Archive for ‘Old English’


“Driving ’round the city rings, staring at the shape of things…”

“While contemporary poets tend to sneer at the riddle as a genre, riddles continue to be a guilty pleasure for the public, particularly for millions of lovers of Tolkien and Rowlings,” writes poet A.M. Juster in Saint Aldhelm’s Riddles, a new translation of the work of a seventh-century abbot and monk who certainly knew better. Committed to shoring up Christianity in Anglo-Saxon realms, Aldhelm composed the Aenigmata, a collection of 100 Latin riddles. Layered in allegory, these deceptively simple poems provided pleasure in their own right but could also kindle profound conversations about the omnipresence of God. As Juster points out, Aldhelm “accomplished something that had not been done before: he lured readers closer to an unfamiliar God with literature infused with warmth, wit, and wonder.” Few non-scholars have read Aldhelm’s riddles, but Juster is eager to bring the Aenigmata to new audiences with what he hopes is a “fair yet fun” translation that “gives nonclassicists a faithful literary version of Aldhelm’s masterpiece that mimics the many joys of this text.”

Juster first tackles Aldhelm’s challenging preface, a preposterous 36-line double acrostic. In the original, the first letters of each line spell out, in Latin, “Aldhelm composed a thousand lines in verse,” while the last letters of each line spell the same message—in reverse. “I duplicated the acrostic,” Juster writes, “but freely admit that duplicating both the acrostic and the telestich [the end-of-line acrostic – J.S.] was too much for my poetic bag of tricks.” Only a jerk could hold this “failure” against him, especially since he offers intriguing theories about why (other than the thrill of the challenge) Aldhelm composed a double acrostic in the first place. Juster suggests that Aldhelm means to out-Irish the Irish, who loved these kinds of linguistic and textual games, while perhaps further tweaking them by satirizing ancient satires, something they lacked the primary sources to do.

These musings, apparently Juster’s own, may open interesting new doors for scholars of Anglo-Saxon verse—but this speculation shouldn’t scare off modern readers who don’t give a fig about academic debates. Juster has a light, lovely touch and a masterful command of tone—both honed, I suspect, by his classical know-how and his commitment to form and lucidity in English verse.

Although Latin hexameters possess a languid dignity that English pentameter can’t quite capture, Juster does a terrific job of paying tribute to Aldhelm’s style. When he can, he echoes the monk’s fondness for alliteration and internal rhyme, and he follows Aldhelm by usually avoiding enjambment—that is, Aldhelm tends to stop each line at its end to form a complete syntactic unit. In one of his few major concessions to the modern ear, Juster adds end-rhyme, a decision I heartily endorse.

Aided by a technically adept translator who cares about creating a good poem in the target language, Aldhelm can still amuse and intrigue readers more than thirteen centuries on. Here’s Riddle 2:

Cernere me nulli possunt prendere palmis;
Argutum vocis crepitum cito pando per orbem.
Viribus horrisonis valeo confringere quercus;
Nam, superos ego pulso polos et rura peragro.

No one can hold me in his palms or sight:
I scatter sudden clatter far and wide.
I want to hammer oaks with mournful might;
Yes, I strike sky and scour countryside.

Juster captures the sense of Aldhelm’s original, but look at what he’s done to polish this gem of his own. He interlaces three dense sets of assonance and rhyme: scatter, clatter, and hammer; no, hold, and oaks; and sight, wide, might, strike, sky, and side. Alliteration between these groups further knits together all four lines: sky, scatter, and scour; mournful and might; and sudden, sight, and side. To appreciate Juster’s artistry, you don’t need to be a poet. You don’t even need to be fluent in English. Recite it; feel how its complex structure rolls off the teeth and tongue with pleasing, elemental ease.

If I wanted a threatening letter from the University of Toronto Press legal team, I’d reprint the two dozen “Juster Aldhelms” I most enjoyed. Two will have to suffice. This one, which is easy to solve, shows off Aldhelm’s ability to combine astrology, etymology, natural history, and perhaps a Biblical allusion:

Dubbed “scorpion” by Romans of the past,
I walk wet beaches of the foaming ocean
And cross the seafloor with a backwards motion,
And yet high Heaven’s decked out when I rise,
Along with twelve red stars, into the skies,
Which makes the oysters, scared of stones, aghast.

Some of Aldhelm’s riddles will baffle modern readers, but those who know a little about ancient scribes may figure out this one:

I got my start from honey-laden bees,
And yet my outside part has grown from trees;
Tough leather made my shoes. An iron spike
Now cuts my gorgeous face and wanders like
A plow that’s carving furrows into rows,
But lays down fruitful seed from Heaven’s field
Where, from vast harvests, countless bounty grows.
Alas, cruel arms destroy the holy yield!

Page after page, lovely little poems enshrine silkworms, serpents, scales, leeches, spices, celestial bodies, bubbles, a pillow, the Minotaur—all of which embody, as Juster convincingly argues, Aldhelm’s “insistent vision that close attention to the mysteries of our pedestrian world can lead us closer to the mysteries of God’s world and God Himself.” Aldhelm’s riddles all have answers, but they stir greater, more challenging questions—especially Riddle 90, a tiny, four-line heartbreaker about a woman giving birth to twins for which there’s no easy answer in any age.

Of course, Juster’s book isn’t just a translation; with its 3:4 ratio of text to endnotes, it’s also one-stop shopping for anyone who wants a fresh introduction to the scholarship on these riddles. Juster is famously fond of light verse, so his endnotes, while perfectly professional, are far from a snooze. In the notes for Riddle 8, he points out that “[t]he word dominam (‘mistress’) suggests here a slaveowner, not a participant in amorous adventures.” When explaining the history of Biblical mistranslation that inspired the legend of the ant-lion, the hybrid spawn of an ant and a lion, Juster fans himself in mock relief that “the mechanics of such unions are, thankfully, unclear.” He calls out one scholar who “savages” these riddles through politicized, hyper-sexualized “forced overreading”; Aldhelm, he insists, composed his unicorn and lighthouse riddles “blissfully unaware of Freudian psychology.” And when Juster suggests that Aldhelm may see the peppercorn as a metaphor for the relationship between the body and the soul, he is content to allow that “[p]erhaps sometimes pepper is just pepper.”

The notes to Saint Aldhelm’s Riddles are rich in obscure lore. Juster brings to light the wonderful belief that goat blood could dull a diamond, and he identifies “what may be the first example in British literature of a joke at the expense of the French.” There’s even a charming bonus poem: Juster’s own translation of “Eucheria’s Impossibilities,” which he bills as “the oldest extant humorous poem in Latin by a woman.” Juster even taught me a new Old English term, the word for a dung beetle, tordwifel—literally, “turd-weevil.” If I were translating the poems of an Anglo-Saxon monk, I’d sure as heck encourage that philological novelty to scuttle through my endnotes pages too.

