Irina A. Dumitrescu (4th Yr Undergrad)
University of Toronto
that all-purpose starting word of Old English poetry, has endured a
number of different translations. I have seen 'Ay', 'Lo', 'Listen',
'So' and 'Now', but I propose a new word: 'Yo'. Both 'hwæt' and
'yo' are used to draw attention to the speaker so as to initiate an
oral performance, and translating the first word of Beowulf with
an interjection evoking modern African American pop culture would put
readers in mind to see likenesses between the literatures of these two
oral cultures. One generic similarity appears between the medieval Germanic
flyting and modern rap music. The flyting is difficult to define and
often difficult to identify; but for our purposes, we will consider
it as a verbal exchange of boasts, insults, or some combination of both,
delivered in a stylized, rhetorical form.
resemblance between genres of Anglo-Saxon and African-American literatures
has been noted by others: Andy Orchard has shown elements of 'vocality'
in written texts such as the homilies of Wulfstan and the orations of
African-American preachers, most notably, Martin Luther King Jr.'s 'I
have a dream' speech; Margaret McGeachy compared the poetics of the
Old English lament with those of the Blues; and Alta Cools Halama has
linked Beowulf and The Battle of Maldon with the African-American
sounding and dozens traditions, as well as with gangsta rap, though
my interpretation differs from his. Analogous literary forms probably
occur in these two societies because they both value sophisticated speech
performance; both draw on a strong familiarity with the Bible, though
recently converted; and both have to negotiate the folk stories their
ancestors brought from overseas with a purportedly higher Christian
culture: the Anglo-Saxons juggle Germanic legend and Latin learning,
while African-Americans combine legends from Africa and Europe. In addition,
Jeff Opland, who finds an analogy for Anglo-Saxon poetry among modern
Bantu peoples, suggests that the warrior ethic of loyalty to chief and
family present in both societies might account for similarities in their
literatures. As we will see later, this kind of ethic also appears in
rap music, although in a way not sanctioned by society at large.
particular flyting I will be using as a point of comparison is the showdown
between Beowulf and Unferth upon Beowulf's arrival at Heorot. Unferth
accuses Beowulf of having engaged in a foolish swimming contest with
his friend Breca, and, what's worse, of having lost. Beowulf retells
the story, explaining that he was young when he made the bet, and describing
all the sea-monsters he killed while fulfilling it, ending by remarking
that Grendel would never have produced such havoc in Heorot if Unferth
had been as fierce as his word. Halama argues that flyting in Anglo-Saxon
poems as well as in dozens or rap is 'illustrative of man's strategy
in positioning himself apart from the Other', proposing that Beowulf
situates his Geatish men as superior to other societies, whether Danish
or monstrous, and that this action is similar to racism in America,
especially as expressed in gangsta rap against white police.
I believe that the flyting traditions in these two cultures do share
many characteristics, and function in similar ways, I do not think the
comparison requires us to make tenuous connections between tribal and
racial differences, nor to lump the Danes, who, after all, have long-standing
and positive diplomatic relations with the Geats, in with the lone-walking
monsters who prey on them. The flyting in Beowulf, I would argue,
is more intra-societal than inter-societal; the outsider here is Grendel,
Beowulf and Unferth being men who speak the same language, who subscribe
to the same value system, and who, whatever their doubts may be about
each other's credibility, share the goal of restoring peace and safety
to Heorot. Likewise, a consideration of gangsta rap's audience shows
that the boasting and insults cannot be a flyting against white police.
First of all, it is not white cops who listen to and buy rap. Raps are
usually addressed from one Black man to another member of his community,
someone with the same vernacular and background; the police are referred
to in the third person, and in this case, are more like Grendel, the
outsider, the scourge, with whom no dialogue is possible.
Clover states that 'the single most important attribute ... of flyting
contenders is their verbal skill', their ability to use words as weapons,
a metaphor which is played out repeatedly in discussions of verbal contests.
