Tuesday, November 12, 2019

The Sound of Silence

I had a lot of driving time this weekend, which meant I finally got to catch up on the ever-excellent Amon Sul podcast. In the most recent full episode, Father Andrew Stephen Damick brought in guest co-host and violinist Rebecca Rovny, who happens to be a personal friend of mine (and even gives us a little shout-out during the episode). They had a long and fruitful discussion around the role of music in Tolkien's subcreation. I regretted listening to it in the car, since there were several "aha!" moments--especially some amazing moments of intuition from Rebecca--where I wanted to write something down.

What follows is a brief meditation on another musical moment in the Legendarium, which I think says some very powerful things about song, magic, enchantment, and the hiddenness of God in Middle-earth.


Finrod's skills as a minstrel were touched on a couple of times in this episode, but here I would like to call particular attention to his battle of song with Sauron. This is one of the most powerful passages in the published Silmarillion, although the poetry itself is from the much older Lays of Beleriand (which are to the Silmarillion as the Silmarillion is to The Lord of the Rings):

On an evening of autumn Felagund and Beren set out from Nargothrond with their ten companions; and they journeyed beside Narog to his source in the Falls of Ivrin. Beneath the Shadowy Mountains they came upon a company of Orcs, and slew them all in their camp by night; and they took their gear and their weapons. By the arts of Felagund their own forms and faces were changed into the likeness of Orcs; and thus disguised they came far upon their northward road, and ventured into the western pass, between Ered Wethrin and the highlands of Taur-nu-Fuin. But Sauron in his tower was ware of them, and doubt took him; for they went in haste, and stayed not to report their deeds, as was commanded to all the servants of Morgoth that passed that way. Therefore he sent to waylay them, and bring them before him.
Thus befell the contest of Sauron and Felagund which is renowned. For Felagund strove with Sauron in songs of power, ad the power of the King was very great; but Sauron had the mastery, as is told in the Lay of Leithian:
He chanted a song of wizardry,
Of piercing, opening, of treachery,
Revealing, uncovering, betraying.
Then sudden Felagund there swaying,
Sang in a song of staying,
Resisting, battling against power,
Of secrets kept, strength like a tower,
And trust unbroken, freedom, escape;
Of changing and shifting shape,
Of snares eluded, broken traps,
The prison opening, the chain that snaps.
Backwards and forwards swayed their song.
Reeling foundering, as ever more strong
The chanting swelled, Felagund fought,
And all the magic and might he brought
Of Elvenesse into his words.
Softly in the gloom they heard the birds
Singing afar in Nargothrond,
The sighting of the Sea beyond,
Beyond the western world, on sand,
On sand of pearls on Elvenland.
Then in the doom gathered; darkness growing
In Valinor, the red blood flowing
Beside the Sea, where the Noldor slew
The Foamriders, and stealing drew
Their white ships with their white sails
From lamplit havens. The wind wails,
The wolf howls. The ravens flee.
The ice mutters in the mouths of the Sea.
The captives sad in Angband mourn.
Thunder rumbles, the fires burn-
And Finrod fell before the throne.

Other authors have already drawn out the similarities between this and certain passages in the Kalevala,  but I've always felt not enough attention has been paid to the songs themselves as they're described (making this a sort of meta-song; we aren't given the words of Felagund or Sauron's songs, only a song about their songs), and what it tells us about the part magic and song play in Middle-earth.

The contest begins with abstract concepts set in opposition to each other, opposing themes if you will (here of course the Ainulindale should never be far from our minds). Sauron's themes betray his motives: he suspects the heroes (who are disguised as orcs, thanks to Felagund's earlier use of song-magic) to be other than what they appear. Therefore, he tries to pierce their guise first by "piercing, opening" -- that is, trying to simply pierce through or lift the veil over the truth -- and then by "treachery." The next line, "Revealing, uncovering, betraying" is an example of apposition, using different words for the same idea. The implication seems to be that if Sauron cannot pierce their disguise by brute magical force, he will attempt to induce one of the company to betray the rest (a tactic which has already worked for Sauron earlier in this story).

Felagund's own themes are called forth as a direct response to this two-pronged assault:
Then sudden Felagund there swaying,
Sang in a song of staying,
Resisting, battling against power,
Of secrets kept, strength like a tower,
And trust unbroken, freedom, escape;
Of changing and shifting shape,
Of snares eluded, broken traps,
The prison opening, the chain that snaps.
These opening volleys somewhat invert the internal narrative many of us have of good and evil: we are most likely to associate what is evil with what is secret, hidden, tucked away from public view (hence the whole idea of the "conspiracy theory"). We tend to believe that if what is evil were to be exposed to the light of day (if, to take a recent example, if "locker-room talk" were aired in the public forum) that it would wither away to nothing, shown up once and for all for the fraud that it is. Eschatologically speaking (in the Silmarillion, and in Christianity), this is true. Sooner or later, as Tolkien confessed daily, venturus est iudicare vivos et mortuos.

But in the "long defeat" of history, in life under the sun, our experience of goodness--and of God--is very different. YHWH declares that "with a secret hand the Lord wages war upon Amalek to all generations." (Exodus 17:16, LXX). That secrecy, that hiddenness, is the very signature of the finger of God upon the whole story of history. The Christmas story itself is "wrought in the silence of God." The work of God is secret and hidden in the world, evident only to the eyes of faith. The "long defeat" is really what C.S. Lewis described as a Resistance Movement against the current management of this world, until the day that "the kingdoms of this world become the kingdoms of our God, and of his Christ." Tolkien intuitively grasped this role of secrecy and smallness, something which I believe is one of the main reasons his narratives remain so compelling.

The contest then moves from the abstract to the concrete. Here, we should notice that this is the same pattern already established in the Ainulindale: moving from abstract "themes" to their incarnation within reality and time (which is the whole work of history). The concrete themes which Felagund invokes are visions of Elvenesse: birds singing in Nargothrond (still a hidden and secret place at this point in the story); the sighting of the Sea beyond the Western World (does this mean the sea beyond Beleriand, or the sea beyond Aman?); lustrous pearls strewn on the beaches of Alqualonde.

Why does Felagund evoke these images to evade Sauron's chanting? Nargothrond is an obviously secret, obviously hidden place. The fact that there are birds singing there seems to indicate that there are some places and moments of beauty which still remain hidden from the Dark Lord's gaze, upon which Felagund calls for strength. The sight of the "Sea beyond,/beyond the Western world" is -- whether it speaks of the Great Sea or something beyond Valinor itself--a vision of transcendence denied forever to Sauron (though of course to Felagund as well). Finally, the pearl-strewn sands of the Bay of Eldamar and Alqualonde bring home the idea of longing for a haven (a haven is both a hidden place of refuge, like Nargothrond, as well as a place where ships can put in for shelter from the sea). Pearls themselves are a kind of beauty formed in a secret, enclosed place.

But of course, the invocation of Eldamar is fatal for Felagund. Sauron knows the history of the Noldor all too well, and the pearl-strewn strands of the havens of Alqualonde once foamed with the blood of the Teleri in the Kinslaying. That is the chink in Felagund's armor, exactly the moment of treachery and betrayal Sauron has been looking for. Incisively, surgically, he pries it open, dismantling Felagund's defenses and following the narrative to its inevitable historical conclusion: all secret and hidden places exposed to the Dark Lord's gaze. The wolf howls. The raven flees. Secrecy is replaced by bondage: muttering ice (which freezes in place, but which probably also is meant to evoke evil memories of the crossing of the Helcaraxe); captives in chains. Finrod falls before the throne. In defeat? In bondage? It seems so.

Here we cannot forget that the name of this story is the Lay of Lethian, with Lethian meaning "the release from bondage." The chains will snap. If only Finrod could have seen--could have sung--a little farther.

