Sunday, March 15, 2009

Reading Asser’s life of Alfred

In an edition with no notes, no critical apparatus, which is to say reading it for the fun of it. It’s been too long since I read the life of Charlemagne which is supposed to be its model. I can’t help but like someone who uses such overblown metaphors to say “I’ve drifted off my subject”. Why he didn’t go back and delete the digressions in his draft is a moot point. Either he couldn’t be bothered, or the whole thing is a rhetorical strategy to have it both ways. But I like him. I like the way he squirms round the fact that the king holds him in high esteem, and he obviously thinks Alfred is Great, but he’s still doing his best to sound “objective”. And I’m sure someone has argued that “him” isn’t really Asser and this is just Wessex propaganda, but this time I don’t really care.

But above all that sense, as with all dark age texts, of language being used to map a version of the world, giving it coherence and shape it essentially lacked. Those words: King, Ruled, Kingdom. With all their modern connotations, of process, law, organization, predictability, don’t quite capture the huddle of cold dirty men standing together in the wind, watching the Vikings burning another settlement. Under Asser’s tales of Alfred’s love of learning and his struggle with piles is a world of ongoing brutality and violence. What must it have been like for Alfred’s family, for the families of his ealdormen and thanes? How must it have shaped the simplest of relationship or friendship? When he’s not inventing time pieces and translating, Alfred is hacking Danes, or planning the hacking of Danes and trying to avoid being blood eagled by Danes.

If there was a poetry of the abattoir, it would be like this; and you have to look at it slantwise, eyes half shut, to see and hear the messy reality under the rhetoric.

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