As a writer and researcher who relies on many books like this one, I could register a complaint or two. I would have liked a more thorough indexing of the terms and proper names that pop up in the notes, and sometimes I wanted more background than the notes provided. (Don’t tempt me with the promise of insight into Scylla’s “canine name” only to send me hunting for an article in an Italian e-journal.) Still, my gripes are minor, and I’d rather bestow kudos upon the University of Toronto Press for making sure that those of us who’d never spring $65 for the hardcover version of Saint Aldhelm’s Riddles could immediately enjoy the paperback or Kindle editions for less than $30.

Riddles may be dismissed as trifles today, but Aldhelm reminds us that a clever poet can use them to make a sophisticated case for a wondrous and joyful coherence in the world. This is the first translation of his riddles meant to be read for pleasure, and I hope it will be. In Juster’s hands, Aldhelm is once again serious fun.

“We’ll find the speck of truth in each riddle…”

When you write a blog that focuses mostly on medievalism and poetry, you accept that you dwell in a narrow and unnoticed niche. Then a book subtitled “Eight Medievalist Poets” lands in your lap, and you revel in the rare pleasure of finally being somebody’s ideal reader. Published by Stairwell Books, a tiny but prolific Yorkshire-centric press, New Crops from Old Fields summons medievalists from Britain and America, most of them scholars of literature, and bids them sing. The resulting poems are often bookish, but not academic; they’re as vital as the era behind them once was.

Editor and contributor Oz Hardwick, for example, plays with a motley assortment of medieval tropes: pagan fertility, Christian prayer, Arthurian visions, Germanic adventurers—you name it. I can’t tell if his “Journey from the West” is a translation from an Old Norse poem by Sigvatr Þórðarson or just inspired by it, but this moving paean to homecoming after travel and toil is just serpentine enough to evoke skaldic poetry without being cryptic and cramped:

Wind’s servant, across the shifting hills
I return, richer in words and welcomes,
giving gifts undiminishing, gaining
grace of place, proud amongst peers.

I have fared far, fought clinging coils
of earth’s duplicitous dragon, found
home, the giver of true gifts:
one word resolves all riddles.

Another poem, “The Seafarer’s Return,” blurs the rhyme schemes of two types of sonnets and staggers the meter to capture the relief and grace of a second, harder-earned homecoming:

At your door I stand, tongue tied in weed,
footsore, with blistered palms and a distant stare,
my shoulders stooped with the weight of my journey. I need
more than I can ask. But first, share
these far-gathered gifts of shell and stone
whose value resides in the grace of you alone.

In Hardwick’s poetry, life teems just beneath the surface: the Green Man wakes for sex and then slumbers, obscene wooden beasts cavort in the choir at a Belgian basilica, and we beg to behold the true nature of things:

And I pray: not for the voice, not
for the touch, taste, sight, smell
of sound, but for the sharp annunciation
of fire, the heart’s bright kindling,
the understanding beyond understanding.

Hardwick’s craving for the cosmic highlights the fact that in an era of Ren faires, cosplay, and fantasy LARPing, popular medievalism often omits a crucial aspect of the Middle Ages—but in New Crops from Old Fields, religion is omnipresent. Hannah Stone, an expert on eastern Christianity, contributes poems inspired by desert hermits and the Council of Chalcedon in A.D. 451, where “stiff robes chafe; their doctrines / don’t sit comfortably, either.” She’s capable of a lighter touch, too, as she shows in a funny, Browning-like soliloquy about a cat in a Mercian church, and in a poem that culminates in a call to pray for the soul of Worcester pilgrim reduced to a headless skeleton in boots.

Other pilgrims pace restlessly through this book: Jane Beal finds poetry when she visits landmarks in Rome, but her most striking entry in New Crops from Old Fields consists solely of questions Muslims and Jews asked her in the Holy Land. The poem is a remarkable distillation of the sort of grace and charity a pilgrimage should foster: a diminution of the self, and the generosity of letting others speak. Throughout her poetry, Beal makes the medieval personal—a fox on the roadside reminds her of the Reynard of fable, and she writes in the voices of Caedmon and Dante—and her destination is the answer to an intimate question: “What shape does the shadow of my life form / when I take my stand in the light of God?”

Likewise, Joe Martyn Ricke recounts his eagerness to observe the celebration of Our Lady of Guadalupe, which is how he finds himself in an Indiana church “with what felt like half a million Mexicans, / I mean at least a hundred of us standing and only one of us a very tall gringo.” His pilgrimage culminates in manic, ecstatic verse that wavers between dreamlike and drunk:

And it’s not exactly a miracle that everything smells like roses,
since there are perhaps a New Year’s Day parade’s worth of them
piled together under her feet. And, yes, sometimes the celestial music
is slightly out of tune or the trumpets are just obviously showing off.
But it really doesn’t matter about the roses or the guitars or the outfits
because you find yourself mumbling,
I’ve been bleeding a long time. Such a long time.

Elsewhere, Ricke takes a 15th-century lyric about Adam and “translates” it into a rambling, Beat-like poem that name-checks Harry Belafonte, while his “Four Sinful Hymns for the Love of Saint Mary Magdalene” imagine the biblical figure’s conversion and salvation from her own perspective, gritty and physical. Ricke is more playful than the other overtly religious poets in this book, but he’s never irreverent; his earthy exuberance is worthy of Chaucer.

Several poets in this collection show a strong commitment to form. M. Wendy Hennequin retells the story of Andromache as an Anglo-Saxon poet might have done, in lines that resemble Old English alliterative verse. In the rhyme-royal septets of “The Bard’s Tale,” an Irish maiden appears at Camelot at Christmastime and tells a story that astounds King Arthur. Her tale ends on an emotionally ambiguous note, as if it really were composed in another, less knowable time. “My scholar attempts to understand the past; my poet tries to sing with them,” Hennequin explains, and her knack for the latter is clear in a light and lovely ballade for a scribe who joyfully works through the night:

How glorious the colors, green and gold,
The black and scarlet, purple and the blue!
Though deep the night and bitter bites the cold,
And candles smoke, and colors shine untrue,
My dancing hands a woman’s face imbue
With living truth of spirit and of sight.
My hands in darkness work; my heart, in light.

