Introduced by and translated by Michael Alexander
Foreword by Bernard O’Donoghue
Illustrated, signed and numbered by Alan Lee
As an illustrator, my aim is not to dictate how things should look, but to serve the author’s vision, and to create an atmosphere, a space between the words where the eye and mind can wander, and imagine for themselves . . . what will happen next.
Alan Lee is the most celebrated living illustrator of myth and fantasy: a recipient of the Kate Greenaway Medal; the Tolkien estate’s artist-of-choice for over 25 years; and an Oscar-winner for his conceptual work on Peter Jackson’s films of The Lord of the Rings. An artist steeped in myth, legend and folklore, his other-worldly images place him at the forefront of a tradition established by the Pre-Raphaelites, Rackham and Dulac.
Lee’s lavish illustrative scheme sets the poems in a modern re-imagining of an illuminated manuscript. Detailed watercolours evoke their magic and their mystery, bringing key moments vividly to life. Intricate ink-drawn ornamental borders – where knot-work turns into writhing dragons and shattered twigs become the broken strings of a harp – mirror their themes of life and death, and the brokenness and integrity of the texts themselves. And witty visual puns, where a picture is simultaneously a pile of twisted branches, bones and hail; the outline of a chicken; and the solution to a riddle, spelled out in runes, reflect their complexity and their humour. Crowning this scheme is the stunning design that adorns the binding – a lightning-shattered evocation of the Sutton Hoo helmet that hints at the inspired, and inspiring, tales enclosed within this magnificent volume.
The Wanderer and The Seafarer
The Wife’s Lament
The Husband’s Message
Wulf and Eadwacer
The Fight at Finnsburgh
The Battle of Brunanburgh
The Battle of Maldon
The Dream of the Rood
The Exeter Riddles
Over 1000 years ago, the visionary Anglo-Saxon ruler Alfred the Great strived to replace Latin with English as the principal language of his kingdom. Verse in the vernacular flourished and, at the turn of the 11th century, monastic scribes wrote down these innovative oral compositions creating the first literature in English. Just decades later, William the Conqueror’s Norman invasion transformed the linguistic landscape of England so dramatically that, before long, these verses had become the unreadable remnants of an extinct language. One of the greatest collections of Anglo-Saxon poetry – the Exeter Book – was dismissed in an early 14th century inventory as ‘worthless’, and used as a beermat and chopping board, its vellum pages stained, sliced and singed.
After centuries of neglect and ill-treatment, the tattered remains of this Old English literature were finally recovered in the 19th century. The tiny handful of preserved manuscripts were transcribed, edited and translated by pioneering scholars, attracted by their historical value and their heroic and ‘Romantic’ qualities. Since then, these miraculous survivors have been acknowledged as the earliest known masterpieces of English poetry, influencing and inspiring writers as varied as William Morris and Ezra Pound, Alfred Tennyson and J. R. R. Tolkien. Shafts of light illuminating a dark age, they give a unique insight into the Anglo-Saxon world, over-shadowed by Roman ruins and embattled by Viking incursions, torn between pagan fatalism and Christian hope.
No man blessed
with a happy land-life is like to guess
how I, aching-hearted, on ice-cold seas
have wasted whole winters
One of the most striking features of Old English poetry is its directness. Its narrators frequently address us in the first person, sharing deep truths drawn from lived experience, and exploring a remarkable range of subjects and emotions: the loneliness of the exile, cut adrift from his lord, and of the sailor, lured from the comforts of civilisation by the call of the sea; the yearning for a lost Golden Age provoked by an encounter with monumental ruins; and the bitterness of a loyal wife, alienated from her husband by false accusations. Epic accounts of resounding victory in battle and heroic defeat at the hands of marauding invaders sit alongside an ecstatic description of Christ’s crucifixion, narrated by the Cross itself; pithy proverbs and delightfully tantalising riddles follow musings on the fate of the successful – and the unsuccessful – poet.
There’s a vitality to these poems, written as they were at a time when life was so much more embattled, more desperate and fragile
Michael Alexander first started producing his masterful translations of Old English verse nearly sixty years ago. His anthologies have achieved classic status, winning praise from Ted Hughes, W. H. Auden and Seamus Heaney, and bringing Old English literature to an audience of millions. To match the unique force of the original texts, Alexander’s poetic renderings adhere to the characteristic Old English metre – unrhymed lines with four stressed syllables, linked by a strict pattern of internal alliteration. At the same time, his goal of ‘fidelity’ rather than accuracy allows him to capture the spirit, as well as the meaning of these poems, giving a powerful sense that we are hearing them as if performed aloud for the very first time.
This parallel edition presents the Old English texts and their translations on facing pages, giving lay-readers the flavour of the original language, and scholars the chance to admire Alexander’s skill. It also includes his detailed historical introduction, introductions to the individual poems, scholarly notes, proposed answers to the riddles, suggestions for further reading, a short explanation of runes, and a comprehensive glossary. This highly informative text is complemented by a specially commissioned foreword from Bernard O’Donoghue, winner of the 1995 Whitbread prize for Poetry, who has described the Old English elegies as his ‘model for the perfectly formed lyric poem’.
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