Þisses swa mæg20 Feb 2020
In the spring of 2003 (or thereabouts), my friends and I took a course called English 102: Old English Poetry. They had to take it to fulfill a requirement for their major. I took it because I thought it’d be fun and easy. I was about a quarter right—it was sometimes fun.
Over the course of the semester we took a tour of Anglo-Saxon literature in its original form.1 The tour began with a lightning review of the history of the English language, starting with Proto-Indo-European and stopping quickly at Old High German along the way. The only thing I remember definitively is that there was something called the Great Vowel Shift. I don’t remember what it was or why it was important, though. After that we had syntax, spelling, and grammar. It turns out that I had signed up for a philology and foreign language course by mistake.
The better part of the semester was spent translating all or large parts of many of the top hits from the Old English canon. Caedmon’s hymn? Check. Genesis and the Book of Judith? Duh. We even heard from the Cross itself. What about riddles? Oh, we got your riddles.2 We went to Roman ruins, sailed with a seafearer and wandered with a wanderer, and we witnessed Beowulf wrestle Grendel to the death—sort of—in that hallowed hall of King Hrothgar, Heorot.3
In the years since my introduction to Old English, I’ve gone back to Anglo-Saxon poetry more than once, usually in times of sadness or distress. There’s something about their helpless verse about hail and gulls and the sea that I find beautiful and familiar.
A thousand years ago, the English were stuck on their island, harsh waves and weather beating at their door, on the edge of a millennium, with Viking invaders sacking their homeland, during times of governmental confusion: in short, doom seem everywhere from all directions. By 997, at least for four or five of the seven signs of the Christian apocalypse had already been identified with full certainty. It couldn’t be much longer until the remaining two or three final signs heralded in the end of days.
As distant as these events were, somehow I can relate. But it’s like my mother used to say, “Þæs ofereode, þisses swa mæg.” Except my mother never said that, the tenth-century poet Deor did.
The phrase repeats at the end of each of the poem’s stanzas. Each stanza describes a pretty terrible thing that had happened in Anglo-Saxon legend and pop culture. It means (roughly), “Well, that was a thing, but life goes on. Maybe we’ll survive this one, too.” Deor wrote the poem after he lost his job. (Not to mention that Vikings were setting the British isles on fire around this time and all that other doom.) The thing that I really like about the refrain is how unsure it is. It’s not cheerful. It’s not certain. It’s hardly even hopeful. It smacks of desolation, but I like to imagine that Deor dug in and kept on going anyway.
Obligation is a pervasive theme in Anglo-Saxon literature. A disproportionate amount of Beowulf is spent promising to do things. “I’ll honor you or die trying.” The doing takes up comparatively little space. And about the worst thing you could do was break your promise; better to die trying. Vows come in a variety of forms. Sometimes they’re overt calls from the Christian god to follow his will. But more likely and more often, they’re from individuals stating their loyalty to their friends, family, and feudal lords—which were kind of friends and family, too. As a New Englander, this sort of responsibility resonates with me. It’s not especially nice; but nice is different than good.
Right now I’m going through several transitions of my own. As has been the case before Deor’s words started to ring in the back of my mind. I turned to my shelf to seek out my old friend. This time I noticed someone next to him, whom I’d never met before: Old English Literature: A Short Introduction by Daniel Donoghue. I recommend it.
Donoghue takes you on a tour of the same literary landscape, but skips over the Great Vowel Shift and adds in a bunch of the prose works. It was like being back in school. This time, however, I had a leg up: I already knew the material. I got the inside jokes and could see the punch lines coming a mile away. This introduction is fun because it splits the work up not into genre (e.g., wisdom literature or lyric poetry) or time period or author but into five themes. They are: the vow, the hall, the miracle, the pulpit, and the scholar. Though, as he points out himself, Donoghue could have picked just about anything. The monster, war, the stranger, exile, the sea, the past, the future—all these would have worked just as well. Human experience is rich and malleable. It always has been. So life’s literature admits useful treatment by just about any system of categorization.
I really enjoyed seeing how Donoghue related individual works related to one another through his themes. (And it was a nice reminder how arbitrary categories are.) The second time around, I feel like I can better imagine the world that produced these works. And now I have some primary source material that I want typeset nicely and framed for my wall. Maybe part of the letter from King Alfred to Wærferth, the Bishop of Worcester, wherein he describes his plan to translate books from Latin to English and educate the masses in their native tongue. Or maybe the beginning of Ælfric’s Latin Grammar, written a generation after Alfred got things going:
It is fitting for young people that they learn some wisdom, and it is fitting for their elders that they teach some discernment to their youth, because the faith will be maintained by doctrine, and each person who loves wisdom will be happy.
They almost make me want to visit my other medieval friend Bœthius for more consolation. Alfred translated him to Old English, after all.
Original but standardized. You can get only so much mileage out of a comparison of the philological differences in dialect between the Northumbrian and West Saxon versions of Cædmon’s hymn in a single-semester introductory course, after all. ↩
In case you were wondering what kinds of high-minded riddles were painstakingly transcribed and preserved in medieval monastaries, here’s Riddle 44 from the Exeter Book (reproduced in Old English Literature on page 121):
Wrælic hongað bi were þeo,
frean under sceate. Foran is þyrel,
bið stiþ on heard, stede hafað godne.
Þonne se esne his agen hrægl
ofer cneo hefeð, wile þæt cuþe hol
mid his hangellan heafde gretan
þæt he efenlang ær oft gefylde.
Answer: Penis. (Or a key, but also a penis.) ↩
The video I linked to claims that heorot means hart, but that sounds like too much heart not to clarify in a footnote. Hart is old-timey English for stag in modern English. P.S. — I love how boring that video is. The computer voice kills me. ↩