The Anglo-Saxon World

Kevin Crossley-Holland

This is an anthology of many different works from the sixth to the eleventh centuries; the goal is to provide an idea of how the Anglo-Saxons viewed the world. It includes selections from The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a record of events though several hundred years (which in some places could be maddeningly brief). It also includes the complete Beowulf in verse. We all know the basic Beowulf tale from modern adaptations, but the original surprised me in many ways. First, the big fight scenes are in fact quite brief: Beowulf dispatches both Grendel and Grendel’s mother in less than 4 pages out of 80 pages for the overall epic. A small tidbit: Beowulf defeats Grendel by tearing off his arm; Grendel runs home to mommy to die. Beowulf decapitates mom with a blow from a huge sword he finds inside her cave.

Another point that struck me was just how difficult it is to translate poetry from one language to another. The meter gets screwed up, and forget any rhyme that might have been in the original. What’s really bad is that many poetic images that doubtless make perfect sense in the original come out clunky in another language. Homer has his “wine-dark sea” and “owl-eyed Athena”. Beowulf is full of such expressions: “peace-weaver” (a woman married to a man in another clan to build peace between warring clans); “wolf-slopes”; “moor-stalker”; “treasure-giver” (a king); “shield-play” (just like “swordplay”); and so on. These expressions jarred me while reading, always taking a moment to digest properly.

Then there were some surprising statements, such as this:

Thus, Ecgtheow’s son, feared in combat,
confirmed his courage with noble deeds;
he live a life of honor; he never slew
companions at the feast;...

Apparently, refraining from killing your comrades during a feast was considered saintly and honorable. Those must have been some wild feasts! Party hearty, guys!

Many fine points of Anglo-Saxon life are apparent from the verse: women are invisible unless they are noblewomen; one woman of rank had a fellow executed because he stared at her too long, thereby insulting her modesty. Otherwise, the only other women we see (other than Grendel’s mother, of course) are always serving the men at the feast. Gold is valuable, but as a mark of honor. Kings hold all the golden ornaments and dole them out to retainers as rewards for good service. The gold isn’t valuable in the sense that you can sell it for something else; it is instead a mark of honor. Somebody wearing a lot of gold is a highly honored person.

A listing of laws is also presented, and, revealingly, they are presented in the same if-then format that dominated laws until the Romans organized their laws. Here are some examples:

If a slave sacrifices to devils, he is to pay six shillings compensation or be flogged.
If anyone kill a man who is in the act of thieving, the thief’s family gets no wergild (compensation).
If a man from a distance, or a foreigner, goes off the track and he neither shouts nor blows a horn, he is to be assumed to be a thief, to be either killed or redeemed.

All in all, I learned a great deal about these people from reading them in their own words -- so to speak.