Monday, October 21, 2019

Concerning Dragons

I wrote the following notes on dragons a year or two ago on a now-defunct forum (at the height of the Game of Thrones-related dragon craze, though I don't remember exactly when that was). I dug it out of my personal archives again today for a conversation I was in in another forum, and thought I'd post it here for my readership. Dragons seem to come up a lot in the circles I frequent, a fact which seems to affirm my life choices.


Concerning Dragons

“I desired dragons with a profound desire. Of course, I in my timid body did not wish to have them in the neighborhood. But the world that contained even the imagination of Fáfnir was richer and more beautiful, at whatever the cost of peril.”

The current season of Game of Thrones has led to a significant amount of speculation about dragons - are they in fact the nuclear weapons of fantasy warfare, would they actually let us ride them and use us for war, etc. These are not uninteresting questions - although it may say a great deal about us as a society that when confronted by a creature of such ancientry, malice, and peril, that we immediately begin to speculate on how we might best use them to murder our fellows (however hypothetical).

However, I want to sidestep the discussion of Game of Thrones (which, for one thing, I do not watch), and look at dragons as a Medievalist and Germanic Philologist. This might be of interest to those who like to dig around the roots of things, or to those sub-creating fantasy worlds of their own who would like their ideas of dragons to be more rooted in primary world myths and legends.

I'm particularly interested in the serpents, dragons, wyrms, and other assorted reptilian monstrosities belonging to Indo-European mythology. There's a very rich tradition of these things in Chinese/Japanese folklore, of course, but they are separate things, and I do not want to give those traditions short shrift by lumping them in with my own particular area of study. For our purposes, Indo-European dragons include everything from Vritra, the drought-dragon Indra killed, to Python, the earth dragon-serpent Apollo slew, to Fafnir, the archetypal wyrm of Germanic legend, to the dragon of Eden which St. George slew. What are these dragons like, and what do they do?

The prototypical dragon is a very large serpent. Sometimes they are given legs, and sometimes wings, but the shape of a dragon seems to be serpentine enough that the language used to describe them is chiefly words which can be equally applied to serpents. So Sanskrit ahi, Old English wyrm, etc. Over time as various regional versions of these stories came into contact with each other, a sort of taxonomy of dragons arose, but we should be careful not to enforce our Monster Manual sensibilities backwards onto the Middle Ages. A linnormr and a wyvern are just two names describing the same winged, bipedal serpent. By tradition dragons are very fierce and hard to kill, but also very parochial, as a rule choosing a hill, forest, sacred stream, barrow, or mountain as their primary dwelling place, from which to dominate the land around them. This makes them ill-suited to employment as a sort of pet airforce.

To understand whey they do these things, and also why and how they are killed (and by whom) we need to understand a little more about dragon's motivations. To do that I want to look at three examples which I think are particularly good dragons: Vritra, Fafnir, and Beowulf's Bane (who may be named Starkheart).


Vritra is a dragon, or a demon in the form of a dragon, who in the Rig Veda takes all of the waters of all the rivers in the world and hoards them under a mountain. This is of course disastrous for the world - no fresh water and no fertile river valleys means that the ancient agrarian societies of the Indian sub-continent would completely collapse. Vritra is slain by the hero Indra, who slew him with the thunderbolt crafted for him by the god Tvashtri. This is of course on some level an iteration of the popular myth of a storm-god who slays a drought-causing monster and brings rain back to the earth (see Baal, may also be echoed in Thor slaying the Midgard Serpent). But I want to focus less on mythographical theory and more on the actual activity of the dragon: Vritra is taking something which is essential for the continuation of civilization, in this case the fresh water (and thus the fertile river valleys) needed for the agrarian society, and hoarding it in such a way that society can no longer exist. It's up to the hero, then, to kill the monster so that civilization can grow and flourish. We see echoes of similar myths in Cadmus and Apollo.


Fafnir is, as Tolkien says, the archetypal Norse dragon. What is probably often forgotten about him is that he was not always a dragon. Fafnir, in fact, was the dwarf, the son of a powerful sorcerer. After the family came into the possession of a hoard of (cursed) gold, Fafnir drove his brother off and turned into a dragon to guard the hoard himself. Along comes Sigurd the Volsung (or Sigemund in the earlier versions of the tale) who slays the dragon, with a little help. The manner of Fafnir's death is significant: Fafnir's underside is particularly vulnerable, so Sigurd/Sigemund waits in a trench dug in the path the dragon uses to slither down to a stream, and stabs him as he passes overhead. In some versions of the story, Fafnir and Sigurd have a conversation as the dragon lays dying, in which Fafnir curses Sigurd. There are two elements worth observing here: the first is that Fafnir is not merely monstrous; he is malicious. The malice of the dragon is something which we see first introduced here, but which would become an important element of the monster from this point forward. The second is the importance of the treasure hoard not as merely something which the hero gets to carry away as a sort of prize, but the whole basis for becoming a dragon in the first place. Here we see an echo of the water-hoarding of the Indra, Cadmus, and Apollo myths - gold is at least as important in the economy of Iron Age Germania as fresh water is to agrarian societies - but we see something more, too. The old name for this kind of sin is avarice. It's distinguished from greed (mere acquisitiveness) because dragons, of course, don't want to do anything with their treasure. As C.S. Lewis notes, this probably goes back to Greco-Roman myth (in Aesop's Fables, the dragon is a mere allegory for avarice), but in Fafnir the concept takes on a whole new massive, poison-belching dimension.

Beowulf's Bane

I mentioned just now that gold was as important as fresh water to the economy of the Iron Age Germanic peoples, the people who lived and moved in the world described by the Beowulf poem. But it wasn't merely the existence of gold (and other treasures) - it was the free flow of those things from a king or chieftain to his retainers. In that sense it's a gift-based economy. There's a significant difference (one could argue it's only semantics, but I think there's more to it than that) between the attitude of "I should serve my lord because he's always given me good gifts" (which is Wiglaf's argument in Beowulf), and "I should do what my lord says because he pays me." But of course the problem with giving gold and land and horses and other gifts is that if you aren't also on the receiving end, you start running out - and when the gifts dry up, your society falls apart. Typically this necessitates some sort of raiding of your neighbors, making this gift-based economy also a pirate economy. But consider in this context what a giant hoard of gold lying in the ground actually represents: it's not a lottery waiting to be won; that hoarded wealth represents the death of a society.

So in the Beowulf poem. We're given some backstory for the dragon's hoard (and possibly the dragon himself) in the so-called Lay of the Last Survivor:

The barrow all-ready
occupied the plain    near the water-waves,
new on the headland,    made secure by difficult-craft;
there inside bore    of the treasure of earls
a hoard of rings    a hand-fashioned share
of plated gold;    some words he spoke:
'Now hold you, Earth,    now the heroes cannot
earls' possessions.    Listen, it formerly from you
was obtained by good men;    war-death has taken away,
terrible murder of life,    of crimes each one,
my belovèd people,    they gave this up to me:
they had seen joy in the hall;    he I have not, who might wield sword
or make beautiful    this gilded flagon,
this precious drinking vessel;    the veteran warriors are ill elsewhere;
must the stern helmet    adorned with gold
stripped of its ornaments;    the burnishers slumbers,
they who war-masks    ought to brighten;
also so the army's coats of mail,    which in battle endured
over the shattering of shield-boards    the bite of iron,
decays along with the men;    byrnie's ring may not
with war-fighter    fare widely,
alongside heroes;    there was not harp's joy,
delight of glee-wood,    nor good hawk
soaring through the hall,    nor swift horse
trampling the courtyard;    baleful death has
many of my living kin    sent forth.'
Thus sad at heart    in grief he bemoaned
one after all,    unhappily passed
days and nights,    until the flood of Death
reached to his heart.
(Translation by Dr. Benjamin Slade)

Essentially, a warrior or a king, who is the last survivor of his people, takes all the wealth of his people and buries it in the earth. He either goes off to die or (and there is cause for ambiguity in the text) becomes the dragon which then guards the hoard. The dragon's subsequent outrage over the absence of a missing cup, which brings him into inevitable and fatal conflict with Beowulf, is not because he'd intended on using the cup for anything. It's outrage over being parted from even one very small portion of this hoard, which could be the foundation of a tribe or a civilization were it in circulation, but which the dragon intends to keep for himself. In fact, the cup is taken specifically to pay a weregeld (to settle a feud), which is one of the most important uses of gold in Iron Age Germania.

