Monday, December 9, 2019

Ker's "The Dark Ages", Part 3: Homeric Combat

Continued from part 2.

Moving past the Latin, through old English and Saxon, and then to the Norse Eddas, there was a quote that I found interesting:
The [Norse] poets cannot spend time in story-telling.  The persons, their wills and thoughts, are more interesting than their exploits.  The best of the narrative poems, such as the Lay of Thor's Hammer, are comparatively light and simple; where there is a weighty historical matter, such as the fall of the Nibelungs, hardly any space at all is given to the fighting.  The Northern poetry knows not the Homeric method, which is not wanting to the Anglo-Saxons, French, and Germans, to the poets of the Waltharius, Byrhtnoth, Roland, and the Nibelunglied.  It is not for want of interest: it was because the available poetical forms were not adapted for description or history...  The heroic spirit of Gudrun and her brothers is within the comprehension of the poets, and they have the right means to bring it out in their verse; but... they do not choose to to employ the regular formulas for epic battles.  The slaughter "grim and great" at the close of the Nibelunglied is told by the Austrian poet in the same way as the killing of suitors by Odysseus; but in the Elder Edda it... is taken as something understood. 
One result of this economy of narrative in the Northern poems was that narrative had to find another channel.  The Icelandic Sagas are the complement of the poetry; they have the breadth and freedom that the poems have not.

Here's an example of what he means, from the Helgakvitha:

9. Mighty he grew | in the midst of his friends,
 The fair-born elm, | in fortune's glow; 
 To his comrades gold | he gladly gave, 
 The hero spared not | the blood-flecked hoard.

10. Short time for war | the chieftain waited,
 When fifteen winters | old he was;
 Hunding he slew, | the hardy wight 
 Who long had ruled | o'er lands and men.

11. Of Sigmund's son | then next they sought
 Hoard and rings, | the sons of Hunding;
 They bade the prince | requital pay
 For booty stolen | and father slain.

12. The prince let not | their prayers avail,
 Nor gold for their dead | did the kinsmen get;
 Waiting, he said, | was a mighty storm 
 Of lances gray | and Othin's grimness.

13. The warriors forth | to the battle went, 
 The field they chose | at Logafjoll;
 Frothi's peace | midst foes they broke,
 Through the isle went hungrily | Vithrir's hounds.

14. The king then sat, | when he had slain 
 Eyjolf and Alf, | 'neath the eagle-stone;
 Hjorvarth and Hovarth, | Hunding's sons, 
 The kin of the spear-wielder, | all had he killed.

The main devices here are alliteration, allusion, and kenning; elm meaning man, storm meaning war, Vithrir's hounds being wolves, Frothi's peace alluding to another historical figure.  You can call a thing by another name, but it's hard to call an action by another name.  By comparison, Homeric verse is full of simile, which is much more able to describe action.
Many of [Ermoldus' similes] are taken from the birds, and are of a genuine Homeric kind: like thrushes settling on the vintage in autumn, and refusing to be scared by the cymbal of the vexed husbandman; as birds shrieking after the hawk which has carried one of their party away; as ducks hiding from an eagle in the water-weeds and the mud.
I thought it was sort of funny that the old poets ran into the same difficulty with detailed combat and trading off time describing it that we do in RPGs.  I don't think I have ever used a simile to describe an action in combat in D&D, and certainly not a one with multiple clauses like "after the eagle who has carried one of their party away".  But it's also pretty rare to elide a combat to the same degree that the Helgakvitha does.

I also found the degree to which available poetic devices influenced this interesting; they limited the search space, the set of tradeoffs you could make, in the same way that if you are playing Runequest or Dark Heresy your combat descriptions have to include hit locations, while there probably exists an RPG without fully-developed combat mechanics where you almost have to gloss over combat.  We sort of had this problem with mass combat in ACKS before Domains at War came out; the situation arose and we didn't have the mechanics to resolve or describe it in detail.

So something to reflect on - where do you want to put the detail in your games?  Is your system helping you or hindering you in doing that?

1 comment:

  1. Lots of food for thought in this series. Thanks, I'd never thought of the restrictions our conventions place on game play.

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