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Old English Poetry in Medieval Christian Perspective: A Doctrinal Approach.

Dr Garde's book is an introduction to Old English Christian poetry, but it has an explicitly polemical aim in that the author is concerned with countering the tendency towards symbolic interpretations of Old English poetry and emphasizes instead the didactic aims of this literature. Garde's insistent emphasis on the catachetical function of these poems is a annoying and unnecessary; no critic has ever questioned the obvious didactic function of Old English religious poetry. What sets Garde's book apart is her refusal to accept symbolic interpretation of these texts - even such widely accepted interpretations as Rosemary Woolf's discussion of |The Dream of the Rood' in relationship to the divine and human natures of Christ.

One example of Garde's approach is her discussion of Elene. In this poem, the character Judas is depicted as possessing full knowledge concerning the hidden Cross of Christ, which he describes in language consonant with a Christian understanding of the Passion of Christ. At the same time, however, he is also depicted as a resistant Jew firmly opposed to Elene's effort to uncover the Cross and to reveal its mystery. This discrepancy - which is both incoherent and readily, correctable - has led critics to propose that the character Judas be understood in typological terms as a figure representing the unconverted |Judaei', who possess true knowledge but not true faith. Garde is, however, resolutely opposed to symbolic interpretations and prefers to associate Judas with the Judaeo-Christians of the second century, who accepted Christ but refused to abandon the Law. The problems with this reading of the poem are manifold. To begin with, Garde's interpretation is after all symbolic rather than |realistic' - a Judas who is a |contrived character who spans two centuries of troubled religious history' (p. 170) is not a |realistic' figure. And there are a variety of other objections to this argument. The existence of a distinct group of Judaeo-Christians in the early Church and the character of their religious beliefs are relatively recent scholarly discoveries of which Anglo-Saxon poets knew nothing. In any case Judas is depicted in Elene not as |Judaeo-Christian', but as a Jew who resists lest the Law of the Jews be overthrown. It is possible to argue that the original author of the |Inventio Crucis' legend was so naive that the discrepancy between Judas' speech and his actions (and the obvious chronological impossibility of the third-century 'Judas' of Elene being the brother of Stephen the protomartyr) did not occur to him. Alternatively, it is possible that the men (and women) who composed, revised and transmitted this legend understood it as a symbolic representation of the conflict between Church and Synagogue. But the implausibilities of this text on the literal level are real and cannot be explained away by appealing to a long-lost chapter of the history of the early Church.

It is perfectly true that it can be difficult to distinguish between plausible and far-fetched symbolic interpretations of mediaeval religious poetry, and there certainly has been much implausible symbolic interpretation of Old English poetry published in the last twenty-five years. In rejecting essentially all of this scholarship, however, and affirming in its place a firmly |moral', |catachetical', understanding of these texts, Garde is ignoring an important (although admittedly elusive) aspect of Old English religious literature. Commonsense has its limits, and in interpreting the religious literature of an ancient culture very different from our own, it is important to be sympathetic and understanding as well as briskly sceptical.
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Author:Hill, Thomas D.
Publication:Medium Aevum
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1992
Words:575
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