Caedmon’s Hymn by Tiarnan O Sullivan

Caedmon’s Hymn, suggested to be one of the oldest surviving vernacular poems in western civilisation, is an example of pagan and Christian fusion in order to promote Christian themes in a pagan society. Recorded within Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica, Caedmon’s Hymn marks the beginning of tremendous developments within textual transmission and the heroic genre itself.
Caedmon’s Hymn may be regarded as an early forerunner of the dream vision narrative. This style of poetry is formulated by an individual who has experienced a dreamlike revelation within which they are guided by an authoritative figure, in Caedmon’s case this figure being God. The “hero” discussed within the poem is perhaps unconventional in modern terms, but just as the Gods of classical literature were seen as heroes within their cultural context, so too does the Christian God in Caedmon’s Hymn represent a hero to the people of Caedmon’s culture.
The poem features heavy use of stylistic features archetypal of Anglo-Saxon poetry. It is clearly a work permeated in the many distinctive characteristics of orality. In his commentary of the poem, Ian Lancashire analyses the musical quality of the poem, and suggests that the poem itself constitutes merely two sentences. In his essay, he writes:
“Caedmon’s hymn has just two sentences, which can be summarized: “Let me now praise God the Creator” (1-4), and “God created Heaven, earth, and man” (5-9). The assertion itself has a simple logic that ensures Caedmon can link together, in memory, the larger units, the full lines, into a verse paragraph. Its length may also reflect a common cognitive upper-limit on large text segments.”
In light of the concept that each segment of the poem itself exists solely to portray but one simple message, and to recite the poem entirely from memory, it is of no surprise that Caedmon’s Hymn also contains an abundance of alliteration. From the very opening of the poem this typical aspect of orality is clearly evident:
(1) Nu scylun hergan hefaenricaes uard
(2) metudæs maecti end his modgidanc
The poem itself consistently repeats phrases associated with God being an almighty figure which has created the world within which we exist, which can loosely be translated to descriptions such as “the Father of Glory”, and “the Almighty Lord”. These descriptions, used in order to formulate a romanticised illustration of an all powerful God, are perhaps a precursor to later buzz words used in connection with heroes as they are described in various texts. Beowulf is described as “the mightiest man on earth” amongst a plethora of other typical heroic depictions, and indeed in a far more modern context heroes are portrayed using such phrases as “The Incredible Spiderman”. Indeed, the Christian God is vastly different to these characters, but the mounting composite of prefixed words which highlight the importance of the heroic figure present definite similarities in the way in which dignitary heroes are portrayed.
The influence of Caedmon’s Hymn on later Anglo-Saxon works is clearly evident and stretches even to the 20th and 21stCenturies. Caedmon’s use of the phrase “middingard”, meaning Middle-Earth, in contemporary popular culture is known as the realm within which J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic heroic narrative “The Lord of The Rings” takes place. Suggested to be the first ever Anglo-Saxon poem to be recorded, Caedmon’s Hymn could have arguably instigated the butterfly effect which manifested itself in the form of one of the most famous literary and cinematic works in recent times, and with regard to the subject of heroes, works which produced perhaps the most infamous heroic protagonists in today’s textual culture. 

The fact that Caedmon’s Hymn has been recorded in writing also showcases the momentous movement from orality to literacy in Anglo Saxon culture. In terms of textual transmission, this movement was momentous to say the least. Prior to the era of increased literacy, characters within folklore and tales were two dimensional and lacked the depth of those of, for example, the Shakespearean epoch. The fact that the vast majority of tales were spoken or sung restricted the storytellers from developing the heroes within the tale for fear that some details may be forgotten. The heroic code, a staple of classical authors in the development of epic poetry, allowed for an exact template by which the heroes of texts were obliged to follow, once again aiding memory and allowing those who recite the tale to remain true to it’s original format. The advent of written text coincided with the formulation of more complex and convoluted heroes, allowing for the concepts of the “outlaw” hero and the anti-hero to become more common, and indeed from the point of Caemdon’s Hymn through the rest of the Anglo-Saxon manuscript culture we begin to see these developments arise.


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