A Journal of Early Medieval Northwestern Europe

Issue 8, June 2005, Issue Editor:  Elizabeth Ragan

Founded 1998   |   ISSN 1526-1867

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Harbus, Antonina and Russell Poole, eds. 2005. Verbal Encounters: Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse Studies for Roberta Frank. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

This volume comprises fourteen essays by former doctoral students of Roberta Frank at the University of Toronto, where she was University Professor of Medieval Studies. It opens with a succinct appreciation of Professor Frank's "graceful unassuming lightness of touch" as a scholar and a teacher (1), a phrase that resonates with the honorand's own amusing apologia for her chosen fields of study in "The Unbearable Lightness of Being a Philologist" (1997). The collection's title refers to the example that Professor Frank sets for her students and readers in her own contagious absorption in the deep play of words and meanings in Old Norse, Old English and medieval Latin texts. Few scholars have combined such serious and disciplined "close-reading" with such a sense of fun and nuanced discovery, such a capacious scholarly range with such stylistic grace and humor. The editors supply a useful bibliography of Professor Frank's published work. The studies themselves are organized into four categories—On Words, On Anglo-Latin and Old English Prose, On Old English Poetry, On Old Norse Literature—though a blunt summary of their main points below will obscure the very high quality of scholarship and literary polish they reveal. All these essays demonstrate a modus operandi learned from their teacher: a broad ranging but efficiently presented scholarly background on the issues raised by texts examined in very close detail, along with full and pertinent notes. Some essays, like Oren Falk's "Beardless Wonders," have footnotes of such richness—in this case, to obscene imagery from skaldic poetry, the sagas of Icelanders and many other medieval sources—that they will prove valuable references well beyond their applicability to the particular texts they study.

Part 1, On Words

In "Early Medieval Chaos," Christopher A. Jones traces the semantic permutations of this ancient Greek word through classical and patristic Latin, New Testament Greek, translations and glosses in several Germanic languages, medieval and Renaissance Latin, and modern English. Meanings range from "the primal 'something,' whether a void or confusion of matter; to the underworld (pagan, Jewish, or Christian); to darkness palpable in the forms of cloud, mist, fog, vapour, or dust; to a liminal space between life and death, heaven and hell, or upper and nether hells; to a hazardous trail connecting worlds; or to some barrier, material or moral, separating them" (38).

Don Chapman, in "Composing and Joining: How the Anglo-Saxons Talked about Compounding," explores attitudes toward compound word formation in Old English in the absence of a formal poetics or rhetoric such as Snorri's Edda for Old Norse. Chapman concludes that literate Anglo-Saxons familiar with Latin grammars "would have recognized compounds as results of combining words, and as such the combinations would have b een felt to be less natural and perhaps less permanent than simplexes" (54).

In "Cennan, 'to cause to be born'/ 'to cause to know': Incarnation as Revelation in Old English Literature," Pauline Head explores the way Anglo-Saxon poets and prose writers loved to play with this native verb which helped capture in its double meaning the theological view that Christ's birth on earth was the supreme expression of the mind of God to man.

Soon-Ai Low, in "Pride, Courage, and Anger: The Polysemousness of Old English Môd" argues based on the analogy of Old English synonyms and Indo-European cognates that these three secondary meanings of môd, a word which bears the primary sense of "mind" in most Old English uses of it, actually represent a lingering residue of its earlier semantic force. The word for temporarily aroused emotions was extended to denote the emotive or psychological faculty itself.

Part 2, On Anglo-Latin and Old English Prose

Carin Ruff, in "Desipere in loco: Style, Memory, and the Teachable Moment," gives examples of when Anglo-Saxon writers of fairly dry grammatical analysis suddenly crack jokes or "indulge in trifling," as Horace says in the phrase the author quotes from the Odes. Alcuin, Byrhtferth, Ælfric and other authors use this device, Ruff argues, as a mnemonic or pedagogical device.

Dorothy Haines, in "Courtroom Drama and the Homiletic Monologues of The Vercelli Book," examines three sermons in that collection in which dramatic personae—Good and Evil Souls, Christ, Satan—utter speeches at the Last Judgment. These are intended to move the audience to an amendment of life through an exhortation or reproach of heightened resonance.

Part 3, On Old English Poetry

In "'Him þæt grim lean becom': The Theme of Infertility in Genesis A," Karin Olsen examines the way in which the Old English poet depicts God's punishment of the wicked in his retelling of the first 22 chapters of Genesis, summarized in line 46b of the poem: "a grim reward befell them for that!" The poet consistently links human sin on earth to the first fall of Satan from heaven: he replicates God's unleashing of the powers of chaos against the fallen angels in similar acts of uncreation against an immoral humankind with the Flood, at Babel and at Sodom and Gomorrah.

Robert DiNapoli finds in the use of "Odd Characters: Runes in Old English Poetry" a calculated ambiguity on the part of some Anglo-Saxon poets who wished to affirm the power of their native tradition even as they accepted the superior prestige of Christian Latin learning.

Haruko Momma, in "The Education of Beowulf and the Affair of the Leisure Class," uses Thorstein Veblen's classic study (1899) to explain the hero's peaceful character in the poem. Beowulf is not a predatory war-lord of Veblen's early "barbarian" society, but rather comes to represent the kind of leadership appropriate to the proto-feudal society which grew out of it, one in which leisured elites took an interest in maintaining at least a semblance of stability in order to preserve their aristocratic privileges through the productive ownership of agricultural land and rule over a servile population.

