Hay, you!


Earlier this summer, as mentioned in a previous post, I had the opportunity to attend the yearly Hay-on-Wye literary festival for the first time. I was there on behalf of Gomer Press to help one of our authors, Daniel Morden, launch a new short story collection, Secret Tales from Wales. The briefest, most honest review I can give you is this: Go. Just go. If you love books – if  you read them, write them, collect them, or just really like talking about books – go. Hay-on-Wye is a weird, jumbled wonderland of ideas and art and people and…well, books. No matter what you read or how you like to read it, you will almost certainly find someone there to connect with over it.

Right! Glowing plaudits aside, here’s a bit of what I actually got up to in my three (lamentably short!) days in Hay:

As introductions go, my first event at Hay couldn’t have gotten much more magical than an evening with Neil Gaiman, Stephen Fry, & Chris Riddell. Neil was discussing his new book Norse Mythology, and Stephen his upcoming collection of re-tellings of Greek myths.


It was such a fascinating experience to hear Neil, in particular, read live; being good at writing words doesn’t automatically translate to being good at presenting them, but Neil’s reading of the story of Fenris showed him to be as captivating a storyteller in performance as he is on paper.

Chris Riddell, who was until recently the UK Children’s Laureate,  was on hand live-drawing during the event – which is staggeringly impressive enough in its own right! But he also managed to add a sense of profundity and gentle humour that framed the evening’s events beautifully, without ever speaking a word.

The real treat, though, was an accidental discovery. Tickets to the Gaiman/Fry/Riddell event had been sold out for ages; I’d only gotten one through sheer luck, and was so over the moon from managing to snag one that I didn’t see until I arrived the event that followed: Amanda Palmer and Edward Ka-Spel, previewing their up-coming collaboration ‘I Can Spin a Rainbow’, and performing a few fan favourites from both their careers. I’m a long-time fan of Amanda Palmer’s work, and I’ve never had the opportunity to see her perform; stumbling upon the opportunity by sheer accident was pretty special. All the best nights end with unexpected “Half Jack” sing-a-longs.


On the way back to my b&b, I misjudged the bus time and spent an hour getting to know a fellow festival attendee while we waited. She was down from Manchester just for the day, and travelling all the way back to Hereford that night. Somehow in that hour+ we spent together, we didn’t exchange emails or social media handles, and probably we won’t ever see each other again – but I went to bed that night with a list of scribbled book recommendations and the feeling that I’d both met an old friend and made a new one. Festival magic.

img_2254The next morning was an early one – Daniel Morden’s book launch and live storytelling event were at the top of the schedule at 10am. Daniel is a brilliant storyteller – every time I get to watch him engage with an audience is a treat, and that day was no exception. img_2266The house was packed, the crowd was lively, and everyone left smiling. If you get a chance, pick up a copy of Secret Tales from Wales, or any of Daniel’s collections; you won’t regret it.  And then go see him live!

After that, I had my first chance to properly explore the town since arriving – and to do all the book shopping that a walk through Hay inevitably entails! Here are a few highlights (click on the photos for a gallery display, with full image and information):

I spent my final day and a half in a whirlwind of booths, stalls, events, and occasional aimless wandering. Hay at festival time is a place you gulp down and savour by turns. I arrived just in time on my last day to snag a ticket to a morning event as it started; it turned out to be one of the highlights of my trip. Alan Lee, illustrator and creator of the visual world of Tolkien, isn’t the most engaging speaker. His voice has a professorial quality, soft and a bit soporific, the sort that might set you to drowsing in an early-morning lecture hall – but you’ll find yourself still hanging on his every word. His passion for his craft, and genuine love for the worlds he helps to create, pulls your attention like a magnet. It was the only panel I attended at Hay that ran over its allotted time – ostensibly we were all there for the long-awaited launch of Beren and Lúthien, which Lee illustrated, but the whole audience sat happily enraptured while Lee talked about his early Tolkien illustrations, working with Peter Jackson, and rendering his vision for the silver screen. We could have asked for no better guide through Middle Earth.


My “waiting on another train” face.

Leaving at the end of the day was bittersweet; I had a long journey ahead of me and a lot of work to get back to, but my trip had been a nice oasis.


The “Hay haul.” Plenty of room left!

Part of the beauty of books, though, is that they are uniquely portable worlds – I have brought much about what I loved about Hay home with me.

