Perelandra by C. S. Lewis (1943)

As long as what you are afraid of is something evil, you may still hope that the good may come to your rescue. But suppose you struggle through to the good and find that it also is dreadful?

This is the second in C.S. Lewis’s theological science fiction trilogy, which consists of:

  • Out of the Silent Planet (1938)
  • Perelandra (also known as Voyage to Venus) (1943)
  • That Hideous Strength (1945)

A recap of Out of The Silent Planet

In the first novel the Cambridge philologist, Ransom, was kidnapped by the physicist Weston and his partner Devine, and flown in their space ship all the way to Mars. Escaping from his captors Ransom discovers that Mars is inhabited by three very different but intelligent life forms who have forged a peaceful working relationship – the Pfifltriggi, the Hrossa, and the Sorns.

Elwin (it’s only in this second book that we learn his first name) Ransom – being a philologist by trade – swiftly learns the language of Mars which is called Hressa-Hlab. he also learns fellowship from the otter-like hrossa, hears wisdom from the tall, willowy sorns, and is taken to the sanctuary of the master spirit or oyarsa who rules Mars which, he learns, is called Malacandra in the local language.

Ransom also learns:

  • That what humans take to be the empty space between planets is in reality teeming with spirits which the human eye can barely detect, named eldila. What humans call space should really be referred to as ‘Deep Heaven’.
  • That each planet in the solar system (or ‘Field of Arbol’ as it is called) is ruled by a kind of tutelary spirit and that these spirits can communicate across space.
  • But that some kind of primeval disaster afflicted the Earth way back in its history, so that its spirit became wicked, or ‘bent’ as the hnau (intelligent creatures) of Mars put it. Hence Earth’s name in their culture is Thulcandra, which means ‘the silent planet’. (And hence the title of the book, ‘Out of The Silent Planet’.)
  • Thus Earth has been ‘enemy’-occupied territory since before history began (Chapter 15).
  • Movement in and out of the silent planet was banned eons ago, to prevent the rest of the solar system from becoming ‘infected’ with its wickedness.

It is symptomatic of Lewis’s goal of sacramentalising the universe that he says we must learn to refer to space not as ‘space’ – it is not empty space – it is teeming with mystical life forms and replenishing energy – it should be referred to as ‘Deep Heaven’.

Looming behind and above the eldila and each planet’s oyarsa appears to be the highest power of all, which the hnau refer to as Maleldil. It isn’t made totally explicit, but I think we are meant to take this to mean ‘God’.

Towards the end of Out of the Silent Planet the baddies Weston and Devine force their way into the sanctuary of the tutelary spirit, Oyarsa, and, after disarming them, Oyarsa tells them he will send them back to Earth. Ransom is given the choice whether to stay or to go, and reluctantly agrees to return with them.

All the way home, on what turns out to be a gruelling journey, the humans are watched over by eldila who will, Oyarsa tells them, decompose/destroy their space ship within minutes of its safe arrival – to prevent their ever returning.

The space ship just about makes it back to Earth, despite running low on food, water, oxygen and flying so close to the sun that Ransom fears the three men’s sight will be permanently damaged. Ransom clambers out of the ship’s manhole cover-type hatch into good old, pouring English rain and stumbles to the nearest pub (the ship has, of course, landed in rural England) where he asks for a pint of good old English beer!

Lewis in the postscript

But of all the strange things that happened in Out of The Silent Planet, for me the strangest was the postscript in which it is revealed that the narrator all along has been named ‘Lewis’, that this ‘Lewis’ is a friend of Ransom’s, and that ‘Lewis’ has agreed to write up this account of Ransom’s adventures, changing his (Ransom’s) name, and simplifying other matters, in order to make it into a publishable book.

Thus, right at the very end the text includes a letter supposedly from ‘Ransom’ politely objecting to some of the simplifications which ‘Lewis’ has made in order to lay the tale before the public.

Perelandra

Anyway, if you hadn’t read Out of the Silent Planet it hardly matters, since almost all of this material is recapped at the start of this, the second book in the series. Once again we are in the mind of the first-person narrator, ‘Lewis’, as he walks through the gathering darkness of a summer evening towards Ransom’s remote cottage, where Ransom has invited him to come and meet him.

But as he walks towards the cottage, Lewis finds himself experiencing a mounting sense of terror, as well as all kinds of hysterical fears – of the dark itself, and a sudden fear that Ransom is maybe not on the side of the angels, but has been recruited by the Dark Side of the universe to wreak harm on earth. By the time Lewis arrives at the cottage he feels almost hysterical, and feels a physical force barring his way, as if every forward step is having to be fought for.

Finding Ransom out, Lewis lets himself into the cottage. A little later Ransom returns and cheerily explains that, yes, the house is under attack by dark forces, by ‘bent’ terrestrial eldila. it was they who placed all those terrifying thoughts in Lewis’s mind to stop them meeting. Ah. That explains the vivid fears Lewis has shared with us readers.

And it is an oblique comment on the period when the book was written. In chapter 15 we learn the story is set in 1942, a dark time for Lewis and his British readers.

Now Ransom also explains that the big, coffin-sized object in the hallway of his cottage is some kind of extra-terrestrial transport device. It turns out that Oyarsa has been in contact and told him (Ransom) that he is going to be sent on a mission to Venus, or Perelandra as it’s known by the hnau.

Why? Ransom is not sure but thinks it’s because the dark archon, the bent oyarsa of Thulcandra, is planning some kind of attack on Venus. Obviously not in person, since he cannot pass beyond the orbit of the moon without being repulsed by the other oyarsa and eldila (as explained earlier). So he must be planning to use some other means – and Ransom is being sent to thwart them.

Ransom and Lewis then carry the coffin-shaped object, made of some ice-cold white material, out into the garden, Ransom strips naked, climbs into it, Lewis places the lid on top, and – it vanishes.

A little over a year passes, with all the ongoing threats and alarms of war briefly referred to, and then Lewis receives a message from Oyarsa (he doesn’t dwell on how) and hurries down to Ransom’s cottage, accompanied by a mutual friend who is a doctor.

They stand in Ransom’s overgrown garden as a casket-shaped thing is briefly silhouetted against the sun, then glides down at their feet. They open the lid to discover Ransom nude and covered in what appear to be red flower petals, but:

glowing with health and rounded with muscle and seemingly ten years younger. In the old days he had been beginning to show a few grey hairs; but now the beard which swept his chest was pure gold

The canny reader instantly suspects that, whatever tribulations Ransom might have gone through on his year-long trip into space, Lewis is going to emphasise the fundamental justness, beauty and healthiness of the universe. Although we have no inkling of just how much he is going to do that.

Once he has awoken and had a wash and shave and gotten dressed and been thoroughly checked over by the doctor, Ransom is ready to tell his story, thus:

Ransom lands and finds the Lady

The first thing he remembers is awaking to find the coffin-spaceship disintegrating and throwing him into an enormous sea amid vast waves as big as mountains under a multi-coloured sky.

The waves tower as high as alps then plunge again, but the sea is warm and the sky is the colour of gold. Eventually he sees a huge mat-like material going past on the surface of the sea, swims towards it, clambers ‘ashore’, and falls asleep.

When he awakes he is in a kind of wonderland of beauty, sweet scents, delicious colours, wonderful food.

The world had no size now. Its boundaries were the length and breadth of his own body and the little patch of soft fragrance which made his hammock, swaying ever more and more gently. Night covered him like a blanket and kept all loneliness from him. The blackness might have been his own room. Sleep came like a fruit which falls into the hand almost before you have touched the stem.

He discovers that the mat is big, big enough to contain woods and clearings, it lies flat on the surface of the gently undulating sea, and it is – a form of paradise.

Over his head there hung from a hairy tube-like branch a great spherical object, almost transparent, and shining. It held an area of reflected light in it and at one place a suggestion of rainbow colouring. So this was the explanation of the glass-like appearance in the wood. And looking round he perceived innumerable shimmering globes of the same kind in every direction. He began to examine the nearest one attentively. At first he thought it was moving, then he thought it was not. Moved by a natural impulse he put out his hand to touch it. Immediately his head, face, and shoulders were drenched with what seemed (in that warm world) an ice-cold shower bath, and his nostrils filled with a sharp, shrill, exquisite scent that somehow brought to his mind the verse in Pope, ‘die of a rose in aromatic pain.’ Such was the refreshment that he seemed to himself to have been, till now, but half awake. When he opened his eyes – which had closed involuntarily at the shock of moisture – all the colours about him seemed richer and the dimness of that world seemed clarified. A re-enchantment fell upon him.

In fact Ransom quickly learns that it really is paradise, for on another ‘island’ floating nearby he sees a human form which, when the ‘islands’ drift closer, he realises is a full-grown naked woman coloured green.

They wave at each other until Ransom nerves himself to take a risk and plunges into the sea to swim over to her island and…

Realises he really is in the garden of Eden. This woman is wonderfully simple, innocent, trusting and pure. The animals lovingly follow her. She has no ‘home’, there is no village or settlement, there are no ‘others’. Ransom quickly feels himself to be a blunt, ugly creature intruding into a world of prelapsarian harmony. Every single one of his questions prompts the lady to pause and think and he quickly realises that she is so innocent and unspoiled that even the sophisticated assumptions behind his questions are new and puzzling to her. He realises he must be careful, chaste, polite and restrained in what he tells her about the other worlds he knows about (Earth and Mars).

The only other one of her type she knows is ‘the King’, and she says she will take Ransom to meet him. The King is on the land of green pillars, which she points out. Ransom had glimpsed these pillars amid the floating islands, and now has it confirmed to him that they are on fixed dry land, marked by a set of enormous green columns towering into the air.

The lady calls dolphin-like creatures to the edge of their island and invites Ransom to climb astride one, as she does. The dolphins carry them to the island. They walk around it, Ransom delighting to be on good solid ground again. But then they see a black shape bobbing closer through the waves. It seems to be spherical in shape. Ransom has a bad feeling. It looks exactly like the spherical, steel and glass spaceship in which he, Weston and Devine flew to Malacandra in the first book. Is this the form the ‘attack’ is to take?

Yes it is. For indeed Weston comes towards the island rowing a little collapsible canoe. Up the beach he clambers and pulls a gun on Ransom, confirming the latter’s worst fears. However, the Lady has not, of course, seen a gun before. Lewis has painted such a convincing portrait of her complete innocence that we believe it when she simply walks away from the two strangers, down to the beach and takes a dolphin off the island.

Now during the lengthy conversations she and Ransom have had, she has let slip that Maleldil has given her everything she needs for a sweet life, but on one condition, with one rule to be obeyed – that she must not spend the night on the island, she must not sleep on solid ground.

Ransom (being a fallen human) is curious to find out why not. ‘Because it is His will,’ she replies, simply. All else is allowed, everything is free. But to show her obedience to her maker, to make that obedience light and free, there is just this one rule.

This explains why, with night coming on, the Green Lady had hastened down to the shore, quickly whistled up some dolphins (she is followed everywhere by admiring animals) and ridden off. Leaving Ransom to confront Weston.

Ransom and Weston’s theological argument

Now Ransom finds himself forced into an absurd theological argument. Here on the shore of an island among mountainous seas on a strange planet thirty million miles from home, he finds himself listening to a mad rhodomontade from Weston.

Perelandra was written at exactly the same time as Lewis was giving a series of BBC radio talks about religion (1941-44) which were gathered together into his most popular work of Christian apologetics, Mere Christianity.

In his popular Christian works, Lewis not only defended Christian belief and put forward various (light and accessible) ‘philosophical’ arguments for Christianity, but also listed and attacked various ‘modern heresies’, i.e. types of contemporary belief which, he thought, were not only un-Christian but tended towards man’s unhappiness, if not the active promotion of evil.

So it is that he pro-Christian arguments and anti-‘heresy’ arguments which Lewis was working out at this period spill over into Perelandra. Or, probably more likely, he developed the arguments and counter-arguments, and then decided which would be appropriate for radio presentation and which would work best in a fictional setting. And also which could be shown in a fictional setting, such as the peace and harmony of all beings on a prelapsarian planet.

Anyway, it is obvious that Weston is made to represent what Lewis took to be the central strand of contemporary scientific and philosophical thought which he thought had brought the world to the disaster in which it found itself, had led to the rise of Fascism and Stalinism, and the plunging of the whole world into war.

Back in the first book, Weston had stood before the oyarsa of Malacandra and given a long speech declaring it was ‘man’s destiny’ to colonise the other planets of the solar system and then reach out into space. The implication – that ‘man’ would liquidate or take control of all the inhabitants of all the other planets of the solar system – was clearly depicted as totalitarian if not fascist in tone, a symptom of the disease afflicting the darkening world it was written in (1937-38).

Now Weston shows that he has adapted his beliefs and made them bigger. Previously he had talked about mankind. Now he claims that all organic life is driven by a ‘Spirit’, a Spirit which drove evolution from the very beginning, finding expression in higher and higher beings. This theory was known as ‘Creative Evolution’ and was very popular among the scientifically minded of Lewis’s day, among democrats and socialists who rejected orthodox religion, but still wished to find some kind of purpose or forward goal in Darwin’s theory of evolution.

Ransom asks whether this ‘spirit’ is good or evil, but Weston sweeps the distinction aside, saying Ransom is too shackled by traditional religious dualisms. The spirit may take ‘good’ or ‘bad’ forms, it’s irrelevant, the thing is its forward, upward momentum, from triumph to triumph (echoing the triumphal rhetoric of the totalitarian states).

And he, Weston, now knows that he has been chosen as the vessel of the Spirit of Man, to take it to the next level. How? because he hears the Spirit speaking to him, whispering the secrets of the universe. The Spirit helped him create the space ship and it helped bring him here.

Now a notable thing about C.S. Lewis’s Christianity is that he took a great deal of Christian belief literally with a kind of bluff, hearty good sense – he took the stories of Jesus casting out devils, raising the dead and performing miracles, as literal truths – much to the scorn of his ‘sophisticated’ fellow dons at Oxford. But it was a simple. bluff, literal attitude which rang a bell among a less sophisticated public and made his radio broadcasts and theology books immensely popular.

Thus Lewis believed in a literal Devil who tempted people. Whereas sophisticated Oxford theologians argued that the devil and hell were allegories or symbols or psychological states, Lewis saw them as literal persons who you could meet and who could talk to you, persuade you, or possess you.

Thus the point of this scene in Perelandra is to show how Weston’s belief in the inexorable triumph of some amoral ‘Spirit of Man’ is not only a mistaken belief which results in shockingly immoral behaviour (Weston quite happily admits he would sell England to Nazi Germany if the Spirit told him), but is the result of Weston’s literal possession by an evil spirit.

And so, listening to Weston’s increasingly demented ranting, it dawns on Ransom that whole schools of modern thought might be heresies in the most literal sense – that they are inspired by the Devil.

That opposite mode of thought which he had often mocked and called in mockery The Empirical Bogey, came surging into his mind – the great myth of our century with its gases and galaxies, its light years and evolutions, its nightmare perspectives of simple arithmetic in which everything that can possibly hold significance for the mind becomes the mere by-product of essential disorder. Always till now he had belittled it, had treated with a certain disdain its flat superlatives, its clownish amazement that different things should be of different sizes, its glib munificence of ciphers.

In case there was any doubt about Weston’s demonic possession, Lewis makes it perfectly clear at the end of the scene when, as a result of Ransom’s persistent rejection of Weston’s arguments, the latter works himself up into a frenzy and then collapses and – for a moment – Ransom can see the helpless mortal man writhing in the grip of its evil demon and trying to escape.

‘Idiot,’ said Weston. His voice was almost a howl and he had risen to his feet. ‘Idiot,’ he repeated. ‘Can you understand nothing? Will you always try to press everything back into the miserable framework of your old jargon about self and self-sacrifice? That is the old accursed dualism in another form. There is no possible distinction in concrete thought between me and the universe. In so far as I am the conductor of the central forward pressure of the universe, I am it. Do you see, you timid, scruple-mongering fool? I am the Universe. I, Weston, am your God and your Devil. I call that Force into me completely. . . .’

Then horrible things began happening. A spasm like that preceding a deadly vomit twisted Weston’s face out of recognition. As it passed, for one second something like the old Weston reappeared – the old Weston, staring with eyes of horror and howling, ‘Ransom, Ransom! For Christ’s sake don’t let them…’ and instantly his whole body spun round as if he had been hit by a revolver-bullet and he fell to the earth, and was there rolling at Ransom’s feet, slavering and chattering and tearing up the moss by handfuls.

If this is like a scene from The Exorcist it is because Lewis did believe in literal devils and did believe they could literally possess people, as Weston is here, quite clearly, possessed.

His ‘wrong’ beliefs about the self-importance of Man, his denial of anything, any God or Moral Law beyond man, set him down the road to becoming the mortal instrument of spirits set on evil.

The result of this conversation, and of Weston’s collapse, is that Ransom spends the rest of the novel vividly aware that the thing he is facing is not human and this is conveyed with a real thrill of horror.

The thing sat down close to the Lady’s head on the far side of her from Ransom. If you could call it sitting down. The body did not reach its squatting position by the normal movements of a man: it was more as if some external force manoeuvred it into the right position and then let it drop. It was impossible to point to any particular motion which was definitely non-human. Ransom had the sense of watching an imitation of living motions which had been very well studied and was technically correct: but somehow it lacked the master touch. And he was chilled with an inarticulate, night-nursery horror of the thing he had to deal with – the managed corpse, the bogey, the Un-man.

The garden of Eden

What if earth had once also been a paradise? What if that is why the sights and smells and sounds of Perelandra seem not only sweet to Lewis, but deep, as if they recalled ancestral experiences from the origins of his race?

It was strange to be filled with homesickness for places where his sojourn had been so brief and which were, by any objective standard, so alien to all our race. Or were they? The cord of longing which drew him to the invisible isle seemed to him at that moment to have been fastened long, long before his coming to Perelandra, long before the earliest times that memory could recover in his childhood, before his birth, before the birth of man himself, before the origins of time. It was sharp, sweet, wild, and holy, all in one, and in any world where men’s nerves have ceased to obey their central desires would doubtless have been aphrodisiac too, but not in Perelandra.

