Decorating the Truth

I’ve spoken before about the practice of writing praise poetry as a skald, and spoken at length about the importance of carefully authoring your life story. When we consider these two things together – praising others with careful authorship – we run into an interesting consideration of historical accounts: the decorated truth.

I wrote a poem a little while ago, as part of an SCA job duty – my task was to write a poem commemorating the deeds of a particular group of warriors at the Pennsic War. Now, I couldn’t actually make it to Pennsic this past year, so that put me in an odd position. How do I write a truthful accounting of something I never actually witnessed?

That, my friends, is the function of the storyteller.

The world was joyous – wealth and peace were
found in all the lands – few were troubled.
But idle minds and idle souls
flourished in those fair fields of plenty.
A sin begat a greater sin,
and soon the ills of ailing hearts
tainted and tortured the track of men –
evils arose to wreak their doom.
Far to the west was found a cleftland
stretching deeply – still it is so named.
Deep in the belly of boiling earth
was birthed a beast of burning rage.
Of ache and hurt – of heart-woe and
sinful vengeance was sired the monster.
The enemy of man was eager to work
his schemes and plots through the sky-burner.
The worm of flames on wings of smoke
took to the sky and scoured the land.
It razed cities and ruined farmland –
its greed begat a grief profound.
Too little it owned – the land was ripe
and rich with prizes it possessed not.
Its wanting grew for want of grace,
and with it grew the rage of the wrathful demon.
To the East it gazed – a gainsome plot
it thought that place – a prize to claim.
From the air it loosed an oily flame-gout
and landed in the ruins it left behind.
Where trees once stood now stained earth
alone could be found – no life survived.
The woodlands rusted like weapons of iron
where the creature stopped – still they are so named.
To the north lay the linden-halls.
A cry went out – the oaks of battle
moved to reclaim their calloused soil!
Fierce the fighting – the flame-clash of
sturdy trees of trials was felt in
every land – and in every hearth.
Terrible their losses, but at last the woods
of wounding-poles repelled the corruptor!
Back to the west the wyrm retreated –
fleeing at once the wasted rustlands.
To fairer fields far it hastened,
to tend its wounds – and tender its revenge.
A host of the dead it dragged from the grave –
tattered banners and bloody flags
raised from the depths – red with corpse-mud
that cuprous lake – it is called this still.
In the East rallied an army valiant,
with strong-limbed and long-remembering
warriors eager as wolves at the feeding.
They marched to that place – that mire of death –
to meet the host of the hell-fiend
and put an end to the evils of men.
Hall-Konr lead them – that hero of old –
none since the Geat were known as well!
Met at midfield the mass of spears –
no din of swords since was as deadly.
The fiercest of men fell to the past –
but the pure souls of savage Tygers
welled in their breast as they battered the foe!
Soon they pressed the sea of rotting
back to their graves – that ground they took
and that lake was cleansed – cleared its good name.
But victory was brief – that villain with fury
descended from the sky and scoured the ranks.
Its hell-fires flooded the plain
and rent to ash the ashes of valor.
Countless their dead – their courage faltered –
no blades could bite that beastly hide.
Mighty Hall-Konr hacked at the fiend,
but stony claws struck him to the earth.
Slinked and stalked the serpent of hell
to the fallen liege, that lion of men.
A great breath it gathered to loose
a river of death – a red flame-sea.
The gout erupted – but razed no man,
the shower parted by a shield of iron.
Clad in a byrnie of black and gold
was an oak alone – lost is his name.
That brave warrior buffered his king –
saved his sovereign from certain death!
With dwarf-steel he struck at the beast,
hewed its hide with a hungry blade.
The wretch howled and hurried away –
but he grabbed its tail with a grip of iron.
Then homeward hied the hell-fiend and foe –
and never again were they known to roam.
The day was won by a warrior unnamed –
a hero hidden in the heart of battle.
All that remained was the mantle he’d worn,
a scrap of fur from the frozen north.
Said the warriors who’d watched as he fought
that strong as ice he stood his ground –
a frozen mountain – a frigid beorg
of stone and snow – and still we are so named.

So, nothing in this poem ever actually happened, not in the sense of some hard testable demonstrable reality. It does, however, contain truth of a sort.

The poem is dense with references to SCA-specific geography and history (like “Hal-Konr,” which is Old Norse for “hill-royal” and is a reference to Richard of Mont Royal, first king of the SCA), the central one of which is the unnamed warrior clad in black and gold – the colors of the Snowberg tabard. I mean, sure, there was never a dragon that raised the undead or some dude with a magical sword that beat it – but there are certainly acts of valor attributed to the people who form the unit.

I have a friend who is fond of saying that she “never lets the facts get in the way of the truth,” at least when it comes to storytelling. And that’s really a good way of looking at it. A storyteller is not a camera – we do not take pictures nor record video.

Rather, we tell the sort of truth” that is felt, rather than that which literally occurred. We recount the feelings, emotions, and connections that bind a group together. The facts matter less than the effect or the perceptions of each person, and that’s what we choose to remember.

I used to think my grandfather was 8 feet tall, at least when he sat us kids down to tell us nonsense stories about Indians living across the lake. And I lived my life reacting to my grandfather as though he was that tall – I gave him my attention and paid him heed. So what if he was shorter than me? My emotional connection to him rendered him taller in my perception, and that connection is as “real” as numbers on a tape.

We forget sometimes that our emotions are real things – the byproduct of biochemical reactions that proceed in discrete pathways. We can manipulate stimuli to produce reliable results. Feeling sad or happy is as real as pain or glycolysis. The result is a bit different, but so be it – does that make it less valid? Of course not!

When we recount stories or memories or really any event in the past, we’re really recalling our perceptions and interpretations of those events. We are biased and fallible. Different eyewitnesses will recount the same tale differently because they all experience a literally different reality – nobody’s brain “sees” the same information; that’s why eyewitness testimony is so unreliable. Your brain creates a literally different reality than that which exists in someone else’s brain. Your memory is the way it happened – for you.

So if we all experience different events, and we all remember them differently, why focus so much on literal truth? I mean, sure, we often need to know what “really” happened – but if you’re telling a story about this party you threw this one time, why not let the tale grow taller in the telling? This is part of crafting your own story – you choose how you will be remembered, and how you will remember other things. By letting a story grow larger, we emphasize our emotional connection to it and the connection we share with those who experienced the same thing.

