The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin (1969)

Lord Berosty rem ir Ipe came to Thangering Fastness and offered forty beryls and half the year’s yield from his orchards as the price of a Foretelling, and the price was acceptable.

Le Guin’s anthropological approach

This is the second Ursula Le Guin novel I’ve read and I’m beginning to realise why all the author blurbs, articles and essays about her tend to start with the fact that she was the daughter of an eminent anthropologist.

It’s because her books are interested in creating whole fictional societies – with languages, customs, social systems and networks and values different from ours – and then sending an outsider into them to explore them on our behalf.

These worlds are often, at root, so schematic that they are indeed like essays in sociology or politics or philosophy. This was very true of The Dispossessed, which amounted to a kind of thought experiment – what would happen if dissidents from an authoritarian capitalist system didn’t just leave their country, but left the entire planet to go and colonise another one, nearby, and set up a cash-free, government-free anarcho-syndicalist society?

To find out, let’s send an inhabitant of the poor but honest utopia back to the corrupt capitalist mother culture so that he (and the reader) can compare and contrast the two of them.

The Left Hand of Darkness dates from five years earlier, but the recipe is similar: imagine a planet with one dominating feature and two fully imagined and distinctive societies, then send in an outsider to explore it for us, report back to us, describe the climate and culture and customs and so on.

And that’s exactly what happens here. In this case it is the planet ‘Gethen’, which the first visitors from the Hainish Federation named Winter because it is, er, always winter – a deep freeze world, a world of snow and cold, ice and pine forests in the mist (and hence, we are informed, the sixty-two Karhidish words for different types and conditions of snow, p.169).

And so it is that the narrative of The Left Hand of Darkness consists of the reports of the envoy Genly Ai back to the Federation – or, to give it its proper name, the Ekumenical Scope.

Genly’s neat, chapter-sized reports are interspersed with folk tales and legends from Gethen which pad out our understanding of their people and folklore – and also the point of view of a completely different narrator, a high-born inhabitant of Gethen, Therem Harth rem ir Estraven, who gives his (or its – see below about hermaphroditism) own first-hand account of its adventures, which join up and then become utterly entwined with Genly’s.

Fantasy nomenclature

So I can see the fictional intention very clearly… but… but… I have real trouble buying into these fantasy novels.

The most obvious reason is the names. The names Le Guin gives planets, people and places and their customs are often so preposterous that I wonder if she’s daring people not to have a fit of the giggles.

Thus the envoy from the Ekumenical Scope is named Genly Ai, her initial contact at the court of King Argaven XV is Therem Harth rem ir Estraven, and the text sounds like this:

[My story] starts on the 44th diurnal of the Year 1491, which on the planet Winter in the nation Karhide was Odhar-hahad Tuwa or the twenty-second day of the third month of spring in the Year One. It is always the Year One here. Only the dating of every past and future year changes each New Year’s Day, as one counts backwards or forwards from the unitary Now. So it was spring of the Year One in Erhenrang, capital city of Karhide…

Ehrenrang. The book is absolutely crammed full of silly sci-fi fantasy names and people, and whether you take to it depends largely on whether you enjoy reading about made-up histories of made-up people with fake-exotic made-up names.

Estraven’s house, sign of the king’s high favor, was the Corner Red Dwelling, built 440 years ago for Harmes, beloved kemmering of Emran III, whose beauty is still celebrated, and who was abducted, mutilated, and rendered imbecile by hirelings of the Inner-land Faction.

As well as sounding plain silly, a more important issue I have with the names is their lack of depth. They all have an eerie sense of familiarity which, I think, is created by mashing up vague bastardised memories of medieval history, with exotic names which seem to have come out of the Central Asia of Genghiz Khan’s time. They all tremble on the edge of pastiche or parody.

‘You know that Karhide and Orgoreyn have a dispute concerning a stretch of our border in the high North Fall near Sassinoth. Argaven’s grandfather claimed the Sinoth Valley for Karhide, and the Commensals have never recognized the claim. A lot of snow out of one cloud, and it grows thicker. I’ve been helping some Karhidish farmers who live in the Valley to move back east across the old border, thinking the argument might settle itself if the Valley were simply left to the Orgota, who have lived there for several thousand years.’

The entire novel is written in this style, with this kind of clutter of faux-exotic names, all the way through, on every page. It’s not an original style. The names sound like they could come from Star Trek, the TV series of which came to an end the same year Left Hand of Darkness was published, 1969. (Top Star Trek enemies included the Klingons, the Cardassians, the Lore, the Romulans, the Holodeck, any of whom could step easily into this book.)

So the degree of your enjoyment will depend on how much imaginative energy you want to invest in characters with names like Ong Tot Oppong, Pemmer Harge rem ir Tibe and Lang Heo Hew. When I read about the summer palace at Warrever, I thought ‘whaddever’, indeed.

Hermaphroditism

Anyway, the regrettable thing is that – as in the Left Hand of Darkness – inextricably mixed up with the silly names are genuinely interesting ‘ideas’. The winter theme is developed up to a point, but far more dominant is the fact that all the inhabitants of Gethen are hermaphrodites. 

In her interest in sex and sex equality, Le Guin sometimes seems like a prophet of our own times, obsessed as we are with ‘gender’ and gender equality and gender issues and transgender rights and so on, and in this book she approaches it with characteristic thoroughness and imaginative depth.

Chapter Seven of the book is a report from another investigator from the Ekumen who, if I understand the dating system correctly, visited Gethen with the first landing party some 50 years before Genly, and wrote a thorough report on all aspects of the inhabitants’ hermaphroditism. Her name is Ong Tot Oppong (stop tittering at the back) but Le Guin’s working through of what a hermaphrodite society would really look and feel and think like makes for fascinating reading.

On the one hand there’s the biology – each Gethenite enters estrus for a week once every month, enters into a bond with another Gethenite, and then subtle hormonal changes decide which one will develop their latent male or female genitalia: everyone has them, it is in the subtle pair-bonding period that hormones decide which one will develop their genitals enough to be used. With the result that a Gethenite can both bear children and father children; may have borne children to one partner, but be father to the children of another partner. It matters not (her fake medieval style is catching) since the children (like the children in The Dispossessed) are taken away and raised communally.

Here, amid all the silly names and fantasy clutter, are some really thought-provoking ideas:

Consider: Anyone can turn his hand to anything. This sounds very simple, but its psychological
effects are incalculable. The fact that everyone between seventeen and thirty-five or so is liable to be (as Nim put it) ‘tied down to childbearing’, implies that no one is quite so thoroughly ‘tied down’ here as women, elsewhere, are likely to be – psychologically or physically. Burden and privilege are shared out pretty equally; everybody has the same risk to run or choice to make.

Consider: There is no division of humanity into strong and weak halves, protective/protected, dominant/submissive, owner/chattel, active/passive. In fact the whole tendency to dualism that pervades human thinking may be found to be lessened, or changed, on Winter.

The most striking speculation in this anthropologist’s report is that the absence of a fixed male or female gender may explain the absence of war, which can be seen as a vainglorious exaggeration of all the worst male characteristics (a theory attributed to the famous sociologist, Tumass Song Angot, p.96)

As in her treatment of an anarchist, egalitarian, propertyless society in The Dispossessed, Le Guin is excellent at thinking through her ideas to great depth and considering all their ramifications.

Thus her envoy gets caught up in the palace politics of Karhide (one of Gethen’s two major cultures) but the novel really binds and engrosses as we are drawn into his honest depiction of his confusion and difficulty in understanding such an alien condition – here, as in numerous other places, the anthropologist’s daughter is doing something really interesting.

Amazingly, by the end of the book, she has you seeing gendered human beings as the weird ones, with several of the intelligent Gethenites pointing out how tiresome, wearing and confusing it must be to be in heat all the time as humans, alone of all mammals, in fact are. In Gethenite society people in heat all the time are referred to as ‘perverts’ and the intelligent people Genly talks to find it hard to overcome their repulsion at the notion of humanoids living in such an icky, sticky condition.

Although, here again, with the best will in the world, I found myself stumbling over the way interesting ideas are inextricably tied up with ludicrous fantasy elements.

Take just the word Le Guin invents for the period during which Gethenite couples pair off – kemmering – it’s just one example of the many places where the high-minded thought experiments are undermined by the dubious or downright laughable words she coins.

At some moments, the narrative grips you as if they really were reports from a strange new world; but the next minute she gives out such an over-ripe burst of pseudo-medieval diction, or preposterous names, or silly made-up words, that I couldn’t help thinking about Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

About two hundred years ago in the Hearth of Shath in the Pering Storm-border there were two brothers who vowed kemmering to each other. In those days, as now, full brothers were permitted to keep kemmer until one of them should bear a child, but after that they must separate; so it was never permitted them to vow kemmering for life. Yet this they had done. When a child was conceived the Lord of Shath commanded them to break their vow and never meet in kemmer again.

‘And the Lord of Shath commandeth that thou shalt never kemmer again!” – Imagine John Cleese saying it

When Ai’s contact, Therem Harth rem ir Estraven, is banished for conspiring with the envoy – Genly Ai – to undermine the Kingdom of Karhide, Ai decides it’s also time to make himself scarce and so journeys into the mountains, faring through the passes of Wehoth, in the shadow of the Fastness of Ariskostor, in order to reach the Fastness of Otherhord, where dwell the nine legendary Foretellers of the Handdarra.

Is that anywhere near the Knights Who Say ‘Ni’, I wanted to ask.

That’s what the Yomeshta believe of Meshe: that he saw past and future clear, not for a moment, but all during his life after the Question of Shorth…

Ah, the Question of Shorth. Of course, the world-changing Question of Shorth.

I think that Tolkien is the lord and master of fantasy fiction because he was well aware that he was channelling the myths and legends of North Europe into fictional form and, crucially,

  1. He knew those myths and legends inside out (he translated many of them)
  2. He knew their languages

The names in The Lord of The Rings have a just-so, just-right quality because Tolkien took many of them from existing Old English or Old German or Old Norse sources, and his intimate familiarity with the sources underpins every sentence.

Tolkien was a philologist by profession, and so his first study was words, words across the full range of Dark Age ad medieval Germanic languages, and so his use of words – and his invention of entire other languages, such as Elvish or Dwarvish – have a phenomenal amount of historical knowledge, authority and depth behind them.

With Le Guin and the hundreds of other authors who have written space fantasy, you have the opposite feeling: you get the sense that they’ve had this or that good idea for a planet (an egalitarian utopia, or a world of hermaphrodites, say) and have then mapped out a narrative which lets the protagonist explore the planet and its culture and customs in some depth – i.e. the ideas and the stories are often deeply worked out – and sometimes so thought-provoking as to be actually gripping…

But by lacking a profound rootedness in genuine myth and legend and, above all, by lacking a sure grasp of medieval languages, both the stories themselves and, above all, the names and the made-up words which play such a central role in sustaining belief in the made-up societies with their made-up customs, the words and names have a shallow, willed, at times laughable quality.

Long ago, before the days of King Argaven I who made Karhide one kingdom, there was blood feud between the Domain of Stok and the Domain of Estre in Kerm Land.

The Domain of Stok.

Eastern religion

In the first sentence of Le Guin’s encyclopedia entry it tells you not only about her 1. being the child of a leading anthropologist, 2. about her interest in ‘gender’ but that 3. she was interested in Eastern philosophy, specifically Taoism.

