Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The Wanderer: Elegies, Epics, Riddles - Michael Alexander

As part of my degree I took a module on Insular Art in the mistaken belief that because the artefacts are stunning I'd like studying them. I didn't, for whatever reason very few of those objects ever took a real hold on my imagination, but in other respects the course was great - we spent a lot of time driving around the wilds of Aberdeenshire looking at Pictish stones and I had my first introduction to Anglo Saxon poetry in the form of 'The Dream of the Rood' - it made a lasting impression. Frustratingly I've never managed to find that first translation again but Michael Alexander's version in 'The Wanderer: Elegies, Epics, Riddles' is also wonderful, so much so that when I got a friend to read it, it reduced her to tears.

'The Wanderer: Elegies, Epics, Riddles' is part of Penguins Legends of the Ancient North series which are being sold as the books that inspired Tolkien. I can take or leave Tolkien (more likely to leave) but the ancient North is another matter entirely (a hangover from my Shetland childhood - Shetland is proud of it's Scandinavian links and encourages you to look North for inspiration) so I couldn't resist these books.

It turns out that I find Michael Alexander hard to resist as well, when he talks about 'The Dream of the Rood' he describes how it has come down to us - there are three sources for it, they are 'inscribed by hand in stone, on skin, and in silver' - the poems very survival has an epic quality to it. He also talks of how when we read these old poems 'we ascend to the source of the English language, where words are rooted in things and full of meaning - perhaps more fully meant'. I find this a very seductive view point even if I'm reading in translation, although as these poems came from an oral tradition where presumably they would have changed slightly with each telling and teller interpretation feels like a better word than translation.

Alexander also says that 'The excuse, ultimately, for a book of this sort is a conviction on the part of the author that some early English poems deserve to be read by those who do not make their living out of the subject, that what is excellent should be made current.' I don't make a living out of the subject and haven't had to read anything like this for any reason but fun since 1994, the last few days with this book have been a lot of fun. I've read quite a lot of it aloud to myself (I had to stop taking the book to work with me) because you really need to hear some of this stuff, I've tested D on some of the riddles - we both agreed that there are much worse ways to spend an evening than puzzling over what they might mean (especially if a few whiskies are involved) and there have been a few late night calls to share odd lines because they were too good not to (we are not generally the sort of couple who feel the need to quote poetry to each other). If a love of 'The Hobbit' helps people discover this book that's fine with me just as long as it's discovered, read, shared, and generally enjoyed.


  1. This collection does sound especially good. The whole series is attractive, actually.

  2. The introduction and explanations are excellent, I found the way that Alexander uses words is particularly pleasing. He felt there was no point in translating poetry if you weren't going to keep it in verse and it and I think he really went for it which makes it great fun to read - made for sitting around a fire and speaking aloud with plenty of oomph.

  3. Oh no, I want this book! I've read other translations of 'The Wanderer' and 'The Dream of the Rood' but I don't know anything about them at all. 'Teller interpretation' is a nice concept.

  4. It's a lovely book if you're that way inclined. Reading aloud was a bit of a self conscious exercise at first but it reminded me that poetry can be fun which is something I'm generally inclined to forget.