Yeah, we can burst someone’s bubble: “That’s not how that happened!” I’ve been there and done that. But y’know what, life can be pretty shitty much of the time. Instead of relentlessly pursuing factual accounts, it can be nice to let some whimsy take over – and remind us of the parts of life that we truly cherish.

Those are things worth celebrating and decorating. The nuts and bolts of how it happened? Well, that’s not as important as the effect the events had on you – and if you choose to remember it being a bit greater than reality, so be it. Truth is not limited to a blow-by-blow retelling of objectively true information – your reactions to information are also a part of that truth. Those reactions govern how you behave, right? You live your life as though they’re real – so just make them real.

And then kill the stupid cat before it lets your secret out.

This is how to get attention on the Internet, right? Pictures of cats? That’s the real moral of the story – put a cat in it, and people pay attention.

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Smoke and Mirrors: Writing Praise Poetry as a Skald

Oh, right, I have a blog!

Life is exploding right now, so my update schedule is going to be more irregular for the next couple of months. Once I move and regain the ~60% of my possessions which are currently in storage, life will return to some sort of normalcy. Lots of projects in the hopper – authentic medieval gluten-free beer, lighting shit on fire, putting fancy holes in the ground, and more. We’ll get to them in due time.

One hobby doesn’t require a lot of “stuff,” though:  writing poetry. I’ve been on a skaldic poetry kick lately, and I’ve written several new pieces in short order.

The role of the skald in old Norse culture was an important one. While old Norse poetry is rooted in an anonymous mythological tradition, as time went on poets began to develop more complex forms of verse that were directed at everyday events. The skald dropped his anonymity, and became an identifiable figure in the culture. As Christianity began to take over the Norse countries, the skald evolved into a more prominent figure – that of a historian, chronicler, and teacher. They became the curators and stewards of their people’s history – and also agents of change who spread the ideas of Christianity throughout the land.

Many skalds were official functionaries in the courts of prominent Norse figures. They would chronicle the deeds of powerful and noteworthy people, and recite the stories of the people they served. This would sometimes involve the spot composition of lausavisur, or “occasion poetry.” Spot composition is very difficult, and the skaldic meters are quite challenging and complex; how is it that one could reasonably be asked to compose such poetry so quickly?

In my studies, I’ve come to the conclusion that most skalds were really just very good at making you think they were composing on the spot. Verbal illusionists, if I may.

“ILLUSION, Sveinn. A trick is something a skald does for word-fame…or ale.”
I’m sorry, that was terrible.
OK, I’m not really sorry.

Kennings are a primary hallmark of skaldic poetry, and it seems that the “best” poetry used those kennings liberally. At their core, kennings are just literary circumlocutions – substitution metaphors used to extend the word and syllable count of a poem. They’re crucial in order to fit your thoughts into the strictly-counted skaldic forms, the simplest of which still demands adherence to a defined meter.

In practice, though, kennings are forms of literary tropes that are used as cultural “shortcuts,” conveying context, framework, and ideas in small literary packages. This is incredibly useful in a culture with an oral tradition; since literacy was so rare, images were distilled into easily-understood packages that would be re-used in multiple pieces. No reference texts or dictionaries would be needed – the repetition of similarly-constructed phrases aimed at known deeds was enough to cement the meaning in people’s heads.

A skald, after sufficient practice, would be armed with a litany of kennings that could be applied to almost any situation, as they would reflect a general concept that existed in the world. Consider “warrior” in the link there – there are hundreds of documented kennings for the word. Any one of those could be used in place of the word “warrior,” and all were understood to mean that. If you knew 75 kennings for “warrior,” you could talk about almost any warrior in a poem, as you’d have some phrase that would fit the rules and whatever else you’re trying to fit in there.

The consequence of using these tropes is that the content of skaldic poems is often minimal at best. There are lots of words which often present different views of the subject – but most of the poems condense to say very very little overall. In fact, much of skaldic poetry appears to be a method of taking a long time to say “You done good.”

Let’s dissect two examples of my own poetry to see the kinds of things I’m talking about. Warning: if I’ve wrriten a praise poem for you, and you’re reading this, you’re about to learn how I cheat. If you’d rather keep the magic alive, skip ahead.
——————————–

This is a poem I wrote for my friend Hobbe, who won our local archery championship:
Battle-drops
darken the skies.
Mournful cry
mail-shirt goslings.
Winds harry
with wounding-reeds.
Oðin’s rains
rise to a flood.

Skillful Scot –
Skúli of the bow –
Hobbe Yonge
hobbles Suttung
with flight-swifts
swiftly issued –
jötnar fall
to yew of Snows.

The first stanza consists of 4 pairs of lines. “Battle-drops” are arrows; when they “darken the skies,” it means there are a lot of them. “Mail-shirt goslings” are also arrows; their “mournful cry” is heard as they fall. “Wounding-reeds?” Yup, arrows. And they’re carried by the winds. Unsurprisingly, “Oðin’s rains” is also a reference to arrows.

I just spent 8 lines saying “ARROW’D!”

The next stanza seems to include some directed, personal information – but it’s really a trick. Hobbe’s persona is Scottish, so “Skillful Scot/Skuli of the bow” seems to be a direct reference. However, the form I’ve chosen only requires “skillful” and “skuli” to alliterate with each other. I could replace “Scot” with literally any other adjective and still fulfill the requirements of the metric. This is an example of a stock phrase which has been drop-in adapted to fit my need.

Hell, it doesn’t even have to be an archer – I could change “Skuli of the bow” to “Skuli of the spear” or “arrow” or “ship” or just about anything else, and completely alter the context. “Skillful [descriptor]/Skuli of the [noun]” is a perfect example of a literary trope that can be applied almost anywhere.

“Yew of Snows” is a very common pattern when kenning warriors; [tree] of [noun] is used in countless places. In this case, I used “yew” because it’s used to make bows. That was the extent of the thought that went into that image.

The only part of the poem that actually took composition was “Hobbe Yonge/hobbles Sutung.” Here is how I personalized the poem: I just dropped the recipient’s name into it. That’s it. One instance of name-dropping framed by generic stock descriptions of an archer, and suddenly I’m a skilled poet writing high praise. I could change “Hobbe Yonge” to a different name or direct reference to another person; I would have to change the upcoming line to fit the metrical rule, but it’s doable. Here are some examples:

“Peter Olsen/pounds on Suttung”
“Red rover/reddens Suttung”
“Harald the Fair/harries Suttung”

The whole poem represents a couple of minute’s worth of compositional thought, if that.

