My formative reading years in late elementary school, that Golden Age of preparation to become an adult reader, contains a row of perennial favorites to which I’ve frequently returned. Madeleine L’Engle, Lloyd Alexander, John Christopher, Zilpha Keatley Snyder, John Bellairs, Robert C. O’Brien’s Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, and that’s only getting started. But for mysterious reasons, one book often slips through the cracks of memory, even though it had an enormous influence on my later interests in history, literature, and myth: Beowulf: A New Telling by Robert Nye. When I do recall it from the marshland of childhood memory, its prose and images are as vivid as any other juvenile book I embraced in fourth and fifth grade. The pictures it conjured in my mind are the ones I still see when reading the original poem. There’s no denying the quality of a work that had such a powerful effect on my conception of Beowulf.
When I recently picked up a copy of Nye’s book, I discovered it retains its potency as both a great story and a reflection of the magic of the actual poem. Some of Nye’ sentence structures are simplified for middle-grade readers, and his prose retelling can’t match the authenticity or allure of an Anglo-Saxon epic poem composed over twelve hundred years ago. But its achievement as a short novel version of Beowulf impressed me enough on this re-read that I want to buy cartons of it and ship them to elementary schools. Hey, you kids who like Harry Potter! Here’s a short fantasy book with three great monsters in it, and it’s super violent and gory, but that’s totally okay because it’s a version of the first classic of English poetry. It’s educational: your parents can’t stop you! (Okay, I won’t guarantee that last part …)
Beowulf: A New Telling was published in 1968, although it felt new when I first read it around 1982. A teacher had recommended the book to our class for extra credit and gave us a short summary of its background: a modern re-telling of a poem by an unknown author. The original was written in the foundling days of English, possibly the eighth century. I bought a copy at a school book fair, and my blood thrilled at the haunting cover: the hero astride a horse, riding into a damp fen aflutter with bats, the monster Grendel (or perhaps Grendel’s Mother) lurking in the corner waiting for him.
Oxford is one of the most popular day trips for visitors to London thanks to its beautiful university and world-class museums such as the Ashmolean and Pitt-Rivers. It’s also worth staying overnight so that you can take advantage to the surrounding area, which offers some pleasant country walks.
One of the more enjoyable is a two-mile stroll along the Thames (locally called the Isis) that takes you to the hamlet of Binsey and the medieval church of St. Margaret’s. Set amid trees in the peaceful English countryside, the church makes for a relaxing stop and you can visit an Anglo-Saxon holy well that’s been an object of pilgrimage for centuries.
The British have been pretty lucky these past few years. According to the British Museum, numerous treasures have been uncovered by metal detectorists and accidentally by workmen.
One of the most impressive is the Anglo-Saxon coin hoard from Lenborough, Buckinghamshire, found in December of last year, and which the British Museum has just announced it has acquired. Around 5,200 Anglo-Saxon silver pennies, and two cut half pennies, of kings Æthelred II (r.978-1016) and Cnut (r.1016-35), were found wrapped within a lead sheet. The hoard was discovered on a metal-detecting rally, and recovered under the guidance of the local Finds Liaison Officer. The hoard contains coins from more than forty different mints around England, and provides a rare source of information on the circulation of coinage at the time the hoard was buried.
Ha! I bet you were expecting another Spanish post, weren’t you? Well, I spend the summers in Oxford, so this week you’re getting something a little more northern. When I’m not researching my next book in the Bodleian Library, I set out to explore the city and surrounding countryside for sights of historical interest.
Oxford is a beautiful university town filled with fine architecture. It’s also an ancient city with roots back into prehistory. It first came into prominence in Anglo-Saxon times and a trace of this has survived. On busy Cornmarket Street, there’s a well-preserved example of a Anglo-Saxon tower. It’s part of St. Michael at the North Gate church and was built around the year 1040. This makes it Oxford’s oldest building and one of the oldest Anglo-Saxon structures anywhere.