John M. Hill

title.none: Niles, Beowulf and Lejre (John M. Hill)

identifier.other: baj9928.0803.015 08.03.15

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: John M. Hill, United States Navel Academy,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2008

identifier.citation: Niles, John D., and Marijane Osborn ed. Beowulf and Lejre. Medieval and renaissance Texts and Studies, vol. 323. Tempe, AZ: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2007. Pp. xiv, 495. $89.00 (hb) 978-0-86698-368-6 (hb). ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 08.03.15

Niles, John D., and Marijane Osborn ed. Beowulf and Lejre. Medieval and renaissance Texts and Studies, vol. 323. Tempe, AZ: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2007. Pp. xiv, 495. $89.00 (hb) 978-0-86698-368-6 (hb). ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

John M. Hill
United States Navel Academy

This is an impressive, nearly encyclopedic gathering of detailed archeological, scholarly and literary as well as legendary material on the Danish Lejre, home of the fabulous Skjöldung kings of Beowulf fame. The editors, translators, other scholars and essayists--not all of whom are indicated in the front matter--have worked on or else been brought together in the most important "background" approach to the great Old English poem since G. N. Garmonsway, Jacqueline Simpson and Hilda Ellis Davidson produced Beowulf and its Analogues (London, 1968). By moving the archeological focus to Denmark, although excluding folktale material, their work brilliantly expands upon as well as supplements Garmonsway, Simpson and Davidson. Beginning with Tom Christensen's extended report on excavations at Lejre, we have new translations of seminal scholarship, especially Gregor Sarrazin's, as well as of major Latin sources and analogues (by Carol E. Newlands, notably The Lejre Chronicle and Arngr mer Jónsson's paraphrase of Skjöldunga Saga), along with a reprinting of sections from Peter Fisher's translation of Saxo Grammaticus's Gesta Danorum. Except for Christensen's report, we have original texts in facing page arrangements. Old Norse texts and translations, also in facing page arrangement, appear from the felicitous editions of such scholars as Anthony Faulkes, Jesse Byock, Lee. M. Hollander and Patricia Terry. The Latin and Old Norse excerpts comprise Part IV; most notably they include sections from Saxo Grammaticus, Snorri Sturluson (Ynglinga saga), and The Saga of Hrolf Kraki. The volume ends on early modern and modern impressions of Lejre. From beginning to end this is a handsomely illustrated, documented and intelligently edited compendium no serious student of the poem or of northern, especially Danish, civilization and archaeology can do without.

Just as splendid Troy is the first city to appear in Greek literature, so Heorot is the first great Hall shining forth in northern story. Much as Ilium will be know for its holy sites and burning towers, so too the gold adorned Heorot, the center of royal life and creation song, will burn, the victim of strife between in-laws. Whether Lejre burns in legend is not clear either from the site or in story. Marijane Osborn's exemplary overview of the legends and narratives of Lejre identifies that site with the Froda-Ingeld story, which of course has somewhat different contours outside of and much later than Beowulf. Both Homeric Troy and the Beowulfian Heorot are imaginary places, a case John Niles illuminates well in his essay on the poem and Lejre. But both the Homeric and the Old English places have archaeological witnesses to their possibilities if not to their actual foundations in the cities and settlements of the past. In 1868, Heinrich Schliemann arrived in the area of what would come to be called Troy in Asia Minor. He eventually identified what archeologists now call Troy IV as the Homeric site, although his successor, Doerpfeld, more plausibly decides for Troy VI from the middle of the second millennium BCE. The Troy site has many levels and in Homer's time may have been mainly in ruins.

Lejre shows signs of at least two great halls, one from the middle of the sixth century and one from the Viking age, each of them considerably larger than any others known in the North. A confusion of postholes suggests rebuilding and does not rule out that perhaps the first of the two uncovered in the 1980s is built over one or more older halls. That possibility will become important later in this review given Tom Shippey's response to John Niles' favoring of the halls at Lejre as pieces of refracted historical and perhaps living memory for the setting, description and story of Heorot. Although, like the Viking Age hall at Lejre, it has much iron, as Niles carefully notes, Heorot is an idealized hall. This is especially clear given the glory of its gold-adorned roof and benches, the paved approach, and perhaps its wood-planked or even stone-inlaid floor. Its architecture and its landscape are of the imagination; its ornamental details reflect the splendor of a richly imagined past, replete with tapestries and ivory. In the poem's and the poet's imagination Heorot is superlative beyond measure, no more a northern hovel than are the storied palaces of Trojan kings.