The thing that makes it special, then, is that I was inspired to write it by the deeds of the person being praised. It’s a lot like a boxer or martial artist – the components you learn are simple, but the way you assemble them is what makes you an innovative fighter. In the same way, directing these tropes at someone, assembling them appropriately, and making some minor modifications are the hallmark of the poet. The reason I assembled them is that there was a person who needed to be praised; the praise is in the assembling, and name-dropping ensures that the person is remembered for eternity.

This holds true even in more elaborate poems:

Quill-wielder – the willing-field of
water-steed thought-reeded
bears the marking – tearing-bark of
bale-eating ale-meter
stands as stone-face land of honed-much
stave-birds’ graven word-cuts –
wise-elm’s eyes-helm of
adder-cauldron – a skald gladdened.

Follow the link for an explanation. Here, I’ve kenned nearly every noun and verb in the poem, and inlaid two thoughts into a main thesis. Nigh-incomprehensible and dense with kennings – this is the work of the skalds. I wrote this for this geek who made a scroll for me – she’s pretty cool – and I chose to write it in one of the most complex metrical forms.

Yet even here, with all these kennings, there is only one identifying one: “adder-cauldron,” a reference to the toxic dye verdigris that the scribe in question researched expressly for the project. That’s literally it. Everything else in the poem is just a reference to a scribe in general. It could apply to almost anyone who has crafted a scroll. Some of the kennings contain deeper references which have more meaning in context – “bale-eating ale-meter” means “goat,” but refers more specifically to a legendary goat, which is a reference to the storied goat hide on which the scroll was penned.

This is yet another example of the necessity of context in making a skaldic poem personal. Change one kenning and the poem can be directed at someone else – but because it was directed where it was, it carries a little additional meaning.

As a skald, it’s important to be conversant in kennings and their construction; the use of kennings is necessary to be able to write this kind of poetry the way it was written to its audience 1000 years ago.

—————————————

When you get right down to it, skalds seemed to make heavy use of commonly-understood tropes in order to call up related experiences in the audience, evoking an emotional reaction to a specific situation using stock phrases and concepts assembled ad-hoc with the occasional bit of specific information. You can write many verses knowing very little about a subject – because the entire point is to take a long time saying a few things as elaborately as possible. I can write a poem in a matter of minutes with very little information – I just use lots of kennings that say the same thing in different ways.

The best skalds were those who had the largest vocabularies, and could thus praise almost anyone for almost anything at almost any time. The pieces were transient and ephemeral, but the tropes they used endured beyond them. Tying the subject together with a timeless framework was a method of giving lasting word-fame.

"Scumbag Loki" basically sums up the entirety of the Elder Edda

“Scumbag Loki” basically sums up the entirety of the Elder Edda

I find it interesting that in today’s Internet-centric communications, we’ve begun to move back towards ephemeral context-dependent trope-based communication. Most social communication platforms today focus on high volume short-term condensed information transfer – tight packages of information that convey ideas rapidly, while not really expanding on them significantly.

It strikes me as being oddly akin to an oral tradition; since we’re focused so much on the right now, timing and rapidity of message matter far more than permanence in many circles. Getting karma on reddit, for example, is 99% timing and 1% content – it’s the context that makes any of these communications work.

So, basically, Vikings invented lolcats. That’s what you should take away from this.

Storytelling: Translating Your Ideas

It's kind of like this. Sort of. OK, not really, but I needed to get some science up ins.

It’s kind of like this. Sort of. OK, not really, but I needed to get some science up ins.

As a historical performer and part-time amateur researcher, I have a fairly healthy relationship with the practice of translation. Very often, when I’m prepping a piece for performance, I’ll double-check a given translation against the original language (where possible), re-tracing the translation steps in search of new inspiration.

Translation is a finicky process. We know that we think linguistically – that is, the language we speak is inexorably tied to the way we think, and languages with different rules necessarily mean that the speakers of those languages will also think differently.

It’s a strange thing to grok, and it presents an obstacle every time we try to figure out what these ancient cultures were saying. Words are simply a vehicle for meaning – a convenient packaging for our thoughts that we share with each other. Every time you sit down to translate a passage, you’re not just converting one word to another like some cryptogram – you’re also trying to get the sense of what’s being said, the nuances that exist exclusively in that rusted broken-down vessel of thought that is a dead language.

The linguistic nature of thought means that we will almost certainly never be right in a translation. Some things simply won’t work because our brains aren’t wired to think like that ancient culture. Perhaps with enough time we can learn to think that way – but more often than not, we’re simply aping those thought paradigms, blundering through them while not quite getting them.

Here’s my go-to example of what I’m talking about. This is a passage from Egil’s saga which I have partially translated and re-poeticized:

Síþögla gaf söglum
sárgagls þría Agli
hirðimeiðr við hróðri
hagr brimrótar gagra,
ok bekkþiðurs blakka
borðvallar gaf fjorða
kennimeiðr, sás kunni,
körbeð, Egil gleðja.

A fairly literal translation looks like this:

Ever-silent gave for speech
wound-bird three (to) Egil
keeping-pole with praise
skillful surf-fury dogs,
then brook-fowl (of) horse (of)
board-field gave fourth
thinking-pole, that knew,
choice-bed, Egil gladden.

Right, so that doesn’t make any sense at all. Step one in translation to figure out what is literally being said. Typically, it looks like this:

The wound-bird keeping-pole
gave to Egil for skillful speech
three ever-silent
surf-fury dogs,
then thinking-pole of horse of
board-field gave (a) fourth
that (he) knew (to) gladden Egil,
(the) choice-bed of brook-fowl.

But I have a different take on the poem:

The hard-handed wound-smith
heard this praise-smith’s word-play;
pelt of silent sea-wolf –
size of skald – was prize. Then
red-haired sea-horse riding
rover called me over,
broke the brook’s hawk-bed –
a boast-egg for Egil.

NBD, just revolutionizing poetry.

My take diverges pretty far (at least in a literal word-for-word sense) from the original text – but I did that intentionally in order to convey additional meaning. See, “three ever-silent surf-fury dogs” is a kenning, a reference to three sea snail shells that Egil had just been given as a gift.

Few questions in life have ever been greater than this: what the hell are the three seashells for?

