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21.01.01 Birkett, Reading the Runes in Old English and Old Norse Poetry

The Medieval Review

21.01.01 Birkett, Reading the Runes in Old English and Old Norse Poetry


This reading of runes and their lore as refigured in two related bodies of medieval poetry from north-western Europe justifies the author's claim to have published the first study that "understands the use and representation of runes in medieval poetry as the first layer in the complex reception history of the runic script, produced by a culture contemplating the runic tradition from the vantage point of a developed literary culture" (2). Reading the Runes is no casual promotional title but a fundamental intellectual undertaking of medieval poets and their publics, and implies the possibility of both mis-inscription and misreading. Runes are, both graphically and literarily, meaningful signs within the hermeneutical framework of poetic texts and not simply "a pale reflection of existential runic practice" (4). Literate Germanic cultures from the post-conversion period inherited knowledge of the runic system and its conventions but, as custodians of received tradition, viewed this literate past obliquely. The focus on literary residue in medieval poetry partially deconstructs the perception of the oral-formulaic model of transmission of medieval poetry.

The study is in five principal chapters. The first, "The writing's on the wall," addresses the links between inscription and inheritance in Old English poetry, and probes Anglo-Saxon antiquarians' theoretical engagement with the origins of runic script. On the Franks Casket, runes are associated with both Germanic and early Christian history, but in a distinct prophetic register. This same association, indeed alignment, between the script and Old Testament history informs the use of runes in the Old English Daniel and, with the author's clever shift to another wall, on the hilt of the giant sword recovered from the Grendels' cave in Beowulf. Along with Andreas, the poetic representations of runic inscriptions seem to reflect an Anglo-Saxon choice to understand their runic heritage via a customized paradigm of Christian salvation history. Prophecy and admonition are principal discourse modes here.

Chapter 2, "Releasing runes: riddles and revelation in the Exeter Book," identifies the runes as book scripts that represent a co-option in a context of revelatory reading practices. Reading runes is tantamount to unlocking, in that the runes provide the clue to the solution of the riddle, rather than adding to its complexity. Such disclosure is then akin to the revelation associated with runes in other Christian literary contexts. Comparably, Cynewulf's runic signatures are in the service of an invested disclosure. Chapter 3, "Palm-twigs and runic glyphs; the ornamental textuality of runes," shifts attention to a different esthetic sensibility. Decorative use of runes is identified as antiquarian in motivation but this originally epigraphical script also calls attention to the written word as artifact and material object. Solomon and Saturn I is a key text. The Old English and Norwegian rune poems share this concretizing process. The runes are signifiers that gesture to their own materiality at the same time as they convey meaning. This is an attention-getting, ornamental textuality, in which shape and form are a guiding conceit, while the poems join the understudied medieval sub-genre of the list or inventory. Here and elsewhere in the book a recall of the author's professional location at University College Cork prompts thoughts that the numerous parallels with Christian Ireland and its inherited ogham scripts might have provided further illumination of ecclesiastical literacy and non-roman scripts in the British Isles.

Continuing with the discussion of Scandinavian evidence, Chapter 4, "Re-scripting the past in Old Norse heroic poetry," addresses the question of the historical concordance between traditional rune lore and epigraphical practice, more explicitly, what understanding of past practice the poetic texts of the Edda (principally Sigrdrífumál and Atlakviða) may convey, and which imaginary contexts might be invoked. In the discussion of the valkyrie Sigrdrífa's listing of various kinds of runes that a young hero should know, Birkett expands the parameters of his study under the sub-headings "Ale runes and the alu formula" (126-130) and "Ale-runes and laukr" (130-133) to consider archaeological evidence from the Migration Period of weapons and other objects inscribed with the runic formula alu or the early Germanic name of the L-rune, laukaz, which means "leek." Seen as a word, alu has not been successfully explained. Nor does it appear to be an assemblage of three rune names, which may be translated as "god," "leek," and "aurochs." In this reviewer's mind the explanation may well lie in the use of runic characters as abbreviations or prompts for yet other words that begin with the represented sound, here plausibly simple terms for three aspects of the early Germanic good life. The author concludes this chapter with the observation that "the few overlaps between Eddic rune lore and the corpus of older fuþark inscriptions may arise from a blend of fossilized poetic association and sensitive literary reconstruction, whilst the more prosaic use of runes [in other works] may represent the updating of runic heritage to reflect contemporary concerns" (9). They do this in a very different way from the memorial stones of Sweden, which seem quite remote from the Icelandic context. "Sacred scripts: myths of writing in the Poetic Edda" is Chapter 5 and examines the role of runic scripts in interrogating literacy and written authority. Myths of the origin and transmission of the runes are situated in a paradigm of contemporary engagement with the written word and its symbolic currency. As seen in the Edda poems Hávamál and Rígsþula, and Sólarljóð, runes, whatever the historical accuracy regarding their use, serve to benchmark social progress and assess the consequences of an increasingly literate society.