What if the ancients myths and legends, recorded in the old books, are not – as sophisticated modern atheist philosophy has it – the childish stories made up by illiterate inhabitants of the Dark Ages, but the opposite? What if they are actual memories of people and values from an earlier time, when humans were closer to some prelapsarian truth, memories which lingered on after the spiritual disaster which overtook mankind?

He remembered his old suspicion that what was myth in one world might always be fact in some other. He wondered also whether the King and Queen of Perelandra, though doubtless the first human pair of this planet, might on the physical side have a marine ancestry. And if so, what then of the man-like things before men in our own world? Must they in truth have been the wistful brutalities whose pictures we see in popular books on evolution? Or were the old myths truer than the modern myths? Had there in truth been a time when satyrs danced in the Italian woods?

Lewis’s science fiction books are not only an excuse for fantasy – for the kind of fantasy mountains, flora and fauna, animals, skies and so on, that you might get in Wells and other sci-fi fantasists – but for fantasy underpinned by Lewis’s feel for both theology and ancient literature and myth.

From without, most certainly from without, but not by the sense of hearing, festal revelry and dance and splendour poured into him – no sound, yet in such fashion that it could not be remembered or thought of except as music. It was like having a new sense. It was like being present when the morning stars sang together.

Throughout the book the reader is given numerous extended descriptions of the sheer joyousness of the this Venusian paradise, less in ideas than in countless detailed physical sensations – Lewis very powerfully conveys the idea that Perelandra amounts to a kind of holiday from the normal sensations of his body.

He was riding the foamless swell of an ocean, fresh and cool after the fierce temperatures of Heaven, but warm by earthly standards – as warm as a shallow bay with sandy bottom in a sub-tropical climate. As he rushed smoothly up the great convex hillside of the next wave he got a mouthful of the water. It was hardly at all flavoured with salt; it was drinkable – like fresh water and only, by an infinitesimal degree, less insipid. Though he had not been aware of thirst till now, his drink gave him a quite astonishing pleasure. It was almost like meeting Pleasure itself for the first time.

The very names of green and gold, which he used perforce in describing the scene, are too harsh for the tenderness, the muted iridescence, of that warm, maternal, delicately gorgeous world. It was mild to look upon as evening, warm like summer noon, gentle and winning like early dawn. It was altogether pleasurable.

Eden is full of pleasure:

He had meant to extract the smallest, experimental sip, but the first taste put his caution all to flight. It was, of course, a taste, just as his thirst and hunger had been thirst and hunger. But then it was so different from every other taste that it seemed mere pedantry to call it a taste at all. It was like the discovery of a totally new genus of pleasures, something unheard of among men, out of all reckoning, beyond all covenant. For one draught of this on earth wars would be fought and nations betrayed. It could not be classified. He could never tell us, when he came back to the world of men, whether it was sharp or sweet, savoury or voluptuous, creamy or piercing. ‘Not like that’ was all he could ever say to such inquiries.

And blissful physical sensations:

He was approaching a forest of little trees whose trunks were only about two and a half feet high; but from the top of each trunk there grew long streamers which did not rise in the air but flowed in the wind downhill and parallel to the ground. Thus, when he went in among them, he found himself wading knee deep and more in a continually rippling sea of them–a sea which presently tossed all about him as far as his eye could reach. It was blue in colour, but far lighter than the blue of the turf–almost a Cambridge blue at the centre of each streamer, but dying away at their tasselled and feathery edges into a delicacy of bluish grey which it would take the subtlest effects of smoke and cloud to rival in our world. The soft, almost impalpable, caresses of the long thin leaves on his flesh, the low, singing, rustling, whispering music, and the frolic movement all about him, began to set his heart beating with that almost formidable sense of delight which he had felt before in Perelandra.

So in Lewis’s theology, pleasure, bliss and joy are not the temptations, are not the wicked things. The temptation is the fundamental mistake of not crediting God with creating everything.

We can all enjoy bliss such as we have never known – but it is all contingent on a right and proper and correct acknowledgement that God made us, that we are created beings and that the created should endlessly acknowledge the Creator for the gift of existence in all its wonder.

The beautiful setting, the lovely sky, the lapping waters, the docile creatures and the innocently dignified Lady – all make a luminous background against which Weston’s narrow-minded, egotistical, godless philosophy and pointlessly cruel behaviour, stand out all the more as wicked and squalid.

Temptation

Ransom takes a dolphin out to an island where he arrives in darkness, goes ashore and sleeps. When he wakens it is still dark and he overhears Weston tempting the Lady.

Maleldil’s prohibition of sleeping on the island clearly performs on this planet the role that God’s forbidding Adam and Eve from eating the apple from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil performed on Earth. it is the one rule that must be obeyed. it is the stumbling block. Meaningless in itself, it is a marker of the creature’s obedience to the Creator.

Ransom feels sick as he listens to the subtle arguments that Weston is making to tempt the Lady: that sleeping on the island will make the Lady wise, make her more of a woman, will earn the King’s respect, why should she always know less and be subservient to him? And so on.

The Lady resists his arguments. Good triumphs. Ransom falls asleep again.

When he wakes again it is to find some of the frog-like creatures he had observed among the Lady’s animal followers have been maimed and mutilated. To his horror he follows a string of their writhing bodies, each one ripped open along the spine, until he finds Weston at work, torturing one of them, for no reason, just for the random cruelty. When Weston looks up from his work, Ransom for the first time realises what a devil looks like.

The smile was not bitter, nor raging, nor, in an ordinary sense, sinister; it was not even mocking. It seemed to summon Ransom, with a horrible naïveté of welcome, into the world of its own pleasures, as if all men were at one in those pleasures, as if they were the most natural thing in the world and no dispute could ever have occurred about them. It was not furtive, nor ashamed, it had nothing of the conspirator in it. It did not defy goodness, it ignored it to the point of annihilation. Ransom perceived that he had never before seen anything but half-hearted and uneasy attempts at evil. This creature was whole-hearted. The extremity of its evil had passed beyond all struggle into some state which bore a horrible similarity to innocence. It was beyond vice as the Lady was beyond virtue.

The days begin to blur into one another. Over and over Ransom wakes to hear Weston keep up his unending siege of the Lady’s obedience. Forced to sit by most of the time, as he has to wait for the Lady to ask his opinion, Ransom (and we the reader) witness the prolonged battery of arguments launched from every side with which the un-Man assails the Lady.

This long passage is a sort of tour de force in which Lewis imagines just what the Devil said to Eve in the Garden of Eden, how he overcame her innocence, how he persuaded her that Maleldil had not banned her sleeping on the island in order to ban it as such, but so that she could grow in maturity and confidence, so that she could show both Maleldil and the King that she was no longer a child. Yes both of them would be pleased if she would only disobey the ban.

These and hundreds of other monotonously similar lies Ransom has to listen to again and again, And he is horrified to see it working. Ransom observes the Lady, under Weston’s ceaseless corrupting barrage, for the first time adopting a rather theatrical manner, no longer unself-consciously laughing and speaking but slowly becoming aware of herself, and beginning to pose. Weston gives her a hand mirror which initially surprises here, and which he uses to emphasise her importance, her supremacy, flattering her position of First Woman.

Always the weakest point of people is shown to be their egotism – their sense of self. Always their strongest point (in Lewis’s vision) is their sense of something outside themselves, of something greater, more powerful, to which they owe gratitude and obedience.

The decision

Eventually there are several pages describing Ransom’s agonised realisation that sitting by and watching primal innocence be corrupted isn’t enough. He has had no communication from Oyarsa, none of the eldila have told him what to expect or what to do.

And again, this is part of Lewis’s strategy in these fiction books and in his apologetics: he makes the very powerful point that it is up to us. In a roundabout sort of way this chimes with the contemporary message of the Continental Existentialists (apart from the obvious fact that they were mostly atheists) – but they both lead to the same conclusion – it is up to us to fight evil, often with little or no help from outside.

Everyone must make their decision and everyone defines themselves by their decisions. We are free to make or unmake ourselves, says Lewis, as clearly as his contemporary Jean-Paul Sartre.

So Ransom has had no outside help from the moment he arrived, no communications, no hints or advice or guidance.

Now, after days of agonising, he decides that there is no alternative – he must kill Weston. Yes, it’s immoral, yes maybe he will damn himself – but he cannot stand by and allow the alternative – the corruption and damnation of an entire planet. And at this point he does hear a voice in his head. ‘It is no coincidence’, the voice tells him, ‘that his name is Ransom: he must be the price paid for the preservation of this world’.

The chase

This leads into what turns out to be a very prolonged and gruelling chase sequence.

1. Ransom gets up, goes and finds Weston and, without any warning, attacks him. They claw, scratch, bite, kick and punch each other. Eventually, the struggle breaks off as Weston staggers through forest down to the shore and straddles a dolphin fish and is away, Ransom pursuing. Day and night, night and day, falling asleep, nearly falling off, confronting the strange mute faces of the mermen beneath the waves, Ransom rides the dolphin-like creature in pursuit of the equally dazed and wounded Weston.

2. A day comes when Weston’s fish is exhausted and he stops running, turns and paddles it over beside Ransom. ‘Please,’ he wheedles, and then goes into another long, tempting speech, pretending that he is now simply Weston and that his devil has fled. Except he isn’t and it hasn’t. Only slowly does it reveal its devilish intent. Weston’s wheedling slowly turns into a grand vision of the horror and pointlessness of life, we only live briefly and then are pushed out of the bright atmosphere of the world into the darkness beneath it, squealing in pain and fear. It doesn’t matter whether there is a God or not, all that matters is escaping the darkness, the void, the horror… at which point Ransom realises that ‘it’ is still a devil, and also realises that he has been given an insight into what it means to be a devil, self-excluded from the grace of God.

3. The devil grabs Ransom’s arm and then lunges across from his dolphin, tackles his body, wrapping himself round Ransom’s waist and thighs and dragging him down, down under water. This leads to a nightmareish struggle in the cold depths of the sea, when you wonder if they will both drown and go to the underworld (anything seems to be possible).

But instead Ransom awakes to find he is in some kind of shingly beach in the pitch darkness. He finds Weston’s body and strangles him to death and breaks his ribs for good measure, and then collapses exhausted. Hours later, Ransom awakes again, again into pitch darkness, and begins to explore the ‘beach’ only to discover that it is a cave. By some chance he and Weston in their death-embrace have been washed into a cave, maybe deep under the waterline in some cliff. He tentatively tries easing down into the water but it is breaking against the sides with such violence that, in the dark, it is impossible to gauge its power and depth and Ransom has no way of knowing how much of a swim, and in which direction he should go, to escape out of the cave and make it back to the surface.

Instead Ransom sets off to explore the innards of the cave and see if he can escape that way, in a passage of nightmare intensity, bumping into walls, pulling himself up onto ledges, inching along in pitch darkness, stubbing his toes, scratching every inch of his exposed naked body, always climbing, with no idea where he is going or if there is any hope.

This passage is a form of Pilgrim’s Progress. It isn’t made explicit, but it is a Christian soul climbing up out of pitch darkness driven only by faith.

Only after a prolonged and increasingly hallucinatory climb does Ransom finally see a sliver of light up above, and walk up along a sloping stretch of rock to discover a fissure of light high above him.

He has to build a platform from loose rocks and jump up into the crevice, clinging on by his fingertips, then inching his way along it, his back against one wall, his knees and feet against the other, painfully upwards to emerge in a huge wide cavern illuminated by the light from a sheer drop at one end. He goes over to it and discovers it drops sheer, hundreds maybe thousands of yards down into raw, moiling fire.

As he turns from the blinding light back to the cavern, Ransom sees Weston, as in a dream, as in a nightmare, pull himself slowly up out of the fissure and stumble towards him. Half-mad, hallucinating, delirious, Ransom grips the nearest sizeable rock, says, ‘In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost,’ runs at Weston and smashes his face in, smashing it literally to a pulp.

He then drags the mashed-face corpse over to the ledge and tips it over to plummet down down into the fiery lava beneath. Surely, finally, he has finished his task.

Days of climbing follow in a delirium of pain and exhaustion. Finally, crossing some cave, Ransom slips and falls into a fast-moving stream which sluices him out of a rock face and into a pool outside, on a mountainside, under the golden sky of Perelandra where he lies for days, drinking the stream water and reaching his hand up for sweet fruit, delirious, unconscious of the days and nights, slowly healing in body and mind.

Eventually, after many days, healed and ready to walk, the eldila appear, fragments of light in the daytime, silently telling  him that he must set off for some kind of happy valley, there beyond the hills.

The coronation

Ransom walks a long way, up hill, down dale, somehow knowing he must seek the hidden valley, climbing high into the mountains before finally descending to the most beautiful place he has seen in either of the two planets, Malacandra or Perelandra.

Here, drawn up in front of a natural temple, he encounters the oyarsa of the planet, and then witnesses an enormous horde of friendly animals attending the King and the Lady as they land at the beach and slowly progress up to the temple.

There follows an extraordinary extended coronation scene in which the Lady and the King are transformed into Tor and Tinidil, and receive stewardship of the planet and everything on it from the oyarsa. In extended speeches Ransom is told that the King and the Lady have learned about evil not by doing it, as Adam and Eve did – but by resisting it.

In this grand performance Ransom played a crucial part, allowing the Lady to learn just enough of the bad to be able to resist it, before himself disposing of the evil in a way no creature of Perelandra could have, without sullying itself.

Only a fallen man could deal with another fallen man. Ransom receives the fathomless gratitude of the King and the Lady. And in this whole story Weston, like Judas, played a preconceived role.

‘Little did that dark mind know the errand on which he really came to Perelandra!’

After the theology is explained there is a tremendous passage of three or four pages made up of twenty paragraphs, every one of which is a hymn to Maleldil, ending with the repeated phrase, ‘Blessed be He!’

‘All things are by Him and for Him. He utters Himself also for His own delight and sees that He is good. He is His own begotten and what proceeds from Him is Himself. Blessed be He!’

Not the kind of thing you get in a regular novel.

The prophecy

With no interruption, the King washes and laves Ransom’s battered body (in an obvious echo of Jesus washing his disciples in the New Testament) even the gash on his heel where Weston bit him, and which stubbornly refuses to heal.

Then the King lays Ransom in the ice-cold white coffin which has now appeared before them, of the same type which Ransom travelled there in, seals the coffin and Ransom is gone.

But not before the King has made this final prophecy, a prophecy about the Final Battle for the soul of earth, or Thulcandra, a prophecy which obviously sets the book up for its sequel, the final novel in the trilogy, That Hideous Strength.

We shall fall upon your moon, wherein there is a secret evil, and which is as the shield of the Dark Lord of Thulcandra – scarred with many a blow. We shall break her. Her light shall be put out. Her fragments shall fall into your world and the seas and the smoke shall arise so that the dwellers in Thulcandra will no longer see the light of Arbol. And as Maleldil Himself draws near, the evil things in your world shall show themselves stripped of disguise so that plagues and horrors shall cover your lands and seas. But in the end all shall be cleansed, and even the memory of your Black Oyarsa blotted out, and your world shall be fair and sweet and reunited to the field of Arbol and its true name shall be heard again.


The Discarded Image

In my review of Out of The Silent Planet I mentioned the way that most of Lewis’s books, after his conversion to Christianity in 1931, were driven by the urge to explain and proselytise for his Christian belief. Perelandra is even more overtly Christian than its predecessor, or rather all the ideas are based on Christian theology.

His openly Christian works of apologetics like Mere Christianity, the popular comic books like The Screwtape Letters, the famous series of Narnia books, and this, his science fiction trilogy, are all powered and underpinned by Lewis’s profound Christian belief working at various levels of explicitness, from High Theology about the Fall through to incidental insights about human nature – how we are less when we are selfish and self-centred, and more when we turn outwards and acknowledge others.

But to focus on the Christian element is to ignore the other, very large, possibly even larger, part of Lewis’s imagination, which was shaped by his deep and scholarly knowledge of ancient, medieval and Renaissance literature, knowledge which underpins the fantastical and beautiful sumptuousness of much of his imagery, and his sense of the stateliness and courtesy of the pure, of his spirits and kings.

I myself did a very old-fashioned English Literature degree for which I had to learn Anglo-Saxon and Middle English, and in preparation for which it was assumed that I would have read all of the Bible, Homer, the Aeneid, Ovid and Horace.

In studying Gawayne and the Green Knight or Chaucer or The Faerie Queen by Spenser, I found Lewis’s literary criticism of these works invaluable, not only for his detailed knowledge of individual facts or symbols – but for his matchless feel for the values of long-lost cultures.

Lewis’s final book was a scholarly work – The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature – a deliberately brief, almost note-form summary of the sources of much of the imagery and belief system of medieval and renaissance literature. It lays out very clearly and usefully key aspects of ancient and medieval cosmology, explaining their sources in a handful of seminal works, mostly from the ancient world, explaining (in the words of Wikipedia),

the structure of the medieval universe, the nature of its inhabitants, the notion of a finite universe, ordered and maintained by a celestial hierarchy, and the ideas of nature.

My point is that Lewis was absolutely drenched in the imagery and thought of the classical and medieval world, and in my view it is this – just as much as his Christian faith – which gives his fictional books their special feel, a really deep feel for older values, for ancient symbolism and allegory. It explains why the image from Narnia of children placing chains of flowers round the neck of a peaceful lion feels not just fanciful, but somehow profound.

That isn’t an image from anywhere in the Bible. But it is the kind of heraldic image anyone familiar with medieval texts, poems, marginalia or tapestries would appreciate. It is this – a sense of the medieval world somehow reborn across time and space – much more than the explicit Christian theology, which I kept being reminded of as I read Perelandra.

At Ransom’s waking something happened to him which perhaps never happens to a man until he is out of his own world: he saw reality, and thought it was a dream. He opened his eyes and saw a strange heraldically coloured tree loaded with yellow fruits and silver leaves. Round the base of the indigo stem was coiled a small dragon covered with scales of red gold. He recognised the garden of the Hesperides at once.

Lewis actually uses the medieval word ‘heraldic’ several times to convey the sense of dignified, richly felt, medieval symbolism which he is striving to create.

