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The Battle of Maldon: A Student Doodle Edition

For a bonus question on one of my Old English literature exams, my students used their artistic talents to draw scenes from The Battle of Maldon. Together, these doodles cover almost the entire poem and document how well (or how badly) my students remembered the poem.

Drawings have long since been used for the purpose of teaching (for an example from the Anglo-Saxon period see Teaching the Passion to the Anglo-Saxons: An early medieval comic strip in the St Augustine Gospels). On occasion, I use my own drawings to spice up my lectures (such as my Anglo-Saxon Anecdotes) or explain complicated bits of Anglo-Saxon literature (e.g., The Freoðuwebbe and the Freswael: A Comic Strip Reconstruction of the Finnsburg Fragment and Episode). For last year’s third-year Old English literature exam, I decided to turn the tables on my students. I had them each draw a scene from the Old English poem The Battle of Maldon for a bonus point (worth 1% of the final grade) and the results were both hilarious and insightful. While the exercise was intended as a bit of a gag, their doodles actually allowed me to see which events from the poem had captured their interest; how they (mis)remembered certain passages; how few of them could spell the name of the English leader Byrhtnoth correctly; and which scenes, apparently, made no impact on them at all (e.g., no one pictured the loyal retainers fighting on to die alongside their lord!).  Here follows a selection of my students’ drawings, along with some commentary.

i) Release the hawk!

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In the opening lines of the extant version of The Battle of Maldon, the kinsman of Offa releases his “leofne…hafoc” [beloved hawk] (ll. 4-5); a scene, which apparently, struck a chord with these two students. As the second student points out, Offa’s release of the hawk, as well as the decision of the English to drive away their horses, was  intended to strengthen the morale of the English troops – they had burned their bridges (or: released their beloved hawks) and there would be no turning back!

ii) ‘Give us dollah!’

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The next two students have drawn how the Vikings demand tribute or, as the second drawing suggests, “dollah”, which (apparently) is slang for money or danegeld [the term used for the tribute paid by the Anglo-Saxons to the Dane – bonus point!]. The English respond reluctant: “not a chance!” according to the first student; the second student is closer to the mark: “kill them with spears!”, “poisoned spears!”, some of the English shout – reflecting the English leader Byrhtnoth’s original response to offer the vikings “garas …ættrynne ord and ealde swurd” [spears, poisoned spears and old swords] (ll. 46-47) .The second drawing also shows what happens next: the Vikings ask to be allowed to pass and “Byrthroth” lets them – an important scene that inspired many other students as well…

iii) Let them pass!

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This student has drawn the strategic advantage of the English army, led by “Byrhnoth”: the Vikings had to cross a narrow tidal causeway to get to the other side. (Ooo! Horned helmet alert!)

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This student has the Vikings threaten to “hurt you and your mum”; stick figure “Byrhnoth” is unimpressed and says “You may cross over so we can fight like real men. I want glory!”.

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This student depicts “Brythnots army standing by while Vikings get on British lands”. With a keen eye for detail, the student has the English play games of football, chess and whiff-whaff (and one English warrior even sleeps in a hammock!), while the Vikings cross to the main land.

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Another bridge-crossing scene – one English warrior shouts “Yay! Fair battle!” and another shouts “Swilce ofermod!”. The latter, of course, refers to the original poet’s remark that the English leader Byrhtnoth acted out “his ofermode” (l. 89) [his excessive pride].

iv) The beasts of battle await…

BomDoodle12This student has remembered one of the recurring typescenes of Old English heroic poetry: the beasts of battle that show up at the end of a battle to devour the dead bodies. They also make an appearance in The Battle of Maldon: hremmas wundon / earn æses georn” [ravens wound about, eager eagles of carrion] (ll. 106-107).

v) The death of Byrhtnoth

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I always tell my students that this scene is pure Hollywood: the old leader “Byrnthoth”  – a “har hilderinc” [grey-haired warrior] (l. 168) – goes down, the young warrior Wulfmær – “hyse unweaxen” [a young man, not fully grown] (l. 152) –  takes revenge! I am glad that at least one of them took note. Not sure where the broken sword comes from though…

