Runes minus magic

Runes and Runic Inscriptions

September 6, 1996

In recent years bookshop shelves have become crowded with works on runes containing little more than the unconstrained imaginings of their authors. These monuments to charlatanism and error seek to persuade the public that runic characters are imbued with magic powers capable of revealing hidden knowledge and transforming lives. In the face of this grim onslaught of ignorance and obscurantism, it is critical that genuine runic studies be allowed a voice.

The voice of the genuine scholar resounds throughout this serious but unsolemn collection of essays on runes and runic writing. R. I. Page, sometime Elrington and Bosworth professor of Anglo-Saxon at the University of Cambridge and Parker librarian for Corpus Christi College, has devoted much of his distinguished career to the study of runes and the promotion of runology as a respectable discipline. His chief contribution has been in the Anglo-Saxon field, where he is generally acknowledged as the world's leading expert, but he has also written extensively on the Scandinavian tradition, especially as it manifests itself in the British Isles. The essays here republished, where necessary with a postscript bringing them up to date, span 1958 to the present (two appear for the first time). They deal with epigraphical and manuscript runes, with linguistic, archaeological and cultural matters on which the study of runes throws light - coin production, literacy, paganism and magic, to name but a few - with problems of dating, and with technical questions such as transliteration into the Roman alphabet. While the chief emphasis is on the Anglo-Saxon runic tradition, evidence from Scandinavia is also regularly brought in. Two of the essays are on the Scandinavian inscriptions that occur so plentifully in the Isle of Man, and one on epigraphical evidence for the survival of Scandinavian speech in England.

Like Page's earlier book, An Introduction to English Runes and his more general account of runic script in the British Museum series, Reading the Past, the essays in this volume should appeal to the layperson as well as the specialist. Granted, readers will face detailed argumentation at every turn, but they will find Page's style refreshingly free of the kind of jargon that disfigures much modern research in the humanities. Uncluttered, witty and elegant, the prose reflects the mind that produced it. For Page is a meticulous scholar, the enemy of imprecision and complicated nonsense alike, a ceaseless questioner of the unsubstantiated assertion and hasty generalisation, a castigator of the half-learned. We need more like him.

Michael P. Barnes is professor of Scandinavian studies, University College London.

Runes and Runic Inscriptions: Collected Essays on Anglo-Saxon and Viking Runes

Author - R. I. Page
ISBN - 0 85115 387 9
Publisher - Boydell
Price - £49.50
Pages - 346

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