Tag Archives: poetry

First, Find a Hat…

Submitting a novel takes a certain amount of focus and effort. It takes time, and brain-space, and most, if not all, of your guts. It doesn’t, in short, leave you a lot of time to do other things, like enter competitions or submit stories to literary magazines, which is a shame; those things are important.

It’s hard to even write a short story, though, when you feel like this:

The lemon, that is. Not the hand. Image: catalysttrainingsystems.ca

The lemon, that is. Not the hand.
Image: catalysttrainingsystems.ca

Sometimes, however, you’ve just got to tell that Muse who’s boss, and get her to start pulling her weight. If you were to wait until you felt in the fullness of your mental and physical health and/or everything in your life was shiny before you put pen to paper, you’d never write anything.

So, in that undaunted spirit, this week I’m beginning the process of submitting work to magazines and competitions afresh. I’ve just stuck my head above the parapet to check out the landscape, and realised I’ve missed a load of deadlines, which is a shame.

But, as is always the case, where one deadline passes another five sprout up to take its place, so there’s never a need for sorrow.

I have compiled a short list of competitions and/or submission opportunities (not exhaustive, just so you know: other opportunities are available!), mainly to help myself to stay focused but also to aid anyone else who might find themselves in the mood to throw their hat into the ring.

Artist: Bill Watterson Comic: Calvin and Hobbes Image sourced: helenlevel3writing.wordpress.com

Artist: Bill Watterson
Comic: Calvin and Hobbes
Image sourced: helenlevel3writing.wordpress.com


Mslexia Women’s Short Story Competition

The Skinny: Stories can be up to 2,200 words, and so long as they’ve never been published before (and they’re written in English), they can be on any subject. Entry costs £10 (sterling) and should be accompanied by a cover sheet, downloadable from the Mslexia website. First prize is £2,000 plus publication in a forthcoming issue of Mslexia.

The Complicated Bits: You have to be a woman to enter, and the closing date is next Monday, March 17th. So, get your skates on!

The Molly Keane Creative Writing Award

The Skinny: Entry is free, and there’s no restriction on the style or length of the short story submitted. You need to download an entry form from the Waterford County Council website and submit it with your story to the Waterford County Arts Office. Peachy.

The Complicated Bits: Entry closes this Friday, March 15th. Sorry about the late notice.

The Moth International Short Story Prize 2014

The Skinny: Stories can be up to 6,000 words, and must be original and not published elsewhere. A €9 entry fee allows you to enter one story, and you may enter as many stories as you like. The closing date isn’t until June 30th, which is good. You can find the rules here, and a link to online entry here. Go on, go on, go on.

The Complicated Bits: There aren’t any, really. Get on it.

The Bridport Prize

The Skinny: Bridport offers a smorgasbord of options. There’s a flash fiction competition (stories up to 250 words); a short story competition (stories up to 5000 words) and a poetry competition (poems up to 42 lines.) A variety of entry fees apply, and you should probably check out the rules, over here. Bridport offers great prizes, and wonderful exposure should you win, or be shortlisted.

The Complicated Bits: Winning is difficult, as the world and his mother tends to enter this competition. It’s reputable, popular and well worth entering, but there’ll be stiff competition. Just so you know.

MMU Novella Award

The Skinny: Have you written, or are you writing, a novella of between 20,000 and 40,000 words? Then, this is the competition for you. The prize is £1,000 plus publication, and the closing date is May 23rd, and the entry fee is £15. So long as you’re over 16 and writing in English, you’re good to go.

The Complicated Bits: Ain’t none. Well, assuming you have a novella in the works, that is. I don’t, so for me it would be nigh-on impossible. For you, though, it may be just the ticket.

Criminal Lines

The Skinny: If you’re a writer of crime, suspense or thriller novels, then listen up. A.M. Heath, an excellent agency, is looking for an unagented, unpublished crime author for their Criminal Lines prize. Amazingly, the novel you enter doesn’t even have to be finished – but you need to have a clear plan in place for the story. The prize is £1,000, but – better than that – you get to chat to some of A.M. Heath’s super-agents about your work. So, it’s well worth giving this a go if you’re the next Henning Mankell. Details are available over here.

