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"In this year terrible portents appeared in Northumbria, and miserably afflicted the inhabitants: these were exceptional flashes of lightning and fiery dragons were seen flying in the air."

Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (Year 793)


Introduction | Editorial | Contents | Contributors



'Verbal Dueling'
Irina A. Dumitrescu (4th Yr Undergrad)
University of Toronto
January, 2003

'Hwæt', 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.

The 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.

The 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.

While 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.

Carol 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. Tyson rhymes:

You are 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

Tyson 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.

Some 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.

The 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.

The 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:

Ful oft 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 dreadful swords')

The 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 'Will They Die 4 You?' Mase raps:

How many n****s 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
N****s know, if a red's on ya head, then they ride with you

Whether 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:

Well, 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

If 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.

The 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:

Secge 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 yourself say.')

is 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 'Rebel of the Underground':

Now everybody wanna gangbang
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

In 'Real 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:

Everyday 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, n***a 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 n****z 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
N****z straight kill me, knowin that they pranksters
This is going out to you studio gangstas

The 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:

The cops can't stand me, but they can't touch me
Call me a dope man, cause I rock dope beats.

The 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:

But I looked up, and all I saw was blue lights
If I die tonight, I'm dying in a gunfight

The 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:

So here 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...

The 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'.

Irina A. Dumitrescu

Further Reading:

Works relating African or African-American and Anglo-Saxon poetics:

Halama, Alta Cools. 'Flytes of Fancy: Boasting and Boasters from Beowulf to Gangsta Rap.' Essays in Medieval Studies. 13 (1996): 81-96.

McGeachy, Margaret Gillian. Lonesome Words: The Vocal Poetics of the Old English Lament and the African-American Blues Song. Unpublished thesis, 1999. University of Toronto.

Opland, Jeff. Anglo-Saxon Oral Poetry: A Study of the Traditions. New Haven: Yale UP, 1980.

Orchard, Andy. 'Oral Tradition.' Reading Old English Texts. Ed. Katherine O'Brien O'Keeffe. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1997. 101-123.

On the flyting:

Clover, Carol. 'The Germanic Context of the Unferþ Episode.' Speculum 55:3 (1980): 444-468.

Eliason, Norman E. 'The þyle and Scop in Beowulf.' Speculum 38:2 (1963): 267-284.

Parks, Ward. 'Flyting, Sounding, Debate: Three Verbal Contest Genres.' Poetics Today 7:3 (1986): 439-458.

Parks, Ward. Verbal Dueling in Heroic Narrative: The Homeric and English Traditions. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1990.

On the dozens:

Abrahams, Roger D. 'Playing the Dozens.' Mother Wit: from the Laughing Barrel. Ed. Alan Dundes. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1990. 295-309.

Labov, 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.

Mitchell-Kernan, 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.

Thomas, H. Nigel. From Folklore to Fiction: A Study of Folk Heroes and Rituals in the Black American Novel. New York: Greenwood Press, 1988.

On rap:

Costello, Mark, and David Foster Wallace. Signifying Rappers: rap and race in the urban present. New York: Ecco Press, 1990.

Kitwana, Bakari. The Rap on Gangsta Rap. Who Run it?: Gangsta Rap and Visions of Black Violence. Chicago: Third World Press, 1994.

Kochman, Thomas. ' 'Rapping' in the Black Ghetto.' Perspectives on Black America. Eds. Russell Endo and William Strawbridge. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1970. 23-39.

Original Hip-hop (Rap) Lyrics Archive. Website. http://www.ohhla.com/

Rose, Tricia. Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America. Hanover, NH: Wesleyan UP, 1994.

Werner, Craig. A Change is Gonna Come: Music, Race & the Soul of America. New York: Plume, 1998.



Introduction | Editorial | Contents | Contributors