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Another student also remembered the scene (and the correct spelling of the leader’s name!), and then went all Harold Godwinson on the offending Viking spear-thrower!

vi) How not to be a hero

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Of course, not all English warriors were as courageous as young Wulfmaer. This student remembers how the sons of Odda fleed the scene, taking with them the horse of their stricken leader “Byrtnoth”. In the poem, all three sons of Odda flee the scene and, in the mind of the next student, they all did so on the same horse:

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I find it intriguing to see how none of the students seem to have been inspired to draw the near-suicidal loyalty of the English warriors after their lord has been cut down. Even the poem’s most famous lines “Hige sceal þe heardra, heorte þe cenre / mod sceal þe mare, þe ure mægen lytlað” [Mind must be tougher, heart must be bolder, courage must be greater, as our strength becomes less]  did not get a mention – odd, given that it is the perfect mindset for an exam!

vii) Wow, very ofermod, much Anglo-Saxon, wow

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Wow, indeed.

Lǣce Hwā: Doctor Who and Alfred the Great

The TARDIS occasionally found its way to early medieval England and these visits of the nation’s most beloved ‘Time Lord’ can also teach us something about Anglo-Saxon history and the Old English language. This post focuses on Alfred the Great and is the second of a series of three blogs that deal with the visits of BBC’s Doctor Who to Anglo-Saxon England.

The man who wouldn’t give up: The Doctor meets the King

In a volume of short stories entitled Doctor Who. Short trips: Past tense. A short-story anthology (ed. Ian Farrington, 2004), the contribution ‘The man who wouldn’t give up’, written by Nev Fountain, touches upon the most well-known king of the Anglo-Saxons: Alfred the Great (849-899). The story is an interesting mix of early medieval fact, Anglo-Saxon myth and Whovian silliness.

Alfred the Great and the Sixth Doctor

Alfred the Great and the Sixth Doctor

The year is 878 and the sixth Doctor lands in Somerset, where he enters the hut of a swineherd. Here, he chances upon Alfred, disguised as a Danish minstrel (a well-known but ahistorical myth); in a funny little twist, the Doctor introduces himself as a spying harpist who is investigating the Vikings: “Oh sorry, what am I saying? That’s not my story at all, it’s yours isn’t it? Your Majesty.” (p. 192) Alfred, rather surprised that this man has seen through his disguise, decides the Doctor must be a wizard. They then discuss the dire situation England is in (the Vikings have overrun almost all Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, only Wessex under Alfred remains, but even he has been forced to retreat to the Somerset marshes).

After their conversation is interrupted by  Alfred’s severe stomach pain (a historical fact! I wrote a blog about this: Passion, Piles and a Pebble: What Ailed Alfred the Great?), Alfred sighs that he was never meant to be king:

“‘My father Ethelwulf died of his worries…’ the King continued in a flat emotionless drawl. ‘Ethelred…Ethelbald…All my older brothers… All have died fighting the Danish invaders before I became king. Five good men have had to lose their lives for me to stand here before you.’  (p. 194)

Indeed, Alfred had four older brothers, who all died before him: Æthelstan (d. c.852), Æthelbald (d. 860), Æthelberht (d. 865) and Æthelred (d. 871) (Note: it seems his father Æthelwulf (d. 858) had run out of Æthel- names once he got to Alfred – Alfred’s sister got lucky and was called Æthelswith). Naturally, the Sixth Doctor can relate to Alfred’s sentiment: “Really? Perhaps we’re not so different, after all.”

Apparently taking pity on Alfred, the Doctor convinces the king that, despite the setbacks he has suffered, the Vikings will eventually be defeated. Subsequently, the Doctor leaves, taking with him the swineherd’s cakes that Alfred was supposed to have been watching. Hilarity ensues. The wife of the swineherd returns and finds her precious cakes gone:

 ‘The cakes, you idiot. The cakes I expressly asked you to watch over.’