She had stood up amidst a throng of beasts and birds as a tall sapling stands among bushes – big pigeon-coloured birds and flame-coloured birds, and dragons, and beaver-like creatures about the size of rats, and heraldic-looking fish in the sea at her feet. Or had he imagined that? Was this the beginning of the hallucinations he had feared? Or another myth coming out into the world of fact…

They made the circle of the plateau methodically. Behind them lay the group of islands from which they had set out that morning. Seen from this altitude it was larger even than Ransom had supposed. The richness of its colours – its orange, its silver, its purple and (to his surprise) its glossy blacks – made it seem almost heraldic.

The heavens had vanished, and the surface of the sea; but far, far below him in the heart of the vacancy through which he appeared to be travelling, strange bursting star shells and writhing streaks of a bluish-green luminosity appeared. At first they were very remote, but soon, as far as he could judge, they were nearer. A whole world of phosphorescent creatures seemed to be at play not far from the surface – coiling eels and darting things in complete armour, and then heraldically fantastic shapes to which the sea-horse of our own waters would be commonplace

When his imagination looks for the beautiful, it is not to the Jewish imagery of the Bible, but to medieval iconography which Lewis turns, imagery forged of the strange union between popular folk tales and legends with the high art of Norman courtly chivalry, mixed in with the myths and strange arcane beliefs of the ancient world.

It is the formal beauty, the poise, the ceremoniousness, the tremendous feeling of correctness about this medieval imagery which gives Lewis’s fictional books – the Narnia books and this science fiction trilogy – a large part of their powerful imaginative impact.

The Lady and the Unicorn: À mon seul désir (1500) Musée national du Moyen Âge, Paris

The Lady and the Unicorn: À mon seul désir (1500) Musée national du Moyen Âge, Paris

Note the ubiquity of the animals in this famous medieval tapestry, both regal (lion and unicorn) and sweetly domestic (dog, rabbits, foxes, lambs).

All of creation, not just human beings, are incorporated in Lewis’s vision – and this, again, reflects his medieval imagination, where animals peep out from the corner of tapestries or intrude into Chaucerian stories.

The comedy of Oxford dons

Although we are transported to other planets and subject to heady worlds of theological and courtly seriousness, Lewis lightens his sci-fi trilogy with an occasional sense of humour, particularly when it comes to taking the mickey out of his own world of stuffy and pedantic Oxford dons. Right in the middle of discussing the future of the whole world, they will be brought up short by a pedantic quibble about a point of grammar. Thus Lewis asks him, before he leaves, about the language he expects to find spoken on Venus:

‘And you think you will find Hressa-Hlab, or Old Solar, spoken on Venus?’
‘Yes. I shall arrive knowing the language. It saves a lot of trouble – though, as a philologist I find it rather disappointing.’

Similarly, once he finds himself in the pitch black cave under the sea, initially convinced it is simply night-time and he must wait for the dawn, Ransom sets out to pass the time thus:

He recited all that he could remember of the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Æneid, the Chanson de Roland, Paradise Lost, the Kalevala, the Hunting of the Snark, and a rhyme about Germanic sound-laws which he had composed as a freshman.

‘A rhyme about Germanic sound-laws which he had composed as a freshman.’ 🙂

Once Ransom has finally decided to kill Weston, once he is in the black cave astride the enemy’s chest, squeezing its throat with both hands, he finds himself, to his own surprise, shouting out a line from the Anglo-Saxon poem, The Battle of Maldon. I studied the Battle of Maldon at university and I have reviewed it for this blog. I would dearly love to know which line Ransom shouted out.

And it is typical of the hyper-scholarly nature of his characters that Ransom declares, towards the end, that, comparing the experience of being on the two planets, Mars and Venus:

Malacandra affected him like a quantitative, Perelandra like an accentual, metre.

Surprised by joy

But the final memory and impression of reading the book is Lewis’s wonderful, delicious, intoxicating depictions of Eden, what bliss it would be, how it would feed all the senses without glutting or tiring them: how it would be made perfectly for men and women to delight in.

Two things account for the popularity of Lewis’s popular Christian books. One is that they are simple. He turned complicated theology or philosophy into the language of Daily Mail editorials, into terms understandable by almost anyone, but without any sense of being patronising. He just sets out at a popular level and then keeps on at that level.

But just as important, I think, was his immense capacity for conjuring up images, motifs, descriptions, settings, words and phrases to convey an immense, bountiful, overflowing feeling of happiness.

I’ve met and debated theology with Christians who have had bad experiences in their lives – rape, abuse, suicide of parents – and they all testified to the importance of Lewis’s writings in helping them find a meaning and a purpose in their lives, in leading them through darkness to greater faith. Helped by its promise that even the most horrific experiences can be transcended because of the beauty and love of the world God has prepared for us.

In a thousand different images, this is the confidence, the faith in beauty and bliss, the deep optimism, which all Lewis’s books radiate and which helps to account for their enduring appeal.

But he said ‘Hush’ to his mind at this stage, for the mere pleasure of breathing in the fragrance which now began to steal towards him from the blackness ahead. Warm and sweet, and every moment sweeter and purer, and every moment stronger and more filled with all delights, it came to him. He knew well what it was. He would know it henceforward out of the whole universe – the night-breath of a floating island in the star Venus.


Related links

Other science fiction reviews

1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1898 The War of the Worlds – the Martians invade earth
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same future London as The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth defy her wealthy family in order to marry, fall into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, prompting giant humans to rebel against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a comet passes through earth’s atmosphere and brings about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Kent, gets caught up in the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, there to discover…

1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra aka Mars,

1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent an earth man possessed by the devil from tempting the planet’s new young inhabitants to a second Fall
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with Martians
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the ‘trilogy’ describing the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence powered by spindizzy technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them
1953 Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke a thrilling narrative involving the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention – in the near future – of the anti-death drugs and the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1957 The Black Cloud by Fred Hoyle – a vast cloud of gas heads into the solar system, blocking out heat and light from the sun with cataclysmic consequences on Earth, until a small band of maverick astronomers discovers that the cloud contains intelligence and can be communicated with
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding story of Blish’s Okie tetralogy in which Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe

1961 A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard New York
1962 The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick In an alternative future America lost the Second World War and has been partitioned between Japan and Nazi Germany. The narrative follows a motley crew of characters including a dealer in antique Americana, a German spy who warns a Japanese official about a looming surprise German attack, and a woman determined to track down the reclusive author of a hit book which describes an alternative future in which America won the Second World War
1963 Planet of the Apes by Pierre Boulle French journalist Ulysse Mérou accompanies Professor Antelle on a two-year space flight to the star Betelgeuse, where they land on an earth-like plane to discover that humans and apes have evolved here, but the apes are the intelligent, technology-controlling species while the humans are mute beasts
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey a panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman being transformed into galactic consciousness
1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick In 1992 androids are almost indistinguishable from humans except by trained bounty hunters like Rick Deckard who is paid to track down and ‘retire’ escaped andys
1969 Ubik by Philip K. Dick In 1992 the world is threatened by mutants with psionic powers who are combated by ‘inertials’. The novel focuses on the weird alternative world experienced by a group of inertials after a catastrophe on the moon

1970 Tau Zero by Poul Anderson – spaceship Leonora Christine leaves earth with a crew of fifty to discover if humans can colonise any of the planets orbiting the star Beta Virginis, but when its deceleration engines are damaged, the crew realise they need to exit the galaxy altogether in order to find space with low enough radiation to fix the engines, and then a series of unfortunate events mean they find themselves forced to accelerate faster and faster, effectively travelling through time as well as space until they witness the end of the entire universe
1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it
1974 Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick – America after the Second World War has become an authoritarian state. The story concerns popular TV host Jason Taverner who is plunged into an alternative version of this world in which he is no longer a rich entertainer but down on the streets among the ‘ordinaries’ and on the run from the police. Why? And how can he get back to his storyline?
1974 The Forever War by Joe Haldeman The story of William Mandella who is recruited into special forces fighting the Taurans, a hostile species who attack Earth outposts, successive tours of duty requiring interstellar journeys during which centuries pass on Earth, so that each of his return visits to the home planet show us society’s massive transformations over the course of the thousand years the war lasts.

1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the Golden Era of the genre, namely the 1950s
1982 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke – Heywood Floyd joins a Russian spaceship on a two-year journey to Jupiter to a) reclaim the abandoned Discovery and b) investigate the monolith on Japetus
1984 Neuromancer by William Gibson – burnt-out cyberspace cowboy Case is lured by ex-hooker Molly into a mission led by ex-army colonel Armitage to penetrate the secretive corporation, Tessier-Ashpool at the bidding of the vast and powerful artificial intelligence, Wintermute
1986 Burning Chrome by William Gibson – ten short stories, three or four set in Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ universe, the others ranging across sci-fi possibilities, from a kind of horror story to one about a failing Russian space station
1986 Count Zero by William Gibsonthird of Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ trilogy in which young hacker Bobby Newmark discovers there is a lot more to cyberspace than he ever imagined.
1987 2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke – Spaceship Galaxy is hijacked and forced to land on Europa, moon of the former Jupiter, in a ‘thriller’ notable for Clarke’s descriptions of the bizarre landscapes of Halley’s Comet and Europa
1988 Mona Lisa Overdrive by William Gibson – third of Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ trilogy in which street-kid Mona is sold by her pimp to crooks who give her plastic surgery to make her look like global simstim star Angie Marshall who they plan to kidnap but is herself on a quest to find her missing boyfriend, Bobby Newmark, one-time Count Zero, while the daughter of a Japanese ganster who’s sent her to London for safekeeping is abducted by Molly Millions, a lead character in Neuromancer

1990 The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling – in an alternative history Charles Babbage’s early computer, instead of being left as a paper theory, was actually built, drastically changing British society, so that by 1855 it is led by a party of industrialists and scientists who use databases and secret police to keep the population under control

In Search of the Dark Ages by Michael Wood (2005)

Michael Wood

This is Wood’s first book. Back in 1979 he burst onto our TV screens as the boyishly enthusiastic presenter of a BBC series about ‘the Dark Ages’, spread across eight episodes, his hippy length hair and flapping flairs striding along castle walls and over Iron Age forts. I remember chatting to a middle-aged woman TV executive who openly lusted after Wood’s big smile and tight, tight trousers.

Since this debut, Wood has gone on to present no fewer than 19 TV series as well as eight one-off documentaries and to write 12 history books. In fact I was surprised and dismayed to read that the former boy wonder of history TV is now nearly 70.

Dated

The first edition of this paperback was published in 1981 and its datedness is confirmed by the short bibliography at the back which recommends a swathe of texts from the 1970s and even some from the 1960s i.e. 50 long years ago.

The very title is dated, as nowadays all the scholars refer to the period from 400 to 1000 as the Early Middle Ages;’ no-one says ‘Dark Ages’ any more – though, credit where credit’s due, maybe this TV series and book helped shed light on the period for a popular audience which helped along the wider recategorisation.

But the book’s age does mean that you are continually wondering how much of it is still true. Wood is keen on archaeological evidence and almost every chapter features sentences like ‘new archaeological evidence / new digs at XXX are just revealing / promise to reveal major new evidence about Offa/Arthur et al…’ The reader is left wondering just what ‘new evidence’ has revealed over the past 40 years and just how much of Wood’s interpretations still hold up.

Investigations

It’s important to emphasise that the book does not provide a continuous and overarching history of the period: the opposite. The key phrase is ‘in search of…’ for each chapter of the book (just like each of the TV programmes) focuses on one particular iconic figure from the period and goes ‘in search of’ them, starting with their current, often mythologised reputation, then going on to examine the documentary texts, contemporary artifacts (coins, tapestries etc) and archaeological evidence to try and get at ‘the truth behind the myth’.

The figures are: Boadicea, King Arthur, the Sutton Hoo Man, Offa, Alfred the Great, King Athelstan, Eric Bloodaxe, King Ethelred the Unready, William the Conqueror. Each gets a chapter putting them in the context of their day, assessing the sources and material evidence for what we can really know about them, mentioning the usual anecdotes and clichés generally to dismiss them.

Contemporary comparisons

Part of Wood’s popularising approach is to make trendy comparisons to contemporary figures or situations. Some of this has dated a lot – when he mentions a contemporary satirical cartoon comparing the Prime Minister to Boadicea (or Boudica, as she was actually called) he is of course referring to Margaret Thatcher, not Theresa May. When he says that the late-Roman rulers of Britain effectively declared U.D.I. from the Empire, I just about remember what he’s referring to – Rhodesia’s declaration of independence from Britain back in 1965 – and it’s a thought-provoking comparison – but most readers would probably have to look it up. He says that contemporaries remembered the bad winter of 763 ‘just as we do that of 1947’ – do we? He says the Northumbrians felt about Athelstan’s conquest of their kingdom ‘the same way as we feel about the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia’ (p.145).

That said, I found many of the comparisons worked well bringing these ancient people to life, in highlighting how their behaviour is comparable to the same kind of things going on in the contemporary world:

For example, he compares the native British merchants getting involved with Roman traders like entrepreneurs in contemporary Third World countries taking out, for example, a Coca Cola franchise – or compares Boudica’s rebellion against the imperial Romans with rebellions against British Imperial rule – the most disastrous of which was probably the ‘Indian Mutiny’ – invigorating my thinking about both.

In the 440s the British King Vortigern invited warbands from Germany, Frisia and Denmark to come and help him fight against the invading Picts and Scots. As we know, a number of them decided they liked this new fertile country and decided to stay. Wood entertainingly compares the situation to modern mercenaries deciding not just to fight in but to settle and take over a modern African country.

The seventh-century English kingdoms were ruled by the descendants of the illiterate condottieri who had seized their chances in the fifth and sixth centuries. It is, let us say, as if Major ‘Mad Mike’ Hoare had founded his own dynasty in the Congo in the early sixties. (p.63)

I understood the reference the more since Hoare is mentioned in the memoirs of both Frederick Forsyth and Don McCullin who covered wars in Africa back in the distant 1960s.

Elsewhere he compares the builders of Offa’s Dyke to modern motorway construction companies, kingly announcements as sounding like modern propaganda by Third World dictators, the lingering influence of Rome on the 7th and 8th century kings comparable to the lingering afterglow of European imperial trappings on African dictators like Idi Amin or Jean-Bédel Bokassa. He compares the partition of England between the Anglo-Saxons and the Vikings to the partition of Israel, and the readiness of armed civilians to mobilise against the invader as comparable to the readiness of Israeli reservists (p.124); the burning of Ripon Minster by the southern army of King Eardred marching north to confront Erik Bloodaxe ‘had the same effect that the shelling of Reims had in 1914 (p.181).

Learning that King Athelstan was the first king to definitively rule the entire English nation and in fact to extend his mastery over Wales and Scotland, you might think ‘game over’, it’s all peaceful from now on, but far from it. The decades after Athelstan’s death in 939 saw the ravaging of the north of England by conflicting hordes of Saxons, Vikings, Northumbrians, Scots and Welsh, until it became a kind of ‘Dark Age Vietnam’, despoiled by the Dark Age equivalent of our modern ‘saturation bombing’ (p.165).

Quibbles and kings

Pedants might quibble that Boudicca’s rebellion against the Romans took place in 60AD, quite a long time before the official start date of the Dark Ages/Early Middle Ages, which is generally given as 400. But I can see the logic: a) Boudicca is more or less the first named leader of the Britons that history records and b) the themes of Roman colonialism and British resistance and c) the broader themes of invasion and resistance are set up very neatly by her story. In fact, given that a lot of the book is about invasion and resistance, leaving her out would have been odd.

For invasion is the main theme: the Romans arrived to find the native ‘Britons’ illiterate and so it’s only with the Romans that the written record begins, although archaeology suggests that successive waves of peoples had arrived and spread over Britain before them. But after the Romans there is a well-recorded set of invaders:

  • First the Angles and Saxons under their legendary leaders Hengist and Horsa in the 450s; the legend of King Arthur grew out of stories of native ‘British’ resistance to the Germanic invaders in the late 400s and Wood, like every other serious historian, concludes that there is not a shred of evidence for Arthur’s actual historical existence.
  • It is from the period when the Anglo-Saxon invaders settled into different ‘kingdoms’ – in fact themselves made up of loosely affiliated tribal groups – that dates the stupendous grave at Sutton Hoo with its wonderful Dark Age treasure: Wood goes ‘in search’ of the king who was buried there but, like every other scholar, says we will probably never know, though the name of King Raedwald of the East Angles is most often referred to in the scholarly literature.
  • King Offa of Mercia (757-797) was the most powerful king of his day – he was even deemed worthy of correspondence from the great Charlemagne, king of Francia (768-814) and Wood goes in search of his royal ‘palace’ at Tamworth.
  • It was King Alfred the Great (871-899) who had to deal with the arrival of a massive Viking army and, although pushed back into the marshy maze of the Somerset Levels, eventually emerged to fight the invaders to a truce, in which the Danes held all of England east of a line drawn from London to the Mersey – the so-called Danelaw.
  • It fell to his son, Edward, to successfully continue the fight against the Danes, and it was only in the reign of his son, King Athelstan (927-939) that all of England was for the first time unified under one ruler.
  • In fact, the Danes fought back and the Norse adventurer Eric Haraldsson, nicknamed Eric Bloodaxe, briefly seized and ruled Yorkshire from York. When he was finally overthrown (in 954), that was meant to be the end of Danish rule in England…
  • Except that the Danish King Cnut managed, after a long campaign led by his father, to seize the English throne in 1016 and reigned till his death in 1035, and was succeeded by his son Harthacnut, an unpopular tyrant who reigned for just two years (1040-42). During Cnut’s reign England became part of his North Sea Empire which joined the thrones of Denmark and Sweden.
  • Cnut’s Anglo-Danish kingdom is generally forgotten because it, like a lot of Anglo-Saxon history, is eclipsed by the Norman Conquest of 1066, with which Wood logically concludes his story.

Brutality

Though he conveys infectious excitement at the achievement of an Offa or Athelstan, Wood is well aware of the brutality which was required of a Dark Ages king.

For most Dark Age kings had the inclinations of spoilt children and their moral sense was unrefined. (p.221)

We learn that after Offa’s death the men of Kent rose up against Mercian rule and were crushed, their king, Eadberht Praen, taken in chains to Mercia where his hands were cut off and he was blinded (p.107). The Vikings practiced a ritual sacrifice of their fallen opponents to Wodin, the blood eagle, which involved cutting the ribs and lungs out of the living man and arranging them to look like eagle’s wings (p.114). The great Athelstan himself barely survived an attempt apparently organised by  his brother, Edwin, to capture and blind him (p.140). When the invading Danish king Sweyn Forkbeard died in 1014, his army elected  his son, Cnut, as king to replace him. Ethelred took advantage of the hiatus to raise levies and attack Cnut in Gainsborough, forcing him to go to sea. But the Danes had taken a number of nobles or their sons hostage for good behaviour, and Cnut put them all ashore at Sandwich, after cutting off their noses and hands (p.216).

