old english literature

old english literature

Exploring the Rich Tapestry of Old English Literature

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1. Introduction to Old English Literature

The Old English language and the literate and cultivated society it represents have a unique range and depth, if only because the relative unfamiliarity of the language tends to make its speakers both distant and ‘Other’. Anglo-Saxon literature overlaps with the so-called Dark Ages from the fifth to the tenth centuries and thus largely coincides – confusingly – with the period studied by Dark Age historians. However, as Old English was confined to the relatively small and relatively conservative society of the English-speaking peoples living in England, it has a coherence and consistency lacking in many of the more widely spread modern languages whose literatures have been the subject of more recent and detailed study. The high subject matter of much of Anglo-Saxon literature is adjuvant, and the physical remains of the ‘Dark Ages’ – the fretwork, the harps, the jewellery and the immense hoards of gold discovered on a melancholy basis in the last half-century or so – are indeed those of an unfamiliar world of half-tribal kings, wandering minstrels and bands of mailed warriors.

Few subjects can initially seem more strange than Old English. The student of any modern language will encounter Old English texts in a form that bears little outward resemblance to the language they are learning to speak. Native speakers of English might feel a vague cultural or familial affinity with them, but they are not required reading material at any stage in the education of English speakers. There are also few cultural institutions which appear to have less to do with their modern counterparts than Anglo-Saxon England does with the modern English-speaking world, so at first sight the need to learn all about Beowulf or the Wanderer may seem almost non-existent. Students may regard their university requirement to learn Old English as a necessary evil, rather like their obligation to write that campus novel or historical romance which had seemed such fun in their first week, and are then amazed to discover that Old English turns out to be one of the most interesting skills they will ever learn.

2. Key Literary Works and Authors

Authors who wrote in the vernacular either to explain Latin models or to show how Christians should understand their homogeneous world were few in number, but the few we do know of were prolific. First to write after the arrival of the West Saxons in the south were Aldhelm and Bede who wrote a variety of prose works as well as laws and poems that were of such quality that they could compete with their continental contemporaries; Ælfric must have known what he wrote about when he remarked of his predecessor, Aldhelm, we believe that blessed Aldhelm was adorned with the gift of writing for the enlightenment of the people of England. In the first years of the ninth century, the historical record is all but blank – a condition shared by most of England.

So far I have mentioned the names of several authors, and I would like, before going on, to go through the authors writing in the vernacular up to the time of Ælfric in order that we can consider a little more of the surviving prose at this stage, before going on in the next lecture to look at poetry. It is a fact that the Old English Ælfric not only wrote a great deal but also that a good deal of his work survives – and much of it would help us to place pre-Conquest England on the map as a literate culture, especially when we see to what extent Old English writing owed to the Latin legacy. In this sense, I find the attached genealogical table useful, in order to point out to my students how the line of Old English writing is a secondary line – or rather a line running alongside the more important one, the line of the West Saxon offshoot of the royal Anglo-Saxon house, which could assert its right to be considered the line of kings right up until it merged with other states and lost its individual character as a king line.

3. Themes and Motifs in Old English Literature

In this last case, the characters of interest will not be warriors or warriors who remain in peace, although they have already lived through many battles. Besides, the fight against monstrous enemies, the possession of supernatural forces, the practice of rites of an initiatory nature – which have some mythic elements involved – is also dominant in these texts.

The setting of the narrative is sometimes legendary, and sometimes historical, according to the traditions of the society where the poems were written. The most typical situation in the heroic poetry of the Germanic tradition is war, and this is indeed the setting of most examples of this group, which has been preserved in a reasonable measure in England. But not all heroic stories constitute war poetry, and for some, this aspect is not even relevant. There are narratives, for example, that revolve around the theme of obtaining a treasure, compassing the death of an enemy, and that expose how violent and unjust behaviors induce destiny to jealousy, thus sanctioning the resultant inertia.

Several poems present characters, situations, and deeds of the Germanic, and particularly, the Scandinavian heroic tradition. They tell tales of valor, loyalty, chivalry, duels against atrocious enemies, dynastic conflicts, exile, friendship, betrayal, revenge, and elaborate funeral rituals. The main focus of the narrative is a serious male character; very often his behaviors and feelings are described in some detail.

