TMR ID: 99.05.11
Reviewed: A Beowulf Handbook
Bjork, Robert and John Niles
Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1998
Review Author: Roy Liuzza, Tulane University, email@example.com
Publication Info:Ann Arbor: University of Michigan University Library, Scholarly Publishing Office
The Medieval Review 1999
This most welcome volume brings together a number of new essays on various aspects of the Old English poem Beowulf. Its organizing principle is that of the history of scholarship on particular critical questions -- date and authorship, style and rhetoric, theme and character. In the course of its chapters, however, it contains a wealth of new material of the first importance: summaries of critical consensus, suggestions for further research, challenges to established orthodoxies, and subtly crafted investigations of the role of history and culture in the reading of medieval literature. Since Beowulf is by most accounts the major literary text of the Anglo-Saxon period -- it has, at least, been granted that status almost from its earliest reading at the beginning of the nineteenth century -- and among the most problematic, the history of Beowulf criticism is an epitome of the history of Old English scholarship. This being so, this book may serve many readers as an introduction to the whole field of Old English studies. It is a rich and complex field, and this book does justice to it. The criticism of Beowulf, it may be said, is like the poem itself: respectful of the past while recognizing the distance between "those days of this life" and our own age, most critics manage simultaneously to honor the great names of their scholarly ancestors and lament their tragic ignorance, to praise their heroic insight while acknowledging their critical blindness. It is, like most fields, a product of its own history; all modern readers of the poem stand on the shoulders of their precursors. Yet it is striking how many of the major questions concerning the poem are unresolved after nearly two centuries of intense scrutiny. While the poem is on the one hand drearily familiar even to many high school students, and has assumed an unenviable role as the unexamined starting point of English literary history, it is in some respects as mysterious as the Voynich manuscript: we can say nothing with certainty about its author, its date, its audience, its history, its context, and (therefore) its meaning. Furthermore, the direction of criticism, as this book demonstrates time and again, has been from greater to lesser certainty; the more Beowulf has been studied, the less scholars can confidently say about it. This is itself a situation of considerable interest, of course; the poem is constituted as an object of study by its scholarship, but the more scholarly attention is brought to the poem, the less definite are the statements scholars can make about it. The multiplication of information has produced competing and contradictory narratives of the poem's origins, nature, and meaning. The volume arises from the assumption that our conception of Beowulf is largely a product of its critical history; Niles notes at the beginning of the book that "the understanding of a literary work is deeply implicated in its past understandings by prior generations of readers" (1). Tracing the history of Beowulf studies is neither an antiquarian homage nor an act of historical revisionism, though the volume does strike both these tones at one time or another. It is rather a way of describing the poem as it is read today, refracted through the lenses of hundreds of critics, illuminated and shadowed by the scholarly work that has defined it. In an introductory essay Niles traces the history of the study of Beowulf from the romantic nationalism of the early 19th century through the philology of the latter 19th and earlier 20th century, through the "literary turn" given to the poem by J. R. R. Tolkien's 1936 essay "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics," acknowledged throughout the volume as a turning-point in the study of the poem (Thomas Shippey calls it "the most influential essay ever written on the poem," p. 162; certainly it is one of the most readable, and the most anthologized, and usually the easiest place to begin talking about Beowulf; its canonical status is itself a product of the industry of academic criticism), through the patristic, oral-formulaic, formalist, structural, and post-structural writings of the past few decades. Interestingly, this volume seems to suggest that the most recent critics of the poem are in fact returning to earlier concerns and repeating earlier preoccupations -- Beowulf in the context of myth; Beowulf as a nationalistic poem; Beowulf as a workshop of prosody or textual analysis; Beowulf as inorganic and fragmented (see Shippey's "Structure and Unity", pp. 172-3); Beowulf as a reflection of our