The dragon is of course slain. That dragons can and should be slain is one of the chief elements of all dragon stories within the Indo-European tradition. But no dragon is easy to slay. Typically you must be a hero (like Sigemund/Sigurd or Beowulf), in possession of a magical weapon (like the sword Gram, or Wiglaf's sword of significant lineage), and usually you need help (both Sigemund and Beowulf are aided by a valiant younger kinsman).

The dragon's poison is ultimately the bane of Beowulf, but Beowulf is able to stab the dragon in the belly with a seax or knife. Someone has made the comment that dragons must not have very good armor if they can be killed by a septuagenarian with a knife, but we must not forget that the septuagenarian in question is Beowulf, who even in his old age was no ordinary man, and that he manages to stab the dragon in the belly (where, let us not forget, drakes are notoriously weak), only after repeated attempts to strike its head had shattered the hero's sword.

With the dragon dead, the dying Beowulf asks Wiglaf to bring up some of the treasure from the hoard so that Beowulf can see it and go to his reward knowing that he has provided for his people; the vast treasure of the hoard ought to provide for the Geats for years to come. But when Beowulf is buried, all of the hoard is buried with him under the earth, and remains eldum swá unnyt swá hyt aérer wæs - "as useless to men as it ever was."

One of the many puzzling questions proposed by the end of the Beowulf poem is why exactly the Geats do this. One simple explanation seems to be that the hoard was regarded (as most dragon's hoards are) as cursed, and decided that was drama they didn't need. In any case, it's no use hauling off a major hoard of treasure unless you're prepared to defend it, and Beowulf was the last of the great Geatish heroes.

There is much more that could be said here, and even now I feel I have vastly oversimplified a really interesting subject. To sum up: Dragons in Indo-European myth tend to be: Serpentine, solitary, avaricious, cunning, extremely deadly (in most cases spewing poison or fire or both), and are the archetypal enemies of civilization, embodying the antithesis of whatever civilization looks like to the culture in question. For prospective world-builders, I think some very interesting takes on dragons could be done by using this basic blueprint and asking what it would look like to a culture that values something (say children) more than gold. When we start thinking about dragons as merely engines of war or tools in the no-holds-barred game of realpolitik, I think we've lost something.

Friday, September 27, 2019

A Lament for Our Lady's Shrine at Walsingham

In the wracks of Walsingham
Whom should I choose
But the Queen of Walsingham
to be my guide and muse.

Then, thou Prince of Walsingham,
Grant me to frame
Bitter plaints to rue thy wrong,
Bitter woe for thy name.

Bitter was it so to see
The seely sheep
Murdered by the ravenous wolves
While the shepherds did sleep.

Bitter was it, O to view
The sacred vine,
Whilst the gardeners played all close,
Rooted up by the swine.

Bitter, bitter, O to behold
The grass to grow
Where the walls of Walsingham
So stately did show.

Such were the worth of Walsingham
While she did stand,
Such are the wracks as now do show
Of that Holy Land.

Level, level, with the ground
The towers do lie,
Which, with their golden glittering tops,
Pierced once to the sky.

Where were gates are no gates now,
The ways unknown
Where the press of peers did pass
While her fame was blown.

Owls do scrike where the sweetest hymns
Lately were sung,
Toads and serpents hold their dens
Where the palmers did throng.

Weep, weep, O Walsingham,
Whose days are nights,
Blessings turned to blasphemies,
Holy deeds to despites.

Sin is where Our Lady sat,
Heaven is turned to hell,
Satan sits where Our Lord did sway --
Walsingham, O farewell!

- Author Unknown

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

This Elvish Craft: Language Invention as Recovery

Another old essay, to go with the one I posted earlier this month, about Tolkien's language invention. I pose an unlikely similarity between Tolkien and Russian zaumists.


1. Renaming the Lily

In her book In the Land of Invented Languages, Arika Okrent characterizes language inventors as “misguided souls” led through “hard work, high hopes, and full-blown delusions” to attempt to improve on natural language for philosophical, altruistic, and political motives. Only briefly, in her final chapters, does Orkent acknowledge another important reason someone might create a language, when she mentions Tolkien and others who create languages out of a sense of pleasure. (Okrent 2010)

Yet despite the short shrift Okrent gives this motivation in her book, it is evident that Tolkien considered pleasure—specifically the pleasure of finding fitness between sound and meaning—to be the driving force behind the language creation process. In his 1931 lecture A Secret Vice, Tolkien describes the way this impulse drove his own early language invention: “Certainly it is in the contemplation of the relation between sound and notion which is a main source of pleasure.” Going farther, Tolkien suggests that pleasure is a major component of the development of even natural languages: “The communication factor has been very powerful in directing the development of language; but the more individual and personal factor—pleasure in articulate sound, and in the symbolic use of it...must not be forgotten for a moment.” (MC 208)

Left there, Tolkien’s argument would be quite safe and unassuming; pleasure is a subjective experience, and there would be very little to be said for or against his secret vice beyond “he enjoys it.” This seems to be the conclusion Okrent draws about Tolkien’s language invention. But Tolkien progresses the theme of pleasure beyond mere aesthetic pleasure itself and into the realm of enchantment:

And with the phonetic pleasure we have blended the more elusive delight of establishing novel relations between symbol and significance, and in contemplating them... as soon as you have fixed even a vague general sense for your words, many of the less subtle but most moving and permanently important of the strokes of poetry are open to you. For you are the heir of the ages. You have not to grope after the dazzling brilliance of invention of the free adjective, to which all human language has not fully attained. You may say green sun or dead life and set the imagination leaping.
Language has both strengthened imagination and been freed by it. Who shall say whether the free adjective has created images bizarre and beautiful, or the adjective been freed by strange and beautiful pictures in the mind? (Monsters and the Critics 218-19)

For Tolkien, language invention is not just a means to pleasure, it is a way to set both mind and word free from the “habitual” and “associated notions” to which even poetry is subject; notions which words pick up naturally through constant use and the layering of meaning over time. Modern poetry is so full of “significant language” that to speak of green is not to speak of green itself, but to speak of green’s poetic associations with growth, spring, youth, innocence, and inexperience. To escape this detritus of meaning and recover the lost harmony between the signifier and the thing signified, Tolkien presents us with two possible solutions: the first is to study the poetry of the ancients, the second to cast off habitual and associated notions through language invention of our own. (MC 218-19)

Tolkien was not the only, or even the first language inventor to engage this concept. In his 1912 Declaration of the Word as Such Russian avant garde poet Alexei Kruchenykh states:

WORDS DIE, THE WORLD IS ETERNALLY YOUNG. The artist has seen the world in a new way and, like Adam, proceeds to give things his own names. The lily is beautiful, but the word “lily” [liliya] has been soiled and “raped”. Therefore, I call the lily, “euy” – the original purity is reestablished.” (Lawton 1988) 

Zaum—the “transrational” language which Kruchenykh introduces in his Declaration and its related manifestos—is more of an artistic effort than a functional language, but it has this in common with Tolkien’s own invented languages. Both men saw a need to recapture something important which had been lost in the relationship between the signifier and the signified.

