The Wanderer & other Old-English Poems

My latest limited edition book from The Folio Society is The Wanderer illustrated and signed by Alan Lee. An artist best known for his decades long association with works by Tolkien, both in illustrating his books and his many years in New Zealand working on the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies.

20200225 The Wanderer 1

The text is largely from a 1966 Penguin Classic ‘The Earliest English Poems’, translated by Michael Alexander, which also included four pages of Beowulf. Over the years this has been revised until the 2008 edition which provides the entire text for this book, with some amendments, which by then was entitled ‘The First Poems in English’. Lee was approached by The Folio Society to see if he would like to illustrate something for them and between them chose this work as it takes him back to the source materials that so inspired Tolkien in his writings. This is by no means a typical way round, the society would normally choose a book that they wanted to publish and then approach an artist to illustrate it; but what it has produced is a book where you can see the love the artist has for the material and I suspect they eventually had to stop him from creating any more artwork so that the book could actually get published. As it is each poem has its own distinctive decorative borders along with the beautiful tipped in colour paintings and on page printed black and white illustrations.

20200225 The Wanderer 3

The poems and riddles themselves come from a very short window in time, between the reign of King Alfred the Great over the Anglo Saxons (886 to 899AD) where he started the process of moving the written word from Latin to Old-English and the Norman invasion of 1066 when all that was swept away with the imposition of Norman French. In truth there were probably just thirty or forty years where Old-English hit its peak before becoming almost extinct. The greatest source material for the work of this period is The Exeter Book which was regarded as largely worthless for centuries before becoming recognised as the treasure trove that it is.  The poems are much more powerful than might be expected from their great age, they clearly come from an oral tradition as they are directed at the reader as though being read to them, I am reminded of the Icelandic sagas in concept if not in size. Indeed as Bernard O’Donoghue writes in his especially commissioned foreword

There’s a vitality to these poems, written as they were at a time when life was so much more embattled, more desperate and fragile

Along with the general introduction and note on translation each poem has its own introduction setting the scene for the following work and providing mush needed context. The works are over a thousand years old and the people who wrote and read them were very different to ourselves.

20200225 The Wanderer 2

The original Penguin book its variants and companion volumes have sold over a million copies in the fifty years since they came out and the quality of the work shows exactly why Michael Alexander is such a respected translator and this edition makes reading them so much more of a joy than the original paperbacks. The text is presented with the original on the left hand side and the translation on the right as can be seen in one of my favourite works included the fragment of ‘The Battle of Maldon’ from the section of Heroic Poems. I suspect I like these more than the somewhat more introspective other poems is my fondness for the sagas and these have more of a feel of those. However this is an account of a real battle that can be also seen in The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle to such a level of detail that there is also an accompanying map included with the text so the reader can easily see how the fight progresses, which frankly is not well for the English side and a lot better for the attacking Vikings.

20200225 The Wanderer 4

The riddles are great fun and at the back are a set of proposed solutions, however the one that I have shown as an example also has drawings by Alan Lee which somewhat give away the answer. All the riddles are from The Exeter Book where presumably there are a lot more as these start at number seven and there are lots of numeric gaps.

20200225 The Wanderer 5

The answer is of course mead.

As only 750 copies were printed at £395 each and these are all sold out from the Folio Society it would be difficult to get a copy of this fine edition, but if I have whetted your appetite for Old-English poetry and riddles then the Penguin paperback is still in print and considerably cheaper.

There is a short video showing the book from the Folio Society

and a longer video of an interview with Alan Lee.

 

The Oxford English Dictionary

The complete OED is ninety years old this year so it a good opportunity to look both at my copy but also the history as to how this massive work came to be produced. Unlike almost all other dictionaries the complete OED is organised on historical principles, that is; it not only tells you the current meaning of a word, but also previous meanings over 1,000 years of English usage illustrated by quotations. This means that the over six hundred thousand words now in the dictionary are complemented by in excess of three million quotations.

