Some recent posts and comments at Tim Clarkson’s Senchus and Karen Louise Jolly’s Revealing Words have instigated a discussion on the location of the battle of Brunanburh, which was celebrated in the entry for year 937 of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

While I have little to contribute to any scholarly discussion of the battle’s location, the 937 Chronicle entry has earned a certain amount of fame as the first “poetic” entry in an otherwise fairly sterile list of names and battles. (The word “poetic” gets irony quotes because the distinction between prose and poetry in Anglo-Saxon literature is not as clear as grammars and readers may sometimes imply; many “prose” texts exhibit poetic techniques, and in any case the convention of the period was to write both prose and poetry essentially as a wall of text, without the distinct lines and caesurae of modern editions.)

More personally, that entry, now included in most Old English poetic readers and titled “The Battle of Brunanburh,” was the first Old English poem I had memorized, back when I took my first serious stab at learning the language about a decade ago.  (OK, it’s also the only Old English poem I’ve memorized…)

“Brunanburh” has much to recommend it as a starting point for those who want to get a taste of OE poetry in the original.  Its author employs the basic rules of Old English alliterative style and much of the vocabulary seen throughout the OE poetic corpus, and the poem itself is short and straightforward, describing the victory of King Æthelstan of Wessex (grandson of Alfred the Great) and his Mercian allies over a combined force of Scots and Vikings.

Of course, there’s plenty for historians to dispute – the site of the battle is not made clear (at least for us moderns), and the extent and ramifications of Æthelstan’s victory are questionable.  So I’m eager to see the continued discussion on Clarkson’s and Jolly’s respective blogs.

For my part, though, I want to consider some of the literary qualities of the poem.  I know of no critics who would put the poem on the same level as a masterpiece like “Beowulf,” but I want to suggest that “Brunanburh,” in addition to being a battlefield for modern scholars, rewards a look at the words on the page in their own right.

In the next post, I’ll examine some of what I find noteworthy about “Brunanburh,” both as a work in itself and in comparison with some other, better-known Old English texts.


‘We’ and Beowulf

The first word in Beowulf – apart from Hwæt (‘listen,’ ‘hark’) – is we.  The first clause of the poem in every modern English translation I own is rendered ‘We have heard.’

We have heard these stories, the poet says – and then goes on to tell us anyway of the aggressive glory of the reign of Scyld, ancestral king of the Danes, and the fortunes of his heirs and his nation.  Past strength is contrasted with the present misery of the Danish court, as Hrothgar and his people live under the terror of the monster Grendel’s nightly raids.

It’s a confident way to begin, telling your audience that they know this already.  The Beowulf-poet says that he and his audience are drawing from the same well.  And throughout the give-or-take-3,000 lines of this long, contemplative, meandering narrative, he gives absolutely no reason to doubt that he is stating anything but simple fact.

What stories today – film, television, book or otherwise – begin with such a casual affirmation of shared cultural knowledge?

Apart from politicians’ campaign rally speeches and the assurances of advertisers, I can’t think of any.

A few years ago, I bought my wife a copy of Brother Juniper’s Bread Book.  On page 48, you’ll find a discussion of Struan, a bread that was made in Scotland as part of a harvest ritual until about a century ago:

The greatest loss is of the ritual itself, the consecrating of such a concise symbol of harvest, of the diverse growth of a fertile land during an entire year, the loss of offering this symbol for a blessing, which is another symbol in the chain of symbols that ends only in the numinous.  Struan is not merely bread – it is bread that represents the essence of bread, which is one of the great analogies of life itself.

In our everyday consumption of bread we tend to forget or lose sight of the reality of what bread is.  So a bread ritual, a harvest fair, dedicated to the archangel of the harvest whose name means “like unto God,” is a way to tune into this deeper reality.  I believe that if the world falls apart, as it sometimes shows sign of doing, it will be as much because of the abandonment of festival rituals such as Struan at Michaelmas as because of war or pollution.  

Stories, like rituals, or recipes, or the heirloom swords and treasures depicted in Beowulf, have a life of exchange.  They pass from hand to hand.  Sometimes the exchange is lateral, synchronic, easy, familiar, like bread torn from the loaf.  Other times it’s more of a Hail Mary pass, down the long centuries to some confused future.

For the Beowulf-poet, it seems it was both.  We, the modern readers of the poem, must initially exclude ourselves from the ‘we’ of the opening line, but we cannot exclude ourselves from among its intended audience, as a professor of mine, Tony Brinkley, suggested some years ago in reference to art in general.  Someone created this and did not want it to die.  In a strange but real sense, it was meant for us – and for those who come after. 

In the meantime, we can steward it.  We can be the ones, in other words, who have heard.  

