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Anglo-Saxon props: Three TV series and films that use early medieval objects

In order to make their film sets conform to the historical periods they are supposed to depict, designers often draw inspiration from actual, historical objects. One of the little joys of being an Anglo-Saxonist is recognising some of the objects you study in the background of your favourite TV series and movies. Here are three examples.

Alfred’s sceptre in The Last Kingdom (BBC; 2015-)

The creators of BBC’s The Last Kingdom, set in ninth-century Wessex, have tried to create a set that is as historically accurate as possible (as they will tell you here; though, judging by this clip, where they say they spent a lot of time to find out “what kind of paper” they used in early medieval England, we may need to take this with a grain of salt!). One prop that is particularly interesting is Alfred’s sceptre with the bejeweled cross (see image below), which shows some similarities to the seventh-century whetstone/sceptre found at Sutton Hoo, Suffolk.

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Left: Alfred’s sceptre in The Last Kingdom © BBC. Right: Sutton Hoo whetstone/sceptre © Trustees of the British Museum (source)

Like the original Anglo-Saxon object, Alfred’s sceptre has a base with four bearded faces, each facing in a different direction. These four faces on the Sutton Hoo whetstone/sceptre have been associated with a four-faced Slavic deity called ‘Svantovit’, not the sort of thing a pious Christian like Alfred would be comfortable wielding, one might say.

The Sutton Hoo helmet and Byrhtferth’s diagram in Merlin (BBC; 2008-2012)

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Left: Helmet in the back of Arthur’s room in Merlin © BBC. Right: Replica of Sutton Hoo helmet © Trustees of British Museum (source)

Another Anglo-Saxon object found at the famous ship burial of Sutton Hoo made its way onto the set of BBC’s Merlin: The Sutton Hoo helmet. This particular headgear is a ‘historicon’ par excellence and can be found on virtually every book cover of anything related to Anglo-Saxon England. In BBC’s Merlin, the helmet can be spotted in the bed chamber of young Prince Arthur (see image above). While this is a nice touch, this seventh-century Anglo-Saxon helmet seems oddly out of place in the bed chamber of a legendary British leader that supposedly lived in the 5th or 6th century. Not as ahistorical, however, as the thing hanging on another character’s wall…

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Left: Gaius and a diagram on his wall in Merlin © BBC. Right: Byrhtferth’s diagram © Oxford, St John’s College, MS 17 (source)

The court’s physician Gaius appears to have received some of his medical training from a document from even further ahead in time. On his wall, we can see a diagram that is commonly ascribed to Byrhferth (c. 970-c.1020), an Anglo-Saxon monk of Ramsey Abbey. The diagram reveals how various groups of four (the four elements, the four ages of man, the four wind directions, etc.) all correspond to each other – a visualisation of the harmonious nature of the universe (find out more here). The diagram in Gaius’s room, then, is a nice attempt at bringing in an actual medieval object, albeit about five centuries too soon!

The Franks Casket tapestry in Ivanhoe (MGM; 1952)

When I watched the movie Ivanhoe (1952), I was most impressed by the wall-hanging behind the big table in the house of Cedric the Saxon. This tapestry shows a colouful scene, surrounded by what appear to be runes. On closer inspection it turns out to be one of the scenes depicted on the eighth-century, Anglo-Saxon Franks Casket. This whale bone box, currently in the British Museum, can truly be called multicultural, since it depicts scenes from diverse traditions, including Weland the Smith, the Adoration of the Magi and Romulus and Remus. .

The scene so colourfully depicted on the tapestry in Cedric’s house is the Taking of Jerusalem by Titus in the year 70 AD (depicted on the rear panel of the Franks Casket). While the use of colour may strike one as odd, it is assumed that the Anglo-Saxon casket was originally full-colour as well. I wonder whether this particular prop is still lying around somewhere, in some long-forgotten MGM storeroom; if so, I will gladly reserve a place for it on my wall!

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Top: Franks Casket © Trustees of the British Museum (source). Bottom: Tapestry in Ivanhoe © MGM

If you are interested in the use of medieval stuff in TV series and movies, you may also want to have a look at my blog about the use of Old English in film: Old English is alive! Five TV series and movies that use Old English

© Thijs Porck and Dutch Anglo-Saxonist Blog, 2015. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thijs Porck and Dutch Anglo-Saxonist Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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Old English is alive! Five TV series and movies that use Old English

Even though the last native speaker of Old English died over 900 years ago, the language of the Anglo-Saxons is making a comeback in modern cinema. This blog post calls attention to five TV series and movies that use Old English.

