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Interlocking Genres: A New Approach to Surveys of Anglo-Saxon Literature
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Interlocking Genres:
A New Approach to Surveys of Anglo-Saxon Literature
The Cambridge Introduction to Anglo-Saxon Literature. By Hugh Magennis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

Given the brevity of the book, Hugh Magennis's eminently readable Cambridge Introduction to Anglo-Saxon Literature presents a surprisingly complete survey of this tradition. However, anyone depending on Magennis to cue the reader into what constitutes canonical and noncanonical texts within this tradition will undoubtedly be left disappointed. Magennis, true to the title, supplies us with a broad and generally comprehensive historicist introduction to the literary traditions of the Anglo-Saxons, devoting attention to both the traditional canon that constitutes the lion's share of scholarship as well as lesser-read texts that usually fall outside of the scholarly spotlight.

As is common in books of this sort, Magennis opens his Introduction with a brief survey of the history and cultural milieu of the Anglo-Saxons and then discusses Anglo-Latin writings and the nature of prose texts in Old English in chapter 2, "Developing Literary Traditions." In the third chapter, "Varieties of Narrative," he discusses heroic poetry, biblical adaptations in Old English, history writing, and hagiography. Magennis concludes his survey in chapter 4, "Belief, Knowledge, and Experience," including discussion [End Page 399] of homilies, gnomic writings, and elegies. He then includes a fifth chapter on "Anglo-Saxon Afterlives" in which he explores the influence of Anglo-Saxon literature in the Early Modern and Modern eras. Along the way Magennis provides, as is standard operating procedure in such texts, selections from many primary sources as well as several appropriate and informative timelines, illustrations, and maps. In addition, he also inserts at strategic points introductory discussions on the aesthetics of the Anglo-Saxon poetic tradition. Also of note and of great use to novice students, Magennis consistently discusses the major critical perspectives that inform modern inquiry in the field of Anglo-Saxon literature, and he includes an eighteen-page bibliography of both primary and secondary sources.

Overall, Magennis's book would undoubtedly serve as an excellent supplement in survey courses on early British literature or a general survey of medieval literature that includes the Anglo-Saxon tradition. The text is accessible to beginning students and achieves admirable levels of detail despite the scope of the work. One of the book's greatest strengths, in fact, is that Magennis attempts — successfully, for the most part — to discuss the full gamut of Anglo-Saxon literature (including a discussion of Anglo-Latin texts that is more extensive than normal) rather than focusing discussion on a few representative and overtly canonical texts. As a result, not only is the student given a broader and more comprehensive perspective of the wide variety of Anglo-Saxon literature but also, via this broader range of texts, Magennis is able to achieve an admirable level of intricacy and complexity in his study despite the fact that the book is relatively short. Moreover, Magennis avoids the pitfalls of ascribing to particular schools of thought and critical approaches, instead describing in a generally interconnected fashion the various themes, topics, and genres present in the literary corpus. For instance, while students interested in teratology will find relevant references, at no point does the author orient his discussion of texts such as Beowulf or the "Wonders of the East" from the perspective of monster theory per se. Rather, the discussion of such texts (and relevant critical concerns) is presented merely as a smaller part of larger thematic traditions.

This strength of breadth may, however, function as a potential problem for the instructor seeking to enlighten students about Anglo-Saxon texts that are normally "off the grid." Notably, Magennis makes no attempt to define a representative canon of Anglo-Saxon texts. At no point does he privilege any texts as superior in artistic quality or more worthy of critical attention, and as a result, the beginning student may not be able to glean a proper sense of which texts are canonical and which are not. Thus, it may [End Page 400] be difficult for students to latch onto and identify (canonical) texts that can provide a necessary representative understanding of Anglo-Saxon literature...