Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Richard North & Joe Allard (eds.) "Beowulf & Other Stories": Book Review.

I learned Old English from a professor who revised what was then the standard literary history for Anglo-Saxon. Although I enjoyed the subject, I had a heavy course load in grad school and so little time to progress further with OE. Now, with North & Allard's considerably livelier survey, I can catch up on current attitudes towards our linguistic forebears. The editors and their co- contributors remind us that it's ironic how "relevance" can be used to neglect OE, when movies and sagas, old and new, Tolkien and CGI, enchant us with truly intriguing tales taken from the earliest wellsprings that flowed into our own torrents of English.

These essays, in a lively if rather surprisingly firm way-- the editors castigate straight off as "stupid" those who'd deny OE its place in the curriculum!-- aims to demystify the world we have lost. The book manages to be chatty (see the preface!) without condescending. It tries to convince you of the merit of what has scared away many previous generations of students forced to slog through, as Woody Allen warned, Beowulf. With wit, insight, and patience, this may be the first intelligent treatment aimed at the serious, but non-linguistically trained, newcomer, whether in a course where Beowulf's assigned or not! It's accessible for anyone wishing to discover the word-hoard of wealth glittering in Old English-- and some Old Icelandic -- literature. You also find out about what was spoken and written during the even less often visited transitional period between 1066 and 1200 or so.

For all English-speakers, the multicultural and polyglot world of the Anglo-Saxons (with Richard North's coverage of Old Icelandic/Norse; later there's Anglo-Norman also) returns as exciting, bawdy, reverent, and unpredictable as any other era. Once the orthography's overcome, and a few grammatical quirks and genuine or deceiving cognates get tracked, the language proves less than daunting. Especially when, as here, translations are paralleled with the original texts and commentaries.

No prior knowledge of Old English is needed; Peter S. Baker's introduction covers the basics well. Jennifer Neville's section deals wittily with the double-entendre riddles that may make people blush a millennium later. She also treats the more sober Elegies. Viking contact as filtered through the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle gains attention. (Although I would have included the handsomely illustrated translation of Anne Savage in the works cited.) The biblical tales and adventures retold under the Benedictine Reform gain notice. The Dream of the Rood and the Ruthwell Cross earn illustration verbally and visually in fine photographs. Clive Tolley's comparisons of Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings" to OE literature should make this entry a must-read for many explorers of Middle-Earth.

Other scholars delve into Beowulf, other heroic verses, violence in Viking culture, Viking beliefs, Icelandic sagas, OE poetry and prose, Alcuin & Offa, Caedmon, the degree to which the corpus turned Christian or remained pagan, and the fusion of Anglo-Saxon with other literatures and languages after the Conquest. When only 30,000 lines of OE poetry survive, the extant texts may not be numerous, but they therefore can be approached by newcomers and understood within a comparatively compact amount of material. This intimacy likewise gives this volume a friendly, encouraging tone. Sexual trafficking, elephants, the band Travis, and GameBoy all get their nod, as the scope of the academics ranges widely and boldly, fitting this subject's own depth and breadth across surprising and topical textual terrains.

More information at Pearson: Table of Contents (Posted to Amazon US 12/18/08.)

No comments: