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Nors-Epc-Vrse-art - 5/28/10


"Norse Epic Verse: the nitty-gritty on sounds" by Lady Ingeborg bildsbriótr Ulfsdottir.


NOTE: See also the files: medvl-poetry-lnks, poetry-msg, p-songs-msg, P-Polit-Songs-art, song-sources-msg, Sextain-art, Iambic-Pent-art, On-Mad-Songs-art.





This article was submitted to me by the author for inclusion in this set of files, called Stefan's Florilegium.


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Thank you,

Mark S. Harris...AKA:..Stefan li Rous

stefan at florilegium.org



Norse Epic Verse: the nitty-gritty on sounds

by Ingeborg bildsbriótr Ulfsdottir


You may have noticed or been told that in some poetry such as Old English, Anglo-Saxon, or Norse, a consonant pops out a few times in a row, before it switches to a new consonant sound.  I confess, personally I had to have it pointed out, because whenever I heard something read in one of those languages, the analytical side of my brain shut off, and I just went "Ooooh, preeetyyy."


So you've heard of "Alliterative Verse", and wondered if they just threw in a lot of 'f's and 'h's?  Behold: there is a pattern!  Like in most pre-free verse, tossing techniques around randomly was considered decidedly odd.  Before we touch that, though, there are a couple of definitions to be gotten out of the way.  Don't run off, now, the definitions are just long because I'm trying to be clear rather than just assume you know what I'm talking about.  After all, I'm not writing this for people who already know what I'm trying to share. (Though of course, they're welcome to read, too.)  I recommend perusing the article slowly, (skimming could be painfully confusing) and re-reading the definitions a couple of times before going on, at least if you're not already familiar with their concepts.  


Vowel sound: those sounds made by a, e, i, o, u, and sometimes y, (including funny spellings of these sounds, such as ee, oo, ie, ei, ou, ue, ough, ae, or what have you.)  This applies even when the vowel is preceded by a silent consonant (such as at the beginning of the word 'honor') because we're concerned with the sound rather than spelling.


Consonant sound:  single sounds made by letters other than vowels.  Silent letters, as the k of kn and p of ps when they begin a word, don't count.  Note that single sounds are not always spelled with just one letter, as is the case with ph, ng, th, ch, sh, and whatever else I may be forgetting.  (By the way, for the purpose of consonant sound,  ph=f,   hard c=k,  soft c=s).  In period some of what modernly are different sounds weren't; k could be =ch.  Since I don't speak period forms of languages though, I'm gonna relegate those rules to hanging out with ø, and å, by which I mean far, far away from me.


Stressed syllable: a word, or part of a word, that is either more important than those sounds around it, or else is just given more oomph.  Have you heard the old joke about "putting the emPHAsis on the wrong sylLABle?"  The silliness is that the way we pronounce them is "EMphasis" and "SYLlable," because those are the syllables that are stressed when speaking those words. (Sometimes it can be hard to tell where a stress is; a former English teacher once told me that if you need help finding it out, put your hand under your jaw, and the part of the word or phrase that makes your jaw move the most is usually the one with the most stress.)  If you're just reading poetry instead of writing it, you don't need to be able to say, "this is stressed and that is unstressed" as long as you know how to pronounce the word.


Unstressed syllable: a word, or part of a word, that is either less important than those sounds around it, or else is just given less oomph.  The -ten of KITten, com- and -ter of comPUter.  If the vowel sound in the word or syllable is uh, then you can almost bet it's unstressed.


Naturally stressless words: okay, I made this particular term up, but the concept is valid.  Unless you're saying something unusual, there will never be stress on words like as, an, or, for, of, on, a, and, one-syllable words that just aren't very important in and of themselves, that need other words to have useful meaning.


Alliteration: words where the same consonant sound starts the stressed syllables; or where there is no consonant sound beginning the stressed syllables (they are begun with any vowel sound).  

Contrary to popular belief, it need not necessarily be the first letters of words to alliterate.  While favor and fling alliterate, so do favor and defense, as the latter is pronounced 'deFENSE' and that F is the same initial sound as 'FAvor.'


Words whose stressed syllables begin with a vowel sounds are considered alliterating. For instance, eager and orphan alliterate.


Also note: for this type of poetry, sp, st, and sk are each treated as being unique sounds, rather than as other starting-with-s-sounds are.  Spear only alliterates with another word beginning with the sound sp, such as spade. No clumps of letters besides sp, st, and sk are important for alliteration; for example, crash goes perfectly well with course though one starts with cr and another with c, because the r of cr is seen as a separate sound.


I am now done with poetic convention/figure of speech definitions. (Whew.)


