Medievalist Craig Williamson: A Career in Riddles, Translations, and the Art of Storytelling

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

English Literature Professor Craig Williamson has received press recently for the riddles he wrote to help promote The Hobbit movie. But he doesn’t just help advertise tales of epic quests — the story of his professional rise is almost as impressive as Tolkien’s famous adventures.

Williamson, who teaches the ever-popular “Tolkien and Pullman” class and also serves as the director of the Medieval Studies program, has been interested in ancient stories involving heroes and monsters for nearly fifty years. After leaving his graduate studies at Harvard in the late Sixties after only completing a year, Williamson was drafted to fight in Vietnam. Instead, he registered as a conscientious objector and went to volunteer in Tanzania, an experience that would shape his interest in storytelling for years to come.

Williamson linked up with a group called VISA (Volunteers in Service Abroad — a forerunner to the Peace Corps), enrolled in a Swahili class, and spent the next year and a half working as a village planner in southern Tanzania. During his time there, he became familiar with many of the stories and songs that have been passed down orally among generations of people living in the village and around Tanzania. As a testament to the sticking power of these oral traditions, he sang part of a song from his village on the spot during our interview, switching to Swahili without missing a beat.

During the 1960s when he was in Tanzania, many of these traditionally oral stories were just being recorded on paper for the first time, which piqued Williamson’s interest in the bridge between oral and written stories. This interest in the recording of Tanzania’s tales would later develop into the fascination that inspired his current project: translating all 31,000 lines of Old English poetry that are known to modern day scholars.

His fascination with the bridge between oral stories and written ones is reflected in one of his favorite riddles — another ongoing focus of his. This particular puzzle appears in its original Old English (which is completely unreadable to the average English-speaker like myself) in Williamson’s translation, Beowulf and Other Old English Poems (2011). Cleverly describing a bookworm — the literal moth larvae, not a nerdy person — the riddle describes the paradox of writing down stories, an idea that is central to most of Williamson’s work. Book moths, he explained, would lay their eggs in the spine of books, and the larvae would then hatch and eat their way out of the book – wantonly eating holes in the story as they went, just as book-hungry people tend to devour literature they love.

“With books, you gain in your capacity to write things down, but important things then become vulnerable to the forces of decay, like time and destruction. This was very bothersome to people who had been brought up in this oral culture,” Williamson said, referring to both his time in Africa and the ancient poets who spun epics like Beowulf.

The now-medievalist wrote prolifically during his time in Africa, as he has done throughout his entire life. While there, he began translating French language poems for Léopold Senghor, the first president of Senegal who doubled as a writer and poet, and was also writing his own poems that he later published in a book called African Wings. But it wasn’t until he returned to the United States that he became more interested in riddles, which have now become a significant part of his career. Williamson returned to graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania and published a dissertation on The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book, which was later published.

“Now that I think back, I’m pretty sure the first riddles I ever read were in my first reading of The Hobbit, when a colleague left a copy of the book on my desk,” he said.

Williamson came to Swarthmore right after finishing his studies at Penn, in 1972. He says he was drawn to Swarthmore because, during his time at Penn, he would sometimes take the SEPTA out to have a picnic on Parrish Beach.

“Perhaps it was just meant to be!” he said of his landing at Swarthmore.

At the time, Williamson hadn’t yet become interested in Tolkien as a fellow medievalist, but Tolkien’s stories had become a part of the anti-war effort of which he was an active part. Signs at peace protests would read things like “Frodo lives!” — which may seem paradoxical because the Fellowship series delves deeply into war and doesn’t spare the orc gore.

But, as Williamson points out, the anti-war sentiment comes through in the characters. Frodo himself is “a reluctant quester,” he explains, and Sam even more so. Of all the characters in the book who carry the ring, Sam’s dreams of power are so domesticated and non-warlike (i.e. dreaming of creating the world’s most wonderful gardens), that he becomes a symbol for nonviolence simply by being who he is. Pacifists and war objectors like Williamson identified with this sentiment of resisting power and living peacefully, as did Tolkien himself.

Tolkien continued to be relevant as Williamson’s career as a medievalist took off. Riddles and storytelling, which lie at the heart of his interests, are central in Tolkien’s quest narratives as well.

“You’ll notice this pops up in strange places. When they’re in great danger on the quest, they’ll tell stories back and forth,” he explained. In this way, Tolkien’s characters constantly re-affirm the value of oral storytelling, the kind Williamson became familiar with during his time in Africa.

And of course, there are the riddles Williamson was asked to write, meant to mirror the scene in which Gollum and Bilbo engage in a deadly riddles competition, for The Hobbit’s promotional website.

His riddles echo the wordplay in that scene, dealing with topics that would be familiar to a common hobbit. One of the most popular on the site goes like this:

I hide my face in a bit of glam,

always concealing what I am.

I taunt and tease, lead you down

dark roads beyond the ways you’ve known

until you suddenly see the light.

You know my name – it all seems right.

Writing the riddles was an exciting opportunity, says Williamson, but more importantly a chance for him to do a bit of promotion of his own — next to his credit for each riddle, the website names his new books, which represent the biggest project he has undertaken so far in his career.

During his current sabbatical, Williamson has been working to translate all the Old English poetry in the known world – all 31,000 lines of it. Previously, the most any one person had translated had been half of that. Williamson has just completed the staggering task of translating the entire anthology into not only readable but vibrant language.

Regarding the accomplishment, Williamson said a serious surgery last year forced him to reevaluate the projects he has wanted to accomplish. He came to Swarthmore wanting to publish ten books in his career and currently has five out, not counting this 1,000-plus page poetry behemoth that awaits publication. In terms of his goals for the future, Williamson simply wants, like those who passed down Beowulf and other stories, to leave behind a piece of himself that people can remember.

“Dragons in Old English,” he says, “are things that exult when they take you down. My ideal has always been to say to that dragon when he comes, ‘you’ve got me, but you don’t have everything I’ve made.’”

Photo courtesy of Swarthmore College.

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