1. The Rohirrim speak Old English: The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002)

J.R.R. Tolkien was a professor of Old English at the University of Oxford and his fictional work is infused with his academic interests: the languages and literatures of the peoples of the medieval North-West. The Rohirrim, in particular, were modeled on the Anglo-Saxons. The riders of the Mark (itself based on the Anglo-Saxon kingdom Mercia) even speak Old English in the books, as when Éomer greets Théoden with “Westu Théoden hal!” (cf. “Wæs þu Hrothgar hal!” Beowulf, l. 407). The names of the Rohirrim also derive from Old English: Théoden means ‘king’ (< Old English þeoden) and Éomer  means ‘famous horse’ (< Old English eoh ‘horse’ + mær ‘famous’). (If you are interested, I wrote an article on the influence of Old English language and literature on Tolkien’s The Hobbit, which you can find among my publications)

In the successful movie adaptations, the use of Old English (regrettably) is scarce and limited to the extended edition of the Two Towers. In a scene called ‘the funeral of Théodred’, Éowyn (‘horse-joy’) sings a funeral dirge, in Old English (singing starts at 0:48):

Bealocwealm hafað

freone frecan.     forþ onsended
giedd sculon singan.     gleomenn sorgiende
on Meduselde.       þæt he ma no wære
his dryhtne dyrest.      and maga deorost.

[Baleful death has sent forth the noble warrior, sorrowing singers will sing a song in Meduseld that he is no more, dearest to his lord and dearest to his kinsmen.]

The actress Miranda Otto actually does a great job when it comes to pronouncing the Old English (would she have followed a course?). The song also features a line which is similar to Beowulf, ll. 2265b-2266: “bealocwealm hafað / fela feorhcynna forð onsended” [baleful death has sent forth many warriors].

2. It speaks? IT SPEAKS! In Old English! Beowulf (2007)

Robert Zemeckis’s adapatation of Beowulf did not only give us a 3D animation of Angelina Jolie as Grendel’s mother (naked, clad in gold, with a tail), he also had the monsters attempt to speak in Old English. An intriguing example can be seen here, in the scene where Grendel loses his arm:

Beowulf: Your bloodletting days are over, demon!

Grendel: Arr – Ic nat daemon eam [I am not a demon]

Beowulf: It speaks? IT SPEAKS!

Grendel: Hwæt eart þu? [What are you?]

Arguably, the Old English is not very well done and the pronunciation is awful (there is some more in Grendel’s death scene, where you can hear ‘min sunu’ and ‘sin nama wæs Beowulf’). The decision to have the monsters (attempt to) speak Old English, though, is an interesting one: is it a way of stressing their antiquity? To separate them from the human world? To emphasise their monstrosity (I would hope not!)?

3. The magic of Old English: BBC’s Merlin (2008-2012)

The BBC series TV series focusing on the adventures of the young Merlin at Arthur´s court used Old English as the language for the various magical spells. A rather odd decision, seeing as Merlin should probably be associated more with the Celtic speaking peoples, rather than with the Old English speaking Anglo-Saxons that were fought by the pseudo-historical Arthur. Here are all the spells from the first series:

“Berbay odothay arisan quicken” <Old English Bebiede þe arisan cwican [I command you to arise alive]

(You can find more transcriptions of spells here)

The pronunciation, again, leaves something to be desired. However, often the Old English spells make sense, as in the example quoted above: Merlin wants to make a statue of a dog come alive; he tells it to come alive in Old English; presto! The dog is alive (it also affects the snakes painted on a shield in the next scene). If only that worked in real life!

4. The Shadow of Boniface: De Schaduw van Bonifatius (2010)

De Schaduw van Bonifatius [The Shadow of Boniface] is an ambitious short film, directed by Thijs Schreuder as a graduation project for the Film Academy in Amsterdam. It focuses on the missionary activity of the Anglo-Saxon Boniface (d. 754) in Frisia. While the film was praised for its use of special effects (similar to the LOTR-movies), its use of languages is also of interest: all dialogues are in Latin, Old English and Old Frisian.