But to say “the green sun” is different from renaming the lily. A lily is a real, concrete thing, which really exists in the real world. Although I can perhaps admire the freshness of the lily more if I call it by a fresh name, I have taken for myself only the role of the namer—a new Adam—not that of the creator. When Tolkien “set the imagination leaping” with a “green sun,” he takes upon himself the role of sub-creator and enters into Fantasy.

2. Green Suns

Tolkien returned to the theme of “green suns” again in his seminal essay “On Fairy Stories,” this time in the context of creating Fantasy: “Anyone...can say the green sun.... But.... To make a Secondary World inside which the green sun will be credible, commanding Secondary Belief, will...certainly demand a special skill, a kind of elvish craft.” (MC 140)

These words, which Flieger has described as Tolkien’s “creative manifesto,” (Flieger 2012) echo Tolkien’s ideas in A Secret Vice. Just as language invention is a way to say what cannot be said with ordinary language, Fantasy is a means of seeing—and helping others see—what does not exist in the real world. To do such a thing is a “a kind of elvish craft,” an imitation of the enchantment Tolkien attributes to his own elves. (MC 122, 143) After going to great lengths to describe the nature of Fantasy and sub-creation, Tolkien lists three uses of Fantasy. Of these three, it is the first—“Recovery”—which resembles most strongly his sentiments about language invention.

Tolkien defines Recovery as “regaining a clear view” of things which we have taken for granted through familiarity. “We need, in any case, to clean our windows.... from the drab blur of triteness or familiarity—from possessiveness.” (MC 146). Just as the “significant language” of modern poetry obscured the fitness of sound and sense, so too the possessiveness which comes with familiarity obscures our ability to see the world clearly. Fantasy is a means of recovering that clear view.

This regaining of freshness is clearly related to the “strange and beautiful pictures in the mind” which drove Tolkien’s language invention, as demonstrated by the recurring leitmotif of the “green sun.” But Tolkien’s exploration of this relationship was not limited to essays. Within his fiction, he invests the elves with both an impulse for language invention and a need for Recovery. This should come as no surprise to us. Fantasy, after all, is an imitation of elvish craft. (MC 143)

3. The Elves as Language Inventors

Tolkien emphasizes the elves’ love for language invention from the earliest days of the mythology (BLT:I 155) to its twilight years. Writing the Dangweth Pengoloð in the early 1950’s, Tolkien sought to answer the question “How/Why did Elvish language change?” Pengolod—an elven philologist and author in the Dangweth’s narrative frame—answers this question in a way which sheds important light not only on why Elvish languages change, but on Tolkien’s thoughts about language change in general:

Weak indeed may be the memories of Men, but I say to you, Ælfwine, that even were your memory of your own being as clear as that of the wisest of the Eldar... your speech would change.... For Men change both their old words for new...and this change comes above all from the very changefullness of Eä; or if you will, from the nature of speech, which is fully living only when it is born, but when the union of the thought and the sound is fallen into old custom, and the two are no longer perceived apart, then already the word is dying and joyless...and the thought eager for some new-patterned raiment of sound. (PME 397)

According to Pengolod, the motivation for creating new words is the same for both races: when the union of sound and sense falls into “old custom,” the word and sound are no longer perceived as separate things. The word becomes “dying and joyless,” and a new sound is needed. The primary difference between human and elven language change lies in the latter’s skill. The elves consciously change whole sound patterns instead of individual words, in a manner reminiscent of how Christopher Tolkien described his father’s language invention process. (LR 378-9) Thus the “tongues of the Quendi change in a manner like to the changes of mortal tongues” albeit more artfully and deliberately. (PME 398, 400)

4. Conclusion

In A Secret Vice, Tolkien identifies the desire for a fresh relationship between sound and sense as the primary motive for the development of both real and invented languages. In On Fairy Stories, he further develops this idea as “Recovery” and names it as the first of the three benefits of fantasy literature. But Tolkien goes beyond theory, portraying his elves as artful language inventors across the fictional and textual history of the legendarium, their language invention motivated by a desire for Recovery. Both within and outside of his fiction, Tolkien’s works are a proof case for the value of glossopoeia as a means of Recovery—both for those who study Tolkien’s invented languages, and for those who make their own.

Her ancient and universal soul

I do not love a skeleton nor vital organs, I love Her face, Her sparkling clothes and even Her sandals, Her entire being. With the spiritual canticle I will sing of the hair on Her neck that charmed us as well, her children, as it ravished the heart of her Spouse. Oh, may those who love the Church understand! In her features and her slightest gestures, something indescribably exquisite enraptures us to the summit of her essential Mystery. The liturgical movements, the hymns, the ornamentation of churches, the words of the catechism and the sermon, this flesh, this manner of walking, the sound of the voice, the color of the eyes, revealed the very soul, immediately, and we were struck, intoxicated by it, for Her ancient and universal soul, Her intimate life that came to comfort us, was the Holy Spirit in Person!

Via New Liturgical Movement.

Saturday, September 21, 2019

þær his eðel wæs: The Dream of the Rood, lines 70-156

Last week, in celebration of the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, I shared the first half of the Anglo-Saxon poem known as The Dream of the Rood. Earlier this week, I took a closer look at a few lines from the poem which I find particularly poignant. 

As we come to the conclusion of the afterfeast, here's the rest of the poem, again with translation and some notes for students provided. Going through the second half of this poem again, I am struck by how deftly the author weaves a number of theological themes which feature prominently throughout medieval literature. Indeed, it is not the poets themes which are unusual, but the highly original way in which they are presented.


Initial from a Breviary (12th c.) for the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross


Hwæðere we ðær greotende    gode hwile

stodon on staðole,    syððan stefn up gewat
hilderinca.    Hræw colode,
fæger feorgbold.    Þa us man fyllan ongan
ealle to eorðan.    Þæt wæs egeslic wyrd!
Bedealf us man on deopan seaþe.    Hwæðre me þær dryhtnes þegnas,*
freondas gefrunon,**
gyredon me    golde ond seolfre.
Nu ðu miht gehyran,    hæleð min se leofa,
þæt ic bealuwara weorc    gebiden hæbbe,
sarra sorga.    Is nu sæl cumen
þæt me weorðiað    wide ond side
menn ofer moldan,    ond eall þeos mære gesceaft,
gebiddaþ him to þyssum beacne.    On me bearn godes
þrowode hwile.    Forþan ic þrymfæst nu
hlifige under heofenum,    ond ic hælan mæg***
æghwylcne anra,    þara þe him bið egesa to me.
Iu ic wæs geworden    wita heardost,
leodum laðost,    ærþan ic him lifes weg
rihtne gerymde,    reordberendum.****

[Yet we there weeping a good while stood in place, after the voices of the warriors had departed. The body cooled, fair life-dwelling. Then one began to fell us all to earth. That was an evil fate! One buried us in a deep pit; nevertheless there one of the Lord’s servants,* friends heard,** and adorned me with gold and silver. Now you can hear, my good man, that I the Evil One’s works have endured, painful sorrows. The time is now come that men should honor me far and wide; that men over the earth, and all this glorious creation should pray to this Sign. On me the Son of God suffered for a while; therefore, I rise glorious now under heaven, and I am able to save*** each of those for whom there is fear of me. Long ago I was made of punishments the cruelest, most hateful to the peoples, before I them the true way of life cleared for speech-bearers.****]

*The word I have translated here as “servant” is “thegn,” Modern English thane. This word usually means the aristocratic retainer of a king or chieftain in ancient Germanic society, and by extension, the noble class in general. The reference is to St Helen, who—in an event commemorated every September 14th—is said to have found the True Cross (along with the other two crosses from Golgotha), which had been buried beneath a temple to Venus built on the site by the Roman Emperor Hadrian.

