Book Review–Pride and Prodigies: Studies in the Monsters of the Beowulf Manuscript

Andy Orchard, Pride and Prodigies: Studies in the Monsters of the Beowulf-Manuscript. Rev. ed. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003. Pp. xi, 352. $43. Paperback.

First published in 1995 and re-published in this updated version, Andy Orchard’s Pride and Prodigies continues to encourage a serious reexamination of the monstrous contexts of Beowulf, a poem still often read in relative isolation from the other texts in its own manuscript, British Library, Cotton Vitellius A. xv. Orchard begins from Kenneth Sisam’s suggestion that an interest in monsters may unite the works in the Beowulf-manuscript, namely, The Passion of St. ChristopherThe Wonders of the EastThe Letter of Alexander to AristotleBeowulf, and Judith, the first and last of which are fragments. Less than half of the book is devoted to the argument itself, and the remaining pages contain new editions of WondersLetter, and the Liber monstrorum, each with a facing translation. Orchard has made his topic accessible to those interested in monstrosity studies but perhaps working in fields far removed from Anglo-Saxon studies itself; not only does he consistently translate the Greek and Old Norse in his text, but also all of the Old English and Latin.

In keeping with this emphasis on accessibility, the first chapter provides a concise description of the Beowulf-manuscript that should help orient any readers who are not themselves Beowulf scholars. Orchard then endeavors to account for the placement of the less obviously fantastic texts of Christopher, and Judith, which bracket the more clear-cut “wonder tales” (p. 4). However, his sensitivity to these narratives and the breadth of his contextualization of them among other Latin and Anglo-Saxon texts demonstrates that he does not simply wish to force them into a procrustean unity with Beowulf. Although Orchard does not introduce the phrase “pride and prodigies” until the last page of this chapter (p. 27), he reads Judith, compared to its narrative antecedents, as amplifying the consequences of “overweening pagan pride” (p. 5). Further, in Christopher, he finds a narrative not only about the humbling of the proud, but one that “introduces the further distinction to be made between the basically antagonistic worlds of monsters and men, and the merging and mingling to be observed between them” (p. 18). These themes will occupy Orchard at great length in subsequent chapters, but he moves on to a cursory treatment of Wonders that nevertheless has great implications for his argument about the Beowulf-manuscript. Orchard maintains that the selection and “apposition” of particular wonders offer a “useful analogy for the putative compilation of the Beowulf-manuscript” (p. 27).

In his emphasis on the appositional character of the manuscript — with adjacent texts revealing the clearest and most fruitful connections — Orchard both reconsiders and extends Fred C. Robinson’s view of the Beowulf-poet’s “appositive style.” Orchard is at his most traditionally Robinsonian when he points to words with dual Christian and pagan resonances; for example, he later reads the word egesa as referring to both the terror “implicit in the heroic life” and Christian reverence (p. 53). In this second chapter Orchard offers his closest reading of Beowulf itself, a reading I would not describe as entirely revolutionary, but one that remains meticulous in assembling and synthesizing an impressive variety of critical interpretations in order to reiterate, for example, the prominence of pride in Hrothgar’s undeniably homiletic “sermon,” as well as the way in which the poem blurs the distinctions between Beowulf and his monsters. Occasionally Orchard seems overzealous in tracking tenuous connections between Beowulf and Judith that have little to do with either pride or prodigies, but his trenchant analysis of, for example, a possible association between the monsters’ forbidding mere and a similar passage in Letter establishes a foundation for his later treatment of this latter text in light of parallel pride/prodigy themes.

In his third chapter Orchard takes a somewhat different approach when reopening the question of theBeowulf– poet’s familiarity with various sources, patristic and otherwise, for material about Cain and his hideous progeny. This chapter, in which Orchard makes much of the giants’ sword hilt as a connection between monstrosity and pride, consists chiefly of a survey of Insular familiarity with Cain legends. Orchard demonstrates beyond a doubt that “[t]he notion that there was a direct link between biblical giants and proud men was […] current in Insular circles from a very early period” (p. 81). However, it remains less clear that the Beowulf-manuscript was organized around any such link.

The argument broadens even further in the next chapter, a study of a text outside the shared manuscript context, the Liber monstrorum. The Liber is notorious for its description of a monstrous Hygelac, a character who features prominently in Beowulf but also seems to be a perfectly normal human being. While Orchard is keen to identify other links between the two works, he also provides a more general exploration of the sources and practice of the Liber author, turning in earnest to specific Beowulf connections only in the final pages of the chapter. Beyond the very cautious suggestion that Hygelac’s pride may have landed him in the catalogue of monsters, Orchard, somewhat frustratingly, does not offer his own answer to the question of the “precise literary relationship” between the two texts, choosing instead to emphasize their “mutually illuminating attitudes and themes” (p. 111).

Since, in part, Letter precedes Beowulf in the most obvious “apposition,” it is here that Orchard wishes us to see the most striking parallels, and here that he turns to chart the possible reception of Beowulf. The Alexander tradition, Orchard argues, held a dual view of the conqueror, both as a heroic explorer and a proud tyrant. Orchard contends that the translator of the often maligned Letter chose to depict Alexander as “at once prouder and more violent than in the Latin source” (p. 138), in turn reflecting or influencing how the audience of the manuscript might have understood the perhaps “inhuman” hero Beowulf. The parallels are definitely present, but in this section Orchard’s primary rhetorical purpose seems to be to spark interest in the understudied Letter.

In his final chapter, Orchard ventures back onto better-trodden ground — he even gives this chapter the self-conscious title of “Grettir and Grendel Again” — but his interpretation of Grettis saga as “a five-act tragedy” is new to the point of idiosyncrasy (p. 142). Tracing how Grettir’s five battles resonate with Beowulf’s own monster encounters, Orchard concludes that the two texts draw “on the same basic narrative paradigm” (p. 147), though he is less willing to expound upon the precise nature of their “common prototype” (p. 149). Vague gestures to Grettir’s pride prove less compelling than the way in which Orchard at last stresses the mutual alienation of the monster-slayers from the world of men, and the simultaneous “demonization of pagan warriors” who had once been heroes and the heroization of Christians like Judith and Christopher in “the traditional heroic diction.” He writes: “The Anglo-Saxon literary tradition is one in which Christian virtues of and pagan heroic diction become gradually intertwined, and the past is constantly reassessed and reinterpreted in light of the new learning” (p. 169-70).

Although some of Orchard’s arguments about thematic connections seem to strain the evidence, overall he builds a strong case for reading the monsters of Beowulf in the wider context of early medieval monstrosity, even when we have few direct parallels in other sources. As thorough as his treatment of both earlier scholarship and the evidence always remains, Orchard tends to keep his arguments about the manuscript and literary history of Beowulfsuggestive, and the book may ultimately prove most useful as a much-needed survey of little studied texts dealing with the monstrous.

Timothy S. Miller

T. S. Miller is currently pursuing a Ph.D. at the University of Notre Dame, where he studies later Middle English literature. His research interests include narrative theory as well as medieval versus modern theories of authorship. His articles have appeared or are forthcoming in several genre journals, including Science Fiction Studies ,Mythlore, and The Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts.

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Book Review–Pride and Prodigies: Studies in the Monsters of the Beowulf Manuscript by Timothy S. Miller is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.


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