When a hero such as Beowulf wields the sophisticated rhetorical structure
of the flyting, he is representing a warrior ethic that values verbal
agility. We see another such value system in rap music, which draws
from the African American dozens tradition an appreciation for a quick
wit and a sharp tongue. The dozens are a generally playful kind of verbal
contest of stylized insults, sometimes rhymed, which do not purport
to be true (often consisting of ludicrous propositions about the physical
attributes or sexual proclivities of the opponent's 'mama'), but the
rapper's boasting and insults take a more serious, and richly self-referential,
edge. In Tupac Shakur's 'Never
Be Beat', Tupac and Ray Tyson use verse wrought with a strong beat,
end rhyme, internal rhyme, alliteration, near-rhyme, simile, assonance
and enjambment to establish their supremacy in the battlefield of rap.
useless as a toothless piranha
I'm ruthless now I'm gonna
bust it and discuss it make it funky to hear
Paragraph to the people penetratin' your ear
points out his opponent's inefficacy as a man in a way reminiscent of
Beowulf, his lines pounding forward in a four-beat, often alliterative
line that suggests some of the vigour Anglo-Saxon verse might have had
in performance. Tupac, for his part, maintains the 'words as weapons'
motif throughout the song, with such phrases as 'My mic's a weapon,
I'm steppin' with a capable rhyme' and 'Cause my mouth is like an uzi
when it moves so quick/And the lyrics are the bullets that I'm loadin'
it with'. The M alliteration around the word 'uzi' reinforces the punning
idea that Shakur's music carries the force of an uzi. The power of verbal
dexterity is dramatized in the movie 8
Mile, in which Eminem's character Jimmy 'Rabbit' Smith fights
his way out of a poor, hopeless, and violence-filled life in Detroit
by taking part in hip hop battles; in these sessions, each contestant
faces off and insults the other with extemporized rhymes that ridicule
his opponent's personal weaknesses and life history.
critics insist that heroic flyting must end in violence. Norman Eliason
and Ward Parks, for example, believe that heroic flyting is a negotiation
of terms for a battle in which victory will be won, arguing that the
Unferth-Beowulf flyting is a prelude to the Beowulf-Grendel fight, and
therefore must be completed by that combat. This is a tenuous argument
and unnecessary if we accept that flyting, even with serious content,
is self-contained, and that acts of violence are to be considered separately.
Clover gives several examples of flytings that do not end in violence,
as in the Örvar-Odds saga, in which the three flyters eventually
go to bed. The Unferth-Beowulf flyting is self-contained, with Beowulf
winning when Unferth falls silent.
logistics of the dozens contest and the rap showdown are similar, in
that different outcomes are possible. William Labov notes that a participant
may lose a round of the dozens by falling silent or by starting a fight,
either of which indicates poorer verbal resources. Indeed, ritualised
insults, when not followed upon with violence, can serve to bring a
group closer together. Nigel Thomas traces the dozens tradition to Bantu
practices, in which 'to insult without eliciting anger or violence is
a profound sign of companionship and solidarity within the group'. In
an interview given in April of this year, Wes Williams, a Canadian hip-hop
star better known as 'Maestro Fresh Wes' explained the more negative
aspects of rap by saying, 'there's a lot of contamination in the music
but you have to understand that the culture came out of bloodshed- gang
wars in New York. Hip-hop showdowns were an alternative to actual fights.
Cats made an effort to save lives'. According to him, and to a number
of critics who have analyzed the dozens and rap, often enough the music
can replace the uzi.
flyting also binds a community, especially a community of men, together
by defining and confirming the attributes of an ideal man within the
group. Unferth accuses Beowulf of having made a foolish boast to go
out on the water, and worse, of having lost: 'Beot eal wiþ þe/sunu
Beanstanes soþe gelæste' (523b-524: 'The son of Beanstan
truly fulfilled his whole vow against you'). Beowulf counters with a
retelling of the story that emphasizes his fighting prowess in killing
monsters; in his boasting, he is keen to prove himself physically superior,
but even more so to establish the trustworthiness of his word. It should
not be forgotten that this encounter takes place in Hrothgar's court,
watched by the Danish and Geatish retainers. While Beowulf and Unferth
are engaging in an adversarial dialogue, they are also affirming a common
set of values, such as strength, honour, and integrity. When Beowulf
says that Grendel has found no need to fear battle from the Danes, his
words are particularly biting considering Hrothgar's earlier complaint:
gebeotedon beore druncne
ofer ealowæge oretmecgas
þæt hie in beorsele bidan woldon
Grendles guþe mid gryrum ecga. (480-483)
('Often did the vowed warriors, having drunk beer, boast over the
ale-cup that in the beer-hall they would await Grendel's battle with
importance of the drinking is that it is part of the social contract
between lord and retainers, and the Danes' inability to make good on
their vows reflects an anxiety present throughout the poem about whether
members of the group who are taken care of in peacetime will die for
their lord in battle. An identical concern is expressed in Mase's song
They Die 4 You?' Mase raps:
How many niggas that'll die for you
How many get a quiche like the pie, wit you
I ain't talkin' 'bout those that get high with you
Niggas know, if a red's on ya head, then they ride with you
it is beer-drinking or drug use that assures conviviality between these
gangs of men, they both fear the possibility that group members will
be cowards or traitors in the moment of direst need. In the same song,
Puff Daddy raps:
I'mma ride for you, would you ride for me?
