BMCR 1990.01.07

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

, Verbal Dueling in Heroic Narrative: The Homeric and Old English Traditions. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990. ix, 240 pages. ISBN 1400860881

This book, with its rather plain title, begins on a highly academic note but ends with a stimulating application of its results to examples of contemporary verbal contests. The word which the author chooses to describe his topic is “flyting”, which he defines as “verbal contesting with an ad hominem orientation” and with martial overtones. He then seeks to find the basic elements of flyting scenes in Homeric and Anglo-Saxon narrative poetry: The Iliad, Beowulf, and The Battle of Maldon being the most prominent; he ranges widely, however, into Sanskrit narrative and literary works from medieval France and the Middle English period. He finds three basic grounds for comparison: the frequency with which an integral scene of heroic flyting occurs in literatures and cultures which are distant in time and place, the consistent epic style in a variety of narratives, and the closeness of the basic scenes to an oral tradition. As the author claims, he even draws on areas of evidence extending to “sociobiology and, in a loose sense, psychology” (p. 8).

In Chapter 1 Parks examines the behavioral background to flyting, the role of attaining glory and establishing identity in such scenes, and the structure of the heroic contest. His analysis of the development from flyting to fighting is presented in a chart (p. 50) which is familiar in structure and shape to anyone who has read a study of type scenes—in this case precisely drawn and well illustrated by literary examples (Chapters 2 and 3). In fact, the examples are so clear that the chapter would become dully repetitive if the author did not conclude with a discussion of variations on the basic pattern such as the guest-host variant (Odysseus in Phaeacia in Odyssey 8), modulations from battlefield to guest-host patterns (e.g., Glaukos-Diomedes at Iliad 6.119-236), and the reverse (the Cyclops story in Odyssey 9). He concludes with scenes of fighting within the social group (Achilles vs. Agamemnon in Iliad 1)—and a wonderful insight into the Achilles-Priam encounter in Iliad 24: “At this juncture Homer seems to be privileging a new, pacific outlook that the agonistic mind-set cannot adequately comprehend” (p. 95). The book concludes with an application of the elements of the flyting scene to contemporary examples such as “sounding” between inner-city black adolescents and even political/academic debates.

The author’s belief in the worth of his study is clear on p. 184, when he expresses the hope that if flyting’s “sources, aims, and structures are adequately understood, its expression might prove susceptible to intelligent guidance.” Thus this book contains a highly academic style of careful analysis in defining the basic type scene and careful gathering of evidence in support of each step along with an passionate interest in finding the continuation of such scenes in all aspects of life. The author states on p. 53: “the most important determinants in heroic contest narrative consist not in some fixed and preconceived ‘pattern’ but in the forces that give rise to these contests in the first place.” There is, however, a problem here in relating life to art; there is insufficient differentiation between real situations and their imitations incorporated into a literary text. There are times when the language of analysis verges on overly scientific formulation which seems at odds with observations about society and psychology. But there can be little doubt that the author defines these flyting scenes clearly and has established guidelines for understanding their varied forms.