Reading The Deorhord: An Old English Bestiary by Hana Videen for the Spectator, 11 November 2023
How to catch an elephant.
Find a tree, and saw most of the way through it, without felling it. Sooner or later an unwary elephant is bound to lean up against it. Down comes the tree and down comes the elephant which, since it has no joints in its legs, will be unable to get up again. Dispatch your elephant with, um, dispatch, lest the herd arrives in answer to its plangent call. In that case the youngest of them, being lower to the ground, will be able to lift their fallen comrade back on its feet.
In her second foray into the Old English lexicon and mindset (The Wordhord: Daily Life in Old English came out in 2021), Old English scholar Hana Videen is out to explore a world where animals hold sway. (A “deor”, by the way, is the Old English word for any animal, and opening this volume, you are as like to be confronted with a spider or a dragon, a dog-headed man or a tusked woman, as you are by anything so commonplace as a “deer”.) These living, breathing sources of knowledge, enchantment and instruction provided the feedstock for countless bestiaries, which flooded the Medieval book market for a good three hundred years. No earlier, Old English bestiary survives. Still, there’s lore enough in “tales, poems and medical texts, riddles and travel logs, sermons and saints’ lives” to justify Videen’s putting a synthetic one together from the available material.
Though it helps to know a bit of German, Old English is a captivating tongue. What’s not to love about a language that collides nouns in kennings like “gange-wæfre (walker-weaver) and wæfer-gange (weaver-walker), to name a spider? (At least we’ve retained the gærs-hoppa (grasshopper).)
Where Old English becomes arduous is in its religious texts, that cannot leave anything alone, but must constantly be making things act as metaphors for other things. That stiff-legged Elephant we started with is God’s Law, you see, that ultimately fails to keep us from committing sin. The other adult elephants (prophets of the Old Testament) try to help their fallen brother, but it’s only with the help of the little elephant (Christ) that the fallen can rise again.
There is, Videen explains, nothing particularly dogmatic or esoteric going on here — only people’s ongoing effort to explain their world in the most vivid and entertaining terms available. (We do the same today, and quite as unthinkingly: our plugged-in views over smooth-running power brunches of start-up meltdowns would surely addle the most visionary mediaeval mind: do these people imagine they are machines?)
Old English literature becomes a lot less arduous when we realise that its rhetorical fancies are fancies: they’re a poetic register, not a secret sign, and they aren’t designed to stand much scrutiny. In the Old English Life of St Margaret, for example, poor Margaret is swallowed by a dragon, splits it in two by making the sign of the cross, and steps out into the world again unharmed — making her the patron saint of women in childbirth. If you overthink this, you’ll tie yourself up in knots wondering at a metaphor that kills the mother-to-be while making her the instrument of the devil. The point is: stop being so needlessly scholastic. Focus on the first things the image brings to mind — the blood and the pain and the miracle of birth. Treat the language like a language, not a codex from the Beyond.
Much time has passed, of course, since “doves congregated in multicoloured flocks”. Videen is an excellent guide to lost lore (black doves were associated with obscure sermons, and “blac”, by anyway meant “glossy”) and sees us safely through some disconcerting shifts in meaning. Today we associate owls with wisdom, “yet mediaeval bestiaries compare the owl’s daytime blindness to the spiritual ‘blindness’ of the Jews,” Videen explains, “who refuse to accept the ‘light’ of Christianity.” When other, smaller birds flock around an owl in an Old English sermon, don’t assume they’re paying homage to the wise old bird.
Not every Old English text feels the need to find moral instruction in the birds and the beasts. There is also a sizeable quantity of what Videen charmingly terms “Alexander fan-fic”: imaginary first-person accounts of Alexander the Great’s adventures in Ind, or Ethiopia, or Lentibelsinea (home of the self-immolating chicken, the fabled “henn”), or wherever the heck else he was supposed to have got to (and sometimes, mark you, on the back of a griffin).
“Did people struggle to imagine creatures of Alexander’s campaigns like the teeth tyrant and moonhead?” Videen wonders. “Were the solutions to riddles more obvious than they are today?”
Though her charming, endlessly fascinating book is chock-full of archival detective stories (and not a few shaggy dog stories into the bargain), Videen would rather we entertained the possibility that the early English mind was quite as imaginative as the modern one, and just as intelligent, and had not yet lost the art of appreciating a tall tale or even, Heavens defend us, a joke.