Ravaging not fighting

There was no shortage of battles during this period (the thousand years from Boudicca’s revolt in 60 to Hastings in 1066) but what I began to realise was the steady drip-drip of ‘campaigns’ which never involved two armies directly confronting each other; instead during which one or more armies rampaged through their opponents’ territory, murdering, raping, destroying crops and burning down villages, in order to terrorise their opponents into ceasing fire and offering a truce. The Romans, the Britons, the Saxons, the Welsh, the Scots and the Picts and the Irish, the Vikings, the Danes and the Normans – all in their time waged ‘military’ campaigns which amounted to little more than systematic murder, rape and plunder of completely unarmed peasants as a deliberate war strategy.

I’ve always wondered why there’s a massive statue of Boudicca opposite the Houses of Parliament given that one of her main achievements was burning London to the ground, after previously ravaging all Roman settlements in her native East Anglia; and a thousand years later William the Bastard, having defeated the main Wessex army at Senlac Ridge, then set about ravaging the countryside in a wide circle to the west and up and around London – then when the English in the north resisted him, William went on a massive campaign of destruction known as the Harrying of the North (1069-70) resulting in huge destruction and widespread famine caused by his army’s looting, burning and slaughtering.

From Boadicea to the Bastard, a thousand years of horrific violence and destruction.

As David Carpenter points out in his history of the Plantagenet kings, direct confrontation in battle is risky; quite often the bigger better-led force loses, for all sorts of reasons. Hugely more controllable, predictable and effective is to ravage your opponents’ land until he sues for peace. You lose no soldiers; in fact the soldiers get all the food they want plus the perks of raping and/or killing helpless civilians, which saves on pay as well; if you do it long enough your opponent will cave in the end.

This is the depressing logic which means that, time after time, king after king and invader after invader found it cheaper, safer and more effective to kill and burn helpless civilians than to engage in a set piece battle. And it is a logic which continues to this day in horribly war-torn parts of the world.

Slavery

I’m well aware that slavery was one of the great trades of this era, that slaves were one of Roman Britain’s main exports and were still a mainstay of the economy even after William the Bastard tried to ban the trade a thousand years later, but Wood himself admits to being astonished by the range of breadth of the Dark Age slave trade (pp. 183-185):

  • The Spanish Arabs engaged in a lucrative slave trade with the Dublin Norse who often planned their attacks on Christian towns to coincide with Christian festivals when they’d be packed e.g. the raid on Kells in 951 in which the Norse took away over 3,000 slaves to sell on.
  • The Church in Britain was economically dependent on its slaves.
  • The Norse settlements on the east coast of Ireland served as clearing houses for slaves seized from the interior or Wales or England and then sold on to Arab Spain, to North Africa or via the Baltic via the Russian river routes to the Islamic states of the Middle East.
  • An Arab traveller of Erik Bloodaxe’s time (the 950s) reported from Spain on the great numbers of European slaves in the harems and in the militia. The Emir of Cordoba, in particular, owned many white women.
  • Most British slaves seem to have ended up being sent via the Russian river route to the Middle East. The numerous Icelandic sagas mention the slave trade and even give portraits of individual named slave impresarios.
  • The Holy Roman Emperor Otto the Great (962 – 973) captured tens of thousands of Slavs in his conquests eastwards, sending them in chains back to be processed by Jewish and Syrian slave merchants in Verdun, and then shipped south into Arab lands, many of them castrated first so as to be fit servants in the harem.
  • An eighth-century pilgrim in Taranto saw nine thousand Italian slaves being loaded aboard boat, just one of countless shipments to Egypt.

Almost everything about the Dark Ages is terrifying, the never-ending warfare, the endless ravaging burning and looting, but I think the vision of an entire continent dominated by the trade in slaves is the most harrowing thing of all.

The inheritance of Rome

Chris Wickham’s book, The Inheritance of Rome (2009), makes the claim that only in recent times have we come to realise the extent to which the legacy of Rome lived on for centuries after the end of the Roman Empire in the West (traditionally dated to the death of the last emperor in 475). So it’s interesting to read Wood making exactly the same point in 1980:

For the so-called barbarians of the seventh and eighth centuries, the Roman empire cast the same sort of afterglow as the British Empire did in post-colonial Africa… The ruins of Rome stood around them in tangible form, of course. But it went deeper than that. The Northumbrian bretwalda, Edwin, unsophisticated but immensely proud, as Bede portrays him, made the point of having the insignia of Roman office carried aloft before him in public. He was baptised by a Roman missionary in the Roman city of York, and for all we know held court in the still standing Roman HQ building there. Such men were setting themselves up as civilised heirs of Rome… (p.108)

Conclusion

All in all this is a popularising and accessible account, dipping into the most dramatic highlights of this long period, a quick entertaining read, with many stimulating thoughts, insights and comparisons thrown in.


Related links

Reviews of other medieval books and exhibitions

The Inheritance of Rome by Chris Wickham (2009)

The sub-title is ‘A History of Europe from 400 to 1000’. It is the second in the ‘Penguin History of Europe’ series, following Classical Europe and preceding Europe in the High Middle Ages. It is a dense 550 pages long, plus extensive notes, bibliography, index and maps. But I’m not sure it’s a book I’d recommend to anyone. Why?

Events and theories

Very roughly there are two types of history books – ones which tell you the events in chronological order, and ones which discuss themes, theories and ideas about the events. Thus Dan Jones’s breathless account of the Plantagenet kings gives a thrilling head-on narrative of their trials and tribulations from 1120 to 1400. You can go on to explore individual Plantagenet monarchs further via in narrative-led books like Marc Morris’s accounts of King John or King Edward I.

By contrast, a thematic history would be one like John Darwin’s overview of the British Empire, which examines different elements or themes of the imperial experience, bringing together incidents, facts and stats from widely disparate territories and different points in time to prove his general points.

This book is very much the latter. Although divided into four chronological sections –

  • The Roman Empire and Its Breakup 400-550
  • The Post-Roman West 550-750
  • The Empires of the East 550-1000
  • The Carolingian and Post-Carolingian West 750-1000

– it is much more a thematic than an events-based account. Wickham explains the bits he needs to, but yanks them out of contexts as disparate as Viking Iceland or Muslim Baghdad. In the same sentence he can be talking about Justinian in the 550s then switch to Constantine’s reforms in the 312s and end with some comments about Theodosius in the 390s. I found the result very confusing.

In my experience you have to read the most detailed account possible of contentious historical events in order to feel you have even the beginnings of an ‘understanding’ of them; in fact ideally you read several complementary accounts to begin to build up a three dimensional picture. By ‘understanding’ I mean the ability to put yourself in the place of the relevant players – kings, queens, nobles, opposing generals or whatever – to understand the social, economic, cultural and psychological pressures they were under, and to understand why they behaved as they did. Alaric sacked Rome because of a, b, c. Charlemagne attacked the Saxons so savagely because of x, y, z.

The further removed you are from a comprehensible, chronological and granular account of the Past, the sillier it often looks.

For example, if you are told that the armies of the Fourth Crusade in the early 13th century were diverted from attacking the Saracens in the Holy Land and ended up besieging, sacking and permanently weakening Christian Constantinople (in 1204) you will be tempted to make all kinds of generalisations about how stupid and violent the crusaders were, how muddle-headed medieval leaders were, how hypocritical Christianity has always been, and so on.

It’s only if you delve deeper and discover that Constantinople was experiencing a major leadership crisis in which an anti-Crusade emperor had deposed a pro-Crusade emperor and was threatening to execute him, and that this crisis was taking place against the background of mounting tension between the Latin and the Greek populations of the city which had already led to one major riot in which the city’s Greek population had massacred or forced to flee the entire Roman population of around 60,000 – if you’re told all this, then the crusaders’ motives no longer look so random and absurd: in fact you can begin to see how some of them thought the diversion was vital in order:

  • to rescue ‘their’ emperor
  • to ensure the safety of ‘their’ people in the city
  • and to establish favourable conditions for the ongoing pursuit of the crusade against the Muslims

In fact it was not so stupid after all. You are also better placed to understand the arguments within the Crusader camp about whether or not to besiege the city, as the leaders of different national factions – each with different trading and political links with the Greeks or the West – will have argued the case which best suited their interests. Now you can begin to sympathise with the conflicting arguments, you can put yourself in the place of the squabbling crusaders or the different factions within the city. Now – in other words – you have achieved what I define as a basic ‘understanding’ of the event.

Or take the famous sack of Rome in 410. I recently read John Julius Norwich’s long account of the Byzantine Empire from 300 to 800, very dense with facts and quite hard to assimilate – but it does have the merit of describing events very thoroughly, giving you a clear picture of the unfolding story of the Byzantine Empire – and its clarity allows you to go back and reread passages if you get a bit lost (easy to do). Thus, although I’ve read references to Alaric and the Visigoths’ sack of Rome scores of times, Norwich’s book was the first one I’ve ever read which explains in detail the events leading up to the disaster. And it was only by reading the full sequence of events that I learned the unexpected fact that the sack was mostly the fault of the obstinate Roman authorities, because they snobbishly refused to negotiate a peace deal with Alaric, a peace deal he actually wanted, and that their foolish refusal eventually forcing him into extreme action. (See my review of Byzantium: The Early Centuries by John Julius Norwich.) Norwich’s account was a revelation to me, completely transforming my understanding of this key event in the history of western Europe. Compare and contrast with Wickham, who covers it in one sentence (on page 80).

For me, in the study of history – the closer, the clearer and the more chronological, the better.

Modish

On top the confusing thematic approach, Wickham’s text is aggressively modern, theoretical and self-consciously up-to-date. He uses the lexicon of literary theory I was taught in the 1980s and which has gone on to infest history writing and art criticism. Events are ‘situated’ in the ‘space’ created by hierarchies, his book sets out to survey ‘the socio-political, socio-economic, political-cultural developments of the period 400-1000’ and will investigate the complexity of the state structures within which the major figures ‘operated’. And he is liberal with maybe the key indicator of fashionable post-modern jargon, ‘the Other’; hence,

The Roman world was surrounded by ‘others’ (p.43).

The trouble with this kind of jargon is that it rarely explicates things and more often confuses or obscures them. ‘The Roman world was surrounded by ‘others’.’ What does that say except look at my modish post-modern vocabulary. Does he mean that the Roman Empire, within which law, order, peace and trade prevailed, was surrounded by territories in which shifting alliances of illiterate barbarian tribes lived their mostly unrecorded lives, tribes which periodically threatened to overrun the borders of the Empire.

Wickham emphasises how bang up to date he is and is at great pains to skewer the vulgar error of all previous historians of this period, who thought the Roman Empire ‘collapsed’ under pressure from invading ‘barbarians’. The whole thrust of his book is that Roman law, administration and other structures lingered on much much longer than has been previously thought – hence the book’s title. But he still needs a generic word to describe the non-Roman peoples who indisputably did break across the frontiers of the Empire, who did ravage large sections of it, who did cause enormous disruption and who did form the basis of the post-Roman societies which slowly replaced the Empire. Having ruled out the use of barbarians, since that falls into the vulgar error of all previous writers on the subject, he eventually decides to call them ‘barbarians’, with added speech marks and so throughout the book the word ‘barbarian’ occurs just as much as it would in a traditional account, but with the quotes around it to remind you that the older accounts were so so wrong, and this account is so much more sophisticated.

All past accounts are wrong

The opening pages of The Inheritance of Rome explain why all previous histories of the Early Middle Ages were wrong – they suffered from any of three major flaws:

1. The Nationalist Fallacy i.e. countless histories have been written over the past two hundred years in the nations of modern Europe claiming that the period 400-1000 saw the ‘seeds’ being laid of their respective proud nation state – of modern France, Germany, Britain etc etc. No, they weren’t, says Wickham. The people we are investigating lived their own lives in their own time according to their own values inherited from their recent past – they had absolutely no inkling what would happen in the future. To write as if Charlemagne was laying the foundations for modern France is unforgiveable teleology i.e. seeing a purpose or aim in events, a sense of inevitability (rising, in conservative nationalist histories to a sense of Historical Destiny) which simply doesn’t exist and which didn’t exist at the time.

When Romulus Augustulus was forced to abdicate in 472 no-one knew that he would be the Last Roman Emperor in the West. All the various political players continued jostling for power in the normal way, invoking the presence, the power and the continuation of the Empire, not least the Eastern Emperor Zeno, as if a replacement would shortly be found. Even a hundred years later, the so-called ‘barbarian’ rulers of Italy were still invoking the authority of the Emperor and using Roman titles to bolster their rule. No, the ‘barbarian’ rulers of Western Europe circa 600 had no thoughts of founding France or Germany or Belgium or Holland. They must be seen entirely within the context of their own times and values to be properly understood.

Basically – avoid hindsight. Assess historical periods in themselves, as their protagonists experienced them. Don’t make the mistake of judging the Early Middle Ages as a hurried way station on the journey to later, greater things: of conceptualising Clovis as just a stepping stone to Charlemagne or Offa as just a step on the way towards Alfred.

Only an attempt to look squarely at each past in terms of its own social reality can get us out of this trap. (p.12)

2. The Modernist Fallacy i.e. European history has been a tale of steady progress towards our present giddy heights, towards the triumph of a global economy, liberal culture, science, reason, human rights and so on. These all began to appear in ‘the glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome’, but then – tragically – fell into a pit of darkness with the end of Roman Imperial rule, a bleak ‘Dark Age’ awash with ‘illiterate barbarians’ who only slowly, painfully clawed humanity back up into the light, which began to shine again during the Renaissance, and has risen steadily higher ever since.

Nonsense, says Wickham. The early medieval period was first given the negative name ‘the dark ages’ by chauvinists of the Renaissance who despised everything Gothic and non-classical. Later, 18th century and Victorian historians reinforced this negative image due to the paucity of documents and evidence from it, which for so long made our knowledge of it so patchy. But recent revolutions in archaeology, along with the availability of more documents than ever before (including from behind the former Iron Curtain), and their freely available translations on the internet, mean that:

a) we can write much better, more informed histories of the period than ever before
b) this significantly increased amount of evidence shows that Roman administrative structures, law and literacy carried on for much longer than was previously thought. I.e. there is much more continuity of civilisation in post-Roman Europe than those old historians claim. I.e. it wasn’t so dark after all.

The fundamental aim of Wickham’s book is to bring together this recent(ish) research in both document-based history and archaeology to show that the Roman Empire didn’t inevitably ‘decline and fall’ under the impact of ‘barbarians’.

a) There was no inevitability: the structures – the tax system and bureaucracy and church – lasted for centuries after the first ‘barbarian’ incursions in the West and, of course, continued for an entire millennium in the Byzantine East.
b) We have lots of evidence that the so-called ‘barbarians’ – all those Goths and Vandals and Burgundians and Franks – themselves quickly assimilated Roman standards, ideas and terminology, that many of them wanted to remain vassals of the Emperor in Byzantium, centuries after the West had fallen. Roman ideas, practices, the language and bureaucracy and structures of power, all lived on for a long time into the Early Middle Ages (and for another 1000 years in the East). The so-called ‘barbarians’ in fact went out of their way to adopt the Roman language, Roman iconographies of power, a Roman bureaucracy run on Roman lines and so on, for as long as they could after seizing power in their respective areas. I.e. there wasn’t an abrupt END – there was a very, very long process of assimilation and change…

Themes not events

So this book is not a blow-by-blow chronological account of the period. It proceeds in chronological periods but skips through the events of each period pretty quickly in order to get to what motivates and interests Wickham – academic discussion of themes such as how much the Imperial tax system endured in 5th century Gaul, or just what the archaeology of the lower Danube tells us about the Romanisation of its inhabitants. And so on.

I found a lot of this discussion very interesting – and it’s good to feel you are engaging with one of the leading experts in this field – but I was only able to enjoy it because I had recently read three other books on the exact same period, and so understood what he was talking about. In other words, I would not recommend this book as a ‘history’ of the period. It is a collection of discussions and meditations on themes and topics arising from the history of the period, but it is not a detailed sequential account of what happened. For that you’d have to look elsewhere.

Interesting insights

Once you understand that it is a meta-history, interested in discussing themes and topics arising from the period, and presupposing you already have a reasonable familiarity with the actual chronology, then the book is full of insights and ideas:

  • Ethnogenesis The ‘barbarians’ were illiterate; when they conquered somewhere they recruited the local Roman bureaucracy to run things and record laws. We’ve long known that the Roman accounts of the tribes which fought and invaded were unreliable. But I hadn’t realised that the terms Ostrogoth, Visigoth and so on were merely flags of convenience later writers give to peoples who didn’t call themselves that. More searchingly, recent historians think that even the idea of coherent tribes and peoples is open to doubt. More likely these groupings were probably made up of smaller tribes or even clans which temporarily united round one or other leader for specific ad hoc campaigns or battles, before splitting up again. Complicated.
  • Britain and Ireland A sort of proof of this vision of fissiparous ‘barbarians’ comes in chapter 7 which Wickham dedicates to Ireland and Britain. Ireland was never ruled by Rome and so kept its native pattern of tiny kingdoms, maybe more than 100, each owing fealty to higher kings, who themselves owed fealty to whoever managed to seize control as the High King at any one moment. Chaotic.

The end of Roman rule in Britain

More interesting is what happened to Britain after the Romans withdrew. The collapse of post-Roman Britain seems to have been quicker and more complete than of any other Imperial territory but modern historians now think the end of Roman rule was more complicated than the bare dates suggest. In his history of the Ruin and Conquest of Britain, Gildas says that most of Britain’s Roman garrison was stripped by the commander Maximus when he made his bid to become Augustus or emperor in the West, in the 380s. Maximus took the garrisons with him on his invasion of Italy but was defeated and killed in 388. Britain returned to the rule of the Emperor Theodosius – until 392 when the usurping emperor Eugenius seized power in the West, although he also was defeated by Theodosius, in 394.