Now that I’m back, aforementioned work, among other things, has kept me busy, but look for a return to twice-monthly book reviews next week – starting with the long-awaited Caraval! 






Had we but books enough and time…

It literally never fails – years of going to school, leaving school, vowing to finally make a dent in that “pleasure reading” book pile now that assigned texts and research questions aren’t directing my every waking moment, and then the inevitable next thing that comes along to steal my hard-earned reading time. Traditionally, the time-thief has been grad school, but after the completion of my PhD last year, I’m a bit maxed out on degrees.

Pictured: actual work!

Sometimes I take a break from work to photograph my work.

And still, no sooner had my book reviews really begun than they had to take a bit of a back seat again – this time, for a new job. Recently, I accepted the position of English-language editor for both adults’ and children’s titles at Gomer Press. It’s been a whirlwind of bus trips, meetings, and backlog reading, but I’m loving it all and starting to settle in – just in time to rush off to my first event in my new professional capacity. Forget Disneyland – Hay-on-Wye during featival week is the happiest place on earth for book people!

This my “waiting on a train” face.

You can follow my exploits on:

Instagram & Twitter – @ashleyjoyowen

And keep up with press as well:

Instagram: @gwasggomerpress, @gwasgomer_plant

Twitter: @GwasgGomerPress

…or follow us on Facebook.

Expect a return to your (more or less…) regularly scheduled sci-fi/fantasy book reviews post-festival; meanwhile, you can read some of my other recent reviews by checking out the New Welsh Review.

Review: Shadows in the Water, Kory M. Shrum

Shadows in the Water, the first installment of a new fantasy crime series by Kory M.Shrum, debuted earlier this week – and I’ve been anxiously waiting to tell you about it. Full disclosure: the author is a friend, but I wasn’t paid to write this review – in fact, having devoured Kory’s earlier fantasy crime series, I volunteered to review this one because I was excited to get an early look at what she’s done now. Hey, every job has its perks.51xiapkcuql-_sy346_

Reviewers elsewhere have recommended Shadows in the Water for fans of Dean Koontz’s novels, and I don’t disagree. Both authors situate unusual people and otherworldly situations into mundane life as if they belong there, pushing you to accept the unacceptable – and, though the novel isn’t without its problems, it is this sense of strangeness that will ultimately keep you compulsively turning pages.

If you’re familiar with the author’s first series, Dying for a Living, then the set-up here might look a little familiar at the outset: strangely gifted girl, older male authority-figure-as-surrogate-father, simple problems that coalesce into a spider web of conspiracy. That, however, is where the similarities end. Louie Thorne is not Jesse Sullivan, and the world Louie moves in is darker. Often literally – Lou’s ability to slip from one place to another via shadows means that we see her most often after nightfall. This makes for an interesting sense of place – the reader ends up just as familiar with the insides of closets and the spaces behind furniture as with the streets of New Orleans, Florence, or Houston, to which the novel’s action also takes us. Often, descriptions of a shift in scene read like chiaroscuro paintings: the juxtaposition of light and shadow give the limbo realm through which Lou travels a three-dimensional quality – as if the dark were a hall with many rooms, instead just a medium through which Lou passes.

That dark, of course, lives in Lou as firmly as she lives in it. Her bloody revenge narrative forms one of the plot’s main arcs. For eight years, Lou has been seeking out and disposing of the men responsible for the murder of her father, a DEA agent and the centre of Lou’s world. Lou’s mother, Courtney, was also murdered, but Lou’s relationship to her mother was not one that left her mourning Courtney’s absence. Lou’s father, Jack, despite being dead, is perpetually present – in Lou’s constant flashbacks of memory, in her motivations, and even in her relationship to the few people around her: her father’s sister, Lucy, and his former mentor, Robert King. It becomes apparent that Jack Thorne was a lot of things to a lot of people – and they all use his memory like a tool, shaping it into what fits their needs best.

It is this sort of subtly-demonstrated psychology that makes Shrum’s characters so fascinating. King and Lucy, former lovers pushed apart by their connection to Jack, mirror each other in their guilt over Jack’s death: King self-destructs with greasy food and alcohol, while Lucy embraces the Buddhist concept of self-denial with a fervor that at times seems more focused on punishment than enlightenment. Both see Lou as an opportunity to make things right, their motivations for reaching out to her at once selfless and self-serving.

