One of my first graduate courses in English was a research methods class taught by the department’s sole medievalist. A few weeks into the term, once we got to know the professor well enough to ask such questions, a student asked him why he got interested in medieval literature in the first place. His answer was immediate and thoughtful, suggesting he’d been asked that question a lot. He mentioned the influence of a great teacher and an opportunity to do work in a relatively untrodden upon area of literary studies. Most of all, he said, was the period was appealing because it was so weird.
Some of that weirdness comes across in the podcasts on Old English literature by Stuart Lee, an English professor and occasional Director of Computing Services at Oxford University, which explains the podcasts. I’m a regular listener of Lee’s podcast recordings of his lectures, available here and on iTunes. Each lecture begins with some shuffling of papers and a plea to mute cellphones. The lectures provide general historical context for the culture and literature of the pre-Conquest period. Lee delivers his lectures in the affable but exasperated tone typical of medievalists, who must deal continually with misunderstandings about their period and the long shadow of J.R.R. Tolkien. Lee is an engaging lecturer–he typically speaks for 52 minutes or so without a break–and he keeps things moving along at a brisk pace. The only problem with the podcast is that Lee distributes handouts and shows film clips (most of them from really bad movies, an occupational hazard, I would think) that are not available online, at least outside the Oxford network. Podcast subscribers miss out on the film clips, which make the students giggle, as well as the beautiful illuminated manuscripts and the lines of Old English poetry Lee reads with flawless pronunciation.
In the latest podcast, on the science, religion, and magic of the Old English period, Lee displays a picture of a crucifix. Evidently it’s quite an object. "I grew up with that crucifix," Lee comments. If that point is lost to podcast listeners, the rest of the lecture is fascinating. Lee specializes in the period between the Anglo-Saxon migrations in the fifth century to the Norman conquest in 1066–a huge period of time. England as we know it emerged during this period, and the story Lee tells in each podcast is how this nation came into being. In the religion podcast he explains why the ruling Anglo-Saxon elite dropped their Germanic belief system for Christianity. The pagan beliefs were more fun–lots of slaughters and feasts–but Christianity was better at addressing some of the knottier questions of existence, like the afterlife. Compared to the church of the High Middle Ages (or Christianity today, for that matter), Anglo-Saxon Christianity was a casual affair. Priests could marry. Ordinary people could marry and divorce as local circumstances allowed, to the complete indifference of ecclesiastical authorities. The Bible was freely translated into the vernacular. The Christian virtue of suffering was lost on the warlike Anglo-Saxons, who still saw the necessity of making other people suffer. Lee tiptoes around magic and pre-Christian beliefs, mostly because they’re not well documented, and partly because they’ve morphed into irritating (to medievalists) New Age pan-theisms. "Not quite accurate," is how Lee characterizes these still fashionable beliefs.
Lee never directly addresses the main question a dilettante medievalist like myself would ask: just how accurate is Lord of the Rings, anyway? From listening to his podcasts I’ve gotten the impression that while Lee respects Tolkien’s work, it’s not quite accurate. Still, the wanderlust and nostalgia for lost homelands in Rings comes through in Lee’s Anglo-Saxons. So does their humor and their fierce loyalties to family and community. Maybe next term Lee will come up with a video podcast. If he does, I’ll certainly watch it on my (still to be purchased) iPod Touch.
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Thanks for the kind review. If you want my views on Tolkien look at my (joint) book ‘The Keys of Middle-earth’. All the best, Stuart.