own anxious and urgent study of ourselves. In the end, Niles suggests, our lack of certainty about Beowulf is part of its power as an object of study, and even when we fail to find a definite and limited 'truth' about the poem its literary value is not decreased. Dwelling in uncertainty is itself a powerful hermeneutic lesson; Niles imagines a time when "readers of Beowulf will conceive of meaning as something that darts and shifts at the convergence of two things: a source of information and an interpreter" (10). While the Handbook gently but persistently dispels our positivist aspirations to progress and meaning, its expressed aim is to "lay... the foundation for up-to-date, nuanced approaches to Beowulf by supplying a succession of analyses of all major aspects of it from the beginnings to 1994" (Preface). Each chapter is similar in structure, beginning with a summary paragraph and a chronological list of scholarly landmarks, followed by a longer discussion of either historical developments on the topic in question or reflections on the critical trajectory. The chapters are as follows: "Introduction: Beowulf, Truth, and Meaning" (John D. Niles), "Date, Provenance, Author, Audiences" (Robert E. Bjork and Anita Obermeier), "Textual Criticism" (R. D. Fulk), "Prosody" (Robert P. Stockwell and Donka Minkova), "Diction, Variation, the Formula" (Katherine O'Brien O'Keeffe), "Rhetoric and Style" (Ursula Schaefer), "Sources and Analogues" (Theodore M. Andersson), "Structure and Unity" (Thomas A. Shippey), "Christian and Pagan Elements" (Edward B. Irving, Jr.), "Digressions and Episodes" (Robert E. Bjork), "Myth and History" (John D. Niles), "Symbolism and Allegory" (Alvin A. Lee), "Social Milieu" (John M. Hill), "The Hero and the Theme" (George Clark), "Beowulf and Archaeology" (Catherine M. Hills), "Gender Roles" (Alexandra Hennessey Olsen), "Beowulf and Contemporary Critical Theory" (Seth Lerer), "Translations, Versions, Illustrations" (Marijane Osborn). The organization is generally meticulous but occasionally leads to some repetition, as I will discuss further below, but as in the poem itself each re-statement of a thesis or critical position is a kind of re-vision, a recurrence with variation rather than a pure repetition.
In "Date, Provenance, Author, Audiences" (certainly the most deeply-debated and momentous issues in Beowulf criticism) Robert Bjork and Anita Obermeier begin at the beginning, with the work of Grimur Thorkelin, and proceed through the next two centuries' worth of work on the topics, in the end "arriv[ing] arduously at a cautious and necessary incertitude" (33). They note at the outset that even before these fundamental questions, there are others: what is Beowulf? a manuscript text or a prior work whose traces are preserved in a manuscript? and what is the poem's message, what does it mean? These questions have generally been avoided by scholarship on the poem's date and provenance, which often insulates itself from interpretive issues in a mantle of objectivity, whether the objectivity of linguistics or of history. Bjork and Obermeier's survey of the various methods, internal and external, used to date the poem concludes without consensus; after 1981, the year of Kevin Kiernan's Beowulf and the Beowulf Manuscript and the essays collected in Colin Chase's The Dating of Beowulf, it may be that consensus is impossible. The fact that earnest and reputable scholars have proposed utterly incompatible solutions to the same puzzle, often using the same bits and pieces of evidence, suggests that the matter is not a simple or straightforward discovery of facts. The complex and interlocking structure of argument by which the evidence of history and language is adduced to propose a milieu in which the poem might have been composed, then a named author or patron from that milieu is attached to the poem, has effectively crumbled, top-heavy with supposition and imagination. Beowulf is itself a large piece of the context and background of Anglo-Saxon England; the poem constitutes a large part of what we know about the Anglo-Saxons and has informed a great deal of cultural and archaeological work. It cannot be placed 'against' a background where its historical message becomes univocal or its meaning transparent. Nor can the language and meter of its manuscript witness, which bears a complex and by no means clear relationship to earlier pre-written states of the poem, be used with any degree of certainty to propose an origin for the work. Its status as a manuscript poem from a culture of mixed oral-literate literary productions, no less than its content as a Christian poem about pagans, make Beowulf a mysteriously liminal work which fits uneasily into the categories and contexts we propose for it. The position of hard-won uncertainty favored by Bjork and Obermeier is, however frustrating, the only responsible position.
