maandag 19 januari 2015

Blackwell's rag-bag, or the (in)fertility of hybrid texts

Intertextual patterns and methodological shifts in an 1847 re-re-re-re-edition of the Prose Edda

Today in Shells & Pebbles

Historians of scholarship should love hybrid works. By ‘hybrid works’ I mean works that don’t fit neatly into a specific genre or format, but that combine the characteristics of different genres and information from disparate kinds of source material, often even texts from different authors. Historians should love such hybrid works for three reasons. First, each hybrid work is hybrid in its own way. Whereas the great bulk of scholarly production from the past is highly repetitious in treating similar topics in a similar format, hybrid works have a tendency to pop up around anomalies and ruptures. Second, by virtue of integrating different approaches (and text from different authors), they are particularly good indicators of shifts in scholarly method, combining the old and the new and often commenting on the respective virtues and shortcomings of these different approaches. And third, they present lovely intertextual puzzles. This is not just brain candy for the lovers of deconstructed authorship, it also provides further insight into information management and the circulation of knowledge – more so, generally, than the great bulk of works that fall under ‘normal science’.

Mallet’s Northern Antiquities is such a hybrid work. It is, in fact, the greatest intertextual puzzle I have encountered in three years of PhD research. The basis of the text is (1) Snorri Sturluson’s 13th century Prose Edda, a story that integrates sagas from the earlier Poetic Edda. That text was (2) translated into French (from a 17th century Latin edition) by Paul Henri Mallet for an introduction to a history of Denmark in 1755, then (3) translated into English by Bishop Percy (of Reliques of Ancient Poetry) in 1770, and (4) substantially corrected by one I.A. Blackwell for an 1847 re-edition, which was repeatedly reprinted until WW I. At each stage, new comments and comments upon comments agglutinated, and parts deemed outdated were left out. The actual text of the Prose Edda (which is itself a rehash of the earlier Poetic Edda) fills only 65 out of 575 pages in the 1847 edition. The rest is, in sequence: Bishop Percy’s preface, Blackwell’s comments on Percy’s preface, Mallet’s introduction, Blackwell’s additions to Mallet’s introduction, comments on Norse mythology by Blackwell, notes by Mallet and Percy, a postscript with newly discovered Eddic texts in translation by Walter Scott, and a glossary and index by Blackwell.

After sorting out this intertextual puzzle, the obvious question is: why did Blackwell bother to re-edit a century-old and admittedly outdated edition? After all, the original Old Norse/Icelandic text had been published by Rask as Snorra-Edda in 1818, and an English translation directly from that text had appeared in 1842. No mention is made of this recent new translation. Blackwell devotes exactly one sentence to his motives, on the first page: “[the editor] has endeavoured, by unremitting attention and diligent research, to make this one of the most complete works on Northern Antiquities hitherto published”. Mallet’s Northern Antiquities brings no remarkably new philological method to the translation; it should be read as a contribution to cultural history rather than textual scholarship. For Blackwell, apparently, the work of Mallet and Percy still had scholarly validity in spite of badly needing revision; and no matter how ‘laborious’ Blackwell’s own task as an editor, revising Mallet’s and Percy’s ideas about ancient Germanic language and culture was more efficient than writing the whole thing anew.

Accordingly, Mallet’s Northern Antiquities becomes a document of shifts in scholarly method indeed. Mallet, in 1755, had started from two assumptions that in retrospect are plain mistakes: that all European tribes were of ‘Celtic’ origin, and that Odin, the chief deity in the Eddic pantheon, was a deified and distorted representation of a historical figure. Bishop Percy debunked the first assumption. Borrowing a diagram from Hickes’ massive Thesaurus (1703), and samples from a 1715 collection of Paternosters, he pointed out that Celtic and ‘Gothic’ [Germanic] are two different groups of languages – and that Finnish and Basque, for that matter, were part of neither. Blackwell, in turn, gives a substantial update on this. First, he explains how much philology has changed through “the works of Rask, Schlegel, Grimm, Klaproth, Bopp, Arndt, and other eminent writers of the German school of philology” (p. 24; Blackwell does not use the word ‘linguistics’). Next, Blackwell asks to what extent ‘linguistic families’ and ‘varieties of the human species’ overlap. Although he makes some caveats that the two are not identical, and that especially psychological characteristics can often be ascribed to other factors than ‘race’, the outcome is that he treats the Edda as a document of the Germanic character.

