The Wanderer

So, it’s the last Friday of the month and I’m supposed to have my Year of Important Books post ready. Whoops. Still reading the book…so we’ll get to it next month. In the meantime, how about a little Lord of the Rings mixed up with Anglo-Saxon history? Without further ado, I present….The Wanderer.


One of the poignant moments in Peter Jackson’s The Two Towers is the scene where King Théoden, newly restored to himself after Wormtongue’s enchantment, prepares for the upcoming battle of Helm’s Deep. Have a listen:

Wonderful! Just this little snippet made me want to go back and watch all three movies, but I digress…

The poem that Théoden quotes here comes from Tolkien, but in the book it is said by Aragon, as he introduces the Riders of Rohan to his companions. It has been condensed somewhat in the film, the original version is this:

Where now are the horse and the rider? Where is the horn that was blowing?

Where is the helm and the hauberk, and the bright hair flowing?

Where is the harp on the harpstring, and the red fire glowing? 

Where is the spring and the harvest, and the tall corn growing? 

They  have passed like rain on the mountains, like wind on the meadow;

The days have gone down in the West behind the hills into Shadow.

Who shall gather the smoke of the deadwood burning? 

Or behold the flowing years from the Sea returning? 

One day I am going to do a longer post about Tolkien, the Anglo-Saxons, and Aragon in particular, but for today I wanted to give you just a little tidbit, illustrated by this poem.

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Ah, yes, Aragon, aka Strider, aka son of Arathorn, aka heir of Esildur, aka…well, stay tuned to the blog to find out! 

Tolkien, of course, was an Anglo-Saxon scholar, and in particular he modelled the Rohirrim after the people and culture of Anglo-Saxon Britain.

This poem that Aragon quotes is adapted from one of the poems that survive from that period, called The Wanderer. It begins like this (translated, of course, from Anglo-Saxon):

Often the solitary one 

finds grace for himself

the mercy of the Lord.

Although he, sorry-hearted,

must for a long time

move by hand [i.e. row]

along the waterways,

(along) the ice-cold sea,

tread the paths of exile. 

Events must always go as they must! 

This poem can be found in the 10th century anthology of Anglo-Saxon poetry called the Exeter Book, but many scholars believe that this poem existed long before then in oral tradition, and could date back to the 6th century.

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Facsimile of the first page of The Wanderer from the Exeter Book (from Wikipedia). This looks like it is written like prose, not poetry, but if you look carefully you will see extra spaces between words, which is the indication of a half-line division of a line of poetry. Also you will see some dots between words, which is also meant to show other half-line breaks. 

 

The poem itself is about a warrior who is wandering in exile, having lost his liege lord, kin, and comrades in battle, defending his homeland from attack. It is melancholy in nature, which comes as no surprise – for in the Anglo-Saxon culture with its emphasis on close family ties and allegiance to a lord, to be alone in a strange land with no kin or lord to protect you is almost a fate worse than death.

In the first stanza quoted above, you can see a fascinating mix of the old Saxon religion and beliefs and the new Christian ones. It shows a culture in the midst of transition from the old ways to the new. The opening lines show that the warrior is looking for mercy from God, but at the end of the stanza you see “Events must always go as they must!” 

When you look up this poem you will find that there are many different ways to translate the Anglo-Saxon original, so that last line I can also find translated as, “Fate is established!” or “Fate has been decreed.”

This is the Saxon concept of wyrd, the inexorable fate that binds every person, that cannot be denied. So the poem begins with both the Christian concept of God’s mercy and the Saxon idea of fate. And you will see these two world-views juxtaposed throughout the poem.

In the midst of The Wanderer is the part that Tolkien adapted for The Two Towers. It comes in the poem after the warrior has contemplated the brevity of life, “as now in various places throughout this middle-earth walls stand, blown by the wind, covered with frost, storm-swept the buildings.” After meditating on this the warrior says,

Where is the horse gone? Where the rider? 

Where the giver of treasure? 

Where are the seats at the feast? 

Where are the revels in the hall? 

Alas for the splendour of the prince! 

How that time has passed away,

dark under the cover of night, 

as if it had never been! 

It’s all a bit gloomy, I’ll admit, but I can imagine the effect of the scop singing or reciting this poem on the people gathered in the mead hall, snug against the winter storms, surrounded by their kin and secure in their own place in the world. It would have given both a sobering contemplation of the fate of the exiled stranger, and the delicious relief that they were not him. Kinda like the effect of a thunderstorm when you are in bed, you feel extra cozy knowing that you are  not outside in the storm itself.

