Our understanding of the literary achievements of King Alfred depend very much
upon what we believe about his early education. If we are content to accept the stories of
Asser, the famous biographer of Alfred, that he reached his twelfth birthday before he
learned to read (Keynes 75), then we must reckon his literary career as a phenomenon
which can only be described, not explained. Or, if that is not satisfactory, we may
compare him in his adult life to his grandfather's (Egbert) contemporary Charles the Bald
(grandson of Charlemange), who, being illiterate, knew the value of learning, and
surrounded himself with educated men (Collins 297).
As a child Alfred received little formal training or schooling. He did possess a
highly retentive memory and particularly enjoyed listening to the court bards reciting
poetry. One day his mother, holding a fine manuscript book in her hand, said to Alfred
and his elder brothers, 'I will give this book to whichever of you can learn it most
quickly.' Although he could not read, Alfred was greatly attracted to the book and was
determined to own it. Forestalling his brothers, he took it to his teacher who read it to
him. He then went back to his mother and repeated the entire book from memory to her
(Fadiman 14, Keynes 75). This talent was the foundation of Alfred's later reputation as a
scholar, translator, and patron of learning.
As Alfred's role as king and patron began, he solemnly noted on several occasions
his disappointment in the state of educational opportunity in England. 'Formerly,' the
King wrote bitterly, 'men came hither from foreign lands to seek for instruction, and now
when we desire it we can only obtain it from abroad' (Collins 329, Smyth 249-250). But
his efforts were far from being imprisoned within...