It likely refers to an old Icelandic tradition where children would play a game using seashells – one kid would take shells as sheep, and the other would use shells as herding dogs, and attempt to keep the other from moving.

In other words, the seashells are a reference to a game that Egil would play as a child. A modern audience has virtually no way to know what the hell this is supposed to mean, but it’s important to the development of the character – it shows that Egil had a deep understanding of the world around him even at a young age, and that he could creatively re-interpret the world around him into poetry.

In the story, he was 3 when he composed that poem.

So, rather than stop and educate my audience, I chose to reference a different children’s game: Red Rover. The principle of the original piece now comes through – I show a child who re-casts their experiences in a poetic light, and the audience will get it because of the commonly understood children’s game.

And you wouldn’t get that unless some guy with an inflated ego thought “I can tell that better.”

Academic translation will often focus on word accuracy, even when those words don’t mean anything to us. It’s important that we have that accuracy – but remember that words are not the only thing we translate. As I said, they’re simply vectors for ideas, and if we can’t parse the vector, we’ll never really get our brains around the idea. And really, the idea is the important part. Every act of translation involves making changes and choices to the source material, sacrificing some amount of accuracy in the process. It’s unavoidable, because as I’ve said above, the language literally governs the thought structure. Square peg, round hole – you get the idea. You have to alter the contents to fit the new container.

So, while it is important that we do academic translation, we can’t forget to also let our ideas be shaped by our new vehicle. Be inspired by your choice of medium, and attempt the way you convey your idea to your new form. Don’t try to stubbornly force something into a shape that it really wasn’t meant to hold.

The concept of translation goes beyond word conversion, though. Words are a single vector, but we have many other ways of communicating ideas to one another. Pictures, movies, music, dance – these are all ways in which we attempt to communicate ideas to other humans. When we take an idea from one medium to another, we have to “translate” it to the new medium in order to convey that idea. We have to adapt those ideas to expression in a new medium; if I’ve focused on telling you something with words, I’ll have to work pretty hard and get pretty creative if I want to say that same thing in song. It’s doable, but it takes effort. The same principle applies: allow yourself to be inspired by your medium.

The film adaptation of The Hunger Games is a great example. I found the book to be nigh-intolerable because of its forced first-person perspective (an important device for its intended audience, but unnecessary for me); however, the film used a 3rd person perspective and a liberal application of the “show, don’t tell” principle of storytelling.

The result was excellent – the film used its visuals to tell you about the world, without needing first-person exposition. That allowed the director to focus on presenting the story in the most compelling manner possible – and it worked. The story and characters come across (provided you’re good at reading visual cues), and the whole story moves nicely.

A lot of people (I’m looking at you, Internet nerds) really hate it when a movie adaptation of a book departs from the source material – but as I’ve touched on above, it’s a necessary step. We must translate those ideas to a new medium (because each medium conveys thoughts differently), and that often means we’ll depart from the story you know and love. Toss out a character here or there, combine some dialogue, get rid of goddamn Tom Bombadil because we don’t need him – you get the idea. It’s jarring because we speak both the language of books and the language of film, and we’re watching as a sentence is translated and becomes wonky. It no longer matches expectations. It makes us uncomfortable because it’s unfamiliar.

But you know what? It also holds the power to make the story better, or at least to give it a different impact. In changing between media, we have an opportunity to present a new vision of an old idea – a chance to re-explore it and extract additional value. What a great opportunity to learn and grow! Keep the ideas alive that much longer, and watch as they grow into something we never expected. This is the heart of innovation.

You wish you could make your stories this bad-ass. Admit it.

Does it always work? Hell no. But translating any material across media is an experiment, and all experiments carry a risk of failure. Actually, they carry a virtual guarantee of failure. Being wrong isn’t a bad thing, though – it’s desirable, and it helps us grow.

We have an advantage in that the original material still exists (well, pretty often, depending on the medium) even if you attempt a new take, so you can’t really lose anything in the attempt. You only stand to gain, and you just might hit on something big.

And what happens if we really really insist on preserving the source material, reproducing it as accurately as possible in a new medium. Well, sometimes nothing in particular – and sometimes it sucks really hard.

So don’t be afraid to head off the reservation. Let a new take inspire you, and don’t get too hung up on being a stickler for details. Maybe, just maybe, you’ll find something you love even more.

The Flyting: Provocative Prosody

What could possibly go wrong?

One aspect of Viking culture that I find particularly intriguing is the flyting.

Well, it’s not just a Viking thing – the Anglo-Saxons did it, and the tradition has carried forward in various forms since. Duels of wits and insult contests appear in Shakespeare, and we have a somewhat more familiar form today in the rap battle.

The challenge of spontaneously composing a retort, in a verse-form common at the time, was a way to test intelligence and ingenuity. It was also used as a very ritualistic test – in Beowulf, Unferth starts a flyting with Beowulf as a sort of “interview,” vetting out his claims of greatness. It was a product of cultures that valued cunning just as much as physical prowess, and some of the verse-forms (particular the skaldic forms in Viking culture) demanded a large vocabulary – one of many markers of intellect.

I’ve been interested in trying to get flytings to be a “thing” in my little slice of the SCA. Sure, exchanging insults back and forth is a time-honored bonding tradition that we all practice in our daily lives – but recreating the formal contest creates a whole different experience.

Some people are a bit gun-shy about the idea, because it does often involve some negativity (albeit good-natured) directed at one’s opponent. However, exposing oneself to such challenges also helps to build poise and confidence – one of many reasons that it may hold value. It’s all about responding to challenges, after all.

What follows is a hybrid poem that I’ve written in a skaldic form called kviðuhattr. It’s a fairly simple meter with a strictly-counted alternating 3-4 pattern of beats. Lines are linked by alliteration, and that’s really it. It leaves you free to play around with other word devices pretty freely.

The intent here is to create a conceptual bridge – I’m trying to evoke the wordplay and attitude of a modern rap battle, while using a historic form and word construction. Enjoy!

P.S. If you’re one of the SCA performers I know, consider the mic dropped. Beat that, punk.

——————-

Of dwarf-drink
I draw horn-fuls.
Oðin’s mead
I make in barrels.
Bold Kvasir’s
blood-lettings are
running free –
flooding the plain.

I drop beats
like Draupnir rings.
Foemen flee;
form relentless,
I strike strife-
stags from life-path –
my verse-form
violence slaying.

