Archives For Anglo Saxon

From Ear to Quill

October 21, 2015 — 11 Comments

anglo saxonConsider how one humble Anglo-Saxon poet can teach us about the ancient transition from the oral to written delivery of poetry.

In recent study about the transition from aural to literary communication I came upon the following fascinating fact.

In an essay entitled “Oral to Written,” J.B. Bessinger writes:

As literate authors learned to assimilate oral materials to pen-and-parchment composition, and since cultural life and centres of writing were controlled so largely by the Church, it was inevitable that the oral transmission of pagan verse would die out, or at best leave few records of an increasingly precarious existence. Meanwhile the invasion of bookish culture into an oral tradition proceeded.

Amid the overwhelming anonymity of the period, Cynewulf was the only poet who troubled to record his name, not from motives of a new literary vanity, but against the Day of Judgement:* “I beg every man of human kind who recites this poem to remember my name and pray . . .”

I’ve read elsewhere that the names of a dozen Anglo-Saxon poets were recorded, although only four have any work that has survived. I understand, however, why Cynewulf is so well recognized—several thousand lines of his poetry are extant. You can access copies of his work for free at Project Gutenberg and Internet Archive.

Curiously, we know no details about Cynewulf other than his name. This he included in his manuscripts, spelled in runic characters.

Cynewulf’s poetry was familiar to the Inklings.

In his diary during the 1920s, C.S. Lewis describes reading Cynewulf and Cyneheard while he bemoaned that Old English Riddles continued to represent an obstacle to him.

I set to on my O.E. Riddles: did not progress very quickly but solved a problem which has been holding me up. [Henry] Sweet is certainly an infuriating author . . .

[Following afternoon tea, Lewis] retired to the drawing room and had a go at the Riddles. I learned a good deal, but found them too hard for me at present.

J.R.R. Tolkien paid an unimaginable tribute to Cynewulf. He attributed to the ancient poet no less than the original inspiration for his mythopoeic conscience.

In the summer of 1913 Tolkien . . . switched course to the English School after getting an “alpha” in comparative philology. At this time he read the great eighth-century alliterative poem Christ, by Cynewulf and others.

Many years later from the poem he cited Eala Earendel engla beorhtost (“Behold Earendel brightest of angels”) from Christ as “rapturous words from which ultimately sprang the whole of my mythology.”**

Cynewulf was an inspired poet. And, it is possible to discern some Anglo-Saxon words which have made it into contemporary English when passages are lined up, side by side.

We’ll close now with a passage from his poem, Christ. These words come from the beginning of Part II (Ascension) and comprise the beginning of chapter four. For those who would like to compare the texts, a parallel version follows.*** (Just click on the image to enlarge it.)

Enjoy Cynewulf’s celebration of God’s abundant gifts, extended to poets, musicians, and all others.

Then He who shaped the world, God’s Spirit-Son,

ennobled us, and granted gifts to us,

eternal homes ’mid angels upon high;

and wisdom, too, of soul, full manifold

He sowed and set within the minds of men.

To one He sendeth, unto memory’s seat,

through spirit of the mouth, wise eloquence,

and noble understanding; he can sing

and say full many a thing, within whose soul

is hidden wisdom’s power. With fingers deft

’fore warrior-bands one can awake the harp,

the minstrel’s joy. One can interpret well

the law divine, and one the planets’ course

and wide creation. One cunningly can write

the spoken word. To one He granteth skill,

when in the fight the archers swiftly send

the storm of darts, the wingéd javelin,

over the shields defence. Fearlessly another

can o’er the salt sea urge the ocean-bark

and stir the surging depth. One can ascend

the lofty tree and steep. One can fashion well

steeled sword and weapon. One knoweth the plains’ direction,

the wide ways. Thus the Ruler, Child divine,

dispenseth unto us His gifts on earth;

He will not give to any one man all

the spirit’s wisdom, lest pride injure him,

raised far above the rest by his sole might.



* Please don’t correct me regarding the misspelling of “judgment;” this quotation comes from a British text. ;)

** From Tolkien and C.S. Lewis: The Gift of Friendship by Colin Duriez.

*** This image is derived from the 1892 translation of Cynewulf’s Christ by Israel Gollancz.

The lovely Anglo Saxon cross at the top of this page was discovered several years ago in the grave of a young teenage girl who had been buried near Cambridge.

