Anglo-Saxon Culture and the Modern Imagination

February 3, 2011

For a long while now the idea that modernity comes into being partly by casting off the medieval - leaving behind childish and spiritual things, as it were - has been readily accepted as an unquestionable fact of the times in which we live. And yet there is almost no aspect of our contemporary culture, either academic or more public, that is not somehow rooted in and permeated by the medieval.

Indeed, there have been many recent scholarly books, such as Andrew Cole and D. Vance Smith's The Legitimacy of the Middle Ages: On the Unwritten History of Theory (2010) and Kathleen Davis' Periodization and Sovereignty: How Ideas of Feudalism and Secularization Govern the Politics of Time (2008), that have definitively illustrated the "fault" and other lines that have served as critical routes whereby the Middle Ages and modernity have long engaged in perpetual, restless and untimely traffic with each other.

Moreover, popular culture has never tired of medieval subjects and themes, as witnessed most recently by the Lord of the Rings film trilogy, the ongoing appetite for Hollywood adaptations of Arthurian romance (A Knight's Tale, Tristan and Isolde, King Arthur) and the endless (often terrible) adaptations of Beowulf, whether as opera, musical comedy, comic book, video game or post-apocalyptic science fiction film (the 1999 version starring Christopher Lambert).

Although Terry Eagleton declared in 1999 in the London Review of Books that it was a "signal misfortune" that Seamus Heaney had chosen to translate Beowulf, since "we no longer believe in heroism, or that the world itself is story shaped", the thriving industry of global terrorism, current religious conflicts and contemporary cinema would seem to indicate otherwise.

Could any of us actually even cope with the so-called postmodern condition of the supposed disenchantment of everything without the narrative arts? If that's medieval, bring it on.

We are fortunate, then, to have David Clark and Nicholas Perkins' Anglo-Saxon Culture and the Modern Imagination, a volume of 14 essays dedicated to excavating and tracing the vital connections between Old English literature and language and modern and contemporary arts and letters, ranging from the poetry of Heaney, Basil Bunting, W.H. Auden and Ted Hughes, among others, to P.D. James' crime fiction to the DC Comics Beowulf series to the TV series The Simpsons to Julie Taymor's 2006 opera Grendel: Transcendence of the Great Big Bad and beyond.

The collection is especially valuable since, for a long while now, what is termed "studies in medievalism" (the scholarly study of the artistic and political representation of the Middle Ages across various eras, genres and media) has mainly concentrated on the adaptations of subjects from what we call the later Middle Ages, or post-Norman Conquest period, which is when Arthurian narratives especially flourished in England and in Europe, and which also provided us with named authors such as Chaucer, Chretien de Troyes and Sir Thomas Malory.

The realm of Old English poetry and literature, which represents for some a "sketchier" or more "blank" period (circa 5th through to the 11th century), has often been mistakenly believed to have been of less interest (or too alien and forbidding) to modern artists interested in the materials of the medieval past. This volume beautifully illustrates otherwise, and while some of the chapters may prove a bit overly academic for the general reader, the collection as a whole makes a powerful and often entertaining case for the myriad pathways by which the Anglo-Saxon past inhabits, enlivens and even transforms the cultural imagination of our present, such that we can see that it never stops informing us about what it means to "be English".

Anglo-Saxon Culture and the Modern Imagination

Edited by David Clark and Nicholas Perkins. D.S. Brewer, 302pp, £55.00. ISBN 9781843842514. Published 21 October 2010

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