The Cambridge Companion to Old English Literature 
by Malcolm Godden and Michael Lapidge.
Cambridge, 298 pp., £30, June 1991, 0 521 37438 3
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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.’

If many teachers of Old English in Britain and Ireland are equally grim today, their mood comes from a perception that the study of the subject in this country is being allowed to die. There can be no doubt that if Old English does not remain a mandatory element of English somewhere in the higher institutions, it will die. In this respect, the Cambridge Companion to Old English Literature has not come a moment too soon. This volume is a beautifully produced, accomplished and engaging survey of the literary side of Anglo-Saxon England. It should be read by anyone interested in the place of Old English in the larger corpus of English literature.

The editors have included essays from 12 contributors besides themselves on most aspects of a literature extending from the seventh century to the 12th. The first chapter is an account of the historical background, written with panache by Patrick Wormald; the second an equally readable summary by Helmut Gneuss of the Old English language. ‘Beowulf’, the earliest epic poem in the English language, has a chapter to itself. Old English poetic metre and technique, the tenth-century refinement of post-Alfredian prose style, literary remnants of English paganism, are among other themes eloquently handled. There is a fine essay by Christine Fell on Anglo-Saxon perceptions of transience, showing what is unique in the Old English elegies. In his discussion of the Old English ‘Genesis’ and ‘Exodus’ poems, Malcolm Godden gives fresh insights into the way a people recently converted from paganism looked at the Old Testament. For many years to come, this Companion will remain a valuable introduction to the earliest – that is to say, the least modern – form of English literature.

The lack of clear influence from the early to the modern period is not surprising in view of the thousand-odd years between them. This was brought home to me 11 years ago when I studied for the Mods exam in the first year of the English degree in Oxford, and found I had to read ‘The Seafarer’ and Ulysses in the same week. The Oxford syllabus must be unique in this combination, 1 thought. What other course could offer the same variety? Yet it is just this statutory match of Old and Modern in one term that is now under scrutiny in the English Faculty in Oxford. In a recent piece in the Oxford Magazine called ‘Reading English’ Valentine Cunningham proposes the abolition of compulsory Old English as part of a reform of the post-Medieval syllabus. Those who think as he does appear to see Old and Modern as implacable rivals, or at least as de rigueur alternatives. It is a spurious logic that makes them so. Worse still is the rhetoric that comes out on occasions like this when a case is made against a compulsory core of Old English in the larger English syllabus.

This rhetoric is skilful in Cunningham’s hands, less so in a Guardian report, ‘The Beowulf at Oxford’s door’, in which Nicholas de Jongh presented the Oxford Medievalists as a force of reaction, Cunningham’s proposal as ‘the spirit of revolt’: ‘his attack is nothing less than the raising of a revolutionary call,’ ‘Professor Norman [sic] Godden, the new Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon, is totally opposed to the idea.’ Cunningham’s ‘Maldon’-joke about the teachers of Old English moving ‘across Faculty business in the tight Germanic wedge formation they’ve learned about in their favourite texts’ is atavised in the Guardian’s ‘tooth and nail, like their Anglo-Saxon heroes, they fought to preserve their subject.’ A window appears in the article with a text reproduced from a Mods exam paper: part of Aelfric’s ‘Preface to Genesis’. So now you know. When the tenth-century English are not fighting like a tribe of throwbacks in one text, you can see them writing clerical pedantry in another. And this, the concerned liberal might ask, is this what the trendiest students in Oxford still have to read?

By and large, Old English literature still has an image problem, something to which the testimony of famous alumni has contributed. Guardian readers have now been told that Philip Larkin and Kingsley Amis called their Old English texts ‘ape’s bum-fodder’. But if these readers get no further than the preface to the Companion, they will see what another Oxford wit, W.H. Auden, said of the same material: ‘I was spellbound. This poetry, I learned knew, was going to be my dish... I learned enough to read it, and Anglo-Saxon and Middle English poetry have been one of my strongest, most lasting influences.’ Readers might wonder where the poetry of Hughes, Heaney or Hill would be without some filtering of the tradition of Old English accentual poetry through Auden or Hopkins. Hopkins’s use of Old English is well-known (‘a vastly superior thing to what we have now’), but perhaps not the fact that Engels read Old English literature, together with Jacob Grimm’s Deutsche Mythologie and Deutsche Grammatik, for insights into social and economic development. Writing from Manchester to Marx in London in 1859, Engels says that he hopes to finish the Gothic Bible before long: ‘Then on to Old Norse and Anglo-Saxon – I’ve always had only half a foot in that.’

Naturally, the quality of this literature can be overlooked by disgruntled students too tired to distinguish between textual value and perceived deficiencies in teaching method. No one can deny that some teachers in the past were drier than others, and that the philology of the Old English language was rigorous. It was, and still is, though Mitchell and Robinson in the Oxford Mods Guide, and now Gneuss in the Cambridge Companion, have shown that it can be made more attractive. Well-known, too, is the philological background of two writers from Oxford, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien (the title of whose Oxford edition in the green cover Cunningham archaises as Sir Gawayne). It might amuse the public who know these men as modern authors in their own right to infer that in their Oxford guise they doubled as curators of a ‘dinosauric museum piece’ – that is to say, the English syllabus.

