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Runic Dictionary

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(Vol. VIII. Poetry in the fornaldarsǫgur > 7. Introduction > 7. Structure, style and diction of fornaldarsaga poetry > 7.2. Poetic Diction)

7.2. Poetic Diction

Below the level of the genres of poetry to be found in fornaldarsögur it is possible to identify particular types of conventional scenes or settings, such as battle scenes, sea voyages, or meetings between a hero and a supernatural being, and, within such scenes, smaller compositional units, such as meeting or challenge formulas or lists of heroes. On the whole particular types of scene are expressed stylistically by means of particular levels of poetic diction, ranging from a high style, often characterised by the use of kennings (and less commonly heiti), through a medium to plain style, appropriate to narratives recounting heroic action, to a low style, employing vocabulary whose register includes terms of abuse or references to menial household tasks. Very many of these units of composition and their accompanying levels of diction are also evident in the corpus of the Poetic Edda, especially in the heroic poems, where correspondences are frequent. Lexical parallels with the Helgi poems (Helgakviða Hundingsbana I and II (HHund I, HHund II) and HHj) are particularly evident and this has been detailed both in the Notes to the editions in this volume and in many places in Kommentar, Volumes IV-VI.

Generally speaking, the diction of fornaldarsaga poetry descriptive of battles, single combat or other forms of fighting between human heroes resembles that of poems of the Codex Regius collection like Atlakviða (Akv) and Hamðismál (Hamð): the style is largely straightforward, employing a heroic vocabulary that emphasises themes of courage in the face of death, loyalty, prudence and a desire for fame. The poem often called Hlǫðskviða from Heiðr (Heiðr 87-119), the dialogue between King Hálfr and Innsteinn (Innkv, Hálf 14-37), and the combat between Hjálmarr and Ǫrvar-Oddr and twelve berserks on the island of Samsø (Ǫrv 5-12) use this register. Much of the descriptive vocabulary of these poems highlights the material accompaniments of the heroic life: emphasis falls on mead- or ale-drinking in the hall, gold rings, weapons and armour. There are some kennings, especially for the topics of ruler and weapons, but they are not especially frequent.

A variation on the pattern of a hero’s physical fight with one or more human opponents is the mannjafnaðr ‘comparison of men’ and the senna ‘flyting’, in which verbal duelling replaces actual physical aggression. Appropriately, as the fighting is with words, not deeds, the opponents glorify their own acts of bravery in a register that is medium to high, while vilifying their opponents in the language of abuse, with frequent terms of insult or reference to demeaning activities, like lolling around in the kitchen or having sexual intercourse with maid-servants. Ǫrv 34-58 is the main example of this type in the fornaldarsaga corpus.

Fornaldarsaga poetry based on the compositional unit of an encounter between a human hero and a supernatural being is usually classifiable as a senna and employs a kind of diction that combines a vocabulary descriptive of extreme physical aggression on the part of the otherworld being and, on the part of the hero figure, taunting and abuse directed towards the aggressor. Unsurprisingly, a low register is often employed in these exchanges, though we also find a few kennings, especially for giantesses. Unlike human-to-human combat, in which both parties are male, many of the encounters of this type are between male heroes and giantesses or troll-women. The examples of this type are plentiful: GrL 1-5 (Grímr, Feima and Kleima); Ket 14-24 (Ketill and Forað); HjǪ 3-10 (Hjálmþér and Vargeisa), HjǪ 11-21 (Hjálmþér, Ǫlvir and various sea-ogresses); StSt 1-2 (Sturlaugr and pagan priestesses); Ǫrv 59-70 (the Bjálkaland episode, Oddr versus Gyðja). In the last two examples, the paganism of the hero’s opponents is stressed, though it is not an issue elsewhere. One apparent exception to the male to female paradigm of this group is the combat between Ketill hœngr and the Saami ruler Gusi in Ket 3-12; it could be argued, however, that here Gusi’s status as a member of an ‘outsider’ ethnic group puts him on the same level as troll-women and other supernatural females.

