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King Solomon’s Magic: The Power of a Written Text

Marie Nelson

Oral Tradition, 5/1 (1990): 20-36

The written text on which I propose to focus in this paper—a Pater Noster inscribed in Germanic runes and Roman letters—is actually a text within a text. The larger text, an Old English dialogue to which editors have given the name “Solomon and Saturn I,”1 I will argue, provides a context for the performance of a charm. It presents the Biblical King Solomon as a master magician who draws his power from the written words, indeed, from the written letters, of the Pater Noster. I will be giving attention, then, to a fi ctional representation of an oral performance. It is not my intention to claim either that “Solomon and Saturn I” was orally composed, that is, created by a performer as he performed it before an audience; or that it was composed in writing, that is, with the opportunity to work slowly and go back to correct “mistakes” that writing affords, though I will have something to say about the greater likelihood of written composition. What I propose to do is discuss the way the poem develops what Alain Renoir might call “an empirical context within the text proper” (1988:18), in this case an extended exchange between two speakers that constitutes a setting for the performance of a charm by one of those two speakers. In doing so, I will refer to features of other Old English poems that are clearly identifi able as charms—the “Journey Charm” and “Nine Herbs Charm,” for example—and to Thomas A. Sebeok’s discussion of the charms of a people now living in Mari, a Soviet Socialist Republic situated on the north bank of the Volga, between Gorky and Kazan. First, however, it will be well to give brief attention to the pioneering work that has made possible the kind of reading I suggest.

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