He looked. The cakes had gone.

‘The wizard! He took the bloody cakes!’

‘What wizard?’ (p. 196)

Unable to find the Doctor, Alfred pretends that he has burned the cakes. So that’s where that story came from!

They think it’s all over: Doctor Who at Wemba’s lea

Alfred also gets a mention in the comic book story ‘They think it’s all over’, published in Doctor Who #5 (2011). This time, the eleventh Doctor and his companions Rory and Amy want to visit Wembley Stadium in 1996, to watch England play Germany in a football match. The TARDIS lands in the right place, but at the wrong time: the ninth century, when Wembley was not called Wembley, but Wemba’s lea. They are taken prisoner by Saxon warriors who mistake them for Danish trespassers:

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The Doctor at Wemba’s Lea © Doctor Who #5

As the Doctor explains, the name Wembley actually comes from the Old English word lēah ‘clearing in a forest’, combined with the personal name Wemba; it is the clearing that belongs to Wemba. Wembley, by no means, is the only modern place name to derive from the word lēah, as the following list illustrates:

  • Wembley < ‘clearing of Wemba’
  • Dudley < ‘clearing of Dudda’
  • Oakley < ‘clearing with oaks’
  • Stanley < ‘clearing with stones’
  • Gatley < ‘clearing with goats’
  • Beeley < ‘clearing with bees’
  • Batley < clearing with bats’
  • Crawley < ‘clearing with crows’
  • Shipley < ‘clearing with sheep’

Note how these place names can tell us a lot about the surrounding flora and fauna in the early Middle Ages!

Anyway, the Doctor and his companions are brought before Wemba himself, who relates that he has heard of a strange man in a blue police box before, from Alfred the Great himself:

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Wemba and the Doctor © Doctor Who #5

(The Doctor’s remark about Alfred’s culinary skill is a little below the belt, seeing as it was the Doctor himself who stole the cakes, as we saw before)

After the Doctor and his companions have been released and partake in an Anglo-Saxon feast, the meeting is disturbed by a group of Vikings, who end up taking Amy hostage. In order to win her back, the Doctor and Rory then challenge the Vikings to a penalty shoot out, which they win. With the Vikings defeated, Wemba is overjoyed, noting: “King Alfred was right about you! You truly are a wizard!” (indeed, Alfred regarded the Doctor as a wizard, see above). Finally, the Doctor and his companions go to the year 1996 and attend the game, shouting “Wemba’s Lea, Wemba’s Lea!” (and you now know why).

This was the second of a series of blogs on Doctor Who in Anglo-Saxon England, you can read the first part here: Lǣce Hwā: Doctor Who in Anglo-Saxon England. The third and final part is available here: Lǣce Hwā: Doctor Who and the Norman Conquest.

The Freoðuwebbe and the Freswael: A Comic Strip Reconstruction of the Finnsburg Fragment and Episode

One of the most intriguing stories referred to in Old English heroic poetry is whatever happend at Finnsburg, between Hnæf , Finn and Hengest. The story is referred to in Beowulf, the so-called Finnsburg Fragment, and Widsith, but the events are rather difficult to piece together. For all who have ever struggled making sense of Finnsburg, here is an attempt at a comic strip reconstruction.

“gid oft wrecen” (Beowulf, l. 1065b): A Tale Often Recited

After Beowulf has defeated Grendel, there is much rejoicing in the hall of the Danish king Hrothgar. During the festivities, a minstrel performs a well-known tale, a “gid oft wrecen” (l. 1065b): a tale often recited. The Beowulf poet certainly assumed his audience to be familiar with the contents of this tale, since what follows is a rather enigmatic summary of events of something that took place in Frisia, concerning Finn, Hnæf and Hengest (ll. 1063-1159).  The basic premise of the story is somewhat clear: a feud between Danes and Frisians had been solved by a political marriage between the Frisian prince Finn and the Danish princess Hildeburh; a visit by Hildeburh’s brother Hnæf to Finnsburg renewed the hostilities and resulted in the death of Hnæf and Hildeburh’s son among others; although a new truce was made, Finn is killed the following year and Hildeburh is brought back to Denmark. The exact particulars of the story, however, are only alluded to and many scholars have tried to figure out what exactly happened (chief among them, a man named J.R.R. Tolkien in the posthumous work Finn and Hengest: The Fragment and the Episode, ed. A. Bliss (1982)).