The agnostic position is admittedly uncomfortable and unsatisfying, however, and not all scholars are content to rest there; R. D. Fulk's chapter on "Textual Criticism," for example, strives for certainty, or at least probability, on the vexed question of textuality and emendation. As a great many scholars have demonstrated, the practices of textual criticism developed and refined for classical texts are generally inappropriate for medieval vernacular poetry; the unknown extent of scribal collaboration in the creation and transmission of texts, coupled with modern uncertainty over the details and flexibility of the rules of meter, make it difficult to find a rationale for wholesale emendation, especially emendation made strictly for the sake of meter. The alternative, however, too often presents itself as a desperate faith in the manuscript witnesses. This adherence to the manuscript text at all costs is of course an entirely modern phenomenon, a kind of textuality retrojected into a manuscript culture, as unfaithful to the putative 'original' work as the most elaborately-emended reconstruction; it is however the faith of those who feel they have nothing else to cling to. An ultraconservative attitude towards the manuscript, Fulk argues, is not skeptical enough -- critics ought to be as wary of the manuscript and scribes as they are of the editors and of one another. He laments the turn towards conservatism in contemporary textual studies of medieval literature; he blames this inappropriate and ultimately futile fetishization of the manuscript text not only on the terror raised by the impossibility of recovering an authorial original from the manuscript versions but on the decline of philology throughout Anglo-Saxon studies. He suggests that this "masks a less fully articulated debate over the issues of authority and specialization within Anglo-Saxon studies" (50) and would probably prefer that when it comes to establishing the text, critics should let the experts on meter and language do their business. When philology evolves away from its rigidly positivist models of epistemological truth-seeking to a more flexible and skeptical hermeneutic dialogue that seeks to understand language as a meaningful cultural production, of course, then the authority for which this chapter argues will be its natural due. Throughout the discussion of these controversial matters Fulk does an admirable job explaining and engaging the fundamental questions of textual criticism as applied to the poem; he maneuvers with confidence through these rough seas.
Robert Stockwell and Donka Minkova similarly argue in their chapter on "Prosody" against the necessary incertitude of the Beowulf scholar. Against the charge that metrical emendation is unavoidably and uselessly circular -- the rules of meter are derived entirely from the existing manuscripts, then applied back to the manuscripts to remove the verses that the metrical rules cannot account for -- they assert, as Fulk does, that 'probability' must guide one's decisions, and probability is a good as it gets for Old English scholarship. Among a number of competing and highly technical theories of Old English meter, however, there will always be differences over what constitutes an acceptable poetic line; casual readers of the poem -- those whose experience of Beowulf places them in the position of an audience and who do not want to spend their lives developing and evaluating theories of meter -- are at the mercy, tender or otherwise, of experts on the matter. Certainly many users of this book will not be willing to engage these matters very deeply, but they are the foundation on which any clear sense of the poem must be built. Only through an understanding of prosody and textual criticism can questions of the composition, transmission, and original audience of the poem be answered; the deepest and most fundamental matters of cultural and literary history lie at the heart of these inquiries which are too often regarded, by both their detractors and practitioners, as essentially non- or sub-literary, objective and descriptive rather than evaluative and interpretive. They