The Complicated Bits: There aren’t any, so long as you have a twisty, nefarious brain which cooks up deliciously dark stories. I don’t. So, um. Good luck, though!

Image: avajae.blogspot.com

Image: avajae.blogspot.com


There are literally millions of places to submit your work. Millions. I’m throwing out a few that are on the top of my head, for various reasons, but the following list is by no means complete.


A fabulous wee e-zine which is well worth checking out. They’re looking for submissions for their fifth issue, closing date April 30th.

Number Eleven Magazine

Possibly the most beautiful literary magazine in the ‘verse. Send them in your stuff, and maybe you’ll see it lovingly and gorgeously reproduced.

Story Shack Magazine

The best thing about this magazine is the fact that not only will you see your story in print if it’s accepted, but you’ll also be paired with an illustrator who’ll bring your vision to life.

The View From Here

Edgy and interesting, ‘The View From Here’ is a great place to stop off if you’ve some free time and fancy a read, and also if you have a slightly strange short story looking for publication. Give them a go.


Pretty. Great stories. Wonderful ethos. Check them out!


wordlegs’ remit is wide – they accept poetry, short stories and flash fiction. And they’re lovely people.

The Bohemyth

You can’t go wrong with The Bohemyth. Always worth a read, and wonderfully produced. As far as I know, their submissions window is always open.


Wherever you choose to send your work, good luck. I hope to see you on a winners’ podium, or in print, in the near future. With any luck, I’ll be there with you. Always remember you have nothing to lose by submitting work to competitions (well, besides a small sum of money, sometimes!); every competition will make you a better writer. And – needless to say, but I’ll say it anyway – never give up.



Some Monday Morning Doggerel

Upon Being Rejected: A Poem

When people just don’t like your work,
Is it all right to say:
‘Well, thank you for your time, I guess,’
And calmly walk away?

Then, when you’ve found a quiet spot
A shady little nook,
It’s good to open up your heart
And gently take a look.

You should let go of the sadness, now,
And all that anger, too.
The only person being harmed
By all of that is – You.

Why not sit down by the river, here,
And let it float downstream,
All that dark and nasty stuff,
The remnants of your dream.

And then lie back and smile a while –
The sun is breaking through!
And finally, eventually,
You will learn to start anew.

Image: publicdomainimages.net

Image: publicdomainimages.net

I know this poem is tripe. That, indeed, is the point. I expended about five minutes’ worth of effort on it, and those five minutes are very much on display in the finished product, I feel. I’ve been reading a book set in the Victorian era over the past few days and I suppose the rhythm of the language has settled into my mind. I keep expecting someone to ring for the butler, or to ‘bring the carriage round’ when I want to go to the shops, or a maid to come fluttering up to me with the smelling salts on a regular basis. ‘Upon Being Rejected’ is the kind of poem they would’ve liked, I think, though I should think they’d feel it was ‘unsuitably modern in its aesthetic’. I’d probably have to throw in at least one or two verses in Latin and/or Greek, and make reference every two lines to some sort of Classical god or goddess, or an event in the ancient past, for it to really pass muster. The whole thing would have to be about twelve hundred times as long, too, and take about a year to get to the point.

Victorians, eh? You’ve gotta love ’em.

So, yes. I have, once again, been unsuccessful at something. A piece of mine, alas, hath been rejected. It’s nothing major, nor even anything terrifically important, but it’s significant enough to make me a little glum this Monday morning. However, as the heroine of our wonderful poem (see above) has learned: ain’t no point in mopin’! Turn that frown upside down and get back on the horse, and all that other stuff people say when they want to encourage you.

