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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.



Deep in the Forest – Estonian Fairy Tales

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I have recently been given a copy of this book and have thoroughly enjoyed it. The book is brand new (printed in English by Varrak Publishers Ltd in 2018) although it has an interesting story as to how it came about. What was almost this collection was originally put together by Risto Järv for a French publication “L’esprit de la forêt et autres contes estoniens” (The spirit of the forest and other Estonian tales) published by Éditions Corti in 2011, and was volume 46 of their Collection Merveilleux (Marvellous Collection) a series of books of folk tales and others legends from around the world. This French collection led to Varrak wanting to produce an edition in Estonian and whilst revising the book for this version some tales were dropped and others added to bring the total to one hundred. The Estonian book came out in 2015 with the title “Metsavaimu heategu. Sada eesti muinasjuttu metsast ja meist” (The Forest Spirit’s Deed. One Hundred Estonian Fairy Tales about the Forest and Us). The English edition I have been reading is basically the same as the Estonian although the order of the tales has been slightly altered.

The book is split into ten sections each of ten tales with a short introduction to each section providing some background to the stories you are about to read, this is especially important for non-Estonian readers as some understanding is needed as to the deep love they have of the forests of their country and the structure of the tales that have grown up around them featuring regular animal characters of bear, wolf, fox, hare and mouse all of whom can talk amongst themselves and also to those people who are willing to listen. Each of the animals have specific characteristics for example the fox is normally clever and deceitful but can also be fooled, the wolf on the other hand is not very clever and will fall for most ruses. Hare is often frightened by events and looks for others of his kind to shelter, bear is strong but like wolf not the brightest creature in the forest and can be persuaded to use his strength even if it will ultimately work against him. There are also numerous little old men and inhabitants of out of the way cottages who if they decide to help should certainly be listened to carefully because half the time they are probably forest sprites of some variety but, if you are very unlucky or unwary, could also be trying to trap you or even worse they could be Vanapagan himself.

Vanapagan is the most difficult to understand regular character in these tales for non-Estonians. He represents the devil but not in a way that would be recognised by most people outside Estonia, he is sometimes more of an annoyance than particularly evil and he can usually be outwitted with a bit of intelligent thinking. Most of the tales featuring him involve the human protagonist striking a deal with Vanapagan for some sort of time limited agreement. Often the humans realise that they are dealing with Vanapagan from the first but reckon to trick him out of completing the bargain and taking them to hell in the end. This they usually manage often with the assistance of one of the little old men that seem to always appear in the forest at times of need. If they don’t recognise Vanapagan then another character (either animal or human) that has fallen under his control will usually tell them and often suggest ways that they can alter their fate by escaping.

The book draws on a huge back catalogue of folk and fairy tales, in the Estonian Literary Museums folkloric archives alone there are roughly 15,000 fairy and folk tales which is the equivalent of one for every thousand people in the country. Most of the ones included in the book were recorded in the 1890’s but some were written down in this form within the last few years. Most of them are very short, just two or three pages long but there are a few longer ones and the selection tries to cover the major thematic groups. The ten sections are:

  • Setting out into the Forest
  • Creation Tales
  • Animals and Stories
  • Work and Wisdom
  • Men and Women
  • Unexpected Encounters
  • Orphans and Parental Mercy
  • Truth and Justice
  • Countering Vanapagan
  • Emerging from the Forest

As you can see the book is top and tailed by going in and eventually coming out of the forest which symbolises the whole Estonian tales structure that all the magical, strange and terrible things happen in the forest and the world outside of this magical place is largely unimportant and certainly far less interesting. The creation tales included are not ‘world tales’ as you might expect if you have read other mythologies but more like Kipling’s Just So stories so we discover ‘why aspen leaves flutter’, ‘how the cuckoo came to be’ and ‘why the tip of Fox’s tail is white’ amongst other things. Animals and Stories is largely about the main animal characters of the legends, whilst Work and Wisdom introduce us to morality tales usually where a character doesn’t do what they have been told is the correct way to behave and subsequently reaps the consequences.

The tales under the category of Men and Women are largely not flattering to either party but especially not the women who tend to be lazy or bad tempered or both and in their ill humour end up ruining the gains that had been made by magic or encounters with forest sprites by their menfolk. Unexpected Encounters include stories of meeting with both magical characters and in one case King Peter I of Russia that transform the lives of the protagonists. Orphans and Parental Mercy takes us away to something more akin to the dark original versions of Brothers Grimm’s fairy tales where orphans strive to rise from their misfortune or even those of Charles Perrault a century earlier. What you never get is the more child friendly style of somebody like Hans Christian Anderson, Estonian fairy tales should come with an Parental Guidance rating like films certainly when you hit Truth and Justice because the justice meted out can definitely be harsh. Countering Vanapagan is as the title suggests a group of tales where the hero of the story defeats Vanapagan with trickery often by successfully twisting the agreement between them to breaking point.

The folkloric traditions in Estonia are very important to the people there, who still have a strong link both to their forests and their mythologies, more so than in any other European country I have visited. Spending time in the countryside is ingrained in the Estonian people in a very spiritual way, being there within their woods and forests is good not just for the body but for the mind as well and most of the population will escape from the confines of the towns and cities as often as they can. As an outsider I can only get an impression of this deep love of their country but it is a powerful feeling and if you are lucky enough to be in the woods with Estonians then you can share it with them even if only briefly.