Heaney and Beowulf

I remember being an undergraduate just prior to the publication of Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf in 1999.  I hadn’t read much of Heaney’s poetry, but my lit professors were thrilled at the prospect of the old poem being pushed into modern English by a current poet with some real chops.  Some time after the Norton edition came out, I bought a copy – though to be honest I was more interested in the critical essays included in the volume than the translation itself.

But for all its accolades, Heaney’s Beowulf is not my favorite (that honor goes to Frederick Rebsamen, whose translation, light on punctuation and innovative in syntax, seems to evoke most strongly the rhythm and atmosphere of the original).  I remember reading some passages of Heaney’s version to my wife and having to stop – something didn’t seem right; the poem seemed somehow lighter than I remembered.

Other writers have articulated their own thoughts on Heaney and Beowulf, so I was interested to see an essay via that promised to explore the matter:  What Seamus Heaney Did to Beowulf: An Essay on Translation and the Transmutation of English Identity.

If you’ve read Heaney’s Beowulf, the essay could be worth a read – though the author, Sandra M. Hordis, seems to have an axe to grind.  The “English identity” of the title isn’t defined, and its “transmutation” goes largely unexplained.  Hordis shows that Heaney’s use of Anglo-Irish idiom to translate some Old English words complicates the text, given that the majority of its readers will need to have those Anglo-Irish words themselves defined – but then, this would be fairly clear to anyone reading Heaney’s own Introduction to his translation: Heaney’s professed desire to use Irish terms from his upbringing as “one way for an Irish poet to come to terms with that complex history of conquest and colony, absorption and resistance, integrity and antagonism” immediately struck me as out of place, a little nationalist, even.  Hordis’s main critique seems to be that Heaney’s translation intentionally “foreignizes” (her term) itself, which is a fair point, but doesn’t perhaps require the detailed explanation she gives.

Hordis’s essay did lead me to Thomas Shippey’s 1999 criticism of Heaney’s Beowulf: “Beowulf for the Big-Voiced Scullions.”  Shippey takes Heaney to task from the point of view of a scholar of Old English, and he makes his points with force and clarity.  Whereas Hordis sees Heaney complicating the relationship between translator, audience, and source text, Shippey sees Heaney simplifying some of the subtleties to be found in the Old English original.

Both writers make convincing arguments, but neither essay reflects my own reservations about Heaney’s translation, which are admittedly vague, subjective, and aesthetic.  If Heaney’s was the only translation going, I doubt Beowulf would figure so largely in my own reading – and I have to wonder about those many readers for whom Heaney’s is the only doorway.

Names and resonance – Holofernes in the Old English ‘Judith’

When I was in college, one of the guys in our circle was writing a novel (shocking, I know).  Though I can’t recall anything of the storyline apart from that it was some sort of detective story, I don’t think I’ll ever forget the name of his protagonist:  Damien Cole.

"Hello?  Yes.  It's me.  I just heard the world's lamest fictional name."

“Hello? Yes. It’s me. I just heard the world’s lamest fictional name.”

That name pretty much tells you everything you need to know about the character, doesn’t it?  If Mr. Cole wasn’t a tortured, dark antihero prowling the noir-colored streets of some nameless city on a personal quest for vengeance, I owe you a Coke.

The author of the Old English poem known as Judith didn’t have the luxury of being able to name his characters from scratch; he was drawing on a biblical story, after all.  But despite that, I suspect he was happy with the material at hand, particularly the name of his villain, Holofernes (or, as it appears in the poem, Holofernus).

According to the Jewish Encyclopedia, “Holofernes” “is evidently of Persian origin, similar information [sic] to ‘Artaphernes,’ ‘Dataphernes,’ ‘Tissaphernes,’ the last element of each of which is ‘pharna’ = ‘glorious'”.  I think, though, we can safely assume the Anglo-Saxon poet and his audience were unlikely to have been aware of this meaning.  What associations might have been made, then, with the name?

The first element may appear to be similar to Old English holh or hol, which can mean “hole,” “hollow” or “perforation,” according to Clark Hall’s A Concise Anglo-Saxon DictionaryHol (with a long vowel) also has the meaning of “slander.”  No obvious associations here; in any case Judith’s beheading of Holofernes could hardly be considered “perforation,” unless understood as an extreme understatement!  The verb holian means “to oppress,” which could have some resonance: Holofernes, the general of Nebuchadnezzar, was sent to subdue or oppress the Jewish people.  Finally, and probably most fittingly,  Hloh, meaning “laughed,” occurs just 2 lines beneath the name Holofernus in Judith:

                                    Ða wearð Holofernus,

goldwine gumena,    on gytesalum.

