I used to be a medievalist.

I’m still a medievalist, of course, but in the years between grad school, where I wrote a master’s thesis on Beowulf and the Old Saxon Heliand and a doctoral dissertation on the scribes of Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, I have not done the kind of manuscript study or textual analysis that I did in these works, much less kept up my reading facility in Old Saxon.

Actual evidence that I could translate Old English in grad school.

I am a generalist. I teach poetry from Homer to the 18th century, and I also teach a seminar on a 20th century Italian novelist. I guess it was bound to happen.

But it’s also a series of choices.

I have, in working toward tenure and promotion, done more research about the act of teaching than about the content I teach. That’s fine. Teaching is vitally important to me, and I do not regret that work. Also, I have never stopped wanting to read more, learn more, and broaden my scope. It’s why I chose Medieval Studies, as opposed to a smaller, more focused field. Some people make a whole career out of a single author. I have never been able to choose just one. (This holds for cookies too–and other things–if one kind is good, isn’t five a whole lot better?)

But I opened up my thesis the other day, and reading through my translation of the Old Saxon gospel and my argument about how the language was developing in relation to its other Germanic sibling languages, and the impact of that on our understanding of that text made me long to wander back to manuscripts and lay aside my anthologies for a bit.

Old English and Old Saxon texts minus the sweat, tears, and graphite.

There is a different kind of pleasure in encountering an ancient text in its original language. This was my job throughout most of graduate school, and if there is one thing I miss about that kind of study, it’s the language. To read The Heliand at that time meant calling up all my Old English and Old Norse knowledge and triangulating to deduce meaning in the Old Saxon. Otherwise it’s Dictionary City, and you look up every word. But if you’ve met Beowulf in an Anglo-Saxon bar, and watched Thor bash giants in Old Norse, Jesus’s life is pretty easy to follow in Old Saxon.

They warned me. My Anglo-Saxon professor said to relish our Beowulf reading, because that seminar was likely the only time we’d read the whole thing in the original. He was right. I look at excerpts to critique translations. I show my students a page or two, but never the whole thing. It’s not appropriate or practical in a sophomore level survey of British Lit.

But I miss it.

So diving back in a bit has been a joy. Not the deadline for this paper I’m writing, but the sitting and reading the stories again, and the language. Hearing the sounds of the long dead languages as I roll them around in my mouth and realizing I can still read them. Because the pleasure of a medievalist is to study languages for reading ability without the pressure of having to produce intelligible Old Saxon on my own. I don’t need conversation skills, just reading skills. And those skills have not diminished in my absence from the manuscript rooms.

Beowulf is still fierce and cocky (ӕglӕca); the Danish queen is still decorously smacking him down, telling him not to push his luck. Peter is still a badass; Jesus still is a powerful lord (mahtig drohtin), trying to rein him in. For my money Game of Thrones has nothing on these stories.

Maybe I’ll pursue this kind of work again seriously, but if I don’t, it’s nice to know I can still enjoy the experience of reading these “olde bokes,” as Chaucer called them. That’s what I was after all those years ago anyway.

Happy summer, everyone. May you find time for all the weird little things that make your heart happy. I’ll keep my nerd flag high, so you’ll know where to find me.

Living · Reading

Life Hacks from Ancient Myth #2: How to treat a chest wound, or “Harold wasn’t always allergic to bees.”

At my house whenever something unexpected happens, you’re liable to hear someone say, pensively, “Harold wasn’t always allergic to bees.” It’s a line from the 1993 rom-com Sleepless in Seattle, from the crazy dinner conversation full of crossing narratives and non-sequiturs, and it struck us as so random that it stuck, and we’ve been variously applying it and misapplying it ever since.

Today, as I write another installment in the Life Hacks from Ancient Myth, I have a lesson that seems less broadly applicable, but is still surprisingly relevant from time to time, so we feel like it’s a truth that no one sees coming: If someone takes a spear to the chest, don’t just pull it out right there. Resist the temptation to relieve your comrade of the stabby thing that seems to be paining them. Be calm.

This is, believe it or not, a recurring lesson throughout literature. I know it from two pretty dissimilar texts—one Roman, and one Anglo-Saxon. It comes up more often than that, really, but these two are very vivid for me.

In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, completed in the year 8 CE, he parodies the Trojan War material with a raucous wedding scene where a centaur tries to steal the bride. (That hilarious parody and Ovid’s neat reduction of the Trojan War to a couple embarrassing moments for Achilles is the subject for another blog.) Today I’m interested in the tragic love story he drops in the middle of the ‘red wedding’-style brawl.

As humans slaughter centaurs in defense of the bride, and centaurs rise (or not) to glory in self-defense, the narration pauses to hold a light on perfect love: Cyllarus and his beloved Hylonome have come to the wedding as a happy couple to celebrate another happy couple. They are described as almost nauseatingly sweet—“she honeys him” at 12.411, and just as we’re imagining this loving centaur couple (for me, thanks to the Disney animators of Fantasia, I have a very clear image), Cyllarus takes a spear to the chest.

We’re told that it did not pierce his heart, but it’s close, so for a moment the possibility of his survival fills our hearts. Then Hylonome, crazed with fear and grief, rips out the offending projectile.

Oh, Hylonome.

