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Snared by the Beasts of Battle: Fear as Hermeneutic Guide in the Old English Exodus.

THE OLD ENGLISH EXODUS POSES notorious interpretive challenges, and scholars often analyze it as an exercise in typological hermeneutics, assuming its difficulty means it demands interpretive skills. (1) It appears among the other biblical narratives recast in heroic poetic garb found in the late tenth-century manuscript Oxford, Bodleian Library, Junius 11. Still, it stands out among its companions for its exuberance in imagery and poetic technique, which has prompted scholars to supply a corpus of typological readings for troublesome passages over the years. (2) Recently, Audrey Walton has argued that the poem's hermeneutic ambivalences are deliberate instantiations of a polyvalent mode of reading, particularly one modeled by Augustine--by dramatizing the Israelite plundering of the Egyptians, the poem encourages readers to "despoil" the text of spiritual gold across hermeneutic levels. (3) This thoughtful approach to the poem's hermeneutic mode is productive, for a focus on fourfold modes of interpretation tends to elucidate educational moments in the poem, those which invite struggle with personal hermeneutics as lectio divina. However, too much focus on personal hermeneutic exercise can obscure Exodus's more radical rhetorical strategy. Exemplified by its unconventional use of the Beasts of Battle topos, Exodus allows the anxieties experienced by different members of Anglo-Saxon society to coexist, generating a hermeneutics of fear.

The Beasts of Battle scene (lines 154-69), fueled by anxiety, is designed to generate fear: the Israelites, having fled Egypt but still pursued by its army, are hemmed in between the Red Sea and their advancing enemies. The poem's tone expands their dismay as voiced in Exodus 14:10-12, where they "fear exceedingly" and ask why they could not have died in Egypt, where graves were plentiful. The poem not only expands the Israelites' anxiety, but nativizes it for Anglo-Saxon audiences, invoking traditional poetic battle tropes as it forebodes this seemingly inevitable slaughter--battle standards are blazoned, armies advance, shields shine, weapons are brandished, and sounds of war surround. However, in a passage laden with pangs of horror, the beating heart of its fear making is the Beasts of Battle trope:
[??]a him eorla mod ortrywe wear[??],
si[??][??]an hie gesawon of su[??]wegum
fyrd Faraonis for[??] ongangan,
eoferholt wegan, eored lixan--
garas trymedon, gu[??] hwearfode,
blicon bordhreo[??]an, byman sungon--
[??]ufas [??]unian, [??]eod mearc tredan.
Onhwael [??]a on heofonum hyrnednebba
(hreopon herefugolas hilde graedige,
deawig-fe[??]ere) ofer drihtneum,
wonn waelceasega. Wulfas sungon
atol aefenleo[??] aetes on wenan,
carleasan deor, cwyldrof beodan
on la[??]ra last leodmaegenes fyl.
Hreopan mearcweardas middum nihtum,
fleah faege gast, folc waes genaeged.
                    (Exodus 154-69)

(Then the heart of the men became despairing, once they saw the army of
Pharaoh marching up from the south-ways, brandishing boar-spears, their
riders resplendent--lances were raised, battle drew near, shields
shone, trumpets sang out--the standards were raised, the people marched
on their border. Then in the sky, a battle-fowl, a dark chooser of the
slain, shrieked (hungry for battle, dewy feathered) over the doomed
soldiers. Wolves sang a hideous evensong in anticipation of eating, the
heartless beasts, the slaughter-bold ones waited in the tracks of the
enemies for the fall of the great nation. The border-guards howled in
the middle of the night, a doomed spirit fled, the folk was under

In the structuralist atmosphere of the previous midcentury, this scene attracted much critical attention for its use of the Beasts trope, a motif whose predictable deployment was thought of as an obvious relic of Anglo-Saxon oral-formulaic practice. (4) The catalogue of Beasts of Battle instances compiled by F. P. Magoun showed that the Beasts consistently presage slaughter, so we can hardly blame the Israelites when the poem reports their terrified reaction to the advancing Egyptian army and Beasts--they know as well as Anglo-Saxon audiences that the Beasts spell doom, and their faith in God's promise to deliver them wilts. After Magoun, Adrien Bonjour appraised the literary merits of the Beasts across the Old English poetic corpus, determining that some uses of them were more artful than others, though he does little more than mention their presence in Exodus. (5)

Yet while critics have acknowledged the Beasts in Exodus, they have seldom analyzed them, perhaps unsure what to make of them. Because no ensuing battle occurs in Exodus, later critics, like Thomas Honegger, read the use of the Beasts here as a hollow stock motif, indicting the poem's overall artistic merit. (6) Honegger's classification establishes a schematic for varying deployments of the Beasts along a spectrum ranging from "naturalistic" uses to more "poetic" ones. (7) Among his list of seven "mechanistic" examples is Exodus. After listing the offending passage, he concludes, "the function of the theme is limited to adding ornamental touches to the already rather conventional account of the preparations for war.... [T]o overstate things a little, [they] are of no greater poetic value than... all the other paraphernalia of battle" (295). That is, in his scheme, Exodus's Beasts are superfluous, and the poem would suffer little if they were excised. But such a valuation is rooted in the idea that good poems ought to confirm readerly expectations in subtly original ways, as in his three "naturalistic" uses.

Beyond cataloguing whether the Beasts are well used in Exodus, a few scholars have tried to elucidate the connotations of the trope as a poetic survival of pagan imagery. The textual notes in J. R. R. Tolkien's edition suggest that, beyond their association with doom, he detected a Germanic pagan shadow surrounding the Beasts here. (8) More recently, Joseph Harris has analyzed Beast of Battle imagery across the Germanic and Celtic corpora, demonstrating their longstanding association with prophecy, the foreboding of war, and slaughter in the wake of battle. (9) While all of these connotations are part of the Beasts' poetic efficacy, critics agree that the motif should foreshadow a clash between two armies. As we will soon see, the Beasts in the poem are not merely relics of a dated oral-formulaic tradition, though--they generate new responses by playing with old patterns in an unusual way.

Honegger's criticism of Exodus as artless holds true only if the Beasts are, in fact, peripheral to the poem's principles. His framework fails to take into account the dominant role of fear in the poem, reading them as mere ornament instead. With the emotional impact of fear in mind, I extend Walton's exegetical emphasis and argue that the trope's deployment in Exodus is best understood as a site of deliberate hermeneutic play with fear. By expanding this exegetical approach to include emotion, we can better account for both secular and religious purposes behind the poem's rhetorical deployment of fear. Exodus exercises polyvalent reading, by giving space for the coexistence of multiple registers of meaning, legible by a range of Anglo-Saxon audiences. The poem thus facilitates extra-literal readings that speak to mixed ecclesiastic/lay audiences with equal potency. Further, since some members of a mixed audience could probably pick up on multiple registers at once, allegory and typology in the poem become more than polysemous: they become polydirectional.

The poem's opening challenge (gehyre se [??]e wille) suggests it will be an exacting text, and it has been read by many critics as a trial intended to spiritually strengthen its audiences. (10) On even the smallest scale, diction, this proves true; the poem is renowned for unusual word choice. (11) Focusing on the poem's closing digression, Dorothy Haines has read its envelope pattern as a locked chest; the right kind of interpreter can unlock its wisdom. (12) However, as much attention as has been paid to the poem's training of the mind, little work has been done on the poem's interaction with emotions. Given the extreme lengths to which Exodus as a whole goes towards inculcating fear within audiences, we would do well to investigate this level of trial further. Why do the stock Beasts appear without their eponymous battle? Do they imply more than mere war? How might contemporary audiences have "heard" this scene's dominant undertones of fear? And what might this poem's fixation on fear suggest about Anglo-Saxon anxieties in general? Answering these local questions can enhance our appreciation for the poem's rhetorical strategy as a whole. The use of the Beasts is indicative of a strategy that pervades the poem: the use of traditional poetic tropes to generate an immersive fear in a scriptural setting, testing the faith of readers as a means of ultimately fortifying it.