Spitting fire,
I spare no weak-
ass wordsmiths –
winning battles
with verse-shield,
a verb-hafted
spear, and mouth
of many nouns.

I stand tall
on tables flat,
kicking cups
of corpse-like ale
in foe-face,
flooding your bowl
of wheat-pap
with water of men.

I have won
wars of verses,
versus skalds
of skills renowned;
Now behold
the Har of games –
the great one
and his words’ bite.

Biting truths
tell of victory –
victims lie
with lines scattered,
scarred by harsh
hewing of verbs,
vision blurred
by blood’s falling.

Fall the skalds
skewered by wits;
witless foes
fail to return
timely blows,
blown away by
words of praise
poured not for them.

This cold blowin’
from bold rowan’s
a doom-sign
for soon-to-die
rime giants:
arrivin’ violent –
boasting rhymes –
abide the host.

Ice and snow
and Snorri’s flow,
coursing hard
in this horse-man
of iced land,
lays to waste the
wasted lines
of latest rhymes.

Hewed them all
with Havamal,
slew the wyrms
with Sigurd’s words –
no foe stood
face-to-face nor
made a space
in spate of words.

Listen well
you whelps of verse;
your verb-flames
flicker and die
meeting ice –
my meter’s cold
front serves as
frigid warning:

Your weak heat
and weaker heart
pose no threat
to Thor of verse;
sons of spring
sprinting homeward,
hear my words:
winter is coming.

———————-

Yeah, I’m on a Game of Thrones kick. So sue me. Unless you’re HBO. Then don’t sue me.

Storytelling: Editing Your Material

TERRY GOODKIND, TAKE NOTE

One of the things I particularly enjoy in the SCA is the opportunity to engage in storytelling. Truth be told, I’ve been exposed to storytelling in various forms since age 5 – when Grandpa Bjarne would sit us kids down and tell us totally made-up stories about the Indians who lived on the mountain across the lake.

The majority of my storytelling and editing experience comes from running pen-and-paper RPG campaigns for the last 16 years. When you play D&D (or when you grow up and find a real game), you are simultaneously engaging in storycraft (usually through the results of die rolls and ill-thought-out character decisions), storytelling (as you awkwardly narrate the action that you think is totally awesome), and story editing (as you learn to cut out the crappy parts and actually make it interesting). I’ve learned to apply these lessons to my efforts at more “traditional” storytelling, and the synergy that is generated makes me a stronger performer overall.

Editing your material is crucial no matter the medium of story conveyance, but it is especially critical in live person-to-audience storytelling, as you will often have to adapt your performance mid-stream based on the real-time feedback you are getting from your audience. If they look bored? “Crap, better get through this boring part – maybe I’ll skip ahead and get to some action. Nah, let’s kill this guy off – he’s boring me. Oh, she looks scared – let’s play it up and get a good reaction. Aaaaand pause for dramatic effect…good!” That sort of internal analysis requires you to stay on your toes and edit your material in completely foreign situations. The stories in your head often become living things – morphing and rearranging chunks of detail that endeavor to reflect a central theme.

So how does it work? What do you need to do?

I don’t even need to say it. You know what I’m talking about.

The most important thing you need to understand is your role as a storyteller (again, no matter the medium) – you are not here to convey a series of mundane details, but rather, you are here to inject a theme into your audience’s brain.

Sure, you can go with a light-hearted comedic piece, or a dramatic tear-jerker, or an action-packed thrillfest – but no matter what you’re doing, your story is ultimately a collection of socially-constructed memes that you are attempting to assemble and convey to your audience. The details are mostly fluff that create a backdrop and help ground your story – but honestly, most of those details don’t matter. Tom Bombadil didn’t need to be in any of the Lord of the Rings movies because, really, he didn’t matter for the story that was being told. When you boil it down, there are really only so many types of story.

I’ll say it again: the details rarely matter when telling a story.

Once you can identify the core themes that a given story is trying to present, detail alteration becomes almost trivial.  This recognition frees you up to treat details like LEGO blocks – plug something in when you need it, because the theme is all that matters.

Beyond this, you need to know your story (that is, the theme(s) you want to present) and know your audience (the details that will appeal to them). These things are generally easier than understanding the mutability of what you’re doing. Pick a type of story with some themes you want to present, and pay attention to cues from your audience. Learning how to read people is a completely separate skill worthy of its own post – but generally, just look at their faces and you’ll know what’s going on.

Let’s go with a specific example of a story I’m working on right now, because I prefer to show rather than tell.

Yes, Vikings were pretty much like that.

One of my overarching performance projects is an abridged version of the saga of Egil Skallagrimmson. I’m taking the parts of the saga that only concern Egil, editing them down into digestible 8 – 10 minute chunks of live story, and re-poeticizing those poems attributed to Egil. The end goal is to be able to tell a contiguous tale of Egil’s life, focusing only on him while still giving a sense of the historical relevance of the saga.

Right now, I’m working on chapters 47 – 49 in the above link. There’s a lot of story there – probably about 30 minutes or so if I were to just tell it as-written. This is a difficult length to perform for an audience, as most people’s attention will wander after about 15 continuous minutes. That’s why we need breaks or changes in action in other media – listening to a single performer for too long is tiring.

The actual sequence of events in this story doesn’t matter nearly as much as the type of events being told.

These are the major plot points:

  • Egil, as a young (16 years old) Viking, uses his words to inspire his brother’s men to raid a village.
  • He then attends a feast of a wealthy baron, whose daughter is beautiful and sought by many men. She spurns him, but Egil recites a poem, and she essentially swoons – “they got on well together.”
  • A friend of Egil’s father, named Thorir, pleads to the king for mercy on Egil’s behalf (as Egil has previously committed crimes). The king is swayed, but the queen is not.
  • A feast is held, and the queen plans to have Egil murdered. The plan fails, and Egil exacts revenge on those responsible – sending a clear message of defiance to the queen.

The meta-story here should be very familiar to us: a daring rogue-like figure – a charismatic leader of men and charmer of women – is the object of scorn of an authority figure. The “man” tries to do him in using nefarious tactics, but our “hero” triumphs with naught but swagger and witty remarks. He lives to snark another day.

