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Revivalist Fantasy: Alliterative Verse and Nationalist Literary History (review)
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In Revivalist Fantasy: Alliterative Verse and Nationalist Literary History, Randy P. Schiff argues that the 'Alliterative Revival'—what scholars traditionally argue is a re-emergence of the Old English alliterative style of verse in the fourteenth century—is a 'medievalist rather than medieval phenomenon' (2). Schiff balances his analysis between the alliterative poems he examines and the Alliterative Revivalists who interpret them, tracing both the critical history of the form and its (possibly obfuscatory) effects on the interpretation of the texts at its center. For Schiff, scholars in Alliterative Revivalism adhere to a literary historical narrative of a prosodic last stand of a northern, neo-Saxon, nostalgic alliterative verse form against a southern, Francophilic, rhyming, 'Chaucerian' poetic style. In Revivalist analyses, this Chaucerian style ultimately succeeded in blending monolithically understood 'English' and 'French' literary sensibilities. Such a view of alliterative verse, according to Schiff, constitutes a powerful but fictive critical frame that 'depends upon the barbarization of Saxon identity, whose backwardness is used to highlight the English ascent to a racially hybrid modernity' (5).

In organizing his work, Schiff eschews the totalizing narratives that he argues characterize other accounts of alliterative poetry. The introduction and first chapter lay out the stakes of the argument, defining Alliterative Revivalism and tracing its roots in nineteenth-century nationalist discourses as well as its continued effects on modern literary analysis of alliterative poetry. The four remaining chapters examine the specific results of Alliterative Revivalism in the historical reception of particular texts while consciously avoiding a reliance on a single explanatory model of poetic form as he provides his own alternative readings. Schiff carefully outlines the methods by which a 'Revivalist insistence on a unifying aesthetics distracts from poets' contemporary concerns, redirecting attention either to a Saxon past or the fantasy of an organized, national movement' (35). His analysis of texts lays bare the resulting impoverishment of our modern understanding of alliterative poetry. Schiff 's argument demonstrates an impressive breadth of theoretical knowledge, supplementing his careful historicization of the poetry with a range of frames that might help scholars reassess alliterative verse, including transnationalism, sovereignty, gender, postcolonialism, and media theory.

Each chapter of Revivalist Fantasy engages both Alliterative Revivalism and the other possible readings that it obscures. In his analysis of Guillaume de Palerne and its English translation (chapter two), Schiff examines the Revivalist emphasis on the equation of language and ethnicity. Situating the text in its historical milieu of increased socio-economic mobility, Schiff argues that rather than a simple dissemination of a 'French' narrative of animal transformations in an English literary translation, William of Palerne participates in a 'Western consolidation' that links the English and French texts in a shared project of reinforcing the boundary that marked off the elite from the lower classes (71). In the case of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (chapter three), the martial emphasis of Alliterative Revivalism 'conflat[es] Morgan and the Lady [Bertilak]' as doubles and as a result 'foregrounds male-male conflict' (78). Schiff 's corrective reading situates Morgan as a regional overlord figure who provokes the Arthurian court in an attempt to consolidate her own power. Rather than figuring as a typical Loathly Lady, then, Morgan 'seeks to drive away the knight, asserting sole control over her domestic space' (95). Schiff 's study of three other Arthurian texts, the Awntyrs off Arthure, Golagros and Gawane, and the Alliterative Morte Arthure (chapter four), demonstrates the transnational competition for dominance unearthed when Revivalism's emphasis on a proto-modern nation is relinquished in favor of a careful reading of the operations of imperial impulses in the texts. Finally, he argues that the 'center-periphery logic' of Revivalism ignores the 'simultaneously rural and metropolitan culture' that produced the Piers Plowman tradition (134, chapter five). Schiff suggests that the Langlandian works participate in 'recursive' analysis (a term drawn from N. Katherine Hayles), demonstrating 'self-reflexive treatment of material textuality' by engaging with writing technologies available in their cultural milieu (135).

Schiff 's wide-ranging and theoretically-savvy argument, through its demonstration of the pervasive influence of Alliterative Revivalism and its critical afterlives, constitutes a powerful reminder of the enduring consequences of critical desire for literary studies of the...


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