Answering such questions requires context, and I assume the poem, though composed relatively early, was read across the Anglo-Saxon period, accruing valences of meaning as it passed from context to context. (13) Still, given the date of the Junius Manuscript's compilation, it will be fruitful for this study to focus on the time of the Benedictine reform as an era when the shades of fear are most easily traceable, and an era when we know that interest in Exodus was sufficient to merit its recopying into a new, deluxe illustrated manuscript. This was a chaotic time, with a range of threats to the Anglo-Saxon social order: Vikings raided, religious houses were lax, education waned, and kings were often accused of lapsing into decadence. (14)

Given the robust and complex body of scholarship on typological, allegorical, and figural modes in Old English literature, it is worth clarifying how such modes might function in the text. (15) To account for its many idiosyncrasies, scholars have demonstrated that Exodus, with its "cryptic and incongruous" details, seems to rely upon some sort of extra-literal or spiritual mode of reading. (16) Strictly speaking, typological reading sees Old Testament passages or images as foreshadowing corresponding passages or images in the New Testament; the mode is closely tethered to scripture. On the other hand, figural readings tend to connect historical types with their future antitypes, however defined, and so are more open ended. While the poem allows room for both typological and figural interpretations, I should suggest, along with Joyce Hill, that typological readings would be more accessible to more audiences in the Anglo-Saxon era. That is, in Exodus, audiences are invited to identify with the Israelites typologically: the poem is firmly rooted in the scriptural narrative of Exodus and treats the Anglo-Saxon present as a foreshadowed continuation of New Testament history.

By this logic, audiences can consider themselves participants in the unfolding of God's plan, traveling down the road of salvation history, whose destination is the eschaton. (17) Slippage between extra-literal approaches coexist in Exodus as a result of what Manish Sharma has called "the economy of the word" in the poem. (18) Polyvalency, a mode present in the scriptures themselves (and even the Apostle Paul's typological reading of the Crossing of the Red Sea in 1 Corinthians 10), allows room for audiences to generate simultaneous kinds of extra-literal readings. However, the typological or figural in Exodus does not erase the literal and historical levels of the poem. In fact, I contend that it is the simultaneity of these levels that generates overlapping valences of anxiety in the poem: the physical dangers hinted at in the narrative via the Beasts of Battle take on wider typological resonance in moments of extreme polyvalency.

The Beasts first establish, then subvert the expectations of a mixed audience as part of the poem's larger project of challenging readers who might otherwise miss the drama of this story of flight into the unknown. In Exodus, the motif lures readers into expecting a battle in defiance of the biblical narrative. (19) In doing so, this Anglo-Saxon Old Testament narrative summons up poetically primed emotion alongside theological knowledge, allowing the audience to "try on" the fear of the Israelites as imagined by the poet. That such metapoetic play should be employed is not a new concept in Anglo-Saxon scholarship. T. A. Shippey has written about the Anglo-Saxon taste for sudden reversal (edwendan) as a form of ironic humor. (20) But while Shippey explores this tendency in Beowulf and in wisdom poetry, he overlooks religious narrative. (21) By combining this taste for grim play with Walton's suggestion that the poem tests hermeneutic ability, I read the poem's oddities as purposive, including this unusual deployment of the Beasts of Battle. In the hands of the Exodus poet, extra-literal implications inform, not erase, each other. Though other Old English imaginative writing has been read as legible among mixed audiences, Exodus seldom has, and it is necessary to demonstrate the poem's polyvalence to fully appreciate the multitude of cultural fears and anxieties it plays upon.


To demonstrate how Exodus evokes the varied anxieties of different Anglo-Saxon social locations, I begin with its treatment of its source material. What prompted the poet to deploy the Beasts in this instance? The traditional answer has been that the Beasts here signal impending war; they are a reflex endemic to Old English poetics. This is a partial answer, but the animals named in the poem are also surrounded by shades of connotations within other Old English literary contexts. Wolves, particularly, bear negative connotations across monastic, legal, and royal discourses. In this section, we will first examine the poet's method of adapting source material to better understand their poetic method. Next, we will chart the varied implications of the Beasts, exploring what their coexistence might mean to a range of tenth-century audiences. To embark upon the former, it is first worth considering the putative sources of the poem. (22)

Our first reflex may be to examine the Vulgate account of the Exodus, with especial reference to chapter 14:10-11, which reads,
Cumque adpropinquasset Pharao, levantes filii Israhel oculos viderunt
Aegyptios post se, et timuerunt valde clamaveruntque ad Dominum. 11 Et
dixerunt ad Mosen, "Forsitan non erant sepulchra in Aegypto; ideo
tulisti nos ut moreremur in solitudine. Quid hoc facere voluisti, ut
educeres nos ex Aegypto?"

(And when Pharaoh drew near, the children of Israel lifting up their
eyes saw the Egyptians behind them, and they feared exceedingly and
cried out to the Lord. And they said to Moses, "Perhaps there were no
graves in Egypt; therefore thou hast brought us to die in the
wilderness. Why wouldst thou do this, to lead us out of Egypt?")

The poet homes in on the simultaneous multiplicity of emotions underscoring the Latin. Scholars remain divided on the extent to which the poet relies upon an Old Latin source or a Vulgate text; whichever the poet drew upon, it is clear that they have dilated the source material here considerably. (23) The Latin texts tersely report that the Israelites see the advancing Egyptians and they react in two ways: they fear and they cry out in despair. The poet seizes this mixture of reactions, abject terror alongside desperate pleading, and intensifies the concoction.

This practice generally accords with Paul Remley's observations of the Exodus poet's overall method of expansion. What is remarkable about the Beasts of Battle passage, though, is the sheer magnitude of the elaborations. While Remley's chosen passages of the poem might focus on a word or phrase from the Latin and then double or triple it for the sake of apposition, a process he calls a "theme-and-variation approach," in this passage, the expansions occur on a massive scale. The source text reports in just a few sparse words that "viderunt Aegyptos" (they saw the Egyptians) and "timuerunt valde" (they feared greatly). In the poet's hands, these four words become a hundred-line scene, nearly one-sixth of the surviving poem, in which image after image and trope after trope accumulate. The result is a series of images that flesh out the Israelites' fears in terms relevant to Anglo-Saxon imaginations, and far more specifically than anything implicit in the Latin. The Latin merely notes the presence of Israelite fear, and hints at their deduction that they will soon be slaughtered by an army. Our poet meditates upon images of the things that could actually bring this fear to fruition and expands them, bedecking these fears in the full regalia of Old English poetic martial attire and translating them into poetic terms familiar to Anglo-Saxon audiences so that, taken together, the images resound with a host of registers of fear at once. While fear is a constant throughout the poem, it usually lingers in the background, the quiet anxiety of a refugee nation on the road. But this scene is the sum of all the fears scattered throughout the poem so far--it embodies outright panic as the nation dreads its disintegration in a moment of extreme threat.

The poem informs us that after the Israelites see the Egyptians coming up from the south, the Beasts draw near, expecting to eat corpses (oetes on wenan, hilde groedige). Already, the poem supplies us with more physical and spatial details than its source(s)--audiences can now picture the scene, complete with an image of an army marching up with the sun behind them, a silhouette of dread. Note the vernacular response of the Israelites to this: "fleah faege gast, folc waes genaeged." They read the Beasts according to Anglo-Saxon heroic convention--they collectively lose heart, give up their ghost, as it were (fleah foege gast), because folc waes genaeged (the folk was under attack). The singularity of the folc here follows the source treatment of the people as populum, but that final detail, genoeged, amplifies the dread of the scene further, for, as with many verbs of motion, it can mean either "they were approached" or "they were attacked," and the verbal ambiguity increases audience fears before the poem shifts its gaze to another set of fears with the next line's hwilum. (24) Of course, as per the biblical narrative, the Israelites do not skirmish with the Egyptian forces here, and the menacing presence of the Beasts seems to be a feint. Canny Anglo-Saxon readers might recognize this as play; for those who did, it would be a moment of delicious poetic irony as they realize that the national destruction foreshadowed by the Beasts here may actually be meant for Egypt. Regardless of how some astute audiences may have construed the moment, though, the poem is clear that by the end of line 169, the Israelites have read the Beasts as traditional portents of doom for themselves. Fear contaminates them, their faith falters, and they doubt they will survive a clash with the Egyptian forces, suggesting skepticism about God's promise to make them a mighty nation after all (Exod. 6:1-8). That is, since the Israelites read the portents for themselves as Anglo-Saxons might, they dread what seems an impending personal and national disintegration--the folc here fears as one. Such a reading would resonate with auditors of heroic poetry, lay or ecclesiastical, pulling them into this errant interpretation, encouraging identification with Israel in shared fear and faltering faith. (25)