Working furtively is a recurring theme in this book. I recalled Jane Chance from assigned readings in a graduate seminar on Beowulf, but I hadn’t known she was a poet; appropriately, her medieval-inspired poetry laments the strain of conflicting roles. In “The Night the Books Fell,” a shelf collapses when a retired scholar is a continent away. The ponderousness of her scholarly responsibilities by “the tough edge of discipline / slackened,” she is

relieved of the obligation
of learnedness
and granted the divine gift of
pleasure in being
simply
human.

In another poem, Chance gives voice to the unicorn in a tapestry at the Met. Chained to a tree, he too feels the weight of his work and is “tired of being symbolic”:

He’d like to sleep a little, or play with others,
leave town and get a little dirty,
have a cool drink, find a girl,
let down his horn.

Burdened scholars, restrained beasties, weary French women, moat-encircled ladies, costumes and masks—Chance’s take on academic life is poignant and personal but not self-pitying. “Given scholars’ training to maintain objectivity and the life of the mind, medievalism helps create an imaginary shield against personal revelation,” she warns in her introduction, but that doesn’t diminish the optimism of “Aventure,” in which a young knight sets out amid “the sun bursting on the horizon / like a promise / in the long summer of his youth.” Another poem, concise and original, likens the migration of animals on the Serengeti to the stained-glass sunlight and sense of belonging inside a cathedral. It also prompts a question: Is the Serengeti the subject, or the Gothic nave? The answer doesn’t matter: balancing them is the point, and Chance writes with a freedom and lightness for not having to choose between “you and the wildebeests / in endless repetition, season in and season out, / natural music in time, in time.”

Other poets in this collection wear their medievalism less showily, using the past to buttress poems about the here and now. Imitating Anglo-Saxon alliterative lines, Pam Clements casts snowy owls as feathered Vikings to dramatize the birds’ migration in vast numbers from the Arctic to the northeastern United States. In “Anhaga,” she draws upon words and concepts from Old English poetry for the lament of a Yankee in the antebellum South who sounded to me like a battlefield ghost:

Palmettos clap thin plats
where wind should keen and wail
that anyone so loved should have the gall to die.

Here, the go bare-legged in November
in fleshy-bosomed air
Anhaga, eardstapa —
it might be any season.

In “Wodewose,” Clements uses the Green Man, “Lord of Kudzu / and Dandelion,” to evoke the fecundity and lushness of a springtime trail, but the poem could easily be read with no understanding of the title—but then I think an adventurous reader could easily enjoy New Crops from Old Fields without any background in the Middle Ages at all. If published elsewhere, the eerie personal verses of A.J. Odasso probably wouldn’t strike most readers as the work of a medievalist, but they’re precise, haunting dream-visions with diction and alliteration inspired by late medieval poets. Odasso’s inclusion makes a worthwhile point: the medieval often lingers well below the surface, where it nourishes something peculiar and new.

If I were forced at sword-point to gripe about New Crops from Old Fields, I might mention the introductions provided by each poet: most of them are too jargony and too reluctant to let the poetry stand on its own. But so what? The range and heft of these poems surprised me—and as someone with a bias toward formalism, I was cheered to find free verse that was free for good poetic reasons. As scholars who work line by line through texts in eldritch languages, these poets brood over words—what they mean, what they insinuate, how they sound on the tongue. What they do with that lore is delightful. The Middle Ages are a golden trove strewn with trinkets and bones; this book proves it’s a blessing instead of a curse.

“Bless with a hard heart those who surround me…”

After A Brief History of Time, Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf must be one of the least-read bestsellers of the past 50 years. When Heaney’s translation came out in 2000, co-workers and acquaintances who heard about it on NPR asked me if they should read it, and the “should” struck me as odd; “do as thou wilt” really ought to be the whole of the law when it comes to recreational reading. (NPR’s capacity for instilling status anxiety is remarkable. They run a piece about Serbian gusle rhapsodies, and the next day every upper-middle-class white person in America has always been into Serbian gusle rhapsodies, or wants to seem to have been…)

With last month’s debut of Tolkien’s 1926 prose translation of Beowulf, the New Yorker published a smart but lengthy non-review by Joan Acocella, who doesn’t so much evaluate the book as provide a backgrounder for the same anxious culture mavens who need to bluff their way through the chitchat of the moment. Slate went there, too, with a piece headed “Is Tolkien’s Beowulf Translation Better Than Heaney’s?” The contrast isn’t very interesting: Heaney was commissioned by W.W. Norton to create a readable new poem from a language he only barely understood; Tolkien translated the poem from a language he knew well into English prose for his own edification.

What’s more, Tolkien composed his prose Beowulf when he was 34, before spending decades teaching the poem and reflecting on its larger meaning. This new 425-page volume includes that translation, plus more than 200 pages of commentary edited from Tolkien’s later lecture notes and 80 pages of previously unseen Beowulf-themed stories. It’s a curious melange, and the author’s son Christopher seems eager to lower readers’ expectations. “The present work should best be regarded as a ‘memorial volume,’ a ‘portrait’ (as it were) of the scholar in his time, in words of his own,” he writes in the introduction, calling his father’s translation a “vivid personal evocation of a long-vanished world.”

But is Tolkien’s Beowulf a good read—and if so, for whom? Well, here’s an excerpt, the aftermath of Grendel’s first attack on the Danes:

The glorious king, their price proven of old, joyless sat: his stout and valiant heart suffered and endured sorrow for his knights, when men had scanned the footprints of that foe, the demon cursed; too bitter was that strife, too dire and weary to endure! Nor was it longer space than but one night ere he wrought again cruel murders more, and grieved not for them, his deeds of enmity and wrong—too deep was he therein.  Thereafter not far to seek was the man who elsewhere more remote sought him his couch and a bed among the lesser chambers, since now was manifested and declared thus truly to him with token plain the hatred of that hall-keeper; thereafter he who escaped the foe kept him more distant and more safe.

There it is: Tolkien’s Beowulf. Beyond “good” or “bad,” it’s murky, twisting, archaic, steeped in learning, as precise as a poem, artful in a manner that’s all Tolkien’s own, and like no English ever before uttered or heard.

Sometimes there’s a wonderful rhythm to it, inspired by the rising and falling of Old English meter, with the stress falling on long vowels, or on short vowels followed by multiple consonants: “Many a mighty one sat oft communing, counsel they took what it were best to do against these dire terrors.” Sometimes the meter is decidedly post-1066, as in “[t]he spearmen slept whose duty was to guard the gabled hall,” a nice bit of iambic heptameter, and when Tolkien has a chance to work alliteration into his prose, he goes for the gusto, as in his glimpse of Grendel’s “great gobbets gorging down,” a line that’s pleased the book’s early reviewers.