If everything ultimately revolves around Jack, then Courtney is largely an irrelevance – and this informs one of the novel’s few mis-steps. The novel’s prologue is from Courtney’s perspective – a strange choice when she never appears again and is immaterial to the plot. The prologue, in addition to setting up the action and introducing the idea of Lou’s ability, also serves as an info dump – we learn rapidly and inelegantly about Courtney and Jack’s troubled marriage, about how Lou was an unexpected – and largely unwanted – pregnancy, and about Courtney’s selfish resentment of the attention her daughter’s fear of water and darkness require. There is subtlety here; this is where we first see Lou’s ability, but it happens off-stage; this is where we first encounter La Loon, but it is neither described nor named, existing only in Lou’s speechless terror and the bite marks on her arm. But aside from those moments, the tendency is overwhelmingly to tell rather than show. It’s a disappointing beginning – and misleading as well, since showing you things sideways is something Shrum excels at through the rest of the book. Courtney later appears in reflections of other people – Lucy and King – when observing Lou, and the reader begins to understand just how like her mother Lou really is.

Lou herself seems frighteningly competent when we encounter her first as an adult – a facade that soon begins to crack. After years of killing and living in shadows, Lou is competent – and strong, and efficient, and flatly emotionless in a way that borders on sociopathic – but she is more vulnerable than most people get to see, and certainly more than she will admit to herself. Lou, who shares her slipping ability with Lucy, has far more power than her aunt, but that power is not always under her control. She can go places Lucy can’t – like the mysterious purple-skied La Loon, a world of nightmare beasts and shadowed waters – but sometimes the darkness pulls her. Lou can use her internal compass to find a person or a place, but every so often the compass tugs her to places she doesn’t choose – and though there are tantalizing clues bout how this works and why, this is one secret the narrative keeps both from Lou and from the reader. Even after the last page, we have as much to learn about Lou’s ability and where it will take her as she does.

Tied up in that somehow is Paolo Konstantine, the illegitimate son of Martinelli, the man responsible for Jack’s death. As the last living link to Martinelli, he becomes Lou’s focus – but he is just obsessed with her. In his reluctant assumption of power and his exhaustive search for the mysterious girl who visited him like an angel when he was a child, Konstantine unfolds from a fairly standard mob boss to a complex character with agendas and motivations of his own. He and Lou are pulled toward each other like magnets.

King’s own story arc, the third strand in the narrative braid, is perhaps the most predictable by comparison. While King himself is multi-faceted, his own story of betrayal treads familiar cop drama lines. This is saved by the ways in which his story begins to be looped in with Lou’s, and by the presence of Mel and Piper – two characters who mean very little to the overall plot, but nevertheless feel necessary, and serve to further flesh out King as more than just someone connected to Jack Thorne.

There are rough moments – the aforementioned prologue, the way Lucy’s scenes tend a bit towards the melodramatic, and the fact that Konstantine, for all his intriguing aspects, sometimes does fall back onto mobster cliché – but overall, Shadows in the Water is a solid and compelling first foray into what promises to be a dynamic series. The crime and fantasy elements blend seemlessly – the presence of La Loon (is it another dimension? Another planet? A literal nightmare? Kory, I wanna know!) adds an unexpected sci-fi spice. I can’t wait to see what’s coming next.

If you like Shadows in the Water – well, stop here first and let me know what you thought! But after that, here a few other series you might enjoy:

The Dresden Files, Jim Butcher – The other wizard named Harry – and this one solves crimes in Chicago. Urban fantasy at its very best.

Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter, Laurel K. Hamilton – Vampires and werewolves and witches, oh my!

Odd Thomas, Dean Koontz – Fry cook, boyfriend, average guy – hero? Something evil has come to the desert, and Odd is the only one who can see it – can he stop it too?

Dying for a Living, Kory M. Shrum – Jesse Sullivan is a death replacement agent – if it’s your time to go, she can make sure it’s hers instead. But can she solve her own murder?


Review – The Bear and the Nighingale, Katherine Arden

Recently, I had the opportunity to read an early copy of Katherine Arden’s debut novel The Bear and the Nightgale, released on 12 January in the UK. I chose it, after reading a synopsis, to replace the Uprooted-shaped hole in my reading life after ploughing through that book twice (!!) when it debuted in paperback last summer, and, despite a rough beginning that left me wondering when synopsis would end and plot would start, I was not disappointed.