Hloh ond hlydde,    hlynede ond dynede,

þæt mihten fira bearn    feorran gehyran… (21b-24)

Which Chickering translates (in his essay “Poetic Exuberance in the Old English Judith,” appearing in On the Aesthetics of Beowulf and other Old English Poems):

                                        Then Holofernes became,

gold-giver to men,    merry from drinking.

He laughed and clamored,    roared and made a din,

so that the sons of men    might hear from afar…

In fact, the occurrence of Holofernus in line 21 anticipates the hl alliteration in line 23.  Perhaps Anglo-Saxon readers or listeners would have found the echo of (arrogant, drunken) laughter in the very name of the Assyrian general to be fitting.

Heolfor (“gore,” “blood”), also appearing in Beowulf and Andreas – poems which deal with similarly heroic matter – and its adjectival form heolfrig (“gory,” “bloody”), which itself appears in Judith, may have evoked a more distant kind of resonance, connecting the name of the enemy general to his bloody fate at the hands of the poem’s heroine.

But perhaps the strongest connection is to be found not in Old English but in Latin.  Infernus means “infernal,” and the -fernus element is a perfect match with the Old English version of the villain’s name, Holofernus.  Certainly the poet dwells on Holofernes’s hellish fate once his head is cut off by Judith (ll. 112b-121).  It may have been this resonance that led Peter Constantine to begin his translation of a portion of the poem (appearing in The Word Exchange):

Infernal Holofernes, illustrious king,

wild with wine raged and roared,

hollered and howled, unruly in carousing.

Of course, it is ultimately impossible to determine with certainty how an Anglo-Saxon audience would have experienced the poem.  But I like to imagine that the unusual name of  Judith’s villain could have rung with some of these jumbled echoes, both in the vernacular and in the language of the church, the half-heard words and concepts echoing in the strange syllables, reinforcing the listener’s (or reader’s) understanding of the character, bloody fate, and spiritual torment of one of the most lively villains in Old English poetry.

Old English: this is happening.

This morning I had the chance to read one of the essays that constitute On the Aesthetics of Beowulf and Other Old English Poems.  It was a piece by Howell D. Chickering titled “Poetic Exuberance in the Old English Judith.”

The poem in question concerns the heroine’s beheading of Holofernes, a leader of the Assyrians, as he sleeps drunk in his tent.  It’s an Anglo-Saxon take on an Old Testament story – and, as Chickering shows, is characterized by an especially lively use of language.

Alliteration is properly understood as the outstanding feature of Old English verse – so much so that rhyme may seem to be wholly a French import.  But there’s this astonishing couple of half-lines in Judith that make wonderful use of off-rhyme:

                          sloh ða eornoste

ides ellenrof    oðre siðe

þone haeðenan hund,    þaet him þaet heafod wand

forð on ða flore.

Chickering translates:

                                                then in earnest she struck,

the courageous woman,    a second time

that heathen hound,    so that his head went rolling

forth upon the floor.

Chickering then quotes an analysis by T.A. Bredehof, author of Early English Metre:

the “hund”/”wand” off-rhyme pair implicitly evokes, for readers or listeners, each of the corresponding true rhymes, calling to mind both the “hand” of Judith, and the “wund” [“wound”] of Holofernes.  As the passage insists, this crucial moment of separation (Judith from Holofernes; head – and soul – from body) is simultaneously a moment of binding (Holofernes’s soul is bound in hell), and the use of rhyme and secondary alliteration serves to emphasize the binding aspects of the passage through a kind of linguistic or poetic interlacing.

I love stuff like this, and I’m not sure if I can explain why.  “Hund/Hand/Wand/Wund” – as concrete an example as I can think of to display on a small scale what the Beowulf-poet meant on a larger scale when he wrote “word oðer fand” (“one word found another”), describing the method of storytelling and singing as the Danes rode back to Herot from Grendel’s lair.  It’s the kind of thing Roberta Frank wrote about in her fantastic “The Unbearable Lightness of Being a Philologist.”  Words linked to words, sending echoes of meaning banging back and forth.

All this is a long way of saying that it’s time once again to try to learn Old English.  I never had the chance to take a course on the language in undergrad or graduate school, but I’ve got plenty of books and, I realize, enough time to give it another shot.  “Another”, because I’ve made probably half a dozen attempts over the past decade.  The closest I’ve gotten to a respectable mastery was around 7 years ago, when I memorized Brunanburh and in the process got a good handle on some of the vocabulary and grammar.  My problem is that I find my interests shifting to other things and as a result tend not to stick to a single language for more than a couple months.  Learning a language entirely solo also presents its challenges.

It’s time, though.  My mind rarely feels as stretched as when I’m trying to learn a language.  And don’t I owe it to the kids to bring them up bilingual?  They’ll thank me.

Damn right, Dad.  Get on it!

Damn right.