An Open Access Review Journal Encouraging Critical Engagement with the Continuing Process of Inventing the Middle Ages

March 5, 2010

Kemmler, trans., Be þam lytlan æþelinge

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Be þam lytlan æþelinge. Trans. Fritz Kemmler. Neckarsteinach: Edition Tintenfaß, 2008.

Reviewed by Gwendolyn Morgan (

What may at first seem a whimsical effort, Fritz Kemmler’s Anglo-Saxon translation of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s classic children’s story Le Petit Prince (English, The Little Prince) is significant to scholars for two reasons. First, it provides teachers and students of Old English with an effective and pleasant instructional tool, offering a number of advantages over the study of original poems in initial acquisition of the language. Second, it is the latest installment in a popular revival of a tongue dead for almost a millennium. Such provides fodder for the theoretical mills of literature and film critics, anthropologists, and sociologists alike. Incidentally, for those of us who simply enjoy the ancient form of English, it offers an interlude of pure delight.

The late West Saxon version is intrinsically excellent, preserving the story with complete accuracy and presented with the original illustrations. However, Kemmler employs more articles and consistently regular syntax than we have come to expect in original texts, thereby facilitating modern comprehension. Nonetheless, he also allows inconsistencies in spelling and conjugation, reflecting the same in authentic late Anglo-Saxon compositions, but not in a way that obscures meaning. Rather, such serve to demonstrate the more fluid nature of the language in the tenth-century.  An illusion of authenticity is furthered by producing all subsidiary text—copyright information, Forward, Afterword, and cover and title page—completely in Anglo-Saxon: the only trace of modern English lies in the Translator’s Note at the back of the book. The most significant feature of the translation, however, is its creative aspect. Kemmler has managed to produce artistic compounds and kennings not extant from the Old English corpus but suggested by de Saint-Exupéry’s original prose and faithful to the practice of the early poets. He offers, for example, lyftfloga for airplane and feorrsceawere for telescope. This aspect provides a delightful illustration of the language’s metaphoric and artistic potential.  Perhaps the only aspect to stimulate regret is that, as a prose composition, Le Petit Prince offers Kemmler no opportunity to demonstrate Anglo-Saxon poetic technique.

Because Be þam lytlan æþelinge is all but unique as a translation into, rather than from, Old English, and because it is familiar to native speakers of multiple tongues from personal childhood experience or from parenting, it is an excellent subject for beginning study of the language. In short, it is familiar territory, and one need not be versed in Anglo-Saxon culture, poetics, archetypes, myth, or other aspects of social context to grasp its nuances of feeling or expression. The task of the student, then, primarily lies in learning syntax and vocabulary, with a secondary emphasis on stylistics. Certainly, it is far less intimidating an undertaking in initial language acquisition than, say, The Dream of the Rood. Moreover, that same familiarity with the original text facilitates appreciation of Anglo-Saxon kenning and metaphor. All in all, Kemmler’s translation provides for a new and more effective approach to teaching Old English.

More interesting to scholars of medievalism is that Be þam lytlan æþelinge exists at all. In a sense, it is equivalent to someone translating a Dr. Seuss story into medieval Latin. Of course, this has been done with other texts, notably A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh, but the difference lies in its audience: Winnie Ille Pu clearly targets an academic readership. The reception of Kemmler’s translation has yet to be seen, but it nonetheless could represent the latest achievement is a nascent revival of the Anglo-Saxon language in popular culture.

When Philip Chapman Bell’s Old English translation of the Christmas song “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” began to make the rounds on professorial computers some years ago, it was an “in joke,” something comprehensible to and appreciated by the small community of students and teachers of Anglo-Saxon language and culture. More recently, however, patently non-academic instances of the use of Old English have begun to appear. First, at least for a mass audience, was Peter Jackson’s inclusion of the language in his cinematic rendering of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. One scene, present only in the director’s cut of The Two Towers, involves Eowyn’s singing a giedd at the funeral of Theodred, Theoden’s son. The second, in which Eowyn is again the speaker, appears in The Return of the King, as she presents Aragorn with the peace cup upon the Rohirrim’s return to Edoras and wishes him “Wes ru ysonde.”  Of course, Tolkien modeled the people of Rohan upon his vision of the Anglo-Saxons and assigned them the language in his original epic, and indeed, Tolkien enthusiasts who have taken it upon themselves to learn a little Old English have always existed. Nonetheless, the vast majority of Jackson’s audience had not read Tolkien before viewing the films, and it is likely the majority still have not, and this very fact makes his preservation of snippets of the language in his trilogy significant. It raised no protests, indeed was rarely remarked in the reviews, though as yet no evaluation of its impact on the popular audience has been done.

A great deal more dialogue in Anglo-Saxon appears in Roger Zemecki’s late 2007 CGI Beowulf, in which entire conversations between Grendel and his Mother, as well as the monster’s side of his final, desperate exchange with Beowulf, occur in the ancient language. In neither film do explanatory modern English subtitles appear. In publishing a copy-righted Anglo-Saxon version of Le Petit Prince with a regular press, Fritz Kemmler is thus following a trend. Unlike “Hrodulf Rednosa Hrandeor,” published on an Amherst College web page and circulated only on the Internet, Kemmler’s translation aims at a popular market.

What all this says about contemporary popular culture with its budding revival of things Anglo-Saxon is beyond the scope of this review. What can be said is that the revival exists. It began almost two decades ago with Seamus Heaney’s astonishingly popular (in both senses of the word) imitative and poetic translation of Beowulf. It evinces itself in the six cinematic versions of the same epic in the last 12 years, and in the enormous revival in interest in Tolkien’s medievalist Lord of the Rings. Anglo-Saxon is “in” at the moment; whether it is here to stay is anybody’s guess, but that it has spanned twenty years thus far is significant enough to merit scholarly investigation, and any such must include Be þam lytlan æþelinge

Gwendolyn Morgan
Montana State University