Ruth Ashby and Bill Slavin
For those of us who aren’t literature majors, a brief biographical note: Caedmon was a herdsman for the abbey at Whitby in mid- to late-seventh century England. He is also counted as the first recorded English poet. His transformation from ordinary, tongue-tied herdsman to one gifted by God to sing is the story of Caedmon’s Song.
Ruth Ashby’s account of Caedmon’s life is tender and joyous. Like most other men he knew, Caedmon “liked warm fires in the winter and cool drinks in the summer. The crow of the cock at dawn and the chime of church bells at twilight. Honeyed apples and smoked ham. Caedmon liked all the things his friends liked. Only one thing made him different. Caedmon hated poetry.”
When everyone gathered in the evenings to sing sagas and tell of long-ago battles, Caedmon dreaded his turn. He would stand to sing, but nothing would come out. One day, exasperated with himself and with poetry, he flees to the cowshed and has a dream. In this dream, a nameless man exhorts him to sing of what he knows – and instead of monsters and battles, kings and conquest, Caedmon sings of the glory of God’s creation. When he wakes and shares his song, everyone agrees that it is a miraculous gift, and the herdsman becomes a monk, composing songs of praise for the abbey.
This is such a warm, lovely story, with great illustrations of medieval England. I especially love its celebration of poetry and song as gifts from God – rather than merely human creations offered to God. Caedmon becomes a poet by God’s work in him, and this too is a kind of holy calling. Children need to be reminded that all talents – not just overtly “religious” things like cross-cultural missions or visible acts of charity – are divinely given, graciously and for God’s glory. And that even a simple gift like that of beautiful words bestowed on a humble herdsman, is a miracle that echoes the great Miracle of creation.