When I tell my friends I enjoy studying Anglo-Saxon literature, I am usually met with looks of shock and the response, “Why?” Considering the Anglo-Saxon period spanned over 600 years, from the fall of the Roman Empire around 410 AD to 1066, it is no surprise the literature from this era is so wide-ranging. This encompasses heroic poems, Christian poetry, and riddles. Here are some of my favourite works of Anglo-Saxon literature that are a great introduction to the period and even better, they are all available in modern translations!
Beowulf is arguably the most popular work of Anglo-Saxon literature and it is easy to see why. Written in around 700/800 AD, the poem focuses on the heroic exploits of Beowulf, who comes to the aid of the Danes by ridding them of the monster Grendel. Full of intense battles against underwater monsters and formidable dragons, Beowulf enables you to gain an insight into the heroic values that dominated Anglo-Saxon culture. Set against this are scenes of communal feasting, which enrich the narrative with stories of legendary Germanic figures and historic events. Beowulf is full of so many themes just waiting to be explored, and when I read the poem for the first time, I was fascinated by its fusion of pagan and Christian elements. It is widely believed that Beowulf was written by a Christian author harkening back to a Germanic pagan past. I personally recommend buying Seamus Heaney’s translation as he retains the stylistic features of Old English poetry with its alliterative emphasis, whilst still making the poem accessible. The most exciting part of all this is that you can actually see this amazing manuscript for free at the British Library!
Strong female leaders are hardly represented in Anglo-Saxon literature, which often focuses on the martial strength of masculine heroism; however, this is not the case in Judith. Dating from around 800/900 AD, Judith is a short but powerful reworking of the biblical story found in the Latin Vulgate Bible. The poem opens with the Assyrian leader Holofernes’ failed attempt to sleep with the Hebrew leader Judith, showcasing her incredible strength as she fights off her attacker in the name of God. With Judith’s rousing speeches to her army and fast-paced battle descriptions, the poem immerses you into the battle between the Hebrews and their Assyrian oppressors. Despite the emphasis on warfare, Judith is full of humorous moments. In particular, the scene where Judith decides to place the executed head of Holofernes into her food bag, without any concern for the hygiene risks this poses, really amused me! I recommend reading Richard Hamer’s translation of Judith from his anthology A Choice of Anglo-Saxon verse as it places the original Old English alongside the Modern English translation, which is so interesting to compare.
The Dream of the Rood
The Dream of the Rood is regarded as one of the great Christian poems of the Anglo-Saxon period and when I read it initially, I was drawn in by its unusual narrative perspective. Whilst the poem is an example of the dream vision genre, framed by the more conventional perspective of a dreamer, the main narrative perspective is actually the cross on which Jesus was crucified. Keep an eye out for the blending of heroic and religious elements throughout the poem, in particular, the portrayal of Jesus as a Germanic warrior facing his final battle. The sheer narrative scope of the poem provides many opportunities for analysis, starting with the domestic outlook of the dreamer, moving onto the individual perspective of the cross which sermonises on the universal nature of humanity, before concluding with the dreamer’s final thoughts. It is believed that this poem was inspired by the Ruthwell Cross, a seventeen foot cross built in the ninth century, and engraved with a poem told from the perspective of Christ’s Cross. The Ruthwell Cross is still available for you to see, located in Ruthwell Church, Dumfriesshire in Scotland! I recommend Kevin Crossley-Holland’s translation of this poem, which can be found in his work The Anglo- Saxon World: An Anthology (published by Oxford World’s Classics).
The Seafarer is an elegiac poem dating from around 900 AD, which focuses on the thoughts of the seafarer, isolated upon the sea. The poem enables us to understand the inner turmoil of the seafarer, highlighted by his frequent references to his solitary and simplistic life at sea, compared to the community and social rituals he has left behind on land. Throughout this work, it is really interesting to explore the various functions of the sea. Not only does the sea act as a symbol of the seafarer’s inner turmoil, it also acts as a passage between life and death and a space to reject earthly desires in favour of heavenly stability. This poem has been widely translated, most notably by Ezra Pound; however, I recommend Kevin Crossley-Holland’s translation which really encapsulates the seafarer’s anguish. Again, this can also be found in his work The Anglo-Saxon World.
The Exeter Book Riddles
One of the highlights of my Anglo-Saxon course was The Exeter Book Riddles. The 96 riddles that are found in the 10th century Exeter Book focus on a variety of subjects, including household objects, the natural world, Christian teaching and warfare. Debates over the authorship of the riddles have been ongoing, with scholars arguing that they were written in a monastery for the scholarly elite. Despite being over one thousand years old, I was surprised to find the riddles very accessible and was even able to guess some of the answers correctly! Whilst the riddles are not supplied with any definite solutions (so frustrating), they are still humorous; however some of them have more unusual solutions, including a one eyed onion seller! By locating the majority of the riddles in the world of the everyday, this explains their enduring appeal. I found the riddles’ emphasis on new technologies, such as book making, and agricultural advancements, in the form of the plough, really fascinating. Kevin Crossley-Holland publishes a selection of the riddles in his Anglo-Saxon World; however if you are desperate to read all of them, I recommend buying his Penguin Classics translation The Exeter Book Riddles. The Exeter Book is on display at Exeter Cathedral Library and Archives, and it is available for visitors to see on select days throughout the year, check Exeter Cathedral’s website for viewing dates.
I hope this list has provided you with some new works of Anglo-Saxon literature to explore, and let me know what your favourite Anglo-Saxon texts are!