In a poem as inventive as Exodus, the Beasts are no mere stock motif, and it is worth examining the ways in which the poet infuses them with dramatic effect. We hear line 162's Beasts before we see them, sweeping in amidst the din of the approaching Egyptian army: "hreopon herefugolas, hilde graedige" (Battle-fowl shrieked, greedy for the battle). The foerspell cried out by the birds pierces their hearts, causing them to forget all else, including God's promise to them. Next, the "wulfas sungon / atol aefenleo[??]" (wolves sang their horrid even-song, 164b-65a). The sound of fear here shakes their faith, inculcating the despair and dread that lie behind the text's accusation that they are ortywe (faithless). While onomatopoeia is a poetic feature available to all poets, its use in Exodus is subtler than in poems like Beowulf. There, the poet employs it in ways aligned with an embodied conception of horror: consider the artful use of fricatives and sibilants that punctuates scenes of extreme violence, such as when Grendel's arm is torn off (815b-18a) or the hissing that imitates boiling at the funeral pyre that ends the Finn episode (1120b-24a). (26) I do not suggest that Exodus is so neatly aligned with the horror genre, however, because it does not shock with the gruesome sounds of crushed viscera; rather, its sounds announce a shadowy fear rooted in futurity.

Instead of mimicking the sound of carnage present, Exodus employs sound to anticipate fears, inviting audiences to inhabit a virtual fate that has yet to unfold. The emotional impact of the birds' screeching and the wolves' howling here is sprung by poetic imitation of embodied phenomena: the uncanny state that comes from feeling danger before fully grasping it, and attendant feelings of helplessness. In that instant, one's mind races through a host of fears, and Exodus puts its audience's mind into the Israelites', which surges with panic at a lack of control in this moment. The poem thus gives Anglo-Saxon audiences a visceral entry point from which they can sympathize in dread. Audiences know from poetic experience that when the Beasts appear, slaughter ensues. The poet focuses entirely upon anticipatory dread with animal sounds which themselves resound with literal and metaphorical implications. Sound here introduces an old poetic trope, mediating an embodied emotional entry point for the senses that then leads the audience into the host of tangible fears associated with ravens and wolves, even as the Egyptian army closes in. There is no explicit slaughter here, only the eager wolfish appetites of the enemies. It is left to the audience to imagine exactly how this will unfold: Israelite and audience alike find themselves in the position of having to imagine their worst nightmares.


Exodus insinuates fear in other, more symbolic ways as well, signaling death prognostically for both literal danger and allegorical threats. Previous scholarship has focused on the Beasts, especially the potentially Odinic ravens, as a pagan poetic survival calcified in oral convention. (27) While this layer would have occurred to some audiences, it is not the only salient register. Despite a proliferation of typological readings of Exodus, the allegorical valences of the less-religiously charged wolves are often overlooked because of our desire to elucidate Anglo-Saxon pagan inheritance. Recent work with Maxims I.C elucidates the intertextual connotations of wolf-imagery in Anglo-Saxon gnomic literature, a genre once thought to be similarly untouched by ecclesiastical culture. The genre, as it reaches us in later manuscripts, was more informed by ecclesiastical learning than previous generations of scholars assumed. (28) Finding analogues for the wolf imagery in Maxims I.C in book twelve of Isidore's Etymologiae, Brian O'Camb shows that wolves, especially for ecclesiastics, were often metaphorical shorthand for a number of Anglo-Saxon cultural ills, physical and spiritual. (29) Wulfstan associates them with the devil and spiritual threats (693), and they are often read as shorthand for corrupt ecclesiastical elements in light of Matthew 7:15. Further, the gnomic wolf could act as a contextual anchor for ecclesiastical readers because Isidores use of it encoded references to Matthew and Ezekiel 22:25-27 (694). Thus, at least in ecclesiastical circles, the wolves were enmeshed in an Isidorean network of meanings. (30)

This symbolic use of the wolf took on additional shades of meaning later in the Anglo-Saxon age as well. In the Regularis concordia, AEthelwold models the association for Benedictine Reform-era audiences, writing, "Regali utique functus officio ueluti Pastorum Pastor sollicitus a rabidis perfidorum rictibus, uti hiantibus luporum faucibus, oues quas Domini largiente gratia studiosus collegerat muniendo eripuit" (Carrying out the royal office thus, just like the Shepherd of Shepherds, by God's generous grace did he gather once more with concern the very sheep he had once collected with care, thereby defending [them] from the rabid jaws of the wicked, like yawning maws of wolves). (31) Read in this associative network, extant before but emphasized during the Benedictine Reform, the wolves in Exodus can certainly participate in fourfold exegesis. However, they charge each level with a fifth element--the emotion of fear. A fourfold reading might go as follows: on the literal/historical level, the beasts are present because two armies were drawing together. Building upon Paul's reading of the Exodus in 1 Corinthians 10:1-5, one typological meaning might be that there are wolves which try to prevent some from embracing conversion via baptism, and his observation "But with most of them God was not well pleased: for they were overthrown in the desert" would resound with warning. (32) Anagogically, the wolves might beckon apocalyptic imagery as enemies of the church paving the way to the eschaton with violence and treachery. But the moral level is the most loaded, for if audiences are to extract a moral from this scene, they cannot overlook the elements of fear, doubt, and despair that rush in on the heels of the wolves. The poem's attention to emotion implies not only the literal/historical threat of physical warfare, but also internal spiritual threats: to the individual Christian, to the church, and to the national folc. The ecclesiastical shade of this image comes to the fore when the poet reports the wolves' "atol aefenleo[??]" (horrifying evensong): the kenning, it has been suggested, is an ironic allusion to vespers. (33) The Beasts in the poem cry wolf, sounding false alarms that shake faith, not unlike either hypocritical ecclesiastics voicing false teachings or those who attempt to derail Christian faith with doubt.

For those who, along with the Israelites, read the Beasts as portents of doom for God's people, the poem indicts the very prognostic function of the Beast trope. It is no coincidence that the folc's faith is cut down as soon as they attempt to read their future via signs from animals, especially when that misreading is predicated upon doubting God's prior promise to deliver his people. AElfric's De auguriis is part of a robust Augustinian tradition of homilies and sermons written against the practice of questioning God's sovereignty by consulting auguries. AElfric warns, "Eall swa gelice se [??]e gelyf[??] wiglungum o[??][??]e be fugelum o[??][??]e be fnorum... ne bi[??] he na cristen" (lines 88-91; Moreover, whoever trusts in auguries either from birds or from sneezes... is no Christian at all). His example is telling: a few lines later he mentions Jamnes and Mambres, the court magicians who "... pharaoh forlaerdon mid heora lotwrencum / o[??][??]aet he adranc on [??]aere deopan see" (lines 116-17; deceived Pharaoh through their devices until he was drowned in the deep sea). (34) AElfric's synthesis of much older sources links augury with divine judgment, notably via figures intimately associated with the Exodus narrative. (35)

We can see, then, that Exodus's use of the Beasts also resonates with an Anglo-Saxon tradition of anti-prognostic rhetoric linking the fall of the Egyptians in this passage with auguries and the reading of animal signs. Read along any of these lines, Exodus's wolves prey upon faith. They can represent fearmongers, those greedy to profit from a lack of faith, and this image of false prophets/teachers maps well onto the falsely prognostic Beasts here. The motif lures audiences into anxiety, priming them to fear the slaughter of the Israelites, despite the scriptural narrative. The poet sets at odds audience expectations of poetics and scripture, inviting a clash between emotions and knowledge. The Israelites, seemingly aware of the conventions in which they are enmeshed, model for audiences how to feel in this moment, caught between emotion (fear) sparked by literary associations, and faith rooted in the acceptance of the logical proposition that God keeps his promises--in this case, to protect their status as a nation. They do not recover from this spiritual and emotional shock for a hundred lines, until a true teacher, Moses, reminds them of God's promise and enjoins them not to doubt (lines 276-98).

