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  • Old English Heroic Poems and the Social Life of Texts
  • Glenn Wright
Niles, John D., Old English Heroic Poems and the Social Life of Texts (Studies in the Early Middle Ages, 20), Turnhout, Brepols, 2007; cloth; pp. xiv, 372; R.R.P. €80.00; ISBN 9782503520803.

John Niles appears to be going supernova in the world of Old English studies, as evidenced by three books and two major editions (Heaney's translation and Klaeber's critical text, respectively, of Beowulf) since 2006. In the former category is Old English Heroic Poems and the Social Life of Texts, collecting Niles' observations on the mythic imagination of Anglo-Saxon England, approached with an interest in 'promot[ing] the marriage of philology and cultural studies' (p. 3). The considerable majority of the book has already appeared in widely consulted publications. Rather than substantially revising those essays for the book, Niles has appended to his nine chapters an equal [End Page 272] number of footnotes, queries, excursi and responses updating his thinking and elaborating on aspects of the problems he engages.

About half the book (Chapters 1, 2, 5, and 6) considers the mytho- and ethnopoetic dimensions of Beowulf, Widsith and The Battle of Maldon. Other chapters map (literally, on p. 137) the Anglo-Saxons' 'heroic geography', probe their nostalgic investments in the bardic persona of the oral poet, theorize the social value of storytelling, place Bede's story of Cædmon beside folktale analogues (Irish tale-type 2412B) and appreciate Heaney's Beowulf some years on.

Niles' omnicompetent and often-playful expositions firmly situate the creative dynamism of OE poetry in a tenth-century, post-Alfredian context. He is not dogmatic about this, but the power of his readings does depend on the reconstruction of a particular mental world out of which the extant texts arose – a reconstruction made exhilarating by Niles' complete command of the material, but that cannot be shared, for example, by partisans of an early date for Beowulf.

While not everything between these covers is of recent vintage, drawing this work together more forcefully advances Niles' explicitly anthropological approach as an available programme for specialists in Old English. We may likewise hope to observe the emergence and interlinking of comparably sophisticated correlations of ideology and aesthetics as manifest in the Anglo-Saxons' highly stylized art (ivory work, stone carving, manuscript illumination), writing in Latin, metallurgy, architecture, numismatics and other material culture. The picture thus assembled would extend to earlier historical periods, mitigating the poor chronological distribution of vernacular manuscripts. In the meantime, those unfamiliar with Niles' work will find provocative reflections on the Anglo-Saxons' sense of identity as a people, their relationship to their real and imagined pasts and the role of poetic production in the cultural project of nation formation. [End Page 273]

Glenn Wright
The Graduate School
Syracuse University, New York


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