The Longman Anthology of Old English,
Old Icelandic and Anglo-Norman Literatures
Edited by Richard North, Joe Allard & Patricia Gillies
Harlow: Pearson Education, 2011
Paperback. xvi+869 p. ISBN 978-1408247709. £27.99
Reviewed by Ryan Lavelle
University of Winchester
This is a very useful book, containing some seventy-five or so texts (the count may increase or decrease, depending on how one decides on how to define 'a text'). Many texts, the poetic corpus predominant amongst them, are reproduced in full, often at considerable length; others, such as the prose of sagas, are represented by lengthy extracts. The editors must be congratulated on of bringing so much together, and the collective achievement of translating it all into modern English. At 869 pages, this is a weighty tome in more than one sense. Although probably aimed at upper level undergraduate and postgraduate students, the book will not disgrace the shelves of academic researchers as a handy reference book or as bedtime reading. While the resourceful medievalist may be able to find copies of the texts and even root out translations elsewhere, the collection of the texts itself is a valuable resource. Presumably there will not be many literature classes which will make direct use of all the texts in their original language but this seems likely to be useful to students with knowledge of Old English or Old Norse / Icelandic, whose further study of these respective literatures will be enhanced by comparative study.
The act of bringing together literature from across western Europe, including from linguistic cultures beyond those referred to in the book's title, from the Castile of the Cid to Iceland, with a fair helping of Old English literature between, is praiseworthy and the foregrounding of the original text (including some runes) is exciting. Despite the book's title, which implies distinct sections on the different literatures, organisation owes as much to literary themes as to the different literatures. This organisation causes reflection. The similarities of cultural motifs between (say) Old Irish and Old English heroic poetry are thought-provoking and although hardly new, it is interesting to see them together on such a scale. Traditional linguistic boundaries are brought down (at least to an extent).
The inclusion of Romantic literature of the chivalric ethos works well in showing the development of a literary culture, and this is a rare occasion where the editors work according to a more traditional model of focusing on a single language's literature, though they still sneak in the Mediterranean-influenced Old Norse of the love lyricism of Earl Rognvald of Orkney. Elsewhere, plenty of attention is still given to heroic modes of behaviour (which provide an interesting contrast with the chivalric modes); there is some broad chronological organisation, with the advent of the Vikings coming part-way through and the chivalric codes coming toward the end. Attention is given to more than this; philosophical reflection and religious organisation also play their part and, although there must have been some editorial heart-searching as to where some texts might have been best-placed, the organisation works well.
The choice of material (all in the form of text—understandably, there are no reproductions of images) does seem to be based on the survival of vernacular literatures—Old English, Old Norse, Old Irish, Medieval Welsh, Old French/ Anglo-Norman, Medieval Spanish, Old High German—and this makes sense given the evident aims of the book's value to literature departments but it does raise the question of whether Latin texts might have been useful. Without getting into the discussion of the vernacular development of Latin in the pre-Carolingian period, given that few readers will be fluent in every language here, I did wonder whether it would have done any harm to throw in another linguistic culture of the medieval world. The comparative use of Latin text (especially in view of the monastic focus of some of the texts included in the book) might have been useful, given the dominance of Latin in the medieval world for works which would have fallen nicely under the remit of the volume.
Still, there is much to praise. The translations are good and clear, while the original texts are given the foregrounding they need and, though inevitably occasional translations like the 'payback' (wiþerlean) given to the Vikings at Maldon  might draw attention to the manner in which translation is a matter of taste, such idiosyncrasies in the translated text were not unduly diverting. The decision to put text and translation on the same page with a horizontal division between the texts, while leading the reader to move rapidly between the text and translation, may also be an acquired taste as an alternative to a facing-page translation. The format seems to be a result of the medium and the technology. For one matter, an electronic edition of the book is better suited to such a system, which is reminiscent of the split screen of online learning systems.
However, the format is also determined by an alternative 'version' of the book, and this is where discussion of the book's contents could, ultimately, be futile. Longman offer a service to select from a range of texts which go far beyond the contents of the book, which can be tailored to the requirements of the user and printed on demand. This seems to be a very useful service but because the list of contents includes what the basic book does not include, it has the double-edged sword effect of disappointing the inquisitive reader, with what is not there. (It is yet more disappointing as the Longman website informs us that the service is only available for classes of upward of 100 potential customers—a group size which is probably not best suited to the close textual reading which this anthology, in whatever form, requires to do it justice.) One might say that if the reader managed to read all the pages of this book, then a hankering for more might be a good thing but for a book which is predicated on comprehensiveness, I was less sure about the information on a 'custom' text which the book 'might' have been.
I could not help but feel that this might be a last hurrah of publishers in the traditional model of anthology publication before students lighten their bags. The information about variant ('custom') editions, which messes up the format and index of the book, does draw attention to the book's limitations. The highlighting of words in bold as markers in the text to aid the reader in finding their place in the translation or text struck me as a poor fix for a system which is normally perfectly well served by notes relating to facing page translations. This reader's eyes were drawn automatically to the emboldened text and the footnotes discussing it. Although the editors' choices for the selection emboldened text were hardly unenlightening, the old curmudgeon in me resented the thought that the formatting of such a collection of works was driven by the publishers' attempt to demonstrate their mastery of twenty-first-century technology.
Such thoughts should not be at the forefront of a reader's mind when holding 1.3 kg of the finest literature of the Western world. One can still be open-minded, however. As a collection, with some lively commentaries and useful bibliographies, the value of having such an anthology in a traditional printed format remains clear, and this deserves to be on the reference shelves of a wide range of readers.
Cercles © 2012
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