As unusual as Exodus's cultivation of anxiety is, the Exodus poet was not the only Anglo-Saxon author whose deployment of animals taps into a network of anxieties: AElfric himself employs wolf imagery. Because his example lacks the birds that typically accompany the wolves, it is not usually counted among examples of the Beasts of Battle. However, it interacts with the same network of cultural fears, though, admittedly, in a far less anxious way than Exodus. This is due, in part, to his overall tendency toward the flattening of affect. It is also a reflection of genre: saints' lives are meant to reassure audiences about the certainty of salvation and deliverance, and AElfric seeks to buttress faith unambiguously. Nevertheless, in his Passio Sancti Eadmundi Regis et Martyris, a corpse-eating wolf frames a set of Anglo-Saxon cultural anxieties reminiscent of those from Exodus. (36) The Vita describes England as a nation afflicted by foreign invasion: Vikings have devastated the countryside and threaten the integrity of the realm. The reality of life in Anglo-Saxon England during the century of Viking raids must have been riddled with anxiety. Not only were one's life and way of life under constant threat, but ideologically, one had to confront a bitter paradox. In the wake of Bede's celebrated Historia, which popularized the notion that Anglo-Saxon England was a second Israel, the constant depredations of Vikings must have been doubly disquieting. (37) Not only were people threatened, but the very notion of an "English" people, the integrity of a political ideology, seemed to teeter on the brink of erasure. What was happening to the new chosen people who had been following in the footsteps of Israel? This question must have weighed on Anglo-Saxon Christians throughout the ninth and tenth centuries.

Upon this anxious background, AElfric strives to soothe a people shocked by Viking atrocity. We are told that King Edmund receives a demand for Danegeld from invading Viking leaders, Hingwar and Hubba, who "swa swa wulf on land / bestalcode and [??]a leode sloh / weras and wif... " (lines 39-40; just like the wolf stalked upon the land and smote the people, men and women). (38) The king responds that he would rather die than bribe Vikings and enjoins them to take the true faith. This was, doubtless, a familiar enough scene to Alfric's audience, and they could predict how it would end: the Vikings decline the king's counteroffer; instead opting to capture, torture, and behead him. The life of a kingdom with no head is a gruesome prospect; indeed, royal integrity and protection seem about to crumble. Adding insult to injury, the Vikings then discard the king's head in the woods, leaving the acephalic body for his people to mourn, a potent symbol of a shattered realm. AElfric's account, which compares the piratical work of the Vikings to the stalking of wolves, emphasizes not only their predatory behavior, but suggests that such wolves, living outside of law, butcher the ecclesiastical and royal structures that comprise the Anglo-Saxon people. Wolfish appetites here dismantle the nation, and the people are left without consolation.

But this beastly act is immediately overturned by a beastly wonder, a clear inversion of the Beasts of Battle which leaves no time for audience despair or doubt. When Edmund's subjects go seeking the head a few lines later, AElfric informs us, "waes eac micel wundor [??]aet an wulf wear[??] asend / [??]urh godes wissunge to beweriginne [??]aet heafod / wi[??] [??]a o[??]re deor ofer daeg ond niht" (lines 145-47; there was also a great wonder: that a wolf was sent / through God's provision to stand guard over that head / against the other beasts by day and night). The text frames the wolf's shift in roles, from carrion consumer to saintly steward, as a micel wundor (a great wonder) provided out of godes wissunge (God's provision), suggesting that God is just as aware of the literary expectations surrounding the Beasts as the Anglo-Saxon audience is. For AElfric, God employs the Beasts for a miraculous reversal of expectations, and his work is unambiguous. Unlike the Beasts in Exodus, this wolf is not polyvalent, but an inversion.

As though this reversal were not plain miracle enough, as the people continue seeking the head, it cries out to them, "her, her, her" (line 151; here, here, here) and when they find it, they see "[??]a laeg se graega wulf [??]e bewiste [??]aet heafod / and mid his twam fotum haefde [??]aet heafod beclypped / graedig and hungrig and for gode ne dorste / pass heafdes abyrian [ac] heold hit wi[??] deor" (lines 153-57; there lay the gray wolf, which watched over that head / and between its two feet it clutched that head, / greedy and hungry, yet because of God it dared not / to taste that head, but it guarded it against beasts). Even in its divinely appointed role as guardian of the saint's head, the wolf still has its beastly appetites, is still grcedig and hungrig (greedy and hungry). Yet God drives the beast to act against all expectation--naturalistic and poetic. The Beasts are expected to dine on corpses as a matter of course, and so God appoints one to prevent others from doing so. In the end, the people carry the head back to the city for interment, and the wolf accompanies them as protection. Once they reunite the king's head with his body, order is restored. Royal authority has been rejoined with the realm, and the wolf recedes to where it belongs, in the wastes, away from God's people. Here, unlike in Exodus, we see God's provision in the form of a clear binary: he employs a literal wolf to help maintain Anglo-Saxon social structures (the king, the city, the church, and the people) against the true wolves, the Vikings and outlaws that seek to devour them.

AElfric's example shows that, outside Exodus, other Anglo-Saxon authors manipulated audience expectations of the Beasts; but it also helps explain what makes Exodus's approach different. AElfric's clear, singular inversion is meant to generate unambiguous and easily legible wonder at God's power to deliver his saints from law-breakers via control over the natural world. In AElfric's hands, God's timing is swift and precise, leaving audiences nearly no time to dread or doubt. The homily supplies us with a model for how to read miraculous national deliverance, for the king's subjects, "pa wurdon hi of wundrode pass wulfes hyrd-raedenne... [??]ancigende [??]am aelmihtigan ealra his wundra" (lines 158, 160; then amazed were they all at the wolf's protection... [and they went back] thanking the Almighty for all his wonders). The people see the beast and expect the worst: they fear it will act like the Beast of Battle it is, feasting on the saint-to-be's relic. But they instantly re-analyze the oddity and read it as a sign of divine intervention. Here, God has reversed their expectations: rather than seeing their king (and kingdom by metaphorical extension) devoured by a wolf, they see God use nature to restore natural political order. They then rejoice in the restoration by praising God for his swift provision. AElfric can employ the Beast figure because its conventionality made it predictable; but the Exodus poet takes advantage of the converse: the strength of the convention also makes it capable of manipulation.


Exodus does not alleviate audience anxiety in the wake of the Beasts of Battle scene; instead the entire poem steeps audiences in varying shades of it. Lingering over descriptions of dangerous armies and hungry Beasts, the poem especially meditates on impending destruction in this section. A beast as symbolically laden as the wolf, in the skillful hands of the Exodus poet, generates multiple levels of social anxiety, especially when surrounded by clusters of martial descriptions of encroaching enemies, luring audiences into ruminating for some hundred lines on a battle that never comes. If read as portents of Israel's doom, the Beasts are not agents of God's provision at all, as in AElfric. Rather, they imply the failure of divine protection--audiences expect the swift slaughter of Israel as soon as the Beasts arrive. At first glance, we might deduce that unconventional deployment is all that these two examples of the motif have in common. But consider the shade of implication each one throws on its respective plot: they both summon up anxiety for the survival of the folc. The chief difference is one of timing and implication: while AElfric downplays Viking power and relieves anxieties immediately with a miracle, the Exodus poet meditates upon fear throughout the poem, putting the connotatively charged Beasts between two scenes describing the disciplined mustering of the Egyptian army. This tableau generates extended and mounting anxiety, making the Israelites and audience(s) as fearful as possible, until any familiar with Anglo-Saxon heroic poetic convention should feel as doomed as the Israelites do in line 169.

