The Heroic Age

Issue 5

Summer/Autumn 2001

A Letter from the Editor


When the so-called New Criticism assumed centrality in American English Studies, older historical as well as interdisciplinary approaches to literary study were effectively banned. This reversed a half-century of progress in the historical, social and philological understanding of literary language and literary works for critical purposes, a progress that marked an advance from an even earlier aestheticism that almost fetishized the literary object. Art for art's sake was one of the rallying cries of that aestheticism. New Criticism, beginning in the late 1940s and early 1950s, reinstituted an intense focus on the art object itself, cut off largely, although never entirely, from historical and social contexts. In doing this a shift occurred also to an organicistic aesthetic - away from the mechanistic devotion to highly realized and complexly arranged particulars that characterized, for example, Walter Pater's Victorian aestheticism of the art object (and still characterizes connoisseurship today). That aesthetic, which values the explanatory power that comes from conceiving subtle systems interrelated within systems, also informed the older, literary history. The relevance of those developments for anthropological approaches is two-fold: the older literary historicism dismissed the anthropological as not historical or literarily precise enough and as prone, in the enthusiasms of some of its practitioners, to vague myth and to a general mysticism about origins and institutions. The New Criticism tried to bury the preceding historicism by arguing that art is no handmaiden to history, to the mere illustration or else reflection of historical moments or movements. New Criticism also denied the relevance of any other "science," especially the social sciences, for similar reasons. The aesthetic rationale for this was essentially the declaration that finally nothing matters more than what is intrinsic to the work of art, to its pregnant language and integrative patterns of contrasts and opposites, to its movement toward a unified whole that transcends particular opposites.

Anthropological approaches thus took a double hit, first from literary historians and then from New Critics. However, with the end of New Criticism's hold on English Studies in the United States, due partly in the 1970s to the importation of philosophical, psychological, feminist and Marxist approaches nurtured in Europe, the social sciences as helpmates in literary criticism have risen again to respectability if not yet to complete acceptance. For our oldest literature, the New Criticism was only partially successful anyway in what it would banish. Historical and philological study have always been a necessity in our efforts to recover manuscript readings and to understand the archaic diction and literary and cultural conventions that inform whatever sets of dynamic opposites and contrasting fragments New Critical analysis would highlight. Part of that discipline of recovery is still relevant, of course, and always will be. But now, with the turn in recent decades to the human sciences, sociology and anthropology can play their part in our continuing effort to understand archaic social values and systems - a social philology of sorts -- and the cultural worlds in which they exist, as that is shaped and intensified for us in the dramas of our oldest literature. Indeed, to show the deep power of anthropological approaches for the illumination of fictional social worlds in medieval literature generally and Beowulf in particular - that is the special aim of this issue of The Heroic Age.

To that end I have gathered eight essays in an effort to survey comprehensively the ways in which social institutions - particularly the feud, host-guest relationships, kinship structures, and the roles of queens - work in Beowulf as well as the ways in which Beowulf might itself have worked for some of its Anglo-Saxon audiences. Three of the essays, those by Stephen Glosecki, David Day and Marijane Osborn, have been republished from a special issue of Philological Quarterly, 78 (Winter, 1999) on anthropological approaches to Old English Literature. I was the guest editor of that issue and here, as the editor of this issue of The Heroic Age, I gratefully thank the three contributors and the editors of Philological Quarterly for permission to republish those essays electronically. Five other essays are new and thus make their first appearance here, in the electronic pages of The Heroic Age - in my opinion a landmark event for the online publishing of interdisciplinary Beowulf scholarship.

Beginning with Stephen O. Glosecki's essay and ending with Craig Davis', this gathering frames perhaps the largest possible social issues for Beowulf. That frame looks in obverse directions: to the Germanic past for ways to understand some surprising traces of totemism, of the avunculate and thus an archaic social order in the poem, and to a late, Anglo-Saxon political present (the Age of Alfred and beyond) for a way to understand some of the large-scale work the poem may have done as an ethnogenesis for its time and place.

In the course of shrewd observations, Glosecki's essay strongly suggests the continuing, even if confusing, influence from a deep past of a kinship and inheritance pattern in Beowulf that is no longer prominent in Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. But what about the nation-building influence, the creating of an ethnic identity from out of the groups - Geats and Danes especially - focused on in Beowulf itself? For his part, Davis makes a good case for some version of the poem as an Anglo-Saxon ethnogenesis, probably inspired by the various state-formation processes and initiatives of Alfred's time. As a bonus, Davis ends by meditating upon the poem's apparent failure to become a permanent ethnogenesis for the pre-Norman English. In between we have treatments of the possible social functions of story-telling in the poem (Marijane Osborn's essay) as well as of the poem itself as a guiding story for the career stages of an imagined audience of young warriors (Alexander Bruce's); we have Carolyn Anderson's exploration of the psychological and gender-related boundaries of the host-guest relationship - a form of reciprocity and consumption that mediates, through the role of guest, between individual and group identities, while operating in ways that can threaten personal, social and human boundaries; and we have David Day's masterful presentation of lethal reciprocity, of what constitutes a feud - that activity so prominent in every phase of the poem's action, both as foreground event and background reference.

To supplement the lines of criticism that focus on Beowulf, rightly enough, as male and feud-dominated, we have speculation about the central, social roles of noble women, queens especially, in the essays by Dorothy Porter and Tom Shippey. Queens, it turns out, are not just background figures in the royal hall, merely fulfilling the established duties of royal hostesses. Instead, given their family connections, they are socially powerful personages in their own rights, or might easily become so in their own interests and when they formally respond to possible or else actually changing social relationships in the hall. While Porter concentrates nicely on pairs of female characters in the poem, uncovering possible matrilineal reflexes that accord with Glosecki's emphases and that shape the centrality of women's social place in the poem, Shippey's essay goes beyond Beowulf. He opens the discussion out to a contemplation of political strategies in Anglo-Saxon times. In terms of those strategies, the wicked queen in Beowulf - Modthryth - and the failed peace-pledge, Freawaru, may have served as resonant warnings for Anglo-Saxon audiences. In particular situations, or so Shippey might have the poet say, one should arrange royal marriages, perhaps between paternal cousins or else in an effort to produce maternal cousins, as circumstances warrant -- the aim being to reduce the possibilities of competitive strife within the kin-group. That is, marrying Freawaru out to the Heathobards does nothing for amity within Heorot in the one case; but marrying Modthryth to another court may well have fostered amity at home as well as abroad, in her high love with the Anglian Offa. I hope you enjoy and profit from this gathering of extraordinary studies.

John M. Hill





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Copyright © John M. Hill, 2001-2. All rights reserved.

This edition copyright © The Heroic Age, 2001-2. All rights reserved.