**We’re missing a half-line here, so it’s hard to say what the actual meaning of this line is.

***The verb is gehælan, “to heal, to comfort, to make whole.” A related word, Hælend, is used in Anglo-Saxon to refer to Christ as Savior.

****reordberend “speech-bearers” is a simple kenning for humans, employed several times in this poem for the sake of alliteration.

A Rood in a church in Gotland, Sweden


Hwæt, me þa geweorðode    wuldres ealdor
ofer holtwudu,    heofonrices weard,
swylce swa he his modor eac,    Marian sylfe,
ælmihtig god    for ealle menn
geweorðode    ofer eall wifa cynn.
Nu ic þe hate,    hæleð min se leofa,
þæt ðu þas gesyhðe    secge mannum,
onwreoh wordum    þæt hit is wuldres beam,
se ðe ælmihtig god    on þrowode
for mancynnes    manegum synnum
ond Adomes    ealdgewyrhtum.
Deað he þær byrigde,    hwæðere eft dryhten aras
mid his miclan mihte    mannum to helpe.
He ða on heofenas astag.    Hider eft fundaþ
on þysne middangeard    mancynn secan
on domdæge    dryhten sylfa,
ælmihtig god,    ond his englas mid,
þæt he þonne wile deman,    se ah domes geweald,*
anra gehwylcum    swa he him ærur her
on þyssum lænum    life geearnaþ.
Ne mæg þær ænig    unforht wesan
for þam worde    þe se wealdend cwyð.
Frineð he for þære mænige    hwær se man sie,
se ðe for dryhtnes naman    deaðes wolde
biteres onbyrigan,    swa he ær on ðam beame dyde.**

[Behold, the Lord of Glory then honored me over all the wood of the forest, the Heaven-Kingdom’s Ward, in much the same way as he his mother also, Mary herself, the Almighty God for all men exalted above woman-kind. Now I command you, my good man, that you tell this vision to men, reveal with words that it is the Tree of Glory that the Almighty God suffered upon for mankind’s many sins and Adam’s ancient wrongs. Death he there tasted, yet afterwards the Lord arose by his great might, mankind to help. He then to the heavens ascended, and hither afterwards hastens to this Middle-earth, mankind to seek at Doomsday—the Lord Himself, Almighty God, and his angels with him. He will then doom—who has the power of doom—each of them according as he earlier merited in this transitory life. Nor may any be unafraid there, because of the word that the Ruler pronounces. He asks there in the presence of the multitude where the man be who for the Lord’s Name would taste of bitter death, as he [the Lord] did on the Tree.**]

*The word used repeatedly for “to judge” or “judgment” is some version of deman (“to judge, to deem, to praise”) or dom (“judgement, justice majesty, glory, honor”). The reference here is clearly to the Last Judgment as it was understood in medieval Christian theology, however it is important to point out that this is no merely judicial power as we might think of it today in an at least nominally democratic form of government—Christ’s power to judge is directly associated with his glory, majesty, and kingly attributes. There is a certain tendency in modern thinking and storytelling to assume that the idea of glory is inversely proportional to justice. Our poet (along with his audience) is completely comfortable with the idea that Christ’s coming in judgment would not be possible without his also coming in glory.

**Here I think we can most clearly glimpse the theological “goal” of this imaginative poem—to help the listener identify with the sufferings of Christ by considering them from the perspective of the Cross itself. Medieval devotion often employs this strategy, and many comparisons might be here made to the hymnography of the Eastern Orthodox Church as it has come down to us today. The goal of this approach is not (as many Protestant reformers would later think) to create an unnecessary barrier between the devotee and Christ; it is rather to provide yet another avenue of devotional engagement by considering the Lord’s Passion through the perspective of those who witnessed it firsthand—usually the Mother of God or St John the Beloved, or others who stood at the foot of the Cross. In this poem, uniquely, we are given the perspective of the Cross itself.

Another Rood from Gotland, this one over 800 years old. It is significant for portraying Christ triumphantly (as does this poem). Even on the cross, he is already wearing his crown.


Ac hie þonne forhtiað,    ond fea þencaþ
hwæt hie to Criste    cweðan onginnen.
Ne þearf ðær þonne ænig    anforht† wesan
þe him ær in breostum bereð    beacna selest,
ac ðurh ða rode sceal    rice gesecan
of eorðwege    æghwylc sawl,
seo þe mid wealdende    wunian þenceð."
Gebæd ic me þa to þan beame    bliðe mode,
elne mycle,    þær ic ana wæs
mæte werede.*    Wæs modsefa
afysed on forðwege,**    feala ealra gebad
langunghwila.    Is me nu lifes hyht
þæt ic þone sigebeam    secan mote
ana oftor    þonne ealle men,
well weorþian.    Me is willa to ðam
mycel on mode,    ond min mundbyrd is
geriht to þære rode.***    Nah ic ricra feala
freonda on foldan,    ac hie forð heonon
gewiton of worulde dreamum,    sohton him wuldres cyning,
lifiaþ nu on heofenum    mid heahfædere,
wuniaþ on wuldre,    ond ic wene me
daga gehwylce    hwænne me dryhtnes rod,
þe ic her on eorðan    ær sceawode,
on þysson lænan    life gefetige
ond me þonne gebringe    þær is blis mycel,
dream on heofonum,    þær is dryhtnes folc
geseted to symle,    þær is singal blis,
ond me† þonne asette    þær ic syþþan mot
wunian on wuldre,    well mid þam halgum
dreames brucan.    Si me dryhten freond,
se ðe her on eorþan    ær þrowode
on þam gealgtreowe    for guman synnum.
He us onlysde    ond us lif forgeaf,
heofonlicne ham.    Hiht wæs geniwad
mid bledum ond mid blisse    þam þe þær bryne þolodan.****
Se sunu wæs sigorfæst    on þam siðfate,
mihtig ond spedig,    þa he mid manigeo com,
gasta weorode,    on godes rice,
anwealda ælmihtig,    englum to blisse
ond eallum ðam halgum    þam þe on heofonum ær
wunedon on wuldre,    þa heora wealdend cwom,
ælmihtig god,    þær his eðel wæs.

[But they are afraid, do not even know how to begin to speak to Christ. They do not have any reason to be afraid who before in their breasts bears the Best of Signs, but by means of the Cross wills the Kingdom to seek, from earthly regions—every soul who with the Ruler intends to dwell.” Prayed I then to that Cross, glad at heart, strong in courage, where I was alone with a small company.* Mind was focused on departure;** I endured many times of longing. It is now my life’s hope that I the Tree of Victory may seek alone, to offer it honor above all men. The desire for that is great in my mind, and I look to that Rood for patronage.*** Nor have I many wealthy friends on earth, but they forth hence departed from this world’s joys, sought for themselves the King of Glory, live now in the heavens with the Highfather, dwell in glory; and I expect every day when the Lord’s Rood, who I here on earth before saw, will fetch me from this transitory life, and bring me then to where there is great bliss, joy in the heavens, where the folk of God are set at banquet, where is everlasting bliss, and being set there I afterwards might dwell in glory, well with the saints, enjoying joys. The Lord shall be to me a friend, who here on earth formerly suffered on the gallows-tree for mankind’s sin. He redeemed us and gave us life and a heavenly home. Hope was renewed, with glories and with bliss, for those who there burning suffered.**** The Son was secure in victory on the journey, mighty and successful when he came with a multitude, a troop of spirits, into God’s Kingdom, Almighty Ruler, with angels to bliss, and with all the saints whom in the heavens before lived in glory when their Ruler came, Almighty God, where His homeland was.]

