16.09.11, Borges, trans. Toswell, Ancient Germanic Literatures

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Sarah Harlan-Haughey

The Medieval Review 16.09.11

Borges, Jorge Luis, in collaboration with Delia Ingenieros. trans. M. J. Toswell. Ancient Germanic Literatures. Old English Publications: Studies and Criticism, 1. Tempe: ACMRS, 2014. pp. xvi, 104. ISBN: 9780866985093 (paperback).

Reviewed by:
Sarah Harlan-Haughey
University of Maine

Jorge Luis Borges was a great enthusiast of Germanic literature; he had memorized such poems as the "Battle of Maldon" and wrote touchingly on the fate of much medieval Germanic literature to be obscured or forgotten--a theme of much of his own fiction, essays, and poetry. Fans of Borges who do not read Spanish may be familiar with some of his excellent essays and fictions that incorporate his knowledge of and obsession with heroic poetry and sagas. "The Scandinavian Destiny," an essay which can be found in the collected and translated Nonfictions of Borges, is still a useful way to orient newcomers to the strange richness and difference of Icelandic narrative. Now, for the first time, M. J. Toswell has translated Borges' most concerted and systematic effort to explore the medieval Germanic literature that is a leitmotif throughout Borges' own life.

Ancient Germanic Literature is, unsurprisingly, a strange collection of essays, summaries of texts, and syntheses of the idiosyncratic knowledge this polymathic magpie had gleaned from his readings in the scholarship and primary texts of the Germanic-speaking peoples of the early and high medieval period. It is useful for those interested in the history of medievalism, for Borges enthusiasts, or even for specialists in Old English or Old Norse looking for a fresh perspective on their material. The collection of essays is at times pedantic, at times irresponsibly outdated even for 1951, and at times brilliant. Toswell's translation is clear and faithful to the Spanish text, if somewhat workmanlike in places.

Toswell's introduction, though tantalizingly brief, offers an overview of Borges' passion for ancient Germanic literature and a call for more communication between scholars of this material and Borgesians. Borges read old Norse and Old English, and had a passion for these literatures--the extent to which they influenced his own writing has perhaps been underestimated, if we consider the great number of references to them in his interviews and public lectures. Readers interested in learning more about Borges' interest in medieval material would do well to seek out Toswell's excellent monograph, Borges the Unacknowledged Medievalist.

Thus this new volume is undoubtedly welcome. However, while Toswell has done an admirable job of bringing to Anglophone readers the first edition of the essays, it is curious that she chose to translate the first edition, written in collaboration with Delia Ingenieros, not the second, which was written in apparent collaboration with Maria Esther Vásquez. Toswell acknowledges that this second edition is "a somewhat more scholarly work, and offers more extensive analysis, though its base throughout is the first text, sometimes rearranged with some added paragraphs of information" (xiii). This is generally the preferred edition in Spanish, having been reprinted several times by such presses as Madrid, the Alianza Editorial, and Hispanoamérica. Toswell argues that the earlier edition is a younger writer's more authentic response to the material. This reviewer is not entirely convinced that this is a satisfactory justification for the choice of the earlier 1951 edition, as the 1965 revision could be argued to present a more complex, multilayered portrait of the kind of work Borges did throughout his long life--he was a recursive thinker who returned again and again to the same themes and materials, and in each revisiting he echoed his earlier work and added extra facets. Nevertheless, it is wonderful to have this material in English translation; Borges' writing on Germanic literature is invaluable--his unique way of thinking, his aesthetic taste and judgment, and his unparalleled ability to make connection between texts from different times and places is showcased to great effect in this little collection of essays.

Another curious decision is Toswell's hands-off approach to scholarly intervention. Beyond the brief introduction and the note on the text, both quite brief, no other scholarly apparatus is offered. This reader would have appreciated an index of names and works, and some sort of editorial mechanism--footnotes for clarification would have been invaluable. As Toswell notes, Borges at times is inconsistent in his "references to various figures in the literature and history of Germanic cultures" and at times "seems likely to have mistranscribed his own material," as in the case where "in his discussion of the punishment meted out to Elfgar in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the Borges text reads "quemaron" to suggest that his eyes were burned out. However, it seems likely that what was meant was "quitaron" which would correctly render the Old English" (xv). It would be nice to have these editorial corrections made more visible. Toswell also asserts that it would be "churlish" to correct Borges' more egregious errors of understanding, as in his assertion that "the term 'Venerable' was given to all priests during the time of Bede" (xv). Since the presumed audience of this translation is not only Germanists who would recognize these errors of understanding and consume the proffered information accordingly, but also Borges enthusiasts who are not medievalists, this reviewer believes that a little churlishness might go a long way to prevent misunderstanding.