The Bear and the Nightingale, published by Del Rey

The Bear and the Nightgale is a re-imagining of a Russian fairytale about a wild maiden, a frost demon, and that most ubiquitous of fairytale characters, a jealous stepmother. But Arden turns what could be a very predictable if still entertaining tale into a nuanced picture of growing up and learning to make difficult decisions – sometimes in opposition family, friends, and even society.

Vasya, the tale’s ‘wild maiden’, is more than just a precocious girl with a destiny. Over the course of the novel, she grows into a clear-eyed, kind-hearted young woman who learns to balance personal desire against responsibility and obligation. Vasya’s constant battle between carving out a place for herself in a rigidly defined world and preserving who she is drives the narrative, and is echoed in the villager’s battle between two opposing ideologies – preserving the old ways and appeasing the spirits of house and forest, or rejecting them entirely in favour of a tyrannical version of Christian faith. The Bear and the Nightingale is full of ambitions, sacrifices, precarious balances – and how Vasya finds her own balance reminded me of Edna Pontellier in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening. Finding neither option available to her acceptable, she creates her own third door. The ramifications of Vasya’s decision, after the turn of the last page, are left to the reader to decide.

Another example of intriguing characterisation is Father Konstantin, a priest sent from away from the sphere of political and social influence in Moscow to Vasya’s far-flung village of Lesnaya Zemlya. Used to adoration from the masses for his brilliantly painted icons, Konstantin’s ego is ill-served by the village’s small congregation, and his ambitions to be revered slowly sour into a lust for power – and a preoccupation with Vasya that he is afraid to question the motives of. His decline from powerful priest to pawn and madman is delicately drawn.

Not every character is quite so pitch-perfect, however. Arden’s biggest miss here is Anna Petrovna – the evil stepmother. At first meeting, we are meant to feel sympathy for her, to care about her, but she is introduced too abruptly and fleshed out too inadequately to draw such a strong response from a reader. Her journey from pious, persecuted woman to cruel, jealous shrew seems to happen mostly off-stage; even just a few moments demonstrating the effect of the strain her new and uniquely painful circumstances were having would have been enough to generate more investment in the character. Executed properly, she is the perfect foil for Vasya, and with a different build up, her fate could have been a powerful, if pitiful, moment, but ultimately she is more caricature than character.

The book is divided into three parts, covering about a decade-and-a-half, though most of the plot’s action is concentrated in Vasya’s adolescence. The first section, largely set up for the second part which contains the most of the major developments, and the third which contains the climax and resolution, suffers from slow pacing and an overabundance of characters. The first section moves rapidly through time, chronicling important events from the early days of Vasya’s mother’s pregnancy to Vasya’s late childhood in roughly the same amount of space the other sections devote to much smaller spans of time. Section two in particular contains a swift-moving plot and character development demonstrated through action and dialogue, rather than the point-to-point set-up of relevant events and tell-instead-of-show introduction to far too large a cast of players that the first section favours. Some editing and re-structuring might have had a positive effect here – but ultimately, the rough beginning does not outweigh the magical, engaging story that unfolds in later sections. (AN: I recall having similar feelings about the first several chapters of Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus; if you felt that book began very slowly before picking up with the plot, you might feel that here too – best rest assured, if you ultimately enjoyed The Night Circus, I think you will find The Bear and the Nightingale just as worth your time.)

Over all, though it is not without problems, The Bear and the Nightingale is a superb debut novel. The fantasy elements create a lush context for a very real-world human drama – one many readers who are or once were young girls will probably find familiar. The world Arden creates is thorough and rich, and I was never in doubt about her knowledge or expertise. The author’s notes at the end, giving a brief history of the time period and setting of her novel, a small glossary of unfamiliar words, and a brief overview of her translational choices were all greatly appreciated. (Given my own research biases, I was especially happy to see the notes on translation; Arden speaks concisely but articulately about the deliberate choices she made in rendering Russian terminology for an English-reading audience.) This book has earned a place on my shelves; I know it’s one I’ll read again, while I eagerly await whatever Arden might have coming next (little hint: sometimes her Instagram reveals tantalising tidbits…).


If you read and enjoy The Bear and the Nightingale, here are some other authors and novels you might check out:

Uprooted, Naomi Novik. If you somehow missed that spectacular novel last summer, stop depriving yourself and find it now!

