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Satan Unbound: the Devil in Old English Narrative Literature.

By Peter Dendle. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001. ISBN 0-8020-4839-0 (cloth), 0-8020-8369-2 (paper). Pp. xii + 196. $50.00 (cloth), $22.95 (paper).

A considerable body of scholarship on the devil in the Middle Ages has been published in recent decades. Previous studies by Henry Ansgar Kelly, Jeffrey Burton Russell, Hannes Vatter (the only one on the devil in English literature), Everett Ferguson, and Neil Forsyth treat various aspects of evil, the devil, and demonology; these analyses, however, focus only on either early Christianity or the continental Middle Ages, discussing the devil from a theological or (social) historical perspective. There is no book-length study exclusively on the devil in medieval English literature. Peter Dendle's Satan Unbound: The Devil in Old English Narrative Literature focuses specifically on the Anglo-Saxon period and the ontology of evil as understood by Christian Anglo-Saxons. Thus, his careful study of the narrative function of the Old English devil and his appearance mostly in hagiographical literature (as opposed to homiletic or purely folkloristic materials) is a welcome and excellent contribution.

Satan Unbound distinguishes itself through solid literary scholarship and the careful reading of texts. Dendle works with Latin and Old English texts, ranging from the Scriptures and patristic writings to Anglo-Saxon hagiographies (both verse and prose), homilies, and Bede's Historia Ecclesiastica. Dendle's critical focus is narratology, specifically the narrative construction of the devil, which leads him to "approach the texts in terms of internal narrative logic, therefore, attempting to reconstruct the scenes and actions as far as they are explicitly described" (5). All this is accessibly written and cogently presented, though definitely not for the literarily critical faint of heart.

Dendle begins the introductory chapter by professing his interest in the devil as ontological symbol in the mythological struggle with God, which the saint, as emissary of God, fights by encountering demons as emissaries from the Satan bound in hell (3). This cosmological battle holds particular significance for Dendle because it reflects the "early medieval understanding of the territorial distribution of the moral cosmos, the contested spiritual provinces of the demonic and the divine" (6). He briefly traces the historical evolution of the devil from the Old Testament's vague, undefined cosmic foe to the more mythologized and psychologized devil of the Anglo-Saxons, proposing that the Old English literary devil can be categorized (a) as a malicious but reserved natural force, as attested in magic charms and medical texts, and (b) as a mannered, "lavish and literate" sort of devil (17), as in the majority of Old English narrative literature. The appearances of the latter typically occur in the sixth age of humankind (from Christ's Harrowing of Hell to his Second Coming), during which the devil exhibits singularly contradictory characteristics: he is both bound in hell

and roams the earth; he is omnipresent and ever elusive; he is at his most powerful and effects nothing. During this age as well the cosmological battle is waged but remains essentially undecided, for victories over the devil are restricted to literary saints' triumphs over their opponents. These encounters are precisely the instances, then, that Dendle proceeds to examine in the chapters that follow.

In chapter two ("The Devil as Tempter") Dendle discusses the devil in his traditional role as tempter and in particular his relationship to the human soul in the process that leads from temptation to sin. Patristic theology views the devil specifically as the instigator of sin and portrays him as a fluid but generally not allegorized devil, who is a sophisticated psychological rather than mythological force to be reckoned with. In contrast, Dendle concludes, in Old English narrative literature, especially in hagiography, the devil loses his importance as tempting agent altogether because the "villains of hagiography stand in a profound and primordial relationship with evil" (39), rendering the necessity for demonic instigation obsolete.

Chapter three ("The Role of the Devil") explicates the roles that replace the traditional one of demonic instigator in Old English narrative. Dendle argues that the devil fulfills a range of narrative functions, from the "accidental devil" (as in the Life of Nicholas) to the devil as "saint-maker" (that is, as such a powerful nemesis that he effects the hagiogenesis of the faithful protagonist, as in the two versions of the Life of Margaret) and finally to the devil as observer, a role that relegates him somewhat to the narrative sidelines yet allows him to be a constant companion throughout the saint's life and even function as a mirror to his or her actions (most notably in AElfric's Life of Martin).

