Excerpt from The Adventure of English by Melvyn Bragg, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

Summary |  Excerpt |  Reviews |  Beyond the Book |  Readalikes |  Genres & Themes |  Author Bio

The Adventure of English

The Biography of a Language

by Melvyn Bragg

The Adventure of English by Melvyn Bragg X
The Adventure of English by Melvyn Bragg
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

  • First Published:
    Sep 2004, 336 pages
    Paperback:
    Sep 2006, 336 pages

  • Rate this book


Book Reviewed by:
BookBrowse Review Team

Buy This Book

About this Book

Print Excerpt

2
The Great Escape

One of the manuscripts of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for 793 reads: "In this year dire portents appeared over Northumbria and sorely frightened the people. There were exceptional flashes of lightning, and fiery dragons were seen flying in the air. A great famine immediately followed these signs, and a little after that in the same year, on the eighth of June, the ravages of heathen men miserably destroyed God's church on Lindisfarne."

The Vikings were unloosed and for almost three centuries raids and settlements by these Scandinavian warriors devastated huge tracts of the English islands and threatened to supplant the language which had begun to show such astonishing promise. The Norwegians raided the northern and western rim of Scotland and flooded into Cumbria in the northwest of England. It was the Danes, though, who came with greatest force, their armies looting and then occupying substantial territories in the Midlands and in the east of the country. They were, as the Anglo- Saxon Chronicle pointed out, heathen, very effective on the battlefield and with no reason to abandon their own tongue, which came from the same root as English but had evolved into a different language. English was in danger of being overrun or exiled as the Celtic languages had been.

It is important to emphasise that when we use the word "English" we have to be careful. It is likely that some Celtic was still spoken and the mutually intelligible but differing dialects of the Germanic tribes were by no means unified. Yet we have, for example, our great and founding historian, Bede, calling his book The Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation and that in itself, together with its early translation into Old English, is a strong indication that the fabric of a cohering language was in place. The Danes tore through that.

They ripped the jewels from the costly bindings of manuscripts like the Lindisfarne Gospels and wore them as ornaments. The Gospels themselves escaped, some would say miraculously. The year after they plundered Lindisfarne they returned and sacked Jarrow and burned down the great library which had nourished Bede. Despite some survivals, it was as if their raids were designed to stamp out that which had given the tongue its greatest opportunity for survival — the books. By the middle of the ninth century the Danes were the dominating force. In 865 they landed a powerful army in East Anglia and moved south for the final kill. In 878 they won what appeared to be a decisive victory at Chippenham. Wessex, the last of the old kingdoms, was set to disappear. Alfred, the leader of that English army, fled into the baffling marshes of Somerset, known as the Levels. He and his small group of survivors moved, according to a contemporary record, "under difficulties, through woods and into inaccessible places." The Danes ruled. What they said went.

Alfred is the only English monarch to be known as "The Great." He has been hailed as the Saviour of England. That may be debatable in the strict sense— there was not as yet one "England," more a federation waiting to be moulded into one. Alfred can, though, lay claim to saving the English language. It is in one of his own translations — in the preface to Gregory's Pastoral Care— that one of the first appearances of the word "Englisc," describing the language, is recorded. But Alfred not only saved the language, he dug it even more deeply into the minds of his people by using English as a rallying force and even more importantly as the conduit for an intense programme of education.

That, though, must have seemed impossible as the young king, disguised we assume, sat in the legendary cottage of the poor woman and dreamed away, only to be scolded for burning the wheaten cakes he had been set to mind. He had in defeat proved to be enterprising in irregular warfare and mounted guerrilla attacks against the occupying forces of Guthrum, the Danish invader.

From Chapter 2 of The Adventure of English by Melvyn Bragg, pages 16-28. Copyright Melvyn Bragg 2003. All rights reserved. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Arcade Publishing Inc. No part of this book may be reproduced without written permission from the publisher.

Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" backstories
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $10 for 3 months or $35 for a year
  • More about membership!

Editor's Choice

  • Book Jacket: Southernmost
    Southernmost
    by Silas House
    Southernmost opens with a devastating flood in Cumberland Valley, Tennessee. Could it be divine ...
  • Book Jacket: Confessions of the Fox
    Confessions of the Fox
    by Jordy Rosenberg
    In Confessions of the Fox, a fictional academic, Dr. Voth, finds a manuscript in the library where ...
  • Book Jacket: Tango Lessons
    Tango Lessons
    by Meghan Flaherty
    Meghan Flaherty's touching memoir, Tango Lessons, reveals some hard but important truths about ...
  • Book Jacket
    The Almost Sisters
    by Joshilyn Jackson
    Joshilyn Jackson's The Almost Sisters is a powerful look at the intersection of privilege, family, ...

Book Discussion
Book Jacket
The Radium Girls by Kate Moore

The incredible true story of the women who fought America's Undark danger.

About the book
Join the discussion!

Readers Recommend

  • Book Jacket

    Fly Girls
    by Keith O'Brien

    How five daring women defied all odds and made aviation history.
    Reader Reviews

  • Book Jacket

    Our House
    by Louise Candlish

    A disturbing and addictive novel of domestic suspense.
    Reader Reviews

  • Book Jacket

    So Much Life Left Over
    by Louis de Bernieres

    An evocative and emotional novel set between the World Wars.
    Reader Reviews

Win this book!
Win Vox

VOX by Christina Dalcher

The story of what one woman will do to protect herself and her daughter in a society where half the population is silenced.

Enter

Word Play

Solve this clue:

T B Y Speak

and be entered to win..

Books that     
entertain,
     engage

 & enlighten

Visitors can view some of BookBrowse for free. Full access is for members only.

Join Today!

Your guide toexceptional          books

BookBrowse seeks out and recommends books that we believe to be best in class. Books that will whisk you to faraway places and times, that will expand your mind and challenge you -- the kinds of books you just can't wait to tell your friends about.