|Heaven Taken by Storm|
|Written by Douglas Wilson|
|Wednesday, 26 May 2010 14:40|
This was glorious. What a disaster. Randall stared at his computer screen, rubbed it with the edge of his brown graduate student sweater, smudging it further. He then rubbed his eyes with both forefingers and looked at the monitor again. There he sat, elated over a bitter and vitriolic email—barely visible under a veneer of academic professionalism but robust for all that. And this was from his advisor. What a glorious disaster.
Dr. Sandeman had turned on him the previous autumn—Randall had been the golden boy until then, but had questioned about three times too many how certain grad students were being worked in the salt mines. The salt mines were located deep inside the English Department, where the less favored grad students labored in forgotten obscurity, preparing articles for publication under the names of the full professors. Randall Grant was not in their number, but he had protested on their behalf, and that was how he joined them. He had worked in that new condition for about 8 months, just keeping his head down and his attitude right. There were a couple new golden boys upstairs now. The plum assignments had all gone their way, which had led to Randall’s last confrontation with Dr. Sandeman the previous month. Two additional faculty members—Drs. Weston and Hoyt—had joined their colleague in giving Randall the dressing down of his life. In the hallway afterward, it had occurred to him for the first time that his thesis might actually be in jeopardy. All three of those men had to sign the cover page of his thesis, and none of them had been very cheerful in there.
They had made it abundantly clear that his donkey work assignment remained firmly in place—the equivalent of going through ancient Anglo Saxon laundry lists, translating them, and sending them down to the library archives, there to be forgotten forever, along with the name of the drudge translator. For a poet translator like Randall—he had been published in several collections of Gaelic poetry—this made him a wandering inhabitant of the infernal and frozen regions of the northmen, one of the helwaru, one of the lost.
Golden boys, meantime, were named associate editors of a new critical edition of Beowulf. They had been feted and dined and honored and flattered at the national linguistics convention just last week, and this week Randall headed off to the department stacks to do his thankless tasks.
That was when the glorious disaster . . . befell. As Randall was flipping carefully through the parchments, his eye fell on some stray marks that appeared at the lower right hand of certain property deeds from
It took a few moments to sort out the order of the pages, and by the time he had done so, he could feel his temples pounding with excitement. This was not recording the sale of a long dead cow or the work of a medieval functionary measuring how many hides covered the grazing pasture used by the widow Frea. Randall was a capable translator of the Old English, the vocabulary here was standard, the dialect familiar, and the story completely unlike anything else that was extant in Anglo Saxon. He realized within ten minutes that what he had found was as important as the account of the Battle of Maldon.
Randall had stayed up all night that night, translating. Over breakfast, he had a long struggle with his conscience, mostly to keep up appearances with himself—he knew the whole time what he had to do. He had to tell his advisor of the find. The manuscripts had been bought by the university three years before, they belonged to the department, and Randall could not interpret the parable about the pearl of great price in any way that would leave him with the manuscript. And so he had sat down that morning and dutifully sent off an email to Dr. Sandeman, telling him that he had some remarkable news, and requesting an appointment to meet with him.
This email flickering on the screen in front of him was the reply. Randall had read it twenty times, and there was no loophole of any kind . . . for the university. Randall was told to translate as he had been told, he was told not to bother Dr. Sandeman any further about any of his concerns and, as his advisor ascended the heights of sarcastic bite, he was told that he could publish any of his work, at his discretion, if he thought it would advance his academic career.
Me nama Wulfstan . . . My name is Wulfstan, and I am captain of the guards for the holy father in
I was ring-giver for my people, and I led them both in battle and in peace for twenty winters. My people were of the Jutes—I was accepted as their king even though my father was a Jute and my mother was a peaceweaver from the Geats. I was worthy of that trust, and in all the time I ruled my people, we were never crushed by famine, or by plague, or by raiders in the longboats. Whenever we went to war, we were successful and brought back many treasures, blessed by the gods, as I then thought.
When I had been king of my people for all but two of the twenty years, a traveling monk of the Christians came to our village, steering a coracle made of leather. His name was Denis and he was a strong man, but carried no weapons. He had a few books, boundless energy, and a radiant countenance. I was tired of blood, and so I invited him to my board. He spoke our tongue well enough, and every evening he began to tell me stories from his books. I listened carefully, and I learned much from him. But I took care not to give myself to him because I noticed that three of my thanes were watching me closely. When he offered abruptly one evening to baptize me, I shook my head, slowly, so that the others could see it.
Within a few months I could feel that whispering had begun in the village, and I was certain that the three thanes who were most hostile to the monk were responsible. I had taken care not to receive his baptism, but I was listening to him and that was enough. A fortnight later, the monk told me a story about a chieftain named Job who had fallen from his place of authority in a disastrous way. As he began the story it seemed a familiar kind of story to me, but as it unfolded, the monk astonished me beyond all measure. When the elders came to rebuke him for his sin that had brought the disaster upon his people, he refused to acknowledge it. He did not accept it. The monk had told me other stories with marvels in them—the sea dividing, an axe head floating, and an endless supply of oil for a widow woman—but this was the most marvelous of them all.
A deep horror had gripped my heart. I realized that the monk, in telling this story of the greatest marvel, did not understand it to be a marvel. What terrified me was ordinary to him. When he told the story of the frogs and the king of the Egyptians, he knew it to be a miracle. But this story . . . it seemed to him that the point was simply patience in the midst of difficulties. I looked across the fire at my thanes, all with grim and pious faces, to whom I had given many rings, shirts of mail, and ancient swords, and I knew that I understood the story in a way that the monk did not.
After I declined baptism, the monk stayed for another week, and then begged leave to go and preach his gospel to other settlements along the coast. He promised to return, and I promised to receive him with hospitality.
