The past is irrevocable, so our access to the past is limited- we can only live in our time. What remains and survives from then to now is writing. Religious texts, bawdy tales, or romances – in short, fascinating records of different stages of the English language and the times they were written in. I have always been keen on stories from the past and at University I had the amazing opportunity to study some of the texts in detail. In this post I would just like to share my fascination with the “tales of yore” and encourage you to pick up some medieval stories yourself.
First of all, I find it amazing to track the development of English over the centuries and how it changed from a language that needs translation to a language that is somehow similar to present day English and yet still different. And I’m not talking Shakespeare here. When we say Old English today the Bard springs to mind, but Old English is actually much much older. Just to give you an idea: Beowulf, probably the most famous Old English text, might date back to the 8th century and at the time it is still very apparent that English is actually a Germanic language.
At University we also learned about Middle English (many will be familiar with Geoffrey Chaucer or Sir Thomas Malory). This is coming in later (around the 12th century), but of course transitions are always fluid. Also Middle-English has many dialects recorded, as people used to write how they speak. If I may be so bold, I assume that is where many “randomly spelled” words in English come from. Of course it wasn’t random back then and the written form reflected the spoken form more or less accurately. But through the ages and language change some written and spoken forms started to drift apart. For example the word “knight”. This used to be pronounced /knIxt/ as opposed to /naIt/ (x stands for the German ch sound), so the spelling we still have today is reminiscent of the former pronunciation.
Even though some meanings can be guessed at, we usually require a translation to properly enjoy these old gems of literature. One of my favourite medieval stories is Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and I can especially recommend JRR Tolkien’s translation (but I hear Simon Armitage’s version is good as well). Back in Old English days the common verse form was different to rhymes that we know today. It was called alliterative verse. Each line is “divided” in two (or more) and the first stressed syllable of part one and two have to form an alliteration. Any more alliterations are always fine of course. Sounds complicated – sounds compelling! I personally love alliterative verse. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight revives this alliterative verse and also mixes it with rhymes. This of course is very difficult to translate (like any poem), but Tolkien does it so skilfully and beautifully. Many of his poems in The Lord of the Rings are also written in that alliterative verse. In my opinion it often sounds smoother and more natural as opposed to rhyme.
This kyng lay at Camylot upon Krystmasse
With mony luflych lorde, ledes of the best,
Rekenly of the Rounde Table alle tho rich brether,
With rych revel oryght and rechles merthes.
– Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, J.J. Anderson (Everyman)
When I read old stories like that, I cannot help but think that the people back then were just like us. The only problem is that there is such a huge time gap that many things are lost and we tend to forget to see these people as human. They become the legends they left us. Often we take for granted what those epics and legends tell us about the times they were written in and I do not want to challenge the fact that they do teach us a lot about their creators. But many stories are pure fiction, just like the Hunger Games series or Harry Potter are today. When people 1000 years in the future read those books they might assume that we used wands and went to magical schools on a train (I wish!!!). Okay, that example might be a little far-fetched, but I think you get my point. And more importantly we don’t always write down what is actually happening, but what we want to remember (and how we want to remember it).
Having said that I do not hold that against stories. Actually that is what I love about them. Stories are eternal – they last through time. They are re-told, re-shaped, altered and individualised, but stories have always been there and always will. I guess that draws me to writing. Setting something down, a little, tiny something you write in the present, so that you can reflect on the past in the future. Words can travel through time and that makes them so beautiful. So why not have a look at some medieval stories? You will find some can be just as entertaining as modern ones.