Playing with medieval things: Jila Peacock

In a series of posts, the organisers of ‘Playing with Medieval Visions, Sounds, Sensations’ explore some of the pieces of work, modern and medieval, that have inspired these workshops.

A potential problem with translating a poem into images is that you may end up fixing the meanings of ambiguous or polysemic words. However, it’s wrong to state that this is a problem associated only with translation into images. All languages – including Old English – have words that carry all sorts of meanings that cannot be translated perfectly with a single English language equivalent.

Images can explore the multi-faceted nature of poems in the same way as written translations can. Just like words, line and form and colour can carry many meanings, imply others, and trigger associations with further images, words, and feelings for a reader or viewer.

A feature of Old English poetry that makes it particularly frustrating difficult fun to translate is its use of kennings. A kenning is a word built from the joining of two others, as a metaphor for something else. For example: hwæl-weġ, ‘whale way’, means the sea. Aelfscinu, ‘elf-shining’, can be translated as beautiful. But these kennings carry other meanings or reminders: to speak of a whale way is to think about the ocean as a home to animals larger and more powerful than humans. Perhaps if we still called the sea by that name we’d be less likely to fill it with rubbish. ‘Elf-shining’ carries with it ideas of supernatural beauty, and, for Anglo-Saxon ears, perhaps danger. Elves were not the friendly pixies we might imagine today but could be a troublesome force of nature, so an aelfscinu woman is not simply pretty. These two words alone would present a text or visual translator with some tough decisions!

A double page spread of Jila Peacock’s images from The Seafarer, published by Sylph Editions

Jila Peacock’s images of the Old English ‘Seafarer’ poem tackle just such a slippery kenning. The image above accompanies a passage of the poem that talks about the anfloga at line 62b:

Text from

Scholars can’t decide what anfloga means. It can be translated literally as ‘lone-flyer’. But is it referring to the speaker’s spirit which has flown off at line 58a? Or is it an albatross calling the seafarer back to his boat? Or is it a metaphorical thing with no body or shape, describing the pull of the sea? Or is it a mix of all of the above?

Jila Peacock’s image allows for all of these interpretations: an enormous bird carries, or flies with, a human-like figure, above a expanse of ocean, and a boat whose cargo is too small to see. Is the boat waiting in the harbour (the sea seems too still to be open water) as the seafarer dreams of returning? Or, is the seafarer beside the sail, feeling the sensation of flying over the waves? The figure with the bird could be spirit or imagination, or Peacock could be imagining the speaker more literally and fantastically: they have been fetched up out of their bed to return to their boat by a great lone-flyer.

Check out Jila Peacock’s website for her other ‘Seafarer’ images: she creates a world that shifts from gloomy to serene for the voice of the poem to speak through. From page to page her black and white monoprints depict swirling seas then calm mirror-like surfaces, whirling gulls then a shining, still moon.

We’re looking forward to our Playing with Medieval Visions, Sounds, Sensations workshops where participants will be able to translate Chaucer’s ‘House of Fame’ and the Old English ‘Dream of the Rood’ into images. We’re interested to see whether people choose to create literal or abstract translations, or whether whole new narratives might be made! Book your place now on eventbrite!


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