Traveling Swan Roads in Books

While reading Beowulf in a modern translation I encountered a person called a breaker of rings. In my mind I could see a burly man hacking gold rings apart, possibly a thief destroying the identity of his latest heist. As it turned out, a breaker of rings is a leader, or a chieftain, who more probably obtained his wealth through trading rather than snatching it like a thief. Beowulf also refers to another leader as a giver of rings. I suppose the more successful chieftain could give his loyal followers entire rings rather than breaking them apart in order to have enough gold to reward them all.

Reading ancient literature in translation is difficult because we don’t know how to interpret such figures of speech. These kennings, or idioms, would help the listener see the images of people and actions based on their own lives. It was a form of showing versus telling. We might assume the word ‘bigwig’ describes a person who is a boss. But, imagine the difficulties that someone from the year 1000 would have understanding it. They might imagine a person collecting a mass of hair to pile on their head without seeing it as a sign of power.  

If an early text, such as Beowulf, was translated into completely modern English, we would still stumble over kennings, such as whale road, sail road and swan road. All of these phrases describe the sea. Huge whales and sailing ships travel the ocean, but I’ve never seen swans there. I suppose they may be found in estuaries that border the sea. Even old English authors realized using the same word repetitively was boring and sought out alternatives, some of which didn’t work as well. Are our highways, freeways, and interstates any less confusing than whale roads, sail roads and swan roads? These are distinct types of roads that conjure up distinct images for us, but in reality they overlap. 

Decades ago I was reading an email from my daughter in response to one I sent about how to cut mats with multiple openings to display photos of an art fair. I concluded by asking if the pictures had to be in the “same direction.” In her response she said there could be no mixing of portraits and landscapes. That threw me for a second because I knew some of the pictures were of people at the art fair, and others of the trees in the park where it took place. Then, I realized she was referring to the orientation of the pictures. Rectangular pictures have been aligned either horizontally or vertically for eons. Now we have a kenning, a way of describing orientation based on print options.

Figures of speech fill our conversation and our books with words pertinent to our time and our location. We see those common phrases as being ordinary and easy to understand. Seeing outside of our own existence can be a struggle. Learning to understand figures of speech from another time and place is one of the steps to understanding diversity.

This entry was posted in allusions, Creativity, Literature, Poetry, Showing versus telling, Style and voice, Trends in books. Bookmark the permalink.

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