Undoing Babel

The Tower of Babel in Anglo-Saxon Literature

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Tristan Major
Toronto Anglo-Saxon Series
  • Toronto, ON: 
    University of Toronto Press
    , February
     2018.
     312 pages.
     $70.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781487500542.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In Undoing Babel: The Tower of Babel in Anglo-Saxon Literature, Tristan Major offers, as he acknowledges in his conclusion, “essentially a series of case studies on the specific developments of the Table of Nations and the Tower of Babel narrative among various authors and cultures of Anglo-Saxon English” (237). As a series of case studies, the book is certainly an important academic text. Major demonstrates a thorough grasp of the existing scholarship and adds his own insightful analysis in discussing the literature of this period.

The book is both more and less than it ostensibly promises, and what these case studies ultimately add up to is a bit murky. In his introduction, Major suggests that his book is meant to explore the ways in which a biblical text can reveal cultural anxieties (e.g., Anglo-Saxon fears of Viking invasions) and affect a developing literary landscape. In doing so, the study should have broad implications for an understanding of the ways in which authoritative narratives are used for myriad ideological, religious, cultural, and political purposes. The book, however, does not seem to provide enough clear evidence from the literature studied to support these ambitious and worthy claims. 

But all is certainly not lost. Undoing Babel does much more than simply trace references to the Tower of Babel narrative in Anglo-Saxon writing (as the title indicates). To begin, Major provides excellent context for his study with an exploration of early Jewish and Christian antiquity and provides much in the way of ecclesiastical history. Augustine takes center stage here and plays a supportive role throughout the book. Augustine’s linking of the diversity and linguistic confusion created at Babel with the order and linguistic unity created at Pentecost becomes a recurring Anglo-Saxon theme that Major highlights. This thematic juxtaposition between the pride at Babel and the humility at Pentecost is a topic that receives a great deal of attention. 

The book’s main focus, though, is on a close reading of Anglo-Saxon texts that make various Babel references. Some of the most interesting sections of the book occur when Major undertakes a critique of texts in translation, as he does with the Alfredian Old English translation of Orosius’s Historiae Adversus Paganos. Also fascinating is Major’s close textual analysis of Aelfric’s various treatments of the Babel narratives. “Because it provided a basis for understanding the ethnic and linguistic diversity of the world,” Major writes in his chapter on the Canterbury School, “Genesis 10-11 must have resonated with those who saw themselves living on the very edges of the world” (95). Whether Major’s excellent linguistic and literary analysis throughout the second half of the book justifies speculative statements like this, however, is unclear. It seems a tall order for any scholar. More successful are Major’s more measured (and textually evidenced) claims of shifting connotations of the Babel narrative throughout the Anglo-Saxon period.

What is clear, though, is that the book shines a light on issues of linguistic complexity and diversity. Major does not simply provide translations for his primary sources and hide the original source texts in endnotes. Source-language texts and their English translations are placed together in the body of the work as Major foregrounds his impressive linguistic and translation skills. Even those readers with a limited knowledge of Latin and Old English will appreciate the highlighting of these source-language texts and the complications and opportunities that arise from such linguistic diversity. Additionally, Major’s book provides a helpful example of scholarship that bridges the bewildering gap between linguistic and literary analysis in English studies.

Far from undoing Babel, the book is in many ways a return to Babel and a celebration of the linguistic (and thus ethnic) diversity that Anglo-Saxon readers would have understood as originally springing from the events on the plains of Babylonia. The result is a valuable addition to the study of Anglo-Saxon literature and a model for future research.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Christopher Dick is Professor of English at Tabor College.

Date of Review: 
July 30, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Tristan Major is Assistant Professor in the Department of English Literature and Linguistics at Qatar University.

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