“Who wrote Sigurd’s Lament? We simply do not know” (15). These ominous words point us toward the secret buried deep within Benjamin John Peters’s Sigurd’s Lament: An Alliterative Epic. The entire work—itself a labyrinth of works buried within other works—is a compelling demonstration of what can happen when we disrupt the (flimsy) distinctions between academic scholarship and creative writing and instead, use the tools available to us as writers to explore our deepest intellectual concerns, embracing the full force and freedom of narration liberated from the bonds of disciplinary divisions.
Sigurd’s Lament is never straight forward. It begins as the story of a son commenting on his father’s translation of a cursed and ancient Welsh poem, which his grandfather discovered—or received?—somewhere in the shadowy mountains of Snowdonia. And there, in the shadows, the story remains. For, very quickly, the text opens onto a series of narratives within narratives, translations of translations, and conversations in and across generations—between grandfather, father, son, grandson, and you, the reader. At the heart of it all is a beautifully written epic poem, the touching tale of Alfred, his companion Egil, and the reflective and conflicted Sigurd, who himself seems only a footnote to the broader themes at play in Sigurd’s Lament. We quickly learn that Hawthorne Basil Peters, the son of Wallace Walker Peters, has compiled and edited his father’s translation of the poem as well has his father’s unpublished notes, which provide the academic apparatus Wallace Peters used to interpret Sigurd’s Lament. Basil—the pseudo-empiricist, and rationalist—provides a running commentary as well as his own academic scaffolding for making sense of the poem and his father’s notes, calling into question the more fanciful elements of his father’s work. If Augustus, the grandfather, gives us Sigurd’s Lament as legend; through Wallace, the father, we receive it as mythology; and through Basil, the son, we receive it as history. Yet, as soon as we draw these distinctions, the text itself calls them into question, boldly declaring to the reader that Sigurd’s Lament (which one?) is “fractured, fragmented, and distended” (1). As readers, we are complicit in its construction and deconstruction simply by virtue of the fact that we are reading it. If the genius of this book’s structure is not enough to pique your interest, Benjamin John Peters—the “actual” author—weaves throughout the footnotes a gothic-style mystery complete with dusty attics, fireside folklore, and strange sounds rapping on the floorboards as the poem’s curse unfolds and we follow Basil’s descent into madness.
The structure of Sigurd’s Lament is as important as its content. Sigurd’s Lament is a delightful performance. It demonstrates the way in which we might conduct academics through a variety of genres, using different literary tools and methods to build our case. Though, make no mistake, while Sigurd’s Lament is playful, it is not just for play. The commentaries and “unpublished papers” provide substantive philosophical arguments regarding the nature of hermeneutics, religious aesthetics, and the role of narrative in world construction. Folks: this is real scholarship.
At times, the labyrinthine nature of the book can be overwhelming. There are a lot of moving parts. For readers who prefer a straightforward argument, this book may not be for you, but for those of us who enjoy scholarship “at the margins,” Sigurd’s Lament is a refreshing example of what is possible when we dare to dissolve the barriers of disciplinarity and explore deep, philosophical questions through different modes of inquiry. For example, running through Basil’s footnotes is a fragmented, first-person narrative account of his psychological struggle to make sense of the “truth” of Sigurd’s Lament. Did his grandfather really receive it from a giant? Did his father really go mad because of the curse? Was there ever really an original version of the poem? The questions prove too much. As with the text itself, Basil is fraying, simultaneously constructing and deconstructing the truth as he explores it. Yet, just as Basil is about to discover what looks as though it might actually be the truth, the narration ends. We are left to decide for ourselves what happened—and that is the entire point of Sigurd’s Lament: legend, mythology, history, meaning, and truth—we must all choose for ourselves.
Peters (the real person, the one who wrote the book I am reviewing) has written something truly special. Using an almost Tolkienesque style of academic writing, Peters has created a striking and insightful work that somehow manages to make the reader laugh, ponder, question, and create, all within less than two-hundred-and-fifty pages. If I were to issue any complaint about the book it would be that, on first read, it is at times difficult to determine which Peters is talking. The reader has to do some work, and while that may be part of the performative point, the structure can, at times, feel a bit convoluted. The book is short enough, the chapters concise enough, and the poem compelling enough that even a cursory review of the text following the initial read, or a more focused second read, will go a long way toward putting the pieces together, no matter how loosely they end up fitting.
In short, this is a wonderful book. It takes seriously the question of a text’s meaning. It explores and rigorously analyzes the implications of a number of different types of hermeneutics. It makes a convincing argument that interpretation and meaning construction are always about ambiguity and choice. Texts do not just mean anything, but what they do mean and, more importantly, how they mean, is a complex interplay of words, time, perspective, values, prejudices, and decision. So, who wrote Sigurd’s Lament? Read it, and the answer will most certainly include, “you.”
D. Andrew Yost is an attorney and Affiliated Faculty Member at Metropolitan State University of Denver. In addition to his law degree, Yost holds a doctorate in the Study of Religion.
D. Andrew Yost
Date Of Review:
May 9, 2019
Benjamin John Peters is a former United States Marine and two-time veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom. He is currently a doctoral candidate in religious studies at the University of Denver/Iliff School of Theology Joint PhD Program.
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