Not long ago it was a thousand years to the day that the Battle of Maldon was fought against the Danes. On 10 August 991, an English levy, somewhat hastily assembled and placed behind a smaller unit of professional soldiers, faced an army of Viking thugs across a causeway in Essex. That afternoon the English general, Earl Byrhtnoth, made a miscalculation that led to his death and the defeat of his force. Part of his army fled, while the others, so the poet of ‘The Battle of Maldon’ tells us, clustered round their general’s body to avenge his death with their own. An ‘old companion’ urged them to their fate with words which many former students of English might remember as something like ‘ever must he regret it who thinks he can go from this battlegame now.’
Vol. 13 No. 21 · 7 November 1991
What a strange thing was Richard North’s supposed review (LRB, 10 October) of the Cambridge Companion to Old English Literature! Imagine my surprise after only three paragraphs or so to find its subject had stopped being the Godden/Lapidge horde of Medievalists and their thoughts on West Saxon writing and had become instead me and my efforts to remove Anglo-Saxon from its too-long-held and very damaging position of privilege at Oxford.
Can I look forward to receiving some of North’s fee for having, after all, provided him with so many words? Not even a few readies, though, would compensate for his travesty of the case against the hegemony of West Saxon writing in Oxford’s creaking syllabus. He says he’s read my Oxford Magazine piece, so why does he make out that the struggle is between ‘trendiness’ or ‘sound-bite culture’, on the one hand, and the ‘rigour’ of Medieval studies, on the other, when it is very clearly stated to be between a possibly rigorous syllabus and one that is currently so choked with material, not least of all compulsory Anglo-Saxon, that nothing much is done rigorously at all. I’m campaigning for more rigour, not less, and for far more time to be devoted to some of the many rigorous alternatives to Anglo-Saxon, including more work on linguistic heritages – whether Classical or Italian or French or whatever – traditions that are, in fact, much more dominant presences in English literature than the intermittent Germanic one. The Oxford Anglo-Saxonists are keen protectors of their own particular site, but they have little or no interest in plugging the generality of undergraduates into, for instance, the Latin traditions that North rightly praises the old Angle-landers for promoting in their educational programmes. I do have such an interest, and I think Oxford English should.
In many ways, of course, North’s non-review was not surprising at all. The Cambridge Companion’s favourite modern Germanophiles were duly trotted out: W.H. Auden, who thought the only thing worthwhile about the Oxford English School was philology and Anglo-Saxon, G.M. Hopkins, though with Hopkins’s keen interest in Old Welsh carefully not mentioned – perhaps because that’s not insisted on at Oxford. Nor was I much surprised to find little or no reference to the essays in the Companion that might be awkward for the customary Anglo-Saxon apologia. North does not mention Roberta Frank’s extremely sharp essay on Anglo-Saxon writing’s attempt to provide itself with mythic roots in a fictionalised Germanic-heroic past, but then such a demonstration makes all those old philologists who thought English male heroism stemmed from authentic and true representations in Beowolf and elsewhere look a bit silly. Malcolm Godden’s illustrations of the Anglo-Saxon writers’ obsession with the Book of Genesis and with proofs of the origin of their species in that Biblical beginning book help to show up all the old and usual claims that English literature begins, and that the study of it should begin, with Anglo-Saxon literature as just more of our customary human origins-craving. To be sure, Goddens stops short of such a reflection. But North’s anodyne little gloss on Godden’s stuff (‘fresh insights … people recently converted from paganism … Old Testament’) is not calculated to set anyone thinking. Perhaps, again, that’s why he stopped there.
I’m sorry Dr North is so panic-stricken lest the removal of compulsion from Anglo-Saxon will kill it. This is a blague. Promoting it is not only a kind of blackmailing of people like me, and those of my pupils who’d rather it weren’t mandatory: it is also quite at odds with North’s own evidence. Isn’t it peculiar, one might think, that ‘the main engines of research are powered abroad,’ especially in US universities not known for insisting anybody do Anglo-Saxon? And, conversely, how odd that the Oxford English Faculty, which has caused so much misery by making everyone trudge the Anglo-Saxon way since the School was founded, should have been able to muster only one contributor, editor Godden himself, to this ‘valuable’ and – I would agree – essential introduction to the subject.
Corpus Christi College, Oxford
Vol. 13 No. 22 · 21 November 1991
Valentine Cunningham (Letters, 7 November) has taken exception to my review of the Cambridge Companion to Old English, in which I reminded readers that Old English is the earliest part of the English literary heritage; is not taught in schools; thus needs underwriting in English courses if students are to know the complete extent of the tradition. This safeguard is needed if workaday English departments here are to compete with better-endowed North American centres drawing on stronger graduate programmes and widespread interest in the pre-Colonial past. Dr Cunningham, where he is, may take that past for granted. But what do his students think of the compulsory Old English which caused them ‘so much misery’? Only 40 per cent of students responded to an Oxford survey last term, but of the third-years who voiced their opinion, 6 per cent were unsure, 23 per cent against compulsion and 71 per cent in favour of it.
University College London