Edward Christie

title.none: Wawn, ed., Constructing Nations (Edward Christie)

identifier.other: baj9928.0811.018 08.11.18

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Edward Christie, Georgia State University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2008

identifier.citation: Wawn, Andrew, Graham Johnson and John Walter, eds. Constructing Nations, Reconstructing Myth: Esasys in Honor of T.A. Shippey. Making the Middle Ages, vol. 9. Turnhout: Brepols, 2007. Pp. xvii, 382. $100 978-2-503-52393-4. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 08.11.18

Wawn, Andrew, Graham Johnson and John Walter, eds. Constructing Nations, Reconstructing Myth: Esasys in Honor of T.A. Shippey. Making the Middle Ages, vol. 9. Turnhout: Brepols, 2007. Pp. xvii, 382. $100 978-2-503-52393-4. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Edward Christie
Georgia State University

Constructing Nations is the ninth volume in Brepols' "Making the Middle Ages," a series that focuses on the reception and invention of the Middle Ages, especially in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Both materially and intellectually it is a substantial volume, well worth the interest of scholars of the history of philology and those concerned with the role of medievalism in the creation of national myth.

An overview of bibliography suggests that, measured simply by volume, Shippey's major contributions have been to medieval studies and to science fiction studies, with particular emphasis on Old English and Tolkien respectively. In this volume only five of the sixteen chapters address these areas directly while the remainder focus more directly on the social and political history of Grimmian philology. For those of us who know Professor Shippey only from his profoundly engaging conference presentations on Old English matters, this may seem a little disjunctive. Wawn's Foreword, however, recounts how Shippey has engaged as a teacher with the fruitful intercourse of linguistic and literary studies, showing among other things that science fiction witnesses the "trickle-down effect of Grimmian scholarship." Philology excavates cultures of the past that they may be dramatically re-imagined in the present and thus these essays collected in Tom Shippey's honor engage with the "nature and extent of the Grimmian revolution" (xvi).

The essays in the book are of two general types: the first examines some aspects of the imbrication of philology in the romantic-nationalist mythmaking of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, while the second examines how this sort of philologically-inspired mythmaking underpins literary creativity, especially that of Tolkien. Despite the interconnected themes in the history of philology and romantic nationalism, the wide array of texts and traditions represented in this volume resists the attempt to impose coherence. From the personalities of English Grimmians to the editing of Beowulf, from Estonia to Middle Earth itself, there is a great deal of diversity to be enjoyed in this book. In part this array testifies to the breadth of Tom Shippey's learning and influence, but in part it creates the impression that the essays are not always as closely connected as their shared interest in philological nationalism suggests: it will please some readers all of the time, and all readers some of the time.

Constructing Nations is broken into three sections entitled "Nations and Nationalism," "Philology and Philologists" and "Myths and Mythology." This structure is a helpful attempt to punctuate a potentially overwhelming volume of information, no less than sixteen essays, but the categories leak. (Two essays on editing Beowulf, for example, inhabit separate sections of the book although they could quite fruitfully have been placed together). Such is the complexity of the intertwined narratives of philology, nationalism, and folklore, that any one of the essays might arguably be placed in other sections. My attempt to characterize the book as a whole is thus most usefully pursued by providing thumbnails of the individual chapters rather than in a grander attempt at synthesis.

Part One, "Nations and Nationalism" begins with Stefan Thomas Hall's "James Macpherson's Ossian: Forging Ancient Highland Identity for Scotland." After detailed explication of contemporary responses to Macpherson's Ossianic frauds, Hall makes the case that Macpherson's motivations were more pure than has often been believed. Although Macpherson certainly stood to gain personally, he was interested in promoting Gaelic language and Highland culture. Just as Macpherson's Ossian tapped ancient language as a root of modern identity, so the "Nordic renaissance...came to underpin national romantic movements across Scandinavia" in the mid-eighteenth century (29). This movement is the subject of the next essay. Martin Arnold's contribution examines the expression of Germanicism in the poetry of Friedrich Klopstock (1724-1803) and the Danish poet Johannes Ewald (1743-81). Arnold shows how mythology was invoked in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as a form of political critique: in particular Thor was figured as the sign of a "dormant, German spirit of courage and creativity" neglected by Frederick the Great (35).

In the first of two essays about editing Beowulf, John Hill examines the prefatory material in nineteenth century editions of Beowulf in order to recover their political and personal motivations. He attempts to complicate a view, put forward by Allen Frantzen in Desire for Origins (1990), that early Anglo-Saxonists saw their nation's past as a primitive Other or "idealized childhood" against which to plot their own historical transcendence (52). Although Hall acknowledges this view holds for earlier Anglo-Saxonism, he argues that the nineteenth-century editors of Beowulf also idealized the English past, seeking to connect themselves through their editions and translations with the perceived masculine virtue, generosity, and bravery of Beowulf himself.

