Preface to For Unfruitful Land
Anglo-Saxon literature, one finds that the works are unique with wonderful
prose and beautiful poetry. This remains true for many of the
works--except for The Metrical Charms. These poems are completely thrown
aside and bashed for their lack of literary credit. Until fairly recent
times, the charms were regarded as nothing other than of esoteric interest to
advanced scholars. The argument about their literary value is still a
major scholarly issue in the studies of Anglo-Saxon.
To begin to examine this problem, one must come to an understanding of exactly what a “charm” truly is. Lois Bragg explains that
There are eighty-six Anglo-Saxon charms extant, chiefly in two manuscripts,
the tenth-century Laeceboc and the eleventh-century Lacnunga, although many
appear in other manuscripts as well, often in the margins. Of these charms,
some are wholly in Latin, some in what appears to be gibberish, many in Old
English prose, and twelve in Old English verse, either in whole or in part.
Although the language of the charms is unusual, this literature should not be discriminated against. With a superficial reading, the text may come across as simple statements and directions. After all, the charms are, in fact, remedies that Anglo-Saxons followed. But at a closer glance, one can learn much concerning the culture and the way magic had been mixed with hints of Christianity.
Despite the presence of some Christian elements, the charms express more of a pagan mindset than a Christian one. According to Bragg, the charms are predominantly spells, not prayers, due to the fact that “prayers ask; spells act” (118). Each of these magical charms concerns the actions that need to be carried out to create a change in nature. As methods for fixing human problems, the charms can be compared to a late night studying. During the cram session, one might internally say that in order for success on a paper, one must devour caffeine and munchies. This example is like a spell because it is doing something to help further another. In For Unfruitful Land, a person must perform all of the duties in order for the land to flourish.
An example of a prayer in regards to the late night study session is when the person asks for divine intervention in order to complete the paper. The “ritual” usually comes at about three in the morning after reaching the edge of sanity. In hopes to complete the assignment, the person may say something along the lines of, “God, please help me get through this.” For Unfruitful Land uses the prayer in the same way to reinforce the desperation in the midst of hard work.
As far as linguistics is concerned, most of the charms are written in metonymic language. According to Bragg, this means that they “will appear logical and inevitable, realistic and non-literary” (124). Through this language, a common person can understand Anglo-Saxon charms and gain a sense of the culture.
Thematically, the poem is very complicated. In Unfruitful Land, Bragg states that the charm “is usually recognized as a two-part charm although sometimes treated as an organic whole” (126). The first part is dedicated to pasture land, while the other is for land that is cultivated. Most scholars argue that the entirety may represent a spring ritual. Overall, to Bragg, the “charm seems to be a remnant of pagan sun worship, overlaid with a thin Christian veneer” (126). Some Christianity is present, but this particular charm is primarily a spell, with only one small section portraying a prayer.
When researching The Metrical Charms, one of the interesting points in one text was that these works have what Judith A. Vaughan-Sterling calls a “special vocabulary” (191). Certain words are used only in the charms and add to the magical quality of the poetry:
In For Unfruitful Land, for example, according to Vaughan-Sterling, in line 18 of the prose section, the herbal
formula calls for cwicbeame, or aspen, as part of the ritual of restoring the
fields to health. The ‘magical’ and ‘poetical’ implications of this word are
hard to miss: what better remedy to apply to something unfruitful that
something ‘cwic,’ something living? Cwicbeam seems to be, moreover, a
relatively rare word in Anglo-Saxon; Bosworth-Toller reports that the word
occurs, outside of medical or magical texts, only in Elfric and other
This unique vocabulary sets the charms apart from any other poems. Not only are these works magical, but the unique vocabulary used proves they are so special that they use their own vocabulary to make the magic. When the words are read, one can assume that several of the words were meant only for that particular work. This highly specialized use of language brings about the feeling that just reading the charms is magic in itself.
With translations, I compare each to my own criteria. For me, the purpose of a translation is to show the modern reader how interesting poetry is, despite the separation of time. Despite the fact that we are a very different culture, I want the audience to relate to the words and form a reaction.
In regards to the content, I want to help the reader understand the culture and therefore take a small step to becoming a thoughtful and empathetic global citizen who will someday further humanitarian efforts. Understanding other cultures is important in today’s world, and Anglo-Saxon culture is very foreign to us. Removed not only by language but by time, we have a harder time understanding it than we would have understanding a more similar culture (modern British culture, for example, which is a great deal like our own), and so we have to work harder to get into the heads of the writers and hypothetical audience. This is good training for future cultural exploration; if we learn how to understand such a very different culture, learning to understand the next country over is much easier. In addition, looking at the themes and conflicts of Anglo-Saxon culture can help us realize that some problems are universal, and that all cultures face similar issues, which helps us sympathize more with our fellow human beings.
As far as the techniques are concerned, I want to make the work interesting and appealing to a modern reader.
Due to the fact that the charms do not have high literary or cultural merit to many scholars, finding actual translations is close to impossible. The only charm that I compared my translation to was Bradley’s. Although his translation was literally correct for the most part, it lacks an interesting and modern quality. An example of Bradley’s lack of appealing words is apparent in the opening lines one through three. He translates, “Here is the remedy, how you may restore your fields if they / will not crop well, or where some untoward thing is done upon them / by warlock or witchcraft” (545). My translation varies in a few words, but is more exciting on the basic level. I translated the same lines as “Here is the relief, how you are able to repair your cultivated lands if they / will not flourish very easily, or where some improper deed is done upon them / by sorcery or witchcraft.” By comparing a few words, such as “sorcery” and “warlock,” I hope that the modern reader will see that my translation is more magical.
Another translation of words that are interesting in the opening three lines to make a comparison is the words “remedy” and “relief.” The word “relief” is more socially relevant in today’s society. The modern reader will relate to the word because of events that have occurred recently. For example, after the hurricanes a few months ago, most citizens of the United States know what relief aid is. “Relief” is a word that brings the modern reader into the poem. In my translation, I tried to maintain this particular concept throughout.
Based upon my research, I chose the poem For Unfruitful Land to translate because I think it possesses great potential to be intriguing to undergraduates. I think the poem would show the modern reader how interesting the poetry is, despite the separation of time. And in conclusion, I want to show others that the Harry Potter books are not the only place that one can obtain a wonderful story of magic.
Bradley, S.A.J. “Name of the charm” Anglo-Saxon
Poetry. London: Everyman, 1982. 545-547. NEED PAGE NUMBERS
Bragg, Lois. “The Modes of the Old English Metrical Charms – The Texts of Magic.” Studies on Themes and Motifs in Literature: New Approaches to Medieval Textuality. Ed. Mikle Dave Ledgerwood. New York: New York, 1998. 117-40.
“For Unfruitful Land.” The Anglo-Saxon Minor Poems. Ed. Elliott Van Kirk Dobbie. New York: Columbia UP, 1942. 116-118.
Vaughan-Sterling, Judith A. “The Anglo-Saxon Metrical Charms: Poetry as Ritual.” Journal of English and Germanic Philosophy. 82.2 (1983 April) 186-200.