Dr. Craig Davis

title.none: Portnoy, The Remnant (Dr. Craig Davis)

identifier.other: baj9928.0802.009 08.02.09

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Dr. Craig Davis, Smith College, Northampton, MA,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2008

identifier.citation: Portnoy, Phyllis. The Remnant: Essays on a Theme in Old English Verse. London: Runetree Press/Shaun Tyas/Paul Watkins Publishing, 2005. Pp. vii, 253. ISBN: 1-898577-10-2 (pb).

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 08.02.09

Portnoy, Phyllis. The Remnant: Essays on a Theme in Old English Verse. London: Runetree Press/Shaun Tyas/Paul Watkins Publishing, 2005. Pp. vii, 253. ISBN: 1-898577-10-2 (pb).

Reviewed by:

Dr. Craig Davis
Smith College, Northampton, MA

This volume comprises a set of meditations on the concept of laf "remnant, what is left" in Old English poetry, a resonant and sometimes ambiguous term that can also mean in different contexts "survivor," "widow," " relic," "posterity," "heir," "heirloom," "legacy," "treasure," and "sword," among other possibilities. Portnoy opens her discussion with the appearance of this word in line 1688a of Beowulf where Hrothgar examines an eald laf "ancient heirloom, old remnant," the hilt of a gigantic sword whose blade has been dissolved by the blood of Grendel, making it (she points out) the laf of a laf. On this antique relic is an inscription in runes telling of the great Flood that God sent to punish the wicked giants in earlier times, presumably an allusion to the biblical Flood of Genesis 6-9. Grendel and his mother represent the last amphibious survivors of this race of Cain, a laf of "refugees" from God's wrath, who have resentfully commemorated their defeat and exile on the sword hilt, later resurfacing to pursue their feud with God by taking vengeance upon the heathen Danes. Yet, in the Old English biblical poems of the Junius Manuscript--Genesis A, Exodus, Daniel, Christ and Satan--as well as in the apocryphal Book of Enoch, it is Noah and his family, as well as the survivors of other Old Testament catastrophes, who are also called a laf, this time in a good sense, that is, as a "holy remnant" or "chosen few" who have been selected by God for his special protection. Portnoy explores this more positive meaning of the term in several chapter- length studies: "The Biblical Remnant: Translation and Transvaluation"; "From Survival to Salvation: MS Junius 11"; and "The 'Legacy' of the 'Remnant': Liturgy and Iconography." She concludes: "When experienced as a unified cycle-sequence, each of the 'remnant' events of Junius 11 contributes to a continuous meta-narrative of salvation history, also fundamental to liturgy, where events are separated from their original biblical contexts so that history becomes" the continuous reenactment of a redemptive story, which recalls "a universal past" of judgment in order more potently to promise "a providential future" to the living laf of liturgical participants in the present (220-21).

In her first chapter, "I'm Lost, I'm Dead, I'm English, What Am I? The Riddle of Old English Laf," Portnoy introduces the semantic range of this term by examining the five enigmatic poems of the Exeter Book whose interpretation turns upon one or more of the meanings of laf. In the fragmentary Riddle 71, the speaker says he is the "laf of hostile forces, of fire and file," referring (rather obviously) to a forged and filed sword, but Portnoy thinks laf itself is a better solution, because it would be "a more animated pun" (11), signifying both a "blade" and the bloody "survivor" of the sword's attack, the laf of a laf again. Swords can also be designated by a similar poetic circumlocution, homera lafe "remnants of hammers," which blades are described as biting the shield indicated as the answer to Riddle 5. A woven tapestry is called a laf as well, here "what is left behind" after the work of "arrows," which in this case turn out to be the shuttle-darts of a loom in Riddle 56. For Riddle 20, Portnoy wants laf as the answer again, partly because the speaker in the first part of the poem clearly describes itself as a sword, "a wonderful creature, shaped for a fight, dear to my lord, finely decorated. My byrnie [sheath] is coloured; similarly bright metal threads wind around the deadly jewel my master gave me [on the hilt or pommel], he who at times directs me in battle. I carry treasure then, the handiwork of smiths, gold in the court, all the clear day. Often I slay the living with war-weapons." In the second part of this poem, however, Portnoy suspects a "deliberate feint" on the part of the poet which is meant humorously to challenge the reader's first response and "hint at" some sexual connotations conventionally associated with the analogy of sword and sheath (cf. Lat. vagina). She translates the relevant lines: "I infuriate a woman, frustrate her will; she insults me, smacks her hand and scolds me with words, yells abuses. I like not this kind of contest" (14). The innuendo, Portnoy suggests, is that the woman's hostility is directed not only against the sword, the need for which has taken her warrior husband away on "active service," but also against his own masculine "weapon," the phallus that he has removed from sexual service to her. This reading may seem a bit forced, even bizarre, but Portnoy points out that "penis" is similarly the implied but incorrect answer to several other bawdy riddles in the same collection, whose true solution turns out to be an ordinary object like a leek or key.

