Order, history, inscription, that which is marked upon and handed down – shaping the pattern of the present, resisting the chaos of disintegration. I very much enjoy reading R.I Page’s Reading the Runes (1987); it is refreshing because of Page’s dogged refusal to deem anything that he can’t understand as magically inspired, I feel his pain when he says:
This belief, that the runes were magical, attracts the fluffy minded in modern times…Our age shows a lamentable tendency to flee from reason, common sense and practicality into the realms of superstition and fantasy, and runes have been taken up into this.
Sorry R.I. but, for you, I have tried to stick within the realm of material evidence for this entry.
Many rune inscriptions simply record the name or maker of an object, a permanent iteration of purpose or an imprint of self. Today artists still sign their work; authors, architects, inventors are tied to their products, no matter who actually owns them. As I sit in my room I wonder how many ‘authors’ are present in this single space that I know personally; a quick count reveals this to be four – all artists or writers. There are, of course, many authors I don’t know, and also many brand names. Is there even a distinction between a brand name and a mass-marketed author now? Perhaps brand replaces individuality in a ‘mass’ society, the individual melting within the clan of commerce.
Rune inscriptions were also used to record inheritance, as a Will would do today. A big stone (preferably immovable), tracing your right of inheritance would not only legitimise your claim through the words inscribed, but also through your economic ability to commission the inscription. Today, the ability to record information about yourself is not restricted to an elite, and so we have to find other ways to legitimise text. Witnessing, sealing, printing, water-marking, password protecting, complex graphics and holograms – all work to authenticate the written word. The markings on the landscape that once held authority are more often than not deemed to be unauthorised, outlawed graffitti. The written word itself has to be protected, the very word ‘unauthorised’ does not mean an author is lacking, it means that author does not have authority – it is not enough to write your will on something big and immovable, where you write, and what you write on testify to the importance and legitimacy of what you have written.
Legitimacy and power are also signaled by what you write. ‘Rebellion’ in the form and order of text signifies informality, ignorance, playfulness – as opposed to law, education, or fact. If you want to be taken seriously you have to conform to convention. As the intricacies of printing and encoding lessen the importance of the handwritten signature, the ‘identity’ of writing shifts again. Runologists can trace the flow of clan and culture through local adaptation in the form of the angular runes, graphologists can learn about the writer through studying their deviation from convention and the personal styling of their text. A printed page may seem lacking in identity – meaning coming only from the significance of the words themselves – but the qualities of the page, font and formatting can be just as telling.
Who can write, where they write, and how they write have changed beyond recognition and so the legacy of history will also change. Reading and writing were the provenance of the elite, and only the most enduring (and expensive) materials tended to survive. In contrast, historians looking at our writings may struggle with the sheer quantity available to them – how will they measure the relative power and importance of the expanses of text we produce every single day?
Man makes his mark, he communicates his will, telling the future about himself in the present, he leaves tracks in the roads of the past. Some will still disintegrate, much will be misunderstood, some will endure.