Hwæt we Gar-Dena in gear-dagum þeodcyninga þrym gefrunon…. Those are the first words of the Old English epic Beowulf, and in this class you will learn to read them.
Old English (also called Anglo-Saxon) is a language of long, cold, and lonely winters; of haunting beauty found in unexpected places; and of unshakable resolve in the face of insurmount-able odds. It is, in short, the perfect language for MIT students. (It is also the language of the people of Rohan in the novels of J.R.R. Tolkien, one of the twentieth century’s most influential Anglo-Saxonists.) We will read not just excerpts from the great Beowulf but also heartrending laments (The Wanderer, The Wife’s Lament), an account of the Crucifixion as narrated by the Cross itself (The Dream of the Rood), and a host of riddles whose solutions are variously obscene, sacred, and everyday but always ingenious. We will also try our hand at composing our own sentences—and maybe even poems—in Old English.