The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern – A powerful, against-all-odds romance, a enchantingly kaleidoscopic world full of magic and illusion and danger – if you ever dreamed of running away to join the circus, this book will make you remember why.

Stardust, Neil Gaiman. For a fairytale setting, similar themes of growing up finding a place for yourself, and of course Gaiman’s incomparable storytelling skills.

Deerskin, Robin McKinley. McKinley’s retelling of the French fairytale Donkeyskin is a rich, magical tale of a young girl overcoming psychological trauma and learning to heal herself.


If you’ve read The Bear and the Nightgale, what did you think? New favourite, or not your thing? Any recommendations of your own to add? Let me know in the comments below!

Anglo-Saxon Word of the….what day is it?

Portrait of the Artist’s Kitchen Table.

Part of the goal of this blog was to chronicle some of the experience of my PhD program – but it seems these days the best and simplest way to update you on my progress would be to Instagram my calendar! Most of my time belongs to teaching or to Judith, right now, but there are still a few things up-coming:


♦ I’ll be blogging (a little belatedly!) about my first eisteddfod experience, and what it’s like when the next generation isn’t taught Welsh

♦ Dublin adventures! I’ve planned a little get-away for the start of Spring hols, but I already sense work creeping in: I’ll be taking a Viking-themed tour of the city, visiting the National Leprechaun Museum to hear a live storytelling event, and going to the National Gallery in hopes of seeing Andrea Mantegna’s 15th century portrait of Judith.


♦ April is National Poetry Month in the U.S., so expect short weekly posts about both Anglo-Saxon and contemporary poetry, and some musings about poetic translation.

♦ I’m also taking my storytelling show on the road again – this time to UCL in London, for the Early Medieval Interdisciplinary Conference Series. They’ve planned a live, candlelit storytelling event to take place on Friday, 10 April, from 7:30pm at St. Ethelreda’s Cathedral – you can find more information and purchase tickets for the event here. I’ll be live-tweeting the event, and blogging about it afterward. After that..who knows? I’m plotting the triumphant return of Anglo-Saxon Word of the Week, in conjunction with more in-depth posts about my research, as it edges closer to completion.

In the meantime, if you need a daily Anglo-Saxon linguistic fix, I suggest checking out Hana’s Word of the Day on Twitter, Facebook, or WordPress. You can find out more about Hana and her work here.

Siarad Mewn Sibrydion: The Secret Anxiety of a Welsh Learner

ibsenLast week, I attended Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru’s production of Y Fenyw Ddaeth o’r Môr, Menna Elfyn’s Welsh translation of Henrik Ibsen’s play Fruen fra havet – more commonly known to English-speaking audiences as The Lady From the Sea. Not only was this the first play I’d ever attended in Welsh – it was my very first monolingual Welsh event. I was invited along by a friend, another student in Aber who’s also learning Welsh, and I  went because I like plays, and I like Ibsen, and I liked the idea of immersing myself completely in Welsh without having to verbally interact in it.

Please don’t misunderstand – I don’t dislike speaking Welsh. I don’t find the language difficult or the grammar too hard, and I certainly don’t attend class twice a week viewing my classmates as “fellow victims,” as my course book, rather perplexingly, tells me I should. I enjoy the  bare, mechanical bones of language – but a reading knowledge of Anglo-Saxon and a working knowledge of Welsh are not the same animal. I know that I could exist here without ever engaging with Welsh language or culture in any real way at all. I could simply turn left when I encounter the unfamiliar, and move back into my monoglot English-speaking comfort zone. But knowing that I could is part of the very motivation for not wanting to – because I also know that there is more. I know that there are things, peoples, places, events, whole worlds of perspective that I am missing out on. If poetry is driven by perception and perspective, then really – I can’t afford to miss a thing.

This is not to say that that desire to engage has made the last seven months of study easy. They haven’t been. However, what I find most difficult about learning Welsh has nothing at all to do with the language and everything to do with me: I’m not very good at being bad at words. I have been interacting with the English language for over 30 years. I’ve used it to communicate with family, friends, and lovers, to write college applications and shopping lists and eulogies. I’ve used it for work, for play, for singing and shouting at sporting events; I’ve written technical manuals and love poems. English is a power tool and a paint brush, and an old, old friend. Words are what I do, and what I am…so I hope you can understand (as I’m sure you can, if you’ve ever learned a second language), the sheer frustration and the weird sense of betrayal that befall a person who works so closely with words when it takes two weeks to stumble through telling someone that I live in Aberystwyth, but I come from Tennessee originally, I am student here, and yes, please, I would like some tea. Sometimes I feel like I’ve spent these last seven months playing an absurd game of hide and seek – it’s all well and good to write in Welsh, where I have time to consult grammar books and dictionaries, but conversational situations? What if I get it wrong? What if I look dumb? What if I take too long to make a sentence and people are staring at me expectantly, like we’re in a play and I’ve forgotten all my lines? Better to wait, and write, and listen.

