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This review is taken from PN Review 43, Volume 11 Number 5, May - June 1985.

A MOST NEEDFUL BOOK Michael Alexander, Old English Literature (Macmillan) £14.00, £3.95 pb.

'Anglo-Saxon' life and writing met perfectly the nineteenth-century obsession with all things medieval. Archaeology and philology joined forces in the service of a curiously atavistic and eccentric nationalism; 'eccentric' literally in that the nineteenth-century scholars sought to re-centre and re-align English culture on the model of pre-Christian Europe. 'Anglo-Saxon' betrayed roots and inflexions only archaeologically visible in modern English; more important were its ties, both linguistic and literary, with the continental tongues. Much, even much that was historically obvious, was lost in the search for a unified Germanic heritage.

Sadly, the twentieth-century revision which emphasised the uniquely English and Christian rather than pagan and European nature of 'Anglo-Saxon' culture has coincided with a steady decline in the teaching of the language. In the 1980s, Old English (the preferred term marks the shift in emphasis away from the pan-Germanic model) is in danger of slipping back into its pre-nineteenth century obscurity. Unlike the Middle English of the fourteenth century and after it is, inescapably, a language that has to be learned, with only locally identifiable leavings in the modern tongue; as such, it has all but disappeared from an English curriculum which (pace structuralism, deconstruction and the rest) has ruthlessly separated 'literary' study from 'language' study and largely abandoned the latter. In all but a few universities, Old English is now a purely optional component of an English literature degree. It only fares better in those (mostly northern) fastnesses where 'English language' is still given equal weight.
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