In the Old English poem, “Andreas,” the fate of the old giant-work and the fate of the pagans were linked. The pagan stones became the site of a church—not only because of the miraculous flood, but because of the faith of the Apostle Andrew in the redemptive possibilities of the past.
In the context of our current flurry of iconoclasm, filmmaker Ken Burns has stated that statues represent “myth, not fact.” In other words, monuments represent statements about the past, not a perfect record of that past. On the face of it, that much is obvious. A statue is not a snapshot; a monument not a memoir. That said, it cannot be denied that statues and monuments inform our understanding of history and the place of the memorialized in it. What, then, do we ask of these old structures? How ought we engage with, represent, honor, and evaluate our history?
These are not new questions, and as conservatives we have a special interest in how they have been asked and answered in the previous centuries, within our own literary and Christian tradition. An Old English poem of a millennia ago, Andreas, grapples with the redemptive possibilities of a benighted past, and, I submit, offers a useful vision of encountering and integrating a complex history.
Andreas tells an apocryphal story of the Apostle Andrew, after the commission given to the companions of Christ as described in Acts. The poem stands in the tradition of early Christian saints’ lives, while also employing the heroic language and style associated with more secular Old English works such as Beowulf. In the poem, Andrew is charged with rescuing the Evangelist Matthew, who has been imprisoned by the pagan cannibals he has attempted to convert. After some prompting, Andrew undertakes the sea-journey to the city of the cannibals, Mermedonia, and frees Matthew, but is himself captured, tortured, and imprisoned.
At the poem’s climax, looking out his cell window, Andrew’s eyes fall upon an ancient pillar, which the poet refers to as an “enta geweorc”—Old English for “the work of giants.” Both the context and the use of the phrase indicate that Andrew is looking at a work of old pagan craftsmanship. But here, in keeping with the evangelizing impulse of Acts, Andrew addresses the pillar itself. Andrew commands the pillar to let forth a flood, to cleanse Mermedonia—and the pillar obeys. Water wells forth, the cannibals are trapped and drowned, and all except the stubbornly unrepentant are raised to new life, whereupon they become Christians. How to interpret this scene?
Anglo-Saxon poets had to accommodate—or at least reckon with—the ruins that confronted them in the countryside and the old towns. Whether the ruins were once Roman bathhouses or prehistoric henges, they were an imposing reminder of what was understood to be a pre-Christian, pre-English past. For many Anglo-Saxon writers, a conventional term for such remnants came to be accepted: enta geweorc, “the work of giants.” This term appears across Old English poetry and prose, from elegiac works like The Ruin and narratives like Beowulf to homilies and biblical translations.
The entas, these giants, were not simply monsters from a fairytale past. They were not morally neutral with regard to Anglo-Saxon culture, nor were they completely unknown. They had roots in the Bible, and some were named. Perhaps the most famous is Nimrod, understood by Anglo-Saxon writers such as Aelfric to be the builder of the Tower of Babel—site of mankind’s most ambitious catastrophe. Earlier in Genesis, giants (Latin “gigantes,” translated as “entas” in Old English) were “the great men and heroes of long ago,” and simultaneously the wicked sinners who precipitated the Flood. The history of the giants, then, was for the Anglo-Saxons intertwined with the history of humanity.
That history was haunted by weakness and shame, failure and monstrosity. Yet at the same time, no one could deny the great works of the predecessors, which spoke of powerful and productive empires which have since fallen into decay, leaving impressive but now useless memento mori. Men and giants strive mightily to build lasting walls, nations, works of any kind; ultimately, as the Anglo-Saxon writers tell us, only ruins, traces, remain.
In the Anglo-Saxon imagination, the entas are dead. The survival of their works speaks to the absence and ancientry of the makers, even as those works themselves are decayed. The enta geweorc that we find in most Old English poetry, the mighty stoneworks of long ago, are presented as ruins that will remain forever ruined.
The ruin of the work of giants can be confronted in two ways. It can be reflected upon, perhaps mournfully, as it is in so much of the poetry and passages that we consider elegiac. Or it can be used to show the power of a God who claims kingship over life and death itself. It is this latter use that is operant in Andreas, and it is this which makes the poem seem to stand apart from the others in how it handles our central phrase. That is, Andreas, being stoutly non-elegiac, does not passively reflect upon or mourn the past glories of the enta geweorc, but nor does it zealously extirpate these traces of a hostile enemy. Instead, it brings them back to life.
Andrew calls upon the pillar to grasp the knowledge or plan of its ultimate Maker. Through his exhortation, it shows this understanding: The God of the Anglo-Saxon Christians is the Living God—þa lifigende god. And so the old pillar stops being stone—inert, standing “idle” like the enta geweorc of The Wanderer—and starts being a living, life- (and indeed death-) giving thing. It must show its understanding by partaking of the nature of God, a God who floods and then forgives, who (as in the Babel story) scatters the wicked and then (millennia later!) gathers those who will listen and know. Andrew commands the mute stone pillar to forget the dead stone that is its physical stuff and live out the commands of the Living Word.
When the enta geweorc of the pillar opens up and pours out water that rises to threaten the entire city, it is enacting literally that symbolic death of baptism: the death to the world, the death to sin. The Mermedonians drown—and are later raised—in a perfect mirror to the sacrament. The enta geweorc here is fully participant in the Christian restoration of life from death. It is a fascinating turn: The work of giants, so often the enemies of God, is here used to further the work of God, to bring the Mermedonian cannibals into union with Christ.
For the poet, and for the poem’s titular hero, the world is haunted by giants and their works. For us, it is the same: We find ourselves in a world shaped, at least in part, by other hands, and for other purposes, than our own. But as Andreas should remind us, the works of the past have a role to play in our imagination of the future. We are called to answer the challenge posed by the work of our predecessors. But that answer cannot be formulated, the challenge cannot be received, without addressing those works, and, as part of that engagement, both recognizing their flaws and insisting upon them realizing their highest potential.
So, when we observe modern vandals attacking monuments indiscriminately, we might fairly contrast them with the actions of the apostle. In Andreas, the fate of the old giant-work and the fate of the pagans were linked. The saint could not have worked his miracle on the latter without employing the former. The miracle was not only the physical conjuring of a flood, but the change in the hearts of the people. The pagan stones became the site of a church—not only because of that physical manifestation of elemental power, but because of the faith of the apostle in the redemptive possibilities of the past.
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The featured image is courtesy of Pixabay and has been brightened for clarity.