"Key" is usually the answer suggested to Riddle 91, but Portnoy follows Williams (1990) in taking it to be "keyhole" instead, one in the door lock of a treasure-chamber, whose various manipulations upon entering and leaving with the use of a key are described in such salaciously suggestive ways as to imply "a rather thorough sexual encounter" (17). Here the feminine noun laf in line 10 aids the general double-entendre by implying not only the "vulva" of a female "surviving captive" or "widow," but also (correctly) a "treasure hoard" behind the lock, which the lord has taken from his slain rivals but wishes to revisit and plunder again by penetrating the "keyhole" with yet another laf, his own "sword" and/or "iron tool," that is, "key" with the implication of "phallus." Portnoy's willingness to entertain as many meanings of laf as can be imagined in this context inspires the most intense reading of Riddle 91 this reviewer is aware of, but again, she does illustrate the various kinds of paronomasia that are possible in Old English poetry, demonstrated perhaps a bit more convincingly in some other recent studies by Wilcox (2000), Stanley (2001), and Orchard (2003), among others.

Where do the old heroes of Germanic tradition fit in among these various kinds of laf, Portnoy asks, "In "'Swords' vs. 'Survivors': 'What is Left' of Beowulf?" She assumes that since Hrothgar and Beowulf live in the ancient pre-Christian north, they must not only be pagans, but also "illiterate" (220), both of Latin letters and of the Germanic futhark used on the giants' sword hilt. Her assumption is a puzzling one in this latter case, since the earliest rune-rows and inscriptions appear in Denmark and the Baltic islands from the early fourth century on, somewhat before the setting of the poem around AD 500 and well before the Beowulf poet's own time in later Anglo-Saxon England. In any case, Portnoy believes that Hrothgar studies but cannot read the cryptic rune-staves on the hilt of the dissolved blade, just as she imagines that these carvings which recount the giants' destruction by the Flood must also include mention of God's mercy to the Ark-borne survivors. She thus finds dramatic irony in a situation where the old heroes can literally see but not comprehend the laf "legacy" of divine grace clearly inscribed before them. The Danes, in particular, she reminds us, do not know the true God nor how to worship him properly. Sadly, the poet says, they have been praying for relief to the very source of their distress, since the pagan gods, in the Augustinian doctrine he adduces, are really just demons in disguise. Here, the painful point is that the old king Hrothgar and his young friend Beowulf are also a laf of survivors, but one belonging neither to the redeemed laf of Noah's family nor to the wicked laf of evil giants, the last of whom Beowulf has just dispatched to hell. Instead, Portnoy believes the poet is using this scene to undercut, as he so often does, a happy moment with a dire prediction. However joyful they may be in their current deliverance from diabolical foes, these good old heroes will be joining them soon enough in hell. They are themselves part of a lost pagan laf.

Portnoy thus finds the term laf a potently ambiguous signifier both of the devastating power of God's judgment in Beowulf, which she associates with a punitive Old Testament moral scheme--"a downward trajectory of doom and annihilation" on all unbelievers (92)- -and of the redemptive power of divine grace and promise of eternal life that she sees emphasized in the vernacular retellings of old Hebrew stories, which are freshly freighted with a New Testament "sense of eschatological confidence" (220). In particular, the author believes that the Flood story is key to understanding the reception of Judeo-Christian culture in Anglo-Saxon England. She reminds us that the West Saxon kings also used the story of the Flood in their pedigree that King Alfred inserted into the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in the later ninth century. The king traced his ancestry directly back to Sceaf, a fourth son of Noah born in the Ark, thus making the West Saxon royal family itself a kind of laf "holy remnant" of survivors of the Flood. In so doing, the rulers of Anglo- Saxon England demonstrated their sense of divine election, commemorating for themselves and impressing upon others their "heritage, their potential, and their responsibility" as God's ministers on earth (219).

This reviewer learned much from this detailed study of the nuances and multiple uses of laf in Old English poetry, even though the author sometimes belabors stretched or problematic points. Her prose is warm and resonant, but often difficult to parse precisely. However, Portnoy's main thesis is clear. In Beowulf, she argues, Anglo- Saxons confronted their own "dark and tragic beginnings" by contemplating a laf of sympathetic ancestral figures who are nonetheless doomed and damned: "Geatish history has a very different outcome from 'apocalyptic' [that is, providential Christian] the exploits of its representative hero lead to total extinction rather than to eternal life. Yet we continue to sing Beowulf's praises, in superlatives that are a startling blend of pagan and Christian virtues:...'(he was) the mildest of men and the gentlest, kindest to his people, and most eager for fame'" (221). Portnoy believes that this sad acknowledgment of the fate of their lost noble forebears inspired other Old English poets to seek a more reassuring "ancestral story" in the narratives of the Bible, where a faithful laf is always preserved through the disasters of time, including the divinely chosen kings of their own people.