Verbal Dueling in Heroic Narrative: The Homeric and Old English Traditions

Verbal Dueling in Heroic Narrative: The Homeric and Old English Traditions

by Wards Parks

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This work is a rare cross-cultural study of one of the most universal dialogic genres: heroic flyting, or the verbal duel in which the heroes, prior to physical combat, make boastful claims that must be backed up through action in the arena of public contesting. Long recognized as an elemental behavioral paradigm in human consciousness, the contest has only recently


This work is a rare cross-cultural study of one of the most universal dialogic genres: heroic flyting, or the verbal duel in which the heroes, prior to physical combat, make boastful claims that must be backed up through action in the arena of public contesting. Long recognized as an elemental behavioral paradigm in human consciousness, the contest has only recently emerged as a factor in the formation of Western intellectual traditions and modes of discourse. In presenting the verbal duel as a literary expression of the contest, Ward Parks shows how flyting interfaces words and physical action. He explores the place of flyting in the patterning of culture, both Eastern and Western, from Homeric and Old English martial narratives to current academic debate to such phenomena of popular culture as rap. Parks studies flyting from a comparative standpoint to discover major generic and structural characteristics common to this activity in both its oral and written traditions. Drawing his methodology from such fields as literary criticism, socio-biology, linguistics, and game theory, he begins with an exploration of the nature and structure of contesting as it relates to flyting interactions. He then examines the covert contract formation that binds the verbal and physical aspects of the duel, analyzes the heroic generation of speeches and their dialogic interrelation in the flyting process itself, and illustrates the adaptability of flyting patterns within a wide variety of cultural and ideological settings.

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Verbal Dueling in Heroic Narrative

The Homeric and Old English Traditions

By Ward Parks


Copyright © 1990 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-06780-3


Flyting and the Contest Paradigm

Behavioral Ecological Backgrounds

Why do flyting, and other types of formalized contesting, exert such an appeal on the human psyche? Why does the author of the Iliad, like many of his bardic brethren, devote hundred- and even thousand-line stretches to the grisly detailing of battle slaughter, the redundancy and gratuitous violence of such scenes notwithstanding? The answer must lie in the psychobiological sources of agonistic behavior. Ceremonial contesting manifests variously not only among human beings but widely throughout the animal kingdoms. In assessing the significance of flyting between epic heroes, then, we need to reckon with our own biological and evolutionary past.

The agonistically styled intermale rutting contests among red deer in Scotland, as described in a well-known study by Clutton-Brock, Guinness, and Albon (1982: esp. 105–2), illustrate the affiliations between human and animal behavior. These fights for control of harems broke out in the rutting season, from September through October, between harem holders and intruding stags. While most single stags preferred to skulk at a distance, prospective challengers advanced to approximately two to three hundred meters of the harem holder. At this juncture the adversaries engaged in a curious roaring match in which each tried to outdo his rival in the intensity and frequency of his roars. After several minutes of this, the intruder ordinarily withdrew. If he advanced further to within one hundred meters,

the contest was more likely to escalate first to a further exchange of roars and then, in the majority of cases, to a parallel walk, with the two contestants moving tensely up and down, typically at right angles to the direction from which the approacher came. At any moment during a parallel walk, either stag might invite contact by turning to face his opponent and lowering his antlers. Opponents almost always accepted his invitation, turned quickly, and locked antlers. Both animals would then push vigorously. ... In the course of longer fights, contestants frequently separated for a few seconds at a time, rejoining after one of the pair invited contact again by lowering his antlers. Fights lasted until one of the pair was pushed rapidly backward, broke contact, and ran off. Winning stags seldom pursued losers for more than 10 to 20 m, though if a stag slipped in the course of a fight his rival would immediately attempt to horn him in the flank, rump, or neck. (Clutton-Brock, Guinness, and Albon 1982: 129–30)

Although contestants did not fight to the death, injuries could be severe and sometimes ultimately lethal (132–35).

Much in this scenario is specific to red deer. The precise form of combat, for example, owes much to cervine anatomy; nor does all intermale competition center on mating prerogatives as these fights do. Nonetheless, the ritualization and stereotypy evident in these red deer displays recur throughout the animal world. As Barash puts it (1982: 355), such agonistic encounters are often

so stylized as to be more aptly described as tournaments rather than fights, programmed by rules and perhaps containing a touch of pageantry as well. Although written by evolution rather than by a human hand, the strictures appear to be no less real, and adherence is remarkably complete. Animals whose behavior is characterized by such rules are no more likely to break them than a human prizefighter is to pull out a revolver and shoot his opponent.

