Old English Heroic Poems and the Social Life of Texts

By Machan, Tim William | Arthuriana, October 1, 2007 | Go to article overview

Old English Heroic Poems and the Social Life of Texts


Machan, Tim William, Arthuriana


JOHN D. NILES, Old English Heroic Poems and the Social Life of Texts. Studies in the Early Middle Ages. Turnhout: Brepols, 2007. Pp. xiii, 372. ISBN: 978-2-503-52080-3. 80.

Like its recently released companion volume, Old English Enigmatic Poems and the Play of the Texts, this volume brings together a number of John Niles's innovative articles, supplements them, and in the process offers a stimulating and original contribution to Anglo-Saxon scholarship. Here, in an Introduction that identifies various critical schools as 'flights from meaning,' Niles lays out the critical procedure that has been the hallmark of his career: a close attention to philology of the most traditional kind joined to a larger critical eye towards not simply the artistry of a poem but also the cultural work that it performs-the qualities that would have given it historical meaning and impact. Describing Old English Enigmatic Poems as being 'in conversation' with the various critical movements he surveys (11), Niles manages, as only a very few critics do today, to appreciate a poem's artistry even as he describes its cultural embeddedness and the tensions that affect its critics as well as the poem itself.

The initial essay, 'Locating Beowulf in Literary History,' thus takes on the issue of the poem's meanings in connection with its date. While acknowledging that earlier, short lays may have circulated orally-must, in fact, have done so-Niles persuasively argues that this particular poem with its particular thematic concerns and narrative twists is most likely to date from the tenth century. The argument rests on the historical situation of post-Alfredian England as well as on the poem's presentation of characters like Scyld and Wiglaf, but what gives it force is the way Niles ties in historical examples of the recording of oral works. 'Beowulf,' Niles suggests, 'is the projection of two great desires: first, for a distinguished ethnic origin that would serve to merge Angles, Saxons, and Danes into a single more-or-less united people, and second, for an ethical origin that would ally this unified race with Christian spiritual values' (56).

Niles's historicism, then, approaches Old English poetry not simply from the view of what a particular word or reference meant but from that of how a poem in its entirety would have functioned within Anglo-Saxon culture, particularly that of the tenth century. Widsith, he suggests, 'is of interest for the ways in which it synthesizes historical and geographical knowledge so as to justify an emergent Anglo-Saxon social order, lending that order the patina of antiquity while wrapping its controlling ethos in an aura of rightness or inevitability that derives from its articulation through the formal speech of the imagined poet-sage, Widsith himself, the celebrant of ancient kings' (84).

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