03.09.05, Orchard, A Critical Companion to Beowulf

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Josephine Bloomfield

The Medieval Review baj9928.0309.005


Orchard, Andy. A Critical Companion to Beowulf. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2003. Pp. xix, 396. ISBN: 0-85991-766-5.

Reviewed by:
Josephine Bloomfield
Ohio University

Andy Orchard likes to count things. He has counted things prodigiously, to the great gain of the discipline, in an almost superhuman production of books and articles in the last decade. His interests (and counting) range from Anglo-Latin texts to Anglo-Saxon texts to Norse and other Scandinavian texts, into all of which he dives with an equal archaeological fervor, and also with a desire for pattern making and understanding. Because he is nearly always willing to organize the results of his counting into tables, he has produced a wide and thick pile of data, which he generously passes on to members of the discipline in publications, conference paper handouts, and, soon, in databases on the internet.

But the data he produces is never just that: he uses it to draw conclusions about authorship (see, for instance, his Cynewulf arguments), about influences of Anglo-Latin and Anglo-Saxon authors on each other (in, for instance, his Andreas work), and even about authorial intention (of which this Beowulf companion is apt illustration). His energy for reading, digesting, and analyzing texts makes him one of the few people in the discipline today who could have been approached by Boydell and Brewer to tackle the enormous, even Olympian, task of creating a new critical companion to Beowulf. Though the final product is more heavily infused with Orchardian counting and listing than a general audience might necessarily desire, and though Orchard's readings of certain passages and characters in the text are idiosyncratic enough to surprise, it is hard to imagine a more thorough introduction and presentation of the qualities of the text and the critical questions that vex its reading: it is a generous, energetic, engaging work whose apparatus alone is worth the price. While some of Orchard's readings and proposed emendations may have his colleagues arguing with him for years, I believe that may be his own sly intention--to keep other scholars in the fray (or to bring them into the fray) with the same pleasure and intensity that he himself experiences and exhibits.

The text, which includes a map, genealogy, plot summary, three appendices, four tables, three indexes, a bibliography, six plates, and a foreward and afterword, has at its core seven central chapters, six of which deal with somewhat circumscribed topics (Manuscript and Text; Style and Structure; Myth and Legend; Religion and Learning; Heroes and Villains; Words and Deeds), while the seventh tries to figure out how to analyze a poem whose author, in Orchard's words, "often seems to circumscribe and undercut his creations, putting into sharp focus the limits of their shared mortality and the boundaries of all human knowledge" (238).

The chapter entitled Manuscript and Text, in addition to describing the manuscript and placing it in both its historical and material context (including an extended discussion of its relationship to the Letter of Alexander to Aristotle, supplemented by a table detailing [Orchard-like] the distribution of -sceaw and wund(o)r/wunder words in the Letter), presents a thoughtful, interesting, and sometimes surprising discussion of the Beowulf scribes, which includes a history of the text's emendations and a review of recent scholarly views on emendation. Going against the current tendency, which is for preservation of the text as it stands in every instance possible (on the presumption that the Old English of even the most careless of Anglo-Saxon scribes is infinitely superior to that of modern scholars), Orchard tackles the stances of such scholars as John Niles, Allen Frantzen, Fred Robinson, Bruce Mitchell, and Kevin Kiernan in arguing, often very lucidly and persuasively, not only for preservation of numerous past emendations but also for continuing active emendation. Even in the cases where he does not persuade, however, his treatment of the question is balanced and he fairly represents the arguments of his colleagues who hold the opposing view.

By the time I was reading Chapter 3, Style and Structure, I found that I had become Orchardized, and could no longer resist counting things myself, and my counting revealed more than 25 lists and tables in this chapter alone (and nine typos: this is a list that I kept running, since the conscientiousness of the scholarship so contrasted with the seeming insouciance of the editing). There were tallies of finite verbs, of compound nouns, of instances of cross-alliteration, of double alliteration, of pairs of half-lines using prepositions, of instances of whole verse repetition; tables of fitt divisions; lists of compounds using war terms, lists of formulas repeated with reversed constituents, etc. It is, in other words, an analysis of style and structure that is computistic to an unusual degree. Though there is also analysis of the computation--as on p. 72, where Orchard uses the list he has compiled of 103 compounds using simplexes related to war to demonstrate the poet's originality and ingenuity--it becomes clear that the chapter is a work that could only be produced by a scholar deeply involved in formularies and formulaic analysis of texts. It is an inductive presentation of the poet's stylistic complexity.

Chapter 4, Myth and Legend, is one that Orchard is particularly well qualified to present, having in the last several years written not only the Cassell Dictionary of Norse Myth and Legend, but also Pride and Prodigies, in both of which he grapples extensively with Norse and Icelandic sources/analogues of the legends and mythology presented or suggested in Beowulf. With the exception of a few quirky analyses (such as his suggestion on p. 103 that Sigemund's name [Victory-hand] is an onomastic allusion), the chapter is rich, full, informative, well-illustrated, and persuasive in arguing for the importance of familiarity with Germanic myth and legend for understanding many aspects of the texture of the poem and for fully grasping its complexity and art.

