Þæt wæs god blog!
The summer rolls on, and I’ve been enjoying watching my garden burst into great, colourful blooms. The roses have a short but beautiful life cycle, their brilliant reds and pinks quickly fading and curling up into shriveled brown petals, only to be replaced by more. Yet this greenery is not timeless, and autumn is just around the corner.
But what if there were no autumn? What if it were summer forever? What if there were no seasons, no weather even, with the climate remaining constant from day to day, hour to hour?
The Phoenix, a poem thought to have been composed during the ninth century, is from the Anglo-Saxon Exeter Book. The phoenix’s homeland is removed from the earthly realm, untouched by humanity, in a timeless, unchanging world. The anonymous narrator of The Phoenix begins the poem:
‘Hæbbe ic gefrugnen þætte is feor heonan
eastdælum on æþelast londa
firum gefræge. Nis se foldan sceat
ofer middangeard mongum gefere
folcagendra, ac he afyrred is
þurh Meotudes meaht manfremmendum’ (ll. 1-6)
‘I have heard that far from here in the eastern parts is the noblest of lands, well-known among men. The region of the earth is not accessible to many men across the world; rather, it is removed from the wicked through the Lord’s might.’
This land seems a paradox at first – well-known yet inaccessible to most – until we consider that while all Christians know about heaven, only a select number are actually granted access. Interestingly, the phoenix’s paradise is still a ‘region of the earth’, ‘foldan sceat’, although it is nothing like the regions where humans usually live.
This unreachable paradise is famed for its rich vegetation, and the poet repeatedly refers to its green woods and the fruitfulness of its trees. This itself is nothing extraordinary, no more exceptional than any other earthly forest that flourishes in the spring and summer. What is extraordinary is that this beauty never changes. Nature does not exist here as an ever-changing entity but as a time capsule from which every variation in weather and season is excluded. Although the poet refers to summer and winter, the seasons and the passing of time do not actually exist in the unchanging realm of paradise. The land is forever beautiful – and forever alien in its perfect beauty.
The land’s beauty is best defined, in fact, by what it is not. The poet recites a long string of negatives to illustrate the wonder of this strange place:
‘Ne mæg þær ren ne snaw
ne forstes fnæst ne fyres blæst
ne hægles hryre ne hrimes dryre
ne sunnan hætu ne sincaldu
ne wearm weder ne winterscur
wihte gewyrdan…’ (ll. 14b-19a)
‘There neither rain nor snow, nor breath of frost, nor blaze of fire, nor falling of hail, nor dropping of rime, nor heat of the sun, nor perpetual cold, nor warm weather, nor wintry shower may do harm in any way….’
A sunny grove that feels no heat from the sun? A gloriously green and flourishing wood that experiences no rain? This is a forest of contradictions and impossibilities. Still more essential features of landscape and life are absent:
‘Nis þær on þam londe laðgeniðla
ne wop ne wracu, weatacen nan,
yldu ne yrmðu ne se laþes cyme
ne synn ne sacu ne sarwracu
ne wædle gewin ne welan onsyn
ne sorg ne slæp ne swar leger;
ne wintergeweorp ne wedra gebregd
hreoh under heofonum ne se hearda forst
caldum cylegicelum cnyseð ænigne;
þær ne hægl ne hrim hreosað to foldan
ne windig wolcen, ne þær wæter fealleþ
lyfte gebysgad…’ (50-62a)
‘In that land there is neither enemy nor weeping, nor vengeance, nor token of woe, nor old age, nor distress, nor narrow death, nor loss of life, nor the coming of evil, nor sin, nor strife, nor misery, nor poverty’s struggle, nor lack of wealth, nor sorrow, nor sleep, nor sore sickness. There are neither winter-tossings nor stormy weather fierce under the heavens; nor does the hard frost knock any with cold icicles. Neither hail nor rime falls to the earth there, no windy clouds; water does not fall there, troubled by the gust…’
The Anglo-Saxons’ lives and much of their writings were influenced by the harsh climate in which they lived, for they possessed little in the way of protection against its extremes. A place like the phoenix’s homeland, essentially free of all weather, would seem to them an otherworldly paradise. Even more otherworldly and inhuman is the absence of all causes of grief, pain and anger: no sorrow nor vengeance, no evil nor sin, no poverty nor sickness – not even death.