This is not exactly buried in her fiction – it’s upfront and obvious in both the books I’ve read. In The Dispossessed it is cleverly integrated into the story because the main character is a physicist thinking about the nature of time in a way which overlaps the hard equations of physics with mystical speculations about the nature of time and being.

Here, the Eastern interest felt less integrated, more of a bolt-on tourist feature. Genly Ai tells us that in the kingdom of Karhide are those who practice Handdara and that:

The Handdara is a religion without institution, without priests, without hierarchy, without vows, without creed; I am still unable to say whether it has a God or not. It is elusive. It is always somewhere else. Its only fixed manifestation is in the Fastnesses, retreats to which people may retire and spend the night or a lifetime…

I imagine the incorporation of pseudo-Eastern mysticism was one of the many elements which helped make The Left Hand of Darkness a cult classic in the late-1960s, and helped make Le Guin’s name as a kind of fantasy novelist for the Woodstock generation.

The book came out only a year after the Beatles went to stay with the Maharishi in Rishikesh, and the mystical chapters don’t hold back.

A hundred yards beyond him stood another statue, in blue and white; this one never moved or glanced our way all the time we talked with the first one. They were practicing the Handdara discipline of Presence, which is a kind of trance – the Handdarata, given to negatives, call it an untrance – involving self-loss through extreme sensual receptiveness and awareness. Though the technique is the exact opposite of most techniques of mysticism it probably is a mystical discipline, tending towards the experience of Immanence;

Or as George Harrison once said: ‘What is here is elsewhere, what is not here is nowhere.’

Or as Jeff Beck put it: ‘You’re everywhere and nowhere, baby – that’s where you’re at.’

I suppose that – as with the exploration of the anarcho-syndicalism in The Dispossessed – if this was the first place that you ever came across these Eastern and mystical ideas, then the book would make a deep impact on you, might become a kind of bible of new ideas for the impressionable schoolchild or student.

And at some moments the book does, in fact, express these and related ideas in powerful imaginative settings (amid fantasy mountain fastnesses, full of weird asexual monks), and gives some of the characters interesting and serious things to say:

‘The unknown, the unforetold, the unproven, that is what life is based on. Ignorance is the ground of thought. Unproof is the ground of action.’

But… but… When she describes the frenzied conclave of the filthy, possessed Foretellers of Otherhord, and the way the one in kemmer paws the other one, while those around screech their prophesy… My imaginative bond with the narrative snaps. The Domain of Stok, I think: Is that anywhere near the Fastness of Oxo?

Bible diction

One of the most irritating aspects of this kind of fantasy fiction is the way it shamelessly pastiches the diction of the King James translation of the Bible, on the assumption that readers will find it ‘profound’ and archaic and deep.

Being more familiar with the original King James text than with fantasy fiction, I can’t help finding all these efforts cheap and tacky, a quick-fix way of trying to win respect for the ‘depth’ of your fake folk tales or imaginary myths. Here’s a ripe slice of fake Bible from one of the ‘Gethenite legends’ which are interpolated throughout the text:

When Ennoch was an old man dwelling in the plains of Rer he met a man from his own country, and asked him, ‘How fares Shath Domain?’ The other told him that Shath fared ill. Nothing prospered there in hearth or tilth, all being blighted with illness, the spring seed frozen in the ground or the ripe grain rotten, and so it had been for many years. Then Ennoch told him, ‘I am Getheren of Shath’, and told him how he had gone up on the Ice and what he had met with there. At the end of his tale he said, ‘Tell them at Shath that I take back my name and my shadow.’ Not many days after this Getheren took sick and died. The traveler carried his words back to Shath, and they say that from that time on the domain prospered again, and all went as it should go in field and house and hearth. (p.25)

This is just a ridiculous pastiche of the Old Testament. Ennoch indeed. Any relation to the Biblical Enoch, by any chance? And yet, there is, as a glance at the jam-packed fantasy shelves in any bookshop will show, an enduring audience for this kind of would-be profound, pastiche Bible, fake medieval diction.

‘Seven years we were kemmerings, and had two sons. Being of his flesh born they had his name Foreth rem ir Osboth, and were reared in that Clanhearth. Three years ago he had gone to Orgny Fastness and he wore now the gold chain of a Celibate of the Foretellers.’

‘Being of his flesh born.’

Another example of the way this kind of fiction piggy-backs on the genuine otherness of Christianity, particularly Dark Age and medieval Christianity, is the way the clock is divided into First Hour, Second Hour, Third Hour etc, all announced with great seriousness, as if they weren’t a blatant rip-off of the liturgical hours of Matins, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None and so on. As if the ideas of mountain fastnesses where monks and holy men practice strange rites wasn’t entirely ripped off from more serious and worthy religions, ripped out of context and sellotaped into narratives about spaceships and alien envoys.

The book has a three-page appendix explaining in detail the period of Gethen’s orbit around its sun (8406 Standard Terran Hours), its daily orbit, the period of rotation of Gethen’s moon (26 days, in case you need to know), the Day and then the meaning of the Hours. Onnetherhad, the 18th of the month (p.61) (The Gethenites often think in terms of 13s, 26s and so on, a function of the lunar calendar, p.170)

I couldn’t help thinking, again and again, that this kind of fantasy fiction wants the praise and profundity of real myth and real religion – it borrows the clothes of the Bible and of pagan myth – without asking the reader to engage with any of the difficulty and the actual strangeness of genuine pagan myth – the difficulty of reading the strange and obscure Prose Edda, for example – or of the difficult doctrines of Christianity.

At its worst, it is a Big Mac version of religion and mysticism – cheap and garish and thin and insubstantial.

A universe of human

Unrelated to its rip-off of religious diction, there is another deeper problem with reading all sci fi stories of this ilk – which is the notion that humans, more or less like us, could be inhabiting numerous other planets around the universe.

The odds against there being loads of other planets inhabited by humanoid creatures are immense, and the odds against them being exactly the same shape and size and talking, and talking languages which we can learn pretty easily, are ridiculous.

Apparently, elsewhere in the ‘Hainish Cycle’ of novels and stories she is explicit that the Hain are the oldest of all the inhabited peoples and they populated the other planets with humans like themselves. We really are all descended from one mother race. I like science fiction, so I like that as a sci fi idea, but it doesn’t quite totally get her off the hook. Having set out to be a ‘serious’ author and put forward ‘serious’ ideas, invites the fairly obvious thought humanoids ‘seeded’ across a wide variety of planets, millions of years ago, would in fact have evolved in all kinds of directions, into different shapes and abilities, and over one million years would have lost anything they’d originally had in common. Compare aborigenes and Indonesians whose lineages diverged only tens of thousands of years ago. A million years divergence would result in wild differences.

And yet, in the novels, the only difference between these races from different planets is some are a bit taller, some a bit shorter, some a bit hairier, some a bit smoother, than the others. they all basically think and speak and act alike, in fact they’ve got more in common than the inhabitants of the diverse London borough I live in (with its population of Asians, Tamils, Sikhs, Muslims, Chinese, Somalis and Eritreans, Nigerians and West Indians).

The plot

Terran envoy Genly Ai has been sent by the Ekumenical Scope to explain to the king of Karhide, one of the several kingdoms on Gethen, that there is a universe of inhabited planets out there, organised into the Ekumen, and they wish to introduce the inhabitants of Gethen to it.

But King Argaven XV is mad. Genly has been working through the King’s Minister (known as the King’s Ear) Therem Harth rem ir Estraven. But the king doesn’t believe there is intelligent life in outer space and so thinks Ai is a spy and Estraven is conspiring with him to overthrow him, the king. So the king banished Estraven who packs his bags and heads east to the rival country of and Ai, after an edgy interview with the mad king, also realises it’s time to leave and himself travels to Orgoreyn.

He travels over the high snowy mountains where he makes a detour to witness the famous Foretellers in action – a chaotic shaman performance involving half madmen, but which does climax with an answer he set them: will Gethen be in the Ekumen within five years? The answer is Yes.

Estraven is replaced by the king’s cousin Pemmer Harge rem ir Tibe and when it is announced that King Argaven XV is pregnant it begins to look like a coup by Tibe.

Meanwhile, Ai is received by the Orgata authorities and impressed by the quickness and efficiency of its bureaucracy and the orderliness of its countryside and capital city. Ai gives a dry factual anthropological report on their habits, especially their child-rearing, and how, since everything is owned and run by the state, there is full employment. The Orgata are very different from the Karhiders –

Orgota, people trained from birth in a discipline of cooperation, obedience, submission to a group purpose ordered from above. The qualities of independence and decision were weakened in them. They had not much capacity for anger. (p.173)

He is placed in the enthusiastic hands of Commissioner Shusgis. To his surprise, at a banquet, he finds himself sitting next to Esraven. Estraven had quite a torrid time of it after he left the court, working his way along the coast as a lowly fish-worker, until spotted and picked up by the Orgata authorities.

There are complicated manoeuvres between characters, but basically none of the Orgatas believe Ai and she is abruptly arrested one night, after having been a guest a a government feast, taken to a big prison, injected with truth drugs and interrogated for days.

When she comes to she is one among 26 or so prisoners, stripped naked, covered in vomit and faces, trapped in the sealed metal back of some horse-drawn cart which spends days and days climbing higher into the mountains, with no food, and only a jar of water once a day between them, as one by one they die off or huddle together for filthy body warmth.

Genly arrives at a labour camp up in the frozen snowy north – the so-called Pulefen Farm – and describes the brutal regime, lack of food, sleeping facilities etc. It is clearly a pastiche of a Soviet labour camp, but without the dignity or authority of being real. For real descriptions of labour camps, read:

Estraven, back in the Orgata capital of Mishnory, having noticed Ai’s disappearance and realised the sceptics on the Grand Commensal didn’t believe his story and so probably also think Estraven must be some kind of traitor in league with him – decides to sneak out of Mishnory.

This he does, fabricating a pass as the fishermen he spent some time with showed him. He buys a sledge and food and joins a trapping party heading north, but then ducks out and off to the labour camp where he has discovered Ai is being held.

And he rescues him. He changes his papers to those of a prison guard, is accepted at the camp and learns the chores and routine, then one night stuns Ai’s (already sleeping unconscious) body, claims he’s dead so as to get past several sets of guards, then invokes the mystical strength, the dothe which adepts at Handdara can call on, to carry Ai’s body to the sledge he’s hidden in the forest, complete with tent and provisions.

Over the next few days both of them recover in the tent, eating the food, lighting small fires, sleeping, and then… the rescue turns into the largest single section of the book, the last third or so, occupying pages 190 to 290 of the 300-page SF Masterworks paperback.

Genly having handed over his ansible, the only way he has of contacting the Ekumenical spaceship which is out in space waiting a message from him – over to Orgata officials, and having been stripped absolutely naked before being shipped off to the labour camp; and Estraven having rescued him but himself now at risk of arrest for disappearing from official view in Mishnore, let alone helping Geny escape…

The only thing for this unlikely and reluctant pair to do is to embark on a massive, heroic, epic seventy-five day hike across the ice caps of Gethen, experiencing blizzards, snowstorms, slippery glaciers and treacherous crevices, by day strapped up to the sledge bearing all their kit, by night huddled in a small (but conveniently hi-tech and efficient) tent, round the (conveniently small, light and durable heater-cum-stove) warming up the (conveniently freeze-dried and light, nutritious) food blocks in a pan of warmed ice.

his is the core of the book, its narrative but especially its emotional core because, mirabile dictu, what happens is Genly finds himself falling in love with Estraven; while Estraven undergoes kemmering during the epic journey and delicately tells Genly he must avoid contact with him.

