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Anglo-Saxon Reality

Some poems in Celtic languages are older, but the earliest sizable body of vernacular literature in Europe is the Old English, dating, by liberal estimation, from the seventh century to the twelfth.  It is of very high quality, especially the verse.  Altogether, these heroic monologues, Bible paraphrases, riddles, battle accounts, saints’ lives, prayers, religious allegories, moral exempla, and white-magical charms depict a society full of necessary violence that has decided—quite recently, it seems—to trust in the salvation of Jesus Christ.  This aura of conversion, dramatically attested by sudden shifts from heroic to Christian mode in some poems, by conflation of those modes in the realization of Christ as warrior (as in the justly famed “Dream of the Rood”), causes this poetry to rivet one’s attention like a brilliant light in the darkness of our time.

Perhaps following the lead of Ezra Pound, who sheared off a fifth of “Seafarer” to make it seem pre-Christian, the 20th century abounded in translations of these works that could seem entirely secular.  Until recently, few who took an undergraduate English-literature survey course could escape hearing that the Christian ideas and assertions in Beowulf were interpolations to an originally pagan text.  For the editors—the Irish poet Greg Delanty and the American medieval literary scholar Michael Matto—of...

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