Divided loyalties

When I was at University I could never decide which I liked better, Anglo-Saxon (the language, that is, also called Old English), or Old Icelandic (also called Old Norse). On reflection I know that I enjoyed Old Icelandic more primarily because of my tutor, Dr John S. Martin, who would tell all manner of interesting stories. You can learn a little of him from his obit, presented together with that of the late violinist Nelli Shkolnikova, here.

What the obit doesn’t say is that during his travels he learnt a thing or two from Sigurður Nordal and that he studied some of the Irish language under, well, Éamon de Valera near the end of Dev’s life. Is it all true? Dr Martin has been described as a ‘raconteur’, and he certainly was that, but he wasn’t particularly known for drawing a long bow and I doubt he would have bamboozled those in statu pupillari. He had been knighted by the King of Sweden in 1988 (Order of the Polar Star) and had the appearance—when I knew him—of a retired Viking.

“Don’t worry about what it means,” he would say about a difficult section of text. “Let it flow through your veins. The meaning will come soon enough.” He said it often enough that it has become my motto when dealing with any language I am trying to learn, as well as my advice to anyone (actors, for example) struggling with things like Elizabethan English or Beckett.

He insisted on teaching us the modern Icelandic pronunciation so that when we should one day return ‘home’ to that beautiful island, we would be understood even if our vocabulary was distinctly mediaeval. And I do consider Iceland home.

Down the yellow-brick road about half a mile was the English Department where my tutor held seminars that were entirely a different kettle of fish. Dr Muir, rather well known now for his edition of the Exeter Book, ran a seminar that was more aligned to the new school of scholarship. More linguistics than philology, science than art—at least, that’s the kind of student the seminar seemed to attract, or so it seemed to me: Hot bespectacled auburn-haired girls who had forgotten more about palaeography than I would ever know; bearded earnest gentlemen investigating the implications of u-mutation; literary theorists from another part of the Department looking to write their theses on Foucauldian readings (this was the early ’90s) of the Domesday Book—that kind of thing.

They were all very serious people. I, on the other hand, would be seriously hungover and would occasionally improvise juvenile translations to piss them off—but the joke would always fall flat and I would end up with egg on my face. Honi soit qui mal y pense: Honey I have a headache—different language, but I trust you get what I mean.

On another occasion, “clearly, the Beowulf-author has lifted from Tolkien! Shame!” And so forth.

Withering glare from bespectacled hot redhead.

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