Allen J. Frantzen

title.none: Hill, Cultural World in Beowulf (Frantzen)

identifier.other: baj9928.9701.004 97.01.04

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Allen J. Frantzen, Loyola University Chicago,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1997

identifier.citation: Hill, John M. The Cultural World in Beowulf. Anthropological Horizons. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1994. Pp. x, 224. $55.00 (hb), $20.95 (pb). ISBN: ISBN 0-802-02981-7(hb), 0-802-07438-3 (pb).

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: Bryn Mawr Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 97.01.04

Hill, John M. The Cultural World in Beowulf. Anthropological Horizons. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1994. Pp. x, 224. $55.00 (hb), $20.95 (pb). ISBN: ISBN 0-802-02981-7(hb), 0-802-07438-3 (pb).

Reviewed by:

Allen J. Frantzen
Loyola University Chicago

In a critical climate saturated by the words "cultural studies" but still, in Anglo-Saxon at least, poor in critical methods that engage cultural study, John Hill has produced a book not about the cultural world of Beowulf, but about the cultural world in it. The difference made by the prepositions is small but significant. Much Beowulf scholarship examines how the poem situates specific practices, objects, and institutions, including warfare, weapons, peace weaving, and gift-giving, within a general framework of Germanic and early Christian cultures. Hill locates the "cultural world" within the poem's narrative structure. "When seen for the social milieu dramatized within it," he writes in his conclusion, Beowulf becomes a different poem from the one we know (152).

The chief structures of this world, according to Hill, are gift-giving and revenge. He claims that the poet's "complex idealization" recreates "an epic memory of the past" that serves to "lift the poem as a reflection of reality above any particular, recoverable Anglo-Saxon world of hierarchy, exchange, markets and coinage, land organization and centralized administration" (7). This claim does not, fortunately, signal a move into familiar if murky realms of myth criticism. Although Hill explores analogies between Anglo-Saxon and historically-proximate societies, his chief aim is to establish the difference between Anglo-Saxon culture and our own. He criticizes Beowulf scholarship for assuming that the Anglo-Saxons were "really very much like ourselves" and for imposing modern ideas of political institutions and kingship on the poem, "not to mention middle-class evaluations of drinking, wealth, and feuds" (18-19). Hill claims that "[m]any of the assumptions still guiding scholarly commentary have their roots" in views established in the "anthropological climate" of the early twentieth century. The introduction provides a neat digest of time-honored attitudes and assumptions that Hill's book sets out to challenge (22-24). It concludes with a critique of H. Munro Chadwick's account of the social world of Beowulf in The Heroic Age. Chadwick, cited by Hill as "the most significant forefather for any comprehensive account of the social world in Beowulf," failed to see warfare as "positive and jural" or to appreciate the operations of social reciprocity in the poem.

The book's five chapters explore feud settlements (chapter 1), the poem's "temporal" and "jural" worlds (chapters 2 and 3), the "economy of honour" in Beowulf (chapter 4), and the poem's psychological world (chapter 5). Hill's chief contribution, I believe, is a new view of the culture of violence and the doomed, "elegiac" air conjured in Beowulf by commentators who deplore violence and represent feuds as cyclical destruction that dooms the poem's social world. Blood revenge is a settlement that can last, Hill argues (29); violent requital needs to be seen as "a legal response" (37). Hill does not glorify violence; instead he explains why the Anglo-Saxons did, and why modern readers need to reconsider the function of violence in the poem's culture.

The second chapter, which concerns the temporal world of Beowulf, questions Fred C. Robinson's arguments about the poem's "appositive style" (49-52). Hill believes that some of Robinson's assertions and translations are overly theistic and that they mask the poem's social operations. Notes accompanying this discussion carry on a profitable dialogue with criticism that stresses the poem's accommodation of Christian perspectives (see pp. 167-69). Hill's most persuasive arguments come in the third and fourth chapters, which deal with the poem's jural world and with its systems of exchange. Hill argues that Beowulf's grasp of the legal complexities of Heorot has been underestimated and insufficiently appreciated. The fierce young warrior beloved of translators and critics emerges from Hill's analysis as a diplomat, even a politician who carefully recasts the reward scene in Heorot as he describes it to Hygelac. Invited to contemplate Beowulf as a civilized poem rather than a slugfest, I was pleased to imagine the legendary adventurer armed only with a briefcase and a good suit.

The fifth chapter, on the poem's psychological world, is in some ways the most remarkable in the book and the most likely to provoke criticism from readers familiar with contemporary approaches to medieval texts. Hill's carefully qualified psychological reading is a resolutely old-fashioned, sustained defense of Freud at a time when such defenses are rare and when Freud's assertions have been challenged from a variety of poststructuralist and postfeminist perspectives. This chapter presents a powerful argument for the importance, even the necessity, of psychoanalytic criticism. (Hill's conclusion acknowledged the merits of other contemporary ways of reading the poem [p. 152].)

Hill undertakes a psychoanalytic reading of heroic action rather than of the hero (or other characters) or of the poet. He uses psychology to connect the poem's foreground (the monster fights) and background (feud relations), showing that they have a common socio-economic context of exchange. Monsters and people alike turn away from proper economies of exchange and settlement, which Hill describes as "the social face of energies underlying heroic life" (114). Hill's psychological insights are put to good use. For example, his reading of the three monster fights as drawing on "elementally deeper and older levels in the psyche" is used to frame an excellent analysis of the Ravenswood episode (137-40). His thoughtful argument, in my view, justifies his claim that Tolkien-influenced readers who assert the poem's gloom and doom generally do more to characterize the poem and its events than to explain them.

Hill would have done well to give more attention to psychoanalytic readings of the poem by Gillian R. Overing and James W. Earl, to which Hill refers only briefly (198-99, notes 32 and 34). I found Hill's book suggestive and stimulating, but here and elsewhere I also found it terse. Studiously, admirably fair to other readers of Beowulf, Hill deferred much of his book's engagement with standard as well as recent readings of the poem to his ample notes (they take up nearly 50 of the book's 224 pages). The introductory chapter in particular suffers from compression. The difficult task of explaining anthropological and ethnological claims on a text so remote in time and place requires fuller, more generous treatment. The lexical evidence is sometimes sketchy, particularly Hill's discussion of Germanic gods who supposedly stand behind some of the figures in the poem (chapter 3 especially). Some of the translations are rather arch: "thanes are united in kindness, the people ever-ready, drink- solemn warbandsmen do as I ask" (103, lines 1230-31). Hill cites Robinson's commentary on druncne (188-89, note 37) and might have replaced the enigmatic "drink-solemn" with Robinson's translation, "having drunk," the sense of which does not contradict Hill's main point (see Beowulf and the Appositive Style, pp. 75-79).

These reservations qualify my enthusiasm for Hill's book in small ways only. I admire Hill's steady concentration on the text, his close readings of key scenes, and his mastery of the poem's intricate and sometimes obscure social alliances. The Cultural World in Beowulf dissects the workings of the text and reassembles them to form a clear vision of the poem. Concluding his chapter on the poem's "economy of honour," Hill praises the poet as "a subtle delineator of complex gestures" (107). Although I wish this were a longer and more fully argued book, I am happy to say that Hill himself should be praised for exactly this achievement.