An Open Access Review Journal Encouraging Critical Engagement with the Continuing Process of Inventing the Middle Ages

September 7, 2015

Toswell: Borges, The Unacknowledged Medievalist

M.J. Toswell. Borges, The Unacknowledged Medievalist: Old English and Old Norse in His Life and Work. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.

Reviewed by Daniel de Paula Valentim Hutchins (

In this concise study of the influence of medievalism on the life and writing of Jorge Luis Borges (1889-1996),  M. J. Toswell offers not only copious documentation of Borges’s lifelong fascination with Old English and Old Norse but also several compelling reasons for reconsidering Borges’s work in light of these connections. Though it may come as no surprise to even the casual reader of Borges that he was in dialogue with medievalism – his adaptation of a medieval bestiary, The Book of Imaginary Beings (1957), is the best known but not the only explicit example of this dialogue in his work – Toswell digs deeper than others have before in exploring these connections and plumbing them for a better understanding of Borges as a writer.

For example, early in her introduction, Toswell claims that Borges “partakes of a profoundly medieval attitude to authority. [For Borges], texts derive each from the other, and aspiring to originality is always a mistake – despite the popularity of the idea in the modern era” (5). The non-medievalist reading these lines (and perhaps many medievalists as well) may be struck by how close Toswell’s characterization of a “medieval attitude” resembles Derridean poststructuralism: positing an origin or ascribing a total completeness to a text is ultimately a wishful fantasy; the logos can never be fully present. A bit later in her introduction, Toswell explains how the Anglo-Saxon word for poet, scop, meant a “shaper” or “maker,” one who mixes the words which result in a poem. She proceeds to compare this idea of poetry with Borges’s title for a collection of critical essays, El Hacedor, or literally translated from Spanish, The Maker (9).

For me, moments like this in Toswell’s work, moments in which she takes an insight about the influence of medievalism on Borges and uses that insight to transform my understanding of both Borges as a writer and of medievalism itself, are by far the most exciting and successful parts of the work. After reading passages from Toswell’s book like the one above I found myself going back to my favorite Borges short stories and rereading them with a new eye. And, indeed, though her close reading is acute and her research meticulous, I found myself a bit disappointed (unfairly, perhaps) that rather than anchor her book with these moments of keen lucidity, Toswell instead chose a more straightforward philological approach, unfolding her analysis first through biography and later through the overlapping facets of Borges’s career as a writer and public intellectual: poet, scholar, and “fabulist” (i.e. author of prose fiction).

Chapter one is a brief introduction in which Toswell outlines her chapters and presents her main thesis; namely, that Borges’s lifelong interest in Germanic medievalism, “including both Old English and Old Norse” was not a mere hobby (as Borges himself, on more than one occasion, fondly called it) but, rather, remains a crucial key for unlocking the meaning of Borges’s work (10). Chapter two undertakes to situate the historical Borges in the literary and cultural landscape that brought him into being as a major world writer of the twentieth century. To Toswell’s credit, however, rather than offering us a biography of Borges that takes us from childhood to adulthood, she begins with a close look at the author’s gravestone, located in Geneva in the Cimetiére Plainpalais. On one side of Borges’s gravestone is a quote from an Old English poem, The Battle of Maldon, “Our spirit must be sterner, our heart the braver, our soul the greater as our power diminishes” (14). For the other side, Borges (with the help of María Kodoma, the person who knew him best for the last twenty years of his life and who he married a few months before his death) chose a line from the Old Norse Völsungassaga, “He takes the sword Gram and lays it naked between them” (15). Toswell’s decision to begin with Borges’s gravestone is not only stylish, it also emphasizes the importance of medievalism in his life and work.

Two important facts about Borges: first, he was one-quarter English. His paternal grandmother was named Frances “Fanny” Haslam and hailed from Northumbria (16). Thus, Borges was raised in a bilingual household and spoke, wrote, and read English as naturally as he did Spanish, benefiting from this father’s expansive English-language library which included, “the early works of H.G. Wells, Rudyard Kipling, G.K. Chesterton, and especially Robert Louis Stevenson” (16-17). Adding to this cosmopolitanism, in 1914 when he was fifteen the entire family moved from Buenos Aires to Geneva and he thus spent his high school years at a French language school, the Collège Calvin. Second fact: when Borges was fifty years old, he went blind. His father had gone blind when Borges was a teenager (16). Though Borges had a wide knowledge of medievalism by this point and, indeed, had already incorporated many ideas, themes, kennings, and plot-lines from medieval writings into his short fiction and poetry, it was not until his blindness that he began to publish, always collaboratively (at that point, how could he work otherwise?), serious scholarship on medieval subjects, beginning with the study, co-written with María Esther Vasquez, Literaturas Germánicas Medievales or Medieval Germanic Literatures (20). As Toswell writes elsewhere, rather poetically:
Borges connects his blindness to his speaking of Old English, a blunt tongue which should perhaps not delight him as much as it does. His memory he describes as failing, his life as repetitious and cyclical. Nonetheless, there is hope, and he can access the possibilities of the universe. Old English seems, paradoxically since it is largely a dead language, to offer him access to that universe. (35)