*Compare line 69b.

**That is, departure from this world.

***Literally taken, this line is: “and my mundbyrd is directed to that Rood.” Nearly everyone in Anglo-Saxon society had a mundbora, a patron and protector—ones parent, master, chieftain, earl, or king, depending on the position one held in society. By association, the word came to be used for the protection that God—via His saints and angels—offered to His people. The author or visionary is claiming the Rood as his own particular heavenly patron.

****The poem ends by connecting three themes which seem to have been closely intertwined for the poet (and probably for his audience as well): First, the visionary’s hope that he will gain heaven and the company of the saints by the intercession and patronage of the Cross; second, his expectation that the Lord will prove his “friend” at the day of judgment; third, that all of this—his own hopes for salvation and mankind’s hopes in general—rest upon the victory of Christ in the “Harrowing of Hell” (the Anglo-Saxon name for the Descent into Hades), the events of which are briefly recalled in the final lines of the poem. For the poet, the ideas of heavenly patronage, steadfast devotion, and the sure victory of Christ are not mutually exclusive—rather, they are complementary, woven together into a beautiful tapestry which would begin to unravel if any of the various threads were removed.

Rood screen at Our Lady of Egmanton, Nottinghamshire

Currently reading: The Life in Christ, Nicholas Cabasilas
Current audio book: City of Fortune: How Venice Ruled the Seas, Roger Crowley
Currently translating: The Dream of the Rood

Monday, September 16, 2019

Crist wæs on rode

Saturday's post of the first 69 lines of The Dream of the Rood has already become the most popular post on this blog. I don't have any explanation for this, unless it is that the poem is uniquely beautiful and also too little known. If that's the case, I am happy to have brought it to the attention of so many people. I thought I'd do a quick post this morning just to highlight what I find to be one of the most poignant passages in the whole poem: lines 39-56.

To explain why this passage works so well, one must know a little bit about Anglo-Saxon alliterative meter. To say everything that could be said about this deceptively simple meter would be the study of many lifetimes. At its most basic, however, it goes like this: Each line is made up of two half-lines (the double-space in the middle of each lines in the passage below indicates the break between these half-lines). The first half-line has two "beats" which place the stress on two alliterating sounds (with vowels always alliterating with other vowels). The second half-line has two beats as well, the first of which alliterates with the first half-line, the second of which introduces a new sound.

To give an example of what I mean, here's line 56 of the poem, with the alliterating stresses in bold:

cwiðdon cyninges fyll.  Crist wæs on rode.

There are of course endless variations to this basic line type, based on where the stresses fall and how many "filler words" (which function as extra, unstressed syllables) are allowed. Certain poems, such as Caedmon's Hymn, exhibit an extremely "tight" meter:

Nu sculon herigean         heofonrices weard,
meotodes meahte         and his modgeþanc,
weorc wuldorfæder,         swa he wundra gehwæs,
ece drihten,         or onstealde.
He ærest sceop         eorðan bearnum
heofon to hrofe,         halig scyppend;
þa middangeard         moncynnes weard,
ece drihten,         æfter teode
firum foldan,         frea ælmihtig.

Even if you can't read Anglo-Saxon, it should be easy to tell that these lines keep a fairly steady beat and, for the most part, stick to the alliteration rules I mentioned above. The stereotype that exists about alliterative verse is that the earlier stuff is tighter, the later stuff is looser and more "artsy"; some have drawn parallels between the breakdown of heroic society and the breakdown of heroic verse.

But The Dream of the Rood bucks this stereotype. It features a large number of what are referred to as "hyper-metrical lines"--lines that basically break the metrical rules I listed above. Usually, this is done for the sake of effect. But it almost seems that in the Dream of the Rood, it is metrical lines which are used for effect, and not the other way around. Let's return again to lines 39-56, which recount the crucifixion of Christ:


Ongyrede hine þa geong hæleð,  (þæt wæs god ælmihtig),                                       
strang ond stiðmod.  Gestah he on gealgan heanne,
modig on manigra gesyhðe,  þa he wolde mancyn lysan.                             
Bifode ic þa me se beorn ymbclypte.  Ne dorste ic hwæðre bugan to eorðan,                                   
feallan to foldan sceatum,  ac ic sceolde fæste standan.                               
Rod wæs ic aræred.  Ahof ic ricne cyning,                                     
heofona hlaford,  hyldan me ne dorste.
þurhdrifan hi me mid deorcan næglum.  On me syndon þa dolg gesiene,                               
opene inwidhlemmas.  Ne dorste ic hira nænigum sceððan.                                       
Bysmeredon hie unc butu ætgædere.  Eall ic wæs mid blode bestemed,                                 
begoten of þæs guman sidan,  siððan he hæfde his gast onsended.                                         
Feala ic on þam beorge  gebiden hæbbe
wraðra wyrda.  Geseah ic weruda god
þearle þenian.  þystro hæfdon                 
bewrigen mid wolcnum  wealdendes hræw,                       
scirne sciman,  sceadu forðeode,                             
wann under wolcnum.  Weop eal gesceaft,
cwiðdon cyninges fyll.  Crist wæs on rode.

[They stripped the Young Warrior—he who was God Almighty—strong and resolute. He mounted on the gallows high, valiant in the sight of many, when he would ransom mankind. I shook when the Warrior embraced me. Nor dared I to bow in any direction towards the ground—I had to stand fast. The Rood was raised. I exalted the Mighty King, Heaven’s Lord. I did not dare to bend. They pierced me with dark nails—scars easily seen in me; evil, open wounds. Nor dared I to harm any one of them. They besmirched both of us together. I was streaming all over with blood, drenched from that man’s sides, since he had his spirit sent forth. Much have I, on that mountain, tasted of an evil wyrd. I saw the warbands of God violently humiliated. Dark clouds closed over the Ruler’s corpse. Over shining splendor shadow went forth, dark under sky. All creation wept, bewailing the King’s fall. Christ was on the Cross.]

I have tried to put the stressed syllables for each line in bold, but for some of the hyper-metrical lines (easily visually identified due to the fact that they are much longer than the last 6 or so lines) it is sometimes difficult to hear exactly where the stress should go. In my opinion, this contributes to the dream-like effect of this mystical poem.

But notice what happens in those last six lines, starting at "wraðra wyrda..." The alliteration becomes perfectly regular, and the lines "tighten," at precisely the moment when the nails would be driven into the hands and feet of Our Lord. The dreamlike vision becomes, for a moment, something concrete. Each beat falls like a hammer-blow. And Crist wæs on rode.

This use of the meter creates an incredible aural effect. It's just one small example of the great genius of this poem, and one reason why it's almost impossible to translate well.

Saturday, September 14, 2019

Beama beorhtost: The Dream of the Rood, lines 1-69

Today marks the feast of the "Universal Exaltation of the Precious and Life-Giving Cross," also known as Holy Cross Day, Holy Rood Day, or Roodmas in various traditions. The story behind this feast day, which involves the finding of the True Cross by St Helen (the mother of emperor St Constantine the Great) can be read elsewhere, and I hope to touch more on it in the next post in this series.

The two primary subjects of this blog are Germanic Philology, and the Liturgical Arts & Liturgical Year. Over the last several posts I've been deeply interested in rood-screens and the way they function in sacred architecture, and how medieval literature might itself function as a sort of verbal rood-screen (as Tolkien in fact believed that it could). In the Venn diagram of all of these interests, an Anglo-Saxon poem known as The Dream of the Rood is the almond-shaped overlapping area which connects them all.