At the other end of the spectrum of unnatural vegetation are the icy, frightening trees of hell. If paradise’s trees are eternally fruitful and pleasant, hell’s trees are perpetually barren and horrific. In Blickling Homily XVII: Dedication of St Michael’s Church, an anonymous homily from a tenth-century manuscript, the archangel Michael shows St Paul the entrance to hell:
‘As St Paul was looking upon the northern region of this middle-earth, where all waters descend, he saw a grey stone there over the water; and north of the stone rime-frosted groves had grown, and there were dark mists. Under the stone was the dwelling of water-monsters and accursed creatures. He saw that on the cliff many dark souls were hanging in the icy groves, bound by their hands. The fiends in the likenesses of water-monsters were seizing them like greedy wolves; and the water was dark down below the cliff. Between the cliff and the water were as many as twelve miles, and when the branches broke, then the souls hanging from the branches fell down, and the water-monsters took them. These were the souls who had sinned wrongfully here in the world and who would not cease from it before their life’s end.’ (trans. from OE, ll. 237 ff.)
St Paul’s vision of hell in Blickling Homily XVII shares striking similarities with the description of Grendel’s mere in Beowulf. The salient features of these landscapes are frosty groves which overhang stony cliffs with frightening, monster-infested waters below. Hrothgar calls Grendel’s mere a ‘dygel lond’ (l. 1357b), a ‘secret land’, and claims, ‘No þæs frod leofað | gumena bearna þæt þone grund wite’ (1366b-1367), ‘No wise person lives of the sons of men who knows that ground.’ Considering this dreaded place is secret and unknown to men, Hrothgar possesses a surprising amount of information about it. He provides a detailed account of how to find the mere, mentioning that it is not far in miles from his hall (1357b-1366a); he also says the wood is well-rooted (‘wudu wyrtum fæst’ (1364a)), a fact that emphasizes its state of unmovable permanence. Later, however, when the warriors are making their way to the mere, the poem describes the men as going an ‘unknown’, ‘uncuð’ (1410b), way. Something about Grendel’s mere as well as the phoenix’s homeland makes them both familiar and unknown; people seem to know quite a lot about these locales, but they are uninhabited by living humans and thus shrouded in mystery.
It is true that Grendel’s mere is accessible to one human, Beowulf, but this human happens to be exceptional. Boasting the strength of thirty men, this hero has survived incredible physical contests, including a multi-day swimming race in a monster-infested sea. In some parts of the poem, Beowulf and Grendel are described in the same words, and during their hand-to-hand combat, their bodies seem to merge, making the poet’s use of pronouns rather ambiguous. Beowulf is, in fact, an extraordinary human being who sometimes does not seem human at all. It is appropriate, therefore, that he is the only human who can enter Grendel’s mere, a place outside the realm of humanity.These timeless places, the homes of the phoenix and Grendel and the gateway to hell, are off-limits to humans – specifically living, human bodies. These unchanging trees are in a dead-zone, cut off from humanity. They may behave in a more ‘tree-like’ fashion, not oozing blood like human beings (see my earlier blog post ‘Bloody Trees’, but they are, in fact, the least natural trees of all. The places where these mysterious, unchanging trees grow are not of this world; rather, they are in otherworldly, unnatural landscapes where humans do not belong – at least not living, breathing, changing humans. Humans face eternity, existing in a state of everlasting permanence, in only two places: heaven and hell. Eerily permanent and timeless, these trees exist in perpetual summer or winter, always fruitful or forever barren.