Articles of interest
08th March 2021
Book in Focus
Reading Old English Wisdom
The Fetters in the Frost
By Robert DiNapoli
The Anglo-Saxons have had a lot of bother laid at their door, some earned, some not. Most recently, various white supremacist discourses have laid claim to the formal ethnic designator as a perverse badge of honour, sweating and straining to reclaim it from the stocks of conformist ignominy where it had languished since the ‘60s. WASPs then were decidedly not cool. White-bread-with-mayonnaise figures of quiet pointlessness. Penny loafers. Social-pillar Presbyterians and Rotarians. Solid career types who settled in the ‘burbs post-haste after achieving unremarkable college degrees in law or commerce. Establishment. Boring.
In their own time, of course, the historical Anglo-Saxons were quite another matter. Descended from stroppy tribes that raised periodic mayhem on Rome’s northern frontier, they mounted a less-than-wholly-friendly takeover of its abandoned outer province of Britannia after Rome withdrew its legions. By that time, they had considerable form. In preceding generations, they had been forced to negotiate an Age of Migration during which large numbers of small tribes contended for survival, mostly by preying on one another.
The tribes traditionally known as the Angles, Saxons and Jutes emerged from the lowlands around the base of the Jutland Peninsula in the fifth century to cross the North Sea and reconfigure the lands they occupied. Like the Celtic peoples they displaced, they were long afterwards romanticised as early-medieval freedom fighters who refused to bend the knee to an overbearing Roman imperial bureaucracy. Nice work if you can get it, but the reality was pointing in very different directions, as far as anyone can really tell.
In the latest iterations of the culture-wars sparked by conservative push-back against the experimental exuberance of the ‘60s, a few images and imagined values of pre-Christian Germania have been taken up as battle-standards by, mostly, angry white men who believe they must defend a fantasy of white, ‘Anglo-Saxon’ cultural dominance imperilled by multi-culturalism, socialism, feminism, and all sorts of soft-headed liberal do-goodism. They sport tattoos of Thor’s hammer and bear shields that carry the runic character known to the Anglo-Saxons as eðel (E), whose name means ‘homeland’. They act on an inchoate desire to play dress-up, engage in live-action role-playing games and own the libs by parading storm-trooper semiotics behind a superficial show of Super Bowl half-time patriotic fervour.
Those of us whose work aims at recovering some slightly more accurate sense of what actually mattered to early medieval societies bear at least some responsibility to push back against such misappropriations and travesties. The Anglo-Saxons were a liminal people. Their known history crosses a profound watershed at the outset of their conversion to Christianity from 597, when the first Roman missionaries reached the shores of Kent. Far from embodying some monolithic Germanic identity, their pre-Christian past encompasses a patchwork of numberless (and often nameless) peoples and tribes, jostling their way across the unstable landscape of Migration-Age Europe.
The poems I translate in Reading Old English Wisdom reflect this mixed heritage in a number of ways, most of them indirect: the later monastic setting of their composition would have made any overt expression of pagan beliefs or values impossible, were any such beliefs and values to be had. By and large, they weren’t. Surviving texts from the period make occasional mention of the Anglo-Saxons’ pagan forebears. The author of the great heroic poem Beowulf is concerned with no one else, but even on the few occasions when pagan belief or ritual figures overtly in his narrative, he’s hazy on the particulars. He’s not self-censoring: he simply doesn’t know. However, even to allude cryptically to such matters crosses certain discretions and barriers erected by the church against the pagan past. The Beowulf poet picks his way carefully past these, with a confidence inspired by the long voice of his own native tradition, whose pull, though blurred and distanced, could not be wholly negated by the advent of the church’s overarching ideology.
Other Old English poems perform comparable mental gymnastics. The selection of wisdom poems I discuss in Reading Old English Wisdom offers some of the most indicative (if not entirely revealing) instances. The opening of the second section of Maxims I is a telling collage of mysteriously mixed messages:
Frost will freeze, fire dissolve the wood.
