26 August 2007

Scops, skalds and poets

Scalds or skalds were Scandinavian/Icelandic, scops were from the Germanic traditions that came to Britain and bard was the term used in Ireland. Minstrels came to England with the Conqueror from France. Legend has it that The Conqueror's minstrel Tallifer begged and was allowed to strike the first blow against the English at Hastings.

Scopas composed verses to the harp and chanted or sang their material to a listening audience. Since the different races mixed in the land we now call the United Kingdom, the techniques of each tradition filtered down in to the rich heritage we now call Anglo-Saxon poetry, and anyone interested in writing might find pleasure in dipping into a poem like Beowulf.

Because the stories were told over and over, listeners knew the storyline. Their pleasure came from the skill of the scop. They would appreciate elaboration in descriptions of banquets, armour and weapons and appreciate being able to hear Hrothgar's footsteps, Grendel's scream and the chink and jingle of a mail-shirt.

Metaphor is endemic. The sun is the sky's candle. The dragon is night's alone-flyer. To refer to a battle as sword-play is characteristic of the grim humour that still pervades the north of England. Complex sentences suddenly end on a simple half-line, as in these few lines about the dragon:
He had poured out fire and flame upon the people,
He had put them to the torch; he trusted now to the barrow's walls and to his fighting strength; his faith misled him.
Some of it will seem gruesome to our eyes and ears:
Let him raise the lament then,
a song of sorrow, while his sons hangs there,
a sport for the ravens.
And some of it is beautiful:
The riders are sleeping,
The heroes in the grave. The harp does not sound,
There is no laughter in the yard as there used to be of old.
He goes then to his couch, keens the lament
For his one son alone there; too large now seem to him
His houses and fields.
Any edition of Old English Poetry will give you an overview of the techniques of the verse, should you be interested; but I'm not suggesting you get bogged down in terms like metonymy and alliterative measures. Only that you dip into and enjoy! I'd love to have picked a beautiful picture of a dragon, too, but I'm so wary of infringing anyone's copyright that I decided against it.

Jen Black
The Banners of Alba
Dark Pool


Carrie Lofty said...

I enjoyed studying the differences classical works based on geography. Homer? Always talking about how beautiful Greece is. "Now when the child of morning, rosy-fingered Dawn, appeared...." You don't get that sort of glowing account of the sun from Beowulf!

Michelle Styles said...

A very interesting post, Jen.

I agree that studying things like the Icelandic sagas can really give one a taste for the metaphor.

And Homer is great as well.
One thing that I always find intriguing is how much of the story is embellished history and how much is pure legend.
I explore this a bit in the Viking's Conquest (I think that is the title they decided on), but it is a subject that fascinates me.
For example the whole business of Troy.

Jen Black said...

I agree the hazy line that divides myth and reality in northern literature is part of the compulsion, and I like the way inanimate things are treated as animate, too.


Sandra Schwab said...

Jen, I love medieval lit! And I love BEOWULF -- the imagery is just so beautiful. During my year in Galway, I took a course in OE, and one of my classmates did the greatest readings of OE lit: he rolled his "R"s and lent the lines a musical, lilting quality. Enough so to give me goosebumps! :)

Jen Black said...

Sandra, I wish I;d been there to hear it with you! I'm offering a download of my book on karenfindoutaboutbooks - not that I can compete with OE masterpieces, but you might be interested! Message 60270

Rosemary Morris said...


Have you ever read the gret Indian classic The Ramayana?

It is the story of Lord Rama, born to set the example of a perfect king and perfect husband. It is one of my favourite comfort reads and everytime I read it I find something new to enjoy.

I've also got the sub titled video series. To watch it, workers in India down tools,

All the best,
Rosemary Morris