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Beowulf and the Medieval Proverb Tradition.

SUSAN E. DESKIS. Pp. 178 (Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies 155). Tempe, Ariz.: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 1996. $22.

How do we determine what is proverbial in a dead language when native competence is no longer available to determine the currency of one particular formulation of a cultural given? Are grammatical markers enough, or are there further indicators which point to an utterance's 'proverbialness'? This is the fundamental problem of definition which treatments of proverbs and proverb-type material in Old English have always had to face; in this reworked version of her dissertation on proverbs in Beowulf, Susan Deskis sets up a definition which combines the perception of distinctive grammatical markers with a series of contextual markers: the literal content of the statement will seem incompatible with the context or appears too self-evident or trivial in its literal sense. Once the proverb has been identified, the analysis of analogues may help to determine the traditions upon which the Beowulf-poet drew for his sententiae. Analogues may be adduced by similarity in wording, or similarity in meaning.

Deskis sets out her definitions of the fundamental problem with clarity and pragmatism; having identified and assembled the analogues, categorized according to four broad areas: the Rule of God, Joy and Sorrow, Fate and Death, and (a catch-all category here) Warnings and Advice, the main question is: what further analyses can be performed on the corpus of material? This suggests that the categorization process itself is unproblematic; however, this is not always the case. The proposition 'All men must die' is illustrated both by the terse 'Swa sceal aeghwylce mon/alaetan laendagas' (so must each man relinquish his transitory days) (lines 2590b-91a) and the long passage (1002b-8a) (describing how the soul may seek to flee death, but will have to sleep after the feast on the bed of death); the definition of the second passage as proverbial depends primarily on the grammatical marker 'bidh' in the first line (p. 78). Meanwhile the phrase 'tha Metod nolde' is apparently sufficient to bring together a couple of quite dissimilar utterances, one proposing that the Danes could not kill Grendel since God did not wish it, the second commenting that Beowulf could not stop Grendel from escaping, under the heading 'no plan (action) avails against the will of God' (pp. 26 ff.).

Deskis adduces a very large range of analogues; since most of these date from after Beowulf's manuscript date there is no real scope for source study. Rather, she attempts to analyse the Beowulfian proverbs by commenting on their style and structural function within the context. The usefulness of proverb-type utterances to close a speech or narratorial paragraph has been explored by Michael Fukuchi; many of the other structural and thematic functions of the sententious utterance have also been treated at length elsewhere.

Probably the most valuable part of Deskis's study - apart from the gratitude she earns from Beowulf scholars for her willingness to undertake the sheer slog of noting all the parallels to the Beouwulf sententiae - is her admirably concise conclusion. In this she sets out clearly how the proverbs of Latin school texts and florilegia could have formed a preexisting proverb tradition for the Beowulf-poet, and how these, translated as a school exercise from Latin into the vernacular, then back into Latin again, contributed to the circulation of proverb, and proverb-type utterances across language groups, borders, and the oral/literary divide. Deskis also demonstrates how, in places, the Beowulf-poet seems to have understood the importance of grammatical markers and 'excess' meaning in proverbs sufficiently well to be capable of composing his own sententiae to fit specific narrative contexts, the description of (Mod)thryth being a case in point.

This book appeared in 1996. One appreciates that university presses have long lead times, but one feels that it ought to have been possible to have taken more account of Ursula Schaefer's 1992 Vokalitat: Altenglische Dichtung zwischen Mundlichkeit und Schriftlichkeit than simply mentioning it in the bibliography, even if my own 1993 A Store of Common Sense (which anticipates some of Deskis's findings here) was published too late for consideration. Nevertheless, this short book has done a valuable service for all those interested in vernacular wisdom poetry, in the medieval proverb tradition, and in Beowulf.

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Author:Larrington, Carolyne
Publication:The Review of English Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Aug 1, 1998
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