Both characters, therefore, undergo feelings and emotions quite outside the limit of human experience. Suddenly – as in the final sections of The Dispossessed – finally, you feel you’ve arrived at the core of a far more serious and searching and mysterious and wonderful work of fiction than the opening sections suggested.

Le Guin’s hand-drawn map of Gethen showing the two main states of Orgoreyn and Karhide, and the (top left) route of Genly and Estraven’s trek across the ice

The long journey and the shared privations, risks, fears and experiences of extreme cold, frostbite, snowstorms and so on which the pair experience together are the heart of the book.

The silly names fade away, for the pair could be sledging across Antarctica or Canada or Siberia. What is weird and wonderful is that Le Guin draws you into the eerie possibility of a previously unknown, unnamed emotion felt between a male human and a hermaphrodite alien. The book takes you to an entirely new place never before explored in literature. This is why it won prizes and made her name, not for the tiresome fol-de-rol about Ennoch of Rer and the Indwellers of Otherhord.

So deep does the pair’s suffering and endurance go, that Genly offers to teach Estraven the off-world skill of telepathy and after many failed attempts, finally manages to speak directly into the latter’s head – although, in a moment which is clearly meant to be deeply moving – he speaks in the voice of Estraven’s long-lost, estranged and dead younger brother – causing the Gethenite to shout with terror.

Eventually the pair survive their immense ordeal and come down into the villages of northern Karhide where they are made welcome in the way of all travellers in folk stories. good honest yeomen who don’t have much but share what they have with an open heart. Ooo-ar.

Except that the kindly old man who gives them shelter in fact betrays them to the Karhide authorities and Estraven, unwisely, tries to make a run for it on his skis across the snowy landscape.

He is shot down at the border by Karhidish gaurds who have been tipped off. As in a thousand buddy, adventure and war movies, his friend and – at least in emotional terms – his lover, the bewildered Genly, skis up just in time to hold Estraven’s gashed body as the Gethenite breathes his last.

Shocked and stunned, Genly is taken off by the guards to Ehrenrang, where he is treated kindly, given a personal doctor, lots of food and then meets the king again. This time they believe him, and he signals his spaceship to land.

Like so many voyagers to distant lands he now finds the appearance of his gendered colleagues – half tall and deep-voiced, half shorter and light-voiced – repulsive. This notion, of the traveller who has stayed so long with another race that he now finds his own people repulsive, dates back at least as far as Gulliver’s Travels, at the end of which, after living among the peaceful horse-like creatures for so long Gulliver finds he can’t stand the sight of his own hairy, savage brethren. And that was back in 1726. Two hundred and fifty three years before the Left Hand of Darkness was published.

As so often with genre fiction, with sci fi or fantasy, they sell themselves as being somehow bold new innovations and exciting new ideas – but they are, in fact, old old old fictional ideas, deliberately told in an old old old fake-Bible, faux-medieval diction.

Glossary

I compiled a glossary, for my own reference, and to give a sense of the made-up vocabulary.

Places

  • Ekumenical Scope – name of the federation of 83 inhabited planets (p.34)
  • Ehrenrang – capital of Karhide
  • Gethen – planet the book is set on
  • Hain –  the Prime World of the Ekumenical Scope (p.37)
  • Karhide – one of the nations of Gethen
  • Kerm Land
  • Kuseben on the Gulf, 85 miles from Ehrenrang (p.72)
  • Mishnory – capital of Orgereyn
  • Orgny Fastness – there are lots of fastnesses, remote communities up in the mountains
  • Orgoreyn – Karhide’s rival and neighbour: Orgota, adjective meaning of Orgoreyn
  • Otherhord – where the Indwellers of Otherhord live
  • the Pering Stormborder
  • Sassinoth – disputed location between Karhide and Orgoreyn
  • Terra – earth

Names

  • the Foretellers – go into a kind of trance and can tell the future
  • Genly Ai – Ekumen envoy to Gethen and main narrator of the story
  • halfdeads – Karhidish slang for the infertile
  • Handdara – mystical religion – Handdarata – followers of Handdara
  • the Indwellers or Otherhord
  • King Argaven XV of Karhide
  • Lord Meshe – figurehead of the Yomeshta, born 2,202 years ago (p.47) founder of the Yomesh cult (p.60)
  • the Lord of Shorth – come on, everyone knows who the Lord of Shorth is
  • Commensal Obsle –
  • Ong Tot Oppong – undercover Ekumenical visitor to Gethen, who compiles a detailed report on the natives’ hermaphroditism
  • Pemmer Harge rem ir Tibe – King Argaven’s cousin, takes over running Karhide
  • Stabile – the Stabiles are the senior officials of the Ekumen who Ai reports back to (p.16)
  • Therem Harth rem ir Estraven – formerly chief minister to King Argaven, goes into exile and narrates a number of the chapters
  • Yegey –

Things

  • amha – parent in the flesh (p.92)
  • ansible – instant communicator owned by Hainish envoys, explained on page 37
  • Commensals – the Great Commensality of Orgoreyn is divided into 33 commensals or districts
  • dothe-strength cf thangen-sleep – deep sleep, ‘the dark sleep’, after you’ve willed a period of dothe-strength (p.196)
  • farfetching – Hainish word for training given to envoys in forming a holistic picture of the society they’re investigating (p.146)
  • foray – Getheian word for attack, violence
  • gossiwor – musical instrument played in royal processions
  • kemmer – process of sexualisation and emotional attachment which allows Gethenians to mate;
    • secher – first phase of kemmer
    • thorharmen – second phase of kemmer
    • thokemmer – culminant phase of kemmer
    • oskyommer – vowing kemmering to another Gethenian
  • the kyorremy , the upper chamber or parliament in Karhide which Estraven heads
  • lifewater – a drink (p.84), ‘a fierce licquor’ (p.134)
  • mind-speech – telepathy, brought to Terra by Rokkanians, according to Genly
  • nusuth – no matter, the wilful wish for ignorance among the Handdara
  • orsh – ‘a brown, sweetsour drink, strong in vitamins A and C, sugar, and a pleasant stimulant related to lobeline’
  • sarf – gutter Orgata meaning ‘trash’
  • shifgrethor – prestige, place, pride (p.13)
  • thore-forest – deep snowy pine forest

‘I’m a Yomeshta, praise to the nine hundred Throne-Upholders and blest be the Milk of Meshe, and one can be a Yomeshta anywhere. We’re a lot of newcomers, see, for my Lord Meshe was born 2,202 years-ago, but the Old Way of the Handdara goes back ten thousand years before that.’

Credit

The Left Hand of Darkness by Usrula Le Guin was published by Ace Books in 1969. All references are to the 2017 SF Masterworks paperback edition.


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Other science fiction reviews

Late Victorian
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
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

1900s
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

1910s
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

1920s
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, where they discover…

1930s
1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years – surely the most sweeping vista of any science fiction book
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Oxford academic Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra, as the natives call the planet Mars

1940s
1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
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

1950s
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 i) the anti-death drugs and ii) the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1956 The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester – a fastpaced phantasmagoria set in the 25th century where humans can teleport, a terrifying new weapon has been invented, and tattooed hard man Gulliver Foyle is looking for vengeance
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

1960s
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 space travelling 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
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 a 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’ – earning enough to buy mechanical animals, since all real animals died long ago
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 they are involved in an explosion on the moon
1969 The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin

1970s
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 is a police state but the story is about popular TV host Jason Taverner who is plunged into an alternative version of this world where 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 Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin – in the future and 11 light years from earth, the physicist Shevek travels from the spare, communal, anarchist world of Anarres to its consumer capitalist cousin, Urras, with a message of brotherhood and a revolutionary new discovery which will change everything

1980s
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, basically 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
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

Beowulf: the Monsters and the Critics by JRR Tolkien (1936)

Tolkien was Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Pembroke College, Oxford from 1925 to 1945. In 1936 he delivered this lecture about Beowulf to the British Academy. It is often cited as a turning point in studies of the poem because it completely changed the focus from seeing Beowulf as a primarily historical document – which (from a historian’s point of view) frustratingly fails to explain the many legends it fleetingly refers to, and wastes all its energy on childish monsters – to viewing it as a sophisticated work of art which uses its fairy-tale monsters to convey a surprisingly modern and relevant worldview about the ubiquity of Evil and the need to confront it, no matter what the cost.

Beowulf misused as history Tolkien claims that up to his time Beowulf has been recognised as important by critics and historians but consistently misinterpreted. By historians, philologists, archaeologists etc it has been mined for information about Germanic customs and religion and clothes and warfare. But Beowulf is not a historical document: it is a poem, a work of art. Its very success as a poem has created the sense that it is historical when, in fact, the most recent research has tended to highlight (as with Shakespeare’s treatment of history) its inconsistencies and cavalier approach.

So far from being a poem so poor that only its accidental historical interest can still recommend it, Beowulf is in fact so interesting as poetry, in places poetry so powerful, that this quite overshadows the historical content, and is largely independent even of the most important facts… that research has discovered. It is indeed a curious fact that it is one of the peculiar poetic virtues of Beowulf that has contributed to its own critical misfortunes. The illusion of historical truth and perspective that has made Beowulf seem such an attractive quarry, is largely a product of art. The author has used an instinctive historical sense – a part indeed of the ancient English temper (and not unconnected with its reputed melancholy), of which Beowulf is a supreme expression; but he has used it with a poetical and not an historical object.

Critics despise the monsters And literary critics have consistently been embarrassed by the centrality to the plot of the monsters which Beowulf has to kill – Grendel, his mother and the dragon.

Literary critics up to Tolkien’s day preferred the many Germanic tales which are alluded to throughout the poem, stories which dealt with purely mortal men and sounded a lot like the classical Greek tragedies they had all studied in Classics at school.

For these critics, the Beowulf poet was guilty of crass bad taste in banishing these moving adult tragedies to the periphery and placing at the centre of the poem a series of childish folk tales, dealing with creatures out of fairy story or nursery rhyme. Tolkien quotes the great critic W.P. Ker, who in 1905 wrote:

The great beauty, the real value, of Beowulf is in its dignity of style. In construction it is curiously weak, in a sense preposterous; for while the main story is simplicity itself, the merest commonplace of heroic legend, all about it, in the historic allusions, there are revelations of a whole world of tragedy, plots different in import from that of Beowulf, more like the tragic themes of Iceland. Yet with this radical defect, a disproportion that puts the irrelevances in the centre and the serious things on the outer edges, the poem of Beowulf is undeniably weighty. The thing itself is cheap; the moral and the spirit of it can only be matched among the noblest authors.

Tolkien’s counter arguments It is this damning perception which Tolkien sets out to overturn, and he succeeded so well that his lecture is cited by every subsequent study as marking a sea change in attitudes.

For Tolkien asserted that, far from being the rag-tag, miscellany of an immature and juvenile culture, the ragamuffin product of a poet overwhelmed by silly folk stories and stitching them together willy-nilly – the Beowulf poet was a latecomer, arriving at the end of a mature and full civilisation, after it had been converted to Christianity, well aware of all the old legends and stories, who made a conscious choice to place the monsters at the centre of the poem because they are in fact the quintessence of the old pagan worldview: they encapsulate on a mythical level the evil, the unreason and the unavoidable death which all men face.

