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Author Topic: Riddles in the Dark Ages  (Read 8108 times)

Bowerthane

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Riddles in the Dark Ages
« on: April 29, 2017, 02:12:35 PM »
“Tolkien from The Hobbit onwards follows Chesterton in presenting the human ( or creaturely) person as a duality.  His own approach to paradox relies greatly on Anglo-Saxon literature and its pleasure in using ‘kennings’, which are mini-riddles or condensed metaphors that render the known new and significant: for example, ‘the swan’s riding-place’ for the sea, ‘peace-weaver’ for wife.  On a larger scale Anglo-Saxon and other Northern literature was full of riddle poems or games, in which an object was described in a number of strange ways, or by reference to a variety of disparate and conflicting categories.”


That is from Chesterton and Tolkien as Theologians subtitled the Fantasy of the Real by Alison Milbank ( T&C Clark 2007, ISBN-10: 0-567-04094-1) that I’ve just taken back to the library.  What piqued my curiosity is this idea of Old English kennings being mini-riddles, of the same cultural stable that produced the just-plain riddles we all know from the Exeter Book and elsewhere.  Am I a Johnny-come-lately to this idea, as it does seem rather obvious with only a little thought, so naturally I’m curious as to whether other ġesíþas have come across it, know it well or whether Alison Milbank has had a much better insight than she seems to realise.  Is this another of those occasions when our very familiarity with Old English history can blind us, needing something like that neatly trepanned skull from c. 1040 to remind us how little we know?

My confession is it certainly hadn’t occurred to me.  Yet as I say, how surprised should we be that kennings and riddles are all that survives of a culture in which word-play took many forms, now lost?

* * *

One other little thing.  Milbank recounts an “anecdote of Canon Norman Power” according to whom, “After a talk at Worcester College, Oxford, Tolkien is reported as having emptied his pockets to retrieve a long soft piece of lizard skin, which he claimed was the shoe of a leprechaun.”

So I’m also curious if any ġesíþas have any more information about this, or as to whether Professor Tolkien “really did believe in dragons and fairies.”



_____________________________________________________________________________
 The moral right of the author to be identified as the solution to Riddle Seventy-Four in the Exeter Book has been asserted.


Eanflaed

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Re: Riddles in the Dark Ages
« Reply #1 on: April 29, 2017, 02:51:11 PM »
Kennings are just one of those things that we accept without thinking about, they are widespread in our literature I guess. It's nice to think they are an echo of AS culture. It just takes someone like Ms Milbank to realise the obvious and put it in context. I think we can use this info when we do our displays to the public and are telling people how alive AS culture still is. I always say our national sense of humour comes from our AS forebears (can't imagine the Normans having a giggle)!


Talking of humour, I read your story of Tolkein's leprechaun shoe as a joke, until I read your next paragraph. But I can't believe that he believed in fairies and dragons, he being an educated man and all. I do believe he might have had some people on though! But then, perhaps there are really fairies and dragons and it's me who's in the wrong...

David

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Re: Riddles in the Dark Ages
« Reply #2 on: April 29, 2017, 05:27:33 PM »
I must admit that I see literature from a different viewpoint to you.
 
The only Anglo-Saxon riddles I know are in the Exeter Book. There are proverbs elsewhere. Kennings have been described as mini-riddles elsewhere and I would appreciate them as such. It would be interesting to have a page of kennings and see what people thought they meant. Just like the riddles in the Exeter Book I think that a lot of people would be left scratching their heads when told the “correct” answers.
 
For me kenning in poetry in just another way the poets have to obscure what they are talking about. Other ways are using uncommon and made up words, changing words and missing some out and changing the word order. When someone spends so much effort in trying to make the poem incomprehensible I question whether they have anything worth saying. It is not surprising that the experts cannot agree on the interpretations.

Linden

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Re: Riddles in the Dark Ages
« Reply #3 on: April 29, 2017, 07:10:38 PM »
................... It would be interesting to have a page of kennings and see what people thought they meant. Just like the riddles in the Exeter Book I think that a lot of people would be left scratching their heads when told the “correct” answers.