Thus dueling tomcats, according to Leyhausen (1979: 170–88), progress through a series of stereotypic attack and defense postures, many of them in slow motion (and superbly illustrated in Leyhausen's photographs and drawings), as lead-up to a caterwauling frenzy of bites and blows; the contest ends when, after such a "round," one of them gives up, which he signifies by remaining in the defensive posture. Even rats, a species singularly unsusceptible to primitivist human romanticizing, manage their fights between intruder males and colony alphas in a stereotypic fashion. According to Blanchard and Blanchard (1984: 8–9), the alpha first piloerects, then bites at the intruder, and chases him when he runs off. The intruder halts and rears up on his hind legs, using his forelimbs to "box" off his attacker, while the alpha moves laterally, making occasional biting lunges. In the next stage the stranger rolls on his back while the alpha tries to turn him over. Remarkably enough, the target of the alpha's attack, according to Blanchard and Blanchard, is the intruder's back, a region far less vulnerable to deadly or incapacitating injury than other bodily parts that the intruder makes no effort to defend. As these and other examples show, the ritual stylization of combat particularly between conspecific adversaries is no mere fiction. When we see such phenomena in human affairs, then, we may legitimately suspect that the ultimate causes go beyond conscious human artifice.

That stylization figures prominently into the interhuman contests of heroic literature much of this book will be trying to show. Yet one need not leaf back through the annals of the past; rules and ceremonies contour much human aggression even today. Consider, for example, the boxing match. Two adversaries, who in pregame promotional interviews profess to hate each other, try to inflict bodily injury, but only in certain ways. Neither uses weapons, such as guns or knives; neither kicks or hits below the waist; and both desist at the bell ending each round, so that pats or slaps on the back administered immediately afterward are interpreted as friendly gestures, not attacks. Now nothing in human genetics has determined that boxing should be conducted in precisely this way. Boxing as such is a creation of human consciousness. Yet the disposition to enjoy stylized combat of this kind probably does owe to biology. Why else should it appeal to so many viewers? Of course, the world of athletics provides many such illustrations of the acting out of aggression as play; yet the same is often true of warfare. A superb example appears in the "live and let live system of accommodation between the opposing forces" in World War I. According to a German soldier, evening bombardments came with a predictable regularity (Axelrod 1984: 86): "At seven it came — so regularly that you could set your watch by it. ... It always had the same objective, its range was accurate, it never varied laterally or went beyond or fell short of its mark. ... There were even some inquisitive fellows who crawled out ... a little before seven, in order to see it burst." The Germans likewise directed their artillery fire according to a predictable pattern, so that a certain Colonel Jones of the opposing army "was able to take what seemed to uninitiated Staff Officers big risks, knowing that the shelling would stop before he reached the place being shelled" (J. D. Hill, quoted in Axelrod 1984: 86). Such systems of reciprocal restraint did not succeed in avoiding all bloodshed, of course, any more than they do in heroic epic. Yet through the reciprocal restraint underlying this rituality, the scope of aggression can be — and for the most part is — contained within certain boundaries.

But let us return to the red deer of the island of Rhum in Scotland. Perhaps the most striking aspect of their rutting encounters are the roaring matches. And these were indeed a very real part of the contest process: each stag seemed to be trying to outroar the other. Thus some intruder stags gave up and withdrew after the roaring; and in those cases where fights did ensue, the rates of roaring correlated with fighting success (Clutton-Brock, Guinness, and Albon 1982: 136–38). Other species similarly use precombat threat display as an occasion for mutual assessment by contestants. Territorially combative herring gulls, according to the Nobel prizewinning Niko Tinbergen, prefaced physical contact with a kind of "mutual bluffing" in which the birds tore at bundles of moss or grass (1961: 56). Sometimes the assessment centers on anatomical characteristics, as among American bighorn sheep, who compare the size of their horns (Maynard Smith 1979: 482). Yet red deer are not alone in vocalizing their threats. Indeed, there may be a generalizable semiology involved; according to Morton (1977: 855), "birds and mammals use harsh, relatively low-frequency sounds when hostile and higher-frequency, more pure tonelike sounds when frightened, appeasing, or approaching in a friendly manner." All these threat displays, and particularly the vocalizations, seem to provide clear behavioral analogues to heroic flyting. For like their animal ancestors, flyting heroes are trying to represent themselves as better fighters than their opponents; like animal threats, human boasting may either escalate into physical combat or terminate the conflict (when one contestant flees the battlefield or modulates from aggression into appeasement). From a sociobiological perspective, then, flyting is continuous with interactive patterns that not only antedate ancient Greece and Anglo-Saxon England but, indeed, precede the human race altogether. Thus, heroic flyting may stake a claim to being one of the most long-lived of all dialogic genres.

What are the causes of such ceremonialized aggression? The question is a complex one, first, because the category is by no means clear-cut, and second, because causation can be conceived from so many different perspectives. The problem of categorization of aggressive behavior has led to various taxonomies. Wilson, for example, identifies eight major forms: territorial, dominance, sexual, parental disciplinary, weaning, moralistic, predatory, and antipredatory (1975: 242–43). Taking environmental stimuli and motivation as well as physiological and motor functions into consideration, Moyer (1976) derives six categories: predatory, intermale, fear-induced, maternal, irritable, and sex-related. On the other hand, the integrity of "aggression" as a behavioral class can be challenged on various grounds, such as the physiological, for no single center for an instinctual and unitary aggressive drive can be identified within the brain. Yet one needs some rubric under which to compare violent creaturely interactions; and "aggression," riddled with ambiguities though it may be, will have to serve. Perhaps the class of "agonistic" duels that I plan to study could be more precisely defined as "high-display intraspecific aggressive encounters," with aggression conceived as behavior intended to produce physical injury. This definition fits heroic flyting contests, the dueling matches of red deer and tomcats, and other such interactions that ethologists have generally agreed are related.