When Theodosius died in 395, his 10-year-old son Honorius succeeded him as Western Roman Emperor but the real power behind the throne was Stilicho, Honorius’s father-in-law. In 401 or 402 Stilicho stripped Hadrian’s Wall of troops for the final time, to bring them to Europe to fight the Visigoths.

In 407 a Roman general in Britain, Constantine (not the Great), rallied his troops in rebellion against Honorius (perhaps because they hadn’t been paid for some time) and led them into Gaul, where Constantine set himself up as Emperor in the West. But ‘barbarian’ invasions soon destabilised his rule and in 409 or 410, British authorities expelled his magistrates and officials. The Byzantine historian Zosimus describes this as a British ‘rebellion’.

This is how the stripping away of Britain’s defending army actually took place over a thirty year period, from 380 to 410, and as a result of the (generally failed) ambitions of a succession of usurpers and military governors.

Later in his history, Zosimus says the British authorities appealed to help from the Emperor. The Emperor replied (in the so-called Rescript of Honorius) that the British civitates must look to their own defences.

That’s it. Britain had been stripped of all Roman garrisons and legions and was wide open to sea-borne invasion by Saxons and others. These are traditionally dated to the 440s and 450s. The collapse of the Roman-British lifestyle was, apparently, very quick after the garrisons withdrew. Within a generation, archaeology tells us, the towns and villas had been abandoned. 50 or 60 years later, in 510 or 520, Gildas writes his long lament for the ‘ruined’ state of Britain. By the mid-500s the Eastern historian Procopius writes that Britannia was entirely lost to the Romans.

More insights

Militarisation of the élite Following the fall of Rome, in the West the secular aristocracy became militarised: the trappings of the Emperor became more military; the importance of a secular education i.e. the ability to quote the poets and write Latin prose like Cicero, declined rapidly; wealth across the Empire also declined and the hyper-rich Senatorial wealthy class disappeared. The widespread Latin education which was the bedrock of the extensive tax-gathering bureaucracy withered and disappeared, and with it our sources of written records.

Rise of church records It is logical, but I hadn’t thought of it this way, that into the vacuum left by the falling away of Roman Imperial records come church records. In the 6th and 7th centuries, as secular records from the disappearing Roman bureaucracy grow thinner on the ground, we have increasing records of church synods, the gift of land to the church, church land ownership records, along with increasing numbers of ‘lives’ of saints and popes and holy church figures, as well as a wealth of texts recording the period’s abundant theological disputes and debates. Thus what we know about the period, and  how we think about it, is hugely conditioned by the type of writings which have survived. It opens the possibility that maybe the Roman aristocracy lingered on for centuries after the ‘fall’, but didn’t write or record their activities so systematically.

Fatal loss of Carthage It is interesting that, in Wickham’s opinion, the failure of the Roman authorities to prevent Geiseric the Vandal moving from Spain into North Africa and seizing Carthage in 439, is far more important than Alaric’s 410 Sack of Rome. The trade, tax and food umbilical cord between Rome and Carthage was broken permanently. (Carthage supplied all Rome’s foodstuffs in lieu of tax. No Carthage, no food. From the mid-5th century the population of Rome begins to drop fast; in the 6th century its population probably plummeted by 80%.)

Tax collapse And so a vast tax hole opened in the Western Empire’s finances, which made it progressively harder to pay armies (increasingly made up of ‘barbarian’ mercenaries, anyway). Slowly a shift took place towards paying armies, generals and allies off with land; very slowly the Empire moved from being a tax-based to a land-based administration. This is the basis for Western feudalism.

The Goths in their various tribal formations took Gaul, Spain, then North Africa, then Italy. But Gothic hegemony was itself transient: by 511 it was over. Clovis, king of the Franks, defeated the Goths in the Roman province of Gaul, which increasingly becomes referred to as Francia; and the Eastern general, Belisarius, led violent campaigns in Italy to expel the Goths from the mainland (although it turned out he only created an exhausted power vacuum into which a new tribe, the Lombards, would enter).

Francia But the success of Clovis I (ruled 480s to 511) would establish Frankish rule in most of Francia and transform Gaul from a peripheral kingdom into the core of Western Europe for centuries to come (up to, including and following Charlemagne’s vast extension of Frankish power in the late 700s).

Tax Wickham makes some points about tax-based regimes I’d never thought about before: Tax-based regimes are generally much richer than land-based ones, because they tax a broader spread of citizens, more effectively. Tax-based regimes also are generally more powerful than land-based ones, because tax collectors and assessors monitor the entire domain more thoroughly, and court officials, army officers etc are paid salaries from the royal treasury. By contrast land-based armies or nobles are more independent and harder to govern – which helps to explain the endless rebellions which are so characteristic of the High Middle Ages.

Meat It’s one of only hundreds of interesting details in the book, but I was fascinated to learn that the shift from Roman to post-Roman society can be measured in diet. Aristocratic, senatorial and wealthy Romans asserted their class through a rarefied diet of delicate and expensive ingredients. The ‘barbarian’ successor states liked meat. The rituals of the royal hunt, the killing of wild beasts, and the division of cooked meat to loyal retainers in the royal hall or palace replaced the ornate, lying-on-a-couch sampling dishes of larks’ tongues of the Roman Empire – and The Hunt is a central motif of art and literature, drenched with power and significance, all through the Middle Ages and well into the Renaissance period.

But ultimately…

Although Wickham hedges it round with modish qualifications and theoretical reminders not to be teleological or use hindsight, despite all the warnings to be more subtle and alert to slow increments rather than catastrophic ‘falls’ – nonetheless, the fact remains that the Western Roman Empire had ceased to exist as a coherent political entity by the mid-6th century. It was replaced by a patchwork of kingdoms ruled by non-Roman ‘barbarian’ kings. And – rather contradicting his own thesis – Wickham admits that the archaeological record shows ‘the dramatic economic simplification of most of the West’ (p.95); north of the Loire in the 5th century, in the core Mediterranean lands in the 6th.

Building became far less ambitious, artisanal production became less professionalised, exchange became more localised.

Wickham sees the shift from the Empire’s efficient tax-based economy, to the land-based administration of the post-Roman states as decisive. By the mid-sixth century the successor states couldn’t have matched Roman power or wealth, no matter how hard they tried, because they lacked the sophisticated tax system and revenue. Different states, with different social and economic system, different iconographies of power and different values, were firmly established.


Related links

Reviews of other medieval books and exhibitions

Celts: art and identity @ The British Museum

The key words in this exhibition are ‘perhaps’, ‘maybe’, ‘might’ and ‘may’. The most important single fact about the ‘Celts’ is that they were illiterate: they wrote nothing down. All we have is the relatively small number of artifacts they left behind and the scattered – often unreliable – references in texts by the literate Greeks and Romans. This means that almost every sentence on the wall panels and the exhibit labels was hedged around with ‘ifs’ and ‘maybes’.

The second most important fact which emerges from this exhibition is that the word ‘Celt’ is loaded more with political, historical and cultural, than with racial, ethnic or archaeological, meanings. We know very little about the peoples we label ‘Celts’, who were in fact a diverse group of tribes and peoples – a ‘mosaic of communities’ – that inhabited Europe north of the Alps – a vast area stretching from Geneva to the Outer Hebrides – from around 500 BC until, well, when do you end the period? With the arrival of the Romans around 50 BC? Of the Angles and Saxons 500 AD? Of the Vikings 800 AD? Of the Normans in 1066?

By contrast with the obscurity of the historical record, most use of the word ‘Celt’ nowadays is dominated by the meanings it has acquired in the struggle for identity by nationalist movements of modern times (since the industrial revolution, say, roughly 1800) in countries like Wales, Scotland and Ireland, and in regions like Cornwall and Brittany.

In fact, from its use by the ancient Greeks to refer to people living ‘outside’ their literate Mediterranean culture, to its use by 20th century nationalists to distinguish themselves as ‘outsiders’ from the English Empire, the function of the word has always been to indicate difference.

It is this confusion between what the archaeological record shows us the people who lived in this area were actually like from 500 BC to 1000 AD – and the stories, legends and wishful thinking that writers, poets, politicians and myth-makers have concocted about them in the last couple of hundred years, that the exhibition seeks to untangle.

1. Pagan history 500 BC to 500 AD

The exhibition says (rather vaguely) that around 500 BC the people referred to as Celts lived across much of Europe north of the Alps. The term Keltoi was first used by the ancient Greeks but it isn’t a Greek word. Where exactly these people came from, and why, and what they believed and what language(s) they spoke, are challenging questions which this exhibition doesn’t really answer as clearly as you’d like.

The Glauberg statue, Holzgerlingen, Baden-Wüttemberg, Germany 500 – 400 BC. Sandstone; H 2.30 m. Wüttembergisches Landesmuseum, Stuttgart.

The Glauberg statue, Holzgerlingen, Baden-Wüttemberg, Germany 500 – 400 BC. Sandstone; H 2.30 m. Wüttembergisches Landesmuseum, Stuttgart. 1848,1

The Celts were pagans (although this is another word coined by Latin Christians to indicate ‘outsiders’ from their literate Mediterranean faith) and their paganism endured into the centuries when the Romans expanded across the Alps to the borders of the Danube and the Rhine and came into increasing contact with them. In encountering Celtic peoples the Romans recorded their lifestyles and culture, though in shreds and patches, sometimes exaggerating or basing their statements on rumour and hearsay.

As you would expect, there is a lot of detailed scholarship on display here, for example noting the subtle influence of Romano-Greek design on Celtic artefacts, as the Celts inevitably traded with the encroaching Romans and learned to incorporate imagery associated with the Empire. But it is the inexplicable, mysterious artifacts, the ones from the dark unexplored lands, which bespeak unknown religions, unknown beliefs, which gripped me.

Gundestrup Cauldron. Silver. Gundestrup, northern Denmark, 100 BC–AD 1. © The National Museum of Denmark.

Gundestrup Cauldron. Silver. Gundestrup, northern Denmark, 100 BC–AD 1. © The National Museum of Denmark.

Maybe the wonderful Gundestrup Cauldron (‘the largest known example of European Iron Age silver work’) records the exploits of a hero as full of legend as Herakles. Maybe each panel records one of his famous adventures. The faces glaring from the inner panels are ‘probably’ gods. The cauldron as a whole was ‘probably’ reserved for important rituals. We don’t know. In fact the cauldron was discovered as disassembled plates and there is debate to this day about whether it has been reconstructed with the plates in the right order.

This lack of certainty, the prevalence of ‘ifs’ and ‘maybes’, was typified by a panel explaining the provenance of some treasure found in Lake Neufchâtel in Switzerland. These artifacts probably once lined a walkway out into the lake and they probably fell into the lake as the walkway decayed – though, the panel almost sheepishly adds, they might also have been a deliberate sacrifice to a water god. We don’t know.

So sparse is our information that the wall labels and commentary are sometimes forced back on rather obvious generalisations: The Celts liked feasting, which was probably the focus of their social life. The Celts probably worshiped an array of gods and revered nature. The Celts were a warlike race and the warrior had high status in their culture. Well, which ancient cultures is this not true of?

The Battersea Shield. Bronze, glass. Found in the River Thames at Battersea Bridge, London, England, 350-50 BC. © The Trustees of the British Museum

The Battersea Shield. Bronze, glass. Found in the River Thames at Battersea Bridge, London, England, 350-50 BC. © The Trustees of the British Museum

In our islands the key dates are Julius Caesar’s first expeditions (55-54 BC) and the commentary he wrote on his Gallic Wars with the north European Celts in what would later become France. Then came the Emperor Claudius’s conquest of 43 AD which led to the 400-year colonisation of the island the Romans named Britannia, their rule eventually stretching as far as the borders with Wales and with the highlands of Scotland. Famously, the Romans never colonised Hibernia, Ireland.

Whereas the Celtic natives lived in farms, villages or small hillforts, the Romans brought towns, cities even, stone buildings, straight roads. The administrative system they set up across England lasts to this day, whereas in the Celtic ‘fringes’ and in Ireland, it never penetrated. Largely obliterated by the Roman colonisation in continental Europe, ‘Celtic’ identity survived in these fringes. Hence artifacts found from these areas show the true Celtic strangeness lingering on long after the Romans had been and gone.

Tully Lough Cross. Wood, bronze. Tully Lough, north-west Ireland, AD 700–900. © National Museum of Ireland

Tully Lough Cross. Wood, bronze. Tully Lough, north-west Ireland, AD 700–900. © National Museum of Ireland

Torcs

The most characteristic artifact from ‘Celtic’ culture seems to have been the ‘torc’ and there are scores of them on display here. Torcs are large metal neck rings, sometimes made from a solid block of metal, more often from exquisitely spun and woven strands of precious metal. In recent years a number of archaeological finds, including the Snettisham hoard and the Blair Drummond hoard, have revealed hundreds of torcs, in a breath-taking variety of shapes and sizes, making us as confident as we can be that they were a common feature of Celtic life.

The Blair Drummond torcs. Blair Drummond, Stirling 300-100 BC. Gold; D of loop-terminal torc 15 cm. © National Museums Scotland, Edinburgh

The Blair Drummond torcs. Blair Drummond, Stirling 300-100 BC. Gold; D of loop-terminal torc 15 cm. © National Museums Scotland, Edinburgh. 1968.L

The exhibition refers to the famous Greek sculpture called The Dying Gaul, showing a wounded Gaulish warrior naked except for a torc. The Greek historian Polybius described the wearing of torcs by the gaesatae, Celtic warriors from northern Italy, who fought at the Battle of Telamon in 225 BC. Torcs have been found at scores of locations across Europe and maybe 50 are on display here, the two obvious conclusions being:

a) they came in an astonishing variety of shapes and sizes, some massive and clunky, most of really exquisite craftsmanship
b) they must have been extremely uncomfortable and impractical to wear.

Bronze age bling.

How did Celtic art evolve?

Despite the wealth of scholarly information on display, I found myself becoming a little confused about Celtic art as the exhibition progressed. On the one hand there are images as raw and primitive, as unsymmetrical and crude, as the faces and animals on the Gundestrup cauldron, along with some of the earliest statues and figurines (eg the Glauberg statue, above) which resonate a great sense of virility and pagan power. These reminded me very much of the similar pagan, northern imagery in the Museum’s fabulous Viking exhibition.

But at some point there began to emerge alongside this the style that we nowadays think of as ‘classic Celtic art’ – characterised by beautifully crafted geometric shapes with complex interwoven patterns, the weaving lines often ending in animal heads, like birds of prey; or just wonderfully intricate, ordered patterns designed to fill the interstices of sword hilts, crosses, brooches, helmets.

Leaving me puzzled: so what is Celtic art? The pagan figures or the intricate craftsmanship? And if it’s both, it would have been good to have the process by which the classic patterns evolved more completely and explicitly explained (as far as possible).

Hunterston brooch. Silver, gold and amber. Hunterston, south-west Scotland, AD 700–800. © National Museums Scotland, Edinburgh

Hunterston brooch. Silver, gold and amber. Hunterston, south-west Scotland, AD 700–800. © National Museums Scotland, Edinburght.1968.L

In fact, revisiting the exhibition to go over these objects more carefully, I noted:

  • In the bronze anklets and chariot fittings and shield bosses and some of the torcs a kind of bulbous, spherical decoration was far more characteristic of ‘Celtic’ art and for centuries before the knot motifs appeared – eg the spheres on the Roissy Dome, France, 300-200 BC, or this bronze hohlbuckelring from Plaňany in the Czech Republic (3rd century BC) . Referring to textbooks, I discover this bulbousness is characteristic of the ‘Plastic’ era of Celtic art in the 3rd and 2nd centuries BC, something not mentioned in the exhibition.
  • The torcs – by common consent the most widespread Celtic artifact – feature corkscrew, pearl, filigree and ‘crown’ designs but – strikingly – few if any of them display the so-called ‘Celtic knot’ patterns.
  • When the knot, the classic ‘Celtic’ design emerges, as in the Hunterston brooch, above – it is very late, well into the early middle ages, around 700 AD: as evidenced in objects like the St Chad gospels, the brooches or the contemporary bell shrine of St Cuileáin.

2. Christian history 500-1000 AD

The Romans abandoned us in 410 (as Gildas is quoted, plaintively lamenting) and after a confused period the Angles and Saxons and Jutes began arriving from 450 onwards. The Venerable Bede tells the story of the conversion to Christianity of each of the Saxon kingdoms in turn until the whole island was christianised by around 700. From late in this period date the enormous Celtic crosses, with their characteristic circle at the crux, and the beautiful illuminated manuscripts of bibles and psalters at the numerous monasteries and abbeys being founded across the land.

There are three or four mighty crosses here, towering over the visitor, and glass cases containing beautifully illuminated bibles. It is a powerful and distinctive style, but it is obviously Christian: how can it be said to be a continuation of the pagan primitivism of the cauldron? It looks completely different.

Cross-slab, Monifeith, Angus AD 700-800, stone; L 26 cm, W 30 cm, T 9cm. © National Museums Scotland, Edinburgh

Cross-slab, Monifeith, Angus AD 700-800, stone; L 26 cm, W 30 cm, T 9cm. © National Museums Scotland, Edinburgh

How does the figure with reindeer horns relate to the geometric patterning of the crosses and psalters? It seemed to me that it is only us, thousands of years later, who call both the primitive pre-Christian art ‘Celtic’ and the big stone crosses ‘Celtic’, it is we who group these peoples from all over Europe and across the immensely long period from 500 BC to the Norman Conquest, together into one cultural identity. I felt unsure whether we really are justified in doing so…


3. Cultural creation

The second half of the exhibition (art and identity) tells the story – or snapshots of the story – of how Celtic identity was created and shaped over the last couple of hundred years, resulting in the powerful sense of identity and nationhood felt in our time by the Scots and Welsh and Irish.

Apparently the word ‘Celt’ is recorded in no English text before 1600. The etymological dictionary says:

c. 1600, from Latin Celta, singular of Celtae, from the Greek Keltoi, Herodotus’ word for the Gauls (who also were called Galatai). Used by the Romans of continental Gauls but apparently not of the British Celtic tribes. Originally in English in reference to ancient peoples; extension to their modern descendants is from mid-19th century.

