18.11.06, Estes, Anglo-Saxon Literary Landscapes

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Michael Bintley

The Medieval Review 18.11.06

Estes, Heide. Anglo-Saxon Literary Landscapes: Ecotheory and the Anglo-Saxon Environmental Imagination. Environmental Humanities in Pre-modern Cultures . Amsterdam Netherlands: Amsterdam University Press, 2017. pp. 216. ISBN: 978-9-089649447 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Michael Bintley
Birkbeck College, University of London
michael.bintley@canterbury.ac.uk

"These are not just words. This is a call to action. Stop. Think. Reverse course" (192). Heide Estes' inaugural volume in her new book series "Environmental Humanities in Pre-Modern Cultures," which closes with this challenge, follows a proud tradition of environmentalist writing which has endeavoured to stir the sleepwalkers of the industrialised world from our march into the midst of the environmental crisis.

As Anglo-Saxon Literary Landscapesargues convincingly, attitudes towards the environment that have normalised and perpetuated anthropo- and andro-centric behaviours have a deep history. Just as Debby Banham argued in "Anglo-Saxon Attitudes: in Search of the Origins of English Racism" (European Review of History 1.2 [1994], 143-156), Estes shows that there is abundant evidence in early English culture, in this case its literature, to show that the foundations of British racism, colonialism, and imperialism underpin Western approaches to both other humans andthe environment.

In several places throughout the volume Estes notes the importance of recognising that these developments are not recent: "a text like the Life of Guthlacnormalizes and naturalizes conquest and power imbalances illuminat[ing] the development of a world-view that enable[d] later colonizing operations to be undertaken as if it were legitimate for the English to subdue the Irish, and later, the inhabitants of North America, China, India, and Africa" (90). These ideas "were not Renaissance inventions, but extensions of ideas articulated and developed in Anglo-Saxon England" (98), "deeply embedded in English culture, preceding actual colonization outside of Europe by several centuries, and enabling and justifying later colonial aggressions" (116).

In the current political climate, in which medieval studies is the process of re-evaluating its complicity in the perpetuation of structures of privilege,Literary Landscapesis a timely reconsideration of both origins and antidote. On the one hand, it uses early English literature to show that "assertions that humans are entitled to earthly, animal and human 'resources' are not a symptom of the Industrial Revolution, but a set of pre-existing ideologies that enabled it" (178). On the other, Estes also demonstrates that this same literature "challenges environmentalists' easy assumptions that an awareness of the human violation of earth is a recent concern" (149). In other words, consciousness of human impact on the environment is nothing new.

Like Antonia Harbus' Cognitive Approaches to Old English Poetry(Boydell, 2012), this volume will offer readers familiar with early English literature a valuable introduction to a field that has steadily been growing in influence and importance in the last few decades--in this case ecocriticism, its approaches, and practical applications. Following a brief discussion of the material and historical evidence for the period, and a more extensive introduction to ecocriticism, ecotheory, and its intersection with studies of early English literature, the second chapter, "Imagining the Sea in Secular and Religious Poetry," makes a case for the connection of "water, earth, femininity, monstrosity and death" (58) in Exodus, Andreas, Elene, and Beowulf. Chapter 3 focuses on "Ruined Landscapes," making an intriguing case for the tower of Babel in Genesis Aas future-ruin, and for the "floodwaters of the Red Sea [...] as ruined walls and ramparts" (72). The suggestion (following Karl Wentersdorf) that Heorot may have been built on an existing Roman floor (77) lacks material parallels; stronger evidence of the influence of Romanitas on hall-buildings would be the kind of opus signinumflooring hypothesized at Lyminge, though clues such as the phrase healwudu dynede("the hall-wood resounded," line 1317), describing the noisy re-entry of Beowulf and his men into Heorot after the attack by Grendel's mother, could suggest timber flooring. The fourth chapter, "Rewriting Guthlac's Wilderness," follows Alfred Siewers in making a strong case for the "imagined wildernesses of Anglo-Saxon texts set[ting] the stage for colonial expansion" (116). Chapter 5, "Animal Natures," focuses on the Exeter Book Riddles (and other poems), showing that the former, although they "enact the subjugation of animals through violence and through the claim of lack of reason [...] also provide an alternative vision whereby animals protest the violence that is done to them, using human language to protest and to designate humans as 'the enemy'" (142). Chapter 6, "Object and Hyperobjects," employs Timothy Morton's object-oriented approaches, specifically his concept of hyperobjects (objects "too large to perceive in their entirety" (146)), in discussing the Exeter Book Riddles, in which humans are moved out of the centre, "not only to allow for the voices of other humans, but also to hear the voices of things" and in doing so "to craft an ethics that acknowledges the legitimacy of earth and ore, trees and reeds, crows and cows, alongside and equal to humans: all humans" (175).

The book concludes with a discussion of the wider implications of ecocritical study of early English literature and culture, and in doing so emphasizes the value of approaching this period from environmentally-engaged perspectives. Estes generously offers various avenues for future research, some of which have already been taken up, and concludes with the call to action cited at the beginning of this review, which emphasises that the fight against racism, imperialism, colonialism, and neoliberalism is also an environmental struggle. One such area for further study (which this reviewer would particularly encourage) is better understanding and representation of the material contexts of early medieval literature and documentary historical sources.

In summary, this is an important study that offers a much-needed single-author assessment of landscapes in early English literature from an ecocritical perspective, and which also shows the necessity of including ecocritical perspectives and their many entanglements in the wider global and transhistorical discussions to which the field contributes and must continue to contribute.

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