As Toswell acknowledges, Borges is on surer footing when writing about Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse literature than when writing about other early Germanic material: "He does not refer to any knowledge of Gothic--which would be specialized knowledge indeed--or Old High German, and for those two literatures he relies on some of the standard texts about the surviving materials, and tends to paraphrase and summarize the contents, rather than the poetic approaches, of the texts considered" (xii). For this reason, this review will focus on the first two chapters on Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse literature, respectively.

The first chapter offers an overview of the literature of the Anglo-Saxons from Beowulf to the Exeter Book Elegies to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and Layamon (introduced by Borges as the "último poeta Sajón"--which Toswell strangely chooses to translate as "English," not Saxon (29), thus opening up a can of worms Borges did not necessarily package). Borges has a deep and abiding appreciation for Old English poetry, and it shows in his at times inspired writing about it. As Borges fans may expect, he is at his best when connecting one text with another, at times in exciting and eye-opening ways. For example, he shows in a few deft strokes how "the joy of alliteration survives in English" (8) to this day in advertising slogans and expressions, and then turns to Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" to show the versatility of English poetry and its debt to the alliterative tradition. Other classic Borgesian moves are his rhapsody on Cynewulf's runic signature, which he connects with another obsession of his own, the Cabbala: "In order to make this method of Cynewulf's less inexplicable, we can comment that the letters, over a long period of time, developed a kind of sacred quality; it is sufficient to remember that the cabbalists believe that God could create the world by way of the letters of the alphabet" (20). Such a revealing aside is certainly of interest to students of Borges' circular fictions of libraries, sacred letters, and words.

A few quibbles about Toswell's translation: why translate "las adivinanzas" as "conundra" if the more accepted names for these Exeter book poems is "riddles"? And this reader wondered why the famous lines in Deor ("Þæs ofereode, þisses swa mæg"), translated by Borges into Spanish as "Aquello pasó; tambien esto pasará," should be rendered in this translation as the singularly awkward "That stopped happening; so also someday this will stop happening" (14). This seems far removed from Borges' faithful and elegant translation of the original refrain. But quibbles these are--the rendering of Borges' difficult prose in English is generally graceful and accurate.

In the chapter on Old Norse literature, which Borges believes are "without question" "the most complex and richest of the ancient Germanic literatures" (31), he guides his readers on a whirlwind tour through the eddic poetry, the family sagas, the biskupa sögur, the fornaldar sögur, and the skaldic poetry. He devotes special attention to Snorri Sturluson, the völsunga saga, and Saxo's Gesta Danorum. Valuable Borgesian insights on the material include: his analysis of Egil Skallagrimsson's poetic blindness--which prefigures his own (45-47); his rebuttal of the theory that skaldic poetry represents a "degeneration" of Icelandic poetry ("The Indian cabinetmaker could well answer that the point is not the pinch of dust but the complexity of the chart; the Icelandic poet, that the point is not the idea of the raven, but the image 'red swan.' There is a pleasure in the metaphors that there is not in the direct words: to say 'the blood' is not the same as 'the wave of the sword'" [51]); and his discussion of the "intimate chilliness" of Snorri's writing--through analogy with Bernadetto Croce's description of the "witticism with little wit" of seventeenth century art (62). In his discussion of the dangers of approaching the Völsunga Saga as a "primitive text", he suggests that summaries of the material tend to leave a false impression of "a chaos of cruelty"--the same happens to Shakespeare's Macbeth in such circumstances, he argues. Borges is dead on when he notes: "Like Shakespeare and the Greek tragedians, the author of the Völsunga accepted marvelous old tales and gave himself the work of imagining characters adjusted to the requirements of the myth. Someone could decide not to believe in the wall of flame or the thorn of dreams, but no one can decide not to believe in Brynhild, in her love, and her solitude" (75). No one could put it better.

In her introduction, Toswell notes that the third chapter on German literature paraphrases it; this is true, and this reader found it less insightful than the previous two chapters--this is likely due to Borges' relative (understandable) inexperience with Old High German or Gothic. Nevertheless, it contains some interesting passages where Borges seems to be thinking about his own work through his analysis of poems like The Meresburg Charms, the Heliand, and Gudrun. This reader especially appreciated the borgesian musings on Walter von der Vogelweide's mastery "of the art of saying with simplicity and innocence many definitive things" such as "Was stiuret baz zu lebenne--danne ein werder lîp [you are mine, I am yours--of this you must be certain]". Borges closes his analysis in classic epigrammatic form: "Moreover one day he was able to suspect that all his past life had been nothing but a dream: "Owê, war sint verswunden alliu mîniu jâr? / Ist mîn leben mir getroumet oder ist ez wâr?" [alas for me, all of my years have disappeared! / Have I dreamed my life or was it true?]" (88). Gems like this make this book required reading for lovers of Borges and for scholars of Germanic literature, and we must be grateful to Toswell for giving us access to it.

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