So here is a short list of what might be termed 'kennings' in Modern English.  How many do people know and how many do you have to look up?  The point is that us modern English folk still do it.  If they appeared in our literature which was then studied a millennium into the future, what would those folk make of them? I'd bet that they would find some of them as head-scratchingly difficult as we find the Anglo-Saxon offerings.

Sawbones
Donkey wallopers
Her indoors
Moneybags
Four-eyes
Chatterbox
Monkey hangers
The little corporal
Auld Reekie
The iron lady
The Pond
The bee's knees
A dog's breakfast
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David

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Re: Riddles in the Dark Ages
« Reply #4 on: April 29, 2017, 08:46:10 PM »
My scores are that I know what 8 of them mean.


I could not work out any of them, not even those whose answer I know.


I am sure that I have used 3 of them and possibly 3 more. However my uses have been rare and only among people who would understand what I am saying. I am very conservative and against people trying to change the language. Unfortunately I am in a minority so Shakespeare sounds strange and confusing, Chaucer sounds foreign and Beowulf completely incomprehensible. It is not so extreme elsewhere,

Eanflaed

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Re: Riddles in the Dark Ages
« Reply #5 on: April 29, 2017, 11:20:52 PM »
I score 10 (I bet not many people south if the Humber will get monkey hangers!). But some cockney rhyming slang might inadvertently qualify as a kenning eg trouble and strife = wife.

But, David, language must be dynamic or it fossilises. Like it or not, it has to change to suit its users. I have read that English has been such a successful language globally because it absorbs lots of foreign words but retains its identity. I'm very proud that it is my native tongue.
« Last Edit: April 29, 2017, 11:23:47 PM by Eanflaed »

David

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Re: Riddles in the Dark Ages
« Reply #6 on: April 30, 2017, 09:03:34 AM »
Languages need to change but I find "dynamic" as bad as fossilized". It is reckoned that a lifetime of a language is about 8 or 9 hundred years. After that it has changed so much that it is considered a new language. Icelandic is conservative, so it is 10 or 11 hundred years, whereas English is dynamic, being about 6 or 7 hundred years. This is not natural. Now, and at several times in the past, we have had people deliberately trying to replace words, pronunciations or meanings. Some people have been in open competition over this. Sometimes both words have been accepted but given different nuances which you could say enriches the language.


I am more embarrassed to say that I knew that strife = wife than I do not know what monkey hangers are. Dialect is perfectly acceptable. However I understand slang as being a code deliberately used so that outsiders do not understand. In cockney slang you get single layers of coding as in "strife" and "yob" but it can go to a second layer as in "butchers". If you consider slang as a kenning then my opinion of kennings has dropped even lower.



« Last Edit: April 30, 2017, 09:07:31 AM by David »

David Dodds

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Re: Riddles in the Dark Ages
« Reply #7 on: July 11, 2017, 11:28:42 AM »
As a new member I've only recently discovered kennings and realised I often use them in modern English - I knew 11 of the list (though I had to remind myself about the meaning of monkey-hangers!).


I work with a team of young adults from across Europe, so I often find myself having to use clear English, and I think clear communication is often an important thing, but I also love our ability to add life, heritage and a little mystery to the way we speak, when it's appropriate to the audience.


My studies of old English are relatively young, but my favourites so far are banhus (bone-house), for body and hranrad (whale-road) for ocean.


A quick Google search revealed the following list of kennings, which includes a lot of wonderful Norse and Icelandic ones. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_kennings). My favourite is blood-icicle for sword, though valley-trout for a serpent has some charm!



