Stefan Jurasinski

title.none: Niles, Heroic Poems (Stefan Jurasinski)

identifier.other: baj9928.0711.018 07.11.18

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Stefan Jurasinski,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2007

identifier.citation: Niles, John D. Old English Heroic Poems and the Social Life of Texts. Studies in the Early Middle Ages, vol. 20. Turnhout: Brepols, 2007. Pp. xiv, 374. $120.00 978-2-503-52080-3. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 07.11.18

Niles, John D. Old English Heroic Poems and the Social Life of Texts. Studies in the Early Middle Ages, vol. 20. Turnhout: Brepols, 2007. Pp. xiv, 374. $120.00 978-2-503-52080-3. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Stefan Jurasinski

This study makes what would, in most literary subfields, be the uncontroversial point that poetry "bear[s] witness to the intellectual life of [its] time" (1). That the verse in question includes poems such as Beowulf, Widsith and Deor naturally complicates things: their traditionalism and dependence on formulaic phrases ostensibly would have left their authors little room to deal with what Niles argues throughout this study may have been their principal interests: "emergent (though threatened) nationhood" and a "vigorous reform and consolidation in the Church" (4). Though the volume also deals extensively with other subjects (such as the nature of myth, the significance of Maldon, the folkloric underpinnings of Bede's Caedmon narrative, and the troubled reception of Seamus Heaney's Beowulf), the majority of its nine chapters are devoted to a detailed search for the traces of tenth-century politics and culture in what have traditionally been assumed to be archaic poems. Niles's study deals in a consistently generous fashion with both actual and potential counterarguments, and the author's modesty and sense of humor make the journey more pleasant than is sometimes the case in scholarly works of this length.

In his brief and somewhat ironic Introduction, Niles contends that most of the critical methods influencing Old English studies in the postwar era did little to make scholarship more attentive to the interactions of texts with contemporaneous social and political crises. Chapter One, "Locating Beowulf in Literary History," asks what cultural work Beowulf may have performed, a line of inquiry requiring us to regard "Anglo-Saxon heroic poetry as a discourse, in Michel Foucault's sense of a corporate means for dealing with a subject and authorizing views of it" (14). The Beowulf that emerges from such considerations "represents a broad collective response to changes that affected a complex society during a period of major transformations" (15). This argument of course places Niles squarely in the middle of disputes over the poem's date and origins, but he insists that his conclusions offer something to those on both sides of the debate: while he assumes a date not "before the tenth century, and probably not before the end of the first quarter of that century," Niles acknowledges that "[e]arly-daters" may see some merit in his argument given that the poem undoubtedly circulated for tenth- century audiences and thus functioned as an element of tenth-century discourses of nationhood (p. 15 n. 5). What follows is a detailed summary of the six arguments most frequently adduced in favor of a tenth-century date and an Anglo-Scandinavian social milieu. Niles hopes to add a seventh: that the poem shows the effects of a tendency present in other Old English texts of this era to confuse "Jutes and Geatas, Geatas and Getae, Getae and Goths," and "Goths of Jutland with Goths thought to be associated with other parts of the Baltic Sea culture zone" (p. 46). In exalting the Geatas, Niles argues, the poet lauds the Jutes as well by calling to mind their widely assumed association with the Goths. The putative "Gothicism" of Beowulf perhaps explains why the poem has so little to say about England, as one of its aims may have been to "flatter" its audiences by manipulating the details of heroic geography in ways that lent additional prestige to West Saxon kings and to the English people themselves, particularly "[t]hose people living along the south coast of Britain who considered themselves to be of Jutish ancestry" (69). Philological arguments assuming the Geatas to be the historical Swedish tribe known as the Gautar thus ignore the possibility that the poet's choice to have his hero descend from the Geatas shows his engagement in a "creative ethnicity" expressive of "the ideology of nationhood that was emergent at that time" (49).

Niles goes on to argue in Chapter Two, titled "Widsith, the Goths, and the Anthropology of the Past," that Widsith similarly "derives its chief meaning from its relation to the society in which it emerged" and "exemplifies a discursive practice that connected a tenth-century social order to an imagined prior period associated with racial or tribal origins" (84). Here the poet engages in cultural work of a cruder sort: Widsith is "a kind of English propaganda-piece" in which "[c]ertain tribes and rulers...come off better than others in the poet's implied rankings" (88-89). That the Goths win "the poet's sweepstakes of praise" is not without implications for what Niles argues is the poem's tenth-century cultural environment, as Ealhild's marriage to Eormanric "raise[s] the status of the Angles by marrying them into the Goths, whose stature they thereby approximate" (92). Similar boosterism is evident in Widsith's statement that Italy is ruled not by a Lombard but by "a king of Anglian birth" named Aelfwine: "With one wave of the genealogical wand, Rome has been made subject to an English coup" (97). "The main point of the poem," Niles contends, "is neither to make a showy display of historical knowledge nor simply to play with the materials of the past.... Rather, it is to assert and naturalize a set of claims to status" (98).

