Welcome to my fourth Medieval Book Club entry. For this month we read through some Anglo-Saxon poetry (in translation, of course), found free online here and here. If you haven’t had a chance to read them yet, follow this link and give them a read. Let me tell you, it was a blast reading through this poem and, if you are familiar with the stories in the Books of Exodus and Daniel, you’ll find yourself fascinated with this poetic retelling.
For May we will be reading Revelations of Divine Love by Julian of Norwich. The preview post for this one can be found here, and I am looking forward to reading that book. If you are at all interested, I would love to have you read along and come back to discuss that book on May 18th!
My Thoughts on Exodus:
I really, really loved reading through this poetic retelling of part of the book of Exodus. This was the poetic retelling that I had heard about where so much is adapted to the warrior culture of the Anglo-Saxons. We know, from reading the Bible itself, that there isn’t nearly so much emphasis placed on combat, or on shields or swords, but it is all very fitting for this culture. Also, having read Lewis’ work last month gave a greater insight to this work and how it fit in with their culture.
One of my favorite descriptions came with the details of the pillars representing God’s presence:
Heaven’s beacon climbed every evening, a second miracle,
it held fast wondrous after the sun’s setting,
shining with flames across that nation,
a burning beam. Glittering it stood over the archers,
with blazing limbs. The shelter of their shields shone,
the shadows dissolving, the deepest night-shades nearby
could not conceal their hiding places. The heavenly candle burned. (107b-115)
This new night-warden must by necessity remain over the army,
lest the desert-horror, the hoar heath-terror should end
their lives with a fearful seizure of a sea’s storms.
This scout had fiery hair, blazing beams—it threatened
the terror of fire in that army-troop, a hot flame,
so that he would consume the army in the wilderness,
unless they heeded to brave-hearted Moses.
The shining army shimmered, the shields glittered,
the shield-warriors saw the righteous way, the sign
above the masses, until the sea-fortress at the end
of land stood against the people’s force, eager on the forth-way.
The battle-camp arose; the wearied revived themselves,
meat-thanes brought food to the proud ones, restoring
their power. The sailors spread out their tents across the hills
after the trumpets sang. That was the fourth camp,
the resting-place for the shield-warriors beside the Red Sea. (116-34)
Clearly this is expanded from a small source, but the writer in me absolutely applauds many of the additions that were made because they add some flavor and detail to the story. There were references back to Moses’ early days and the plagues that released them from Egypt (okay, really it only referred to the final plague: the death of the firstborns) and I really would have been interested to see how that was all handled by Anglo-Saxon poets. Or what happened during Moses’ trip up Mount Sinai to lead the men to cast a golden calf (I imagine that would be a glorious description of feasting and revelry, with generous gold-givers and many casks of mead being downed).
And with the details in here, I am really surprised that there isn’t an Anglo-Saxon poetic version of the book of Joshua. It seems that the first ten chapters, at least, would align really well with the culture because of the conquest into the Promised Land.
My Thoughts on Daniel:
This was perhaps the more interesting of the two poems this month. I was surprised that it was longer, and equally surprised that the main focus would be on the two dreams and their interpretations. This poem seemed to have two primary purposes: to demonstrate the power of God to those who depend on him (as shown with the furnace and the lengthy praise & exultation there), and to demonstrate the pitfalls of pride (as really seen with the second dream). In fact, it really hammers that point over the readers’ head:
Daniel could not speak so many truthful words
unto his master through the craft of his wisdom,
but that the ruler would heed them,
the lord of middle-earth, but he puffed up his mind,
high from his heart—hard would he be punished for this! (593-97)
Then the king of the Chaldeans chanted a great boast
when he looked upon the city-works, the fortress of Babylon
towering so tall in its riches, with the fields of Shinar
wound about it—that the chief of armies
had wrought it all through a great miracle.
Then he became obstinate over all men,
overly proud in his heart because of the special grace
that God had given him, a realm over men
and the world to wield in this human life: (598-607)
“O my city, you are mighty and wide-renowned,
which I have built to my own glory, a roomy realm.
I shall keep my rest in you, a seat and a home.” (608-11)
Then, on account of this boasting, the lord of men
became seized and departed into flight,
alone in his over-pride above all men.
So he went forth as men do in days of struggle,
upon the most bitter path in God’s punishment,
who, living through, soon regain their homeland,
and so did Nebuchadnezzar, after the enmity of God,
swift from the heavens, had punished him terribly. (612-21)
I really think they would have nailed the Lion’s den, but sadly it did not appear in this poem. Yet it is still a great read, if in a very different way from the Exodus poem. This has more of a moralistic feel to it than Exodus, or even Genesis, did.
- What were your overall impressions from reading the poems? Were there parts of either poem that really stood out to you as being more enjoyable to read in this format?
- Which Biblical stories would you like to see done in Anglo-Saxon form? They did the Genesis stories, Exodus, and Daniel. Are there any other stories or books in the Bible that stand out as ideal for Anglo-Saxon poetry? My thoughts are that Samson and Joshua would be prime candidates.
- While this is certainly no replacement for Scripture, do you think an approach like this could make the Bible, or parts of the Bible, easier for today’s readers to read and enjoy while still taking away key principles from Scripture?