I was lying awake last night, unable to sleep because of the heat, and wondering whether translating a bit of Anglo-Saxon poetry would get me out of my lengthening barren spell. I think the majority of people who did my degree resented having to spend such a lot of time on Anglo-Saxon, but I always liked it.
I think what sticks with me about A-S verse is a mood more than anything. I remember hearing a documentary on Radio 4 a few years ago about different conversational styles across Europe. Apparently in Finland they have a culture of only speaking if they’ve got something important to say, with the result that for long periods at Finnish dinner parties, everyone is just sitting eating in silence. And then when they do speak, they speak slowly and deliberately. I suspect that the Anglo-Saxons had something of the same serious-minded taciturnity, laced with a mix of testosterone and pessimism. If that’s right, they probably looked on linguistic virtuosity with some suspicion. But I find that quality of seriousness makes up for any lack of verbal fireworks. It’s like the appeal of plainsong.
They were a gloomy bunch, of course. The most famous image in A-S literature is probably from Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People. King Edwin of Northumbria is considering whether to convert to Christianity, and one of his advisors says
The present life of man, O king, seems to me, in comparison of that time which is unknown to us, like to the swift flight of a sparrow through the hall where you sit at supper in winter, with your commanders and ministers, and a good fire in the midst, while the storms of rain and snow rage outside; the sparrow, I say, flying in at one door, and immediately out at another, while he is inside, is safe from the wintry storm; but after a short space of fair weather, he immediately vanishes out of your sight, into the dark winter from which he had emerged. So this life of man appears for a short space, but of what went before, or what is to follow, we are utterly ignorant. If, therefore, this new doctrine contains something more certain, it seems justly to deserve to be followed.
Feasting in the hall was the image of the good things in life for the Anglo-Saxons, but as in that passage, there’s always a sense of it as a refuge from the hostility of the world. That’s why exile is such a key theme, and why Grendel taking people from Heorot is so traumatic; because the hall is, above all, a safe haven.
And Anglo-Saxon pessimism goes beyond believing that the world is hostile; they believed that the world was in decline. They weren’t fools; they knew about the Romans and lived among Roman ruins. Archeologial evidence suggests that the Saxons in London held their folkmoots in the old Roman amphitheatre. They would have known that they were living the remnants of a more powerful, sophisticated, and technologically advanced culture than their own, and they foresaw humanity continuing its downward spiral. That adds to the foreignness. The last thousand years of European history have seen continuous growth in wealth, technology and knowledge, and however much people worry about the environment or nuclear annihilation or a clash of civilisations, deep down we believe that’s the norm.
All that pessimism created a literature in a minor key. The plot of Beowulf – heroism, treasure and dragonslaying – makes it easy to caricature it as a kind of C8th action movie. And in a sense that’s true. There’s no great psychological complexity to the characters. Even Arnie might just about be able to pull off the role of Beowulf, as long as the dialogue was kept to a minimum. What gives the poem substance isn’t so much the plot but the mood and context. Beowulf doesn’t save the world, he just holds back the inevitable for a while, and at the end he dies and his country collapses. If Predator had been directed by Ingmar Bergman it might have been something like Beowulf.