Tolkien marshals a range of arguments:

  • Other long Old English poems – e.g. Andreas, Guthlac – which contain just as dignified and high a style, somehow fail to have anything like the impact of Beowulf – could it be the much-condemned mythical subject matter which gives Beowulf depth and not its peers?
  • Criticism of the triviality and folk-taleness of the plot stem from reducing it to a synopsis, telling the story in outline – a fine methodology for comparative folk tale analysis but disastrous for poetry, which is made out of the texture of the words.
  • A deep prejudice of taste makes the critics of his time rate purely human tragedies as the highest genre: as he puts it, ‘Doom is held less literary than άµαρτία”. This represents, in Tolkien’s view, a lack of feeling for ‘the mythological mode of imagination’.

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

  • The very process of analysing the poem, for purely historical or archaeological or narratological purposes, destroys its greatest effect, its power in every part.

Far from putting the essential legends of Germanic heroes at the periphery and filling the foreground with triteness, the Beowulf-poet has summarised the essence of the Northern worldview, of a doomed hero with his back against the wall – the exaltation of undefeated will. This is the Northern spirit which receives such stirring expression in the words of Byrhtwold at the battle of Maldon.

It is in Beowulf that a poet has devoted a whole poem to this theme, and has drawn the struggle in different proportions, so that we may see man at war with the hostile world, and his inevitable overthrow in Time… The particular is on the outer edge, the essential in the centre…

When we have read his poem, as a poem, rather than as a collection of episodes, we perceive that he who wrote hæleð under heofenum may have meant in dictionary terms ‘heroes under heaven’, or ‘mighty men upon earth’, but he and his hearers were thinking of the eormengrund, the great earth, ringed with garsecg, the shoreless sea, beneath the sky’s inaccessible roof; whereon, as in a little circle of light about their halls, men with courage as their stay went forward to that battle with the hostile world and the offspring of the dark which ends for all, even the kings and champions, in defeat….

Beowulf is not, then, the hero of an heroic lay, precisely. He has no enmeshed loyalties, nor hapless love. He is a man, and that for him and many is sufficient tragedy…

It is not an irritating accident that the tone of the poem is so high and its theme so low. It is the theme in its deadly seriousness that begets the dignity of tone:

lif is læne: eal scæceð leoht and lif somod.

So deadly and ineluctable is the underlying thought, that those who in the circle of light, within the besieged hall, are absorbed in work or talk and do not look to the battlements, either do not regard it or recoil. Death comes to the feast, and they say He gibbers: He has no sense of proportion. I would suggest, then, that the monsters are not an inexplicable blunder of taste; they are essential, fundamentally allied to the underlying ideas of the poem, which give it its lofty tone and high seriousness.

By putting the monsters at the centre of his poem, the poet transcends the details of time and place to confront the timeless Problem of Evil

Tolkien goes on to address various other criticisms which have been made, such as the accusation that the poet’s combination of Old Testament with Germanic legends shows confusion and primitiveness. Tolkien argues at length that it shows just the opposite – a profound mind meditating on and assimilating the implications of the new Christian worldview:

In the poem I think we may observe not confusion, a half-hearted or a muddled business, but a fusion that has occurred at a given point of contact between old and new, a product of thought and deep emotion. But that shift is not complete in Beowulf – whatever may have been true of its period in general. Its author is still concerned primarily with man on earth, rehandling in a new perspective an ancient theme: that man, each man and all men, and all their works shall die. A theme no Christian need despise…

Yet this theme plainly would not be so treated, but for the nearness of a pagan time. The shadow of its despair, if only as a mood, as an intense emotion of regret, is still there. The worth of defeated valour in this world is deeply felt. As the poet looks back into the past, surveying the history of kings and warriors in the old traditions, he sees that all glory (or as we might say ‘culture’or ‘civilization’) ends in night. The solution of that tragedy is not treated – it does not arise out of the material.

We get in fact a poem from a pregnant moment of poise, looking back into the pit, by a man learned in old tales who was struggling, as it were, to get a general view of them all, perceiving their common tragedy of inevitable ruin, and yet feeling this more poetically because he was himself removed from the direct pressure of its despair. He could view from without, but still feel immediately and from within, the old dogma: despair of the event, combined with faith in the value of doomed resistance. He was still dealing with the great temporal tragedy, and not yet writing an allegorical homily in verse.

Tolkien contrasts Beowulf with the southern, Mediterranean world of the Classics, which so many of his contemporaries were brought up on and against which they are judging Beowulf and finding it lacking:

It is the strength of the Northern mythological imagination that it faced this problem, put the monsters in the centre, gave them Victory but no honour, and found a potent but terrible solution in naked will and courage. ‘As a working theory absolutely impregnable.’ So potent is it, that while the older southern imagination has faded for ever into literary ornament, the northern has power, as it were, to revive its spirit even in our own times. It can work, even as it did work with the goðlauss viking, without gods: martial heroism as its own end. But we may remember that the poet of Beowulf saw clearly: the wages of heroism is death.

Unlike, say, the Odyssey with its strange, hanging happy ending or the Iliad which ends in media res with the funeral of Patroclus but the war still unconcluded, Beowulf ends with the funeral and burial of the hero and the threatened end of his people, the Geats.

Although it manages to have Christian sentiment throughout, the final feeling is of a very modern existentialist view of the world, as cold, heartless, shelterless, where most of us are abandoned to figure out our lives by whatever code or guidelines we can muster.

For Tolkien, delivering this lecture in the 1930s, in the shadow of the Nazis, the heartless Northern view of life must have seemed much more pressing and contemporary than the sweet perfections of the Classical tradition.


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Beowulf – elements of style

In the introduction to his Penguin 1973 edition of Beowulf, Michael Alexander summarises elements of the style of Beowulf and their consequences. (All quotes in the following are from Michael Alexander’s 1973 translation, reproduced with kind permission of the author):

1. The alliterative verse line

Number one is the use of alliteration as a device to order the verse rather than end-rhyme. Alliteration is much more intrusive, up to three words are dictated by the form as opposed the one of end-rhyme and this helps the tendency to clump words into alliterating stock phrases. Next is the inflected nature of the language which allows complex meaning to be conveyed by one word, and powerful meanings by just two. Compact and energetic. But the real key to Old English verse structure is the caesura which divides the two half lines, holding in balance the short clauses:

þaér æt hýðe | stód hringedstefna

There at hythe [harbour] | stood the ringed-prow [ship]

This balancing has all kinds of affects, as Alexander puts it:

Traditional oral composition by phrase accounts for an exclamatory lack of syntactic subordination and for the tacking, eddying, resumptive movement of the sense.

There is a continual play between the demands of sense ie the syntactic units not to be too far apart – and of the alliterative scheme ie some sets of words fit fluently together regardless of sense and so being grouped together regardless of sense: an accumulation of short stocky phrases.

The symmetry of the halves of the line produces balance, antithesis and chiasmos much more commonly than in unrhymed iambic pentameter, and the forward movement is much more impeded than in later English blank verse. The halves of the line are, as often as not, out of the natural sequence of prose or spoken syntax and, as the mind reshuffles the parts of the sentence, the tendency is for the half-lines to move apart; but the alliteration and the stress pattern bind them together. The final impression of the verse in Beowulf is of contrasting energies being held in a rhythmic balance – and this is also the impression of the poem as a whole.

This is what Alexander captures in his use of “exclamatory”. Reading Anglo Saxon verse is like a series of hand grenades going off in your mind, in your mouth, as punchy phrase follows punchy phrase. Or, as Tolkien puts it in his famous essay, The Monsters and the Critics:

We must not view this poem as in intention an exciting narrative or a romantic tale.The very nature of Old English metre is often misjudged. In it there is no single rhythmic pattern progressing from the beginning of a line to the end, and repeated with variation in other lines. The lines do not go according to a tune. They are founded on a balance; an opposition between two halves of roughly equivalent phonetic weight, and significant content, which are more often rhythmically contrasted than similar. They are more like masonry than music.

2. Other elements of style

The kenning is a figure of speech in old Germanic or Norse literature which uses two words, one in the genitive or possessive case, to create a periphrasis or roundabout way of describing an object. Thus, in Beowulf, the sea is described as the seġl-rād “sail-road” (1429b), swan-rād “swan-road” (200a), hron-rād “whale-road” (10). (Riddles were a big part of Germanic culture. There are two entire sets of riddles in the AngloSaxon corpus, 90 riddles survive in the Exeter Book. Kennings are a kind of miniature riddle).

From the south blazed
the sun, the world’s candle (1965-6)

When heaven’s jewel
has glided from the world… (2073)

God they thanked
For the smooth going over the salt-trails (228)

Day in the east grew
God’s bright beacon, | and the billows sank… (571)

… a chief shall greet
his fellow with gifts | over the gannet’s bath (1861)

Riding at anchor
the strayer of ocean… (1882)

A special sea dress, | a sail, was hoisted… (1906)

… until they took part | in that play-of-the-shields… (2038)

the daring-in-battle | would address the harp,
the joy wood… (2108)

since the legacy of the hammer [sword], | hard and battle-scarred,
the iron edges, | had utterly destroyed him (2828)

As this selection shows they are good but not that good. Some of them stray from being kennings to being simple metaphors. In fact it’s surprising and a little disappointing that there are so few kennings in Beowulf, I counted fewer than 20 in total. This is not where the poet’s energies were directed. More effort went into…

Pleasure in elaborating – armour God, kings, heroes and some classes of objects tend to have repeatable descriptive phrases cluster round them in apposition.

He then saw in the hall | a host of young soldiers,
a company of kinsmen | caught away in sleep,
a whole warrior-band. (728)

the grisly plaint of God’s enemy,
his song of ill-success, the sobs of the damned one
bewailing his pain. (786)

Let’s take objects first: the poem is awash with description of objects, especially those manmade objects which indicate status and class and that means, pre-eminently, arms and armour. Finely carved armour, especially if it involved gold, was possibly the most precious and rare object in the Migration Age; cups, goblets, jewellery come a close second but armour was heavily invested with the masculine values of the time – the strongest warrior was expected to wear the finest armour; and arms and armour were also an important part of the gift-giving which bound Dark Age society together:

The war-coats shone
and the links of hard | hand-locked iron
sang in their harness | as they stepped along
in their gear of grim aspect | going to the hall.
Sea-wearied, they then | set against the wall
their broad shields | of special temper,
and bowed to bench, | battle-shirts clinking,
the war-dress of warriors. (322-8)

Then as a sign of victory | the son of Healfdene
bestowed on Beowulf | a standard worked in gold,
a figured battle-banner, | breast and head armour;
and many admired | the marvellous sword
that was borne before the hero. (1021-5)

Against sea-beasts | my body-armour,
hand-linked and hammered, | helped me then,
this forge-knit battleshirt | bright with gold,
decking my breast. (550-3)

Then the cup was taken to him | and he was entreated kindly
to honour their feast: | ornate gold
was presented in trophy: | two arm-wreaths,
with robes and rings also, | and the richest collar
I have ever heard of | in all the world. (1192-6)

On a side note, much of the armour has the image of a boar on it. Not sure if this was a generic symbol of warriors or relates to a particular tribe but, strikingly, boar motifs were found on the armour at the famous Sutton Hoo archaeological site.