Image: funelf.net

Image: funelf.net

In slightly better news, I did manage to get the first draft of ‘Tider’ finished on Friday afternoon last. I took myself for a celebratory cup of tea to mark the occasion, which was splendid. I have since spent the weekend in a fizz of mental activity, thinking of things I want to change and fix and rewrite and undo, and so I’m eager to get started this morning. The plan is to do a draft two of the book on screen, and then print a hard copy, which I’ll leave alone for a few weeks (or, as long as I can force myself); then, I’ll go through the hard copy with my trusty editing pen. Whatever’s left can be examined for signs of life, and then – perhaps – gently kicked out the door into the big bad world.

I think the draft I’ve done is a strong one. It’s certainly not perfect – I haven’t done enough world-building, and I’ve skimmed over the mechanics of some of the important things my heroine can do. But that’s what second and third drafts are for, I think: to put the flesh onto the bones of the first draft.

Without further ado, then, I shall begin. Wish me luck, and please – forgive me for the ‘poem’. I really won’t ever do it again, I promise.

Happy Monday, happy new week. May all your endeavours be successful ones.

A Poet’s Passing

Today, at 11.30 a.m., in a beautiful church in a suburb of Dublin, the funeral Mass of one of our most dearly beloved citizens will take place. Later this evening, he will be brought for burial to his birthplace, far in the north of my small country – a town in Derry, called Bellaghy.

He is Seamus Heaney, and I can hardly believe we’ve lost him.

Image: theguardian.com

Image: theguardian.com

I think I am among good company when I say that my first real introduction to the power of poetry came at school, when we studied Heaney’s ‘Mid-Term Break’. This poem, taken from his first collection Death of A Naturalist (1966), made a massive impression on me, and I think it’s fair to say on most of my peers, too. Telling the true story of the death of a young child from the point of view of his older sibling, it is a slender piece of writing, one that slips between you and your soul and twists, slightly, revealing to you your own fragility. I wept the first time I read it, and even though a great many years have passed since then, the poem’s power is undimmed.

This gentle evisceration was what made Heaney’s work so powerful, to me. His poems looked so delicate on the page, strung together like lacework, but the reading of them went straight to the heart. The images he could create would sometimes take a line or two to fully develop inside your mind – you’d have read past the hook of a particular stanza before the impact would hit you – and then you’d have to re-read, awed by the newness, almost frightened by the sense of unfolding inside your own head. Heaney understood people, and he understood thought, and he understood emotion. He wove his poetry out of all these things, and he added the uniqueness of his own intellect, too. His work is unlike that of any other writer.

There are few poets whose work I love. Poetry very rarely speaks to me: I am a harsh and demanding reader of that particular genre. So much of it seems contrived, or fake, or ‘for the sake of it’, that when I read a poem which rings a bell inside me, I know I’ve found a treasure. Emily Dickinson’s work does this for me, as does Sylvia Plath’s, and I also love the work of Medbh McGuckian and Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin. Seamus Heaney, however, was always top of the pile. His work shaped my introduction to great literature as a child at school, and his work helped to forge me as a medievalist, much later in life, through his translation (or, perhaps more accurately, ‘modernisation’) of the Old English epic poem ‘Beowulf.’ His version of this poem still stands as one of my most dearly loved pieces of writing, despite the issues it has from the point of view of accuracy. In a way, it doesn’t even matter that Heaney doesn’t keep to the exact sense of the Old English, and that he brings in words that are not there in the original, and that he is, or was, not a scholar of Old English. Perhaps one might even say ‘that is the point.’ Heaney brought life to this ancient poem. He woke the sword’s song, and he mapped out the whale-road, and he showed us the battle-lightning. He breathed humanity into Grendel. He made a powerful political statement through his word choices. He made the poem relevant to his own age, and that is worth more, to me, than dryly sticking to the exact sense of the Old English. There are those who hate Heaney’s ‘Beowulf’, and there are those who love it. I love it.

On Friday, when the news of Heaney’s death broke, I sat at my computer and wept. I read the news articles over and over, hoping that it would all be a mistake; I read the words of those who loved him, who knew him, and realised that while I did not know him, I loved him. I think our whole country did. The six o’clock news broadcast on the day of his death was extended in order for us to start coming to terms with our grief, and his funeral will be broadcast on live television. The president of my country, himself an acclaimed poet, was among the first to eulogise our fallen hero, and to speak of the depth of regard in which he was held. His face has been all over the newspapers. People from all over the country, and from all walks of life, have been talking of their sorrow, and how awful it is that he was taken from us so suddenly. He has been taken from us – from Ireland, both north and south – and we shall miss him like no other.

