Anglo-Saxon Poetry and Riddles

For my Certificate in Education and Training course I have to do a micro teach. This is a fifteen minute presentation on a topic of my choice. This micro blog is to add to my session and allow me to touch on some of the naughtier Anglo-Saxon riddles that might get me in trouble in college.

If you are reading my blog you probably already know that in the 9th century there was no TV, radio, mobile phones or other time wasting devices. A modern reader will struggle to imagine just how dark it is without street lights and electric lights. When I studied in Wales I had to walk a couple of miles through the darkness to my digs and without the aforementioned modern lights, the darkness was tangible.

I would like you to imagine an Anglo-Saxon hall or an Anglo-Saxon family after a day at work huddled around the fire doing what the English do best… telling stories. Interestingly enough the first thing written in English was a hymn written by the famous cowherd Caedmon. The story goes that Caedmon was unable to sing so when the Saxons met up after work to take turns singing Caedmon ran away. I can not stress how upsetting this is for a person in the dark ages. To be part of society was everything and to be apart was a disgrace worse than death. The poem, The Wanderer (from which JRR Tolkien borrowed for some of the most despairing lines of Lord of the Rings), presents the Anglo-Saxon horror of exclusion. Caedmon ran away from his friends and went to sleep. In his sleep he dreamed a dream where a man came to him and asked him to sing. Caedmon replied that he could not sing and the man replied “Neither the less, you will sing for me.” When Caedmon woke up he found himself able to transform Christian doctrine into song. Its his hymn, as recorded by the Venerable Bede, that is the first thing ever written down in English.

Lets imagine the Anglo-Saxon hall, a dangerous place where extreme politeness masked the potential for fatal violence. A place where people were expected to drink but not lose control, be aggressive but keep themselves contained. Smokey, dark and vibrant. Its in this environment that the Anglo-Saxons showed off their linguistic skill, their wit and their performance skills.

First I would like to look at riddles. Riddles are simple questions that the listener must guess. I think part of the game is to make it hard enough not to get but simple enough when it is explained to shame the listener for not getting it. My faviourate riddle is “What is the cleanest leaf?” and that is one of the cleanest riddles! in Sweet’s AngloSaxon Reader in Prose and Verse we find some funny and very rude riddles.

In one the asker describes a long shaft, with a bulbous end and skins at the top that can be peeled back bringing tears to a maidens eyes. Can you imagine the audience clutching children’s ears and feeling embarrassed? Of course the answer is an onion but if its is told right I am sure you know what it could be. I think this demonstrates a clear continuity in humour from the 9th century to the modern day. The double meaning, mistaken description is a mainstay of the Carry On Films and other modern films in the 21st century.

Its worth noting that Tolkien was a very accomplished Anglo-Saxon scholar who drew extensively upon his learning to inform his fiction. In the tense and powerful chapter Riddles in the Dark Gollum and Bilbo play a riddle game that Anglo-Saxons would have been familiar with and I think would have shuddered at. Deep underground the hero plays riddles for his life with a subterranean grendal like monster. One of the riddles stands out for me in particular.

“An Eye in a blue face saw an eye in a green face. ‘That eye is like to this eye’ Said the first eye, ‘But in low place, Not in high place”

The answer is of course Sun shining on daisies and can be worked out by the blue sky and the green grass but there is a short cut in the word daisy. Daisy is a kenning which means Days Eye. The daisy will open at dawn and close at sun set thus is the eye of the day and in this riddle the sun recognises it as kin. Have you guessed what is the cleanest leaf yet?