Over the cheek-pieces
boar-shapes shone out, | bristling with gold,
blazing and fire-hard, | fierce guards
of their bearers’ lives… (303-6)

where the bound blade, | beaten out by hammers,
cuts, with its sharp edges | shining with blood,
through the boars that bristle | above the foes’ helmets! ( 1285-87)

He was my closest councillor, | he was keeper of my thoughts,
he stood at my shoulder | when we struck for our lives
as the crashing together | of companies of foot,
when blows rained on boar-crests. (1325-8)

Boar carved in iron on a helmet from the Sutton Hoo excavations

Boar carved in iron on a helmet from the Sutton Hoo excavations

Elaboration of names Not only are important objects described at length but important people tend to have multiple epithets clustered around them, “a series of synonyms in apposition”. A king or hero will be named and then their position as leader or their family position clarified, their genealogy or their deeds will be summarised in an apposite phrase or two. It bigs them up, it makes them more potent (as, to this day, we give the royal family or eminent soldiers or notable citizens an accumulation of names, titles and awards).

It also has a secondary affect, as Alexander points out, of placing everything and everyone within a realistically-conceived world. Characters don’t appear out of nowhere: their names, their deeds, their family and their history are all explained, and this technique is part of what gives to the poem its epic quality of describing a real and objective world.

to earth’s men the most glorious
of houses under heaven, | the home of the king (309)

“The Master of the Danes,
Lord of the Scyldings, | shall learn of your request.
I shall gladly ask | my honoured chief,
giver of armbands, | about your undertaking… (350)

“The Master of Battles | bids me announce,
the Lord of the North-Danes, | that he knows your ancestry…” (391)

To you I will now
put one request, | Royal Scylding,
Shield of the South-Danes, | one sole favour
that you’ll not deny me, | dear lord of your people,
now that I have come thus far, | Fastness of Warriors.. (426)

Great then was the hope | of the grey-locked Hrothgar,
warrior, giver of rings. | Great was the trust
of the Shield of the Danes, | shepherd of the people… (607)

… hoping that their lord’s son | would live and in ripeness
assume the kingdom, | the care of his people,
the hoard and the stronghold, | the storehouse of heroes,
the Scylding homeland. (910)

… stepping on eagerly | to the stronghold where
Ongentheow’s conqueror, | the earl’s defender,
the warlike young king… (1967)

The protector of warriors | rewarded me
with a heap of treasure, | Healfdene’s son. (2142)

… when Hygelac was slain
when that kindly lord of the peoples, | the king of the Geats,
the son of Hrethel, | among the hurl of battle
slaked the sword’s thirst… (2355)

Elaboration of God’s names And of course this applies most of all to descriptions of God who, naturally, merits multiple appositional phrases, to big up his magnitude, as he does in all churches to this day. To this day it is felt by many users of English that the only way to convey somebody or something’s power is to give them multiple epithets. More is more:

The Maker was unknown to them
the Judge of all actions, | the Almighty was unheard of,
they knew not hot to praise | the Prince of heaven,
the Wielder of Glory. (180)

The Father in His wisdom
shall apportion the honours then, | the All-Holy Lord… (687-8)

The ancient arose and | offered thanks to God,
to the Lord Almighty, | for what this man had spoken. (1396)

“I wish to put in words my thanks
to the King of Glory, | the Giver of All,
the Lord of Eternity, | for these treasures that I see… (2794)

Understatement of experience “Litotes is a figure of speech in which understatement is employed for rhetorical effect, principally via double negatives. Rather than saying something is attractive (or even very attractive), one might merely say it is ‘not unattractive'”. A bluff Northern Yorkshire understatement is meant to be a leading characteristic of Norse and Anglo Saxon verse but I found litotes relatively rare in Beowulf.

Nor was it ungraciously | that he greeted the strangers (1892)

The wind did not hinder | the wave-skimming ship (1907)

There was little cause | for crowing among the Hetware
for their conduct of the foot-fight… (2363)

Related to it is the way eloquent verse paragraphs often end with a short, pithy, blunt, ironic comment, like a capstone.

The Scylding champion, | shaking with war rage,
caught it by its rich hilt, and, | careless of his life,
brandished its circles, | and brought it down in fury
to take her full and fairly across the neck,
breaking the bones; | the blade sheared
through the death-doomed flesh. | She fell to the ground;
the sword was gory; | he was glad at the deed.

The last line and a half is the conclusion and climax of 50 lines describing the fight between Beowulf and Grendel’s dam, and very characteristically Anglo Saxon in its sudden laconic brevity: three short, pithy half lines, summing up the action with Nordic indirectness (“the sword was gory”) and understatement of emotion (“he was glad at the deed”).

He had dived to his doom, | he had died miserably;
here in his fen-lair | he had laid aside
his heathen soul. | Hell welcomed it. (850-52)

There were melting heads
and bursting wounds, | as the blood sprang out
from weapon-bitten bodies. | Blazing fire,
most insatiable of spirits, | swallowed the remains
of the victims of both nations. | Their valour was no more. (1120)

Before morning’s light
he flew back to the hoard | in its hidden chamber.
He had poured out fire | and flame on the people,
he had put them to the torch; | he trusted now to the barrow’s walls
and to his fighting strength; | his faith misled him. (2320)

It was not granted to him
that an iron edge | could ever lend him
help in a battle; | his hand was too strong.
I have heard that any sword, | however hardened by wounds,
that he bore into battle, | his blow would overtax
– any weapon whatever: | it was the worse for him. (2682)

Archaic and artful Anglo Saxon poetic diction is deliberately more archaic and elaborate than Anglo Saxon prose which tends to be simpler and more analytic. Many words occur in the poetry which are found nowhere in the prose, some of them related to older Norse terms. Ie Anglo Saxon poetry is a highly artificial and artful creation. The use of multiple short, laconic, forceful phrases in apposition creates a steady, powerful impact. As Alexander eloquently puts it:

the effect is of strenuous and untiring eloquence.

Credit

All quotes copyright © Michael Alexander 1973, reproduced with kind permission of the author.


Related links

Related reviews

Finn and Hengest: The Fragment and the Episode by JRR Tolkien (1982)

Known to millions as the author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien earned his living as a philologist, a specialist in Anglo Saxon, Middle English, and medieval Norse and German at Oxford University. His core activity was establishing the meanings of Anglo Saxon and Norse words which often exist only in a handful of forms, in a handful or only one manuscript, identifying where scribes and copyists made mistakes (as they often did), establishing their cognate forms in other early medieval texts, languages and dialects, with the ultimate aim of establishing ‘good’ texts. For 40 years, from the late 1920s to the early 60s,  he lectured and wrote about all aspects of Anglo Saxon (and its cousin, medieval Norse) literature.

The historic ‘interludes’ in Beowulf

The 3,000 line Old English ‘epic’ Beowulf contains quite a few references to the collective history of the north European Germanic tribes of the Dark Ages; the stories of various heroes of legend are told within the poem by the bards who populate the various kings’ halls (Hrothgar the Dane, Hyglac the Geat), but always quite allusively – the audience who heard these poems knew the stories extremely well; the pleasure was in the way the poet shaped and formed them.

Unfortunately, to us, 1,500 years later, these tellings are tantalisingly obscure, hinting at back stories which we can almost never verify or only painfully piece together from other fragments and damaged texts which happened to survive from Europe’s ‘Dark Ages’. This book is about one particular such legend which occurs around line 1,000 of Beowulf:

The Episode, Beowulf 1063-1160

After Beowulf fights and defeats the monster Grendel in Heorot, the meadhall of King Hrothgar the Dane, the king’s bard sings in celebration a brief summary of the story of Finn, Hnaef and Hengest. The ‘Episode’ as it’s called, lasts only 100 lines before the plot moves swiftly on, leaving a number of unresolved queries in its wake: what happens at Finn’s hall? Why is there a fight at all? Who exactly is it between – Danes and Frisians are mentioned, so where do the Jutes come in? Why does Hengest replace Hnaef as leader of the Danes? Is Hengest even Danish or some kind of exile or mercenary? Has he got anything to do with the Hengest who the Venerable Bede records as leading the Jutes who invade and start to settle Kent in 449AD? Why does Hengest decide to stay, along with the Danish warband, under the hospitality of the Frisian King Finn for an entire winter after Finn and his men have treacherously attacked them?

The Fragment

As chance would have it, and it really is the randomest of lucky chances, in the 1700s a scholarly vicar, George Hickes, published a fragment of Anglo Saxon verse he had found on spare sheet of manuscript in the Archbishop of Canterbury’s library. The sheet has since disappeared. All we have is his transcription, riddled with mistakes. But it is a fragment (starting and ending in mid-sentence) which seems to come from the story of Hnaef and Finn and seems to describe in hectic immediate style the start of the dramatic fight at Finn’s hall. This text has become known as the Fight at Finnsburg, also known as the ‘Fragment’.

Gathering Tolkien’s papers

When Tolkien died he left a vast amount of papers, published and unpublished, scholarly or part of his great imagined world of Middle Earth. His son, Christopher, has dedicated his life to establishing order and publishing definitive versions of these texts (hence, for example, the 12 volumes of the stories of Middle Earth). Over his career Tolkien lectured and speculated repeatedly about the relation between the Fragment and the Episode (which has also attracted a huge amount of attention from other scholars of the period).

Finn and Hengest: The Fragment and the Episode was compiled by the OE scholar Alan Bliss in an attempt to create a definitive version of Tolkien’s thoughts on this popular subject. It is divided into four parts:

1. Glossary of Names A very detailed consideration of the origin, meaning, other citings and interrelations of all the proper names used in both the Fragment and Episode: Hnaef, Healfdene, Scylding, Hengest, Finn. You get a good flavour of just how complicated it is trying to establish order and consistency from the wealth of fragments and references to names which differ in every citation and from language to language, in the Wikipedia article about Hrothgar, lord of the Danes, whose meadhall Beowulf visits and protects from the monster Grendel.

Investigating all the names which occur in both Fragment and Episode provides a foundation for…

2. Textual Commentary A detailed examination of key words and phrases in the text which shed light on the mystery. This is like the textual apparatus you get with any classic text, explaining in detail all the editorial choices and decisions. This passage gives a good flavour of the book. It is analysing lines 43-45 of the fragment which, in George Hickes’ transcription reads:

Þā gewāt him wund hæleð | on wæg gangan,
sǣde þæt his byrne | ābrocen wǣre,
here-sceorpum hrōr, | and ēac wæs his helm þyrl…

Then a wounded hero | away turned,
said that his byrnie | was a-broken
active in his armour| and also his helm pierced…

about which Tolkien writes:

45 Hickes [ie George Hickes’ transcription has…] Here sceorpum hror. ‘Active in his armour’ makes no sense in this context, which clearly is a complaint that their weapons are no longer serviceable. Compare the exclamation of Hjalti (Hialto) in Saxo’s translation of Bjarkamal: “Already, grievously have sword and darts cut to pieces my shield… of the broken shield the arm thongs alone remain.” Compare also the situation in Olafr Trygvasson’s last fight:

“Ōlāfr konungr Tryggvason stōð ī lypting ā Orminum, ok skaut optast um daginn, stundum bogaskoti, en stundum gaflǫkum, ok jafnan tveim sęnn. Hann sā fram ā skipit, ok sā sīna męnn reiða sverðin ok hǫggva tītt, ok sā at illa bitu; mælti þā hātt: ‘hvārt reiði þēr svā slæliga sverðin, er ek sē at ekki bīta yðr?’ Maðr svarar: ‘sverð vār eru slæ ok brotin mjǫk.’