At each stop on the paper trail, editing is also an act of appropriation. This already starts with Snorri, whose preface and postscript Christianize his pagan tales; Mallet, Percy, and Blackwell leave out these ‘absurdities’. For Mallet, the Edda is a document of the first settlement of Scandinavia, with Odin as a transmogrified founder figure; and therefore, in spite of all its distortions, part of the history of Denmark he is writing. Percy, in renaming them “Northern Antiquities”, puts these tales in the domain of the antiquarian, although he does not explicitly dismiss them as historical sources. For Blackwell, they are mythology; but as ‘Northern Antiquities’, they are also more than a bit English.
Blackwell’s racial argument is a way to have your cake and eat it. He describes the Germanic race as chaste, strong and adventurous, and the Celts (one is tempted to read: ‘French’) as sensuous and effeminate. But the picture is not that one-sided: Blackwell also regularly pokes fun at the barbarous ancient Scandinavians whose first priorities are fighting and drinking. Not too bad, then, that the current inhabitants of Britain are a mixed race. In essence, this is the cultural agenda of Ivanhoe transposed into racial theory.

In bringing the interpretation of the Edda up to date, Blackwell’s comments not only incorporate the publication history, but also the reception history, and even something of the history of Nordic philology at large. There are two predecessors in this field on whom Blackwell’s judgement is particularly harsh. The first is John Jamieson, the compiler of a pioneer etymological dictionary of the Scots dialect (1808) and the author of Hermes Scythicus: Or, The Radical Affinities of the Greek and Latin Languages to the Gothic (1814). This latter work, an attempt to trace back Romanic and Germanic languages to their common ‘Scythian’ ancestor, is denounced in a footnote as an example of British authors who “manage to lag half a century behind their continental brethren” (p. 20). The second, Icelandic-Danish philologist Finn Magnusen (or Finnur Magnussón), gets a more mixed treatment. He is referred to more than twenty times in the text, sometimes praised for his learned observations and excellent Lexicon Mythologicum, but more often criticized for his “ludicrous conjectural etymologies” (p. 541), his spurious interpretation of some “lapidary scrawls” in Massachusetts as ‘Runic inscriptions’ (pp. 262-3), his “groundless assumption” of a deeper underlying metaphysical system to Nordic mythology (p. 506), and his reading of ‘alfadir’, one of the epithets of Odin, as both a proto-Christian sign and as an astronomical synonym for Aries (p. 488-9). In short, Magnusen’s four-volume Eddalaeren (1824-6) “will not stand the test of a rigorous criticism” (p. 477). By that token, Blackwell at once disavows Magnusen’s Danish and Icelandic claims to the Edda in favour of a pan-Germanic ownership and rejects wider-ranging, cross-cultural mythological comparisons as speculative.

Blackwell also makes a distinction between various ways of explaining myths. The most plausible is the ethnological, in which “myths are the mere allegorical accounts of the feuds and dissensions of rival races”. On the other hand, the ‘historical’ method – which “presupposes an historical Odin, an historical Jupiter, an historical Osiris, &c.” – “is, in our opinion, too absurd to merit the slightest attention” (p. 478). But equally, a ‘physical’ or ‘astronomical’ reading of myths as a barbarian way of explaining the world is defective, because by the time a nation has reached the level of sophistication to transform its mythology into metaphysical doctrine, it is already passing out of the mythological stage. Hence Blackwell’s criticism of Magnusen. It must be noted, however, that Blackwell does not say anything critical about Rasmus Rask, who for him is the main representative of a ‘modern’ approach in Nordic studies, even though Rask, at least in his early and most ambitious work on the origin of the Old Norse or Icelandic language, still believed in an historical Odin.

Mallet’s Northern Antiquities is not a document of romantic nationalism per se. Blackwell’s naturalistic conception of philology is not necessarily at odds with romantic ideas about the nation; one could put him in a league with Dwight Whitney and Hippolyte Taine. But his racial theory is definitely not a theory of Blut und Boden: tribes are volatile and the ancient Scandinavians were backward pugnacious alcoholics. Instead, he presents mythology in the frame of a proto-theory of evolution, as one step in the development of the species, all the way from protozoic ooze to the present and beyond (p. 465). It is a view that has more in common with 18th century stadial models of human development than with the dark medieval deeps of time of Jacob Grimm.

The problem with hybrid works like Mallet’s Northern Antiquities is that they are infertile. That is, they do not provide a model which you can elaborate further, and the structure of the text does not reflect a main line of argument, so that you have to sort that out first. Blackwell’s rag-bag of intertextual threads is not a basis for further research like Rask’s Undersøgelse or the work of Raynouard and Diez on Provençal poetry and the Romance languages. In its rag-tag method, however, Northern Antiquities is a better document for studying the process of ‘forging a national epic’, in the sense of ‘putting it together from diverse materials’, than the work of Rask or Grimm. And it is not alone in this regard: in Raynouard’s Choix des Poésies originales des Troubadours (1816-1821), there is a similar process of updating the 18th-century medievalist work of Lacurne de Sainte-Palaye and his literary executor Millot, although Raynouard does so with much more consistency and a more sustained hypothesis of his own. Together, they serve as an indication that the so-called 19th century ‘invention’ of literary tradition was rather a transformation.

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