are, in fact, too important to be left to the experts -- every reader of the poem must confront them in their dark complexity. Both Fulk and Stockwell/Minkova offer guides as opinionated and complex as the issues they address, and for that any serious reader of the poem will be grateful. Katherine O'Brien O'Keeffe's chapter on "Diction, Variation, the Formula" discusses the most striking feature of the poetics of Beowulf, its proliferation of synonyms and compounds and other repetitive elements. In this context she discusses the growth of oral-formulaic theory from its origins in the work of Milman Parry and Albert Lord, its application to Old English in the works of F. P. Magoun, and its later refinements in the studies of John Miles Foley, John Niles, and others. The debate in Old English studies over diction and formula has important consequences not only for a notion of the poem's authorship, origin, and meaning -- a literate poet, writing pen in hand in a monastery, would surely have made a very different sort of poem than a scop improvising in a royal hall -- but also for the modern critic, whose methods of discerning meaning are largely derived from work on texts rather than performances. The theory of oral composition fell upon Old English studies in the 1950s with such force that it effectively dominated the discussion of poetic style for the next generation. As oral-traditional theory has developed, it has borrowed from reception theory and anthropology to refine its definitions and assumptions; gradually a critical approach towards composition and style is emerging that allows us to speak of Beowulf in terms appropriate to the poem itself and the culture in which it was created and received. Ursula Schaefer's chapter on "Rhetoric and Style" addresses the shift from a critical dichotomy -- scholars assuming that the poem's style was either strictly Germanic or strictly Latin -- to a syncretic notion of language and literary influence and an analysis of patterns, such as the 'interlace' composition described by John Leyerle, that might be said to represent a native Old English aesthetic formed by both Christian Latin and Germanic sources and influences. Any discussion of the poem's style, however, is predicated on the assumption of single authorship; a description of 'style' in the generally-accepted sense must distinguish between inherited material -- part of a tradition of poetic composition -- and individual preference. It is further a difficult matter to discuss the style of a work meant to be experienced aurally. And so here, as in nearly every chapter, all branches of Beowulf scholarship lead to the same few vexed questions of origin, authorship, and text. What is this thing we call Beowulf? O'Keeffe and Schaefer, like most of the essays in the Handbook, are admirably attuned to the presuppositions and problems underlying the questions they discuss; other chapters where such issues lie relatively less close to the surface are more straightforward. Theodore M. Andersson's "Sources and Analogues" is largely a catalogue of the many sources -- mostly Scandinavian and Celtic, but also classical, liturgical, and biblical -- that have been adduced for the poem; Andersson omits the numerous folktale parallels found in Japanese, Indian, Armenian, Russian, and other world literatures. Though connections between Beowulf and Scandinavian literature like Grettir's Saga are strong and clear, there are in the end no sources for the poem, only analogues, given our lack of knowledge of the poem's context and origin. Notably, Andersson also touches on the relation between Beowulf and other works of Old English literature, most prominently the poem Andreas. Direct verbal parallels between these two works have often been noted, but ignorance of the origins and context of either poem, together with a prevailing sense that OE poetic composition was formulaic and traditional, has generally foreclosed the possibility of an Old English literary history. Critics like Anita Reidinger are only now beginning to revisit these important questions and revive the discussion of poetic influence in Old English.