Yet biblical narrative is not often employed to produce anxiety, and fear is a strange emotion to cultivate in an Old English poem that deploys heroic diction while portraying its protagonists as heroes. Why would the poet, after promising heavenly rewards in the verse introduction, instead summon up fear? What purpose could this serve--does it not undermine lay devotion? Fear may well be "the beginning of wisdom" for monastics, but can it instruct other levels of Anglo-Saxon society? As a whole, the poem portrays the Israelites as a nation of heroes, referring to them as "here" (army) and to Moses as their "freom folctoga" (valiant commander) as early as lines 13-14. They, along with the "cyning" God they follow, are consistently referred to in heroic poetic terms: they are a "sige-rice" (line 27; victorious kingdom), "haele[??]" (line 78; heroes), and "wiglic werod" (line 233; a warlike host), to name a few. (39) Beowulf seems to see fear and heroism as opposed: "Wyrd oft nere[??] / unfaegne eorl, ponne his ellen deah!" (lines 572b-73; Fate often spares a man who is not doomed, when his courage is good). (40) Overall, it seems the warrior segment of Anglo-Saxon culture found fear detrimental to the heroic ethos that fortified the ruling classes. Anglo-Saxon literature often asserts, especially in a secular context, that one must strive to contain emotions, which continuously threaten to boil over, spilling from the realm of feeling into the realm of conduct. Yet for all the heroic trappings of the poem, the Exodus poet seems at odds with the traditional ethos that prompts warriors to stifle negative emotions. However, given the poem's polyvalence, it is not unreasonable to assume the poet thought that the lesson of Proverbs 1:7 could benefit the entire Anglo-Saxon folc: "Timor domini principium sapientiae" (Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom). By inculcating fear in audiences, the poet tests their faith and, ultimately, imparts humility to them by drawing attention to the shortsightedness of their own perspectives (lay and clerical alike); for the two share aspects of the same fear: that the Israelites may fall back into Egyptian bondage, typologically implying that the Anglo-Saxon people (broadly construed) might also cease to exist.

A common metaphor in Anglo-Saxon religious thought, echoing scriptural language, conceives of humanity's unredeemed spiritual condition as one of captivity. In this conception, God works to liberate his people from captivity to sin in this life, as well as its more permanent state in hell. (41) Indeed, in Romans 6, Paul repeatedly refers to Christians as former "servi peccati" (6:6, 15-19; slaves to sin), an image literalized and expanded in Anglo-Saxon literature. Though sin in this life was seen as a hindrance to the freedom of righteousness, its culmination was hell, a permanent form of captivity. We get glimpses of "hell as a prison" in texts like Genesis B 408, when Satan laments his fallen misery "on [??]yssum faestum clomme" (in this fast bondage). The accompanying illustration on folio 16 of the Junius Manuscript aptly depicts his helpless captivity. The metaphor is applied to human souls in the Exeter Book's The Descent into Hell, where the Old Testament patriarchs await Christ's Harrowing to free them from the fortified city-prison (burg) that is hell. (42) Such images of spiritual captivity, scriptural shorthand for an inability to live righteously, resonated with Anglo-Saxon audiences. Being delivered from such a state is, in Anglo-Saxon religious thought, a metaphor for liberation from sin, and freedom to live righteously.

But this metaphor of salvation as liberation has an anxious corollary: what if a people, after deliverance, regresses? By the logic of the metaphor, a lapse back into sinfulness may be read as a return to captivity. (43) One of the earliest Anglo-Latin texts surviving from the British Isles is Gildas's influential De excidio Britanniae. In his famous jeremiad on the fall of Roman Britain, he links the sinfulness of five Briton kings and the hypocrisy of the Briton church with their defeat by Saxon invaders. (44) Bede repeats the formulation in book one of his Historia ecclesiastical. (45) In such a conception, Christians are viewed as perpetually liberated but perpetually in danger of falling back into captivity; they must be ever vigilant. Alcuin, warning his fellow Anglo-Saxons about how lapses in church discipline and learning will leave England susceptible to Viking invasion, writes, "Discite Gyldum Brittonem sapientissimum; et videte, ex quibus causis parentes Brittonum perdiderunt regnum et patriam; et considerate vosmetipsos, et in vobis pene similia invenietis" (Learn from Gildas, wisest Briton; and see, from what causes the ancestors of the Britons lost kingdom and homeland; and contemplate them with respect to yourselves, and you shall find near similarities with you). (46) In such a conception, the spiritual strength of the church is seamlessly linked to the strength of the nation as political entity. Indeed, this line of thinking stretches across the Anglo-Saxon period to later homilists, such as Wulfstan, who passionately echoes them in his Sermo Lupi ad Anglos. He speaks to the need for collective righteousness, placing the responsibility of obedience upon every member of society, for Gildas, having explained why the island was given over to Saxons, made clear,
[??]aet waes geworden [??]aes [??]e he saede, [??]urh ricra reaflac and
[??]urh gitsunge wohgestreona, [??]urh leode unlaga and [??]urh
wohdomas, [??]urh biscopa asolcennesse and [??]urh ly[??]re yrh[??]e
Godes bydela [??]e so[??]es geswugedan ealles to gelome and clumedan
mid ceaflum [??]aer hy scoldan clypian. [??]urh fulne eac folces
gaelsan and burh oferfylla and maenigfealde synna heora eard hy
forworhtan and selfe hy forwurdan. (47)

(What he said was brought about, through the pillaging of the powerful
and through greed for ill-gotten treasures, through the lawlessness of
the laity and through evil deeds, through laziness of bishops and
through corrupt cowardice of God's messengers who stayed silent about
every truth too often and mumbled in their mouths when they should have
cried out. Also through the foulness of the people's pleasures and
their gluttony and manifold sins they lost their land and destroyed

In such formulations, the spiritual threat of laxity is linked with physical and cultural danger for the nation, for God chastises his people when they fall into sin by allowing them to be conquered and captured. Exodus's fixation on this anxiety of (re)capture participates in a long-lived strain of Anglo-Saxon rhetoric. The fears summoned by the poem suggest that just as God allowed the Israelites and Roman Britons to be conquered by outside peoples, he may allow the same for the Anglo-Saxons if their spiritual foundations crumble. In this formulation, faith preserves the nation, while nations that abandon faith are subject to domination by outsiders.

The Beasts of Battle episode, it should be noted, is one of two high points of fear in Exodus, and it primes audiences for the second: the pyrotechnic display that is the destruction of the Egyptians in the Red Sea (lines 447-515). Still, a quiet sense of anxiety looms over much of the poem: it is a slow crescendo of fear that rises as the Red Sea is approached. The Beasts are not the only Anglo-Saxon fear mapped onto the Israelites in the narrative. Early on, once out of the shadow of Egypt, the poem is pervaded by a communal paranoia as Israel, their captors on their heels, careens from one desert danger to the next. The people pass enemy strongholds (56), the heat of the sun threatens to scorch them like the Sigelwara (Ethiopians) (69), the pursuing army menaces, and the darkness outside the camp at night holds terrors unknown. The poetic anxiety throughout emerges from layering biblical narrative with Old English poetic tropes. That is, the very fears that imbue the first 63 lines of their journey with dread are those we find in other Old English texts, like The Wonders of the East and Beowulf. There we see many of the same cultural fears--of tribal warfare, of the imagined danger of exotic lands and peoples, of feuds, and of the unknown dangers housed in darkness, liable to spring upon sleeping warriors and devour them. (48)

Still, though it invokes this widespread emotional atmosphere, Exodus is unique in harnessing fear as a mechanism for spiritual training. Examining the way that the Beowulf-poet lets readers imagine monsters rather than describe them in detail, Michael Lapidge writes of fear in Beowulf "The horror resulting from the threatening approach of unfamiliar monsters is experienced most intensely in nightmares... [the poet's] evocation of terror is unique in Old English literature." (49) If Beowulf is a poem animated by the shapeless terrors of night, Exodus is a poem driven by the waking fears of broad daylight hours; it does not leave the agents of doom, the Egyptians and Beasts, to audience imagination. Instead, it involves audiences into preoccupation with an everyday brand of fear: the survival of a people. Given how early in the Anglo-Saxon period Bede articulated his vision of a populus Israhel, a concern linking spiritual health with national stability would reverberate across the age, louder, perhaps, in a pre-Benedictine Reform monastic setting, when the nation seemed unruly to many and in dire need of reform. These anxieties are assigned to the Israelites in the poem, blurring the lines between historical levels of the narrative and the cultural concerns of Anglo-Saxon audiences.

