Friday, 19 February 2016

All that is gold does not glitter

Somebody at work has a little poster by their desk that reads “Not all those who wander are lost.” Seeing it every day prompted me to try to remember all of the lines of J.R.R. Tolkien’s poem to which this is the second line. I got seven out of eight, having to seek the detail that “A light from the shadows shall spring” is the sixth line from Wikipedia. I know, not the best place to look for facts, but I always take the view that if there are enough people out there who are inspired by a thing, then there is little scope for trouble. I was interested to note that the original version of the poem (from “The Road to Middle Earth”) was also quoted, which is the first time that I have read these words. Perhaps they are new for you too.

The familiar form of the poem (The Riddle of Strider) runs:

All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.
From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
A light from the shadows shall spring;
Renewed shall be blade that was broken,
The crownless again shall be king.

Whereas the earliest form is:

All that is gold does not glitter;
all that is long does not last;
All that is old does not wither;
not all that is over is past.

to which was later added a second quatrain:

Not all that have fallen are vanquished;
a king may yet be without crown,
A blade that was broken be brandished;
and towers that were strong may fall down.

There is a vast change between these versions which I would like to consider. Looking at the origin of the poem it would appear that “The Riddle of Strider” fails as a riddle compared with the Anglo-Saxon Riddles, which are generally given in the 1st person and are more cryptic in their format, often employing double-entendre that would shame a Carry On writer. It does however very closely follow the pattern of Anglo-Saxon gnomic poetry, especially the collection known as Maxims II, (Cotton Tiberius B i fol.115a-115b). Here we find simple sayings which are clumped together in loosely related sections. Here we learn that "Winter is the coldest time, spring the frostiest" or "The tree belongs in the soil, spreading its leaves", "The king belongs in his hall, giving out rings" "The sword belongs in the lap, a noble iron weapon." Tolkein more clearly uses this format when he has Treebeard teach Merry and Pippin "The Lore of Living Creatures."

Tolkien's lines are a little more sparse and to the point, but all eight of the original lines and the first four of the final poem could happily sit in company with these Maxims.   If anything the original is a few gnomic sayings with the idea that have been collected together around a common theme rather than a riddle, and as I have mentioned the final form does not particularly meet the needs of a riddle. "All that is long does not last" is about as sensible as "Many a mickle makes a muckle" and it really does not suit the positive image that is being made of things that survive in dire circumstances - similarly the tumbling towers of the last line is a thing that is old that fails rather than is renewed. It is not difficult to see why they would be lost over time and replaced with more positive lines about light springing from shadows and wanderers not being lost. "Not all that is over is past" is a good line, but it lost out to the rhyming scheme changing, so it gave way to "deep roots are not touched by the frost," which is great when set against the symbol of the White Tree of Gondor and the finding of the sapling in the snowy wastes of Mindolluin. 

It is interesting that both the original and the final contain snatches of alliteration: gold/glitter, long/last fallen/vanquished (?), king/crown, blade/broken/brandished. However there are lines that fail completely in any such scheme (I considered whether old and wither could be consider alliterative in w’s role as a semi-vowel, but as this does not occur in Old English poetry, I have rejected it. The f/v alliteration is similarly dubious, but I have allowed it on the basis of there being no letter v in Old English). If the second line of the second quatrain is re-written "From the ashes a fire shall awaken" then we see alliteration again, but "be woken" is needed to achieve a rhyme with "broken." In terms of Bilbo be the author, he may have taken an original alliterative line and changed it to fit his intent and his rhyming scheme. Perhaps the original gnomic line could have been something like "From ashes a fire may awaken." The only Maxim relating to fire refers to its power: "Fire shall crumble wood" (Maxims I - The Exeter Book, fol.88b-92b).

If the original form of the poem is a collection of maxims, the final version has developed into something a little different. It has two distinct quatrains, the first being like the original; gnomic sayings brought together around a common theme. However the second quatrain is a great departure both from riddles and from maxims. It is a prophesy, or if not quite that then a statement of intent. There is no may about this (weak conditional future), it is all shall (strong conditional future). The only thing standing in the way is the tradition that has surrounded the Shards of Narsil: that they can only be reforged when re-united with Isildur’s Bane. Bilbo may even have been made aware of this without him realising that “his little ring” is this very bane. 

