Friday, August 4, 2017

The Anglo-Saxon World: An Anthology (Review)

As far as collections go, I had a positive experience with The Anglo-Saxon World: An Anthology.

Provided, I do not have a whole lot to compare it to. With so many textual collections on the market—anthologies from Cambridge to Hackett and everyone in between—and with many of which share the same texts, it depends on skilled scholarship and engagement for a collection to work. Kevin Crossley-Holland’s contribution is certainly scholarly, but is it worth reading?

Compared to other anthologies of medieval literature, such as those from Broadview and Norton, World is a small book. At a little over three-hundred pages, it is not by any means stacked to the brink with entries from all walks of life and genres. Crossley-Holland seems to have gone the other route with this effort and aimed for density and attention to detail, not simple content collected from a manifold of sources.

This is to say that World is carefully curated. Over the roughly half a dozen sections, each contains the most pressing entries, those which Crossley-Holland obviously thought deserved the highest praise. You see the classic entries, such as Beowulf, but you also see the inclusions of tracts, land grants, and medicinal handbooks, material which, as far as I am aware, are not commonly re-printed in other anthologies. So the effort here aims to give a broad overview while displaying the forward thinking idea that not all literature needs to be what is traditionally thought of as ‘literature’, that is, carefully constructed prose and poetic lines. Originally published in the early eighties, I found myself mildly surprised that this was the kind of sentiment which Crossley-Holland—intentionally or not—expressed.

But the thing is, though, that though these sections are compact, they are compact for another reason, a reason other than not desiring to exact the effort in translating the pieces or asking permission from other translators to re-print them. This reason, I feel, is religious and political in nature.

As I was reading, it seems that Crossley-Holland is conservative and Christian. Most of the pieces here are from Christian writers and deal with Christianity in some manner or make allusions to Christian doctrine. Though one can understand that there would be a great deal of Christian content from the Anglo-Saxon period, one also must understand that there would also be a great deal of pagan content, and to have no such pagan content, strikes me as suspicious. So it is that, along with the author’s honing in on Christian myths and legends in his section introductions, that strikes me as a reason for the brevity of this collection—it is practical, not educational; Crossley-Holland has curated this work in this short fashion in order to hone in on the Anglo-Saxon Christian.

Whether you view this eye for Christianity as dishonest or as helpful in singling out content, it is something that I noticed on my initial reading. When I think of the content, I feel that this anthology is a good place to begin. An issue with these larger introductions is that they tend to overwhelm, but here, where the pieces are carefully selected, and an introduction situates each piece in the larger narrative,  the reader feels both confident in tackling the texts as well as capable in doing so. It is easy to focus on the biggest details here and then fish out the smaller details and the wider corpus of Anglo-Saxon texts later, when one has the basics down.

As far as my own experiences go, I will undoubtedly use the World more in my readings, but I also recognize that the highly abridged nature of a majority of the selections will make it difficult in citing. So, though I see myself using this text more, and will still recommend it as a decent introductory primer to Anglo-Saxon writing, I will nevertheless be in the market for a new anthology, one which covers more texts and, perhaps, in a bit more thorough of a manner.

The Anglo-Saxon world: An Anthology
Kevin Crossley-Holland
308 pages. Published by Oxford University Press. $12.95. 2009.