Tuesday, March 20, 2007

New Books of Interest

1. John D. Niles, Old English Enigmatic Poems and the Play of the Texts
SEM 13 (October 2006)

XVI+332 p., 8 b/w ill., 160 x 240 mm, 2006, Hardback
ISBN 978-2-503-51530-4, EUR 60.00

This book consists of a close study of a number of verse texts chiefly drawn from the Exeter Book of Old English poetry. All of these texts are enigmatic. Some are outright riddles, while others (such as the elegies) are riddle-like in their manner of simultaneously giving and withholding information. The author approaches these poems as microcosms of the art of Old English poetry in general, which (particularly in its more lyrical forms) relies on its audience's ability to decipher metaphorical language and to fill out details that remain unexpressed. The chief claim advanced is that Old English poetry is a good deal more playful than is often acknowledged, so that the art of interpreting it can require a kind of 'game strategy' whereby riddling authors match their wits against adventurous readers. Innovative readings of a number of poems are offered, while the whole collection of Exeter Book riddles is given a set of answers posed in the language of the riddler. The literary use of runes in The Rune Poem, The Husband’s Message, and Cynewulf’s runic signatures comes under close scrutiny, and the thesis is advanced that Anglo-Saxon runes (particularly those that lacked stable conventional names) were sometimes used as initialisms. The book combines the methods of rigorous philology and imaginative literary analysis.

2. John D. Niles, Old English Heroic Poems and the Social Life of Texts
SEM 20 (March 2007)

XIV+374 p., 4 b/w ill., 160 x 240 mm, 2007, Hardback
ISBN 978-2-503-52080-3, EUR 80.00

Old English Heroic Poems and the Social Life of Texts develops the theme that all stories- all 'beautiful lies', if one considers them as such- have a potentially myth-like function as they enter and re-enter the stream of human consciousness. In particular, the volume assesses the place of heroic poetry (including Beowulf, Widsith, and The Battle of Maldon) in the evolving society of Anglo-Saxon England during the tenth-century period of nation-building. Poetry, Niles argues, was a great collective medium through which the Anglo-Saxons conceived of their changing social world and made mental adjustments to it. Old English 'heroic geography' is examined as an aspect of the mentality of that era. So too is the idea of the oral poet (or bard) as a means by which the people of this time continued to conceive of themselves, in defiance of reality, as members of a tribe-like community knit by close personal bonds. The volume is rounded off by the identification of Bede's story of the poet C├Ždmon as the earliest known example of a modern folktale type, and by a spirited defense of Seamus Heaney's recent verse translation of Beowulf.

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