Chapter 5, Religion and Learning, has as its surprising center a table detailing parallels between Beowulf's fight with Grendel and David's with Goliath: this is not where most analyses of Beowulf and Christianity have gone. Orchard argues here, leaning to some degree on his findings in his earlier work, The Poetic Art of Aldhelm, for the transmission of Latin culture, including Christianity, not only through written classical texts, but through those texts as mediated by later texts and even by vernacular culture and language. In his analysis, he considers such texts as the (probably) ninth-century Waltharius, which he sees as sharing the Beowulf poet's reassessment of Germanic legend through a Christian perspective. He is most interested, however, in Old Testament parallels, and his table comparing David and Beowulf is intended to demonstrate that the David story provides a closer parallel to Beowulf than does even the Icelandic Grettis saga, which most scholars find to be the closest Norse analogue to the poem. This chapter also considers hagiographical influences as well as patristic and homiletic influences on Beowulf.

Chapter 6, Heroes and Villains, is where Wealhtheow scholars will first encounter Orchard's surprising description of the Danish queen as a "bustling" (180) servant whose job is to serve drinks, a "passive onlooker" (181) (it will get worse in Chapter 7, where he refers to her political counsel as a "crude attempt to meddle in high politics" (220), and refers to the gifts she presents to Beowulf as "baubles" (226, which he says she presents in order "not to be outdone" (226)). This is one of those cases (and his later analysis of Wiglaf is another) where Orchard presents an idiosyncratic reading of a character or passage without indicating that his reading is unusual and without noticing or engaging other, opposing readings. It is an odd departure from his usual balance and fairness, but this chapter is in several ways odd: though short, it is overstuffed with typos (10), characterized by somewhat awkward or grating translations of passages in the poem (179, 184, 186, 187, 195), and seems unusually peremptory in its acceptance of emendations that significantly alter the text (182). Perhaps it represents an overtaxed author on a deadline.

At the heart of Chapter 7, Words and Deeds, are the speeches in Beowulf, which as Orchard notes (counting again) take up 1200 lines or 38% of the poem. Table IV, located in this chapter, analyzes each speech in the poem according to its length, speaker, address, setting, episode, and its introductory verb. He uses this table in particular to analyze the differences between Part I and Part II of the poem, finding the thirty speeches in Part I in general to be decorous exchanges which are uninterrupted, whereas the nine speeches in Part II are unanswered and often interrupted. He argues that the patterned trading of words at Hrothgar's court contrasts the values of that court with those at Hygelac's and later at Beowulf's courts. It is at the end of this chapter that Orchard somewhat startlingly asserts that Wiglaf has a clear-sightedness and perspective denied to the other characters and that he speaks "not only for the poet, but for us" (275). I suspect here an Orchardian word-deed operation in which his pronouncement on Wiglaf is meant to arouse us to words (though one hopes not deeds) of response.

The final substantive chapter, Beowulf: Beyond Criticism?, considers, among other things, the treatment of the limits of human knowledge by the Beowulf poet--the ways that he repeatedly reminds us that we see only a partial picture--and considers what that means for the industry of Beowulf criticism. Within this chapter, he analyses the dragon fight, and his assertions about the roles and qualities of Beowulf and Wiglaf might by some be considered fighting words. He speaks, for instance, of Beowulf's self-absorption and "maudlin inactivity," and says that the "mantle of heroism falls on Wiglaf" (261). Controversial indeed! These assertions themselves may create enough of a rise in the community of Beowulf scholars to demonstrate that the poem is not Beyond Criticism.

A few final notes: there is much to praise in this work, and unmentioned in the praise above is the respect that Orchard gives here to all the scholars whose work he discusses, including Kevin Kiernan and David Howlett, who are in particular often treated in the critical community as wild men; in the rush to disagree with their off-the-beaten-track views, scholars at times have ignored or undervalued their extreme erudition and the value of their extraordinary scholarship. Orchard's fairness to them here is a valuable gesture. On the other hand, Orchard seems sometimes not to have read the works he cites, or not to have absorbed some o f their central ideas (and after all, how could he have, given that he cites more than 1400 sources?). Massive lists of works in the footnotes seem sometimes to have been chosen based on the words in their titles rather than on their content. Nevertheless, the bibliography he ultimately produces will be an invaluable aide to scholars at all levels, as will the index guiding those scholars to the sections of the text on which the authors in the bibliography have made relevant comments. The book, I believe, will be important to Beowulf study for years to come, and a stimulus to healthy interchange and argument for even longer.

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Josephine Bloomfield

Ohio University