Alfred the Great was the king of the West Saxon from 871 to 899. He is probably the best known of all Anglo-Saxon rulers. In the political history of the Anglo-Saxons, King Alfred is a renowned name. He was a national hero who first unified the English nation and inspired in them a feeling of nationalism. His political career was full of hazards but steadiness, and he succeeded in establishing a national state for his people and in freeing them from the sense of insecurity, that had resulted from the continuous savage Danish inroads.
But Alfred is also a great name in the history of Anglo-Saxon literature. No other single name of that remote period has so much contribution to the development of Anglo-Saxon literature. It is to him that English prose owes its origin and stupendous success. It is due to his untiring efforts that the loose, detached, unformed prose of the period became a solid, robust and graceful edifice.
After his victory against the Danes, Alfred, a wise king as he was, set himself to the task of reanimating and reconstructing his people and country. In his endeavour to make his people, who had sunk into the depths of barbarism and ignorance, orderly, disciplined and cultured, he devoted himself whole-heartedly to improve their literary ideal and intellectual and cultural standard.
Of course, Alfred’s name is mainly connected with Anglo- Saxon prose, and his contribution to its growth is beyond any exaggeration. His contribution to the development of Anglo-Saxon prose is marked in a three-fold way:
First, he helped the development of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle or simply The Chronicle which was the first true specimen of Anglo-Saxon prose.
Second, he initiated and encouraged the English translations of certain great Latin works.
Third, he himself wrote and thereby contributed to the growth of Anglo-Saxon prose.
Before Alfred, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle was nothing but a loose and detached record of the birth and the death of certain kings and the history of their warfare. In fact, the Chronicle was far from a literary work at first, and had no literary standard at all. It was Alfred’s sincere efforts and spontaneous enthusiasm that immensely contributed to the growth of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as the first monumental work of English prose. Alfred was supposed to have written some portions of the Chronicle, but what more he did was to raise the formless Chronicle to the immortality of the first national history of a western nation in its own language.
The considerable part that Alfred played in the literary movement of the time is most singularly marked in his laudable enterprise to translate those classical works which seemed to him apt to civilize and improve his people. He made it possible, by his patronage and labour, to translate such immortal Latin works, as Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English, Pope Gregory’s Cura Pastoralis, Orosius’s The History of the World and Boethius’s De Consolatione Philosophiae. Moreover, it was due to his credit that Augustine’s Soliloquia and Gregory’s Dialogues were also translated.
Bede, a great scholar of the age, traced the history of the religious development of England. In religious literature of all ages, his importance is an admitted fact. By bringing out the translation of Bede’s work, Alfred tried to instil into his ignorant people truly Christian morality. Gregory’s Cura Pastoralis( Pastoral Care), another eminent religious work of the time, discusses the essential principles of Christianity. The translation of the work was prompted by Alfred to strengthen the Christian spirit in the English people. Boethius’s work is highly philosophic and didactic. Written during the prison days of the author, the work is quite instructive of human sorrows and their consolation. Boethius’s work has a high cultural and literary value and Alfred’s translation, though occasionally vague and wrong, well serves to have a good impact on the cultural and intellectual growth of the Anglo-Saxon people. The History of the World of Orosius proved also highly enlightening for English minds by its records and descriptions of different regions and races.
Alfred himself is credited with the translation of The Universal History of Orosius. The task was arduous, as Orosius had a rather obscure and difficult style. But the work had an important bearing on the historical and theological development of Europe. Alfred had to take much labour and pain to translate the work and occasionally had to translate word by word, meaning by meaning. The literal translation, made by Alfred, had the most formative influence on Anglo-Saxon prose. Nevertheless, it was the free version that proved exceedingly impressive and original. While deleting what seemed unnecessary to him, he made substantial additions especially to the geographical section. The additions, made by Alfred, are extremely simple and free in style, and the vocabulary of the translation can hardly be differentiated from modern English.
Alfred’s literary achievement is of immense significance. The prominence, given to the vernacular by him, immensely added to the growth of the English language. He was, of course, not a creative literary master, but he introduced an accomplished prose style. Moreover, he was a personal author, and personality is always of the utmost importance in literature.
Alfred is justly regarded as the father of English prose. Whether in the works, inspired by him, or in those he himself wrote, a constant effort is a patent to give a regular, systematic and lucid style to the old elliptical, obscure and abrupt manner of the prose writing of his preceding ages. Alfred gave Anglo-Saxon prose a definite shape and laid the foundation on which the mighty body of English prose was to stand and rise in subsequent times.
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