Keith Battarbee's essay "The Forest Writes Back: The Ausbau of Finnish from Peasant Vernacular to Modernity" is a fascinating and well-written piece that unfolds surely towards the goal of demonstrating the interconnections between the geopolitical emergence of Finland in the 19th century and the rise of Finnish as an official language. The second part of the essay focuses the role of philology in modernist nationalism, specifically through the work of Elias Lönnrott (1802-84) who synthesized the folklore of Finland in the Kalevala. Battarbee shows that "[w]hereas Jacob Grimm set out to reconstruct Nordic/Germanic mythology, on the analogy of the scholarly reconstruction of proto-Germanic and Indo-European, Lönrott set out to re-work the Finnish myths, in order to endow the Finnish nation with its own epic" (86). While Löánrott had no intention to represent the Kalevela as an authentic "national epic" it was nonetheless soon implicated in the ideological depiction of archaic Finnish society as the root of the modern nation, as Battarbee shows with reference to the use of imagery from the Kalevala in the corporate identity of insurance underwriters in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Overall this chapter is remarkable for the canny and concise way it demonstrates the complex relationship between geopolitical changes, the status of vernacular language, and the emergence of a national myth rooted in linguistic identity.

Part one concludes with Nielsen's critique of the purported similarities between English and the Jutland dialect of Danish, and how these perceived similarities have supported a mistaken "ethnolinguistic" supposition about the national character of the two groups rooted in a shared tribal history (99). As a sober alternative to this view, Nielsen suggests that shared linguistic features are the result of intercultural borrowing, or that they arose independently. He argues on chronological grounds that the similarities between English and the Jutland dialect are not signs of a special linguistic relationship (105-106).

Part Two, "Philology and the Philologists," proceeds with Terry Gunnel's essay "How Elfish were the Alfar?" This essay singles out two misconceptions about myth and folklore that can be traced directly to Grimm: (1) "there had been single and consistent early Germanic'religion' which was known throughout the Germanic countries in pre-Christian times"(111); (2) folk beliefs of the Grimm's own time "were directly connected to the pagan beliefs of the past"(112). The chapter intends to contribute to the ongoing re-examination of such influential but ultimately unsupported Grimmian notions. The result in this case is to emphasize a pluralist view of the pagan religions of Scandinavia, rather than "using the Prose Edda as a starting point for neat structural analysis of a set Nordic cosmology" (115). His case study, as the title suggests, demonstrates how mythological beings like the álfar are not understood according to the shifting, culturally inflected categories of their own time but retroactively imagined on the basis of more recent folklore. Tolkien's view of elves, Gunnel adds, to some extent rescues them from the modern view of "fairies" and "restores them to their original mythological importance" as a kind of divine being.

Robert Fulk, in the second of this collection's essays concerning the editing of Beowulf, provides an overview of the difficulties of editing the poem, a reminder of Friedrich Klaeber's legacy in bringing Beowulf to an English speaking academe, and a defence of his focus on metrical and alliterative features now frequently ignored by editors. Outlines the influences of then current thinking on Klaeber's editorial practices and tries to enunciate Klaeber's principles as it has been suggested Klaeber himself never did. The first part of the essay reviews Klaeber's "waning faith" (137) in Siever's metrical analysis, while a second part reveals the influence on Klaeber of Johannes Hoops textual conservatism (143). The chapter ends by listing the principles that guide the current editors (including Fulk himself) of the new fourth edition of Klaeber's Beowulf. Klaeber's edition is now so antiquated that more modern editions are frequently preferred and thus modern students are in danger of losing the important connection to early scholarship provided by Klaeber's notes (144). Accepting the layered and constructed nature of Beowulf, the current editors argue that editorial interventions, necessarily subjective yet unavoidable, must be clearly marked as such (151). They intend to follow Klaeber's general adherence to Sievers' metrical analysis while emphasizing still further Klaeber's warnings about the "futility of recovering an imagined 'original' text" (142). They will avoid emending solely on the basis on metrical considerations (145).

Andrew Breeze's contribution assesses the influence of the Grimmian revolution (and Arnoldian fantasies of Celtic paganism) on the interpretation of the Mabinogion. As the academic quests for a mythical original to these tales subside, Breeze suggests, that quest lives on in the "sub-Grimmian" attitudes of popular works of Arthurian fantasy and New Age Philosophy. In the chapter that follows, Rory McTurk juxtaposes his own prose translation of Kráækumal with the translation (made in 1833) by Irish poet Samuel Ferguson. He thus demonstrates, in a brief introduction, how this interpretation by an Irish author contributes to the 19th century British misrepresentation of the Old Norse poem.