Of course, my thoughts are with his wife Marie and their children, and the rest of his family; the country’s loss is, naturally, secondary to theirs in every way. In a very real sense, though, Heaney’s death has torn a hole right through the heart of Irish intellectual and cultural life, and it is a hole that can never be repaired.

I don’t think there’s a more appropriate way to honour Seamus Heaney than by reproducing his own words. Here is a section of the end of his ‘Beowulf’, after the mighty king has fallen, and his men are left to mourn:

Then twelve warriors rode around the tomb,
Chieftains’ sons, champions in battle,
all of them distraught, chanting in dirges,
mourning his loss as a man and a king.
They extolled his heroic nature and exploits
and gave thanks for his greatness…
So the Geat people, his hearth-companions,
sorrowed for the lord who had been laid low.
They said that of all the kings upon the earth
he was the man most gracious and fair-minded,
kindest to his people and keenest to win fame.

Heaney may not have been, like Beowulf, a man ‘keen to win fame’ through his good deeds and wisdom (he was both good and wise merely because it came naturally to him, not because he wished to be praised for it), but he was gracious and fair-minded, kindest to his people, and he was a great man. I am sorrowful at his passing, and long will I remember him.

Seamus Heaney 1939-2013 Image: en.wikipedia.org

Seamus Heaney
Image: en.wikipedia.org


So. I set up a Tumblr blog.

Ever since I did so, I’ve been looking at it little like this:

*bok?* *boooook?* Yes, exactly, Mr. Chicken. Exactly. Image: flickr.com

*bok?* *boooook?* Yes, exactly, Mr. Chicken. Exactly.
Image: flickr.com

It’s difficult for a person like me, who grew up in the Stone Age, to keep up with all this progress. I had just barely managed to get a handle on Facebook when suddenly Twitter burst on the scene; I resisted for years, but eventually caved. Now, every time I turn on my computer there’s some new and largely terrifying-looking technology staring me in the face, trying to convince me my life is meaningless without it. I’m finding Tumblr tough, I’ve got to say – it requires a level of coolness that I don’t think I possess. Not yet, at least. And as for Vine? Don’t even ask me. I set up a Pinterest page a while back, too – or, well, I opened a Pinterest account, which isn’t quite the same thing as pretending to have a Pinterest page, really – which also bamboozles me.

All of these have different passwords, too, of course. Sometimes I feel like a modern chatelaine, except my keys aren’t hanging from my belt – they’re rattling around inside my skull instead.

This is my chatelaine, because I am the *boss*, all right? All right. Image: nps.gov

This is my chatelaine, because I am the *boss*, all right? All right.
Image: nps.gov

Because my skull can be a bit porous when it comes to remembering things like passwords, though, I have them all written down on random scraps of paper, masquerading under codenames, too – I must get them all together, one of these days, so I don’t have to scramble around for half an hour to find a password simply in order to spent five seconds on a particular website. Every time this happens, I tell myself not to let it happen again, and yet it does, repeatedly – as soon as the search is over, you see, the decision to put away the password gets forgotten again. For a person whose working day is largely self-directed, I can at times be the most unorganised klutz in existence. At other times, however, I am more efficient than a cuckoo-clock factory, so let’s hope they balance one another out most of the time.

The benefits of Tumblr – at least, the ones I’ve seen so far – are many. It’s sort of a cross between a blog, Twitter and Pinterest, insofar as you can put up really small blog posts – more like thoughts, really – and you can ‘reblog’ images or .gifs or quotes or whatever you like from other Tumblr users. Because it seems a little less formal a space than WordPress, I went a little bit loopy yesterday and posted a poem to my Tumblr blog, one I wrote myself; it was an experiment, more than anything else, to see how it would appear on the site once I’d posted it. It taught me a lot about how to keep your temper when a document’s formatting won’t appear the way you want it, and how far my patience goes when something just won’t work, and the point at which I’m prepared to sacrifice my artistic vision in order to just get something to post to a website.