I particularly like the scene that starts at 08:00, in which Boniface confronts a group of pagan Frisians at their sacred tree. Boniface speaks in Old English, the Frisian leader replies in Old Frisian. Seeing as these two medieval languages are closely related, it is highly probable that the Anglo-Saxon missionaries in Frisia could indeed converse with the people in their native tongue:

Boniface: Ondfo Godes lufu! Ondfo His miltse! [Receive God’s love! Receive his mercy!]

Frisian chief: Bonifatius! Thi mon ther thera Fronkena leinlika gode menniska bibiāt. ther tserika timbriath mith ūre hāligum bāmum. [Boniface! The man who sacrifices to the false gods of the Frankish people. Who builds churches with our holy trees.]

Boniface: For iūre hreddunge. Hæfth iūre goda thunor smiten mē? Habbath hīe me thone wei thweorod? Se ondswaru is ‘nā’, ond for thǣm the iċ ēom hēr swā thæt ġē ġebīdath thæs cræftes thæs ǣnigan, sōthan Godes![For your protection. Has the thunder of your gods smitten me? Have they barred my path? The answer is ‘No’ and therefore I am here, so that you will experience the power of the only, true God!]

The actors do a fine job and the Old Frisian and Old English sounds rather authentic. No surprise there, since the actors were taught by a leading expert on both Old Frisian and Old English: prof.dr. Rolf H. Bremmer Jr. (You can read about his involvement here, in Dutch).

5. Hwæt sægest þu? Old English in History Channel’s Vikings (2013-)

In De Schaudw van Bonifatius, Old English was used to create at least the impression of historical accuracy . Much the same can be said for the use of Old English in History Channel’s Vikings (2013-). While the show’s authenticity is fiercely debated (see, e.g., this blog post), the makers of the show must certainly have thought that the use of early medieval languages, such as Old English and Old Norse in the first two seasons and Old French in the third season, would contribute to a sense of realism. The first scene to feature Old English is the prelude to the Viking raid of Lindisfarne in 793:

Monk: Gesawe þu þæt, brodor Æþelstan? Gesawe þu hit? Saga me þæt þu hit gesawe.

Athelstan: Gea, brodor. Ic hit gesawe.

Monk: Hit is awriten and swa hit hæfþ alimpen. God us helpan, god us helpan.

The monks looking at the thunder and seeing a viking ship in the sky is an obvious reference to the famous entry for the year 793 in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle:

Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, s.a. 793. © British Library, Cotton Tiberius B. iv (Source)

Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, s.a. 793. © British Library, Cotton Tiberius B. iv (Source)

Her wæron reðe forebecna cumene ofer Norðhymbra land, 7 þæt folc earmlic bregdon, þæt wæron ormete þodenas 7 ligrescas, 7 fyrenne dracan wæron gesewene on þam lifte fleogende. [In this year, terrible omens came about over the land of the Northumbrians, and miserably frightened the people: these were immense thunders and lightenings, and fiery dragons were seen flying in the air.]

The second scene in the YouTube clip above shows Athelstan speaking Old English to some hostages. The Viking Ragnar Lothbrok, apparently, is able to understand their conversation. This is not too surprising, since Old Norse and Old English would have been mutually intelligble at the time. In terms of its language use, then, History Channel’s Vikings makes a good effort at historical accuracy.

Hwæt’s next? BBC’s The Last Kingdom (2015-) and ITV’s Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands (2016-)

Over the last 15 years, Old English has been embraced by movie makers; first as a language of fantasy, monsters and magic, later as an instrument for historical accuracy. With upcoming TV series such as BBC’s The Last Kingdom, set in ninth-century England, and ITV’s Beowulf: The Return to the Shield Lands, based on the Old English poem Beowulf, we will undoubtedly hear more Old English from our TV sets in the future. The Last Kingdom, for instance, uses Old English place names, such as Bebbanburg (Bamburgh), Oxanfyrde (Oxford) and Wintanceastre (Winchester). Perhaps, it is time to pitch our courses in Old English to acting hopefuls and up-and-coming film makers. The native speakers of Old English may be long dead, in Hulferes wudu (Hollywood) their language is still alive! 

With special thanks to Rolf Bremmer (Leiden University) for sending me the script he translated for De Schaduw van Bonifatius.

© Thijs Porck and Dutch Anglo-Saxonist Blog, 2015. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thijs Porck and Dutch Anglo-Saxonist Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.