restricted access 3. A Lord-Retainer Theme
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3 A Lord-Retainer Theme The iconicimageofamartiallordexchangingwealth for a retainer’s loyalty unto death has been canonized in scholarly companions to Old English literature, where it is treated as a common convention of heroic verse.1 It was already commonplace at the beginning of the twentieth century. For instance, R. K. Gordon writes, “No virtue is more insisted on in the [heroic ] poems than the loyalty a warrior owes his liege lord,” and “the poems are full of praise for the lord who knows how to give freely” (vi). Fred C. Robinson observes that in The Fight at Finnsburg (and elsewhere) readers find “a classic expression of the motif of warriors repaying their lord’s generosity with courage on the field of battle” (“Secular Poetry” 285). Katherine O’Brien O’Keeffe links the asymmetrical exchanges between lord and retainer to the construction of fame: The touchstone of that life—as represented in Old English literature at least—is the vital relationship between retainer and lord, whose binding virtue is loyalty. Continuing loyalty is ensured in the lord’s giving of treasure. Through gifts of worth, a lord enhances his own reputation and that of his retainer, and he lays upon his man the obligation of future service. (“Heroic Values” 107–8) John Hill offers the complementary perspective of a social historian. His study of such terms as cyning, hlaford, and eorl has shown how the roles of king, lord, and nobleman shifted during the Anglo-Saxon period due to broad social changes. While such semantic distinctions are invaluable for o A Lord-Retainer Theme · 51 the reconstruction of social history and its representations, they do not wholly consider the resilience of the conventions of verbal art, which may be preserved for centuries by the conservatism of poetic meter and genre.2 Unlike previous scholarship, this chapter treats the lord-retainer relationship as an oral-connected theme with common motifs, which enables us to explore the connection between structural elements and their aesthetic and narrative significance. The lord-retainer theme supplies us with another example of the written oral-connected idiom, this time at work in martial narratives that do not neatly comply with modern notions of “legendary ” versus “historical,” whether they describe an Anglo-Saxon battle or Christian cosmology. The most likely reason that the lord-retainer convention has not been studied as a theme per se is that its occurrence has not been correlated with repeating lexemes and half-line morpho-syntactic metrical systems. Yet it is widely known that oral-connected themes and typescenes in Old English verse have comparatively few repeating morphs and formulaic lines when contrasted with oral-traditional South Slavic and Ancient Greek poetry. The oral poetry of the Upper Altay in east central Asia could serveasabettercomparand.LauriHarvilahtiin“SubstratesandRegisters” notes that many poetic themes in Altay heroic songs cannot be mapped by searching for repeating lexemes or morpho-syntactic metrical systems; rather they emerge from a “substrate” of traditional conventions whose recurring features are ideational rather than specific lines of verse. His The Holy Mountain: Studies on Upper Altay Oral Poetry describes the occurrence of pairs of shamanistic animals in the epic Maaday-Kara, which he has found in the form of two black eagles, two guardian dogs, two streams of milk from the breast of the hero’s mother, and two ears like scissors on a magnificent steed (93–94). Powerful shamanistic pairs regularly appear in the performed epic, but the exact form is not dictated by metrical , lexical, or syntactic conventions (what Harvilahti more broadly terms “the ethnopoetic substrate”). Instead, hints in the flow of verse create a moment of recognition for the listener, due to shared cultural memories (“Substrates” 70). Depending on the tradition and the genre, these hints may be conceptual and/or specific lexical items.3 Old English poetry, like Altaic oral poetry, can express thematic material with conceptual motifs, yet such themes will pass unobserved if we expect them to use specific lexemes or other aural patterns. 52 · Signs that Sing Thematic material thus refers metonymically to the body of oral tradition for its meaning, and the manner of construction in verse is meaningful forAltaicaudiencesusingtheGorno-Altailanguage. Thenarratological contours of important substrates set up generic expectations, much in the same way that the Old English lord-retainer theme does. Here I explore how the lord-retainer convention is a replicable oral-connected theme in the repertoire of Anglo-Saxon poets, thereby reframing what is generally understood as a topos of...