It begs the question: who wrote the Riddle of Strider? The obvious (pedantic) answer is of course J.R.R. Tolkien, but that is not what I am trying to tease out. Just as an author has to speak through the mouth of his characters, he must also write from them. Thus Gandalf's letter to Frodo is written "in his style" as Strider says. In the same way Tolkien wrote the poem from the hand of Bilbo Baggins, an old hobbit whose learning is very different from his own. My take is that Bilbo composed the original form of the poem based on old hobbit sayings. Some of these alliterate because they date back to the time that the hobbits lived in the Vale of Anduin and were known (if largely ignored by) the Eotheod, the ancestors of the Rohirrim. The latter still use alliteration in their poems (“From Dark Dunharrow in the Dim morning” “Out of Doubt out of Dark to the Day’s rising”) whereas the hobbits have abandoned it other than incidentally in their songs. (“In western lands beneath the Sun the flowers may rise in Spring” “Old troll Sat alone on his Seat of stone”) (st does not alliterate with s in OE poetry). The non-alliterative lines of the poems are gnomic sayings dating to later periods, particularly since the settlement at Bree and the founding of the Shire. “Towers that were strong may fall down” certainly could refer to the ruinous towers of Rhudaur that they saw en route; they may not have seen towers in Wilderland.

Bilbo subsequently reshaped his “riddle” over the years, certainly before Gandalf first heard it and commited it to memory. In this time, perhaps aware of the condition that Elrond placed upon the marriage of Aragorn to Arwen, Bilbo reworked the whole to be more encouraging for his friend. Aragorn certainly is set on a path by Elrond's pronouncement that can only lead to either his death or to his emergence as King of Gondor and Arnor (and thus the husband of Arwen). Those prophetic sounding lines are certainly very stirring and effective, but unlike any of the ones from the first quattrain, they would not make for an inspirational line to put on a poster that you might put by your desk.

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Spending time with Basil

In a corner of the busy city of Newcastle upon Tyne there is a little haven of relative  calm behind the Catholic cathedral of St Mary's. A statue of a man stands staring across Neville Street, seemingly towards the Anglican cathedral of St Nicholas, just visible over the copper roof of Bolbec Hall.

The statue stands at one end of an oddly shaped pedestal of stone slabs, smoothly dressed on their upper faces but roughly chiselled around their exterior.  Behind the bronze figure, at the other end of the pedestal is a block of stone surrounded by a number of wave worn boulders. On either side of the block, which I think is of dolerite, like the boulders at its feet, are inscribed some lines of verse, one in English on a flat and polished surface, the other seemingly chiselled rudely into the weathered rock and in words unintelligible to most of those who see them.

Okay, so what of it? Why break a long blog silence to talk about a bit of public art? Is it Caedmon who is depicted here in Newcastle, far from his final home in North Yorkshire?

Sadly, no. The bronze is a much more recent figure, Cardinal Basil Hume. A native of the North East of England, he is commemorated here and the pedestal and rocks are all symbolic of the cradle of Christianity in the region, the Holy Island of Lindisfarne. 

It seems that Cardinal Hume had a particular love of Holy Island and the tale of the conversion of the English as recounted by the Venerable Bede. So, there on the slab is a modern English translation of Cadmon's Hymn of Creation, differing a little from my own, but essentially the same: 

In its favour it does try for alliteration, but it breaks the usual rules by having the alliteration occur twice in the second half line, which is the reverse of the mode in Old English poetry.

It gets better though. As you walk around to the other side of the slab there is a much rougher incised text. This time it is in Old English, employing a rather debased version of Carolingian script. I picked up a few errors but there is enough there to see the the sculptor has wisely opted to use the Northumbrian version with its characteristic use of u for the letter w rather than the West Saxon version which differs on a number of points but is noted for its use of the runic letter wynn for w.

It doesn't look like much, but if you can decipher the letters (and as I say, there are clear errors) then you feel as if you have unlocked a great secret.  

There are no real gaps between words, but here is clearly the opening words of the Hymn; Nu scylun hergon
...hefaon ricaos uard ...
... metudas maocti end ...
... his modgithanc...

... uerc uuldurfadur ...

