Tuesday 10 June 2014

A Game of Words

A Game of Words
Skaldic Poetry: Dróttkvætt

By Pelayo of House Marchmount

Do you like word games? Does a good pun tickle your fancy? Perhaps crossword puzzles, Scrabble, word search, anagrams, secret codes, or word ladders? If any of these appeal, this article describes a challenging word game that you might like.

Here’s how to play: pick a theme for a poem, perhaps praise for someone you admire. Now write 8 lines of poetry to express that theme, following a strict set of interrelated rules. This can turn into hours of entertainment as you wrestle with rhyme, alliteration, word choice, syllables, and stress (lots of it).

Some background: medieval Scandinavian poets were called skalds. They were often hired by kings and other notables to record their deeds through praise poetry. Skaldic praise poetry primarily used a poetic form called dróttkvætt, which means “lordly verse”; examples of this are found as early as 900 and as late as around 1400. Many of the Old Norse sagas were written using this form. At the end of this article are links to a few resources in case you become obsessed.

In this article, I’ll describe the basic structure of dróttkvætt — hopefully enough for you to try writing your own — and then present my first attempt, which I recited for THL Hans Thorvaldsson in the recent Crown Tourney. These poems were meant to be read aloud, so make sure you do that to hear how it sounds!

Some definitions:

Poems in the dróttkvætt form have 8-line verses called stanzas. Each stanza contains two 4-line half stanzas. There should be a syntactic break at the end of the first half stanza, such as the end of a sentence.

Alliteration is when two words begin with the same sound: hat and hard, stress and straight. All vowels are considered to alliterate with each other: eager and owl. Alliteration is sometimes called front-rhyme, but in this article I will refer to it as alliteration.

Rhyme is when two words end in the same sound: about and flout, wield and congealed. This is sometimes called end-rhyme, but in this article I will use rhyme and full rhyme.

Partial rhyme or half rhyme is when two words end in the same consonant sound: boils and feels.  In this article, I will use partial rhyme.
A trochee is a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed one: both hatred and fighter are trochaic, but consist is not.

A kenning is a metaphorical phrase in the spirit of a good pun. Some common examples: swan road means the sea, sky jewel means the sun, and feed the eagle means kill enemies. Dróttkvætt and other forms of skaldic verse almost always contain kennings, and being able to come up with good kennings can save your skaldic bacon. (Ken you see the similarities with puns?)

I find these websites helpful when working on my poetic puzzles:

http://www.rhymer.com (for both alliteration and rhyme)
http://thesaurus.com (for finding words that have roughly the same meaning)
http://www.wordhippo.com (for finding similar and rhyming words, as well as translating)
http://onelook.com/reverse-dictionary.shtml (for finding words that match a definition)

And now to the structure of dróttkvætt. We’ll use the preferences of their Majesties Siegfried and Ragni as a theme. They can be found here:

The theme I’ll pick is the good taste of their Majesties. I might speak of beer, cider, period dance, and games of chance, with perhaps a mention of Evander tasting ketchup as contrast. Gluten-free food and drink are also possibilities. I don’t necessarily expect to fit all those in, but I’ll make an effort. This dróttkvætt won’t be a brilliant piece of art, but it should be enough to convey the rules.

My plan is to make the first half-stanza about their drink preferences and the second one about their entertainment preferences.

In a dróttkvætt stanza, each line of poetry has 6 syllables, three stressed and three unstressed. Each line ends with a trochee, but the stresses on the other syllables can be arranged in any order. Here are two related lines; the three stressed syllables in each line are in bold font:

            Siegfried liked his lager
            His Lady eyed cider

In dróttkvætt, the lines are paired. The first line in each pair must contain both alliteration and partial rhyme. Two of the stressed syllables must alliterate. Further, one of those two alliterative syllables must be in the trochee at the end of the line. In the example above, likes and lagers contain the alliteration, and the partial rhyme happens in Siegfried and lager. The partial rhyme can appear on any two of the stressed syllables.

In the second line of a pair, the first stressed syllable must alliterate with the two alliterative syllables in the first line, and two of the stressed syllables must rhyme. (There doesn’t need to be alliteration within the second line.) In the example, notice that Lady (the first stressed syllable in the second line) alliterates with likes and lager, and eyed rhymes with cid(er). Unlike in some other poetry forms, only the stressed syllables matter.

We’ll finish the current thought (and thus the half stanza) with a ketchup discussion. In the first line, we need alliteration and partial rhyme, then the second line, we continue the alliteration and need a full rhyme:

Evander chose chance to
Chug some ketchup mugfuls

Those two lines took me over an hour to construct. I wandered into food and dance metaphors and other possible rhymes (for example, dance and chance) before coming back to my happy ketchup place. This is not usually a quick game, much like an expert-level Sudoku or the New York Times Sunday Crossword puzzle, this can take hours to finish. (And my lines aren’t even perfect: the s sound at the end of the chance doesn’t quite mesh with the plain n in Evander. Ah, well.)

The remaining topics are cheese, fruit, period dance, games of chance, and cards. After another hour of work, here’s what I came up with. (Brace yourselves, it’s terrible poetry. Wretched, even. But it mostly follows the rules. Surely you can do better?)

            Siegfried liked his lager;
            His Lady eyed cider.
Evander chose chance to
Chug some ketchup mugfuls.
Siegfried tells a tale to
Extol ace in the hole.
Walk hole in the wall to
Wow Ragni; take a bow.

Now that the drivel is out of the way, here is the poem I wrote for Hans, who I fought for in the recent crown tourney. See if you can pick up on the alliteration, rhyme, and partial rhyme. Unlike the balderdash above, it contains a few kennings; some of the kennings and other content are explained after the poem.

Here stands Norseman, Hans of
House of mine, a spousal
Oddity, kin-aided.
Yggdrasil, big world-tree.
Here stand I, a herald,
Happy freedman clapping,
Cheered by faith of cherished
Charming shield mate, arm-friend.

Muscled tree trunk, trusted
Trickster gift, with quickness
Brines my long-tooth, bringing
Braveness, calling ravens.
Sapling shepherd, shaper,
Chef, seamster, shy dreamer,
No, I leave you never
My knife is yours, life-friend.


• Hans’ heraldry contains the world tree.
• Freedman: my persona was captured by Varangians (Hans and Baron Grom) and later freed.
• Trickster: Loki. Hans can be difficult, but he’s always trustworthy.
• Long-tooth: my sword. Also, I’m old.
• Ravens: thought and memory. Also, part of household member Elanna’s heraldry.
• Sapling shepherd: Hans watches the kids during the day.
• Shaper: woodworker.

Here are some good basic overviews of dróttkvætt:

Master Fridrikr Tomasson, mka Tom Delfs, has written a bunch of really cool articles about Old Norse-related stuff. He wrote an article on dróttkvætt that thoroughly examines the form:

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the plug, Pelayo. A good article with some nice attempts at dróttkvætt. It's very difficult to get the rhythm right when writing dróttkvætt in English, due to the essentially iambic nature of the English language. When you write them in a trochaic language like Old Norse/Icelandic, things get easier. But, your work is fun to read. Thanks again. - Fridrikr