Anglo-Saxon Literary Landscapes, Heide Estes

Reviewer: Wouter van Dijk

Anglo-Saxon Literary Landscapes. Ecotheory and the Environmental Imagination, Heide Estes

Amsterdam University Press, Amsterdam 2017
ISBN: 978 908964 944 7

Hardcover, with bibliography and index
208 pages
€ 85,00

The Natural World and Anglo-Saxon texts

The environment is a hot topic nowadays, both literally and figuratively speaking, with the effects of global warming being visible all over the planet. Our dealings with nature are therefore intensely debated and investigated. However, this isn’t the case as regards historical research. Heide Estes now, has done something new in this book. She gives our behaviour with nature a historical background, focusing on the role of inter alia the natural world in Anglo-Saxon texts. Her approach can be placed in a wider field of study called ecocriticism, which looks critically at human behaviour in relation to the natural and built environment. The argument Estes makes in her study is that the ideas that enabled the Industrial Revolution and the climate crisis of today, were already in circulation in the Anglo-Saxon period. In order to show why this is the case, she analyses a variety of Anglo-Saxon texts, such as Beowulf, The Ruin, the Life of Guthlac and some riddles from the Exeter Book.

In her book, Estes uses several approaches in looking at these texts. The idea of wilderness, the use of natural resources, male-female relationships and colonization of land and peoples are various themes that she investigates in the texts under scrutiny. In so doing, she shows a duality in the writings from the Anglo-Saxon era. In texts such as Beowulf or the Life of Guthlac human, and more exactly male, domination over the earth is apparent and in these texts one can see how accepted such a view on the earth and human life on it, was already at that time. In many ways, such as it is today. Other texts that Estes dissects however, show a very different image of the Anglo-Saxon mind. In the Exeter Book riddles for example, the writer of the riddle presents himself as an object, such as a book, or a natural phenomenom such as a storm or the ocean. Taking the example of the book, the author of the riddle tells the life cycle of the animal that once wore the skin of which the pages of the book were made, and how several adaptations made the animal into a book. Written from the viewpoint of the animal in question, and as if it was still alive, the riddle presents a whole other dimension of thinking about human behaviour towards nature and animals.

What is a bit odd in Estes’s argument is that she places the origins of our contemporary behaviour towards nature especially in the Anglo-Saxon period, it remains unclear if she means by this the Anglo-Saxons as a people in particular, or just uses their texts to illustrate her claim, among the other early medieval peoples in Northwestern Europe. Continental European texts were not much different in outlook as regards the ideas articulated in Beowulf and the Life of Guthlac. The same goes for the time period she chose, thinking in terms of domination of one entity over another, be it different peoples or peoples and nature, probably exists as long as humanity exists. Certainly at the time Greek and Roman culture were dominant. They also dehumanized their enemies, and not only them, but called every people unknown to them simply barbarians.

Nevertheless, Estes makes clear her effort is to be seen as a first step in using ecocritical theories for the examination of historical texts, in order to learn more about our current behaviour. In providing food for thought about using these relatively new theories while conducting historical research, she certainly succeeded.

Wouter van Dijk