(For those who are interested: I’m not very good at keeping my temper when a document’s formatting won’t work; my patience (stretched thin at the best of times) doesn’t go very far when technological stuff refuses to cooperate, and I’m prepared to throw in the artistic vision towel pretty quickly if it means I can wriggle out of trying to figure out things beyond my intelligence level and get back to reading, or writing, or something else I enjoy. So, now you know.)

Anyway, so – a poem. Yeah. Written by me. I really enjoy poetry, but writing it is not my forté, at all. I love to read it, and some of my favourite books are collections of poetry – Sylvia Plath’s ‘Ariel’, for instance, which I often just dip into for the sheer beauty of it – and I marvel at how a good poet can make the whole world shimmer as you read. Anyway, if you do take the long and arduous trip over to my Tumblr blog, and you read the poem, don’t be expecting Sylvia Plath, is all I’ll say, but if you do read it I hope you enjoy it.

And before anyone asks – no, don’t worry. I’m not considering becoming a poet full-time or anything, so you can all relax on that score.

Trust me, I'm a President. There ain't gonna be no more poetry. Image: blogs.psychcentral.com

Trust me, I’m a President. There ain’t gonna be no more poetry.
Image: blogs.psychcentral.com

It’s Friday, and the sun is shining here, and I’m about to get stuck into another bunch of words. I hope your day is looking good, and that your weekend is shaping up to be a good one. And if anyone wants to send me some Tumblr tips, you know, feel free!



Writing Discipline

I had a very interesting Twitter conversation the other day about flash fiction, and the skills needed to write it. It’s such a great thing, Twitter, not only for connecting people, but also for allowing users to engage in conversations like this one, which turn out to be so useful. I’ve been wondering all week, ever since this Twitter discussion, about the discipline of writing, and whether the skills you gain from one ‘style’ of writing are always easily applicable to other styles.

Words are words, of course, and writing is – basically – writing. But I’m not sure it’s as simple as that.

Do genres always mix easily? Discuss... Image: ebookfriendly.com

Do genres always mix easily? Discuss…
Image: ebookfriendly.com

The Twitter discussion which sparked off this idea came about because both the person to whom I was speaking and myself were, at the time of our Twitter exchange, working on pieces of flash fiction, with the intention of submitting them for publication and/or competition. We were discussing the intricacies of creating a good, workable piece of flash fiction and what the difficulties were in doing so. At one point, my correspondent asked me whether I was going to submit a short story, as well as a piece of flash fiction, to a particular competition; I told her ‘no’, mainly because I hadn’t been able to write a short story which I’d consider good enough for submission. Then, she said something along the lines of how she prefers to write flash fiction anyway, as it takes such a short time and requires such a small amount of editing.

This, I have to say, is the opposite of how I experience flash fiction, normally. I find flash fiction to be an extraordinarily difficult and time-consuming thing; sometimes, I remind myself of a glass-cutter, laboriously etching an intricate pattern out of the delicate and unyielding material he’s chosen to work with. I agonise over every word, I fret about structure, I sweat over characterisation, I pour myself into each image and metaphor, and I always struggle with the ending. My friend, however, has one distinct advantage over me when it comes to writing flash fiction.

She is a poet, as well as a prose writer.

Ever since we had this discussion, the connections between poetry and flash fiction have been on my mind, and I’ve been seeing the distinct links between the two genres. Poetry doesn’t work without delicate and judicious word choice, and the ability to arrange these perfect word-jewels into just the right structure to make a sentence hum with life and meaning; the same, of course, is true of flash fiction. Poetry can often operate within very tight structures; most competitions will limit poems to a particular length, but as well as that a poet, if they choose to, can write within a particular style, which will have its own unbreakable rules. A sonnet which has too many syllables in any one line is no longer a sonnet; a villanelle is not a villanelle if it has twenty lines. Break one rule, and you may as well break them all. Because of this, then, poets are used to working in tight spaces, and they bring extremely good word-skills to the table.