That the story of Finnsburg was indeed well known and often recited, becomes clear from the Finnsburg Fragment. The Finnsburg Fragment was found on a loose manuscript folio, once kept at Lambeth Palace and edited by the George Hickes in 1705 (the manuscript folio has since been lost). The Fragment consists of 48 lines of Old English poetry, which outline how a band of warriors led by Hnæf are attacked by Frisians, near Finnsburg. the text breaks off when a certain “folces hyrde” [leader of people, possibly Hnæf]  is mortally wounded. As such, the Finnsburg Fragment fills in some of the details that are lacking in the summary of the minstrel’s tale in Beowulf, which in turn provides information about the cause and outcome of the fight which are not mentioned in the extant text of the Finnsburg Fragment.

Yet a third text to testify to the circulation of this story in Anglo-Saxon England is the poem Widsith. This poem which is something of a catalogue of people, kings and heroes that the traveling poet Widsith [wide-jouney] had supposedly met over the years. Among the heroes mentioned in Widsith are the Frisian “Finn Folcwalding” [Finn, son of Folcwald] (l. 27), “Hnæf” who ruled the Hocings (l. 29) and “Sæferð” (l. 31) who ruled the Sycgs. These heroes can all be identified with people mentioned in the Finnsburg Fragment and/or the Finnsburg episode in Beowulf. The story of Finnsburg, then, was well known indeed, even if the particulars still elude scholars today (matters are made worse by apparent errors in the extant texts of the Finnsburg Fragment and the lines in Beowulf, which cause even more confusion and uncertainty).

The Freoðuwebbe and the Freswael: A Comic Strip Reconstruction of the Finnsburg Fragment and Episode

The comic strip below, extending over 28 panels, represents one way of reading the Finnsburg Fragment and the Finnsburg episode in Beowulf. In places, I have simplified things (glossing over, for instance, the matter of the Jutes who appear to be fighting on both sides of the conflict or may actually not be Jutes, but giants – the words “eotan” [Jutes] and “eoten” [giant]  are easily confused!), elsewhere I have opted for one interpretation and ignored others. Some ‘scholarly’ justification follows after the comic strip…

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Notes 

Here is how the panels relate to the texts of Beowulf and the Finnsburg Fragment – I recommend you read the comic strip along with the actual texts!

