A habit of old words

A great many writers (perhaps most) have known they wanted to be writers all their lives, scribbling away in childhood, until finally some breakthrough brought writing to the forefront and they began completing and publishing their work.

Many musicians work in mathematics or computer-related fields

But not all of us…

I have an intellectual background in mathematics, which (indirectly) led to a career first as a programmer and then as an IT executive in a number of startup software and computer consulting firms for almost 40 years. But, like many math-types, I also had a competing fascination with music, languages, and the visual arts. Everything, in fact, except writing.

As I’ve said elsewhere, it’s all Tolkien’s fault. I was a high-volume, indiscriminant, and rapacious reader as a child (still am), never going to grade school with fewer than half a dozen paperbacks to get me through classes, with a strong focus on science fiction and such fantasy as was available in the early 60s. My encounter with Tolkien when his first American editions and then the “authorized” editions came out in paperback, in early high school, gave me a sudden and immediate focus. In brief, I’m the sort of person who reread the Appendices obsessively, trying to understand why his hints at deep history worked so well, how he had built a world with so much consistent detail and background that resonated so effectively with his readers.

Siegfried kills Fafnir (Nibelungenlied)
Siegfried kills Fafnir (Nibelungenlied)

As a musician, I was already very familiar with the British traditional ballads (the Folk Revival was underway and I discovered Francis James Child at about this time). Tolkien and books about him spurred my reading toward the older traditional literature of all kinds, both the sort that were the subjects of his scholarship (Beowulf and the Old & Middle English corpus) and its relatives like the Nibelungenlied, the northern sagas and the eddas, the Matter of Britain (King Arthur, the Grail), the Matter of France (Roland)) as well as the classics (Homer, et alia) and even, eventually, some of the Indian ancient poetry, the Rigveda, the Ramayana, and the Mahabharata (has anyone ever read the whole thing?).

I spent much of high school devouring everything I could find in this area, assisted by new releases in paperback of many of these works, as well as the scholarship that illuminated them, most especially on the topic of oral-formulaic poetry, where subject matter, linguistic form, performance requirements, and emotional power intersected so wonderfully. The traditional ballads (most of them) are the last hurrah of oral-formulaic poetry in northern Europe, and as a singer I could easily recognize the utility of the oral-formulaic process in performance, substituting equivalent phrases for ones imperfectly remembered in the heat of performance, or seeing fragmentary epithet phrases fossilized in absurd contexts (e.g., in the ballad/broadsheet of “Creeping Jane”, the racehorse lifts up her “lily-white hoof”, as any heroine would lift a “lily-white hand” — a convenient metrical phrase).

My high school Latin and French weren’t much use to me in this endeavor, but when I got to college and bombed out of advanced mathematics during my initial Freshman semester (my life was over at 17), all of these things conspired to make me pause and reconsider the point of being at a good university. I decided to get a real education, and ended up doing Homeric & classical Greek, Old English, Old Irish, Middle Welsh, Old High German, Sanskrit, and Egyptian hieroglyph — in other words, bits of lots of dead languages and some work in mythology and folklore, as well as archaeology and anthropology. I ultimately graduated with a sui generis degree in Comparative Mythology (this was the early 70s, remember, when you could do such things).

All of this background is to establish that I look at written work differently now than I might have done had I not taken this direction. The resonance of language, both as words with roots and history and as structure with larger components, such as epithet phrases; the building blocks of oral-formulaic and traditional literature; the form of ballad diction — all of these things are now a large part of my active mental toolkit. See this analysis of a traditional ballad, where the tools are applied.

And only recently have I started to write myself.

balladI had no idea what my fiction style would be like when I began. I’ve read quite widely, and there are many stylists I admire, but it turns out that the habit of tradition (in the above sense, of the old oral and semi-oral literature) has me firmly in its grasp. My diction tends to be spare and my vocabulary stripped to essentials, like an old ballad, and I use repetitive phrasing for emphasis as the ballads do (e.g., “there was nothing wrong, nothing damaged, nothing that couldn’t be fixed”). This is sometimes at odds with the need to describe and personalize settings, since ballads tend to the archetype in their settings rather than the particular. But the ballads can also kick up striking phrases to personalize their characters.

  • He turned him ’round swiftly, as the Gordons do, all. (Glenlogie)
  • Oh no I am no courtier, but when I courted thee. (The Bonny Hind)
  • If ye slept mair in the nicht, maister, you’d wauken more in the day. (The Broomfield Wager)
  • Six pretty maids have ye drownded here, but the seventh has drownded thee. (The Outlandish Knight)

The ballads also have a habit of repeating things in threes, with rising emphasis.

  • I think I hear the morning cock, I think I hear the jay, I think I hear Lord Barnard’s men, “Away, Musgrave, Away.” (Little Musgrave)
  • They call me Jack abroad, he said, sometimes they call me John. But when I’m in my father’s halls, Jock Randall is my name. (The Bonny Hind)
  • She had not sailed a league, a league, a league but barely three (Sir Patrick Spens, James Harris/The Daemon Lover)
  • She put not on her black clothing, she put not on her brown, but she put on the glittering gold to shine through Edinburgh town. (Mary Hamilton)

In moments of heightened emotion, in my writing, where the ballad hero would grit his teeth and march on, this is the sort of thing that comes to my mind. I may not have been creating stories for the last few decades, but apparently I’ve been nursing rhetoric and a pagan point of view, after a fashion. It’ll be interesting to see how this develops.

Cross-posted from HollowLands.

2 thoughts on “A habit of old words”

  1. I’m not as familiar with ballads as I used to be, but you see that sort of repetition in other songs as well, such as, “I Saw Three Ships,” and poems like Noyes’ “The Highwayman.”

    As I recall, the Epic of Gilgamesh has the “repeat three times” formula, but over a longer stretch of recitation than your examples. Without looking it up, I seem to remember a number of passages on the order of,

    “Who are you, who comes walking down the road, carrying a sword, etc. etc. blah blah?”

    “You ask who am I, who comes walking down the road, carrying a sword, etc. etc. blah blah?”

    “I am Gilgamesh, who comes …”

    It sounds strange to my ears, but I’m sure it helps with both the memorization and recitation. There may even have been some mystical reasons for the repetition – “What I tell you three times is true,” perhaps.

    • Rhetoric is a technical art, like any other, and its tools include ways of increasing emphasis, of focusing listener (they’re not readers) attention, and of increasing fluency and recall.

      It’s a cliché that European traditional stories tend to have clusters of 3, when repeating phrases or choices, while North Amerindian stories tend to have clusters of 4, based on the importance of the cardinal directions. I can’t speak to the universality of the latter, but everything seems to come in threes in Europe, often in increasing importance.

      And repetition is the basis of ritual. Think of these stories as being almost acted out as, as little mini-dramas. Hence the “who comes…” formula with its “I come…” rejoinder. “Who seeks to speak to the god and what does he bring?” “I, fill-in-name, come, and this is my best bull.”

      Our schoolmarm recommendations about varying our phrasing so as not to bore the audience have nothing to do with traditional rhetoric and its best practices. The old audiences wanted the story to be vivid and long remembered.


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