Summer Books: Talking Heads and Sympathetic Wolves: Illustrating Aelfric’s Life of St. Edmund

Talking Heads and Sympathetic Wolves The Kids Illustrate Aelfric's Life of St Edmund

To start off the Summer Books series for our Summer of Ability 2014, I pointed the kids to one of the earliest stories of an ABLE body! We read, listened to, and illustrated Aelfric’s Old English version of the Life of Saint Edmund. The kids are no strangers to Old English in translation. Last summer we read and illustrated Seamus Heaney’s version of Beowulf!  So, this short history of Edmund’s life was something they could relate to.* Actually, it’s an easy story for any kid to relate to! It’s a a hero story, with an amazing animal and plenty of good old fashioned poetic justice! While there are versions of the story all over the web, we were lucky enough to find  this awesome youtube video in which the poster reads a portion of the story aloud in Aelfric’s Old English, while a modern English translation and some basic illustrations appear on the screen:

What happens in the video-portion  of the story? 
The Danes have decided to attack East Anglia. King Edmund is sad to see so many of his people slaughtered. When the devilish Hingwar and Hubba ask Edmund to bow down to their rule, he will not do so. Edmund tells them that he will not fight them, either, because of his religious beliefs. So, the two hooligans attack Edmund with spears and whips. When these attackers hear Edmund calling out for “Christ” to help him, they grow angry and behead the ruler. To ensure that Edmund will not have a proper burial, they hide his head in the woods. However, when the East Angles find the abused body of their leader, they go searching for his head. In the woods, a noble wolf finds the head and sits with it in order to protect it. Against all hope, the people call out for Edmund by name, as if he would answer. Surprisingly, they hear their ruler calling, “here, here here,” and they find Edmund’s head protected by the wolf. The people compliment the wolf for his sympathy and kindness. Then, they return the head to the body and erect a shrine for their king and sainted martyr.

What happens afterward?
Unfortunately, the video does not include the parts of the story in which Edmund’s dead body miraculously fuses back to his head once his head and body are finally reunited in the tomb, or how Edmund’s spirit manages to “freeze” the bodies of several thieves who have come in the night to loot his tomb of its riches, so that they are found stuck in place by those who come to Edmund’s church the next day. To take care of matters, we had a look over an English version and I paraphrased it for them.

After we watched and listened to the story a few times, (the last time, with our eyes closed), and after I added my little bit on to the tail end, I had the kids use the media of their choice to illustrate the life, with a special emphasis upon the human body and upon the other sympathetic bodies in the story. Below, you’ll find the results…

*But, first, a note on religion. I tried not to teach this story as a Christian story, per se, but as a story about colonialism and religious persecution. So, I asked the kids: What if the Danish were Christians? And what if Edmund worshipped Thor, the sun, a tree, a crazy witch lady, or a thousand stones? Is it ever right to invade another country and to force people to give up their beliefs or to assume your own?   I also asked them, is there really any hero, here?  Of course, they picked the wolf.

Today’s Illustrations

1. Edmund’s Head calls “Her, Her, Her!”  2. The wolf protects the king’s head  3. The thieves are frozen mid-theft
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1. The wolf sits on Edmund’s head  2. The thieves are frozen at church  3. Edmund’s head reattaching to his body
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One Response to Summer Books: Talking Heads and Sympathetic Wolves: Illustrating Aelfric’s Life of St. Edmund

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