As noted above, the divisions by chapters into topics are necessarily somewhat artificial, and the arguments of many chapters are interlaced with those of other chapters. Thomas Shippey's "Structure and Unity," for example, a thorough survey of the history of the scholarly understanding of the poem's digressive and allusive structure, makes many observations equally relevant to the chapters on "Christian and Pagan Elements" by Edward B. Irving, since most early readers of the poem assumed it contained genuinely early pagan material reworked by later Christian redactors. Both chapters bear equally upon the matter of Robert's Bjork's "Digressions and Episodes," and relate as well to the discussion of 'interlace' in Schaefer's "Rhetoric and Style." Similarly, Alvin Lee's "Symbolism and Allegory" brings together themes and essays discussed in many other chapters. This is by no means a fault of the book -- every scholarly question is related, in the end, to another, and one may pursue the many threads of the poem's texture by entering at any point. Giving each critical issue a chapter of its own highlights both the deeply historical and traditionalist elements in Beowulf criticism and the recurring interconnectedness of its themes, both the proliferating branches and their deep roots. Moreover, each chapter, though built according to the same plan and often discussing many of the same articles and books, has its own flavor and characteristic tone; the variety to be found from a reworking of inherited and traditional materials would have made the poet of Beowulf proud. George Clark's "The Hero and the Theme" discusses the possibility of character analysis of Beowulf himself, and offers a study -- apart from the monster fights, from the possibilities of multiple authorship, from the digressions and episodes, from the poem's Christian purpose if it has one -- of the hero's depth as a literary creation, formed by his childhood experiences, his social milieu, and his personal history. Marijane Osborn's "Translations, Versions, Illustrations," while in part a history of the translation of the poem and a survey of modern English versions, is largely concerned with quirky adaptations of the poem to other media, transformations of the story in popular culture, and illustrations of the poem and its hero. Edward Irving's chapter on "Christian and Pagan Elements" begins by refining a question that has too often been posed simplistically; he notes that there are different sorts of "paganism," which he describes as literal, vestigial, and ethical. Early scholars tended to maximize the importance of pagan references in the poem, while later scholars minimized them; more recent work has abandoned the question of whether Beowulf has a 'Christian coloring' or a 'pagan coloring' in favor of the investigation of the complex interplay of secular and spiritual elements, each 'tempering' the other (Irving uses the language of John Niles here). Robert Bjork's chapter on "Digressions and Episodes" is similarly a study of the shifting of critical perspective, from early condemnations of the poem's digressions as clumsy and indecorous to an appreciation of their appropriateness "in terms of the poem's non-Aristotelian aesthetics and of their cultural function during the poem's time of composition" (193). Catherine Hills' "Beowulf and Archaeology" charts the development of ever-more sophisticated ways of relating material culture to the literary structures of the poem, from the early "Beowulf and Brooches" approach to the modern anthropologically-based archaeology that has, it sometimes seems, little use for literary witnesses because the text of the physical remains is rich and ambiguous enough. As in many chapters in the book, the question of the poem's date hovers behind the discussion of its described artifacts; Hills cautiously observes that "the archaeological evidence is at least partly compatible with a later date of composition for Beowulf than is usually suggested by reference to Sutton Hoo" (310). Throughout the book it is made clear that changes in the culture at large have had their effect on the way we read Beowulf; not all these shifts have been from ignorant certainty to nuanced indecision. Alexandra Hennessey Olsen's chapter on "Gender Roles" notes the shift from an earlier assumption that female characters were passive and relatively unimportant in the male-dominated world of the poem, through a feminist critique of that passivity, to a recognition that such passivity is a misrepresentation by modern scholarship, not an accurate description of the poem's social world. Olsen notes that as cupbearers, giftgivers, "peaceweavers," mourners and counselors, women "play roles that are public and active rather than merely private and passive" (314). But perhaps the problem facing gender-conscious approaches to the poem lies in the word "merely." Recent studies by scholars like Carol Clover have suggested that modern assumptions about gender roles are not always appropriate to medieval societies; nor should an apparent lack of action in a character be equated to passivity -- speech is also action. Beowulf, it might be said, sometimes chooses to present the public, active world of its heroes through the eyes of the private and passive witnesses to and victims of that action -- Wealhtheow, Hildeburh, the nameless mourner at Beowulf's pyre. Their perspectives are crucial to our understanding of the poem's meaning, for they are in effect the perspectives of the poet and his audience. It is in some ways unfortunate that Olsen has been confined by the chronological boundaries of the volume as a whole; the cut-off date of 1994 forces her to omit the recent work of scholars such as Clare Lees and Allen Frantzen, who are bringing the insights of gender studies to Old English poetry in interesting and innovative ways. Their work suggests that the history of the study of gender roles in Beowulf is entering a new and most promising phase.
One of the strongest chapters is that of John Niles, "Myth and History." In
it he explores the parallel efforts to find the origins of the plot, imagery,
names, or underlying patterns of Beowulf in primal myth -- meteorological,
Teutonic, Indo-European, heroic, initiatory, or apocalyptic -- or in historical
events, the chronicles of the Geats (whoever they were) and Danes and Swedes.