I have blogged about Anglo Saxon legacy in the past . . . here and here.

Navy Nerds

May 19, 2014 — 7 Comments

nerdEvery once in a while, the military has a good idea. Sure, they have a knack for technological breakthroughs in warfare . . . but what about other fields? The NAVY NeRD answers that question in the affirmative.

NeRD stands for Navy eReader Device.

Well-informed readers of Mere Inkling are already aware of the growing intensity of international cyberwarfare. It is no joke, and lives are at stake.

Draconian policies are in place to avoid the contamination of the military computer system by innocently transferred viruses. Since virtually all digital platforms allow for the transfer of data, they are potentially dangerous.

Because of that, even ereaders have been off limits in certain environments. Now, however, someone has thought outside the proverbial box and come up with a solution to that problem.

The United States Navy has devised a novel ereader that comes loaded with 300 titles, but has no ports or wireless connectivity to allow for inadvertent viral transfers.

The selection of books sounds pretty well rounded. Some public domain classics, and a number of contemporary best sellers like A Game of Thrones. Fans of J.R.R. Tolkien will be delighted to know the readers also include The Lord of the Rings.

Reading is a productive way to spend one’s free time during a lengthy period at sea. Even for those not prone to opting for it when faced with all the distractions ashore.

During WWII, C.S. Lewis wrote a letter to a former student who was serving in the Navy, “out of reach of libraries.” It acknowledges the perennial problem of sailors—lack of space for personal property. The letter was written in response to a request from Michael Rayner Thwaites for reading recommendations. Thwaites was an Australian poet and military intelligence officer.

A man who has already your linguistic training might well, I think, begin the Anglo Saxon on his own. You will need E. Wardale Old English Grammar. . . . For texts, the ordinary beginning is first Sweet’s Anglo Saxon Primer and then his Old English Reader. But you, being a classic might well, after a dip in the Primer go on to King Alfred’s trans. of Boethius De Consolatione Philosophiae . . .

Whether you can begin O.E. poetry on your own I don’t know. But try getting . . . Beowulf: and with it Clark Hall’s trans. ed. by Wrenn with preface by Tolkien . . . This edition is essential for it is Tolkien’s part of metre wh. is essential. (O.E. verse uses both quality and accent, and your ear is prob. ruined, as mine was, by the false way they teach Latin metre at schools–drastic re-education is required. . . .

As to modern literature. You must not start out to study it ‘as it reveals man’s hesitant advance to the idea of a God-created world’. Don’t you see you are laying down in advance what a phenomenon is to reveal before you have examined the phenomenon? It may reveal that: it may not. You have to find out. I don’t think I can lay down any v. definite course of reading.

All I can point out is that while you are in the navy and out of reach of libraries and new publications, this is the proper time for solid reading through the big (i.e. long) authors, critical works and histories of lit. can come later. Now is the time for Chaucer, Malory, Spenser, Sidney, Shakespeare, Dryden, Pope, Swift, Johnson, Fielding, Richardson, Cowper, Scott, Wordsworth, Byron, Dickens etc etc.

If you usually keep two books of widely different period and type going together (e.g. Faerie Queene & Tom Jones) you won’t get bored. I myself always index a good book when I read it for the first time noting (a) Linguistic phenomena. (b) Good & bad passages. (c) Customs: meal times, social classes, what they read etc. (d) Moral ideas.

All this reading, tho’ dedicated ad Dei gloriam in the long run must not be infected by any immediate theological, ethical, or philosophic reference. Your first job is simply the reception of all this work with your imagination & emotions. Each book is to be read for the purpose the author meant it to be read for: the story as a story, the joke as a joke.

Back to the NeRD

The Navy is making 385 devices at first, with more to follow, with five being sent to each submarine in the Navy to be shared among the crew.

That’s only the start, of course. One would anticipate that even for a military crew (for example, 155 personnel on a Trident sub), a mere five mini-libraries would prove insufficient. (No offense intended; yours truly is a veteran himself.)