[posted on behalf of guest blogger Susan Kim. Thanks, Susan!]
Heather Blurton, introducing Chapter 2, “Eotonweard: Watching for Cannibals in the Beowulf-manuscript,” argues, “Eotonweard is not just the work of the hero, it is also the work of reception, as watching for cannibals becomes an interpretive stance for decoding the manuscript” (35). Her reading of the manuscript, “attentive to the appearance of cannibals” (37) in fact significantly challenges us to reconsider the resonances among the texts and images of the manuscript as a whole and the de-politicization of many current approaches to the study of the manuscript.
Blurton’s tenacity in grounding her argument in the immediate context of the manuscript enables us, for example, to consider the Life of Saint Christopher not as bound by the genre of hagiography alone, or even in the intersection of hagiography and literature of the monstrous, but as existing in a complex of discourses, including that of political expansion. The reading offered in this chapter thus really does open discussion of the manuscript as a whole as well as discussion of Beowulf and its place in that manuscript. As Blurton argues, “Re-situating Beowulf in its manuscript context thus suggests ways in which in the texts of the Beowulf –manuscript…the repeated appearance of cannibals in narratives that deal with conquest and resistance can provide an interpretive framework for Beowulf, in particular for thinking about Grendel’s cannibalism”(56).
It seems to me that a problem here is that while Blurton argues for the evocation of cannibals in the “other” texts of the manuscript, and for the similarity between Grendel and the cannibals evoked by those texts, to do so, she must often import those cannibals from sources or related texts and images. That is, we can only read the Christopher of this manuscript as a dog-headed cannibal if we read him in the context of texts not included in this manuscript: the Christopher fragment in Vitellius Axv, as Blurton notes, does not contain the description of Christopher as such. Similarly, we can only say that Grendel looks like the Donestre if we look at the Donestre of Tiberius Bv. The Donestre of the Vitellius Axv illustration is no larger than his female victim, and seems to have no hair at all. He is waving a leg in his left arm (presumably the female victim’s otherwise missing leg), but I see no evidence of the leg in his mouth which Blurton notes in her description. The Tiberius Donestre, in contrast, is hairy-headed, bigger than his victim, and clearly eating him. One might thus make the argument that, especially given the extra-manuscript context which Blurton illuminates, the “other” texts of the Beowulf-manuscript themselves are not full of cannibals, but rather strangely reticent about them.
I write this not to quibble with the trivia of the argument but because I am genuinely excited by Blurton’s opening claim that “eotonweard …is also the work of reception.” Reception of this manuscript, and in particular of the Wonders of the East contained in it, has been characterized by at best avoidance of what is actually in the manuscript. An easy, though maybe cheap example is the cover of Andy Orchard’s invaluable Pride and Prodigies, with its beautiful image of the Blemmye not from the Beowulf-manuscript. My own tendency has been to read this turning away from the Vitellius texts themselves as a reaction to the ways in which these texts amplify anxieties less literal, or less visible in the related texts. The Vitellius Wonders of the East, for example, significantly increases the aggressivity of the images with respect both to their frames and to the texts, so much so that, for example, the ant-dog illustration is wholly unframed, with one of the ant-dogs wrapping himself around the last word of the text describing them. The Tiberius images, in contrast, demonstrate interaction with the frame, but never leave the frame entirely. The Tiberius images, I would have argued before reading this book, consistently replace the Vitellius images in discussions of these texts because they present us with a much safer questioning of boundaries, including the boundaries between text and image, and between image and viewer: they present us with a border which can be stepped on, a frame which can be problematized, but not with a frame which does not exist, or a border which cannot be drawn. What I have located as a problem with Blurton’s reading (though it really may not be a problem) may thus focus our attention on the ways in which these “other” texts may evoke the complex of discourses Blurton reads in cannibalism while, like the monster-as-portent, pointing elsewhere, away from themselves as the locus of significance. Reception of these texts thus both responds to and is directed by the project of “eotonweard” within the texts, at once watching for, and keeping watch against what Blurton reads in the figure of the cannibal.