I am frequently asked—I think more often than most English professors—why it is that I ended up doing what I do. There’s something about being an Anglo-Saxonist just freakish enough to require explanation. Or maybe it’s my palpable lack of a beard, which, as I have noted before on this blog, is practically a requirement of membership in the field. In any case, I have been thinking a lot recently about origins. I can’t help it; I’m reading Paradise Lost. And even the word of the day colludes with me in my topic–it is faculty, and, what do you know, it turns out to have a medieval origin.
The first time that I was asked about my reasons for being an Anglo-Saxonist, I immediately felt a deep anxiety about, well, not having good enough reasons. That is, not having a profound and meaningful origin story involving something like finding a long-lost twin or saving a person from a life-threatening disease. The real story involves a series of random, little events. When I began my undergraduate degree, Old English was a compulsory subject for all entering freshmen students specializing in English. As you can imagine, the complaining was legion. Everyone had to take it, and most people seemed to hate it. I was in the tutorial group of my university’s eminent Anglo-Saxonist, a man who had the unnerving habit of playing with a letter opener in the shape of a Celtic sword while he quizzed you about case endings. “Yes, but what case is handa?” he would twinkle, testing the dull point of the letter opener with his thumb as though ready to disembowel you for making a mistake in your parsing. All looked with searing intensity at their books, intently avoiding eye contact. Of course this strategy can only get you so far in an Old English class, because just about everybody teaches it by going around a circle and having each student translate a sentence or two at a time. Hence we would spend most of the class frantically calculating where our turn would land; counting sentences; adjusting for length and difficulty; assessing the probability that our professor would randomly ask someone else to do more or less than was usual; hoping against hope that we didn’t get that sentence that just made no sense at all, or the one that we were pretty sure we had mistranslated as being something to do with a three-legged dog and a slice of Wensleydale cheese.
Sitting next to me, I still remember, was an over-achieving student with large and incredibly expressive nostrils, which would flare to varying degrees depending on whether he was experiencing excitement or annoyance. Even though this student, let’s just call him Nostrils, was probably the best prepared in the class, I sensed that my teacher preferred self-deprecating vacillation above smug nasal hubris any day. Perhaps it was just that the nostrils were too much of a temptation to the letter opener. But whatever the reason, I immediately warmed to my professor for his refusal to respond to such humorless swotty-ness.
That being said, it’s not as though I understood everything that we were taught that first year. I should mention at this point, in the way of absolving myself, that teaching things did not involve quite the same level of explanation and activity in that time and place as it does here and now. Cases were taught as though to students who had taken several years of Latin and perhaps Greek, whereas we had all gone to comprehensive high schools (public schools, as they would be known here) where you couldn’t possibly take such subjects. Sound changes were taught as though we were already familiar with the notion of historical linguistics. I found the terms “i-mutation” and “restoration of a” (both important sound changes) quite diverting, but I was unable to do more than imagine them as Sesame Street songs.
Oddly enough, though, when I got back my exam for the first year of Introduction to Old English, I had scored an 81% (which, believe me, is about a 99% when translated to American grading). I was mystified, but I felt that this must be a sign. Truth be told, despite my willful blind spot toward sound changes and the fact that I once spelled the protagonist’s name wrong all the way through an essay on The Battle of Maldon, I wasn’t bad at literary analysis of Old English poetry, and this seemed good enough reason to carry on doing it.
And that was that. It feels like a quotidian set of events to found a career, but it’s not a decision I’ve ever regretted either.
So, what about you? What is your scholarly origin story? Please tell me it involves a long-lost twin, a shipwreck, amnesia, or a parallel universe…