Chapter three deepens and expands the case for the influence of medievalism in Borges’s poetry, focusing on the theme of heroism and the “construction of a hero” – a typology firmly held in place for him in works like Beowulf as well as the many sagas and poems of the Old English and Old Norse traditions. But there are other influences as well: references to Draupnir, the great gold ring of the Norse gods, and to the idea that toenails and fingernails continue to grow after death, which Toswell, following Joseph Tyler, wants to tie to “the Norse mythological idea of a ship made from the fingernails of the dead appearing at Ragnarok” (32). When it came to his knowledge of medievalism, Borges was not a tourist or hobbyist. He showed the same enthusiasm for footnotes, curiosities, and other often overlooked ephemera as he did for a major canonical work like Beowulf.

Chapter four focuses on Borges’s scholarly work on medievalism (including a short, meaty section on Dante) but begins with a personal anecdote from 2010 in which Toswell recalls her work translating another one of Borges’s scholarly works, Antiguas Literaturas Germánicas (Ancient Germanic Literatures), from Spanish to English while on board a freighter ship going around the world. Here is a glimpse of a different book, one that lives along the margins of the one I am reviewing: a memoir by Toswell that shows the intersections of the personal and scholarly in her work and life. In the following passage, Toswell relates how she is hard at work on the translation of Antiguas Literaturas Germánicas when her freighter, some distance from Kuala Lampur, encounters very rough seas.
In a somewhat hallucinatory state, as I rolled back and forth across my single bed trying in vain to jam a toe somewhere to give myself some leverage, I realized that this situation called for Borges. And so, my first contribution to the scholarly study in English of Borges’ study of Old English and Old Norse medievalism was accomplished with a following surge (and a tornado wandering about) in the Persian Sea heading south to the Indian Ocean. By the time we were off the coast of Sri Lanka ten miserable days later, arriving in calm seas with a pleasant following wind, my first draft was complete. As we neared Kuala Lumpur, while passing through the notorious Straits of Malacca, I finished a second draft and some introductory material. (48)
What better state than a hallucinatory one to work on Borges, after all? Here we can see an easy and, indeed, perfectly organic homeostasis between the critical and the autobiographical. And why not? Doesn’t every work of criticism double as a kind of memoir for its author? Aren’t all our best, most creative ideas haunted, in a sense, by the manifold life experiences that brought them into being? Indeed, Toswell’s book succeeds because of the work she does to show us this same trend in Borges’s writing, the way his lifelong fascination with medievalism overflowed into his criticism, fiction, and poetry.

Chapter five, “Borges the Fabulist,” (which also begins with another anecdote from Toswell’s life) continues to make the point that a more holistic, more in-depth appreciation for Borges’s medievalism makes us better readers of his writing in general and, in this case, his short fiction in particular. Toswell’s treatments of stories like, “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” “Brodie’s Report,” and especially “Funes, The Memorious” (Funes, El Memorioso, also translated to English as “Funes, His Memory”), open up new sightlines for close reading and interpretation. In this last story, Toswell focuses on the themes of memory and of organizing knowledge. Borges, she reminds us, was, among many other things, a professional librarian (73). For Toswell, the character of Ireneo Funes, a Uruguayan son of a washerwoman who is bucked off a horse, crippled, and emerges from this horrible ordeal with a total recall memory, stands in for Pliny, whose Historia Naturalis Funes borrows, early in the story, from our first-person narrator, Bernardo Juan Francisco. “Organizing knowledge, and getting it set in place so that all of humanity would be properly organized to worship God: these were typical medieval preoccupations, and Borges would have known it” (73). Furthermore, Toswell adds that, “The short story depends heavily on Pliny’s Historia Naturalis, a natural history rediscovered and copied in the medieval period, and its dependence on Pliny is remarkably medieval” (73). The themes of memory and knowledge so prevalent in this story can be found throughout Borges’s prose fiction writing. Toswell’s work here is to uncover and correctly identify an outsized vein of thematic content in those writings that was inspired by medievalism and its outsized presence in Borges’s imaginative life.

Chapter six of the book functions as a conclusion, encapsulating all that has come before it by, once again, splitting Borges three ways: poet, scholar, and writer of prose fiction. For those of us who have read and taught Borges, Toswell’s book may offer an uncanny sense of encountering an old friend under new circumstances, a mix of the strange and the familiar. For scholars of medieval studies who have yet to read Borges, Toswell’s analysis of how Borges used (and, in a sense, lived) medievalism will serve as a sustained and earnest argument for why you should do so immediately.

Daniel de Paula Valentim Hutchins
Texas Tech University