Monday, December 28, 2009

Verbal Duelling in Heroic Narrative: The Homeric and Old EnglishTraditions

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These two monographs illustrate the profitable renewal of formal studies of compositional units and genres informed on the one hand by progress in oral traditional studies, not least in techniques that bridge to the written medium, and enriched on the other by our appreciation of the role of structure in the processes of cognition, memory and information retrieval and of the ritual as performed structure with thereby enhanced ideological content and spiritual reward. Agonistic dialogue in the Germanic tradition has been favored with a number of important studies. These works mark significant advances by aiming, respectively, to situate "flyting" (from Scots; ON senna, Parks's "verbal duel") in a wide cross-cultural literary and extra-literary context and by tracing it and its related expression through indirection, the "comparison of men" (ON mannjafnathr), to quasi-mythical antecedents and existential human relationships.

Parks's study has a pleasing hourglass shape with initial attention to the animal world and to non-European and non-literary socio-biological and cultural contexts and closing identification of the function of the verbal duel in epic and romance and the Implications for genre determination of this conjuncture. Self-advancement in the communal sphere ("glory") makes contention common to animal and human societies, but, as in so much else, it takes two to tangle. Parks is particularly instructive in revealing the contractual nature of war in its various stylized forms, including verbal, and the way in which such contracting limits both the scope and consequences, not always forestalling violence but quantifying it, making it cognitively comprehensible, if not morally desirable, and thereby manageable. One is reminded of the superficially paradoxical claims made for the moderating and containing effects of medieval Icelandic feud and its accompanying arbitration and conciliation mechanisms in the absence of state executive power.

This reminder also prompts some regret that Parks, despite obvious familiarity with early north Germanic evidence, refers to it only in passing in his introductory surroundings and does not bring his conclusions to bear on it in his wider ranging closing review of Indic, Old French, and Middle English evidence. The loss to Scandinavianists, however, is overshadowed by a limitation and a compensatory expansion in the author's treatment of Anglo-Saxon materials The anatomy of the verbal duel is laid fully open in Park's s dissection of the contest between Aineias and Achilles in the Iliad and related type scenes, incidents, and relationships (to these in a taxonomy of weakening formal intensity). Parks identifies components in the battlefield contest pattern as engagement, flyting (eris, contract), trial of arms, and ritual resolution (retrospective speech, symbolic action). The insights ou transfer well to the Old

English world, but the major constraint here, as all recognize, is the limited corpus of epic texts a available for study. The verbal duel between Byrhtnoth and the viking messenger in in The Battle of Maldon is shown to meet the criteria of the author's conventional flyting, but Beowulf is another matter. Beowulf's exchange with the Danish coastal guard and face-off with Hrothgar's retainer Unferth are evolved forms of flyting for different purposes than staking out pathways to future martial interaction or through, the clear dominance of one party, precluding an armed encounter through the unambiguous prior establishment of superiority. Parks elevates the Unferth episode to status representative of a principal sub-type of the verbal duel, the guest-host in contrast to the battlefield variant. But the Geatish stranger and the court functionary do not meet as functional equals, and there is no expectation of their coming to blows. Unferth is an interpellator, who obliges the status-neutral foreigner on the threshold of the hall to identify himself, revalidate earlier exploits (the swimming match with Breca), and, on the fulcrum of this successful dominance of discourse, commit himself to future deeds on behalf of the Danes (serving Unferth's and Hrothgar's ends) and in the interest of further heroic realization (the ends of the character and narrative).

But early Irish evidence is much richer than the oft-repeated reference to The Tale of Mac Datho's Pig would suggest; Bricriu's Feast offers an excellent example of otherwise rare in-group flyting and even its exercise by the heroe's wives. Diodorous almost surely meant that the continental Celts were prone to fighting among themselves, not with visitors (80). The knowledge and compositional contests of Irish poets and Finnic shanians could have made for interesting comparisons with martial flyting. Caist in v. 764 of La Chanson de Roland translates as "let fall" rather than "cast down" (148).

Parks's rich and carefully produced book, in which he contends that "the most important determinants in heroic contest narrative consists not in some fixed and preconceived |pattern' but in the forces that give rise to these contests in the first place" (53), is required reading for all those who would better understand and more deeply analyze early Norse modes and models of verbal contention.

Swenson is such a reader, albeit one ostensibly concerned with pattern and, more particularly, with Parks's adumbrated subject of the simultaneous rejection and "centrality of the feminine in the male-dominated heroic glory objective" (13). She unprofitably exploits agonistic dialogue as a conceit for confrontations between Heusler and Lachmann, between one set of subjectives and another, between the demanding text and the resisting reader, yet the same approach advantageously informs her best pages on the heroic and the monstrous. Insights here are weakly founded in a larger context of poor methodological and editorial strategies. The extensive citation of earlier scholars of European epic should have been left with the doctoral dissertation. Repetitive quotation from and reference to the very same passages from a handful of contemporary scholars is tiresome. The author purportedly takes as base texts only those in which the words senna and mannjafnadr figure (the fallacy that ethnic genre was imperative only when bearing labels). This leaves, for example, Harbardsljod out of consideration, and many other texts are relegated to, and insufficiently contextualized in, an appendix. Swenson then paradoxically uses as raw ore for the refinement of formal genre criteria and her conclusions yet other texts such as Hrimgerdamal and Qvar-Odds saga in which these key terms of "ethnic poetics" are absent and whose verbal exchanges ill fit the dialogue model of duelling as conventionally understood and well explicated by Parks. The latter declined to be caught in a genre bind (e.g., "core topoi in an implied rhetoric of the heroic flyting genre") [104; my emphasis].

Swenson, despite her title (where "insult" does not do justice to much of mannjafnadr) and professed concern for genre, is at base more interested in fundamental male stances--social and orderly before other males, existential and contingent before the female principle. But the latter is too summarily and monolithically equated with alterity, Girard's sacre and scapegoats, and Kristeva's "abject." On a lingiustic analogy the senna is likened to a heroic masculine subject acting transitively on a monstrous feminine object (comparable definition for mannjafnadr). "A senna functions to establish and re-affirm a society by, defining its boundaries; a mannjafnadr functions to define a man's position within that society" (56). By this stage in the development of the book's argument, it is stated that male (self) versus female (other) is the dominant pattern in senna (67). This is simply not true. Much of the terminology of the book ("eddic," "formal," "genre") also evolves with this argument, making slippery ground for the reader.

I will not detail slips in the production aspect of the work, as these are overshadowed by the above mentioned methodological flaws. The portion of Swenson's monograph that will best stimulate further study is her analysis of texts that have relatively little to do with senna and mannjafnadr but do isolate in clear somewhat abstract, light the interaction between male hero and various marginal but powerful female figures--prophetesses, fetches, amazons, giantesses, priestesses, fairy mistresses--in contests over the control of discourse, where more often than not the antagonists, unlike Parks's contractors, are not speaking the same language.

Named Works: Verbal Duelling in Heroic Narrative: The Homeric and Old English Traditions (Book) Book reviews

Source Citation
Sayers, William. "Verbal Duelling in Heroic Narrative: The Homeric and Old English Traditions." Scandinavian Studies 65.2 (1993): 265+. Academic OneFile. Web. 28 Dec. 2009. .

Gale Document Number:A14015275

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