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13.12.05, Baker, Honour, Exchange and Violence in Beowulf

13.12.05, Baker, Honour, Exchange and Violence in Beowulf

An author of accessible introductory texts on Old English (Introduction to Old English [2003, 2007, 2012] and Beowulf: Basic Readings [1995]), Peter S. Baker has extended his user-friendly brand in this critical study. Set in a large font with wide leading, the book has apposite figures, digestible chapter-divisions--with clever titles!--and accessible citations for non-specialists. The Introduction opens with the phrase, "there's no getting around the fact that Beowulf is violent," and this appealing tone invites the reader into a world of "hairy men beating each other up"--one where "Beowulf knows how to speak monster." The Introduction (Chapter 1) establishes key concepts: dislocations between medieval and modern conceptions of violence, honor as "the esteem in which one is held by others, measured by what they say," and "peace" that yet entails extramural warfare, religious tolerance of violence, and the nature of heroic literature. Invoking the Icelandic sagas, chivalric romance, Iroquois peacemaking, Montenegrin settlements, Fielding's Tom Jones, not to mention a host of medieval authors writing in Latin, Baker illustrates his findings with topical allusions that will make this book a staple for undergraduate literature majors. He also sets aside the complicated and thorny debate over the poem's date. The volume's intentional "relevance" derives in part from its inspiration, Baker's poignant confusion and dismay over the Iraq invasion.

Emphasizing exchange in Beowulf as non-commercial in Chapter 2, Baker explores treasure as symbolic commodity, occasionally of intrinsic value. Often such goods are "loot," and Baker cites texts describing plunder from an accumulation of disparate sources: an Old Testament canticle, the Old English Judith, a tenth-century homily by Ælfric, Bede's commentary on Luke, Arator's sixth-century poem De actibus apostolorum, Prudentius's Psychomachia, and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Such evidence, Baker proposes, is explicable through the Gift Theory of Marcel Mauss, whose 1925 Essai sur le Don included a section on gift-exchange in Germanic sources. Gifts compel service as much as they convey honor by creating indebtedness. Baker goes on to summarize the relevance of Mauss's ideas for Beowulf. Here I find myself disagreeing with Baker's analysis, largely because I have read Mauss in French and explored many of his sources. However, while more current anthropological models explain gift-giving in Beowulf, I cannot fault Baker's reliance in this book on the tried-and-true methods of analysis. A past owner's possessions--he argues--as much as the violent deeds used to seize (or otherwise earn) them, confer value on them. Baker's understanding of looting and the social memory of its acquisition, its relationship to the honor of a past possessor, and its conferral in a cycle of ongoing recognition and indebtedness can be found on pages 62-63. What follows is an excellent summary of John M. Hill's analysis of Beowulf's rewards from Hrothgar and Wealhtheow, with a brief coda on the ójafnaðarmaðr in the Icelandic tradition.

Chapter 3 covers Hunferth's "loan" of his sword Hrunting to Beowulf, in light of Pierre Bourdieu's conception of a return-gift as a disingenuous social contract that displaces, but does not eliminate, obligation. After a lengthy and far-ranging discussion of Old English terminology for giving and lending, Baker concludes that Hunferth's sword is both loan and gift. Although he admits, "it is hard to see what in this transaction benefits Beowulf," Baker envisions a calculating gift of honor in Beowulf's acceptance. Going on to regard Beowulf's remarks upon Hrunting's return to Hunferth as "a quick and colorless compliment," Baker discounts the complex ironies of Beowulf's speech, as well as the implicit tactical advantage conferred by a designated hæftmece. Nonetheless, Baker has illuminated a neglected moment in Beowulf, drawing on historical perspectives and compelling analogies.

