Serendipity: Even the Earliest Traces of English Literature Had Strong Female Characters

Why reading is blissful is because it has the ability to transport you from one place to another, one time to another. If you had money, you could travel wherever you want. But how would you travel through time? With books, nothing is impossible. Time travel is a reality. That’s what struck me when I saw this book called ‘The Short History of English Literature’ by Ifor Evans at an invaluable second-hand bookshop/circulating library in Mahim, Mumbai- The Victoria Book Centre (since 1948).

Judith poem

Do you know what was the first piece of English Literature?

In the Anglo-Saxon period, the story of ‘Beowulf’ was brought to England and interestingly it was not English, it was about Scandinavians, dated 700 A.D. (OLD!). Only three hundred years later, about the year 1000, the manuscript was written down. What happened to it in the next seven hundred years is unknown. But it reappeared in 1706 at a library. It can be said that the manuscript had magically managed to save itself from getting destroyed in a fire during the same period. Interestingly, the author of Beowulf remains unknown.

 

Judith (Poem)

The story of Judith is the most exciting narrative of Anglo-Saxon poetry, and why not! It tells a fictionized story of how an ordinary woman named Judith kills a tyrant Holofernes, whose terror knows no bounds. Its dramatic quality and its sense of genuine human characterization set it apart from all the works in the same age. It was found in the same manuscript with Beowulf. Judith was written byÆlfric of Eynsham.

judith

Then abundantly in her mind hope was renewed for the holy woman—
then she seized the heathen man fast by his hair,
dragging him towards her with her hands shamefully,
and skillfully laid out the baleful one, the hateful man,
as she could most easily manage the accursed one well.
Then she, curly-haired, struck her hateful enemy,
with the splattered sword. She chopped through half his neck,
so that he lay in a daze, drunken and maimed.

Although there’s a part in the poem where the ‘God’ is shown to be a ‘he’ but it is still the writer’s imagination, and it was too early to be politically correct I guess. It is a sheer pleasure to read about one of the first ‘Female Hero’ in English Literature. Full poem can be found here.

The Consolation of Philosophy (Prose)

The Consolation of Philosophy was written in AD 523 during a one-year imprisonment Boethius served while awaiting trial – and eventual execution – for the alleged crime under the King Theodoric the Great. Boethius was at the very heights of power in Rome and was brought down by treachery. This experience in the prison inspires a story within him (He was interestingly allowed to write in his time in the prison).

The story is about his conversations between him and the Lady Philosophy, perhaps a fragment of his imagination, but this lady consoles him, becomes a reason for his survival and teaches him that true happiness comes from within.

The book even otherwise is a benchmark in the simplest words possible. Wikipedia rightly does justice to its description and hence I quote, “On human nature, Boethius says that humans are essentially good and only when they give in to “wickedness” do they “sink to the level of being an animal.” It is rather true in the current world context! On justice, he says criminals are not to be abused, rather treated with sympathy and respect, using the analogy of doctor and patient to illustrate the ideal relationship between prosecutor and criminal.” Full text can be found here.

The Reflections and Boomerang

It’s somewhere in the middle that we went wrong- when we began questioning strong female characters in our books, cinema and TV. Feeling intimidated by them, we showed them making wrong decisions, trying to erase their virtue. For a very long point of time, women have been shown as the ‘damsel in distress’. Just knowing that even the earliest of the pieces of English Literature has such strong characters fills up your heart with love.  An interesting review on Goodreads about the ‘The Short History of English Literature’ said that the book could very well be sexist because it just dedicates few pages to Jane Austen and one or two more female writers.

While when you search on Google, you find a glorious list of the following beloved women in the highlighted list on the top: Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf, Charlotte Bronte, George Elliot, Emily Bronte, Eliza Haywood, Anne Frank, Harper Lee, etc. Guess this text requires an adequate revision while making it a ‘Not So Brief But Rather Accurate History of English Literature’.


I have been lucky to get my hands on some of the best books. I believe in sharing it with people out there. If you wish to receive these interesting bits, FOLLOW my blog. What did you think about these pieces of literature-was it simple enough or too complex- let me know over comments!

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