Old English literature is sometimes referred to as heroic poetry. Among the most characteristic elements of the Anglo-Saxon poetic language are a number of phrases and sentence structures that constantly recur. They serve as formulas to describe the characters and the different rituals of domestic occasions and public powers. The reiteration of phrases and sentence structures in varied combinations gives an impression of the tapestry being woven by the recurrent narrative. In contrast, public occasions are described by means of more ample and complex periods.

The Danes and the Themes of Heroic Poetry

4. The Influence of Old English Literature on Modern Works

Old English literature has been the theme of origin. It is one of chance, and of course, there is no way of measuring it. Whatsissname wrote great stuff, and Hisorherwhat wrote similar great stuff! What is needed, if more studies of the kind herein described are to be undertaken, is a theory somewhat more complex than the theory of origin which assumes all similarity to imply a genealogical relationship and then layers of intellectually responsible criteria for sifting evidence and establishing trends with reasonable certainty. We may never achieve complete certainty, but we can certainly try, and that, in the last analysis, is, after all, what Old English literature is all about.

One of the exciting things about Old English literature is its continuing influence. Long after the Normans came and brought with them the French language and all its literature, the English were continuing to read, enjoy, and copy in their own version of the Low German dialect. It is not quite true that the only English poet before Chaucer was a Frenchman, but clearly the natives could spin a good yarn, compose a beautiful sentence, or feel their darkest or most radiant hour rung soundly and sympathetically over a 35-line lyric. For more than a thousand years, many of the central stories and poems in that body of writing have been an active element in the cultural life of the English-speaking world. No one can seriously discuss the obscure term “good Samaritan” or seek to comprehend the metaphorical use of religion, dish that Beowulf stands unobtrusively in the neighborhood, smiling with that odd, rather wistful enigmatic half-smile, touching our experiences, recognizing that we are his heirs and still that we have not been able to comprehend him at all.

5. Conclusion: The Enduring Legacy of Old English Literature

Second, and far more influentially in terms of ‘the persistence of the past’, it is the existence of the self-evidently home-grown, distinctive, and rooted chronicle of early Germanic history, identity, and conflict that is perceived as both retold and created by Old English verse that demands engagement and reproduction. Indeed, that a version of our origin myths is, as it were, a home-produced product, has made them the subject of increasing interest to a culture frequently stimulated by questions of ‘Anglo-Saxon’ (a clumsy but enduring label) identity, heritage, and ‘race’, which both critiques the myth and recasts it for subsequent generations in a variety of often surprising ways. If you can see the stories that purport to show the interstitial origins of an English national identity in your collective past, then you might be able to create a communitarian future. Indeed, in general, it is probably as much through the politically charged use in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries of vernacular poems such as Deor, Wulf and Eadwacer, and The Ruin (the list can be easily extended) that the Old English period has been seen as truly ‘English’, and thus “become a concentrated rather than a constricted field for debate and re-orientation”. So the creation of ‘Beowulf’s afterlife’, in popular drama, fiction, poetry, and film, ‘transforms surviving few Old English poems from a minority pursuit into a signally public treasury’. Not a monument as enduring or global as St Paul’s, then, but a monument that is part of the profile of the nation; if you seek its monument, simply look at England!

For almost half a century, Christopher Wren’s epitaph in St. Paul’s Cathedral has proclaimed, in relation to the architect’s restoration of the cathedral following the Great Fire of London, ‘If you seek his monument, look around you’, and to a similar question about the most significant legacy of Old English literature, the answer must be—Old English. This is first because so many of its tropes, conventions, techniques, and subject matters have continued to inform and enrich English writing more than a millennium after it was composed, and especially, even after the erosion and virtual elimination of the medieval French, Latin, and Greek writing traditions with which it coexisted to a great extent while it was still being copied and preserved but translated and circulated. This meant that Old English carried something of a ‘cultural burden’ of past texts, necessarily anachronistic, which allowed it to seem a particularly ancient and elegiac language, especially in a Renaissance perspective that wanted to see it as a foundational literary vehicle. The threshold of change matters, however, and it is no coincidence that the popularity of ‘neo-Olde English’ poems such as Goldsmith’s The Deserted Village, many of the Midwest missionary epics, and much of ‘Beowulf’s afterlife’ poetry in the later nineteenth century occurred during a time of political and social upheaval that engaged people with the anxieties of migration and geographical change.

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