The second section of the book then returns to its investigation of Grimmian personalities in Keith Busby's explication of Jean-Baptiste Bonventure Roquefort's brief encounter with Jacob Grimm. Busby traces the correspondence (1809-1815) between Grimm and Roquefort, a debauchee and medievalist of some influence despite his "scholarly deficiencies" (195). This correspondence illuminates the brief relationship between the two philologists, which Busby concludes was not warm but "simply useful to both men" (212). Roquefort emerges a generous supporter, examining manuscripts or lending them directly to Grimm, while Grimm in turn read and corrected manuscripts of Roquefort's own scholarly efforts. Ultimately their relationship dissipated as witnessed by Grimm's severe reviews of Roquefort's edition of Marie de France and its supplements.

Wawn's chapter argues in great detail that the provincial Reverend Sabine Baring Gould, well known for his vast, popularizing output, has been underestimated. He has generally been considered an "avuncular but air-headed amateur" (219), but Wawn brings forward many aspects of Baring-Gould's life and work to demonstrate that he should indeed be considered "the most influential provincial Grimmian of his generation (242): his connection to serious scholars, his knowledge of Grimmianism from "key primary works," the minute attention to linguistic details in his in his many popular publications, his competence as a German speaker and his early Germanic education.

Jonathon Evans then examines Tolkien's creative etymological use of "ent" to name his giant tree-people. In the dialogue of the Ent called Treebeard, Evans notices a philosophy regarding the relationships between words and things. Through his own close analysis of the etymology of "ent," Evans suggests that Tolkien blends the semantic associations of tree and truth, the stammbaum of philology, and the story of ancient cultures into a single image of "language itself in its historical dimension" (249). This essay is interrupted by an interlude about Critical Theory's ostensible misreading of Saussure. This interlude is connected to the rest of the essay by the coincidence that Saussure uses "arbor" as a key example at the beginning of the General Course in Linguistics (265-66), but in my view it not only oversimplifies the post-structuralist response to Saussure, it distracts more than it contributes to Evans' argument about the 'tree of language'.

Part Three, "Myths and Mythology" begins with one of the volumes most fascinating pieces. Peter Orton draws on the recent 'network' theory of cognition to argue that the connection between mead and poetry in Old Norse myth is "a cognitive metaphor that conceptualized oral poetry as an alcoholic drink" (278). This argument is contra-Grimm, whose methods "typically lead to the identification of bundles of story-elements as ancient" (299), and who thus posited an origin for the prominent connection between mead and poetry in the inspiring ambrosia of antiquity. Orton points out, however, that his cognitive approach does necessarily exclude Grimmian assumptions, since "such bundles themselves may, of course, be traceable to original cognitive metaphors" (300). To readers less interested in the specific "conduit" metaphor that associates poetry with mead, the chapter's concise explanation of cognitive metaphor is itself very worth reading.

Joyce Tally Lionarion's essay on "Women's Work and Women's Magic" show's how Icelandic sagas link spinning and weaving to magic, or rely on "audience knowledge of women's magic to add symbolic resonance to women's non-magical actions" (302). Lionarions compares the more literal manifestation of the weaving motif in Eyrbyggja Saga, in which weaving or spinning is part of actual witchcraft, with its more subtle metaphoric use in the Laxdæla Saga. She shows that in either case women these sagas represent women as "motivated by envy, hatred, and...revenge" (317).

Like other essays in the collection, Paul Battles' "What is Middle Earth?" takes its cue directly from Tom Shippey's work; Where Shippey has demonstrated the philological imagination that gave life to the places and people of Tolkien's Middle Earth, Battles explores "the concept of Middle-Earth itself." Battles suggests that Tolkien's depiction of Middle Earth differs in important ways from the medieval idea that inspired it: although many geographic aspects of Middle Earth correspond to the Midgard described by Snorri Sturluson, Tolkien's conception of Middle Earth also depicts it as intermediary and Battles thus notes " a second, metaphysical meaning superimposed upon the graphic term" (334). Tolkien combines the middle-ness of humanity between angels and devils with the middle-ness of earth in Norse mythology to create a Middle Earth that represents the "mythic age of 'our habitation'" (342).

In the final essay of the volume, David Elton Gay reviews the development of scholarship on Estonian folk religion, which emerged in the nineteenth century under the influence of Grimm's Deutsche Mythologie. He argues that the prejudices of Grimm's method--"the idealization of the past and of folk culture" (354)--lead to the neglect of Christian contributions to early Estonian culture.

These essays about diverse nations and literary works are yet joined at the foundation by a complex network of philological and nationalist themes epitomized in the persons of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. Though, as a collection, the book articulates no overarching explanation of what might be called philological identity politics--the identities constructed are nationalist, ethnic, linguistic, and gendered--its chapters constitute a rich demonstration of the influence of the Grimmian paradigm.