Though these are quite different pursuits, Niles points out that each has a
privileged aim, the uncovering of the 'real' story (whether mythic or historical)
lying under the literary surface. Each, indeed, seeks to discard the literary
surface and find the kernel of truth underneath the details of the text. Unhappily
for such pursuits, the poem refuses to distinguish between "two different
modes of past time, the fabulous and the factual" (216); Beowulf is frustratingly
ambivalent -- it is not quite mythical enough to be read apart from the history
it purports to contain, nor historical enough to furnish clear evidence for
the past it poetically recreates. Its action contains both the 'mythical' Scyld
and the 'historical' Hygelac, its setting both the 'historical' Heorot and
the 'mythical' mere of Grendel's lair. Borrowing a term from William H. McNeill,
Niles characterizes the "mythistory" of the poem as "a narrative
that, by telling about a formative period of the ancestral past, served the
Anglo-Saxons as a charter for contemporary institutions of kingship and thaneship
while also reinforcing a wide range of culturally-specific beliefs and values" (217-8).
Another strong chapter is John M. Hill's "Social Milieu," virtually
a restatement of the arguments presented in his The Cultural World in Beowulf
(University of Toronto Press, 1995). Believing that the poem is "a dramatization
set in the past of living values and encouraged behaviors" (258) rather
than an elegy or tragedy, Hill's anthropological and ethnological reading of
the poem brings to the foreground many of the social structures often regarded
as 'background', and gives a positive value to elements of the poem which are
often seen as negative. As in his book, Hill emphasizes the complex political
nuances of gift-giving and the positive jural force of violence and revenge;
in Hill's reading of the poem the hero Beowulf emerges as a lawgiver, a bringer
of justice and peace, rather than an adventurer seeking personal glory. Gifts
are subtle political statements and debts to be repaid, not barbaric displays
of wealth and heroic generosity; feasting and boasting are moments of political
negotiation and diplomatic maneuvering, not glittering scenes of heroic excess.
While many modern readers of the poem come away from it with a sense that it
is an elegy for the tragic limitations of a pagan world built on feuds, violence,
fame, and gift-giving, Hill argues that this foundation on which the poem's
heroic society rests, far from being fatally flawed, is more or less stable.
The values of the characters in the poem are, he argues, those of its audience
as well -- there is no dramatic irony in Beowulf. Hill's review of anthropological
and ethnological scholarship, like his book, is a strong and articulate dissent
from what is virtually the modern critical consensus that the poem is an elegiac
Christian look at a doomed pagan society. Seth Lerer's " Beowulf and Contemporary
Critical Theory" is, like some of the works it examines, both challenging
and frustrating. Lerer argues that institutional agendas are at the heart of
all scholarship; theory comes to Old English studies and vice versa for political
as well as for intellectual reasons. He admits that 'theory' is a relative
newcomer to Beowulf criticism, and has not always been a welcome guest. He
notes, quite rightly, that "both the theorists and their opponents take
as their telos nothing less than the salvation of the field" (328); his
essay follows this "rhetoric of salvation" (328) forward from Tolkein,
and in doing so leaves the impression that it may be time for both sides, such
as they are, to abandon their messianic pretensions. Philology and history,
both deeply 'theoretical' pursuits, cannot progress without incorporating the
insights of contemporary theory; contemporary criticism in Old English can
hardly proceed without the kind of careful attention to language and context
that traditional philological and historical study have demanded. A more ecumenical
spirit is needed. With the evangelical rhetoric comes agonistic rhetoric, an
equally fruitless posture for critical inquiry however familiar it may be.
It may be that the day for such language is thankfully passing. Lerer's assertion
that "as Old English scholarship revels in its revived turn towards the
empirical and the philological . . . reactions against theoretical endeavors
have become particularly sharp" (327) is puzzling; not only is current
'empirical' and 'philological' scholarship being practiced at a wonderfully
high level of theoretical awareness (witness Katherine O'Keeffe's 1990 Visible
Song, which Lerer cites as an example of the "palaeographic turn," p.