Keeping that in mind, I could condense that 30 minute performance into about 12 minutes thusly:

  • Introduce the theme: “Though he was only 16 and had just begun to raid, Egil’s fame as a Viking grew rapidly.”
  • 1st reflection on the theme: “Aki the Wealthy, who Egil had saved in his first raid, told Egil and Thorolf of a wealthy town named Lund that lay near. The men were unsure of whether or not to proceed. Egil saw this and spoke these words. [poem]. The men’s spirits were inflamed, and they raided the town – plundering it, and burning it down as they left.”
  • 2nd reflection on the theme: “Egil and Thorolf were then invited to a feast. There, they drew lots to pair off – a man and a woman – for drinking. Egil was paired with Arnfid’s daughter, who was very beautiful. She saw Egil sitting near her seat and scoffed, saying [poem]. Egil sat her down and said [poem]. They continued drinking, and got on well that night.”
  • Introduce the Conflict: “But not all were so enamored of Egil’s prowess. Though King Erik had been swayed by the words of Thorir – who had asked forgiveness for the son of Skallagrim, his friend – Queen Gunnhild would not so easily forgive the man who murdered her cousin Bard just one year prior.”
  • A Change of Venue: “There was a great feast being held at the chief temple at Gaular. Gunnhild knew that many people would be there, including Thorir and his guests, so she told her brothers Eyvind and Alf, ‘I want you two to kill both of Skallagrim’s sons, or failing that, whichever one of them you can.'”
  • The Conflict Comes to a Head: “Thorir had advised Egil to stay home, as he knew of Gunnhild’s plotting. Thorolf went, but stayed close to Thorir, so neither Eyvind nor Alf could make their mark. Gunnhild was furious – ‘Then slay one of their men, rather than letting them go unscathed.’ They took to drinking with Thorvald and Thorfid, loyal companions of Thorolf’s and friends of he and Egil. The drinking grew to flyting, and then to fighting. Eyvind drew a small sword and stabbed Thorvald, killing him there. All the men around were furious, but no-one else had weapons, as they were forbidden on sacred ground. Eyvind was outlawed from Norway, but was sent to Denmark by Erik and Gunnhild to work for King Harold Gormsson, who received him warmly and appointed him to his coastal guard.”
  • Payback Time: “News of this reached Aki. A messenger was sent when Egil and Thorolf had come into Danish waters, telling them, ‘Eyvind lays just off the coast on Jutland-side. He plans to ambush you with a large force as you head south. But he is only in two ships, and is close by.’ Egil and Thorolf sailed silently to where Eyvind lay, and ambushed him with spears and stones. Many of Eyvind’s men fell, but Eyvind himself left overboard and swam away. Egil seized his ships, weapons, and wealth, and sang this verse. [poem].
  • Denoument/Link to Next Story: “Thorolf saw the destruction that had been wrought, and looked for a long time. Then he turned to Egil, saying, ‘I think we should reconsider our plans to go to Norway this autumn.'”

Done. That is the core of how I would perform this story, were I to do it as one piece. I’ve cut out huge swaths of detail, but ask yourself – how much does that matter? What I’ve written here is a complete story that reflects the themes expressed in the original. I would add more linking details in here to get characters from one venue to another, but it only requires a few sentences at most to accomplish that.

Now, I’m probably not going to actually do this as one longer story. More than likely, I’ll break it into two shorter stories and embellish with a few more details, just to teach some history and provide context for the action. That will allow me to make stronger links to prior and subsequent works. However, with little extra work, those core elements I have written could be easily turned into a single story.

I stuck pretty tightly to the actual historical record – after all, I’m still trying to tell the saga as it allegedly happened – but nothing is stopping me changing details will-nilly. Do I need to show you how awesome Egil is with those first two examples? Of course not – they’re just there to develop his character a bit. Hell, I could just say, “While Egil was growing quite famous, not everyone was so enamored of him.”

Or maybe I could make Egil hit on the Queen, and it’s the King who orders him killed. Maybe at that very same feast. And then Egil steals the King’s finest ship, sets fire to it, and steals their daughter. Does it really make a difference in the story? It’s all a matter of how I want to present the character at the time of telling.

The lesson here: edit with a machete. Details are often superficial, and don’t serve to really drive the main plot. The first step is to hack away all of the unnecessary bits until you find out what’s really going on. Then, add details back on until you have something that suits your audience.

There’s really no trick to it – all you need to do is analyze, and you’ll find the story underneath all those details.

Context is Everything

Iceland: it’s cold

This past weekend, I participated in the King & Queen’s Bardic Championship. In the SCA, the King and Queen often select Champions of various disciplines – to serve as sources of inspiration for the populace, and to instruct people in and generally elevate their particular field. These are positions of great honor and prestige, and people work very, very hard to achieve them.

I chose to do an in-persona piece; that is, I performed as though I was actually Magnus hvalmagi, and not Peter Olsen telling you a story that Magnus may have plausibly known. I let the character speak for himself, and showed some of his personality. The challenge was to tell Their Majesties what inspired you; I responded with some lines about the cold.

This, in and of itself, was kind of an interesting piece. I wasn’t playing Magnus telling you a story, nor Magnus reciting some poetry that he wrote. No, I was trying to speak as Magnus would have spoken, to respond as though I was he and he is answering your question. Getting into his head, or the head that I imagine he has. Being the character as opposed to being in character.

Every now and again, I ask myself why I like to get dressed up and do this whole “living history” thing. Why do I want to make Magnus come to life? Why do I want to perform ancient pieces of poetry like they’re really super relevant and you should care about them a lot?

The answer, I think, lies with the act of creating context.

Way more interesting, useful, and awesome than the actual book

Sure, we can sit down, read a book, and intellectually grasp its points – but that doesn’t mean we grok those points. We can translate that intellectual understanding to a more functional form – extrapolate a real-world application from sterile, controlled laboratory experiments – but when we do that, we throw our ideas against heretofore untested variables. Invariably, it breaks somewhere, because we neglected to implement the right controls. We didn’t synthesize the ideas in the right context – and even most intellectual attempts to do so will fail at some level.

But when we attempt to make a person come to life, to make a piece come to life – we are really trying to create its proper context.  I never enjoyed Beowulf when I was in school, but when I performed it? Magic. People around me were telling me about this awesome guy who did these awesome things and I should care because he was so awesome and now he’s dead and aren’t we screwed?