The Wanderer ends with the counsel, “It is better for the one who seeks mercy, consolation from the father in the heavens, where, for us, all permanence rests.” The Christian world-view has obviously won out for the original writer of the poem. Of course there are other speculations that one could make, for example, that some scribe along the way altered the poem, adding more overtly Christian elements than were originally in there. It’s hard to say, and I guess we will probably never know.

One of the best ways to understand a culture is to read their literature. Unfortunately, as the Anglo-Saxon culture was in many ways an oral culture, we have lost so much of their stories. I’m so glad this poem survived to open up to us the world of the mead-hall, and to enable us to meet the exiled wanderer, journeying alone through the icy mist.


I took my translation of The Wanderer from Anglo-Saxons.net. Hop on over there if you want to see the whole poem in Anglo-Saxon along with the English translation.

And just for fun, click here if you want to hear it read in the original Anglo-Saxon.

 

Featured photo: Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, by Caspar David Friedrich, from WikiCommons

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reblog: It’s A Monk’s Life

Hey there!

I am heading off to the mountains today for some R & R, yippee! So I thought I would delve into the vaults and share a previous post that didn’t get a lot of eyes on it.

Hope you enjoy!


Religion is what you do with your solitude.”  – Archbishop William Temple

The Irish Celtic monks who lived at Lindisfarne in the 7th century would have understood this quote. Solitude was an important part of their practice of faith – so much so that the choice of the tidal island of Lindisfarne was a deliberate one, made to accommodate their desire to set themselves apart from the world. This island that was separated by the tides twice a day was a perfect place to enforce that solitude.

The monks there practiced a rugged aesthetic Christianity, whose roots went back to the Desert Fathers of the third and fourth centuries. Their monastery was modelled after the one at Hii (modern-day Iona) founded by Columba, which also was situated on an island and at the time the most influential centre for the particular flavour of Christianity practiced by the Irish monks. Lindisfarne’s Abbot and Bishop, Aidan, came from Iona in 635 AD along with 12 other monks at the invitation of Oswald, King of Bernica, to start a monastery in that kingdom.

Irish society at the time was based on clan and kinship ties, and the monasteries were similar, in that they revolved around the Abbot as leader and promoted a strong sense of community. The Celtic Christianity practiced by the monks included much that resonates with us today: the goodness of Creation, a greater allowance for the role of women in the church, and an emphasis on accountability between individuals. But it also contained elements we find difficult to understand – in particular, the extreme aestheticism shown by practices such as praying for hours while immersed in the cold ocean, rigorous fasting, hundreds of genuflections at a time, the cross-vigil (praying prostrate on the floor before a cross) and even self-flagellation.

There is not enough space in this blog post to fully comment on those practices, other than to say that they, like the monks themselves, are a part of their times, and difficult for us to understand without the same frame of reference that the people of the day shared. This was a chaotic time, and discipline was key to survival. Sacrifice and discipline were much more entrenched in that world, where pledging to your lord, and giving your life for him as part of a war band, was common. Sheer survival meant hard, disciplined work. The Irish/Celtic monks carried this idea into their practice of the faith, and added to it the religious ideal of becoming like Christ. In order to follow Him fully they dealt severely with any sin that might distract them from that goal.

It was through practicing the discipline of solitude that the monks built time into their day to meditate upon God and pray. Aidan, in particular, felt this need keenly as the busy monastery began to fill with students, guests and monks. He established a place away from the island, on another small tidal island a stone’s throw away from Lindisfarne, but this proved to be too close for true solitude and so he eventually made a retreat for himself on the Farne Islands nearer to Bamburgh.

Meditation for Aidan and the monks was never an “emptying of the mind” such as is practiced in Eastern religions. Meditation for them chiefly meant meditation on Holy Scripture, much of which they had memorized. The monks were required to memorize all 150 Psalms plus a Gospel, this, plus the many other scriptures they chanted together at their 4x daily services would prove much food for prayerful meditation during their times of solitude. The monks also would meditate on the natural world: the tossing sea, the graceful way of birds in the wind, the rising of the sun and moon. This was not pantheism, but a deep awareness of the presence of God in all of Creation. God had created all, therefore all creation was good and held something to teach them of God and His ways.

In researching the lives of the monks I found much to challenge me and much to puzzle me. But I could not help but be impressed by their devotion. Of course they were not perfect people, and their emphasis on aestheticism led to some bizarre extremes that I find hard-pressed to justify. The temptation to go the extra mile and be “more” devoted than the next person was one that I feel some must have succumbed to, and in the end at times their strange practices became more about themselves and their own glory as opposed to the glory of God.