  1. “The Freoðuwebbe and the Freswæl”. The term “freoðuwebbe” (Beowulf, l. 1942) is used to refer to women who were married off to solve a political feud. The Beowulf poet seems to be rather opposed to this idea, given the dramatic outcome of Hildeburh’s marriage. For the term “Freswæl” [Frisian massacre], see Beowulf, l. 1070. “Or: How Hildeburh became a sad woman”. See Beowulf, l. 1075 “þæt wæs geomuru ides”[that was a sad woman].
  2. I assumed that the feud dated back to the parents of Hildeburh and Finn; this is not neccessarily the case.
  3. For clarity, I gave all the Danes (and Jutes, and Sycgs) mustaches; the Frisians have beards.
  4. The marriage between Hildeburh and Finn must have lasted long enough to produce a son that could die during the fighting at Finnsburg.
  5. Hnæf visits and this leads to hostilities. It is still unknown why these hostilities took place; here, I blame Finn, since it would appear as if the Frisians were the ones to start the fight.
  6. See Finnsburg Fragment, ll. 3-4.
  7. See Finnsburg Fragment, ll. 5-12. What Hnæf and his men see is the sudden approach of the Frisians, carrying torches.
  8. See Finnsburg Fragment, ll. 13-15. Sigeferth can be identified as “Sæferð” in Widsith, l. 31.
  9. See Finnsburg Fragment, ll. 16-17. The fact that the Fragment says “Hengest sylf” (l. 17) suggests that Hengest is a figure of importance; this also becomes clear from his role in the episode in Beowulf.
  10. See Finnsburg Fragment, ll. 18-21. It is not entirely clear whether Garulf tells Guthere to stay back or the other way around. Nor is it clear whether the warning is heeded and so it is unclear who approaches the door first. Since we are told Garulf is the first to die (Finnsburg Fragment, l. 31), I suggest Garulf was the first to approach the door and that Guthere indeed listened to his warning. In this way, Garulf is the senior warrior who leads the charge.
  11. See Finnsburg Fragment, ll. 22-27.
  12. See Finnsburg Fragment, ll. 31-34a.
  13. See Finnsburg Fragment, ll. 34b-35a.
  14. See Finnsburg Fragment, ll. 37-45. It is unclear whether the mortally wounded “hæleð” [hero] (l. 43) is indeed Hnæf. The Finnsburg Fragment breaks off with this wounded hero asking how the young warriors are doing.
  15. See Beowulf, ll. 1067-1069.
  16. See Beowulf, ll. 1071-1081
  17. See Beowulf, ll. 1080-1085.
  18. See Beowulf, ll. 1086-1100.
  19. See Beowulf, ll. 1101-1106.
  20. See Beowulf, ll. 1107-1112.
  21. See Beowulf, ll. 1113-1116. It is uncertain on whose side Hildeburh’s son had been fighting. If he had been fighting on the Frisian side (which seems likely), his body being burned with Hnæf’s  is highly symbolic.
  22. See Beowulf, ll. 1117-1124.
  23. See Beowulf, ll. 1125-1136a.
  24. See Beowulf, ll. 1136b-1150a. The “Guthlaf and Oslaf” mentioned in Beowulf (l. 1148) can probably be identified with the “Ordlaf and Guthlaf” of the Finnsburg Fragment (l. 16).
  25. See Beowulf, ll. 1143-1144. It is unclear whether it is the son of Hunlaf (who may be Guthlaf) who gave Hengest a sword or whether “Hunlafing” (Beowulf, l. 1143) is the name of the sword. Whatever the case, Hengest gets a sword which reminds him of the things that happened the year before – in my reconstruction this is the sword of Hnæf.
  26. See Beowulf, ll. 1150b-1152a.
  27. See Beowulf, ll. 1146-1152a.
  28. See Beowulf, ll. 1152a-1159a.

What if Shakespeare HAD written Old English?

Whenever I tell people I study and teach Old English, they react by feeding me their favourite lines of Shakespeare, noting that it is very difficult indeed: “Is this a dagger I see before me? Alas, poor Yorick! Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?”.  Indeed, as a little search on Twitter (see the image at the bottom of this post) indicates, the association between William Shakespeare (1564-1616) and Old English (ca 45o-1100) is a widespread myth that deserves to be busted. What better way to do so, than to imagine what it would look like if William Shakespeare HAD written Old English? This blog features my own very first translation of one of Shakespeare’s sonnets into Old English.

Shakespeare’s ‘Sonnet 18’ in Old English

Sceal ic þē gelīcian tō sumeres dæge?
Þū eart luflīcra ond staþolfæstra.
Rūge windas sceacað þrīmilces dȳrlinge blōstman
Ond sumeres lǣn hæfð eall tō lȳtelne termen.
Hwīlum heofones eage tō hāte scīnð,
Ond oft his gylden hīw is dimmod;
Ond ælc þāra fægernese hwīlum unwlitegað,
Of belimpe oþþe gesceaftes wendendum pæðe ne geglenged;
Ac þīn ēce sumor ne sceall forweornian
Ne forleosan þā fægernese þe þū hæfð;
Ne Dēaþ hrēman ne þorfte þæt þū wandrast in his sceadwe,
Þonne þū in ēce linan tō tīde grēwst
Swā lange swā man mæg orþian oþþe eagan magon sēon,
Swā lange swā þes lifaþ, ond þes þē līf giefþ.