A variation on the meeting between a hero and a supernatural being is the encounter between a heroic figure and foolish country folk in Gautr 1-6, the Dalafíflar ‘Valley-fools’ episode, where the stanzas are all spoken by the Dalafíflar, whose register is appropriately low, employing everyday vocabulary and semi-proverbial sayings. Another variation on the same basic pattern, with an interesting inversion of the gender stereotyping of the base format, is the encounter between Hervǫr and her father, the draugr ‘revenant’ Angantýr, in Heiðr 25-47. Here the diction emphasises both the design for terror of the setting, describing opening grave mounds, strange noises and burning fires, and at the same time Hervǫr’s resolve to obtain the cursed sword Tyrfingr, referred to in several repeated kennings (Heiðr 36/9, 39/2 and 45/4).

It has been mentioned already in Section 7.1 that the ævikviða within the fornaldarsaga corpus displays consistent structural and thematic features. These shape the ways in which some of the compositional units described in the present section actually function. Because the ævikviða is always retrospective, and because the speaker is invariably a former fighting man, it is inevitable that ævikviður relate accounts of battles that took place long ago, which the speaker recollects, if not in tranquillity, then at the point of acceptance of his fate. This is the basic situation which the poet of Krm capitalises on with his insistent refrain Hjuggu vér með hjörvi ‘We hewed with the sword’ through stanzas full of descriptions of bloody battles, slain enemies (many named) and places (also named) where the battles occurred. This pattern can also be seen, with variations, in Ásm 1-6 (Hildibrandr’s death-song), ÓStór 4-12 (Ásbjörn’s ævikviða), Ǫrv 13-29 (Hjálmarr’s death-song), Ǫrvar-Oddr’s Ævidrápa (Ǫrv 71-141) and Starkaðr’s Víkarsbálkr (Gautr 9-41).

In terms of diction, the poetry in Frið and Ragn deserves special mention, as it did in Section 7.1 above. In both cases the stanzas appear in the sagas as groups of lausavísur rather than as long poems. In Frið, however, the stanzas numbered 2-18 in the present edition display certain features of a long poem, in that they are thematically interconnected. The vivid descriptions of Friðþjófr, his men and the semi-animate ship Elliði, struggling against the power of the rough, cold sea, conveyed through the use of descriptive adjectives (svellvífaðar Sólundar ‘the ice-covered Sula islands’ 3/7, 8; hrímfaxaðar hrannir ‘the rime-maned waves’ 6/1, 3) and a number of kennings (e.g. 8/4 brekka svana ‘the hillside of swans [wave]’), are interwoven with equally affecting references to Friðþjófr’s love for Ingibjǫrg, whom he has been forced to leave behind, and his fears that she will be married off to King Hringr. The storm at sea, which has been caused by two troll-women, is sexualised as the destructive being Rán, who tries to drag seafarers down to her bed on the sea floor, and this scenario is contrasted with Friðþjófr’s heart-felt but frustrated fantasies of having intercourse with Ingibjǫrg (this is made explicit in Frið 11). Whoever composed this sequence of lausavísur implicitly and very effectively turned the compositional unit of the encounter of the hero with otherworld beings on its head and combined it with a romantic interest that is absent from most earlier fornaldarsögur.

The diction of Ragn, like its structure and metrical form, stands out from the other sagas of the fornaldarsaga corpus, though some of the remarks to be made about it apply also to Krm, and suggest that the subjects of both works, Ragnarr loðbrók, his wives and his sons, hold the key to understanding why Ragn is so different from other fornaldarsögur. It is the assumed status of Ragnarr as a king and progenitor of many well-known Icelanders of the historical period that has probably influenced the composers of both Ragn and Krm to adapt a prestigious and courtly metrical form (variants of dróttkvætt) and a high stylistic register employing many kennings and other circumlocutions.