Poetry has also, since its earliest beginnings, exhibited an ability to make words work as hard as they can, and to carry as much symbolic meaning as they’re able to. Poets are able to make the most extraordinarily evocative images out of very little, and they have a way of making the everyday seem new. These skills obviously mean that poets come to flash fiction with a completely different skillset than a person who has only really written prose – and long-form prose at that – will have. All of this adds up to one inescapable fact: my friend is far better equipped than I am to write flash fiction.

However, I wondered further. I’ve had a few months’ experience with flash fiction now. I’ve written many pieces, some of which have been successful for me. I enjoy the form, and the challenges it poses, and the opportunities it offers. The burning question now is: Does being able to write reasonably successful flash fiction make you a better poet?

If the skills are transferable in one direction, do they transfer in the other direction too?

I’m not too sure about that. I don’t think my newfound flash fictioneering skills have any bearing on my ability to write poetry – I’ve never been a poet (or, at least, I’ve never been a good poet), and while I can appreciate the skills required, and even talk about them in an abstract, academic sense, I find them impossible to apply. It seems strange that I can be in possession of the skills needed (or at least be working toward them through my flash fiction), and be aware of how to write a poem in a ‘paint-by-numbers’ sense, and still have no ability to put a piece of poetry together. There’s more to it than just having the ‘mechanics’, clearly. Poetry takes something else, something besides an ability to use words – I hesitate to call it ‘sensitivity’ or ‘an aspect of the soul’, or anything arty-farty like that, but perhaps those words are as close as language can bring us to the secret of writing a good poem. You need the word-skills, you need the sensitivity to language, you need the ability to thrive within limits, and you also need something extra, something special, which only a poet can truly describe.

What do you think? If you can ‘write’, does it make you equally able to write a screenplay, a piece of drama, an epic poem, a novel, a short story, a piece of flash fiction? Or are there so many differences between the genres that each one is its own separate discipline with its own rules? Do you think its possible to be an ‘expert’ in more than one field of writing? I’d be interested to know what your take on these issues is.

Oh, and happy Friday, by the way.

Image: dididado.org

Image: dididado.org

Human Nature

Happy April Fool’s Day. I’m not sure I altogether like this ‘holiday’, having been on the receiving end of one too many pranks as a younger person (in case I haven’t revealed this already, I’m extremely gullible), but if you’re celebrating – and not making a fool out of somebody else – then have a ball.

You could just do like this fella and gambol around in a funny costume for a while.Image: 123rf.com

You could just do like this fella and gambol around in a funny costume for a while.
Image: 123rf.com

It’s a Bank Holiday weekend here, craftily arranged by my husband and I in order to help us celebrate our anniversary (of course). It has nothing to do with the fact that most of the country is languishing in a chocolate-fuelled stupor this morning… We had a wonderful day yesterday for Easter Sunday; we spent it with two of our best friends and their young baby, where we all went on an Easter Egg Hunt. It was, of course, more fun for the adults than the child, and sadly, the adults ate all the chocolate, too. (In our defence, the baby isn’t able to eat solids yet. Honest!)

I’m not sure if it was our time with our friends that sparked today’s blog-thoughts off in my mind, or the TV programmes we watched when we got home (both dramas involving past eras), or some twisty combination of both, but in any case – today I’m thinking about human nature, and how people don’t really change over time.

What's this? Just a blog, medieval-style.Image: abdn.ac.uk

What’s this? Just a blog, medieval-style.
Image: abdn.ac.uk

We spent our day celebrating an ancient feast with our friends, a feast which most people would connect with Christianity and the resurrection of Jesus. But – as most people are aware – the feast of ‘Easter’ (named, even, after the goddess Eostre) is a lot older than the Christian faith. It has more to do with the time of year and the fecundity of the season, the return to earth of the flowers and creatures and crops that are necessary to sustain life, than it does with the much younger faith of Christianity. I am a Christian, but I am also a trained medievalist, so the feast of Easter has two layers of meaning for me. Our celebrations yesterday got me thinking about how people carry out rituals – the giving of chocolate, the symbolism of rabbits and ‘Easter bunnies’, the tradition of ‘April Fools’ – without really thinking about what they mean and where they come from, or even knowing how old the traditions are. It got me thinking about how people are the same from generation to generation. The things we do sometimes change, as do the circumstances in which we have to live our lives. But people – the essence of what makes us human beings – stays the same.

