The goal of Neville's book is to explore the ways in which the Anglo-Saxons used descriptions of the natural world to define their own human and social condition and, above all, to define their relationship with God and divine creation. In Anglo- Saxon poetry, Neville argues, "the representation of the 'natural world' is never an end in itself and is always ancillary to other issues. It acts as a literary device, used to define what were apparently more important issues: the state of humanity and its position in the universe, the establishment and maintenance of society, the power of extraordinary individuals, the proximity of the deity to creation and the ability of writing to control and limit information." (18)
The book is divided into seven chapters, with chapter one serving as an overall introduction. Here Neville defines her topic and provides a general overview of the ways in which she feels the Anglo-Saxons defined their world. Chapter 2, "Defining and confining humanity," examines man's place in a largely hostile and dangerous world of natural forces, a theme continued in chapter 3, "Constructing Society: outside and inside, powerlessness and control." Chapter 4 is entitled "Standing outside, standing out: defining the individual," though it focuses more on types of figure (the hero, saint, etc.) than on the individual and how we might define him or her. Chapter 5 explores "Representing God: power in and against nature." The final two chapters are devoted to a broader look at the ways in which knowledge and writing serve to define and limit nature, and the conclusions that can be drawn from this overall survey.
The book provides excellent coverage of a broad range of poetic sources, as well as a close analysis of specific words and passages from Old English poetry that relate to plants, animals, landscape, and other aspects of nature--including nightmares. Neville is generally careful to define exactly what she feels the Anglo-Saxons included and excluded from their definition of the "natural world," and her translations from the Old English are of a consistently high quality. The author certainly demonstrates her thesis that in all cases the poetry presents us with literary constructs rather than accurate reflections of a natural reality.
There are, however, many problems. Firstly, the book is extremely repetitive. We read about human alienation from a powerful, destructive, and largely uncontrollable nature over and over again throughout the first four chapters. It is not until we get to the chapter on representing God (chapter 5) that we begin to see hints of a gentler and more benign landscape. The discussion of chaos and hostile nature in Oxford, Bodl. Lib., Junius 11 could, for example, have been tempered by a discussion of the fertile, "aelgrene" landscape inherited by Noah, Abraham (lines 1517 and 1751), and their descendants in the same manuscript. Secondly, Neville tends to reduce her analysis of poetry and society to monolithic readings. "On a basic level," she writes, "the Anglo-Saxons did not have a word or expression for the modern conception of the natural world because they did not conceive of an entity defined by the exclusion of the supernatural." (2). While this may be generally true, we still cannot safely say that the Anglo-Saxons conceived of a nature defined exclusively by the supernatural, whatever the evidence of the poetry, nor that all modern readers would exclude the supernatural from their definition of the natural world. There are also problems of definition. What does she mean by the "individual," or "humanity" in contrast to "society"? How did the Anglo-Saxons understand these same concepts? What does she mean by the "unmastered" (p. 74) world of the Old English Genesis,?
Most problematic is Neville's confining herself almost exclusively to the poetic sources. The Introduction does contain a section on "actual physical conditions," but this relies too heavily on considerations of climate alone. Place names and topographical descriptions in charters, for example, provide a much more straightforward approach to the natural world that, while influenced by religious beliefs, was not entirely defined by them. In The Landscape of Anglo-Saxon England (London & Washington: Leicester University Press, 1998) Della Hooke notes that even in Anglo-Saxon England the landscape was "almost entirely man-made and was generally affected by regional economic conditions and the administrative framework that had been set up to exploit it." (xii). This view of nature is entirely lacking from Neville's analysis, as is any reference to Hooke's numerous publications on the Anglo- Saxon landscape, or the even more numerous publications on landscape archaeology. (There is a reference to C. J. Arnold's The Archaeology of the Early Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms in footnote 49, but curiously the book is not listed in her bibliography.) True, Neville's primary concern is poetic representation, but the literary constructions she explores in the poetry would be so much the clearer when read in relation to the material evidence. And how does the order and control over nature exemplified by the poetry compare to that of the legal texts, or the agricultural landscape? What are the points of intersection? (In her discussion of the individual on pages 96 and 97 she suggests that they are there.) Without some consideration of the social contexts and physical settings in which the poetry was written we cannot say that we have truly gained "insight into the Anglo-Saxons' 'method of questioning' --the ways in which they organised and made sense of their environment," or that poetic descriptions do in fact reveal "who and what the Anglo-Saxons thought they were" (206).