In that case read hreosceorp (pl.) unhror. Unhror does not else occur, and hror is usually applied to persons – its sense is ‘valiant, mighty’ (but etymologically ‘active, agile’). Neither of these is a fatal objection to weapons. Cf. fyrdsearo fuslic (B.2618) ‘gallant’. The classic example is cene ‘noble’ – ‘bold’ – ‘sharp’. The accentuation héresceorp un| hrór (Type E) is not unprecedented: cf. se þe unmurlice | madmas dæleþ (B.1756), þæt is undyrne | dryhten Higelac (B.2000). Technically as a “noun-compound”, un- should have the accent, but in spite of the additional logical reason for accenting the negative un- it was clearly often unaccented (like ne) – owing partly to the influence of the simplex and partly to sentence-rhythm. It is often in origin an IE unaccented form. Cf. “the ùnknown warrior”, “into the ùnknown”; cf. also ON ó– accented, ú– unaccented.

That is Tolkien’s reasoning for changing hrōr to unhrōr in the passage quoted above, so that his amended version now reads:

Þā gewāt him wund hæleð | on wæg gangan,
sǣde þæt his byrne | ābrocen wǣre,
here-sceorpum unhrōr, | and ēac wæs his helm þyrl…

Then a wounded hero | away turned
said that his byrnie | was a-broken
his armour inactive | and also his helm pierced…

If you’re looking for hobbits, forget it. The whole book is written like this.

3. Reconstruction A brief conclusion, based on the detailed evidence of the previous two sections of what the actual story was, what are the historical events behind the legend, namely:

Finn is king of the Frisians., a border people caught between the powerful Franks to the south, Danes to the north. He has married Hildeburh, sister of king Hnaef of the Halfdanes, probably in an attempt to patch up some feud between them. The Halfdanes are probably a family or tribe on the edges of Danish royal influence proper, types of colonists. The Frisians are an ancient tribe recorded by the Romans as far back as the first century. Hnaef Halfdane takes 60 thanes to visit Finn; this half Danish, mixed nature of his following explains why a number of his followers appear to be Jutes from the Jutland peninsula. Presumably he was visiting his sister; probably he was bringing back Finn’s son who he had been fostering as per northern Germanic custom. He planned to spend the winder with Finn, his brother-in-law.

It seems that Hnaef the half-Dane, with Jutes among his retinue, arrives at Finn’s hall/stronghold to find there are a number of exiled Jutes there who have fled some internal Jutish feud. There is very bad blood between the Jutish contingents. The atmosphere is tense. The half-Danish contingent, housed in the guests’ hall, that night notice shields and armour creeping up on them in the night. This is where the Fragment starts with the first assault on the hall: Hnaef despatches men to guard the two doors; Garulf among the attackers falls; they fight for five days, with the attackers suffering grievous casualties, when an attacker turns to his king (Finn?) to say his armour is packing up, the king replying, How are the two others (presumably the pair of defenders defending the door) doing…?

The Episode starts with queen Hildeburh surveying the carnage “when morning came”. King Hnaef of the defenders has been killled. So has Hildeburh’s son by Finn (the assumption is that he had been sent as a ward to the court of Hnaef, had therefore slept with the half-Danes, had for some reason been forward in the defence and so killed). But Finn has suffered more with most of his thanes killed in the assault. Therefore he is forced to make a peace treaty with Hengest, who has succeeded Hnaef as leader of the guests. In it Finn promises to call off the attack, lease them the hall for the winter, give them as much gold and rings as he usually gives his Frisians; so that they in every way become his subjects. The treaty agreed, many of the Frisians return to their homesteads leaving Hengest and the half-Danes to winter with Finn. Hengest broods all winter long on the conflict between his duty to avenge his dead leader Hnaef and the peace treaty he has agreed with Finn. In the spring the sea thaws and a number of the half-Danes sail away to Denmark, taking the tale of the treacherous attack on them and the murder of Hnaef. They return with reinforcements. One of the half-Danes places a well-known sword in Hengest’s lap and the next thing we know Finn is dead, his hall burnt down, and the half-Danes have taken queen Hildeburh and all Finn’s gold back to their native land.

Popularity

The tale, and references to Finn, seem to be so widespread in the ancient literature because:

a) historically, it captures an important moment in the troubled tribal wars of the North Sea and Baltic, one which seems to have crystallised certain shifts of power towards the Danes, against the Frisians and which, importantly for the later English tribes, prompted Hengest’s mission to Britain.

b) culturally, it deals with the classic dilemma explored again and again in the Icelandic sagas: Hengest’s conflict between the prime duty to avenge a murdered lord and some other duty either of marriage or, as here, a sworn treaty.

c) of its psychological complexity: almost certainly Finn didn’t initiate the attack on the half-Danes, his Jutish guests did and he found himself dragged in to fight against his wife’s kin; he sees his own son killed; he himself dies and loses everything. It is a very Northern, bleak outcome. But also the wrecca or adventurer Hengest didn’t expect a fight, and probably finds leadership of the survivors thrust upon him. His ethical dilemma (described above) is at the centre of the Episode. And queen Hildeburh is a victim like Hecuba or Andromache; through no fault at all of her own seeing first her son then her husband killed, her marriage hall going up in flames and herself taken like booty back to her homeland with ashes in her mouth. She is a character worthy of Greek tragedy.

Three Appendices One of the appendices is a tentative chronology of the events outlined above: I was electrified to discover Tolkien thought that Beowulf must have been born around 500AD; and that, with his breadth of knowledge and command of the sources, he thinks the powerful wrecca (exile, adventurer) Hengest, whose brooding character dominates both Fragment and Episode, is the same Hengest who the Venerable Bede records as invading Kent with his partner Horsa in 453! Tolkien’s full chronology is:

410 Romans leave Britain
425 Hengest born
430 Healfdene born
Fight at Finnsburh occurs about 452. Hnaef aged about 30 dies. Hengest the king’s thegn is 25. Hildeburh, Hnaef’s sister, older than him, 33, so as to have a son old enough to fight (and die) 15?
453 Hengest, victorious in the fight at Finnsburh, but with all sorts of enemies, leads a war band along with Horsa in the invasion of Kent. He has an infant son Oesc. Horsa is killed in battle soon after.
460 Hrothgar, second son of Healfdene born
470 Oesc becomes a warrior. 473 last mention of Hengest, in a chronicle. He probably lives to old age.
480 Hygelac of the Geats born.
490 Kingdom of Kent established with Oesc as head of the new royal line.
495-505 death of Healfdene Scylding; accession of his second son Hrothgar aged 35 or so.
495-500 Beowulf born.
512 death of Oesc, recorded in Chronicle.
520 Beowulf, aged about 20, travels from the court of King Hygelac of the Geats to visit Heorot, hall of King Hrothgar of the Healfdenes. Fights Grendel and her mother.
525-30 death of King Hygelac in a battle with the Franks, as recorded in Gregory of Tours’ Historia Francorum.
570 the aged Beowulf sets out to battle the dragon who is terrorising his people. Dies and is buried beneath a great mound by the sea.

Criticism

I am not scholar enough to criticise the contents of this book in detail. The editor, Bliss, keeps up a steady stream of footnotes pointing out where Tolkien’s theories are out of date or wrong. And the book was published in 1982 – who knows what further discoveries and insights have been published in the past 30 years?

It is a big effort to read this book, but working through all 150 pages of Tolkien’s densely argued notes really takes you into the guts of the text with all its possible variant readings and interpretations. Even an amateur like myself comes away with a much more vivid feel for the complexity of the texts, for the power and beauty of the poetry, for the pathos of the central characters, and excited by the tantalising crossovers with actual recorded historical events.

The only criticism I can confidently make is that the book should have included the text of the poem Widsith. This 140-line Anglo Saxon poem is a lament by a wandering minstrel for the courts and kings he has known and performed for: some are clearly fantasy (Caesar, the king of the Egyptians) but others are highly factual references to real kings of Germanic tribes. Early in the poem he refers to Hnaef and Finn, lines Tolkien includes in his list of four sources of evidence which he will consider. It would have been easy and very convenient for the reader trying to follow the repeated references to Widsith if the book had included the full text and a decent prose translation of it.

Book jacket for Finn and Hengist, copyright John Howe and Random Books

Book jacket for Finn and Hengist, copyright John Howe and Random Books

Sagas

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)

Beowulf – the epic

Beowulf is the longest Old English poem, some 3,200 lines in length, representing a tenth of the 30,000 lines of OE poetry which survive. Beowulf

  • relates events set during the European Migration Era (400-600)
  • was probably composed before the death of Bede (735)
  • and the version we have was probably written down around 1000

Setting All the events of Beowulf are set in Denmark and southern Sweden; it doesn’t even mention Britain or England which makes it odd that it is routinely discussed as the first great work in English literature – though having read the Eddas I now appreciate that Germanic culture, language, myths and legends stretched during this period in a continuum from the Black Sea to Iceland.

Beowulf was only given its current title in 1805 and was first published in 1815.

Manuscript Beowulf survives, like most Old English, in just one manuscript, in this case British Library Cotton MS Vitellius, which was damaged in a fire but luckily survived. The manuscript also contains handwritten texts of a homily on St Christopher, the Marvels of the East, the Letter of Alexander to Aristotle and an imperfect copy of another Old English poem, Judith. All five texts concern or mention fabulous beasts so the MS may well have been assembled around this theme. The verse is written out as continuous prose, divided into numbered sections. So the layout of all modern editions into traditional poetic lines, often with clearly marked half line-breaks, the punctuation, commas, full stops and speech marks, are all the work of modern editors.

First page of the Beowulf manuscript; legible but damaged

First page of the Beowulf manuscript; legible but damaged

Above, the first page of the Beowulf manuscript, from which scholars extract lines of verse, thus:

Hwæt! We Gardena | in geardagum,
þeodcyninga,  | þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas | ellen fremedon.
Oft Scyld Scefing | sceaþena þreatum,
5monegum mægþum, | meodosetla ofteah,
egsode eorlas.

Author Of course no-one knows who the author was or even where it was written: but scholars agree it is the work of a sophisticated and well-educated Christian, maybe even a monk, probably associated with one of the royal courts which flourished in the 700s, either of Wessex or Mercia or Northumbria.

Plot In his youth Beowulf the Geat, from south Sweden, sails to the legendary court, Heorot, of King Hrothgar the Dane, and frees it from being terrorised by the monster Grendel who has been attacking and sweeping off warriors to kill and eat for 12 long years. No sooner is Grendel defeated than his mother attacks. Beowulf tracks her back to her lair beneath a lake, there fighting and killing her. He returns in honour and laden with gifts to Geatland and his king, Hygelac. Eventually Hygelac and his son die and Beowulf becomes king of the Geats. 50 years later his own kingdom is threatened by a dragon. Beowulf heroically defeats the dragon but is himself killed; he is burnt on a pagan funeral pyre, buried in a mound by the sea, and it is predicted that his people will now perish. It is not a happy ending.