To find those standout moments, you need to wade through 200 pages of this:

“Art thou that Beowulf who strove with Breca in swimming upon the wide sea, that time when ye two in pride made trial of the waters and for a rash vaunt hazarded your lives upon the deep? No man, friend nor foe, could dissuade you two from that venture fraught with woe, when with limbs ye rowed the sea. There ye embraced with your arms the streaming tide, measuring out the streets of the sea with swift play of hands, gliding over the ocean. The abyss was in tumult with the waves and the surges of the winter. Seven nights ye two laboured in the waters’ realm. He overmatched thee in swimming, he had greater strength! Then on the morrow-tide the billows bore him away…”

That’s Beowulf in Tolkienese: not the saga-like prosody of The Lord of the Rings, not at all redolent of sparse, economical Old English, but a cross between literally translated modern German and a makeshift, clattering pseudo-Middle English with modernized spelling and anachronistic “esquires” and “knights.” Yes, Tolkien knew that the root of “knight” was “cniht,” Old English for a youth, boy, servant, retainer, or warrior, and the agony of the philologist writhes in every choice of word—but that doesn’t mean most readers will find this lucid or pleasant. Translation isn’t about making the shades of Joseph Bosworth and Northcote Toller beam in Elysium, and sometimes even minor syntactic choices send the whole thing awry. When Tolkien translates “þaet waes god cyning” as “a good king was he,” how can we not hear nursery-rhyme echoes that cheapen the lofty tone?

The truth is, I’ve never loved Tolkien as a translator. His Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, published in paperback in 1975, leaves me cold, even though it’s another poem Tolkien knew intimately—perhaps, like Beowulf, too intimately to translate it beautifully into something wholly new, lest some beloved philological pebble be lost.

Tolkien excels, though, when he dreams up hypothetical Beowulfs in other places and times, as he does in two other original works in this book. The first, “The Lay of Beowulf,” retells the fight with Grendel in seven ballad-like stanzas, as if minstrels had inherited the story later in the Middle Ages. It’s a charming poem, all the more so because Christopher Tolkien recalls his father singing it to him when he was a child. The second, the terrific “Sellic Spell,” gets its name from a phrase in Beowulf, syllíc spell, meaning “a strange/wonderful story.” In 70 brisk pages, Tolkien imagines one of several folk tales that might lie behind the Beowulf story, telling it so convincingly that if Christopher Tolkien had claimed to have translated it from the collection of a 19th-century Danish ethnographer, I wouldn’t have doubted him. It’s great fun, and not just for veterans of grad-school Beowulf seminars; I can imagine “Sellic Spell” being used to get high-school students thinking about lost sources, folk memory, and hypothetical tales. Are more of Tolkien’s similar flights of fancy unpublished? I’d gladly read a volume of the stuff.

I was reassured to read that Tolkien himself didn’t like his own Beowulf. “I have all of Beowulf translated, but in much hardly to my liking,” he wrote to a friend in 1926. Nearly a century later, Anglo-Saxonist and Tolkien scholar Michael Drout concurs. “The translation itself is not a great piece of art,” he suggests, even as he praises the 222 pages of commentary culled from Tolkien’s lecture notes as “straight-up brilliant, a pleasure to read, and a significant contribution to Beowulf criticism.”

So who’s really the audience? I’m tempted to say that only Anglo-Saxonists and die-hard Tolkien fans will love this book—but arcane tomes sometimes find unexpected readers.

Eldritch prose! Six pages of painstaking descriptions of manuscripts! Hundreds of notes on Old English diction! I like to think that somewhere out there, a kid has been given this book but doesn’t have the foggiest idea what to make of it. In a moment of idle browsing, he glimpses a story that’s fated to haunt him, and he’s perplexed and bewitched by impenetrable notes and alien words that hint at the depths of one very old tale. Years later, he rises to grapple with Beowulf on its own formidable terms.

Tolkien’s Beowulf doesn’t have broad appeal, but I like that it exists. We won’t see many more cases of fantasy and fandom intertwining to push medieval literature toward the mass market, so I welcome this book, even if I may never read it again, because it’s weird and wonderful to see Tolkien, 40 years dead, beckoning readers to stranger and brainier worlds.

“Like flames reaching out from the sun…”

“Your life will be written / your written life lost”: That’s the prophecy a noblewoman dreams about her unborn daughter in the eerie prelude to Need-Fire, a slim but remarkable book that I can scarcely believe someone wrote. That girl will grow up to become one of the most influential women in Anglo-Saxon England, but most of her story will be forgotten, giving poet Becky Gould Gibson a chance to rescue her from obscurity—and to demonstrate that using poetry to tell longer, more complicated stories is an art we haven’t yet lost.

In 25 interconnected poems, Need-Fire dramatizes the lives of Hild and Aelfflaed, the two women who ran the double monastery that housed both men and women at Whitby in North Yorkshire during the seventh century. Hild educated five bishops, presided over the synod that pushed the English church closer to Rome, and served as abbess when the cowherd Caedmon, the first named English poet, reluctantly sang his first verse. Unfortunately, only a few pages in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History hint at Hild’s profound influence, and the other 29 women known to have run double monasteries in Anglo-Saxon England are hardly more than names. Gibson’s goal is to commemorate them, intertwining her own imagination with copious research to sing them back into life.

And so Gibson invents her own form: short, sparsely punctuated lines that resemble Anglo-Saxon verse, printed with a caesura in the middle of each. These lines don’t follow the rules of Old English meter and alliteration, which makes them feel like fragments straining to be heard across 1,400 years. The result is a stream-of-consciousness narrative that derives subtle power from the poet’s decision to rely on words derived only from Old English. Here’s Hild’s mother’s lament as she bathes her infant daughter:

Glass crosses the water     from Gaul
for church windows     in your name
yet nothing you say     will be found
only the little     said of you
Why then stay up late     daughter
evening by evening     candle by candle
shaping thoughts     never to be kept
in your smooth     steady hand?

Of course, you don’t need to know Anglo-Saxon scansion to enjoy Gibson’s poetry, nor do you need to scrutinize the historical notes and scholarly addenda that follow each poem. I enjoyed them—Need-Fire is one of those rare books for which I feel like the ideal reader—but you don’t have to be a medievalist to step into Gibson’s weird and haunting world. You just need to be willing to read an historical novel in telegraphic verse.