One way the poet constructs this anxious atmosphere is via sound. As mentioned before, the Beasts announce themselves, and thereafter the poem presents a constant barrage of sounds as the Egyptians close in. But this steady din is cut to silence at the moment of peak terror. Leading up to line 200, the poet characterizes Israel and Egypt both as nations on the move, as loud crowds, ascribing to them cirm (noise, clamor, uproar). Recently, Jordan Zweck has reassessed the semantic range of the word, concluding "that this 'cirm' is a mark of the Israelites' triumphal assertion of their continued presence and plenitude, a celebration of the fact that they can still be a multitude despite captivity." (50) The term suggests not merely "noise," but a boisterous, collective sound, as of a crowd, which, while comprising many members, remains a single body. In her reading, it signals not only volume of sound but the volume of people, especially the people who, by poem's end, have their miraculous deliverance to celebrate. But used of the Egyptians, it suggests a different kind of clamor: the haste of a pursuant enemy host that moves as one in dogged pursuit of its prey, rushing headlong into destruction: "feond waes an-mod" (line 203b; the enemy was single-minded). The crowd noises of armies is another sonic layer that, punctuated by the "atol aefen-leo[??]" (line 164; horrifying evensong), prompts audiences to brace for the clash of two already loud bodies of troops; and, by line 200, that final burst of sound leaves the Israelites dumbstruck as they brace for a clash: "Flugon frecne spel" (line 203a; Bold speeches flew away, 203a). In this moment of tense hush the poet begins revealing the true nature of the coming battle that has been foreshadowed for a hundred lines up to this point.

Though the Beasts presaged slaughter in line 162, it is only at 463 that the object of the slaughter is confirmed: "flod blod gewod" (blood pervaded the flood). This exceptional moment of internal rhyme underscores sonically a moment of blended awe and terror. A storm breaks out, Egyptians scream, waves roar like an army, a "herewopa maest" (line 461; greatest of army cries), and the chaotic sounds crash together. The scene, rife with carnage, depicts God personally disintegrating the Egyptians by means of the water, rounded off with the sententious epithet: "Hie wi[??] God wunnon" (line 515b; They strove against God). As Alice Jorgensen points out, the scene meditates upon violence, underscoring it with intense imagery and rhyme. She writes, "The peculiar feature of battle noise is that it is at once of the essence of violence and incidental to it.... [I]n [Exodus], noise lends a psychological depth and realism to battle-description, helping to convey elements such as excitement, courage, terror, and, in the case of the drowning of the Egyptians in Exodus, suffering." (51) Her perceptive reading points to this most typological moment as one of peak sound-horror, an echo of what other critics have noticed in considering the Egyptians' deaths as a type for Judgment Day. This is the terror forecasted by the Beasts, and it is worth noting the reversal that has taken place: although audiences were led to dread the destruction of their typological counterparts, the Israelites, the height of fear in the poem is actually centered upon the wrath of God against his enemies, the Egyptians. Yet the presence of the Beasts before makes this seem like an unlooked-for miracle, a eucatastrophic turn of events.

Fear and ferocious sound combine to underscore the awesome typological imagery used to reassure audiences that, great as their fears have been so far, God's power and provision are greater still. As the Beasts and Egyptians draw near, the miracle at the Red Sea occurs, underscored by vibrant apocryphal typological imagery. The waters part and Moses explains to his followers, "nu ic sylfa sloh on [??]eos swi[??]re hand / grene tacne garsecges deop" (lines 280-81; now have I struck the ocean's deep with the green token in this right hand). The grene tacne with which he strikes the shore is, on the historical level, his own staff, which had a reputation for miraculous power; but it is also typological shorthand for the cross. (52) In this moment, the mechanism of salvation is doubled by semantic ambiguity: it is Moses's rod and it is Christ's rood which parts the sea and paves the road to national and personal deliverance. Thus the poet weaves these stories together, anchoring them in the historical level of the narrative by Moses's staff. Moses's speech here solidifies a pattern that the poem has been developing up to this point--the Israelites are merged with the Christian audience, while the crossing of the Red Sea dramatizes the salvation of both. (53)


As illustrated by the poem's play with the Beasts, audiences must, in addition to exercising theological expertise, also have sufficient familiarity with Old English poetic convention to play its game well. They must be the type of people who can be absorbed into the drama of the narrative enough that they are able to be tempted by the fear and doubt it offers, and then must be humble and reflective enough to learn from this poetic and theological misreading. (54) This linkage of humility and hermeneutic proficiency is itself an Augustinian notion. When recounting his own early attempts to read the Christian scriptures, Augustine writes,"... visa est mihi indigna, quam Tullianae dignitati compararem. Tumor enim meus refugiebat modum eius, et acies ea non penetrabat interiora eius" (they seemed to me unworthy to be compared with the dignity of Ciceronian [texts]. For my swollen pride recoiled from their style, and my incisive mind could not cut into their secrets). (55) From this perspective, pride is conceived of as the archetypal sin, and so humility becomes inextricably linked to teachability. One can grow from reading only if one is humble enough to admit the possibility of misunderstanding, of being wrong, a lesson clear to those under the Benedictine Rule, which, in chapter seven, treats the cultivation of humility as a virtue. (56) Exodus uncloisters this ethic, broadening its applicability by inviting lay listeners to heed the teaching and join the fold of the humble.

Over the course of the poem, the Exodus poet melds the scriptural with the heroic, the militant with the theological, tapping into the tensions that exist when multiple modes of Anglo-Saxon storytelling are layered over each other, in a vein recalling Gregorian approaches to preaching. In the hands of the Exodus poet, this extra-literal approach is uniquely animated by an interest in the ways in which fear as an emotion shapes the experience of narrative. The approach might be thought of as the Anglo-Saxon interest in subjectivity turned outward, toward the many audiences available and the stirring up of their emotions, especially in the ways that narrative allows these varied perspectives to overlap and coexist. By portraying God's chosen people as both heroic and yet at times riddled with doubt (especially in the face of emotional shock), the poet provides a model for Anglo-Saxon audiences. Read thus, the poem suggests that such a position of momentary weakness can also become one of strength, prompting God's people to cry out for help and then galvanizing them with the resolve to obey, even if the way to salvation leads through so unlikely a road as a seabed. Audiences are empowered by being granted room for their doubts while ultimately reminding them (via Moses, that "so[??]faest lareow") that salvation is assured by the God who actively fights on their behalf. Through this truth, which emerges from Exodus's hermeneutically layered structure, audiences are reminded that their faith, though it demands obedience and resolve, is also gracious enough to withstand the doubts that can arise from the fears and traumas of circumstance.

Indiana University


I would like to thank Rob Fulk and Brian O'Camb for reading drafts of this essay and providing indispensable feedback. Thanks are also due to the readers and editorial team of Philological Quarterly, whose many insights and suggestions have only strengthened the work. Any remaining infelicities are my own.

(1) All quotations of the poem are from Exodus, ed. Peter J. Lucas (U. of Exeter Press, 1994). All translations are mine unless otherwise noted.

(2) The classic treatment of typology and figural reading in the Middle Ages is Erich Auerbach, "Figura," in Scenes from the Drama of European Literature: Six Essays, trans. Ralph Mannheim (U. of Minnesota Press, 1984, repr.); for an early treatment of typological mapping in the poem, see J. W. Bright "The Relation of the Caedmonian Exodus to the Liturgy," Modern Language Notes 27 (1912): 97-103; for the classic account of the poem's typological play within a manuscript-wide program, see J. R. Hall, "The Old English Epic of Redemption: The Theological Unity of MS Junius 11," Traditio 32 (1976): 185-208. He reads the poem as a type for baptism. While this reading is fruitful at a manuscript level, it does not take Exodus's unique strategies into account as its own work prior to Junius 11. See also James E. Cross and Susie I. Tucker, "Allegorical Tradition and the Old English Exodus" Neuphilologische Mitteilungen 44 (1960): 122-27; J. W. Earl, "Christian Traditions and the Old English Exodus," Neuphilologische Mitteilungen 71 (1970): 541-70; Andrew Breeze, "The Book of Habakkuk and the Old English Exodus" English Studies 75 (1994): 210-13. For a fruitful discussion of the differences between figural and typological reading, see Charles Wright, "Genesis A ad litteram," in Old English Literature and the Old Testament, ed. Michael Fox and Manish Sharma (U. of Toronto Press, 2012): 122-25.

(3) Audrey Walton, "Gehyre se [??]e Wille: The Old English Exodus and the Reader as Exegete," English Studies 94 (2013): 1-10.

