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The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Vol. A: Middle Ages
Stephen Greenblatt, Alfred David, James Simpson, M.H. Abrams
Progress: 367/543 pages

Reading progress update: I've read 114 out of 543 pages.

The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Vol. A: Middle Ages - Stephen Greenblatt, Alfred David, James Simpson, M.H. Abrams

I've been reading bits of this in between other books (mostly sci-fi and fantasy) because I'm a history buff and love classical literature. I'm pretty well steeped in classical Greek and Latin literature because of my schooling but don't know very much about the English classics. So, I jumped at the chance to buy a few volumes of this Norton anthology at a local library sale (I completed my collection with some used-book purchases through Amazon's marketplace) -- I think I got the whole series (8th edition, 2006) for less than $20 total!


So far, I've read the Anglo-Saxon Literature section of the book -- this section contains some really interesting works from the period of roughly 600-1000 AD. I don't know any Old English, so it's a good thing they're all translated into Modern English (it's mind-blowing how much the English language has changed in the last 1500 years.


We start off with an excerpt from Bede's Ecclesiastical History (written in Latin but included because it gives context for the next entry...) and Caedmon's Hymn, the oldest surviving piece of Anglo-Saxon literature -- so also, the oldest surviving piece of the English language -- it begins thus: "Nu sculon herigean heofonrices Weard". That means "Now we must praise heaven-kingdom's Guardian". See, English has changed a lot.


Next is The Dream of the Rood, an interesting Germanic-influenced take on the image of Christ on the Cross (that's the "Rood").


Of course, Beowulf is next, in Seamus Heaney's outstanding translation. I remember reading the part about Beowulf vs. Grendel in school... but that's only the first third of the epic poem. He fights Grendel's mother and then, in his old age, he fights a dragon! There's more to it than that, naturally -- it's about the Danes and Germanic honor infused with Christian thought (which results in a strange and fascinating balance).


That is a hard act to follow, and the next few entries are somewhat less interesting, with the quality of the translations variable. I did not like the translation of the poem called "Judith", even though the source material is interesting -- the Biblical Judith deceives the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar and thereby saves Israel. Probably the most interesting thing about it is that the Anglo-Saxon version changes a lot of stuff from the Biblical version and the description of the battle conveys very much the Germanic warrior ethos and is a strange way of describing an Israelite battle.


King Alfred the Great actually wrote things too! This book has his Preface to his own translation of the Latin Pastoralis (a book meant to educate the clergy), where he stresses the importance of learning other languages so that you can translate their literature into things useful for your society. The theme resonates today.


The last bits of the Anglo-Saxon section are The Wanderer, a deeply moving poem about the loneliness of an exile, and The Wife's Lament, another moving poem about the loneliness of an exile... but this time she is a woman separated from her husband, who has also been sent into exile but away from his wife.


I enjoyed reading most of these and will happily move on to the "Anglo-Norman Literature" section after I read the next couple of novels on my list.