Editorial: Special Issue on the Old English and Medieval English Literature

Volume II, 2016 | Full Text PDF

In the film Anne Hall, the heroine Diane Keaton evinces an interest to attend college and when she approaches Woody Allen for his opinion, the latter has an interesting piece of advice for her — “Just don’t take any course where you have to study Beowulf”. Indian universities today may have taken Allen’s caveat seriously, for the study of Old English literature seems to have been considered as academic torture and permanently proscribed from the English syllabi of Indian universities. Worse, the literary banishment is now being used as a stepping stone to do away with Medieval literature too. Even a hoary university like the University of Calcutta, which has seen the likes of scholars such as the Late Subhas Basu MA (Oxon) discoursing on this oldest portion of English literature, has ensured that Anglo-Saxon history or culture is no longer a part of its UG or PG syllabus, except in a study of the literary history of Britain.

Beowulf, the chief literary monument of Old English literature that acquaints us with the historical and cultural efflorescence of the Anglo-Saxon period, is the title of the book that this foreword seeks to introduce. Like the epic Mahabharata of India, it has a penetrating understanding of human life ameliorated by an exalted artistic dignity. As a primary epic, it may have been composed orally in the first half of the eighth century, being put into manuscript form in 1010, preserved in the British Library today in a manuscript codex known as MS Cotton Vitellius A.XV. 41 lines of the poem were transcribed in 1705, and another 41 published in the second edition of Sharon Turner’s History of the Anglo-Saxons in 1807. It was in 1815 that Grimur Thorkelin from Iceland published a translation (into Latin) of the poem. In 1833, Tennyson’s friend J M Kemble published the first full English edition.

In the 3183 lines of Beowulf is ensconced a poem that is marvellously simple. As a young man, Beowulf (the son of Ecgtheow) leaves his kingdom of Geatland in response to a call for help from Hrothgar, the King of Denmark. Hrothgar appeals to Beowulf to defend his kingdom from the attacks of a man-eating ogre called Grendel who had been ravaging the kingdom for years. When Grendel’s mother comes to avenge the death of her son in Beowulf’s hands, she meets the same fate. Having thus defended the Danes from terrible adversaries, it is time for Beowulf to defend his own kingdom of Geatland from the attack of a fire-dragon fifty years later. With the help of his kinsman Wiglaf, Beowulf is able to kill the dragon, but has to sacrifice his own life in the fight.

Yet, despite the severe simplicity of the poem that makes many critics characterize it as a complicated fairy tale at the most, Beowulf retains within itself sufficient features befitting an epic. Belonging to a period in which all (male) individuals aspired to be heroes, it contains sufficient proof for its protagonist to be characterized, towards its conclusion, as lofgeornost. His flyting with Hrothgar’s thyle Unferth and his account of himself in the Breca episode prepare us for the moment when, with the power of thirty men in one arm, he defeats such terrible monsters as Grendel, his dam and the fire-dragon. At the same time, he is “manna mildust ond monðwærust” — high-minded and gentle, he sacrifices himself as king of Geats for his subjects so that they may not be harmed by the dragon. This makes him Christ-like (and a complete hero, in that his heroism can be viewed on not just the secular but on the religious plane), which is a definite Christian colouring to this otherwise pagan work.

The aspiration to heroism in the youth of the day led to the establishment of the prominent genre of heroic poetry in the body of Old English literature, some prominent examples being Beowulf, ‘Widsith’ (with its three thulas mentioning people and places connected with heroism) and ‘Waldere’ that describes the valiant actions of Walter of Aquitaine. The attitude of bellicosity that characterized the period ensured that war remained the sure-shot path to heroism, and so we have ‘The Battle of Maldon’, ‘The Fight at Finnsburh’ and ‘The Battle of Brunanburh’ as eulogies to heroism in war. Elegiac elements, the result of death and destruction in war or otherwise, are to be found in poems like ‘Deor’s Lament’, ‘The Ruin’, ‘The Wanderer’, ‘The Seafarer’, ‘Wulf and Eadwacer’, ‘The Husband’s Message’ and ‘The Wife’s Lament’. With the Christianization of England in 597, a new body of literature called Christian poetry came into prominence, that was religious from top to toe (rather than incorporating Christian elements in a broader heroic framework, as in Beowulf for example). Under the influence of Caedmon and Cynewulf, poems such as Genesis (A and B), ‘Exodus’, ‘The Fates of the Apostles’, ‘Guthlac’ and ‘The Dream of the Rood’ became exemplary. Under the stewardship of King Alfred, Bishop Aethelwold of Winchester, Abbot Aelfric of Eynsham, Archbishop Wulfstan of York and Byrhtferth of Ramsey, Old English deviated from the composition merely of poetry into the realm of prose (both religious and secular). These by no means are water-tight categories. The elegy ‘Deor’s Lament’, for instance, has copious references to heroic personalities; the elegy ‘The Seafarer’ advocates spiritual consolation in the end; and the woman as hero features in the hagiographical poem ‘Judith’.

