Monday, 26 October 2009

Alfred the Great

Alfred the Great died on 26th October in c. 901; he was only about fifty years old, but he had one of the most remarkable careers of any English king. When he came to the throne in 871, Wessex was the only kingdom in England which was not under the control of the Danes: he repelled the invaders, revolutionised the military defence of his kingdom, founded the English navy... And best of all (from the perspective of those of us who study medieval literature), he embarked on a programme of education which was intended to make it possible for every free-born man in the kingdom (!) to learn to read English, and to have available the books which were most important for them to know. He arranged for the translation of - or perhaps even translated himself - a range of religious and philosophical texts into English: the first fifty Psalms, Gregory the Great’s Pastoral Care and Dialogues, Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy, Augustine’s Soliloquies, the Old English Orosius, and Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, and encouraged the writing of the invaluable historical source which is the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

Just incredible. The whole face of Old English literature would be different without Alfred.

My favourite passage from his translations comes in Soliloquies, where the process of translation itself is discussed. Anyone who has tried to translate something from one language to another and fretted about being unable to capture the nuances of the original will identify with Alfred's metaphor. He compares the writing of the book to going into the woods to collect materials for building, gathering armfuls of timber, and mourning because he can only carry so much: "on every tree I saw something which I needed at home".

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