The joke wears off when Cunningham presents the endangered constituency as the endangering one, describing teachers of Old and Middle English in Oxford even up to the present as a ‘cabal’. Was it not Lewis and Tolkien whom F.W. Bateson saw ‘plotting together in the bars of the Eastgate Tavern to preserve compulsory Anglo-Saxon’? Smoke-filled rooms, alcohol and informal secrecy, the cunning of the old barons. ‘But he was right,’ Cunningham continues, ‘they were plotting.’ And so Old English was preserved as a compulsory part of the English syllabus; and as if the retention of a core amounted to an expansion of its borders, or as if other parts of the canon somehow suffered as a result, the paranoia has grown. Cunningham seems to have polarised a number of varied constituencies into a ‘them and us’, rival factions of Medieval and post-Medieval English literature.

No confrontation is necessary. Some students after a while openly resent their compulsory diet of Old English, as friends of mine did when I studied for Mods. Now they know better, some of them, admitting in later years to a certain pleasure in knowing Old English texts that they would never otherwise have read. This study asks rigour from the students in the short term, patience to see things out. Maybe that is something the sound-bite culture will not take. But in the longer term the work pays off. In their exams many students use cribs to get through the set-text translations, yet a proposal for a more efficient mechanism, an unseen, was defeated at an Oxford Faculty meeting not long ago. There is no denying the difficulties involved in developing the curriculum, but these would be better sorted out by adjustment within compromise than by stand-off and wholesale substitution.

Cunningham’s other arguments are less secure than he makes out. How, if he wants a decent canon for post-Medieval texts, can he disapprove of safeguards for a selection of Medieval ones? Then there is the question of textual value. The present arrangement in Oxford of one-third Old English in Mods, two Medieval Schools papers out of nine, must go because it comes ‘at the expense of other texts, other periods of literature, which are at least as important and in many cases obviously much more important’. The restricted choice the undergraduate has among interesting topics beyond the Middle Ages is balanced with his or her compulsion to work on ‘that quaint Medieval religious text “The Pearl”’. Some might not like the use of a word like ‘quaint’ to describe a poem in which a man shows us how he comes to term with the death of his child. But that is by the way. More than being asked to judge the merits of individual texts here, we are invited to sympathise with a syllabus proposal partly expressed by light-hearted quips directed against whole periods of literature.

The Cambridge Companion will show anyone who reads it that Old English civilisation can hold its own against most charges of inadequacy. Five centuries of political development. Women with literacy levels and property rights that were not regained until the modern era. A copious quantity of vernacular writing, unique for its place and time. Thirty thousand lexical units with a total of three million occurrences, and thirty thousand lines surviving of a once greater corpus of Old English poetry. A version of Genesis in which Eve is exonerated and even made to seem more responsible than her husband. From an Italian expert, Patrizia Lentinara, we learn that the English schools in this period were among the finest in Europe, and that English students were made to leam Latin passages by heart daily: two facts which – unlike Cunningham’s coupling of a general syllabus malaise with the rigour of its Medieval component – may be related. As Wormald says at the head of the first chapter: ‘The country in which this book was conceived, and the literary language in which it was written, are both more than a thousand years old.’

None of this has halted the British tendency to sell the nation’s treasures abroad. On the one hand, we read Cunningham pondering if Oxford students would be ‘better employed in respect of English literature by getting up some elementary Latin or Italian or German’. Another Oxford don was said in the Guardian to believe that Latin is more integral to the English language than Old English – though he should know that the Germanic half of English vocabulary is used with much higher frequency. On the other hand, we see some disarray among Anglo-Saxonists themselves. As more English departments make Old English optional (lately Leeds and Queens, Belfast) or extinct (Liverpool two years ago), an organisation ‘Teachers of Old English in Britain and Ireland’, set up in Manchester by Don Scragg, one of the Companion’s contributors has yet to win the interest of one of the most powerful centres of the subject, the Cambridge department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic. Little sign of a cabal here. Though much talented work is carried out in this country still, the main engines of research are powered abroad. The Old English Newsletter is edited chiefly from SUNY Binghampton; the new Dictionary of Old English will be produced in Toronto; the Middle English Dictionary project is based in Ann Arbor; the International Society of Anglo-Saxonists likewise relies heavily on North American support. Eight out of the 14 scholars writing for the Cambridge Companion come from institutions abroad.

Cunningham claims that ‘it’s surely time that Anglo-Saxon and much currently compulsory Middle English literature felt the wind of competition and took their chance in a syllabus where a wide choice of periods for study was on offer.’ Even Old English would benefit. ‘Better a small number of keen volunteers than the present multitudes of bored and scrim-shanking pressed women and men.’ It should be said, however, that not one of them can study Old English at school, in contrast to the other languages just mentioned. This is why a concept of fair access to all subjects, the student’s right to make an informed choice between them, should not be thrown out with the bathwater.

Any talk of ‘competition’ here is unrealistic, out of touch, indeed sounds oddly like a certain charter recently promised by Mr Major in which railways are somehow meant to thrive by deregulation. Free-market philosophies so far espoused in English departments have gone a predictable way. No one with half an eye for decaying infrastructure could fail to see the outcome for Old and Middle English if they were made to take their chance in a syllabus increasingly crowded by the Moderns: a lopsided English degree, fewer volunteers for higher degrees in Medieval studies, still fewer teachers at the end of them, next to no posts for these teachers to fill end-game.

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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.

Valentine Cunningham
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.

Richard North
University College London

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