You can find the original text of the sonnet and an analysis of its contents here.

William Shakespeare did not write Old English

As the above translation of sonnet 18 makes clear, Old English is rather different from the English used by Shakespeare. We might note, first of all, a number of different letters: the ‘æ’ to represent the sound in Modern English cat and the ‘þ’ and ‘ð’ that are used interchangeably to represent the first sound in thorn. The use of the macrons above the vowels are a modern convention to indicate long vowels. Another difference includes the spelling of words: with some imagination we can recognize the phrases ‘a summer’s day’ and ‘rough winds’ in ‘sumeres dæge’ and ‘rūge windas’. Furthermore, in his original sonnet Shakespeare used words that were not available in Old English, such as ‘compare’ and ‘complexion’ which were introduced in the later Middle Ages, out of French – the Anglo-Saxons would have used ‘gelīcian’ and ‘hīw’ instead. I particularly like the word ‘þrīmilc’ for ‘May’; the Old English word, which translates to ‘three-milk’, reflects the fact that, in May, you can milk your cows three times a day! Other differences include the more extensive use of inflectional endings in Old English (which still had forms for the genitive, accusative and dative) and word order. In short, the English that Shakespeare used for his ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day’ is NOT Old English.

William Shakespeare did not write Present-Day English

While it is obviously silly to claim that Shakespeare wrote Old English, it is equally ridiculous to assume that he used the same English that we do today. Two examples will suffice to illustrate this idea. The ‘weird sisters’ in Shakespeare’s MacBeth are often portrayed as odd and strange little women, wobbling about awkwardly and screaming and snorting like lunatics. The nature of their portrayal might be derived from the fact that the word weird today means ‘strange, unusual’. However, it is worth noting that this sense of the word is only attested from the 19th century onwards (see the entry for weird in the OED)In Shakespeare’s time, weird meant ‘Having the power to control the fate or destiny of human beings, etc.’. In other words, Shakespeare used the word in a sense that is more closely connected to Old English wyrd ‘fate’, than it is to Modern English weird ‘strange, unusual’. A second example that illustrates that we must not confuse Shakespeare’s English with our own is championed by the linguist David Crystal and his son Ben, an actor. They argue that if we pronounce Shakespeare’s work as we would Present-day English, we miss out on a lot of puns. For instance,  the words ‘hour’ and ‘whore’ sounded alike in Shakespeare’s time, giving the line ‘From hour to hour we ripe and ripe’ (As you like it, act 2, scene 7) a slightly humourous air – especially since ‘ripe’ and ‘rape’ would also have been homonyms. You can view the Crystals’ plea here.

To conclude, when it comes to reading English texts from the past, it seems as if Shakespeare’s adage ‘to thine own self be true’ should be taken into account: read Shakespeare as if he wrote Early Modern English and, please, do not confuse this with its more beautiful ancestor, Old English.

 

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Ignorance on twitter and an Old English meme! (more of my memes can be found here)

 

Old English is alive! Five TV series and movies that use Old English

Even though the last native speaker of Old English died over 900 years ago, the language of the Anglo-Saxons is making a comeback in modern cinema. This blog post calls attention to five TV series and movies that use Old English.