Aha, the mid-19th century, that’s the clue – when the industrious Victorians were recording, measuring, categorising and classifying everything in sight – animals, languages, stars, peoples – and cooking up all sorts of theories about race and language and ethnicity.

The exhibition shows interest in things Celtic and pre-Roman beginning to warm up in the 18th century: In 1757 Thomas Gray wrote a long poem about The Bard which prompted various artistic depictions. In the Tate Britain exhibition Fighting History there are several paintings from the 18th and 19th centuries showing highly romanticised scenes ‘from ancient British life’. It is emblematic – or typical – that one of the most influential texts glamorising Celtic life – the cycle of epic poems supposedly narrated by and featuring the hero Ossian, and published by the Scottish poet James Macpherson – later turned out to be fakes. A great deal of fake heroism and sentimentality is entangled with Celtic nationalism from the start.

But the revelation they were forgeries didn’t stop the Ossian poems having a huge influence in the creation of images of stirring, heroic, pre-Christian heroes, not only throughout these islands but far into continental Europe. Why? Because their time had arrived. People were looking for things wild and primitive and untamed.

The Romantic Movement represented a deepening of this moor, a continuation and broadening of interest in all things anti-modern, anti-industry, anti-mercantile, roaming over old poems, ‘native’ traditions, wild mountain landscapes, in search of what began to be seen as the purer, somehow more authentic, cultures of Scotland, Wales and Ireland.

With typical efficiency the Victorians set about measuring, mapping, defining and categorising all things Celtic and the central part of this second section shows how supposedly ‘Celtic’ traditions were captured in Victorian oil paintings, poems and even in the ‘revival’ of ‘Celtic’ rituals and traditions, which were often invented for the purpose.

The Welsh Eisteddfod was founded in 1861 and the exhibition shows photos of the first event, detailing how robes for the ‘druid’ and ‘high priest’ were designed, along with a Celtic Welsh harp, a sword and other ceremonial paraphernalia. In Scotland, traditions surrounding characteristically Celtic dress, such as the Scottish kilt, were formalised.

Along with the creation of Celtic traditions went the complex relationship between the genuine beliefs of the practitioners, and the discovery that ‘Celtic’ means money: where the poets led, the tourists followed, coming on early package tours round ‘Sir Walter Scott’s highlands’, buying up tea towels and genuine ‘Celtic’ ornaments. If their Celtic identities have been a rallying cry for ardent nationalists in Wales, Scotland and Ireland, they have also been good copy for hoteliers, tour operators, gifte shoppe owners and whisky manufacturers.

‘Poster for the Glasgow Institute of Fine Arts’ by Herbert McNair, Margaret and Frances Macdonald. c.1894. Lithograph: ink on paper; 236 x 102 cm. Printer: Carter & Pratt, Glasgow. © The Hunterian, University of Glasgow.

‘Poster for the Glasgow Institute of Fine Arts’ by Herbert McNair, Margaret and Frances Macdonald. c.1894. Lithograph: ink on paper; 236 x 102 cm. Printer: Carter & Pratt, Glasgow. © The Hunterian, University of Glasgow.

Some of this material feels stretched to be included: The exhibition argues for the art nouveau of Charles Rennie Mackintosh and his associates as being influenced by, or related to, those tall stone Celtic crosses. Maybe, though the debt to the elongated, lily patterns of European Jugendstil is surely more important.

More obviously showing ‘classic’ Celtic design are the umpteen medievalising paintings of the pre-Raphaelites and their Arts and Crafts heirs, a sample of which are on display here. But this isn’t because these artists were influenced by Celtic patterns, it’s because they’re depicting them, as appropriate trappings to their wildly romantic images of the era. (Hence the accurate depiction of the famous Battersea shield which the third rider in John Duncan’s painting is carrying.)

The Riders of the Sidhe. Tempera on canvas. John Duncan, 1911. © Dundee City Council (Dundee's Art Galleries and Museums)

The Riders of the Sidhe. Tempera on canvas. John Duncan, 1911. © Dundee City Council (Dundee’s Art Galleries and Museums)

The last room of the exhibition is meant to be a celebration of modern Celtic identity, with a big video screen showing scenes of happy Celts dancing in kilts, strumming harps, blowing bagpipes and so on. Next to them is a display supposedly showing how interpenetrated contemporary culture is by ‘Celtic’ designs, and containing a copy of Asterix and the Picts, books of Celtic patterns to colour in or use as tattoos, to prove it. We are in every way in a very different world from the mystery and darkness of the pagan beginning, a less interesting world, the modern world. Next stop, the gift shop.

Conclusion

The first part of the exhibition brought together a lot of artifacts but failed, for me, to really nail down what Celtic art was or is. The wonderful war-horn or carnyx, the cauldron and some of the torcs made you feel close to these obscure people, but an impenetrable mystery remains – we don’t know what they spoke or thought or did or believed. And the exhibition didn’t tell a coherent narrative – something I’d dearly like to understand – of how the geometric patterns we all think of as Celtic, came about. Where are they first recorded? When? How did they change over time? How did the strictly mathematical patterns emerge from the cruder hand designs?

The second part, the cultural creation of the Celts, felt (rather like the Greek beauty exhibition) as if it was taking on too much: the creation of national myths of Scotland, Wales and Ireland is a vast subject, or series of subjects, too big, too complex, too fraught and often tragic, to be dealt with so sketchily.

Photos from the early Eisteddfods, of nationalist murals in Northern Ireland namechecking the legendary Irish hero Cú Chulainn, video footage of girls in kilts and men playing bagpipes – this doesn’t scratch the surface of how important the myth of a Celtic heritage is to modern-day Scots, Welsh and Irish and has been in British – and colonial – politics for centuries. Surely there are national museums of Scotland, Wales and Ireland which do this, in the necessary detail, and really well.

I think this British Museum exhibition would have been more powerful, more lasting, if it had stopped around the Norman Conquest, ditched the Celtic Revival kitsch, and instead dug deeper into those earlier, Iron Age aspects of Celtic life: instead of putting coins or cups from Switzerland next to ones from Suffolk and Romania, I’d like to have seen the vast continent of Europe broken down a bit more into regions and the story followed through in each of these areas.

Instead of a section telling me the Celts were warriors or the Celts liked feasting, I’d have preferred detailed accounts of the Celts of the Rhineland or of the Highlands, drilling down much closer to the actual course of events in each region, showing the uniqueness of the art and artefacts, the archaeological and historical record from that place, following what it seemed to mean to be a ‘Celt’ as closely as we can from the start of the period, through the encounters with the Roman Empire, and on into the christianisation of the 6th and 7th centuries.

This exhibition is full of marvellous, inspiring, mysterious and beautiful objects. I think I’d have got much more from it if they had been placed in a more deeply investigated and thoroughly explained historical and geographical context.

Related links

  • Celts: art and identity @ The British Museum continues until 31 January 2016
  • Celts: Art and Identity (book) on Amazon The book of the exhibition does give a detailed account of the historical development of the various Celtic styles – the so-called Early, Plastic, Sword, Mirror styles and so on – and explains more clearly that what we think of as the Celtic ‘interlacing’ pattern a) only appeared well after the Romans had left, in what is called the ‘Insular Fusion’ style b) isn’t Celtic at all, but an import from Roman and Germanic art. The exhibition is like edited highlights of the much more thorough account in the book.

A History of the English Church and People by the Venerable Bede (732)

Bede’s life

Bede was a monk who spent most of his life in the monastery of Saint Peter at Monkwearmouth and its companion monastery, Saint Paul’s in what is now modern Jarrow, both situated in the Dark Age Saxon kingdom of Northumbria.

He lived from 672-735. The honorific Venerable (as in ‘the Venerable Bede’) apparently derives from the tombstone erected some years after his death.

Bede was fortunate in that his monastery was run by the enlightened abbot, Benedict Biscop, and his successor, Ceolfrith, who both encouraged his historical studies.

It also contained probably the most extensive library in Anglo-Saxon Britain. Thus encouraged by kind sponsors and in a uniquely well-provisioned environment, Bede began to write, and went on to compose some 40 works, including commentaries on numerous books of the Bible, a life of St Cuthbert, lives of famous Saxon abbots, and so on. (He usefully provides us with a list of his works.)

But Bede is best-known for his masterpiece, regularly described as the first and greatest work of English history, the Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (The Ecclesiastical History of the English People). I have the old 1955 Penguin translation by Leo Sherley-Price, who translates the title as A History of the English Church and People.

Bede is called the Father of English History for several reasons:

  • He checked his sources, requesting documents and information from libraries in all the other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, correlating documents against each other, enquiring of eye-witnesses or descendants of eye-witnesses wherever possible. He clearly lays out his methodology in the introductory letter, and thus established a tradition of scrupulously checking the facts.
  • He describes in wonderful detail a period – from the Roman departure 410 until his own day, the 720s – for which we have pitifully little alternative material. Without his history there would be a big hole in our knowledge of the period and, since this was when our country was founded, he is an invaluable source for the earliest years of our nation.
  • Bede’s whole conception of History is wonderfully rounded. At a time when his contemporaries were struggling to produce the blunt line-for-each-year Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Bede set the events he reports in the contexts of Papal, European and wider British history, going backwards and forwards in time to situate events within broader historical themes as well, of course, as setting everything he describes within the overarching framework of God’s great redemptive plan for Man.

Structure of the Ecclesiastical History

The work is divided into five books, each of which covers a certain period. But the more important division is of each book into 30 or so one- or two-page chapters. These focus on one incident or theme (the miracles of so and so, the death of one bishop, the succession of another, and so on) and were obviously designed to provide good, practical meditations for his (entirely religious) audience to hear read out loud and ponder.

Leo Sherley-Price

Sherley-Price’s prose translation is crisp and brisk, presumably a faithful translation of Bede’s practical style. But the most striking thing about this translation is Sherley-Price’s attitude: he is himself a devout Christian and his beliefs come out in the introduction and (brief) notes, in a way a modern writer would not permit themselves. Thus his note on Pelagianism:

Pelagianism, ‘the British heresy’, denied the reality of original sin, and affirmed that man could attain perfection by his own efforts, unaided by the grace of God. This misconception is still strong today! [emphasis added]

In the introduction he gives a stout defence of miracles and the presence of the miraculous in the History:

Even when ruthless pruning has greatly reduced the number [of plausible miracles in the text], there remains an indissoluble core that cannot be explained by any known natural means, and attributable solely to the supernatural power of God displayed in and through His saints. And this is as it should be. For a true miracle (and who may doubt that such occur?) is not due to the supersession or inversion of the natural laws of the universe ordained by the Creator, but to the operation of cosmic laws as yet unrealised by man, activated by non-material forces whose potency is amply demonstrated in the Gospels. (Introduction, page 30, italics added)

These are confidently Christian words from a pre-1960s era which, in its own way, seems as remote to us today as Bede’s 8th century.

But the most telling sign of their datedness is, I think, not his Catholic faith as such – there’s no shortage of relic-kissing Catholics in 2013 – it is that Sherley-Price tries to make a rational, scientific distinction between improbable or forged miracles, and those which are undoubtedly the real thing. He thinks it is worthwhile to make this distinction and, in so doing, sounds like a member of the Brains Trust, like a reputable academic wearing a tweed jacket and puffing a pipe, debating atheism and belief with Bertrand Russell;he sounds like C.S. Lewis in his apologetic works, naively confident that you can reason someone into belief.

Our understanding of texts and discourses has leapt forward massively in the past 60 years.

The miraculous in Bede

In my opinion, Sherley-Price is missing the point by his nitpicking. The miraculous is the element in which Bede lives and breathes. God is all around him and his angels regularly appear to the people he is describing, to people he actually knows, with important messages and predictions.

Bede’s world is full of miraculous recoveries, holy rescues and blessed cures because God’s angels and saints are continually battling demons and spirits, the forces of the Old Enemy, who are at work everywhere and in everyone.

The miracles in Bede aren’t incidental; they are symptomatic of a world utterly drenched in the presence of God’s powers. To try and unpick the more likely from the less likely ones is to misread the coherence of the imaginative world, the worldview, the psychology, the culture which Bede inhabits. It is to apply absurdly flat and literalistic criteria to a world of wonders.

It is like undertaking a scientific assessment of which bits of magic in Harry Potter might actually be feasible. You are missing the point; the point is to abandon yourself entirely to the endless wonder and richness and unceasing miraculousness of Bede’s world, a world in which God always helps his saints and always punishes his sinners.

Some miracles

  • Book I, chapter 7 St Alban, sentenced to execution by the Roman authorities, can’t cross the packed bridge into Verulamium, so the river blocking his way dries up just as the Red Sea did. As the executioner decapitates Alban, his own eyes pop out.
  • I, 17 as Germanus sails to Britain, devils raise a storm and the ships are in peril of foundering so Germanus prays and sprinkles holy water on the waves, which puts the demons to flight and the storm passes.
  • I, 18 Using relics he’s brought from Rome, Germanus cures the blindness of a tribune’s young daughter.
  • I, 19 A fire threatens the house where Germanus is staying but he calls on the Lord and the flames turn back. Demons throw Germanus off his horse and he breaks his leg. In a vision an angel raises him and lo! his leg is healed.
  • I, 20 Picts and Saxons invade but bishops Germanus and Lupus organise the Britons into a defensive force. They call on the Lord and leap out of hiding shouting so effectively that the Saxons and Picts all run away, many of them drowning in the river.
  • I, 21 Germanus heals the crippled son of the chieftain Elaphius.
  • I, 33 The priest Peter is drowned off the coast of Gaul and buried by the locals in a common grave but God makes a bright light shine over the grave every night until the locals realise he is a holy man and bury him properly in a church in Boulogne.

The power of Christianity

The miracles are just the most striking way in which, for Bede and for all the early missionaries, bishops and believers he describes, Christianity works. It is better than paganism because its believers wield the real power which drives the universe, not the foolish, deluded voodoo of illiterate peasants who believe in amulets and spells and worship stones and trees.

For many profaned the Faith that they professed by a wicked life, and at a time of plague some had even abandoned the Christian sacraments and had recourse to the delusive remedies of idolatry, as though they could expect to halt a plague ordained of God by spells, amulets, and other devilish secret arts. (IV, 28)

Christianity is the Real Thing, it is the real magic that pagans only pretend to harness.

Believers in it win victories and become kings or emperors (as Constantine famously won the Battle of the Milvian Bridge after invoking Christ’s name), they heal the sick and raise the dead and cast out demons and do battle with devils and quench fires and bring down rain and make the crops grow. It is all the supernatural things paganism falsely claims to be – except it actually is.

Crediting witnesses, believing in miracles

Bede goes out of his way to tell us that he has many of these stories from people who knew the saints in question, that he personally has listened to their stories of angelic visitors and wrestling with devils and curing the sick and of coffins which magically resize themselves to fit the bodies of deceased saints.

An old brother of our monastery, who is still living, testifies that he once knew a truthful and devout man who had met Fursey in the province of the East Angles, and heard of these visions from his own mouth (Book III, chapter 19)

I have thought it fitting to preserve the memory of one of these stories, often told me by the very reverend Bishop Acca, who said that it was vouched for by some very reliable brethren of the monastery. (IV, 14)

Among those who told me this story were some who had actually heard it from the mouth of the man to whom these things happened, so that I have no hesitation  about including it in t his history of the church as it was related. (IV, 23)

My informant in all these events was my fellow-priest, Edgils, who was living in the monastery at the time. (IV, 25)

Even if we disbelieve every story, we are impressed by Bede’s conception of the historian as one who seeks out eye witnesses, who listens, who writes it down.

Anyway, even our sceptical age is alive with urban myths, and still suffers from the profound irrationality and credulousness of human beings. There are still people who under stress clutch any straw, who pray and promise God they’ll believe in him, who believe it was their prayers that saved the plunging plane or their sick relative or clinched the extra-time winner.

But we also know about the Somme, the Holocaust, about 9/11, we know that vast massacres occur and no-one is saved and God is nowhere to be seen.

Personally, I apply David Hume’s Calculus of Probability to all accounts of miracles. Is it more likely that the vast and universal laws of Nature were suspended, often for childish and petty ends? Or that the people who claim to have experienced a miracle, simply have a need to appear important, or are propagandising for their faith, or are naive and credulous?

It will always be the latter. An entirely rational assessment will always militate against miracles. But where, then, is the point or pleasure in reading Bede or indeed any other Christian literature?

For me such Christian literature can still be immensely rewarding, you just have to suspend disbelief. You just have to make the effort to cast yourself back into that mental world. Indeed, that is precisely the point of reading old literature: to expand your mind.

Some more miracles

  • Book IV, chapter 28 Cuthbert makes spring water appear on a barren hillside and crops to grow out of season.
  • IV 29 Cuthbert prophetically foretells his own death.
  • IV 30 Eleven years after his death Cuthbert’s body is found to be uncorrupted, soft and sweet.
  • IV 31 Brother Baduthegn suffers a paralytic stroke but drags himself to Cuthbert’s tomb where he dreams a great hand touches his wound and he awakens healed.
  • IV 32 Hairs from Cuthbert’s corpse cure the tumour on a brother’s eye.
  • V 1 The hermit Ethelwold calms a storm threatening to drown some monks.
  • V 2 Bishop John cures a dumb, scrofulous servant.
  • V 3 Bishop John cures Coenburg, a sick serving girl.
  • V 4 Bishop John cures the thane Puch’s wife.
  • V 5 Bishop John cures thane Addi’s servant.
  • V6 Bishop John cures a brother who foolishly races a horse, falls off and cracks his skull.
  • V 8 Archbishop Theodore foresees his own death in a vision.
  • V 9 Holy Egbert plans to evangelise the Germans but is prevented by God who sends visions and a storm.
  • V 10 Two missionaries to the Old Saxons are murdered by pagans but their bodies are washed upstream and a light shines over them every night till their companions find them and give them decent burial.

And so it goes on… To try to weight up the ‘valid’ miracles from the ‘invalid’ may be an interesting academic exercise but is pointless. Take out the miracles and there’d be nothing left. The entire story of the growth of the English church is, for Bede, miraculous and made up of miracle piled upon miracle.

Therefore, we should embrace the supernatural elements of Bede’s history unquestioningly, both as a vital component of his worldview, without which his whole history is pointless; and also because of the sheer pleasure it gives. How wonderful to live in this world of angels and demons! Surrender to its visions and what a wonderful, informative, imaginative, delightful book this is!