I would like to thank those responsible for putting this odd little monument in our city, for even with its imperfections it evokes something wonderful. I do not know whether those who eat their lunch by it, pose for photos in front of it or sleep rough near it realise the gem that lies before them.

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year to you! I hope that 2014 will bring us all great things!

The first of those great things is my first book: Cædmon: The Lord's Poet, which I have published on CreateSpace in association with Handboc Publications. It is also available on Kindle and other formats.

To understand the book, it helps to be familiar with the historical account of Cædmon's life, which comes from Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People. For a full account (including Old English and Latin versions) see here. Bede wanted to give an account of the growing fashion for composing religious poetry in the vernacular (what we now call Old English). The style was the same as that used by the English scops who recorded the combination of fact and fiction which stood for the history of the various royal houses of Britain at the time. Christ, the patriarchs and the saints are therefore depicted as bold warriors, tackling the trials put in front of them as if they were fighting a battle against hordes of men or against monsters and devils.

The issue of Christians and Germanic poetry was a vexed one, prompting Alcuin to write later; "What has Ingeld to do with Christ?" when remonstrating with abbots who allowed profane poetry to be read in their monasteries. Bede's account of Cædmon pre-dates this problem, and can be seen as being at the beginning of the problem. Perhaps the composition of Christian poetry was seen as an excuse for the study and recording of heroic poetry as a source of inspiration for the "true work" of composing religious poems.

Perhaps Alcuin's arguments rang home, for from this early period only three Old English poems have been preserved and they are all Christian. Cædmon's poem is arguably the oldest, but as it was recorded in Latin by Bede, the Old English versions that we have access to were written much later. I have used the Northumbrian version in the book, but this is itself much later than the more familiar West Saxon version, which dates from the time of King Alfred. The other two poems are the beautiful poem recorded in the stone of the Ruthwell Cross and Bede's Death Song, which was recorded in Old English in the midst of a letter in Latin giving an account of Bede's death. We can only wish that Bede himself had thought to do the same in his account of Cædmon, instead of apologising for the poem losing something in translation.

Only after the return of literacy resulting from the measures taken by King Alfred did we really get an explosion of the recording of poetry, of which we have today only a few sad leaves. Many of the poems may have had a much longer life thanks to oral transmission, but the date of writing is usually taken as the date of composition as it is the point of writing that allows a poem such as Beowulf to gain a veneer of Christian respectability, making it the poem that we know today. Comparison of the poem on the Ruthwell Cross and the later "Dream of the Rood" show how oral transmission not only preserve poems but also it can be seen that they allowed them to change and grow.

Thursday, 19 December 2013


Here is the beginning of the blog for Cædmon: The Lord's Poet, a book by John K. Deaconson. I can trace the origin of this book to about 1996, but as I had other things on my mind back then, it has taken a long time to reach the point when I feel ready to release it to the world. Hopefully this blog will mean that it will reach one or two people that it would otherwise pass by.

So what is The Lord's Poet all about?

In Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People, he devotes a single chapter to a man called Cædmon (also written as Caedmon), who sings a short song about the creation of the world according to the Christian Bible. This is a significant moment for Bede, as it marks the beginning of a movement to use vernacular Anglo-Saxon verse forms for Christian themes.

The Lord's Poet delves into the history of the mid 7th century in Britain and finds a place for this enigmatic poet to inhabit, a place far removed from the cow byre of an estate in North Yorkshire which is the setting for the beginning of both Bede's version and mine.

Just how much of Bede's story is invention is impossible to say, but his reputation is founded on a reliance upon eye witness accounts, and he is known to have had close contact with monks from Streoneshalh (Whitby) from other stories that he told about that place. Cædmon has part of the sort of information that would make him considered a saint, but the story was incomplete in Bede's time, so for example there are no dates connected with him that would supply a feast day and crucially there are no miracles recorded surrounding this figure. He is however considered to be a saint by the Roman Catholic church (no feast day) and by the Church of England (feast day 11th February).

For me the part of Bede's story which has the most power is the account of his death, for Cædmon has a beautiful Christian death: perhaps only Bede's own death has a similar tranquil quality to it. I have therefore included an epilogue to my book which ties in with the story that I have given the younger Cædmon while keeping the serenity and sanctity that Bede's account gives to the Lord's Poet.