But that is not to say we cannot learn from these men (and women, there were some strong female figures at this time in the church, Hilda, daughter of King Oswy, among them) and their practice of faith. I daresay I could use more time for solitude and meditation myself. Too often these days we are afraid of silence, filling our ears with ear buds and music rather than the sound of the wind or the birds. What are we losing? What do we not know about God that we would know if we would disconnect and listen for a time to the Word and Creation?

I have attempted some small retreats a time or two, and have found it surprisingly difficult to disconnect. The minute you start thinking about taking a day, or a half-day away, the “list” clamours up in your mind, demanding attention. And when you do manage to ignore that distraction and take the time, you find that silence is difficult. Listening prayer is difficult. And I suppose that is the point.

“Come further up, come further in!” urges Jewel the unicorn in Lewis’ The Last Battle. The monasteries were all about making a space for people to do just that, and to take what they learned back to their world in the form of education, healing, and spiritual direction.

This is all summed up nicely in a prayer attributed to Aidan himself:

Leave me alone with God as much as may be.
As the tide draws the waters close in upon the shore,
Make me an island, set apart,
alone with you, God, holy to you.

Then with the turning of the tide
prepare me to carry your presence to the busy world beyond,
the world that rushes in on me
till the waters come again and fold me back to you.

Photo credit: Quiet Time, by Leland Francisco, on Flickr

Interview: Edoardo Albert

I had the pleasure of reading and reviewing author and historian Edoardo Albert’s book, Edwin: High King of Britain, a couple weeks back. Today I am very pleased to invite him to the blog, for a discussion of books, writing, and…pizza?

Hi Edorado, and welcome to The Traveller’s Path. Let’s start by having you tell us a little bit about yourself and your journey as a writer.

My name is Edoardo Albert and, yes, I am a writer. Words are my drug of choice. Those little packets of meaning – squiggles on a page or fleeting movements in the air – that put my mind in yours and yours in mine; that allow me to hear the dead and speak to the future; the everyday miracle that we ignore. It’s a dangerous business, opening up a book and reading the first line – there’s no knowing where you might end up: heaven, hell, a dull Thursday in Croydon or talking to a woman with a fish’s head. Dear reader, beware! You hold in your hands something more dangerous than an unexploded bomb, more skittish than a thoroughbred sea horse, more insidious than the Zika virus. Listen… Can you hear? I’m in your mind now.

Hello…

How did you get interested in writing about this time and place? And in particular, what was it about Edwin that prompted you to write about him? 

Taking the B1340 road north out of Seahouses. That’s what set me off, eventually, writing about 7th-century Northumbria. When you take this road, you see up ahead, squatting on a great upthrust of the Whin Sill where earth and sea and sky meet, this: Bamburgh Castle.

IMG_2465This I later learned to be the ancient seat of the Idings, the kings of Northumbria; the stronghold of the earls of Northumberland, who held off the Viking kingdom of Jorvik when it seemed all England must surely fall to the Norsemen; five thousand years before Christ, hunters sat atop this rock and looked east over what is now sea and saw there the richest hunting ground of Europe: the water meadows and marshes of Doggerland. All gone now, lost beneath the waves, when the Storegga Slide triggered the tsunami that cut Britain from Europe and started the island kingdom’s story. But, then, I knew nothing of this. All I knew was what I saw: the most magnificent castle I had ever seen – and I had never heard of it before.

However, I was in a good position to learn more, since my brother-in-law, Paul Gething, was one of the directors of the Bamburgh Research Project, an ongoing archaeological investigation into the castle and its surroundings. Paul and the BRP were busy revolutionising our understanding of the early medieval kingdom of Northumbria and, to make their work better known, Paul and I jointly wrote a book about the history and archaeology of the realm, called Northumbria: the Lost Kingdom. In writing that book, I learned about the kings of Northumbria and, in particular, the kings of the conversion period, when the pagan Anglo-Saxons converted to Christianity, and the kingdom reached a zenith of power: Edwin, Oswald and Oswiu. Reading their history, and the extraordinary story arc of their reigns, I thought that someone must surely have written about them before. But no one had. So I decided to. Edwin: High King of Britain was the first volume of The Northumbrian Thrones; Oswald: Return of the King came out in May 2015 and the final volume, Oswiu: King of Kings, I’ve just finished writing and it will be published in the autumn (or fall, for my north American readers).