But what did the pagans believe?

Notoriously,and tragically, Bede (like all the Christian writers of the Dark Ages) tells us almost nothing about what his heathen and pagan opponents believed.

Worshiping trees, stones and rivers, wearing amulets and slaughtering horses seem to be part of pagan belief but we only glimpse these as throwaway asides. There are only a few exceptions, a few places where Bede paints a ‘conversion scene’ and allows us to see what the pagan worldview actually consisted of.

The most famous is in Book II, chapter 13, where King Edwin of Northumbria has already converted to Christianity but needs to take his nobles with him. He convenes a council (AD 627). They are sitting in the king’s large hall, illuminated by a huge fireplace and maybe other torches, but with glassless windows. And one of the king’s thanes uses their setting for a famously beautiful metaphor of human life.

Another of the king’s chief men signified his agreement and went on to say: ‘Your majesty, when we compare the present life of man on earth with that time of which we have no knowledge, it seems to me like the swift flight of a single sparrow through the banqueting-hall where you are sitting at dinner on a winter’s day with your thanes and counsellors. In the midst there is a comforting fire to warm the hall; outside, the storms of winter rain or snow are raging. This sparrow flies swiftly in through one door of the hall, and out through another. While he is inside, he is safe from the winter storms; but after a few moments of comfort, he vanishes from sight into the wintry world from which he came. Even so, man appears on earth for a little while; but of what went before this life or of what follows, we know nothing. Therefore, if this new teaching has brought any more certain knowledge, it seems only right that we should follow it.’

Yes, but what were they converting from? Bede doesn’t sully his book by telling us. Probably the mere act of writing down pagan beliefs would in some sense validate them. It might even conjure them up. Best left unmentioned, undescribed.

The conversion of King Sigbert of the East Saxons

There is another exchange, less poetic but, I think, more revealing in Book III, chapter 22:

About this time also, the East Saxons, who had once rejected the Faith and driven out Bishop Mellitus, again accepted it under the influence of King Oswy. For Sigbert their king, successor to Sigbert the Small, was a friend of Oswy and often used to visit him in the province of the Northumbrians. Oswy used to reason with him how gods made by man’s handwork could not be gods, and how a god could not be made from a log or block of stone, the rest of which might be burned or made into articles of everyday use or possibly thrown away as rubbish to be trampled underfoot and reduced to dust. He showed him how God is rather to be understood as a being of boundless majesty, invisible to human eyes, almighty, everlasting, Creator of heaven and earth and of the human race. He told him that he rules and will judge the world in justice, abiding in eternity, not in base and perishable metal; and that it should be rightly understood that all who know and do the will of their creator will receive an eternal reward from him. King Oswy advanced these and other arguments during friendly and brotherly talks with Sigbert, who, encouraged by the agreement of his friends, was at length convinced. So he talked it over with his advisers, and with one accord they accepted the Faith and were baptised with him by Bishop Finan in the king’s village of At-Wall, so named because it stands close to the wall which the Romans once built to protect Britain, about twelve miles from the eastern coast.

In the context of the Dark Ages this is gold dust. How fabulous to be told so much detail about these obscure kings, Oswy and Sigbert, about social intercourse between the kings of these early English kingdoms, about the relationship between a king and his advisers, about the geography of the region.

Christianity trumps paganism

But the core of the passage is the absolute crux of Bede’s History – the sheer majesty and breathtaking sweep, the intellectual, moral and imaginative scale and thoroughness and universality of Catholic Christianity compared with the thin, local, petty, shallow gods and practices of paganism.

For me this one chapter shows how Christianity was a VAST improvement on the limited, dark, unintellectual world of the pagan gods.

Miracles and all, if you compare the intellectual coherence of Bede’s position with the worldview of the pagan Poetic Edda, Christianity wins hands-down for its scope and thoroughness.

Thor throwing his hammer at giants is for children, the Last Battle between gods and giants is a fable for fatalistic warrior-kings.

Neither can stand comparison with the wonder and coherence of the Christian notion of one, all-powerful, all-loving Creator, with his flocks of angels ready to help the mightiest king or the lowliest serf to lead a more holy, just and – ultimately – satisfying life.

One by one, the kings of Dark Age Britain who Bede describes, realised this mighty truth and bowed to the inevitable.

Little was Bede to know that just 60 years after his death in 732, furious straw-haired pagans were to appear from across the sea and do their damnedest to destroy everything he and his brothers had built up. But that is another story…

"The Venerable Bede Translates John" by James Doyle Penrose (Wikimedia Commons)

The Venerable Bede Translates John by James Doyle Penrose (source: Wikimedia Commons)


Related links

On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain by Gildas

“Alas! the subject of my complaint is the general destruction of every thing that is good, and the general growth of evil throughout the land.”

The 6th century Welsh monk Gildas is the patron saint of all those well-educated people who think the country’s going to the dogs. He is the first Daily Mail leader writer, 1,400 years before the Daily Mail was founded. He even blames the immigrants for bringing the country to its knees – though for him it isn’t blacks or Asians or Poles – it’s the damn Angles and Saxons and Jutes.

And I thought to myself, ‘If God’s peculiar people, chosen from all the people of the world, the royal seed, and holy nation, to whom he had said, “My first begotten Israel,” its priests, prophets, and kings, throughout so many ages, his servant and apostle, and the members of his primitive church, were not spared when they deviated from the right path, what will he do to the darkness of this our age, in which, besides all the huge and heinous sins, which it has common with all the wicked of the world committed, is found an innate, indelible, and irremediable load of folly and inconstancy?’

These quotes are from his best-known work, De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae (On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain) in which he bemoans everything. The work is in 110 paragraphs which are conventionally divided into three parts: the background or history (the bit we’re interested in); a short condemnation of three contemporary kings followed by a long sequence of extensive quotes from Old Testament prophets to back Gildas up; and then condemnation of his fellow religious, priests and monks – all are to blame for the dire state of affairs in sub-Roman Britain.

Despite its slavish, often obscure and extremely lengthy references to Scripture and its convoluted style, the De Excidio is the only significant source for the period written by a near contemporary of the people and events described – and as such is invaluable.

But it is, alas, not a history:

To my mind, it is a grave mistake to call Gildas a ‘historian’: neither Columbanus, writing about forty years after his death, nor Alcuin, in the last quarter of the eighth century, regard him in this light… Gildas would never have regarded himself as a ‘historian’: he is a preacher, a revivalist, who will ‘attempt to state a few facts’ (pauca dicere conamur), by way of illustrating his message, that divine anger must visit with punishment a sinning people and priesthood. (Hugh Williams).

It is a sermon against unjust rulers, a Tract for the Times, a warning and a harrowing blast against ungodliness. The brief history it contains is just an introduction to the lengthy diatribe.

Choice of editions

I am aware of three web locations for the text:

Summary

Preface Paragraphs 1-2 – Preface and motives for writing

Part I Paragraphs 3-26 Description of Britain and a history from the Romans to Gildas’ time. His account of the 400 year Roman occupation seems garbled: he thinks the Romans only stayed periodically, arriving to put down incursions by the Picts and Scots or Boadicea and promptly departing. Very wrong. He skips several centuries from Boadicea to arrive at the crowning of Maximus emperor who takes the Roman legions with him to claim his throne on the continent in the 400s. It is in this section that we have our only reference to the letter supposedly written to Aetius the Roman by the Britons once they’d been abandoned to their fate by the departed legions:

Therefore, the wretched remnant, sending to Aetius, a powerful Roman citizen, address him as follow:—”To Aetius, now consul for the third time: the groans of the Britons.” And again a little further, thus:—”The barbarians drive us to the sea; the sea throws us back on the barbarians: thus two modes of death await us, we are either slain or drowned.” The Romans, however, could not assist them…

For Gildas the greatest catastrophe was to invite the Saxons to come help us against the raids of the Picts and the Scots in the North:

Then all the councillors, together with that proud tyrant Gurthrigern [Vortigern], the British king, were so blinded, that, as a protection to their country, they sealed its doom by inviting in among them like wolves into the sheep-fold), the fierce and impious Saxons, a race hateful both to God and men, to repel the invasions of the northern nations. Nothing was ever so pernicious to our country, nothing was ever so unlucky. What palpable darkness must have enveloped their minds-darkness desperate and cruel!

The Saxons ask for more and more pay until open hostility breaks out with their British hosts and, as the Saxons recruit more and more reinforcements from across the North Sea, the Britons are forced to retreat in their own land:

Some therefore, of the miserable remnant, being taken in the mountains, were murdered in great numbers; others, constrained by famine, came and yielded themselves to be slaves for ever to their foes, running the risk of being instantly slain… some others passed beyond the seas with loud lamentations instead of the voice of exhortation… Others, committing the safeguard of their lives, which were in continual jeopardy, to the mountains, precipices, thickly wooded forests, and to the rocks of the seas (albeit with trembling hearts), remained still in their country.

But the remnant is led by one Ambrosius Aurelianus who leads the Britons to victory against the Saxons at the battle of Mons Badonicus, and a period of peace ensues, though a peace among the ruins.

But not even at the present day are the cities of our country inhabited as formerly; deserted and dismantled, they lie neglected until now, because, although wars with foreigners have ceased, domestic wars continue.

These three – the begging letter, the invitation to the Saxons, the battle of Mons Badonicus – occur in no other source and are taken up by all succeeding historians down to our own time.

Part II Paragraphs 27-37 form the Denunciation of the Five Kings for their various sins, a list which includes utterly obscure figures and relatively well-documented ones:

  • Constantine, the tyrannical whelp of the unclean lioness of Damnonia: charged with murdering two royal youths in a church – murder and sacrilege – putting away his first wife – adultery & fornication
  • thou lion’s whelp (as the prophet saith), Aurelius Conanus, a pagan, charged with murder, fornication, adultery
  • Vortipore, thou foolish tyrant of the Demetians – growing old and rich in murder and adulteries and the practices of a shameless daughter
  • Cuneglasse who has rejected his wife and married her sister
  • Maglocune who killed his uncle, the king, converted to become a monk, but then abandoned his vows to revert to being a dissolute licentious king, murdering his nephew and first wife. Gildas says his sin is all the worse because he had the most eloquent master in Britain as tutor. Who?

How useful it would have been to have their family trees explained, their achievements listed and their supposed crimes explained; instead Gildas resorts to lengthy biblical quotes and exegeses which bury the reality of historic individuals under tonnes of second hand verbiage:

And here, indeed, if not before, was this lamentable history of the miseries of our time to have been brought to a conclusion, that I might no further discourse of the deeds of men; but that I may not be thought timid or weary, whereby I might the less carefully avoid that saying of Isaiah, “Woe be to them who call good evil, and evil good placing darkness for light, and light for darkness, bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter, who seeing see not, and hearing hear not, whose hearts are overshadowed with a thick and black cloud of vices; “I will briefly set down the threatenings which are denounced against these five aforesaid lascivious horses, the frantic followers of Pharaoh, through whom his army is wilfully urged forward to their utter destruction in the Red Sea, and also against such others, by the sacred oracles, with whose holy testimonies the frame of this our little work is, as it were, roofed in, that it may not be subject to the showers of the envious, which otherwise would be poured thereon.

BUT, Gildas’s learning and sense of design is to be noted a) the five princes chosen for vilification are described with the same adjectives as the beast in the Book of revelation b) the long section in which Gildas quotes the authority of the prophets to back up his condemnation of the kings follows the same order of the source books in the Old Testament.

He was known as Gildas Sapiens, Gildas the Wise, and is referred to in letters of St Columbanus to the Pope around 600, and by Alcuin in the later 700s. He was clearly a name, a big man, in his time.

Part III Paragraphs 38-63 Extensive quotations from Scripture against wicked kings. Gildas works systematically and in order through the books of the Old Testament taking quotes which rail against unjust kings and how they will be sent to Hell.

What then shall unhappy leaders do now? Those few who have abandoned the broad way and are finding the narrow, are forbidden by God to pour out prayers for you, who persist in evil and tempt Him so greatly: upon whom, on the contrary, if you return with your heart unto God, they could not bring vengeance, because God is unwilling that the soul of man should perish, but calls it back, lest he who is cast away should utterly perish. Because, not even Jonas the prophet, and that when he greatly desired it, could bring vengeance on the Ninevites. But putting aside, meanwhile, our own words, let us rather hear what sound the prophetic trumpet gives: And if thou say this in thy heart, wherefore are these evils come? They come for the greatness of thy iniquity. If the Ethiop can change his skin, or the leopard his spots, ye also can do good, who have learnt to do evil.

Part IV Paragraphs 64-110 a similar attack upon the British clergy of the age which holds up to them lengthy examples of self-sacrifice and holiness from the Old Testament, the New Testament and the Lives of the Saints and Martyrs.

Priests Britain has, but foolish ones; a great number of ministers, but shameless; clergy, but crafty plunderers; pastors, so to say, but wolves ready for the slaughter of souls, certainly not providing what is of benefit for the people, but seeking the filling of their own belly. They have church edifices, but enter them for the sake of filthy lucre; they teach the people, but by furnishing the worst examples, teach vice and evil morals; they seldom sacrifice, and never stand among the altars with pure heart; they do not reprove the people on account of their sins, nay, in fact, they commit the same; they despise the commandments of Christ, and are careful to satisfy their own lusts with all their prayers: they get possession of the seat of the apostle Peter with unclean feet, but, by the desert of cupidity, fall into the unwholesome chair of the traitor Judas.

Regret

The De Excidio is a fascinating insight into the mindset of a 6th century Welsh monk, a very educated man living in difficult times whose entire mental outlook, whose intellectual framework, is completely determined by Christian Scripture and teaching, its slightly hysterical millennial sense of the nearness of Doomsday and the burning urgency of repentance and prostration before God. Compared to the suave ironies of the pagan Tacitus, this is the new verbose, florid and emotional voice of the Christian Middle Ages.

But oh oh oh if only he had made fewer tedious references to the Old Testament we all know too well and had elaborated just a little on the pagan Britons’ religious beliefs and rituals of which we know virtually nothing:

I shall, therefore, omit those ancient errors common to all the nations of the earth, in which, before Christ came in the flesh, all mankind were bound; nor shall I enumerate those diabolical idols of my country, which almost surpassed in number those of Egypt, and of which we still see some mouldering away within or without the deserted temples, with stiff and deformed features as was customary. Nor will I call out upon the mountains, fountains, or hills, or upon the rivers, which now are subservient to the use of men, but once were an abomination and destruction to them, and to which the blind people paid divine honour.

What diabolical idols? Where were these temples, what were they like, what ceremonies were carried out there? Why were the idols features stiff and deformed? How did the people pay honour to the mountains, fountains, hills and rivers?

So tantalisingly close – and yet so frustratingly far.

More about Gildas

1638 translation of Gildas into English

1638 translation of Gildas into English

A Dark Age Chronology

Inspired by Robert Ferguson’s brilliant book, The Hammer and The Cross, I collated key dates from the so-called Dark Ages (let’s say from the departure of the Romans from Britain in 410 to the Norman Conquest of 1066). Why? Why not?

An at-a-glance overview of the period would be:
400 Romans leave England – Angles and Saxons invade Christian Britain
500 Anglo-Saxon kingdoms exist all across Britain, the Heptarchy
600 St Augustine comes as missionary to the pagan Anglo-Saxons
800 Vikings attack Lindisfarne, going on to colonise east and north England: a century of battles
900 Alfred the Great and successors unify the Anglo-Saxons against the Danes, creating ‘England’
1000 Aethelred the Unready fails to deal with repeated Viking attacks

5th century
410 Traditional date for the Romans quitting Britain. In fact it was a gradual process: 407 the army elects Constantine III emperor and he takes a lot of the Roman army to Gaul to attack Honorius: how many? was a military commander left or ever reappointed? 408 A Saxon attack repelled by Britons. 409 Zosimus records the natives expelled the Roman administration. 410 the rescript of Honorius – apparently the emperor Honorius telling the Britons they are on their own facing barbarian attacks.
449 (a retrospectively written section of) the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says Hengest and Horsa lead Saxons, Jutes and Angles to Kent at King Vortigern’s request to protect from marauding Picts, and decide to stay: the official start of Anglo-Saxon England. The venerable Bede attributes the date of 449. Their names mean stallion and horse: were they real people or legendary symbols?

