Fighting form

May 15, 2008

I have known that my knowledge of Anglo-Saxon literature is spotty, but I now have a fresh appreciation of that fact. I’ve just learned of an Old Saxon poem called the Heliand, an alliterative poem of some 6000 lines which tells the story of the life of Christ using the conventions of Saxon heroic saga. The four evangelists become singers, the Last Supper becomes a mead-hall feast, Jesus a liege lord, and his disciples his warrior vassals. It was written in the early ninth century as a contribution to the inculturation of the Gospel among the warrior tribes of northern Europe.

I am stupified, first because I’d never heard of this poem before, and second because it sounds so wonderful. Chesterton somewhere has a line about renewing one’s appreciation for a thing by approaching it from a new direction, with fresh eyes and ears (in fact, his novel Manalive is an elaboration of this same principle). Just think: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John filtered through the sensibilities of Beowulf! I desperately want to read it.

Alas, there seems to be only one in-print translation into modern English, by G. Ronald Murphy, S.J. Regrettably, it is a prose translation. Still, I think it could be well worth looking into.


Speaking of Chesterton, and of martial religion, Maria Lectrix has recorded a sung version of Chesterton’s long poem Lepanto. This is a fine poem, full of gallantry and fighting spirit, that was begging to be sung to a marching tune. She has conjured up a fitting melody, complete with drum beats, and done us all a service. I’d like to hear it accompanied by kettledrums, flutes, and fiddles, and sung by a minstrel (perhaps even a juggling minstrel, for good measure).

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