Abstract

Recent postcolonial criticism has understood Guthlac’s legend as reflecting a nascent sense of Anglo-Saxon colonial aspiration, with the Mercian saint a successful embodiment of Anglo-Saxon land conquest over native British resistance. This article argues that the Old English poem Guthlac A does not easily fit this pattern but rather depicts both the land and its possession in more ambivalent ways. While other texts of the Guthlac legend do contain relatively straightforward narratives of land reclamation and demon conquest, Guthlac A provides no clear political agenda or allegory but instead depicts a contested landscape whose ambiguity undermines the potential for latent reflections of Anglo-Saxon hegemony. Guthlac A uniquely places conflicting conditions of ownership upon the contested beorg, complicating the process of its repossession, while this space is also depicted as simultaneously forbidding and congenial to both Guthlac and the demons throughout the poem, making the saint’s role as an agent of its manifest physical transformation far less clear. At every turn, the ambiguity of the landscape in this poem undermines the potential for colonial desires, as does the poem’s aversion to the violence of Guthlac’s past career as a warrior. I suggest that if this poem has any political context, it reflects Guthlac’s origins in Mercia, the Anglo-Saxon kingdom that saw its spatial boundaries and political allegiances shifting the most rapidly and unpredictably.

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