The Cambridge Companion to Old English Literature.
Although there are articles here by some of the world's best-known Anglo-Saxonists, this work is not the triumph that some readers may be expecting. Certainly, Patrick Wormald and Roberta Frank are excellent company, and there are informative contributions from Bately, Fell, Godden, Lendinara and perhaps one or two others, but there are also some weak chapters. On occasion, this is not the fault of the contributors: Gneuss, for example, attempts to describe the language in a highly abbreviated and dense account of thirty pages. Despite the expectations raised by the scintillating |Beowulf' and the Appositive Style, Robinson's article on Beowulf is disappointing: the poem is said to be narrated with |a local English outlook', despite the fact that it never mentions English people, places or events; Grendel's Mother is called a troll who drags the hero |into her cave behind a waterfall' (though this is Beowulf, not Grettir). Other chapters are misleadingly titled: Scragg's |The nature of Old English verse' is essentially on the rhythm of two passages of Beowulf, O'Keeffe's |Heroic values and Christian ethics' concentrates almost entirely on the story of Cynewulf and Cyneheard and The Battle of Maldon. Though we know almost nothing about Anglo-Saxon paganism, a whole chapter is devoted to this subject and is filled with the most extraordinary speculations. |The absence of bear-motifs from Anglo-Saxon metalwork may reflect the veneration inspired by this animal ... the animal's true name was taboo.' How can we know this? Or again, |we might consider [the Anglo-Saxons] as possessed of animistic beliefs'. Equally, we might not, but then we would not be able to introduce a section on North American animism. The Jack-in-the-Green, the Hobby Horse, the plough stots and the mummers are survivals that |for all we know, date back to pagan Anglo-Saxon times if not earlier'. But we don't know. On the other hand, the book contains almost nothing on the manuscripts, on Anglo-Saxon archaeology, on formulaic theory, on the poems of Cynewulf, on Andreas, Guthlac, Juliana or the riddles, and surprisingly little on Wulfstan. There is a handful of quite inexplicable errors. The Peterborough Chronicle is stated to stop at 1140 (p. 73), rather than 1154; the punctuation of Old English manuscripts is said to be metrical (p. 163). The translations are generally, though not always, accurate. [Mark Griffith]
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|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 1992|
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