1. The Rohirrim speak Old English: The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002)

J.R.R. Tolkien was a professor of Old English at the University of Oxford and his fictional work is infused with his academic interests: the languages and literatures of the peoples of the medieval North-West. The Rohirrim, in particular, were modeled on the Anglo-Saxons. The riders of the Mark (itself based on the Anglo-Saxon kingdom Mercia) even speak Old English in the books, as when Éomer greets Théoden with “Westu Théoden hal!” (cf. “Wæs þu Hrothgar hal!” Beowulf, l. 407). The names of the Rohirrim also derive from Old English: Théoden means ‘king’ (< Old English þeoden) and Éomer  means ‘famous horse’ (< Old English eoh ‘horse’ + mær ‘famous’). (If you are interested, I wrote an article on the influence of Old English language and literature on Tolkien’s The Hobbit, which you can find among my publications)

In the successful movie adaptations, the use of Old English (regrettably) is scarce and limited to the extended edition of the Two Towers. In a scene called ‘the funeral of Théodred’, Éowyn (‘horse-joy’) sings a funeral dirge, in Old English (singing starts at 0:48):

Bealocwealm hafað

freone frecan.     forþ onsended
giedd sculon singan.     gleomenn sorgiende
on Meduselde.       þæt he ma no wære
his dryhtne dyrest.      and maga deorost.

[Baleful death has sent forth the noble warrior, sorrowing singers will sing a song in Meduseld that he is no more, dearest to his lord and dearest to his kinsmen.]

The actress Miranda Otto actually does a great job when it comes to pronouncing the Old English (would she have followed a course?). The song also features a line which is similar to Beowulf, ll. 2265b-2266: “bealocwealm hafað / fela feorhcynna forð onsended” [baleful death has sent forth many warriors].

2. It speaks? IT SPEAKS! In Old English! Beowulf (2007)

Robert Zemeckis’s adapatation of Beowulf did not only give us a 3D animation of Angelina Jolie as Grendel’s mother (naked, clad in gold, with a tail), he also had the monsters attempt to speak in Old English. An intriguing example can be seen here, in the scene where Grendel loses his arm:

Beowulf: Your bloodletting days are over, demon!

Grendel: Arr – Ic nat daemon eam [I am not a demon]

Beowulf: It speaks? IT SPEAKS!

Grendel: Hwæt eart þu? [What are you?]

Arguably, the Old English is not very well done and the pronunciation is awful (there is some more in Grendel’s death scene, where you can hear ‘min sunu’ and ‘sin nama wæs Beowulf’). The decision to have the monsters (attempt to) speak Old English, though, is an interesting one: is it a way of stressing their antiquity? To separate them from the human world? To emphasise their monstrosity (I would hope not!)?

3. The magic of Old English: BBC’s Merlin (2008-2012)

The BBC series TV series focusing on the adventures of the young Merlin at Arthur´s court used Old English as the language for the various magical spells. A rather odd decision, seeing as Merlin should probably be associated more with the Celtic speaking peoples, rather than with the Old English speaking Anglo-Saxons that were fought by the pseudo-historical Arthur. Here are all the spells from the first series:

“Berbay odothay arisan quicken” <Old English Bebiede þe arisan cwican [I command you to arise alive]

(You can find more transcriptions of spells here)

The pronunciation, again, leaves something to be desired. However, often the Old English spells make sense, as in the example quoted above: Merlin wants to make a statue of a dog come alive; he tells it to come alive in Old English; presto! The dog is alive (it also affects the snakes painted on a shield in the next scene). If only that worked in real life!

4. The Shadow of Boniface: De Schaduw van Bonifatius (2010)

De Schaduw van Bonifatius [The Shadow of Boniface] is an ambitious short film, directed by Thijs Schreuder as a graduation project for the Film Academy in Amsterdam. It focuses on the missionary activity of the Anglo-Saxon Boniface (d. 754) in Frisia. While the film was praised for its use of special effects (similar to the LOTR-movies), its use of languages is also of interest: all dialogues are in Latin, Old English and Old Frisian.

I particularly like the scene that starts at 08:00, in which Boniface confronts a group of pagan Frisians at their sacred tree. Boniface speaks in Old English, the Frisian leader replies in Old Frisian. Seeing as these two medieval languages are closely related, it is highly probable that the Anglo-Saxon missionaries in Frisia could indeed converse with the people in their native tongue:

Boniface: Ondfo Godes lufu! Ondfo His miltse! [Receive God’s love! Receive his mercy!]

