Readers, I am so excited about The Lord of The Rings movie coming out!
I was talking to a friend at work, and I mentioned some of the background mythology for this story. He wanted more information about it. Well, I started to write an email, and I couldn’t stop. It’s more of a blog post. Here you are:
Beowulf is one of the oldest books in ancient English (Anglo Saxon) still around. Originally, literacy in the British Isles was concentrated in Latin, since Latin was the language of their ruling elite, the Romans.
Although the Brits had their own language and writing (known as runes), they mostly relayed their cultural stories through word of mouth (oral tradition). Beowulf is only one of these stories, and it is highly treasured because it is one of the very few peeks we have into the culture of the Anglo-Saxons (MY people-transparently white child that I am).
I know of two main reasons why more stories didn’t survive:
one, the advent of Christianity created an unfavorable environment for stories about pagan deities. The British Isles, and especially Ireland, really embraced Christianity when it arrived. Some of the stories were christianized, and deities and legendary heroes got cleaned up into “saints.”
Beowulf has some christianizing in it too.
But the second reason is because of the Norman invasion.In the 11th century, I think, the French came in and enslaved (enserfed?) all the Anglo-Saxons. The Roman empire had long been dead, although Latin was still the Lingua Franca. But Anglo-Saxon writing and speech was what ordinary people used to communicate. When the French took over, they insisted that everyone speak French. Servants only spoke English to each other. And naturally, they had limited time to chew the fat. The complicated grammatical structure of Anglo-Saxon got mushed into a quicker, less nuanced speech. Anglo-Saxon wasn’t really taught; if a person went to be educated, they learned Latin or French. The Anglo-Saxon words that survive in English today are servants words. Swine for a live pig, but the Norman Pork for the meat (the only part that the Lord of the manor would see). Interestingly, all the cuss words survive.
Some of that Norman/Anglo-Saxon antagonism is played on in Monty Python’s Holy Grail. You’ve seen it, I imagine.
But English was saved, as a language, when Chaucer decided to write his “Canterbury Tales” in English. His patrons were Norman nobility, and there was a current of thought at the time which said that nothing poetic could come from this servant language. But the Canterbury Tales were written entirely in English, and this bold statement on the part of Chaucer encouraged many others to attempt the same. Shakespeare would never have written the way he did if not for Chaucer.
Of course, after Shakespeare all kinds of things happened. He was part of the renaissance, then the Age of Reason (aka the age of revolutions: American, French) happened. Then the Romantic period followed that, reacting to the cold idealization of reason. The Romantic period focused on the beauty of nature, and the transformative power of love and higher emotions. Nature elicited those emotions, so nature (with or without the concept of the Christian God, which had suffered some blows during that “reason” period), nature was raised as a saving mercy. The beauty of nature was a place of refuge and a reminder of the beauty of life, a sort of reassurance that good things endure. Thoreau, who wrote Walden, was on the tail end of the American Romantic period.