Jayson

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Re: Riddles in the Dark Ages
« Reply #8 on: July 11, 2017, 03:54:28 PM »
In the Summer edition of Withowinde, there is very interesting report by Dr Richard Dance on a Sutton Hoo Study Day, 'Vikings in your Vocabulary', which shows how many Scandinavian words we have in both Old and Modern English.   Of course, we know that all come, basically, from the old Germanic language and that we all come, basically, from the same old Germanic people but many people still don't know this or believe it  --  including some of my friends who insist that we English are a 'mongrel' nation with no language or culture of our own!
Wessex Woman

Phyllis

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Re: Riddles in the Dark Ages
« Reply #9 on: July 11, 2017, 07:41:25 PM »
Our family had a fascinating experience some years ago when a relative visited from Switzerland, where she had lived since the 1950s.  She was out of practice with English, of course. but even more interestingly, she simply did not know some "common" words because they post-dated her move abroad. I can't quite remember now, but I think it was either "roundabout" or "ring road" that threw her. It certainly emphasised the speed of change in the modern language - and in this case it wasn't just current slang that would die out within a few years but fairly well embedded vocabulary.

Certainly listening to old films is  increasingly alienating, and more so for my children than me. Equally books I read as a child are as hard for my kids as, say, Black Beauty was when I was little. I'm not clear that this speed is not accelerating, and am in the mood for blaming globalisation. In some respects we may be generating a more widely understood and shared language across t'Interwebs, but it's a stressful experience to live through.

Personally I revel in it most of the time though! Playing with words, making up new ones, is such fun, and definitely part of the appeal of translating into Old English from Modern English, where new words are required for modern terms. I'm pretty sure it's good for my brain, like cryptic crosswords, in warding off dementia too.




Phyllis

Blackdragon

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Re: Riddles in the Dark Ages
« Reply #10 on: July 11, 2017, 07:46:42 PM »
Modern poets and writers still use kennings: Iron Lady, gravy train, Fleet street are all phrases that have popular meanings which are not the literal sense of them. They have become part of modern usage, even if Fleet Street no longer has any newspapers based in it. Which begs the question, did reasonably educated Anglo Saxons know the meanings without having to think tooo much about them, or did they have to decipher each one?

Phyllis

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Re: Riddles in the Dark Ages
« Reply #11 on: July 11, 2017, 08:05:10 PM »
On a related note, I recently fell over the Norse heiði, in particular the sverða heiði which is mesmerising!

heiði are, if I understand it correctly, the "recognised" kennings for skalds. Did the OE scops have similar lists at all?

Or am I going up the wrong path?
Phyllis

Linden

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Re: Riddles in the Dark Ages
« Reply #12 on: July 11, 2017, 10:15:09 PM »
As I understand it, heiti means any name for something that is not its usual name - thus 'Luna', 'Earth's satellite' and 'night-lamp' would all be permissible heitis for 'moon' but only 'night-lamp' is metaphorical and thus only 'night-lamp' in this list is a kenning.

I am not sure where you found the expression 'sverða heiði' but 'sverða' would relate to a sword and I don't think that it is a term for a particular type of heiti - although I could, of course, be wrong.

As for lists of recognised Old Norse kennings, Snorri Sturluson lists hundreds in Skaldskaparmal but I don't think that he states anywhere that these are the only ones permissible - again I could be wrong.

There is no complete list of OE kennings - OE poetry is full of metaphor and people often make new suggestions as to possible metaphorical meanings of poems. There is a nice quote in Craig Williamson's Beowulf and Other Old English Poems - 'A kenning is a special compound that calls a noun something it is not, then modifies it with a contextual clue.'   So - yes - kennings are rather like riddles.
« Last Edit: July 11, 2017, 10:19:09 PM by Linden »
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Phyllis

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Re: Riddles in the Dark Ages
« Reply #13 on: July 16, 2017, 04:45:16 PM »
Many thanks Linden

The sverða heiði was simply a list of kennings for swords read out at the Beowulf & Beer event in York recently; I didn't mean to imply it was specific heiði, but it was entertaining to listen to! It was there that the speaker implied that they were used as lists for skalds to pick from, and again without necessarily excluding others not on the list.

Phyllis