Hello friendly people. Haven’t written much for my next YA novel, Just Happy To Be Here, in the past week, because I’m trying to conceptualize and reconceptualize a few things. I’ve got a fair amount there—the entire first act—but want to shape the material and set up the conflicts more before I set up everything else.
But life is good! My Old English studies continue apace. I’ve been memorizing words, reading flash cards. Last night I successfully read a poem, “Dream of the Rood”, where a dude has a dream in which the cross, on which Christ was crucified, starts talking to him! I was like, wait a second, is this really the premise of the poem? But it was surprisingly affecting. I liked these lines the best.
Bifode ic þa me se beorn ymbclypte. Ne dorste ic hwæðre bugan to eorðan
feallan to foldan sceatum, ac ic sceolde faeste standan.
I won’t bother with an exact translation, but essentially the cross is saying, “I embraced the man. I dared not bend to the earth, fall to the ground. I needed to stand fast.”
It’s so sweet! The cross doesn’t want to fail in this task it’s been given. It has to suffer with Christ while he dies, and then it has to suffer alone when Christ is taken, and then they take down the cross and bury it in a dark pit all by itself, but then, miracle, the followers of Christ take it out and adorn it in gold and gems and take it up to heaven, and you can come to Heaven too, if you just use the savior’s intercession!
I like Old English—it’s not quite like learning a new language. The words are about half unfamiliar, and even when they’re familiar at their root, they often look weird on the page (like ‘ymbclypte’ for ‘embraced’), and the word order has the potential to feel unfamiliar, it’s definitely a bit like Latin, where you’re like, oh I’ve got to spot the verb first in order to know what this sentence means. But on a deeper level, it’s very much English. Like, if you see a word that ends in “lice” you know it’s an adverb (same as ending in -ly in English) and something that ends in “ost” is gonna be the greatest, the sunniest, the coldest, etc. You don’t really need to learn the conjugations and declensions because they’re the same as what you’re used to from english (or fake old-timey english). Like if you see something that ends in ‘eth’ (or, rather ‘eð’) then you know it’s first person present tense. And even the irregular verbs are often irregular in modern english too. So, like ‘holdan’ (hold) has a past tense of ‘healde’ (held). So simple!
I got really interested in where all this ancient English literature comes from. Like, how do we have it? And it turns out that the Dream of the Rood was in this book, the Vercelli manuscript, that this dude who visited England as a papal legate in 1216 brought back to Italy, and it just kind of sat there (because obviously nobody there could even read it) until a German guy found it on the shelf in the 19th century! And this is the source of a significant portion of all the Anglo-Saxon poetry and prose that exists!
As far as I can tell, all the manuscripts containing anglo-saxon poetry date from around the year 1000 AD, when the English monks (who typically were more interested in copying Latin works) got briefly interested in their own culture. They copied out a bunch of books, maybe copying from earlier books or maybe not, and then the Normans invaded and suddenly nobody was interested in Anglo-Saxon culture again until the 13th or 14th century.
What a lineage! We’re pretty lucky that someone out there was like…let’s spend many hours copying out this weird Cross poem into a book. And then someone in 1216 was like, this book looks cool…
It makes me wonder if there are other books lingering on other shelves…