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  • Direct Speech in Beowulf and other Old English Narrative Poems by Elise Louviot
  • Tom Shippey
Direct Speech in Beowulf and other Old English Narrative Poems. By Elise Louviot. D. S. Brewer, 2016. Anglo-Saxon Studies, 30. Pp. viii + 285. £65.

Elise Louviot's declared aim in this study is "to reassess past scholarship on Direct Speech in Old English poetry from a broader perspective in order to determine the norms of Direct Speech in that particular tradition" (p. 23). She leads on from there, however, to defending the OE poetic corpus from the frequent accusations made against it: that its use of direct speech it is "too formal … ceremonial … [and] impedes action" (p. 63). There is of course some truth in the accusations, [End Page 110] or they would not so often be made. Of the 289 speeches in Louviot's representative corpus of eight narrative poems—Genesis A and B, Christ and Satan, Guthlac A, Juliana, Elene, Andreas and Beowulf—75, over a quarter, are isolated speeches to which no response is made. Louviot notes that private conversations are rare; that in the poems translated from Latin, speeches tend to be longer but less frequent; that there is a lack of "negotiation" even when characters are talking to each other; and that there is a tendency for dialogue to turn into "adjacency pairs," typically Accusation and Denial, or Threat and Counterthreat. But to write this off as simply inadequate—Louviot quotes Andy Orchard's irritated remark, in his Critical Companion (2003), that "pouring out words into unresponsive emptiness is simply the norm in Part II of Beowulf" (qtd. on p. 89)—is to impose modern critical expectations on an ancient tradition.

As a preliminary to study of her corpus, Louviot helpfully surveys recent linguistic work on the representation of speech, noting differences in the use of "axiological terms" (i.e., value judgements) and "pragmatic markers" like the word "Now," common in both Old and Modern English, although (to my ear at any rate) the latter almost always carries a sense of reproof, gentle or otherwise: "Now look here …," "Now then …," or just, soothingly, "Now, now, now "It is at least clear that such uses are bound to be strongly sensitive to context and culture. Louviot notes also that modern critics have identified several medial stages between Direct and Indirect speech. If her corpus were not so strictly narrative, she might well have pointed to the notorious difficulties editors have found in placing quotation marks within poems like The Wanderer. Is someone talking? Who is talking? Do we need to know?

Her study becomes more polemical as she moves on to the issues of subjectivity, narrative voices, and points of view. One critical urge has been to react against the kind of accusation mentioned above by arguing that in fact, read closely, speeches in Genesis A, Elene, and especially Beowulf can be read as deliberately character revealing, in ways we are familiar with from modern novels. Louviot offers useful short assessments of scenes from Middlemarch and Tess of the D'Urbervilles to remind us of what we are used to, and points for instance to the analysis by Peter Clemoes of Hagar talking to the angel in Genesis A, lines 2271-95. There Clemoes argues that what we are meant to see, from the speech's delicate rhetoric, is "a servant who has risen above her station," such that we can well appreciate "how Sarah had come to feel … that Hagar was upstaging her" (qtd. on p. 180). Louviot regards this as "very problematic" (p. 180) and goes on to express similar skepticism about attempts to rescue other OE scenes. If one looks closely at Satan in Paradise Lost and Genesis B, or Christ and Satan, the real difference is that in the latter the "complete reversal of words and values operated by Milton's Satan seems unthinkable." As for John D. Niles's argument that Beowulf "is a polyphonic work whose messages are contingent" (qtd. on p. 194), Louviot is unconvinced. Even in the Beowulf/Unferth exchange there is no conflict of diverging points of view: one speaker is right...


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