When asked what period of English literature I study, I often find that my response of “Old English” must be explained in terms of something more familiar: “the period of Beowulf.” While Beowulf is perhaps the only text with any substantial name recognition from the Anglo-Saxon period (roughly 6th-11th centuries), there are many richly rewarding lesser known works. I would like to share here four ways to engage the Anglo-Saxon period more deeply, but without requiring any knowledge of Old English, a language now so different from our own that it must be learned as a foreign language, as the opening of Beowulf attests: “Hwæt! We Gardena in geardagum þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon . . . . .”
Assistant Professor of English
First, for those who have read the heroic epic Beowulf but would like to enjoy it in a new way, I highly recommend Benjamin Bagby’s Beowulf DVD, released in 2006. A musicologist by training, Bagby accompanies his recitation on a reconstructed Anglo-Saxon harp. Not only does the DVD offer a rare opportunity to hear an engaging performance of the first 1062 lines in the original Old English (with the option of modern English subtitles), but the bonus features include an interview on early medieval music as well as a roundtable discussion with Old English scholars John Miles Foley, Mark Amodio and Thomas Cable.
For those wishing to venture somewhat deeper into Old English literature, Poems and Prose from the Old English (Yale University Press, 1998), translated by Burton Raffel and co-edited by Alexandra H. Olsen, offers a thorough yet manageable foray into Anglo-Saxon culture. This impressive anthology includes representative examples of Old English elegies, heroic verse, religious poems and wisdom poetry as well as prose works including laws, wills, medicinal texts, homilies and chronicles. A general introduction provides important historical contexts, and more concise introductions are provided to contextualize each subsequent section.
My own summer will be spent working with a collection of medieval herbal remedies known as the Old English Herbarium. Translated into Old English sometime around the 10th century, the Herbarium is itself a translation of a 5th-century Latin medical text. Organized around medicinal plants and their uses, the Herbarium sheds light on medieval solutions for problems ranging from toothaches, joint pain and gout to snake bites, swarming bees and even shattered skulls. While I will be working with these remedies in facsimile form, I’m happy to report that Anne Van Arsdall’s translation of this fascinating text has recently been released in paperback by Routledge Press. In addition to the Herbarium itself, Van Arsdall includes thorough background on early medieval medicine. Chapters 3 and 4, which discuss manuscript illustrations and place the Herbarium within the larger context of European medicine, are likely to be of special interest.
Last, I am especially excited to tell you about a volume scheduled for June publication in its second edition by the University of Pennsylvania Press: Feast of Creatures: Old English Riddle Songs, translated by Craig Williamson. In the Old English riddles, myriad objects are described and/or describe themselves, inviting audiences to “say what I am called.” Far more than mere child-games, these riddles explore complex phenomena in nature and society, offering modernday readers a rare glimpse into the Anglo-Saxon world. A horn poignantly describes its separation from its “brother” (the other antler on the beast from which it was taken) during its transformation into a utilitarian object for men. A cup of mead playfully cautions readers not to over-imbibe, and a nightingale gives clues to its identity as “night-singer, song-shaper.” In his thoughtprovoking and thorough introduction, Williamson aptly describes the riddles as “a metaphoric and metamorphic celebration of life in the eye of the Anglo-Saxon.” To give a small taste of the Anglo-Saxon riddles and Old English poetry more generally, I would like to leave you with one of the shorter riddles in Feast of Creatures. Hint: You defi nitely wouldn’t find this “creature” in the heat of a Memphis summer!
“I saw a creature wandering the way: She was devastating—beautifully adorned. On the wave a miracle: water turned to bone.”
Assistant Professor of Biology
As the ecologist hired to replace the retired Dr. David Kesler, I recently finished up my first year at Rhodes. My first year was much as I expected: busy. But talented colleagues, wonderful students and exploring a new city have made this year professionally and personally rewarding. As a biologist, I like to think about the relationship that exists between science and society. While some research results in the development of technologies that are readily adopted—the fluorescent light bulbs and laptop in my office, for example— other advances are eschewed or even attacked. Stem cell research, global climate change, and evolution immediately come to mind.
In April, the Tennessee House overwhelmingly passed the “Academic Freedom Bill,” which will allow K-12 public school teachers to present intelligent design and creationism as alternatives to evolution. Such efforts are not restricted to Tennessee. Measures that weaken scientifi c curricula have been proposed (and sometimes passed) in state legislatures and school districts across the country. Somewhere, somehow, we professional scientists have failed miserably in communicating our fi ndings to the public. Several of the books that I recommend make science more accessible (I think!) to nonscientists.
Richard Dawkins has written many books explaining how evolution can result in complex structures, such as the vertebrate eye, that appear to have been designed. In Climbing Mount Improbable, Dawkins uses intricate examples to describe how natural selection slowly and incrementally builds these adaptations and likens this evolutionary change to ascending a mountain through switchbacks and gently sloped trails (and not scaling the cliff face). Dawkins’ other books, such as The Blind Watchmaker, are also enjoyable and well written; for a more molecular and sophisticated treatment of evolution by natural selection, The Selfish Gene is a classic.
