Thursday, March 8, 2018

The Zeitgeist of Anglo Saxon Literature

"swa sceal æghwylc mon alætan lændagas"
-Beowulf, 2590-2591

Hadrian's Wall
It is not hard to imagine the end of the world.  Consider how many recent films have portrayed a multitude of ways the human race faces the ultimate end of everything. Will we be taken over by cyborgs? Will an asteroid come hurtling towards us? Will thermonuclear war, finally, undo us all? Will harrying aliens take us down? Will it be a plague that dazzles even the most brilliant biological engineer? A singularity that shifts the laws of physics? Will we suddenly realize that in fact, we only exist inside a computer program? Will God, again sick of our corruption, rain the fire of the Apocalypse on us? Will it be, rather, Ragnarok? Thankfully, at least Yael was able to build us a radio. Perhaps we will find a use for it? 

Roslyn Cathedral
At the turn of the first millennium in Anglo Saxon England, there was a kind of millennium madness similar to the one exhibited by people across the globe as we approached the year 2,000. Personally, I must say that I feel sort of special, for not a lot of people will ever have lived to cross a millennium year, and I am one. As we approached the crossover, many people imagined something called "Y2K" -- a bug that was certain to infect the (primitive) computers of the time, which would be unable to handle the change of numbers in the date. (Yeah.) It was much more than that. While the number of the year itself is insignificant, certainly the technological changes swelling through the last decade of the first millennium were. 

The Seafarer, Exeter Book 
Consider that one critical quality of any powerful civilization is the ability to communicate and store knowledge through generations. By the end of the first millennium in the Common Era, human beings were on the brink of being able to store their entire, global ten thousand year library of knowledge and make it accessible to everyone on the planet with Internet connection and a cell phone in seconds. 

Much more than a new millennium, we have surely entered a new age. 

I wonder what the future, confident that there will be one, will call it?

Viking Longship
As the change of the first millennium crossed through England, no one could have imagined the conquest of the Normans, and the coming of a time of dynamic growth for Europe that would rise from the ashes of the fallen Roman Empire. Indeed, England had experience a bit of the Apocalypse when the Romans abandoned the country in 410, as tribal Scots and Picts overran Hadrian's Wall to attack their settlements.

When the Roman patricians buried their treasure and fled, they took the spirit of civilization with them, leaving being the decaying mortality of it: Carved words no one could  understand; buildings, aqueducts, roads and monuments no one had the engineering skills to repair or rebuild; trade routes no one had boats or navigational skills to reach; and technological and medicinal tools and knowledge no one any longer could access. Not to mention having the protection of a safe, powerful, and unified government.

Alfred the Great
England is thrown into chaos as those left behind, the Anglo, Saxons and Jute tribes who soldiers for the Romans, revert to tribalism, They are unprotected from hunger, disease, the wild forces of nature, or warrior raids from both neighboring tribes and Vikings. Death. Famine. War. Disease. It is a veritable apocalypse of civilization. 

But relentless civilization, truly, one of the most mysterious and awesome qualities of the human species, will rise Phoenix-like from these ashes. In the year 900, an Anglo Saxon scop will compose the epic poem Beowulf, even as the language and nation itself is engendering.  Soon, a strong king will lead the country. and poets, philosophers, lawyers, historians and everyday people will be writing, translating, and sharing the knowledge of generations past as a dynamic new culture takes hold.  Then, everything will change again in 1066.
Bayeaux Tapestry 

I promise, the Normans won't invade. But what if, hypothetically, leaving cyborgs, zombies, aliens, germs and a paradigm moment in the space time continuum aside, let's say the Internet goes down. Perhaps a very wayward asteroid takes out a number of satellites. At the same time, a limited thermonuclear war has ended the global economy as we know it.  Electricity is cut off and there are no longer any deliveries of natural gas, oil, gasoline or coal. And if this were not enough, a pandemic strikes. What will the first week bring? The first month?  Where will humans be in ten years? 

And, when will the next civilization arise? Perhaps on another planet, in another universe, or within electromagnetic impulses that only some futuristic computer can read? 


Saint George, Slaying a Dragon