- Conceptualizing the Enemy in Early Northwest Europe: Metaphors of Conflict and Alterity in Anglo-Saxon, Old Norse, and Early Irish Poetry by Karin E. Olsen
Karin E. Olsen's project is to review three distinct corpora of medieval poetry for indications of cultural specificity of metaphor, and she sets out to do this with a theoretical framework based in cognitive psychology. The focus of her project is broadly described as 'an examination of the relationship between conceptual metaphor and culture', including 'both the ways in which metaphorical language of […] poetic discourse is culture-sensitive, and the extent to which such sensitivity can be detected' (p. 2) in the poetry. This is an ambitious undertaking to fit into a scant 200-odd pages of analysis, for two main reasons. Firstly, the scope of the poetic material under examination is potentially vast, and she is perforce only able to examine a small selection. Her choices are mostly from a number of Old Norse Skaldic and Eddic verses, from Old English charms and heroic poetry such as Deor, Beowulf, Maldon, and Brunanburh, and select pieces of Early Irish heroic and historiographic poetry, including Lebor Gabála Érenn, Cath Maige Tuired, and the Ulster Cycle. Secondly, given her theoretical orientation in cognitive psychology, a case for the applicability of her chosen method needs to be made, for this is not a common approach in medieval literary circles, and this could extend to many more pages than is available in a monograph such as this.
Olsen indeed draws perceptive observations regarding the poetic material and metaphorical concepts across the different traditions. Unfortunately, however, it is not readily apparent whether she has fully achieved her aim across each of the three thematic fields she discusses: heathen gods and their enemies, marginalizing the enemy, and defaming the enemy. Certainly in some places, and with some examples, her quest to demonstrate cultural sensitivity appears to be more successful than in others. There appear to be noteworthy schematic differences in select metaphors used in the Irish Ulster Cycle (as discussed in Chapter 3) with metaphors of fire and poison employed to convey anger, and warriors being likened to carrion birds, neither of which metaphorical collocations is identified as appearing in Old Norse or Old English heroic texts. This is perhaps the most productive aspect of Olsen's work, and a useful and interesting approach for scholarship in this field. This reinforced the reviewer's expectation that a search for cultural sensitivity would seek out differences that may be attributable to the different contexts in which the poetics came into being.
But as often as not, her comparisons seem to identify similarities rather than differences: similar metaphors involving wolves, coldness, and serpents, for example, appear across all three bodies of literature. Perhaps such an apparently counter-productive outcome, identifying similarities rather than [End Page 244] specificities, may in fact be an artefact of the methodology Olsen employs. She acknowledges an explicit debt to Antonina Harbus's 'conceptual metaphor theory' (which she renames 'cognitive metaphor theory' but elsewhere in the book refers to in Harbus's terms) and aligns her approach with cognitive psychologists who over recent decades have turned their attention to literary studies. Certainly there appears to be a substantial body of work in this field analysing cultural production as indicative of cognitive processes, but Olsen notes that this approach is more commonly used by cognitive scientists and anthropologists who can conduct empirical research with language users, and rare in medieval literature studies. In comparison, medievalists need to reconstruct cultural contexts for the often fragmentary available evidence, which for such disparate poetic sources is an especially difficult task. Perhaps without such empirical support available, a quest for cultural specificity and difference will be highly disadvantaged, for how can such variation in metaphor be ascribed to cultural relevance without access to the writer, redactor, speaker, or interlocutor, and knowledge of their conditions...