Introduction
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Introduction mongum reordum, wrencum singe (with many voices, with stratagems, I sing) In an allegory, J.R.R. Tolkien describes a tower’s beauty and integrity, overlooked by critics who lift away its every stone, searching for origins and what they expect (Monsters 7–8). Their methodology leads them to miss that the man who built the tower “had been able to look out upon the sea” (7). Tolkien’s “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics” presaged a broader movement in the humanities that privileged attention and empathy over judgment shaped by prior expectations. A methodology that vests objects of study with authority inspired such scholarly approaches as ethnopoetics in Native American studies, thick description in anthropology , and the study of oral traditions in classical studies and literature. Critics using these approaches sought to enter and inhabit the tower, a process made better when accompanied by informants with an insider’s perspective. Yet, even Tolkien’s criticism, whose expansive perspective gave new life to Beowulf studies, reflected a prevalent division in Anglo-Saxon scholarship between writing deemed either Christian or non-Christian. In praise of Beowulf, he writes that it inhabits “the pregnant moment of poise” that extricatesitfrom“theolddogma”ofGermanicpaganism,whileprotecting it from full-blown Christianity: “He [the Beowulf-poet] was still dealing with the great temporal tragedy, and not yet with writing an allegorical o 2 · Signs that Sing homily in verse” (23). Because his poetry does not serve the ideological agendas of either pagan or Christian eras, Tolkien suggests, the Beowulfpoet creates living, breathing monsters and heroes in fitting poetic style.1 The long poems Andreas and Guthlac (both saints’ lives) possess “wellwrought language, weighty words, lofty sentiment,” but such style is incongruous to all but Beowulf (14). By reserving heroic diction for Beowulf, Tolkien reifies a separation between “pagan” and Christian material that had already been imposed by earlier critics. This separation of heterodox from orthodox content has dogged Anglo-Saxon scholarship until at least the end of the twentieth century, fueling an analogous division between those who study oral tradition and those who work with the Latin Christian tradition, a division still in the process of healing. Such categorization has obscured a rich rhetorical tradition in Old English poems of any genre. I propose a way of interpreting the poetic style of Old English poems that regards their many features—Christianity, Germanic paganism, oral tradition, literate tradition, and so on—as simultaneously functional, beautiful, and congruous. Signs That Sing argues that hybrid oral, written, and liturgical ways of speaking form a fundamental poetic strategy in Old English verse. Like the tower created from diverse stones in Tolkien’s allegory , Old English poems comprise various materials from these three, sometimes overlapping, traditions, all crafted in the classical meter and diction of Old English poetry. Authors and their audiences (who could have included lay and monastic people) would have encountered many kinds of verbal art: works deriving from deeply literate traditions, such as Boethius’s The Consolation of Philosophy; biblical and apocryphal narratives from the mouths of preachers; oral-traditional compositions by local or traveling bards; and the sacred stories, both overt and implicit, evoked by ritual Christian practices, from baptism and the Eucharist to the daily and annual practices of monastics. Written, oral, and ritual traditions, I contend, all provided creative resources for Anglo-Saxon authors writing in the vernacular poetic style. Furthermore, Old English poems—both those obviously written in the service of religion and those whose function appears to be more secular—were aesthetic, performative events. In one example of hybridity, Anglo-Saxon authors used oral idioms for their strongly metonymic associations and repurposed them, in a literary manner,asmetaphors.Forexample,thewell-knowntrope,theexiletheme, Introduction · 3 occurs in the story of the fall of the angels at the beginning of Genesis A, where it functions in a typically oral-traditional manner to characterize the expulsion of Satan and his followers from the true dryht or communitas of heaven. In the saint’s life Juliana, however, the exile theme connotes “fallenness” and “damnation” rather than explicit banishment from a social group. Exile imagery and morpho-syntactic half-lines recur across the poem, linking the suitor Heliseus, his companions, and the devil who tries to tempt Juliana.2 Although we do not see these figures literally cast out, they represent various exiles from heaven, as framed metaphorically and spiritually by the theme. The line between typical and metaphorical usage of an oral-connected theme or typescene can...