I love the portrayal of Edwin’s faith journey in your book, as he moved from paganism to Christianity. I noticed in your biography that you yourself have had a bit of a faith journey of your own. How did your own personal experiences help you to write Edwin’s story? 

I don’t think it did help. Admittedly, I’ve been a bit around the houses with respect to faith (born Catholic, turned atheist at six, dabbled in occultism in my teens, experimented with mysticism, turned Sufi Muslim, back to where I started: if you’re interested, I managed to sneak it into my latest book, London: A Spiritual History, under the guise of using my own life as an example of the myriad spiritual histories that make up the arc of the city’s encounter with God), but when it comes to characters, I attempt to enter imaginatively into their worlds and their personalities, not import my own. This is particularly important in historical fiction, where the world the characters inhabit is so very different from my own.

However, I do find this time (7th-century Britain) particularly fascinating because of the clash of worldviews that characterised it, as the pagan, Germanic, illiterate but strongly oral culture of the Anglo-Saxons, the successful invaders, clashed, melded and reformed under the influence of the Christian, Latin (and Celtic), and literate civilisation of Europe and Ireland. There are fascinating parallels to draw with our own day, as well as much that is unique to the time and place.

What was the biggest challenge for you in writing this book? And is there anything you left out that you wish you could have included? 

Writing it as well as I could. No, nothing left out that I wanted to include.

You have written non-fiction and fiction. Do you enjoy writing one more than the other? 

Fiction.

Who is your favourite writer? (or writers, I know it can be hard to narrow it down!)

I’ll have to go for writers: JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis, Rudyard Kipling, Robert Louis Stevenson and Evelyn Waugh.

Once you have finished this series, do you think you will write more stories about this era? Or do you have something completely different planned? 

I’ll be working on a non-fiction book next, so nothing definite yet. Lots of different ideas – some very different indeed! – but at the moment I’m not sure.

Tell us about what you are working on now.

A couple of book proposals for non-fiction work. I’m just firming up the ideas and then my agent is going to start touting them round to publishers (I have just recently signed up with an agent for my non-fiction work but I still represent myself for my fiction).

And now, just for fun:

If you were going to hire someone to write a soundtrack for your novel, who would that be, and why? 

Catherine Groom. Expert in early music, brilliant composer and teacher, funniest writer on Facebook I’ve ever read, and she’s already written the music we used for the intro to the audio extract from Edwin: High King of Britain that you can hear here on my website.

Who would you cast to play Edwin in a film adaptation of your book?

Russell Crowe. Definitely.

Pizza or burger? 

Pizza (the clue’s in my name!).

Tea or coffee? 

Tea (my father is from Sri Lanka, home of the best tea in the world, and his father worked on the tea plantations there).

Favourite TV series?

I barely ever watch television nowadays. But the best series I’ve ever seen is undoubtedly the production of Brideshead Revisited staring Jeremy Irons and Anthony Andrews.

One piece of advice for new writers?

Read. And, if you can, become famous by some other means – this will ensure a publisher’s contract and get your books into stores throughout the land.

Thanks so much to Edoardo, for stopping by the blog today! I am so looking forward to delving into some of his other works – definitely I will be checking out his book on Northumbria. I’m eager to read the other books in his Northumbrian Throne series as well, but I will have to wait until my own are published. Somehow it’s tricky to read about a character you are trying to create in your own mind – too much second-guessing going on. 

I hope you all enjoyed this interview as much as I did! 

 

 

 

 

 

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

There is an important historical document (er, documents…but more on that later…) from the Early Middle Ages that I will confess I hardly looked at when doing my research for my trilogy. Which might seem odd, seeing as I have already explained how there are very few contemporary historical documents from this era. So why did I not dive into the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle?

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The statue of King Alfred the Great, by Hamo Thornycroft, erected in Winchester in 1902. I really love this king. I will definitely write a blog post about him some day! 

Part of the reason was timing. This chronicle was begun, as far as we can tell, sometime around the year 891 AD, during the reign of Alfred the Great, in Wessex. So it mainly describes the events after that year, although there is some reference to what happened before that, starting at Caesar’s invasion in 60 AD. But mainly that history was taken from other sources, most importantly from Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, and so I relied more on Bede’s accounts than the Chronicle, as Bede’s was the more contemporary source.

