Ungelic Is Us
Leodum is minum swylce him mon lac gife;
willað hy hine aþecgan, gif he on þreat cymeð.
Ungelic is us.
Wulf is on iege, ic on oþerre.
This is the first stanza of Wulf and Eadwacer. It is found in the 10th century Exeter book and is one of the oldest surviving poems in English, and perhaps my favourite. It tells the story of two lovers separated by tribal differences, warfare and hatred. If you say ‘ungelic is us’ (oonyehleek is ooss) it sounds like ‘unlike is us’ in modern English. ‘We are unlike’ is not at all the same as ‘we are different’.
I discovered this tale of sex, treachery and tragedy in a very unlikely place. It was a musty room in the School of English at the Queen’s University of Belfast. The books were piled so high that it was genuinely advisable to wear a hard hat to attend Old English tutorials. A kettle and buns sat in one corner, a university supplied computer and in the middle of the room, squashed in between the books, were about six undergraduate students. It was 1995 and of those six students, second year undergraduates, I was the only native English speaker. The rest were foreign exchange students, of whom Fiona the Austrian did the best at Old English because of its likeness to German. Basically, it is what we speak today before the Normans came and added a bit of Romance to the language. Well, maybe that’s too basic but you get the idea. Today the room isn’t much changed... there are so many books you couldn’t possibly fit in six undergrads, yet ‘The Lord of the Rings’ (the language of Rohan is basically Anglo-Saxon), the Narnia films and the BBC’s somewhat ironic decision to have the sorcerers use Old English when casting spells in Merlin (Hello! The Britons were not mates with the Saxons...) has greatly increased interest in what was in my day a quite obscure academic area.
My first tutor in all things medieval (apart from Derek Jacobi in Cadfael, but that is set in a much later period) was one Dr. Ivan Herbison. It’s funny how you can meet some-one and form a first impression and not realize at all that here is a person who will change the rest of your life. I would not say that I was perhaps his best student... I was also taught Renaissance literature by Ivan in my third year. I was supposed to have read Iris Murdoch’s The Black Prince for its insights on and appropriation of Hamlet, but I had neglected to do so in favour of hanging out in Renshaw’s on University Street. When asked by Ivan about a particular episode in the text, I had to admit I hadn’t gotten quite that far. ‘How much have you read?’ I had two options, the truth or a lie and I simply wasn’t clever enough to fake knowledge of an Iris Murdoch novel. After all, Kenneth Brannagh had never made it into a film. ‘The back cover,’ I admitted. ‘So, ‘said Ivan completely calmly’, You could say you have a minimal acquaintance with this text.’ I had to concede that it would not be at all inaccurate to draw that conclusion. Over two years later when I received my Master of Arts degree in Old English I was so familiar with the texts that I would sometimes jump out of bed at 2am to write down some thought about one of them that had come to me in the night. This is testimony to the love and skill Ivan puts into his teaching, not to some Damascus Road moment of my own.
The year I did my MA was significant for many other reasons other than my academic advancement. My grandmother, who had been an important part of my upbringing after my father had sustained a brain injury in a road traffic accident when I was 7, had developed Alzheimer’s. My grandfather who was 86 at the time had tried as long as he could to look after her at home, but he really needed help. It was hard work but we all pitched, taking her to the toilet, making sure she took all her medications and all the little things that are needed to sustain somebody’s life. When eventually it just got too much and she had no clue where she was and who any of us were, she had to go into a nursing home although Papa went over every day for hours at a time. Mum, Dad and I took it in turns to stay with Papa at night in the rambling Victorian house which was Nanny and Papa’s home and would one day be my home. I once was a kindred spirit to my grandmother. It was hard to see her slip back into the past, but not able to be happy there. We started to become ungelic, living in different worlds.
Also in 1998 the electorate in Northern Ireland voted to ratify the Good Friday Agreement. It was, we were told, the beginning of a new future and a new way of life. In retrospect it may have been the beginning of such things. Today’s youth don’t remember the general disruption to life and routine caused by bomb scares and actual bombs, having to have our bags searched when we went shopping, road blocks on the way to the airport, soldiers wandering around. That’s what happens when people become too ungelic. Actually, the laugh of it was that we have never been completely unlike; but when two cultures are actually quite similar you have real acrimony, in the same way that individuals seem to take most exception to people who remind them of themselves. I definitely voted yes in the referendum. We all had to make concessions, there were parts of the Agreement which were ungelic for everybody. Personally, my concern was that people who were murderers would be freed from prison, labelled ‘political prisoners’. If you’ve killed some-one, no matter how worthy is your cause or how deeply you feel about it, you are ungelic to most of the human race. It’s strange...at that time I was reading Wulf and Eadwacer and imagining that lovers separated by tribal hatred, violence and culture was the stuff of early medieval poetry. It was happening all around me every day. But it didn’t impinge on my life, I didn’t understand what some of my compatriots went through. Ungelic wæron us. Until the day some teenager being initiated into a paramilitary gang threw a petrol bomb at my Protestant schoolfriend’s front window in North Belfast because her fiancé was Catholic. She had felt safe and happy in that area. It was a shock for her to discover she was ungelic. This greatly affected my own thinking with regard to life here when I met a nice young man, but when I went to visit him there was a warning painted on the end terrace of a house in his street, a clear territorial marking which read ‘Kill all Huns’.
This was the society into which I had been born, but thank God it was changing and has kept changing. After Omagh we just couldn’t take it anymore and the gangsters who used to be gods in their own communities no longer have support. At the age of 23 as I was coming to the end of my Master’s and my academic career (or so I thought) I started to have thoughts about what I would do with my life. I wanted to make some kind of difference and I couldn’t see how knowing quite a lot about Anglo-Saxon hagiography would help me towards that end. I’m old enough now to realise that the difference you make, for the better or the worse, has more to do with who you are, who you think other people are and how you live rather than your employment. As it happened I was misdiagnosed with a chronic illness (I was ill, they just gave me the wrong label for my disease) just as my degree finished and I didn’t work at all for a year afterwards. Following that in worked for a decade in the field of disability. As removed as this seems from my academic pursuits, I had learned a lot about the power of language and of research and I like to believe I was able to aim a few words like arrows or like torches in the right places and so academia and real life proved not to be at all ungelic.
If you are not an Old English scholar, you may be wondering what the words at the start of this little memoir mean. I will translate now:
Leodum is minum swylce him mon lac gife;
To my people it is like they have been given my gift;
willað hy hine aþecgan, gif he on þreat cymeð
They want to kill him if he comes armed.
Ungelic is us.
We are unlike.
Wulf is on iege, ic on oþerre.
Wulf is on an island, I on the other.
I handed in my dissertation (‘Hleomaegas: Kinship in Old English Biblical and Hagiographical Texts’) at the beginning of September 1999. Nanny died on 16th September 1999. Within the Communion of Saints no-one is ungelic. Now in 2011 I am about to study for another Master’s, this time in Music. I don’t know where my path ends or who else I am about to meet, but I am clear on the end of Wolf and Eadwacer:
þæt mon eaþe tosliteð þætte næfre gesomnad wæs,
uncer giedd geador.
One easily sunders what was never united,
Our song together.