(4) For a catalogue of all twelve instances of the trope, see F. P. Magoun, "The Theme of the Beasts of Battle in Anglo-Saxon Poetry," Neuphilologische Mitteilungen 56 (1955): 81-90. He lists their appearance in: Beowulf 3024-27; The Battle of Brunnanburh 60-65; Elene 27-30, 111-14; Exodus 162-67; The Fight at Finnsburg 5-7, 34-35; Genesis A 1983-85; Judith 205-12,294-96; The Battle of Maldon 106-7; The Wanderer 81-83. For an assessment of the artistic merits of instances of the Beasts, see Adrien Bonjour, "Beowulf and the Beasts of Battle," PMLA 72 (1957): 563-73. Neither considers the rhetorical impact of the Beasts in Exodus.

(5) Magoun (1955) amassed all instances of the Beasts, concluding, "often, it is an ornamental rather than an essential theme." Bonjour (1957), reevaluated the relative artistic merits of poems in Magoun's catalog, building New Critical assessments upon Magoun's structuralism, concluding that the Beowulf poet's use was most original of all. M. S. Griffith, "Convention and Originality in the Old English 'Beasts of Battle' Typescene," Anglo-Saxon England 22 (1993): 179-99, uses the Beasts to refine our understanding of oral-formulaic theory, arguing that the Beasts are more traditional than previously thought, circumscribed by rigid expectations linking human-beast exchange. He assures us, "no proper battle takes place without the obligatory beasts" (183), but does not consider whether the Beasts can appear without a proper battle. For the motif in Celtic literature, see David Klausner, "The Topos of the Beasts of Battle in Early Welsh Poetry," in The Centre and Its Compass: Studies in Medieval Literature in Honor of Professor John Leyerle, ed. R. A. Taylor, J. F. Burke, P. J. Eberle, I. Lancashire, and B. Merrilees (Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Press, 1993), 247-63.

(6) Thomas Honegger, "Form and Function: The Beasts of Battle Revisited," English Studies 79 (1998): 289-98.

(7) Honegger, "Form and Function," 291-97.

(8) The Old English Exodus, ed. J. R. R. Tolkien and J. Turville-Petre (Oxford: Clarendon, 1981), 49-50. His entries for herefugolas (162) and woelceasega (164), as well as his redefinition of cwyldrof (166), argue that these items are analogous to Old Norse poetic forms, casting upon the passage a shadow of paganism which, presumably, Anglo-Saxon audiences would have found sinister. Nor was he the last scholar to trace Norse affinity in the poem; see Roberta Frank, "Did Anglo-Saxon Audiences Have a Skaldic Tooth?" Scandinavian Studies 59 (1987): 338-55.

(9) For a reassessment of Skaldic influence on the poem, see Joseph Harris, "Beasts of Battle, South and North," in Source of Wisdom: Old English and Early Medieval Latin Studies in Honour of Thomas D. Hill, ed. C. Wright, F. Biggs, and T N. Hall (U. of Toronto Press, 2006), 3-25. Harris rebuts Frank's Skaldic theory by tracing the motif further into the Germanic past, finding evidence for it as early as in Gothic personal names, and suggesting common inheritance by the various Germanic and Celtic peoples independently.

(10) For considerations of Anglo-Saxon audiences and their poetic expectations, see Emily Thornbury, Becoming a Poet in Anglo-Saxon England (Cambridge U. Press, 2014), who draws upon a sociolinguistic framework rooted in social network theory. For recent approaches to the history of emotions in Anglo-Saxon England, see Anglo-Saxon Emotions: Reading the Heart in Old English Language, Literature, and Culture, ed. Alice Jorgensen, Frances McCormack, and Jonathan Wilcox (London: Routledge, 2015); see also Leslie Lockett, Anglo-Saxon Psychologies in the Vernacular and Latin Traditions (U. of Toronto Press, 2011); Antonina Harbus, The Life of the Mind in Old English Poetry (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2002). For Anglo-Saxon audiences and the poetic sensibilities that shaped their reading practices, see Britt Mize, Traditional Subjectivities: The Old English Poetics of Mentality (U. of Toronto Press, 2013) and Thomas Bredehoft, Authors, Audiences, and Old English Verse (U. of Toronto Press, 2009).

(11) Lucas cites Charles Carr, Nominal Compounds in Germanic (St. Andrews U. Press, 1939), who found that Exodus has the highest proportion of unique compounds per line in the corpus. The sheer number of hapax legomena in the poem is startling, and Lucas suggests, "[they] may well be coinages" (49). For broader perspectives on the poem's interpretive challenges, see Ruth Ames, "The Old Testament Christ and the Old English Exodus" Studies in Medieval Culture 10(1977): 33-50; Nancy J. Speirs, Hermeneutic Sensibility and the Old English 'Exodus' (PhD diss., U. of Toronto, 1992); Daniel Anlezark "Connecting the Patriarchs: Noah and Abraham in the Old English Exodus" Journal for English and Germanic Philology 104 (2005): 171-88; Manish Sharma, "The Economy of the Word in the Old English Exodus" in Fox and Sharma, Old English Literature and the Old Testament: 172-94.

(12) For this reading, see Dorothy Haines, "Unlocking Exodus 11. 516-532," Journal of English and Germanic Philology 98 (1999): 481-98.

(13) The dating of Old English poetry is always a fraught enterprise, but the context supplied merits the work. Scholars largely agree with Anlezark's assessment that the manuscript itself is datable to "the latter part of the tenth century, at a time when Anglo-Saxons took a great interest in their culture's poetic traditions"; see Old Testament Narratives, ed. and trans. Daniel Anlezark, Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library 7 (Harvard U. Press, 2011), vii. However, on linguistic grounds, portions of the poem are demonstrably older, perhaps dating from as early as the first half of the eighth century; see R. D. Fulk, A History of Old English Meter (U. of Pennsylvania Press, 1992), 391-92.

(14) For historical background, see Barbara Yorke, Kings and Kingdoms of Early Anglo-Saxon England (London: Routledge, 1990). For literary idealizations of realm and ruler, see Peter Clemoes, "The Chronological Implications between Kingship in Beowulf and Kingship in Practice" in Interactions in Thought and Language in Old English Poetry (Cambridge U. Press, 1995), 3-67; see also T D. Hill, "Scyld Scefing and the 'Stirps Regia': Pagan Myth and Christian Kingship in Beowulf," in Magister Regis: Studies in Honor of R. E. Kaske (Fordham U. Press, 1986), 37-47.

(15) For a standard overview of how these modes functioned in the Middle Ages, see Henri du Lubac, Medieval Exegesis (Grand Rapids, MI: W. B. Eerdmans, 1998). Charles Wright, in discussing the merits of the terms with reference to Genesis A, prefers the terms "extraliteral" and 'spiritual" to refer to scenes which clearly bear meaning beyond the literal level. For extended discussion, see Wright, "Genesis A ad litteram."

(16) Wright, "Genesis A ad litteram," 146.

(17) Joyce Hill, "Confronting Germania Latina: Changing Responses to Old English Biblical Verse," in Latin Culture and Medieval Germanic Europe: Proceedings of the First Germania Latina Conference Held at the University of Gronigen, 26 May 1989, ed. Richard North and Tette Hofstra (Groningen: E. Forsten, 1992): 71-88.

(18) Sharma, "Economy of the Word," 173-75.

(19) See Malcolm Godden, "Biblical Literature: The Old Testament," in The Cambridge Companion to Old English Literature (Cambridge U. Press, 1986), 218 for perplexity here.

(20) T. A. Shippey, "The Ironic Background," in Interpretations of Beowulf, ed. R. D. Fulk (Indiana U. Press, 1991), 202-5; see also '"Grim Word-Play': Folly and Wisdom in Anglo-Saxon Humor," in Humor in Anglo-Saxon Literature, ed. Jonathan Wilcox (Rochester, NY: D. S. Brewer, 2000): 33-48.

(21) The role of irony and related figures of speech has been thoroughly examined in respect to Beowulf and Judith: see James Doubleday, "The Principle of Contrast in Judith" Neuphilologische Mitteilungen 72 (1971): 436-41. See also Hugh Magennis, "Contrasting Narrative Emphases in the Old English Poem Judith and AElfric's Paraphrase of the Book of Judith," Neuphilologische Mitteilungen 96 (1995): 61-66; and Haruko Momma, "Epanalepsis: A Retelling of the Judith Story in the Anglo-Saxon Poetic Language," Studies in the Literary Imagination 36 (2003): 59-73. For analysis of reversal in a broader religious context, see Claire Fanger, "Miracle as Prophetic Gospel: Knowledge, Power and the Design of the Narrative in Daniel," English Studies 72 (1991): 123-35. For an overview of the fraught question of irony, which can be seen as one principle behind edwenden, see Scott DeGregorio, "Theorizing Irony in Beowulf: The Case of Hrothgar," Exemplaria 11 (1999): 309-43.