The matter of causation can be approached in various ways, not all of which conduce equally well to literary interpretation. Causation can be conceived in physiological terms, as when one studies the relation between aggression and androgens. Unfortunately, such approaches are not productive for the literary exegete studying fictional characters who are unavailable, for example, for blood sampling. More promising are behavioral causes found in social situations (to be studied extensively in later chapters); Goodall, for example, schematizes a number of these in her discussion of aggression among chimpanzees (1986: 320–21). Then again, causes can be identified as "resources" — such as food, territory, or mating privileges — that individuals fight to control. Heroes too compete for such things. The quarrel between Agamemnon and Achilles, like the one between Menelaos and Paris that gave rise to the entire Trojan war, hinges on the possession of a woman; war between the Achaians and Trojans plainly takes on a territorial dimension as well; the Scél Mucci Mic Dathó (N. Chadwick 1927) features a brawl arising explicitly out of the division of food at a feast; and the struggles between Grendel and the Danes or between Odysseus and Polyphemos are constructed on a predatory model. In all these respects, then, the sources of heroic and animal conflicts are much alike.

Yet all these "proximate" causes are, from a sociobiological standpoint, subordinate to "adaptiveness" as the ultimate cause. Those phenotypic characteristics that promote the survival and reproduction of the organism, or, more exactly, that perpetuate the genes that it carries, are adaptive and for this reason ensure the reappearance of these genes in subsequent generations. In a sense, adaptiveness is as much an effect as a cause, in that it is the product of biological, developmental, and environmental factors. But since it selects the patterns that repeat themselves subsequently, it can be said to govern the other more immediate or proximate causes. To return to our subject, aggression is plainly adaptive in many circumstances, as in those involving control of resources necessary for survival or propagation. A successful red deer harem holder will have greater impact on the genetic pool than will that stag intruder who gets outroared and outgored year after year.

But if aggression is adaptive, why do aggressors ceremonialize it? Why do they not always pursue the most ruthless and violent course? The reason is that aggression has its drawbacks as well as its payoffs. For while aggressors potentially benefit in terms of both survival and reproduction, they incur risks of injury that would vitiate their prospects in these areas. Thus, aggression becomes a kind of strategic interplay in which potential contestants weigh prospective benefits and losses. Maynard Smith and others have conceived of contesting as a kind of evolutionary game in which a population progresses toward a state in which those policies that consistently produce the greatest payoffs are regularly adopted. Such an "evolutionarily stable strategy" (e.s.s) would plainly include this ceremonialization of conflict in many, though not all, situations. It would not benefit a cat stalking a mouse, since in predatorial situations surprise is the key to success; however, it would on the average benefit tomcats fighting each other, since one's long-term chances of survival are improved if such intraspecific contests are so orchestrated as to permit escape or submission. Then again, agonistic combatants are susceptible to deceivers and tricksters. Thus, a newly molted mantis shrimp, soft-shelled and vulnerable to attack, tries to drive off hard-shelled intruders by increasing the frequency of its claw display, although it invariably runs off if actually attacked (Trivers 1985: 409–10). One is reminded of many a coward-braggart in heroic epos whose gab outbites his spear jab. But continuous overbluffing would, in due course, confer the advantage to those who always challenge the bluff; indeed, in the natural world, deception sometimes provokes "moralistic" aggression that restores "honest" interactive reciprocity. Thus both rule observation and rule breaking contribute to the gaming balance of evolution. Achilles and Odysseus both have their place.

So much, then, for general sociobiological rationales for heroic contests. But since we will soon be examining many particular heroic incidents in assorted contexts, can we define some of the characteristics of these fights more precisely? In particular, what are some of the variables relevant to the amount of display and ritualization in conflict?

Perhaps the most crucial distinction sorts out conflicts of the interspecific and intraspecific varieties. Although there are many exceptions, usually interspecific conflicts are less restrained than intraspecific conflicts can be, partly because predators habitually seek victims from other species. There is no reason why a lioness stalking a deer should ritualize her approach: Her aim — finding food — pragmatically demands no more than that she kill her prey. Although humans and other creatures often connive in like fashion for the death of their fellows, it is nonetheless among conspecific adversaries that the most elaborate rituals usually develop. In fact, this distinction several times makes itself felt in epic material, for the most ruthless and least ritualized conflicts are between humans and nonhumans. The violence that Odysseus metes out to Dolon or Achilles to his sundry victims cannot match the horror of Grendel's or Polyphemos's grisly feasts or the massacre of Odysseus's men by the Laistrygonians (Od. 10.80–132). For, as I will try to show in later sections, the interhuman fights occur in negotiative and formally contestational settings that give the violence a meaning intelligible to those who engage in it. Flyting brings fighting into the human ken. But you cannot flyt with Grendel. And the unsociable Cyclops, while he can at least be engaged in conversation, refuses to play by the rules.


Excerpted from Verbal Dueling in Heroic Narrative by Ward Parks. Copyright © 1990 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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