The confusion over geography that Niles argues is evident in much Old English heroic literature is explored in further detail in Chapter Three ("Anglo-Saxon Heroic Geography: How (on Earth) Can It Be Mapped?"). Here Niles suggests that the old 'Jutes vs. Gautar' argument can be profitably reconsidered if we keep in mind that the tendency to confuse Geatas, Jutes and Goths may reflect "what apparently was accepted knowledge in a tenth-century English vernacular milieu" (136). The chapter concludes with a convenient map of "Anglo-Saxon Heroic Geography," the North Sea world as it is imagined in Old English heroic verse.

In Chapter Four, "The Myth of the Anglo-Saxon Oral Poet," Niles builds intriguingly on the earlier argument of Roberta Frank that the orality of verse composition in Anglo-Saxon England is to some extent a cultural myth whose origins can be traced beyond the eighteenth- century enthusiasm for "bardic" verse into the pre-Conquest period itself. Niles suggests that this myth performed an identifiable social function that scholarship seems to have overlooked, for it is no accident that it surfaces (and the "myth of Germanic origins" along with it) simultaneously with the Benedictine reform, a rupture with the past that Niles argues provoked " some circles regarding the loss of a former heritage" (p. 151). Poems such as Deor reflect "nostalgia for [an] imagined ancestral past," and this nostalgia is a feature of other compositions residing in the tenth-century Exeter Book (174).

Chapter Five, "Maldon and Mythopoesis," contends that the Battle of Maldon "can be read as an attempt to conceptualize major social issues relating to Aethelred's reign and to resolve them, or at least hang them in suspension, in the form of a story" (208). Specifically, Niles argues that the effect of the poem may have been to legitimate the policy of accommodation and payment undertaken by Aethelred as resistance to Viking invasions came to be seen as increasingly pointless. Niles's reading is intended to counter a traditional view that the poem celebrates suicidal heroism in the manner of Tennyson's "Charge of the Light Brigade." In place of the thesis that the poem upholds "the ideal of men dying with their lord," Niles finds the poem mythologizing Byrhtnoth as a figure to be mourned rather than emulated, his death marking the end of the period in which violent resistance was feasible. Chapter Six, "Byrhtnoth's Laughter and the Poetics of Gesture," argues that the hero's curious expression of mirth amid slaughter indicates the poet's "exploitation of two different points of view: that of the actors in the narrative, who know no more than they see, and that of an enlightened person of later times, who can assess the responses of those actors in the light of a superior wisdom" (272). Byrhtnoth's "quickness to exult in his temporary advantage uncomfortably reminds one of Holofernes prematurely celebrating his nuptials or Grendel licking his chops at the prospect of a meal that he is not fated to enjoy. Byrhtnoth sees only one thing: another Viking down" (272-73).

The chapters subsequent to those summarized above focus less on specific interpretive problems and are, accordingly, less intricately argued. Chapter Seven, "True Stories and Other Lies," is a wide- ranging meditation on the relation between fictional narratives and truth preparing the ground for Chapter Eight, "Bede's Caedmon, 'The Man Who Had No Story' (Irish Tale-Type 2412B)," in which Niles illuminatingly demonstrates the conformity of Bede's narrative to a standard type of Irish folktale that survives into the present. Finally, in Chapter Nine, "Heaney's Beowulf Six Years Later," Niles considers at length the occasionally hostile responses that greeted Seamus Heaney's translation of the poem, many of which questioned both the adequacy of his training and the appropriateness of his use of words from his Ulster dialect. In response to such objections, Niles discusses Heaney's formidable educational background in English philology and demonstrates the continuity of Heaney's translation with much of the poet's prior verse.

It will have become apparent that many of Niles's chapters rely heavily on tenth-century dates for poems that a number of scholars consider on reasonable grounds to have been composed much earlier. Given the unsettled nature of debates on dating (particularly with respect to Beowulf), some readers may be troubled by the tendency, present somewhat in this study and to a greater extent in others, to regard the philological and more broadly cultural discussions of Beowulf as discrete zones of inquiry whose differing conclusions about dating need not be reconciled in order for interpretive conclusions to be offered. It should be said that Niles deals more conscientiously with the divide over dating than others have, acknowledging for example that Michael Lapidge's consideration of the Beowulf manuscript ("The Archetype of Beowulf," Anglo-Saxon England 29 [2000], 5-41) "advance[s] a strong palaeographical argument for an eighth-century exemplar" for the sole manuscript version we possess (p. 15 n. 5). But with an eighth-century date seemingly favored by palaeographical evidence (and by arguments for the poem's linguistic archaism, some of which go unmentioned in Niles's study), it is hard not to wonder how much freedom the author really enjoys to situate this poem in tenth-century politics, however ingeniously he succeeds.

These qualifications aside, it is clear that Niles has made a major contribution to Old English studies on many levels. Most commentary on Old English heroic poetry has tended to avoid historicist approaches, conditioned as it is by the traditions of German philological scholarship and its drive to abstract from these texts a reconstructed image of a lost age. That it adds significantly to the growing body of literature locating Old English verse in a specific rather than universalized cultural context alone makes Niles's volume particularly welcome. In spite of the considerable obstacles that much heroic verse poses to any claim that these texts speak to the conditions of their time, Niles's study can be credited with doing the painstaking work necessary to make such claims acceptable. His careful study will no doubt enliven considerably the critical conversation while expanding in significant ways our understanding of major Old English poems.