20181023 OED 4

Although the first edition of the work was finally completed in 1928, work on it started much earlier and the decision to embark on the project actually goes back over seventy years before then to a meeting of the Philological Society of London in 1857. However nothing really happened after that, despite their resolution that existing English dictionaries were incomplete and not suitable for purpose. At the time the finest dictionary available for English had just passed its one hundredth birthday so it wasn’t unreasonable to see that A Dictionary of the English Language by Samuel Johnson was looking somewhat dated. That astonishing work by one man over seven years still ranks as one of the greatest single acts of scholarship and would remain the ultimate guide to the language for 173 years until the OED was completed by its large team of some two thousand compilers. Johnson himself defined dictionary compilers as follows:

Lexicographer: a writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge that busies himself in tracing the original and detailing the signification of words

Actual work on the first edition of the OED didn’t start until 1879 when an arrangement had been reached with the Oxford University Press to publish and James Murray appointed as editor. The plan was to produce a four volume dictionary of some 6,400 pages and have it complete in ten years, this was to prove hopelessly optimistic. The dictionary was being written in alphabetical order so that the sections could be produced as they went along rather than waiting for completion but after five years the team had reached “Ant”, this was much more difficult than they had thought. In fact the first part of the dictionary did not see light of day until 1884 and ultimately by 1928, almost fifty years after starting, there would be 128 parts which were bound into ten volumes comprising 15,490 pages and over a quarter of a million entries. Unfortunately Murray died in 1915 so never saw his life’s work as a complete edition. The set was also very expensive, the cheapest binding cost 50 guineas (over £3,150 in today’s money) so it was definitely intended for institutions rather than members of the public.

20181023 OED 2

Completing the first edition was just the start, languages never stop evolving, especially English which is continually adding new words and meanings from across the world so the two remaining editors W.A. Craigie and C.T. Onions almost immediately started work on revisions for a second edition and also a supplement to keep the work up to date. By 1933 this supplement was produced and the original dictionary reset and reprinted in twelve volumes and there things stayed as far as printed editions were concerned until 1957 when it was decided to revise and expand the supplement. This became a four volume work in its own right, coming out between 1972 and 1986, but by then it had been decided to produce a second edition. This would merge not only the first edition with the supplements but include all the extra entries that had been compiled as the supplements were being published but which had missed their appropriate volume and whilst they were at it convert it to an electronic form for ease of future amendment.

20181023 OED 3

The second edition came out in 1989 and had grown to twenty volumes consisting of 21,730 pages with 291,500 entries and it is the ‘compact’ version of this edition that has illustrated this blog. This version, which I have had since it came out, reproduces all 21,730 pages as photo-reductions, nine to a page and is printed on very thin paper which allows for the 2,386 pages to be bound in one huge volume. It comes with a guide to using the dictionary, which also includes a very useful (at least for this essay) history of the publication and an absolutely essential magnifying glass with built in light so that you can actually read the text. Three volumes of ‘Additions’ came out in the 1990’s however not in ‘compact’ form, but in 2000 it was decided to abandon further updated print editions in favour of electronic updates and to move the dictionary online. The full twenty volume dictionary is still available in print for £845 or you can get the compact edition that I own for £400

20181023 OED 5

Although the third edition, should it ever achieve completion, will almost certainly never be sold as a printed edition as it is far more practical in the form it has now taken, the editors have already produced a preface which includes the following recognition that a lexicographers work is never done:

There are a number of myths about the Oxford English Dictionary, one of the most prevalent of which is that it includes every word, and every meaning of every word, which has ever formed part of the English language. Such an objective could never be fully achieved. The present revision gives the editors the opportunity to add many terms which have been overlooked in the past, but it should be understood that fully comprehensive coverage of all elements of the language is a chimera. That said, the content of the Dictionary is certainly comprehensive within reasonable bounds.

The second edition really was just the first edition with more entries (existing entries were not amended) however the work now being done on the third edition is going back and updating those early definitions, some of which haven’t changed since the 1880’s when the first part was published. This will bring the dictionary fully up to date and also deal with the difference in style for the first entries in the part of the alphabet to make everything consistent. Subscriptions to the online OED are normally £215 a year however for the 90th birthday celebration this has been cut to £90 for any subscription taken out before 31st March 2019.

20181023 OED 6

One of the fun things that can be done with new edition is free and I recommend signing up to the word of the day.  As I type this post it has come up with:

20181023 OED 1

and I think that sums up the joy of the OED, yes for anyone interested in the English language everything really is oojah-cum-spiff.