Readers will be enthralled by Chapter 4, "The Angel in the Meadhall," which focuses on the invention and persistence of the queenly "peaceweaver" in Old English criticism. Intriguingly, evidence for this chapter derives from a google Ngram and a google search yielding some 53,000 results. Baker's percipient survey of "scholarship concerning the word freoðuwebbe" (especially by John Mitchell Kemble) contextualizes women in domestic subordination represented by marriage, family, and kin. Once the peaceweaver emerges as "an ideal figure of womanhood," she becomes tragic, an impotent failure at maintaining peace. Critical of major scholars and sensitive critics like Jane Chance, Tom Shippey, and Alaric Hall among others, Baker expresses irritation for those who concoct the "clean division of labor" between men and women as war-makers and peace-makers. OE freoðowebbe describes queens in Beowulf and Widsið, but an angel in Elene. Baker's analysis of the Old English simplices freoðo- and sibb- in freoðowebbe and related compounds suggests his highly original interpretation of queenship. As intermediaries to husbands like angels to God, queens express both inferior co-responsibility and independence of mind. Men listen to them. As Baker himself acknowledges, this conclusion is not as appealing as that "devised by Ettmüller and developed further by those who came after him," but it represents a novel approach to queenship in Beowulf.

Having defined queenship, Baker proceeds to delineate three queens in Chapter 5. Although the discussions of Wealhtheow and Thryth seem derivative, and sometimes strained or even unconvincing, his account of Freawaru persuasively situates her fictional marriage in the context of historical ones intended (one imagines) to settle national rivalries. Baker perceives these early marriages in the context of gift-exchange, rather than commodity exchange--acquiring and conferring honor. Freawaru therefore becomes, "an ambassador of Danish power and a foreign intervention in the Heathobard court, a material reminder of obligations." A reminder of foreign domination, Freawaru's participation in the Heathobard court evokes rancor, but at the same time recalls Baker's understanding of her as a political actor rather than a naïf.

In Chapter 6 Baker discusses the Finnsburg episode, presumably sidestepping much of the scholarship that would blunt the clear line of his narrative take on power and asymmetrical human relationships. Drawing on a range of analogies, some medieval, some modern, Baker examines the settlement of disputes, the allegiances on both sides of a quarrel, the motivations for violence, and the expectations for settlements. Investigating the abstruse "Cynewulf and Cyneheard" episode from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Baker notes the potency of heroic action in terms of abstract honor, an equivalence of values. He shrewdly highlights the incongruous expectations for a stable peace between Frisians and Danes in the Finn Digression--"settlements that fail make for compelling stories." So much of this chapter conspicuously disregards my own published research on this episode, yet re-states the conclusions I have already reached on Finn's treasure-giving, Hengest's hostility, and a host of other matters, that I refer readers here to my Heroic Identity in the World of Beowulf (Brill, 2008) both for relevant discussion and, in many cases, contradictory reactions to Hengest, Beowulf, gift-giving, and reluctant violence implicit in the episode.

Baker's final chapter, entitled "Beowulf's Last Triumph," examines the dragon fight in the poem from the perspective of a question, "who has the treasure?" Baker begins by stating--erroneously, in my view--"it is difficult for modern readers to understand heroes who deliberately walk into situations where death is a near certainty." On the contrary, it's quite easy to understand such a Hollywood theme. In his view of Beowulf's end as an ars moriendi, Baker proposes that "the right kind of fight" and the "right reasons" will matter. Beowulf, he says, seeks revenge and treasure. Baker conspicuously ignores Hrothgar's experience of Grendel, when he concludes, "the cost in honour of passivity being great, it seems better for a king who cares about his reputation to do something about the monsters that visit his kingdom…a king should always fight a dragon." Yet this statement and others like it belie the consequences of Beowulf's death--invasion and extermination--as much as the ultimate dispersal of the dragon hoard--burning and interment making it useless. Baker does not lack for ingenious answers to back his theoretical statements. Thinking that the decayed dragon hoard, a national treasury, has lost its association with the former possessors' national honor, Baker imagines that the dragon gained no honor by claiming the abandoned treasures but that Beowulf has earned honor by winning them. He mitigates the expected warfare between Geats and Swedes, and Geats and Franks, by alleging that formulas expressing annihilation merely describe the anticipated violence of warfare.

At the close of a distinguished career, Baker has gathered his deepest, most astute meditations on violence in Beowulf. Simplifying the most elementary aspects of Beowulf scholarship, Baker's reader-friendly survey of exchange will welcome undergraduates to Anglo-Saxon Studies, not unlike recent books by similarly eminent teacher-scholars, especially Richard North, author of Beowulf & Other Stories.