When I worked as a tutor, I was responsible for teaching my students about medieval language, literature and culture in Britain (mostly), but also in Ireland and Europe. I often started a class by asking the students to read a section of Chaucer, for instance, or an extract from Beowulf or one of the Old English elegies. Perhaps, if I was feeling particularly playful, I would give them a piece of poetry like this one (don’t worry, a translation follows!):

Mec feonda sum   feore besnythede
Woruldstrenga binom   waette sithan
dyfthe on waetra   dyde eft thonan,
sette on sunan,   thaer ic swithe beleas
herum tham the ic haefde.

(An enemy stole my life, and took away all my worldly strength; they wet me, dipping me in water, then took me out once more. I was left in the sun then, where I swiftly lost all the hair I had.)

My students would labour intensely over an extract of poetry like that, trying to work it out, looking at it like it had huge significance, doing their best to be intelligent. So, when I told them ‘it’s a joke’, they sometimes weren’t too impressed with me. The poem is an extract from Riddle 26 in the Exeter Book, a collection of Old English joke-verses. Some of them are crude, some of them scandalous, some of them groan-worthy, and some of them are still mystifying. This one, the narrative voice of which goes on to tell us that a knife cut away all its impurities, and that it was folded and pierced through with holes and bedecked with brown dye before being guarded between boards, decorated with gold and trusted with the Word of God, is telling us that it’s a book – more specifically, a Bible. You have to know, of course, that in the Middle Ages books were made of animal hide, which would be soaked to soften and loosen the hair, dried in the sun, and scraped with a blade to make it perfectly smooth… and once you know the answer, the whole riddle begins to click into place.

Each of the riddles presents the reader (or listener) with confusing images designed to make something everyday seem completely alien – all in the name of a big punchline, giving everyone who’s been sweating to work it out an ‘Aha!’ moment, where they can slap their thighs, laugh with one another and pretend that they’d unravelled it long before their neighbour had. So, in a way, my students’ efforts to understand the words mirror exactly the reaction that the original authors would have wanted. My students would (hopefully) learn from this that even though the sense of humour had changed a bit, the need or desire to laugh, to exercise the brain, to get one over on your fellows, to play a trick, were as much a part of the Anglo-Saxon world as they are to our own.

Human art, from any era, depicts a number of big themes; Love is one. Death another. Nearly everything else can be constructed out of some combination of these. Regret, Betrayal, Loss, Passion, Devotion, Adventure (which can be seen as the pursuit of one and the simultaneous avoidance of the other.) We no longer joust, and our sons no longer get sent to fight with the King, but plenty of young men and women still get sent to fight our modern wars. We no longer scare ourselves with stories of giants and headless horsemen; instead we use zombies and vampires (when we’re not falling in love with them, of course.) We love our children and our families, we want to protect our homes, we want the dignity of earning our own living, we want the freedom to live our lives as we see fit. None of these things are new to us. All of these things were known to our forebears too, all the way back to our earliest beginnings.

The past can sometimes seem very far away, and people who lived in previous eras can often feel like creatures of another world. But they’re not, at all. We are lucky to have the conveniences we do, which make the things our ancestors wanted – safety for our young, security for our crops, warmth for our homes, good health as long as we can get it – so much easier. So, it makes me glad that we still celebrate some of the old feast days, even if we don’t know why any more. It’s a precious connection to those who’ve gone before us, and a vital expression of human nature.

Anyway, on that note: Happy Easter!

Image: en.wikipedia.org

Image: en.wikipedia.org