339, n. 2), so that the boundaries between "theory" and its putative
opponents are dissolving, but the "theoretical endeavors" Lerer discusses
in his survey (works by Allen Frantzen, James Earl, Gillian Overing, and Lerer
himself) are hardly marginalized or excluded, ignored or denigrated, by most
modern teachers and scholars of Old English. Instead they are generally held
to represent some of the most interesting and innovative work being produced
in the field. It might be noted in this context that Frantzen is cited almost
as frequently in the index as Morton Bloomfield (12 citations to 14), Overing
as often as F. P. Magoun (20 citations to 21), and James Earl as often as A.
G. Brodeur (24 citations each), to make just a few arbitrary comparisons between
prophets of the older and the newer dispensations. Positioning oneself as a
subversive and an outsider brings its own cultural capital, of course, and
not least among its benefits is a certain imperviousness to skeptical criticism.
In any case the works of OE scholarship which place theory in the forefront
of their interest are hardly in the embattled position Lerer places them. If
there is any organized "resistance to theory" (328), this book, which
is designed as an introductory handbook for students and new readers of the
poem, certainly does not show it. Indeed the present volume, a long and complex
study of the poem Beowulf and its scholarly history, played out among so many
themes and questions, with the occurrence and recurrence of so many ideas and
fields of inquiry, the intersection of so many methodologies and interests
and avenues of exploration, is a triumphant realization of what Lerer proposes
that current theory can do for a reader: "provide . . . the modern student
with a way of understanding our relationships both to the past texts and to
the present contexts in which scholarship and criticism transpire" (338).
Lerer also notes the curious fact that a number of recent works circle around
the same passage, the description of a sword hilt brought back from Grendel's
cave by Beowulf which Hrothgar examines while making his long moral speech
to the young hero. As the only written object in the poem -- at least presumably
so, as there is no general certainty over what, precisely, is carved on the
hilt -- it has exerted a siren-like fascination for contemporary critics, who
see it as a mirror of the criticism of the poem itself. There is much to praise
in this book, which concludes with a spectacular 55-page "Works Cited" section
that is virtually a new bibliography of Beowulf scholarship. The chronological
highlights at the beginning of each chapter will be a treasure to many critics
of the poem, offering a firm historical orientation to scholarship on many
questions; there are a few odd omissions here and there which might mar the
chronology's completeness (e.g., Christine Fell's 1984 Women in Anglo-Saxon
England, though noted in the Works Cited section and mentioned in the relevant
chapter, might well have been in the chronology as well). A quick search of
the index revealed a curious problem: wanting to consider Lerer's claim that
John P. Hermann's 1989 book Allegories of War "proposed a theoretical
approach to pre-Conquest literature that has had an immense impact on current
criticism of the poem and its milieu" (334), I tried looking up all the
citations in the index under "Hermann, John P." I found that of 13
citations, 11 were in fact to other scholars whose first name was Hermann:
Moeller, Schneider, Dederich, Paul, Suchier (listed on p. 194, recte 193),
and Moisl. One can only speculate that a computer-generated indexing program
went awry somehow. This is a minor cavil, however, at an otherwise beautiful
and carefully-made volume. Fundamental issues of language and culture haunt
the study of Beowulf: when was the poem written? By whom? How was it composed?
How was it received? All critical study of the poem, at least any that has
a pretension to seriousness, is really, at bottom, an attempt to answer these
questions, to make sense of this work that is at once so familiar and so unknown.
It is this constant return to the most basic questions of reading and writing,
literary history and theory, that make the study of Beowulf so difficult, so
rewarding, and so important. This book is a worthy account of that study, a
fine introduction to it, a necessary starting-point for it, and an indispensable
addition to the bookshelf of any student of Old English.