By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
What are the finest works of Anglo-Saxon literature? We’ve restricted our choices to works of literature written in Anglo-Saxon or Old English, so that rules out Bede’s Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, which, as the title suggests, was written in Latin. But there’s a wealth of great literature written in Old English, as the following pick of ten of the best testifies (we hope).
For a good anthology of Anglo-Saxon literature in modern translation, we recommend The Anglo-Saxon World An Anthology (Oxford World’s Classics).
1. Anonymous, The Exeter Book riddles.
Here’s a riddle for you: what hangs down by the thigh of a man, under his cloak, yet is stiff and hard? When the man pulls up his robe, he puts the head of this hanging thing into that familiar hole of matching length which he has filled many times before. Got it? A key, of course! This is one of a number of riddles found in the Exeter Book, one of the jewels in the crown of Anglo-Saxon literature.
We discuss some more Anglo-Saxon riddles – and challenge you to solve them – in a separate post.
2. Anonymous, ‘The Wife’s Lament’.
At just 53 lines, this is one of the shortest works of Anglo-Saxon literature included in this list. It’s a cry of despair and grief, told from the perspective of a wife whose husband has been exiled. The poem also features the rather useful Anglo-Saxon word uhtceare, which has been translated as ‘lying awake in the morning worrying’.
3. Anonymous, Beowulf.
As we’ve discussed in our detailed summary of Beowulf, this poem is part of a rich literary narrative tradition that encompasses Tolkien’s The Hobbit, the story of St George and the dragon, and even Lewis Carroll’s ‘Jabberwocky’. It chronicles the hero’s exploits, notably his slaying of the monster Grendel – actually only the first of three monsters Beowulf has to vanquish.
Although it is celebrated nowadays as an important work of Anglo-Saxon – indeed, ‘English’ – literature, Beowulf was virtually unknown and forgotten about, amazingly, for nearly a thousand years. It was only rescued from obscurity in 1815, when an Icelandic-Danish scholar named Thorkelin printed an edition of the poem.
And although it is seen as the starting-point of great English literature – at many universities, it is still the earliest literary text studied as part of the literary canon – it is very different from other medieval poetry, such as that by Chaucer or Langland, who were writing many centuries later. It is set in Denmark, has a Swedish hero, and – when read in the original Anglo-Saxon – seems almost more German than ‘English’.
Perfect fireside reading, and an archetypal work of English literature, composed when the notion of ‘England’ itself was only just beginning to emerge.
4. Anonymous, ‘The Seafarer’.
This 124-line poem is often considered an elegy, since it appears to be spoken by an old sailor looking back on his life and preparing for death. He discusses the solitariness of a life on the waves, the cold, the danger, and the hardships. As such, the poem captures the bewitching fascination the sea holds for us, but also its darker, more unpredictable side.
Variously viewed as a moral poem about how to face up to your own fate, a wholly religious poem, and as a great secular poem, ‘The Seafarer’ is a fine and accessible example of Anglo-Saxon poetry. Ezra Pound produced a loose translation of the poem in the early twentieth century, but we’ve linked to a parallel text version above, with the original Anglo-Saxon included on the left and a modern English translation on the right.
5. Anonymous, ‘The Wanderer’.
Like the riddles above, this poem was preserved thanks to the Exeter Book. It’s 115 lines long and written in alliterative verse, and like ‘The Seafarer’ is about a solitary man looking back on his past. In the poem, the man is referred to as eardstapa, an Anglo-Saxon word meaning literally ‘earth-stepper’, hence the title usually appended to the poem.
6. Caedmon, Hymn.
Perhaps the oldest poem written in English, Caedmon’s Hymn was composed in the 7th century by a goatherd and takes the form of a short hymn in praise of God.
It was Bede, or ‘the Venerable Bede’ as he is often known, who ensured the survival of Caedmon’s Hymn, when he jotted it down in Latin translation in one of his books. An anonymous scribe then added the Anglo-Saxon form of the hymn in the margins of Bede’s book.
7. Bede, ‘Bede’s Death Song’.
As well as rescuing Caedmon’s Hymn from oblivion, Bede also wrote this very short poem on his deathbed – at least, reportedly. Whether he was actually the author of ‘Bede’s Death Song’ is difficult to say for certain, but this five-line lyric, about facing death and looking back on a life well lived, is a marvellous short example of Anglo-Saxon poetry.
8. Anonymous, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.
One of the most important manuscripts in English history, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle was created in the late 9th century during the time of Alfred the Great, almost certainly at his command (the manuscript is thought to have been written in Wessex, where Alfred ruled).
Actually, the Chronicle survives in several different manuscripts, a result of its having been distributed to various monasteries and then added to. Among other things, the Chronicle contains accounts of the two battles of 1066, Stamford Bridge and Hastings.
9. Anonymous, ‘The Dream of the Rood’.
Another early work of Anglo-Saxon literature, ‘The Dream of the Rood’ is an early work of English Christian verse and an example of the dream poem, which would later become a staple of medieval verse thanks to the Pearl poet and William Langland. ‘Rood’ means ‘cross’ or ‘crucifix’, and part of this poem was inscribed on the 8th-century Ruthwell Cross in Scotland; it’s been speculated that the cross, and the poem, were used to convert people to Christianity.
The history of the poem is almost as fascinating as the poem itself. The first record of it is an 18-feet-high cross in the church at Ruthwell, Dumfriesshire, Scotland. A century or so later, in 884, Pope Marinus sent Alfred the Great, King of Wessex, a piece of the True Cross, and an expanded version of ‘The Dream of the Rood’ was made in response.
And then, soon after this, Aethelmaer made a reliquary to house Alfred’s piece of the True Cross, and lines from ‘The Dream of the Rood’ were inscribed upon this silver container, known as the Brussels Cross because of where it is now kept.
As Michael Alexander has pointed out, it’s a fine tribute to the unity of Christendom that these three very different artefacts, each of which contains lines from this iconic early English poem, should all be housed in different countries, none of which is England itself. ‘The Dream of the Rood’ is an English poem that made its way abroad, and is perhaps, therefore, the first successful English literary export.
We discuss this fascinating poem in more detail in a separate post.
10. Anonymous, ‘The Battle of Maldon’.
This poem is unusual in that it commemorates not a glorious victory but a crushing defeat: in 991 the Anglo-Saxon army failed to ward off the Vikings near the town of Maldon in Essex. It’s also not exactly out-and-out propaganda for the English (even though it’s an example of history being written by the victims rather than victors): several members of the English army are described fleeing the battlefield, for instance.
And although only the middle section of the poem has survived, this poem remains a fine piece of Anglo-Saxon poetry and gives an insight into how hard life was for early settlers defending – or trying to defend – their homes against invaders. J. R. R. Tolkien wrote a sequel to the poem, The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm’s Son, which takes the form of a dialogue between two characters at the end of the battle.
If this selection of classic Anglo-Saxon texts has whetted your appetite for more, we recommend The Anglo-Saxon World An Anthology (Oxford World’s Classics).
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.