This leads us onto the next part of this discussion which is Kennings. If you have come to me through twitter you know that I am a kenning enthusiast. I love them because they are so powerful. They can be used for headlines “Trouser snake terror in jungle” in insults “salad dodger” or in naming for example in the work of Roual Darl. Remember the giants and their names? My sword is called “Neck snapper”, my dagger “rib tickler”, my small axe “Ankle breaker” and my Dane Axe “Day Spoiler”. Tolkien used them again in The Hobbit. Thorins sword was called “Goblin Cleaver” and Gandalf’s sword “The Foe Hammer”. Out of antiquity or weapon naming they are a powerful tool for marketing and can be used to name products for example the “Dust Buster”

A kenning works by combining verbs and nouns to create a powerful description. But these are Anglo-Saxon kennings. Viking kennings go to another level and require specialist knowledge to understand. Anglo-Saxons kenning can be worked out by asking yourself a simple question. If I call you a salad dodger you ask yourself who would dodge a salad and the answer is a fat person! Viking kennings are different. They talk of the mead of odin. Impenertatble unless you are familiar with the kenningar which would tell you that Odin drinks poetry like mead, the same with Odins Oaks which means warriors. This is symptomatic of a cultic and exclusive society that seeks to identify outsiders quickly, easily and with minimal fuss. The modern equivalent might be a British Public School where different schools call common objects obscure names or the military where kennings can be used to talk about uncomfortable subjects. A good example comes from Starship Troopers where Ricos commander mentions that one of his colleagues has done a land deal. Ricco understands immediately that his commander is telling him that his friend is dead but this kenning works because of a shared knowledge that if someone dies they are said to have “bought the farm”, thus a land deal.

My faviourate Viking Kenning is adapted from Terry Pratchitt and I’m sorry to say I have forgotten which book it is from. I call my shoes “Priests”.

At this point I am sorry I have to be a bit cheeky. Writing is my day job and this is how I sustain myself and my family. The above Amazon links are useful but I would please ask you to consider supporting me through Paetron or by a gift though PayPal. Especially if you haven’t guessed that the cleanest leaf is the holly leaf. Its the holly leaf because Vikings use leaves to wipe their bottoms and the one they don’t use is the holly leaf for obvious reasons. And the reason my shoes are called priests is because they save my soles!


This current darkness

I was moved today by the front page of the Spectator that showed the NHS as soldiers in trenches fighting a war. I was incredibly moved by one of my friends who is a radiographer who shaved off his beard so that his PPE would work and I was moved to tears by my own sense of worthlessness in this current crisis.

I am a historian with an interest in literature and philosophy. Quite useless at the best of times but in a hospital even worse that useless, a potential menace. What use is a knowledge of Paelolithic fauna or Bronze Age language in a resuscitation? None. Its like that poster of the little girl asking her father what he did in the Great War for civilisation. I know that it is shameless emotional blackmail but what am I doing for civilisation during this six months of lockdown?

I am reminded of a lecture delivered by CS Lewis during the Second World War to humanity students who were wondering if there were any point learning about Anglo-Saxons during wartime. Lewis argued that wartime and peace time were in fact the same. The only difference is that in wartime it is impossible to forget the truth that everyone dies in the end. In peace time you can forget that, you can forget that our society and culture is finite and you can forget the sheer unfairness of the universe. During wartime these truths bear down on us to the exclusion of all else.

My knowledge therefore is equally redundant during a Corona lockdown or during freedom. It is equally valid as well. Peace and war are the same and so should be my attitude to my discipline. Which leads back to my last post, what is the point of history? The point of history is to inform, entertain, educate and see the world through different eyes. To liberate the individual from the pressure of the now and take a wider perspective. My house built in the 1930s was bombed in the war, stands on a deer park owned by the Black Prince and is in striking distance of a Roman Fort built after the Boudican revolt. The purpose of history is to show a bigger and wider world and get in some of the sap that human life is built on.

When my friend shaved his beard I did the same. I now go shopping for my elderly neighbours and enjoy my daily walk around the Quint. Now I feel a bit less useless in that I can see a role for my discipline in the current darkness and I will leave you with a quote from one of my favourite Anglo-Saxon poets (credited with Beowulf by Tolkien, maybe with a smile) “..this too will pass.”