Did she not take War Time Triage 101? When she pulls out the spear, hoping to help, she instead rips his chest open, and his lifeblood pours out. She tries kissing him to stop his soul escaping with his breath, but she’s already lost him. She runs herself through with the same spear, and the tragedy is complete.

So what have we learned? Centaurs are terrible wedding guests; they arrive drunk and only get worse. But also, beware of chest wounds. They need special care.

A later example of this type scene comes from the Old English poem ”The Battle of Maldon,” wherein the defending earl of an English tribe is hit with a spear from an invading Viking ruffian. Byrthnoth, the lord, has exhibited tremendous arrogance in allowing this battle to take place at all (he gave up a position of advantage out of pride). And to prove his manhood, just seconds before the fatal chest wound, he had wrenched a spear out of his own shoulder and sent it back at the Sea Dog who threw it.

So perhaps we forgive poor Wulfmar, who at fifteen years old is fighting his first and last battle. He sees his lord go down and rushes to help. But our narrator reminds us it’s his inexperience that is to blame. You can almost hear a chorus of seasoned warriors scream “NO!—Don’t do it!” as he slides the spear head out and Byrtnoth slumps to the ground.

Why wasn’t this covered in basic training? In both tales someone pulls the blade who didn’t know any better—a woman, a new soldier—because everyone else knows not to do that until you can treat it carefully.

But now we know. If you or someone you love is ever pierced by a spear, don’t try to remove it on the battlefield. Or in the classroom. Because Harold wasn’t always allergic to bees.

In a Texas elementary school in October of 2000, six-year old Destiny Lopez was trotting back to her desk when she fell on her newly sharpened pencil, and it pierced her heart. A pencil is just a small spear, after all—wooden shaft, sharp point.

Her heroic and self-possessed teacher did not act rashly. She lay down on the floor with Destiny as the pencil pulsed with the beat of her heart. She did NOT remove the weapon from the wounded warrior’s chest.

And that little girl lived.

So let that be a lesson to us. And go get some first aid training, or at least read some good battle poetry.

Here are two articles about Destiny and her teacher:

Nora Ephron, screenplay and director. Sleepless in Seattle. 1993. Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan starring.

Living · Reading · Teaching

Wandering Back to Old English

I am teaching Old English for the first time in several years, and I’m so excited! It’s like revisiting an old friend. For a variety of reasons from the lows of a medical leave to the highs of a sabbatical, the survey of British literature has not fallen in my lap for… too long.
I thought for a while I might be an Anglo-Saxonist, which goes some way to saying how much I enjoyed the language and the culture of that Germanic, heroic, fatalistic poetry. It was the first dead language I studied, and I was entranced by the strangeness and the similarity to Modern English and American culture. Hwaet! Mead. Warrior-companions. All of that was awesome. I wrote my MA thesis on Beowulf and the Old Saxon Heliand.
Then I went on and discovered Chaucer, and my world shifted again, but part of my heart burns a candle for Beowulf and all his charming imperfections.
When I teach Beowulf, I build up to it. We look at the conventions of Old English poetry in small texts like “Caedmon’s Hymn,” “The Wanderer,” and “The Battle of Maldon,”, and then Beowulf brings them all together. Today, though, I’m stuck on the Wanderer.
“The Wanderer” is a brief poem, mostly a soliloquy, but framed by a narrator (lines added by a well-meaning monk? We will never know) who explains the speaker’s state of mind. He’s sad. He’s lonely. He longs for grace. He has lost his lord and kinsmen and finds himself alone in the world.
And this time, after a four year hiatus from Old English during which both my parents died, I read those words in a way I never imagined before. The Wanderer sounds like a man slipping in to dementia.
It’s not, of course. That’s me imposing a fragment of my life, or my father’s life, really, on the speaker. But I did not see it coming, and it rings this time through with that truth that works of literature change with us; as we age and our circumstances change, our experience of the text changes, because we are half of the equation—the reader.
The Wanderer gripes a bit. It’s usually called an elegy, but I entertain other genres, and this feels more like a complaint or a consolation poem, since he’s resigned to his fate at the end. He is frustrated by his circumstances and trying to get through by turning inward.
He has lost his relatives and his lord. Maybe there was a battle, and he is the sole survivor. Whatever the case, he has lost everyone. This is how my dad felt, as he saw people he couldn’t remember, when he could still recognize that he should know them. He began a slow descent in to exile—separated from everyone he loved.
The Wanderer learned “that silence is noble and sorrow/ Nothing speech can cure” (ll 13-14). Dad seemed to learn this too, withdrawing more and more in to his head, but not being able to articulate why. He seemed to have moments of calm when he was quiet, but got confused and flustered when he tried to sort things out. Hideous, debilitating cause aside, he would have made a good, laconic Viking.
I have read this poem twenty times. I know it’s not about dementia, and it’s not about me. It’s about the abject fear people feel in a culture plagued by cold and famine—a primitive, instinctual fear of being alone, not just because of loneliness, but because communities survive where individuals die.
But whenever we willingly enter the world of a poem or other text, it is in some ways about us. And this time, I was delighted to see it was about my dad. It was nice to see him.
I’ve just decided it’s a consolation poem.
(This translation is taken from Burton Raffel’s Poems and Prose from the Old English.)