The Cultivation of Saga in Anglo-Saxon England by C. E. Wright; Reviewed by Hilda R. Ellis (1940)

The cultivation of sagaCAN anything more be learned of the lost literature of Anglo-Saxon England, which we deduce, from the quality and variety of what remains, to have been considerable ? Mr. Wright shows that it is possible to find an answer to this neither vague nor inconclusive. He has used as a basis for investigation what are for the most part well-known works, household words to the student of Anglo-Saxon history-the writings of Nennius, Bede, Asser, and the post-Conquest chroniclers like William of Malmesbury and Henry of Huntingdon. As for many of the stories he examines, they are the old favourites of the schoolroom-Alfred and the cakes, Gregory and the golden-haired slave-boys, Canute and the waves. But from such familiar material he has built up a body of evidence to establish a new thesis, a plea for the existence of a rich saga literature in Anglo-Saxon England, taking his own definition of a saga as ” the story that has crystallized in the course of its oral transmission (in prose form) through a number of generations, round certain historical events or personages.”

Such a re-examination of well-known evidence is of the greatest value. There has been a growing realization in the last few years of the possibility of Latin literature of the late Anglo-Saxon and early Norman period acting, as it were, as a rock in which the fossilized traditions of an earlier literature may be seen. But it has been generally assumed that this fossil literature was originally one of ballads and lays. Mr. Wright contends that the traces are those of a prose literature similar to that which flourished in Scandinavia, although it never reached such heights as saga attained in the privileged isolation of Iceland. In support of this he has strong and to my mind convincing arguments; particularly significant are passages which give us direct information as to the way in which saga-telling developed, like that from Geoffrey of Wells describing  how the monks at Bury St. Edmunds discussed and compared varying versions of tales about their patron saint.

This investigation of traditions connected with people and happenings of the Anglo-Saxon period contributes also to other branches of our knowledge of early literature. The work of Professor Chadwick has taught us to appreciate the richness of the intellectual background which the systematic and objective study of oral literature in many countries can reveal. This book is presented by its author as “a ramification of Professor Chadwick’s work on the growth of literature,” and in it the relation between the life of the period social background and political intrigue, peace and war-and the ideals and accepted standards which passed into the literature is made clearer to us. The value of the comparative method may also be seen, for Mr. Wright’s familiarity with Old Norse literature proves profitable to him and to us. An obvious example of this is the form in which the story of Alfred and the cakes has been preserved. The peasant’s wife breaks into verse when she rebukes the king, and this interpolation has been seized on as evidence for a verse original; but Mr. Wright reminds us that this technique is a familiar one in the Icelandic Sagas, where noteworthy remarks are frequently expressed in verse; this is a feature found, incidentally, not only in the most elaborate stories, but in the simplest form of saga, like the stories in Landnámabók, to which it is elsewhere suggested the Anglo-Saxon saga may have approximated. Another example of a different kind is the resemblance noted between certain incidents in the stories and pagan customs or ideas recorded in Norse literature: such as the witch in the story of Hereward delivering her curses from a high place, or the mysterious old man whom Earl Siward encounters sitting on a mound. Many parallels to both these incidents may be found in Norse saga literature; there are some even closer than those mentioned by Mr. Wright, since in Friðþjófs Saga two witches who are cursing the hero die, when their spells fail, by falling from their ” spell platform ” and breaking their necks; and there are certain passages, like that introducing ]orleifr Spaki in Hallfreðar Saga, where the seat upon the mound is the right not only of the king but also of the seer. Such Scandinavian parallels are illuminating. The period of history when Norse settlers held the north of England is still all too obscure, and such methods as those adopted in this book may well prove the most successful in elucidating it.

Throughout the author has shown himself thoroughly competent  to deal with difficult material. His review of the confused tangle of events in Europe during the Migration period, and again of the bewildering years that followed the Saxon invasion of Britain, is given with masterly clarity; moreover-rare phenomenon-it is most enjoyable reading. He manages the complex web of conflicting critical theories as easily as the records of turbulent periods of history; the good sense with which he disposes of the wilder theories regarding the sources of tales of Beorn Butsecarl or Queen Ælfthryth, or dispels the mist with which certain scholars have contrived to surround the Cirencester sparrows, is a welcome relief. His translations from the Latin are faithful and vigorous; I could wish, indeed, that he had chosen to render even more of the passages which he quotes into English, at least when they are as important as those describing the literary discussions of the monks at Bury St. Edmunds. Possibly I underestimate the knowledge of Latin among students of early English literature, but it seems to me that to be obliged to pause and fumble for the exact sense of ponderous phrases may detract from the appreciation of the argument; certainly, as long as the original is given, as here, in the appendix, translations as good as Mr. Wright’s are both a delight and a contribution to knowledge.

Finally it is perhaps worth remarking that this ” historical” approach to literature need not dull literary appreciation. This is made clear, for example, by the description of the mental background of the Icelandic Sagas in Chapter II, or the passage analysing the effect of Latin style on the old stories. It is the lively critical sense, and the quick appreciation of the tales of a lost literature, and of the interests that dominated men’s minds in a past age, that make this book not only a reliable work of scholarship but also essentially readable. In the conclusion we are promised work on similar lines on traces of saga literature in less familiar fields, in Scotland and the Frankish kingdom. Students of early literature and thought will await eagerly for the fulfilment of this promise.


Source: The Review of English Studies, Vol. 16, No. 64 (Oct., 1940), pp. 458-460

REVIEWS The Cultivation of Saga in Anglo-Saxon England. By C. E. WRIGHT. Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd. 1939. Pp. x+3 Io. 15s. net.

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