Runes: A Handbook by Michael P. Barnes (review)
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Reviewed by
Michael P. Barnes, Runes: A Handbook (Woodbridge, UK: The Boydell Press 2012) xvi + 240 pp., 2 maps.

There has long been need for a modern, accessible, authoritative, and sober account of the runic alphabets in English, and this book fills the gap nicely. It is very difficult indeed to break such ground, as the market is saturated with books that purport to educate their readers on the magical abilities and provenances of these alphabets, while the scholarly literature on the subject remains locked up mostly in German- and Scandinavian-language journals. This book would be serviceable as an introduction to the subject for a serious student of Scandinavian linguistics who wished to begin the study of runes, with the caveat that it offers few references to that aforementioned extensive foreign-language literature, and the many unreferenced comments of the type “… it has been increasingly argued that …” (13) make it difficult for specialists to follow Barnes’s scholarly trail. On the other end of the spectrum, the vocabulary may often be too technical for a truly general audience, and Barnes’s spelling of “roman” (meaning the Roman alphabet) with minuscule letters is likely to be found distracting by most readers, who are accustomed to seeing such words capitalized.

For those who have done some reading on the subject of runes already, Barnes’s first eight chapters will serve mostly as review. After a brief introductory chapter 1, Barnes uses chapters 2–9 to survey the development of the Elder and Younger Futharks in turn as they existed in England, the Continent, and Scandinavia through the Iron Age and Early Middle Ages or Viking Age. Chapter 2, which discusses the question of the origin of the runic writing system, is surprisingly short, followed by chapters 3 and 4 which focus on the relatively few inscriptions available to us in the Elder Futhark. Chapters 5 and 6, on the use and development of the runic alphabet in English- and Frisian-speaking territories, provides a good short survey of that material. Chapter 7, on the development of the Younger Futhark and the inscriptions therein, is [End Page 231] more detailed than these preceding chapters, and with reason, given the much greater wealth of material in that version of the runic alphabet.

But experienced readers will likely find Barnes’s later chapters the most interesting and informative, beginning with chapter 10 on use of the runic alphabets in the later Middle Ages in Scandinavia, and chapter 11 continuing with surviving remnants of the tradition even after the Reformation. There are also very strong chapters on the use of ”cryptic” runes (Norwegian løyndruner; chapter 12), and on runic manuscripts and rune names (chapter 13). Barnes is a well-known expert on his subject, and shows a refreshingly great amount of caution about its most nebulous aspects, such as the determination of the rune names in Proto-Germanic (163). Barnes also treats the history of runic scholarship (and the popular reception thereof) in the early modern period (in chapter 11) and briefly glances at the many uses and misinterpretations of these alphabets in popular culture today (in chapter 16, where Barnes also performs the admirable service of reminding readers which sources are written responsibly and which are written with an agenda).

The most fascinating chapter of this book is chapter 14, on the neglected aspects of actually creating runic inscriptions. This chapter rewards repeated reading; it is illuminating to think beyond the content of the inscriptions themselves and consider how they were carven, with what tools and on what media. As a tool for teachers, chapter 15, ”The reading and interpretation of runic inscriptions,” stands out for offering several excellent case studies that can be adapted into class exercises for advanced undergraduates.

I have already found great use for this book in teaching a course on the history of the Scandinavian languages at UCLA; the photographic reproductions of runic inscriptions are clear and easy to read, and in general Barnes avoids terminology that is inappropriate for an engaged undergraduate audience. The book is distinctly not for specialists, but it must be remembered that specialists in this field will already have reading ability...