Eastern Orthodox icon of the Exaltation of the Cross

I won't give you a lengthy introduction to the poem. The facts are these: It is at least as old as the 8th Century Ruthwell Cross, a beautiful 8th century stone Anglo-Saxon cross, which bears a partial text of the poem as well as quite a bit of beautiful iconography; it was of course destroyed during the rampant iconoclasm of the Protestant Reformation, but we've been able to piece a good bit of it back together. There is a decent chance that the poem is older than this, though, and it's considered to be a good candidate for the title of "oldest work of Old English literature." 

The Ruthwell Cross, 8th c.
There are all kinds of theories about the origins of poem itself. Its content, which seems to blend the heroic ethics of the Anglo-Saxon warrior aristocracy with Christian virtues, and its inclusion on the Ruthwell Cross have led many people to speculate that it was composed as a missionary tool, intended to help pagan Anglo-Saxons understand where their old values could be situated within a Christian context. Other attempts have been made to attribute the poem to known poets such as Cynewulf or Caedmon, though these attributions do not seem to have stuck. 

What can be said about the poem is that it is a beautiful, remarkable work of art. I am staggered just trying to imagine the mind which could compose it. Ever since I first encountered this poem in my first semester of Anglo-Saxon, I have wanted to attempt a verse translation of this poem which would make some effort toward communicating the beauty of the original. I'm not there yet, but I thought over the octave of the present feast I would share a rough prose translation I've been working on along with some notes. There's nothing revolutionary here--just some thoughts and notes I have been putting together for the purpose of teaching the poem to students who have little-to-no ability to read it themselves in Old English.

The idea would be to read each section aloud to the students in Old English, then go through the translation and draw out certain interesting meanings and aural effects which the poem accomplishes. In this way, someone who cannot read Old English would at least be introduced to the poem, and would get some sense of its beauty, and might go on to study it for themselves.

Without further ado, here are some notes on the first 69 lines of the poem. I'll publish the rest in 1-2 more blog posts (which should include some notes about the finding of the Cross by St Helen, since it is briefly mentioned in the poem) over the course of the next eight days.

The Anglo-Saxon Reliquary Cross, 10th c.

Hwæt! Ic swefna cyst  secgan wylle,                                        
hwæt me gemætte  to midre nihte,                                         
syðþan reordberend  reste wunedon!                                     
þuhte me þæt ic gesawe  syllicre treow                                  
on lyft lædan,  leohte bewunden,                                             
beama beorhtost.*  Eall þæt beacen** wæs                                        
begoten mid golde.  Gimmas stodon                                      
fægere æt foldan sceatum,  swylce þær fife wæron                                          
uppe on þam eaxlegespanne.***  Beheoldon þær engel dryhtnes ealle,                                   
fægere þurh forðgesceaft.  Ne wæs ðær huru fracodes gealga,                   
ac hine þær beheoldon  halige gastas,                                   
men ofer moldan,  ond eall þeos mære gesceaft.                

[Hark! I wish to tell of the best of dreams which came to me in the middle of the night, when speech-bearers seek their rest. It seemed to me that I saw a wondrous Tree suspended on the air, surrounded by light, of beams* the brightest. All that Sign** was covered with gold. Precious jewels shone forth, fair over the surface of the earth, and likewise there were five above the crossbeam***. I beheld there all the angels of the Lord, those fair from the foundation of the world. Nor was that indeed any criminal’s gallows, but there they kept watch: blessed spirits, men over the world, all this famous creation.]

*The word here is actually beama, the GP of beam, which can mean a tree (compare German Baum), a beam of wood, or (as throughout the rest of this poem) the Cross.

**OE beacen, from which we get our word beacon. It means a sign or portent. Throughout this poem it will be used both for the vision itself—the dream—as well as for the Cross. Given that this poem is never far from the legends of Sts. Constantine and Helen (and in fact will reference St Helen’s finding of the Cross later in the poem), I think it’s not unfair to see here an allusion to Constantine’s in hoc signo. Note though that there is already an OE borrowing from Latin signum: segn.

**OE eaxlegespann. I don’t have anything to say about this except that it’s a really cool word and “crossbeam” is a pretty uninteresting way to translate it.


Syllic wæs se sigebeam,  ond ic synnum fah,                                        
forwunded mid wommum.  Geseah ic wuldres treow,                                      
wædum geweorðode,*  wynnum scinan,
gegyred mid golde;  gimmas hæfdon                                      
bewrigene weorðlice  wealdendes treow.                                             
Hwæðre ic þurh þæt gold  ongytan meahte                                         
earmra ærgewin,  þæt hit ærest ongan                                  
swætan on þa swiðran healfe.  Eall ic wæs mid sorgum gedrefed,                              
forht ic wæs for þære fægran gesyhðe.  Geseah ic þæt fuse beacen                                           
wendan wædum ond bleom;  hwilum hit wæs mid wætan bestemed,                                       
beswyled mid swates gange,  hwilum mid since gegyrwed.

[Rare and marvelous was the Victory-tree—and I guilty with sins, wounded all over with evils! I saw the Tree of Wonder worshipfully vested,* shining with joy, adorned with gold; precious jewels had covered honorably the Ruler’s Tree. Nevertheless, I could see through that gold the evidence of a previous and wretched combat, where it first started to sweat and bleed from its right side. I was all with sorrow afflicted—afraid because of the fair vision. I saw that noble sign changed in garments and colors; at times it was with liquid moistened, drenched with flowing sweat and blood, at other times with treasures adorned.]

*Literally wædum geweorðode. Wǣd can refer to any article or garment of human clothing, but as it is often used to gloss Latin vestīmentum and since geweorþian carries the sense of rendering honor to an object or person, I have rendered it thus.

Anglo-Saxon Rood, or crucifix, Romsey Abbey. 10th c.


Hwæðre ic þær licgende   lange hwile                                      
beheold hreowcearig  hælendes treow,                  
oððæt ic gehyrde  þæt hit hleoðrode.                                     
Ongan þa word sprecan  wudu selesta:                                  
"þæt wæs geara iu,  (ic þæt gyta geman),                                            
þæt ic wæs aheawen  holtes on ende,                                     
astyred of stefne minum.  Genaman me ðær strange feondas,                    
geworhton him þær to wæfersyne,  heton me heora wergas hebban.                                       
Bæron me ðær beornas on eaxlum,  oððæt hie me on beorg asetton,                                       
gefæstnodon me þær feondas genoge.  Geseah ic þa frean mancynnes                                   
efstan elne mycle  þæt he me wolde on gestigan.                                              
þær ic þa ne dorste  ofer dryhtnes word                
bugan oððe berstan,  þa ic bifian geseah                                              
eorðan sceatas.  Ealle ic mihte                                   
feondas gefyllan,  hwæðre ic fæste stod.                

[Nevertheless I, lying there a long while, beheld sad-minded the Savior’s Tree, until I heard that it spoke. The Best of Woods began to speak these words: “It was long ago (though I remember it still) that I was hewn down at the holt’s end, removed from my stump. Strong enemies took me from there, made me into an awful spectacle, and commanded me to raise up their criminals. They bore me there, men on shoulders, until they set me atop a mountain. Many fiends fastened me there. I saw then the Lord of Mankind hastening with great courage that he might mount up upon me.* There I did not dare to go beyond the Lord’s word, to budge or break—I saw the earth’s surface begin to quake—even though I might have felled all those enemies, nevertheless I stood fast.]