The "Articulate Contact in Juliana" to which Antonina Harbus refers is a term adopted from John Stewart (1995), who argues that language constructs human identity through a dynamic process of speech with interlocutors rather than by communicating preformed thoughts through a stable system of verbal signifiers: "you are what you utter" (200). The Old English poet Cynewulf, too, creates the character of his heroine through verbal exchanges with her antagonists in Juliana.

Part 4, On Old Norse Literature

Martin Chase, in "The Refracted Beam: Einarr Skúlason's Liturgical Theology," explicates Einarr's major poem, Geisli 'Sunbeam'. Light imagery in this drápa, a formal eulogy recounting episodes from the life of its subject, is used celebrate St. Olaf on the establishment of a Roman see in Norway. Just as God the Father is the source of light and God the Son the emanation of that light, so St. Olaf is presented as a beam from the Son/Sun of God. Furthermore, "Einarr uses an intentionally ambiguous vocabulary, drawn from both the skaldic tradition and the Latin liturgy, to juxtapose and interchange the face now of Olaf the king, now of Olaf the saint, now of Christ" (221).

Oren Falk's "Beardless Wonders: 'Gaman vas Söxu' (The Sex Was Great)" may strike some readers as a learned overreading, but his teacher is probably amused by its audacity and gratified by its remarkable range of reference. Falk finds multiple sexual ironies and violent double entendres in the sword imagery of the kviflingar 'verse snatches' exchanged between Gísli and Skeggi during their duel in Gísla Saga. A better parenthetical subtitle might have been "The Sex Was Rough." Falk argues that these verses are not a "running commentary on the combat," as the saga-writer himself assumes, but are "suffused with sexual competition, innuendo, and insult" (226). They represent a genre of níf 'defamatory poetry'. Falk (following Sørensen [1983]) takes Saxa as the name of Gísli's blade, rather than the island upon which the saga-writer situates the duel. Falk believes that Gísli's antagonist, too, has been created from a misreading of the skeggi 'beard, bearded one' mentioned in rude verses that must have circulated independently before the prose saga was composed. In the language of "sexual assault and degradation," Gísli has "bearded," that is, emasculated his opponent (245). His personified sword is said to have enjoyed the experience—gaman vas Söxu 'it was fun for Saxa'.

Bernadine McCreesh, in "Dreams and Visions in the Sagas of the Early Icelandic Saints," mounts a systematic survey of this phenomenon in the biskupasögur 'bishops' sagas'. She concludes that while these dreams basically replicate European hagiographical traditions, some motifs, like the wise interpreter, derive from native Norse narrative. Innovative features in Icelandic hagiography are "the preconsecration dream" (268) and the prefiguration of the saintly bishop's passing by a dream in which the episcopal ring is handed on to another.

In "Claiming Kin Skaldic-Style," co-editor Russell Poole concludes this collected tribute to Professor Frank by showing how two skalds, Hallfrefr Óttarsson and Sigvatr Þorfarson, obliquely but boldly construct a relationship of foster-kinship with their patrons, in part by manipulating the relationship of Christian godparenthood.

Craig R. Davis
Smith College, Northampton, MA


Kemp, Debra A. 2003. The House of Pendragon, Book I: The Firebrand. Amber Quill Press.

In so many ways, Arthurian literature, both medieval and modern, is a literature of wish-fulfillment. Tantalizing hints from ancient chronicles blossom into enduring myths. Motives and details missing from the vestiges of historical witness can be re-imagined and re-combined into many-celled hives of story. Such is the impulse underlying Debra Kemp's approach in The Pendragon Chronicles I: The Firebrand. Hers is the Romano-Britannic Arthur, slain on the battlefield of Camlann as the narrative opens, whose brief but stupendous defense of Camelot against the encroaching Saxons is related through the eyes and experience of his and Guinevere's daughter Lin, raised as a slave in the Orkney household of Morgause, but ultimately the de facto Pendragon heir.

I found it difficult to suspend my disbelief over the premise of the story, but even if I had succeeded, Lin is simply not a very interesting character—too self-conscious to convey the emotional weight of the legend convincingly, despite her status as a member of the Round Table and a woman warrior. Alas, the chief weakness of this novel is its first-person narrative—self-conscious, mannered, anachronistically self-analytical, and at times, plain awkward. The language varies wildly, from stilted formality to jarring slang. Lin's frequent confrontations with her master, Prince Mordred, are repetitious and unconvincingly motivated. (Mordred was locked in a privy by his older brothers as a boy; the slave-girl Lin released him, and ever since, they are antagonists.) He humiliates her, beats her, rapes her, and threatens her fellow slave and brother. She bears it all without remorse or plausibility. Finally, all in the last 60 pages, Mordred sells the siblings; they are separated, then reunited after a sea voyage back to the mainland. Lin miscarries, but just as they are about to be sold again, Sir Cai breaks up the illegal slave trade, recognizes Lin under layers of filth, and reunites her with kindly King Arthur, her father. Apparently, although it is not stated outright, it is Lin's noble heritage that enabled her to resist slavery so boldly, while the other slaves tried to make a life within their fate.

I cannot put my finger precisely on what makes this effort seem so effortful, while such a work as Jack Whyte's Camulod Chronicles is so readable. It is an honest book, even ambitious, and clearly a labor of love. The publishing industry's insistence that legendary fiction be issued in multiple volumes is clearly to blame in part for some of the shortcomings. Had Debra Kemp set out to tell Lin's story in a single novel, she could have kept up the narrative pace. Lin could then have led us through to the heartbreaking dénouement of a tale we know so well with not only her established courage but more narrative assurance.

Gail Orgelfinger
University of Maryland Baltimore County