Well, I'mma die for you, would you die for me?
Obviously, we all know you type of cats
Let they man get struck, never strike back
we think of Wiglaf's speech at the death of Beowulf, in which he berates
the king's followers for leaving him to fight the dragon on his own
even after Beowulf's many gifts of treasure and ale to them, effectively
for letting their man get struck and never striking back, we can see
how similar these calls for reciprocity in gang or comitatus relations
really are. The flyting, then, is not only a way of implying that a
man is not as good as his word, but a way of eliciting the proper kind
of behaviour from the opponent and from the audience.
hero's life is a synthesis of speech, thought and action: he is good
at using words as weapons, but has the intention and battle experience
to stand behind his words. Beowulf's ringing jibe to Unferth:
ic þe to soþe, sunu Ecglafes,
þæt næfre Grendel swa fela gryra gefremede
atol æglæca ealdre þinum,
hynþo on Heorote gif þin hige wære
sefa swa searogrim swa þu self talast (590-594)
('I say to thee truly, son of Ecglaf, that Grendel, the terrible adversary,
would never have done such horrors to your lord, such humiliation
in Heorot, if your mind, your spirit were as cunningly fierce as you
echoed in the distinction made by a number of rappers between musicians
who come from a real gangster background versus those who have assumed
the trappings of gangsta culture to make money. Tupac Shakur raps in
of the Underground':
They talkin street slang, but the punks still can't hang
They makin records bout violence
But when it comes to the real, some brothers go silent
Muthaphuckkin G's', Easy-E is even harsher to those he calls 'studio
gangstas', men who are content to pose as tough warriors as long as
they are in a comfortable position, in much the same way that Unferth
can talk about heroic deeds while he sits at Hrothgar's feet:
it's a new rapper, claimin to be dapper than the Dresta
Softer than a bitch, but portray the role of gangsta
Ain't broke a law in your life
Yet every time you rap you yap about the guns and knife
Just take a good look at the, nigga and you'll capture
the fact that the bastard, is simply just an actor
who mastered the bang and the slang and the mental
of niggaz in Compton, Watts, and South Central
Never ever once have you ran with the turf
But yet in every verse claim you used to do the dirt
But tell me who's a witness, to your fuckin work
So you never had no bi'ness, so save the drama jerk
Niggaz straight kill me, knowin that they pranksters
This is going out to you studio gangstas
kind of flyting we see between Beowulf and Unferth is, as has been amply
pointed out, not about facts but about interpretation, what Carol Clover
calls 'the renegotiation of history'. In a society where a man's reputation
is of the utmost importance, and where the respect he has from his retainers
can mean the difference between life and death, the ability to present
personal history in the best possible light is crucial. This renegotiation
of history takes place quite often in rap, but with a flavour more political
than personal. Many rap songs interrogate the national history of the
United States, pointing out the discrepancies between the American Dream
in which all men are created equal and the real America where Blacks
used to be slaves, and lynched, and are now ghettoed and preyed upon
by police. Some, though, function like Beowulf's flyting, as a careful
reinterpretation and explanation of a man's actions, as a way of placing
them within a heroic context. Tupac Shakur's song 'Violent'
is a particularly disturbing example of this. He begins by stating the
opposition's case against him: 'They claim that I'm violent, just cause
I refuse to be silent', asking his listeners to 'Look through our history,
America's the violent one'. After a general political call to the masses,
the speaker moves to a personal narrative. In the second verse, he relates
a story of being stopped by police who unfairly try to frame him for
drug possession, their real goal of course being to silence him:
can't stand me, but they can't touch me
Call me a dope man, cause I rock dope beats.