(22) See Bright, "The Relation of the Caedmonian Exodus to the Liturgy," for an early search for liturgical parallels; for the view that Exodus has little at all to do with Latin sources, see E. B. Irving, The Old English Exodus (Yale U. Press, 1953), 28-35. On the other hand, F. C. Robinson traces specific signs of Latin influence (etymologizing of names) in "The Significance of Names in Old English Literature," Anglia 86 (1968): 25-26.

(23) For a thorough overview of the debate, and evidence in favor of at least some Old Latin influence, see Paul Remley, Old English Biblical Verse (Cambridge U. Press, 1996), 175-95.

(24) Bosworth-Toller, An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary, s.v. "ge-noegan,"

(25) While one could argue that the laity and nobility may have been primary consumers of heroic poetry, this is difficult to defend in light of Alcuin's famous question to Bishop Higbald of Lindisfarne: "quid enim Hinieldus cum Christo?" For an exploration of the ways in which registers were mixed in monastic settings, see Donald A. Bullough, "What Has Ingeld to Do with Lindisfarne?" Anglo-Saxon England 22 (1993): 93-125.

(26) For more on onomatopoeia in Beowulf, see Howell Chickering, "Lyric Time in Beowulf Journal of English and Germanic Philology 91 (1992): 495; Gale Owen-Crocker, The Four Funerals in Beowulf. And the Structure of the Poem (Manchester U. Press, 2000), 45; 90-93.

(27) One notable exception is Sylvia Horowitz, "The Ravens in Beowulf' Journal of English and Germanic Philology 80 (1981): 502-11. She views the raven as a pagan symbol, but one recycled by a poet with a distinctive Augustinian view of history: in her reading, ravens punctuate Beowulf's career and the fate of his Geatish people, marking their rise and fall.

(28) Brian O'Camb, "Isidorean Wolf Lore and the felafoecne deor of Maxims I.C: Some Rhetorical and Legal Contexts for Recognising Another Old English wulf in Sheep's Clothing," English Studies 97 (2016): 687-708.

(29) See O'Camb, "Isidorean Wolf Lore," 691-92, for discussion of frecne vs. foecne and their implications.

(30) For more on encyclopedism as a worldview, see Mercedes Salvador-Bello, Isidorean Perceptions of Order: The Exeter Book Riddles and Medieval Latin Enigmata (West Virginia U. Press, 2015).

(31) Regularis Concordia: Anglicae Nationis Monachorum Sanctimonialiumque, ed. and trans. Dom Thomas Symons (Thomas Nelson and Sons, Ltd., 1953), 2.

(32) The Vulgate reads, "sed non in pluribus eorum beneplacitum est Deo nam prostrati sunt in deserto."

(33) See Lucas, Exodus, 106n201.

(34) AEfric's Lives of Saints, vol. 1, ed. W W Skeat, EETS os 76 (Oxford U Press, 1881), 370, 372.

(35) See Audrey Meaney, "AElfric's Use of His Sources in His Homily on Auguries," English Studies 6 (1985): 477-95.

(36) Mfric's Lives of Saints, vol. 2, ed. W W. Skeat, EETS os 82 (Oxford U. Press, 1890), 314-34.

(37) Andrew Scheil notes that in De populo Israel, AElfric poses one possible interpretation: that national disaster was divine punishment, just as in Exodus and Numbers God had punished the grumbling Israelites during the desert wandering period; see Andrew Scheil, The Footsteps of Israel (U. of Michigan Press, 2004), 295-312.

(38) For another instance of Vikings given the epithet of "wolf," see "The Battle of Maldon," line 96, in E. V Dobbie, ed., Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records, vol. 6 Anglo-Saxon Minor Poems.

(39) For more on the widespread use of heroic diction in the poem, see Irving, The Old English Exodus, 28-35.

(40) Text from Klaeber's "Beowulf" and "The Fight at Finnsburg," ed. R. D. Fulk, Robert E. Bjork, and John D. Niles, 4th ed. (U. of Toronto Press, 2009).

(41) For an example of the former negative notion (usually rendered by the word "[??]eowet"), see The Lord's Prayer II, in Anglo-Saxon Minor Poems, ed. E. V. Dobbie, Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records 6, line 98. For an elegantly efficient treatment of the range of Anglo-Saxon views on how sin is overcome (by grace or by striving), see Aaron Kleist, Striving with Grace: Views of Free Will in Anglo-Saxon England (U. of Toronto Press, 2008).

(42) See Descent into Hell, lines 33-49, in The Exeter Anthology of Old English Poetry: An Edition of Exeter Dean and Chapter MS 3501, ed. Bernard J. Muir (U. of Exeter Press, 2000).

(43) See Thomas Rendall, "Bondage and Freeing from Bondage in Old English Religious Poetry," Journal of English and Germanic Philology 73 (1974): 497-512.

(44) Part 2 treats the wicked kings and loss of the realm; part 3 recounts the sins of the church. See Gildas, "The Ruin of Britain" and Other Works, ed. and trans. Michael Winterbottom (Philmore & Co., 1978).

(45) Bede depends heavily on Gildas throughout book one of his Ecclesiastical History, esp. after chap. 16 (on England after Rome). See Sources of Anglo-Saxon Literary Culture: Bede Part 1, Fascicles 1-4, ed. George Hardin Brown and Frederick M. Biggs (U. of Amsterdam Press, 2017), 145-46.

(46) Alcuin, Epistola 129, in Monumenta Germaniae Historica,

(47) Homilies of Wulfstan, ed. Dorothy Bethurum (Oxford U. Press, 1957), 261-75, 180-86.

(48) For other instances, see Andy Orchard, Pride and Prodigies: Studies in the Monsters of the Beowulf Manuscript (U. of Toronto Press, 2003). See also Mary Kate Hurley, "Distant Knowledge in the British Library, Cotton Tiberius B.v Wonders of the East" Review of English Studies 67 (2016): 827-43.

(49) Michael Lapidge, "Beowulf and the Psychology of Terror," in Heroic Poetry in the Anglo-Saxon Period: Studies in Honor of Jess B. Bessinger, Jr., ed. Helen Damico and John Leyerle (Kalamzoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 1993), 394.

(50) Jordan Zweck, "Make a Joyful Noise: Cirm in the Old English Exodus," Sound Studies Blog, June 13, 2016,

(51) Alice Jorgensen, "The Trumpet and the Wolf: Noises of Battle in Old English Poetry," Oral Tradition 24 (2009): 332.

(52) Thomas N. Hall, "The Cross as Green Tree in the Vindicta Salvatoris and the Green Rod of Moses in Exodus," English Studies 72 (1991): 297-307.

(53) For more on the "virtual Jew" as "a fantasy construction that had as much or more to do with Christian identity as it did with actual Jews and Jewish communities," see S. F. Kruger, The Spectral Jew: Conversion and Embodiment in Medieval Europe (U. of Minnesota Press, 2006), xvii. For consideration of the ideological complications and political entanglements surrounding the notion of "election" in Anglo-Saxon treatments of Jews, see Samantha Zacher, Rewriting the Old Testament in Anglo-Saxon Verse: Becoming the Chosen People (New York: Bloomsbury, 2013).

(54) For more on "emotional learning" as Anglo-Saxon devotional practice, see Alice Jorgensen, "Learning about Emotions from the Old English Prose Psalms in the Paris Psalter," in Jorgenson, McCormack, and Wilcox, Anglo-Saxon Emotions, 127-42.

(55) Book 3, chap. 5 in Augustine's Confessions, ed. Carolyn J.-B. Hammond (Harvard U. Press, 2016).

(56) The Rule of St. Benedict, ed. and trans. Bruce L. Venarde, Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library 6 (Harvard U. Press, 2011), chap. 7.
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Author:Hopkins, Stephen C.E.
Publication:Philological Quarterly
Article Type:Critical essay
Date:Jan 1, 2018
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