The earth must burgeon; ice will make a bridge--
water wear a helmet--wondrously
locking seeds in the ground. One shall loose
the fetters in the frost: almighty God.
Winter will turn away, good weather in its wake:
the summer-hot sky, the sea that knows no rest.
The path of the dead is deep and longest hid.
Holly is to be kindled; the legacy
of the dead distributed. Renown is best.
It begins with an evocatively rendered bit of medieval natural science: matter’s metamorphoses through different states and seasonal variations of temperature and plant growth. This is summed up in the “fetters in the frost” (which I’ve borrowed for the book’s subtitle) that embody God’s government of the whole scene. So far, so orthodox, though the images play a bit more restlessly than the propositions of patristic doctrine.
Over the next three lines, it all dissolves in mystery, marked by objects and concepts that catch faint transmissions out of the deep past, like the telescopes of modern astronomers that capture billion-year-old light. The hidden path of the dead is not a formally Christian concept. The church taught certain knowledge of our post-mortem fate: at one remove or another we face God’s judgement on our conduct between birth and death. End of story. The notion of death as merely unknown territory has no place in Christian accounts of the afterlife. In Bede’s famous story of the conversion of King Edwin of Northumbria, one of the king’s pagan advisors proposes the analogy of the sparrow in the mead hall that flies out of the stormy night, through the warmth, light and shelter of the hall, and in an instant returns to the turbulent darkness without. Our time here is brief, he suggests, and we know nothing of what came before or what will follow. This, for any literate Anglo-Saxon, is the default agnosis of unredeemed paganism. Yet, here it is, a smudge on the horizon of this poem composed centuries after Christian cosmology and existential sensibilities had taken hold as established fact in Anglo-Saxon England.
Holly remains an element of traditional Christmas ornament to this day, yet its appearance here, in the presence of death, suggests other possibilities. It has played a part in the symbolism and ritual of any number of pre-Christian European societies. Its being ‘kindled’ suggests some sort of formal ritual involving more than just festive yuletide candles. In a similar vein, the reference that follows to the goods of the dead being ‘distributed’ does not sound much like an action in a probate court. Do the holly and the distribution of grave-goods suggest a distant memory of pre-Christian funeral practices? We cannot say with any certainty, but the suggestion is powerful here.
However, it remains a suggestion, delicate threads of possible meaning that cast fleeting shadows through the plain daylight of the poet’s Christian present. Such a wispy tissue of attenuated possibility is all we really have left of the pagan past. The new faith demanded its more or less total abandonment and suppression, and most of what appears to have survived is more or less waxwork reconstruction by later hands. The various neo-pagan symbols and identity politics that have shaped the imagery and ideology of recently vitalised hard-right movements in Europe and North America are effectively frauds and misappropriations: cod-Wagnerian sound-effects for a YouTube Götterdämerung. Its spirit echoes the last century’s Nazi appropriations of Wagner-inflected anti-Semitism and Germanic stage-props like the double-S rune, ss, used to brand the atrocities of the SS.
My hope, albeit a faint one, is that works such as Reading Old English Wisdom might afford some responsible ballast that can counter the abuse of ancient cultural artefacts to sanction actions and ideologies foreign to their native spirit.
Robert DiNapoli has lectured on English language and literature at universities in North America, England, and Australia. He is also a poet, translator and essayist whose writing has been published in PN Review, English Studies, Neophilologus, The Journal of the Australian Early Medieval Society, Arena Magazine, and Arena Quarterly, as well as digital forums such as Arena Online, Eureka Street, and Foreground. His books include A Far Light: A Reading of Beowulf (2016) and Engelboc (2019).
Reading Old English Wisdom: The Fetters in the Frost is available now in Hardback and eBook formats. enter the code PROMO25 at the checkout of the CSP websote for a 25% discount on the hardback.