the southern parts of these islands after the Roman legions caught the last bus home in the 5th century. It's about as different from modern English as a pig is from a sausage -- it takes some explanation to see how one has become the other.

Most students of English grit their teeth and get their Anglo-Saxon over with. It's a rite of academic passage equivalent to those Teutonic duelling scars. I think it would be fair to say most find the subject difficult, dreary, and demoralising. Anglo-Saxon is an inflected language, and tables of declensions and conjugations must be learned. As far as I know, no audio-visual immersive learning package has been developed for the language, and this is a bit of a shock for students brought up in modern classrooms. There are no interactive sessions on the PC, no friendly characters with instructive adventures to follow ("Lesson 6: The Alderman's wife has a wart charmed").

There is also, unfortunately, no Saxon Ovid to discover. Very few Old English texts have survived, and those that have are either Eeyore-ish moaning about the weather and the unfair fixity of fate, or strange texts re-upholstered with Christianized stretch covers, through which pagan patterns still peep (rather like churches in South America where ancient local gods are worshipped under the names of Catholic saints). It can be a glum prospect, a bleak upland barrier to the lush valleys of Keats and Shakespeare beyond.

I wish I could say "good teaching helps", but it usually doesn't. Scholars of Anglo-Saxon tend to be specialists, and -- like all enthusiasts -- they can be engaging personally, but tend to ignore the fact that the perceived attractions of their subject are often the very same elements that others find less than compelling. Listening to a recorded reading of Beowulf -- which is rather like listening to someone trying to read the weather forecast with a mouthful of salty gravel -- is not the seductive experience it is imagined by some to be.

Unless, that is, you have some predisposition. As did the young W.H. Auden when he heard J.R.R. Tolkien recite a passage of Beowulf: "I was spellbound. This poetry, I knew, was going to be my dish". It also helps if you have studied German, and already coped with the grammar of Latin.

If you can imagine yourself wielding a spear in the battle line at Maldon, or scratching away at manuscripts in a monastery at Whitby, or if you can respond to the atavistic allure of a tribal time, embodied in the gorgeous, gaudy treasures of Sutton Hoo, then you may find much of interest in the pages of Sweet's Anglo-Saxon Reader and the volumes of the Early English Text Society, where the footnotes swarm over the text like ivy over ruins.

From the series "Ring Hoard"

So, I think of Anglo-Saxon as an interesting stopover in the Great Three Year Trek through Eng Lit. A place where I thought, "I could live here, if I had to. Perhaps, some day, who knows, maybe I'll come back". But then our little company crested the brow of that bleak hill, and we were gazing upon the fertile fields below, where sonnets grazed and great novels sparkled in the sun.

Next: Bede and the venerable sparrow.

* The images in the "Ring Hoard" series are my only substantial venture, so far, into digital imaging. These images are "lens-based", but clearly the result of much spell-casting in PhotoShop.


Kent Wiley said...

Pretty hilarious entry, Mike.

"Eeyore-ish moaning about the weather and the unfair fixity of fate, or strange texts re-upholstered with Christianized stretch covers,"

"we were gazing upon the fertile fields below, where sonnets grazed and great novels sparkled in the sun."

Laughed my ass off. Whoops, it's around here somewhere...

Martin H. said...

I agree with Kent. And a lyrical departure from your usual style.

An interesting post.

Struan said...

There's always Norse and Celtic to round off the traditional trio. Some ripping yarns in the sagas.

Do you find your Anglo Saxon helps much with reading the landscape? For me, learning modern Swedish has opened up a world of associations and references in the Danelaw and the Norse-influenced parts of Scotland. Similarly the bits of geographic Gaelic I have picked up over the years. I would have thought Hampshire a good place to go map-reading in deep time.

Mike C. said...

Thanks, guys, glad to lighten your day (though this site recognizes no claims of personal injury due to unsupervised and reckless laughter).


"Some ripping yarns in the sagas" Indeed there are -- you get the impression that the dear old Angles, Saxons and Jutes never quite understood the story-telling thing -- perhaps that's why they lit out for the offshore islands, deeply embarrassed by poor showings in the mead hall.

Mind you, we have probably lost vast chunks of their literature -- Beowulf itself exists in a single manuscript which was literally plucked from the flames in the 18th c.