Chapter four ("Exterior Evil and the Landscape of Old English Narrative") opens with a discussion of the early medieval view of sin/the demonic and its relation to the sinner/self. Quoting from texts by Cassian and Gregory the Great, Dendle points out that Old English narrative literature inherits contradictions and tensions surrounding the question of the source of sin (from within or from without?) and the interplay of internal and external. He then asserts that Anglo-Saxon authors solve these tensions, first, by focusing on the external strife of saints with the devil and suppressing the internal struggle with temptation and, second, by developing distinct locales and characteristics for the devil as an ontological exploration of the demonic and the divine. Thus, there exists in the Anglo-Saxon imagination a devil who is firmly bound in hell (a concept that orthodox theology accepts only much later) and who dwells in the air and interferes in the daily activities of humans. The devil crafted in liturgical texts, especially in baptismal exorcisms, exists ubiquitously outside of human spatiotemporal experience, while the homiletic devil recedes into the background as a kind of indistinct figure altogether. The Old English poetic hagiographies, then, lift the devil and his dealings with the saint out of human history and into the spiritual cosmos; the devil "inhabits the timeless, boundless space of mythological symbols" to participate in "the ontological battle between heaven and hell that is simultaneously fought in all places and in all times, through the pawns of demons and saints" (81). To show how this is borne out in literature, Dendle reads the devil in Elene and Andreas, concluding that the poetic devil is deliberately and explicitly imagined as residing both in the world and in hell.

The final issue that Dendle raises in chapter five ("The Devil and the Demons") is demonology. Because medieval demonology does not distinguish between "The Devil" and his lesser demons, a consistent confusion between the singularity and the multiplicity of the devil develops, both on a syntactical and on a narrative level, in biblical and patristic writings. Old English authors adopt this numerical ambiguity but turn it to their narrative advantage by incorporating it into the plot. Thus, for example, Elene, in her search for the true cross, has "to peel away the distracting layers of multiplicity--of accidental evil" to detect Judas, "the essential unity at its core" (96). Similarly, Juliana and Guthlac face numerous demons as immediate opponents who are the source of all worldly evils but who are also merely the dynamic representatives of the true cosmic enemy--that is, the brooding Satan bound in hell.

Dendle closes his book by reminding readers of his two main conclusions: (a) the devil in early medieval Latin and Old English texts is presented as an equal partner in the dialogic conflict between the devil and the saint; and (b) by making the devil into a flexible figure with considerable (though not ultimate) power, Anglo-Saxon hagiographers intentionally unbind Satan and "grant him the dynamically charged unspecificity that is the source of his strength, struggling to contain him by defining him, yet at the same time allowing him to resist absolute containment or definition" (121).

Two criticisms can be made of Dendle's otherwise fine study. While he conscientiously provides textual passages in support of his claims and reads them thoroughly enough, one wishes that he would at times linger more with individual texts and create a more fully fleshed-out picture of the devil as he takes shape in particular narratives (for example, in the one-page discussion of Andreas in chapter four, which contrasts with the detailed attention given to the Guthlac poems in chapter five). Dendle dwells no longer on his examples than is necessary for him to make his point, a trait that some readers may appreciate, but I was occasionally left with only a sketchy impression of the devil rather than a more complete characterization.

When Dendle argues in chapter two that the devil in Old English literature loses his role as tempter, he gives the following explanation for this position, referring to AElfric's account of the Forty Soldiers: "There is no need for it [the struggle between sinner and sin]: since the fit between the devil's impulse and the judge's complicity is as snug as nut and bolt, the villain in early medieval narrative is already arod to deofles willan ('ready to the devil's will,' 1. 240)" (36). Dendle attributes the lack of a complex narrative progression from temptation to sin in the villain to a theologically significant preexisting alliance of the villain with the devil, or at least his overwhelming disposition toward evil. I would supplement Dendle's reasoning here with a consideration of the hagiographic genre, for the unquestioningly assumed hostility and sinfulness in the heathen opponent may (simply?) be due to the natural adoption by Anglo-Saxon authors of hagiographic conventions. The stock character of the "judge" or the "pagan tyrant" appears in hagiography from its very beginning. The Roman judge of the earliest martyr acts, mere transcripts of trials during the persecutions of Christians in the first few centuries after Christ, eventually turns into a conventionally evil and pagan opponent whose presence is necessary to propel the plot and transport the saint's passio to the desired end. Thus, the struggle between sin and sinner may be unnecessary not because the sinner is so receptive to sin that instigation becomes obsolete, but because the author has cast the sinner according to the requirements of the hagiographic genre. Hagiography needs a tyrant, whether that tyrant is in league with the devil or not. The devil is, to a certain extent, simply irrelevant.

The theological significance of Satan Unbound may be seen in Dendle's success at showing that, despite the generally overwhelming influence of patristic theology throughout the Middle Ages, vernacular literatures--or at least Old English literature--developed a native theology of evil that manages to reconcile the contradictions and tensions in the representation of the devil inherited from the Latin tradition. Thus, anyone with an interest in medieval popular religion, especially in regard to the reception history of patristic theology and the (vernacular) taxonomy of evil, will want to turn to Dendle's well executed study.

Johanna Kramer

Cornell University
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Author:Kramer, Johanna
Publication:Christianity and Literature
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 2003
Words:1793
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