Whenever I start to feel like the world is going to hell in a handcart, I sometimes like to browse through some Anglo-Saxon literature. When people say art isn’t important I can’t help but think these people are a bit short-sighted.
History books tell us some facts and some interpretation of facts by whoever was recording the facts, but art speaks about us as human beings. It speaks to what is best (and worst) and most human about us.
I like the Anglo Saxon literature because it’s the very first literature ever written in English. There are only a handful of poems surviving from the years between about 400 AD to 1066 AD and the language is barely recognizable as English, but the sentiments are very familiar.
This ancient literature reassures me. Humanity hasn’t changed much in 1500+ years. We may think we’re self-destructing, but so did they! They fretted about love and betrayal; they waged wars; they mocked their politicians:
King Aethelred the “Unready”
We worry about terrorists from the east, they worried about Vikings. They despaired of their children, worried about money and being able to put enough food on the table. They had domestic disagreements. They worked, they grumbled about their bosses (aka liege lords). They had crime up the ying yang just like us – robbery, fraud, murder.
They had a more expeditious way of dealing with it though having decided, I gues, that the idea of prison was a waste of everyone’s time and resources. If you killed or injured or wronged someone in some other way, you had to pay weregild to that person or their family. Every person was evaluated in monetary terms (just like now) and the rate of the weregild was dependant on the crime and the value of the victim. It had the added benefit of making people work harder to up their value in case something happened to them. A win-win arrangement all around.
The Anglo-Saxons had a hard life, but they were all heavily immersed in and appreciative of the arts. Music was their joy, relaxation and expression of what was in their hearts. They were crazy about musicians and celebrated them at every opportunity:
And they had Beowulf (circa 800AD). Beowulf was the hottest ticket going. This 3,182-line epic poem was memorized by many and recited at every opportunity. (They finally made it into a movie).
Here’s the first page of an original Beowulf manuscript:
It cheers me up to know that we have such a close connection to people from so long ago. It tells me we, as a society, are okay no matter how many foolish or dangerous things we get up to; that we’ll endure. Because…..well, no one has ever expressed it better than my literary hero, William Faulkner, at the end of his Nobel Prize acceptance speech:
I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.