It was with this mindset – and the uneasy knowledge that I needed to change it somehow – that I went to see a play with my friends. I had been willing to just spend the evening being a bit lost, but as it turned out, I wouldn’t have to – Y Theatr Genedlaethol were promoting their new app for Welsh learners and non-Welsh speakers: Sibrwd. Sibrwd is an iPhone and Android app that runs in conjunction with Theatr Genedlaethol productions – and rather than giving a running, word-for-word translation, the app does just as its name implies: it whispers in your ear. At key moments during each scene, Sibrwd gives a brief synopsis of what is happening, sometimes quoting important lines from characters on stage. The text, which is never more than a paragraph’s length, is also displayed on your phone or ipod screen. I took my iPhone along to the performance, linked up with Sibrwd’s wifi frequency, and sat back to enjoy the show in a passive way – letting the language wash over me, getting updates from Sibrwd on what I was seeing.

Unfortunately, after the first scene, those updates stopped coming. It wasn’t a problem with the app – I learned later that I had just lost connection with the wi-fi signal – but without the friendly voice in my ear, I was on my own. Adrift. I honed in on what was happening in front of me, putting together the what I could glean from the spoken lines with the body language and vocal tone of the very talented actors. I was amazed to find that, by intermission, when I checked in with my boyfriend who is a first-language Welsh speaker, I still had a fairly firm grasp of what had transpired. For the second half of the play, the Theatr staff helped me reconnect to the wi-fi, and I was reunited with the Sibrwd narrator – but after concentrating so fully on the stage in silence, the little voice in my ear, though necessary, was a trifle intrusive. I decided to try an experiment – I left the Sibrwd app running and set my phone on my knee so that I could see when the text changed, but I left my earbuds out. I continued doing as I had before, gleaning as much as I could on my own, but continued to check in with Sibrwd. Sometimes I’d gotten totally lost and needed the app’s helpful updates, but more often I found myself using Sibrwd’s text to confirm that yes, I had been more or less able to follow what was happening on stage using just my own eyes and ears. Sibrwd was invaluable for getting the most possible enjoyment and understanding out of the play I attended, and I know I wouldn’t have been able to follow nearly as well without it, but the app also gave me the chance to navigate those unfamiliar waters on my own. I was free to follow along as best I could, knowing that I wouldn’t get too lost with my Sibrwd safety line waiting to tow me back in.

Sibrwd a fi.

Sibrwd a fi.

And the consequences of that linguistic symbiosis reached father than just getting to enjoy a play with my friends. Two days later, I attended a Welsh-speaking lunch with my Welsh classmates. It’s a thing they’ve been doing for a few weeks – anyone who is able to meets on campus for lunch on Thursdays, and for an hour no one speaks anything but Welsh. I’d never gone. To be perfectly honest, I was afraid to. But last week I thought surely if I could follow a play, I could manage a lunch; so I went, and had an hour’s worth of spontaneous conversation over nice food with fun people and it didn’t hurt a bit. In fact, that Thursday became the very first day on which I spoke more Welsh than English. I spoke  it in conversation with friends, in Facebook statuses, in emails, on the phone. I used it in tweets, and at home with my boyfriend. I even wrote a contribution in Welsh for my boyfriend’s review of the play and the Sibrwd app on his weekly blog. The blog runs in conjunction with his work with Sefydliad Mercator at Aberystwyth University, and their current project, funded by the Coleg Cymraeg Cenedlaethol, to compile an online catalogue of translations into Welsh.

Every day won’t be like that one. I’ll get things wrong, probably often and in public, and I will likely still have days of feeling discouraged. If my experience with the Sibrwd app taught me anything, though, it’s that untested skills will never improve. If you don’t know where you are, how can you push yourself further? I don’t think I’ve had, until now, a genuine understanding of what ‘immersion’ really means. It is not a passive thing. You cannot immerse yourself in the ocean thinking, ‘I will wait until I have learned you completely before I swim,’ and expect to do anything but drown. So for now I will paddle along, happy to have apps like Sibrwd helping to keep me afloat.