In 1066 William, Duke of Normandy, defeated the Anglo-Saxon king Harold II at the Battle of Hastings and this Norman Conquest brought far-reaching changes in English literature. With a new ruling class, alien in speech, coming into being, the normal literary development was halted, forcing Old English prose and poetry into the background. But far from being a negative influence, the Normans brought much that was new and stimulating and valuable. The Norman Conquest thus brought about the merging of two great literary traditions—the existing Teutonic tradition and the Romance tradition with its main source in France.

The Norman Conquest affected greatly the mood of English writings. Mournful scenes and sinister landscapes were a part and parcel of Old English literature, as found in poems like ‘The Ruin’ and the description of Grendel’s abode in Beowulf. It seemed as if the Anglo-Saxon poets were unable to highlight any luminous detail, so much the poet was in the grip of Wyrd (Fate). But in medieval English, the Anglo-Saxon note of instinctive melancholy changed to hopefulness. After the Conquest, the English poets imbibed the French taste for well-lit pictures. They started dealing with flower-decked meadows (Pearl, for example) and singing birds (The Parlement of Fowles). Thus, instead of the storm-tossed seas and battle-fields littered with dead bodies in such Old English poems as ‘The Seafarer’ and ‘The Battle of Maldon’, we have in medieval poetry bright details of spring and the clear blue sky.

French literature lent many conventions to English literature after the Norman Conquest. With the heroic age declining and giving place to feudalism, medieval romances describing the adventures of knights became prominent in the Matters of England, Britain, France and Rome that comprised the medieval romances. The Normans planted Christianity more firmly on English soil leading to composition of plenty of religious works like ‘Poema Morale’, ‘Sinners Beware’, ‘Ormulum’, ‘Cursor Mundi’ and ‘Ancren Riwle’. Following the French convention, many history books were written in verse such as Layamon’s Brut and Robert of Gloucester’s Chronicle. Literature of debate is a French convention that is exemplified in ‘The Owl and the Nightingale’ and ‘Wynnere and Wastoure’. Old English allegories are few such as ‘The Phoenix’ but now prominent allegories like Piers the Plowman by Langland, Pearl, ‘Patience’ and ‘Purity’ were composed. Dream vision poems like Pearl, The Romaunt of the Rose and The House of Fame also show French influence. Many famous English poets like Chaucer and Gower were influenced by established French poets like Guillaume de Machaut and Jean Froissart. While there is no drama in Old English, drama that flourished in medieval England through the Mystery, Miracle and Morality plays and Interludes was a result of earlier French dramatic influence, especially Le Jeu d’Adam, Jean Bodel’s Jeu de Saint Nicolas and Rutebeuf’s  Le Miracle de Théophile.

It has really been a pleasure editing this issue on Old and Middle English literature and I thank The Golden Line, as well as Bhatter College, for giving me an opportunity to promote this otherwise neglected but fundamental area of English literature. The articles featured here are well thought out and comprehensive, which highlight in unambiguous language many salient aspects of the themes they deal with. I will consider my efforts worthwhile if they appeal to the junior and experienced student alike, and prompt them to have a second look at this very pregnant and vibrant portion of British literary history.

                                                                                                                               Dr. Santanu Ganguly


Dr Santanu Ganguly teaches in the Department of English, Netaji Nagar Day College, Kolkata. His articles on Old English have featured in the Journal of the Dept of English, University of Calcutta and in EBSCO. He has a UGC-sponsored Minor Research Project on Old English literature and has guest-edited an issue of the Journal of the Dept of English, University of Calcutta.

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