Fornyrðislag is one type of Norse poetry, and considered rather mystical and profound.  It's basically the same as what Beowulf was written in, and along with a few other Norse forms is very similar to what the more southern Germanic peoples used as alliterative verse.  However, what would in Old German or Old English poetry be a single line made of two "half-lines" (having an imaginary divider right down the middle):


We wandered wearily home.


is written in Old Norse poetry as two lines.


We wandered

wearily home.


Since this poetry wasn't normally written down anyway, I'm not entirely sure what difference that makes.  Unstressed syllable patterns may vary between languages, but it seems the academics are still arguing about those.  Let's leave them to it.


So I'll stick with explaining fornyrðislag.  The basic premise: a unit is made of two lines, which have two stressed syllables each.  The first stressed syllable in the first line must alliterate with the first stressed syllable in the second line.  It's also standard and elegant if the stressed syllables in the first line alliterate together, but not entirely necessary.   A stanza is eight lines long, which is four line-pairs.  And at kingdom A&S Mikal the Ram told me that the rhythm of the line should generally be like the lift and dip of oars: lift, dip, lift, (dip), ie, stressed bit, unstressed bit, stressed bit, optional unstressed bit.


That's it!  Seems silly that it only takes a paragraph to give the rules for the poetic form when it took two pages to explain the poetic devices.  If you want to stop reading now, you may be content to know that you have a basic idea why things alliterate where they do.  If you're like me and want to play with putting poems together, I'll run something like a walkthrough, so stick with me if you will; it's not the most clearly organized because I wrote what I thought as it came into my head, to show how the process works for me personally. (Individual results may vary.  Common side effects include headache and fatigue, and homicidal mania.  Ask your doctor if Fornyrðislag is right for you.)


Something simple: "My name is Nancy".  That would be an excellent first line; my NAME is NANcy.  It has two stressed syllables, and both of them start with an 'n' sound.  


So we have, "My name is Nancy."  The second line of our poem needs to also have two stresses, with the first being on an 'n' sound, and the sound for the second stress can be anything.  


Remember what I said in my definition of stressed syllables, about a stress being a word that gets more oomph?  Sometimes a few words in a row are treated as unstressed because nearby words are so important.  For instance, in looking at a line, "I followed him home," the stress would be, "i FOLlowed him HOME." ('him' is unstressed.)  If I said, "Give it to him," the stress would be, "GIVE it to HIM."  ('him' is stressed, though less than 'give'.) See how stress depends on the meaning of the line, and the importance of the words around it?


But neither of those phrases would work as the second line in our poem, because neither FOL nor GIVE alliterate with NAME.  What I'd like to use is, "and I know where you live."  If you try saying the phrase aloud, you should notice yourself stressing "and I KNOW where you LIVE" (unless something said earlier makes it clear that 'where' is an important word, like if you said, "I don't KNOW HOW you live, but I KNOW WHERE you live.")


So then, could I use "and I know where you live" as my second line, to follow "My name is Nancy?"  'Know' begins with the same consonant sound as 'Nancy' so that part's fine, but now I just realized in saying the line aloud, that speaking, I would stress the words 'I' 'know' and 'live,' which makes one stress too many.  Too bad; I liked that idea.  I'll just have to find another way to get across the same sense.  In this case, I could just chop the line in half, and begin a new line-pair with the second part of it:


My name is Nancy

and I know

where you live


"WHERE you LIVE" is fine, but "and I know" wouldn't work, because while there are now only two stresses in that line, the first stress of our second line would be on I, which doesn't alliterate with NANcy the way KNOW does.  Maybe reversing "I know?"


My name is Nancy

and know I

where you live


but that inverted syntax thing comes out sounding really strange, since there's nothing to distract the reader from its oddness.  What we need is something that'll strike the reader as at least being less unusual than it is now.  "Know I well," that's better, it's something you might actually hear, because people sometimes speak or write that way to create emphasis; it doesn't sound much more unusual than "Well I know."  Notice that now 'I' isn't emphasized in this phrase, both because 'know' and 'well' are more important, and because there are no small stressless words nearby to contrast it with.



My name is Nancy.

and know I well

where you live


I'm happy with the first line-pair now, so we just need to finish the second.  If we were making a full stanza it would be four line-sets instead of two, but I don't really want to.  Regardless, just as individual lines should be their own parts of thoughts, [i.e.


Him.  To Be


is not a great line even though it has two stresses, because it's a run-on.] the fourth line ought to finish the thought.  Or at least a sentence.  Whatever we choose, the first stressed syllable needs to start with a 'w' sound.  I'm coming up blank on any way to make that make sense.  I have now learned something that never occurred to me: it's easier to write about something rather than just trying to put words together.  Where, why, live, die, okay, now Nancy's dying, and it'll be


why you live

while I die.


