Hwæt is the point of Old English? For many of us English students, there’s no point in a discussion – it has to be done, and then after prelims you can either look smugly at Mitchell and Robinson sitting gathering dust on your shelf, or kick-start your second-hand book business.
But what if you chose to do it? (And, technically, in first year you do – most people are simply coerced out of Middle English to save it for later.) If you have the immense pleasure to be a joint-schools student such as yours truly, you can skip Old English – and then decide in your second year that actually, you’d like to give it a go.I’ve received many an exclamation of surprise when explaining my choices to others and, to be honest, this twentieth century fanatic has rather surprised herself.
So, what madness drove me to volunteer for something many others gladly leave behind? Well, firstly, I do German, which makes Old English ‘easier’ (only slightly) and secondly, it was… different? I know, not the most convincing argument in the world. But, by the time I’d reached half-way through second year, there didn’t seem to be much point in turning back.
Faced with your first essay, you’re thrust into an alien world – forced to forfeit your favourite allusions to Nietzschean philosophy or dehumanising mechanisms – you feel very disorientated.So you flick back and forth between The Wanderer and the glossary, you wade through the jumble of letters and muddle of cases, simultaneously scroll desperately through Companion articles, and you pray for some kind of salvation to come. Eventually though, you hit upon some alliterative emphasis, then some parallelism, and even a pun – you’ve found familiar territory at last. After that you slip more easily into the content itself; gold twinkles under the spotlight of glorification, and earth-walkers trudge through a pensive landscape of immense scope.
They may not have got around to inventing the radio yet, but something about the raw flexibility of thoughts outside of terminology allows Old English poetry to echo through a whole millennium. The ancient words can still reverberate off our own sensitivity to transience and playing with preconceptions through the wit of well-placed words.It reminds you that words don’t belong in a neatly limited glossary, and can catch you out if they turn out to be a false friend.
So take that, existential crisis! The past is getting its own back on the radical modern mind-boxes, and is reintroducing learned thought to good old-fashioned thinking.