The distribution of kennings in Ragn shows clearly how these literary ornaments are used to aggrandise the hero, Ragnarr, and his son, Sigurðr ormr-í-augu ‘Snake-in-eye’, through whom some Icelandic families claimed descent. The first cluster of kennings, for the serpent that Ragnarr slew in his youth, occurs in st. 1. In the stanzas (2-6) that describe how Ragnarr and Kráka (later revealed as Áslaug) first meet, Kráka’s language is simple and unadorned, while Ragnarr’s is characterised by his use of several kennings for ‘king’ to describe himself (3a/2, 3; 4/7, 8). Later (sts 8-10) there is another kenning-cluster around the subject of the preternaturally bright eyes of Sigurðr, a trait often associated with dominance and rulership (cf. Marold 1998a). Several of the kennings emphasise Sigurðr’s descent through his mother’s family as niðr Buðla ‘the descendant of Buðli’ (9/7). The importance of Áslaug in the rest of the saga and its stanzas is conveyed more by their emphasis on her role as a whetter of her sons to take revenge for the various misfortunes that have befallen them than by specific ornaments of diction.

It remains to comment more generally on the use of the kenning in fornaldarsaga poetry. (Kennings in the corpus as a whole are discussed in the General Introduction to SkP I, lxx-lxxxv and in Section 7, ‘Poetic Diction’ of the Introduction to SkP III). Almost all kennings in fornaldarsögur are of the simple variety; tvíkent ‘doubly modified’ or ‘doubly paraphrased’ kennings are encountered infrequently but rekit ‘driven, i.e. extended’ kennings never. Most kenning referents are for the usual topics of skaldic verse, including warrior, prince/king, giant/troll and giantess/troll-woman, battle, weapons, ships and the sea. Within these kennings, poets used a number of mythological or legendary base-words and determinants: valkyrie-names are quite frequent as constituents of battle-kennings, for example (see the Index of Mythical, Legendary and Biblical Names). There are also a number of woman-kennings, particularly in the later poetry.

A large number of kennings in fornaldarsögur conform to standard kenning patterns, and the notes to individual editions usually refer to Meissner’s categories for comparison. However, in some probably later texts, certain irregularities are found, at least in terms of classical skaldic diction. These may involve an unusual choice of either base-word or determinant (e.g. veigarskorð ‘the prop of drink [WOMAN]’, ÞJ 1/3, where skorð ‘prop’ is often found in rímur as the base-word of a woman-kenning, but less often in skaldic verse), or the use of a word in an unusual sense (e.g. mellur Hrungnis ‘the female lovers of Hrungnir [GIANTESSES]’, GrL 5/6), where mella means ‘giantess’ in earlier Icelandic, but obviously must have a different sense here, as this kenning as a whole denotes a giantess).

In general, kennings in fornaldarsaga poetry function as literary devices to raise the stylistic register and emphasise dramatic or otherwise important parts of the poetic narrative. They are by no means evenly distributed throughout the corpus, but cluster in groups corresponding to high points of a saga narrative or a group of stanzas. This kind of clustering is also exemplified in the two Merlínusspá poems by Gunnlaugr Leifsson, which we are able to date to the late twelfth or very early thirteenth century, based on what is known of the author’s life. While much of Gunnlaugr’s narrative follows Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Latin prose text rather closely and is straightforwardly direct in style, he uses a sprinkling of kennings throughout, especially those for ruler, (generous) man and prophet on the one hand, and battle, weapons and armour on the other, to focus upon the many actors and events in Geoffrey’s history of Britain. As Russell Poole observes in his edition in this volume, there are two places, one in each poem, where Gunnlaugr abandons his restrained use of kennings, and piles them on thickly, together with a series of short clauses describing battle scenes, in Merl I 65-9 and Merl II 33-6. Here he is undoubtedly following traditional skaldic practices.

One final issue in the study of poetic diction in fornaldarsögur concerns the question of whether fornaldarsaga poets directly imitated existing Old Norse poems in other, and presumably earlier, text corpora. It has often been claimed (and details of individual arguments will be found in the notes to this edition) that some poetry shows the direct influence of specific works in the corpus outside the fornaldarsögur; for example, the influence of Vsp upon Merl and of RvHbreiðm HlIII upon Krm. Some of these arguments are plausible and may be significant for several reasons: of dating, provenance and authorial intention. Others are harder to evaluate, as stylistic similarities, even extending to similarities in vocabulary, may be part of a more general influence of similar compositional units or themes upon different poets and not the result of the specific influence of one poem upon another.

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