Checking it over for stresses: "WHY you LIVE/WHILE i DIE" yes, two in each line, first of each alliterating.


My name is Nancy,

and know I well

Why you live

while I die.


Spooky, eh?  Maybe intriguing.  As a bonus, it's pretty cool the way the lines slant shorter each time, not that it'd be noticeable when recited.


Now, go forth, and play with words!




Bjorklund, Beth. "German Prosody." The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, Ed. Alex Preminger and T. V. F. Brogan. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1993.


Deane, Paul. "A Field Guide to Alliterative Poetry." Forgotten Ground Regained. 2000. http://alliteration.net/fieldgd.htm


Lindow, John. "Old Norse Poetry." The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, Ed. Alex Preminger and T. V. F. Brogan. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1993.


Malcavotti, Leonardo. "Versification," "Nordic Prosody," and "Alliterative Verse." Arnaut & Karkur's ultimate online prosody resource  (as a book, Prosody in England and Elsewhere: A Comparative Approach.) http://www.trobar.org/prosody/


Ringler, Dick. "Strophic Forms." Formal Features of Jónas Hallgrímsson's Poetry. 1996-8. http://www.library.wisc.edu/etext/Jonas/Prosody/Prosody-I.html#ref37


With Rauðr's gracious permission, (and in a spirit of fun) I present my humble effort of fornyrðislag:




Chief of Chieftains

Chosen by tourney,

Cried the herald:

"Your King requires you

Great, good folk

Gather near thrones:

Hearken, hear,

Heed His voice."


Populace gather,

People curious.

Wondering what he

Wished to proclaim.

Stood our King,

Steadfast Tristram,

Surveying vassals

With veiled pride.


"Brave Our Warriors

Bold of Heart,

Great the Glory

Gained for Kingdom.

Hallowed Huscarls

Held on high,

Fierce in Battle

Foeman's bane.


Find we One

Fyrdman Worthy

Field an Axe

defending King.

We request, require,

Command, demand,

To honor Skill,

Ottarsson Rauðr!"


Gentles, comrades

Adjudged him ready

Sought sight

Of son of Ottar.

Waited in gladness

Watched for new Huscarl

Without appearance

By Ottarsson Rauðr.


Thundered Sovereign,

"Thrice be-damned man!

Not ten minutes

Taken leave,

Our High Hall

He was in.

Where is Our Fyrdman;

Why gone?"


Tremulous voice

Tiny after

King's bellow

Cut through crowd:

"Dread Lord,

Deep apologies:

I pale to tell

He parted to nap."


Our King stilled,


Turned with dignity

Toward His people.

"Nothing else

Now to Effect.

Scatter, Subjects;

Silence, this Matter."

Sun set.

Soon after

Flocked the Court

In front of thrones.

Celebrate service:

Several gained titles;

Swans and Torses

Settled on chests.


Rex Tristram

Rose up.

To silent subjects

Sent His voice,

Visage stern.

"Vexed your King,

Waxes Wroth

Your Wondrous Queen.


Huscarls, seize

Him who Dared

Offend Us."

Furious Huscarls

Dove in droves

Down, around,

After erring

Ottarsson Rauðr.


Grabbing arms

Grabbing legs

Over his dismay

Airward raising

One leg dragging

Liegemen fetching,

To fling down

At foot of King.


Steadfast Tristram

Stared at captive,

Deigning at last

Address the man.

"Three hours

They attendant

Knew what you

Knew not.


Huscarl's title

Have you held,

But you'd left lists

Left king.

First feat:

Falling asleep.

Earned are epithets,

Earned you have.


We bequeath a nomen

To keep until

Effort earns

Else: "Sleeper."

Chieftains Court

Cheering deafening,


Warrior rose.



February, Anno Societatis XLI

2007 Gregorian


The author is glad to offer her article and/or poetry and/or essay for use in any non-profit (unless you pay royalties... ;) endeavor, providing her authorship is acknowledged.  If her work is to be used outside an SCA context, she asks that her modern name, Caitlin Johnoff, be affixed.  If possible, the author would like to be notified at alianoraree at yahoo.com if any of her work is used, so that she can do a happy bouncy dance.  Questions (or corrections) should be forwarded to the same email address.  "Ottarssonssong" is seperable from the article.


Copyright 2007 by Caitlin Johnoff. <alianoraree at yahoo.com>.


If this article is reprinted in a publication, I would appreciate a notice in the publication that you found this article in the Florilegium. I would also appreciate an email to myself, so that I can track which articles are being reprinted. Thanks. -Stefan.


<the end>

Formatting copyright © Mark S. Harris (THLord Stefan li Rous).
All other copyrights are property of the original article and message authors.

Comments to the Editor: stefan at florilegium.org