In Gibson’s hands, Hild is a “child with a will     never settled.” We meet her as a teenager eavesdropping on her uncle, King Edwin, as he and his advisers kick around the pros and cons of Christianity. Overhearing the parable about a sparrow that flies through a mead-hall in winter, enjoying a moment of safety and comfort before it returns to the harsh unknown, Hild doesn’t assume, as the king’s men do, that any religion shedding a bit more light on past and future mysteries is worth considering. Instead, she imagines that the sparrow is as lost as she feels:

She’s seen that sparrow     beat wild
about the walls     looking for a way out
how she feels     most of the time
when grownups talk     Where will she go
after she dies?     Where’s Father now?
She shivers     damp to the bone

A keen observer of a land where “[f]olks still/worship sticks,” Hild is beset by secret doubts. The real Hild was all packed up and ready to live with her sister near Paris, but she turned back at the last minute and established a hardscrabble monastery along the North Sea. Gibson might have chalked up this decision to an irrefutable religious vision, but her Hild believes it’s her duty to found institutions that promote peace and education in her war-torn kingdom. And so Gibson takes up the tricky task of dramatizing the apprehension that accompanies faith:

          Truly I wonder
when bone     becomes spindle
cliffs whittle     to teeth
how many     or rather how few
will have traded     their wooden war gods
for this sad-eyed     Hebrew man

As Hild lives a harsh life of religious service that demands great leaps of faith, her doubts mature into greater complexity. She worries less about the “the idle or giddy” in her flock and more about the monks and nuns who are unquestioning and meek, a sensibility that at times feels too 21st century. It flatters us to believe, for example, that a seventh-century woman couldn’t possibly have cared how monks cut their hair or what the date of Easter ought to be. Fortunately, Gibson understands the medieval mind, and she knows that a woman like Hild would eventually conclude that regularity rather than fervor offers solace and bolsters faith:

Belief’s a skill     like any other
we’re schooled in     must work at daily
What I’ve learned     keep learning
rule gives us     rooms of time
to breathe in     Without rule we are lost

Though Gibson’s form never varies, Need-Fire offers a fine and convincing array of other voices and perspectives: a monk terrified by an eclipse, a young nun dying of the plague, and another nun forced to write a thank-you letter to the author of a virginity handbook for women. (“At least we won’t die    in childbirth,” she quips, “though we may die    of boredom.”) Mothers and nuns have prescient dreams, abbesses’ bones cry out from their graves, and even God Himself weighs in, gently chiding his seventh-century children in verses they’re bound not to hear.

Gibson’s imagery is fresh, too. When Etheldreda, abbess of Ely, writes to her husband to warn him of a sneak attack, she muses on the extent to which her life revolves around eels. She spears them, salts and skewers them for Lent, observes their mating habits, and finds in them a homely metaphor:

What is man     in the clutches
of sin     but an eel
on an eel-fork     shivering?
Eels     by the thousands
eels     almost bodiless

[…]

God will keep you     He keeps
us all     How does an eel go
with no fins     to speak of?
Yet she takes     to the sea
knowing she’ll     get there
lay eggs     and die
knowledge older     than man
deep in her brain

The eel poem helps Need-Fire build to a thematic climax. Through layers of fine detail, Gibson builds her seventh-century world with careful references to native animals and plants and the things humans make from them, from salted herring to wormwood mulled in ale. Above all, this book pays tribute to forgotten women who did important work, but it also challenges readers to marvel at the infinite variety of nature, which Gibson sees, like many medieval people before her, as reflecting the nature of God. Simply walking outside is an inexhaustible antidote to boredom and, as a nun named Begu finds when she holds a mussel shell, a potential bestower of greater rewards:

        When I stare
into its pool     of blackness
it tells me     I’m here
Small wonder!     God always
shines back     if we’re looking

Blending scholarship, biography, and historical fiction, Need-Fire needs to be read at a careful pace that duly honors its subjects’ lives. Writers who rescue obscure figures from history’s margins aren’t always capable of dropping them into good stories, but by retelling the lives of Hild and Aelfflaed in stark, anecdotal poetry rather than a novel, Gibson crafts scenes that defy the monotony of the form she’s chosen to labor within, just as her characters do. Need-Fire isn’t a dutiful exercise in social history, but an eloquent argument that these abbesses and the men and women around them were real and alive, not stock characters in medieval-ish fiction.

Europeans and Americans have never been able to decide whether medieval people were our predecessors and brethren or the makers of a world that was grotesque, alien, unfathomably strange. There’s no reason both can’t be true, and Gibson shows us that an age we’d find physically and culturally inhospitable is also emotionally and intellectually welcoming. Fourteen centuries on, she hears familiar notes of doubt, desperation, and hope:

what is any of us     but one
of God’s beings     scrambling
for a foot-hold     on crumbling cliffs?

“A kiss on the wind, and we’ll make the land…”

In the 1990s, I met grad students who dreamed of finding the “real” King Arthur; one would-be archaeologist was sure she’d pry Excalibur from the corner of some forgotten Devon field. Back then, most aspiring medievalists only dimly saw that we were riding multiple waves falling neatly into phase, as decades of “historical Arthur” scholarship drew energy from, but also fed, a pop-culture surge of movies, novels, comics, and games. Now that Arthuriana is waning—it’s overdue for a deep, restorative nap—the ghost of Tolkien comes drifting through to provide its “last assay / of pride and prowess”—or, perhaps, to promise its next reawakening.

Published last week, The Fall of Arthur is an oddity: a 40-page poetic fragment easily lost amid 150 pages of commentary by the author’s son. Tolkien left the poem unfinished in the 1930s, and I’ll be curious to see how his fans greet this book. Having taught Arthurian lit and composed poems that mimic Old English verse forms, I enjoy seeing Tolkien take the Matter of Britain for an original, alliterative spin—but how many readers like me could there be?

The Fall of Arthur follows the daunting rules of Anglo-Saxon verse: A line consists of two half-lines, each of which must be one of five metrical types and must contain two stressed syllables. At least one stressed syllable in the first half-line must alliterate with the first (never the second) stressed syllable in the second half-line. Also, the vowels in the stressed syllables must be long, unless they come before a consonant cluster, or unless you’re letting initial vowels stand in for consonants. If you’re feeling saucy, you can add unstressed syllables in certain positions—but never in others, or an Anglo-Saxon simply wouldn’t hear the line as verse.

Beowulf and nearly all of the surviving 30,000 lines of Old English poetry follow this form, and Tolkien liked to play with it in modern English, well aware that it didn’t always work. “Our language now has become quick-moving (in syllables), and may be very supple and nimble, but it is rather thin in sound and in sense too often diffuse and vague,” he says in a lecture cited in The Fall of Arthur. “The language of our forefathers, especially in verse, was slow, not very nimble, but very sonorous, and was intensely packed and concentrated—or could be in a good poet.”

