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Kennings

One of the devices integrated in Anglo-Saxon poetry is the kenning, defined in my Oxford English Reference Dictionary as "a compound expression in Old English and Old Norse poetry, e.g., oar-steed = ship. [ME = 'teaching' etc. f. KEN]." The word "kenning" comes from Old Icelandic (the language of the Vikings, pretty much) and originally meant something like "to name after".

The most common example I have come across in reading about kenning is not, in fact, "oar-steed" for ship, but applies to what one would ride that on: "whale-road" for sea. Or, as I noted in a post back in 2006, you could go with something like "wolf-kin" in place of dog.

A kenning is a form of metaphor or metonymy (hold that thought - I'll explain soon), in which one uses multi-word imagery in place of a single word or idea. The best ones make you view something in a new or different way. As blogger Mark Neumayer pointed out in a 2012 post entitled "Kennings are Cool", we use kennings all the time (e.g., "rug-rat", "pie-hole", etc.) in modern parlance, without necessarily thinking of them as such.

Here's a translation of an Old Irish poem, translated by John Montague:

"Gaze North-East"

Gaze north-east
over heaving crest
with sea press
  ceaseless:

seals' road
for sleek sport
the run to
  fulness.

Both "heaving crest" and "seals' road" count as kennings, I would argue - they stand in for the sea. Often, kennings are hyphenated, though these are not. Other times, they are composed of a noun followed by a prepositional phrase, e.g., "storm of swords" to mean battle, or "tapestry of stars" to mean the night sky. They can even be possessive phrases, e.g., "grave's embrace" to mean burial or possibly death.

Kennings are, of course, part of figurative language, and are metaphors - they stand in for the other thing. They night sky is a tapestry of stars, not like one.

In many cases, a kenning can also be metonymy: one thing that is so closely related to another that it represents it. For example, "White House" often stands in for "Office of the President of the United States" - not a kenning, just a definition. But if you use, say, "boots on the ground", it would be a kenning. The phrase stands in for soldiers or troops, and fits the construction of a kenning, as well as being metonymy - soldiers reduced to boots. (And how horrible is that? Politicians reduce real live humans to footwear to make deployment more palatable. Behold the power of words.)

Another look at yesterday's Tolkien poem, "From Dark Dunharrow", since it is a somewhat more modern example of Anglo-Saxon verse, As noted yesterday, it fits the metre and alliterative scheme. This time I post it with an eye out for kennings:

From dark Dunharrow in the dim morning
with thane and captain rode Thengel's son:
to Edoras he came, the ancient halls
of the Mark-wardens mist-enshrouded;
golden timbers were in gloom mantled.
Farewell he bade to his free people,
hearth and high-seat, and the hallowed places,
where long he had feasted ere the light faded.
Forth rode the king, fear behind him,
fate before him. Fealty kept he;
oaths he had taken, all fulfilled them.
Forth rode Théoden. Five nights and days
east and onward rode the Eorlingas
through Folde and Fenmarch and the Firienwood,
six thousand spears to Sunlending,
Mundburg the mighty under Mindolluin,
Sea-kings' city in the South-kingdom
foe-beleaguered, fire-encircled.
Doom drove them on. Darkness took them,
Horse and horseman; hoofbeats afar
sank into silence: so the songs tell us.

I bolded the more obvious kennings, though one could argue (I think successfully) that "six thousand spears" is both descriptive of numbers and at least metonymy (spears stands in for soldiers, similar to "boots on the ground"), and possibly a kenning as well. "High-seat" means throne, but doesn't fit the alliterative system. "Sea-kings' city" refers to Gondor; the kings there were not literally kings of the sea, but kings of a port. "Foe-beleagured" and "fire-encircled" refer to the fact that the city was both under attack and besieged.

Do you ken?


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Comments

( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
TS Davis
Apr. 21st, 2016 07:27 pm (UTC)
I think the picture of Pooh is right on...
"D'ye ken" is what, indeed, I'm TRYING to do! I like these; they're more subtle than metaphor. I like that you're using a LOTR poem; I find that in pursuit of the narrative I never spent as much time on these as I should have, and they're sort of chill-inducing.
kellyrfineman
Apr. 22nd, 2016 02:34 pm (UTC)
Re: I think the picture of Pooh is right on...
I often skipped Tolkien's poems after the first reading, just as I skipped the stuff in Elfish, which would undoubtedly outrage Tolkien, who was a linguist and poet first, so those were actually his favorite bits. (Poor guy.) Then again, lots of folks skipped the poetry in A.S. Byatt's Possession (not me), and thereby missed significant plot points/clues. Those blocks of verse in antiquated forms can be a bit mind-numbing, though, so it's understandable that we skip stuff we don't see/understand the importance of.

This Théoden poem is really boss, isn't it?
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )

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