The Medieval Review 10.05.07

Siewers, Alfred K. Strange Beauty: Ecocritical Approaches to Early Medieval Landscape. The New Middle Ages. New York: Palgrave, 2009. Pp. xiii, 224. $84.95 ISBN 978-0-230-60664-7. .

Reviewed by:

Lisa J. Kiser
Ohio State University

Written by a dedicated environmentalist, Strange Beauty strives to analyze the multiple meanings (philosophical, religious, political, and sociocultural) of landscape in early medieval Irish and Welsh poetry, with a primary focus on the Otherworld trope so visible in images of the sea, air, and land in Celtic literary texts. In his own words, Siewers' purpose is "to understand better the reciprocal relation of nature as nonhuman physical 'fact' with nature as a constructed human value" and to show how "landscape [is] a form of narrative image mediating between the physical environment and human culture and thus crossing conventional boundaries between the biological and the imaginary, the body and the environment, the subjective and the objective" (5). The book is not, however, primarily historicist in its thrust; rather, it seeks to align, analogically, early Celtic thinking about landscape with modern and postmodern theory, placing special emphasis on the paradigms of Deleuze and Guattari. Other contemporary theorists are featured as well: Kristeva, Lacan, and Irigaray all make significant appearances, as does Heidegger, whose foundational thinking about humans in relation to the natural world underlies much current thought on the subject. In addition to deploying contemporary theoretical perspectives, Siewers makes frequent use of the works of John Scottus Eriugena, the ninth- century Irish theologian and philosopher, whose writings about nature define it as both "being" and "nonbeing" and as a metonymic, theophanic process rather than as an objectified or external set of concrete things. Indeed, a large component of Siewers' thesis is that only pre-Scholastic theologizing, such as Eriugena's, is capable of capturing the dynamic, "interactive" (18) sense of the Celtic natural world, for such theology is non-Augustinian in character, turning instead to the asceticism of the Cassianic desert fathers for its terms and concepts.

After an introductory chapter that illustrates his method by applying it to some stanzas from the early Irish Immram Brain, Siewers, in Chapter Two, analyzes plot elements of Tochmarc Etaine and Tain Bo Cuailnge from the Ulster Cycle and the early Welsh Mabinogi, showing how places in these stories are not objectified or static, but rather are in a kind of motion that connects them to human selves and allows them to exist in a non- temporal sphere which violates the idea of linear time. Useful in understanding these issues, according to Siewers, are the "rhizomic" theories of Deleuze and Guattari, which posit the transformative interweaving of self and land, and the ideas of the "feminine" which Irigaray and Kristeva employ in opposition to conceptions of static place and time. Eriugena, too, using his Christian framework, argues for synergy between the land, the human, and the divine, also showing resistance to a fixed temporality. In analyzing the tales from the Mabinogi, Siewers foregrounds a number of interesting historical considerations in his discussions of the unique way in which the texts treat landscape. These tales, he argues, may well be reflecting on the ravages of Norman colonialism in their firm rejection of ideas concerning ownership, and thus objectification, of the land, and repudiating the urban commercialism that went along with colonial activity. The tales themselves express "grief grounded in landscape" (59).

In Chapter Three, Siewers concentrates on the views of nature propounded in Eriugena's treatise, Periphyseon, showing that its non-Western and non-Scholastic ideas are important analogues to conceptions of nature found in the Irish and Welsh tale cycles. As a result of the Incarnation, argues Eriugena, God's energies flow throughout the created world, and nature has become a dynamic and redemptive region that has the capacity to mingle the inanimate, the nonhuman, the human, and the divine. Important natural concepts include the sea (analogous both to the desert of the early fathers and to the biblical aerial waters above the firmament); Paradise (not a literal place on earth but rather a spiritual garden of redeemed human nature); and the four-fold conception of nature (God as creator, God's divine energies as saturating creation, creation itself, and finally, God as the source to which all creation returns). Here, Siewers very interestingly underscores the ways in which these ideas resemble those of the Deep Ecology movement, particularly in its Heideggerian roots. Nature provides a region in which "connectivity" can take place between humanity, nature, and spirituality.