When we create a historical backdrop – speaking like an ancient person, wearing their clothes, conducting ourselves in a manner in which they would have – we actively destroy the modern context that has shaped the audience and supplant it with our own interpretation of that work’s context. Sure, we’re often warping or assuming some aspects of the historical background – but the point is in the act of re-shaping. Putting the audience in a different mindset. Re-setting their expectations. We build a new emotional connection between ourselves, the audience, and the material – and so people invest themselves more heavily in the story. They want to understand the piece, and so it carries a much greater impact.

It’s a lot like playing D&D or any other RPG – we all buy in to the same world, and then tell stories that (while silly outside of that world) have a great impact for us within that world.

It’s like LARPing, only way nerdier

A lot of “legitimate academics” scoff at what the SCA does, and rightly so in some cases. We’re not about 100% accuracy – nobody wants to die of the plague, and women really don’t want to be property. That will invariably create a situation where we disregard fact in favor of colorful fiction.

That doesn’t de-value the truly legitimate academic research that many do – and that doesn’t invalidate the principle of what we do on the whole.

I may have to sacrifice some accuracy in order to build a bridge between my audience and my material, but I do so to create a deeper level of understanding of the material in question. To help the audience move from knowing to understanding. Once they’ve made that jump, we can get the facts straight.

It is a thing that I think more people should try out. Who knows – you might just learn something. I sure did.

On Working From What You Know, and a New Poem

I’m a huge fan of Amon Amarth – a Viking-themed death metal band from Sweden. Never heard of them? Check this out.

That song is “Tock’s Taunt – Loke’s Treachery Pt. II” from the album Surtr Rising. It’s an expanded recounting of the interaction between the Aesir and the giantess Tock (or Thokk or Thock or Tokk, depending on how you translate – the word means “thanks” in Norwegian) during their attempt to revive Baldr. Tock is the only creature in all of existence to refuse to cry, thus dooming Baldr to an eternity of suffering. It is later discovered that Tock is Loki, who engineered Baldr’s death in the first place.

The story appears in the Prose Edda, in Gylfaginning (page 74 – 75 of that translation), and is rather brief. The song uses imagined dialogue based on the single stanza spoken by Tock. It’s really quite good.

Being an advocate of metal, and thinking the lyrics for the song were pretty damn cool and the whole concept quite interesting, I tried to turn the lyrics as-written (with slight modifications) into a performance poetry piece in the SCA.

It totally didn’t work. I was hesitant to perform alterations to the lyrics (they’re not mine), so it wound up sounding a bit odd. A friend of mine – Zsof – watched the performance, heard my explanation, and said, “Why not change it? It’s your piece now.”

That hit something with me – it was my piece and I could change it. I’m essentially trying to create performance poetry from a death metal song that I know. Trying to stay true to the letter of the material was causing problems with the performance – so why not change the format to something period-appropriate? I set out to re-cast the lyrics as Norse poetry.

Here’s the poem that I came up with – I’ll talk a bit about how I decided to do what, in an attempt to describe the creative process one might use when trying such a thing. Every poem is a “work in progress,” so I doubt this will be its final form – but it’s the complete project.

—————————

Ill the Aesir
and the Elves fared –
their games yielded
a grim result:
The brother of Thor
by thrown sprig was
pierced in the breast –
bane of Oðin’s
son sticking in
his stone of life.

Then hied to Hel
Hermoðr the Bold,
to craft a deal
with the cairn-god:
return to life
the light-bringer;
the world would bleed
the water of eyes.

All of the world
wept for Baldr.
the men and beasts,
burning fires,
trees and stones and
the track of men –
wept as if brought
to warmth from frost.

All but for one
wept as the rest.
The Aesir found
a frost giant –
lone – in a cave;
she was called “Tokk.”
Spoke Tyr of
the spear Gungnir:

“You! Weep for Baldr,
as the world now does!
You are the last one;
jotun-tears we need.”

The giant sang –
joy in her voice:

“You come to me
carrying grief in
your eyes – a sorrowful sight –
asking a torrent
of tears to restore
to life the light of Asgarðr.

You come to me
carrying grief in
your hearts – bitter the blood
but cold is mine –
I mean to sleep
as long as the world weeps.

You come to me
carrying grief on
your tongues – words of woe;
no joy or pleasure
was poured for me
from the horn of Baldr’s bounty.

Tokk will water
no weeds with sorrow.
Go! Leave me alone!
Go! Leave him to lie!

Is blame my burden
to bear? Shame
makes no mark on my heart!
I was made glad –
gleeful the tale
of Loki’s clever craft!

Foolish Hoðr
felled his twin
with a hurled errant arrow.
The truth was hidden –
his hand the willing
tool of the Aesir’s enemy!

Leave me alone!
I long to be rid
of moaning, mewling gods.
Never have I wished
well for Baldr –
no sorrow I hold in my heart!

Tokk will water
the world with hate.
Let Hel hold her hoard.
Let Surtr sear his soul.

You come to me
but cannot behold
the truth of Loki’s lies.
Hoðr is blind,
but the high ones
see the same as he!

You come to me
but cannot believe
the words I speak and spin.
Beloved of Aesir
loved no giants;
giants loved him less.

You come to me
but cannot remain –
my speech I’ve spent on you.
All these tears
to Tokk are nothing!
Go! and leave me alone!”

Then Aesir knew
the name of Tokk;
Loki’s final
falsehood was plain.
None but he could
know of malice
or spite enough
to spurn Baldr.

When tired of
tricks and deceit,
the high hunted
the harm of truth.
Bound by his sons,
burned by venom,
Loki awaits
to lead the dead,
to damn the world –
the doom of gods.

—————————————–

This is obviously markedly different than the original lyrics – yet it’s the same concept, the same story, and much of the specific wording is preserved. The “feel” is very different, and in many places, the re-done lyrics convey some additional layers of meaning and subtlety.

How the hell does a person start something like this? As a scientist, I tend to take an intensely analytical approach to virtually everything – so I started with a systematic analysis of the existing lyrics. I won’t give you the blow-by-blow breakdown – you’ll probably get it from everything else. If you’re really curious, here’s the Google doc I wrote to develop the piece.

Once I figured out what the lyrics were about and how the message was conveyed – I made mental and physical notes about particularly meaningful lines and passages, and made notes about particular lyrical patterns – I started the conversion process.

One of the wonderful things about poetry is that all poems have rules and form. Forcing your thoughts and feelings into a particular metrical structure – or even designing your own – guides your creative process in ways you may not even realize at the outset. We need boundaries and guidelines to help fire our creative engines; they give us direction and purpose.