Anglo-Saxon Word of the Week: Unexpected Journies

When I set out to write about travel this month, there are certain things I didn’t think I’d have to cover. The two-week delay of my luggage, which went on an entirely separate journey to mine, was one of them; I’ll get to that next week, maybe. fredToday is a sadder journey: saying good-bye to a friend who has left this world.

Fred Grimm was never at loss for words for any sort of occasion, but I find myself lacking them now – so I’ve picked a few I think he’d especially appreciate: small, and far away.

This Fred is small!

This Fred is small!

One Anglo-Saxon word for small or little is hwón-líc. Hwón on its own also means little, but is generally used in the neuter accusative, as an adjective to indicate quantity or size: ie, ‘use a little honey’, rather than ‘this is a little town’. The -líc ending forms the last part of lots of adjectives, rather like the modern -ly.So if you were discussing the smallness of, oh, say, tiny plastic cows, they’d be hwón-líc. And if this conversation left you a little exasperated, you’d use hwón. Nothing at all about Fred was small (well, except maybe his bearish counterpart) – he had a personality and a heart that matched his physical size. There will be nothing small, either, about the hole left in so many lives by his absence.

...and this Fred is far away!

…and this Fred is far away!

Feor was the Anglo-Saxon word for far away or, literally, at a great distance. The Proto-Indo-European root for this word meant to pass over or beyond. Fred is, I suppose, far away now, gone beyond where we’re able to go with him, but he’ll never be very far away from the minds of everyone who loved him. Fred was a storyteller, and that’s how we’ve been remembering him – by sharing Fred stories of our own.

There are so many other words I could share – scortness, for the brevity of time Fred was on this earth, or æglæc, for our grief, but perhaps the most appropriate is cynn, which meant of a sort, kind, or genus, but was also used in compounds to describe types of family. When you find your people in this wide world, hang on to ’em for as long as you can.

Anglo-Saxon Word Of the Week: wíd-síþ

IMG_0346.JPG Bore da, darllenwyr annwyl; I write this a few hours before dawn, on a train, tapping away on my phone’s touchscreen. It’s too dark outside to see the landscape; so far, the only view out the window, aside from my own reflection, has been a brightly lit Tesco car park in Welshpool, and Shrewsbury station. My theme of travel carries onward.

This week’s offering is both a word and a name: wíd-síþ. The word is a compound noun (too early in the morning for verbs!): wíd meaning wide, and síþ, meaning travel or journey. A far journey. Wide travel.

is also the name of another poem from the Exeter book, and the fictional narrator of the poem. The poem itself is a 144-line catalogue of kings both ancient and contemporary, peoples alive and long since gone, and heroes who lived only in legend. The narrating poet recounts the rulers he has known, the tribes he has seen and sung for, and the heroes he has encountered in his time as a traveling scop. Many of the events and people mentioned are attested to historically, but are spread out across far too great a span of time for one person to have witnessed them all, and the places listed cover too great an area for even a lifetime of travel. Wid-síþ, then, is not intended as a collections of facts, but as an act of historical creation – the poet weaves a long and storied past for himself and his people, and in so doing, claims for himself the voice of poetic authority. The poem closes with Wid-síþ reminding the audience that earthly fame, when remembered in song by a talented scop, brings lasting fame.

You can read the poem in Anglo-Saxon alongside an English translation here.

Deor, a shorter poem also found in the Exeter book, draws on similar material; I suggest seeking out Seamus Heaney’s wonderful translation.

Anglo-Saxon Word of the Week: Wadan

sea-ice-off-arctic-refuge-coastal-plain_w725_h477Happy December, all! The season of many holidays is upon us, and I’m preparing to do something that I haven’t done for nearly two years now: I’m going home. I haven’t seen my family since April of 2013, and while I do love it here, it will be nice to not have an ocean between me and all the people I left behind, just for a little while.

So! In honour of the trains-planes-and-automobiles trek I’m about to take, this month’s entries will be centred around travel, and each will feature a different poem.

To start us of this week, something else I haven’t done in a while – a strong verb! Words of the Week entries have been pretty noun-heavy for a while, as I’ve been sitting around writing away for most hours of most days,and I thought the sudden flurry of activity was a good enough reason to shake things up a bit.