Historical provenance Beowulf is nowhere attested in the historical record. Maybe he is entirely fictitious. But his Geatish lord, Hygelac, was certainly real: he is recorded as dying in a skirmish against the Franks about 520 in Bishop Gregory of Tour’s History of the Franks. So soon after is when Beowulf would take over as king; and fifty years later would date his fight with the dragon and death around 570AD.

Network of references If the plot is so simple, how come the poem is so long? Partly because it is enmeshed in scores of references to other Germanic legends of the Migration Era. These were clearly designed to pad, bolster and ennoble the main plot, but are a stumbling block to the modern reader: whereas the contemporary audience would have caught the subtlest reference to these stories, we know next to nothing about these long-lost legends;  many are only barely explicable by reference to scattered and obscure references or fragments.

The Penguin translation Penguin translations have a long tradition of being old-fashioned and often poor quality. But Michael Alexander’s introduction and translation are both excellent. (Nota bene: I am referring here to the 1973 translation and introduction; Alexander updated his translation and completely rewrote the introduction in 2003.)

Michael Alexander’s introduction His main claim is that Beowulf is an epic, if we define epic as having these attributes:

1 inclusiveness of scope
2 objectivity of treatment
3 unity of consciousness, of ethos
4 an action of significance – epic amplitude – fullness of epic narration

An epic should be universal, taking in all of life and representing it in such a way that the general truth of the presentation is universally recognised. Its scope should embrace war and peace, men and gods, life and death in a comprehensive and encyclopedic way. And its presentation should be objective…. One’s consciousness of unity in the Iliad, and in epic generally, springs not from a unity of action but a unity of consciousness, an ethos which arises from a primitive intuition of the cosmic solidarity, organic unity and continuity of life.

1. Inclusiveness of scope Beowulf comprehends life and death, man and God, peace and war. It opens with the funeral of one hero, follows the career from young glory to aged defeat of another hero: a lifecycle. The entire life of a people, the Geats, its rise and fall, is described. Peace with its beauty and ceremonies in the hall of Hereot is described, and war and its devastating consequences among the Germanic tribes is continually referred to. Goodness and civilisation at the hall are disrupted by evil incarnated in the monsters. The start of history is captured by the scop or bard, who inaugurates Hereot by singing a poem of God’s Creation of the world – and the end of the history is symbolised by the prophesied extermination of Beowulf’s people after his death. God is seen intervening at key points throughout the poem; but the Devil is alluded to once and his forces, the monsters, drive the plot which is a microcosm of the endless battle of Good against Evil in a fallen universe. “The whole life of the people and of mankind is involved in the struggle of the hero-king against the dragon.” In its way, it is as cosmic in ambition as Paradise Lost.

2. Objectivity of treatment

  • The dignified presentation of death Alexander considers the poem gives weight and due importance to all its characters and especially to their deaths : “Every single one of the numerous individual deaths in the poem is given its full weight and significance… Homer and Tolstoy do not outdo Beowulf in their respect for the gravity and commonness of dying.” Though Alexander admits that the poet does intervene, does comment, does include homilies and morals, thus falling short of the “blithe cosmic impartiality” of Homer. But then who doesn’t?
  • Stock scenes ‘Much of the objectivity – the truth – comes from the traditional presentation of life in the heroic world. It is crystallised into generic scenes: voyage, welcome, feast, boast, arming, fight, reward… have the traditional and practised feel of solid simplicity and consistency… The familiar nuts and bolts of life are presented in stylised, elevated but simple form…’
  • Values “Value are constant: sunlight is good, cold is ominous.” Constant, simple and dignified. Feasting in the firelit hall is good. Being isolated in the cold moor is bad. Fighting alongside your brother warriors is good. Being betrayed by a colleague is bad.
  • Nature ‘The stage upon which the drama is set is large and simple. Men are haeleth under heofenum, ‘heroes beneath the heavens’, they are be twaem seonum, ‘between two seas’,  on middanyeard, on ‘middle earth’, swa hit waeter bebugeth, ‘surrounded by water’. Every event and action is positioned in a landscape which is both realistic but raised to a level of stylised simplicity, given a symbolic depth. ‘The sense of never losing one’s bearings is not only spatial but temporal. The coming of day or night or the seasons is never omitted.’
  • Genealogy ‘Likewise we know where ever man comes from… A man is identified as someone’s son or as someone’s kin. For important people or things, complete genealogies or lists of owners are given… Each action in Beowulf has a full spatial and temporal dimension, and the cosmic envelope of space and time is always assumed and usually felt to be there, immutable.’
  • Impersonal ‘In epic, human and non-human actions are felt to be part of a larger impersonal if organic process, the authority of which is not questioned, but accepted and respected. (Critics of Homer speak of the aidos, or respect, felt for the operations of the process.)’ Alexander concedes the poet’s Christian comments and interventions do break this impersonality; they intrude sermonising; they prevent Beowulf rising to the heights of Homer. Nothing in western literature does.
  • Already known Unlike most modern narratives, whether novels or plays or movies, in an epic poem the audience knows the story and outcome before the start. This means a) the audience and poet are interested in the treatment not the plot b) the poem is full of flashbacks, recapitulations and anticipations: these amplify the sense of completeness, of pattern, of objectivity and detachment from events.

3. Unity of ethos is related to objectivity. The one enables the other. The poet achieves his objectivity because he is working within an objective worldview. “The stability of the system of epic formulae perpetuates the tribal view in the hallowed tribal words. This system is itself an organism. Each verbal formula is the tribe’s crystallisation of an aspect of experience…” The crystallisation is possible because of the tribe’s shared views. The tribe’s shared views are crystallised in the formulae. This is why the way in which OE alliterative verse tends to separate stock phrases in apposition into stand-alone units, also emphasises the deep, archaic, shared value in these phrases – and smoothing their clunky positioning out into fluent modern English prose completely obliterates not only their poetical, but their ideological impact, which is enormous.

Lofgeornost The last word of the poem is lof-geornost ‘most eager for praise’ and ‘this is the primary theme of all heroic poetry, the prowess, strength and courage of the single male, undismayed and undefeated in the face of all adversaries and in all adventures. The hero surpasses other men, and his aristeia is rewarded by fame.  He represents the ultimate of human achievement in a heroic age, and embodies its ideal. Though he must die his glory lives on.’

The Aeneid issue C.S. Lewis divided epic into primary epic (made by a sometimes illiterate near-contemporary in the culture he is describing – Homer) and secondary epic (a conscious recreation of a vanished world by a highly literate author from another culture – Virgil). Beowulf is nearer the second category because, as all scholars acknowledge, although it is written about preliterate pagan Germanic society in pagan Germanic poetry using pagan Germanic formulae, it was actually composed by a highly literate Christian, possibly even a Christian Anglian monk, just about as far removed from the world of feasting, fighting German pagans as he could be. He is in love with the pagan world and its culture; presumably so is his audience or there would have been little point composing the poem. But he is decisively separated from it by his Christian faith.

Secondary epic This is what makes Beowulf a secondary epic: that the poet is not only looking back at a legendary past; he is looking back at the pagan world looking back at its legendary past. Not only is there a dying fall to his depiction of the pagan world (itself obsessed with the sense of transitoriness and passing-away); but he sees that the entire pagan worldview epitomised in his subject matter and in the Germanic style of stock phrasing, was wrong. There is a deeper level of melancholy. ‘To a literate consciousness deepened by Christianity, the heroic world of these heathen ancestors must have seemed doubly admirable and the limitations of heroic life doubly tragic.’

4. A significant action At its core Beowulf is a folk story or, deeper, a myth. A hero fights monsters three times: the first two times he conquers; the third time he is old and the monster kills him. It is a profound emblem of the life of man, overcoming challenge after challenge, but unable to avoid, ultimately, his own mortality. If, at a deep, mythical level, the story is about Man confronting his own Mortality, Alexander suggests that at a higher level the “significant action” or actions emphasise the importance of loyalty to the chieftain as the fundamental tie in heroic society; Beowulf dies on a mythic level because the dragon kills him, but on a social level because his 12 thanes abandon him; at his moment of need the bonds of allegiance break down; and that is symbolic of the fragility and vulnerability of heroic society as a whole. It has the same elegiac feel as the collapse of the Order of the Round Table. Sure, it’s attacked by external enemies; but it is its internal weakness that condemns it.

And here again the ‘Aeneid effect’ kicks in – the poem laments the passing of one warband, one people, the Geats – but the Christian poet, at a higher level, laments the passing of the entire pagan way of life. It is a double elegy. It is made up of dynamic, vigorous, virile verse which, at every moment, is haunted by the transitoriness of human power and life. It is wonderful.

Beowulf Battles Grendel by John Howe

John Howe The illustrator John Howe has created a wonderful series of illustrations of Beowulf on his website.

Energy is eternal delight as William Blake said. Both Tolkien and Alexander emphasise the power and forcefulness and energy of the verse which, of course, reinforce the subject matter of the poem which is, ultimately, the hero’s virility.

Beowulf has ‘a hero’s delight in his own prowess and a hero’s magnanimity to lesser men’. His virility burns bright in his youth; then diminishes and is conquered in old age, by death. It is no shame. We all share the same destiny. Beowulf is revered for his defiance, his unwillingness to go gentle into that good night, for his prowess.

The critics write of: “sustained energy as poetry”, “an utterance of power”, “characteristic power and beauty”, “powerful and unique power”…

Credit

All quotes copyright © Michael Alexander 1973, reproduced with kind permission of the author.


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The Battle of Maldon

The battle of Maldon took place in 991 on the shores of the River Blackwater in Essex. Vikings had landed on the small island of Northey and confronted a Saxon force on the river bank. Then, as now, a narrow causeways links the island to the mainland and is flooded at full tide. In the poem a Viking messenger asks safe passage to cross from the island to the bank to give battle properly. Disastrously, the Saxon leader Byrhtnoth agrees. Battle is given and Byrhtnoth is struck down. He consigns his soul to God and falls dead whereupon the coward Godrich flees the battlefield on Byrhtnoth’s horse, spooking many others to flee; but Byrhtnoth’s retainers and thanes remain, rallying each other with noble speeches as they fall one by one to overwhelming Viking numbers…

The battle is historical fact, reported in three versions of the contemporary Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as well as in later histories. Byrhtnoth was a historical figure, earl of Essex under King Æthelred the Unready. After his force was wiped out the Danes/Vikings were able to impose a massive tribute of of 10,000 Roman pounds (3,300 kg) of silver, the first example of Danegeld in England – exactly the tribute Byrhtnoth boasts, in the poem, we will never pay. The poem records a heroic failure, the first in a long line of military disasters which the English have taken a perverse pleasure in celebrating…

Composition The poem was probably composed a few years after the battle and therefore towards the end of the Anglo-Saxon period (which lasted from the first arrivals in the 450s until the Normans conquered in 1066), many centuries after the kingdoms of England had converted to Christianity (a process started in the 600s). Among other things it shows how the pagan values of heroic pagan society had lived on into the Christian age.

The poem is 328 lines long but is incomplete. The original manuscript was burnt in a fire in the 1730s but had – fortunately – been transcribed. The opening and ending are missing and there is no title; the one we use is a convention. So is all the punctuation, all commas, full stops and speech marks.