Is Tolkien such a poet? Sometimes. The surviving 954 lines of The Fall of Arthur set up a story about the last gasp of a doomed world—Arthur, in the autumn of his reign, is “in war with fate”—and Tolkien does a heck of a job conjuring bleak, clammy gloom. As the king and his army ride east across the Rhine, the sound and shape of the poetry emphasize brutality in eerie, alien lands:

Foes before them,    flames behind them,
ever east and onward    eager rode they,
and folk fled them    as the face of God,
till earth was empty,    and no eyes saw them,
and no ears heard them   in the endless hills,
save bird and beast     baleful haunting
the lonely lands.    Thus at last came they
to Mirkwood’s margin    under mountain-shadows:
waste was behind them,    walls before them;
on the houseless hills     ever higher mounting
vast, unvanquished,    lay the veiled forest.
(I:61-71)

The Fall of Arthur is packed with passages like this: evocations of the wild wastelands beyond the civilized world, scenes of shipwrecks and storm-battered coasts, shadowy foes lurking just out of sight. Tolkien clearly had a blast composing them, and even when his plot is derivative, these moments are original contributions to the Arthurian story in English. They’re also a pleasure to read aloud.

Once in a while, Tolkien serves up scenes that are remarkable for looking nothing like Beowulf. Here’s Lancelot, waking by his window, marveling at songbirds greeting sunrise on the sea:

His heart arose,    as were heavy burden
lightly lifted.     Alone standing
with the flame of morn    in his face burning
the surge he felt    of song forgotten
in his heart moving   as a harp-music.
There Lancelot,    low and softly
to himself singing,    the sun greeted,
life from darkness    lifted shining
in the dome of heaven    by death exalted.
Ever times would change    and tides alter,
and o’er hills of morning     hope come striding
to awake the weary,    while the world lasted.
(III:214-220)

As the Arthurian story demands, Lancelot’s hope fades before Mordred’s far more prescient gloom:

                           Time is changing;
the West waning;    a wind rising
in the waxing East.     The world falters.
New tides are running    in the narrow waters.
False or faithful,     only fearless man
shall ride the rapids    from ruin snatching
power and glory.     I purpose so.
(II.14-153)

Despite these euphonious examples, Tolkien does struggle to squeeze the bourgeois hand of modern English into the mailed glove of Old English verse. In need of words that alliterate on “f,” he uses “fell” as an adjective with offputting frequency—eight times in the first 153 lines, alongside variations of the verb “to fall”—and meter demands that he flip the order of words more often than even many readers with a patience for archaism are wont to tolerate. “Eager rode they,” “he was for battle eager,” “Ivor him answered”—the seams of this poem are easily frayed.

Christopher Tolkien, who discusses his father’s Arthurian poem as if it were a medieval work, calls it “one of the most grievous of his many abandonments” and suggests that such a slowly built, backward-looking poem “could not withstand the rising of new imaginative horizons.” Although enough notes survive to show that The Fall of Arthur was headed nowhere radical, its final, unwritten scenes might have been deeply revealing. Tolkien adored the language of the Germanic invaders who helped defeat the fictional Arthur, overran much of Britain, and gave England its name; this poem is composed in their style, as if it were sung generations later to honor a worthy foe. Had it shown Tolkien’s appreciation for the world that had to die to make way for the literature and language he loved, the finished Fall of Arthur might have been a memorable, much-quoted read.

When The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun came out in 2009, I wondered how vast a readership awaited Tolkien’s obscure and scholarly pseudo-medieval verse. The Fall of Arthur likewise makes me wonder how many Tolkien fans will wade through a 49-page essay that places this poem in its medieval Arthurian tradition; whether a 954-line fragment deserves a 50-page overview of the notes and drafts behind it; and whether the 43-page essay linking this poem to the Silmarillion doesn’t seem like padding to people who know Tolkien far better than I do.

On the other hand, The Fall of Arthur is a wonderful rarity for our times: a book that makes gigantic demands of those who pick it up, published by a literary executor who assumes his readers are patient, curious, conversant with medieval traditions, and appreciative of formal verse.

Somewhere, I know, are readers who are baffled by Sigurd and Gudrun or The Fall of Arthur but also haunted by their dim awareness of the vast intellectual realms behind them. Perhaps these readers are on the cusp of cultivating a love of Arthurian stories, an ear for archaic English, or other weird passions that civilize the brain but defy popular taste. In the end, they may not prevail—in good Germanic style, The Fall of Arthur warns them that nothing lasts—but they’ll live and fight and revel in words and think deeply for a time, becoming through Tolkien what Tolkien dubbed Gawain: “defence and fortress of a fallen world.”

[Previous Tolkieniana on this blog: Tolkien und Wagner; hobbits at a beach resortThe Lord of the Rings as Methodist Bible study.]

“…und auch das größte Wunder geht vorbei…”

Poems, novels, short stories—we expect creative works to be labors of love, but it’s easy to forget how personal a work of scholarship can be to its creator, and how much is riding on the most arcane and specialized tomes. In an atypically personal blog post, Anglo-Saxonist and Tolkien scholar Michael Drout remembers the low point in his career, when his love for his work was fizzling out:

In 2001 I had been stuck. The success of Beowulf and the Critics was combining with the difficulty I was having in putting together my first monograph on Anglo-Saxon to pull me away from the field. Kalamazoo that year had been a big, depressing disappointment. What other people seemed to find exciting did nothing for me, and the terrible job market had caused a number of my friends to leave academia altogether. The intellectual spark had gone out.  Anglo-Saxon studies was following a path that led only to insignificant but all-consuming quibbling. The field was entangled in miserable thickets of personal and institutional politics, and those who–through the positions they occupied, if not the work they were no longer doing–should have led were instead dissipating the hard-won intellectual inheritance of our titanic forebears (not on debauchery, more’s the pity, but on orthodoxy, groveling, scheming). It was just a radical change from my feelings of immense excitement at ISAS ’95 at Stanford or ’97 at Palermo or ’99 at Notre Dame. I wanted out, to be away from this whole field that I had loved so much.

I clearly remember sitting on the floor of O’Hare airport at 6:30 a.m. on Sunday morning exhausted (having gone to bed at 3:00 and gotten up at 4:30), bored, and with a five-hour wait ahead of me, thinking that this was going to be my last Kalamazoo. I would focus on Tolkien, get my tenure in a couple years, and spend my energies on my 1-year-old daughter.

What changed Drout’s life and restored his faith in his field? A book about what he calls “[p]ossibly the most boring set of ‘texts’ in the history of earth.” Whether you’re a scholar, an academic refugee, or a writer itching with doubt, check out Drout’s tribute to a scholar whose meticulous research and logical arguments gave his own work new direction—and “brought the dead to life.”

