Mascot for #DevilDiss

Mascot for #DevilDiss
Mascot for #DevilDiss

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Writing Journal 4: R.E Woolf “The Devil in Old English Poetry” (1953)

R.E Woolf in “The Devil in Old English Poetry” (1953) suggests that while Anglo Saxons may not have known of Loki, Christian “tradition about Satan and northern tradition about Loki coincided” (2). Woolf lists the specific characterizations, in which Satan, Loki and certain Germanic characters (1) are similar, the similarities in how they are described as counterparts, the similarities in the descriptions of hell, how both suffer from pride and how they relate to heroic ideals. Woolf examines these similarities in order to make the argument that the heroic ideal in regards to Satan, is “fused with the Christian idea and produced a deeper meaning” (12) which would have been easily recognizable to Anglo Saxons which the figure of Christ, the apostles and saints would not have been. The author is referencing both northern Loki and Germanic myths and Genesis B, so his audience is expected to be familiar enough with both in order to follow the comparison. In particular, the references to northern mythology are more detailed than probably a casual reader would have. Likewise, an assumed knowledge of how Anglo Saxon logic would have influenced their reading of Genesis B.


In light of my decision last week to focus more on the comparison of Satan to devil imagery in literature that came before rather than limiting myself to specific sources that Milton would have used, this article fits well. Especially given the specific similarities that Woolf mentions between Satan and Loki, and how the character of Satan would have been received by Anglo Saxons with Genesis B, this article gives not only excellent background on how Genesis B would have been read but also opens up a new set of literature to look at for comparison. Woolf takes pains to simply state the similarities without implying any influence, and I found this helpful because this is the type of approach I wish to take with my topic as I have decided against limiting myself to Milton’s sources. In my argument I wish to simply present the material without stating that Milton would have used the information and let the reader draw their own conclusions.

Woolf comes to terms with the topic by stating the fact that “the view that the heroic convention was never satisfactorily adapted to Christian themes has become a commonplace in the critical theory of Old English poetry” (1). By stating the party line in Old English studies, Woolf places his argument in the sphere of accepted scholarly thought. He goes on to forward several northern mythologies and Genesis B. He also forwards Grimm and his work on Germanic mythology and Timmer who references the Weland story. Woolf references a ballad about Judas and the York Mystery plays as well as Augustine doctrine. I thought it was unusual that he did not reference many scholarly works and in fact does not counter or use these scholars to as a jumping off point for his own ideas, but rather uses them to provide summary of certain mythologies. Woolf does identify a gap in the scholarship towards the end of his argument by stating that the Anglo Saxons would have viewed Satan as heroic because while his “situation is hopeless” (12) he does not give up, and in fact displays great courage in facing his current situation and this would have appeared heroic to them as it was in line with their own beliefs. He then states that whether this description of Satan was “conventional habit and not by deliberate poetic purpose need in no way invalidate an appreciation of its result” (12). This appears to counter an accepted ideal in which there must be a decision one way or the other, despite the fact that Woolf does not specifically state this. His approach to the topic is simply to present the information without making a judgment of it.

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