6th century
500 Beowulf born, according to JRR Tolkien’s chronology. Welsh monk & historian Gildas born.
520s Beowulf fights Grendel
525 King Hygelac of the Geats killed fighting the Franks
550 Gildas writes the De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae
597 Saint Augustine arrives to convert the pagan Anglo-Saxons

7th century
A blank

8th century
732 The Venerable Bede‘s Ecclesiastical History of the English People
772 Charlemagne comes to the throne
782 massacre of Saxon pagans at Verden
793 Vikings attack Lindisfarne

9th century
800 Charlemagne crowned Holy Roman Emperor
814 Charlemagne dies
820 13 Viking ships attack north of the Seine
825 kingdom of Wessex absorbs Sussex and Essex
830 Nennius’s history Historia Brittonum
835 Viking attack on Isle of Sheppey
849 Alfred the Great born
857 Vikings attack Paris, take Rouen
865 Grand Heathen Army invades the east and establishes the Viking kingdom of York
868 the GHA takes Nottingham. Alfred marries the Mercian princess Ealswith
870 the GHA led by Ivar the Boneless defeat the army of and kill Edmund, king of East Anglia, soon to be canonised
870s the settlement of Iceland begins
871 the Saxons fight nine big battles against the GHA: Ethelred dies and is succeeded by king Alfred who makes peace with the Danes
876 the GHA conquers Northumbria
877 the GHA occupies Wrexham and attacks Exeter
878 Alfred hides in the Somerset marshes around Athelney; emerges to defeat Guthrum and make peace at the Treaty of Wedmore and baptise him
886 final peace made with Guthrum and establishment of the Danelaw
889 Alfred’s daughter Ethelfled marries Aethelred aldorman of Mercia
892 dues to his alliances and military reforms Alfred defeats a Viking invasion fleet of 250 ships
899 Alfred dies and is succeeded by his son Edward
890-910 intense period of settlement of Iceland caused by the unification campaign of Norway’s king Harald Finehair

10th century
903 the Vikings driven out of Dublin by Caerball
910-20 Ethelred and Ethelfled build 28 fortified burhs along the border with the Danelaw to defend Mercia and Wessex
911 Rollo founds the Duchy of Normandy
911 death of King Louis the Child ends the Carolingian dynasty in the east
911 Edward son of Alfred annexes Oxford and London
914 Brittany-based Vikings raid south Wales
917 Ethelfled drives the Danes from Derby
918 Ethelfled dies, leaving a daughter, Elfwyn. Within a year she disappears from the record, probably forced into a convent, marking the End of the independent kingdom of Wessex
919 dukes elect Henry the Fowler king
920 Edward son of Alfred is king of all England south of the Mersey and Humber
924 Edward son of Alfred dies, succeeded by his brother Athelstan
927 Athelstan drives Olaf viking out of York
930 settlement of Iceland largely complete
930 Ganger Rolf / Rollo dies and is succeeded by his son William Longsword
934 Constantine king of the Scots challenges Athelstan
935 rule of Gorm the Old ends
936 Henry the Fowler’s successor, Otto the Great, symbolically crowned at Aachen Charlemagne’s capital
936 Haakon the Good of Norway drives out his brother Erik Bloodaxe
937 Athelstan and his brother march north and defeat the Irish-Norse Scots and Northumbrian Norwegians at the battle of Brunanburh, commemorated in an Anglo-Saxon poem
939 Athelstan dies: Olaf returns and retakes York
940 death of Harald Finehair king of Norway
941 Olaf dies: York passes to Olaf Sihtricsson
944 the Danes reject him: Erik Bloodaxe, an exile fromt he Norwegian court, in some versions is baptised by Athelstan and given York. But his wife is unpopular…
954 Eric Bloodaxe expelled from York by king Edred ending the Scandinavian kingdom of York: 100 years after the Danelaw was defined, all of its territories are in English hands once more
955 king Eadwig crowned at Kingston
957 his brother Edgar rises against him
959 Eadwig dies and king Edgar reigns
960s Harald Bluetooth erects the Jelling stones in memory of his parents, celebrating his conquest of Denmark and Norway, and his conversion of the Danes to Christianity
962 in exchange for his military support the Pope crowns Otto Holy Roman Emperor, a title which is to dog central Europe for the next thousand years
973 Harald Bluetooth attacks Otto from Denmark but is repelled
975 Edgar dies, is succeeded by his son Edward
978 Edward murdered to clear the succession for the 10 year old Ethelred; a cult grows around Edward the martyr undermining all Ethelred’s subsequent attempts to rally the English against the Danes
980s settlement of Greenland led by Erik the Red
983 Harald Bluetooth successfully expels Otto from Denmark
987 Harald Bluetooth overthrown by his son Sweyn/Sven Forkbeard, exiled, dies of an arrow wound, in some versions fired by a child
991 Vikings raid along the east coast and win the Battle of Maldon, commemorated in the Anglo Saxon poem
992 Ethelred raises a fleet to attack the Vikings but some Anglos on his own side betray him
993 Vikings sack Bamburgh
994 Olaf Trygvasson and Sweyn Forkbeard attack London with 94 ships
995 bishops approach Olaf and he agrees to be confirmed, sponsored by Ethelred, and to leave England
996 Olaf returns to Norway, defeats and beheads king Hakon and embarks on a violent campaign of Christianisation
998 Viking army in Dorsey
999 Viking army sails up the Thames to Rochester
999 conversion of Iceland to Christianity under threat from Olaf Trygvasson

11th century
1001 Vikings burn and pillage up the river Exe
1002 Ethelred orders the St Brice’s Day massacre of all Danes in England
1003 Sven returns and burns Exeter
1004 Sven’s Vikings burn Norwich
1005 famine drives the Vikings home
1006 Sven’s Vikings base themselves on the Isle of Wight, march through Reading to loot Winchester
1007 Ethelred offers 36,000 pounds of silver as Danegeld
1008 Ethelred orders a massive fleet built but is betrayed by his own side, the fleet is destroyed in storms, never engages the enemy
1009 Canterbury buys off Thorkell the Tall with Danegeld
1011 Thorkell’s Vikings back in Canterbury kidnap the archbishop, Alphege then, bored and drunk, stone him to death
1013 Sweyn/Sven Forkbeard arrives from Denmark and travels round the country being acclaimed king wherever he goes in the Danelaw. Ethelred flees to Normandy
1014 having conquered England and established a kingdom which includes Denmark and Norway, Sven dies. The Danes and Anglo-Danes elect his son Cnut king, but Ethelred returns, raises a fleet and army, and drives Cnut out.
1015 Cnut returns with a massive fleet and ravages the West Country. Æthelred’s son, Edmund Ironside, had revolted against his father and established himself in the Danelaw. Over the next months, Canute conquered most of England, and Edmund had rejoined Æthelred to defend London when Æthelred died on 23 April 1016. The subsequent war between Edmund and Canute ended in a decisive victory for Canute at the Battle of Ashingdon on 18 October 1016. Edmund’s reputation as a warrior was such that Canute nevertheless agreed to divide England, Edmund taking Wessex and Canute the whole of the country beyond the Thames. However, Edmund died on 30 November and Canute became king of the whole country aged 20.
1017 Cnut formally crowned and receives 72,000 pounds Danegeld. Cnut executes high level traitors, parcels out land to his followers, marries Ethelred’s widow, Emma, and takes a Christian name.
1020s Cnut supports the rebuilding of Chartres cathedral, issues laws against heathenism
1019 upon the death of Cnut’s childless older brother Harald, Cnut becomes king of Denmark
1027 Cnut undertakes a pilgrimae to Rome to attend the coronation of the Emperor Conrad II
1035 Cnut dies intending his son by Emma, Harthacnut, to succeed. Harthacanut has to go to Norway to sort out problems there giving his half-brother, Cnut’s illegitimate son by Aelfgifu, Harold Harefoot, chance to seize the throne.
1040 Harthacnut is preparing a fleet to sail back to take Britain when Harold Harefoot dies
1042 Harthacnut proves himself a cruel king, imposing high taxes, burning Worcester to punish the citizens, before dropping dead after drinking heavily at a wedding.
1066 Harald Hardrada invades from Norway. Harold Godwinson defeats him at the battle of Stamford Bridge. William of Normandy invades. Harold loses to him at the battle of Hastings.

For a light-hearted Danish point of view see this web page.

Concerning the Origin and Situation of the Germans (the Germania) by Tacitus (98)

Cornelius Tacitus lived from around 54 to 120 AD. He’s famous for his full-length histories of the early Roman Empire – the Annals and the Histories. Before these, in 98, he wrote two short monographs, a eulogy to his father-in-law Agricola, and a study of the Germanic peoples beyond the border of the Roman Empire – De Origine et situ Germanorum or Concerning the Origin and Situation of the Germanics.

It is the usual mish-mash of hearsay, twaddle and detailed, real information – it is the task of scholars to disentangle the two. Tacitus most improbably claims the Germanic tribes worship the Roman gods:

Of the gods, Mercury is the principal object of their adoration; whom, on certain days, they think it lawful to propitiate even with human victims. To Hercules and Mars they offer the animals usually allotted for sacrifice. Some of the Suevi also perform sacred rites to Isis.

He confidently makes sweeping statements: All the Germans do this; without exception they do that: which scholars have to validate or invalidate from the handful of other sources:

In every house the children grow up, thinly and meanly clad, to that bulk of body and limb which we behold with wonder. Every mother suckles her own children, and does not deliver them into the hands of servants and nurses. No indulgence distinguishes the young master from the slave. They lie together amidst the same cattle, upon the same ground, till age separates, and valor marks out, the free-born.

Is any of that true? Could be. Tacitus talks confidently about the Germans’ myths and legends:

In their ancient songs, which are their only records or annals, they celebrate the god Tuisto, sprung from the earth, and his son Mannus, as the fathers and founders of their race.

No other source mentions a Tuisto. It is interesting to follow up the reference to Tuisto and see what shapes scholars have twisted themselves into trying to assimilate Tacitus to what we do know: could Tuisto be etymologically linked to the Ymir of Snorri? Or, as a recent scholar points out, could the whole sentence  derive from Tacitus’s “simple ignorance of the facts”?

By far the most interesting thing about the Germania is the impact it’s had on history and on the Germans themselves:

In medieval Germany (the Holy Roman Empire), a self-designation of ‘Germanii’ was virtually never used. The name was only revived in 1471, inspired by the rediscovered text of Germania, to invoke the warlike qualities of the ancient Germans in a crusade against the Turks. Ever since its discovery, treatment of the text regarding the culture of the early Germanic peoples in ancient Germany remains strong especially in German history, philology, and ethnology studies… Beginning in 16th-century German humanism, German interest in Germanic antiquity remained acute throughout the period of Romanticism and nationalism. A scientific angle was introduced with the development of Germanic philology by Jacob Grimm in the 19th century…

The Nazis incorporated many of Tacitus’s claims about the Germanic tribes into their farrago of Nordic nonsense. In particular the fateful section about the ‘purity’ of the Germanic tribes:

I concur in opinion with those who deem the Germans never to have intermarried with other nations; but to be a race, pure, unmixed, and stamped with a distinct character. Hence a family likeness pervades the whole, though their numbers are so great: eyes stern and blue; ruddy hair; large bodies, powerful in sudden exertions, but impatient of toil and labor, least of all capable of sustaining thirst and heat. Cold and hunger they are accustomed by their climate and soil to endure.

Because of its influence on the ideologies of Pan-Germanism and Nordicism, Jewish-Italian historian Arnaldo Momigliano in 1956 described Germania as ‘among the most dangerous books ever written’. Christopher Krebs, a professor at Stanford University, argues in his A Most Dangerous Book, that Germania played a major role in the formation of the core concepts of Nazi ideology.

Read Tacitus’s Germania on Project Gutenberg

Map of The Roman Empire in 116 AD and Germania Magna, with some Germanic tribes mentioned by Tacitus (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The Roman Empire in 116 AD and Germania Magna, with some Germanic tribes mentioned by Tacitus (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The Hammer and the Cross: A New History of the Vikings by Robert Ferguson (2010)

The Hammer and the Cross: A New History of the Vikings is a brilliant book. It is a scholarly, systematic and scrupulous investigation of the phenomenon of the Vikings. Roberts carefully weighs the evidence about every aspect of the farflung activities of the amazing men who discovered America, settled Greenland, invaded Britain and France, became the special guard to the Byzantine Emperor and – the biggest surprise to me – founded Russia!

The message repeated in chapter after chapter is that the evidence from the Dark Ages is so pitifully scanty that most of the subject is shrouded in confusion and uncertainty. Thus: nobody knows the origin of the word, which language it comes from or what it means; nobody can agree the date of the “Viking Era”; there is no agreement on the definition of the Vikings: was it an ethnic group, a racial group, men from particular countries, or was it simply a form of behaviour, that men from certain northern cultures would, as the Old Norse has it, fara i viking, which seems to mean ‘go a-viking’, as if viking is an activity or profession.

Or, alhough Viking trader-warriors from modern Sweden spent decades clearing the river routes south to the Black Sea and in doing so founded the city of Kiev, though they were widely described as the “Rus” and though this activity was the basis of the modern state of Russia, nobody knows what Rus means or where it came from.

Nobody knows what pagans did or believed. All the shrines were destroyed by Christians. None of htese people could write: they recorded absolutely nothing of their activities. Only one four line prayer exists anywhere, embedded in a long poem in the Poetic Edda. There are a pitiful handful of eye witness accounts of pagan Viking behaviour, none of which are very clear, there’s a number of runestones which barely convey anything, there is a handful of primitive picture stones. I understand better than before why, against the background of this pitiful lack of evidence, the Poetic Edda, the collection of poems and the Prose Edda – the synopsis of Norse legends – both set down in 12th century Iceland are so enormously valuable.

However, as the book progresses, an idea emerges which develops into Ferguson’s central thesis: this, like everything in the book, derives from a scrupulous weighing of the evidence, and it is that the Viking phenomenon was a religious war. The idea is broached in the chapter about the start of the Viking era (different in every country): in Britain it (notoriously) started with the brutal attack on Lindisfarne monastery in 793. Ferguson links this to the extremely violent and intimidating campaign of Charlemagne to convert northern Europe to Christianity which got underway in the 780s and targeted the Saxons who lived south of Denmark. As Charlemagne’s forces invaded Saxony, burning pagan shrines, forcibly converting pagans and killing resisters, thousands fled north into Jutland and, Ferguson argues, this may be what lies behind the sudden eruption of revenge attacks by the pagan men from the sea who we call the Vikings. Wherever the Danish, Swedish and Norwegian attackers landed, they went out of their way to loot and destroy churches and monasteries and to torture, rape and kill priests, monks and nuns.

Those within converted Europe, the Christians who wrote what records we have about the Vikings, the victims who were attacked again and again and again from about 800 to about 1050, they disagree about where the Vikings came from, whether they were blonde or dark-haired, what language they spoke etc – but on one thing they all agreed – they were heathen, pagani, unbelievers, infidels, illiterate outsiders, fired by terrifying ferocity and anger against everything connected with Christianity, going out of their way to loot and desecrate.

Which led me to wonder whether this period shouldn’t qualify as the First Wars of Religion in Europe – preceding the 150 years of carnage sparked by the Protestant Reformation (1500-1650), a period we should perhaps now rename the Second Wars of Religion.

This is a marvellous book, all the more awe-inspiring and romantic for the scrupulous care with which every scrap of evidence and every conflicting theory or interpretation is weighed and assessed.

Book cover of The Hammer and the Cross by Robert Ferguson

Book cover of The Hammer and the Cross by Robert Ferguson

The pleasures of Anglo-Saxon poetry

Anglo-Saxon poetry offers a range of pleasures which can, perhaps, be arranged in a hierarchy.

The pleasure of the sounds

First, there is the pure pleasure of the sounds – the tremendous compacting of meaning into abrupt gutteral syllables compressed into short alliterative lines which sound great when recited aloud. They nakedly convey the pagan energy from the origin of our speech which usually lies hidden beneath layers of mellifluous Norman French, Latin and all the other languages we’ve rifled and pillaged. There is a sonic purity which is reinforced, the more you understand the history and subject matter, by a kind of ideological or historical sense of primalness.

Art and style

There is the art and style: as you practice you gain a deeper understanding of the skilled use of alliteration, the division of sentences into compact semantic units or stock phrases (“hard under helmet”), the laconic understatement (“the blow was not welcome”), the pleasure of deciphering riddles or kennings.

Subject matter

There is the the “sweet sorrow” of the subject matter, broadly dividing into:

  • elegies of profound loss, to the passing of great men, great times, great buildings – Durham, The Ruin, Deor, The Seafarer, The Wanderer, The Wive’s Lament
  • overtly Christian poetry, but tinged with the same pagan sense of loss and sadness – The Dream of the Rood
  • warrior legends and epics: Beowulf, the Fight at Finnsburg, The Battle of Maldon – always with the same dying fall, Beowulf’s fate, Finn’s defeat, Byrhtnoth’s ofermode

Virility

Poetry which manages to convey sensitivity to the sad plight of fallen humanity with tremendous energy and virility. It assumes a very masculine worldview, one of continual physical competition, bravery and strength in contests and fights.

Our heritage

William Morris crystallised the plaint why tens of millions of English people know the story of the Odyssey or the wooden horse of Troy who have never heard of Beowulf, Maldon or Finnsburg. These are the myths and legends of our forebears, of the Germanic tribesmen who invaded and settled our country 1500 years ago, giving their name to our country and to our language. Their word-hoard, their myth-kitty, their songs and lays are intrinsic to our language and heritage. Almost nobody knows or studies them. (This Amazon book review claims in 99% of schools Old English isn’t taught at all, and only appears in 10% of university departments.)

The pathos of survival

Because so little survives – only 30,000 lines of poetry, of which Beowulf comprises 10% – and most of which has survived by the slenderest of threads, there is a strong sense of the preciousness and uniqueness of what we have. There is a close analogy with the Sutton Hoo treasure, enormously rich in itself but indicating by its very richness – like Beowulf – the enormity of what has been lost.

Dead language

Then there is the very academic pleasure of studying and trying to understand a dead language. But not one like Latin or ancient Greek which were kept alive by scholars through the Middle Ages and Renaissance and then widely studied as a sign of culture in the Victorian period and beyond. Anglo Saxon has always been a tiny minority pursuit (oddly, since it is the origin of the most successful language on the planet). Yet the more you study, the more you enter the treasure house of a lost world.

Philology

Not only does so little survive but what we have was written in different places in different dialects  which themselves changed and evolved over some 600 years, so it’s not even one language but a range of quite distinct sub-languages we are dealing with. Trying to piece together all the scattered fragments of text – and the scattered dialects in which they’re written – to create a consistent understanding of the Anglo Saxon languages has been the work of two centuries of philologists and sooner or later even the casual reader finds themselves drawn into speculation about the meaning of this or that word, and then into the long history of debates about it…

For example, the precise meaning of ofermode in the battle of Maldon is debated to this day and has large ideological and historical overtones – is the poet criticising or praising Byrhtnoth? is the entire poem a critique of the craven policy of King Aethelred? – but all these depend on the most technical of philological interpretations which requires a detailed knowledge, training and understanding in the Anglo Saxon languages…

Beowulf lines 1127-37

Hengest ða gyt
wælfagne winter | wunode mid Finne
eal unhlitme. | Eard gemunde,
þeah þe he ne meahte | on mere drifan
hringedstefnan; | holm storme weol,
won wið winde, | winter yþe beleac
isgebinde, | oþðæt oþer com
gear in geardas, | swa nu gyt deð,
þa ðe syngales | sele bewitiað,
wuldortorhtan weder. | ða wæs winter scacen,
fæger foldan bearm.

Hengest there yet
the woeheavy winter | waited with Finn
all unhappy. | His home-earth beminded
though there he might not | on the mere drive
his ring-prowed ship; | whelm storm swelled
waged with wind, | winter waves belocked
ice be-bounden, | until another came
year in the homeyards | such now yet does
those which continually | observe the seasons,
world-wondrous weather. | Then was winter scampered
fair felt the earth.


Related links

Replica of the helmet from the Sutton Hoo ship-burial (Wikimedia Commons)

Replica of the helmet from the Sutton Hoo ship-burial (Wikimedia Commons)

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