“So we go inside, and we gravely read the stones…”

“[P]ioneering, erratic, and irascible”—that’s how scholar Andrew Wawn introduces a medievalist I’d never heard of, apparently because his spectre haunts only a few narrow stacks in Scandinavian libraries. Although George Stephens published more than 500 books, articles, pamphlets, translations, and plays, his Wikipedia entry is a sorry 120 words long, and it isn’t likely to be lengthened or annotated by legions of Tolkienesque fans. Even so, Wawn’s engaging 1995 article about him—“George Stephens, Cheapinghaven, and Old Northern Antiquity”—makes an amusing but sympathetic case for looking back at scholars of yore-days and seeing not pitiable caricatures, but weird, vivid, quizzical lives.

Wawn calls George Stephens “a fascinatingly marginal figure, an exile by choice, a rebel by temperament, cocooned in his book-lined Copenhagen study glowering across the North Sea at the (in his view) wretched condition of England.” Born in England in 1813, Stephens moved to Sweden in 1834 to teach English before taking a lectureship, and then a professorship, at the University of Copenhagen. (Hearken, jobless scholars! Three years earlier, the enterprising Stephens circulated an English-language pamphlet with the efficacious title Hurrah for Denmark.)

Stephens is one of many unsung souls who hammered out the cogs of the medieval-studies machine. He was an influential collector and classifier of folk tales, his work on runic inscriptions founded a sub-field, and he published the first translation of an Icelandic saga into English—albeit from Swedish. “He translated Icelandic sagas,” Wawn writes, “while contributing to their reoralization by writing saga-based parlor songs; he taught Shakespeare whilst himself writing plays on Viking subjects in Elizabethan style; and he contributed vigorously and unashamedly to popular polemics, finding it no mark of virtue to proclaim the virtues of a democratized literary-critical process in an impenetrable and robotic meta-language.”

He’s also easy to mock. Wawn devotes most of his article to Stephens’ virtually unread 1857 play, Revenge, or Woman’s Love, in which King Edgar of Mercia is waylaid by Vikings while on pilgrimage to Sweden, where he’s forced to summon his wife to be sacrificed to Odin. Wawn is patient with Stephens’ “pyrotechnic display of newly minted compounds, anaphoric elaboration, and (alas) syntactic congestion,” and I enjoyed picturing the climax featuring “the return of the cave-dwelling witch, accompanied by much smoke and many explosions,” but why snicker? “Notwithstanding its breathless and somewhat confusing denouement,” Wawn says, “there is much spirited and good-humored writing in the play, and it would be ponderously sobersided to miss the element of jeu d’esprit which helps to drive the whole work.”

What Wawn does here is humane. Seeing an eccentric medievalist rendered all the more comical by time, Wawn doesn’t “deconstruct,” “interrogate,” “negotiate,” or (good Lord) “problematize” him. Instead, Wawn peers into a bundle of contradictions—”the English Anglophile exiled in Scandinavia, the modern Christian fundamentalist fascinated by ancient paganism, the British Tory radical who translated a treatise in favor of an hereditary Danish monarchy”—and in 40 pages, reckons his humanity.

To my surprise, Wawn contrasts Stephens with another philologist whose life and work were shaped by Mercia. “George Stephens, it need hardly be said, was no Tolkien,” he admits, “and Revenge, it need hardly be added, is no Lord of the Rings. The play could number its nineteenth-century readers in tens, and its twentieth-century ones on the healthy fingers of a severely maimed hand.” I laughed at that line, because it’s tempting to see Stephens as a prevenient Ignatius Reilly bumbling around Copenhagen, crusading for influence, obsessed with tomorrow’s obscurities, repelling his colleagues with political rants. It’s harder, but kinder, to place this minor scholar alongside a famous one, in an article that’s more subtly and sensitively written than anything its subject could have mustered, and not lose him in the shadow.

“That one should succeed commandingly whilst another fails eccentrically needs (and finds) no explanation in the self-preoccupied world of modern literary theory,” Wawn concludes. “We might rather look to the chaos theory of real human lives.” In his choice of subject and through his own example, Wawn affirms something that isn’t always clear: there are people behind the scholarship we read.

“…and a cross of gold as a talisman.”

“A light starts—lixte se leoma ofer landa fela—and there is a sound of music; but the outer darkness and its hostile offspring lie ever in wait for the torches to fail and the voices to cease.” Although that line could describe the experience of seeing The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in a movie theater, it is, in fact, one of several lovely passages in J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics,” the 1936 essay that helped scry a certain Anglo-Saxon poem on the prow of every English lit syllabus.

I returned to Tolkien’s essay yesterday after being shown a sign—this one.


That’s Metropolitan Memorial United Methodist Church, across the street from American University here in D.C. This church last appeared on this blog when I spotted the curious “faux-tesques” on its spire, but I hadn’t known it was a locus of Tolkien fandom. (It’s certainly one of the most unexpected examples of public Tolkieniana since the hobbit dumpster and parking signs of Ocean City, Maryland.)

As it turns out, the church’s (presumably unlicensed) banners aren’t just an advertisement of affinity, but an invitation to a series of sermons:

“An Unexpected Journey”
Explore the Gospel Through J.R.R. Tolkien’s Writings
Sermon Series beginning Sunday, January 6
J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is deeply rooted in the truths of his Christian faith. This powerful story has captivated readers for decades, as well as a new generation of moviegoers. With the new film The Hobbit arriving this winter, it is a good time to explore the Gospel through this wonderful narrative. Our sermon series, “An Unexpected Journey,” will take place on Sundays in January 2013 as we follow the path of Tolkien’s travelers. Echoing Gandalf’s words to Bilbo, worried about his chances of returning home from his journey, “If you do, you will not be the same.”

I’ll let Tolkien experts imagine how the Catholic author might have reacted to The Hobbit being used as a gateway to Methodist Bible study, but as a medievalist he would have understood the impulse. The Germanic literature he loved is tinged with Christian interpolations, revisions, and appropriations, and he knew it was de rigeur in the Middle Ages to outfit the creations of others as couriers of religious ideas.

