Revivalist Fantasy: Alliterative Verse and Nationalist Literary History (review)
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Reviewed by
Randy P. Schiff, Revivalist Fantasy: Alliterative Verse and Nationalist Literary History. Columbus, OH: The Ohio State University Press, 2011. Pp. ix, 276. ISBN: 978-0-81-42115-26. $47.95.

This is a strange book. It includes quite a good discussion of two Arthurian poems, The Awntyrs off Arthure and Golagros and Gawain, in terms of Scottish border conflict (the substance of this has already appeared in Speculum); this works better for the Awntyrs with its border geography than for Golagros, where Arthur is on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. A chapter demonstrating that poets of the Piers Plowman tradition 'prove to be on the cutting edge of communications technologies,' something obscured by 'efforts to read alliterative poets as neo-primitives looking ever backwards into a [End Page 97] moribund, oral, and Saxon past' (15), turns out to be about the poets' involvement in books, letters and documents. Having somewhere discovered 'critical resistance' (15), Schiff writes about the 'economically empowered female agents' (i.e. women) in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The argument that William of Palerne supports 'a transnational ideology of exclusively Western aristocratic hegemony' (71), aka the international court-culture, is perhaps neither so revolutionary nor so perceptive as Schiff imagines.

Underpinning the book is an agonistic (a favorite word) account of 'Revivalists.' These 'Euro-American nationalists project modern racialism into the Middle Ages, using the fantasy of an atavistic alliterative movement to narrate the rise of a Chaucerian proto-modernity' (2), imagining 'stern, warlike neo-Saxons who continued to resist Normans into the liminal period of late-medieval England' (32). Authors quoted include Hyppolite Taine, Bernhard ten Brink, and George Saintsbury, all writing between 1863 and 1910. Now the way in which nineteenth-century critics hitched literary history to a nationalist agenda makes a fascinating study, but Schiff is far too intent on displaying 'my own post-nationalist, anti-imperialist critical priorities' (2) to treat such wickedness with anything other than contempt. Having set the sails spinning, this neo-Quixote rides at these ancient windmills with all the courage of a committed anti-militarist. We learn (if we didn't know it before) that it is wrong to link alliterative poets with cultural and technological backwardness, and to talk of the survival of the old Saxon meter.

Skulking behind the mill is another unsavory crew; these are more recent critics (modesty forbids that I should name them) who have inherited their attitudes from their predecessors. In writing books on alliterative poetry, they impose 'a monolithic model of alliterative meter and a unified aesthetic' (33), which 'distracts from poets' contemporary concerns, redirecting attention either to a Saxon past or to the fantasy of an organized, national movement' (35). Perhaps one might respond that this mythical band of critics is Schiff 's own fantasy which pays scant regard to a long and diverse tradition of critical attention. No matter; such is his antipathy to books on alliterative poetry (does Schiff really miss the irony of his position?) that he ends his own book by suggesting that 'criticism benefits from acting as if [his italics] there were no such thing as alliterative poetry' (162). As the old joke has it, I wouldn't start from here.

One may say for the Victorian critics that none of them would have supposed that 'But him lymped þe worse, and þat me wel likes' (Awntyrs 615) means 'the poet is pleased that Galeron is limping' (111). They also wrote well; none of them could have written of 'the biologization of power' (153), or said 'Revivalist criticism literally cast a pall over the readings' (4), or (more confused metaphors) 'My interrogation of Revivalist fantasy steers analysis of Anglo-Scottish borderlands poetics towards current political and cultural parallels' (103). Silliness and clumsiness undercut whatever merits this book possesses. [End Page 98]

Thorlac Turville-Petre
University of Nottingham