narrator chooses to cooperate but his friend, thrown to the concrete,
runs; one cop shoots the friend or 'homie', and the narrator, seeing
his friend drop, begins to beat the other officer senseless. The end
result: 'Now they claimin that I'm violent'. In the third stanza, the
situation gets even worse as the friend shoots one of the cops, the
narrator and his friend steal the police car to get away, and wind up
in a gunfight with newly arrived police; as they are about to begin
to shoot, the speaker affirms a heroic ideal:
looked up, and all I saw was blue lights
If I die tonight, I'm dying in a gunfight
story ends just as the gunfight is about to begin, the narrator and
his friend waiting, planning and expecting the battle, the night-time
tension as taut as that in Heorot, when the Geats settled down to sleep
certain that they would never see their homelands again:
we go, the police against us
Dark as dusk, waitin for the guns to bust (What's next man?)
What's next, I don't know and I don't care
One things fo' sho', tommorrow I won't be here
But if I go, I'm takin all these punks with me
Pass me a clip G, now come and get me
You wanna sweat me, never get me to be silent
Givin them a reason to claim that I'm violent...
context is different, but this steely determination recalls Beowulf,
enraged with anger at the evil Grendel, awaiting the outcome of their
fight. One thing that is good to know, however, is that despite the
bravado shown by Anglo-Saxon and urban warriors, they maintain a modicum
of modesty. After having asserted their warlike attributes, demanded
loyal behaviour from other members of their group, and refashioned their
personal histories to fit heroic ideals, all in a virtuoso display of
verbal dexterity, rappers and flyters both tell us they don't need to
flaunt simple facts. Tupac's 'Not braggin', I'm bad and I could only
get better', Mase's 'Yo, I do this everyday, why brag about the glory?/Tell
you the whole truth, never half the story' and Beowulf's 'no ic þæs
soþæs gylpe' - 'Not that I boast about the truth!' sound
as similar as 'hwæt' and 'yo'.
Works relating African or African-American and Anglo-Saxon
Alta Cools. 'Flytes of Fancy: Boasting and Boasters from Beowulf to
Gangsta Rap.' Essays in Medieval Studies.
13 (1996): 81-96.
Margaret Gillian. Lonesome Words: The Vocal Poetics of the Old
English Lament and the African-American Blues Song.
Unpublished thesis, 1999. University of Toronto.
Jeff. Anglo-Saxon Oral Poetry: A Study of the Traditions.
New Haven: Yale UP, 1980.
Andy. 'Oral Tradition.' Reading Old English Texts.
Ed. Katherine O'Brien O'Keeffe. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1997. 101-123.
On the flyting:
Carol. 'The Germanic Context of the Unferþ Episode.' Speculum 55:3 (1980): 444-468.
Norman E. 'The þyle and Scop in Beowulf.' Speculum 38:2 (1963): 267-284.
Ward. 'Flyting, Sounding, Debate: Three Verbal Contest Genres.' Poetics
Today 7:3 (1986): 439-458.
Ward. Verbal Dueling in Heroic Narrative: The Homeric and English
Traditions. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1990.
On the dozens:
Roger D. 'Playing the Dozens.' Mother Wit: from the Laughing Barrel. Ed. Alan Dundes. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1990.
William. 'Rules for Ritual Insults.' Language in the Inner City;
Studies in the Black English Vernacular.
By William Labov. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1972. 297-353.
Claudia. 'Signifying and Marking: Two Afro-American Speech Acts.'
Directions in Sociolinguistics: The Ethnography of Communication. Eds. John J. Gumperz and Dell Hymes. New York: Holt,
Rinehart & Winston, 1972. 163-179.
H. Nigel. From Folklore to Fiction: A Study of Folk Heroes and
Rituals in the Black American Novel.
New York: Greenwood Press, 1988.
Mark, and David Foster Wallace. Signifying Rappers: rap and race
in the urban present. New York:
Ecco Press, 1990.
Bakari. The Rap on Gangsta Rap. Who Run it?: Gangsta Rap and Visions
of Black Violence. Chicago: Third
World Press, 1994.
Thomas. ' 'Rapping' in the Black Ghetto.' Perspectives on Black
America. Eds. Russell Endo and William Strawbridge. Englewood
Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1970. 23-39.
Hip-hop (Rap) Lyrics Archive.
Tricia. Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary
America. Hanover, NH: Wesleyan UP, 1994.
Craig. A Change is Gonna Come: Music, Race & the Soul of America. New York: Plume, 1998.