Matt Ridley’s Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters continues to intrigue me. Each chapter relates to a gene on one of our 23 chromosomes and details how these particular genes build proteins, regulate embryonic development and influence human traits such as intelligence, personality and homosexuality. One of the more fantastic examples even includes sexual conflict (at the genetic level!). Ridley’s description of the human genome will make one marvel at the complexity of molecular evolution and the natural world.
Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel constructs a hypothesis explaining the factors that have molded human history. Synthesizing information from many disciplines, Diamond posits that the distribution of plants and animals suitable for domestication explains why Europeans spread across the globe and colonized Africa, Australia and North and South America (and why, for example, Africans, Australian Aborigines and Native Americans did not conquer Europe). In short, arable crops such as wheat and barley and the domestication of animals permitted food surpluses. Food surpluses allowed some members of society to devote their time to tasks other than gathering food, allowing for the eventual emergence of such entities as standing armies, science and political empires. Societies with domesticated plants and animals conquered those without. Diamond’s compelling narrative linking geography and opportunity to disease, war and global conquest is a must-read.
Last, I recommend any field guide—that’s right, a picture book! Summer is now upon us: Trees have leafed out, backyard birds are breeding and daylight is plentiful. Pick up a fi eld guide and teach yourself to identify birds, trees or butterflies and learn about their natural history—where they live, what they eat and what eats them. More than 150 species of neotropical migrants—birds that breed in North America in the summer but spend most of the year in Central and South America—return each spring to Memphis. Their vibrant colors and melodic songs fill the summer, yet many of us remain oblivious to their presence. Take some time to enjoy, explore and learn about the outdoors—and take a friend or a child. For birds, I recommend The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America. Enjoy your summer!
Alberto del Pozo Martinez
Summer nights are my favorite time of the year to read. You just need the appropriate book, the appropriate place (and the appropriate thirst-quencher to accompany both), and then you have the ability to dive into a world made of words and stay there for a long time. Without being distracted, you can reconstruct a universe such as you cannot do during any other time of the year. When I was asked to recommend fi ve books to read this summer, I just tried to remember some of my most powerful reading experiences during summer vacation. Here is the strange amalgamation I came up with, hopefully for your reading pleasure:
Assistant Professor of Spanish
The Black Dahlia by James Ellroy. A twisted, parodic and brutal detective novel, it is the story if two L.A. cops in the 1940s who investigate the brutal assassination of Elizabeth Short, a.k.a. “the Black Dahlia.” They soon discover that the murder involves the dirtiest secrets of Hollywood and American politics of the time. As the case progresses, they get closer to and more involved in Elizabeth’s life and become obsessed with the victim’s incredibly attractive personality, to the point of falling in love with her. The result is one of the darkest detective novels one can read, and a perfect summary of Ellroy’s narrative universe.
Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? by Raymond Carver. Probably, Carver is the best American short story writer of his generation. I read this book fi ve years ago and I still recall, as if it were yesterday, the outstanding story of the man trying to get rid of his dog (“Jerry and Molly and Sam”). Nobody but Carver can get even close to expressing the innocence and at the same time the desperation of everyday life in America. The mysterious simplicity of Carver’s stories and language always hides something else. Each story is like a trap: As the reader gains confidence by deciphering the secrets of the stories, the reader is caught and haunted by his or her own interpretation and the implications of it in his or her own life. An amazing book, and an amazing writer.
2666 by Roberto Bolaño. A book for the summer—all the summer! A 1,200-page labyrinth describing how literature fights and tries to survive the black holes of the 20th century. A complete chaos, full of digressions, where writers under Nazism are inspired by writers under Stalinism; African-American journalists fall in love with the daughters of Latin American philosophers; and European literary critics travel to Mexico to make evident the relation between literary creation and the disappearances/killings of 104 women at the Mexican- American border.
Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry. An enigmatic novel about a British alcoholic ambassador, lost in a Mexican town, remembering his love and his hopes as he tries to escape his own path of destruction. But as this path progresses, the evocation of the Mexican past also progresses, and both worlds running in parallel illuminate each other and explain each other. One needs strength and patience to read this hermetic book and to unravel, at least, part of its mysteries, but the effort is worth it.
Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes, Ed. Edith Grossman. We read this book because, OK, how can you ever teach novels of any epoch and language without reading the classic of classics? But one too often forgets what a wonderful, funny, incredibly delicate and intelligent book this is. A book that contains all the literature of its time, pointing at its blind spots and carefully and systematically laughing about all its lies, old and new. An infinite book that has shaped human imagination and needs lots of time to be enjoyed properly. A book that everybody should read at least once in a lifetime. Also, the story of a friendship. It does not get any better than this.
Enjoy your summer reading!