Heorot also fits its epic poem. The hall overshadows all other material things mentioned in the poem. It serves as the radiant center of the hero's social world. It is a semi-sacral place devoted to the humane rituals of gift-giving, of vows over the mead-cup, of music and song and heightened speech. Naturally the hall is immense and has benign cosmogonic association, just as the hero is huge and, even if pagan, is reminiscent of a Christ-like savior figure, while the monster Grendel is suggestive of Evil itself (177). But Niles is acutely aware of two traps: of associating well-known bodies of material with each other in explanatory ways simply because they are well-known; and the double circularity of looking to archeology for details only vaguely indicated in the poem itself, then reading those details in terms of the poem. However, it is well to insist that archeology is largely mute; that occasional inscriptions, whether in runes or in Latin or in Old English hardly speak clearly to the material life and cultural values of the past. No matter how idealized, Beowulf is our oldest and fullest articulation of a Germanic warrior culture's values, something to read alongside the "reading" of opened graves with their disturbed or partly disintegrated artifacts and their human as well as animal remains. To modify one of Niles's observations, while the poet has purpose in "using an historical fiction set in Iron Age Scandinavia," (175), far more than any other source he gives us an inside showing of scene and social drama that sports cups of mead, weapons, armor, fabulous jewelry and the exchange of nuanced speeches. He also insists on the good of ancient customs between kings and warriors, lords and retainers, queens and their attendants. How "ancient," of course, is open for debate given a world in poetry and in history that has not forever been organized around great lords and their war-bands (a world that perhaps has fourth and fifth-century origins). The approximate floor plan of large halls also shows the spatial reality of what is invoked in the poem: considerable enclosure for communal purposes, for ritual, for setting off the king in some way from the area of warriors on benches and for ritual progress around the hall, especially in the interested cup-bearing of queens such as Wealhtheow.

Moreover, as Niles notes, in the immediate vicinity of Lejre there is or certainly was a great hall, ancient barrows and a close-by hinterland with bogs. While such a landscape mix occurs elsewhere, what matters "is the convergence at Lejre of two distinct kinds of legend: (1) a widespread legend cycle telling of the deeds of the Skjöldung line of kings, and (2) a local legend of the haunting of the Skjöldungs' dwelling-place by some kind of savage creature. The point of geographical convergence of these traditions seems to have been" the iron age hall (221-22). But in relation to what we know about the Danish sites, Beowulf is "far more mythical and fantastic than has been thought," yet the poem, for Niles, now is also "more firmly anchored to a specific place than it has ever been in the scholarly literature" (225, emphasis in Niles). That may be, but still we can wonder about that anchorage's security.

Whatever might occur to the excited reader, Tom Shippey produces a cautionary note in his Afterword. The clearest, most widely attested historical datum in the poem, and a kind of elephant at that, is the figure of Hygelac, Beowulf's mother's-brother and lord. Presumably he was also a flesh and blood raider-king, brought up short in Frisia, violently around 525 C.E. The abandonment of the iron age hall at Lejre is almost a century and a quarter too late to serve as historical memory for Heorot, Beowulf and Hygelac. Has the poet, then, conflated two traditions? Shippey thinks that is barely possible, requiring "a truly enormous feat of legend-integration, padded out with a great deal of circumstantial information, much of it as far as we can tell completely pointless in narrative terms, retailed with regard to several major figures (Hygelac, Ingeld, Hrothulf) in a manner which one might call 'unconcerned' . . . but never in any point . . . self-contradictory" (473). For Shippey, a more likely reality is that the poet in some way knew the political background to his story and believed it to be true historically (473). Losers from a period sometime before 700 may have looked back on the past "as a time of trauma rather than an age of gold" (473) and it may well be their story the poet has picked up along with the glories of a hall markedly earlier than the two featured so well in this remarkable volume. The Northern equivalent of Troy VI may yet surface in Lejre's confusion of postholes or elsewhere on the extended site. Archeologist have excavated barely more than five percent of the royal complex.