He also knew that the best stories fight back a little. Here he is again, talking about Beowulf:

The significance of a myth is not easily to be pinned on paper by analytical reasoning. It is at its best when it is presented by a poet who feels rather than makes explicit what his theme portends; who presents it incarnate in the world of history and geography, as our poet has done. Its defender is thus at a disadvantage: unless he is careful, and speaks in parables, he will kill what he is studying by vivisection, and he will be left with a formal or mechanical allegory, and what is more, probably with one that will not work. For myth is alive at once and in all its parts, and dies before it can be dissected. It is possible, I think, to be moved by the power of myth and yet to misunderstand the sensation, to ascribe it wholly to something else that is also present…

Whether he brings in new churchgoers or not, what the minister at MMUMC is doing has medieval roots. Whether it’s Tolkienesque I can’t say, but in its way, a Tolkien-themed sermon series makes more sense than the adoration of The Lord of the Rings by the 1960s counterculture. Whether one great story leads so easily to another remains to be seen, but what Tolkien said about Beowulf grows true of his own works as well: “it must ever call with a profound appeal—until the dragon comes.”

“A long time ago, we used to be friends…”

On the day after a national election, it’s bracing to stroll through the blustery streets of Colonial Williamsburg—which, lucky for me, is just footsteps away from a conference I’m attending. I’d hoped to find some trace of American medievalism, and the colonial city did not disappoint: along the green leading to the Governor’s Palace is a house where a Virginia lawyer lit a medieval torch in the mind of a Founding Father.

That’s the home of George Wythe, signer of the Declaration of Independence and delegate to the Constitutional Convention. Fresh out of William and Mary, a young Thomas Jefferson spent five years here as Wythe’s law apprentice and stumbled early into one of his innumerable lifelong hobbies: the study of Old English.

Poring over a 15th-century legal tract, Jefferson encountered a modern preface arguing that a student should learn “Saxon” to understand the essence of English law. Already intrigued by languages, the young man was hooked; Stanley R. Hauer points out (in “Thomas Jefferson and the Anglo-Saxon Language”) that the future third president of the United States collected Old English textbooks, painstakingly copied footnotes in Anglo-Saxon script into a 1778 legal treatise, and made sure that the University of Virginia was the first American institution to offer Anglo-Saxon language courses when it opened in 1825. According to Hauer, Jefferson’s grasp of Anglo-Saxon was weak—often he couldn’t distinguish it from Middle English—but if you’ve studied Old English, or even if you’ve read Beowulf in a college class, its presence was partly Jefferson’s doing.

Jefferson’s obsession with Old English resonated far beyond the English department. During his five years in Wythe’s study, he imaginatively plunged into what historians have dubbed the “Saxon myth,” the common belief among Whigs of his era that the best English institutions—parliament, trial by jury, common law—were the unbroken legacy of freedom-loving Germanic tribes who’d crept into Britain as early as the fifth century. (This idea was itself the legacy of 16th- and 17th-century reformers who’d tried to prove that both the Church of England and Parliament were continuations of ancient, primitive democracy.)

In letters and treatises, Jefferson trumpeted his belief that America had directly inherited liberty from the Anglo-Saxons. His strongest statement on the matter was surely his (unsuccessful) push to decorate the Great Seal of the United States with the figures of Horsa and Hengist, “the Saxon chiefs from whom we claim the honor of being descended, and whose political principles and form of government we have assumed.”

I suppose we are the political heirs of the Anglo-Saxons, since Jefferson believed it to be so when he helped establish our republic. He knew, though, that his contemporaries held conflicting views. “It has ever appeared to me,” he wrote to English political reformer John Cartwright in 1824, “that the difference between the Whig and the Tory of England is, that the Whig deduces his rights from the Anglo-Saxon source, and the Tory from the Norman.” It’s instructive, two centuries later, to see how our predecessors reached into the past for conflicting myths to answer a perennial question: What sort of people are we to be?

“Is this the age of the thunder and rage…”

[This post is a rerun from 2010; I felt like bringing it back for a second spin. – J.S.]

Few medievalists grace the saints’ calendars of American churches, but it’s fitting that back-to-school week coincides with the feast day of Nikolaj Frederik Severin Grundtvig, observed annually on September 2 by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and on September 8 by the Episcopal Church in the United States. The Danish bishop and polymath is little known outside his home country, but he was a monumental figure there—and if you’ve read any edition or translation of Beowulf, then N.F.S. Grundtvig was partly responsible for getting it into your hands.

After Icelander Grímur Jónsson Thorkelín published the first printed edition of Beowulf (with the support of the Danish government) in 1815, Gruntvig was the most vocal scholar to point out the many errors in Thorkelin’s transcription and Latin translation, from misreadings of Old English words to Thorkelin’s failure to recognize proper names. Thorkelin, a twitchy careerist, responded by accusing Grundtvig of “sweet dreams, absurd fantasies, and willful distortions of the original and of my work within the Chaos that surrounds him,” but Grundtvig, the superior scholar, was right. Grundtvig was also the first to notice that the Hygelac of Beowulf was the historical figure Chochilaichus named by Gregory of Tours in his History of the Franks, and Grundtvig’s 1820 version of Beowulf in Danish was the first translation of the poem into any modern language.

Although Grundtvig was peeved to see the Danes exeunt two-thirds into Beowulf, he never stopped grappling with the poem, seeking not only its universal lessons within the context of his own faith but also clues to the Scandinavian past. “[T]he language,” he wrote, “is ingenuous, without having the German long-windedness, and without remaining obscure in its brevity as so often in the Eddic poems.” Inspired by Beowulf, Gruntvig became an Anglo-Saxonist while rising through the Lutheran church, studying theology and languages, agitating for Norwegian independence, becoming the father of Danish folk schools, dealing with censorship and fines and exile, marrying three times, briefly serving in the Danish Parliament, and somehow finding time to translate hundreds of hymns and write countless poems and books. (For all I know, he even invented Lego and provided the theological foundation for his nation’s wonderful open-faced sandwiches.)

Something of an Anglophile, Grundtvig practically begged the English to appreciate their native poets, and the tone of his 1831 proposal for an Anglo-Saxon book subscription program will amuse any medievalist who’s been accused of cultivating obscure interests:

I know there are tastes, called classical, which will turn away in disgust when they are told that this poem consists of two fabulous adventures, not very artificially connected, except by the person of the hero,—and that these episodes, which relate to historical traditions of the North, are rather unskillfully inserted. But I think such classical scholars as have a squeamish repugnance to all Gothic productions, should remember that, when they settle themselves down in the little circle of the ancient world, they have banished themselves from the modern, and consequently have made their opinions on such a subject of very little importance.

“For all his faults of expression,” writes Tom Shippey, “Grundtvig read the poem more acutely and open-mindedly than any scholar for decades.” Even those of us who will never be honored with hymns could do worse than aspire to earn such an epitaph. Thanks to scholars like Grundtvig, not only do we better understand how and why the Anglo-Saxons wondered, as others have, “Ubi sunt qui ante nos fuerunt?,” but we can also start to answer the question for ourselves.