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Word, Breath, and Vomit: Oral Competition in Old English and Old Norse Literature

Robin Waugh

Oral Tradition, Volume 10, Number 2

In oral society (and in literate, but more secretively), the individual perceives the speech (and oral biography) of another as a physical and interior object or organ that makes language. This figure is a sort of totem. In Christian thinking, it becomes Augustine’s homo interior (De magistro i.2; Derrida 1978:180). In order to combat this secondary person inside the rival, a warrior tries to grasp the other’s organs of speech, and so take hold of the interior power. Language is reality’s “body, … flesh, and blood” (Foucault 1977:57), and is the target of aggressivity, which “gnaws away,” kills, mutilates, and “castrates” (Lacan 1977:10). Fear and competition run through all sound, language, and action from the earliest stages of childhood, when the image “of the fragmented body” causes the thoughts and speech about “mutilation, dismemberment, dislocation, evisceration, devouring, bursting open of the body” that children constantly display (11). “Power in this context can be defined as the capacity to wound[. It] always includes violence, however psychic or internalized” (Bloom 1982:49). Thus Beowulfputs great emphasis on dismemberment, and on the eating of body parts (Zumthor 1990:219). The Grendel race eats the bodies of people who seem to have a greater ability with language than its own kind. Hondscioh’s death (Beowulf 740-45a) is a diagram of the relationship between the body and the other, and, with this “sense of ‘otherness’,” Beowulf is able to perceive the “intimacy” of his “own embodiment” (Zaner 1981:52-53), so that he can act. The heroes of The Kalevala obtain the rudiments of poetry from a giant’s body: “from the mouth of Antero Vipunen, from the belly of the man richly stocked” (17.13-14). Sigurr kills Fáfnir, cuts out the dragon’s heart, eats part of it, and so gains understanding of the language of nature in Vlsunga saga (65-66; Fled Bricrend 106-7). Hgni’s heart is also cut out (102). Atli eats the hearts of his sons, after Gurún slits their throats (104). The hero of Beowulf declares that, when he killed Dæghrefn, he “heortan wylmas, / banhus gebræc” (2507b-8a) “broke the bone-house, the heart’s wellings.” He causes the hearts of two rulers to overflow in similar wellings: Hrothgar “breostwylm forberan ne mehte” (1877) “could not restrain the breastwelling;” Hygelac says “Ic æs modceare / sorhwylmum sea” (1992b-93a) “I have brooded over this / with anxious mind and sorrow-wellings.” In a figurative sense, Beowulf overpowers the interiors of his two greatest patron.

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