Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Teaching Old English poetry to young English speakers

This week my small class of home schoolers is reading Old English poetry. We are starting with riddles, because they are short and intriguing, and because I found an excellent site where a few riddles are translated, interpreted, and spoken aloud in Old English.

I was curious as to how these 9th graders would respond to this poetry. On the one hand, the idea of the riddle is familiar to most people, and these students love Tolkien, so they remember Bilbo Baggins and his riddle contest with Gollum in The Hobbit. Since a new movie of The Hobbit is coming out soon, it seemed appropriate to talk about riddles some. On the other hand, Old English, while it may be technically English, is more like German than like modern English, and you can't just sit down and read it with no help. Fortunately that site provides a line by line glossary of the riddles, in addition to a text of the riddle in modern English. Looking at the line by line glossary, you see that there are a lot of words in Old English that modern English retains, such as "moth," "word," and "worm." They may look a little different in Old English, for example the word "moth" is spelled with the thorn letter for the sound "th" that modern English doesn't have, and "worm" is spelled, charmingly, "wyrme." But "word" is just spelled "word," although it means "song," as well as simply, "word." Also, "wyrme" not only means a worm, like the larvae of a moth, but it also can mean "dragon," or simply any annoying creature that bites!

The worm poem is about a book worm that devours words while eating the manuscripts of the Anglo-Saxon scribe, which were written onto vellum, or very thin leather. The commentary says that to the worm, it was just so much beef jerky, but to the poet, it is human culture that the worm is devouring. The riddle turns into a meditation on the ephemerality of human culture, and it implies a kind of critique of the new written culture, as opposed to the older traditional oral culture of the Anglo Saxons. The oral culture could be said to be less vulnerable to loss, because before writing, thousands of people memorized riddles, songs, and epic poetry. Now, in this new Christianized age of the manuscript, there is no need to memorize your entire literature: it's all written down in books! But beware the wyrme...

In another riddle, the "speaker" says that she or he is very valuable, "brung from the woods" on wings, and then bathed in a tub?!  And that she throws men to the ground and binds them, and takes away their control over their minds, hands, and feet. She is mead, the wine made from honey. My students were puzzled by the idea of the honey being "bathed in a tub." I said that honey back then came in a rather dirty beeswax, full of bee larvae, because there was no super on the hive that separated the comb with eggs from the comb without eggs. So, to make mead, all the honey and comb was bathed in water and then probably strained to get the beeswax, eggs, and comb out. The honey would be diluted with water before making mead.

Another beautiful riddle describes the old moon "with the new moon in her arms": that phenomenon where the waning moon appears to have a faint whole moon cradled in its crescent. The riddle imagines that the waning moon wants this glowing orb to light a special room that it will build onto its house. But the rising sun chases away the "thief" and takes back the "booty" that the waning moon has stolen. Then the waning moon disappears for several days (as it does before it returns as the new moon).

The biggest barrier for my students with these poems was not the Old English language; after all, we had translations. It was not even the highly figurative language: the "wonderlice wiht" with a glowing orb between its horns. It was the fact that the Anglo Saxon tool kit and worldview was so utterly unfamiliar: the bee skep, the books written on animal skins, the horn that was both a musical instrument and a drinking vessel, and even the movements of the moon through the night sky. The gulf between pre-industrial people and ourselves is indeed vast. We discussed all these technological references thoroughly, though, and that helped. The students' questions made me realize how interested the Anglo Saxons were in their own technology: the riddles are mostly concerned with How Things Work, it seems, and what they are made out of, and how they are made. I probably would not have noticed this without the students' questions.

A student also asked something about why people would spend so much time inventing and memorizing riddles and songs in an oral culture. I said that I thought that it was partly because there was nothing else to do in winter at night. It gets dark and cold in Northern Europe in winter: there may only be a few hours of sunlight every day. You can only sleep about ten hours, and then you wake up. When you go to bed at dark, you wake up around midnight, and so do other people. It's still dark and cold, so you lie in bed talking, telling jokes and stories, and maybe singing or making love. Then you go back to sleep for a few hours before dawn. This was called the first sleep and the second sleep. I'm guessing that during the awake time in the middle of the night, people composed and shared riddles. Modern students are as unfamiliar with the rituals of pre-industrial night-time as they are with the making of mead or the inscribing of illuminated manuscripts.  They didn't quite believe me when I said that if you go to bed at dark, you will wake up for a couple of hours in the middle of the night. But that's what happens to me after a few days of early-to-bed, once I get over the cumulative fatigue of normal industrial life.

I made a writing assignment which was to write a riddle (in modern English of course). I challenged myself to write one too, and compose it orally, as Anglo Saxon people would have for centuries. It's also a "parody" of an Anglo Saxon riddle, sort of, since "parody" was one of our vocabulary words.

I am yellow      and some call me yucky
the poorer people     buy me in boxes
They melt me down    to a gooey gold
I fly through the food-gate     riding a round horse
Whose bones are broken     but I live longer
Down the drain      to the cauldron cave
Where finally as fuel     I end in energy.
Who am I?

Answer: Velveeta cheese

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