In Chapter Four, Siewers then takes up the subject of the ancient Irish color term, glas, which describes "the color of sky in water,"--a green, gray, blue combination that reveals not only a relationship to the changeable, overcast pelagic environment of the actual Celtic shores but also an allegorical dimension connected to early Christian ideas of the firmament, the coming of Christ to earth, and martyrdom. Furthermore, early Irish Christian penitential and other ritual practices were associated with watery locales, with the sea sometimes analogous to the desert of the early fathers, or as a place in which the transformative immersion of baptism took place. Thus, glas, with its environmental associations, evokes "a mysterious reality of immanent divine energy infusing the world and entwining with our experience" (109).

Addressing the Ulster Cycle in Chapter Five, Siewers analyzes the fantasy landscapes of Tain Bo Cuailnge as both geography and pseudo-history. He notes, too, the possible ways in which early Irish monastic culture, through its fictional appropriation of the land, was resisting the encroachment of secular and ecclesiastical domination by the Anglo-Normans, Anglo-Saxons, and the spread of the Westernized Church. The focus of this chapter, however, is largely on how these texts work like icons, with images of Irish topography (especially those which connect to the Otherworld) projecting outwards towards the reader in space, with the reader, in a sense, "completing" the image and thus participating in its semiotic work. Such an interpretive framework departs significantly from the workings of Augustinian allegory; instead it resembles a kind of mystical metonymy that frustrates simple one-to-one correspondences.

Siewers completes his study, in Chapter Six, with a discussion of some of the post-colonial implications of the Celtic Otherworld trope. Noting that the timeless and dynamic Celtic "landscapes-in-narrative" differ profoundly from the Anglo-Saxon images of the static mead hall and Guthlac's fortress-mound, Siewers argues that the arrival of Germanic culture encouraged a "colonial view of space and time" (133), where the "land" is coextensive with the "state." Before this arrival, Ireland's lack of a central government, its communal land-sharing, and its diffuse power networks (which even allowed for significant female participation in clan hierarchies) created the conditions for the Otherworld trope to flourish as a world-view that could, and did, resist the emerging hegemony of Roman-inspired Western European culture. In Siewers' view, the Tain may even encode this resistance in its political allegories; it also, however, seems to be lamenting the environmental degradation that stemmed from the loss of sacred areas and "wilderness" for grazing. Siewers ends this chapter with some very suggestive readings of a number of Anglo-Saxon literary moments: Beowulf's dive into the mere and the tree/cross/Christ image from the Dream of the Rood are two that receive extensive treatment. In the former scene, analyzed with a Kristevan emphasis, the Anglo-Saxon hero is a symbol of the Western order taking over the earlier, "maternal," non-linear society, now rendered abject by being overmastered. In the second scene, dealing with The Dream of the Rood (a text which has both an early version in the Ruthwell cross depiction and a later one in the Anglo-Saxon poem), Siewers finds a compelling hybridity, wherein nature and the human combine in the voices of the narrator, the tree, the cross, and Christ. It is this kind of hybridity ("ecopoetics") that Siewers finds valuable for environmentalists today, in combination with the early Celtic understanding of the land: we need to discover in these texts the ways in which they urge our "empathetic engagement" (143) with the natural world, thus fulfilling our needs as ecological beings. These texts imagine "fluid boundaries beyond categories of human and natural," and they therefore provide us with a "participatory ethic of environmental responsibility to the other" (143), reminiscent (as Siewers often notes) with the modern movement of Deep Ecology.

In the course of setting forth his multi-faceted argument, Siewers demonstrates scholarly honesty and integrity at every turn in that he is scrupulous about citing the earlier scholarship of Celticists, both literary critics and historians, whose work parallels his own (such as those who have analyzed the Otherworld in similar ways and those who have, like Siewers, noted the possible intertextual relationships of Eriugena's works and the Celtic world-view). The result of this scholarly integrity is that Siewers' own contributions to the analysis of early Celtic materials are sometimes obscured. Finally, however, his main contributions lie less in the scholarly analysis of Celtic texts than in the elaborate and intellectually adventurous ways in which he finds analogues for their textual workings in modern theory, suggesting thereby the relevance of early Irish culture to today's sophisticated ecophilosophical thought. Because of the abstract nature of Siewers' analyses, the book is sometimes difficult to read. This problem is compounded by its unusual organizational structure; the book is "rhizomic," almost as if it were meant to mirror the very non- linear recursiveness of the material it is treating. Themes appear, then disappear, and then appear again in new contexts, making the experience of reading the book much like being on an uncharted sea in a rudderless coracle--exactly the right sort of voyage for those seeking spiritual dimensions in their environments, but for others, perhaps, a somewhat disorienting ride.