*Throughout this poem, Christ’s action on the cross are seen as willing, with Christ almost always referred to in the terminology (as elsewhere—see the Old Saxon Heliand) of the Germanic warrior aristocracy. Christ is portrayed as totally in command of what takes place on the Cross. Although this takes place within the poet’s own cultural idiom, it is most consonant with the portrayal of the Passion in St John’s Gospel:

And Jesus answered them, saying, The hour is come, that the Son of man should be glorified. Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit. He that loveth his life shall lose it; and he that hateth his life in this world shall keep it unto life eternal. If any man serve me, let him follow me; and where I am, there shall also my servant be: if any man serve me, him will my Father honour. Now is my soul troubled; and what shall I say? Father, save me from this hour: but for this cause came I unto this hour. Father, glorify thy name. Then came there a voice from heaven, saying, I have both glorified it, and will glorify it again. The people therefore, that stood by, and heard it, said that it thundered: others said, An angel spake to him. Jesus answered and said, This voice came not because of me, but for your sakes. Now is the judgment of this world: now shall the prince of this world be cast out. And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me. This he said, signifying what death he should die. (John xii)

Byzantine crucifix in the nave of St Seraphim Orthodox Cathedral, Dallas TX. Both Byzantine and Anglo-Saxon art and poetry place the focus on Christ's calm command of his passion, rather than on the suffering or gore. Thus, Christ is portrayed at rest.


Ongyrede hine þa geong hæleð,*  (þæt wæs god ælmihtig),                                         
strang ond stiðmod.  Gestah he on gealgan heanne,
modig on manigra gesyhðe,  þa he wolde mancyn lysan.                               
Bifode ic þa me se beorn** ymbclypte.  Ne dorste ic hwæðre bugan to eorðan,                                    
feallan to foldan sceatum,  ac ic sceolde fæste standan.                                 
Rod wæs ic aræred.  Ahof ic ricne*** cyning,                                      
heofona hlaford,****  hyldan me ne dorste.
þurhdrifan hi me mid deorcan næglum.  On me syndon þa dolg gesiene,                                 
opene inwidhlemmas.  Ne dorste ic hira nænigum sceððan.                                         
Bysmeredon hie unc butu ætgædere.  Eall ic wæs mid blode bestemed,                                   
begoten of þæs guman sidan,  siððan he hæfde his gast onsended.                                           
Feala ic on þam beorge  gebiden hæbbe
wraðra wyrda.  Geseah ic weruda god
þearle þenian.  þystro hæfdon                   
bewrigen mid wolcnum  wealdendes hræw,                        
scirne sciman,  sceadu forðeode,                              
wann under wolcnum.  Weop eal gesceaft,
cwiðdon cyninges fyll.  Crist wæs on rode.

[They stripped the Young Warrior*—he who was God Almighty—strong and resolute. He mounted on the gallows high, valiant in the sight of many, when he would ransom mankind. I shook when the Warrior** embraced me. Nor dared I to bow in any direction towards the ground—I had to stand fast. The Rood was raised. I exalted*** the Mighty King, Heaven’s Lord.**** I did not dare to bend. They pierced me with dark nails—scars easily seen in me; evil, open wounds. Nor dared I to harm any one of them. They besmirched both of us together. I was streaming all over with blood, drenched from that man’s sides, since he had his spirit sent forth. Much have I, on that mountain, tasted of an evil wyrd. I saw the warbands of God violently humiliated. Dark clouds closed over the Ruler’s corpse. Over shining splendor shadow went forth, dark under sky. All creation wept, bewailing the King’s fall. Christ was on the Cross.]

*geong hæleð

**beorn. As is well known, this particular word is packed with etymological controversy. It has a highly disputed link (which however I consider credible) to ON bjǫrn, a northern variant of the Proto-Germanic root for “brown.” Northern Indo-European languages have a great reticence to refer to bears by name (thus there is no Germanic cognate for Latin ursus), and usually refer to them as “brown one” or “honey-eater.” A warrior who is particularly fierce, hairy, and given to large meals and long naps (one finds many such people in Germanic folklore and legend) might be a “bear” by association, and since most aristocratic males were warriors and since the word is very close to bearn “son [of man]”, it seems to often just function as a poetic word for “man.” As Nelson Goering once told me, we have to understand ALL of the above layers (and probably some that I’m missing) as having been present for the original audience of these poems. In translation, highlighting one sense usually comes at the expense of the others.

***ahof could be translated “raised” or “exalted” and thus seems to be something of a pun, in keeping with the spirit of the Gospel passage cited above.

****Here I have to play around a bit, which I can do because this is a personal blog and not a scholarly publication. There are a few different words in Anglo-Saxon which are translated as “Lord.” This one is hlaford, which developed from earlier OE hlafweard or “loaf-warden,” as in the one who has control over, or gives out, loafs of bread. Over time, OE hlaford > ME louerd, lord > ModE lord. It’s difficult to imagine a more appropriate name for Christ than “loaf-warden,” and certainly Medieval Christians would not have been deaf to the Eucharistic associations of the term.


Hwæðere þær fuse  feorran cwoman                      
to þam æðelinge.  Ic þæt eall beheold.                   
Sare ic wæs mid sorgum gedrefed,  hnag ic hwæðre þam secgum to handa,                          
eaðmod elne mycle.  Genamon hie þær ælmihtigne god,                
ahofon hine of ðam hefian wite.   Forleton me þa hilderincas                        
standan steame bedrifenne;  eall ic wæs mid strælum* forwundod.                          
Aledon hie ðær limwerigne,  gestodon him æt his lices heafdum,               
beheoldon hie ðær heofenes dryhten,  ond he hine ðær hwile reste,                           
meðe æfter ðam miclan gewinne.  Ongunnon him þa moldern wyrcan     
beornas on banan gesyhðe;  curfon hie ðæt of beorhtan stane,                   
gesetton hie ðæron sigora wealdend.  Ongunnon him þa sorhleoð galan                
earme on þa æfentide,  þa hie woldon eft siðian,               
meðe fram þam mæran þeodne.  Reste he ðær mæte weorode.

[But then noble folk came from afar off to that prince. I beheld it all. I was in pain, with sorry afflicted, nevertheless I bent down to those men, down towards the side of the hill, humble-minded and with great courage. They took there the Almighty God, lifting him up from that heavy torment. I relinquished that Warrior, remained with Moisture covered; I was all with arrows* gravely wounded. There they lay down the weary-limbed one and stood at the head of his corpse. There they looked on Heaven’s Lord, and he with them rested there a while, weary after the great struggle. They began the grave to make, those warriors, within sight of his killer; they carved that grave of bright stone, and set therein The Lord of Victory. They began then a burial hymn to chant on that miserable evening. Then, weary, they would afterwards leave that most excellent Lord. He rested there with a small host.]

*strælum “with arrows” seems to be a reference to the nails embedded in the wood of the cross. Here, we might think of certain iconography of Anglo-Saxon saints, or of St Sebastian, who were tied to a tree and then shot to death with arrows. The below illumination depicts the death of St Edmund, King and Martyr, shot to death by Viking raiders. The point of this and other references to the Cross’s wounds seems to be to transfer the Cross itself from an instrument of torment to a victim who suffered, obediently, along with Christ. The reference in line 60 to elne mycle “with great courage” highlights the Cross’s own courage in obedience. As has often been pointed out elsewhere, the whole poem casts the Cross in the light of the obedient thegn, the servant or bodyguard of his lord who is expected to stand with his lord until the end. The poem puts a particularly Christian twist on this idea, though, since the Cross is not supposed to fight or defend its lord (even though it seems capable of doing so); instead, it (and therefore we) must partake in and therefore identify with the sufferings of Christ. It is the peculiarly Christian understanding that sees this moment of greatest suffering as the moment of greatest exaltation. The double-vision of the cross streaming with gore/arrayed in gold and jewels and costly vestments is a good example of the paradox which the poet so effectively conveys.

Medieval illumination of the death of St Edmund

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