Another reason was that of setting. As Alfred was King of Wessex, he was most interested in chronicling the history of the kingdom of Wessex in particular. Understandably, of course. So while there are details about that kingdom in the Chronicle (especially regarding those years before the scribes starting writing it) there is not much about the northern kingdoms, which of course I was more interested in. Not to say that there weren’t interesting things happening in the south, but you can only cover so much, right? So, for example, here is the entry about the year that my book opens, 643 AD:

A.D. 643 . This year Kenwal succeeded to the kingdom of the West-Saxons, and held it one and thirty winters. This Kenwal ordered the old church at Winchester to be built in the name of St.
Peter. He was the son of Cynegils.

As you can see, not much there that could help me with my book, which is set in the kingdom of the Angles, in Bernicia and Deira.  In contrast, here is a random entry from the year 978 AD. At this time scribes were writing down what they thought was pertinent information as each year passed, so you get some fascinating tidbits about the year’s events:

A.D. 978 . This year all the oldest counsellors of England fell at Calne from an upper floor; but the holy Archbishop Dustan stood alone upon a beam. Some were dreadfully bruised: and some did not escape with life. This year was King Edward slain, at eventide, at Corfe-gate, on the fifteenth day before the calends of April. And he was buried at Wareham without any royal honour. No worse deed than this was ever done by the English nation since they first sought the land of Britain. Men murdered him but God has magnified him. He was in life an earthly king — he is now after death a heavenly saint. Him would not his earthly relatives avenge — but his heavenly father has avenged him amply. The earthly homicides would wipe out his memory from the earth — but the avenger above has spread his memory abroad in heaven and in earth. Those, Who would not before bow to his living body, now bow on their knees to His dead bones. Now we may conclude, that the wisdom of men, and their meditations, and their counsels, are as nought against the appointment of God. In this same year succeeded Ethelred Etheling, his brother, to the government; and he was afterwards very readily, and with great joy to the counsellors of England, consecrated king at Kingston. In the same year also died Alfwold, who was Bishop of Dorsetshire, and whose body lieth in the minster at Sherborn.

Compared with the terse, factual events of the 643 AD entry, there is lots of drama and intrigue here! The collapse of an upper floor of a building which killed and maimed many of the important counsellors to the king; the king himself murdered and hastily buried without due honour, which prompted a medieval tongue-lashing from the outraged scribe; and the king’s brother, Ethelred, consecrated king with “great joy”. Hmm. My writer’s brain could do a lot with this. The death of the counsellors, prompting some instability in the kingdom? The elder statesmen, who could have tempered the younger hot-heads, gone, allowing youthful ambition to fester? Was it perhaps the king’s brother, with the aide of those younger counsellors, behind the plot to kill the king and so gain the throne? Which is why he was welcomed so eagerly? Lots of things one could research further and write about!

This immediacy of detail is the most fascinating and valuable aspect of the Chronicle. But it is not just one document. The Chronicle is actually several different documents. The original one was begun in Wessex at Alfred’s command, and several copies were made of it and sent to various monasteries across Britain. From there those documents were independently updated as the years went by. In one case the Chronicle was still being updated in 1154! All told, nine manuscripts survive for us to study today.

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This map shows the various places the surviving chronicles were written, and where they are now kept. As you can see, the focus was definitely on southern England.

Of course these documents that make up the Chronicle cannot be seen as being 100% accurate, even though they were being written contemporarily. There are parts where the different versions contradict each other for the same year, and there could be many reasons for that. The scribes would rely not only on their own knowledge of what happened that year, but also on word-of-mouth as to what happened in the rest of the country. So information certainly could get easily distorted. And sometimes, the scribes, having agendas of their own and kings that they were beholden to, would distort information to favour these. Propaganda is a very old art, indeed. The whole idea of objectivity would have been quite foreign to their mind set, so all the information has to be cross-referenced with whatever sources can be found outside of the Chronicle to get a closer handle on exactly what happened.

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The opening page of the Peterborough Chronicle, the latest surviving version, begun in 1120, after the monastery was destroyed by fire. If a monastery’s copy of the Chronicle was destroyed or lost, other monasteries would lend their copies so that the monastery could copy the entries from before the date their copy was destroyed, and begin again the contemporary entries. In this case, although the earlier entries were transcribed in the original Anglo-Saxon (Old English) the newer parts contain some of the first written examples of Middle English.

But even with these caveats, this marvellous undertaking  opened up a window to this era that is invaluable to historians and interested amateurs alike. We owe a great deal of debt to the foresight of King Alfred, who made the original decision to begin to write down the events of his kingdom, as well as to Bede, whose account  likely inspired him to begin a similar work.

The Chronicle is seen as the single-most important document to come out of the Early Medieval period. Our knowledge of this time would be scarce, indeed, without it.

 

Photos from WikiCommons