From The Blog

Interview: Nelson Goering on Anglo-Saxon

With classes at Mythgard Institute starting in less than a week, I reached out to the lecturers for our fall courses – Amy H. Sturgis, John Garth and Nelson Goering – with some questions about what we can expect to find in their classes.

In this interview, Prof. Goering provides some additional thoughts about his class Introduction to Anglo-Saxon.


One of the unofficial mottoes of Signum University/Mythgard Institute is to “learn the things you love.” What do you love about Anglo-Saxon that made you not only want to study it, but to teach it as well?

It’s hard to single out just what I love most about Old English. Partly it’s that it’s a gateway to so many things: to the history and culture of medieval England, to the development of the English language, to whole body of great literature. The language is also just wonderful for its own sake, which is what really keeps me hooked. Speaking as a philologist, Old English is nearly perfect, since it has a distinctive character in its sounds and grammar, but is also still very much an old Germanic language that’s surprisingly archaic in many ways. People will probably think I’m crazy for saying this, but reading dry word lists in an Old Mercian glossary can be a source of great pleasure, under the right circumstances. (But don’t worry, I wouldn’t inflict anything like that on beginning students!)

Besides the language itself, the alliterative poetry really stands out, and I think that’s what I’m most excited to teach – I’m particularly looking forward to The Battle of Maldon, which was the first Old English poem I ever read.


Many of the students taking the Anglo-Saxon class are also interested in Tolkien Studies. Given Tolkien’s own interest in the language from an academic standpoint, how does studying Anglo-Saxon dovetail with studying Tolkien’s fictional work (especially his Middle-earth Legendarium)?

Anyone who’s read Tom Shippey’s The Road to Middle-earth will probably remember that Rohan is brimming with Old English language and imagery, but that’s really only the tip of the iceberg. Anglo-Saxon themes of loss and regret, of pride and resilience and defeat, run throughout the whole Legendarium. There are also many more specific points of contact, like the Arkenstone and the Silmarils, which are the ‘eorclanstánas’ of Old English poetry.

The History of Middle-earth also really lets us see just how fundamental Anglo-Saxon England and the Old English language were to Tolkien’s creative work. Tolkien kept on trying to associate the Elvish legends of the Legendarium with the Old English period, even starting two never-finished novels (The Lost Road and The Notion Club Papers) in which an Anglo-Saxon named Ælfwine was to play a key role transmitting the matter of the ‘Silmarillion’ to modern England. The Notion Club Papers in particular is well-seasoned with bits of actual Old English that the characters see or hear in dreams and visions. Tolkien even went so far as to translate some of his chronicles of the First Age into Old English.


What area of Anglo-Saxon studies do you think are the most vibrant and/or ripe for new scholars to explore?

There are quite a few different currents in Anglo-Saxon studies, but I find that a lot of the most exciting new work is coming from rather traditional philological approaches. Last year a book called The Dating of Beowulf: A Reassessment was published, which has a wide range of papers, many by younger scholars, on metrics, palaeography, lexicography, and the like. This book is a good example of the progress that’s being made in these areas, and the impact more technical studies can have on wider questions of literary and cultural history.

But of course if you’d ask someone else this same question, you’d probably get a very different answer! Anglo-Saxon studies is a very active field, and there’s also been a lot good work on medievalism (including Tolkien, of course!), cultural interactions (with the Continent, Ireland, etc.), Anglo-Latin materials, scientific and legal texts, and manuscript studies, to name just a few major areas.


Thanks to Prof. Goering for taking the time to answer these questions. As one of the most anticipated classes at Mythgard Institute, Introduction to Anglo-Saxon is sure to be a great one!