Norse poetry has many different forms and styles, but very broadly speaking, there are two main “types:” eddic and skaldic. Eddic poetry is usually older, more story-oriented, and often concerns itself with mythological or super-heroic subjects. Skaldic poetry tends to be more personal (in that it is about actual people or actual events), ornate, and non-linear. There are many specific metrical forms seen in each type, and each type tends to be more highly associated with certain forms.

To start, I decided that I would write the poem using eddic forms. The lyrics concern themselves with a mythological tale, so I reasoned that would be the more “appropriate” type to write. I also decided that I wanted to sort of “hook” this poem into the existing eddic poetry – so I gave it an intro bit explaining the setup of Tokk’s reply, and an outro bit hooking it back to the mythology. That couches it in the proper context, and makes it a sort of “detour” in the eddic stories.

In analyzing the original lyrics, a few things stuck out. First and foremost, I noticed a repeated motif – “You come to me” – that formed a sort of internal refrain. Repetition is good stuff, because it helps drive a point home, and can help something sound “musical.”  I decided to keep the repetition in place, because it was such a noticeable pattern in the lyrics; repeating it helps establish continuity between the original and the re-work. It’s also a feature of the lyrics – something that sticks out and helps define it, giving it character.

The decision to keep “you come to me” as a motif in the new poem gives an additional layer of effect to the poem – one of magic and mysticism. Extreme repetition in Norse poetry is associated with magic, witchcraft, and other forms of great power. The poetry of the Lapps is intensely repetitive, and may be related to the Norse concept of “Lapp-women” – their phrase for witches. By keeping aspects of the poem repeated, I am presenting a different take on Tokk – not only is she denying the Aesir what they want, but she is also demonstrating her great and terrible sorcerous power. She is forcing the issue, showing her might to be at least equal to that of the gods. She’s saying, “Look at me! I can take away the people you love, and there’s nothing you can do about it.” It takes her from defiant trickster to dangerous adversary – and because Tokk == Loki, it re-casts him in the same light as well.

Now we can see how a seemingly simple decision – “Oh yeah, I’ll just keep that in” – coupled with the right context can have a subtle but dramatic effect on a piece. I have no idea if it’s right – that is, I don’t know if that’s how the Norse thought of Loki or Tokk. It is, however, a valid take on the material, and it is an interesting and unfortunately relevant take.

The next thing I noticed was the division of the story into three distinct “phases.” Tokk introduces the rebuff, elaborates on the tragedy (“rubbing it in”), and then finishes with an aggressive dismissal/revelation. The retelling of the story in the song seems to follow a somewhat different pattern than the first verse, to the point where the second verse almost seems to break in the middle – switching from the rebuff to the taunt. That means the first and third parts are anchored by repetition, and the second part follows its own path.

Because of that flow, I decided to alter the refrains a bit. In the original, they bookend the third verse. Given that the piece was already going to be repetitive, I decided to redo the refrain as a bit of galdralag (“meter of magic spells”), and use them to separate the piece into Phase I, Phase II, and Phase III. I decided to take the entire text of the refrain and break it into two smaller chunks with internal repetition – that way, the refrains stand out a bit more, and more clearly deliniate the different phases of the reply.

You can see how this kind of analysis results in a “roadmap” of sorts for the actual transition. The decision to repeat motifs, break the reply into 3 pieces separated by two refrain stanzas, and to “bookend” the entire reply in an eddic context creates an outline for me. Deciding which meter to use is almost obvious, dictated largely by convention in the eddic poems. Even without well-defined metrical forms like those in Old Norse, one could still see the need to write all the parts a bit differently, to help emphasize the distinct parts of the poem.

After that, it’s a matter of fitting words into metrical rules, rather like a puzzle. I’ve defined the outline – now I color it in. Conforming to the metrical rules will force you to make particular word choices, which can lead to additional meaning placement. For example, take this stanza:

Foolish Hoðr
felled his twin
with a hurled errant arrow.
The truth was hidden –
his hand the willing
tool of the Aesir’s enemy!

This was inspired by “Hodr the fool/Lopt’s willing tool/he held the twig/that cut Baldr’s skin/Lopt aimed the shot/that killed Hodr’s twin.” The form requires that the first two lines be linked with alliteration, and I decided to lead off with “Hodr the fool.” I liked the sound of “Foolish Hodr” more, so I changed it to that. The second line has to alliterate on the first stressed syllable – “felled” alliterates readily with “Foolish.” That first half-stanza was written almost automatically by alliterative rules.

The second half of the stanza contains an interesting reference in the last line. Since I had to convey the entire thought of the lyrics, and I’d spent the first half talking about slaying Baldr, I knew the second half had to revolve around Loki being responsible for it. After all, that’s the lyrical progression – first we say that Hodr did it, then we reveal that Loki made Hodr do it.

I wanted to use “Lopt’s willing tool,” because it’s a great insult to throw in there. That chunk is too many syllables on its own for lines 4 and 5, and doesn’t alliterate enough for line 6. However, Norse poetry makes use of kennings – substitution metaphors. So, instead of saying “Lopt,” I could come up with a kenning that refers to him indirectly.

That’s where “Aesir’s enemy” comes into play – it’s a kenning for Loki. Norse poetics say that all vowels alliterate with each other, so that took care of my need to alliterate. Because of syllable rules, I merely had to break “Aesir’s enemy’s willing tool” into two lines. Some rearranging of word order fills out my counting rules, and line 4 is easy enough to write to fill out the rest of the stanza.

However, “Aesir’s enemy” can also be used to mean “frost giants” – after all, they were enemies of the Aesir. This gives that segment a bit of extra meaning – it’s not just a recounting of events, it’s an admission of guilt. Loki, by way of Tokk, is weaving his taunting admission of his power and treachery into the reply – a puzzle for the Aesir to unravel. He’s being arrogant and haughty, reveling in his treachery and the inability of the gods to figure out what’s going on.

And all of this extra meaning came about because I needed to find an alliteration.

So the point of all of this? To point out the importance of a systematic and analytical approach when tackling complex problems or projects. I could have written this poem organically, but it wouldn’t have had as many surprises and neat things pop up. Letting your creativity wander can be a good thing, but constraints help give it form and substance.

Breaking down a complex setup into fundamental components lets you pick those pieces back up and plug them together into a new shape.

So exercise that analytical brain, and break down some complex material!