by Samuel Shoemaker-Trejo
Old English ald (Anglian), eald (West Saxon) ‘aged, antique, primeval; elder, experienced,’ from Proto-Germanic *althaz ‘grown up, adult’ (source also of Old Frisian ald, Gothic alþeis, Dutch oud, German alt), originally a past participle stem of a verb meaning ‘grow, nourish’ (compare Gothic alan ‘to grow up,’ Old Norse ala ‘to nourish’), from PIE root *al- (2) ‘to grow, nourish’
(Online Etymology Dictionary).
I have always had a particular relationship with old places, old things, and old people. I have always had a romantic notion of them. They take me back to the worlds of the fantasy novels of which I am so fond. I could sit in an abandoned building and revel in its spooky aura, or lay next to a standing circle and wonder at those who set it up for ages. I cannot help but wonder what the fragments of ancient artifacts looked like when new. I enjoy listening to the stories of the older generation, soaking in the experiences and humor of my elders. But between May 17th and May 31st this year, I gained a new perspective on the word old and a new respect for what it meant.
Those dates cover my trip to Birmingham, England. I went with a group of fellow Tolkien scholars to study the place that J.R.R. Tolkien called home for the majority of his life. The trip was supposed to compass the locations important to Tolkien’s life, and lead to the creation of a website that other Tolkien scholars could use to find locations and information that would illuminate Tolkien’s life as a human being. And it did, but prior to that—on my first day in Birmingham—it led me to another revelation.
I was walking next to our tour guide when he let loose a fact that I just had to do the math on. He mentioned that the original settlement of Birmingham had been built about fourteen hundred years ago.
I thought about it, and realized that I was standing on ground that had had a relatively constant history and culture for over six times the history of my nation as its modern form began—counting from the Declaration of Independence. Six times the history. That was the beginning of my revelation. But I did not yet quite understand the gravity of the figure—just like any student does not quite understand the factors of ten until they see just how large 1000 meters is until they see it compared to 10 meters.
What really drove the idea home was our visit to Warwick Castle. During our travels, we came across that ancient structure as we walked across a bridge. The sight took my breath away.
The castle was something out of a fairy tale. The castle itself was a huge stone edifice, but the most impressive part was the scenery around it. The woods had ravens croaking in the trees, white doves flew off the bottom of the bridge, and a swan was coming down the river. The building itself had seen numerous battles, many owners, and more stories than I could fit in a lifetime.
Until I saw that castle, I had never truly understood the idea of things growing older. I still associated old things with decay, with death. But the castle… It had only gained prestige, majesty, and wonder with age.
I left the castle that day with a new sense of respect for the old things in life–things that had, like the roots of the word “old” itself, grown with time.