This week’s word is wadan, a strong verb – which means it undergoes a stem change when conjugated. This is still easily observable in English verbs today. For example, ‘sing’ is a strong verb (I sing, I sang, I have sung, etc.), but ‘walk’ is a weak one (I walk, I walked, I have walked, etc) because it has an added ending instead of a stem change. Wadan conjugates thusly:

Present indicative:                                                                              Past indicative:

ic i wædee                                                                                         ic i wód

þu you wædeest                                                                               þu you wóde

he/hit/heo he/it/she wædeeþ                                                            he/hit/heo he/it/she wód

we/ge/hie we/ye/they wædeaþ                                                         we/ge/hie we/ye/they wódon

Present participle: (….ing) – wædeende                                        Past participle: (…ed) – gewaden

Wadan means to go, to advance, to travel, and is the verb from whence the contemporary English words invade, pervade, evade, and wade come from. Tolkien also borrowed the word to name Entwade, the guarded ford in the river Entwash joining east and west Rohan. (Entincidentally, is a word for giant in Old English, and is related to the Old Norse jǫtunn.)

There are many verbs that mean some version of go, wander, travel, or journey in Anglo-Saxon, but I chose this one specifically because it is used in one of my favourite Old English poems, The Wanderer. The poem, found in the 10th century Exeter book (though the poem itself may have been composed earlier), is the lament of a solitary exile who wander the cold seas far from the comrades in arms, loyal lord, and warm mead hall he has left behind. The narrator speaks vividly of his loneliness and yearning for days past, though he knows that his prior happiness is a place to which he can no longer return.

The poem also contains the lines that inspired Tolkien’s Lament for the Rohirrim, sung by Aragorn in The Two Towers, but adapted for the film version as a speech delivered by Théoden on the eve of battle:

You can read a side-by-side translation of the poem here, but I also encourage you to see out Greg Delanty’s and Jane Holland’s updated translations as well.

And if you’d like a little more light holiday reading, try Coleridge next – this poem never fails to put me in mind of his Ancient Mariner.

Anglo-Saxon Word of the Week: Láf

Wes þu hál!

Between dissertation deadlines and the illness that just won’t end, this month has rather gotten away from me. But still we must carry on, and next month’s theme won’t wait, so here’s one final female word for November: láf. 

To introduce this word, I’d also like to introduce Elaine, a fellow research student here at Aberystwyth. She’s been working with Old English again recently, and her latest blog uses the word láf to muse on the nature of translation, and how one can use language as a means to flesh out one’s understanding of a society.

widowFor example, Elaine explains that láf is one of the Anglo-Saxon words for widow, but that the word can also mean remnant or remainder. Láf is cognate with the Gothic laiba, the Old Frisian lávathe Old Saxon léƀa, and the Old High German leiba, and does mean that which is left behind, but was regularly applied to widows – that which is left behind after the death of a husband. The woman was referred to as X’s láf, and therefore defined by her relation to her husband. There was no separate word for male widow, such as ‘widower’ in modern English. Head over to Elaine’s blog entry to discuss what the multiple meanings of the word might indicate about the cultural context of widows in the Anglo-Saxon world. For context, you might wish to check out Rolf Bremmer’s Between Poverty and the Pyre: Widows in Anglo-Saxon England, or this site explaining early English laws.

The word was used in several other descriptive ways besides simply indicating that something was left over or left behind. The weapons’ or battle’s leavings were survivors of a conflict. In poetry, weaponry was sometimes described as láf fýres and feóle – the leaving of fire and of file.

Láf is an interesting word etymologically. The stem leibh or leip (from which láf comes), traced backwards through Indo-European and Proto-Indo-European, was a verb meaning to smear fat, or stick. We’ve already seen a few of the Germanic cognates of láf, which carried similar meanings, but the Greek lipos retained the meaning of fat, and the Homeric Greek verb from the same root meant to smear or anoint. Somewhere during the development away from Indo-European, the Germanic words underwent a change of meaning that the Greek word did not. Unpacking what happened in that shift of meaning could also be an investigation of the different cultural contexts acting upon each language.

Another common word for widow in Anglo-Saxon was widuwe, which comes from the Indo-European root ueidh, meaning to divide or separate. Also, recall our discussion of wif, meaning woman who is not a virgin? Sometimes wif was also used to indicate a widow.