After the winter had passed, two men from our tribe returned from a raiding party with the news that the rest of their company—about fifty men—had been destroyed. I questioned them closely, and it became apparent to me that they had disobeyed my orders, and had crossed a low mountain range to the south in order to take cattle from the Frisians. They had encountered a raiding party of the Frisians, twice their own size, and had fallen like leaves into a frozen hell. These two only had returned to tell me the tale. After I dismissed them from the hall, I saw them being questioned outside by my three thanes.
That evening the whispering became a murmur, and within days the murmur became open talk. I was still the king, but only in name. No one came to stand by my shoulder; no one leaned over to me at the banquet that night. I thought long about the story of Job that the monk had told, and though I had refused the monk’s baptism, I resolved that I would be baptized, whether with blood or water I did not know. Perhaps both together. I was still filled with horror, but once I had seen I could not stop seeing.
That night, at the time of the second watch, I arose from my bed, put on my armor, gathered my weapons—a sword, shield and spear—and walked out of the settlement. One sentry saw me go, and no doubt saw the direction, but was afraid to question me. My destination was a cave on the hill about three miles away. I knew that the thanes would find me there, no later than mid-morning. And I knew, on the authority of my traveling monk, that they would be very angry.
I slept for three additional hours in the cave, and arose with the world-candle. I went outside into the sun, and broke my fast with a few provisions I had brought. As I waited for my counselors—Aelfric, Winstan, and Hunferth—I reflected on what the monk had declared to me. He had wanted me to admit that I had sinned, and if I did so I could receive Christ through baptism. But he had then told me a story, and I had gathered from it that a disgraced but faithful king must under no circumstances admit that he had sinned. And God had vindicated him in this from the whirlwind. That voice from the whirlwind was a wonder, but it was nothing to what was recorded of Job earlier.
About three hours after the sun arose, I saw the three men approaching across the meadow. As they came closer, I saw that they all had ashen faces—they were pained, and grieved, and shocked, and very angry. They were all strong warriors, and had been by my side in countless battles. But my time had come. I had been a good king. My duty was to end my life as a good king, admitting my grievous fault. I could remain a good king by admitting that the disastrous raid had been my fault, and that I was a bad king. The word of our defeat at the hands of the Frisians would fly from settlement to settlement like the wind in autumn, and the fault was clear. I was the king, and it was cowardice to flee from the obvious guilt.
They stopped in front of me, and stood silent for many moments. When all our throats were pregnant with words, I spoke.
“I told them not to go south. They disobeyed my word.”
“That does not matter,” Winstan replied. “The gods know where the fault lies.”
I shrugged. “The gods may find fault as they please.”
The three men just stood, exasperated. After a moment, Aelfric spoke. “You must return with us and accept the judgment of your people. They are very angry.”
“I will not,” I said.
“Did you receive baptism at the hands of Denis?”
“I did not,” I replied. “Not yet.”
We parleyed this way for several hours. They pressed me to return, and acknowledge the simplicity of justice. This was the way of our people. I acknowledged that it was the way of our people—Hrethric, who had been king before me, had accepted his guilt. But I had seen in the story of Denis that it was the way of blood, the way of the lie. My eyes were open, and I could not contrive to shut them again.
The three men before me did not just need for me to die. They needed me to die in such a way as to leave the order of our tribe intact. They needed simple justice, and the only way they could have it was through simple injustice. But though they needed my confession, they needed my blood more than that, with or without a confession. When it became clear that I would not by any means bend, Winstan gave the signal, and they all unsheathed their swords. They were not going to dispatch me as robbers on the highway might—this was going to be a kin-slaying.
Hunferth leapt forward first—he had spoken least, but he was the angriest of the three. I had told him many times before that his slashing approach from the right was far too predictable, and that a foe who had seen him fight before would be able to anticipate too readily what he was about to do. I had seen him fight many times before, and he fell to the ground with his right arm gone. Aelfric and Winstan came immediately after him, and Aeldric fell with my spear through his breast. Winstan pulled back, knowing that he could not fight me alone. His face was white, and he licked his lips in hatred. “Odin . . .” he began, and then stopped.
“There will be no funeral for me here,” I said. “Do not mention my name in this place again. Take my exploits from the chronicles. Blot my name from the records. I am a dead man to you. But I walk away from you guiltless.” Winstan jerked when I said that, as though he had taken a blow in the face. I turned and walked away.
I traveled for some weeks until I found where Denis was residing with a tribe to the east. That tribe was far more eager for his words than ours had been, and most of them had already received baptism, including their king. I sought Denis out, confessed my guilt to him—particularly my guilt in how Hrethric had been killed—and was baptized. There was no more place for me in the north.
For my crime against my people no wergild would be accepted by any, and so Denis counseled me to go to the south, to the holy city. He gave me a letter that would obtain an audience for me with the bishop at
My name is Wulfstan, and this was my story.
It was a week later. Randall was staring at the FedEx package in front of him. He took the cover letter out and read it again. Some time the following afternoon, the editor of the most prestigious Anglo-Saxon studies journal in the English-speaking world was guaranteed to go over backwards, chair and all. Every word in the letter was true, but Sandeman would still be furious. But he couldn’t afford to be furious for long. He would also be praised and honored in inordinate ways—for being somewhere in the background when the manuscript find of the century had happened. His department would be a credit to the whole discipline, and everyone would tell him so, over and over. And the continued honor of that department would be carried by a grad student from the basement who was now, infuriatingly, completely out of reach.
Randall walked down to the corner, and stood in front of the FedEx box for a couple of minutes. He then opened the box, dropped the package in, and turned away whistling through his teeth. He walked toward his car, hands in his pockets, full of good news for his fiancé. “My name is Randall,” he said as he turned a corner, “and that’s my story.”