Language, Sign, and Gender in Beowulf

Language, Sign, and Gender in Beowulf

Language, Sign, and Gender in Beowulf

Language, Sign, and Gender in Beowulf


Not a book about what Beowulf means but how it means, and how the reader participates in the process of meaning construction.

Overing's primary aim is to address the poem on its own terms, to trace and develop an interpretive strategy consonant with the extent of its difference. Beowulf's arcane structure describes cyclical repetitions and patterned intersections of themes which baffle a linear perspective, and suggest instead the irresolution and dynamism of the deconstructionist free play of textual elements.

Chapter 1 posits the self/reader as a function of the text/language, examining the ways in which the text "speaks" the reader. Chapter 2 develops an interactive semiotic strategy in an attempt to describe an isomorphic relation between poem and reader, between text and self. Chapter 3 addresses the notions of text and self as more complex functions or formulations of desire, and thus complicates and expands the arguments of the two preceding chapters. The final chapter examines the issue of desire in the poem, and, to a lesser extent, desire in the reader (insofar as these may legitimately be viewed as distinct from each other).


The kind of bringing-together proposed here has the structure of an interlacing, a weaving, or a web, which would allow the different threads and different lines of sense or force to separate again, as well as being ready to bind others together.

-- Jacques Derrida, Speech and Phenomena

W hen I first began to study Old English poetry, I found it difficult to connect this kind of poetry with any other. It opened up a strange new territory, novel and intriguing despite (or perhaps because of) its formality, curious and somehow bizarre despite the hours of mundane paradigm and vocabulary learning that it rigorously demanded. I was inclined to agree with Thomas Shippey who claims that this poetry is different "in kind" from other types, although my sense of just how it was different in kind was articulated most often by default. The problem was, and is, that Old English poetry finds no space to occupy within the confines of accepted, agreed upon, or already delineated, literary borders. Its rhythms and sounds, its form and content do not respond to ready-made interpretive strategies; it does not "keep the bargain of modern poetry -- that nothing vital will be left out and nothing unnecessary put in" (Shippey, 13). It demands instead a renegotiation of any such bargain, a made-to-order interpretive strategy, or variety of strategies, that embrace and revalue its difference.

While I still retain a strong sense of the uniqueness of Old English poetry, and a fascination for its powerful peculiarities, the nature of its apparent separateness -- the idea of its difference -- has become increasingly aligned and identified with theoretical attempts to examine notions of difference in organic, creative, and nonreductive ways. Generally speaking, it remains true that Anglo-Saxonists have been circumspect about admitting or welcoming theoretical insights, preferring the more "solid ground" of the historical and philological.

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