Frisian chief: Bonifatius! Thi mon ther thera Fronkena leinlika gode menniska bibiāt. ther tserika timbriath mith ūre hāligum bāmum. [Boniface! The man who sacrifices to the false gods of the Frankish people. Who builds churches with our holy trees.]

Boniface: For iūre hreddunge. Hæfth iūre goda thunor smiten mē? Habbath hīe me thone wei thweorod? Se ondswaru is ‘nā’, ond for thǣm the iċ ēom hēr swā thæt ġē ġebīdath thæs cræftes thæs ǣnigan, sōthan Godes![For your protection. Has the thunder of your gods smitten me? Have they barred my path? The answer is ‘No’ and therefore I am here, so that you will experience the power of the only, true God!]

The actors do a fine job and the Old Frisian and Old English sounds rather authentic. No surprise there, since the actors were taught by a leading expert on both Old Frisian and Old English: prof.dr. Rolf H. Bremmer Jr. (You can read about his involvement here, in Dutch).

5. Hwæt sægest þu? Old English in History Channel’s Vikings (2013-)

In De Schaudw van Bonifatius, Old English was used to create at least the impression of historical accuracy . Much the same can be said for the use of Old English in History Channel’s Vikings (2013-). While the show’s authenticity is fiercely debated (see, e.g., this blog post), the makers of the show must certainly have thought that the use of early medieval languages, such as Old English and Old Norse in the first two seasons and Old French in the third season, would contribute to a sense of realism. The first scene to feature Old English is the prelude to the Viking raid of Lindisfarne in 793:

Monk: Gesawe þu þæt, brodor Æþelstan? Gesawe þu hit? Saga me þæt þu hit gesawe.

Athelstan: Gea, brodor. Ic hit gesawe.

Monk: Hit is awriten and swa hit hæfþ alimpen. God us helpan, god us helpan.

The monks looking at the thunder and seeing a viking ship in the sky is an obvious reference to the famous entry for the year 793 in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle:

Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, s.a. 793. © British Library, Cotton Tiberius B. iv (Source)

Her wæron reðe forebecna cumene ofer Norðhymbra land, 7 þæt folc earmlic bregdon, þæt wæron ormete þodenas 7 ligrescas, 7 fyrenne dracan wæron gesewene on þam lifte fleogende. [In this year, terrible omens came about over the land of the Northumbrians, and miserably frightened the people: these were immense thunders and lightenings, and fiery dragons were seen flying in the air.]

The second scene in the YouTube clip above shows Athelstan speaking Old English to some hostages. The Viking Ragnar Lothbrok, apparently, is able to understand their conversation. This is not too surprising, since Old Norse and Old English would have been mutually intelligble at the time. In terms of its language use, then, History Channel’s Vikings makes a good effort at historical accuracy.

Hwæt’s next? BBC’s The Last Kingdom (2015-) and ITV’s Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands (2016-)

Over the last 15 years, Old English has been embraced by movie makers; first as a language of fantasy, monsters and magic, later as an instrument for historical accuracy. With upcoming TV series such as BBC’s The Last Kingdom, set in ninth-century England, and ITV’s Beowulf: The Return to the Shield Lands, based on the Old English poem Beowulf, we will undoubtedly hear more Old English from our TV sets in the future. The Last Kingdom, for instance, uses Old English place names, such as Bebbanburg (Bamburgh), Oxanfyrde (Oxford) and Wintanceastre (Winchester). Perhaps, it is time to pitch our courses in Old English to acting hopefuls and up-and-coming film makers. The native speakers of Old English may be long dead, in Hulferes wudu (Hollywood) their language is still alive! 

With special thanks to Rolf Bremmer (Leiden University) for sending me the script he translated for De Schaduw van Bonifatius.

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