In his "Conclusion" Birkett attempts an overview of the reception history of runes in the medieval English and Norse worlds. Obsolescent in one application but serving to represent the runic tradition to itself, the script was assured of continued relevance by Anglo-Saxon and Norse poets as a cultural and literary symbol, not least in narratives of scriptural history and cultural identity. Yet the poems do not contribute to the recovery of the historical praxis of runology as epigraphic inscription. Still, the manipulation of a tangible scriptural heritage aids in the re-imagination of the literate past and achieves particular literary effects in the present. The runes are important resources in mediating the cultural heritage, while also inviting the interrogation of the culture of letters in England and the North. But there are differences: "Old English poetry reflects the adoption of the script to play a niche role within a vibrant ecclesiastical community, whilst Old Norse poetry maintains a close association between the script and a pre-Christian complex of imagery" (185). Even within each of the traditions, texts exploit rune lore in idiosyncratic ways, sometimes playful, at other times with a hint of a once-credited preternatural. Norse secular tradition talks about runes; Anglo-Saxon ecclesiastics employ them outright, with no reference to a pseudo-mythic history. But both runic revivals (if the reviewer may be allowed this term) exploit the runic tradition, concretized in its distinctive graphic appearance, as an extra-textual vantage point (Birkett: "meta-scriptural role," 188), in order to further the discourse about the written word in a written medium.

Birkett makes a very rewarding choice and grouping of texts for his close and always astute analysis. While runic epigraphy--what the study calls the practice of runes--is seldom discussed at length, the author is thoroughly grounded in contemporary runology--from Norwegian tally sticks to Swedish memorial stones--which is very reassuring to his readers. His book is sure to stimulate future studies, including some that will go off at tangents from his focused discussion. One thinks of his mention of the idea of the runes as pre-existing the appearance of humankind (Hávamál, st. 145) and the statement by the head of Mímir in Sigrdrífumál that all facets of reality once had runes (perhaps some kind of numen), which were then scraped off and dispersed among various groups of beings: gods, humans, dwarves, elves. (Cf. these beings' idiosyncratic lexis, some of which may have been thought to reflect awareness of "original" runes.) The task is then to re-assemble this knowledge. If, in this imagined cosmology, runes preceded humans, their speech and naming, one could imagine the original rún as an essential "secret" and only later as "alphabetic character" that might assist in a full recovery, explanation, and exploitation. On a more practical front, how shall we understand Egill Skallagrímsson's daughter Þorgerðr's promise to have the elegiac poem Sonatorrek, in 25 stanzas, inscribed on kefli, perhaps semi-dressed lengths of wood? In its entirety? in some mnemonic code (e.g., each stanza's first alliterating sound)? The frequent references to reddening the runes open the door to consideration of their association with sacrifice and other ritual, e.g., runic inscriptions on Norse poles of defamation. The volume concludes with a bibliography that usefully lists large compilations of runic inscriptions, and a thorough index. Birkett's book assures a fresh and informed reading of the presence of runes in medieval poetic literature and is heartily recommended.