"Do you find your Anglo Saxon helps much with reading the landscape?" You'd have to be a better student than me to get etymological with place-names, beyond the usual "-burgh", "-ton" vs. "-thorpe" and "-by".

Besides, the sheer banality of most English place-name interpretation (Oxford, "a place where oxen could cross the river") makes it an unexciting pursuit... The native Britons were far more imaginative in their namings. There's a wonderful waterfall in mid-Wales called (in English) "Water-Break-its-Neck". No doubt the Saxons would have called it, um, "big waterfall".


Struan said...

Writing your literature down makes it dependent on the survival of libraries. Oral transmission might be imperfect, but it's robust.

Scotland still has professional itinerant storytellers, mostly funded through local councils. My children sat, entranced, through the "King of the Cats" as if it were the Wrath of Achilles or the Mahabharata.

I've been reading a lot of post-ice-age geography and paleoecology. A surprising number of the place names from my Hampshire youth turn out to be Anglo Saxon for woodland features. Surprising to me, of course - I'm sure it's common knowledge elsewhere. 'Hurst' and 'lee' are two common ones.

That said, place names are a bit like opera, much better when in a language you barely comprehend.

Mike C. said...

I'd have thought the reverse was usually the case, in the "oral v. written" contest. Beowulf was clearly passed on by oral "scaldic" tradition, but only survives because someone bothered to write it down. Ditto the Mabinogion, etc.

Cultural changes mean that people quickly get bored with the old ways -- I think it was Cecil Sharp who said that a good test of the authenticity of a folk tradition was how bored the folk looked who were performing it... If they were clearly having a good time, you needed to suspect Victorian re-invention.

I'd bet that those council-funded storytellers got their tales out of the library, not down the pub...


Struan said...

Bah humbug.

The storyteller we saw was good. Good enough that it doesn't really matter where he got his tales from - he was a performer, not a vault. Which is precisely why it was so interesting that his tales were the same old old ones, given that he could have spun pretty well any story and been just as entertaining. I expect there's an element of guild pride that keeps the Disney characters at bay, but that can't be the whole picture.

Popular culture is that river you can never step in twice. Drinking and dancing seem perennial, but always renewing themselves for the next generation. Amen to that: mead is a very, very acquired taste.

Mike C. said...


I have nothing against storytellers (though clowns and mime artists are a different matter), but I am skeptical of most claims of continuity or authenticity in oral traditions in Britain, and I am more than skeptical of anyone born since 1940 who claims to be "continuing" (as opposed to "reviving" or "inventing") a tradition.

Unless, of course, that tradition is dancing to the latest tunes, clothed in the latest fashions.

Did you ever come across the book "Fakesong: The Manufacture of British Folk Song, 1700 to the Present Day" by Dave Harker? Harker was writing out of a Trotskyist perspective, but his challenge to the appropriation of pop culture into a "tradition" by the likes of Cecil Sharp was well made at the time (1985), in the face of the downright delusional fakery of the various British folksong revivals. I speak as an authentic late-60s folkie.

If it's continuity, authenticity and tradition we want -- at least on a limited historical scale -- I suspect BEER may be the place to look. May I recommend the books and website of old friend Martyn Cornell:


And, yes, I can confirm that mead is disgusting. At least, as re-invented for the tourist shops of Lindisfarne...


Struan said...

I agree. The invention of tradition is a continuing phenomenon. It seems to take about a hundred years before people start claiming barefaced that a known invented thing was descended from the Dark Ages.

And yet. Small things can persist in a remarkable way. In Northumberland and the Borders I have always been surprised at how short a space separates completely different speech patterns. 'Pet' turns to 'hen' in the space of a mile or so, even among incomers.

Swedish bagpipers acknowledge that they had to make a new tradition from scratch, as revivalist movements wiped out the active playing of the instrument over a couple of generations. The tunes exist, either written down or in the fiddle repertoire, but playing styles are guesswork.

I have a visceral hatred of folk music with swelling synth in the background, but I love the sheer standout oddness of things like this:


I liked the beer link, especially the post where mead is described as the drink drunk in Hell. I have tried the Lindisfarne stuff, but life is too short to give it house room. I'm a cider man at heart - all those climbing trips to N. Wales left their mark.

I plan to plant a whitty pear in our front garden. Coppiced, of course.