Literary contributions of King Alfred the Great

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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...