Old English The poem is in Old English, the language which used to be called Anglo-Saxon ie spoken by the Germanic settlers in England between their arrival in the 450s and which lingered on after the Norman Conquest. It is in alliterative measure ie no rhymes, no regular rhythms; instead each line is divided in half, with two stresses in each half: the start-sound of the first stressed word in the second half of the line must be alliterated by one of the two stressed syllables in the first half of the line, possibly both. The second stressed syllable in the second half of the line generally doesn’t alliterate, eg:

Brimmanna boda, | abeod eft ongean

Pronunciation ð and þ are used interchangeably for ‘th’ as in thou and then. A g at the start of a word is pronounced as y. For more on Old English pronunciation you can watch a YouTube video or read a scholarly introduction.

Byrhtnoth’s challenge and defiance of the Vikings (lines 45-62):

“Gehyrst þu, sælida, | hwæt þis folc segeð?
Hi willað eow to gafole | garas syllan,
ættrynne ord | and ealde swurd,
þa heregeatu | þe eow æt hilde ne deah.
Brimmanna boda, | abeod eft ongean,
sege þinum leodum | miccle laþre spell,
þæt her stynt unforcuð | eorl mid his werode,
þe wile gealgean | eþel þysne,
æþelredes eard, | ealdres mines,
folc and foldan. | Feallan sceolon
hæþene æt hilde. | To heanlic me þinceð
þæt ge mid urum sceattum | to scype gangon
unbefohtene, | nu ge þus feor hider
on urne eard | in becomon.
Ne sceole ge swa softe | sinc gegangan;
us sceal ord and ecg | ær geseman,
grim guðplega,| ær we gofol syllon.”

“Hearest thou, sailor | what this folk sayeth?
They will to-you as tribute | spears give,
Poisonous tip | and olde sword,
War equipment | that to-you in battle will not profit.
Seamen’s messenger, | go announce again,
Say to thy troop | a more hateful tale,
That here stands undaunted | earl with his army,
Who wills to save | this nativeland,
Earth of Aethelred, | of my ruler,
Folk and fold. | Fallen shallen
Heathens at havoc. | Too shameful me thinketh
That you with our tribute | to ship goen
Unbefought, | now ye thus far  hither
In our earth | in be comen.
Nor shall to-ye so softly | riches befall;
Us shall spear and edge | ere make peace,
Grim battleplay, | ere we gifts give up.”

Byrhtnoth’s challenge read aloud

Byrhtnoth’s prayer for his soul (lines 173-180):

“Ic geþancie þe, | ðeoda waldend,
ealra þæra wynna | þe ic on worulde gebad.
Nu ic ah, milde metod, | mæste þearfe
þæt þu minum gaste | godes geunne,
þæt min sawul to ðe | siðian mote
on þin geweald, | þeoden engla,
mid friþe ferian. | Ic eom frymdi to þe
þæt hi helsceaðan | hynan ne moton.”

“I bethank thee, | ruler of peoples,
For all the joys | that I on world abode.
Now I of you, mild Master, | most need
That you mine ghost | grace to-grant,
That mine soul to thee | to-go might
On thine weald, | lord of angels,
With peace to-pass. | I am suppliant to thee
That the hell-scathers | hinder nay mighten.”

Related links

The Battle of Maldon

The Battle of Maldon

Widsith

Widsith is an Old English poem. Like most Old English texts it exists in just one manuscript version, in this case in the Exeter Book, a manuscript of Old English poetry compiled in the late 10th century and containing approximately one sixth of all the Old English poetry we possess. By such slender threads and accidents did this ancient literature survive…

The poem is in traditional OE alliterative verse ie the line has four beats and is divided in half; the sound of the first stressed syllable in the second half of the line sets the alliteration;  the first stressed syllable in the first half-line must alliterate with it; the second stressed syllable in the first half line may or may not; the fourth stressed syllable, ie the second one in the second half of the line, must not alliterate.

Widwith is the name of the narrator (the word means “far journey” so is more emblematic than real) and the opening lines introduce him:

Widsið maðolade | wordhord onleac,
se þe monna mæst | mægþa ofer eorþan,
folca geondferde | oft he on flette geþah
mynelicne maþþum. | Him from Myrgingum…

Widsith spoke, unlocked his word-hoard,
he who had travelled most of all men
through tribes and nations across the earth.
Often he had gained great treasure in hall…

Quite quickly the poem turns into a survey of the people, kings, and heroes of Europe in the Heroic Age of Northern Europe (300-600AD). T

  • he first section is a list of famous kings, contemporary and ancient (“Caesar ruled the Greeks”), in a very formulaic way: ‘(name of a king) ruled (name of a tribe)’:

ætla weold Hunum, Eormanric Gotum,
Becca Baningum, Burgendum Gifica.
Casere weold Creacum ond Cælic Finnum,
Hagena Holmrygum ond Heoden Glommum.

Attila ruled the Huns, Eormanric the Goths,
Becca the Baningas, Gifica the Burgundians.
Caesar ruled the Greeks and Caelic the Finns,
Hagena the Holmrycgas and Henden the Glomman.

The second section contains the names of the peoples the narrator visited, in the format ‘With the (name of a tribe) I was, and with the (name of another tribe)’:

Swa ic geondferde fela fremdra londa
geond ginne grund. Godes ond yfles
þær ic cunnade cnosle bidæled,
freomægum feor folgade wide.
Forþon ic mæg singan ond secgan spell,
mænan fore mengo in meoduhealle
hu me cynegode cystum dohten.
Ic wæs mid Hunum ond mid Hreðgotum,
mid Sweom ond mid Geatum ond mid Suþdenum.
Mid Wenlum ic wæs ond mid Wærnum ond mid wicingum.
Mid Gefþum ic wæs ond mid Winedum ond mid Gefflegum.
Mid Englum ic wæs ond mid Swæfum ond mid ænenum.

So I travelled widely through foreign lands,
through distant countries, and there I met
both good and bad fortune, far from my kin,
and served as a follower far and wide.
And so I can sing and tell a tale,
declare to the company in the mead-hall
how noble rulers rewarded me with gifts.
I was with the Huns and the glorious Goths,
with the Swedes and with the Geats and with the South-Danes.
I was with the Wenlas, the Waerne and the Wicingas.
I was with the Gefthan, the Winedas and the Gefflegan.
I was with the Angles, the Swaefe and the Aenenas.

In the third section the narrator lists the heroes of myth and legend that he has visited:

Wulfhere sohte ic ond Wyrmhere; ful oft þær wig ne alæg,
þonne Hræda here heardum sweordum
ymb Wistlawudu wergan sceoldon
ealdne eþelstol ætlan leodum.
Rædhere sohte ic ond Rondhere, Rumstan ond Gislhere,
Wiþergield ond Freoþeric, Wudgan ond Haman;

I visited Wulfhere and Wyrmhere; there battle often raged
in the Vistula woods, when the Gothic army
with their sharp swords had to defend
their ancestral seat against Attila’s host.
I visited Raedhere and Rondhere, Rumstan and Gislhere,
Withergield and Freotheric, Wudga and Hama.

It concludes with wise words about the life of a wandering minstrel and his reliance on the patronage of discerning kings:

Swa scriþende gesceapum hweorfað
gleomen gumena geond grunda fela,
þearfe secgað, þoncword sprecaþ,
simle suð oþþe norð sumne gemetað
gydda gleawne, geofum unhneawne,
se þe fore duguþe wile dom aræran,
eorlscipe æfnan, oþþæt eal scæceð,
leoht ond lif somod; lof se gewyrceð,
hafað under heofonum heahfæstne dom.

Wandering like this, driven by chance,
minstrels travel through many lands;
they state their needs, say words of thanks,
always, south or north, they find some man
well-versed in songs, generous in gifts,
who wishes to raise his renown with his men,
to do great things, until everything passes,
light and life together; he who wins fame
has lasting glory under the heavens.

From which we can conclude that this culture liked lists. It liked lists of peoples and tribes and of the great kings and warriors that led them. No stories as such, just lists. If Widsith stands out for any reason it’s for the special pleading of the minstrel author as to how jolly successful he’s been and how well-rewarded by various wise and cultured patrons:

There the king of the Goths granted me treasure:
the king of the city gave me a torc
made from pure gold coins, worth six hundred pence…

Then Scilling and I with our clear voices,
before our glorious lord, struck up our song;
sung to the harp, it rang out loudly.
Then many men with noble hearts
who understood these things openly said
that they had never heard a better song.

In fact, the whole poem could be considered a very early example of that undervalued literary genre, the CV. And like all CVs it contains some whopping fibs:

Mid Israhelum ic wæs ond mid Exsyringum,
mid Ebreum ond mid Indeum ond mid Egyptum…

I was with the Israelites and with the Assyrians,
with the Hebrews and the Indians and with the Egyptians…

So – A culture which enjoys lists of high sounding kings and exotic peoples and extravagantly inaccurate claims. I read it because three of the names in this couplet feature in the great Northern tale of the Völsungs, of Sigmund and Sigurd and Brynhild and Gudrún.

Attila ruled the Huns, Eormanric the Goths,
Becca the Baningas, Gifica the Burgundians.

Gudrún marries, then murders, Atli (Attila) king of the Huns; she is the daughter of Gifica (Gjuki) king of the Burgundians (Niflungen); she then marries Jörmunrekkr (Eormanric), her fourth husband, who murders her. Not, on the whole, a happy story. What is staggering is the power of the legends which became attached to these kings (Attila died 453, Gifica died 407, Eormanric died 375) and lived after them for so very long. The Volsung saga, the Poetic Edda, were written down in the 1200s, 800 years after these legendary kings died. 800 years accumulating depth and complexity and resonance and power!

Priscus at the Court of Attila the Hun

The Roman historian Priscus visited the court of Attila the Hun as ambassador from the Emperor in Constantinople and, miraculously, although most of he History of his times which he wrote is lost, the fragment describing Attila’s court survives. Among other things it contains a fascinating description the kind of setting in which poetry or music would have been composed and received. The party of Romans is invited to Attila’s wooden house, the grandest in the village. The guests are seated on benches lining the walls. There is a ceremony of toasting each of the leaders in order of precedence; a lot of food is served.

When the viands of the first course had been consumed we all stood up, and did not resume our seats until each one, in the order before observed, drank to the health of Attila in the goblet of wine presented to him. We then sat down, and a second dish was placed on each table with eatables of another kind. After this course the same ceremony was observed as after the first.

Then:

When evening fell torches were lit, and two barbarians coming forward in front of Attila sang songs they had composed, celebrating his victories and deeds of valour in war. And of the guests, as they looked at the singers, some were pleased with the verses, others reminded of wars were excited in their souls, while yet others, whose bodies were feeble with age and their spirits compelled to rest, shed tears.

And after the serious songs, the light entertainment:

After the songs a Scythian, whose mind was deranged, appeared, and by uttering outlandish and senseless words forced the company to laugh. After him Zerkon, the Moorish dwarf, entered… On the occasion of the banquet he made his appearance, and threw all except Attila into fits of unquenchable laughter by his appearance, his dress, his voice, and his words, which were a confused jumble of Latin, Hunnic, and Gothic. Attila, however, remained immovable and of unchanging countenance nor by word or act did he betray anything approaching to a smile of merriment

Tough crowd.

Related links

The opening lines of Widsith in the Exeter Book

The opening lines of Widsith in the Exeter Book

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